Category Archives: dessert

a scoop of frozen sunshine

On Saturdays in the summer, my routine almost invariably includes a trip to the Evanston Farmers Market. From time to time, I think about swapping my northerly trek for a southerly one and finally checking out the Green City Market or just making a quick trip to the little Edgewater Market that’s within walking distance, but then I think about the crates upon crates of heirloom varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers and garlic and fingerling potatoes and the little bundles of shiso and the mesclun dotted with delicate flowers and the red amaranth and all the colors of carrots at Henry’s Farm stand, and my decision is simple. I put on my shoes, throw my unwashed hair in a ponytail and head out the door.

When there are so many options, it’s easy get home and discover I’ve lugged back something that wasn’t quite what I expected. This beauty of a watermelon was a recent find from Henry’s stand that took us by surprise. In a good way. We didn’t know it was any special variety, but when we cut it open, we found brilliant yellow flesh inside.

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This baby was crisp and juicy and incredibly sweet. And it was yellow. Really yellow.

I always thought of pink watermelon as the quintessential summer fruit in a so-refreshing-dripping-down-your-chin-as-you-spit-seeds-in-the-backyard sort of way, but somehow this yellow version seems even more of the season.

And as we near the end of summer, what better way to hang on to it than to turn it into sorbet and freeze it?

This watermelon sorbet is bright sunshine yellow and about as close as it comes to keeping a container of concentrated summer in the freezer. Sweet and icy with just enough lime to cut through the sugar, a little scoop of this hits the spot on a hot day. Or any day, really.

It is another satisfying recipe from David Lebovitz’s recent book on all things ice cream, The Perfect Scoop. (I seem to be on a yellow kick lately–a few weeks ago the lemon speculoos ice cream recipe from the same book had me struggling to save every last drip at the bottom of the bowl.)

watermelon sorbet

Watermelon Sorbet

Source: adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

This sorbet comes together easily. The trickiest part is picking the seeds out of the watermelon before you puree it into juice. The original recipe calls for mini chocolate chips to be mixed in the end. I omitted them, but you can feel free to stir some in before you put away the finished sorbet. The flavor of watermelon is delicate, and the vodka and lime flavors are detectable here. I like it that way, but you should probably omit the vodka if you really don’t want to know it’s there.

About a 3 pound (1 1/2 kilogram) chunk of watermelon
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons vodka

Cut away the rind of the watermelon and remove the seeds. Cut the flesh into manageable pieces and add to a blender or food processor and puree until liquid. You should have about 3 cups of juice (puree a little more watermelon or set aside the extra juice for another use if necessary). Pour into a medium mixing bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup watermelon juice, sugar and salt until all of the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and add to the bowl with the watermelon juice. Stir in the lime juice and vodka.

Chill in the refrigerator overnight and then process in an ice cream maker.

Yields 1 quart of sorbet.

Strawberries and almonds and pastry cream oh my!

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At their peak ripeness, summer fruits need little adornment. It’s tough to improve the flavor of a meltingly delicate, sweet tart raspberry or a succulent peach on the verge of bruising.

But when you find yourself up to your elbows in fragrant baskets of the summer bounty that you simply couldn’t leave at the farmers market, it’s time to think about baking.

Pies, crisps, crumbles, buckles, and cobblers are old favorites (with good reason). A slow simmer in the oven can dramatically change a fruit’s demeanor. Things mellow in there; they turn softer and more fragrant. The transformation can be stunning, but some fruits are so vibrant in their natural state it seems a shame to put them through all that.

That’s where this twist on the classic strawberry shortcake comes in. Think slices of bright red strawberries tossed with a little sugar, a dollop of rich pastry cream, and a crumbly little almond cake to nestle them on.

At home at a backyard cookout or at a dinner party, this dessert is familiar enough to pass for summer comfort food and just surprising enough to feel like something new. The toasty layer of sliced almonds on the top dresses the cake with an unfussy elegance. This version is portable and picnic friendly, as the pastry cream, unlike its whipped relative, will travel well in a cooler. It goes down easy just about anywhere and puts all that wonderful fresh fruit to good use.

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Almond Cake with Strawberries and Vanilla Pastry Cream

Source: Cake adapted from Gourmet June 2007, p. 143. Original recipe available here. Pastry cream adapted from Apartment Therapy: The Kitchen.

This would be excellent with other flavorful summer fruits–peaches, raspberries, and pitted sweet cherries come to mind as good options. I used vanilla pastry cream here for its portability, but if you are making this at home you could certainly use whipped cream or lightly sweetened whipped Greek yogurt if you prefer. This cake, if stored in an airtight container or wrapped well in plastic wrap, is even better on the second day.

For the pastry cream:

1 cup whole milk
1 cup whipping cream (or heavy whipping cream)
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the almond cake:

3/4 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup sliced almonds (for the top)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar (preferably superfine, or regular granulated sugar zizzed in a food processor for 30 seconds)
1/3 cup whole milk
3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled

For the strawberries:
1 quart (1 1/2 pounds) fresh strawberries, sliced
2 tablespoons sugar

Make the pastry cream. In a medium mixing bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, and flour until well blended. In a heavy medium saucepan, bring the milk and cream to a low simmer. Turn off the heat. Whisk a few tablespoons of the warm milk and cream into the egg mixture, then gradually add a few more tablespoons of milk/cream and whisk thoroughly. Add the egg mixture to the saucepan with the remaining milk/cream and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about four minutes. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Remove from heat. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

Make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray (Bakers Joy works well) or butter and flour. In a dry skillet, toast the whole almonds over medium heat just until they start to smell fragrant. Remove from heat and add them, half at a time, to a blender or food processor and pulse until they resemble a fine powder (but before they become a paste, err on the side of coarseness here).

In a medium mixing bowl, mix the ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a separate large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), add the eggs and beat on high speed until they look foamy, about 15-30 seconds. With the mixer running, add the sugar slowly and beat until the mixture is the thick and the beater leaves a noticeable trail when lifted, about 10 minutes (perhaps a few minutes shorter in a stand mixer or a few longer with a hand mixer). Slowly add the melted butter and the milk and beat until well mixed. Add the flour and ground almond mixture and stir by hand until just combined. The batter will be thick.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and sprinkle with the sliced almonds. Bake until the cake begins to pull away from the sides and the almonds on the top look golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Cool on a rack before removing from pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the strawberries with sugar and let them macerate in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

To assemble, cut a piece of cake, and slice it in half horizontally. Add strawberries and a dollop of pastry cream to the bottom half and replace the top of the cake. Enjoy.

Yields about 8 servings.

return of the scone, with chocolate chunks

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Sometime early in our relationship, when we had been dating for perhaps several months, Dan and I started making scones. It was an almost weekly occurrence, a satisfying project that could be completed in under an hour, proof that we had done something productive in the course of an otherwise relentlessly lazy weekend.

I no longer remember how we settled into scones. I imagine it had something to do with their sturdy, homey appeal, which makes them so comforting to nibble on combined with their faint air of Britishness ((Even if a scone in Britain is something closer what Americans call a biscuit.)), which lends them a certain cosmopolitan stature and makes them seem somehow less pedestrian than a muffin. Or maybe it was just their undeniable deliciousness.

We tried different recipes, added blueberries or raspberries or cinnamon chips, played with amounts of butter and fat content of milk and ratios of whole wheat pastry to all purpose flour. We ate our share of scones. My sister and our roommate even joked that Dan and I should open a bakery selling scones (and pizza, our other staple at the time).

After a while, for no particular reason, we drifted out of making them. We branched out into other baked goods and found ourselves with busier weekends when we sometimes baked nothing at all.

But we recently revisited the habit with a new recipe and were reminded why scones were so easy to fall for in the first place. This recipe is another one from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. Made with cream and no butter, these scones are rich, yet light, and crumble when bitten into. The dough is noticeably less sticky than other scone doughs I’ve worked with, and it comes together easily. Out of the oven, these scones are golden on the edges but otherwise a delicate pale speckled with dark bits of chocolate. I think they’re even better on the second day, when their lightness gives way to a pleasing density. I think I could get used to having scones around again.

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Cream Scones with Bittersweet Chocolate Chunks

Source: slightly adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

These scones are quite delicate and not too sweet. Any type of chocolate works here, and chocolate chips would be fine, but I prefer the texture of uneven bits of melting bittersweet. These are probably too delicate to stand up to any fresh or frozen fruit, but I have a hunch that dried fruits, such as currants, tart cherries, or apricot pieces would be lovely in lieu of chocolate. Cinnamon chips or other flavored chips could also work, if you aren’t in the mood for chocolate. With more than a cup of cream, they are not exactly health food, but they’re worth the splurge for a treat. A coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara will be prettier on the tops, but any mildly flavored sugar, including plain refined white table sugar, will do. You can replace a half cup of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, white whole wheat flour or regular whole wheat flour for a slightly heartier, but still tender and light, scone.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small chunks
about 1 tablespoon milk or cream for brushing tops
about 1/2 tablespoon sugar, preferably turbinado, demerara, or coarse raw sugar for sprinkling tops (optional)

Preheat oven to 425°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until well combined. Stir in chocolate chunks. Add the cream and mix until the dry ingredients are moistened. The dough will seem a little dry, but should hold together when pinched. With your hand, knead the dough in the bowl, gently, until it all comes together in a smooth ball.

Turn the dough out onto a clean counter (or silpat or sheet of parchment paper) and pat into a circle about 8 or 9 inches in diameter and about 3/4 of an inch thick. With a butter knife or bench scraper, cut the dough into 8 wedges. Place the wedges onto the prepared baking sheet. Brush the tops with milk or cream and sprinkle with turbinado (or other) sugar, if using.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges and tops have turned golden. Cool on racks.

Yields 8 scones.

open (and ground) sesame

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When I mentioned to a few people that I was planning to make Armenian tahini bread, the most common response was, “Where exactly is Armenia?”

This landlocked country in Transcaucasia, bound by Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and Turkey to to the south and west, has had a rough go of it. Outsiders repeatedly mistake and confuse its identity when they remember it at all (Clarissa Dalloway’s muddled refrain regarding “the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?” whose genocide her husband was so concerned about comes to mind). Even the term Armenian was likely a result of a mix-up by the Greeks or the Iranians who mistook them for Aramaeans; Armenians called themselves Hayk. (They are still being misrepresented in popular media, Borat’s “Kazakh”-speaking friend was actually speaking Armenian.)

Still, I’ve found something that will help to fix Armenia in my memory at least. This tahini bread is a traditional food for the Christian season of Lent, which is usually a time for fasting and general self-deprivation, but this is an unusual treat. It dispenses with butter, eggs, and cream in favor of a dough enriched with a bit of olive oil and marbled with sugary, cinnamon-scented sesame paste. When I saw the recipe in the January/February issue of Saveur, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Saveur describes these as “a croissant mated with halvah.” I approached them thinking cinnamon rolls, but came away thinking of them as a danish’s much heartier, nuttier cousin. They look deceptively bready–but unlike most breads, they crumble. And ooze tahini.

A slice of one of these makes a satisfying breakfast or a good afternoon companion for tea. It can also pass for dessert.

Armenian Tahini Bread

Source: Adapted from the Jan./Feb. 2007 issue of Saveur magazine. Original recipe can be found here.

Shaping these can be tricky. Don’t be alarmed if some of the tahini-sugar mixture oozes out or the dough develops a little hole. Just patch everything up as well as you can and keep going. Their homey, rustic presentation is part of their charm. I used a blend of all-purpose and white whole wheat flour. I thought the mild whole wheat flavor complemented the sesame well. If you want to use regular whole wheat, I’d adjust it to 1 cup and increase the ap flour to 1 1/2 cups to prevent it from getting too heavy. All ap also would also work, if that’s what you have on hand.

1 1/8 teaspoons instant yeast
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cups tahini
3/4 cup water, lukewarm

In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour, yeast, salt, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Add water and olive oil. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed until it comes together to form a shaggy dough, about 2 minutes. Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for about 6 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. It should clear the sides of the bowl.

Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl (it can be the same bowl it was mixed in), and turn the dough once to coat with oil. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into two pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for about 10-15 minutes. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Roll out one piece of dough into a long rectangle, about 12-14 inches long and 4-5 inches wide. Spread 1/2 cup tahini over the dough, leaving about 1/4 inch border on all sides. Sprinkle 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon over the tahini.

Starting with one of the long sides, roll the dough over itself into a long cylinder. Pinch the dough together along the seam and on the ends to form a seal. Using a bench scraper or serrated knife, cut the cylinder into three equal pieces. Pinch the newly cut ends together to seal in the tahini mixture.

This is where things get messy. Take one piece and roll and stretch it until it is about 7-8 inches long. Starting with the narrow end, carefully roll the dough cylinder into a spiral and, again, pinch the ends together to form a seal. Flatten the dough with your hand and, with a rolling pin, roll it out into a circle that is 7 inches in diameter. Repeat with the other pieces. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet, leaving at least an inch between each dough circle, and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are light brown.

While the first sheet is in the oven, roll out the other piece of dough and repeat the filling and shaping process. Bake as directed above.

Cool on racks. Slice each round into four pieces before serving.

Yields 6 large rounds, for 24 servings. Best consumed within about 2 days. (Can be frozen and revived in the oven for longer keeping.)

very mine and very fine

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February 14th is a doubly momentous date on my calendar. Not only is it that best-loathed love holiday but also the infinitely less-odious day of my birth.

I’ve never been much for Valentine’s Day, but I am very amenable to birthday treats.

Not just any sort of treat though. Context demands that it to be something not-too-cloyingly sweet. Something with quiet bite.

These nibby bittersweet meringues with sea salt, adapted from a recipe I’d long been eyeing in Alice Medrich’s fantastic book Bittersweet, hit the mark. Deep, dark, and delicate, these ethereally light cookies shatter under the tooth and dissolve, giving way to a powerful and pure dose of chocolate and the subtle crunch of cacao nibs. The healthy sprinkle of salt intensifies the chocolate flavor here. These unassuming little cookies pack a wallop.

They were just the thing to share with colleagues to celebrate my 27th. It was good I snuck a few before I took them into the office–when at the end of the day I went to retrieve the container, it held nary a crumb.

Nibby Bittersweet Meringues with Sea Salt

Source: adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet.

Since there are so few ingredients to compete here, these cookies really benefit from high quality chocolate (I used Callebaut for the chocolate, and Scharffen Berger cacao nibs).

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 egg whites (about 1/4 cup) at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup roasted cacao nibs, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (such as Maldon) or fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave (at half-power, in a glass bowl, stirring at one minute intervals) or over a pan of gently simmering water on the stove top (in a metal bowl, stirring often). Set aside.

In a separate bowl, add the egg whites, cream of tartar, sea salt, and vanilla extract and whip until the eggs are foamy and soft peaks form. Add the sugar and whip until the peaks are stiff. Fold in the chocolate and cacao nibs.

Immediately spoon batter, by rounded teaspoons or half-filled tablespoons, onto cookie sheets.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until tops look dry and slightly crackled. Rotating the cookie sheet around the 4 minute mark will help to ensure even baking.

Yields about 30 cookies

As an aside: it turned out to be a double day for Medrich’s Bittersweet for me. Dan made me the Tiger Cake, a lovely marble cake made with olive oil and white pepper. Another not-too-sweet but entirely delectable dessert from this great cookbook.