Strawberry Rum Pie Redux — with vanilla bean, custard & cream

A few years back I created a strawberry cream pie that quickly became a favorite in my circle. A fresh, custardy celebration of vanilla, rum and stewed seasonal berries, the summery dessert has become a common craving and repeated request. But whenever I’ve returned to the recipe, I’ve had the urge to clarify and simplify the method, to add more photos of the process, and to hone the ratios of a few of the ingredients.

Cheered on by happy taste-testers, I recently served it multiple times, and I’m thrilled to finally present a new and improved recipe. I realize it looks long, but the length is partly due to my newly included details (and don’t miss the shortcut and do-ahead suggestions at the end of this post, along with some notes on ingredients).

Cool, refreshing and flavorful, this pie flaunts a splash of rum and vanilla bean that offer a complementary warmth to the strawberries’ inherent tartness. The soft-set filling is a joy and ease to eat, speckled with delightfully tiny seeds and slathered with fluffy whipped cream. Crisp, buttery and nutty, the crust’s texture is both protected and enhanced by a glaze of rich white chocolate, creating a perfect vessel for each mouthful of lusciousness.

Strawberry Vanilla Rum Pie (serves 8-10)

For the crust:

  • ½ cup soft butter, divided
  • 5 ounces graham crackers
  • 1 ounce shelled almonds (about 1/4 cup)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • pinch of salt (omit if butter is salted)
  • 5 ounces high quality white chocolate (see note), broken into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 F. Measure out 2 tablespoons butter; set aside for white chocolate step. Use 1 teaspoon of remaining butter to thoroughly grease the inside of a 9” pie pan (preferably glass). Melt the leftover butter; set nearby. Pulse graham crackers, almonds, vanilla bean, and salt (if using) in a food processor until evenly crushed into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and pulse for a few more seconds, stopping to scrape the bottom and sides of bowl with spatula. Mixture should hold together when pinched between your fingers.

Transfer mixture into greased pie pan, pushing firmly to create an even, tight crust. If pan is glass, hold it up to the light to check for any thin spots needing more crumbs. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes. (Feel free to start preparing for cooking the pie filling while crust is in the oven — see below.) When ready, crust should be fragrant with toasty edges. Remove crust from oven; turn off oven. If crust has slid down or puffed up in any places, gently press it back into place with the backside of a spoon while still hot.

While crust begins to cool, melt the white chocolate in a double boiler stirring constantly – or in the microwave for a few 20 second intervals, stopping and stirring in between. Be careful not to overheat the white chocolate; stop heating it as soon as it stirs smoothly, lump-free. Immediately whisk in 2 tablespoons soft butter until blended. This will thicken the white chocolate slightly. Working quickly, spread it gently onto bottom and sides of the warm crust as evenly as possible. Be careful not to pull upward on the crust, which would dismantle the crumbs. Place in fridge or in a cool space.

For the filling:

  • ½ cup sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • ¼ cup dark rum
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 lb. 13 oz. fresh, ripe strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, seeds removed

Set a fine to medium mesh sieve nearby, and have the chilled crust easily accessible.

Make the rum custard: Whisk together ¼ cup of the sugar, eggs, egg yolks, rum, vanilla bean, and salt in a heatproof bowl that will fit over a medium saucepan. Fill saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring to a simmer. When ready to cook the custard (see note), set the bowl over the pan of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should be near the surface of the water but not touching it. Whisk egg mixture constantly over the simmering water. After about 6-8 minutes, or when custard is thick enough to hold a deep trail (about the consistency of sour cream), remove bowl from heat and set aside.

Vanilla bean rum custard

Prepare the strawberries: Whisk together remaining ¼ cup sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl; set aside. Rinse and dry the strawberries. Hull the strawberries and cut into halves or quarters depending on size, placing them directly into a medium saucepan. Pour the lemon juice over the berries. Cover with lid and set over medium heat. Cook covered for 10 minutes, uncovering briefly halfway through to stir once. At the 10 minute mark, remove lid and sift the sugar-cornstarch mixture over the strawberries. Mix well and continue cooking uncovered, constantly whisking. Use the whisk to mash the berries, creating a less chunky texture. After 4-5 minutes, or when berries are thickened to a jam-like consistency with slow, large bubbles, remove from heat.

Pie filling coming through the sieve

Immediately transfer hot strawberry mixture into the bowl of custard, and whisk vigorously until fully blended together. Place the sieve over a clean bowl (or directly above the chilled pie crust if you have someone or something to help hold it there), and pour the strawberry mixture into the sieve. Gently push the mixture through the sieve by stirring it with a whisk. Be sure to scrape the backside of the sieve to retrieve any hidden pie filling. Spread mixture into pie crust, evening it to the edges. Cover pie and place in refrigerator, chilling at least 5 hours or overnight (up to 12 hours before adding whipped cream and serving).

Fibers and bits left behind in sieve.

For the whipped cream:    

  • 1 cup whipping cream, very cold
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dark rum
  • 5-6 small strawberries, halved (optional for decoration)

Place cream, vanilla bean, sugar and rum in a mixing bowl. Beat on high until voluminous and quite thick (it should be firm enough to hold its shape but still fluffy). Pipe or spread evenly over pie. Decorate with strawberries if desired. Keep pie chilled and serve as soon as possible — up to 8 hours after slathering with whipped cream.

RECIPE NOTES:

Shortcuts and do-aheads:

  • The crust can be made days ahead of time: after coating it with white chocolate and letting it cool, wrap it tightly and refrigerate it for up to two days or freeze for up to a week.
  • If you’re filling the crust the same day you make it, you can set up for making the filling while the crust is in the oven (e.g., cutting strawberries, combining the custard ingredients, setting out water and saucepans).
  • The rum custard needs to be ready by the time the strawberries are done cooking, but you can overlap the two steps. If your custard ingredients are ready to go, you should have time to make it during the time that the strawberries are stewing.
  • Pushing the pie filling through a sieve is technically optional (though it does ensure that any bits of egg or excessive strawberry fibers and seeds will be prevented from showing up in the slices).
  • Seeds scraped from whole vanilla beans are as fresh as it gets, but this route can be tedious. Prepared vanilla bean paste or powder are a great shortcut, and I trust you’ll become as addicted to their presence in the pantry as I am.

On ingredients:

  • As for the liquor, I recommend dark rum for its depth and caramely notes; spiced rum (which I used to insist on) is also quite nice but not absolutely necessary.  If you can find this kind, it’s really warm with vanilla flavor, and has become my favorite for baking.
  • When it comes to white chocolate, I know people who reject it entirely and claim it’s not chocolate at all. While this dismissive attitude can be frustrating, I say they’re right and wrong at the same time. If they’re referring to the strange stuff in the baking aisle that contains waxes or hydrogenated oils as their only fat, then, yes: that’s not chocolate. On the other hand, there is world of white chocolate made with cocoa butter, which is undeniably part of the cocoa bean. The high quality stuff (like this one) – with cocoa butter listed as one of the first ingredients – is a really lovely item, and unlike darker chocolates, it doesn’t overpower delicate flavors.
  • If I’m craving this in the winter, I might try making it with frozen strawberries. In the meantime, I find that two full pounds is the perfect amount of fresh strawberries for the pie filling and decoration (but I always buy extra for snacking, too).

Posted in Baking with Booze, Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dragon Fruit Sherbet with Lemongrass and Strawberry

It was easy to become fascinated with dragon fruit once it caught my eye. Its vibrant magenta skin, draping green tails, and playful nickname were just the beginning. When I sliced into one, the sight of the inside reminded me of chocolate chip ice cream: bright white and polka-dotted with tiny black seeds. (I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on other varieties of this cactus-based fruit – from bright yellow outside to deep pink inside – but I hope to do so in the future.)

My first taste revealed a juicy and somewhat soft fruit with a whisper of sweetness. Its mildly earthy and tame flavor reminded me a bit of jicama (though it’s not nearly as crunchy). With this blank canvas potential and my vision of ice cream nearby, a frozen dessert was my dragon fruit’s destiny.

I wanted to add a delicate flavor that wouldn’t hide the fruit’s character, and fragrant lemongrass soon came to mind. I began by steeping it in a syrup made from light coconut milk, which proved to hold the herbal flavor much better than a water-based version. The light milk also offered a faint, creamy quality and the promise of not freezing solid (as its full-fat counterpart would do). Together with the dragon fruit, the velvety lemongrass syrup made for a luscious harmony of flavors.

For complement and contrast, I added a few tangy strawberries — but when I blended them in with the dragon fruit, their flavor and color were overpowering. So I made a simple layer of puree to top the sherbet, starting with a good soak in liquor to avoid iciness once frozen. The result is a berry shell that’s just a bit firmer than the sherbet beneath, adding a scrumptious balance to the creamier, more delicate layer. As a bonus, the finale is a nod to the fruit that inspired it: vivid pink outside with a black and white interior.

Incredibly addictive, this sherbet offers a celebration of refreshing and complementary flavor in every spoonful. The cool dragon fruit is faintly milky, citrusy and herbal with its gentle infusion of lemongrass. Meanwhile, the strawberry layer offers a hint of tartness and a welcome trace of classic berry sweetness. I’m ready for many a rendezvous with my new frozen dessert, just in time for summer. Join me?

Dragon Fruit Sherbet with Lemongrass and Strawberry (makes about a quart)

Like many frozen dessert recipes, this one requires some lead time for chilling and freezing, though the steps are all quite easy. I like to start 24 hours ahead of serving time, beginning with making the syrup and prepping the strawberries. Once the syrup, berries, and dragon fruit are fully chilled, the blending and churning are painless, and a final stint in the freezer is all that’s needed. 

For the syrup:

  • 1.5 ounces (about 1.5 stalks, depending on size) fresh lemongrass
  • ¾ cup canned light coconut milk (not full-fat)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

For the strawberry layer:

  • 8 ounces fresh ripe strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light, neutral alcohol of your choice, at least 80 proof (think vodka, light rum, or a clear brandy like apple or pear)

For the dragon fruit:

  • 2.25 to 2.5 pounds dragon fruit (about 3 medium dragon fruit), chilled.

Use a rolling pin or meat tenderizer to gently crush the lemongrass stalks. Then use a sharp knife to cut bruised stalks crosswise into rings about ½ inch wide. Place cut lemongrass in a small saucepan. Top with the light coconut milk, sugar and salt. Stir gently and occasionally as you bring to a boil. When near boiling, test a drop of syrup on a plate, let cool for a few seconds, then rub with fingers to ensure sugar is no longer grainy.

As soon as syrup has come to a solid boil, remove from heat. Cover pan with lid and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain syrup into a heatproof bowl; discard cooked lemongrass pieces. Let syrup cool in bowl to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled – at least a few hours or overnight. You should have about 1.25 cups syrup, which will become milkier as it chills.

Place dragon fruit in the fridge to chill. Rinse and dry the strawberries, then hull them and cut into quarters or halves if small. Place in a bowl and toss with sugar and alcohol. Stir well. Cover and chill strawberries for several hours or overnight, until quite cold to the touch and fully soaked with the sugary alcohol.

When syrup, berries, and dragon fruit are thoroughly chilled and you’re ready to make the sherbet, halve the dragon fruit and scoop out the flesh over a scale. You need 1.5 pounds (about 3 cups) dragon fruit flesh for the sherbet. Enjoy any extra dragon fruit as you wish, and discard the skins.

Place the dragon fruit flesh in the bowl of a food processor with ¾ cup of the lemongrass syrup. Pulse until smooth with no chunks of fruit. Transfer mixture into an ice cream maker and follow manufacturer directions, churning until consistency is at least as thick as soft-serve.

Meanwhile, strain the cut strawberries (discard the boozy liquid or save it for a cocktail). Place strained strawberries in the bowl of the food processor with ¼ cup lemongrass syrup; use any remaining syrup as you wish. Puree until smooth. Chill strawberry puree until dragon fruit mixture is at soft serve consistency.

Spread dragon fruit sherbet into an 8” cake pan. Pour strawberry puree over the top, gently spreading to edges. Cover tightly and freeze for several hours or overnight, until frozen through the center. When ready to serve, uncover pan and set out at room temperature for 5 minutes, then scoop. Store in freezer tightly covered up to a week.

Maybe next time…  The dragon fruit sherbet is quite delicious alone; the strawberry part is certainly optional. If you skip the strawberry layer, you could simply serve the dragon fruit sherbet with fresh ripe strawberries (or other berries); just remember that the recipe will yield a bit less than noted above.  Feel free to play with the way you lay out the dessert; you can gently make layers of white and pink before freezing, use a loaf pan instead of round, or even make individual servings in mason jars or other containers.

Posted in Baking with Herbs, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 keep 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