Pecan Brown Sugar Cookies: A Nod to the King Cake


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.)


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.


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…


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.


*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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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

Passion Fruit Bites


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.


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.


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.)


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.)


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.


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!


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 20-30 lychees) — weighed peeled and pitted; and 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. (Note that one 15 ounce can yields 15-25 lychee, with a lot of the weight coming from the liquid, so it’s safest to have two cans ready if you’re only using canned lychees.)

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…

Lychee Butter (12) Lychee Butter

Posted in Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues, laced with liqueur

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (10)By day, I’m an office lady for a group of lively humanities departments. It’s a privilege to get to work with such a talented and diverse bunch, and I like knowing I’m supporting a vital but undervalued part of education. On the lighter side, I’m quite convinced that Christopher Guest could make a hilarious mockumentary about everyday life in my corner of academia. The ridiculous dramas and disparities have ranged from love triangles to budget crises, power plays to personality conflicts — to name just a few.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (11)One such moment arose recently when we found an unopened bottle of Chambord in quite an odd place, and it was clear that no one had claimed it. Raspberry liqueur at the office? We just weren’t sure what to do with it, let alone where it had come from. Inexpensive wine is as serious as it gets at our event receptions, so this unusual violet vessel was destined for somewhere different.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (22)I’d been itching to bake with raspberries again, and the newly-found spirits seemed meant to be transformed in my kitchen (then brought back to work to share in edible form, naturally). I decided on bite-sized meringues made with a Chambord syrup base, topped with tangy fresh berries and nutty poppy seeds. The outcome was wondrous: fragrant little treats with a lovely complexity and just the right amount of sweetness.

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Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (makes about 100)

  • 1 cup raspberry liqueur
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup + 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup egg whites (about 4 whites) at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • 100 raspberries (about 18 oz), preferably small-sized
  • candy thermometer and pastry bag

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper (I use one large and two small); set aside. Place two oven racks respectively at top and bottom third of oven, then preheat oven to 200 F.

In a small saucepan, bring the liqueur to a steady simmer. Watching carefully, let simmer until reduced to 1/2 cup, occasionally pouring into a heatproof measuring cup to check amount. This should take about 5 – 10 minutes. Once you have 1/2 cup, turn off heat.

In the bowl of a clean stand mixer, beat egg whites on high. When they start to become white and foamy, gradually add 3 tablespoons sugar. Keep beating until voluminous, opaque, medium-stiff peaks have formed; turn mixer off and keep nearby.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (21)Add 1 cup sugar and the salt to the 1/2 cup of reduced liqueur in the saucepan. Stir, then attach candy thermometer and heat over medium-high, watching carefully. As soon as mixture reaches 230 F, quickly remove from heat; turn the egg-white-filled mixer to medium-high, and slowly pour hot syrup into the side of the bowl while beating. Continue to beat for 8 – 10 minutes, stopping when meringue has cooled to lukewarm or room temperature and is shiny, holding its shape well. (At this point, the meringue is cooked and can be used to frost a cake, be toasted with a torch, or even eaten with a spoon.)

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (18)Fit a pastry bag with the piping tip of your choice, then fill with meringue. On the lined baking sheets, pipe out little meringue nests — each about 1.5 – 1.75 inches in diameter, and about 3/4 inch tall, with a centered hole big enough to fit a small raspberry. Refill pastry bag as needed, and feel free to be skimpy with the space you leave between the meringues. (While they shouldn’t be touching, they tend to hold their shape well when baked, and there are many to fit in the oven.) Sprinkle poppy seeds over meringues.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (24)Distribute the sheets of meringues onto the two racks in the oven, and set timer for 40 minutes. Switch cookie sheets from lower rack to upper rack, and vice versa, then close oven and bake for another 40 minutes. At this point, turn oven off and leave meringues inside for about an hour (not much longer lest they become gooey). Remove from oven. Meringues should feel dry and lukewarm to room temperature at this point. If  they need more drying time, immediately return to oven (kept turned off) for another 10 minutes.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (3)Working quickly, carefully transfer cooled meringues to containers with lids, such as cookie tins. If you live in a humid area like I do, I recommend adding a few desiccant packets, perhaps borrowed from your vitamin or medicine bottles. Just when ready to serve, top each meringue with a raspberry, rinsed and well dried. Note: These meringues can become a bit sticky, particularly in less-dry environments, so you may want to set them out gradually. In tins at room temperature, they last up to 5 days, pre-berry-topped.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (9)Crisp and light with a whisper of boozy Chambord, raspberry poppy seed meringues offer a scrumptious harmony of texture and flavor. The fresh berries burst with a refreshing tang, while the salt and toasty poppy seeds balance perfectly with the sweetness. The flavor of the liqueur is not too robust, but notes of its warmth and fragrance are delightfully present. At the office and beyond, these addictive treats have proven to be a reminder that inspiration can show up in the most unexpected places.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (8)Maybe next time… Akin to mini pavlovas, these meringues would be lovely with with a spoonful of whipped cream (unsweetened or barely sweetened) underneath or on top of the berry — and this would also amplify the already complex play of textures. A bittersweet chocolate drizzle could also be divine. While the raspberries are a lovely echo of the liqueur within, feel free to swap them out for another fruit (e.g., blueberries proved a great alternative in one version I made, and I’m already dreaming up a grape rendition…).

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Smoky Coconut Caramels [Vegan]

Smoky Coconut Caramels - Vegan (12)I recently whipped up a batch of my hearty mac & cheese, complete with a buttery roux, three kinds of cheese, and toasty breadcrumbs on top. When gathering the ingredients, I happened to pass the smoked paprika in the spice aisle, and I grabbed a bottle on a whim, confident that a scoop would add a nice kick to my decadent dinner. While this inkling proved true, I didn’t stop there. An open bottle of smoky spice on my counter, and the idea of using it in sweets was quickly born.

Smoky Coconut Caramels - Vegan (16)I had a hunch that the paprika — with its rich smoke and bit of bitterness — would pair nicely with homemade caramel, whose burnt sugar base often echoes these same qualities. (Besides, what did I have to lose, since even Dijon had proved so magnificent?) And I once again reached for an array of coconut products — its toasty chips, its pearly milk and oil, its sandy amber sugar — along with maple syrup, vanilla and salt. The result is a mouthwatering, rich, chewy candy with an addictive hint of smoke.

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Smoky Coconut Caramels (Vegan) — makes a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan: 32 caramels

  • 3/4 cup canned coconut milk (full fat – not light)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut sugar (a.k.a. coconut palm sugar)
  • 6 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 6 tablespoons coconut oil (preferably virgin unrefined)
  • 32 toasted coconut chips
  • candy thermometer

Lay a piece of parchment inside a 9×5″ loaf pan, with plenty of overhang along the longer edges. Lightly grease the inside of the pan as well as the parchment. Set nearby. Measure out 6 tablespoons coconut oil, preferably in solid state, and leave nearby. Fit a small-to-medium saucepan with a candy thermometer; set aside. You’ll also need another, smaller saucepan with a lid; set nearby.

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Open the can of coconut milk and whisk well, until consistency is even (to do so, you may have to heat it gently or bring it to room temperature if it’s very solid/cold). Measure out 3/4 cup coconut milk and place it in the smaller saucepan without the thermometer. Mix in the vanilla, salt, smoked paprika, and water. Bring to a steady simmer, stirring occasionally. As soon as the mixture bubbles up, turn heat off and cover with lid.

Meanwhile, place coconut sugar and maple syrup in the slightly larger saucepan fitted with the thermometer. Heat, and use a heatproof utensil to stir occasionally and very gently (avoid splashing), just until thermometer reaches 245 F. Turn off heat and quickly add the heated coconut milk mixture (beware: the hot mixture may froth up). Stir in the coconut oil in 3 or 4 portions, mixing each until completely melted.

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Turn heat to medium, and stir occasionally, letting the spoon touch the bottom of the pan to avoid burning. Let boil until mixture reaches 245 F again (this can take several minutes), then quickly pour into prepared loaf pan. Let sit at room temperature to cool until firm. (If top is very oily, you may opt to dab it with a clean, lint-free tea towel.) Place in fridge for at least an hour to firm up for slicing. While caramels chill, cut out 32 pieces of wax or parchment paper, about 3 by 4 inches a piece.

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When ready to cut the chilled caramels, run a knife along the short edges of the pan, then use the parchment to lift the caramel slab. Invert on cutting board and carefully remove parchment. Cut into 32 caramels (a 4 by 8 grid); I find it easiest to cut the slab into quarters, then eighths, finally cutting each eighth into four. Top each caramel with a toasted coconut chip, then wrap with wax paper, twisting at ends.

NOTE: Because of the coconut oil, these caramels can melt quickly. Keep them refrigerated or in a cool area — and don’t carry them in your pocket or mail them during warm seasons. They’re quite chewy straight out of the fridge, and are at their prime after being set out at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

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With their delightful complexity and tempting whisper of smoky spice, these candies offer the depth and richness of traditional caramels in a surprisingly vegan form. The parade of coconut adds both a layer of creamy flavor and a tropical trace, with the full-bodied coconut sugar in luscious balance with the warmth of smoked paprika. Salty, sweet, and scrumptious, smoky coconut caramels are sure to hit all the right spots.

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Maybe next time… I find toasted coconut chips incredibly (dangerously!) delicious, but they’re an optional element of this recipe if you’d rather skip them. For an extra decadent treat, dip the chilled, cut caramels in melted chocolate, then re-chill until chocolate gets hard. [If you wish, choose a vegan chocolate (many dark chocolates are naturally so).]

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