Entries from June 25th, 2014

{Cookbook Review} Summer, Simply

July 26th, 2010 · 27 Comments · Cookbooks, Fruit, Recipes, Reviews, Tarts

Continuing with my efforts to review all these lovely cookbooks piled up on my kitchen table/bookshelf/nightstand…This particular tome was an easy pick, and I have my recent trip to Colorado to thank for it.

I mentioned briefly that thanks to Lisa‘s kindness, I was able to stay with her and her family friend while in Boulder. Not only was I given a warm welcome, but I was invited to come with them to dinner every night, which resulted in some of the best meals I’d had in a while.

The first evening after class, we relaxed at a lovely backyard hosted by another of Lisa’s family friends. Let me tell you, Boulder is full of some of the most friendly and hospitable people I’ve ever met (that includes Jen, natch!) and it’s gorgeous – 360 degrees of scenic beauty! Could this place be any more amazing?

While the entire dinner was terrific (eating al fresco in warm summer twilight must be one of the best experiences wherever you are), I was naturally drawn to the dessert, prepared by the inimitable hostess. A single layer of fresh strawberries over a delicate, flaky crust scented with butter and brown sugar, with the faintest dusting of powdered sugar. Perfectly perfect in its simplicity. I absolutely fell in love with the crust (I’m a tart fan, remember?) and I knew I had to have the recipe.

To my delight the tart was from the newly released Seasonal Fruit Desserts: From Orchard, Farm, and Market by Deborah Madison. Madison is the founding chef of the famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, and the headnote for the berry tart recipe describes it as the creation of none other than Lindsay Shere, of Chez Panisse fame. Talk about going full circle – I travel halfway across the country to discover inspiration by a chef from my hometown.

This berry tart, of course, perfectly encapsulates Shere’s and Chez Panisse’s philosophy – fresh, local, seasonal foods presented with a minimum of fuss to let the ingredients shine. It’s deceptively simple, like cooking an omelette – one would think that anyone could do it, but it takes a certain finesse to truly do it well. In the case of berries, there’s no mounds of whipped cream or pastry cream or drizzled caramel for them to hide behind – just fresh-picked berries with a light brush of glaze, served up on a crust.


Now this may sound intimidating to pull off, but it’s not – it’s the point of seasonal fruit desserts, right? That’s why you don’t make a strawberry tart in the middle of winter when they are bland flavorless cotton balls, and why when summer’s at its zenith you go crazy with the galettes and the crumbles and the ice cream (oh yes, the ice creams). This strawberry tart captured the very essence of strawberries for me – I couldn’t have imagined anything more satisfying that evening.

Madison’s book is an effervescent ode to the beauty of fruit – the first chapters revolve around the simplest preparations of fruit, from macerating blackberries in rosewater or plating apples and persimmons with almonds, to slightly more elaborate recipes like roasting figs or sauteing plums, to favorites like pies and tarts and crisps. This gradual progression shows how easy it is to turn fruit into a dessert – or how fruit is already dessert on its own, and needs so little manipulation to showcase it.

There is a wealth of information on all sorts of fruits both common and exotic in the book – Madison goes so far as to list preferred varieties of fruit in her recipes. It will leave you eager to visit the farmers’ market and bring home as much of the local bounty as you can. There’s also a chapter on cheese and dairy desserts and recommendations on cheese and fruit pairings, for the fromage-ficianados among you. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fruit: it’s both a wonderful collection of information and ideas, and an engaging read that will make you feel like you’re sitting in a sun-warmed orchard every time you open the book.

So, back to this berry tart – I made it with raspberries because they were looking pretty at the market. Although you can make it as a 9 inch round tart, I was really excited to get to use my rectangular tart pan again – it makes presentation so effortlessly elegant. I urge you to try the tart crust: it’s like a pâte brisée, given depth and sweetness with the addition of brown sugar and lemon zest. It’s pleasingly workable – you can roll it out or simply press it in the pan, and it bakes up into a crisp, flaky picture frame for rows of red berries, glazed to a shining gleam. One caveat: this truly is best enjoyed soon after it’s made. Like just-plucked fruit, the sooner you taste it the closer you are to pure pleasure. It won’t be a chore to finish, I assure it. Try it before summer vanishes!


Austere Berry Tart

Tart Dough

1 cup(5 ounces) all purpose flour

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lemon zest

8 tablespoons (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 tablespoon cold water

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract


Tart Filling

2 to 3 cups (18 ounces) berries

3 tablespoons raspberry jam or red currant jelly

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting


Combine flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in a food processor. Pulse to combine.

Add in butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces.

Combine water, vanilla, and almond extract and drizzle over the mixture. Pulse to combine until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs – it should not be fully combined into a ball.

Turn out mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into a disk about 1 inch thick. If you have trouble making it stick together add a few more drops of water.

Wrap dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Note: the recipe indicates you can also skip the chilling and simply press the dough into the tart pan. I chilled my dough and rolled it out.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to a 10 inch round (to fit a 9 inch round tart pan), or to fit a 4 inch x 13 inch rectangular tart pan. Ease dough into the pan and press into the sides to form.

Chill pan with dough in refrigerator while preheating the oven to 375 degrees F.

Line the dough with foil and fill with pie weights. Bake tart crust for 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove the foil and bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes more.

Wash berries and lay on paper towels to dry. Heat the jam with a few teaspoons of water to thin it, then press through a sieve.

Brush half the jam on the tart shell.

Arrange the berries in the tart shell.

Return tart to the oven for about 5 minutes.

Reheat the remaining jam and brush over the tops of the berries. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar before serving. 

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{SF} Treats in the Tendernob

July 24th, 2010 · No Comments · San Francisco, Sweet Spots


Tendernob’s a little sweeter with the addition of Hooker’s Sweet Treats and their gloriously chewy-soft caramels dipped in dark chocolate and dusted with smoked sea salt.

Praline-caramel cookies and bread pudding warrant a return visit.

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Always Room for Chocolate (and Shortbread)

July 21st, 2010 · 21 Comments · Chocolate, Cookies, Recipes, Reviews, Tools


Sometimes it seems like the Bay Area is ground zero for chocoholics: new local artisan chocolatiers popping up every month, whole stores dedicated to chocolate from around the world…when burnt caramel and pink peppercorns are commonplace, it’s enough to make the pickiest of connoisseurs feel spoiled for choice.

A very fine, recent example: I was lucky enough to attend a chocolate launch party for Madécasse, an up-and-coming chocolate company based in New York making its San Francisco debut. In the world of chocolate, where buzzwords like “fair trade” and “single origin” are thrown about like sea salt on caramel, Madécasse is laying claim to a unique niche.


All of Madécasse’s chocolate bars are made in Madagascar, with locally grown cacao. Madagascar is one of world’s major sources of cacao, yet the cacao is usually exported, turned into chocolate in factories elsewhere in the world. Madécasse’s mission is to create new opportunities for the local Malagasy population in Madagascar, by training them to create chocolate, from bean to bar. Cacao is harvested, then dried, then turned into chocolate bars in local factories. As the website explains, keeping the production of chocolate in Madagascar lets the local community retain much more of the profits – up to four times more than simply producing and selling fair trade cacao.


Madécasse was founded by Brett Beach and Tim McCollum, who worked for 10 years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar. Their dedication to improving the life of the Malgasy people is heartwarming and inspiring. And, their bars are quite good – a valuable addition to the growing library of global chocolate.

We got to try all seven of their bars; five of them are straight dark chocolate, ranging from 63% to 80%, while a milk chocolate and sea salt nibby bar round out the collection. The 67% and 70% hit my sweet spots – the 63% was nicely buttery and smooth, with a supple curl of a finish, while the 70% has wonderful tart fruit notes up front, slightly more astringent in the finish. The 75% and 80% are excellent for those who love their dark chocolate dark and dry. I highly recommend these bars  – not only will they satisfy your chocolate craving, but you’ll be supporting a truly worthy endeavor in Africa.


Madécasse also features Madagascar’s other famous culinary product: vanilla. I was gifted Madécasse’s entire line of vanilla products – vanilla extract, vanilla beans, vanilla cane sugar, and vanilla powder. Now, I’ve used versions of the first three products before, but I’d never tried vanilla powder! It’s essentially vanilla beans ground to a fine powder: many recipes I found simply use the powder as a substitute for extract. Unscrewing a bottle of vanilla powder is like opening a bottle of perfume: that florid, intoxicating scent virtually leaps out at you. Although I could simply use it in lieu of extract, I was really curious to emphasize its powdery form.


I remembered in Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert how she experimented with dusting freshly baked goods with spices instead of incorporating them into the batter; the difference in taste was surprisingly intense. I took that inspiration to make a batch of my favorite shortbread, shot through with cacao nibs and sprinkled with vanilla powder.

I’ve written enough odes to shortbread that a mere gushing should suffice here: I really like the cacao nibs in the shortbread. They taste like chocolate chips from the wild, crunchy little shards of elemental chocolate-ness in a golden buttery sea.



I did my best to be a good culinary scientist and tried sprinkling the vanilla powder on the cookies before baking and right after baking. The addition of vanilla powder certainly bumps up the flavor in the shortbread, but I found a dusting it on after they came out of the oven does allow the vanilla to come out while maintaining its distinctness. There’s a lovely sensuousness to it: the fine grains of vanilla unfurling on oven-warm shortbread, dissolving lightly on the tongue like flecks of a faraway paradise. You might try it, even if you don’t have vanilla powder, with your favorite spice – nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamon? Just be sure to sprinkle with a light hand: a mini sifter might be handy to avoid dumping a pile of spice atop your awaiting cookie!

So there you have it – chocolate and vanilla, two of the oldest dessert flavors under the sun, and yet there’s always a new way to appreciate them. Thanks, Madécasse!





Cacao Nib Shortbread

Makes 36  2 inch by 1 ¼  inch cookies

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup rice flour
1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup cacao nibs

vanilla powder for sprinkling

Whisk both flours together in a bowl  and set aside.

In the mixing bowl with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla extract on medium speed until light and fluffy.

Remove bowl from mixer and mix in the flours by hand with a wooden spoon, until combined. The dough should be homogeneous and stick together as one lump, but try to mix as little and gently as possible – this will make the shortbread more tender. Stir in the cacao nibs.

Place dough on a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a ¾ inch thick  rectangle.

Refrigerate for 2 hours to firm up the dough. At this point the dough can be double wrapped and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Defrost frozen dough overnight in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease several cookie sheet pans or line with parchment paper.

On a floured board, place dough and dust with flour. Gently roll out dough to ¼ inch thickness and cut into desired shapes. If dough gets soft, place back into refrigerator for 5 minutes.

Place on sheet pans leaving 1 inch space between cookies. Dock centers of cookies with the tines of a fork twice.

Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges a lightly golden in color. Remove from oven and place on wire racks. Dust lightly with vanilla powder and let cool before eating.

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The Perfect Finish: The Twix Tart

July 11th, 2010 · 50 Comments · Chocolate, Cookbooks, Recipes, Tarts


Among my backlog of posts to finish are a bunch of cookbook reviews (I swear, the only thing that seems to multiply faster in my place than dust bunnies and kitchen equipment is cookbooks). One I’ve been particularly eager to share is Bill Yosses’s The Perfect Finish, which came out about a month ago.

Yosse, whose illustrious career includes stints under Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, is currently the executive pastry chef for the White House. So if you ever wonder what might be showing up for dessert on our President’s dinner table, I’d suggest a look at this book!

The admirably wide-ranging set of recipes in The Perfect Finish are categorized into some intriguing-sounding chapters: Come For Brunch, I’ll Bring Dessert, Straight From the Oven. I like that: the titles suggest all manner of sweet situations (although I can imagine few situations that couldn’t be improved by something sweet). A glance at through the offerings is like a quick survey of all the places Yosses must have worked at during his career: everything from a Gingery Pumpkin Breakfast Bundt to Candied Bacon Peach Cobbler (which I am dying to make!) to Chocolate Halvah Marjolaine. There are selections from virtually every category of baked goods, from simple to complex, so whether you feel like tackling a complex project like sachertorte, or just have a cookie craving, there will be something to entice you.


I was looking for an opportunity to try out something from the cookbook, and the occasion turned out to be the Fourth of July weekend. Mike and I had my sister and her husband over for a little barbecue action, and it’s probably not too hard to guess which course I volunteered to oversee, hmm?

I already had a vanilla- ollalieberry swirl made with leftover ollalieberries (yes, I haven’t blogged about that yet!!) but knowing my sister has a preference for things chocolate-y, I flipped through the pages of the book until I hit on the Chocolate Caramel Tart with Sea Salt. That pretty much hits the decadence trifecta for me: perfectly smooth and creamy ganache, wickedly liquid caramel, and sea salt crunch-bombs.

The crust is a crisp pâte sablée which corrals a puddle of golden caramel. A bittersweet chocolate ganache fills out the top, along with a final stardusting of sea salt. All such simple components, but combined together alchemize into pleasure sublime.


A rare shot of chocolate metamorphosing into ganache (rare because I’m seldom prepared enough to take in-process shots!)

I actually nicknamed it the Twix Tart, because the textures and flavors reminded me of that classic candy bar: the cookie-like crust, the gooey caramel filling, the chocolate covering. Only, believe me, this is several magnitudes better!

I also loved the ease of execution: The only component that requires real planning ahead is the tart dough – if you can bake off the tart shell in advance, you can virtually assemble the entire tart an hour or so before dinner, and then forget all about it. It will happily cool and set on its own and be ready to devour at the end of the evening.


The recipes in The Perfect Finish are clearly laid out and a cinch to follow; I also really enjoyed the extensive headnotes, which often include anecdotes from his pastry career. There are several sidebars that include step-by-step tutorials for such processes as frosting a cake or making pie crust, a welcome addition for many bakers, I’m sure.

The Perfect Finish is perfectly accessible to home bakers, and an elegant inspiration for more experienced ones as well. That Candied Bacon Peach Cobbler is certainly next on my list of things to make! 


Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of The Perfect Finish by the publisher.

Chocolate Caramel Tart with Sea Salt

adapted from The Perfect Finish

makes (1) 9-in tart or (6) 3 1/2-in tartlets

Pâte Sablée

10 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt


1/2 cup (4 ounces) heavy cream

1 cup (7 ounces) sugar

pinch of Maldon sea salt (I used Camargue as that’s what I had on hand)

Chocolate Ganache

12 ounces bittersweet (60%-66%) chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups (16 1/4 ounces) heavy cream

For the pâte sablée: Cream butter and sugar together in a stand mixer.

Add eggs and mix just until incorporated.

Add flour and salt and mix on low just until incorporated.

Scrape out dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into a disk. Wrap fully and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Flour work surface and roll out dough to 1/4″ thick. Lay into a 9″ tart pan or tart rings of your choosing and trim excess dough with a knife. Refrigerate for an hour before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line tart shell with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 30 minutes (check earlier if you are baking individual tarts), turning halfway through.

Remove foil and weight and bake for 10 more minutes (individual tarts may not need additional baking time). Tart shells should be lightly golden. Remove from oven and let cool fully on wire rack before filling.

For the caramel: Place cream in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Set aside while you cook the sugar.

Combine sugar with 5 tablespoons of water in a heavy saucepan. Cook over high heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves.

Bring mixture to boil and cook withou t stirring for about 4 minutes until it turns dark amber. Swirl to ensure it cooks evenly.

Take mixture off stove and pour cream slowly into the sugar (it will boil up so don’t pour in all at once.)Stir until incorporated and smooth.

Add in salt. If caramel has cooled too much and become thick, place over heat and warm until it is liquid enough to pour.

Pour the caramel into the tart shell, covering the bottom evenly. Let cool until it firms and is no longer shiny. You can place the tart shell in the refrigerator to speed up the process.

For the ganache: Place chocolate and salt in a heatproof bowl.

Place cream in a small saucepan and bring to a boil on high heat on the stove.

Pour cream over the chocolate and let sit for a few minutes. Then whisk slowly and gently to combine. Do not stir too vigorously as this incorporates air into the ganache and gives it a less smooth and velvety texture.

Pour the ganache into the tart shell over the caramel. Let set at room temperature for at least 3 hours or up to 12 hours. (If you place the tart with warm ganache into the refrigerator, the ganache can cool too fast and end up cracking – unsightly but still edible, of course).

Sprinkle with sea salt before serving.

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Food and Light: Best Workshop Ever

July 2nd, 2010 · 21 Comments · Events, Photography, Travel


I've been playing hooky from work and blogging the last few days to enjoy bucketfuls of sunshine, outrageously good food, and the company of some of the most talented bloggers around.

The Food and Light Photography Workshop, organized by Jen of use real butter in collaboration with Helen of Tartelette and Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple, was hands down the best photography workshop I went to. It really didn't feel like class…more like summer vacation with some great friends.

Although food bloggers are a wonderfully friendly and giving lot, Jen, Helen, Todd, and Diane stand head and shoulders above the rest. I have never met more generous people, so ready to share their knowledge and experience with others. And they are also FUN…see the dinner Jen threw for several of us out-of-town bloggers the night before the workshop (Yes, the workshop also sort of felt like a overachievers' convention).

When I talked to Jen about the workshop, she told me that her goal was to create a class that offered more than the average photography class: a class that gave real, practical advice to photographers on how to take photos, and would give them the tools to let them continue improving their skills on their own after the class.

I think she and the other instructors succeeded fabulously; from the moment the workshop started we could tell how much preparation had gone into organizing everything, and how passionate the instructors were about photography and food. We had lectures that covered the gamut of concerns that many a food blogger has: photography basics, equipment, lighting, and styling.

The lectures were broken up by hands on sessions where we could practice shooting different food items, implementing things we had just learned, and getting instant feedback from the instructors. I really thought this was what set this workshop apart and made it so useful and rewarding. There's no substitute for learning by doing, and having an experienced professional to give you a personal critique was pretty much worth the value of the workshop. I know all the participants appreciated that all four of the instructors were willing to open themselves up and answer endless barrages of questions!

Below, a few shots I took during class. The rest of the class shots are at this flickr group  – you can see how quickly people starting picking tips and tricks from class!





Finally, all the workshop participants were asked to submit their favorite images taken during class to be judged by their fellow classmates and the instructors. We were asked to vote for images in categories such as Best Overall, Most Improved, and Most Original. I'm so thrilled that the class chose this image I shot below as Best Styling :


I call it Little Red Corvette. Thanks again to Jen et al. for awarding prizes and swag bags to the participants – I have never been to a workshop where you got so much free stuff!

Thanks again to Jen, Helen, Diane, and Todd for such a great experience. And another thank you to Lisa, who kindly let me stay with her at her family friend's home and was a blast as a traveling companion. Couldn't think of a better way to start off the summer!

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