Articles in Desserts
Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.
With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.
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Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.
In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.
Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.
But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?
The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.
- Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
- 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
- ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
- Sparkling sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
- Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
- Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
- Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.
Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.
The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.
But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.
The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.
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It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.
The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.
Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.
Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?
- 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Optional: dash nutmeg
- 5 ounces butter, melted
- 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
- 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- 1½ cups sugar
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
- 8 ounces cream
- Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
- Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
- Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
- Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
- In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
- Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
- Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
- Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
- Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
- To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.
Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.
These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.
Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry
Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.
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While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.
Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!
If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.
Cool Mint Soda
Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
Mint sprigs for garnishing
1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.
2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.
3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.
Grilled Stuffed Peppers
Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
3 sweet peppers, halved
8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)
1 large tomato, chopped
6 sprigs basil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.
2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.
3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.
Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled
Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves
1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)
¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated
¼ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)
1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.
2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.
3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.
Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries
While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup tart cherries, pitted
½ cup honey
1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!
2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.
3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.
After tasting 2,734 entries, it was easy to spot food trends. I was one of the dozen judges for the coveted sofi Awards given to this year’s outstanding artisanal food products. One of the unexpected benefits of being a judge was the opportunity to taste everything in neatly organized categories. Usually, when attending a food show, you sample food in a random order, tasting the 2,000-plus exhibitor’s products in the haphazard order of booth geography, meandering from a taste of vinegar to jam, salsa and beer. But not this year.
In April and May the Specialty Food Association, which gives the awards, grouped the entries into categories. Finally, instead of a random mix of flavors, submissions were organized into 32 groupings, such as appetizers, beverages, condiments, desserts, salad dressings, snack foods, and USDA-certified organic products. The items in each group were set out on long tables in a half dozen rooms in the association’s New York City offices. We tasted more than 2,000 entries! We taste-tested 111 cheeses, 167 cooking sauces, 154 diet lifestyle foods, and 144 snacks in 1½- to 3-hour sessions. Palate fatigue was kept at bay by slices of green apples, crackers, pitchers of water and seltzer.
This year’s sofi Awards finalists reveals five fascinating trends, where new tastes meet classic traditions:
1. Molecular gastronomy
Also called modernistic cuisine, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry with cooking to alter the texture, look and taste of foods. This kitchen-based rocket science, popular with many top chefs in recent years, is moving into specialty foods. Several companies are introducing faux caviar, little gelled spheres that burst in your mouth. They can be filled with just about anything, from pesto to balsamic vinegar to espresso to truffle juice.
Get ready for floral-flavored waters, teas and even cocktail mixers, the next wave cresting in the beverage category. Blossom Water combines fruits and flowers in tandem, such as Lemon Rose, Plum Jasmine and Grapefruit Lilac. Rishi Tea is blending blueberries with hibiscus, and bergamot with sage. Owl’s Brew Pink & Black is a tea-infused cocktail mix blended with hibiscus. As unusual as these combinations may sound, they’re nothing new. Rosewater and orange flower water, familiar to Moroccan food enthusiasts, date to the Renaissance.
3. Savory sweets
Pushing the envelope on savory sweets has been a growing trend since the realization that chocolate and caramel only get better with a sprinkle of sea salt. At this year’s Fancy Food Show we’ll be introduced to cauliflower kale muffins, savory ice creams, and Blue Hill’s vegetable yogurts, which derive their vegetal sweetness from beets, sweet potatoes or winter squash. Bacon marmalade, anyone?
Smoke as a flavor component began as an important food preservation technique for our early ancestors, but now it’s showing up in items you wouldn’t expect. Smoke goes beyond barbecue and moves into chocolate chips (Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery Co.), smoked pizza flour, shortbread with smoked hickory sea salt (The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co.) and even smoked cocktail mixes. The aromatic allure triggers a primitive taste memory that we seem hardwired to love.
5. Compression and dehydration
Compressing or dehydrating foods not only changes their textures, but it also concentrates their flavors. Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. The compressed cube of concentrated maple sugar made by Tonewood is so hard it can only be grated, but the delicate wisps that gently fall from a microplane taste more intensely of maple than maple syrup or maple candy. Grace & I’s tightly pressed Fruit + Nuts Press not only looks like a pretty pound cake, but slices like cake too. Coach Farms has transformed some of their goat cheese into grating sticks that allow you to easily add a subtle, cheesy tang to pastas, salads, and vegetables. It won’t be long before these trends and most likely many of these products will appear in the aisles of your favorite supermarket and specialty food shop. When you do see them, it’s fine to feel a little smug — you read about them here first! This year’s award ceremony will be hosted by Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on June 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.
Main photo: Among the food trends is molecular gastronomy; in this case, faux caviar that tastes like basil. Credit: Specialty Food Association
In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, most picnics are simply enjoyable outdoor meals and social occasions, where thoroughly normal groups of people decide to have a fun time and eat and drink some well-prepared goodies out of doors. In the United Kingdom, things are rather more complicated. By tradition, British picnics are of three sorts: the romantic, the grand and the disastrous.
The romantic picnic encapsulates simplicity in beautiful surroundings with a wonderful view, a stream, a wood or flower-filled meadow. The tradition started a couple of hundred years ago, when people began to see nature and the countryside as picturesque rather than dangerous. The food, drink and company are all planned to add to the picnickers’ awareness of nature and its beauties and seem particularly associated with happy and impressionable youth. Such a picnic involves little display or showing off, and not even a great deal of organisation. Sandwiches, fruit and some chilled wine or lemonade would be enough to make the right company happy in this setting — if it can be found. Somehow, this is the sort of picnic people dream of, but don’t very often end up having.
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Over the top
The grand picnic is often and sometimes deservedly mocked. At its worst, it is based on the assumption that conspicuous expenditure will win the envy and admiration of spectators and guests. Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope describe picnics with attendant servants, Champagne and dancing. Nowadays, grand English social occasions such as horse racing’s Royal Ascot, rowing’s Henley, opera’s Glyndebourne and the end-of-term speech days of the most expensive private schools all provide opportunities for showing off. Too much expensive food and drink such as lobsters, oysters and the very best Burgundy and Bordeaux, overdone table decorations, gilt wood chairs, striped awnings and tents, and even uniformed staff to wait on the picnickers are all to be seen. The hosts are often reduced to a state of nervous anxiety by the knowledge that highly competitive picnics are taking place all around them, and so only the richest, most confident and best prepared can expect to win.
When all goes wrong
The disastrous picnic is generally a product of nature winning the war with man. Although it can start out as one of the previous types, is somehow felt to be very traditional in itself. A romantic picnic in a field can be quickly spoilt by a herd of inquisitive farm animals, or worse, a loose bull. The British climate is far from reliable and can ruin the best-laid plans. Insects such as bees, wasps and biting flies can rout a group of potential picnickers. Rain, gusting wind, cold and driven sand at the seaside are some of the other hazards that British picnickers may have to face. In addition, picnics taken by a river provide the opportunity for at least one guest to fall in, and for others to feel duty-bound to follow as rescuers.
Then there’s the grand combination
When the grand merge, as they sometimes do for some reason with the disastrous, the situation is regarded as particularly amusing by spectators. Not only bad weather but the influence of gravity on expensively prepared cold collations can cause havoc. One of the smartest horse racing meetings in England takes place annually at Goodwood in West Sussex towards the end of July. Most people, of course, just come to enjoy themselves, but every year some overdo it. The most elaborate picnics are held on a steep slope and each year at least one of these is bowled downhill, with elegantly clad members of the (presumed) aristocracy in hot pursuit. Shellfish, the finest vintages of the best wine, cold beef and salmon, along with the occasional windblown table, glass, cutlery and awnings, have all been known to end up crushed against a boundary fence at the bottom of the hill. It is not, of course, considered polite to laugh too openly.
Since International Picnic Day is on June 18, this seems the right moment to celebrate with a delicious cold dessert. The recipe that follows is taken from our book “For the Love of an Orchard,” and would enhance any picnic. Pretty enough to pass for grand, delicious enough to increase a sense of romance and consoling enough to mitigate a disaster, it is based on a dessert dish that a visiting French friend prepared for Chris and his family a few years ago. Alice Soubranne, who is an excellent cook, was kind enough to give us this family recipe.
- Sweet pastry (use pâte sucré or a half-pound block of good-quality chilled supermarket pastry)
- 3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced, approximately 2 cups
- 4 to 5 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- 20 U.S. fluid ounces tub of crème fraîche
- 2 ounces butter
- Blind bake the pastry in a buttered 10-inch tart pan or flan case with removable base at 350 F. The shell should be firm and dry but not browned or biscuit-like.
- Arrange the sliced apples prettily in concentric circles and again bake at 350 F until softened but holding their shape (say, 10 minutes).
- In a big bowl, beat the egg yolks with enough sugar to make the mixture neither too sweet nor solid. Then fold in the gently melted butter and crème fraîche and pour this custard mixture over the apples in the baking case.
- Turn the heat up to 375 F and cook the tart for about 30 minutes so it is, in Alice's words, "goldy and has a tan," but does not burn. It must not even turn dark brown or the custard will curdle at the edges, making a break line where it meets the pastry.
- Eat cold, served with crème fraîche or cream. Other fruits can in principle be used for this tart, including plums and probably cherries, but the right liquid content and height in relation to the finished custard is important.
Presentation is important, with evenly cut apple rings and golden custard. Good apples for this recipe should have a slightly spicy taste with good acid, and hold their texture when cooked in the custard. Norfolk Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel and most Russets are really good. Of the generally available supermarket apples Braeburn is reliable and tastes good, holding enough texture. Bramleys are too tart.
Main photo: Picnickers gather at St. James Park in London. Credit: iStock
There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.
Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.
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Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.
Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.
Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.
Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.
Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.
Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.
Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.
All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.
You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”
- Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
- 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
- Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
- Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.
Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust
Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)
Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1¼ cups flour
1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.
4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.
Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman
The elder tree has no pretensions to grandeur. It grows wild in hedges and ditches, along the banks of streams, in forgotten corners of farmyards and abandoned gardens and even in graveyards.
In northern Europe, where it grows in abundance, countless traditions and superstitions are associated with it. Hidden in its dark green, dense foliage were benign spirits whose role was to keep the bad guys at bay; from its rustling leaves came words of advice whispered into the wind. According to legend, the elder was never struck by lightning, and some pagan traditions advised that the tree should not be cut for burning, for fear of bringing bad luck.
Sticks cut from elder branches were pressed into service in a variety of ways. Sicilians used them for spearing snakes or driving away robbers, Serbs, in their wedding ceremonies, used them to bring happiness to the bridal pair. In Slovakia, the hollow sticks were made into reedy flutes, while English country folk kept pieces in their pockets as talismans to protect against rheumatism; elder is still used in traditional Chinese medicine for the same purpose. In Alsace, France, more prosaically, the sticks were made into water pistols, whistles, pea-shooters or even rudimentary drinking straws.
Window of opportunity short for elderflower
It’s in early summer that the elder comes into its own. All of a sudden, and in a brief moment of glory, this otherwise unremarkable tree bursts into a shower of beautiful, white, lace-like flowers, which perfume the air with their heady scent. At this time of the year in Alsace, the Black Forest and Switzerland, chefs, housewives and hobby cooks can be spotted in the hedgerows, picking the blossoms and placing them in large baskets.
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Some of the flowers will be put up into syrups (see recipe), cordials or flavored vinegars to be served in drinks or added to desserts. Others are dipped in a light batter, fried till crisp and fragrant and nibbled straight off the stalk.
Here are two delightful recipes that make the most of elderflowers, one for the syrup (or cordial, as it is also known) made by infusing the fresh flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice and another for a delicate elderflower semifreddo.
The syrup can be used in other ways too: Add a splash to fruit salads — it’s particularly lovely combined with lightly cooked rhubarb and strawberries — or use it to perfume a crème anglaise or panna cotta.
Best of all, for a delicate, less sweet version of the ubiquitous blackcurrant-based Kir, pour a little in the bottom of a large wine glass and top it up with sparkling wine (Sekt in the Black Forest, Crémant in Alsace), plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint — a perfect early summer aperitif.
Elderflower Syrup or Cordial
Yield: Makes about 4 cups (1 liter)
25 to 30 elderflower heads
4 cups (1 liter) water
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 untreated lemons
1. Wash the elderflowers and spin them dry in a salad spinner.
2. Place the elderflowers in a large bowl.
3. Put the water, sugar and grated lemon zest in a large pan, heat gently, stirring, till the sugar is dissolved, then allow to boil for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and pour the syrup over the elderflowers.
5. Let cool, then cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for 5 days.
6. Set a colander over a large bowl and strain the syrup. Discard the flowers. Strain the syrup again, this time through muslin or fine cloth to make sure there are no impurities.
7. Pour into bottles and keep in the fridge till needed. The syrup will keep for several months.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3 egg yolks
1 cup (250 milliliters) elderflower syrup
A splash (about 4 tablespoons) of dry white wine
2 cups (500 milliters) whipping cream
Fresh fruit and edible flowers to garnish
1. Place the egg yolks, whole egg, elderflower syrup and wine in a large metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water but sit above it.
2. Beat with a wire whisk or hand-held electric mixer until the mixture thickens and lightens in color and almost doubles in bulk, about 15 minutes.
3. Fill an even larger bowl, or the sink, with cold water and set the bowl with the egg mixture in it. Continue beating till the mixture feels barely warm to the touch.
4. In another bowl, beat the cream till stiff, add 3 to 4 tablespoons to the cooled egg mixture and fold it in using a wire whisk.
5. Tip all the egg mixture into the cream and fold the two together, lifting and folding with a wire whisk. There should be no white splotches of cream visible.
6. Pour the semifreddo into a loaf tin lined with cling film or tip into dariole molds or individual containers. Freeze for at least 4 hours or until firm.
7. Serve in slices (if molded in a loaf tin), or turn out individual molds. Garnish with fresh fruit and edible flowers.
Main photo: Elderflower semifreddo. Credit: Sue Style
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in the 14th century, pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket lightened their journey with stories. Among the pilgrims was a cook who made “sweet blanc-mange.” This is one of the earliest mentions of a dish we now often think of as an almond-flavored pudding.
Blancmange, which in Chaucer’s time was made with rice, almonds and chicken, has fallen out of favor over the centuries, which is a pity. August Escoffier, whom some consider the patron saint of chefs, believed that “blanc-manger … when well made … can be one of the best sweets served,” which is high praise from a man whose culinary skills were legendary. Because of his love of the dish, he made it a favorite once more — this time in the early 20th century.
From labor-intensive to ‘instant,’ blancmange has evolved
Escoffier’s version required skinning, crushing and straining almonds to make an almond milk base; the results ushered in a new appreciation of blancmange among diners lucky enough to enjoy it. Eventually, though, such a labor-intensive dish gave way to commercial, “instant” versions, which were particularly popular in the 1960s.
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I grew up with the labor-intensive blancmange, introduced to me by my grandmother. She made it in summer, when its cool, creamy flavor soothed the afternoon heat. While it set in the refrigerator, she and I wandered down behind her house in search of tiny nubs of strawberries or raspberries to enjoy with our “ghost pudding,” as we nicknamed it.
By this time, rice and chicken had long been abandoned as ingredients, but milk, cream, sugar and almond flavoring remained. She, my mother and I were devoted to blancmange and couldn’t understand others’ indifference to or hatred of something we thought of as perfect.
Even my grandfather, who loved sweets so much he would settle for a spoonful of jam to finish a meal if no dessert was offered, grimaced at the sight of “that white stuff.” My father was not much better, calling it “mucilage” — the thick glue we used to paste pictures into scrapbooks. Although he couldn’t have been more wrong about the texture of my grandmother’s blancmange, he still turned up his nose at the prospect of eating it.
After a while, we stopped caring because their refusal just meant there was more of it for us.
Our devotion to blancmange was as much a devotion to expanding our world as it was to loving this delicious dessert. We lived on a speck of rock in the Atlantic Ocean (Bell Island, Newfoundland, Canada), hemmed in by grayness and isolation, but we knew there had to be more to the world than what was contained within the perimeter of that place. Food like blancmange (the name couldn’t be pronounced without sounding at least a little sophisticated) allowed us to step onto a path that might lead us somewhere different.
My grandmother did not know the true age of blancmange — later, I would become the one obsessed with food history — but she knew the dessert she made was old because her mother had made it and her grandmother before that.
Despite its French name, blancmange most likely originated in the Middle East, where sweets made from chicken were common in medieval times. With the introduction of rice and almonds to Europe by Arab traders, the dish eventually became popular with the nobility and upper-classes.
While other dishes of the time were well-spiced (spices were thought to help balance the humors of the body as well as help keep food from spoiling), blancmange usually had no spices. Cooks made dazzling presentations for feasts by coloring part of it (red was a popular choice) while leaving the other part white. Sometimes the pudding was scented with roses, another Middle Eastern influence.
King Richard II’s chefs included a recipe for “blank mang” (the Middle English spelling) in their cookbook “Forme of Cury,” written in 1390.
I never saw a recipe for the blancmange my grandmother made. I suspect it was never written down, but passed from mother to daughter and learned by heart as a young girl. (She began working in her mother’s kitchen when she was 4 years old.) Likewise, I never saw her use a cookbook, although she occasionally glimpsed a green notebook in which she had written some recipes — perhaps even the blancmange recipe — but the book disappeared when she went into a nursing home.
After she and my mother died (within months of each other), I started working on my grandmother’s recipe for blancmange. Although I still revise it from time to time, it comes close to what we ate on those summer afternoons as our world expanded with each delicious bite. My world continues to expand, although when I eat blancmange now, it is in the company of ghosts.
This recipe is in memory of my mother and grandmother. Makes six servings.
1 cup blanched ground almonds
1½ cups whole milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of salt
2 packages unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 cup whipping cream (35% milk fat)
1. Brush six half-cup ramekins (or small tube pans) with a neutral-tasting vegetable oil.
2. In a bowl, stir the ground almonds and the milk together until combined.
3. Spread a clean cheesecloth in a sieve set over a bowl and pour the almond mixture into the cheesecloth. Wrap the cheesecloth and squeeze 1 cup of almond milk into the bowl, then discard the almonds.
4. Stir in almond extract and salt.
5. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over water and let stand for 2 minutes.
6. In a saucepan, combine the almond milk and sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add a little of the milk mixture to the softened gelatin and stir until smooth, then pour the gelatin into the saucepan and cook, stirring the milk until the gelatin has dissolved.
7. Pour the mixture into a bowl that has been set in a larger bowl of ice and stir constantly until the mixture has cooled and thickened (approximately 3 to 5 minutes). Remove the bowl from the ice.
8. In a large bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form, and then gently fold the almond mixture into the cream (in three additions) until well combined.
9. Spoon the pudding into the ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until set, at least 2 hours.
10. To unmold, gently run a sharp knife around the side of each blancmange and invent it onto a dessert plate. If the dessert doesn’t release, tap the bottom and sides of the ramekin or place a hot cloth on the bottom for 5 seconds.
11. Serve with fresh fruit in season (strawberries, raspberries or cherries are delicious, or for a more tart flavor, try mango or gooseberries).
Note: If you don’t wish to make your own almond milk, you can substitute 1 cup of commercial almond milk.
Main photo: Blancmange. Credit: Sharon Hunt