Honey Apricot Cookies

I recently found a very special jar of honey on my front porch. Across the metallic lid was the address label of a cherished neighbor who had recently passed away. An attached scroll of paper was filled with her husband’s words, offering gratitude and the extraordinary story of the honey’s origin.

In her illness, his wife assured him that bees would come and make honey in their backyard, just like he wished. Shortly after her declaration, a swarm of bees voluntarily moved into his old, empty bee boxes. Not only did they show up and survive the winter without help; they also produced an ocean of honey, leaving the family with a dose of sweetness not long after their beloved had departed.

What an honor to be a recipient of this beautiful treat.

Upon tasting the honey, I was delighted by its depth and its slightly herbal notes, along with its unique richness that echoed fresh butter with a hint of spice. I couldn’t help but daydream of a new sweet creation that would both complement and highlight the honey in a buttery, fruity format.

With summer stone fruit in full swing, I reached for vibrant apricots, known to become jammy and intensify in flavor when baked. (I first tried nectarines and peaches, but their flavor faded in the oven and their texture didn’t hold up as well as apricots, which I realized I hadn’t baked with for quite a long time.) The soft-baked, tangy apricots proved perfect as a topping for my new cookies.

A crisp, light shortbread-like base seemed a natural choice, and a petite spoonful of honey would be showcased in each cookie’s wide, shallow imprint. I found that the cookies invited a pinch of herbs and spice — and cinnamon and rosemary made a scrumptious pairing (though they’re certainly optional, as the “plain” version offers plenty of nicely balanced flavor amid a delicious simplicity). 

The result is a satisfyingly buttery, honey-rich cookie with a lovely whisper of salt, all topped with a burst of tart, luscious fruit.

When I brought a plate of these cookies to my beekeeping neighbor, he mentioned that the bees have disappeared now, and expressed that the honey felt heaven-sent. I realize that cookies are very insignificant in moments like these. But my wish is that, somehow, this circle of sweetness might bring a moment of comfort, or better yet, hope.

Honey Apricot Cookies (Makes 20)

  • 1 cup (5.3 ounces/150 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons (1.5 ounces/43 grams) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces/113 grams) unsalted butter, quite soft but not melted
  • 2 tablespoons good quality honey
  • 3 medium to large apricots, ripe but firm
  • Optional: up to 1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon (preferably Ceylon) and powdered dried rosemary*, whisked together

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Add brown sugar and stir gently. Add butter and beat well, until moist crumbs have formed and dough sticks together. Use hands to shape dough into a cohesive ball; knead gently if needed.

Separate dough into pieces about a scant tablespoon a piece, weighing 15 grams or 0.5 ounce each. Shape each dough segment into a ball, then flatten and indent slightly, directly onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets, creating 1.75″ diameter cookies with a centered 1″ indentation. Avoid pressing all the way through and/or making the bottom too thin/translucent; you want to create a sturdy, wide basin for the honey. If the wall of the cookie cracks, gently smooth with your finger. Keep cookies at least 1.5″ apart from one another as you arrange them on the baking sheets.

Fill each cookie with 1/4 teaspoon honey; do not fill to the brim. (You may end up with a little honey left over.) If desired, add small pinches of the cinnamon-rosemary blend around the edges of some or all cookies. Freeze the filled cookies for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, rise and dry apricots. Halve the apricots and remove pits. Slice each half into quarters, crosswise, to create eighths. (You may need a different division if your apricots are particularly large or small. The goal is 20 pieces that fit nicely across each honey puddle.) You may have a few extra apricot pieces.

Preheat oven to 325 F with a rack centered between top and bottom.

Working quickly, set an apricot piece cut-side-down onto each frozen cookie, centered in the puddle of honey. Bake for about 20 minutes, one rack at a time. When finished, edges of cookies should be golden brown and dough should look dry. Let cookies completely cool on baking sheets before moving or eating. Keep cookies covered and chilled if not eating the day they’re baked.

Maybe next time… Instead of hand shaping, you can bake these cookies in a mini muffin pan. Be sure to line the pan with mini muffin papers first (or grease it very generously) and indent each cookie deeply using a finger in the center before filling and freezing. You may need to use smaller pieces of apricots for this format.

In my experience, twenty addictive cookies go fast; feel free to double this recipe.

If adding spice, a pinch of nutmeg swapped in for the cinnamon would also be divine.

*To powder rosemary, place dried rosemary (without the thick, woody stems) in a spice grinder (a.k.a. blade coffee grinder) and pulse until powdered, or try a mortar and pestle.

 

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

Blood Orange Poppy Seed Cake

Jose, who runs my favorite taqueria, puts his heart into his work. It’s delightful to hear the passion in his voice when he talks about recipes, family dishes, and thoughtful ingredients. When he told me he’d been looking at my blog with his wonderful mom (also an exquisite cook), I felt honored. Then he asked what kinds of sweets I’d made with blood oranges, and I realized with a tinge of embarrassment that I simply hadn’t.

I’d long loved blood oranges for their crimson beauty and unique pomegranate-meets-citrus flavor. It was the height of citrus reason, and there was really no reason to wait any longer. So with my belly full of tacos, I immediately headed to the market on a mission to transform them into a new dessert.

My blood oranges would soon become a light, vibrant cake made with plenty of juice and zest, a splash of vanilla, and the pleasant crackle of poppy seeds for a delicately nutty balance. A bit of lime would add a complementary zing, while a dazzling but easy glaze would flaunt the oranges’ tang and hue.

Speaking of that hue, a funny thing can happen when making this cake. If the blood oranges are deeply ripe and red, their reaction with the baking soda results in a blue crumb. The flavor is unaffected — it’s as citrusy and fresh as ever — and the cake’s texture remains moist and airy. The blueness merely adds a bit of whimsy while it contrasts beautifully with the pink icing, and the indigo poppy seeds enhance the unusual color. And I love the inherent reminder that baking is full of unexpected magic.

Aside from the labor of zesting and juicing, this is a rather simple recipe that goes fast. The glaze process may at first appear fussy, but it’s done in just a few painless minutes. As with this recipe, heating the liquid helps trigger the thickening power of the corn starch in the powdered sugar, which not only makes the glaze set quickly but also prevents it from soaking into the cake. Flavor-wise, the glaze offers a burst of sweet citrus that enrobes a tender, tangy cake balanced with warm vanilla and toasty seeds.

Blood Orange Poppy Seed Cake [Serves 8-10]

  • 2 small limes (about 5 ounces)*
  • 6-8 medium blood oranges (about 2.5 – 3 pounds)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup (4.5 ounces or 127 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil such as sunflower or canola
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1.5 cups (8 ounces or 230 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus a dash for the glaze
  • 2 tablespoons (0.75 ounce or 20 grams) poppy seeds
  • 1.75 cups (7.5 ounces or 215 grams) powdered sugar, for the glaze

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease the inside of an 8″ round cake pan; line the inner bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Set aside.

Wash and dry the citrus fruit. Using a microplane or similar sized zester, finely grate the outer peel of one lime and 4 – 5 oranges (you want about 15 grams total zest). Set aside.

Halve and juice both limes, followed by the blood oranges. Remove any seeds; some bits of pulp are fine. Stop when you have 1.5 cups total strained citrus juice. (You may end up with extra oranges depending on their juiciness; use as you wish.)

In a large bowl, beat the egg and granulated sugar until combined. Beat in the oil and vanilla until smooth. Over the bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Begin to stir, gradually adding 1.25 cups of the citrus juice (reserve remaining 1/4 cup juice for the glaze).  Mix just until batter is an even consistency and all ingredients are incorporated.

Gently fold in the poppy seeds and citrus zest until evenly dispersed. Pour batter into prepared cake pan. Bake on center rack in preheated oven, 35-40 minutes or until cake is golden brown and slightly domed, and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center tests clean of wet batter. Don’t worry if the cake has cracked.

Let cake cool to room temperature in pan; this can take more than an hour. If not glazing cake right away, cover cooled cake tightly with foil or plastic wrap and store at room temperature. When ready to glaze, invert and release cake, remove parchment, and place cake right-side-up on a rack over a platter or wax paper.

Measure then sift powdered sugar; set nearby. Place remaining 1/4 cup citrus juice in a small saucepan with a dash of salt. Over medium heat, bring juice just to a steady simmer. Turn off heat, and — working quickly — add the powdered sugar to the pan. Whisk vigorously until smooth. Immediately pour glaze directly over the cake, letting it drip down the sides. If desired, use any remaining glaze to create a zig-zag design. Glaze should dry quickly at room temperature.

Keep glazed cake uncovered in a cool, dry place until ready to serve. This will allow the glaze to set completely. Store leftover slices covered at room temperature or chilled, eating within two days.

*I like using limes for added punch and contrast, but lemon juice can be used instead — or even 100% blood oranges without other citrus.

Fun fact: this isn’t the first of my recipes inspired by Jose’s taqueria. Check out this cake for further evidence of my longtime taco addiction and proof that one’s creation often sparks another’s.

Posted in Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Buddha’s Hand Citron and Pistachio Pound Cake

Several years ago, my dad sent me this beautiful poem written by his longtime friend. I couldn’t wait to find the unusual fruit on which she’d written such heartfelt verses — to smell it, taste it, and transform it into a new treat. I feel fortunate that I’ve had several Buddha’s Hand Citrons grace my fruit bowl since then (not to mention some precious time with the poet, and more of her poetry). 

Today, I’m lucky to have both a relative and a neighbor whose trees burst with the citron each winter. In fact, I first met my neighbor by mustering the courage to ask for one, offering both cash and cake in return. Buddha’s Hands also show up at my nearby markets mid-winter, but they are rather elusive, ripening quickly once picked. (Isn’t it so Buddhist of them to remind us of impermanence?) 

The fruit’s twisty fingers offer a candy sweet, lemon-like perfume that fills the room with delight. I’ve found that the zest is its most useful part for baking (more thoughts on that below). This time, I decided to pair mine with bright, flavorful pistachios and plenty of vanilla. Its final destiny was a rustic, no-frills pound cake with both butter and cream cheese baked into the batter. Dense, sweet, hearty, and packed with nutty citrus flavors, the cake’s deeply toasty edges are a joy to pull off and devour, revealing an ultra-moist, toothsome crumb that’s speckled with beautiful green and yellow. 

Buddha’s Hand Citron Pistachio Pound Cake [Serves 10]

• 1 cup (5 oz or 143 grams) all purpose flour
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• 3.5 oz (100 grams) shelled pistachios, ground to medium grain [2/3 cup ground, packed]
• ¾ cup (6 oz or 170 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
• 4 ounces (112 grams) cream cheese at room temperature
• 1.5 cup (14 oz or 396 grams) granulated sugar
• 3 eggs at room temperature
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• scraped seeds from 1 medium vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or powder (optional)
• 12 – 15 grams (2 rounded tablespoons, loosely packed) finely grated zest of Buddha’s Hand Citron*

Note: I’ve tried a few different pans for this cake; all take about the same oven time and come with their own pros and cons. For an 8″ round as shown, make sure pan is a minimum of 2″ deep to prevent overflow; grease thoroughly and line the bottom with parchment. For a bundt pan, follow these important tips to prevent sticking. While the bundt is arguably the prettiest form and offers the maximum amount of chewy-crisp edges, this recipe won’t completely fill most standard-sized bundt pans, so spread the batter evenly before baking — otherwise the bottom of your bundt won’t be level. For a 9 x 5″ loaf pan, be ready for a slightly sunken center (but the cake will still be delicious). If serving it straight from the loaf pan, grease and flour pan; if removing the whole loaf at once, grease and line with a parchment sling.

Preheat oven to 325 F with a rack positioned in center.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl. Whisk in the ground pistachios. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and beat well, then add one egg at a time, beating in each until completely incorporated. Mix in the vanilla extract, then the vanilla bean if using. Add the nut-flour mixture and mix until just evenly dispersed. Stir in the zest until evenly distributed.

Working quickly, prepare your cake pan according to the tips above. Spread batter evenly into pan. 

Bake for about 55-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center tests free of wet batter and edges of cake are deeply browned. Let cool completely before serving, first removing parchment if used. This cake tastes best at cool room temperature and lasts several days covered in a cool place. The baked cake can even be wrapped and frozen; defrost and enjoy up to two weeks later. 

*Buddha’s Hand Citron is full of crevices that can hide dirt and critters. Before use, soak the entire fruit and shake it underneath the water. Rinse and dry well, then cut the citron into easy-to-hold pieces before zesting with a Microplane or similarly fine grater. One large citron should be plenty to yield the amount of zest needed for this recipe.

Maybe next time… If this recipe’s amount of sugar seems high to you, please don’t be tempted to reduce it. The cake is not at all cloying, and its texture and addictive crust depend on this amount; I experimented with various smaller volumes. Buddha’s Hand Citron offers an unmatched sweet-citrus flavor (my friend Brian says it happily reminds him of a more natural version of fragrant Fruity Pebbles cereal!) — but if you simply don’t have access to any, Meyer lemon or orange zest will work nicely in its place.

What about the rest of the fruit? It’s true: a cross section of the citron reveals that it’s pretty much solid pith. In one of my first versions of this recipe, I tried including a layer of pith medallions (sliced fingers, so to speak) — but the baked pith proved incredibly bitter. Here are some ideas that are more successful:

  • My neighbors with the tree tell me they’ve infused vodka with slices of the citron and greatly enjoy the results in cocktails and over ice.
  • An expert foodie acquaintance of mine recommends swapping it in for lemon in this spoon fruit recipe which relies on citrus pith. 
  • My lovely co-worker has kept thinly sliced citrus fruit immersed in honey in a jar in her fridge, dipping into it to make delicious tea as described in this video.
  • When I was experimenting with toppings for this cake (which I ultimately found unnecessary and too sweet), I used the pith to make a citron-infused glaze that could work on cookies or another dessert. Place coarsely chopped citron pith in a saucepan and cover completely with powdered sugar, at least a cup or two. Add a dash of salt. Cover and chill at least overnight. Sugar will be wet; remove and discard pith, scraping excess sugar into pan. Over low-medium heat, cook the wet sugar, stirring, until it’s just begun to simmer. Remove from heat and quickly whisk in another cup of powdered sugar. Use immediately — it dries fast. 

 

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Toasted Hazelnut Brown Sugar Cookies

I love hazelnuts — especially when they’re roasted, and especially when they’re not drenched in overpowering chocolate (sorry, Nutella). I created my hazelnut brown sugar cookie dough as a nod to my favorite nut, and I’ve been sharing them annually in my holiday cookie tins for awhile now — though they’re equally enjoyable all year long. Over time, I’ve had dozens of requests for the recipe, so I’m finally sharing it.

To give the cookies a depth of toasty flavor, the hazelnuts are pre-roasted (which alone fills the kitchen with a scrumptious aroma). Baking the cookies at a somewhat high temperature on the upper rack of the oven ensures a crisp exterior while preventing the bottoms from browning too much. The glaze tops them off with a welcome layer of extra sweetness and beauty.

With their toasty, crisp edges and barely tender centers, these petite cookies deliver a symphony of textures and flavors in each bite. The deeply toasted hazelnuts and whisper of molasses-laced brown sugar are delightfully complementary. The boozy glaze acts as delicate shell that’s somehow both warm and cooling on the tongue. Could there be a better way to showcase the magic of these beloved nuts? Maybe, maybe not.

Toasted Hazelnut Brown Sugar Cookies (makes 36 – 40 small cookies)

  • 4.5 ounces (128 grams) shelled hazelnuts
  • 1.75 cups (9 ounces or 254 grams) flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup (2.6 ounces or 75 grams) unsalted butter, soft/room temperature
  • 3/4 cup (5 ounces or 141 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 medium to large egg
  • 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • glaze (recipe follows)

PREPARE THE HAZELNUTS:

This step looks tedious, but it goes fast, isn’t difficult, and can be done well in advance. It’s easiest to rub away the peels when the nuts are just roasted, but if yours are already blanched and/or roasted, you can be selective and skip steps accordingly. For the 40 whole nuts reserved for pressing into the cookies, I like mine extra toasted, but feel free to opt to not pre-roast them if you prefer; they’ll get another chance when the cookies bake.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven 8 – 10 minutes, until fragrant and just browning. Let sit until cool enough to handle. Unless your hazelnuts are blanched, remove most of their papery skins by rubbing them gently together in batches, using a clean, dry towel or hands. It’s OK if some skins are stuck on; removing even just some of them will ensure a premium texture and will reduce potential bitterness. Discard skins.

Set aside 40 of the prettiest whole hazelnuts for pressing into the cookies later. Once completely cool, place remaining nuts in a nut crusher or food processor, and pulse to create a medium to fine crumb, neither totally powdered nor pasty.

PREPARE AND BAKE THE DOUGH:

Measure out 1/2 cup packed ground hazelnuts (3 ounces or 86 grams) and place in a medium bowl. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of ground nuts; whisk to combine. Set aside.

In a separate, larger bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until well combined. Add egg and mix until incorporated, followed by the extract. Add the dry ingredients gradually, beating until just fully combined with a cohesive dough formed. You may have to knead the dough with your hands a bit.

Line cookie sheets with parchment. Using a scant tablespoon of dough (0.5 to 0.7 ounce or 15-17 grams) per cookie, shape dough balls and set them on the parchment at least an inch apart from one another. Press a whole hazelnut firmly into the center of each cookie, about a third of the way through.

To help retain their shape, freeze cookies for at least 15 minutes (or in a tightly sealed container up to a month). Meanwhile, position an oven rack at the highest level in your oven, near the top. Preheat oven to 375 F.

Place sheet of chilled cookies on the upper oven rack, and bake for 10-12 minutes, until bottoms are toasty brown and tops no longer look wet. Let cool completely on baking sheets, then transfer to cooling racks for glazing.

FOR THE GLAZE:

Raw egg white is a standard ingredient in traditional royal icing, but feel free to skip it if needed, noting that the icing will not dry or harden as quickly or thoroughly, and that you’ll need a little more liquid. If you don’t want to use alcohol, use a combination of water and vanilla extract in its place. Double this recipe if you prefer not to scrape up and re-use the drippings, or if you want to dunk the whole cookie in glaze or double-glaze the cookies for a sweeter result.

  • 1 tablespoon gently whisked egg white
  • 1 cup (4.5 ounces or 130 grams) powdered sugar, packed
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 – 5 teaspoons dark rum, bourbon, or Irish whiskey

Set the rack of cookies over a clean baking sheet or cutting board. Place the tablespoon of egg white in a medium bowl and sift powdered sugar over it. Add the salt. Begin to whisk, adding alcohol one teaspoon at a time. Whisk well, until smooth and lump-free. Glaze should pour easily but should not be clear or too runny; you may not need the full amount of liquid listed above.

Using about 1/2 teaspoon per cookie, spoon the glaze over the center of each cookie, letting it run off the edges. Re-whisk the glaze as you go. If you run out of glaze, work quickly to scrape up the drippings beneath the rack, re-whisk, and continue spooning over cookies. Let glaze set at room temperature until dry to the touch, and enjoy!

Cookies taste best fresh, but can be stored in a sealed container at cool room temperature and eaten within 4 -5 days. If stacking cookies, use mini muffin liners or parchment between layers.

Maybe next time… Instead of centering a nut in these cookies, you can make an indention and fill with jam such as raspberry (for a Linzertorte-esque treat), filling before baking. If you do so, skip the glaze to avoid oversweetness. Also, this cookie dough makes great roll-and-cut cookies. Read more about that format here.

A tin of toasted hazelnut brown sugar cookies (right), with orange cardamom cookies (left) and herbes de provence lemon curd cookies (center).

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Herbes de Provence Shortbread with Lemon Curd Filling

The common Herbes de Provence spice blend caught my eye when I realized I’d made sweet treats with many of its ingredients: lavender, basil, rosemary, fennel. As a plus, its thyme, oregano, and marjoram were baking additions I’d dreamed of using or were similar to those I’d enjoyed in others’ desserts.

This mixture can certainly vary: some versions don’t contain lavender while others include summer savory, for instance. It’s a blend considered typical of the Provence region of southeast France (even if partially for marketing purposes). But from what I’ve seen, Herbes de Provence are always sweet-friendly, with a convenient absence of things like garlic and onion.

I decided to showcase my herbs in a shortbread-like cookie with a crisp but tender crumb and a satisfying balance of salt. A tangy element would complement them well, and I reached for something decadent: creamy, bright lemon curd filling. The result is a simple recipe that yields petite but delightfully flavorful thumbprint cookies, flaunting both succulent citrus custard and fragrant, earthy herbs in every buttery bite.

Herbes de Provence Shortbread with Lemon Curd Filling
[makes 20 small cookies]

2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup lemon curd**
powdered sugar for dusting — optional

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Pulse herbs in spice grinder or crush with mortar & pestle until powdered. Sift powdered herbs, flour, sugar and salt into a medium bowl. Add the soft butter, incorporating it with a fork or pastry cutter until large crumbs form. Then gently knead by hand to form a large, even dough ball that sticks together.

Form cookie balls using a scant tablespoon of dough (15 grams each); you should end up with about 20. Place them on lined baking sheets about 1.5 to 2″ apart. Press thumb or index finger deep into center of each, bracing sides if needed to prevent cracking. Fill each hole with lemon curd to a mounded round; using a pastry bag or plastic sandwich bag with its corner snipped can be easiest.

Freeze filled cookies at least 15 minutes or up to overnight. While cookies freeze, preheat oven to 325 F. Bake for about 16-20 minutes on center rack in oven. When ready, lemon curd should be puffed up and edges of cookies will be becoming golden brown.

Note that the lemon curd center will stay hot much longer than cookie dough, and will deflate a bit as it cools. Once cookies are completely cool, dust with powdered sugar or top with a tiny pinch of extra herbs. If not serving within a few hours, keep cookies in a closed container, and store in a cool place or refrigerated, eating within 3-4 days.

Maybe next time… Generating fewer than two dozen cookies, this recipe is small: a great candidate for doubling, thanks to its common ingredients. For an equally complementary filling, try cranberry curd. Or, for a less delicate/creamy outcome, use marmalade (lemon or orange would be divine).

**LEMON CURD is available pre-made in jars at many grocery stores, and below is my favorite recipe for a homemade version, which makes much more than these cookies call for. I’ve never found a problem using up extra lemon curd (toast! scones! sundaes! spoonfuls!). And you can always add extra dollops of the custard to the already filled and baked cookies to amp up the lemony punch; just be sure to store and serve them chilled.

Alternatively, to cut down the amount of lemon curd below, it’s easy to divide the recipe into thirds, thanks to the number of lemons, eggs and yolks. When dividing this recipe, I find it helpful to remember that there are 8 tablespoons in a half cup, and 3 teaspoons per tablespoon. Also, keep in mind that it may cook significantly more quickly than noted when made in a smaller volume.

Homemade Lemon Curd (makes about 1.25 cups)

finely grated zest of 3 lemons
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, strained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste (optional)
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

In a medium heatproof bowl such as glass or metal, whisk all ingredients except butter. Set the butter nearby, cut into at least 4 pieces. Set bowl over a pot containing a few inches of simmering water, making sure bottom of bowl is just over the water but not touching it. Whisk constantly, until the mixture is thick enough that a trail can be pulled across it with the whisk without it quickly filling in, about 15 minutes (shorter if recipe is made smaller). Remove bowl from heat; continue whisking occasionally for a few more minutes, then whisk in the butter one piece at a time, letting each piece melt completely into the mixture before adding the next. Push the warm custard through a sieve into a clean container. Cover and refrigerate. Use within a week.

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White Peach Campari Sorbet

Whenever he wanted an apéritif before a special dinner, my dad always ordered the same drink: Campari and soda with a twist. He loved the refreshing sparkle of fizzy water alongside herbal, bitter liqueur and tart lemon peel. (He also loved to clink glasses with others and to simply celebrate life.)

I’d made a sweet treat with a similar essence, but always wanted to turn Dad’s Campari cocktail into a treat just for him – and sorbet was his frequent favorite when it came to dessert. The resulting recipe came just in time for his would-be 70th birthday, and it feels aptly bittersweet to know with certainty that he would have loved it.

I experimented with incorporating soda water (and even with ways to retain its effervescence), but began instead to lean toward the season’s bounty of fruit. Delicate, floral white peaches would offer a smooth but pulpy texture and a delightfully mild blank canvas for the Campari to shine.

With its bitterness akin to grapefruit peel and its notes of aromatic herbs, the liqueur comes through with a clean, reviving mouthfeel in each cool, juicy spoonful. Lemon juice provides brightness in flavor and color, while the whisper of salt and sugar offer a perfect balance to the palate.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This one’s for you, Dad.

White Peach Campari Sorbet
[makes a little over a quart]

½ cup Campari
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ¼ pounds ripe white peaches (about 4 large)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (preferably Meyer), strained

In a small saucepan, combine Campari, sugar, and salt. Place over medium-low heat and stir regularly until sugar and salt have completely dissolved and syrup is barely simmering – about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove syrup from heat and let cool, then refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Meanwhile, chill the peaches and lemon juice. (If desired, all of the above can be done a day ahead.)

Rinse and dry the peaches. Cut into quarters or smaller; discard pits. Place peach pieces in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Puree until smooth with no fruit chunks; there will be small speckles of peach skin. Add ½ cup of the Campari syrup (use any extra as you wish), then the lemon juice, mixing until completely incorporated.

Transfer mixture to bowl of ice cream maker and churn until at least soft-serve consistency. Transfer into a loaf pan or other sturdy container from which you’ll be able to scoop. Cover tightly and freeze for at least six hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, remove sorbet from freezer, uncover, and let sit at room temperature for five minutes or until consistency is soft enough to scoop. Store tightly covered in freezer for up to a week or two.

Maybe next time: No peaches around when you’re reading this? Ripe, mild pears such as Bartlett would also work wonderfully. Feel free to peel the fruit if you want to, but  there’s really no need: the speckles of skin give character to the texture, taste, and look of the sorbet — and the peach fuzz vanishes in the blending process. This sorbet is not too sweet and tends toward the sour side; if your fruit is especially un-sweet and/or you prefer a sweeter sorbet, feel free to increase the amount of sugar in the syrup up to ½ cup.

 

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Sweet Almond Cherry Bars

It’s funny how a recipe can evolve, branch off, and even come full circle. A couple of years ago, I was determined to make a new blondie-like bar cookie with cherries in it. I played around and came up with a first draft but wasn’t happy with the texture. By the time I was able to revise the recipe, cherries were out of season, and eventually my browned butter fig bars were born. (Not a bad place to land; they’re a big favorite!)

About a year later, I made a  delightful cranberry quince version of the bars (a scrumptious combination) and added sweet almond paste to the batter. But those, too, needed some revising — and once again, before I could finalize the recipe, quince had disappeared from the market. So here I am, back at the beginning with cherries. This time, I brought along the sweet almond paste and everything I learned along the way. And cherry season is still in full swing as I write this. Huzzah!

With softened almond paste beaten into creamy butter, a burst of bright orange, and warm vanilla, these bars offer a fantastic flavor balance. Thanks to the two-level baking method, the bottoms and edges are toasty and sturdy, but the bars remain moist and soft inside — a perfect bed for jammy, wrinkled baked cherries. Amaretto-y and not too sweet, they can be drizzled with complementary white chocolate, or not — and they’re as welcome on the breakfast table as they are after dinner.

Cherry Almond Bars
[makes 20-40 sliced cookies, depending on size]

  • 1 cup (4 ounces / 113 grams) almond meal*
  • 1 cup (5 ounces / 140 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 7 ounces (198 grams) firm blanched almond paste, softened/lukewarm*
  • 6 ounces (170 grams) unsalted butter, softened
  • ¾ cup (5.3 ounces / 150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • finely grated zest of one orange*
  • 13.5 ounces (383 grams) halved, pitted cherries (from about 1 pound whole cherries)*
  • Optional: ½ cup (3.5 ounces / 100 grams) white chocolate, chopped or chips*

Position one oven rack in the lowest position and one at middle height. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Prepare a 9×13” baking pan: If using a pan from which you’ll be cutting the bars directly (such as glass), simply grease it. If using a pan from which you don’t want to cut the bars directly (such as metal or ceramic that scratches easily), grease sides lightly and line bottom with a generous sheet of parchment that hangs over on the long edges (you’ll use it as a sling later). Set prepared pan aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk almond meal to remove any lumps. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt over the almond meal. Stir until blended. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar on high until fluffy. Reduce speed to medium. With mixer on, gradually add the lukewarm (soft) almond paste, in grape-sized pieces. (I pinch pieces off the log of almond paste and toss them in.) Once all almond paste is added and incorporated, beat in the egg yolks one at a time, followed by the extracts. Stopping to scrape bowl often, add the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. Finally, fold in the orange zest until evenly dispersed.

Transfer dough to prepared baking pan and spread evenly to edges. Add the cherries, cut side down in rows close together, and press them down gently. Keep in mind that they’ll shrink and will want to move around while baked.

Bake on the bottom rack for 10-15 minutes (10 minutes if your pan is glass or very dark metal, or if your lowest rack is especially close to the heat source. More time is needed for lighter colored metal pans and ceramic pans). Move pan to center rack and bake 20-25 minutes (longer if the bottom-rack step was shorter). A total bake time of 40-45 minutes is generally about right. When ready, edges will be browned, area between cherries should look toasty, and cherries will be wrinkled. Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan to room temperature.

If you used parchment, gently lift the cookie slab and transfer to a cutting board, and carefully remove and discard the parchment.

Using a sharp knife, cut the bars as desired (my favorite is on the smaller size: two cherries per bar, but twice that size is also great). Transfer to a rack if adding the drizzle.

Make the drizzle: Gently melt white chocolate in a double boiler or in 20 seconds spans in the microwave. Stir regularly and stop heating just when you can stir the pieces smooth. If desired, whisk in a couple of drops of almond extract. Transfer white chocolate to a pastry bag fitted with a writing tip, or a plastic sandwich bag with a tiny corner cut off. Drizzle over the cookie bars in zigzagged stripes. Let drizzle cool and dry.

If desired, transfer cookies into paper cupcake liners to serve. The bars taste lovely at room temperature and are also quite delightful when chilled. Store in a closed container for up to two days at room temperature or up to five days in the fridge.

*Maybe next time…

Shown here, I used skin-on (unblanched) almond meal for its flecked texture and extra nuttiness, but blanched almond flour also works well and pairs particularly nicely with lemon zest in place of orange.

As for the almond paste, be sure to use the firm, sliceable kind such as Odense brand (not the runny kind that comes in a can).

If opting for the drizzle, use high-quality white chocolate with cocoa powder as one of its main ingredients. Or for a decadent alternative, try dark chocolate. Alternatively, a glaze made from powdered sugar and either citrus juice or liqueur would also be scrumptious and easy (Grand Marnier or Kirsch come to mind). To do so, just sift a cup of powdered sugar into a bowl, and add liquid very gradually, by the half-teaspoon, whisking until pourable but thick.

Finally, since fruit weights can vary, it doesn’t hurt to have some extra cherries on hand in case you need a few more to cover the bars. I prefer larger cherries which tend to stay in place and don’t shrink down as much as smaller varieties.

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