Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Simple Pleasure of Shortbread

The holidays are a time when you, like me, probably pull out all the stops in the baked goods and dessert department. These might include an impressive assortment of highly decorated cookies, holiday cakes and homemade truffles and candies. For me, the 

dessert making frenzy generally culminates with the preparation of a special dessert for New Year’s Eve dinner, and then—just like that— I slam on the baking brakes. From here on my dessert endeavors are much more humble. One of my favorite simple treats to make 

in the New Year is shortbread. The dough comes together in minutes, and there’s no need to shape individual cookies—the shortbread is baked as a round and then cut in wedges after baking. I like to use some cornstarch to replace some of the flour, which 

makes for a meltingly tender crumb. A sprinkle of coarse sugar on top is a pretty finish and adds a bit of crunch. And, if you can’t seem to stifle your baking over-achiever instincts, you can always dip the tips of the shortbread wedges in chocolate for flavor and effect.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday Linzer Cookies and Raspberry Macarons

Tart and refreshing with a brilliant red color, raspberries are an ideal fruit to serve around the holidays. They are an excellent foil for buttery cookies, chocolate cakes, and rich buttercream, and the fact that they’re not in season shouldn’t stop you from using them. 

Individually quick frozen raspberries, picked and frozen at their peak flavor, and homemade or store-bought raspberry preserves provide excellent alternatives to fresh berries. This week I’m showcasing one of my favorite Christmas treats, Linzer Cookies, 

made with seedless raspberry preserves. This recipe was adapted from one I developed for The Good Cookie, and it features a hazelnut dough that is extremely tender and flavorful, yet remarkably easy to work with. So easy, in fact, that you can even re-roll the dough scraps without chilling them. And they are quite 

delicious—I myself at several dozen (ok, maybe not that many) as an accompaniment to a pot of strong black currant tea.
            Running with the raspberry theme, I also made a batch of Raspberry Macarons, filled with a raspberry buttercream made with pureed frozen berries. I flavored my macaron shells with

raspberry powder, a powder made from freeze-dried raspberries, but this step is optional. The flavors of almond and raspberry marry well together, particularly in these crunchy little bits of fluff, and the puree provides plenty of raspberry flavor. I do dust the tops lightly with a little raspberry powder, though, for effect.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chocolate Almond-Coconut Cake

My favorite candy bar as a kid was the Almond Joy bar—sweet, sticky coconut topped with almonds and enrobed in milk chocolate. I haven’t had one in years, but I’d probably still love it today. Second to this was the Mounds bar, which didn’t have the almonds 

and was covered in dark chocolate instead of milk. Not as good as the Almond Joy, but still pretty darned good. Years ago a pastry chef named David DiFrancesco sent me a recipe for a cake which, in my mind, combined the best flavors of those two classic candy 

bars. It’s a Chocolate Almond-Coconut Cake, and it continues to be one of my most requested recipes (even though it’s not my recipe at all). The recipe features a cake made with lots of almond paste, cocoa powder and very little flour, so it’s moist with an intense 

chocolate almond flavor. After it’s baked, the cake is topped with a sticky coconut layer, and then the whole thing is covered with a dark and shiny chocolate glaze. It’s chocolate, it’s almond and it’s coconut. And it’s really good.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas Biscotti

Baking cookies is one of my favorite holiday rituals. In fact, I love it so much that I’ve even been known to participate in a cookie swap or two, which is a great way to bond with friends, get ideas and pick up new recipes (and an excellent excuse to indulge in a little eggnog, which is possibly the most unhealthy beverage on the 

planet). I have my standard favorites, but I usually like to add one or two new cookies to my repertoire. This year I decided to add Christmas Biscotti, which feature bright green pistachio nuts and dried cranberry pieces and the subtle flavors of cinnamon, honey and orange. Biscotti are usually thought of as Tuscan, but they 

can be traced as far back as Roman times. The word biscotto comes from the root “bis,” Latin for twice, and “coctum” or baked (which became “cotto,” or cooked). These unleavened biscuits were baked once to cook the dough and then again to dry them out. A staple of the Roman Legions, biscotti were the ideal sustenance for travelers, 

like modern-day power bars. They are not meant to be moist, and are usually made with olive oil—the fat of choice in Tuscany—instead of butter. Make sure you use an excellent quality extra-virgin olive oil in your biscotti. I like Lucini, which has bright, fruity character with just of hint of pepper at the end. These biscotti also 

look great dipped in white chocolate—try to use a high-quality white chocolate couverture, and, for a shiny, flawless finish, temper it first.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Holiday Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles

For many years I had a tradition of making chocolate truffles for my family and friends each Christmas. I’d painstakingly form each ganache round by hand, then roll the truffles in a variety of coatings such as roasted nuts, toasted coconut, ground praline or 

cocoa powder. Somewhere along the way I stopped this ritual, probably because the holidays became too hectic and something had to give. I still continued making Christmas cookies, but dropped the truffles off the program. This year, inspired by the 

recent NY Chocolate Show, I revived my holiday truffle-making tradition and kicked off the season with a batch of creamy fresh truffles. They are surprisingly simple to make—the ganache comes together in 15 minutes, and just requires a few hours of chilling to 

firm up. Just make sure to use a top quality dark chocolate, not a low-grade supermarket brand. Making the truffle coatings presents an opportunity to get creative (green tea truffles, anyone?). You can also vary the liqueur in the ganache—Grand Marnier, Kahlua, 

Frangelico, Canton, and Amaretto all work beautifully as flavoring. As for packing, I recommend using cello-bags tied with a ribbon. Packing them like this will keep the truffles fresh, and the bags can then be tucked into Chinese take-out containers or small gift boxes. No matter how you choose to present them, nothing says “I love you” like a gift of homemade chocolate truffles. (Except perhaps a winning lottery ticket.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sea-Salted Chocolate and Pecan Tart

Last week I met an extremely talented London chocolatier named Paul Young at the New York Chocolate Show. Paul has two chocolate shops in London and recently released a book, Adventures in Chocolate, in Britain. After tasting three varieties of his chocolates, I was so impressed, I just had to know more about this young Brit. With a thick Yorkshire accent, ebullient 

personality, and somewhat unusual taste in clothing, he was a breath of fresh air at the Franco-centric Chocolate Show. The most memorable of Young’s chocolates that I tried was a Port & Stilton truffle. Generally I hate these gimmicky flavor combinations, but this one was different, because it was perfectly balanced and extremely subtle. Not too bleu-cheesy at all. He originally created it 

because it was a flavor that epitomized Christmas for him—Stilton and Port were mandatory luxuries at the Young household around the holidays. The first batch he made was a Stilton truffle enrobed in chocolate, but unfortunately the truffles literally exploded sometime during the night. The spores in the cheese expanded, you see. So he added some Taylor Tawny Port and, aside from calming 

the spores down, it gave the truffles a slightly fruity flavor which worked beautifully with the Stilton. The other truffle that blew me away was his Sea Salted Caramel Truffle. Yes, we’ve all had this a million times, but this one was amaaaaaaaazing! Made with Muscovado sugar, French butter, double cream and a generous pinch of flaky Maldon sea salt, the silky smooth filling just flowed 

over my mouth, a tight-rope balance between salty and sweet that hit the mark just perfectly. I wanted to buy Paul’s cookbook right then and there, but it wasn’t available at the show. I did, however, find the most popular recipe from his book on the Internet, and it seemed ideal for Thanksgiving. It’s a Sea-Salted Chocolate and Pecan Tart, and it’s quite delicious. By the way, Paul will be opening up a chocolate shop in New York next year, so you won’t have to hop across the pond to enjoy his incredible chocolates.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Spiced Pumpkin Seed Macarons with Chestnut Buttercream

In my mind, the process of making French macarons perfectly represents the frustrations inherent in the world of pastry. Yes, there are rules in the world of savory cooking, but the penalties for disobeying them are not as severe as with pastry. For example, if you overcook the meat or fish a bit, though it might not be perfect, it’s probably still presentable. Pastry, on the other hand, presents a 

minefield of possible disasters that can be downright demoralizing. Over-cook the crème Anglaise, and you’ve got a curdled mess of egg pieces and milk on your hands. Undercook the sugar syrup for your buttercream, and it’s a soupy mess fit only for the poubelle. Get your chocolate too hot as you’re melting it, and it seizes up, transformed into a dull, grainy clump of expensive brown gunk

with not much of a future as the star of a dessert. Making perfect macarons requires precision and practice. They should be smooth and shiny on top, with a textured ‘pied’ or ‘foot’ at the base. Start with a recipe from a reliable source, and follow it to a tee. If they don’t come out perfectly, try to determine the cause and make the necessary adjustments next time you make them. If they never 

come out right, it’s time to move on to a new recipe.
     Since Thanksgiving is right around the corner, I decided to make macarons with the flavors of fall: Spiced Pumpkin Seed Macarons with a Chestnut Buttercream filling. The macarons are flavored with cinnamon and ginger and topped with three raw pumpkin seeds. The filling is a standard French buttercream (my 

favorite filling for macarons) flavored with chestnut puree. You can make your own or buy it canned from a gourmet shop. If you’re brave, you can serve these with the coffee after Thanksgiving dinner, but my guess is they won’t be appreciated then. Better to give each guest two or three macarons (wrapped in a cello-bag tied with a ribbon) to take home to enjoy the next day, when eating is once again possible.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pumpkin Mousse and Some Gingerbread, Too

Pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving tradition, but traditions can sometimes be stifling. If you’re feeling that way about Thanksgiving dinner this year, my suggestion is to change one traditional dish, such as the Pumpkin Pie, and to use that pumpkin 

flavor in another form of dessert. You could try my creamy Pumpkin Cheesecake or this, a simple Pumpkin Mousse served with fragrant slices of Gingerbread. I used canned pumpkin puree to make my mousse, but if you have the time and are so inclined, 

make your own fresh puree by roasting deseeded pumpkin halves, cut side down, in a pan with a cup of water at 350°F for about 90 minutes, until fork-tender. Then just scrape out the puree with a spoon. For a showier dessert, make Pumpkin Mousse Gingerbread 

Parfaits—cut the gingerbread into ½-inch cubes and layer it with the mousse and some sweetened cream in parfait glasses. The Gingerbread Cake is also excellent on its own, served with a cup of strong black tea. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Better-Late-Than-Never Halloween Cookies

Halloween is here. I figured this out because I live next door to a Ricky’s store, which is known for its impressive selection of Halloween costumes. Kids have been lining up for days to nab the right costume before the parties start—they even one of those rope 

barriers outside with a store employee on duty to control the lines. When did Halloween get so popular? I mean, I loved the whole free candy thing when I was a kid, but I always sort of dreaded the costume part. So much pressure to come up with something

clever, yet fashionable and timely! And then there’s the whole house decorating program, which is driven by people watching too many Martha Stewart Halloween craft shows. Brownstone dwellers in my zip code have clearly been preparing for weeks, decorating 

their houses with skeletons, cobwebs, monsters and ghosts, in every imaginable permutation. Though I’ve been a little slow to embrace the Halloween spirit this year, I finally jumped on the spooky bandwagon and made some Halloweeny cookies. I made 

pumpkins, bats, black cats, ghosts and autumn leaves, but the options are endless, as there’s a huge selection of great Halloween-themed cookie cutters available. And if you don’t have any, you can just make free-form tombstones with semi-clever sayings on them, like “Yul B. Next” or “Myra Mains”.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Streusel-Topped Apple Pie

Apple season is in full swing, and there was an impressive variety on display at my local farmers’market yesterday—McIntosh, Macoun, Gala, Fuji, Northern Spy, Braeburn, Cortland and more. I succumbed, of course. It was a crisp fall day, just the right kind of 

day for using my bounty of apples to make a pie. I love apple pie in all its forms, from small, free-form galettes to a double-crusted pie with a cheddar crust to a classic caramelized tarte Tatin. But this time I wanted to make a crumb-topped pie, which reminds me of 

the ones my Mom would sometimes pick up from our local bakery when I was a child. Part pie, part crisp, this Streusel-Topped Apple Pie is relatively easy to make (no upper crust to deal with), and it has a wonderful crispy-crunchy texture that contrasts beautifully 

with its buttery apple filling. It takes a while to bake—almost two hours—but as it fills the house with that heady scent of cinnamon and apples, you’ll begin to appreciate that long baking time. Serve this pie slightly warm with vanilla ice cream.

Note: the recipe for the pie dough makes just enough for the bottom crust, without any scraps. If you want to decorate the edge of your pie with pastry leaves, which looks lovely, double the recipe and freeze any leftover dough. Brush the pastry leaves with eggwash before baking.