Green Artichoke Cake

I started daydreaming of artichoke-laden desserts around the same time that I discovered Pablo Neruda’s fabulous poem Ode to the Artichoke: “…For the final act, we reveal its deliciousness, plucking it leaf by leaf, and devour the peaceable dough that lies at its green heart.”*  It was that succulent center which came calling to me with its creamy, earthy and faintly bitter qualities. The palate brought to mind the nuttiness of unpeeled almonds, the mellow bite of molasses, and the tang of lemon zest.

I decided on a simple, tender cake to showcase the veggie alongside a harmony of ingredients. While I truly loved the idea of using fresh artichokes for my sweet creation (in fact, their spring season is surfacing just as a write this), I decided on canned artichokes for this recipe. I admit it feels strange to suggest this, especially while living on Alice Waters’ terrain, but I do so thoughtfully.

For one, canned artichokes are perfectly soft and their flavor is nicely preserved. Plus, the canned version’s inherent salt and liquid are common prerequisites for a cake batter. Finally, I just didn’t want to create a recipe where snipping, steaming, and plucking fresh artichokes led to giving up their hearts to the food processor en route to cake batter, rather than their being savored as a reward for all the work of getting there.

The outcome is a super moist cake with a fresh and satisfying balance of flavors. While the flecks of almond and splash of vanilla offer familiar warmth, the bits of lemon and molassesy brown sugar echo the artichoke’s mildly tangy side. Coconut oil offers a creamy sweetness to mirror the richness of the artichoke heart, which itself comes through in delightfully delicate earthy tones.

What I never expected was that the cake would turn green once baked, and would become darker and darker green thereafter. Thankfully, as my adventurous taste-testers assured me, the color doesn’t affect the flavor or texture. “If I close my eyes, it’s like a delicious spin on carrot cake!” “I make green smoothies for my kids and call them ‘green monster shakes’; now we’ll have ‘green monster cake’ too!” Whatever it brings to mind, this colorful creation is really just a luscious cake, as perfect for breakfast as it is for dessert.

Green Artichoke Cake [makes a one layer 8″ cake; serves about 10]

  • 1 can (at least 13.75 ounces) artichoke hearts in water and salt, whole or quartered**
  • 1 cup dark brown or muscovado sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/3 cup melted coconut oil
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup almond meal, firmly packed (from skin-on almonds; not blanched)
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking soda
  • finely grated zest of one lemon
  • powdered sugar for topping (optional)

Grease the inside of a 8″ cake pan, and line the inner bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour the whole can of artichokes and liquid into the bowl of a food processor and whirl for about 30 seconds, stopping halfway through to scrape sides and lid of bowl with a spatula. Texture should be pureed without any big pieces but won’t be perfectly smooth. Measure out 1.5 cups of the puree; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the brown sugar and melted coconut oil until just mixed. Add the eggs one at time, beating in each one until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla. Add the almond meal and stir (note: if your almond meal is lumpy, place it in a separate small bowl and whisk well to remove any clusters before adding it to the batter). Sift the flour and baking soda into the bowl and begin to mix; batter will seem thick. Add the 1.5 cups pureed artichoke and beat, stopping to scrape bowl with spatula, then mixing until just incorporated and even. Finally, fold in the lemon zest until uniformly dispersed.

Pour batter into pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until top of cake is toasty brown, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of wet batter. Remove from oven; let cool completely to room temperature in the pan. If not serving right away, cover the cooled cake and store at cool room temperature, eating within 24 hours. (Keep in mind that cake will become greener as it sits, deepening in color with time.) When ready to serve, gently loosen sides of cake with a butter knife, transfer to a serving plate, and remove parchment. Sift powdered sugar over the cake just before serving, using a stencil if desired.

Maybe next time… While this cake is really moist already, you can amp up the decadence and fancy-factor by slathering it with tangy cream cheese frosting or a citrus mascarpone frosting in place of powdered sugar. Orange zest in place of lemon could be a welcome change in the batter, and melted unsalted butter can be swapped in for the coconut oil. This cake is great for breakfast or an afternoon snack with berries; or, for an extra rich dessert, serve each slice with a scoop of lemon ice cream — or better yet, this lovely artichoke gelato (which confirms that my green dessert cravings aren’t too far off!).

**Be sure not to choose marinated artichoke hearts with oil, vinegar, garlic or herbs; these are commonly found in glass jars. Instead, use canned artichokes containing only water, salt, and perhaps some citric acid.

*From Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, bilingual edition, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft. Bulfinch Press, 1994.

Posted in Baking with Veggies, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chocolate Teacakes with Raspberry and Lavender

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Over time, I’ve found that lavender and chocolate can form a mouthwatering marriage, where the decadence of each is somehow mellowed and complemented at once. The depth of chocolate is met with unexpected earthy tones, often with crisp bits of fragrant flowers alongside smooth, melty richness. So it felt right to turn to chocolate when I created a new treat using a beautiful lavender-speckled herbal tea not long ago: tiny, chocolate-dipped cakes filled with tea-infused raspberry jam. (More about that tea project here.)

chocolate-raspberry-lavender-bites-27I’d since daydreamed of making these sweets again — and with a few upgrades. For instance, instead of a fruit filling that soaked into the cakey centers, I envisioned a tiny tunnel holding a distinct pocket of preserves in each bite. And while I loved the sleek shape of my original upside-down version, the cakes’ naturally domed tops made them a bit tricky to balance bottom-up and invited a smooth, rounded topping.

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Finally, while the intricate tea — comprised of not only lavender but also lemongrass, hyssop, and more — was my original inspiration for the dessert, I wanted to experiment with an all-lavender option (especially since not everyone has the tea readily available, though it’s rather easy to order). A bit more pronounced in floral flavor, the new rendition proved just as tasty as the first. With either version, the little cakes pack a scrumptious balance of tangy fruit, delicate herbal lavender, and luscious dark chocolate that can’t help but satisfy an array of sweet-toothed palates.

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Chocolate tea cakes with raspberry and lavender
(Makes 36-40 mini muffin sized cakes)

For the filling:

  • 2/3 cup raspberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon culinary lavender flowers or Wild Gift tea

For the pan preparation:

  • butter, oil, or oil spray
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

For the cake batter:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup boiling water

For the topping:

  • 10 ounces dark chocolate, in pieces or chips
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
  • lavender flowers for sprinkling

Up to two days in advance, pulse the tea or lavender in a spice grinder (a.k.a. blade-style coffee grinder) or crush with a mortar and pestle. Process into a grain fine enough that it won’t get stuck in a piping tip. Whisk into raspberry preserves until evenly dispersed. Cover and refrigerate.

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*Prepare mini muffin pans by fully greasing each indentation. Sift the tablespoons of sugar and cocoa into a small bowl and whisk together. Distribute about a scant half teaspoon of the mixture into each muffin cup. Rotate pan to disperse powder across the bottoms and sides of the cups. Invert and tap the pans to shake off excess powder. Set pans aside.

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Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat a kettle containing at least 2/3 cup water. While the water heats, place the sugar, egg, egg yolk, oil and vanilla in a large, heatproof mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt over the egg mixture. Begin to stir in the dry ingredients (mixture will be thick); no need to mix thoroughly at this point.

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Once the water is boiling, carefully add 1/3 cup of the water to the batter. Stir well, then add remaining 1/3 cup water. Beat until consistency of batter is smooth and even, scraping bowl with a spatula along with way. Fill the cups of the prepared pans 2/3 to 3/4 full using about a tablespoon of batter per cup. Bake for about 9-10 minutes, just until centers test clean with a toothpick. Remove from oven; let cakes cool to room temperature in pans.

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Once completely cool, loosen cakes from pans by running a toothpick or small butter knife around their edges. One at a time, pick up each cake and insert a straw or a Bismarck piping tip into its side, about halfway between the top and bottom of the cake (better closer to the top than the bottom).

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Gently twist the straw as you push it at least 3/4 way into the cake horizontally, almost to the other side but not all the way through. Slowly withdraw the straw, then remove the strip of cake inside it by tapping it onto a plate or softly blowing into other end of straw. Discard cake scraps (or eat!). Repeat until all cakes have been burrowed.

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Place the lavender/tea infused jam in a piping bag with a plain open tip that will fit inside the tunnels in the cupcakes. With each cupcake, insert piping tip and gently squeeze while slowly withdrawing the piping bag. Fill the little tunnels completely but without causing bursting or overflowing.

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Set up cooling racks nearby, placed over cookie sheets and/or wax paper. Place the chocolate pieces in a glass or metal bowl, and set bowl over a pan of simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should be near the water but not touching it. Stir chocolate as it melts, watching as the solid pieces disappear. When chocolate is almost completely smooth, add the coconut oil. Whisk until just incorporated and smooth. Remove from heat.

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Working quickly, dip cakes one at a time in the melted chocolate. Hold cake by the sides using two fingers. Begin by dipping just the side of the cake with the exposed jam-filled hole into the chocolate, then turn cake upside down into the chocolate, dipping only the top of the cake. Your cakes should end up with chocolate coating on the top and on one side which seals the tunnel of jam. Set on cooling racks to let any excess chocolate drip off.

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While chocolate is still wet, sprinkle each cake with a few pieces of lavender. Then set cakes in a cool place to let chocolate dry and firm up. For optimal texture, eat the cooled teacakes on the day of baking — but they can be stored in a sealed container or under a glass dome for up to two days at room temperature.

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*Maybe next time… I chose to insert my filling from the side in order to fight gravity, spread the jam across two bites, and keep the tops nice and smooth — but it’s more common to fill cupcakes from the bottom or top, and the latter will allow you to use cupcake liners if you don’t want to deal with greasing, dusting, and washing the pans. To keep these treats dairy free, choose oil instead of butter for greasing the pans, and use chocolate that does not contain milk products.

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Posted in Baking with Flowers, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pecan Brown Sugar Cookies: A Nod to the King Cake

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A few Februaries ago, we received an unusual delivery at the office: a giant, ring-shaped cake opulently decorated with both icing and colored sugar (yellow, green, and purple). On the side, there were a few strands of Mardi Gras beads and a tiny plastic baby. A colleague who’d recently moved to New Orleans had generously shared her new tradition with us Californians, and we were delighted to devour it.

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I’d had a long fascination with the flaky French version, but this southern king cake was also a masterpiece: yeasted and airy, stuffed with a thick pocket of brown sugar, spices, and pecans. Undeniably festive and incredibly sweet, the soft cake was perfect with coffee for an impromptu celebration.

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Over time, I’ve periodically daydreamed of the cake’s key flavors in new and tasty (and slightly less sweet) embodiments. When I was recently given a bottle of this luscious, boozy tribute to New Orleans coffee, I knew my tasty homage to the king cake was soon to be born.

I decided on a toasty pecan cookie, rich with molassesy brown sugar and a scoop of warming nutmeg. Making them wreath-shaped was a no-brainer, and the icing would deliver a lively burst of the liqueur whose depth balanced readily with the mellow flavors in the dough.

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As a nod to Mardi Gras, I topped many of my cookies with tinted sugar in the three requisite colors like tiny king cakes. But these treats are fabulous any time of year, with nearly any edible decoration (one of my favorites is simply crushed toasted pecans, which this recipe affords). Buttery, boozy and nutty, these crisp cookies are sure to deliver delight, no matter the occasion.

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Pecan Brown Sugar Cookies with Coffee Liqueur Glaze
[makes about 28 cookies; 2.5″ diameter]
image-free, easy-print pdf version

For the cookies:

  • about 3 ounces shelled pecans
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 medium to large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 3/4 cup all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • 1 and 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Spread pecans evenly on a baking sheet and toast on center rack in oven for about 6-7 minutes. Remove from oven; turn oven up to 375 F. Once pecans are cooled to room temperature, process or crush with a nut grinder to create medium crumbs. Measure out 1/3 cup firmly packed, or 1.75 ounces ground pecans. Set aside. (Use leftover ground pecans for decorating cookies, or as you wish.)

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In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Sift over the bowl: flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Add the measured ground nuts. Mix until moist crumbs form, then use hands to knead dough gently, then bring into a ball.

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Transfer to a floured work surface. Using a fourth of the dough at a time, roll dough with floured rolling pin to about 1/6” thick (just between 1/8 and 1/4 inch). *Use a floured 2.5” diameter cookie/biscuit cutter to cut out circles. Use a ¾ circle to cut a hole in the center of each circle. (I used the narrow mouth of a vanilla bottle.)

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Re-use scraps of dough and re-flour surfaces as needed, placing cookies on the lined baking sheets as you go, at least 1/2 inch apart. You should end up with about 26-30 cookies. Bake at 375 for about 8 minutes, until edges and bottoms are golden brown. Transfer to cooling racks if available; let cool to room temperature.

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For the glaze:
This recipe makes plenty to fully glaze the tops and sides of each cookie using the dunking or spreading methods described below. If you prefer less icing or have smaller quantities of ingredients on hand, you can halve the recipe and use a drizzle/zig-zag method. Whichever method, be sure to cover bowl of glaze when not using (it dries fast), and whisk regularly.

  • 3 cups powdered sugar, very firmly packed
  • dash salt
  • 6 tablespoons coffee liqueur*
  • 1-2 tablespoons whisked egg white
  • extra crushed pecans from above, and/or sprinkles, sanding sugar, jimmies, etc.

Sift sugar and salt into a medium-large bowl. Add the liqueur one tablespoon at a time, whisking along the way (texture will start out dry), then add 1 tablespoon egg white. Whisk well. At this point the glaze should be thick and spreadable. Use a butter knife to spread it to the edge of each cookie, using fingertip to smooth if needed. Sprinkle with decorations as you go. Or…

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If this technique feels too tedious or time consuming, whisk another tablespoon of egg white into the icing, mixing well. Dunk the top of each cookie into glaze, then place on a cooling rack set over a cookie sheet, letting excess drip off. While cookies are still wet, garnish with toppings. Let dry at room temperature before eating or transporting. Store flat in sealed containers at room temperature, using wax paper between layers.

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*Maybe next time: If you use cookie cutters in any other size than those noted here, be sure to adjust your baking time accordingly, checking cookies early and often for doneness. Bourbon is a great stand in for the coffee liqueur, or if you want to make these alcohol-free, use half vanilla extract and half water in the icing. I skipped a plastic baby or other hidden prize, but it could be fun to bury a safe, edible treasure under the glaze of a cookie for a lucky winner — perhaps a chunk of chocolate or a piece of soft candy pressed into the dough of one of the cookies just before baking.

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

Rustic Almond Apple Cake with sherry and rosemary

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At a Spanish restaurant not long ago, the most delicious dessert (of the many I tried) was surprisingly simple: creamy vanilla ice cream with sherry poured over the top. The sherry was so fragrant, caramely and warming, I knew it had to soon make an appearance in one of my future dessert creations. When I ended up with a mountain of apples not long after, the pairing seemed meant to be: an apple-sherry cake was in the works.

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I desired a recipe that would use a lot of apples, and I wanted to make sure each slice of cake held a significant amount of fruit. I also craved cooked apples that were super tender, for a melt-in-your-mouth texture that would amp up the comfort-food factor. Pre-roasting halved apples in butter and booze was the perfect solution, and it helped showcase the sherry with its soft warmth infused into each apple. What’s more: the leftover sherry-butter would go straight into the cake batter, along with more sherry and some apple juice for extra moisture and natural sweetness.

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When it came to the batter, I decided to reach for toothsome, nutty almond meal alongside flour, and turbinado sugar for its mellow sweetness with hints of molasses. To echo the flecks of almond within, I stuffed each apple with sweet almond paste (marzipan works, too) and a topping of sliced nuts — which is not only decorative but also helps keeps the paste from sticking to the pan or parchment. Finally, on some occasions, I’ve added a bit of minced fresh rosemary to the recipe; it’s a delightfully herbal complement to the assembly of ingredients — though the cake is also perfectly delicious without it.

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While this turned into an admittedly long recipe, the steps are all simple and flow together with ease. Plus, you can shorten the time by prepping the dry ingredients and almond paste balls while the apples pre-bake. In the end, the result is surely worth the process: an utterly delicious cake that elicits lots of oohs and ahhs with its succulent texture and luscious, comforting flavors — as well as a nice size that will satisfy a crowd.

Apple almond cake with sherry and rosemary
[makes a 9×13” cake; 12-24 slices, depending on size]
image-free, easy-print pdf version

Prepare the apples:

  • 6-8 apples, depending on size (about 3 pounds total; any type will do — though smaller, firmer varieties tend to be easier to work with than larger, softer ones)
  • ¼ cup melted butter*
  • 1/3 cup sherry*
  • ½ teaspoon salt*
  • 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar*
  • about 3 ounces firm almond paste or marzipan
  • about ½ ounce sliced almonds (about 2 tablespoons; up to 54 slices)

*more of this ingredient will be needed later; see below.

Remove and discard apple stems. Peel apples and cut each one in half down the center. Scoop out seeds and core of each half using a small rounded spoon. Use a paring knife to remove any lingering spine or stem pieces. Set apples cut side down and check to make sure they are all no thicker than about an inch, and are all about the same thickness. If needed, gently trim thin slices from the non-cored sides of apples, in order to create the right size.

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Preheat oven to 350 F. Line inner bottom of a 9 x 13” pan with parchment, then spread 2 tablespoons of the melted butter evenly onto parchment. Place apples in lined pan cut-size-up; you should have 12 to 16 apple halves, depending on size. Whisk remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter with 1/3 cup sherry. Spoon all of the mixture over apples, filling the cored-out centers and letting it overflow. Sprinkle evenly with ½ teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes (a bit shorter if apples are very small). Remove apples from oven; leave oven on. Let apples cool in pan until cool enough to handle. Then transfer apples to a plate, cut side up — leaving all liquid behind in the cake pan for now (you’ll need it later).

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Shape almond paste or marzipan into small, slightly flattened balls that will fit into each apple center without poking out (you want the apples flush against the pan). Press at least three almond slices firmly against a flat side of each ball, then gently place in apple centers, almond side up. The sliced nuts will help keep almond paste from sticking to the parchment when baked (do not skip). Set aside.

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Prepare the cake:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ cup almond meal (preferably skin-on; not blanched)
  • ¾ cup turbinado sugar
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • 3 eggs at room temperature
  • 1.5 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1.5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1.25 cup apple juice
  • Up to ¾ cup sherry
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh rosemary, loosely packed (optional)

With oven at 350 F, pour remaining sherry-butter liquid from pan into a measuring cup that holds at least ¾ cup liquid. Set aside. Remove and discard parchment, and wipe out baking pan with a paper towel. Re-grease inside of pan and line with a fresh piece of parchment, leaving a generous overhang on the long edges. Then generously grease the parchment at the bottom of the pan where apples will sit when baked.

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Place stuffed apple halves cut side down in pan, very gently pressing into place so that apples are flat against the parchment. Set aside.

Into a medium bowl, sift the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Whisk in the almond meal until evenly dispersed and no lumps remain. Set aside.

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In a large bowl, mix turbinado sugar and melted butter. Beat in eggs one at a time, followed by both extracts. Add the mixed dry ingredients in 2 – 3 portions, alternating with the apple juice, stirring until ingredients are incorporated. Be sure to scrape bowl often with a rubber spatula as you mix.

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Add more sherry to the leftover sherry-butter liquid to make ¾ cup total liquid. Add to batter and mix just until consistency is even and smooth. Fold in rosemary if using, stirring until evenly dispersed. Slowly pour batter over the arranged apples. Then tap pan gently on counter just 2-3 times to release any hidden air bubbles.

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Bake on center oven rack for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center (preferably between apples) comes out free of wet batter. Surface will be toasty brown; don’t worry if it cracks — the top becomes the hidden bottom. Remove cake from oven and let cool in pan until lukewarm or room temperature. When ready to serve (preferably between 2 – 8 hours of baking), invert cake onto serving plate or cutting board. Remove parchment, cut and enjoy! Cake tastes best at room temperature or slightly warmed.

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Maybe next time…  Feel free to use a different, not-runny filling in place of the almond paste: perhaps halved walnuts, or another firm nut paste like pistachio or chestnut, or even a little ball of cookie dough — oatmeal or almond cookie dough would be fantastic! (Just don’t be tempted to skip stuffing the apples all together; the apples will float to the top of the cake inconsistently.) While sherry inspired this recipe and works wondrously, dark and/or spiced rum would be a fine substitute, as would bourbon or brandy. Or, for a booze-free version, reach for apple juice instead. Finally, brown or muscovado sugar will also work in place of turbinado.

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Posted in Baking with Booze, Baking with Herbs, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Passion Fruit Bites

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I was still daydreaming of the scrumptious passion fruit cheesecake I’d savored on a magical vacation, when I received an unexpected message from a friendly fellow foodie recently: “Hey girl, I have passion fruits with your name on them… Interested?”

How could I say no? Not only was I thrilled about the generous offer; I was also excited to finally meet the kind and talented Brenda in person after months of interacting online. As I imagined, it was a great pleasure to gather face to face, and to learn that the passion fruits — which were bigger and more succulent than any I’d seen before — came from the yard of Brenda’s family right here in the bay area. I felt so fortunate to have a share.

2016-09-29-18-45-04While the mountain in my fruit bowl grew increasingly fragrant, all kinds of custards, cakes and cookies drifted through my mind. But I couldn’t shake the memory of that dessert in Barcelona, so I decided on a creation that would mirror it and give it a nod. I chose a bite-sized treat, beginning with a no-bake crust made with skillet-browned coconut and hazelnuts for a toasty flavor. A simple cream cheese filling would offer a creamy, tangy element with just the right density. And with a sweet, tart, gooey passion fruit topping, I knew the trio of textures and flavors would form a perfect harmony.

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Passion fruit bites (makes around 32-36 bite-sized treats)

For the crusts:

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped hazelnuts (about 1.25 ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 3.75 ounces (110 grams) graham crackers (not cinnamon or flavored)
  • 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 6 tablespoons melted coconut oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Line mini muffin pans with paper liners. In a skillet over medium heat, toast chopped nuts and coconut, stirring regularly, for about 3 minutes or until fragrant and coconut is golden brown. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Break graham crackers into the bowl of a food processor. Add the flour and salt. Whirl until small crumbs have formed. Add the coconut/nut mixture and pulse a few times.

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Add melted coconut oil and vanilla, whirling until moist crumbs have formed. If texture seems too dry, add more melted coconut oil by the teaspoon (crumbs should stick together when pinched and be rather oily). Using a bit over a teaspoon per cup, place mixture into lined mini muffin pan cups, pressing in firmly. Place pans in freezer or fridge, first wrapping tightly in foil if not using the same day. (Crusts will harden as they chill, and can be stored in the freezer or fridge 2-3 days before filling.)

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For the filling:

  • 16 ounces cream cheese at room temperature (not “spreadable” or “whipped”)
  • 1/4 cup powdered/confectioner’s sugar (do not substitute with other sugar)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste, powder, or seeds from a pod

Place cream cheese in a mixing bowl; sift the powdered sugar over it, then add the vanilla bean. Beat well, until ingredients are incorporated and texture is smooth. Transfer to a pastry bag or plastic bag with a small corner snipped off, and pipe a layer about 1/4″ thick onto the chilled crusts, all the way to the edge of the crust touching the paper liner. Be sure to leave at least 1/4″ of space between the cream cheese and the top of the paper liner for the fruit topping.

Immediately place in fridge, wrapping with foil if not topping with the fruit the same day. Thanks in part to the bit of cornstarch in the powdered sugar, the cream cheese will firm up as it chills, and can be stored in the fridge 1-2 days before adding fruit topping. (You may have a little cream cheese filling left over; I trust you’ll find a good use for it.)

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For the passion fruit topping:

  • 1.25 cups passion fruit pulp*
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch

*Begin with wrinkly, ripe, purple-brown passion fruits. I was lucky to have large ones weighing about 2 ounces a piece, and used 6 to 7 for this recipe. About 14-16 ounces of any sized passion fruits should be about right to yield 1.25 cups pulp. Halve the passion fruits with a sharp knife, then scoop out seeds and juice, placing in a cup measure.

Transfer the 1.25 cups passion fruit pulp to a small saucepan. Into a small bowl, sift the sugar, then the cornstarch, and whisk together. Add to saucepan and bring heat to medium. Use a heatproof whisk to stir regularly, letting mixture come to a boil. Let boil for about 1.5 – 2 minutes, whisking constantly, just until mixture becomes frothy then visibly thickens into a jam-like consistency. Immediately remove from heat and let cool in pan for a few minutes, then spoon the warm topping onto the chilled cream cheese topped crusts. Fill each one to the top of the paper liner, then return to fridge to chill thoroughly. Serve chilled, keeping away from heat. Store covered in fridge up to 3 days.

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These tiny treats offer big satisfaction: a sweet, tangy burst of passion fruit that strikes a scrumptious balance with the warm, creamy flavors beneath. The coconut-hazelnut crusts are crisp, rich and toasty — it’s hard to tell they’re not oven-baked. Barely sweetened, vanilla-flecked cream cheese makes for a smooth and decadent filling. And gooey fruit topping — complete with the delightfully crackly seeds — gives each bite a luscious complexity of texture with all the succulence of dreamy, fragrant passion fruit. Cheers to new friendships, sweet memories, and sheer deliciousness!

2016-10-09-11-56-57Maybe next time… To make these treats vegan, choose graham crackers that are free of animal products, and use vegan cream cheese for the filling. No hazelnuts on hand? Macadamias, pecans, or almonds are also nice. I like the simplicity of the no-bake process here, but for a more traditional cheesecake texture, you could whisk an egg into the filling and bake it in the crusts (as is or with butter swapped in for the coconut oil). Lime is a classic pairing with passion fruit, and a bit of its zest would be welcome in the crust or creamy filling. Finally, if you have extra passion fruits, I recommend doubling the fruit topping recipe and spooning it on toast, waffles, ice cream — you name it!

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Posted in Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Creamy Lychee Butter

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I recently had the honor of making desserts for the release party of an extraordinary new line of teas. I was asked to create four different bite-sized desserts, incorporating a different tea into each batch. When I was given samples, my excitement grew; I knew I had my hands on something truly special. Each tea was beautiful, high quality, and delicious. The possibilities for inventive new sweets felt endless and inspired.

Tea Treats

With the toasty oolong tea, I created amaretto hazelnut cookies that were a lovely harmony of softness and warmth. Then I infused raspberry jam with an herbal floral blend and piped it into the centers of little chocolate lavender cakes. The scrumptious, spicy hibiscus-flecked brew would become mini whoopie pies. Finally, the lychee-laced black tea duo led me to develop this recipe for creamy lychee butter — and to swirl it high into tiny, tea-imbued cornmeal crusts speckled with Meyer lemon.

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The lychee butter proved addictive immediately, and I knew I’d want to adopt it as a habitual component for many desserts. It’s wondrous spread in a tart shell and covered with fruit, slathered between white cake layers, or simply dunked into with ladyfingers, graham crackers, or a spoon. I’ve made luscious batches with canned lychee, fresh lychee, and my favorite version: half of each kind.**

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Creamy Lychee Butter (makes about 1.5 cup)

  • 10 ounces lychee fruit (about 20 lychee) — peeled and pitted; drained if canned
  • finely grated zest of 1 small lemon, preferably Meyer
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place lychee and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor and whirl for about a minute, until evenly pureed. Set aside. In a small to medium saucepan, melt butter just until liquid, then add corn starch and whisk heartily over medium-low heat until incorporated.

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Add sugar and keep whisking just until sugar granules are dissolved. Add pureed lychee and the vanilla, increase heat to medium, and whisk constantly, letting mixture bubble for 2 – 3 minutes as it thickens well.

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Remove from heat and pour into a cool, heatproof dish. The concoction will look quite unpromising at this point — sort of like a blob of thick oatmeal drizzled with oil. Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then scrape it into the bowl of the food processor again. Blend for about a minute, stopping to scrape down sides halfway through, ultimately blending until smooth and opaque.

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Transfer to a pastry bag (use a large piping tip to avoid clogging), or place in a container with a lid. While the lychee butter can sit out for a few hours, be sure to store it covered in the fridge, and eat within 3 or 4 days.

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With its thick, spreadable texture, creamy lychee butter is a marvelous condiment that adds a welcome decadence to a number of desserts — or even your morning toast. The fragrant, floral lychee is balanced perfectly with the rich softness of the butter within, while the mild sweetness offers opulence without being overpowering. Flecked with tiny bits of lychee and lemon zest, lychee butter presents delightful complexity in a number of ways — not unlike the magnificent tea that inspired it.

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**Maybe next time… While my favorite way to make this is with half canned and half fresh, feel free to use all of one type of lychee — with the following pros and cons in mind. Canned lychee is a safe bet for its consistency in flavor and sweetness, but the floral fragrance of the fruit is a bit subdued. Fresh lychee — with its vibrant peels and beautifully smooth pits — is more authentic but harder to find; its flavor can be very floral, and its sweetness can sometimes be inconsistent.

Whichever way you make it, feel free to get creative! Orange or lime zest could be great substitutes for the lemon; a little sprinkle of ground cloves or cardamom could be lovely stirred in or sprinkled on top. Use it in all sorts of ways: folded into oatmeal, layered in a trifle, sandwiched between cookies — the list goes on…

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Posted in Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sweets in Spain

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Violet ice cream, Granada.

I recently had a longtime dream come true: I went to Spain! This post is a tribute to some of the amazing sweets I ate there. Just as I’ve imagined since my bygone college Spanish classes, I fell in love with the sites, the spirits of places, and the souls I met — in addition to the desserts.

And I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met my dear friend Pilar a few years ago. She was visiting California from Madrid when we crossed paths, and when she left for home, she said smiling, “Now it’s your turn to visit me!” So I daydreamed of it, letting life’s mandates distract me for dozens of months, until I finally took the plunge this year.

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Ensaimada mallorquina with a huge bite taken, Madrid.

As many people say about travel, it’s hard to describe the breathtaking places and experiences on my trip — those moments when the combination of sound, smell, sight, and touch all felt so vibrant, new, and irreplaceable that I even sometimes wept. No, not only the mind-blowing Gaudí sites or the breathtaking museums or the Alhambra — but also the simple walks through old twisting streets, the voices in cafes and plazas, the smell of the air and its breeze on my skin. All of it with a wonderful person by my side who patiently waited as I took too many photos and conversed in garbled, rusty Spanish.

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Apple tart and passionfruit cheesecake, Barcelona.

Of course, the sense of taste was a vital and remarkable part of my experience, too. I’ll long remember my many mouthwatering meals in Spain: from pintxos to pisto, gazpacho to paella, tortilla to tomato-toast, I savored every bite. I relished in the silky local olive oil drizzled on bread — miraculously, without ever missing butter (and I even learned I’d been mispronouncing “aceite” all these years). But as you’ve surely guessed by now, it was the Spanish sweets that stole the spotlight and won my heart. We visited Barcelona, Granada, and Madrid, making sure not to miss a sampling of desserts in each incredible city.

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Chocolate tart and cinnamon roll at a Madrid coffeehouse.

One evening in Barcelona, fed up with crowded restaurants, we decided to buy take-out and eat it in a plaza. In the narrow streets of the Gothic district, we ordered pizza slices then found a dessert shop where the passionfruit cheesecake was highly recommended.

I don’t usually crave cheesecake after a heavy meal, but I pushed aside my skepticism and ordered it alongside Pilar’s apple tart. What an excellent choice! The trio of crispy seeds, sweet gooey fruit, and tart cream cheese was heavenly.

Another day, adamant that I try as many typical Spanish foods as possible, I ordered paella at a reputable spot in the Eixample district. The paella was perfect, and the desserts were so divine. Mine was a mousse made purely of coconut, under juicy roasted pineapple and buttery shortbread crumbs.

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Gelato in Granada.

Next, we headed to Granada — such a lively and beautiful city! It was warmer there, which is perhaps the reason we reached for frozen treats more than once. First, we ordered gelato one evening while exploring the streets on foot. Pilar chose mango and spicy chocolate, and I (nostalgic for the cheesecake in Barcelona) ordered passionfruit and a flavor new to me: Málaga, a sweet wine named after the Spanish city of its origin.

All the gelato flavors were luscious and refreshing, but paled when we ordered violet ice cream after lunch the next day. To our surprise, the order was comprised of five scoops! (See first photo above.) Beautiful and creatively served, the ice cream was sprinkled with violet petals and sat on a bed of tart yogurt and marmalade. The delightful presentation and generous quantity were matched by a decadent balance of creaminess and lovely floral flavor and fragrance.

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Coconut mousse with pineapple and cookie crumbs, Barcelona.

After returning to Madrid, on a day of much walking and then craving a pick-me-up, we happened upon a little coffee house where we imagined ordering only caffeine-packed beverages but couldn’t resist the pastries on display. A moist, flavorful cinnamon roll and a rich chocolate tartlet (whose crust was even dipped in chocolate — genius!) proved perfect for hitting the spot.

And when we joined a birthday celebration with Pilar’s family a few days later, her aunt served a scrumptious oatmeal cake made sweetened only with the tender fruit embedded in its batter. A fellow baking enthusiast, she asked me to post a recipe written in Spanish in the future — a promise I intend to keep, even if the results are imperfect.

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Pilar’s aunt’s tender fruit and oat cake, Madrid.

Also in Madrid, I tried a new-to-me pastry at a farmers market: an ensaïmada. With its origins on the Spanish island of Mallorca, the coiled, yeasted dough is tender and airy. They come in many sizes, filled or not; mine was an individual portion stuffed with smooth chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar. It was utterly delicious.

And after all this devouring of desserts, I couldn’t help but see sweets in more places than ever. On one of my last days in Spain, I visited the spectacular Prado museum and found Diego Velázquez’s sacred painting of two saints in the dessert. The past and the future are brilliantly depicted in the background, and a bird above brings bread from heaven. But what do I see in the bird’s beak? A doughnut, naturally.

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Diego Velázquez: St. Anthony Abbot & St. Paul Hermit, c.1635-38, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There’s so much more I could share about my time in Spain, let alone the list of sweets. (Think giant spiraled churros, grated squash marmalade, custardy flan, seed-speckled cookies…) I feel so grateful for all I tasted and experienced, and I’m already dreaming of going back again. In the meantime, I’m inspired by my memories of Spanish sweets, and I hope to give them a heartfelt nod in the form of new dessert creations. Stay tuned!

Posted in Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments