Rosemary Almond Hamantaschen… filled with ice cream!

Ice Cream Hamantaschen with Rosemary Almond dough (6)When I started daydreaming about creative twists for traditional hamantaschen, playing with the dough came first. Raspberry jam filling had always been my favorite (albeit not quite conventional), and I couldn’t really imagine anything better. So I created a dough to complement the tart berry filling: nutty almond meal alongside the flour, molasses-rich brown sugar in place of white, and speckles of fresh rosemary for a nice herbal whisper. A splash of almond extract proved to further brighten my new dough’s complex flavors.

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But then I began to consider new fillings. I experimented with fresh raspberries in place of jam, oozing marzipan for an amaretto-y kick, and even cheesecake-like mixtures. Still not sold, I became skeptical that there was something superior to a bursting fruit center. But it turns out there is a more decadent and delicious filling (and it happens to be my favorite all-time dessert–or food, for that matter): beloved ice cream!

Ice Cream Hamantaschen with Rosemary Almond dough (8)I knew it would have to be berry ice cream, and strawberry proved as wondrous as raspberry in the nutty herbal shell. It was now just a matter of how to blind-bake them. After trials with pie weights, dried beans, parchment pouches and more, I found that floured whole almonds worked best (and can be re-used to make almond meal for more hamantaschen: a delicious cycle of baking and savoring!). Like an ice cream sandwich’s festive little cousin, this ice cream filled cookie has only one downfall: it can’t be eaten warm from the oven. But I really don’t think you’ll mind once you taste one…

Rosemary Almond Hamantaschen filled with Berry Ice Cream (makes about two dozen; please see all three sections below for full ingredient list)

TO PREP THE ALMONDS FOR BLIND BAKING:

  • about 5 ounces/1 cup whole shelled unsalted almonds (5 per cookie; about 130 nuts)
  • 1 teaspoon melted butter — no more
  • 1 tablespoon all purpose flour

Place almonds in a bowl and add melted butter, mixing all nuts are coated. Add flour and stir vigorously until all nuts are dusted with flour. Set aside.

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FOR THE COOKIE DOUGH:

  • 1/2 cup almond meal (milled with skin-on; not blanched)
  • 1.75 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter at soft room temperature
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure almond extract

Line two medium/large cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Place almond meal in a medium bowl, then sift the flour, salt and baking powder over it. Whisk together until well-blended and any lumps of almond meal are broken up. Whisk in the rosemary until evenly dispersed. Set aside.

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In a large bowl, beat the sugar and butter until even in consistency. Add egg and mix until incorporated. Repeat with almond extract. Add the dry ingredients and mix until all ingredients are blended; dough will resemble moist crumbs. Knead with hands to form a ball. Split dough into two; cover one of the balls with plastic wrap and set it aside.

Ice Cream Hamantaschen with Rosemary Almond dough (9)Transfer unwrapped dough to an even, floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough into a slab with a thickness of no more than 1/8 to 1/6 inch. Re-flour rolling pin, surface, and all tools often. Using a floured 3″ round cookie cutter, cut out circles from dough. With a floured flat spatula, transfer each dough circle to the parchment lined baking sheets. (Beware: Work quickly, as letting the rolled dough sit out for too long will cause it to dry and will make it crack when trying to fold it.)

Ice Cream Hamantaschen with Rosemary Almond dough (15)Immediately place 5 floured almonds in the center of each cookie, then fold up 3 edges to form a triangle. Pinch corners of the opening tightly to prevent cookies from flopping open while baking. Place in freezer for at least 30 minutes; this will help ensure that they hold their shape. While cookies freeze, preheat the oven to 375 F, and unwrap the remaining dough, repeating the rolling, cutting, filling, folding and freezing process.

Ice Cream Hamantaschen with Rosemary Almond dough (13)Bake frozen cookies one sheet at a time for 8 to 10 minutes, or until edges and bottoms are toasty brown. Remove from oven and let cool on cookie sheets for 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Use a toothpick to loosen and remove whole almonds from each cookie’s center, bracing cookie with one hand while holding toothpick with the other. (I admit this sounds tedious, but the almonds shouldn’t be very stuck, and it goes fast. If any nuts refuse to budge, try stabbing the almond with the toothpick and prying it out, or just leave it – a toasted almond in a cookie isn’t such a bad surprise!)

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Set aside the floured almonds to re-use as you wish. You may opt to pulse them in a food processor to make your own almond meal, perhaps for another batch of these cookies. If you use them for another purpose, just remember they’re neither gluten nor dairy free.

FOR FILLING THE COOKIE SHELLS:

  • 2 – 2.5 cups strawberry or raspberry ice cream

Let the emptied cookies chill completely, at least to room temperature, before filling. Set your ice cream on the countertop for a few minutes to let it soften. Transfer the ice cream to a pastry bag or plastic bag with a small corner cut off; place open tip inside a cookie. Squeeze until corners are filled and ice cream domes out the top. (Alternately, you can use a small spoon or mini spatula to fill them, but I find the piping method easier.)

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Repeat with all cookies, serving or placing in freezer immediately as you go. Naturally, these are best eaten just after being baked, cooled and filled. They are also wonderful treated like ice cream sandwiches — stored in a tightly covered container in the freezer (if stacking cookies, place parchment or waxed paper in between layers) — and eaten within a week. When serving from the freezer, let sit out for a few minutes before digging in.

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With their familiar buttery flavor and classic triangular shape, these ice cream filled beauties offer a cool and creamy element that takes hamantaschen to a whole new level of scrumptiousness. The toasty brown sugar shell is bright and earthy with its speckles of rosemary and almond, just as the velvety berry filling offers a lusciousness that literally melts in your mouth. Here’s to a delicious and happy Purim!

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Maybe next time… While I fought my temptation to make my own ice cream for these cookies, homemade ice cream would of course amp up the distinctiveness here, and there are a lot of great recipes available. I’m partial to berry ice cream and its lovely balance with the rosemary, but many flavors would be divine, from apricot to peach to vanilla to caramel. This dough also works nicely with the more traditional poppyseed or fruit-filled hamantaschen; simply add a heaping teaspoon of your favorite thick jam or other filling in place of the whole almonds, freeze, and bake.

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Posted in Baking with Herbs, Cookies & Bars, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Aperol Spritz Cupcakes: Sweet, Sour, Scrumptious

Aperol cupcakes (11) Last summer I had the privilege of making cupcakes for the wedding of a wonderful couple. The whole process was a joy for me, from the moment the bride asked me in her lovely demeanor, to my merry hours of creating and decorating each little dessert. My delight arose from fondness of both baking and the bride, but also from knowing that the couple and I had the same simple dessert priorities: delicious and made with love.

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Their wedding, too, was teeming with love and sweetness: an evening so moving and heartwarming, I felt aglow for days. Alongside other fun features (from performances to postcards), the couple’s favorite cocktails were highlighted at the bar; his: a whiskey sour, hers: an Aperol spritz. The latter left me dreaming of a new dessert creation — an edible rendition of the drink’s most distinctive ingredients.  Bubbly-sweet prosecco and tangy Aperol were soon to find their home in a toothsome new treat.

Aperol cupcakes (7)I experimented futilely with layer cakes, then cookies — and finally, perhaps naturally, my path led back to cupcakes… with marvelous results. Their reminiscent form was simply meant to be, and I added a bit of grapefruit for a complementary twist. The outcome was a delicious, vibrant, cocktail-inspired creation: lusciously delicate and bittersweet at once.

Aperol Spritz Cupcakes (makes about 14 standard sized cupcakes*)

For the cake batter:Aperol cupcakes

  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, plus more for icing
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Finely grated zest of one pink grapefruit
  • 1/2 cup fresh, bubbly prosecco

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line muffin tins with about 14 paper cupcake liners; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the oil and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at time, mixing until incorporated. Stir in the vanilla. Over the bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; mix until smooth and even. Stir in the grapefruit zest until evenly dispersed. Gently fold in the prosecco until just incorporated and batter is even.

Aperol cupcakes (2)Promptly scoop the batter into lined cupcake pan, being careful to fill cups only halfway; this will allow some room for the glaze. You should have about 14 cupcakes (if you end up with several fewer cupcakes than this, your cups might be filled too high with batter). Bake for 10-14 minutes, or just until centers test clean with a toothpick. Let cool in pan for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack, platter, or towel-lined countertop nearby.  Let cool completely before icing.

For the icing**:Aperol cupcakes (10)

  • 2/3 cup Aperol
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • sprinkles or sugar decorations (optional)

In a small saucepan, bring the Aperol and salt to a steady simmer, stirring occasionally. Let simmer for about 5-7 minutes, until reduced by half. (When it looks almost halved, carefully transfer hot Aperol to a heatproof measuring cup; return to heat and re-measure as needed, stopping when you have 1/3 cup.) Remove from heat and quickly stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla while Aperol is still hot, whisking vigorously until smooth.

Aperol cupcakes (4)Without delay, spoon the icing onto the cupcakes, letting it reach the edges but without overflowing. (You may want to swirl it to the edges with your finger or a spoon, especially as it thickens).  Icing will form a shell quickly; re-whisk as needed, and if you want to top your cupcakes with sprinkles, do so one cupcake at a time, immediately after icing each one so that the decoration will stick. Let icing harden in the open air for at least 30 minutes before serving.  Store covered at room temperature for up to 24 hours, or covered in the fridge for up to 48 hours (bring back to room temperature before serving).

Aperol cupcakes (12)With their tender, airy, citrus-speckled crumb, these cupcakes offer a lovely texture and flavor in each bite.  Delightfully well-balanced, the whisper of mild, warming prosecco hits its stride beneath the lively layer of tart Aperol glaze.  Sweet, sour, and scrumptious, Aperol spritz cupcakes are a nod to the cocktail they celebrate — and to the sweet nuptials that sparked their inception.  Enjoy them with a hot cup of coffee or afternoon tea — or better yet, a fizzy glass of prosecco. Cheers!

Aperol cupcakes (13)Maybe next time… If you don’t have prosecco around, feel free to use sparkling wine or champagne in its place.  While I found the grapefruit to be a perfect pairing, orange zest would work nicely in its place, as could lemon. If you have mini muffin pans, bite-sized Aperol cupcakes would be delicious and dainty: just remember to fill the cups only halfway with batter, and to reduce your baking time significantly, testing for done-ness after just 5 minutes.  Instead of sugar flowers or sprinkles, try dressing up the newly iced cakes with fresh raspberries or edible flowers; they’d be a lovely match.

Aperol cupcakes (3)*I’ve made these cupcakes several times, using the same recipe, and they’ve yielded from 12 to 16 cupcakes, mostly depending on the brand of prosecco I used.

**A note to tempted spoon-lickers like me: On its own, the icing has quite a powerful punch. It mellows as it cools and dries, and it’s at its best in proper proportion to the prosecco-grapefruit cake that it’s designed to be eaten on.

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Salted Spritz Cookies: Bite-Size and Butterylicious

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Whether decorating a momentous cake or piping out colorful meringues, I’ve been known to giggle with excitement and even get teary-eyed when using my pastry bag. It is far from being a kitchen necessity, but it creates such beauty and brings such joy, from edible roses to personalized birthdays.  Frankly, I’m surprised it took me this long to think of filling my pastry bag with cookie dough, but it was bound to happen eventually.

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I remembered those old fashioned spritz cookies, which — from what  I’ve seen — tend to be made in a cookie press at about the size of an Oreo. It wasn’t long before I started experimenting and created a new spritz dough, utilizing the classic elements (sugar, flour, butter, egg) but in my own ratios, using a trusty pastry bag rather than a press.

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I decided on a miniature format — bite-sized tiny stars — and added a bit of vanilla bean and plenty of extra salt. After trying some unusual additions and icings, I opted to let the simple scrumptiousness of these cookies shine on its own. The result was a crispy, buttery, utterly addictive treat, all with the perfect balance of salty and sweet.  A true crowd-pleaser, these little goodies are dangerously delicious!

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Mini Salted Spritz Cookies (makes 55-60 little 1-1.25″ cookies)

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, warmed until very soft (but not melted)
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 egg yolk at room temperature
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons table salt, divided
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground vanilla bean powder or paste, or 1/4 teaspoon seeds scraped from a vanilla bean pod
  • **Medium to large pastry bag, fitted with a jumbo star tip, such as Ateco #846

Salted spritz cookies (7)Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. In a large bowl, cream the butter and 1/3 cup of the sugar until smooth.  Mix in the yolk until completely incorporated. Add vanilla bean; stir until evenly dispersed. Sift the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt over the bowl. Mix until dough holds together in a large ball (it will seem dry at first; using warm hands can be easiest). Transfer dough to pastry bag. Pipe stars onto the lined baking sheets, keeping them about 1 – 1.25″ in diameter, leaving 3/4″ between each one. If your dough is too stiff to pipe (this can happen if dough is cool), set the filled pastry bag in a warm place, perhaps near the hot oven, for a few minutes.

Once cookies are piped, thoroughly whisk the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and teaspoon of salt together in a small bowl. Sprinkle it over the cookies, using up to 1/4 teaspoon per cookie, or a little less depending on your taste.  Bake for 8-9 minutes or until edges are golden brown.  Let cool for 5 – 10 minutes on cookie sheets before devouring.

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Despite the simplicity of the their ingredients, these little spritz cookies overflow with rich, buttery tones in an irresistibly crisp, pop-in-your-mouth form. Speckled with fragrant vanilla bean, the harmony of salt and sugar is hard to step away from, much like attempting to eat a single potato chip or piece of popcorn. This is not likely a problem, since you probably have most of their ingredients on hand and can bake up another batch in no time. I have a feeling you’ll want to.

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**Maybe next time… If you don’t have a pastry bag or don’t want to deal with one, simply shape dough by hand into marble sized balls weighing about 5 grams a piece.  Press down their centers gently, to slightly flatten the cookies, before baking. (By doing so, you can add the finely grated zest of a lemon or orange to the dough if you’d like, since it can’t get stuck in a piping tip.) I found this cookie dough very satisfying as-is, and felt that it was quick to become overpowered when I played with creative additions. Having said this, the sky’s the limit with spices (cinnamon, cardamom, and/or nutmeg come to mind) as well as glazes. For the latter, very gradually add rum, bourbon, or lemon juice to a cup of powdered sugar (add the liquid by the teaspoon, whisking after each addition, until pasty and just pourable, but still rather thick). Drizzle over cooled cookies by the spoonful, and let dry into a crisp shell. Melted chocolate would also be delicious.

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Mandarin Persimmon Pie with Pecan Gingersnap Crust

Mandarin Orange Persimmon Pie (5)

As the days of the year shorten and darken, some of the brightest fruit comes into season. With a burst of vibrant color and juicy succulence, both mandarin oranges and persimmons can quench a longing for sweetness, literally and figuratively. I’ve devoured and celebrated mandarins many a winter, and I’ve long loved persimmons, both fuyu and hachiya. It was the latter that called to me this year; I wondered if I could showcase them in a new dessert without doing much to alter their already luscious form.

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I decided on an icebox pie with a buttery gingersnap-pecan crust, and a decadent topping of either meringue or whipped cream (both proved to be delicious).  The filling would consist primarily of super-ripe hachiya persimmon pulp (no astringent skins allowed!), with some brown sugar and mandarin oranges for subtle complexity and complementary tang. The result was a delicate fruity filling, sandwiched with scrumptiousness.

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Even when I tried this pie without the oranges (an all persimmon filling), the fruit somehow mellowed into a whisper of fragrant flavor and sweetness. Perhaps this lack of  robustness comes from avoiding the skin, which can be so oddly bitter that your tongue feels fuzzy, but which also tends to house the bulk of any fruit’s signature flavor. In any case, the final version of this bright fruit dessert got rave reviews. While the recipe looks long, it is actually pretty simple and goes quickly.

Mandarin Persimmon Pie (makes a 9″ pie, serves 10)

For the crust:Gingersnap crust

  • 2 ounces shelled pecan halves (about 1/2 cup)
  • 7 ounces hard gingersnap cookies
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup+ melted unsalted butter
  • dash of salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mince the pecans and crush the cookies into fine/medium crumbs. Whisk in the flour and salt, stirring until no longer visible. Add the melted butter and stir until evenly dispersed and until the mixture holds together when you squeeze a small handful. If crumbs are stubborn about holding together, add a little more melted butter.  Transfer into a 9″ pie pan, preferably glass. Press very firmly and evenly into pie pan, using hands and/or the back of a spoon, holding up to light to check for thin spots.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, until fragrant and edges look toasty. [If crust has puffed up or slid down (this can happen depending on gingersnaps and amount of butter used), press it firmly into place with the back of a spoon while still hot.]  Let cool completely before filling.Mandarin Orange Persimmon Pie (13)

For the filling:

  • 2.5 pounds (about 6 medium) hachiya persimmons, extremely soft and ripe (my local grocer says “they should feel like a bag of jelly”)
  • 1 pound (about 4 medium/small) ripe seedless mandarin oranges, such as satsumas
  • 1/4  – 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • water
  • 1.5 tablespoons (2 envelopes) unflavored gelatin powder
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

Pull the leafy tops off the persimmons and discard; slice persimmons in half with a sharp knife. Use a spoon to scoop the fruit out of each half, carefully avoiding skin. Transfer fruit pulp into the clean bowl of a food processor, feeling and looking for wayward seeds as you go. (In my experience, a hachiya persimmon will occasionally nestle up to four oblong black seeds; they are pretty large and easy to spot.) Discard skins and any seeds.

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Peel the mandarin oranges and separate the segments, picking off as much white pith as you can (a little is OK).  Squeeze narrow sides of segments to check for wayward seeds, removing any you might find.  Add orange segments to food processor.  Blend for 30 seconds; pause and Mandarinascrape down bowl.  Repeat twice. Leave mixture in food processor, turned off.  Place the lemon juice in a measuring cup and add water to make 1/2 cup total liquid.  Heat until scalding (a minute in the microwave will do).  Working quickly, add the gelatin and brown sugar to the hot liquid, and whisk vigorously for about 30 seconds or mixture is no longer grainy. Quickly pour into the fruit puree and turn on food processor for two more 30 second intervals.  Pour mixture slowly through a slotted spoon, into the cooled pie crust. (You want to catch any large strands of orange segment peel but include its smaller pieces and all the pulpy goodness of the puree.) You may have some extra filling to use as you wish.  Place the pie in the freezer for 30 minutes to activate the gelatin immediately, then transfer to fridge for at least 3 hours before topping.  To serve, let chilled pie sit at room temperature for 15-30 minutes, perhaps while preparing the topping, then top and slice.

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For the topping (two options):

Option 1: Cinnamon whipped cream (rich, creamy, not too sweet, quick and easy):

  • 1 cup chilled whipping cream
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Place all ingredients in a cool bowl, and beat with an electric mixer until medium to firm peaks form. Keep chilled. Slather over pie just before serving.

Option 2: Meringue (light, fluffy, sweet, toast-able)

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • ground cinnamon for sprinkling (optional)

Whisk egg whites and sugar in a large heatproof bowl (preferably the bowl of a standing mixer). Place bowl over a pot of simmering water, without letting bowl touch surface of water. Whisk constantly, about 3 – 5 minutes, until mixture feels hot to the touch and sugar granules have dissolved. Remove from heat, being careful of hot steam, and beat on high with an electric mixer for 6 to 8 minutes, until shiny peaks have formed and meringue has cooled to room temperature. Spread over pie in a decorative fashion. If desired, toast with a kitchen torch and sprinkle with cinnamon.

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Full of succulent texture and delicate fruit flavor, mandarin persimmon pie brings sweetness and brightness to a dark and chilly season. With its crisp, flavorful crust and its creamy, fluffy topping, it enrobes its seasonal fruit filling with utter deliciousness. The nutty gingersnap shell is rich and subtly spicy; the gooey center is sweet, fragrant, and gently fruity; the cool topping — whether cream or meringue — is rich and velvety.  This is truly a trio of luscious layers in every bite.

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Maybe next time… Feel free to play with the ratio of fruit in the filling; maybe even add a lemon! A few dashes of spice in the puree could also make a nice addition. This crust will work just as well with other nuts in place of the pecans: almonds or hazelnuts are especially appealing. Similarly, graham crackers would work fine instead of the more robust gingersnaps. To make this pie dairy-free, choose the meringue topping, and use a dairy-free gingersnaps and a butter substitute for the crust. Vegetarians may reach for agar agar in place of gelatin, though I can’t offer advice on how to activate its thickening power. (Despite my bit of research and experimentation with it, I’m afraid I lack enough success to advise anyone how to use agar. Otherwise, I’d use it in place of gelatin regularly.)

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Posted in Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Citrus Vanilla Cauliflower Cake

Cauliflower Cake (8)I hear that the height of cauliflower season is autumn, but few of us (in my region) would ever realize this ourselves. The veggie seems to be present year-round and was a staple on many of our dinner tables growing up. For me, cauliflower will always bring to mind dinner at Grandma’s house, where it somehow felt like a more exotic version of broccoli, though it was always served steamed and draped in a melty slice of cheddar cheese.

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Nowadays cauliflower seems to be making a comeback; I’ve seen it basted and roasted in place of meat, shredded and served as a stand-in for rice, and even turned into pizza crust.  I love the idea of these inventive, healthy options — but my recipe here is clearly not trying to be one of them.  Instead, it was cauliflower’s blank canvas quality that made me begin to wonder about its potential for dessert.  Alongside flour and sugar, could its slight nuttiness and tender texture bring a moist crumb to a cake batter?  The answer was yes — absolutely yes! — and a burst of citrus and vanilla proved to be its perfect partner.

Citrus Vanilla Cauliflower Cake Cauliflower Cake (10)(makes an 8″ round cake, serves 10)

  • 1 medium lemon
  • 1 medium orange
  • about 6 ounces fresh, raw, white cauliflower heads/florets
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 medium to large eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon seeds scraped from a whole vanilla bean, or vanilla bean powder or paste
  • 1.25 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8″ cake pan and either flour the pan or line the bottom with parchment; set aside. Rinse and dry the lemon and orange. Finely zest the peel of both; set zest aside. Halve and juice the lemon and orange, just until you have 1/4 cup juice total, made up of about half of each kind; set juice aside. Using a standard sized grater (with large holes, such as a box grater), grate the cauliflower until you have 1 cup grated, weighing about 4.25 ounces. (This requires applying some pressure and can make a bit of a mess.)  Use the rest as you wish.

Cauliflower Cake

Set the cup of grated cauliflower in a bowl and pour over it the 1/4 cup citrus juice along with two teaspoons of the vanilla extract  In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, oil, remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and vanilla bean until smooth and even in color. Over the egg mixture, sift the flour, salt, and baking soda. Whisk until smooth and no traces of flour remain; batter will be thick.

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Fold in the citrus-soaked cauliflower with its juice, and the lemon and orange zest, until evenly dispersed. Spread batter into prepared pan, and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. When done, cake should be golden brown on top — its center firm and no longer wet or jiggly — and a toothpick should come out dry when inserted and removed.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature in pan.  If desired, serve slices topped with strands of citrus zest, powdered sugar, and/or fluffy scoops of freshly whipped cream or ice cream.  Store covered at room temperature; eat within 2 – 3 days.

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With its tender crumb and bright citrus essence, this cake is a perfect way to welcome cauliflower into the world of dessert.  The warmth of luxurious vanilla pairs deliciously with the cauliflower’s subtle hints of nutty, earthy flavor.  Speckles of lemon and orange, and tiny flecks of moist, mild cauliflower make for a succulent and luscious texture in every bite. Flavorful and fragrant, this cake leaves its tasters without a clue that a vegetable known to taste so plain is at the heart of the ingredients list.

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Maybe next time… The sky’s the limit with citrus in this cake: lime and grapefruit would make delicious substitutes or additions to the lemon and orange.  While this cake is shown here in a quite casual format, it can easily be made in two layers and frosted.  [Either double the recipe and bake in two pans (for two tall layers), or split the existing recipe into two pans and carefully reduce the baking time (for two thin layers).  I recommend this lemon cream cheese frosting or this meringue frosting made with citrus juice in place of blueberry.]  Another fun way to amp up the presentation: bake citrus slices into the bottom and serve it inverted, like this — just be sure to use parchment and some extra sugar and oil at the bottom of the pan.

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Spiced Pear Sandwich Cakes

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There’s an air of looming formality in autumn. Sandals and shorts disappear into the backs of our closets. Clinking glasses and winter rituals are close on the horizon. Playing in a pile of colored leaves feels invigorating but elusive. So as a small act of rebellion against the buttoned-up-ness that winter will soon bring, I decided to join together two of fall’s most scrumptious seasonal ingredients — pears and cloves — in a deliciously relaxed form.

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I chose imperfectly shaped pear-flecked mini cakes, sandwiched with oozing cream cheese filling and a juicy slice of fruit — all designed to eat without a fork or even a plate.  Pears and cloves are a well-known and delicious duo, and here they’ve proven to be both a nod to autumn and a delicious deep breath before winter’s elegance arrives.

Spiced Pear Sandwich Cakes (makes about 14 sandwiches, 2.5 – 3″ diameter each)

For the batter:Spiced pear sandwich cakes (3)

  • 3 medium pears such as Bartlett, weighing about 7 ounces each, ripe but not mushy
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1.5 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1.5 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Rinse the pears, and remove stems and cores from two of them.  Cut 1.5 pears into large pieces and set in bowl of food processor.  (Set remaining 1.5 pears aside for assembly; see below.)  Pour the lemon juice over the pears and blend in food processor until a thick paste has formed, speckled with pear skin; you may have to stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice while blending.  Measure out 1/2 cup pear puree for this recipe; use the rest as you wish (I love to eat it like applesauce or spread it onto warm toast).

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In a separate, large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until smooth.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in the vanilla.  Over the bowl, sift the flour, salt, cloves, and baking powder. Mix until ingredients stick together, gradually adding the 1/2 cup pear puree, and stopping to scrape down bowl with a spatula periodically.

Spiced pear sandwich cakes (4)Once batter is smooth and ingredients are evenly dispersed, scoop it by the rounded tablespoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between each dollop.  You should have about 28 dollops, each 2.5 – 3″.  Bake for 10-12 minutes, until tops no longer look wet and bottoms are golden brown. Let cool to room temperature on cookie sheets.

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To fill and assemble:

  • 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 and 1/3 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for serving
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, to taste
  • leftover 1.5 pears from above

Beat butter and cream cheese until smooth and even. Sift powdered sugar, salt, and cloves over the cream cheese mixture. Beat until creamy and blended, scraping sides of bowl as needed. When ready to assemble and serve the cookies, slice pears into at least 14 pieces that are about 1/3 inch thick and will mostly fit within the diameter your little sandwiches. (Be sure to avoid the core of the whole pear. You’ll have extra pear to use as you please.)

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Spread at least a heaping tablespoon of filling on each bottom of half of the little cakes, then top filling with a pear slice. Dab the bottoms of the other cookie halves with a small dollop of filling, and place each one right-side-up atop a pear slice. Sprinkle tops with powdered sugar using a sifter or shaker.  Eat within a few hours, serving in paper cupcake liners if desired. Any leftovers should be refrigerated and eaten within a day.

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Full of flavorful bits of pear and clove, tender little cakes become vibrant with succulence once transformed into these whoopie pie style treats.  Their creamy, spiced filling is further brightened by the slice of cool, juicy fruit in each bite.  What’s more: Spiced pear sandwich cakes offer a burst of autumn’s flavor along with its laid-back-ness.  They’re informal, easy to eat, and even a little bit messy.  Finger-licking is encouraged — along with one last spirited dive into those orange and red leaves.

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Maybe next time… While cloves and pears pair particularly well, do feel free to play with your fall spices in this recipe: additional dashes of cinnamon and/or nutmeg are especially welcome in the filling, and add to the complexity of this dessert.  These cakes are at their most fabulous when eaten the day they are made, but for a do-ahead version of this recipe, let the baked cakes cool, then store in a sealed container at room temperature for up to two days, or freeze for up to two weeks. The cream cheese filling can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, or up to two weeks ahead and frozen. When ready to serve, let everything thaw, slice some pear for filling, and assemble.

Spiced pear sandwich cakes Spiced pear sandwich cakes (8) Spiced pear sandwich cakes (13) P.S. If you liked this recipe, you might like Cinnamon Peach Sandwich Cakes in the late summer, and Rhubarb Rum Sandwich Cakes in the late spring.  If you’re all about the pears, try Walnut Pear Torte; it’s great for fall and loved even by the walnut-averse. 

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Posted in Cakes & Cupcakes, Cookies & Bars, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Fresh Fig Torte: Frosted, Spiced, Divine

Fig torte (24)I have a friend who is so enamored with fresh figs, I’d even call it an obsession.  When we walked past a woman carrying a basket of figs recently, and my friend talked about it for a week. “I wonder where she got those figs. Is there somewhere around here that sells figs? I want figs!”  Sure, she can get figs from the right market or from her CSA box — and when she does, she bounces off the walls with excitement.  But naturally, the figs disappear fast, and her demeanor quickly sinks: she sulks, “Meh. All out of figs again…”

Fig torte (19)Her birthday was coming up on quite a timely date — right in the height of fig season — and I had the honor of making her cake.  As I thought about what to make, I dreamt up ways to create a dessert whose slices would deliver the most figgy-ness possible.  A batter made with more figs than flour would be the answer (for both my friend’s birthday and as a new versatile fall dessert).  I started by drizzling ripe figs with warm molasses, then blended them with butter and spice. The result was a moist, flavorful torte enjoyed by both fig-lovers and the fig-averse alike, all with a slather of decadent cream cheese icing.

Frosted Fig Torte (Makes an 8″ torte; serves 10)

Fig torte (4)For the torte:

  • About 12.5 ounces ripe figs (about 15 small/medium figs — I used Black Mission. Over-ripe figs work just fine.)
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Butter and flour an 8″ cake pan, or butter it and line bottom with parchment. Set aside. Rinse and dry figs. Remove stems and slice in half. Place in the bowl of a food processor. For best results, heat your molasses a bit before measuring; this will make pouring it easier, and will allow it to really permeate the figs. Pour 1/4 cup warm molasses over the Fig torte (5)sliced figs. Pulse in food processor, stopping to scrape bowl with a spatula once or twice, until a thick puree has formed, speckled with fig peel and seeds (some small chunks of fig are also OK).  Measure out 1.25 cup fig-molasses puree for the batter; set aside.  Use the rest as you wish (it’s marvelous spread on warm toast or folded into oatmeal).

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg and beat until fully incorporated, followed by the vanilla. Sift over the bowl: flour, salt, baking powder, and spices. Mix until an even, thick batter has formed. Fold in the 1.25 cup fig puree, stirring until consistency is even. Spread batter into prepared pan.  Bake for 25 – 30 minutes.  A wooden toothpick inserted into the center should come out batter-free (a few moist crumbs are OK).  Let torte cool completely, to at least room temperature, in the pan.  Once completely cool and ready to frost and serve, invert onto a plate.

Fig torte (14)For the frosting and decoration:

  • 4 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar, packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • about 6 small to medium figs for decoration, ripe but not mushy

Beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth and even. Add the vanilla and mix well. Sift over the mixture: powdered sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Beat until smooth and even.  With the cooled torte inverted onto a plate, slather generously and evenly with frosting. Rinse and dry figs. Cut most of the figs in half vertically, place face down, then slice into thin half circles using a sharp knife.  Use the half circles to create a border around the edges of the torte.  If desired, thinly slice remaining fig(s) into full circles for a center decoration like the one shown here.  Cover and keep refrigerated if not serving with a few hours, and finish within two days.

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With its burst of fall spices and its creamy, dense texture, this fresh fig torte goes beyond a fig-lover’s treat: it’s a succulent dessert that sings of the season.  Rustic and luxurious at once, its speckles of fruit and spice will fill your kitchen with sweet autumn aromas: the kind that delight both one’s yearning tastebuds and one’s nostalgic heart. It’s wonderful enjoyed as a dessert, an accompaniment for afternoon tea, or even a decadent breakfast. For best results, share it with loved ones as a nod to autumn and all its magic.

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Maybe next time… While I chose nutmeg and cinnamon, and found them lovely in this torte, the possibilities are always vast in the fall spice department: ground cloves, cardamom, ginger or allspice would all be wondrous.  In addition, the finely grated zest of an orange would be welcome in this batter as a nice complement the spices.  While the cream cheese icing is scrumptious and heightens the moistness of the torte, a simple dusting of powdered sugar could make a delicious, pretty, and less-rich topping.

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What makes a torte a torte?  As I noted here, this is a debatable issue. In a reliable baking reference book, the index’s entry for “torte” simply states the following: “See cake.”  Indeed, torte is the word for cake in some languages. From my own research, torte batters are much less reliant on traditional flour than cakes are; they tend to use ground nuts and/or fruit.  Moreover, they are almost always single-layer and — unlike mine here — are rarely frosted.  But to make the final version of my friend’s birthday torte more ornate, I tiered two separate layers and gleefully went wild with the decor.  Voilà!

Fig torte (51)

Posted in Cakes & Cupcakes, Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments