I adore Alice Medrich. She is, I believe, the preeminent author of dessert cookbooks in our time. Her specialty is chocolate, but that’s okay since chocolate should have the starring role in any collection of desserts or dessert recipes. In any event, her non-chocolate desserts are just as excellent as her chocolate desserts; there are just fewer of them. I have one problem with Alice’s cookbooks: on at least two occasions, a cookbook of hers has reappeared several years after its original publication date with a new cover and a new title. This is a practice of which I strongly disapprove. The cookbooks that we consider in this post are two mid-career books: Bitter Sweet (recently reissued as Seriously Bitter Sweet) and Pure Dessert.
Alice has written eight books; Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate is her fifth (2003); a summing up of her career to that point. There is a memoir component to this book, but these “tales” are brief and can be easily ignored in the rush to get to the chocolate recipes. There is information about chocolate, but this information is very unhelpfully nonjudgmental. For example, on page 58 we find a list of bittersweet and semisweet chocolates, “both ordinary and sublime”, in alphabetical order, beginning with Baker’s Bittersweet or Semi-Sweet and ending with Valrhona Equatoriale Dark. I do not understand how these two chocolates can be on the same list. The recipes, though, are reliably good, and deal with all things chocolate: from cakes and brownies and ice cream to some very interesting looking savory recipes.
One of my all-time favorite cookie recipes comes from this book: “Nibby Nut and Raisin Cookies” (page 312). These cookies are made with a chocolate chip type dough with added cocoa nibs, walnuts, and currants. (Alice gives us a choice of currants or raisins; I use the currants since I think smaller units of fruit sweetness in this particular cookie are better.) The result tastes like a very sophisticated chocolate chip cookie: the nibs are chocolatey yet not in your face. The texture is a little on the soft side which I like, but I suppose that fans of crispness could just cook the cookies a little longer that I do. [Go to the recipe.]
I have also made “Nibby Pecan Cookies” (page 307), another cocoa nib cookie, a tamer and more refined cookie. This is a refrigerator cookie, with the dough formed into a log, refrigerated, and then sliced into cookies to be baked. These cookies were good, but I rarely make them since I like the other nibby cookies so much more.
Meringues are the perfect parve dessert (and not only parve, but suitable for Pesach). I do, however, get tired of my plain sugar meringues, so I decided to experiment with Alice’s recipe for “Chocolate Meringue” (page 180). These meringues become chocolate just by folding bittersweet chocolate pulverized with sugar into the stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar. I did not follow Alice’s baking instructions, since it looked as if these instructions would yield a totally dry meringue, not my choice of texture. However, using my usual meringue cooking method (225º-250º for about an hour), these came out a tiny bit chewy, so I will try to lower the temperature the next time I make these.
“Wild Mushroom Ragout” (page 327) is one of the savory dishes in this book. It is very simple: sautéed mushrooms and garlic in a red wine sauce flavored with nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, and chocolate. I liked this dish, but then I like mushrooms. My palate is not sensitive enough to have been able to appreciate the subtle seasoning; in particular, I did not detect the chocolate. I served these over mushrooms noodles. On eating the leftovers, I gave up on subtlety and topped my mushrooms and noodles with Parmesan cheese and lots of black pepper.
While Bittersweet was everything chocolate, Pure Dessert is everything dessert. In this book, chocolate only gets one chapter; the other chapters focus on other flavors: milk, fruit, herbs and spices, to name a few. Of course, given Alice’s relationship with chocolate, many of these recipes featuring other flavors still have chocolate as a secondary ingredient. I found myself picking more recipes to cook from this book than from Bittersweet, but only because there is just so much chocolate that we can eat in our house. As with Bittersweet, the question is not whether a particular recipe is good or not, but rather its degree of goodness.
Unfortunately, the degree of goodness for “Raspberry-Chocolate Chunk Muffins” (page 160) is not the highest, but this did not stop me from eating one after another. I do not think that raspberries are the ideal fruit for muffins: too seedy. The recipe had too much sugar. I cut the sugar in half, but the muffins were still too sweet for a morning snack, yet not quite dessert-like enough for dessert. The muffins were small; eating one just made me want to eat another. Alice uses a relatively small amount of butter for twelve muffins (just five tablespoons), but this too might have led to the lack of satisfaction in eating only one. But what was delightful about these muffins was the chocolate: for each bite I wished for a soft and melty morsel of chocolate and was rewarded more often than not.
Although I make the same Pesach desserts year after year, every now and then new desserts sneak into the lineup and old ones drop out. I am now contemplating replacing my ususal chocolate torte with Alice’s “Nutty Chocolate Sponge Cake” (page 146). The chocolate torte does, after all, rather duplicate my cheesecake’s texture, and people do like their sponge cakes for Pesach. Alice’s sponge cake has lots of eggs, lots of chocolate, a reasonable amount of almonds, and two tablespoons each of matzoh meal and potato starch. I always worry that my sponge cakes collapse too much, and this one did collapse a little, but I think that everyone else’s sponge cakes collapse also. The texture was still fine, and the taste was superb, even with the less than first rate Pesach chocolate. I served the cake with whipped cream, but it was fine all on its own.
I had lots of fig jam from my adventures with Belgian food, and there was no way that it was going to get used up merely as a spread. I knew that Linzer torte was just crust with raspberry jam, so I decided to make figgy Linzer torte, and where else to look for a Linzer crust but in the works of Alice Medrich? Sure enough, in Pure Dessert there is a recipe for “Spicy Linzer Torte” (page 204). The crust is a very crumbly nut crust with cinnamon, cloves, lemon zest, and orange zest. I used all lemon zest, as I had no organic oranges for orange zest. Alice cautions us to butter the sides of our tart pan; I did this, but I don’t think it was strictly necessary. The crust is a press-in crust, but I found it very difficult to press until I wet my hands. Alice offers a clever technique for forming a lattice topping: form the lattice on parchment paper, freeze, then transfer to the top of the tart. After getting the crust in the pan, spreading on the fig jam, topping with the frozen lattice, and baking, out of the oven came one of the best possible tarts! Fig jam went so well with the spicy crust, probably better than raspberry jam. A slice of figgy Linzer torte was perfect topped with whipped cream. [Go to the recipe.]
Initially I blamed Alice for my first failed attempt at “Lemon Tart” (page 114), but I believe that we must share the blame. To make this tart, Alice calls for a 9½-inch tart pan, but I only had 11-inch and 8-inch tart pans. Mistakenly thinking that my 11-inch pan was a 10-inch pan, I used it, which was a problem. The crust barely covered the pan, and the filling barely covered the crust. Wanting a tart that was more than ¼ inch high, I topped the tart with misshapen frozen raspberries. The tart looked like a mess, stuck to the tart pan, yet was quite delicious. I wasn’t ready to give up, and I had the ingredients to make another tart, so I tried again, this time using the 8-inch tart pan. The result was perfect, and so I think that a 9½-inch pan still would have been too big. The crust is a wonderful idea: it’s a press-in crust made with melted butter. The filling is just a standard lemon curd. I did not top my second tart with berries, but this would have been a good variation, based on the results with the first version of this tart.
I had an assignment recently to bring parve desserts to a Shabbos lunch, so I searched through the two books of this post for such a recipe. I wanted a recipe that was naturally parve; no way was I going to substitute killer margarine for butter. “Panforte Nero” (page 212) was the recipe I chose. Panforte Nero has nuts, figs, spices, and cocoa powder, with a little bit of flour and all mixed up with a honey and sugar syrup. This is not food for picky eaters, but for those with more catholic tastes, this is an amazing dessert. Although I can imagine making this with some sort of alcohol, or (if parve is not required) topping it with whipped cream, I strongly suspect that this dessert is best left pristine.
I expected more from Alice’s “Quark Soufflés” (page 52), but I think the fault may lie with Vermont Creamery. The first quark I ever tried was from Hiller’s; I forget the brand. I was not that wild about it: it was too sour to enjoy plain, and too thick to mix with other stuff. However, the quark soufflé recipe looked liked it might be a good vehicle for quark: the sourness would be offset by the sugar and blackberry sauce, and the thickness was not a problem in something baked. This time, I bought my quark at Whole Foods Market; I thought the Vermont Creamery quark would be good. Perhaps it was good; perhaps it was closer to the quark that inspired writers of impenetrable fiction and particle physicists, but it was neither very sour nor very thick and was not, I believe, optimal for this recipe. The recipe itself is delightfully simple: you mix together quark, egg yolks, and a little bit of flour, beat until stiff egg whites and sugar, then fold everything together and bake. The blackberry sauce is equally simple: just cook blackberries with a little bit of sugar and add lemon juice. The problem was that the sauce completely overpowered the soufflé, which was rather tasteless: the quark that I used was just too wimpy.
Cocoa Nib and Currant Cookies
Adapted from Alice Medrich, Bittersweet
1 cup butter, melted
2⁄3 cup white sugar
2⁄3 cup brown sugar
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
21⁄4 cups flour
2⁄3 cocoa nibs
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup dried currants
In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugars, and salt. Mix in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the baking soda and then the flour. Finally, add the cocoa nibs, walnuts, and currants. Ideally, refrigerate the dough for several hours or overnight, but if you are in a hurry, you may cook it right away.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Break off tablespoon sized pieces of dough, and place on the cookie sheets, allowing room for slight spreading. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on a rack. I prefer these cookies when they are cooked until just done; others may like them somewhat crisper.
Figgy Linzer Torte
1½ cups dried figs, quartered, stems removed
¼ cup dried blueberries
½ cup sugar
1¾ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
¾ cup almonds
1 cup flour
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
11 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1 egg yolk
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
¼ teaspoon almond extract
To make the fig jam, place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, and then simmer until thick, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and blend until mostly smooth. The jam can be refrigerated for up to several weeks, until you need it. You can even use some of the jam for other purposes; I did not use quite the full recipe for this dessert.
To make the crust, pulse the almonds, flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and cloves in the food processor until the almonds are ground. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until everything comes together and the butter is evenly distributed.
I used an 11-inch tart pan; you can also use a slightly smaller one. Pinch off small pieces of the crust dough and roll them into lattice strips. (I made seven strips for the horizontal, and another seven for the vertical, using about one tablespoon of dough for the longest strips.) Trace the outline of the bottom of the tart pan onto a piece of parchment paper. Using this circle as a guide, place the dough strips to form a lattice. You do not have to worry about weaving the strips, as they will bake together. Put the parchment paper with the dough lattice in the freezer for 30 minutes. Press the rest of the crust dough into the tart pan and up the sides. This is easiest to do with wet hands. Refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Spread the fig jam in the crust. Remove the lattice from the freezer, and place on top of the jam. Bake until the crust is brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.