Articles in Desserts

Dress up your New Year's feast with Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

What does New Year’s Eve mean to you? Do you feel the need to party like it’s 1999? Or do you prefer an intimate gathering with friends? I have always looked at New Year’s Eve as amateur night. Somewhat of a forced party. I suppose that bias came from my parents’ attitude about New Year’s Eve. So, I seemed to avoid it like the plague.

But, admittedly, I always thought, maybe, just maybe I was missing out. Turns out the enjoyment quotient has less to do with the event and more to do with the people and your attitude. So with attitude adjustment in hand and a great group of friends, New Year’s Eve can be a splendid holiday to celebrate. What with the optimism of resolutions, or word of the year, or mapping out one’s desired feelings, it is indeed a time to embrace all that is new in 2015.

A New Year’s Eve get-together is a party or event that begins much later than most dinner parties. One of the things I learned from my mom was how to entertain simply and elegantly. For New Year’s Eve, a simple, yet sophisticated, do-ahead menu will allow you to enjoy your guests and ring in the new year with style. And in keeping with Heirloom Meals, I am sharing recipes that my mom, sister Jen and I have used, developed and refined over the years for various parties that we throw.

Easy Guac and Chips

Easy Guac and Chips
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What's easier than Easy Guacamole, served with your choice of chips. Credit: Carole Murko

 Creative cheese platter — use several local cheeses, as well as olives, sliced fruit and nuts

Guacamole and chips

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Arugula Salad With Mustard Vinaigrette

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prosecco

 

Easy Guacamole

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6, as a snack

Ingredients

1/2 jar of your favorite or homemade salsa

2 avocados, smashed

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons cilantro, minced

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 or 2 drops of Tabasco sauce, optional

Directions

Mix ingredients together and enjoy with chips of your choice.

 

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the beef:

4 to 5 pound whole beef tenderloin, trimmed

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 500 F.

2. We like to oven sear our tenderloin, but you can also sear it on top of the stove. Rub tenderloin with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and sear about 5 minutes per side, then reduce temperature to 350 F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. This should produce a spectrum of doneness from medium-rare in the middle to well-done on the ends.

3. Remove from pan, tent with foil, and let rest for about 20 minutes. Keep in mind: The beef will continue to cook. Once the filet is rested, you can slice it to desired thickness, about 1/2-inch thick for the en croute.

For en croute:

Loaf of french bread, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Brush slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven for about 5 minutes until lightly toasted. Remove to a rack, cool and store until ready to use.

For the mustard sauce:

1/2 cup dry mustard

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

3 tablespoons fresh chives

Directions

1. Mix the mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt and water until it forms a smooth paste. Cover and let stand for about 10 minutes.

2. Put mixture into a double-boiler over simmering water and whisk in the butter until combined and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the chives.

Note: Can be served warm or at room temperature. We put a small dollop on each beef en croute.

 

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Prep time: 30 to 35 minutes

Cook time: 5 to 10 minutes

Total time: 35 to 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined, cleaned and dried

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon rosemary, minced

1/4 cup parsley, minced

1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper, to taste

1/4 cup capers

1/4 cup olive oil

Zest of one lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Juice of one lemon

1/4 cup parsley, for garnish

Directions

1. Toss the shrimp with the garlic, rosemary, parsley, crushed red pepper, capers, olive oil, lemon zest, and salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2. Heat butter until foaming in a large skillet, add the shrimp and saute until cooked, about five minutes. Pour into your serving bowl, toss with lemon juice and parsley for garnish, if you’re using it. Can be served hot off the stove or at room temperature.

 

Mustard Vinaigrette

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Whisk together the vinegar and mustard until smooth and then add the olive oil, pouring in a stream to incorporate slowly, whisk until smooth.

Note: This dressing goes particularly well with a baby arugula salad.

 

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prep time: 10 to 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes, plus time to freeze (4+ hours)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 cups packed brown sugar

2 eggs

2/3 cup of flour

1 cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons brandy

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with vegetable oil.

3. Mix together the brown sugar, eggs, flour, pecans and baking soda. Spoon the batter into the baking dish.

4. Bake for about 25 minute or until the tester comes out clean. Cool for about 2 hours.

5. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form and fold in the brandy.

6. Break the cake into small pieces and fold into the cream. Spoon the mixture into a clean 9-by-13-inch pan and spread evenly. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, spoon into goblets and serve.

Main photo: Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

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Castagnaccio is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini

There are so many ways to enjoy chestnuts. A wonderful winter treat, chestnuts are delicious fresh, served either pan- or oven-roasted, or as an out-of-hand snack. They can also be dried, and when reconstituted, have a wonderful toothsome quality. The Italians in the northern region of Piedmont slow cook dried chestnuts in the oven in a mix of honey and wine. They then serve these smoky sweet delights with slices of lardo or salami.

Popular in northern Italy’s Piedmont region is a mound of chocolate-chestnut puree topped with spiked whipped cream — a melt-in-your-mouth delight. It’s called Monte Bianco, White Mountain, because the dessert looks like the snow-capped Alps. Many Italians elaborate on the theme and scatter candied violets and crushed candied chestnuts on the “mountain”to look like flowers and rocks.

Chestnut flour, made of ground dried chestnuts, makes wonderfully flavorful breads and desserts.

Leave it to the Italians to create a dessert that is not only gluten-free, but also sugar-free. Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Like so many traditional Italian recipes, it makes use of locally grown ingredients — chestnuts, olive oil, rosemary and nuts. Savory-sweet, with aromatic hints of rosemary, this cake is made with olive oil, not butter, so it’s ideal for vegans.

This cake is mentioned in a 1553 book by Ortensio Landi that notes it was created in Lucca, a province of Tuscany, so I asked my favorite chef from Lucca, Aurelio Barattini, for his recipe.

Tuscany’s Chestnut Cake (Castagnaccio)

Courtesy: Chef Aurelio Barattini of Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, Italy

Prep time: 5 minutes

Bake time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Note: The cake stays moist for several days, and is terrific served with a glass of Vin Santo or muscato dessert wine.

Ingredients

1/3 cup raisins

5 1/2 ounces chestnut flour, about 2/3 cup

Pinch of salt

1 cup cold water

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves

1/3 cup walnuts and/or pine nuts

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 390 F.

2. Put the raisins into a small bowl and moisten them with a few tablespoons of boiling water to plump them. Drain and reserve.

3. Sift the chestnut flour and salt into a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of cold water and beat until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of rosemary leaves.

4. Grease a baking pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour the batter onto the pan. The batter should be less than a 1/2-inch high. Scatter the top with the walnuts and/or pine nuts, if using, remaining rosemary, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

5. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.

Monte Bianco

Courtesy: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh chestnuts*

2 1/2 cups milk

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon brandy or rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream

3 to 4 vanilla meringue cookies, coarsely chopped

2 to 3 candied chestnuts, marron glace, chopped, optional

Candied violets, optional

Directions

1. Pierce the skin of each chestnut with a knife. Boil them in a large pot with lots of water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool only slightly. It’s much easier to peel them while they’re warm.

2. Combine the milk, 1/2 cup of sugar and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan and heat over a low flame to release the fennel’s flavor, about 5 minutes. Strain and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the chestnuts and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Put the warm chestnut mixture into a food processor along with the chocolate, 1/4 cup of the brandy and vanilla extract. Pulse to blend and then process until very smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 2 days.

4. To assemble: Put a tall glass upside down into the center of a serving plate. Press the chestnut mixture through a potato ricer into a mountain-shaped cone around the glass. Remove the glass.

5. In a large bowl using an electric mixer whip the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until peaks form. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of brandy.

6. Fill the hollow left by the glass with whipped cream and top the chestnut “mountain” with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with the meringues and candied chestnuts, if using. If you like, arrange a few candied violets around the base. Serve immediately.

* Note: You can also make this dessert with ready-roasted chestnuts, available in glass jars in most supermarkets.

Main photo: Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini

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A mound of luscious pasta is tossed in a sweet dark chocolate sauce and topped with grated chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Garofalo Pasta Company

In Italy, besides special holiday cookies and cakes like panettone, pasta is served for dessert, especially on Christmas Eve. Italy has a long tradition of serving sweetened pasta for dessert. Back in the Renaissance, pasta was a luxury food, reserved for special occasions, and paired with other luxury foods like sugar and cinnamon.

Each region of Italy, from north to south, has a different specialty recipe.

Macaroni with walnuts, maccheroni con le noci, a mound of luscious pasta tossed in a sweet dark chocolate sauce topped with grated chocolate and walnuts, is served in central Italy, especially in Lazio and Umbria. For centuries, the nuns at the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Agrigento, Sicily, have been selling couscous desserts seasoned with pistachios, cuscus dolce siciliano al pistachio, dense like rice pudding, with deep pistachio flavor. It’s usually served topped with grated dark chocolate and pomegranate seeds, which makes for a pretty green and red Christmas color theme.

Macaroni With Chocolate Walnut Sauce (Maccheroni Con Le Noci)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces pappardelle or other wide noodle

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped, plus more for garnish

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons rum

Zest of 1/2 lemon

Ground cinnamon

Freshly ground nutmeg

Honey

Directions

1. Cook the pasta according to package directions.

2. Drain, return to the cooking pot, and, off the heat, immediately toss with sugar, chocolate, walnuts, rum, zest, and pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg. Toss well, until the sugar and chocolate dissolves.

3. Serve topped with grated chocolate and a drizzle of honey.

Pistachio Couscous (Cuscus Dolce Siciliano al Pistachio)

From “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Salt

1 cup couscous

1/2 cup shelled pistachios

1/4 cup blanched almonds

Ground cinnamon

4 to 6 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 ounces dark chocolate

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds or other fresh fruit or dried fruit

Directions

1. Bring 1 1/4 cups water and a pinch of salt to a boil in a medium saucepan, then stir in the couscous and remove from the heat. Cover and let rest 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let cool to room temperature.

2. Meanwhile, grind the pistachios and almonds in a small food processor until very fine and powder-like. Add the nuts and a pinch of cinnamon into the couscous and stir until well combined. Sweeten to taste with 4 to 6 tablespoons sugar.

3. Serve topped with grated dark chocolate and pomegranate seeds or other fruit.

Main photo: A mound of luscious pasta is tossed in a sweet dark chocolate sauce and topped with grated chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Garofalo Pasta Company

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The whole family can get in on the tamale-making traditions, with children spreading the masa dough onto tamales such as these sweet raspberry tamales. Credit: Cheryl Lee

For many families of Mexican descent, Christmas is the time to gather around the kitchen table to teach the next generation to spread masa dough onto corn husks. That’s the first step before filling, folding and steaming tamales.

For more than 90 years, this tradition has held strong in the family of my friends, sisters Victoria Delgado Woods and Rebecca Delgado.

I have known them for more than 30 years, having met while studying at the University of the Pacific. Victoria is also my daughter’s godmother, and every Christmas Eve we join her family making and eating tamales.

A conversation with the Delgado sisters

Curious about this tradition and how long their family had followed it, I asked them to answer a few questions about the Christmas Tamales:

Virginia Cruz Delgado, the Delgado sisters' late mother, taught her children how to make tamales -- a family tradition handed down from her parents. Credit: Delgado family photo

Virginia Cruz Delgado, the Delgado sisters’ mother, taught her children how to make tamales — a family tradition handed down from her parents. Credit: Delgado family photo

Who taught you to make tamales?

Our mother, Virginia Delgado.

How long has this been a tradition in your family?

Rebecca: As far as I know, we have always had tamales for Christmas Eve. But I do know when we started making them at our family home. I was 10 when my Nana passed away, and the next Christmas Eve we started making them at our home. Before, we would all go to our Nana’s house in Exeter, Calif. When my Nana became ill, we went to my Tía Binnie’s house to celebrate because my Nana stayed with her. I was a kid, so I assume my Mom and her four sisters would make them. The kids did not help. But that all changed when we started making them at our home. The rule was, you eat tamales, you help make tamales. Which mostly included spreading the masa on the leaves. Even if you were a guest and came over Christmas Eve, you helped make tamales. It is a good rule and stands to this day.

The same rule applied to other generations of the family, according to Victoria’s maternal aunts, Tía Luisa and Tía Carmelita, who were visiting when I interviewed her.

Tamale-making involved the entire family for prior generations

Luisa, 74, and Carmelita, 70, said the tradition goes back at least 90 years in the family. They recalled that they and all of their siblings — a total of five girls and two boys — always were required to pitch in.

Their production goal: 100 tamales.

Their job: washing the corn husk in two big portable bathtubs, spreading the masa on the corn husk, and adding two olives per tamale.

Their parents did the rest. In true farm-to-table fashion, their father slaughtered the pig. (The parts of the pig that weren’t used for the tamale meat was saved to make menudo for the New Year’s feast.) Their mother prepared the masa and the chiles.

Then came the Christmas Eve feast. Their father was the oldest of seven brothers — and all of them would arrive. They were all musicians, making for quite the party.

The Delgado sisters carry on the tradition

What flavors are traditionally made in your household?

Rebecca: Pork tamales with black olives are the tradition, but we added veggie tamales when Victoria became a vegetarian. We continue to make both kinds, but the veggie tamales seem to go faster than the pork. Most families do not use black olives in their tamales, but our family does. I remember my Mom’s friend, Mrs. Rodrigues, would add three or four black olives in one tamale and say whoever got that tamale, she would kiss them. I do not recall anyone collecting on the kiss, but it was fun to hear her say it.

Are you teaching the next generation how to make tamales?

Rebecca: YES. I hope they continue making them. My son Vicente could use more experience on making the chile and flavoring the masa, but I think he could do it without me. He will have some hiccups, just like we did when my Mom passed away and we started making them without her. I recall a few earlier tamales that needed or had too much salt in the masa, but we still ate them! Making tamales is a family event. I have good memories of all of us around the table spreading masa, talking, laughing, joking and, of course, making fun of each other’s spreading technique. To this day, my brother Ken thinks he is the best, but, then again, he thinks he is the best in everything. Brothers!

Victoria: My daughter Callie learned from me. But my boys, Jermaine and Antonio, are only allowed to spread the masa, whereas Callie knows the whole process.

Now, my daughter Ruby and I have joined the mix. Learning from the sisters gave me enough confidence to attempt making tamales in my home. I did diverge from the traditional pork tamale and made sweet tamales with raspberries. I had to get the approval of the Delgado sisters before I could call them a success, though.

And I did.

 

Raspberry tamales are a sweet holiday tradition to start in your family. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Raspberry tamales are a sweet holiday tradition to start in your family. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Raspberry Dessert Tamales

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 14 to 17 tamales

Ingredients

3 to 4 pints fresh raspberries

1 tablespoon sugar

2 cups instant masa harina

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened

3/4 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup turbinado or raw cane sugar

Dried corn husks, soaked in hot water for one hour, drained and patted dry

Directions

1. Place the raspberries into a medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle the raspberries with the sugar. Stir to mix.

3. Place the raspberries into the refrigerator until ready to use.

4. In a mixer on medium speed, combine the masa harina and butter, until combined and crumbly.

5. Add the orange juice and vanilla, mix until combined.

6. Slowly pour in the turbinado sugar, mix for about one minute, until the masa dough is well combined.

7. Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa dough onto a corn husk, leaving about 1/2-inch border on the side.

8. Place about 4 or 5 raspberries into the center of the masa.

9. Fold the sides together, then tie with a strip of corn husk.

10. Place a steamer basket or overturned plate into a large stock pot, add a few inches of water, just to the bottom of the basket.

11. Place the tamales onto the basket, cover with a damp towel and a tight fitting lid.

12. Steam the tamales for 1 hour.

13. Remove the tamales from the steamer and let cool slightly before serving.

Main photo: The whole family can get in on the tamale-making traditions, with children spreading the masa dough onto the corn husks for these sweet raspberry tamales. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit: David Latt

Just in time for holiday gatherings and good any time for parties and special occasions, here are two easy-to-make recipes that yield enough delicious cookies to delight a hungry crowd. Used in tandem, the pound cake and financier cookie recipes also solve the classic baker’s dilemma: When recipes call only for egg yolks, what to do with the whites? And vice versa.

When they were young, our sons loved pound cake. The recipe I developed called for egg yolks, which meant the whites went to waste. That always bothered me. Recently, I needed to make a large number of cookies for a party. I decided adapting the pound cake recipe would make a unique cookie.

But that left me with my old problem. What to do with the egg whites? No one in our house eats egg white omelets so I looked through a notebook where I keep recipe ideas. In my notes about a Parisian bakery (I neglected to write down the name) was a description of a scrumptious financier. Like a cartoon character, the light blub turned on over my head. Financiers are made with egg whites. The pound cake needs yolks. Voilà! A marriage made in the oven.

Making the cookies in silicone molds adds to the ease of preparation. No need to brush on melted butter and dust with flour because the molds are nonstick. They require a minimum amount of washing before being used again to make another round of delicious cookies.

Silicone molds are available online and in specialty cook stores such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma as well as in the cookware sections of major department stores.

Best served at room temperature, the cookies will stay fresh for a week if refrigerated in airtight containers.

Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies

Pound cakes get their name because the classic recipe calls for a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Adapting the recipe for use in a small mold transforms the cake into a light-as-air crisp cookie, with many of the qualities of an Italian dipping biscotti. The lemon zest contrasts nicely with the buttery richness of the cookies.

If you want to use larger molds, the yield will be lower and the cookies will need to be baked longer. Because ovens vary, I would suggest starting with a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

The dough has a thickened consistency not unlike Play-Doh. Use your fingers to spread the dough into the corners of the individual molds.

Yield: 126 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4 inch

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Baking Time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups sweet butter

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

2 cups white sugar

1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest

1 1/2  teaspoons baking powder

4 cups all-purpose white flour

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. In a saucepan melt butter over a low flame. Set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar to a custardy consistency.

4. Add lemon zest to the egg mixture.

5. Slowly whisk in the melted, room temperature sweet butter.

6. Add baking powder and mix well.

7. Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour into the bowl. Whisk to mix well. Continue adding 1/4 cup at a time and blending until all the flour is incorporated into the egg-butter-sugar dough.

8. Into each 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch mold, place 1 1/2 teaspoons of dough. Using your fingers press down to shape the dough into each mold.

9. Put the molds onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven.

10. Rotate the molds every 10 minutes for even browning.

11. The cookies will bake in 20 to 25 minutes. But because ovens vary, begin checking after 10 minutes. If the tops are lightly browned, they are probably done.

12. Remove the molds from the oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove each cookie and place on the wire rack.

13. When cooled to room temperature place the cookies in an airtight container and refrigerate for later use.

14. Just before serving, dust the tops with powdered sugar. Serve by themselves with coffee or tea, or with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Variations

  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds into the batter.
  • Add 1/4 cup finely ground chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips into the batter.
  • Blend together 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds with 1 teaspoon white sugar. Halfway through baking, dust the tops of the cookies with the almond-sugar mixture.

latt-christmascookies2

latt-christmascookies2
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Egg yolks and whites. Credit: David Latt

Orange Glazed Hazelnut Financiers

Financiers are often prepared with ground almonds. Any nut can be used. I prefer roasted hazelnuts.

Using larger sized molds will result in fewer cookies that need to be baked longer.

Unlike the thick pound cake dough, the financiers batter is thin and is best placed into the individual molds using a spouted container like a measuring cup. Because ovens are different, I would suggest making a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.

Yield: 90 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch

Prep time: 30 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

3/4 cup sweet butter

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole raw hazelnuts

1/2 cup all-purpose white flour

1 3/4 cups confectioners or powdered sugar

Pinch sea salt

Pinch black pepper

6 egg whites

1/4 cup orange simple syrup (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F.

2. Melt butter and set aside to cool.

3. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 2-3 minutes. Remove. Wrap the hot hazelnuts in a damp, cloth kitchen towel. Rub the towel against the hazelnuts to remove the skins. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the roasted hazelnuts. Cut each hazelnut into quarters and reserve.

4. Using a food processor, grind the remaining 1 cup of roasted hazelnuts into a fine meal. Keep an eye on the grind so the hazelnuts don’t over process and become a nut butter.

5. In a large bowl, use a whisk to blend together the hazelnuts, flour, sugar, sea salt and black pepper.

6. Add the egg whites and mix well.

7. Whisk in the cooled, melted butter.

8. Transfer the batter to a spouted measuring cup and fill each mold with batter.

9. In the middle of each financier place a quarter piece of roasted hazelnut on top, cut side up.

10. Clean off any batter that may have spilled onto the outside of the mold.

11. Drizzle 2 to 3 drops of orange simple syrup on top of each financier.

12. Put the mold onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet for even browning. Reduce the temperature to 400 F and continue baking another 5 minutes.

13. Turn off the oven.

14. Rotate the cookie sheet and leave the financiers in the oven 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned on top and firm to the touch. Making a test batch to determine how long they should remain in the oven at this juncture is helpful. Leaving the financiers in the cooling oven longer will create a crisper cookie.

15. Remove from the oven and place the mold on a wire rack. Do not remove the financiers from their molds until the mold has cooled to the touch. Then carefully remove each cookie and allow them to continue cooling on the wire rack.

The financiers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

Serve at room temperature with coffee or tea, with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.

Orange Simple Syrup

Before making the syrup, the peel is boiled three times to remove the orange’s astringent oils.

Yield: ¼ cup

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup orange peel with rind, finely chopped

6 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup white sugar

Directions

1. Place the chopped orange peel and two cups of water into a saucepan.

2. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the stove top and strain the orange peel pieces in a fine metal strainer. Repeat the process two additional times.

3. Place the orange peel, sugar and 1/4 cup water into the saucepan. Do not stir the mixture. On a low flame, bring the mixture to a low simmer.

4. After the water dissolves the sugar, continue simmering the syrup 10 minutes. To test for doneness, dip a small spoon into the liquid. If the back of the spoon comes out coated, the syrup is done.

5. Use a fine metal strainer to separate the syrup from the candied orange peel. The orange peel can be saved for later use in a refrigerated airtight container.

6. Transfer the syrup into a spouted bottle or use a small espresso-sized spoon to drizzle the orange flavoring onto the financiers.

Main photo: Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit:David Latt

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Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

I never thought of myself as a beet fanatic. Sure, I like this versatile root vegetable well enough, but only recently realized that beets are pivotal to the menu at my restaurant, the Lostine Tavern — roasted, raw, pickled and puréed. Along with two types of pickled beets, we feature beetroot on a hugely popular open-faced sandwich, grated beet in our tossed salad and a riveting beet panzanella salad. But the best-selling item of all is the chocolate beet cake.

That’s right: This cake contains beets. A curious item for a tavern in the heart of Oregon’s cattle country, but that’s how good this is.

It’s become so popular, some customers ask for it before they order their meal while others request it for birthday cakes. So tasty and moist, it has caused more than one avowed beet hater to eat his words.

An irresistible tower of three-tiered chocolate layer cake with fluffy dark chocolate frosting, this cake is a scene-stealer and a crowd-pleaser that belongs on any holiday table. The fact that it’s a veggie cake is both a nutritional plus and a conversation piece.

Why beets?

True enough, beets are a root vegetable, but using them in desserts is not as crazy as it sounds.

Beets have the highest concentration of sucrose among all vegetables. They are, after all, the source for granulated sugar.

Just like using carrot cake or pumpkin quick bread, beets are moisture insurance in cake baking. Fully cooked in simmering water and then pureed, the beets stealthily mingle with the cocoa powder, sugar and oil in the batter. Dark red beets tinge the color of the batter a shade toward red velvet cake. For anyone to know there are beets in this cake, you’ll have to tell them. Then, delight in their surprise.

Good desserts

Some may be happy to know that beets are a unique source of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. I just love knowing I’m getting another dose of veggies into my kids’ dessert.

The earthy sweetness of the beets heightens the flavors of the chocolate, rendering a cake that is none too sweet. I use this recipe for everything from birthday cupcakes to everyday snack cakes. It mixes in a single bowl and makes either three 8-inch round layers, two 9-by-13-inch sheet cakes or a lot of cupcakes.

The cake layers form a great base for embellishment with layers of cherry preserves and whipped cream, a light snow of powdered sugar or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For the holidays, however, I take this cake to the hilt, slathering chocolate cream cheese frosting between three cake layers for a table centerpiece that is sure to capture everyone’s attention.

Beet Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups puréed cooked beets
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup good-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Oil three 8-inch-round cake pans and line them with parchment paper.

3. In a small mixing bowl, beat the beets and eggs. Combine the cocoa powder, vanilla and oil in a large measuring cup.

4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt until combined. Add the cocoa powder mixture to the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the beet mixture and stir just until combined.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a wooden skewer slid into the cake’s center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

6. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes and tip them out of the pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks unsalted butter (12 ounces), room temperature
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the butter and cream cheese until perfectly smooth. Add the vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Add the confectioner’s sugar and blend on medium speed until it is fully incorporated. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on medium-high speed until it is very smooth and light.

4. Spread one-third of the frosting on top of each of the cooled cake layers and stack them to create three tiers. Leave the sides unfrosted.

Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Christmas Eve salad

Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again for the holidays?

There is relief from this stubborn winter malady. I’m not suggesting that you toss all your family favorites, but I am proposing that you add variety to the menu and, in the processes, treat yourself and your guests to some new flavors.

To add changes to the menu without adding stress don’t take on the whole job alone — have friends and family bring side dishes or desserts. “A good old-fashioned potluck is great for the holidays, too. It is a simple way to add variety to your usual menu, share some of work and try out new recipes,” recommends Rick Bayless, winner of the James Beard outstanding restaurant award for his Chicago-based Mexican restaurant Frontera Grill. Assigning dishes, and even providing the recipe, assures that the meal will be balanced with a cohesive mix of foods, and you won’t end up with three platters of the same string bean recipe.

For a wonderfully unusual side dish with a south-of-the-border flare that goes with any menu, add Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad. This salad of jicama, beets, oranges and peanuts “provides the perfect visual accent for the holiday table, echoing the colors of holiday poinsettias,” Bayless says. The salad is topped with chopped peanuts and sprinkled with Mexican colored candies for a festive and whimsical finish. You can serve slivers of sugarcane, available in Spanish and Mexican grocery stores, along with the salad. “You and your guests will really enjoy chewing on fresh sugarcane, it has a delightfully fresh sweetness,” Bayless says.

Rick Bayless’ Christmas Eve Salad (Ensalada de Noche Buena)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 large beets, boiled and cut into small sticks

3 seedless oranges

5 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium (about 1 pound) jicama, peeled and cut into small sticks

10 romaine lettuce leaves, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices

2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts

1 3- to 4-inch section of sugar cane, peeled and cut lengthwise into slivers, for garnish, optional

1 tablespoon colored candy cake decorations (grajeas in Mexico), for garnish

Directions

1. Place the beet sticks into a large bowl.

2. Using a zester or vegetable peeler, cut the zest (colored rind) from 1 of the oranges and finely mince it. Mix the minced zest with the lime juice, orange juice, salt, sugar and olive oil in with the beets and let stand 1 hour.

3. Cut away the rind and all white pith on the oranges. Cut between each white membrane and remove the segments. Reserve.

4. To serve, add the jicama and most of the orange segments (reserving a few for garnish) to the beet mixture. Lay the lettuce on a serving platter. Scoop the beet mixture into the center, then sprinkle with the peanuts and reserved orange segments. Garnish with the sugar cane, if using, and candies. Serve.

‘Instant’ Rum Baba Panettone

Another great shortcut is to buy something ready made, but unusual. For an Italian finish to the meal, consider ready-made panettone, imported from Italy. Tall and dome-shaped, panettone is a soft, sweet yeast cake with a fruity aroma of raisins and candied oranges. It’s the quintessential Italian Christmas dessert, usually served plain, accompanied by a glass of Asti Spumante.

panettone

Panettone can quickly be dressed up with a drenching of rum syrup. Credit: Italian Confectioners Association

Or you can dress it up a little by drenching it in rum syrup, making a virtually instant baba cake. Available in standard 1- and 2-pound sizes, panettone also comes in adorable, single-sized portions, which work especially well with this recipe:

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

 Yield: 8 to 12 servings

Ingredients

3 cups granulated sugar

1/4 to 1/2 cup dark rum

8 slices of panettone, or 8 small individual-sized panettone

Confectioners’ sugar

Fresh or frozen berries, optional

Directions

1. Add the sugar to 1 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Arrange the panettone on a serving platter. An hour before serving, slowly pour the rum syrup over the panettone until all the liquid is absorbed.

3. Serve topped with confectioners’ sugar and accompanied by berries, if you like.

pandoro

In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan.

Pandoro Christmas Tree Cake

Another unusual ready-made dessert is pandoro, the tall Christmas tree shaped Italian cake that’s available in most supermarkets and Italian gourmet shops starting in late fall. Pandoro has a delicious eggy, brioche-like soft center, with a lovely vanilla-butter aroma. In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. It even comes boxed with a packet of confectioners sugar to sprinkle on top.

You can spread the pandoro with anything creamy like ice cream, whipped cream, icing, pastry cream or even zabaglione. And just like a gingerbread house, you can decorate it with anything festive including tiny candies, sprinkles or crushed candy canes.

In this recipe, pandoro cake is taken to yet another level: each layer is spread with mascarpone custard and decorated with mint leaves and candied cherries.

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet liqueur, such as Cointreau or rum

2 large egg yolks

14 ounces mascarpone cheese

1 cup heavy cream

1 pandoro cake, about 1 pound

Decorations, such as candied cherries, fresh mint leaves, silver confetti

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. In a saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water with 1/4 cup of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of the Cointreu or rum. Reserve.

2. In a standing mixer combine the yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for 5 minutes until light yellow and fluffy. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons Cointreau or rum, and fold in the mascarpone.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until peaks form. Fold the mascarpone cream into the whipped cream.

4. Carefully, so as not to break the points, slice the pandoro horizontally into 6 slices. Brush the outsides of the slices, the golden colored baked section, with the reserved Cointreau syrup.

5. Place the largest pandoro slice onto a serving platter and spread with some of the mascarpone mixture.

6. Cover with the next largest slice, angling it so that the points of the star tips don’t line up. Spread with some of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the remaining layers, finishing with a dollop of mascarpone on top.

7. Decorate the points with candied cherries and mint leaves or candies. Sprinkle the entire cake with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: Rick Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad features jicama, beets, orange and peanuts. Credit: FronteraFiesta.com.

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Instant chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Savoiardi cookies — often called ladyfingers in the United States — were created in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1348 during the early Renaissance for the royal Savoia family, which gives the cookie its name. Savoiardi recipes are cited in several historic Italian cookbooks, including Bartolomeo Stefani’s 1662 book “The Art of Good Cooking.” This cookie is so important to Italians that the recipe is regulated and the name protected.

For me — probably you, too, since you’re reading this — Italy’s food traditions are precious. Certain products and recipes are so definitively Italian that their origins and even names are worth protecting and preserving. When it comes to Italy’s sweets, there is a national organization, the Association of Italian Sweets and Pasta Manufacturers (Associazione delle Industrie del Dolce e della Pasta Italiane), whose job it is to do just that. The group, founded in 1967, set forth regulations that cover the processes and ingredients permitted for various types of sweets. Their standards, it turns out, are some of the world’s strictest.

For example, to qualify as authentic, savoiardi, the famous Italian cookie, must follow a definitive checklist in accordance with its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status. Ingredients must be region-specific and only the best butter — and a guaranteed amount of it — may be used. There are required quantities of eggs and acceptable flours. The demands are almost painfully rigorous, but the results are exquisite!

Traditionally, savoiardi are dipped in hot chocolate or coffee. Because Italian-made savoiardi soak up liquid so nicely, they are a key ingredient in hundreds of desserts, including charlottes and puddings and, of course, tiramisu.

“Instant” Chocolate Cake

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

A no-bake dessert that’s a snap to make and quite pretty. Store-bought savoiardi are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm. It slices just like pound cake.

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 ounces, 7 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or higher

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

1/4 cup sweet liqueur, such as Alchermes or rum

12 savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers

2 tablespoons crushed pistachios or hazelnuts

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the butter, confectioners’ sugar and egg yolk until very smooth and creamy.

2. In another bowl, melt the chocolate and cream, in the microwave or over a double boiler. Stir the chocolate and vanilla into the butter mixture. Reserve.

3. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and granulated sugar in a shallow bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur and add more sugar, if you like.

4. Dip four savoiardi, one at a time, into the liquid. Arrange the four liqueur-dipped savoiardi in a row, close together, on a serving plate. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture.

5. Repeat, dip four more savoiardi into the liquid, place them on top of the first row. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture. Repeat for the third and final layer, spreading the remaining chocolate on top and along the sides of the stacked savoiardi. Sprinkle the top layer with pistachios or hazelnuts. Refrigerate an hour or until firm. Serve cold.

updated tiramisu

This tiramisu is a perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Updated Tiramisu

Tiramisu is traditionally made with raw eggs. Not only is this tiramisu just as delicious as the traditional version, but here, because the eggs are whipped with hot sugar syrup, there’s no raw eggs to worry about. It also makes the custard stay light and fluffy for up to two days in the fridge.

A perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups, or as a normal-sized portion in a coffee cup.

Prep time: 25 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

12 savoiardi, plus more for garnish

1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee, either decaf or regular

Rum, optional

Cocoa powder

Directions

1. Put the yolks into the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk, using the highest setting, until light yellow and fluffy, at least 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the sugar and 2 ounces of water in a small saucepan until it bubbles and reaches 250 F on a candy thermometer.

3. While the standing mixer is still running on its highest setting, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the yolks, and continue whisking for 15 minutes. It’s important to whisk them for this long so that the mixture stays fluffy when you add the next ingredients.

4. Add the mascarpone and heavy cream and beat on a medium setting just until combined, about 20 seconds. You can reserve this custard, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

5. To assemble: Brew the espresso or coffee (you’ll need 1 cup if you’re making all at the same time, or just a shot each if making only a few). Break one savoiardo into each espresso cup, or two, into each coffee mug or dessert bowl. Pour the espresso over the savoiardi so they are fully moistened, and if you like, add a splash of rum. Top with a generous dollop or two of mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

Note: For a two-tone effect, dust half the surface of the tiramisu with cocoa powder and the other half with savoiardi crumbs.

Fruity Tiramisu (Zuppa Tartara)

Beautiful and takes just seconds to assemble using supermarket ingredients.

Savoiardi  layered with your favorite flavor jam and sweetened ricotta. The whole thing firms up so nicely, you can slice it like pound cake, creating an effortless, virtually instant, no-bake cake.

This dessert is so light and easy to make that it might be surprising to learn that the recipe comes from an 1890s cookbook, the famed “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi.

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons sugar

Pinch ground cinnamon

1/3 cup your favorite jam, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons sweet liqueur or rum

12 savoiardi

Directions

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and beat with a fork until smooth. Reserve.

2. In a shallow bowl combine the jam with 1/4 cup warm water and the liqueur or rum. Dip the savoiardi, a few at a time, into the mixture until they are nicely moistened. Place four onto a serving plate, side by side, and spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over them. Top the ricotta with small dollops of extra preserves. Repeat. Finish with final layer of dipped savoiardi and a final drizzle of preserves, or any of the remaining preserves liquid and bits.

3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least hour, until set. Serve cold.

Main photo: Store-bought ladyfingers are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this “instant” chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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