Entries from September 22nd, 2009

Return from Hong Kong: Family, Food, and a Really Good Tart

September 22nd, 2009 · 25 Comments · Fruit, Recipes, Sweet Spots, Tarts, Travel




Hello dear readers, I’m back from Hong Kong! I apologize that this won’t be as comprehensive a travelogue as some of my other reports: a host of family obligations kept me from playing tourist as much as I wanted to. Here are a couple of shots I managed to capture:



Cool blue entrance into Hong Kong while on the airport express


View from my parents’ apartment- yup, that is the full moon up there!


They don’t do anything by halves in HK – new Coach store going up


Bet you’ll never see these in the US – even Mrs. Field’s is making mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival!


Very exciting – I saw my book in a local bookstore! Field Guide to Cookies is international!

Honestly, though, I have to admit I don’t have a ton of photos of sweets, because Hong Kong retail in general tends to frown on picture-taking. I think there is a fear of designs and ideas being stolen and copied, so even if you just want to document the cool-looking bakery display, you may be told by an employee that no photos are allowed. “Touristy” photographing of landmarks, scenery, etc, is acceptable, but I guess trying to get a close-up shot of a cake in the window means you’re an industrial spy. I got to visit a handful of dessert places during my trip, but unfortunately not a lot of pictures as proof. My surreptitious-snapping skills weren’t set on high this time:)



One place that didn’t seem to have any qualms about my snapping away, and coincidentally one of my favorite finds, was Zoë, a chic, light-filled little cafe filled with perfectly presented pastries. The offerings are unbashedly European in flavor and styling: precisely layered chocolate mousse cakes, crisp, fruit-topped tartlets, velvety white cheesecakes. I went with a sweet friend I’d met through this blog, a HK resident and fellow dessert fanatic. When I expressed concern that she hadn’t had time to eat lunch before meeting at Zoë, she reassured me, “I can eat dessert for lunch anyday.” That’s my kind of girl!

Between the two of us, we devoured four pastries with lychee tea – a very model of Hong Kong tea-time.



Clockwise from top left: Zoë’s signature Zoë cake, a cute little square of hazelnut mousse on a crunchy cookie base; a slice of banana cream “pie”, the 1459, Zoë’s version of millefeuille, with satisfyingly flaky puff pastry layers sandwiching pasty cream, and cherry-chocolate mousse cake, which surprised me the most since most Hong Kongers I’ve met don’t seem to be very fond of alcohol-soaked cherries.

Zoë is considered spendy by Hong Kong standards; each one of those lovelies cost about $4.50, which doesn’t seem too bad to me, but I suppose I wouldn’t be buying one every day (this would be out of concern for my waistline too!) They are also on the petite side – my mom complained that my dad would scarf one of these down in mere seconds (hmm, does he even do that with my pastries?:) ) The thing is, in Hong Kong, there is just so much to choose from – I’ve mentioned to many people that Hong Kongers are really spoiled for choice. I mean, look at this display from a Hong Kong Beard Papa store (a cream puff chain):



There’s about twelve different choices in there – in all the SF Beard Papa stores I’ve been to, there’s typically 3 varieties!! And you can’t really make out the labels, but they’ve got varieties like strawberry cream, and mint chocolate, and chestnut, and even summer peach; “seasonal specials” are very big in Hong Kong, to draw customers back into stores. I love it when my mom comes to visit me in the US and she says things like, “Why do the bakeries have the same stuff as the last time I came? Don’t they come up with anything new?” Well yes, but certainly not at the pace that Hong Kong does.

Bakeries are also so ubiquitous in Hong Kong and generally the quality ranges from acceptable to quite good. Maxim’s and St-Honoré, two of the biggest bakery chains in Hong Kong, seem to have outposts at just about every subway stop and street, kind of like Starbucks. But imagine if Starbucks carried freshly baked breads and delicate, fancy-patisserie-like cakes, and they were only a couple dollars each? Makes it really easy to grab dessert on the way home from work – so posher places like Zoë do have to work a little harder to justify their higher prices.

In my opinion, Zoë is worth the price, and the visit. The quality was uniformly excellent, and the flavors understated but pure. Another interesting cultural note is that Hong Kong natives definitely prefer lighter desserts: I can’t count how many times I was told, “American desserts are so heavy and so sweet! Can’t you reduce the sugar?” From all the lovely baking blogs I know and visit, I can say that desserts definitely come in all forms and levels in the good old US (hurray!). But I guess I can see how stereotypes of our sweet preferences can be formed, especially if you look at mass advertising: foot-high wedges of chocolate cake covered in caramel goo, ice cream sundaes drowning in nuts and fudge, pies garnished with a tub’s worth of whipped cream, cookies the size of a sma
ll child’s head. I’d like to advise the good residents of Hong Kong to take a look at food blogs out there to see desserts the rest of us are really eating!

It is true, though, that Zoë’s desserts are very light, although by no means lacking in flavor. The Zoe hazelnut mousse was positively cloudlike, very, very delicate, and very refreshing: no heaviness or gumminess at all, and very nice against a crisp chocolate base. Similarly for the cherry-chocolate cake, which looked like a version of black forest cake, but a pared-down, minimalist version – a perfectly edited bite. My favorite was the banana cream pie, which was a revelation. I have to admit I’m not a big banana fan (apologies to Tartelette, I realize she’s made a similar confession not long ago!) and I always shied away from banana cream pie, because, well, it had bananas, and because it just seemed like a big pile of cream and goo.

Another amusing sidenote: my mom and I bought this cake at another bakery that was supposed to be this wonderfully light and ethereal sponge cake. Well, the sponge cake wasn’t bad, but it was literally covered all around with about 3 inches of whipped cream – rather unusual excess in Hong Kong. I found my mom in our kitchen industriously scraping off all the cream from the cake before she would eat it:)


So I was curious to see how Hong Kong had adapted this very American dessert. It’s actually more of a tart than a pie: you can see the neat edge of the tart shell in the photo, which definitely gives it a sophisticated French flair. Then, a layer of chocolate ganache on the bottom, followed by a very thin layer of bananas – I couldn’t even tell on first bite if there were any banana slices, but there were. I was trying to figure why I could taste so much banana flavor, and I realized that the topping was also flavored with banana – quite clever! Instead of the typical pastry cream filling followed by whipped cream topping, I think they turned it into one banana-infused cream layer, which is much lighter and more to local tastes.

I certainly liked it; I preferred the way the bananas were integrated into the cream so I could taste it without having to deal with the thick texture of the fruit. I loved how it captured the essence of the dessert in a sleek and streamlined form.

So, Zoë, I promise I’ll buy more banana cream tarts from you next time I visit, but while I’m stuck back here in the US, I’m just going to have to try and make my own version. I’m not sure it’s an exact duplicate, but it has a wonderfully crumbly pate sablee crust spread with a dark chocolate ganache. On top, a sprinkling of banana slices, and then a wonderfully fragrant pastry cream laced with bananas, and lightened with whipped cream to delicate softness. I can also add it was such joy experimenting in a new big kitchen: the last weekend spent puttering about with tart crusts and pastry cream in my new place was a wonderful memory-making – and hopefully there’ll be more to come.





freshly baked tart shells filled with ganache  – I know, I hardly ever do in-progress shots, but I had the luxury of all day to put these guys together, so why not!



Placing a layer of banana slices in the shells – you can place more depending on your banana preferences.



finale – a bite of bliss


Two last things before I go – I was asked to compile a list of my favorite dessert blogs for Blogs.com, and here it is – take a look and see what my choices are!

Also, I’m going to be at BlogHer Food 2009 this Saturday – I”m SO excited I got a chance to go. If you’re going to be there, do let me know – I’d love to meet you!


Banana Cream Tarts

makes (6) 5″ tarts

Banana Pastry Cream

1 cup milk

5 tablespoons sugar

3 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 small banana, ripe (you can use from 1/2 to all of the banana, depending on size and how much banana flavor you want)

1 tablespoon lemon juice


Pate Sablee (adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

9 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces) very cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1 large egg yolk



Chocolate Ganache

4 ounces dark (62%-70%) chocolate, roughly chopped

1/2 cup heavy cream




2 bananas, ripe

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream



For the banana pastry cream: Combine 3/4 cup milk and 3 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan. Heat just until the milk starts to bubble at the edges.


Meanwhille, whisk the remaining sugar and the egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining milk together in another bowl and add to the egg yolk mixture.

When the milk has started to bubble, pour it in a steady stream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from scrambling.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return to the stove, cooking over medium he
at and whisking constantly, until it thickens and comes to a boil. Stir in vanilla and remove from heat.

Let pastry cream cool while you cut up the banana. Puree with the lemon juice in a food processor until smooth.

Fold the banana puree into the pastry cream. You can now press a piece of plastic wrap to the surface of the cream and place in the refrigerator to chill.

For the tart shells: Combine flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt in bowl of a food processor and combine.

Add in cold butter and process until pea-sized lumps of dough form – do not overprocess into a ball of dough. It should be loose and crumbly.

Add in egg yolk and process until dough starts to come together. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a work surface and lightly press together into a ball – if it’s too loose, you can process a little more, but don’t do too much – you want to work this dough as little as possible to have a light and crumbly texture.

Butter one 9-inch tart pan or six 5-inch tart pans – ones with removable bottoms work best. Carefully press the dough into the pans, working it over the bottom and up the sides. Again, try not to overwork the dough – press gently and work as quickly as possible.

Chill shells in freezer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Usually recipes for these tart doughs involve lining the shells with pie weights. If you like doing this or have fears of burning your shells, go ahead. However, I’ve never had issues with just baking the shells as is – I check them halfway through and if the shells are puffing up too much I just press them down with a dough tamper or wooden spoon.

Bake shells for 15 minutes, then rotate and bake another 10-18 minutes until they are golden brown and fully baked.

Let cool on wire rack before filling.

For the ganache: Place chocolate in a medium bowl.

Heat cream in saucepan on stove over medium heat until the edges start to bubble.

Pour cream over chocolate and let stand for a minute. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine the two into a smooth mixture.

Spread a layer of ganache on the bottom of each tart shell and let cool and set. It doesn’t have to set all the way, but it should be slightly firm to avoid mixing with the pastry cream.

Cut the bananas into thin slices, about 1/4″ thick, and spread in a layer over the ganache.


Remove the pastry cream from the refrigerator and beat or stir with a spoon to loosen it up.

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

Fold the whipped cream gently into the pastry cream until fully incorporated.

Spread the banana pastry cream into the shells and smooth the surfaces with an offset spatula.

Chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes to set before serving. You can decorate the top with chocolate curls if you like.


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Apple, Pecan, and Cinnamon Crumble Bars

September 2nd, 2009 · 18 Comments · Cookies, Fruit, Recipes


Thanks to all my readers for your well-wishes – it’s been a hectic, topsy-turvy couple of weeks but we are starting to get settled into our new home and we love it! It’s no surprise, is it, that the first area to get organized was the kitchen?

This is going to be a mini-digest of a post, since there’s so much I’d love to catch you up on but just couldn’t find the time amid the whirlwind of moving. Here is one of many highlights of the last two weeks:


Yes, Field Guide to Candy: How To Identify and Make Virtually Every Candy Imaginable is officially out!! It’s available on Amazon , Chronicle Books, and Quirk Books, my publisher. I haven’t seen it on bookshelves in brick-and-mortar retailers but I am sure they will show up very soon! I hope to provide a proper introduction to the book when I get back from Hong Kong. Hong Kong? Er, yes, I might have forgotten to mention that. Guess who will be lugging about 15 copies of the book overseas for her family?

So, back to the new kitchen and my desire to break it in before I left for vacation. What would be the inaugural dessert? Well, a couple of weeks before we moved out, we went up to Sebastopol for the Gravenstein Apple Festival and a heaping slice of summer and Americana - a last little road trip before the moving madness.


It was full, flush summer up in wine country, unlike fog-clad San Francisco. Children in shorts and sandals ran through a hay maze and petted baby goats, while their parents pored over the vintage farm machinery on display and listened to mellow, loose-limbed country music from the stage. And all around, bushels of red and green striped apples.

Gravenstein apples are a baker’s dream, and there were apple pies in abundance at the festival, along with apple tarts, turnovers, and cobblers – a veritable golden orchard of apple-y delights waiting to be eaten.  We also had some marvelously thick, rich cider, the color of old pennies and icy cold for a hot summer afternoon.


The first bite into a ripe Gravenstein is pure sensory pleasure: the sharp crunch as teeth bite through pleasantly firm flesh; the sweet-tart fragrance of the apple’s juices rushing into your nose, and finally, the crisp, assertive tang of the fruit tickling your tongue. How pallid and pedestrian, by comparison, the experience of eating those mealy, one-dimensional, inoffensively but insipidly sweet apples found en masse at some groceries. Eating a Gravenstein is a stirring reminder of what real food tastes like, and why it’s better, even essential, to have variety and heterogeneity in the crops we grow, and not just one over-bioengineered, mass produced variety of tomato or corn or peach at the store.


In fact, the distinctiveness of the Gravenstein apple has been recognized by Slow Food Nation: It has included Gravenstein apples in its Ark of Taste, a list of unique foods that are in danger of extinction and merit preservation. Unfortunately, Gravensteins only grow for a short period of time (they are mostly harvested in July and August), and their relative delicacy compared to other apple species has led to a steady decline in the number of orchards inSonomaCounty growing them. Today there are only about six commercial growers of these apples left inSonoma. Although Gravensteins can be found in a few other places around the US and the rest of the world, they are an especially cherished tradition inSonoma, and there was a definite sense of pride among the locals at the festival, a joy in celebrating this piece of their heritage.


I lugged home two big bags of gorgeously candy-striped apples home and put them in our brand spanking new refrigerator – refrigeration recommended for keeping the apples longer. While pondering what to make, of course I had to eat one to get an idea of the flavor – and one turned into another, until I had to stop! These are wonderful apples for eating – they can be very tart when they’re green and not fully ripe, but find the perfect one and it’s a wonderful, full-bodied, full-flavored beauty. The texture is so wonderfully crisp, as well, although I recommend if you want to eat them, you should do so as soon as possible. They will get softer the longer they sit; still great for baking, but perhaps not as much for eating.


While a pie would be the classic option (and I saw many a mouthwatering pie at the festival), the kitchen was still too much of a mess and equipment still packed away, for me to attempt the Zen exercise of the perfect pie crust. I opted instead for a shortcut version: apple crumble bars from my Field Guide to Cookies book. The apples are cooked in butter and sugar with a sprinkling of cinnamon until they’re translucent and just-soft, then spread over a brown sugar crust. A sprinkle of pecan-laced stre usel, strewn over the top, provides a crunchy golden crown to the bars. The assertive Gravenstein apples really stand out in these bars – you can take out some of the sugar if you want to preserve their tartness, but I found this just the right balance. They’re obviously best fresh out the oven, when the apples are still gooey and the crust nicely crisp. You can reheat the bars in the oven for a day or so afterwards, but it’s best to eat them as soon as possible before they get soggy – not the most onerous of tasks!


I feel like I’m just starting to get used to the new place, and already I’m off! I’m going to be in Hong Kong for the next week and a half, and when I return I hope to be freshly inspired to make the best use of my new kitchen!

You can stay updated on travels via my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to spending some time with my family, eating some really good dim sum, and of course checking out as many bakeries and dessert places as possible! It’s also going to be super hot weather-wise there, so I’ll be doing my best to stay cool!

Have a great Labor Day weekend, and I’ll look forward to sharing my adventures when I get back in a week and a half!


Apple, Pecan, and Cinnamon Crumble Bars

Makes about 15 bars


  • 5-6 large tart apples (about 3 lb total)
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon


  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, room temperature


  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-in pieces
  • 1/4 cup pecans, roughly chopped

For the filling:

  • Peel, core, and chop the apples into 1/2-inch cubes. Set aside in a bowl.
  • Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the apples and sauté for about 8 minutes until the apples are semi-soft.
  • Add sugar, lemon juice, flour, and cinnamon to the apples and stir to combine.
  • Cook until mixture begins to bubble, then turn heat to low and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer filling to a bowl and let cool while you make the crust.

For the crust:

  • Line a 9 by 13 inch pan with aluminum foil, leaving enough to hang over the edge and act as handles to remove bars after baking. Grease foil.
  • Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl and set aside.
  • In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar together on medium speed for several minutes until light and fluffy.
  • Add egg and mix to combine.
  • Add flour mixture and mix to combine.
  • Pour about half the dough into the prepared pan and gently press into the bottom of the pan, making sure it is level. Add in more dough as necessary to cover the bottom of the pan, but you will probably not use it all. (You can use it all if you want a thicker base for your bars. Set pan aside while you make the streusel.

For the streusel:

  • In a stand mixer, combine sugar, flour, and salt and mix to combine.
  • Add butter and mix until crumbly and the butter pieces are very small.
  • Add pecans and mix just to combine.

To finish the bars:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread cooled apple filling evenly over the crust, leaving about 3/4” between the pan sides and the filling.
  • Sprinkle the streusel evenly over the filling. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until the top layer is golden. Cool completely on wire rack before removing.

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