Aug 9, 2009

Lovely Lemon Layer Cake

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On my favorite running route, there is an old house that has a huge, neglected lemon tree. It is an absolute crime, I tell you. The branches are always heavy with fruit–the kind of bright, fragrant, thin-skinned lemons that bakers covet. One of these days I am going to break my stride, pound on their door and–panting and flailing my arms in the direction of their insane lemon tree–shout, “What the @#*! is wrong with you?!”. I will also threaten to call the Department of Citrus Protection if they don’t step up and take care of their bounty. I will even encourage them by sharing my favorite lemon dessert recipes, like this lovely lemon layer cake.

From the moment I first saw the recipe, I was on this cake. Delicate white cake, a tart lemon filling and a billowy, marshmallow-like topping? Yes, please. It pretty much dominated my thoughts until I could find the time to work on it. Because in all honesty, this cake is a bit of a Project. That’s not to say the steps are difficult–the cake, filling and frosting are all simple standbys–but each element does take some time. But it had been a while since I’d made a real Wondercake, and it’s easy to plan out your prep for this recipe even if you’ve got obstacles. Like, say, a tiny person who really likes to hang on to your legs as you limp from the stove to the sink. Taking your time putting it together also makes for some delicious antici…pation.

First up is the vibrant lemon curd filling. I am completely enamored with lemon curd as a cake filling. It’s always a great surprise for the eater and basically tastes like sunshine–what’s not to love? Instead of just using the lemon juice and sugar that this recipe called for, I added an extra punch of flavor by working the zest of one of the lemons into the sugar with a mortar and pestle. Incidentally, they need to make a scratch-n-sniff sticker that smells like a kitchen in which someone is making lemon sugar.
After the sugar is sufficiently lemon-nized, it’s blended with fresh lemon juice, egg yolks and butter until it gets so gorgeous and thick and glossy, you can trace a path through it with a spatula. Oh, my. Sieve it and chill it for a few hours, a perfect window to bake and cool the cake (it can also be made a couple days ahead).
And then there’s the cake. The white cake that hugs the luscious lemon filling is the ultimate cake dichotomy–a sweet, delicate vanilla flavor and a light, tender crumb, yet incredibly sturdy for layering. This is thanks to a batter with a two-stage mixing method, which I love because once you get the hang of this method, the results are fabulously consistent. Unlike cakes that start with creaming the butter and sugar together, a two-stage cake starts by mixing the butter right into the dry ingredients, until it resembles fine crumbs.

After the butter is so well-incorporated you can hardly discern any bits of it, a whisked-together mixture of the eggs and milk and vanilla gets drizzled into the spinning batter. The batter for this cake is so velvety, it’s hard not to sigh at the beauty of it all. Oh, I do so love a vanilla cake batter. It is the very definition of dreamy.

When the cake layers have baked and cooled completely and the filling has chilled for a few hours, the real fun begins. I always love assembling a layer cake. I like to pretend I’m a Real Live Pastry Chef, with a charming little bake shop decorated in pink and white and bits of damask, with a big copper espresso machine behind the counter and acres of stainless steel workspace in the back room…what, huh? Oh, yeah, no I’m here. Sorry. Um, anyway.Start by slicing each layer in half. Admire the beautiful crumb and snowy white interior of this cake.

Give your lemon filling a good stir. It will be much firmer than a regular lemon curd–the addition of a bit of gelatin gives it excellent structure and helps it sit prettily between the cake layers and not ooze all over and into the frosting.

Now we get to some layering action. Place one cake layer (golden side down) on a serving platter. Tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges to keep the plate nice and clean while you pretend to be a Real Live Pastry Chef. Spread a third of the filling evenly over the layer, leaving the outer edge of the cake bare.

Repeat with another cake layer (again, golden side down), applying just a bit of pressure so the layers adhere, and then spread on another third of the filling.

I’m pretty sure you know what to do next. You are quick!
Now for the final layer, place it golden side UP. Pulled a fast one on ya, didn’t I? I like to use the bottom half of one of the layers for this step, so that the top of the cake is nice and even.

Some might call this next step optional, but I don’t think so. Use your impeccably clean index finger to swipe up any wayward lemon curd. I think you can guess what the next natural step is after that. Slurp.

And now comes my favorite part of cake making–the prettifying via a gorgeous frosting. Those that follow the goings-on of the Piece of Cake kitchen know there was a recent victory that involved a smackdown with Seven-Minute Frosting. And this cake was the impetus for said victory. Let’s revel in that sweet success one more time, shall we? Ahhhh.

I don’t really see any other way to use a heavenly, cloud-like frosting than en masse. So just go on ahead and pile it on, sister.
I am so glad that my relationship with Seven-Minute Frosting has completely turned a corner because a) I hate being belittled by icing b) it is really delicious and c) it is a dream to work with. You can giddily swoop and swirl this frosting for hours and the only thing that will snap you out of your fanciful ways is your husband demanding to know if that crazy cake is ready yet.

“Um, yeah, almost!” Swoop, swirl, giggle, giggle, swirl.

And here she is. A debutante of the cake world. The kind of cake that everyone should have in their repertoire. Light, whimisical, ooh and ahh-inspiring, it is the ultimate cake for celebrations of all kinds. Even if you’re just celebrating something like making it through another week with an 11-month-old. Or successfully stealing armfuls of contraband lemons from your neighbor’s totally neglected lemon tree.

I kid! But I totally should.

Lemon Layer Cake


Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen


Makes 1 9-inch, 4-layer cake


With the cake and lemon filling recipes cut in half, this recipe makes one adorable 6-inch cake, perfect for serving 4 to 6. If you opt to make a smaller version of this cake, still make the full frosting recipe–you’ll have a generously frosted cake with a bit left over, but the frosting just doesn’t whip as well with smaller proportions. Trust me on this. The filling can be prepared two days ahead, and the cake can be made a day ahead of assembly–just cool the layers completely, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Make the frosting just before putting the cake together.


For the filling:
Zest from two lemons
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 6 lemons)
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (reserve whites for the cake)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and frozen


For the cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened but still cool



Begin by preparing the filling: Measure 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top to soften. With a mortar and pestle or with your fingertips in a small bowl, work the lemon zest into the sugar until the sugar is fragrant and evenly moistened with the oils from the zest.Heat the rest of the lemon juice, the lemon sugar, and salt in a medium non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot but not bubbling. Whisk the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large, non-reactive bowl. Slowly whisk the lemon syrup into the eggs, then return the mixture to the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the curd, stirring constantly, until it reaches 170 degrees and it’s thick enough to draw a trail through it with a spatula. Stir in the softened gelatin until completely dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the frozen butter until the butter has melted and the curd is smooth. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a non-reactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least four hours or up to two days.

To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg whites and vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter pieces one at a time until the mixture resembles fine, even crumbs. Stop the mixer and add all but about 1/2 cup of the wet ingredients. Beat the batter at medium speed until it is pale and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the rest of the wet ingredients, then crank the speed back up to medium and beat for 30 seconds more. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 30 more seconds.

Divide the batter equally among the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean–do not overbake. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans, peel off the parchment and cool completely, right side up.

When the filling has chilled and the cake layers are cool, begin assembling the cake. Slice the cake layers in half horizontally. Place one layer golden side down on a serving platter, and tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges of the cake to protect the platter. Spread a third of the lemon filling on the cake layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the edge of the cake. Repeat twice more with cake layers and filling. Place the top layer of the cake golden side up. Frost with Fluffy White Icing. This cake is best served as soon as possible, but the finished cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated up to one day before serving.

Aug 4, 2009

Caramel Crumb Bars

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I have had quite enough of the fresh ‘n fruity summer desserts around here. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

Mmm-hmm. Those there are Caramel Crumb Bars, and they have easily moved into a position on the Piece of Cake Top 10 List. Buttery and sweet-salty with a creamy caramel filling, they are the stuff of bar cookie dreams. I will be honest with you–this recipe is not about doing anything in moderation. But if you are feeling particularly ridiculous and want to experience the very best that the pairing of sweet cream butter and pure cane sugar has to offer, then please enthusiastically proceed.

It all starts with a simple, simple shortbread crust–just butter, sugar and flour mixed together and pressed into an even layer in a 9×13-inch pan. And don’t even think you can save yourself by halving this recipe–because you’ll just end up making the other half the next day. So just go for it. Trust.

Most of the shortbread dough gets pressed into the pan (a sheet of plastic wrap makes quick work of getting the sticky dough to cooperate) and then popped into the fridge to chill, but some of the dough gets reserved and mixed with a little extra flour to make a crumb topping. Again, just use your hands–nature’s best baking tools.

Now comes the huminuh, huminuh part of this equation. There is no other way to say this, people, so I will just come out with it. More butter, more sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk. I told you this recipe was ridiculous. Cook them together quickly so they morph into a smooth, dreamy caramel so beautiful that it will make you forget all about the insane amount of calories in this recipe. Almost.

When the dough has chilled and the caramel has had a chance to cool a bit, take a deep breath and prepare to enter a hypnotic state. Oh, man.

All that’s left to do is sprinkle on the crumb topping and bake the bars until they become bubbly and golden on the edges (a see-through glass pan will make it easier to check the bottom of the crust for doneness).

After the baking time is up, hang tight for about 20 more minutes to let things set up a bit, then remove the bars from the pan and cut them while they’re still warm–warm and chewy with a buttery, sandy shortbread crust. And although it will be difficult, if you can let them cool completely, the texture and flavor will get even better.

With the exception of Communists, everyone is a sucker for sweet and buttery with a hint of salty. It’s the magical mild salty finish that keeps you heading back for another, and another…don’t say I didn’t warn you in the first place.

Caramel Crumb Bars
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker

Makes 2 dozen bars

Save the wrappers from the softened butter sticks–it’s the perfect amount with which to grease the parchment. Note that the flour measurement calls for it to be spooned into the cup and leveled off–this will give you a different amount of flour in the cup than the dip and sweep method and noticeably effect the texture of the crust.

For the crust:

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour (spooned and leveled)

For the filling:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13-inch pan with parchment paper or foil and lightly grease it.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Turn the mixer down to low and gradually mix in 2 1/4 cups of the flour until the dough is smooth, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary to ensure there are no dry pockets.

Place 1/4 of the dough into a small bowl and set aside. Lightly press the rest of the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan with your palms (a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough will prevent it from sticking to your hands). Chill the pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the topping and filling.

Make the crumb topping by working the remaining 1/4 cup of flour into the reserved dough with your fingertips until large crumbs form. Set aside at room temperature.

To make the filling, place the 4 tablespoons of butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, allowing the mixture to bubble gently for about 10 minutes–it will thicken and darken in color slightly. Scrape the caramel into an aluminum bowl and allow it to cool for about five minutes.

Pour the filling over the chilled dough and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the filling. Bake until the crust browns and the filling darkens in color and bubbles, about 30 minutes. Allow the bars to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing the slab from the pan to a cutting board. Cut into 24 bars and cool completely before serving. The bars can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature if serving within a day, and wrapped tightly and frozen for up to two months after that (thaw the bars at room temperature).

Jul 30, 2009

Nectarine Ice Cream

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Holler if you hear me, dear readers: do we really need one more food blogger waxing poetic about the vibrant bounty of summer fruits that’s out there right now? I didn’t think so. Therefore I will save you the adjectives and get to the point. Get to the market. Scoop up an armful of yellow nectarines that are just so perfect right now. Make this ice cream ASAP.

There really is nothing more delightfully “olde tymey summer” in feeling than a home-churned ice cream teeming with chunks of stone fruits at their peak. It’s a porch swings-lemonade stands-checkered tablecloths kind of greatness. And the way the cream plays off of the juicy, candy-sweet flesh of the fruit…oh, man…quintessential summer flavors, I tell you. Most of us would probably think of peaches as the classic pairing with ice cream, but when you use tender-skinned nectarines instead, you get the same sunny flavor while skipping the step of having to skin the fruit. And with the summer flying by as it is, who would argue with a cut down on prep time?

After you hunk up a bunch of farm fresh nectarines, simply cook them in water for a few minutes, add a bit of sugar, and blitz it into a chunky puree with a dreamy base of heavy and sour creams. The tang of the sour cream cuts the sweetness ever-so-slightly, and adds brilliant dimension and a clean finish to a classic flavor profile, making the frozen ice cream fantasically refreshing.

And the whole thing is really that easy, people. No egg custard making involved. Just fruit, sugar and cream, all churnin’ together and lovin’ on each other. Sound sexy? Oh, well, that’s because it is.

It’s no secret we’ve been enjoying our fair share of summer fruit desserts around here. And in this downright dreary San Francisco summer weather, it’s rarely too hot to turn on the oven to do a baked fruit dessert. But for those of you who actually see the sun and feel its rays on a regular basis all summer long like normal people, this ice cream is one of the very best ways to eat the season. It’s the perfect little button to an outdoor summer meal on a hot day. Or to help remind those of us who are perpetually fogged in that it is indeed late July.

Nectarine Ice Cream
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop

Makes about 1 quart

This recipe is a great way to use “dead-ripe” fruit, the super-sweet specimens full of soft spots that make eating them out of hand too messy. Resist the temptation to cut the sugar in this recipe, even if your fruit is very sweet. Though the unfrozen ice cream batter will taste almost cloyingly sweet, it will dull once the ice cream is frozen. Leaving the skins on the nectarines not only cuts down on prep time, but lends a pretty, rosy hue.

1 1/3 pounds ripe nectarines (about 4 large), pitted and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

In a medium, non-reactive saucepan over medium heat, cook the nectarines with the water until soft throughout, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sugar, and cool to room temperature.

Place the sour cream, heavy cream, vanilla and lemon juice in a blender or food processor. Add the fruit mixture and blend until the ice cream batter is smooth but still slightly chunky.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, or speed-chill it by pouring it into in an aluminum bowl set over a larger bowl full of ice and cold water, stirring often until the ice cream batter is very cold. Freeze the ice cream in your ice cream maker according to the manfacturer’s instructions.

Jul 28, 2009

Seven Minute Frosting

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There are a few things that give me a fair amount of anxiety in life. One is air travel. And not just the flying in the airplane part of it. It’s the whole thing–the lines, the crowds, the sweating while trying to beat the clock and lugging bags and tripping over myself. Ugh. Another personal stressor–wholly embarrassing to admit since I keep a baking blog–is Seven-Minute Frosting.

Seven minutes?! Schaa! Try seven years. Until very recently, I’ve had nothing but tragic, inexplicable failures with this frosting that is supposedly the simplest of them all. Regardless of the recipes I would try or how carefully I would follow them, no amount of whip-whip-whipping would ever make that frothy syrup spin into the billowy, glossy frosting that was promised to me. Cut to me in tears, chucking the offending liquid into the disposal and settling for a much more reliable American buttercream. Until now. I have emerged victorious over Seven-Minute Frosting, people. Boo ya!

I don’t know what happened–I didn’t do anything differently than I had in the past. But for some reason the planets recently aligned in such a way that a batch of Seven-Minute Frosting finally came together in the quick and easy way everyone always says it should. It started with an awesome cake recipe on America’s Test Kitchen (Christopher Kimball–Be Mine?) that featured my icing nemesis perched on a lovely, lemony layer cake. I scoffed. But still, I was inspired. And so into the kitchen I went, whisk attachment held high, ready to take on the flippin’ frosting that had always flippin’ alluded me. And you know what? The first batch flippin’ failed. AS PER USUAL! Gah!

BUT! The second try was a blazing success, and I stared in amazement as I watched the sugary syrup magically billow up the whisk before my very eyes. Eureka!

All of this dramatic prose to say this: it really shouldn’t be this hard for you, dear readers. Millions of bakers swear by this frosting. And unlike me, I’m sureyou won’t be ridden with a freakish inability to make this frosting happen from the get-go. I believe in you. Just bang all the ingredients into the bowl of your standing mixer (or another aluminum bowl) and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until the temperature hits 160 degrees.

Then simply put the bowl onto your mixer (or get your electric hand mixer set up), and let ‘er rip. And watch the magic happen. When it starts to look gorgeous and thick and glossy, almost like shaving cream, stop the mixer and give it a check–it should be room temperature and have a nice firm peak.

Now the world of Seven-Minute Frosting has been opened to you. If you can keep yourself and your family from eating the whole lot of it straight from the bowl with a soup spoon, the possibilities are endless. I like the modern twist of adding a bit of lemon juice when putting it on white cakes to cut the sweetness just a touch and keep the cake from being a flat, endless sea of sugar, but I’d stick to the traditional addition of vanilla extract for a nice balance with dark chocolate cakes. And glory of glories, you can torch (yessss!) the finished frosting for a genius toasted marshmallow effect on cakes of all kinds and on pies in lieu of traditional meringue.

So whip yourself up some of this heavenly stuff in celebration of the fact that my Seven-Minute Frosting curse has finally been broken. Hooray!

And since I’ve put one of my (now former…for the moment, anyway) kitchen failures out there, let’s all clear the air: with what culinary demons do you wrestle? You know, those sticky wicket recipes that you can never seem to get just right. Be honest, and then we’ll do a big group hug.

Fluffy White Icing (Seven-Minute Frosting)
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

Makes enough to frost a 9-inch layer cake

I love including lemon juice to add a bit of dimension to this very sweet frosting–the flavor works fabulously on white or yellow cakes, especially those layered with fruit fillings. If you’re making a cake where the extra tang won’t work as well–a deep chocolate cake, for instance–simply swap out the lemon juice for an extra tablespoon of water and add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. In either case, use and serve this frosting as soon as possible–it does not hold well.

2 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt

In the bowl of a standing mixer or another aluminum bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Place the bowl over a medium saucepan with about an inch of gently simmering water, making sure the water level doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir the mixture constantly and check the temperature often with an instant-read thermometer until it reaches 160 degrees.

Dry off the bottom of the bowl and place it on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or set up an electric hand mixer). Whip the frosting on medium speed until it becomes opaque and soft peaks form, about five minutes. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and whip until the frosting is glossy, billowy and reaches a stiff peak and cools down to room temperature, about five minutes more. Use immediately and serve as soon as possible.

Jul 24, 2009

Blueberry Cobbler with Gingered Biscuits

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“Sweet Gingered Biscuits! Now THAT’s what I call a cobbler!”

Ring a bell? Like a catchphrase from days gone by? No? Well, that’s because it’s not. But it could be heard coming from our house recently upon tasting this fabulous twist on a homespun dessert. Now, you might be thinking, cobbler, schmobbler. Had it. Like a million times. Right? And maybe you’ve had a few not-so-stellar specimens that were all gelatinous with soggy bits of dough on top, only made palatable with lots of vanilla ice cream. Snore. Weh-hel-helllll….let the cobbler enlightenment begin, my friends. Oh sure, this incarnation might start with the usual suspects–fresh blueberries tossed with sugar, cinnamon and a sparkle of lemon zest–but the revelation begins thereafter.

See, most cobbler recipes have you just layer sugared fruit into a baking dish, mix up a dough for the topping, blob the dough on top of the raw fruit and bang it into the oven just like that. Simple enough. Boy Scout camp-like cooking (just ask my husband). But that’s where most cobblers become an epic FAIL. I mean, sure, fruit, sugar, dough–what’s not to like? Well, how about mushy, steamed fruit and pale, uncooked, uncrispy dough with very little nom factor? Yeah, I thought so. But in this recipe, you cook the seasoned fruit all naked in the baking dish first before topping it with the dough. I know!

While the berries are baking all on their lonesome, mix up a simple buttermilk dropped biscuit dough with the genius addition of ginger in two forms–a dash of spicy ground and dazzling bits of crystallized.

Now, I should say here that I never was a huge fan of ginger in any form. Except for Geri Halliwell, my favorite Spice Girl by far–she’s just such a cheeky broad!–and only occasionally as a very subtle backdrop in, say, a spice cake or apple somesuch. But my palate has changed considerably in recent years, and boy am I glad I got over that ginger aversion, because it’s such a great highlighter in fresh fruit desserts of all sorts. The gingered cornmeal biscuits that top this cobbler are so fragrant and delicious that they’d make a great dish all on their own, but here the dough gets portioned off into bits and nestled into the warm, bubbling fruit.

With the berries hot underneath, the biscuits immediately begin gently cooking with steam from the bottom, keeping them tender in the center, while the dry heat of the oven from above creates a crisp, beautifully browned crust. When the filling begins to seep into the edges of the golden biscuits and bubbles up the sides of the baking dish like some crazy sexy blueberry lava, you know you’re just moments away from cobbler nirvana.

Though they may be among some of the most trying minutes of your life, please give the cobbler at least 20 minutes to just sort of hang out and cool down a little. If you lose control and spoon it out too soon, you’ll get a gush of thin, runny juice all over the place instead of something more syrupy and spoon-lickably great. Some time to rest will also bolster the flavors of the berries and the topping.

While summer berries are still at their peak, I implore you to give this one a whirl while the gettin’s good. But if you miss the mark a little, frozen berries can absolutely be used here successfully. One thing you should absolutely not miss the mark on is serving this baby with a good vanilla ice cream–it’s simply the right thing to do.

Blueberry Cobbler with Gingered Biscuits
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

To make this cobbler with frozen blueberries, use 6 cups of good quality berries (preferably wild), and thaw them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the juices. Reduce the juice over medium heat until thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Stir the syrup into the filling mixture before baking, and increase the baking time of the fruit to 30 minutes. Also increase the baking time when the biscuits are added to 20 to 22 minutes.

For the filling:

1/3 granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
6 cups fresh blueberries, washed, patted dry and picked over
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For the biscuit topping:

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons crystallized ginger, minced
Coarse sugar for sprinkling (such as sanding sugar, turbinado or demerara)

Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt. Add the blueberries, lemon zest and lemon juice and fold gently to combine. Pour the berries into a 9 or 10-inch glass pie plate (a square baking dish of similar size will also work well). Bake until the fruit is hot and bubbling, about 25 minutes.

While the fruit is baking, prepare the biscuit dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ground ginger. Whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk and vanilla in a small bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, along with the minced crystallized ginger. Stir gently until the dough is just combined with no dry pockets. Softly pat the dough into an even disk in the bottom of the bowl, and score it into 8 equal pieces.

When the fruit is done baking, pull it from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. When the oven is up to temperature, Pull apart the 8 biscuits, and nestle them into the hot filling. Sprinkle the tops of the biscuits generously with coarse sugar. Bake until the filling is bubbling at the edges and the biscuits are golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes. Allow the cobbler to cool for at least 20 minutes on a wire rack before serving.

Jul 20, 2009

Roasted Cherry Clafoutis

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Nearly 11 months into parenthood, and I have to say, we are on a roll over here, people. One of the biggest things for me has been balancing being on-call around the clock as a mother with carving out time to do things that keep me feeling like myself–leafing through cookbooks, puttering in the kitchen, writing, running some miles. It makes me feel alive, like seeing in Technicolor after months of sleepily trying to wade through the days and figure out this new life. And somehow it seems I’ve arrived in this new place as a bolder, brighter, sweeter version of myself, like a pile of peak-of-season cherries, sugared and zested with lemon and roasted until they glisten.

I suppose others might celebrate such great strides in personal growth with oh, say, a mini-vacation somewhere with a breezy coastline, a spa day or an extended happy hour somewhere fabulous. But since I already live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, have an awesomely huge bathtub in our new place and much prefer getting drunk at home, I hightailed it to the farmers’ market to snap up some succulent Bing cherries that called–nay, begged–to be tucked into a pillowy cherry clafoutis.

If you like really getting your hands dirty in the kitchen, then you’ll love this recipe. See, traditional clafoutis recipes call for the pits to stay in the cherries, because supposedly the pits lend a distinct almond-like flavor to dish. But since I prefer my desserts without a side of dental work, I opted for a recipe that calls for pitted cherries and a splash of almond extract instead. The pitting took some doing, but I rigged up a pitting station with a fondue fork and a beer bottle in the kitchen sink, and with The Splendid Table on the radio, it was actually kind of hypnotic, enjoyable work, listening to the cheery clink! of the pits hitting the inside of the bottle. Note to self: get out more.

After the cherries are free of their pits, they get all seasoned up with sugar, cinnamon and lemon, and head into the oven for a quick roast that transforms them into a more nectarous version of themselves, giving off intense, ambrosial juices that can be reduced to a syrup for serving with the finished dish.

If you can keep yourself from plucking the hot cherries off the baking sheet and snarfing them all right when they come out of the oven, then they’ll get doused in a simple crepe-like batter, which bakes up into a puffed, golden cloak that gently hugs the fruit.

Clafoutis is a crazy simple dish, and this interpretation is especially flavorful. If you’re feeling particularly lazy as of late or find yourself longing for a taste of summer in the dead of winter, a bag of already pitted, frozen unsweetened cherries would work pretty well in this recipe. But with fresh cherries at their peak around here, I can’t think of a better way to enjoy them while they can still be snapped up on the cheap. I think it makes a glorious summer dessert, but since it involves fruit and a pancake-like batter, cherry clafoutis is also a totally legit shoo-in for The Best Breakfast of Your Entire Life. “Enabling” is my middle name.

Care to share other ways you’ve been savoring the cherry bounty this summer?

Roasted Cherry Clafoutis
Adapted from Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook

To cut down on prep time or to enjoy this dish when cherry season is oh-so-far away, a bag of frozen, unsweetened cherries (usually labeled “dark, sweet cherries”) can be thawed, drained and used in place of fresh cherries in this recipe. Taste the cherries before seasoning them for roasting–I cut the sugar by a little more than half from the original recipe, but you can add more to taste.

1 pound Bing cherries (or other sweet variety), stemmed and pitted
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon greated lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and arrange an oven rack to the upper third of the oven. Lightly butter or spray a baking sheet and a large ceramic baking dish (like a pie plate or gratin dish) with cooking spray.

Place the cherries on the baking sheet. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice, zest, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Toss the cherries with the seasonings on the baking sheet. Roast until the fruit is juicy, tender and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Give the pan a shake about halfway through cooking to keep the cherries from sticking to the pan. Remove the cherries from the baking sheet with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the baking dish, arranging them in a single layer. Pour any juices into a small saucepan.

Raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

For the clafoutis batter, with an electric mixer in a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt to soft peaks. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg yolks and 3 tablespoons of sugar until well-blended, then beat in the flour, vanilla, almond extract and cream until smooth. With a rubber spatula, stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the batter to lighten it first, then carefully fold in the remaining whites.

Pour the batter evenly over the cherries. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until the batter has puffed and browned. During baking, reduce the reserved cherry juices to a thin syrup over medium heat. Dust the finished clafoutis with confectioners’ sugar and serve with a drizzle of the cherry syrup.

Jul 17, 2009

Fresh Mint Ice Cream

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Little known fact about me: I taste words. Meaning, when I hear or read or speak a word, even non-food words, I can experience a taste with most of them, and usually feel the taste on my tongue. Most of these pairings aren’t logical (some examples: “clock”= peanuts, “quality”= oatmeal, “present”= Twizzlers), but the taste and word pairings go back for as long as I can remember. I heard this really interesting NPR interview with a guy who saw colors while eating–different flavors made him see certain colors, and it made perfect sense to me, what with my wacked-out tasting of words thing and all. Turns out these sort of sensory crossovers have a name: synesthesia. Huh! Who knew? Just add that to the list of Certifiable Things About Me.

What? Oh! Yes, my point. I made a batch of ice cream, and upon tasting, realized that it tasted a lot like what “green” tastes like to me. And in other news which makes me feel a little more normal, it was made from something that was actually green. Whew.

Even if this mention of synesthesia has you totally stumped and kind of afraid of me now, I think you’d agree that David Lebovitz’s recipe for Fresh Mint Ice Cream churns out a frozen dessert that is everything “green” should taste like. It’s invigorating, refreshing, herbal. Makes you breathe a little deeper as you’re eating it. If there was an Official Ice Cream of Spas, it would taste like this one.

It all starts with a pile (and I do mean a pile–two tightly packed cups’ worth) of fresh mint leaves. I had a charming, sizable mint plant sitting on my windowsill which inspired me to make this recipe in the first place, but after plucking it clean of its leaves, I still had to supplement the bounty with a bunch from the produce market. Steep the leaves in a pot of warm sweetened cream and milk, whisk it into a custard with some fresh eggs, and then swirl it into more cream, all the while willing yourself not to lap up the fragrant elixir straight out of the bowl.

But if you stick to your guns and the lush, minty batter actually makes it into the ice cream maker for churning, you can spin some melted bittersweet chocolate into the mix. Although I guess you’ll have to keep yourself from lapping that up too while you drizzle it in. Oh, and then–and then!– there’s the issue of having to the scrape the soft-set ice cream into another vessel for freezing. Call in Lick Prevention, people. We’ve got a situation over here.

Fresh Mint Ice Cream
with Bittersweet Stracciatella
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop

After steeping the leaves in the warm cream, you may want to give the mixture a quick blitz with a stick blender or similar–I find this intensifies the mint flavor and bumps up the green color just a bit. Give the puree an extra run through the sieve to trap excess leafy bits, but don’t obsess about getting all the specks of leaf out of the ice cream–a few scattered throughout add character, like vanilla bean flecks.

1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
2 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves (no stems)
5 large egg yolks

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (bar chocolate, not chips), finely chopped

In a small saucepan, warm the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the cream and the salt over medium heat–do not let it boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Plunge the mint leaves into warm cream mixture and let it steep for at least one hour at room temperature.

Taste the resulting mint-infused cream–if the mint flavor and green color isn’t as intense as you’d like, puree the mixture with a stick blender or in a standing blender for a brief moment. Strain with a fine-mesh sieve into a medium saucepan and rinse any leafy bits from the sieve. Pour the remaining 1 cup of cream into a large bowl (aluminum will be best for speed-chilling the ice cream batter) and set the sieve on top.

Rewarm the mint cream in the saucepan. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl. When the cream is warm to the touch, whisk it slowly into the yolks, then scrape the yolk and cream mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often and scraping the bottom and sides of pan until the custard thickens and coats the back of the spoon. Pour the custard through the sieve into the large bowl and stir it into the cream. Chill over an ice bath, stirring constantly, about 10-15 minutes.

Begin freezing the ice cream in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Melt the chocolate in the microwave in a glass measuring cup on 50% power in 45 second bursts, stirring well after each interval, until very warm and fluid. During the last moments of churning, drizzle the melted bittersweet chocolate into the ice cream, taking care to avoid the spinning dasher. Scrape the soft-set ice cream into an airtight container, giving it an extra folding to make sure the stracciatella is mixed evenly into the ice cream. Freeze until firm.


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