Entries from August 31st, 2008

Daring Bakers: Eclairs with Flair

August 31st, 2008 · 53 Comments · Custards, Pastry, Recipes


When you visit France, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the astonishing variety and abundance of gorgeous pastries everywhere – it seems like there are patisseries on nearly every street corner, all filled with enticing cakes and tarts of every color and flavor. Even with all this sweet tooth overload, I can still remember the eclairs standing out to my eyes – I'd always thought eclairs came in one color and flavor but Paris' pastry chefs proved me totally wrong. Much like macarons, eclairs seemed to have become a sort of springboard for pastry chefs' creativity, and I saw eclairs in all sorts of flavors and colors.


Here are some in dark chocolate, white chocolate, and cappuccino flavors.


Some beautiful cherry blossom eclairs from Fauchon, one of Paris' biggest and most famous patisseries.


There's nothing plain or boring about a classic eclair when it comes from Fauchon – look how gorgeous it is!


Finally, I'm not 100% sure these are eclairs but they're too cute not to include – the sweetest little piggies!


So with memories of Paris floating in my head I was excited to take Pierre Hermé's not-so-ordinary-either chocolate eclair recipe and see what variations I could come up with for Daring Bakers. The nice thing about eclairs is that although they may look intimidating to make, they're actually one of the simplest pastries to recreate in the home kitchen, which makes experimenting all the easier – and fun.

For my eclairs I went with the classic Vanilla Pastry Cream filling, along with some strawberries on top; a Chocolate Pastry Cream with Candied Orange Peel, and Matcha Pastry Cream with Black Sesame. Sweet, rich, or exotic: take your pick! The Vanilla Pastry Cream is also from Pierre Hermé's Chocolate Desserts book, and I made the Matcha Pastry Cream by adding some matcha powder to the vanilla pastry cream and lightening it up with some whipped cream. A few more varieties and I might have enough to fill a pastry shop window! Thanks to Meeta and Tony for providing a great Daring Bakers Challenge this month!


Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Éclairs
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• Cream Puff Dough (see below for recipe), fresh and still warm

1) Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the oven into thirds by
positioning the racks in the upper and lower half of the oven. Line two baking sheets with
waxed or parchment paper.

2) Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a 2/3 (2cm) plain tip nozzle with the warm cream puff dough.
Pipe the dough onto the baking sheets in long, 4 to 41/2 inches (about 11 cm) chubby fingers.
Leave about 2 inches (5 cm) space in between each dough strip to allow them room to puff.
The dough should give you enough to pipe 20-24 éclairs.

3) Slide both the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 7 minutes. After the 7 minutes, slip the
handle of a wooden spoon into the door to keep in ajar. When the éclairs have been in the
oven for a total of 12 minutes, rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Continue
baking for a further 8 minutes or until the éclairs are puffed, golden and firm. The total baking
time should be approximately 20 minutes.

1) The éclairs can be kept in a cool, dry place for several hours before filling.

Assembling the éclairs:

• Chocolate glaze (see below for recipe)
• Chocolate pastry cream (see below for recipe)

1) Slice the éclairs horizontally, using a serrated knife and a gently sawing motion. Set aside the
bottoms and place the tops on a rack over a piece of parchment paper.

2) The glaze should be barely warm to the touch (between 95 – 104 degrees F or 35 – 40
degrees C, as measured on an instant read thermometer). Spread the glaze over the tops of
the éclairs using a metal icing spatula. Allow the tops to set and in the meantime fill the
bottoms with the pastry cream.

3) Pipe or spoon the pastry cream into the bottoms of the éclairs. Make sure you fill the bottoms
with enough cream to mound above the pastry. Place the glazed tops onto the pastry cream
and wriggle gently to settle them.

Pierre Hermé’s Cream Puff Dough
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• ½ cup (125g) whole milk
• ½ cup (125g) water
• 1 stick (4 ounces; 115g) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
• ¼ teaspoon sugar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
• 5 large eggs, at room temperature

1) In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to the

2) Once the mixture is at a rolling boil, add all of the flour at once, reduce the heat to medium
and start to stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough comes together very
quickly. Do not worry if a slight crust forms at the bottom of the pan, it’s supposed to. You
need to carry on stirring for a further 2-3 minutes to dry the dough. After this time the dough
will be very soft and smooth.

3) Transfer the dough into a bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using your
handmixer or if you still have the energy, continue by hand. Add the eggs one at a time,
beating after each egg has been added to incorporate it into the dough.
You will notice that after you have added t he first egg, the dough will separate, once again do
not worry. As you keep working the dough, it will come back all together again by the time you
have added the third egg. In the end the dough should be thick and shiny and when lifted it
should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon.

4) The dough should be still warm. It is now ready to be used for the éclairs as directed above.

1) Once the dough is made you need to shape it immediately.

2) You can pipe the dough and the freeze it. Simply pipe the dough onto parchment-lined baking
sheets and slide the sheets into the freezer. Once the dough is completely frozen, transfer the
piped shapes into freezer bags. They can be kept in the freezer for up to a month.

Chocolate Pastry Cream
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by PierreHermé

• 2 cups (500g) whole milk
• 4 large egg yolks
• 6 tbsp (75g) sugar
• 3 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
• 7 oz (200g) bittersweet chocolate, preferably Velrhona Guanaja, melted
• 2½ tbsp (1¼ oz: 40g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1) In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil.  In the meantime, combine the yolks, sugar and cornstarch together and whisk in a heavy‐bottomed saucepan.

2) Once the milk has reached a boil, temper the yolks by whisking a couple spoonfuls of the hot milk into the yolk mixture.Continue whisking and slowly pour the rest of the milk into the tempered yolk mixture.

3) Strain the mixture back into the saucepan to remove any egg that may have scrambled.  Place the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously (without stop) until the mixture returns to a boil. Keep whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 more minutes (still over medium heat).Stir in the melted chocolate and then remove the pan from the heat.

4) Scrape the pastry cream into a small bowl and set it in an ice‐water bath to stop the cooking process. Make sure to continue stirring the mixture at this point so that it  remains smooth.

5) Once the cream has reached a temperature of 140 F remove from the ice‐water bath and stir in the butter in three or four installments. Return the cream to the ice‐water bath to continue cooling, stirring occasionally, until it has completely cooled. The cream is now ready to use or store in the fridge.

1) The pastry cream can be made 2‐3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

2) In order to avoid a skin forming on the pastry cream, cover with plastic wrap pressed onto the cream.

3) Tempering the eggs raises the temperature of the eggs slowly so that they do not scramble.

Chocolate Glaze
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1 cup or 300g)

• 1/3 cup (80g) heavy cream
• 3½ oz (100g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 4 tsp (20 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
• 7 tbsp (110 g) Chocolate Sauce (recipe below), warm or at room temperature

1)In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly begin to add the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.

2) Stirring gently, stir in the butter, piece by piece followed by the chocolate sauce.

1) If the chocolate glaze is too cool (i.e. not liquid enough) you may heat it briefly
 in the microwave or over a double boiler. A double boiler is basically a bowl sitting over (not touching) simmering water.

2) It is best to glaze the eclairs after the glaze is made, but if you are pressed for time, you can make the glaze a couple days ahead of time, store it in the fridge and bring it up to the proper temperature (95 to 104  F) when ready to glaze.

Chocolate Sauce
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1½ cups or 525 g)

• 4½ oz (130 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 1 cup (250 g) water
• ½ cup (125 g) crème fraîche, or heavy cream
• 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

1) Place all the ingredients into a heavy‐bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil, making sure to stir constantly.  Then reduce the heat  to low and continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens.

2) It may take 10‐15 minutes for the sauce to thicken, but you will know when it is done when it coats the back of your spoon.

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Figs for Fall: Vanilla Bean Fig Cupcakes with Orange Blossom Honey Frosting

August 29th, 2008 · 26 Comments · Cakes, Fruit, Recipes


No, I know it's not fall yet, but it's hard to believe it's already the end of August and the waning of the year is just around the corner. Labor Day holiday, especially, snuck up on me this time: I'm definitely not ready to celebrate summer's last hurrah just yet.

Fortunately for us San Francisco residents, Mother Nature balances out the wintry cold summers she bestows on us with a shimmering, balmy Indian summer that usually happens sometime in September and can often last into November. Never let it be said we don't have seasons out here on the West Coast – they're just a little different than seasons elsewhere!

Along with a few more golden weeks to ease the pain of passing summer, we've also got figs – figs at their most lovely and voluptuous peak.

I'll admit I wasn't a natural-born fig lover. Like many children, I was drawn to the straightforward, simple fruits: the sturdy, crisp crunch of an apple, the crayon-red color of strawberries, the comforting roundness of an orange. Those firm-fleshed, cleanly sweet fruits, pears and cherries and peaches, were reassuring in their distinctive shapes and feels. I had a fear of squishy: soft meant unripe, or overripe, or yucky and sticky. Persimmons, longans, figs – they all fell outside my fruit "comfort zone" and were thus resolutely ignored.

Well, thank goodness for growing up and learning to give things a second chance. I'm happy to say that I managed to outgrew childish prejudices and view foods both old and new with a an unjaded eye and open mouth. Most foods, at least…I'm still working on durian…

Figs are very interesting to me. They aren't an easy fruit to love, and what I mean by that is they're not simple. You don't just pop figs in your mouth like grapes. When I eat a fig, I look at it resting in the fruit bowl, cupped in the palm of my hand, suspended from my fingers in midair. I study its asymmetrical, pendulous shape, its slightly wrinkled, aubergine or verdant skin, its velvety, sinuous contours. It is fragrant, its ripe, intense scent filling the air. I put it to my lips, and bite through the just-barely resisting skin. The flesh beneath is dusky, rosy red; pulpy, soft as a whispered secret. There are little seeds scattered like stardust in the gleaming fruit, and as I bite through I hear little pops, feel the bursts of crunchiness in my mouth. The fig is sweet, yes, rich and honeyed, intensely fruity. Eating a fig is, and should be, a luxurious experience, as it demands the full attention of all your senses.

Like summer and all good things, figs should be enjoyed at their peak before they disappear: they are best eaten within a couple days of purchase as they should already be very ripe when you buy them. While eating them out of hand is an undeniable pleasure, baking with them has proven a happy challenge as well.

I'd been tweaking my basic vanilla cupcake recipe for a while, and the perfect opportunity presented itself: Vanilla Bean Cupcakes with Fresh Fig Filling and Orange Blossom Honey Frosting.


Figs make lovely jams, which are a perfect way to preserve their flavor for the rest of the year. This fig filling follows the same idea, cooking figs with sugar into a lovely thick puree, perfect for filling a cupcake or spreading on toast (Since it's not a true jam it obviously won't keep as long). I used brown sugar to enhance the deep, layered flavor of the figs, and because I often find that in many fig fillings the figs are overpowered by too much added white sugar. I used a mixture of Black Mission and Kadota figs in this filling, but any figs would work well – just adjust the sugar to your taste.

The vanilla cupcake is my latest iteration: light, fluffy, with a crisp sugary top. I used egg whites in the batter to let the vanilla flavor shine through, and also because it gives the cupcakes a lighter texture. They make a wonderful base for any number of frostings, and the well-behaved crumb lets you cut through it or cut out the top easily, as you can see.

Finally, I wanted the frosting to have honey in it, to harmonize with the figs. I settled on an orange blossom honey, mixed into a basic cream cheese frosting. I didn't want a buttercream because I was afraid it would be too overpoweringly sweet for the figs – although the cream cheese frosting meant I couldn't pipe it as decoratively as buttercream I think it was a good compromise. The tartness of the cream cheese helps cut through the sweet honey and combines well with the vanilla and fig to make a sweet little late-summer dessert.

I hope wherever you are, dear readers, that you enjoy a beautiful last weekend of August, and that you find time to eat a fig or two – like summer, they'll be gone before you know it.


Vanilla Bean Cupcakes

Makes about 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg whites
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

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

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

Beat butter and sugar in a stand mixer on medium speed until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Add in the egg and beat to combine. Add in the egg whites, one at a time, and beat to combine.

Combine milk and vanilla bean paste together in a cup.

Add the flour mixture and milk mixture to the batter in alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour. Once the last bit of flour has been added. beat just to combine – do not overbeat.

Divide batter among the muffin tins. Bake in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops are lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on wire rack.

Fresh Fig and Brown Sugar Filling

Makes about 3/4 cup

1 cup (about 8) fresh figs, washed and cut into small pieces

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until the mixture thickens. The figs should turn soft and mushy; mash them with a spoon. Remove from heat and let cool. If you don't like the little pieces of fig skin left, you can process the mixture quickly in a food processor, but I find it doesn't bother me; the chunks give the filling more texture and thickness.

Orange Blossom Honey Cream Cheese Frosting

makes about 1 cup

8 ounces cream cheese

2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature

3/4 to 1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted

1/4 cup orange blossom honey

Beat the cream cheese and butter in a stand mixer just until combined – do not overbeat.

Add in the sugar and honey and beat until combined. If it seems a little runny, add more confectioners' sugar but be sure to taste so you don't make the frosting too sweet.

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A Brownie with Aspirations

August 23rd, 2008 · 47 Comments · Chocolate, Recipes


Back when I did my little poll on what all of you would like to see more of, the winner (by a few cake crumbs) was back to basics: the best chocolate cake, the best tart crust, etc…

Well, here’s my first attempt to fulfill that promise: my best brownie recipe! However, as we’re doing back-to-basics Dessert First style, this is not just a basic brownie, but a brownie with aspirations: a brownie that’s more than just a brownie. What do I mean by that? Keep reading…

My favorite type of brownie is what is commonly described as fudgy: it bridges that heavenly, elusive gap between cake and well, fudge. It should be rich, moist, intense, a showcase for chocolate, hindered as little as possible by sugar and flour and everything else. And that crackly, paper-thin crust on top, like the finest of tissue paper covering the perfect present beneath – what brownie could be complete without it?


In testing out numerous permutations and iterations of recipes, I’ve discovered something else I like about brownies: they’re best made by hand, in a bowl. What more perfect choice for a back-to-basics recipe? No fancy equipment or techniques required, just a bowl, spoon, and your arm power. I think this has something to do with the nature of fudgy brownies: the ingredients need to be beaten together, but not overbeaten, and since the batter becomes so thick, a stand mixer would have to work pretty hard to mix it, which leads to overbeating and the brownie losing that dense velvety texture when baked. 

I’ve found that a combination of bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates work best; semisweet chocolate doesn’t have the depth and richness of flavor I need. Do use your best, favorite baking chocolate: after all, that’s what your brownie is supposed to be all about! You can increase the sugar if you want a sweeter brownie; I was afraid this recipe might be a tad on the dark and intense side, but it met with positive public reception, so I’ll let you be the final judge! I also didn’t add nuts, as I fall very definitely on the “no nuts” side of the brownie fence, but should your loyalties lie in the other direction, you can add ½ – ¾ cup of nuts to the batter. 


Which leads me to my next point: this may be my best basic brownie recipe, but it’s certainly open to adaptation and revision! If you want to add chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, add more sugar, try a different chocolate, go right ahead! To me, a basic recipe should be like a basic black dress: always reliable but easily jazzed up or down as inclination dictates. It should give you the freedom and confidence to experiment, so as you play with it and tweak the ingredients to your tastes, you make it yours. I’m inspired by Alice Medrich, who, after coming up with seemingly every brownie recipe possible in her Bittersweet book, revisited the concept again in her Pure Dessert again, and presented another stellar brownie recipe. There might be one day you feel like mint brownies, or cheesecake brownies, or you find a new chocolate and wonder how it will work in your baking. How wonderful to have a basic recipe that you understand and trust, to use as a base!

So that’s why my basic brownie is a brownie with aspirations: he a great little guy all on his own but he can be capable of much, much, more. And I decided to show an example of how far he can go by serving him with a scoop of espresso caramel swirl ice cream and a cocoa nib lace cookie topper.
The espresso caramel ice cream is a smoky, sultry little number: ground espresso gives the ice cream a coffee kick while the ribbon of buttery caramel sweetens it up and prevents the dessert from becoming too dark and bitter. The lace cookie, with nutty cocoa nibs suspended in an airy filigree of caramelized sugar, provides a crisp exclamation point to the dessert. All together, these three pieces combine to create a very elegant, adult dessert, about as far from licking the bowl in Mom’s kitchen as you can imagine, and yet, as you scoop some ice cream and brownie in your mouth, you’ll get the same happy feeling. I hope you enjoy these brownies!


Dark Fudgy Brownie

about 16 squares

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons cocoa
1/3 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 8 inch square baking pan with foil and grease well with butter.

Combine chocolates and butter in a metal bowl and place over a bain-marie (pot of simmering water) on medium heat. Heat until chocolates and butter are melted and combined – be sure to stir occasionally to combine and to make sure the chocolate doesn't burn.

Remove from heat and let cool while you make the rest of the batter.

Whisk eggs and sugar together in a large bowl until thick and light-colored, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add in the salt, vanilla, and cocoa powder and whisk to combine.

Add in the melted chocolate mixture and whisk to combine thoroughly.

Sift the flour over the mixture and whisk to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, making sure to spread it evenly into the corners. Smooth the top out with a spatula.

Bake in the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes, rotating halfway. Brownies are done when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not overbake!

Let cool on wire rack before cutting into pieces.

Espresso Caramel Ice Cream

makes about 1 quart

½ cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons ground espresso
4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar

Combine milk, cream, salt, and espresso in a heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally to prevent burning.

While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolk and sugar together in a medium bowl.

Pour about half the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. 

Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan and return to the stove. Cook over medium-low heat for about 8-10 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture reaches 180 degrees and the mixture is thickened and coats the back of the spoon.

Strain the base into a clean bowl and set in an ice bath. Let the mixture cool to room temperature before chilling in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Freeze base in an ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions. Right when the ice cream is finished, pour the caramel sauce over and fold in with a few strokes – there’s no need to completely mix them together as you want a swirl. Scrape the ice cream into a container and freeze for another 2 hours before serving.

Cocoa Nib Lace Cookies

makes about 2 dozen

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ cup cocoa nibs

In a small saucepan, melt butter, sugar and corn syrup together over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture begins to boil.

Remove from heat. Add flour and stir to combine.

Add cream, vanilla, and salt and stir to combine.

Add in nibs and stir until fully combined. Let mixture cool for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line several cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. 

Drop teaspoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheet, about 4 per sheet as they will spread.

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes until they are golden brown and stop bubbling.

Cool sheets on wire racks for a few minutes before removing cookies with a metal spatula. Cookies will be very fragile so work carefully. Move cookies to parchment paper or wax paper to finish cooling.

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Weekend in Carmel

August 14th, 2008 · 34 Comments · Fruit, Recipes, Sweet Spots, Travel


This post took me quite a while to put together, mainly because I was sifting through vacation photos, and we all know how long that can take. A couple weeks ago, I went down to Monterey for the weekend, and I wanted to share my adventures there. The problem was, choosing from all the photos I took became a week-long endeavor!

Anyway, I love the California coast because it's so easy to drive even an hour and be somewhere completely different – totally new scenery, climate – even the air smells different. We decided that a little escape from the urban claustrophobia of San Francisco (also: San Francisco gets downright cold in summer!) for some more wide-open spaces and sunnier skies down south. So on an overcast Friday morning, we hopped in the car and made the hour-and-half drive down to the Monterey Peninsula.


Our first stop once we arrived, in true foodie style, was for lunch! We went the to Red House Cafe, a little restaurant in Pacific Grove that embodies down-homeyness to a T.


Potato leek soup. Warm and cozy, perfect eaten on the porch of the cafe after a long drive down from San Francisco.


For dessert, we could choose from a vast array of pies, puddings, cakes, and cookies. I went for the special of the day, a peach and blueberry clafouti. More on this later.


Seen in Pacific Grove: quirky and lovely, just like the town.


We took a stroll along Asilomar Beach, which is at the edge of Pacific Grove. This is typical scenery at Monterey and Carmel: overcast, chilly, the sky a pale blank and the sea a sullen grey, the rocks artistically rugged and foreboding. Whether in good or bad weather, the California coast has never been soft or gentle, but a challenging, rough-hewn feast for the eyes.


If you are in Asilomar, do stop by the Asilomar Conference Grounds, a sprawling retreat designed by storied architect Julia Morgan. The numerous buildings and halls scattered in carefully planned nonchalance among the pines and sand dunes are done in the classic Arts and Crafts style – gorgeously erected and detailed, sometimes eccentrically so, as you can see below:



We stayed at the Tickle Pink Inn, which is nestled in the Carmel Highlands and enjoys a view of the ocean and coves. I took this the next morning, before the fog had burned off: the mist-softened landscape and hypnotic crashing of the waves gave the scene an unworldly serenity. I'm sure all the inns and hotels in this area all boast of fabulous views, so really, all I recommend is that if you haven't visited Monterey or Carmel or Big Sur, do so because it's such an all-encompassing sensory experience. Although I did enjoy the Tickle Pink Inn very much – and who can resist the name?


Here's a friendly gull who liked to perch on our balcony railing. He would drop by to visit several times during our stay.


Passionfish is a restaurant passionately dedicated to serving sustainable seafood, and in Monterey, one of the epicenters of the sustainable seafood movement, there seemed no better place to dine our first night. The dining room is unprentiously elegant, the service intelligent and friendly. My hand-lined mahi in a black pepper-rum sauce was richly piquant, and dessert was equally satisfying: a white peach cobbler.


We went up to Carmel the next morning. Looks just like Hawaii, doesn't it? Except for that massive fog bank hanging off the coast. This shot isn't particularly well framed, but I like it because I notice you can see little stories going on with the people: You can see a couple strolling down the beach, a little girl running back to her mother with her father trailing behind, and off in the corner, a woman playing with her dogs. Isn't it cute?


Carmel Beach has some Hawaii-worthy white sands, and is also dog-friendly: here are a couple of canine buddies having some fun in the surf.


After the beach, we made a beeline for Patisserie Boissiere in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a classic French bistro that also offers up fabulous pastries, Paris style. Their strawberry triangle is a flaky delight of puff pastry, pastry cream, and fresh fruit, and their banana chocolate cream tart was a sophisticated take on banana cream pie. This place is also perfect for picking up a lunch to enjoy al fresco down the the coast.


We continued our drive down the coast towards Big Sur. When the sun is out, the waters turn the most gorgeous shades of turquoise, cerulean, and jade.


These have to be some of the luckiest cows ever: grazing with a view.


We made it as far down the coast as McWay Falls, one of the most famed sights in Big Sur. This 80-ft high ribbon of water is actually a tidefall, as it empties directly into the ocean. This is about as close as you can get to this transcendentally beautiful cove; public access is prohibited, ensuring that this view will remain untrammeled by the touch of humans.


This is the view of the Pacific from the Post Ranch Inn, a ridiculously sybaritic hotel perched on the edge of the Big Sur cliffs. Sadly, we did not get to stay here, but we did venture onto the property to see what the fuss was all about. And I have to admit that in a weekend full of gorgeous views, these were far and away some of the most stunning.


Standing tiptoe on the edge of the continent, I am reminded of the poem Blackberrying by Sylvia Plath:

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills' northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.


Magic hour.


This view (as well as the one above) were from our room balcony. I love how you can see the lights going on in some of the homes; it looks so lush and dreamlike, like cottages in a Hansel and Gretel forest.


Here's our gull friend again, admiring the sunset as well. Imagine! He gets to see this view every day, for free!


On our way back north the next day, we stopped by Santa Cruz, a true bohemian laid-back surfer town, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in all its glorious childish cheesiness. The west coast has never had as many of these amusement-parks-by-the-sea as the east, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the few remaining ones today. The Boardwalk is celebrating its centennial, and the city has clearly done a very thorough job of polishing up the place, which may be why it looked so much shinier and spiffier than in my childhood memories.


Summer vacation was clearly in full swing when we arrived: families waited in line for the big old wooden rollercoaster or the log water ride; teenagers in swimsuits ran down to the golden beach or headed for the arcades, the smells of cotton candy, hot dogs, and grilled corn wafted our way, and our ears were filled with the cacaphony of happy people out enjoying themselves.


Notice a pirate theme in our vacation? This was one of those pendulum-style rides where you're slowly swung back and forth and finally in a full circle. I didn't go on this ride, since it makes me rather queasy.

Although you can probably guess which ride I did go on:


It's amazing to me that in the space of a weekend you can experience so many different places, all within a few hours of each other. I don't know if this qualifies as a "stay-cation", as the buzzwords seems to be, but if it is, it doesn't seem to terrible to stay at home!

One of my favorite desserts from the weekend was the peach blueberry clafouti from Red House Cafe, and once I got home I couldn't wait to replicate it. I think I got carried away and put too much fruit in there, but with peaches at their bursting-sweet ripeness I couldn't help myself. Combined with the tartness of the blueness and the creamy, vanilla bean-flecked custard, this makes for one sweet summer memory.


Peach Blueberry Clafouti

makes one 9-in clafouti or (2) 5-in clafoutis

2 ripe peaches

3/4 cup blueberries

2+6 tablespoons sugar

3 large eggs

3/4 cup milk

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 9-in baking dish or pie plate, or individual dishes, and place on a baking sheet.

Wash and peel the peaches, and cut into small wedges. Combine the peaches and blueberries and 2 tablespoons sugar in a bowl and let macerate for about 15 minutes.

Whisk the remaining sugar and eggs together in a mixing bowl.

Add in the milk and whisk until combined.

Sift the flour over the mixture and whisk until combined.

Whisk in the vanilla bean paste.

Spread th e fruit over the bottom of the dish. A single layer is fine; don't put too much fruit in or you'll overwhelm the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, just covering the fruit.

Bake in the oven for about 35-40 minutes (if you are making individual dishes, be sure to check halfway through to see if they are baking faster) until the batter looks puffed and golden and is set in the center.

Let clafouti cool for about 10 minutes out of the oven before serving. You can also serve at room temperature – it will keep for about 12 hours.


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Taking a Sip of Memory

August 7th, 2008 · 26 Comments · Fruit, Ice Cream, Recipes


It's been lamentably long since my last visit to Rome, and all my memories of it have taken on that misty, dreamy quality when you're not sure whether it's a true remembrance or one half-embellished with your fantasies of what really happened. Although, Rome is so very old and layered in memory that I wonder whether this happens to everyone who passes through. As you walk down the cobblestone streets or gaze at the magnificent monuments, it's hard not to think of all the hundreds of thousands of people who have done the same over the centuries. You're just the latest in the unending chain of people doing the same thing in the eternal city. The person throwing coins in Trevi Fountain? The person buying flowers in Campo de' Fiori? The person gazing skyward at the frescos in the Sistine Chapel? I'm sure I did all those things, just as I'm sure so many have done so before me, and will after me. It's easy to turn my trip into some sort of "Stereotypical Greatest Hits of Rome" after all this time.

There are a few memories that stand out as I riffle through them: seeing Piazza Navona for the first time, lined with buildings in all shades of terra cotta and sienna and umber. The train ride from Rome to Florence, watching the countryside uncurl outside the window. Running into an acquaintance from work at the Uffizi (now that memory, I know I didn't make up!) Learning how to order my favorite flavor of gelato (stracciatella).

And then there is the memory of one hot afternoon wandering around Florence, eyes overstuffed with art and feet protesting another museum foray. We stopped at a cafe to take una pausa, whereupon my companion declared that now was the perfect opportunity to try that immortal Italian liqueur, limoncello.

Of course, limoncello is classically meant as a digestif, preferably on a balmy summer night next to the Amalfi coast. But it's a very fine companion for a lazy afternoon as well, and as tourists, we at least had the excuse of ignorance. The limoncello arrived in tiny glasses, chilled and frosty white. The almost shockingly yellow liqueur looked like distilled sunshine. I took a sip and let that frozen shard of sunlight unfurl itself, tingling, inside me.

Years have passed since that trip to Rome, and just as long since I've had a sip of limoncello. But when I found myself in possession of a bottle of it the other day, it was as easy as falling into dream to take a sip and remember that dusty summer afternoon and my first taste of limoncello.

Now, as with any other new foodstuff that I encounter since I've gone to pastry school, I find myself pondering, how could I use this in my baking? The answer revealed itself in a most serendipitous manner when I came across a recipe in Delicious magazine for a strawberry and limoncello semifreddo – the name itself positively wafts summer.


What can be confusing about semifreddo, as I've detailed before, is that it's really more of a class of dessert than one specific recipe. That's why when you go researching semifreddo you're likely to find a whole range of techniques, from Italian meringue to pâté à bombe to crème anglaise. You have semifreddo that is studded with nuts and nougat, formed into a terrine, and served in slices. You have semifreddo that is frozen into cups and eaten with a spoon, like a mousse. The only consistent qualification for semifreddo, it seems, is that is must be light and fluffy – to the point of gossamer insubstantiality.

The point of the various techniques that go into making semifreddo is to incorporate air into the mixture, which is what gives the final product its fabulous lightness. Since there's no ice cream machine doing the heavy work of aerating, all the trapped air must come from the whipped cream, the whipped eggs, etc. This recipe falls on the simpler, breezier side: there's whipped cream and whipped egg whites which are folded into a just-whisked egg yolk and sugar mixture. The result is very soft, creamy, and light – my ideal semifreddo.

Even if you have an aversion to spirits, there's no need to shy away from this dessert. The limoncello gives the semifreddo a dreamily smooth, sublime lemon flavor, without the bright tartness usually imparted from the fruit. It's like a cross between lemon curd and lemony whipped cream – what I imagine to be the perfect density of sunlight-dappled clouds. The swirl of sweetened strawberries adds a rich fruitiness to ground the etherealness of the semifreddo.

Although the alcohol in the limoncello will help the semifreddo from becoming rock-hard in the freezer so quickly, it's still best to take the semifreddo out about a half hour before you plan to serve it, to give it time soften slightly (if you make individual cups, like I did, it may need even less time – don't let them melt!)


Strawberry Limoncello Semifreddo

adapted from Delicious Magazine

about 8-10 servings

1/2 cup (110 g) sugar

2 pints strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped.

1/4 cup (60 ml) limoncello

4 large eggs, separated

2 1/2 cups (600 ml) heavy cream

Place a 2 1/2 quart heavy ceramic dish, or individual glasses of your choice, in the freezer to chill.

Combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then simmer for 3 minutes until the sugar has all dissolved and the mixture has thickened.

Add the strawberries and stir to combine. Take the saucepan off the heat and use a fork to mash the strawberries into the sugar syrup. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the limoncello, then let the strawberrie cool to room temperature.

Combine the egg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl and whisk together until pale and thickened. Add in the remaining limoncello and stir to combine.

Whip the cream in a stand mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.

Whip the egg whites in a clean bowl just until soft peaks form – do not overwhip.

Carefully fold half of the whipped cream into the egg yolk mixture to lighten it up. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream, taking care not to deflate the cream too much.

Fold in the egg whites, again taking care not to deflate the whites.

Pour the mixture into the pre-frozen dish or cups.

Stir in the strawberry mixture. Because the semifreddo mixture is so light, I find the strawberries tend to sink to the bottom and if there's too much liquid it also starts deflating the mixture. If your strawberries are in a lot of liquid, you may want to strain it before you add to the semifreddo. Pour them in gently and quickly, and don't overmix into the semifreddo.

Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 5 hours or overnight. Take out of the freezer about 30 minutes before serving, less for individual portions.

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