Thursday, February 24, 2011

Flourless Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies

Many years ago, in order to demonstrate how statistics worked, my 6th grade teacher gave us an unusual homework assignment. We were to ask people we knew to taste test a few different brands of a food product, rate each on a scale of 1-10, and tally up the average score for each. I chose peanut butter, and my mom obligingly purchased a jar each of Skippy, Jif and, her favorite, all-natural Laura Scudders. Being either shy, creative or just a lazy cheater (you decide), rather than actually asking people to taste the nut butters, I made the answers up myself. Naturally, I preferred the fluffy sweetness of Jif and Skippy, and so all three 'testers' gave low marks to Laura Scudders' gritty, oily texture and not-so-sweet flavor.

Perhaps if Marantha peanut butter had been around back then, the statistics of my peanut butter trial would have turned out differently (although, on second thought, I'm sure I still would have gone for the sweet crap). Made from only organic, roasted peanuts and, optionally, a hint of sea salt, Marantha's has the super-creamy texture of the artificial brands, with a natural sweetness from fresh nuts and none of the nasty ingredients you might try to prevent yourself and your kiddos from eating. This nut butter is equally good dipped with crisp apple slices, spread on multi-grain toast, or whisked into a gingery peanut sauce to toss with soba noodles. And if you thought it couldn't get any better, it can also be combined with brown sugar, egg, salt, chopped bittersweet chocolate and cacao nibs and baked into these insanely addictive cookies by Michael Recchiuti.

Most peanut butter cookie recipes containing flour specify 'conventional' peanut butter, the kind I loved so much as a kid. Trans fats and corn syrup bind the nut butter into a stable paste, resulting in chewy, moist cookies, whereas the natural stuff, containing free-floating oils and no sugar, can lend a sandy, dry texture to the finished product. Undeterred, Mr. R left out the flour, and created these gluten-, dairy- and grain-free drops of peanut butter lovin'. Being arguably the Bay Area's (and maybe.. the world's!) finest chocolatier, and a man after my own heart, he adds a generous helping of chopped dark chocolate to the mix, and a flurry of flaky salt to the top.

I tweaked the recipe just slightly, subbing in some brown sugar for the white, and omitting the peanuts (I like peanut butter, but not peanuts; yes, I do realize that peanut butter comes from peanuts, thank you very much) and adding cacao nibs for a bit of crunch (which I doubt Michael would mind).

These cookies take about 5 minutes to mix together, 12 minutes to bake, and they keep well for days. The dough will feel a bit stiff and crumbly compared to 'normal' cookie dough, but the cookies magically bake up so much like regular peanut butter cookies, one wonders why anyone ever bothered using flour, butter or shortening in the first place.

Warm from the oven, sandy-crisp edges give way to a gooey center oozing with warm chocolate. Cooled, they firm up, tasting like a chewy-crumbly Reese's peanut butter cup; one that is dotted with crunchy nibs and flaky salt, and freshly made with natural (and optionally organic) ingredients.

I promise that these cookies will stand up to any taste test, real or imaginary.

For more mouth-watering recipes and photos, check out Michael's beautiful book, Chocolate Obsession.

Go nuts:
(Vegan, Gluten-Free) Hippy Crispy Treats
(Gluten-Free) Chocolate Rum Blondies
(Wheat-Free) Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

One year ago:
DIY Almond Milk, and Banana-Berry Smoothie

Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Adapted from Michael Recchiuti

Makes about 3 dozen small but rich cookies (about 1 1/2" in diameter)

1 cup natural, creamy peanut butter (such as Marantha), salted or unsalted
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1 cup (4 ounces) roughly chopped bittersweet chocolate
2 tablespoons cacao nibs
flaky salt for finishing, such as Maldon or Fleur de Sel

Position a rack in the upper-middle of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, stir together the peanut butter, sugars, egg, baking soda and sea salt until combined. Stir in the chocolate and cacao nibs until evenly distributed. Scoop the dough into balls about two teaspoons in size (a scant inch in diameter) and space them 2" apart on the baking sheets (this is easily accomplished with a small ice cream scoop).

Bake one tray of cookies at a time for 12-14 minutes, rotating halfway through, until puffy and soft, and just golden around the edges. Like all drop cookies, they will seem underdone, but will continue baking from residual heat, and firm up when cooled. Remove the sheet pan to a cooling rack, immediately crumble a few flecks of flaky salt atop each cookie, and let cool. Repeat with the second set of cookies.

The cookies are best the day they are baked, but will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to several days.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blood Orange Tart

Being extremely squeamish, blood oranges never appealed to me, for what I think are obvious reasons. I found regular oranges boring enough, so adding a revolting bodily fluid to the name didn't make them any more enticing.

But the year I spent in Bologna, Italy, where they call said fruit 'arance tarocco', changed everything. No longer repulsed by the name, I would sit around the post-prandial table with friends and, rather than gorging on cantucci or gelato as per usual, we'd peel the red-orange orbs, purchased from one of the many outdoor markets, late into the winter evenings, marveling at their brilliant hues.

Since then, I look forward to their arrival each February, when bleak, short days coupled with beige foods can leave one feeling uninspired (no offense, celeriac).

Blood oranges come in several varieties, the two that I've experienced being the aforementioned Taroccos (apparently named for the Sicilian exclamation of surprise that a farmer uttered upon seeing the inside of his first blood orange), and Moros, which are more readily found in the States. Taroccos have a blushed orange flesh, and a sweet, mild flavor that is less acidic than regular oranges. Moros range from deep crimson to almost black in color. They have a deep flavor, floral and mysterious, with bitter undertones and notes of red wine and ripe blackberry.

This curd filling, a mixture of sugar, eggs, butter and citrus juice and zest, captures those intriguing flavors in a creamy tart contained within a crisp, buttery crust. I dislike citrus tarts that are overly sweet or eggy, but this formula, adapted from Williams Sonoma's Essentials of Baking, uses just enough egg to set the curd, just enough sugar to tame the moro's bitterness, and a sinful amount butter to give the curd creamy body that holds its shape when cut.

The delicate, buttery crust stays crisp for days after baking, and comes together more quickly than most: just rub in the butter, press the crumbs into the pan, freeze while you preheat the oven, and bake; no pie weights necessary.

If you lack a tart pan with removable bottom, you can bake this in an 8" square pan lined with a sling of parchment paper, for blood orange bars. Gussy these up with a dusting of powdered sugar.

And if serving this to squeamish guests, take a tip from some canny citrus growers and tell them it's a 'sangria orange' tart.

Smashing Citrus:
Lemon-Lavender Pound Cakelets, with Mascarpone Cream
Citrus Cornmeal Poundcake
Satsuma, Ginger and Oat Scones

One year ago:
(Gluten-free!) Meyer Lemon Almond Cake

Blood Orange Tart

Adapted from The Essentials of Baking

Makes one 8 or 9" tart, 10ish servings

Press-in crust:
3/4 cup (4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice

Blood orange curd filling:
finely-grated zest of 1 blood orange
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons strained blood orange juice (from about 3 oranges)
2 tablespoons lemon juice (from about 1 lemon)
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons butter, in 1/2" dice

Garnish (optional):
blood orange supremes (see method below)
crème fraîche or whipped cream

Make the crust:
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Add the butter cubes and rub with your fingertips until no large butter chunks remain and the mixture begins to clump together. Dump into an 8 or 9" tart pan with a removable bottom and press as evenly as possible up the sides and into the bottom of the pan. Freeze the crust until firm while you preheat the oven, at least 15 minutes.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Bake the frozen crust until it is golden all over, about 25 minutes. Let cool while you make the curd filling.

Make the blood orange curd filling:
Set a mesh sieve over a heatproof bowl or large measuring cup and set aside.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the zest, blood orange and lemon juices, sugar, eggs and egg yolk to combine. Place the pot over medium-low heat, and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and reaches 170º on an instant-read thermometer, 5 - 10 minutes. As you whisk, be sure to scrape the entire bottom of the pan and into the corners, so that the mixture heats as evenly as possible. Immediately strain the mixture through the sieve. Stir in the butter pieces until melted, and cool the curd for 10 minutes. (If you accidentally cook your curd too far and it begins to curdle, and stays curdled after you strain it, you can probably rescue it by whizzing it in a blender or with an immersion blender.)

Bake the tart:
Place the baked, cooled crust on a flat, rimmed baking sheet. Pour the slightly cooled curd into the cooled tart shell; you may want to put the crust in the oven first, then pour in the filling so it doesn't slosh all over the place when you try to move it. I've read, but have yet to try, that if you have extra filling, you can bake the tart for 10 minutes or so until the sides are set, then poke the center with the tip of a paring knife and pour in the remaining filling. However you get it in there, bake the tart for about 25 minutes until the sides are barely puffed and the tart wobbles like jell-o when you give it a gentle shake; it should not be wet or watery looking (underbaked) nor should it be puffed in the center or cracking (overbaked).

Remove the tart from the oven and let cool to room temperature, then chill for at least 3 hours prior to serving. Remove the tart from the ring (setting it atop a large aluminum can, then pressing the ring down works well; if the tart sticks, place it in a 350º oven for 3 minutes to soften the sticky bits, and it should release more easily). Serve wedges of the tart with a bit of crème fraîche and a few blood orange supremes.

The tart keeps well, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

To supreme a blood orange:
Cut off the top and bottom of an orange. Place a cut side down, and use a sharp knife to pare away the skin and pith in a downward motion, following the curve of the fruit (see photo in post, above). Once you've removed all the skin and pith, hold the orange in your hand, over a bowl to catch the precious juice, and cut into the fruit, next to the membrane, to remove segments from their casings. These are called 'supremes.'

Friday, February 18, 2011

Celeriac Soup with Truffle Oil

Winter doesn't bring the shining stars of the produce world that spring, summer and fall do. No asparagus. No strawberries. No heirloom tomatoes. Not a whole lot of anything, really. Just a bunch of boring old root vegetables.

Luckily, when the weather turns cold and grey, root vegetables start to sound more appealing, as does standing over a warm stove coaxing them into a crispy saute or satiny soup. Unfortunately, when we get our obligatory mid-winter California heatwave, the one that tricks us into thinking, winter is over! wow, that was fast!, the produce availability does not magically change accordingly, and I find myself wondering what to eat. Salad again? An orange? I've had a celery root from our box sitting in the fridge for the past two weeks, but couldn't bring myself to do anything with it, as the weather has been downright summery.

Yes, I am aware that anyone not living in California currently wants to punch me in the head.

But before you do, know that as of this week, we spoilt Californians are back to our regularly-scheduled winter, and that today I slogged home from work in freezing (ok, 50º) rain and wind, feeling pretty sorry for myself. But the thought of a bowl of warm soup awaiting me for supper made everything better.

As did the thought of our newest and orangest family member, and the way he would probably curl up on my laptop to 'help' me write this post.

I had never tasted celery root before I signed up for a CSA several years ago. They aren't exactly attractive-looking, and the name doesn't do anything for their reputation. But cook them up with lots of butter, sweet leeks and potatoes, and their earthy, clean flavor reminiscent of truffles comes forward in a silky nappe of a soup. If the thought of eating beige root soup makes you feel deprived, just drizzle some truffle oil and a scatter of celery leaves over the top, and I reckon you will change your mind. This soup is nothing short of luxurious, and I wouldn't hesitate to serve it to a discerning guest. I got a small bottle of white truffle oil at Rainbow a few years ago for less than $10, and it has proved a useful topping for tarts, soups and roasted vegetables, adding a tantalizing burst of umami to any dish.

Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly homesteader-ish, I save vegetable trimmings in a large, ziploc baggie in the freezer to make into soup stock later on. Good candidates for this are neutral-tasting vegetables: potato, carrot, onion and parsnip peels and trimmings, celery trimmings and leaves, several parsley stems, and leek leaves and roots. Make sure your veg is clean, and not older than you would want to eat (i.e. browning or rotting). When you get a good bag full, put everything in a stock pot with water to cover, add a bay leaf or two, some thyme sprigs if you got 'em, and 10 or so peppercorns. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer 20 minutes. Strain, and you've got yourself some stock. If you don't want to use it all, stick it in the freezer for a rainy day, when you want to make soup but don't want to get out of your jammies.

Rooting for roots:
Potato, Spring Onion and Turnip Potage
Spiced Sweet Potato Oven Fries
Oven-Roasted Potatoes and Parsnips

One year ago:
(Vegan) Chocolate Coconut-Milk Tapioca Pudding

Creamy Celeriac Soup with Truffle Oil

Makes 6 servings

You can make a quick stock with the trimmings of the leeks, celery root and potatoes, and 8 cups of water. Throw in a carrot and an onion, in large chunks, if you like, for a bit more flavor. Or use a good quality, prepared vegetable or chicken stock. If you use stock or bouillon with salt, omit the salt in the recipe and add some at the end to taste, instead.

To easily wash leeks, cut them as directed below, then place them in a large bowl and fill with cool water. Swish the leeks around to loosen the slices, then let sit for a few minutes. Any sand or silt will settle to the bottom. Lift the leeks out with your fingers, shaking off excess water before adding them to the pot.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium leeks (white, light and bright green parts), halved lengthwise, then sliced crosswise 1/4" thick, washed (see note above)
12 ounces yellow potatoes (such as Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn, about 3 lemon-sized potatoes), peeled, in 3/4" chunks
1 pound celery root (1 large), peeled, in 3/4" chunks
6 cups salt-free vegetable stock (preferably homemade, see note above)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 - 1/2 cup half and half (or milk or heavy cream)
truffle oil (or walnut, porcini, or super-good olive oil), for drizzling
celery leaves, torn (or chervil, parsley or chives), for sprinkling

Melt the butter in a large soup pot or dutch oven. Add the leeks and saute while you prepare the potatoes and celery root. Add the vegetables to the leeks as you work, then give everything a turn to coat it in the butter, and add the stock, bay leaf and salt. Partially cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer.

Cook for 20 - 30 minutes, until the potato and celery root are soft. Puree the soup smooth with an immersion blender if you've got one, or in a blender, carefully, in batches (don't fill the blender more than halfway full, and hold the lid closed with a thick towel, or cool the soup to room temp first). Add enough half and half to thin the soup to your liking.

Serve the soup hot, with a drizzle of truffle oil and a sprinkle of celery leaves. The soup keeps well in the fridge for up to several days.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Gluten-Free!) Apple Crisple

Does anyone out there know the difference between a crisp and a crumble?

When two of my blog idols (blidols?) posted recipes for the respective fruit desserts, I thought I finally had this one figured out: a crisp has a finer topping made of sugar, butter and flour, and a crumble contains those things plus oats and/or nuts, with a clumpier texture. Suddenly everything made sense (at least as far as crisps and crumbles go, and sometimes, that is everything): crisps are actually crisp, whereas crumbles, well, crumble.

Now, though, I'm no longer sure. I was certain Martha Stewart would have the answer, but, apparently, she thinks crumbles don't even exist. Ditto for Cook's. Deb and Molly imply that a crumble is a crisp with added leavening and no oats/nuts, but Wikipedia, which I would imagine would know these things, says that a crisp is just an American version of the British crumble, and the images shown (which aren't very good - really, Wikipedia?) look more like what I thought was a crisp.

Now I'm more confused than ever; this here thing that I made is more crumbly than crisp in texture. But (despite desperately wishing otherwise) I am not British, nor does this thing contain leavening. So just to cover my bases and until someone learns me otherwise, I'm calling this a 'crisple.'

Anyway, when I asked my brother what dessert he wanted for his birthday, and he answered, 'Some kind of fruit crisp,' I knew then that we must truly be related, the crisp being, if I had to choose, my favorite dessert of all. (Or maybe it's the crumble? I just don't know anymore..)

Since there isn't much of anything crisp/crumble-able in season right now, I settled on plain apple. It's been a long time since I've resisted throwing something crazy into an apple crisp: rhubarb or huckleberries, rosemary, vanilla bean or browned butter. I did have some pretty fetching red walnuts to use in the topping, brought to me by my dear friend Kelly via the Berkeley Bowl. As there were a few gluten-avoiders on the guest list to accommodate, I sat down with several recipes (all of which were called 'crisps,' for the record) to create what I hoped would be an undetectably gluten-free version of this fruit dessert.

I had planned to use sticky rice flour in the topping, since that usually proves the best substitute, texturally mimicking wheat's gluten and fine grind, and planned to throw in some rolled oats for texture. But then I remembered a gluten-free cookie recipe in Alice Medrich's new cookie book which uses only oat flour. Since I had none, I decided to grind my own from the oats. I pulsed in brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and cold butter, and then the walnuts. What emerged from the oven was possibly the best crisple I've ever made. The topping tasted rich and full, with flecks of earthy oats and a subtle hint of spice. The texture was buttery and sandy and you never would have known that the dessert you were eating was 'missing' something (i.e. gluten) because it tasted completely right. My only regret (other than sticking a candle in the center of the still-warm crisple, which melted - and I call myself a pastry chef?!) was altruistically leaving the remains of it for my bro and his fam to polish off later (what was I thinking?).

With fruit crisp, I don't consider ice cream to be optional. A crisp without ice cream would be like a cupcake without frosting, in other words, just plain (wrong). Where gooey fruit and buttery topping meet melting ice cream is Bojon Gourmet heaven. For the record, apple crisp happens to go well with vanilla-black pepper ice cream; other options are vanilla, horchata or green cardamom.

Crisp, crumble, or crisple: whatever you call it, this dessert defines 'delicious.'

And gluten-free, too.

Crisped up:
Apple Rhubarb Crisp
Crumble tart (Huckleberry-fig, plus other suggestions)
Rhubarb Streusel Coffeecake

One year ago:
Candy Cap Sables

(Gluten-Free!) Apple Crisp

Adapted generously from Baking Illustrated

Makes 10 - 12 servings

This makes enough crisp to fill a 9 x 13" baking dish; feel free to halve the recipe and bake the crisp in an 8" square pan. The topping can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for up to a few days.

Feel free to add a cup or two of blackberries, huckleberries, cranberries, plums or thinly sliced rhubarb to the apples; you may need to adjust the sweetness for tart fruit.

Cook's says you can substitute 5 - 6 pounds of ripe pears or plums, or 6 pounds of peaches, for the apples. If using plums, or peaches mixed with berries, add 2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca to the fruit mixture.

If you lack a food processor, you can grind the oats in a coffee grinder, or use purchased oat flour, and work in the butter with your fingertips or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. A corer-peeler-slicer makes quick work of the apples, should you have one.

Crisp topping:
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (5 ounces, 1 1/4 sticks) cold butter, in 1/2" dice
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped raw walnuts

Apple filling:
4 1/2 pounds apples (12 - 15 medium-large, such as pink ladies, fujis or golden delicious; or half and half granny smiths and McIntosh), peeled, cut off the core and sliced crosswise 1/4" thick (12 cups)
1 teaspoon lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
3 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 - 2 lemons)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

Make the topping:
In the bowl of a food processor, grind the oats to a floury consistency. Pulse in the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt to combine, then pulse in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse meal, with no large butter chunks remaining, about 10 four-second pulses. Add the nuts and pulse several more times until the topping looks like 'slightly clumpy wet sand'. (Cook's warns: Don't over-mix, or the texture will be too wet and homogenous.) Chill the mixture in the fridge while you get on with the fruit, at least 15 minutes or up to several days.

Make the apple filling and bake the crisp:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375º. Have a 9x13" glass baking dish (or the equivalent) at the ready.

Peel the apples if you like, cut them off the core and then slice them crosswise 1/4" thick. (Alternately, you can use a dandy corer-peeler-slicer, then cut the peeled, cored, sliced apples into quarters.) Toss the apple slices in a large bowl with the lemon zest, lemon juice, brown sugar and salt to combine.

Lay the apple mixture in the pan, sprinkle the topping over (don't press down) and bake until the apples are bubbling thickly and the topping is golden brown, about 55 minutes. Serve warm with generous scoops of ice cream.

The crisp can hang out at room temp for several hours, then be reheated before serving. It is best the day it is baked, but you can keep leftovers in your fridge, reheating in the oven or toaster oven.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bouchon Cakes with Black Pepper Ice Cream

I once got excited about Valentine's Day. And I do mean 'once', as in, one time in my whole life. Being a late bloomer, the first boyfriend I had was during my junior year of high school (isn't it scary that that is considered being a 'late bloomer' these days?) and I was thrilled when he invited me on a trip to the snow with his mom on V-Day weekend. Unfortunately, my best friend, whose birthday was on the 13th, was not so thrilled when I asked whether she would mind moving her party to the following weekend so that I could attend. She then didn't speak to me for a week, which was especially awkward as she drove me to and from school every day, 45 minutes each way, because I had failed my driving test three times. After all that, the boyfriend's mom uninvited me, because she hated me (she didn't say that, but it was obvious). Even though I spent V-Day at Buca Di Beppo with my friend instead of sipping hot chocolate by the fire with my boyfriend, I don't think she ever forgave me. My friend, that is. I know the mom never forgave me.

Since then, I play it safe, and have practiced rolling my eyes and drawling, 'Hallmark holiday' whenever the touchy topic of V-Day arises.

There is one thing that I do appreciate about V-Day, however: that it is considered obligatory to gorge oneself on champagne and chocolate, or even better, prosecco and a gooey, chocolaty dessert. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the way to a woman's is through her chocolate stomach (yes, we have a separate stomach for chocolate; take note, boys).

As far as gooey, chocolaty desserts go, it doesn't get much better than a brownie sundae-

-unless the brownie recipe comes from Thomas Keller, the ice cream is homemade and flavored with vanilla bean and fresh black pepper, and the whole thing is tricked out with blood orange reduction, cocoa nibs and flaky salt. Called 'bouchons' for their semblance to corks, these cakes have the nostalgic flavor and slight chew of brownies made from a box, only they're way better because they're French. Just kidding. They're way better because they're made with high quality cocoa powder, chocolate, butter, and enough salt to make them completely addictive. Their light-yet-dense, moist texture, which comes from whipping whole eggs with sugar until thick and then forcing in an unconscionable amount of butter, is what every brownie wants to have.

I scored this cake recipe from my days at Farallon, where we served the bouchons atop an espresso sauce with milk chocolate ice cream and salted pecans. While we sold more of these cakes than any other dessert, occasionally someone would request it sans sauce, and with vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. At first I thought this blasphemy, but when I tasted the combination, I had to admit that the fresh, clean flavor of the vanilla complemented the dark richness of the cakes better than the chocolate.

Inspired by Molly Wizenberg's book A Homemade Life, I decided to pair the cakes with vanilla-black pepper ice cream. Molly got the idea from Mallard's, a fabulous ice cream shop in the fabulous town of Bellingham, Washington, and those were enough creds for me. I made my favorite vanilla ice cream recipe, stirring in the black pepper just before churning as per Molly's instructions. Don't fear the pepper; the vanilla comes through as the prominent flavor, with a kicky finish. Blood orange reduction adds a note of brightness to the dish without overwhelming, and cocoa nibs and flaky salt provide addictive crunch.

If you're bojon this V-day, you probably don't a have a ton of lettuce to drop at some overpriced restaurant where everybody and their mistress is dining. Instead, why not impress your date by baking him or her these rich little cakes?

On second thought, maybe you should give them to your best friend instead.

Let them eat (chocolate) cake:
Chocolate Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake (Gluten-Free!)
Double Chocolate Banana Cupcakes, with Cream Cheese Frosting
Smoked Porter Chocolate Cake

One year ago:
Plum Jam and Cardamom Crumble Squares

Chocolate Bouchons with Black Pepper Ice Cream and Blood Orange Reduction

10 servings

The amounts of sugar, butter and salt in the cake batter might seem excessive, but I assure you the flavor and texture turn out just right. I once made these gluten-free, by subbing sweet rice flour for the all-purpose, with excellent results. I've always used dutch-processed cocoa powder for these cakes, and don't know whether they'd work with the 'natural' stuff; Valrhona and Guittard both make good dutch-processed cocoa. Be sure the melted butter is still very warm when you add it to the cake batter; otherwise, the cakes won't develop the prettily glazed cracks on top (they'll still taste great, though!). Make the ice cream base the day before you plan to serve the cakes, as it benefits from resting in the fridge overnight, and needs to firm up for a few hours after spinning. (A wise woman once said, 'You can't hurry ice cream, no, you just have to wait'... or something like that.) If you lack an ice cream maker, or didn't plan ahead, don't fret; make a batch of crème anglaise and grind 1/4 teaspoon or so of black pepper into the cooled custard. All the components can be made in advance; the cakes keep well for several days, and reheat beautifully in the oven or toaster oven. Should you be so lucky as to have 3" ring molds, use them to bake 8 cakes, omitting the cocoa-dusting step.

Warm Chocolate Cakes: (Adapted from the Bouchon Bakery via Farallon)

2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) sugar
2/3 cup (2 3/4 ounces) dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the pans
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) flour
2/3 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and kept warm
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use 72%), coarsely chopped (a scant cup)

For serving:
Blood Orange Reduction (below)
Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream (below)
powdered sugar
cocoa nibs
flaky salt
freshly ground pepper

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Brush 10 of the muffin tins with some of the melted butter and dust with cocoa powder. (The cleanest way to do this is to place about a tablespoon of cocoa powder in each tin, and, holding it over a large sheet of parchment paper, knock it around to the best of your ability, tapping out the excess onto the parchment. Use the parchment to slide the extra cocoa into your measuring cup for the cake.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until very thick and pale, 5 - 10 minutes. When you lift the paddle from the bowl, the egg goop should form a mound on the surface of the goop in the bowl for a second before disappearing.

While the eggs are doing their thing, sift together the cocoa, flour and salt into a medium bowl.

Beat the vanilla into the egg mixture. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add 1/3 of the dry mixture, beating until combined. With the mixer still running, drizzle in 1/2 of the warm, melted butter, mixing until combined (slowly drizzling in the butter ensures that it emulsifies into the eggs, resulting in a smooth, not greasy, texture). Keep going like that until all the stuff is in there. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chopped chocolate. The batter should be fairly runny and shiny, like that of brownie batter.

Immediately divide the batter among the buttered and cocoa-ed muffin cups (a spring-loaded ice cream scoop makes quick work of this), filling them about 2/3 of the way full. Bake the cakes, rotating once, until shiny on top and a tester comes out with lots of moist crumbs (there may be melted chocolate from the chunks on there, too - don't let it fool you), about 20 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 5 minutes. Invert a cooling rack over the cakes, then grab the pan and the rack and flip everything over together. Give the pan a rap on the table, then remove it, so that the cakes are sitting upside-down on the rack. Turn the cakes over to cool right-side-up.

To serve, dust the cakes with powdered sugar. Drizzle the blood orange reduction on plates, and place a warm cake atop each plate. Make a small pile of cocoa nibs next to or on top of the cakes, and top with a scoop of ice cream. Garnish the ice cream with ground black pepper, a few flecks of flaky salt and a few cocoa nibs.

The cakes will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature. Reheat in a 350º oven for 3 - 5 minutes before serving.

Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream: (Adapted from A Homemade Life)

Makes about 1 quart

The easiest way to measure the black pepper is to grind it onto a piece of creased paper, then use the paper to slide the pepper into the measuring spoons.

Save the egg whites for making brown-butter financier cakes. They will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.

1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly and finely ground black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half with the vanilla bean and scrapings until steaming and small bubbles appear around the sides of the pan. Cover and steep for 20 minutes.

Pour the heavy cream into a quart-sized container, such as a mason jar, and set aside. If you have an instant-read thermometer, have it handy.

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl set on a damp towel to stabilize it. Add the sugar and salt, whisking to combine. Reheat the half and half to a bare scald. Whisking constantly with one hand, pour the hot dairy very slowly into the yolks. (This is called tempering, and prevents the yolks from scrambling.) Pour the mixture back into the pot and set over a medium-low flame. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot, until the custard just begins to 'stick' (or form a thickened film) on the bottom of the pot (you will have to tilt the pan to see the bottom), or registers 170º on an instant-read thermometer, 5-10 minutes.

Immediately pour the custard into the container of cold cream, stir to combine, and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Place the ice cream base in the freezer for 30 minutes, stirring 2 - 3 times, to get it really cold. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, and stir in the black pepper, then process in an ice cream maker. 'Cure' in the freezer for at least 2 hours for a firmer, scoopable consistency.

Homemade ice cream is best eaten within the first few days of being made, but will keep for a month or two in the freezer.

Blood Orange Reduction:

Use any leftover syrup to make blood orange sodas; just stir a bit of syrup into a glass of sparkling water (or prosecco!).

1 cup freshly squeezed, strained blood orange juice (from 3 or 4 blood oranges)
1/2 cup sugar

Combine the juice and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook at a simmer, swirling occasionally, until reduced by almost half and syrupy, 5 - 10 minutes. You can 'test the set' by dripping a drop of the reduction onto a chilled plate. Cool and store in the fridge for up to several weeks.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sticky Date Pudding

A few years ago, a curious dessert began popping up on restaurant menus around San Francisco: sticky toffee pudding. I'd never heard of it before, and the name, which conjured up visions of syrupy-sweet goop, made my teeth hurt just reading it. I would skip right past it in favor of a nice apple crisp or panna cotta. In time, I learned that this dessert was British and contained dates, two things which put me off even further.

But my prejudice against sticky toffee pudding was overthrown one night when I went to work at Farallon under the talented Terri Wu. The whole pastry team gathered around the plating station for the weekly tasting of each dessert on the menu, and, when notified that sticky toffee pudding was one of them, I thought to myself, 'Oh, that nasty thing.' The puddings were baked individually and turned out onto a large plate, a ladleful of warm, amber sauce poured over the top. A quenelle of vanilla bean-flecked whipped cream sat alongside it, and a shower of butter brickle completed the plate. I timidly took a spoonful of pudding, bracing myself for tooth-aching sweetness, and waited for a sugar high to set in.

Instead, my mouth hummed with the flavors of vanilla, butter and brown sugar. The whisper-light cake mingled with cool cream and crunchy candy. The level of sweetness was perfectly pitched, as though calculated by a team of food scientists eager to get you hooked.

I tasted my way through more desserts, each a more decadent work of art than the last: a 'candy bar' sundae with peanut butter caramel and chocolate shell; apple-quince pie with spiced walnut ice cream; gooey chocolate cake with coffee-crème fraîche ice cream; roasted pear charlotte with huckleberries and pear beurre blanc; piña colada sorbet with rum granita. But when asked by Terri's assistant, Lauren, which was my favorite, I realized, to my surprise, it was the sticky toffee pudding. Lauren nodded her head knowingly, 'It's an old favorite.'

When I came across a recipe in Deborah Madison's Seasonal Fruit Desserts, a thoughtful gift from my brother and sister-in-law, for a 'not-so-sticky date pudding', I was instantly intrigued. By now you know of my deep love and trust of Ms. Madison's recipes. The fact that this pudding contained coffee and dark brown sugar to cut the sweetness of the ubiquitous pudding piqued my curiosity. As I mixed up the batter, which, unlike most sticky pudding recipes I'd researched, contained no eggs and little butter, my trust wavered. As I sloshed a saucepanful of brown sugar-sweetened coffee over the scant amount of batter, I became certain that I'd just wasted half an hour of my time and several dollars worth of ingredients.

But despite all my fears, the pudding emerged from the oven magically transformed into a layer of moist cake dotted with pockets of soft dates, which gave way to a silky, molten sauce. Topped with a pour of cold cream, the flavors all melded together into one satisfying, homey dessert, making me sorry I'd waited so long to try it.

Comparing this pudding to Farallon's would be impossible, as they are completely different beasts; this one is deep and dark from molasses, whole spelt flour and coffee where Farallon's is more light and mild. This has rustic chunks of dates, where Farallon purees the dates into the cake for a smooth texture. I'll keep searching for a Farallon-like sticky pudding recipe, but for the meantime, this one hit the sweet spot quite nicely. While rustic in looks, I wouldn't hesitate to serve it to the most discerning of guests. I hope you'll have fewer trepidations than I did and give it a try!

Pudding it to you:
Pumpkin Flan
Coconut-Cardamom Rice

One year ago:
Pumpkin Tart
Apple Huckleberry Pie

Sticky Date Pudding

Adapted from Deborah Madison's Seasonal Fruit Desserts

Makes 8 servings

Feel free to add 1 cup of toasted, chopped walnuts along with the dates as per the original recipe; I omitted them this time because I wanted a smooth pudding, but I plan to add them the next time I make it (which, I hope, will be soon!).

Cakey batter:
6 - 8 ounces whole, medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (1 cup lightly packed)
1 cup flour (whole wheat or spelt, or all-purpose)
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk or milk
2 tablespoons melted butter

Liquidy bit:
1 1/2 cups brewed coffee
2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup dark brown sugar

For serving:
3 tablespoons brandy, dark or gold rum, or whiskey
cold heavy cream, creme anglaise, or vanilla ice cream

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Have a 2-quart baking dish handy.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in the buttermilk, butter and dates to make a thick batter, and spread in the bottom of the baking dish.

In a small saucepan, heat the coffee, butter and brown sugar to a boil, stirring to melt the butter and sugar. Pour over the batter. Bake the pudding for 30 - 40 minutes; the pudding will look dry and cracked on top, and a thick sauce will bubble up around the edges.

Douse the hot pudding with the brandy. Scoop servings of the warm pudding into bowls and top with a pour of heavy cream, crème anglaise or ice cream. The pudding keeps well in the fridge for up to a week; re-warm before serving.