Entries from July 29th, 2008

Hazelnuts and Praline, Some of My Favorite Things

July 29th, 2008 · 55 Comments · Cakes, Recipes


When asked to name my very favorite things in pastry, I often feel like a mother being asked which of her children she likes best. How to choose between chocolate and strawberries, puff pastry and pâte sucrée? How to weigh the merits of a lemon tart versus a crème brûlée versus a buttery shortbread cookie? Of course, you also have Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan, smiling smugly in the corner, realizing mommy will never admit it he’s her favorite but knowing she has a special soft spot just for him.

While I don’t think I’d ever be able to name just one favorite dessert, there are some ingredients and flavors that never fail to get my tastebuds tingling in anticipation- I’ve mentioned some of them above. Hazelnuts would also have to on the list  – ever since my first hazelnut-filled chocolate, I’ve been a fan most ardent and devout of this little nut. Praline has got to be on the shortlist as well – the combination of caramelized sugar and toasted nuts combines into a confection far more fabulous than the sum of its parts.

So when I saw this month’s Daring Bakers challenge, a Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream, I was hooked! Chosen by the lovely Chris of Mele Cotte, this indulgent little number had me juggling and rearranging that ever-evolving list of favorites.

This cake reminds me of a cross between an opera cake and a sachertorte – a most heavenly amalgamation. The layers of genoise and buttercream are quite similar to the almond joconde and espresso buttercream in a traditional opera cake, but the apricot glaze and whipped cream remind me of the Viennese sachertorte, which layers chocolate cake and apricot jam, and served mit schlag – with a generous dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

With such impressive pastry relatives, how could this cake fail to dazzle the tongue? The genoise was Although I found whipped cream a little soft and plushy to work with as a layer in a cake, it does add a lovely lightness to counterbalance the richness of the buttercream. I also really liked the inclusion of the praline; I adore contrasting textures in dessert, especially wafer thin layers of feuilletine or sprinklings of streusel. I actually left the praline paste with a few bits in it, and mixed into the buttercream it added wonderful little bursts of flavor. The soft chocolate glaze was the crowning touch, both literally and tastewise: it tied all the elements together, a luxurious bow on top of an already beautiful cake.

I made several mini-cakes, using my ever-dependable cake rings. This cake is probably not the best choice to render in miniature; the softness and creaminess of the fillings makes it difficult to keep the layers straight, and since they don’t set like mousse-type fillings with gelatin, they’re also trickier to unmold. But I managed to get a few fairly attractive ones out of the bunch. And, lookers or not, they were certainly tasty! Thanks, Chris, for a great Daring Bakers Challenge!

Oh, and let me take the chance to thank all of you who wrote in to my book post – one of the best things about writing this cookbook has doubtless been all the support you’ve all given me! Thanks so much for all your well-wishes – I really hope you’ll all enjoy the book when it comes out!

Also, I’ve set up a Dessert First page on Facebook – please join it and be a fan! I’ll post updates on the page about my book and all my other dessert-related activities!

And, just because I’m really diving into all this Web 2.0 business, I’m also on Twitter – if you care to listen to my random thoughts and musings, feel free to follow!


Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream
From Great Cakes by Carol Walter

1 Filbert Genoise
1 recipe sugar syrup, flavored with dark rum
1 recipe Praline Buttercream
½ cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
1 recipe Apricot Glaze
1 recipe Ganache Glaze, prepared just before using
3 tablespoons filberts, toasted and coarsely chopped

Filbert Genoise

Because of the amount of nuts in the recipe, this preparation is different from a classic genoise.

1 ½ cups hazelnuts, toasted/skinned
2/3 cup cake flour, unsifted
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
7 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar, divided ¼ & ¾ cups
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. grated lemon rind
5 lg. egg whites
¼ cup warm, clarified butter (100 – 110 degrees)

Position rack in the lower 3rd of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a 10” X 2” inch round cake pan.

Using a food processor, process nuts, cake flour, and cornstarch for about 30 seconds.  Then, pulse the mixture about 10 times to get a fine, powdery mixture.  You’ll know the nuts are ready when they begin to gather together around the sides of the bowl. While you want to make sure there aren’t any large pieces, don’t over-process.  Set aside.

Put the yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, and beat until thick and light in color, about 3-4 minutes on med-high speed. Slowly, add ¾ cup of sugar.  It is best to do so by adding a tablespoon at a time, taking about 3 minutes for this step.  When finished, the mixture should be ribbony.  Blend in the vanilla and grated lemon rind.  Remove and set aside.

Place egg whites in a large, clean bowl of the electric mixer with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed, until soft peaks. Increase to med-high speed and slowly add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar, over 15-20 seconds or so.  Continue to beat for another ½ minute. 
Add the yolk mixture to the whites and whisk for 1 minute.

Pour the warm butter in a liquid measure cup (or a spouted container). * It must be a deep bottom bowl and work must be fast.*  Put the nut meal in a mesh strainer (or use your hand – working quickly) and sprinkle it in about 2 tablespoons at a time – folding it carefully for about 40 folds.   Be sure to exclude any large chunks/pieces of nuts. Again, work quickly and carefully as to not deflate the mixture. When all but about 2 Tbsp. of nut meal remain, quickly and steadily pour the warm butter over the batter.  Then, with the remaining nut meal, fold the batter to incorporate, about 13 or so folds.

With a rubber spatula, transfer the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with the spatula or back of a spoon.  **If collected butter remains at the bottom of the bowl, do not add it to the batter!  It will impede the cake rising while baking.

Tap the pan on the counter to remove air bubbles and bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when it is springy to the touch and it separates itself from the side of the pan.  Remove from oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes.  Invert onto a cake rack sprayed with nonstick coating, removing the pan.  Cool the cake completely.

*If not using the cake right away, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap, then in a plastic bag, then in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If freezing, wrap in foil, then the bag and use within 2-3 months.

Sugar Syrup
Makes 1 cup, good for one 10-inch cake – split into 3 layers

1 cup water
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbsp. dark rum or orange flavored liqueur

In a small, yet h eavy saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the liqueur. Cool slightly before using on the cake.  *Can be made in advance.

Praline Buttercream
1 recipe Swiss Buttercream
1/3 cup praline paste
1 ½ – 2 Tbsp. Jamaican rum (optional)

Blend ½ cup buttercream into the paste, then add to the remaining buttercream.  Whip briefly on med-low speed to combine.  Blend in rum.

Swiss Buttercream
4 lg. egg whites
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
1 ½ -2 Tbsp. Grand Marnier or liqueur of your choice
1 tsp. vanilla

Place the egg whites in a lg/ bowl of a elevtric mixer and beat with the whisk attachment until the whites are foamy and they begin to thicken (just before the soft peak stage). Set the bowl over a saucepan filled with about 2 inches of simmering water, making sure the bowl is not touching the water. Then, whisk in the sugar by adding 1-2 tablespoon of sugar at a time over a minutes time. Continue beating 2-3 minutes or until the whites are warm (about 120 degrees) and the sugar is dissolved.  The mixture should look thick and like whipped marshmallows.
Remove from pan and with either the paddle or whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and sugar on med-high until its a thick, cool meringue – about 5-7 minutes. *Do not overbeat*. Set aside.

Place the butter in a separate clean mixing bowl and, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter at medium speed for 40-60 seconds, or until smooth and creamy. *Do not overbeat or the butter will become toooooo soft.*

On med-low speed, blend the meringue into the butter, about 1-2 Tbsp. at a time, over 1 minute.  Add the liqueur and vanilla and mix for 30-45 seconds longer, until thick and creamy.

Refrigerate 10-15 minutes before using.

Wait! My  buttercream won’t come together! Reheat the buttercream briefly over simmering water for about 5 seconds, stirring with a wooden spoon. Be careful and do not overbeat. The mixture will look broken with some liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Return the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium speed just until the cream comes back together.

Wait! My buttercream is too soft! Chill the buttercream in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes and rewhip. If that doesn’t work, cream an additional 2-4 Tbsp. of butter in a small bowl– making sure the butter is not as soft as the original amount, so make sure is cool and smooth. On low speed, quickly add the creamed  butter to the buttercream, 1 Tbsp. at a time.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or can be frozen for up to 6 months. If freezing, store in 2 16-oz. plastic containers and thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for several hours.

Praline Paste
1 cup (4 ½ oz.) Hazelnuts, toasted/skinless
2/3 cup Sugar
Line a jelly roll pan with parchment and lightly butter.

Put the sugar in a heavy 10-inch skillet.  Heat on low flame for about 10-20 min until the sugar melts around the edges. Do not stir the sugar. Swirl the pan if necessary to prevent the melted sugar from burning. Brush the sides of the pan with water to remove sugar crystals.  If the sugar in the center does not melt, stir briefly. When the sugar is completely melted and caramel in color, remove from heat. Stir in the nuts with a wooden spoon and separate the clusters. Return to low heat and stir to coat the nuts on all sides.  Cook until the mixture starts to bubble.  **Remember – extremely hot mixture.** Then onto the parchment lined sheet and spread as evenly as possible. As it cools, it will harden into brittle. Break the candied nuts into pieces and place them in the food processor.  Pulse into a medium-fine crunch or process until the brittle turns into a powder. To make paste, process for several minutes. Store in an airtight container and store in a cook dry place.  Do not refrigerate.

Apricot Glaze
Good for one 10-inch cake

2/3 cup thick apricot preserves
1 Tbsp. water

In a small, yet heavy saucepan, bring the water and preserves to a slow boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. If the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the saucepan, add water as needed.

Remove from heat and, using a strainer, press the mixture through the mesh and discard any remnants. With a pastry brush, apply the glaze onto the cake while the cake is still warm.  If the glaze is too thick, thin to a preferred consistency with drops of water.

Ganache Glaze
Makes about 1 cup, enough to cover the top and sides of a 9 or 10 inch layer or tube cake

**Ganache can take on many forms.  While warm – great fudge sauce.  While cool or lukewarm – semisweet glaze. Slightly chilled – can be whipped into a filling/frosting. Cold & solid – the base of candied chocolate truffles.

6 oz. (good) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, like Lindt
6 oz. (¾ cup heavy cream
1 tbsp. light corn syrup
1 Tbsp. Grand Marnier, Cointreay, or dark Jamaican rum (optional)
¾ tsp. vanilla
½ – 1 tsp. hot water, if needed

Blend vanilla and liqueur/rum together and set aside.

Break the chocolate into 1-inch pieces and place in the basket of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.  Transfer into a medium sized bowl and set aside.

Heat the cream and corn syrup in a saucepan, on low, until it reached a gentle boil.  Once to the gently boil, immediately and carefully pour over the chocolate.  Leave it alone for one minute, then slowly stir and mix the chocolate and cream together until the chocolate is melted and incorporated into the cream. Carefully blend in vanilla mixture. If the surface seems oily, add ½ – 1 tsp hot water. The glaze will thicken, but should still be pourable. If it doesn’t thicken, refrigerate for about 5 minutes, but make sure it doesn’t get too cold!

Assembling Cake

Cut a cardboard disk slightly smaller than the cake.  Divide the cake into 3 layers and place the first layer top-side down on the disk. Using a pastry brush, moisten the layer with 3-4 Tbsp. of warm sugar syrup. Measure out 1 cup of praline buttercream and set aside.

Spread the bottom layer with a ¼-inch thickness of the remaining buttercream.  Cover with ½ of the whipped cream, leaving ¼-inch border around the edge of the cake.  Place the middle layer over the first, brush with sugar syrup, spreading with buttercream. Cover with the remaining whipped cream.

Moisten the cut side of the third layer with additional sugar syrup and place cut side down on the cake.  Gently, press the sides of the cake to align the layers. Refrigerate to chill for at least 30 minutes.

Lift the cake by sliding your palm under the cardboard. Holding a serrated or very sharp night with an 8-ich blade held parallel to the sides of the cake, trim the sides so that they are perfectly straight. Cut a slight bevel at the top to help the glaze drip over the edge. Brush the top and sides of the cake with warm apricot glaze, sealing the cut areas completely.  Chill while you prepare the ganache.

Place a rack over a large shallow pan to catch the ganache drippings.  Remove the gateau from the refrigerator and put it the rack. With a metal spatula in hand, and holding the saucepan about 10 inches above the cake, pour the ganache onto the cake’s center.  Move the spatula over the top of the ganache about 4 times to get a smooth and mirror-like appearance.  The ganache should cover the top and run down the sides of the cake. When the ganache has been poured and is coating the cake, lift one side of the rack and bang it once on the counter to help spread the ganache evenly and break any air bubbles. (Work fast before setting starts.) Patch any bare spots on the sides with a smaller spatula, but do not touch the top af ter the “bang”.  Let the cake stand at least 15 minutes to set after glazing.

To garnish the cake, fit a 12 – 14-inch pastry bag with a #114 large leaf tip. Fill the bag with the reserved praline cream.  Stating ½ inch from the outer edge of the cake, position the pastry tube at a 90 degree angle with the top almost touching the top of the cake. Apply pressure to the pastry bag, moving it slightly toward the center of the cake.  As the buttercream flows on the cake, reverse the movement backward toward the edge of the cake and finish by pulling the bag again to the center. Stop applying pressure and press the bag downward, then quickly pull the tip up to break the flow of frosting.  Repeat, making 12 leaves evenly spaced around the surface of the cake.

Make a second row of leaves on the top of the first row, moving the pastry bag about ¾ inch closer to the center.  The leaves should overlap.  Make a 3rd row, moving closer and closer to the center. Add a 4th row if you have the room. But, leave a 2-inch space in the center for a chopped filbert garnish. Refrigerate uncovered for 3-4 hours to allow the cake to set. Remove the cake from the refrigerator at least 3 hours before serving.

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Reconsidering the Chocolate Chip Cookie

July 24th, 2008 · 36 Comments · Cookies, Recipes


Remember the massive chocolate chip cookie bakeoff I did last year, all in that elusive, neverending search for the perfect recipe? Well, with the New York Times throwing its formidable hat into the ring, a revisit definitely seemed in order.

If you haven’t read the article yet, it’s certainly worth your time. Although every baker has no doubt realized that everyone’s tastes are different and no recipe will ever satisfy everyone 100% of the time (and likely comforted herself with this knowledge at some point or another), there’s always the thrilling illumination in discovering exactly what makes a recipe work well, in ferreting out the intricacies and subtle byways of deliciousness.

The New York Times does an excellent job of explaining how it developed its recipe (and, before I go any further, it’s a really good recipe). Three of the kitchen discoveries described in the article that author David Leite believes lead to cookie greatness are 1) Sprinkling sea salt on top to further enhance the taste;  2) Making cookies large, about 5″ in diameter, to allow for a progression of textures from crispy to chewy; 3) Chilling the dough for 12-36 hours before baking to improve the depth of flavors .

The exciting thing about all these suggestions are the new dimensions they add to the chocolate chip cookie rubric. In all of the chocolate chip cookie recipes I’ve come across, two of the most common “official” variations involve adding oats or nuts. Beyond that, however, most of the recipes follow the same ingredient lists and formula of assembly, and differentiating between them becomes a matter of 1/3 cup of flour here, 1/2 cup of brown sugar there, and maybe an extra bit of vanilla.

For this second round of testing, I used the New York Times recipe, my own that I’ve been working on, and the one from King Arthur Flour’s blog (they’ve also done an excellent analysis of the Times’ recipe). I also list The Nestle Toll House recipe for reference, although I didn’t make it: I think just about everyone has made that recipe!

Ingredients      NYT*         KAF       Dessert First      Nestle

Butter                5 oz           4 oz            4 oz               4 oz

Shortening                          4 oz   

Eggs                    1               1                   1                   1              

Flour               1 2/3 cup       2 cup      1 1/3 cup      1 1/8 cup  

Sugar                2/3 cup     2/3 cup       1/3 cup         3/8 cup

Brown sugar      2/3 cup    2/3 cup        1/2 cup        3/8 cup

Baking soda      5/8 tsp        1 tsp           1/2 tsp         1/2 tsp

Baking powder  3/4 tsp

Salt                   3/4 tsp       1/2 tsp          1/2 tsp        1/2 tsp

Vanilla               1 tsp           2 tsp            3/4 tsp        1/2 tsp

White vinegar                       1 tsp

Choc. chips       8 oz            12 oz              6 oz            6 oz

Oven temp        350F            375F             350F           375F

* A couple adaptations I’m entirely responsible for: I halved the recipe from the Times for easier comparison to the other recipes, and I used AP flour instead of a combination of bread flour and cake flour as the recipe called for – I sort of think the reason we have AP flour is so we don’t have to mix flours all the time! You can see the recipes in their original format here (NYTimes) and here (King Arthur Flour)


Clockwise from left: King Arthur Flour, New York Times, mine

Ok, lots of interesting observations and notes here:

First, the recipes for the Times and King Arthur Flour are not too different, with the exception of the 1/2 cup of shortening. While doubling the fat content would seem to lead to very dissimilar results, the cookies I got were pretty close appearance wise: fat, crinkly-surfaced guys with deep brown edges and a lovely golden center.

The Times cookie is undoubtedly very very tasty. Salt, the savory chef’s best friend, is such a subtle and unappreciated player in the baking world. If you’ve ever baked a loaf of bread and forgotten to add salt, you know exactly how important its role is, yet in so many “sweeter” recipes like cakes, tarts, and cookies, it’s easy to forget how a judicious pinch of salt can make highlight flavors, make them bloom to their full potential. I made the cookies both with and without the salt on top, and with the “salted” ones the flavor is definitely more vibrant, along with pleasing crunchy contrast of the salt crystals. Of course, all that salt is probably what helps make them so addictive!

There is a long discussion in the Times article about why a big cookie is essential because it allows for the development of different textural “zones” – from crispy edges to a chewy middle ring to a soft, just-baked center. It would seem that this cookie intends to cover all the bases for preferences! The recipe calls for 3 1/2 ounce balls of dough, which bake into a good 5 inches across – dear readers, that is large. Marion Nestle calculated that one cookie would contain about 500 calories!

I’m all for cookies that can encompass the entire range of textures, but I typically make my cookies about 44 g, which is about 1 1/2 ounces (yes, I use a scale to weigh them out!) Even one of these 1 1/2 ounce cookies leave me completely full and satisfied, so I suppose a 5″ diameter cookie would sadly be wasted on me.  I do appreciate the sensory satisfaction of biting into a crispy-edged cookie and working your way to the soft and chewy center, and I think it’s possible to achieve that in a smaller cookie – the ones I made definitely showed such transitions and were thoroughly enjoyable. It depends on your recipe: my cookie recipe bakes up with a much more even and fluffy quality throughout; I might tweak it to let it spread out more and develop a more heterogeneous texture.

As for the chilling tip: in the interests of performing a thorough and rigorous study, I baked some of the batches of dough immediately after making them, then refrigerated the rest for 36 hours and baked them off. There was an increased richness of flavor in all three doughs, so I really think the Times is on to something here. However, the cookies that I baked right away were also quite delicious and by no means “bad”. So for those of you that need your cookie fix and can’t imagine waiting 36 hours to bake them, I think the lesson to take away is that cookie dough can keep quite well. The ideal scenario is to have a batch of dough, bake off the amount you need, and save the rest to bake over the next couple of days. Then, instead of having a large batch of cookies slowly going stale, you can have fresh-baked cookies every day for 2 to 3 days. Note the Times recipe does say to use the dough within 72 hours; cookie dough will start drying out if you keep it for too long, and it’s better to freeze it if you don’t intend to use it within a few days.

The King Arthur Flour recipe is also a very good one: for those of you who believe in the virtues of the sadly unfashionable shortening, this cookie has a combination of soft, almost-chewy interior and light crisp exterior that only shortening can provide. To me, the Times and King Arthur Flour cookies tasted pretty similar right after baking, but after a day or so King Arthur Flour cookies had a more generally soft texture while the Times cookies had a firmer, chewier texture. They’re really both fabulous cookies and I wish they’d been around for my first bakeoff.

If you compare the recipes to the ones I tested before, from Dorie Greenspan’s, Kate Zuckerman’s, Sherry Yard’s, and Regan Daley’s cookbooks, you’ll also notice an interesting progression in cookie trends. Like anything else, chocolate chip cookies evolve and change to reflect current trends. Last year, there was a definite trend towards thin, chewy cookies with deep brown sugar-caramelly notes. My cookie is more of an old-school, classic style, that is thicker, cakier, and not as sweet. It seems like this new breed of chocolate chip cookie is kind of a supersized, “have-it-all” ultra cookie – it’s chewy and crisp, sugar-sweet and vanilla-rich, punched up with salt, and uber-chocolately. If you look at the venerable Nestle Toll House recipe and compare ingredient amounts, there’s just more of everything  – very fitting for today’s bigger-better-faster world.


With this second testing go-round I think you all now have a full library of chocolate chip cookie recipes to play around with. Big, small, thick, thin, intense, subtle – they’re all part of the ever expanding galaxy of cookies, each with their own mysteries and charms. And there’s no knowing how many more cookies are out there waiting to be discovered. Who knows – perhaps in another year there will be another chocolate chip cookie update, as the quest continues on and on…

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Happy News, and an Invite to You All to Participate!

July 17th, 2008 · 79 Comments · Field Guide to Cookies, My Books


What’s this photo doing up there? Well, lovely readers, I just couldn’t wait any longer to share this with all of you!

This is the cover (currently, anyways – no guarantees until it’s actually out!) of my very first cookbook!!

It’s called Field Guide to Cookies and it’s a collection of over 100 cookies from around the world, from chocolate chip to linzer to speculaas to alfajores. Each cookie has its own entry that describes its origins, what special holidays and traditions it’s associated with, and of course a recipe!

This book is the culmination of a lot of hard work from me, my publisher, and not least of all my dedicated crack team of recipe testers who worked feverishly to make sure all the cookies in the book are delicious!



I apologize for not providing more updates along the way, although I’m sure they would have fallen along the lines of, “Doing research on the 85th cookie…surrounded by cookbooks and can’t see straight anymore,” or “Testing 3rd batch of cookie recipe…running out of butter and eggs again.” During the nascent stages of a book, or any other project, really, one is often advised to keep mum about the specifics – certainly, it would be awful to announce to the world that you’re doing a book on the best chocolate desserts ever and then to see that someone’s snatched your idea and put out a competing book on the shelves a month before yours!

But now that the book is off to the printers, and it’s been officially announced on various retail sites, I think it’s safe to unzip the lips a little bit and share some of the excitement with all of you!

Yes, the book is now available for pre-order – here’s the listing on Amazon.

The book is going to be available in November, so I’m sure in the coming months I’ll be talking more about my experiences writing it and even sharing a recipe or two from the book.

Thank you all for your continued support and friendship while I’ve been involved in this project – it was definitely a huge challenge to balance work + book + blog + friends and maintain my sanity and good humor!

While I’m ruminating over what lies in the future, I’d certainly love to refocus some of my attention back on Dessert First and continue to offer recipes, photos, stories, as well as connect with all the wonderful people out there. So I’ve created my very first poll asking what you’re all interested in seeing more of on this site. I’m trying to think up what I’d like to add to the site, so let me know your opinion. All suggestions and comments are welcome! If you don’t like any of my choices, just leave your suggestion in the comments!

In fact, I’d like to invite all my readers to comment and say hello! Every once in a while I’ll get an e-mail from someone saying, “I’ve been a long time lurker and I just wanted to say hi.” Well, I’d really love to get to know who all of you are out there, so here’s your chance! Whether it’s your first visit or tenth, whether you’ve commented once or twice or never, say hi and I’ll say hi back! It would really thrill me!

Thanks! I love you all and hope Dessert First continues to be a source of sweet inspiration for you!


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Olallieberry Season

July 11th, 2008 · 26 Comments · Cakes, Cookies, Fruit, Recipes, Sweet Spots


The end of June has somehow magically vanished into the beginning of July, both in real life and on this blog. That must have been a doozy of a July 4th celebration for me…actually, it was a classic “San Francisco 4th of July”, meaning the waterfront was so densely covered in fog that we couldn’t see any fireworks! We did hear them, however, a dim and ghostly percussion sounding throughout the night.

However, the holiday weekend was not a total loss, and I’m happy to finally share the story – along with a double dose of recipes as a reward for your patient waiting. In an effort to escape the fog, we drove down the coast just south of Half Moon Bay to shimmeringly sunny blue skies spread over verdant fields of ripe berries, all waiting to be picked!

If you haven’t gone berry-picking, or fruit-picking in general, there’s no sweeter way to get back in touch with your inner child. Remember those glorious days when your were young and summer seemed to last forever, and every day you would ride out with your friends on your bikes to discover new adventures were awaiting you? Maybe you would go down to the creek and see what mysterious fauna you’d find there. Maybe you’d go play ball until it got too hot and then you’d rest in the shade, listening for the tinkling approach of the ice cream truck. And maybe as you were riding down some hot, dusty lane, you’d pass by some bushes budding with small, dark berries, and you’d pluck some off and eat them, still warm and fragrant from the sun, and feel tart-sweet fireworks erupt in your mouth.

This was what the u-pick fields at Swanton Berry Farms were like – rows upon rows of berries nodding gently in the sunshine, the friendly folk at the entrance handing you some cardboard boxes, upon which you were free to pick to your heart’s content – or until you’d realized you’d picked enough berries to last you a week.

The farms offer several different fruits to pick, including strawberries, kiwis, and olallieberries, which is what we went for. Now, I’m sure that many of you are wondering, “What’s an olallieberry? Did she make that up?” Trust me, I got that question from many of my friends as well. I only learned about olallieberries a few years ago, so to learn that I could pick them myself was a thrilling discovery!

Olallieberries are a cross between loganberries and youngberries, also berries that sound like they’ve been dreamed up in a farmer’s fervid imagination. Loganberries are a cross of blackberries and raspberries, while youngberries are a cross of blackberries and dewberries. So really, this gives the olallieberry a remarkably impressive pedigree – they’re kind of the ultimate berry! In reality, they are truly wonderful; surprisingly large (some almost half the length of my thumb), plump, wine-dark, and delicious. They taste similar to blackberries, although perhaps not quite as tart – some of the very ripe ones I ate right off the vine were like nectar.

Olallieberries are mostly found on the west coast and enjoy a very brief season, mostly from June to July, so it was lovely to take advantage of them while they were in full flower. There were quite a few families at the farm as well – berry picking followed by a picnic seems an ideal plan for a lazy weekend.


Wagons and carriers to hold your precious cargo.


Rows of olallieberry vines.


Olallieberries look quite similar to blackberries.


Berry picking can be a delightfully messy business – the juice that squirts out of overripe olallieberries is a shockingly vibrant fuschia- purple.


So, what to do with your bounty of berries? One of the great things about going to u-pick farms, naturally, is that the fruit costs a lot less than if you buy it at the store. If you want to make jams, jellies, pies, anything that requires large amounts of fruit, there’s no small amount of satisfaction to be found in going home with a box full of berries that cost you about as much as a couple of small containers’ worth from the grocery would- and you can boast that you harvested them yourself!

One of my companions is a dedicated jam-maker and presented me with a beautiful jar of deep-purple jam the next week. I went the other direction and reciprocated with a trio of berry desserts: that huckleberry and fig tart that I fell in love with last year worked wonderfully with the olallieberries, an olallieberry and shorbread napoleon, and some olallieberry and white tea cupcakes.

If you don’t have olallieberries where you are, be assured that you can substitute any similar berry, like blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries, with outstanding results. After all, these desserts are meant to showcase the berries of the season!

The olallieberry and orange shortbread napoleons are taken from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course – her recipe, which featured blackberries, orange shortbread, and crème fraîche, always sounded tempting to me. Since this post seems to be DIY-themed, I’ll note that the wavy shape of the shortbread wafers came from me. I couldn’t find a cookie cutter with the shape I had in mind, so I just made a template out of card stock (I’m normally not a very crafty person, so I’m ridiculously pleased with this!). Although I did a triple-layer napoleon, the shortbread is quite buttery and rich, so I think two layers would probably be sufficient to allow one to enjoy both the berries and the cookie. The floral, orange-scented whipped cream also adds to the summer-garden tea-party feel of this des sert. A beautiful way to show off your fresh berries.


I also took the chance to work these olallieberries into my cupcake testing; I’ve been trying to work out the perfect vanilla cupcake recipe. This is the latest iteration: a cupcake made with white tea-infused milk and laced with juicy berries. White tea has a light, subtle flavor; I had to infuse the milk for quite a while to get the flavor to come out. You can use a stronger tea if you like, or just use vanilla; either way, it’s a light, fluffy cupcake that could find its way onto the breakfast table as well. They would do well with a topping of frosting as well.


Olallieberry season will be over soon, but I’ll be looking forward to returning next year and picking more perfect berries off the vine.


Olallieberry Orange Shortbread Napoleons

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

makes about 12 cookies, or 6 servings


1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons orange zest

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt


1 pint berries

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 cup whipped cream

2 teaspoons orange-blossom honey or regular honey

1 teaspoon orange flower water

To make the shortbread: beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar together in a stand mixer on medium until light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla and orange zest and beat to combine.

Add in the flour and salt and beat until a smooth dough form. It may be very soft.

Form dough into a disk, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight.

When you are ready to make the shortbread, preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a few baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Roll the dough out between two sheets of wax paper or two silicone baking mats to about 1/4″ thick. If the dough is too hard, let it sit for a few minutes to soften up but don’t let it get too soft or it will start melting on you. You can always return the dough to the refrigerator to let it firm up.

Use desired cookie cutter to cut out shapes (about 3″ across is best) from the dough. Place on prepared baking sheets.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, rotating halfway through. Let cool on wire rack before assembling napoleons.

Combine about a quarter of the berries with the sugar in a bowl and let macerate for 10 minutes. Puree the mixture in a blender and strain out the seeds and other pulp. Mix the puree with remaining berries.

To assemble the napoleons, whip the cream together with the honey and orange flower water in a mixer until it holds soft peaks.

Place a shortbread cookie on a plate and top with some whipped cream. Spoon some of the berry mixture on top and top with another shortbread cookie. Serve immediately.

Olallieberry White Tea Cupcakes

makes 12 cupcakes

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon white tea leaves or other tea

1 1/2 cups flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 egg + 1 egg white

1 pint berries

Bring the milk just to a boil and pour over the tea leaves. Let steep for about an hour or more, depending on the intensity of flavor you want.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a bowl and set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together in a mixer on medium until light and fluffy.

Add in the egg and beat until combined. Add in the egg white and beat until combined.

Add in the flour mixture and milk in five alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Let each addition combine fully on low speed before adding the next one. After the final addition, let the flour just combine before stopping.

Divide the batter among the muffin cups. Press a few berries into each cupcake.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, rotating halfway through, until the cupcakes are lightly golden.

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