Great Desserts

dessertsReading dessert recipes is a surrogate activity for eating desserts, and this is perhaps the main reason that I have way too many dessert cookbooks. Some of these cookbooks are filled with standard recipes, some have unusual and interesting recipes. Both the cookbooks of this post, Joanne Chang’s Flour and Karen Barker’s Sweet Stuff, do not present particularly ground-breaking dessert innovations or emphasize stunning presentation, but instead offer the best possible versions of ordinary desserts. That said, each book has both its strengths and weaknesses: Joanne in Flour does creamy better than crunchy, and Karen’s cakes are the highlights of Sweet Stuff.

flourI am doing Joanne Chang backwards, as her second book, Flour, Too, was featured in an earlier post. That one was a good cookbook, but her first cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe, is an excellent one. In this cookbook, Joanne is doing what she does best: baking, with an emphasis on taste. The reader should not be deterred from trying recipes from this cookbook because there are a couple of recipes below about which I am not that enthusiastic; the recipes I liked, I liked very much indeed, and there are tons of recipes (indeed, almost every recipe in the book) that I would like to try, and refrain from doing so only because I do not want to weigh 300 pounds. Joanne herself manages not to weigh 300 pounds by running. As I learned from The Athlete’s Palate Cookbook (see an earlier post), Joanne is a runner, and has been a Boston Marathon bandit for many years. Joanne’s recipe introductions have just the right balance of personal anecdote, recipe information, and inspiration. The book itself is well produced (as I have come to expect from Chronicle Books): a good font, a good recipe layout, photography that enhances rather than intrudes, and a good binding. It is a pleasure to cook from this cookbook, to read it and fantasize, and just to stroke the pages.

flourgranolaThe Flour granola, found in the cookbook as “Mom’s Granola” (page 101), was not really to my taste, but I cannot quite figure out quite why. The granola had almost as much wheat germ as oats, and I do not think that this is the best grain mixture. Joanne called for canola oil, an ingredient I do not use, so I substituted walnut oil, which could only improve the granola. I might perhaps have liked  the granola better with more nuts or more dried fruit. Instead of being tempted to take miniature cupfuls of this granola throughout the day, a problem I have had with other granolas, I ended up using the granola to make granola cupcakes.

spready“Chunky Lola Cookies” (page 110) seemed guaranteed to please. These are kitchen sink style chocolate chip cookies, with coconut, pecans, and oats in addition to chocolate chips (for which Joanne recommends chopping up some good dark chocolate). Joanne gives weight measurements, so I weighed all my ingredients instead of doing the sloppy volume measurement that I usually do. Since I was making these in the middle of winter, when flour and other such ingredients are dry, I was expecting the cookie dough to be more on the dry side. After I mixed up the dough, it looked a little wetter than cookie doughs to which I an accustomed, but I trusted Joanne, and left it in the refrigerator for several hours, as instructed. Perhaps, I thought, the rest time would allow the oats and flour to absorb some of the excess moisture. This did not happen, and when I baked the cookies, they spread out way too much. As a result of the excessive spreading, the texture was not ideal; otherwise, these were fine cookies, but would have been far finer had I followed my instincts and added a little more flour.

creampuffsAfter two iffy crunchy recipes from Joanne, it is time to look at what she does best: creamy. Let us begin with her cream puffs (“Éclairs or Cream Puffs”, page 280), which are perfect. Cream puffs have long been a standard in our house; in early days with just Zach and Jessie, I made cream puffs from a recipe in an ancient Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Sometimes my choux pastry rose properly; sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the filling had just the right consistency; sometimes it didn’t. The chocolate glaze on top that I used to use was not that good; I made it with cocoa. Over the years I experimented with different recipes, but those days of experimentation are in the past, now that I have Joanne’s recipe. Following her recipe, I use the heavy duty electric mixer for the pastry, and so my arms do not get tired and enough air gets beaten into the pastry for it to rise properly. The pastry cream filling is mixed with whipped cream, which is obviously going to make it even better. I do think that her chocolate glaze made only with cream and dark chocolate is a bit too austere, so I depart from Joanne’s formula by adding some corn syrup to the glaze. This dessert never lasts long in our house. [Go to the recipe.]

tiramisuTiramisu at one point was a very faddy dessert, and with good reason. It is always the best dessert on the Seva menu. Alan was the first person in our house to make tiramisu. His tiramisu was great, but with only a little more work, Joanne’s tiramisu is even better. Joanne’s recipe (“New Tiramisu”, page 194) does not use stale store-bought ladyfingers; instead, she has us make a sponge cake. The creamy filling is made with mascarpone, and the alcohol contribution is from Kahlua. I depart from Joanne’s recipe by using grated dark chocolate instead of grated unsweetened chocolate. This is a dessert that rarely survives a table full of guests. That said, I must acknowledge Shay’s constructive criticism: he would have liked a stronger coffee taste.

butterscotchpuddJoanne’s “Butterscotch Pudding” (page 243) lies somewhere between a butterscotch pudding mix and the divine “Little Scottish Butterscotch Pots” from Nick Nairn discussed in an earlier post. This pudding is much closer in delightfulness to Nick Nairn’s butterscotch, although closer in texture to pudding mix. It occurred to me that the pudding would have been better with something alcoholic in it, which led to the question of the connection between butter rum and butterscotch, and whether butterscotch should most properly have Scotch in it. But according to Wikipedia, the “scotch” in “butterscotch” has nothing to do with the drink so loved by some of our friends. It follows that butterscotch and butter rum have only coincidentally converged on the same caramel taste. In conclusion, this pudding was very good but would have been better with some added rum, possible with some added Bourbon (and I am not yet convinced that Scotch is a good alcohol accent for desserts).

sweetstuffKaren Barker is a Jewish girl from Brooklyn transplanted to the land of Old Man Buck Duke (Durham, North Carolina), where, until recently, she and her husband owned and operated the award-winning Magnolia Grill. As the subtitle of Karen’s book, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts indicates, the emphasis is on familiar desserts, often with “American” ingredients, e.g., cranberries, Bourbon, cornmeal, or peanuts. As in Joanne’s book, the emphasis is on taste, not presentation or bizarre flavor combinations. Karen, though, is no slouch when it comes to innovating, but her innovations are are natural extensions of the known. “Banana Pudding Cream Puffs (page 168) sounds like a great idea; I am sure that I would love these if only I liked bananas. There is still a lot, though, for me to like (nay, love) in this cookbook.

The snowmen ended up in Milk Chocolate Chip Poundcake

The snowmen ended up in Milk Chocolate Chip Poundcake

Note the temperature! And it's going down!

Note the temperature! And it’s going down!

Alan suggested recently that “Milk Chocolate Chip Poundcake” (page 215) is the best dessert that I make. I disagree; pumpkin pie and cream puffs are, for example, hard to beat, as are certain ice creams. But I do believe that this is the best cake that I make, and even is amongst the best cakes in the world (if not universe). This is a fairly standard pound cake formula, with some of the sugar being brown sugar, and with milk chocolate chips. In addition, this cake has a heavy dose of chocolate liqueur, as well as a chocolate liqueur glaze. Karen uses dark crème de cacao, but my alcohol experts, Jessie and the man behind the counter at Stadium Market, do not think much of crème de cacao. Jessie likes Godiva, and Stadium Market sold me Marie Brizard Chocolat Royal. The trickiest part about making this cake is getting the cooking time right: you need to hit that special time at which the cake is no longer gummy, but has not started to dry out. This point does not compromise the extremely high taste to trouble ratio. [Go to the recipe.]

cranberrytart“Cranberry Linzer Tart” (page 109) was a very popular dessert when I served it to my guests. There were four small slices left over, but when I looked for them the next day, someone else in the family had beaten me to them. I had a problem in making the walnut crust; it completely broke apart when I tried to roll it out. I ended up just pressing the crust into the tart pan. This actually worked out quite well. I also had to innovate when it came to making the lattice crust; instead of rolling out dough and cutting strips, I rolled the dough into snakes, then flattened the snakes for the lattice strips. The filling was simple: cranberries and a few raisins cooked with orange juice, sugar, and maple syrup, with a little bit of vanilla and cream added at the end. I was planning to serve this with vanilla ice cream, but instead just served it with whipped cream, which was still very good.

Whiskey cheesecake

Whiskey cheesecake

Karen is an expert in cheesecake baking, and has a method I have not seen elsewhere for cooking her cheesecakes so that they do not crack on top. Her cheesecakes start out in a 350º oven, after 20 minutes, the temperature is reduced to 300º, after another 20 minutes, the temperature is reduced to 250º, and after another 20 minutes the temperature is reduced to 225º where it stays until the cheesecake is cooked. I like this method much better than the water bath cheesecake baking method. I have tried three of Karen’s cheesecakes, and have my eye on a couple more.  I only made “Brown Sugar Sour Cream Cheesecake” (page 243) once; it was good enough, but not remarkable, and the cornmeal in the crust did nothing for me. “Black Bottom Gentleman Jack Cheesecake” (page 245), known to my circle as “whiskey cheesecake” is another story: everybody likes it, if only for the novelty. The whiskey flavor is quite pronounced, both in the bottom chocolate layer, and the top cheesecake layer. Karen also has a great peanut butter cheesecake (page 250); it is flavored with rum and has a chocolate sour cream topping. I have not yet tried “Goat Cheese Cheesecake in a Hazelnut Crust” (page 252), but it looks intriguing, as does “Creamy Maytag Blue Cheesecake with Walnuts in Rosemary Honey” (page 254) (although I do not, for various reasons, eat Maytag blue cheese).

bwThere are certain foods and drinks that only people from specific geographic locales appreciate. For example, only Michiganders like Vernor’s, and one has to be English to appreciate Marmite, (or from New Zealand, possibly Australia, to like New Zealand Marmite, a slightly different product). Only people from Waka Waka like Fleegix, and few people other than Brooklyners like black and white cookies. Danny, born in Brooklyn, is quite fond of black and white cookies, although I am not. Karen grew up in Brooklyn, and so, predictably, likes black and white cookies. I thought I would be a good wife, and try her recipe, “Brooklyn Black-&-Whites” (page 325) to please my husband. I do not think that these cookies quite captured the true black and white essence, however they came close enough that Danny liked them and I did not. He thought that the frosting was too sweet; it was, but the frosting on true black and white cookies is also too sweet.


Cream Puffs

Adapted from Joanne Chang, Flour

Cream Puff Shells:
12 cup butter, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon sugar
14 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
4 eggs, ideally at room temperature

1 cup milk
12 vanilla bean
12 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
Pinch salt
1 egg
1 egg yolk
12 cream

Chocolate glaze:
4 ounces dark chocolate
12 cream
1 tablespoon corn syrup (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

To make the cream puff shells, put the butter, sugar, salt, and water in a pan and bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, dump in all the flour and stir until the mixture forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan. This should take place very quickly. Transfer the contents of the pan to the bowl of a heavy duty electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, add the eggs, one at a time, beating all the while. After the eggs have been incorporated, spoon about two tablespoons of dough for each cream puff onto the parchment lined baking sheet. I use a small ice cream scoop for this, and usually get 20 to 25 cream puffs. Bake until done, about, 20 to 25 minutes. Joanne says to turn the temperature down to 325º after 15 minutes, when the cream puffs have puffed, but I have never done this. When done, remove the cream puffs from the oven. I leave them on the baking sheet, and cut them in two horizontally, leaving the tops off so that the cream puff shells cool more rapidly.

While the cream puff shells are cooking, prepare the filling and glaze, although it might be better timing to make the filling before the cream puff shells. To make the filling, start heating the milk in a pan. Slit open the half vanilla bean, scrape the seeds into the milk, then add the scraped bean. Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt in a small bowl. Beat the egg and yolk, then add the flour and sugar mixture; combine well. When the milk has started to simmer, add it to the egg mixture a little at a time, beating as you do so. When all the milk has been added, put the custard back in the milk pan and return to the heat, stirring almost constantly, and being sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan as you do so. When the custard thickens, strain it into a clean bowl. For quick cooling, put the custard bowl in an ice water bath; stir occasionally as the custard cools.

For the glaze, chop up the chocolate. Bring the cream just to a boil and pour over the chocolate. Once the chocolate melts, add the corn syrup. Set the glaze aside, stirring it occasionally.

When the glaze has almost cooled to room temperature, the cream puff shells have cooled to room temperature, and the custard for the filling is even cooler, you are ready for assembly. Whip the remaining cream; once whipped, fold it into the custard. Then put a spoonful of custard in each cream puff shell; there should be just enough. Put the tops on the cream puffs, and drizzle the glaze over top. Refrigerate until ready to devour.


Milk Chocolate Chip Pound Cake

Adapted from Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

312 cups flour
112 teaspoons baking powder
12 teaspoon salt
34 cup butter
114 cups brown sugar
114 cups (white) sugar
5 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 tablespoons chocolate liqueur
34 cup milk
12 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

14 cup sugar
13 cup chocolate liqueur

Preheat the oven to 350º. Generously butter a bundt pan and coat it with matzoh cake meal (or, if you must, flour).

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a heavy duty electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and chocolate liqueur. Add the flour and milk alternately in several steps, beginning and ending with the flour. Beat and scrape the bowl after each addition. Fold in the chocolate. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour 20 minutes (my oven temperature is a little low; if your oven bakes hotter, you may need less time). Do not underbake. Check with toothpicks or sharp knives if you find that helpful. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for 5 to 15 minutes. I usually then turn out the cake directly onto a plate.

To make the glaze, add the sugar to the chocolate liqueur, and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Do not do this in advance, but only when the cake is out of the oven, as the glaze should be warm when you apply it. Brush the glaze all over the cake.

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