A Little Night Circus Cake

November 21st, 2011 · 31 Comments · Books, Cakes, Chocolate, Recipes

Darkness to Light Cake inspired by The Night Circus on dessertfirstgirl.com

I rarely mention my non-food-related reading here (and judging from the pile of new cookbooks on my kitchen table, leisure reading time is at a premium these days), but I thought I’d have to mention The Night Circus as I haven’t made any literature-inspired recipes recently . (By the way, for all you Song of Ice and Fire fans, this is the most amazing fansite out there.)

The Night Circus is a novel about magic, but a kind of magic far removed from the carefully delineated, all-encompassing sorcery of the Harry Potter world. Magic in this world is a mysterious, shadowy phenomenon practiced by a rare few. Although at least one character has certain “systems” for wielding magic, no elaboration follows. I found this nebulousness frustrating, but in the end I realized that the author wasn’t really interested in exploring the hows and whys of the feats of fancy in her book. Magic is a conduit to create some fantastical and evocative imagery, and lead the reader into a world where everything is deliberately, delightfully, extraordinary.

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Apricot, Orange, and Almond Mini Cakes

July 10th, 2009 · 17 Comments · Books, Cakes, Cookbooks, Recipes

Miniapricotalmondcakes1

Remember the chocolate salon I mentioned attending a couple of months ago? Not only was it a great place to meet chocolatiers both celebrated and up-and-coming, but also of course to meet fellow chocoholics.

One person I was extremely excited to meet was esteemed pastry chef and cookbook author Carole Bloom. The "Carole Bloom section" on my bookshelf has grown steadily over the years: The International Dictionary of Desserts, Pastries, and Confections is indispensable for deciphering the complexities of pastry terminology, while The Essential Baker is a fantastic resource for ingredient-specific baking inspirations.

Carole was a speaker at the salon; when she learned I was also speaking, she very sweetly contacted me and suggested we meet up beforehand. How exciting to get the opportunity to meet someone whose work I'd admired!

In person, Carole is warm and personable, generous with sharing stories and tips. It's easy to tell that she's experienced in baking and in explaining it to the curious beginner. I'd love to take a class from her sometime, or just watch her in action!

Carole mentioned her new book which was about to come out, Bite-Size Desserts: Creating Mini Sweet Treats, from Cupcakes and Cobblers to Custards and Cookies, and very kindly offered to send me a review copy. A few weeks after the salon, I found a shiny new copy of her book in my mailbox – thanks so much, Carole!

Bite-Size Desserts is an adorably named, very attractively produced book with some seriously scrumptious recipes. Any reader who goes through my site will quickly realize I have a predilection of miniature desserts; individual portions can be fun to put together, easier to photograph, and of course people love them! In her cookbook Carole has created mini versions of all the classics, from cakes to cobblers to custards, and shows how to plate and present them beautifully. From tiny cupcakes with rose-like swirls of chocolate frosting to espresso cups of mousse, it's a spread of dollhouse-sized delights. As a side note, all the measurements are in both volume and weight -  LOVE!

Apricotsandcake1byanitachudessertfirst copy

I finally got the chance to try out one of the recipes in the book last week: Apricot-Orange Loaf Cakes. Made with brown sugar and vanilla, studded with Grand Marnier-soaked apricots, these little lovelies fall somewhere between pound cake and coffee cake – moist, fluffy, and rich. The recipe also calls for adding in chopped walnuts, but I decided for a lighter touch and sprinkled the top of the cakes with sliced almonds and some sugar. The gave the baked cakes a crackly, crunchy top that went very well with the velvety texture of the cake beneath. The combination of flavors is subtly sophisticated – while apricots make it summery, I could see substituting different ingredients for the changing seasons and the cake would retain its satisfying appeal.

The recipe calls for baking them in mini 4" x 2 1/4 " loaf pans. However, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to use some paper bakers I picked up in Japan last winter. Talk about tiny, Japan has been associating small with "kawaii" (cute) for ages and somehow, everything there does seem twice as adorable with their petite proportions.

These wax-lined bakers seem to be a common item in Japanese houseware stores – I wish them sold more of these items here, as they are perfect for gift-giving – you simply give your cake to the lucky recipient in the same pan it was baked in. They also come in a multitide of designs and colors, making a pretty presentation a snap. I really liked the scalloped edges on these papers. I found similar bake-and-serve papers on King Arthur Flour, for those not making a trip to Asia in the near future.

Back to the topic of tiny, these bakers were a scant – did my little loaf cakes ever look precious when they came out of the oven, but practically speaking, they really are single-serving size. No sharing here -and you probably won't want to, given how delicious the cake is! I baked some of the batter in the recommended pan size and it does a produce a more slice-friendly loaf – see last photo. It keeps very well and the flavors seem to deepen over time.

I'm now eager to try out some of the other recipes in Carole's book – it's fanned the flames of my miniature mania for sure! Thanks for writing such a lovely book, Carole!

Apricotalmondloaf1byanitachudessertfirst

Apricot, Orange, and Almond Loaf Cakes

adapted from Carole Bloom's Bite-Size Desserts

makes 12 4"x 2 1/4" loaves

2/3 cup (4 ounces) dried apricots, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

2 cups (9 ounces) flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (5 ounces) sugar plus extra for sprinkling

3/4 cup (4 1/2 ounces) light brown sugar

2 extra-large eggs, room temperature (I used large and it turned out fine)

1 extra-large egg yolk, room temperature (same as above)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon orange extract

zest of 1 orange

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/3 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spray twelve mini loaf pans with cooking spray and place on a baking sheet.

Combine apricots and Grand Marnier in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let marinate for 15 minutes.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl and set aside.

Beat butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugars and beat until well combined.

Combine eggs, egg yolk, extracts, and orange peel in a small bowl. Add to mixture and beat until well combined.

Add the flour mixture and buttermilk in three alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Mix just until combined.

Add in the apricots and mix until combined.

Divide mixture among prepared pans, filling about 3/4 full. Sprinkle almonds and sugar over the tops.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cool on wire racks before serving.

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A Sweet Little Holiday Gift Guide

December 5th, 2008 · 22 Comments · Books, Cookbooks, Field Guide to Cookies, Reviews

Happy Friday, all! I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are all now firmly ensconced in the holiday season and all its glittery, glowing trimmings. Since I live near the downtown area of San Francisco, I’ve been able to see the holiday decorations go up over the last couple of weeks – I’ve walked down the streets every day and watched as curlicues of lights slowly wend their way around the trees on the sidewalks, wreaths of holly and gleaming red bells sprout over doorways, and tinsel-bedecked presents pile up in drifts of imitation snow in storefront windows. We’ve certainly got some industrious elves working here!

What with book #1 coming out and book #2 in progress, my holiday baking has been sadly derelict so far. I can’t believe I was so prepared last year at this point in time that I’d already done several holiday posts in advance! My holiday shopping has been slightly, if not much more, successful – I think I know what I will be doing this weekend, along with all the masses in downtown! By the looks of the crowds strolling about, “Silver Bells” style, you’d hardly know about the economic straits the country is in.

Still, I think this is more a season for giving thoughtful, heartfelt gifts, and not just the trendiest, glitziest baubles out there. That’s why I love baking gifts so much: whether it’s a jar of jam you made, or a cute set of cookie cutters, or a cookbook to encourage someone to bake something new in the kitchen, there’s something about baking that celebrates creativity and care. What better way to show someone your love?

With that sentiment in mind, I’ll like to present a little round-up of gift-giving ideas for the sweet ones in your lives. They include items for novice bakers, the experts, and even those who just like to eat. This also includes my yearly cookbook round-up I like to to do: there was definitely a plethora of excellent cookbooks that came out this year; all I can say is that I’m glad my lil’ ole book is focused just on cookies and isn’t going directly up against the likes of Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Joel Robuchon!

Oh, and speaking of books and gift-giving, I’m sure you’re all eager to find out about the winner of the book giveaway from last week. The lucky winner of Cindy Mushet’s The Art and Soul of Baking is Melody Brandon! Congrats, Melody!

Holiday Baking Fun


Holidays, of course, are the times to break out the themed cookie cutters and other molds that languish in the back of the drawer the rest of the year. The concept of forming your food into cute shapes has happily spread beyond cookies: See these cute Holiday Ice Cream Sandwich Molds, Set of 3which the kids will surely adore.

Similarly, give cupcakes the holidays treatment with these Silicone Holiday Cupcake Molds, Set of 12.


I can’t think of more appropriately shaped cake pan than NordicWare’s Holiday Tree Bundt Pan. And, if you’re looking for a recipe to go with it, look no further than the winner of last year’s NordicWare’s bakeoff, which used this pan!

If you’re more of an individual-serving, cute-little-miniature-cakes type of baker (like me), NordicWare’s Holiday Mini Loaves Pan might just do the trick.

Baker’s Basics

Ok, so you may think a rolling pin is not that exciting or “sexy”. Well, let me tell you when I went back to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving and tried to make a tart in the kitchen with my mom’s old plastic rolling pin, I was really missing my nice solid wooden one (sorry, Mom – obviously you can make magic in the kitchen with your simple tools whereas I am clearly dependent on my fancy toys to turn out something good).

A good, dependable rolling pin is a must in any baker’s arsenal and a worthwhile investment. I prefer the French-style pins with no handles (the middle one in the picture), but find one that works well for you. The pins pictured are all Vic Firth Maple Rolling Pins.

Goosecups

Now, for a bit of whimsy, who wouldn’t fall in love with this Quartet of Geese Measuring Cups? I know I’m a big advocate of using a scale, but these cups have their uses as well, not the least of which is adding charm to your kitchen.

Pandabearskillet   

And I am completely in love with fredflare’s Panda Bear Skillet- it’s almost too cute to actually use! There’s also a little panda on the lid as well – my Hello Kitty-honed kawaii radar is beeping off the charts!

Parisianapron

You would think that working in a professional bakery where aprons are purely utilitarian and (in my case) end up covered in flour and chocolate by the end of the day, I’d have no use for frilly, flouncy little numbers. Not so. This chic little Parisian Cafe Apron (you should click on the link to get a nice closeup of the pattern) will make you feel like you’re turning out perfect croissants in one of those French cafes where no one ever, ever gets a speck on their apron.

The Gourmand’s Cupboard

Vosgesminibar

I am a fan of Vosges and Katrina Markoff’s unending dedication to exploring new flavor combinations with chocolate. My favorite item from her collection are her chocolate bars, which I think really allow you to savor the complexities of the flavors she’s using better than her one-bite truffles. Vosges Exotic Candy Bars are a great gift for the adventurous eater on your list. My personal favorites are her Black Pearl, Red Fire, and Goji Berry.

Raisy_assortment

Charles Chocolates has always been a local favorite of mine, not just because the founder Chuck Siegel is such a great all around guy, but because they take such pride in their products. Their “newest” product, the Raisy, has actually been around in production for a while, but they haven’t been able to ship them without damaging them. Now they’ve devised a perfect storage box, and you can enjoy this heavenly “ice cream cone” of chocolate, ganache, and pate de fruit in the Raisy Assortment.

RainMexVanillaExtract

Vanilla is another essential in the baker’s kitchen. Instead of just picking up a bottle of anything at the grocery, why don’t you try Patricia Rain’s Vanilla Extract. If you don’t know about The Vanilla Queen and her amazing life, I suggest you pop over to her site and learn about her lifelong obsession with vanilla. I have her book Vanilla and it’s a wonderful read. It stands to reason that her vanilla products are excellent, given her background – I’ve gotten to try several of her items and it’s fascinating to compare the differences between Madagascar Bourbon, Tahitian, and Mexican vanilla.

 

One can never have too many sprinkles, jimmies, dragees, or decorating sugars in the house, especially around the holidays. One of my favorites is Confetti Sparkling Sugar; it’s fun and multicolored and the big crystals crunch satisfyingly in your mouth.

The Baker’s Bookshelf

Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

How fitting that two revered French pâtissiers in New York have come out with chocolate cookbooks this year. I always associate holidays and cold weather with rich, gooey, indulge-by-the-fireplace chocolate desserts, so both these cookbooks are here at the perfect time. I haven’t gotten a chance to visit Jacque Torres’ chocolate factory yet, but his newest cookbook A Year in Chocolate: 80 Recipes for Holidays and Special Occasions is a more than adequate balm to distract me while I’m dreaming of his store.

I have been to Payard’s pâtisserie, so his newest cookbook Chocolate Epiphany: Exceptional Cookies, Cakes, and Confections for Everyone brings up a host of sweet memories, as well the desire to recreate some of his delectable creations I had at his wonderful place. 

Baking Resources

I’ve already raved about this book, but naturally I had to include it on the list. There have been several baking reference books that came out this year, and I think The Art and Soul of Baking really is one of most accessible, and beautifully produced ones.

 

If you’re obsessively curious like me about the origin of pastry terms, what all those exotic-sounding French and Italian pastries are, or exactly what goes into the puff pastry technique, you want The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional on your bookshelf. With over 4800 terms defined, you’ll be able to decipher any recipe. It even includes sections on pairing flavors, pastry tools and equipment, and a guide to common pastry problems.

For the Professional

Of all the cookbooks coming from professional chefs this year, Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef intrigued me the most. I love Johnny Iuzzini’s aesthetic (check out his strawberry quartet), and anytime a pro is willing to part with his secrets, it’s a cause for celebration.

Finally, this is not technically a dessert book, but Grant Achatz’s Alinea is so awe-inspiringly gorgeous, it’s a must-see for any lover of food. Since Achatz’s creations look like works of art in a museum, it’s fitting his book resembles the exhibition catalogues published for museum collections – every creation captured for posterity. There’s also plenty of desserts in there, so if you’re curious about how to make dry caramel, or a kumquat bubble, or Achatz’s space-age take on chocolate ganache, it’s all there to astonish and inspire.

If you’re looking for other gift ideas, be sure to check out the sidebar on right of my page, or my astore. Happy shopping, and happy baking, too!

Oh! Just before I was going to hit the “Publish” button, I got two exciting pieces of news: My book was mentioned in Mark Bittman’s NYTimes blog here,

and Chow.com has just put up a couple of videos I made with them on baking tips. We filmed four total, and the first two are up:

Rolling out Cookie Dough

Browning Butter

I’ll let you know when the other videos are up!

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{Book Review} Dreaming of the Mediterranean

August 12th, 2007 · 23 Comments · Books, Cakes, Chocolate, Recipes, Reviews

edited to add recipe!

Chocolatecapri

Do these look like boats on the clear blue sea?

Summer is slowly drawing to a violet-and-rose sunset of a close, but is it too late to dream of one more vacation? I didn’t get to travel to Europe this summer, but I did the next best thing: I read David Shalleck’s Mediterranean Summer.

Shalleck’s book combines the best aspects of cooking memoir and travelogue, along with an utterly irresistible premise: sail the Mediterranean on a luxurious sailing yacht, stopping at the most beautiful villages and ports along the French and Italian coastlines, while eating classic Italian food prepared by the talented ship’s chef. As I am not planning on buying my own yacht complete with private chef any time soon, this was pleasurable daydream-fulfillment of the highest order.

Shalleck stumbles upon the job of ship’s cook at the end of a series of culinary internships he undertook in Italy, while he was seeking the experiences that would inspire and elevate his cooking skills. When he finds out that a wealthy Italian couple is looking for a chef to cook aboard their newly purchased yacht Serenity for the summer, he accepts – one of those impulsive decisions that leads to a seminal life experience – and an absorbing, fascinating story for the reader.

Cooking aboard a yacht presents challenges undreamed of by the cook on land. The galley is tiny and underequipped; there is barely any counter space, and the storage space for food is minimal. There are no gimbals installed beneath the stove to keep it horizontal against the motion of the yacht, meaning Shalleck has to watch out for sliding pans and sloshing water. Oftentimes the Serenity will be at sea for days, so food shopping must be planned carefully – there’s no where to go if an ingredient is forgotten! Finally, Shalleck must serve as one of the crew members when he’s not cooking, so he has to be able to perform all the same backbreaking tasks like lowering and raising the sails as everyone else, along with feeding the owners and crew.

Add in that the owners of Serenity are extremely sophisticated and demanding gourmands, and it sounds like the most daunting of challenges. Shalleck chronicles his fears at the beginning of the season, as he struggles to adapt to life at sea and refined palates of his bosses. He especially worries about coming up with dishes that will please the wife, or la Signora, as she is called. Shalleck portrays her as the kind of elegant, assured woman for whom only the best would ever do, and he comes to fear her standard greeting to him, "Cosa c’e di buono a mangiare?" – What good things are there to eat? as a sort of constant warning to stay on his toes.

However, as the yacht travels across the Mediterranean, stopping at ports famous and sigh-inducing, like Saint-Tropez, Monte Carlo, Portofino, Capri, Corsica, and Sardinia, Shalleck finds his footing and draws on his training and determination to become a inspired and confident chef. You see him seeking out the best of local delicacies at every stop, and turning them into elegant meals that have the owners applauding in admiration. He becomes a competent member of the crew, making friends with the charming, rakish steward. And when he is not cooking furiously away in the steaming hot galley, he manages to capture the romance of sailing on one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world.

One of my favorite chapters juxtaposes the luxurious life enjoyed by the very wealthy owners with the rather torturous experiences of the crew belowdeck. The Serenity has docked in Monte Carlo for the Grand Prix races, a favorite event of Europe’s jet-set and also considered the official start of the yachting season in the Mediterranean. It is utterly exciting and glamorous, the town filled with the beautiful and chic, the thrill of the races filling the air, but for Shalleck the weekend turns into one huge nightmare when he is told by la Signora that he will be cooking for a party of a hundred of her friends – out of the tiny galley. The logistics of creating a multi-course meal by oneself in a kitchen barely equipped to cook for ten was enough to make me break out into a cold sweat. Yet, Shalleck acquits himself admirably with the help of the stalwart crew, in an amazing, I’m-glad-it’s-not-me recounting of pasta, sauce, and dirty dishes everywhere.

Mediterranean Summer satisfies on many levels: you see Shalleck gain confidence in his skills as a chef, you taste the beauty of the French and Italian Riviera and the seasonal local cuisine that Shalleck learns to make, and you get the thrill of vicariously experiencing the privileged life the owners of the Serenity lead. Thoroughly enjoyable, the book is an instant vacation, a taste of la bella vita – and who couldn’t use a little more of that?

Shalleck thoughtfully includes several recipes in the back of the book for dishes he described in his narrative, all classic Italian and all mouthwatering. One of them was for a torta di ciccolato caprese, or Chocolate Capri Cake – a dense, nearly flourless chocolate cake that is slightly nutty with ground almonds and intensely, sublimely chocolatey. Shalleck notes it was a favorite of la Signora – and I can see why.

Chocolatecapri2

Chocolate Capri Cake

adapted from Mediterranean Summer

serves about 12

12 Tbsp (172 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 oz (226 g) unsweetened or semisweet chocolate

3 oz (88 g) whole almonds, toasted

2 Tbsp(16 g) all purpose flour

6 large eggs, separated, room temperature

7 1/2 oz (200 g) sugar

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and line with a circle of parchment pan. Be sure the pan has sides at least a couple of inches high as the batter will fill the pan almost completely!

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a bowl over a bain-marie. Set aside and let cool.

Grind the almonds together with the flour in a food processor until fine – do not let it turn into a paste.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a stand mixer until light colored and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Scrape yolk and sugar mixture into a large mixture. Fold in the melted chocolate mixture carefully.

Add in the almond flour and fold in carefully just until combined.

In a clean stand mixer bowl, whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Carefully scrape them over the batter and fold in gently.

Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake in oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cake cool on rack, then invert onto a plate and remove parchment. Invert cake back onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

This cake will keep for a couple of days at room temperature. I suggest keeping it in a covered cake dome as plastic wrap tends to stick to the top.

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More Than One Way to Make Ice Cream

January 13th, 2007 · 25 Comments · Books, Cookbooks, Ice Cream

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Remember I mentioned that I had received a few food-related gifts for Christmas? Well, the most exciting, and by far the largest surprise was courtesy of my darling boyfriend, who took it on himself to get me a commercial-style ice cream maker!

Although my original, faithful ice cream maker had been serving me admirably, it was undeniably thrilling to have the chance to make ice cream without the last-minute, stomach-sinking realization that I’d forgotten to put the bowl in the freezer, or the frustration of trying to make ice cream on a scorching summer day when the bowl just doesn’t seem to get cold enough.

That said, I was surprised to read in Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life that she prefers the insert-style cream maker to the compressor-style machine, mostly because she feels that the latter takes too long to churn ice cream. The faster an ice cream base can be chilled and churned into ice cream, the better its texture will be – too long and your ice cream will come out grainy, not smooth.

Zuckerman suggests an ideal of 15 minutes churning time to go from base to ice cream. With both of my ice cream makers, I have been able to make ice cream in between 20-30 minutes, with very satisfactory results. I can see the insert-style maker may have an advantage if you are trying to lower the churning time – if you take the time to chill the insert so it’s really cold, and if you have a second bowl also chilled as a backup in case the first bowl gets too warm (I got two bowls with my insert-style maker when I bought it), it is possible to get ice cream very quickly.

Regardless of which style maker you have, there are still a couple of things you can do to improve your ice cream’s chances of success. 1)Chill the base before churning. Almost all ice cream recipes say to chill the base in the refrigerator for a couple hours. I always chill my bases overnight – not only does a colder base decrease churning time, it will also thicken as it sits, leading to a creamier result. 2) Churn less base in the maker at a time. This is Zuckerman’s suggestion, and it makes great sense: less base will freeze faster and with better results.

So how do I feel about my Christmas present? Well, I made recipes from Zuckerman’s book, with beautiful results:

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Mandarin Orange Sorbet with Hazelnut Shortbread

A gorgeous shard of sun in the middle of winter. A simple sugar syrup is combined with juice from winter citrus and sparked with cinnamon and star anise. It’s like eating snow infused with sunshine. Accompanying the sorbet is Zuckerman’s buttery, nutty hazelnut shortbread. The high proportion of butter in the recipe gives it a dreamy, melting tenderness – just what you want in the best of shortbread.

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Apple Cider and Caramel Ice Cream

The recipe describes this as tasting like Tarte Tatin, and it does. The sweet tang of apples mixes with buttery caramel to make an intriguingly complex – and utterly delicious – ice cream. This ice cream is almost ridiculously creamy; after a couple of days in the freezer it is still soft and scoopable. A crispy butter pecan tuile takes the place of the Tarte Tatin crust – a delicate counterpoint to the lushness of the ice cream.

So my verdict? I think my new ice cream machine performs quite well; both ice creams came out smooth and luscious, without discernible crystals or graininess. And I was able to make two batches of ice cream one after the other without waiting – definitely a plus. However, I’m not sure I’m ready to regulate my old ice cream maker to the donation pile yet. I guess I’ll be making more batches of ice cream before I can come to a final conclusion…

P.S. I’m off for a quick jaunt to Maui to escape the sudden chill that’s descended on San Francisco. See you in a week!

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Blueberry Tarts with Meyer Lemon Cream

May 29th, 2006 · 35 Comments · Books, Fruit, Recipes, Tarts

edited to add recipe on request!

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This is one of the desserts that I’ve had on my to-make list for a very long time. When I first saw this recipe in Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, I remember feeling awe at her skills in creating a sophisticated twist on a dessert classic, and astonishment at the beauty of the accompanying photo. An elegant row of tarts stretching down a mirrored platter, showcasing her creation perfectly: the fine, ruler-straight edge of her tart shells, the plushy cream filling, the ripe berries. It was one of those moments where I realized exactly how great good pastry can be. (The photo must have been one her favorite shots too, since it shows up on the cover of the book!)

For many years I was afraid to tackle the recipe, not because any of the individual components was impossible, but because I didn’t think my results would come anywhere close to that wonderful photo. There’s a part in the foreword by Tom Colicchio, chef/owner of Gramercy Tavern where Fleming worked:

"What I most appreciate about Claudia’s desserts is that in the smallest ways, each and every component is that much finer than everything else out there. Compare Claudia’s shortcrust to anyone else’s in New York – it’s that much thinner, and, again…finer. These are small distinctions, but in the world of pastry, they are everything."

I didn’t want to make her dessert with a ragged, too-thick, tart shell, or clunky, lumpy pastry cream – so I didn’t do it at all.

But after pastry school, many hours of home baking, and many a burned pie crust and separated ganache under my belt, I felt it was finally time. I knew it was a sign when I saw the organic blueberries at the farmers’ market.  They were so big and round and plump, they made me cry for all their sad shrunken cousins at the grocery store. And when I also spotted the perfect tart tins at the cooking store, it knew it was going to happen.

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The tart shell is a graham cracker crust, redolent of honey and cinnamon. If you’ve never made your own graham crackers, you should – so different from the grocery store version! The dough is quite supple and workable, and bakes up into a sweet crispy delight.

Here I must confess to a twist of my own. With all the beautiful Meyer lemons at the farmers’ market, I couldn’t not use them. So instead of the cream cheese filling Fleming calls for, I used the Meyer lemons and made Pierre Hermé’s famous lemon cream, thinking it would pair nicely with the blueberries. Hopefully Fleming won’t mind!

Did you see just how perfectly big and round all the blueberries were in the photo? They hardly needed any refinement at all, just a dip in a little glaze made from cooking some sacrificial berries with some sugar.

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So how do I feel about the results? Pretty happy. In comparing my pictures with the one in the book, I think her tart shells are still a little thinner – drat!  But tastewise, I think it’s good – the crust is crisp and buttery and snaps easily, the cream is lemony unctuous pleasure, and plays off those blueberries quite well.

There’s always a higher pinnacle to aspire to (hey, I went to Paris – I know exactly how far away I am from perfection!) But sometimes it’s also nice to look back and see how far you’ve come.

Graham Cracker Tart Shells

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

makes about 16 3-in round tart shells or 24 2×4 in rectangular tart shells

1 cup butter, room temperature

1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup honey

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Cream the butter in an electric mixer until smooth.  Add the sugars and continue mixing until the mixture is fluffy and light colored. Add the honey and beat until combined.

Combine the flours, salt, and cinnamon together in a bowl, and add to the butter mixture in two batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions. Mix until the dough is well combined. Wrap the dough in plastic and form into a disk – the flatter the better. Chill until firm, at least an hour and up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough to be 1/8 inch thick. Use either a 3 inch round cookie cutter to cut out circles of dough, or cut out rectangles of dough to fit your desired tins. A tip: try to cut out pieces of dough that are as similar in size and shape to the pan as possible (this applies to full-size tarts as well) so that they are easier to maneuver and fit in, and are less likely to warp and tear as you’re moving them around.

Press the dough gently into the tins, prick dough with a fork all over, and let chill for 5-10 minutes or until the dough is firm enough to trim off the excess easily. Buttery doughs like this one always need to be chilled before baking so they bake up evenly, and I also find that it’s easier to trim off the dough cleanly when the dough is firmed up. Chill longer if necessary.  When I trim off the excess dough, I usually use an offset spatula and run it flat against the top of the tart tin. Scraps can be re-rolled and re-used.

Bake tart shells until golden brown, about 18 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. You can store them in an airtight container for about a day or freeze them for up to 3 months.

Blueberry Topping

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

2 1/2 cups blueberries

1 tablespoon sugar

In a medium saucepan combine 1 cup of the blueberries with the sugar. Cook over low heat until all the berries have popped and the juices come out (You can smoosh some of the berries if they won’t pop).

Strain the mixture into a bowl and discard the solids. Add the rest of the blueberries into the syrup and toss to combine.

Lemon Cream

adapted from Pierre Hermé’s Desserts

makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups

1/2 cup sugar

zest from 2 lemons

2 eggs

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

5 ounces butter, cut into 1 inch pieces, softened but not melting

Create a water bath by placing a saucepan of water over heat to simmer and placing a metal bowl unto the pan so its bottom does not touch the water. Combine the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingers and add to the metal bowl. Whisk in the eggs and lemon juice.

Cook the mixture over the simmering water, whisking constantly, until the cream reaches 180 degrees and thickens. Keep whisking while the mixture is heating up to prevent the eggs from cooking.

Once the cream is thickened – you should be able to make tracks in the mixture with your whisk – take the cream off the heat and strain it into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Let the cream rest for a bit until it cools to about 140 degrees.

Add in the butter pieces a few at the time and combine on high speed. Once all of the butter has been added, let the mixture combine for a few minutes longer to ensure the mixture is perfectly smooth. It is the addition of butter that changes this recipe from a simple lemon curd to a rich, satiny-smooth cream.

Once the cream is finished pour it into a container and let it chill in the refrigerator for about half an hour before assembly.

To assemble the tarts, spoon some of the lemon cream into the shells and then place about 2 tablespoons of the blueberries on top. Serve soon after assembly.

Local:

Blueberries – Triple Delight, Fresno

Lemons – Hamada Farms, Kingsburg

Butter – Clover Farms, Marin County

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