I feel like I owe you an apology, friends. I made this Boston Cream Pie weeks (months?) ago, with the intention of telling you all about it the very next day. It was an event, this Boston Cream Pie. A day of assembling the elements–baking cake layers, whisking pastry cream, melting chocolate. Doing my Food Blogger Due Diligence, taking photos of the creation of said elements, in between baby feedings and kid snack distribution and making shopping lists and errands and all those other crazy things you do on Sundays. When the resulting cake was served, we all marveled at its glory. And in fact, it was so good (and enormous) that I promptly lopped off hunks of the remainder and drove around the neighborhood after dark, delivering them to friends after a furiously sent text–HAVE BOSTON CREAM PIE. TOO GOOD. MUST GET IT OUT MY HOUSE. WILL DELIVER.
And then I totally forgot to tell you all about it.
So let’s make up for lost time, yes?
Well, hello! You’ll never guess what I’ve been up to over the past couple weeks. Okay, I’ll just tell you. That baby boy? The Inside Baby that was making me huger and more miserable by the minute? He finally decided to make his entrance into this crazy world two weeks ago and it turns out he’s been making up for giving me a massive ongoing case of heartburn for the past nine months and a myriad of other aches and pains by being an absolute Superstar Outside Baby. Nursing well, even sleeping well, he is the stuff of newborn dreams, I’m telling you. I will be sure to share more stories and photos as the weeks go on and we get into a groove around here.
But in the meantime, I wanted to take a quick minute to share some tips with you about a recipe from Pure Vanilla. Turns out, at the exact moment Sir Baby was making his entrance, the fabulous folks at USA Weekend published a lovely piece on the cookbook and the recipe for Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding. And as a bit of press in a national publication is wont to do, it’s garnered some attention and filled my inbox with e-mails from enthusiastic home cooks: some raves about the recipe (thank you, I love you, too!), some polite questions about substitutions and technique (many thanks to you, too, for wording your thoughts so nicely), and, of course, a couple standout notes from a few people for whom the world has seemingly ended due to their pudding not setting (oh, Internet, you vex me so).
At any rate, all the correspondence left me with me with a serious case of rice pudding on the brain (related: having a newborn also gives you a serious case of Rice Pudding Brain–coincidence?). So I gave into the craving and whipped up a batch the other day (you know, for quality control), and while working through the recipe, I realized that to the inexperienced, a traditional, eggless rice pudding recipe like the one in Pure Vanilla can be tricky to master, and we all know what I stickler I am for giving you clear, concise recipes that work. So in the interest of always being Your Kitchen Pal, I thought I’d lay out a few tips to lead you to rice pudding success, and point out a couple things that are listed in the recipe, but might benefit from further emphasis or clarification.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably not really up for major New Year’s resolution talk right now. I’m totally with you on that. I’d much rather talk about cookies and the new cookbooks you got. So let’s just keep it simple. For the New Year, let’s all make a pact to actively start trying to blow minds. Might I suggest starting with this Butterscotch Pot de Crème for New Year’s Eve dessert?
I’m not really much of a New Year’s resolutions sort of person, so let’s just get that straight right now. But each year, while enjoying the hair of the dog that bit me, I do like to ponder areas in which I might like to improve. Like, say, managing my time better and becoming more efficient in all categories. So I’m starting with Champagne Panna Cotta with Sugared Grapes, because hey, it’s like cocktails and dessert all rolled into one! An awesome way to multitask, I’d say. Guess I’m already ahead of the game. Happy New Year to me!
Don’t let the fancy-pants look of this dessert fool you–panna cotta is dead simple and one of my very favorite things to make. If you’ve never made panna cotta and are rather mystified by the whole thing, you’ll be hysterically pleased to learn that it’s nothing more than gelled cream. Unless you come to my house, then your panna cotta will probably have booze in it, too. And we’ll eat it in on the couch wearing pajama pants to ring in the New Year. That’s just the way it is.
The pretty little sugared grapes that adorn the main event here actually manage to be even easier than the panna cotta itself. You can turn just about any fruit into a sparkling little gem just by coating it with a thin layer of egg white and rolling it about in sugar. True story. Putting these little jewels on top of something as crazy and lovely as Champagne panna cotta might seem like gilding the lily, but why not? We’re ringing in the New Year here, people! Not to mention that this recipe is basically a truckload of pizazz for very little effort, which, coincidentally, is also something I hope to experience a lot of in 2011.
Happy New Year, darling readers!
Champagne Panna Cotta with Sugared Grapes
Use whatever dry Champagne or sparkling wine that you like, but definitely choose one you enjoy drinking for the best flavor. I keep the sugar low here in the initial steps so that you can sweeten it according to your Champagne choice and your personal taste, so be sure to have a bit of extra sugar set aside so you can sweeten the custard to your liking before chilling. The sugared grapes can be made days in advance and frozen until you’re ready to use them. The same technique can be used for tiny bunches of Champagne grapes, if you can find them, or any other fruit.
This is a great make-ahead dessert. In fact, the farther in advance you make it, the less boozy and more balanced in flavor the final result will be, up to 3 days ahead of when you’re going to serve it.
With all its booziness, this is obviously an adult dessert, but I don’t see why you couldn’t swap out the alcohol for sparkling white grape juice or cider. Just be judicious with how much sugar you add to the cream before warming it.
For the panna cotta:
1 1/2 cups chilled Champagne or dry sparkling wine of your choice, divided
4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin (just shy of 2 packets)
3 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided (see note)
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the sugared grapes:
40 large green grapes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg white, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Put 1/2 cup of the chilled champagne in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let soften for 5 minutes.
Combine the cream, 2/3 cup of the sugar, salt and vanilla in a small saucepan. Warm the mixture gently over medium heat, but do not let it boil. When the cream is warm, whisk in the softened gelatin. Cool for 5 minutes.
Pour the remaining 1 cup of Champagne in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the cream mixture. Taste and add additional sugar if needed (I usually add about 2 more tablespoons at this point, depending on the Champagne I use). Divide equally among 8 individual ramekins, custard cups or coffee cups. Chill until firm, at least 4 hours, or up to 72 hours in advance (cover tightly with plastic wrap past the 4 hour mark).
To make the sugared grapes, wash and pat the grapes dry. Place the sugar in a shallow bowl.
Whisk together the egg white and salt in a separate bowl. Salt will help denature the protein in the egg white, so keep whisking for a minute until the white goes from gooey and slimy to something much more thin and liquidy. Whisk in the lemon juice.
Toss the grapes in the egg white mixture until coated. Place on paper toweling and pat until just moistened with the egg–you want them to have a bit of shine and still be damp, but with no visible drops of egg white clinging to them. Toss the grapes in the sugar and roll them around to coat completely. Use as garnish immediately, or refrigerate on a dry sheet pan until ready to use.
Let’s just get one thing straight right now: I’m a Midwestern person at heart. Born and raised in Illinois and proud of it. It’s a wonderful place to be from, and to me, there’s no better place to be in the summer. But I’ve lived in California for seven years, and although I used to think that someday I’d return to where I’m from to raise my kids, now you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. Or at least grumbling the whole way. Because I’ve been brainwashed in that crazy way that so many Californians are, which is to say that, generally speaking, I totally believe that there’s no better place to live. I still can’t believe that I get to live here. The mild weather, the ability to see the mountains and the ocean in the same day, and all our year-round crazy sexy produce. I never understood the appeal of an avocado until I moved to California, and the strawberries, people. The strawberries!
Now, we have access to decent strawberries pretty much all year, but man, when prime strawberry season really hits here, we’ve got insanely gorgeous ones coming out our ears at criminally cheap prices. Pints at the registers in corner stores, full flats being hocked on street corners, even the organic berries are a steal right now. The fragrance smacks you in the face as soon as you walk into even the largest supermarket, piles of the kind of glistening, plump fruit that reveals a bleeding red interior all the way through when sliced. Like strawberries on Mother Nature’s steroids, I tell you. So awesome. And although I love a sparkling sorbet or a great shortcake recipe to showcase them, I think I’ve found my new favorite way to love on strawberries in their prime. I give you Strawberry Angel Pavlovas.
This recipe was inspired by one from the grande dame of the California culinary scene, she of the famous waffle recipe, Marion Cunningham. Her recipe for Strawberry Angel Pie got an instant bookmark–what’s not to obsess over when you’re dealing with a pie that involves a crisp meringue crust, billows of freshly whipped cream dotted with strawberries and dreamy lemon cream? Huminuh, huminuh.
As I’m wont to do with recipes with which I become obsessed, I thought about making that dang pie pretty much nonstop as soon as I found it, but hesitated because of the high risk of wasted delicious food. See, despite the insatiable sweet teeth that reside in this household, I really doubted we could demolish an entire pie in a day (not that I mentioned this to the husband, for fear he’d take pause, raise an eyebrow and ask if I’d care to make it interesting). And the reason it would all need to go down within one day is that with a base of delicate meringue and temperamental whipped cream, this is the sort of thing that you have to assemble and put in your face before it all starts to break down. But then I got all smart all of a sudden and opted to make pretty-pretty individual Strawberry Angel Pies, Pavlova-style.
Pavlova, for the record, would probably be up there for dessert after my very last meal. Not that I’m anticipating having my last meal anytime soon. That’s a horrible thing to say. How morbid. Sorry. But really, guys–crisp on the outside, marshmallowy-inside meringue shells topped with a bright lemon cream and whipped cream and peak of the season strawberries? Perfection. So perfect, it should be someone’s very first dessert. So let’s say that instead. The first dessert for a brand new, sweet-smelling little baby angel from heaven. There, that’s much better.
Strawberry Angel Pavlovas
Adapted from Marion Cunningham’s recipe in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook
If you’d like to make this recipe into a pie like the original, then just spread the meringue in a buttered 9-inch pie plate, and bake just like you would for the shells. Fill with the lemon cream, then pile on the strawberry whipped cream.
Whether you make the individual Pavlovas or just one big pie, save your assembly for right before your serve it. The meringue can be baked a day in advance (store airtight), the strawberries sliced, and the lemon custard made the day before, stored in the fridge with a sheet of plastic wrapped pushed right on the surface (rewarm it a bit by placing the bowl in a pan of warm water and stirring well, just too loosen it up a little). This recipe can be halved to make four Pavlovas–just use a handheld mixer for the smaller amounts of eggs and cream.
4 eggs at room temperature, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, plus more for garnish
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
For the meringues: In the bowl of an electric mixer, place the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, then slowly rain in 1 cup of the sugar. Beat on high until the meringue is stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Portion the meringue into 8 mounds on the baking sheet, a generous 1/4 cup full each (a standard ice cream scoop works well to keep things even). Using a spoon, shape each mound into a little meringue nest, each about 4 inches in diameter. To create a small well in the center of each meringue shell, first rest the bowl of the spoon in the center of each meringue, horizontal to the baking sheet, then hold the spoon by the very end of the stem and turn it in a circle as you pull it up and off the meringue.
Bake the meringues in the center of the oven until they are firm and lightly golden, about 1 hour. Let them cool completely on the baking sheet in the turned-off oven with the door open.
For the lemon custard: Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer until they are thick and pale yellow. Gradually beat in the sugar, then the lemon juice and zest. Scrape the mixture into a small, nonreactive saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the custard cool completely.
For the strawberries: Place the strawberries in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with the confectioners’ sugar and toss well to coat. Set aside.
When you’re ready to assemble the Pavlovas, whip the cream until it hold stiff peaks (you should have about 3 cups whipped cream). Fold 1 cup of the whipped cream gently into the lemon custard. Fold the strawberries into the remaining 2 cups of whipped cream.
Place the meringues on individual plates. Divide the lemon cream equally among the 8 meringue shells, and top with the strawberry whipped cream. Garnish with more strawberry slices. Serve immediately.
In relation to my number of years on Earth, I have probably worked more jobs than anyone else you know. I’ll provide just a few examples. Upscale stationary shop girl. Nanny. Celebrity interviewer. Envelope stuffer. Makeup artist. Lecturer on random topics. Law office helper girl. Movie and TV extra and stand-in. Newsroom intern. Workout place counter girl. Proofreader of office supply catalogs. The list is insane and endless. Now, to be clear, this does not mean that I am a workaholic–no, far from it. My wacky patchwork of a resume absolutely comes from the sometimes practically negative length of time spent at each place. Apparently, for quite some time I reversed the old adage to say, “Winners always quit”.
In truth, I didn’t quit every single job flippantly. No, each quitting would have me all wound up with ulcer-level angst in the days leading up to it. As much as I may have wanted to leave each job, I never really wanted to let anyone down. Except for the time I left a job in the fashion of asking to be fired. I’d been trying to let them down for months.
They’d even issued me a corporate “Back on Track” plan, a document which encouraged me to stop letting them down by a certain date lest I be fired, which only made me try to let them down harder. And at the expiry date of the “Back on Track” plan, they still didn’t fire me, so I was forced to point out the calendar date to my manager and inform her that it was clearly time to fire me. Which she did, after a very, very long and befuddled pause. True story.
There was also the time I was fired without my knowing. This was in college, a part-time job that had me calling up a recurring list of delightfully chatty old people and asking them to donate their blood for their platelets. I actually really liked that job, so much so that I was there right up until Spring Break. My boss, a no B.S. type named Judy, asked when my school break was, I told her. Done annnnd done, right? Um, not quite.
I left town for a week for vacation, blissfully unaware that she’d scheduled me for extra hours since I wouldn’t have classes that week. Apparently they had a rule that if you didn’t show up for work for three days without calling, you were automatically fired. Which I found out when I showed up all tanned and ready to work the Monday after Spring Break and was informed that I’d been fired three days earlier. Further evidence that college students don’t actually live in the Real World, even if they have a part-time job in it. I was all, “Hel-lo, Judy! It was my Spring Break!” Ha. That one still makes me laugh.
But there was one job that will always hold a special place in my heart and on my demented resume. And no, I’m not talking about motherhood (a job that’s schooled my quitter behind in reality–there’s no way I can get outta this gig). Several months before moving to San Francisco, with my pre-motherhood pluck and a whole lot of emphasis on my food and recipe obsession and writing background, I landed the most amazing opportunity to write recipes for Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California. Had my ambitious, brilliant and almost annoyingly successful husband not gotten a job that moved us up to San Francisco later that year, I’m sure I’d still be there at Joe’s in the late afternoons, all scrappy for hours so I could experience the energy and artistry of the place, learning volumes about food, wine and the amazing dishes they turn out of that tiny, Michelin-starred kitchen.
When I left Joe’s, I made sure to take note of a few recipes that I’d bookmarked among the hundreds of splattered, crinkled pages in the restaurant’s archives. I could prattle on all day about the fabulous savory dishes at Joe’s, but some of the desserts would probably make you cry with joy. I’ve been wanting to tell you about this Blood Orange Panna Cotta recipe for ages, and with my citrus obsession in full swing, it’s the perfect time to finally get to it. That, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and this would be the absolutely perfect button on a romantic meal a deux, or even just pour un, because you’re worth it.
Panna cotta is one of my very favorite desserts, even though it amounts to little more than gelled cream. So simple, so right. The addition of the bright, sweet-tart juice of blood oranges really makes the dish here. And the color, people! The color! So beautiful. I served mine with a little extra dollop of unsweetened whipped cream because, you know, more is more, and could not have felt better about the whole experience. Oh Blood Orange Panna Cotta, I wish I knew how to quit you.
1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder
3 tablespoons cold water
1 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl and let soften for five minutes.
Pour the blood orange juice into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce by half, about five minutes. Pour the reduction into a small bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
Give the saucepan a quick rinse and dry and set it back on the stove. In it, place the cream and sugar and warm it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it begins to simmer–do not boil. Meanwhile, heat the softened gelatin in the microwave on high heat until it’s melted, about 15 seconds. When the cream is ready, whisk in the melted gelatin and vanilla until the mixture is smooth. Pour the cream mixture into a metal bowl set over an ice bath. Stir until cool to the touch. Whisk in the buttermilk and the reduced blood orange juice. Pour into four custard cups or ramekins set in a large shallow dish. Chill until set, at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours.
When the panna cotta is set, unmold by dipping each dish in a pan of warm water, nudging the edges of the panna cotta from the dish with a thin knife if necessary, and invert them onto serving plates.
So I figured as long as we’re on the citrus train, why stop at cake? Why not share a recipe with you that not only celebrates the totally fabulous Meyer lemon, but pairs it with cream, an ingredient that just makes the whole thing so right that you may just shed a tear? I give you Meyer Lemon Pot de Crème. And a dollop of fresh raspberry sauce to boot.
Now, guys, I make a lot of desserts. Some might say an alarming amount, but that is neither here nor there. It’s quite a feat for something to be declared a real winner. For my main taste tester (that would be my darling husband) to have more than just a few cookies from a batch or one slice of a cake is a Big Deal these days. The results of my baking abilities were much more exciting when they were newly revealed in the beginning of our marriage. But before this unintentionally goes into a downward spiral of a metaphor gone horribly wrong, let me get to my point–boyfriend had two helpings of this pot de crème the day it was made. It was that good.
So Meyer lemons are basically the definition of ubiquitous these days, aren’t they? But man, they totally live up to their reputation. With zest so fragrant and juice so sweet (for lemon juice, anyway), they are worth stealing if you happen to have a neighbor with a Meyer lemon tree. In this case, though, I did not actually steal these particular lemons.
I bought them from this charming old lady parked out in front of our corner market. She’d set up a little stand with mounds of bright Meyer lemons and enormous grapefruits and a handwritten cardboard sign that was curling at the edges and advertising a price so low it was practically criminal. And when we got to talking about how her son drives the fruit all the way from Stockton into the city, and how they don’t really make a profit anyway, but that day he’d gotten a speeding ticket on the way down and so now they were really in the hole, well, guess who ended up guilt-purchasing an armload of Meyer lemons? Anyway.
Since I’ve already told you about my favorite lemon bars, and it hasn’t exactly been sorbet or lemon meringue pie weather around here, I went for a pot de crème recipe I’d bookmarked in recent months that paired the vibrant fruit with a swirl of cream and the Rhoda to its Mary–a perfectly simple, fresh raspberry sauce.
All the flavors here–the zing of lemon, the counterpoint of lush cream and the sweet, lusty raspberries offering a perfect finish–work in a way that reminds you that some things were just meant to be together. Sort of like the way all those Meyer lemons found me that day.
And you know what they say–when life guilt-trips you into buying an insane quantity of lemons, make pot de crème.
Can you use regular lemons? Yes, yes you can. But seek out organic ones so you don’t end up zesting a bunch of pesticides into the dish. Also, sometimes I bring the flavor of regular lemon juice a little closer to that of a Meyer lemon by holding back a few tablespoons of lemon juice and replacing them with orange juice. There’s also no reason not to use frozen raspberries for the sauce if you’d prefer.
For the crème:
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons Meyer lemon zest
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed and strained Meyer lemon juice
For the raspberry sauce:
1/3 cup raspberries, fresh or frozen (thawed and drained)
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice
In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream with the lemon zest just until small bubbles appear around the edge–do not boil. Remove the pan from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 325 degrees. Place four 6-ounce custard cups, ramekins or coffee cups in a small roasting pan.
Return the pan of cream to the stove, and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk and superfine sugar and pour into the simmering cream, whisking constantly until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the custard through a sieve and into a large measuring cup for easy pouring. Bring a large kettle or pot of water to boiling.
Divide the custard evenly among the four custard cups. Open the oven door, pull out the oven rack, and place the roasting pan on the rack. Slowly pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the custard cups. Carefully slide the rack back into the oven, being careful not to splash water into the cups. Bake until just set, about 35-40 minutes.
Remove the cups from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2-24 hours before serving.
To make the sauce, puree together the raspberries, sugar and lemon juice. Serve each pot de crème with a dollop of the sauce, plus extra on the side.
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