Articles in Desserts

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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Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif.. Credit: David Latt

During a hosted visit to explore the city of Napa, I stayed at the Inn on Randolph in a leafy neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Waiting to meet chef Paul Fields, I was offered a golden brown chocolate chip cookie, a good litmus test of a baker’s skill.

All too often chocolate chip cookies are overly sweet or undercooked. In either case, that puts one’s teeth on edge. When chef Fields joined me, I complimented him on the cookies. With pride he explained they were gluten-free.

The Inn on Randolph is one of the few gluten-free upscale inns in the country. Fields was challenged by owner Karen Lynch to create flavorful, quality dishes that gastronomic visitors to Napa Valley would enjoy.

Fields makes virtually everything he serves from scratch using local ingredients. Many ingredients come from the inn’s gardens and fruit trees. He doesn’t make wheat-based breads and pastries. So to satisfy the need for morning carbohydrates, the day I stayed at the inn, he served a hot plate of Beluga lentils, a poached egg, roasted carrots and squash, with maple chicken sausages.

Anyone who bakes knows how well wheat flour mixed with a liquid and a fat creates elastic dough and batters. Many supermarkets and health food stores carry gluten-free flours made from a variety of plants: chickpeas, corn, chia, buckwheat, rice bran, barley, arrowroot, amaranth, nuts, potato, millet, quinoa and tapioca. But these flours have flavors and binding properties different from wheat.

Chocolate chip cookies are part of my childhood sense memory. They evoke my mother’s kitchen, where my sister and I vied to eat the first cookie warm from the oven.

Fields’ cookies passed my-mother-used-to-make-these-cookies test. They had the right amount of chewiness and sweetness with a lovely melted chocolate flavor. They were delicious.

Inn on Randolph Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fields suggests making a good supply of the gluten-free flour blend. The flour recipe below will make 6 dozen cookies. With the holidays coming up, the flour will not go to waste. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator. 

Having a good supply of pre-shaped frozen cookie dough is a great help for spur of the moment holiday celebrations.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Freezer time: 10 to 12 minutes or overnight

Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature soft

2 1/4 cups dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract without alcohol

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 3/4 cups Inn on Randolph flour blend (see below)

8 ounces chocolate chips of your choice: milk, dark or a blend of the two

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix to combine and break up any lumps. Stir until smooth.

3. Add egg and vanilla. Mix until fully incorporated into the butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix baking powder with gluten-free flour blend.

4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture and mix well until most of the flour is incorporated. Leave some of the flour unblended.

5. Add chocolate chips. Fold together the unblended flour and the chocolate chips to prevent the chips from sticking to one another. Then mix together with the batter until no flour can be seen. Scoop out the cookies with a 1-ounce scoop or with a large spoon. Prepare a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the balls of dough next to each other.

6. Freeze a minimum of 10 to 12 minutes or overnight. If the cookies are going to be baked on another day, transfer the frozen balls to an airtight container and return to the freezer.

Just before baking, remove from the freezer. Place the balls on a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or a piece of parchment paper. Remembering that as the cookies bake, they will expand, leave 4 inches of space between each ball of dough and the sides of the baking sheet.

7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes to desired doneness. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Inn on Randolph Flour Blend

Weight is more accurate, but you may use cup measures. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups or 167 grams sorghum flour, superfine

3/4 cup or 101 grams cornstarch

1/2 cup or 82 grams potato flour, finely ground

3/4 cup or 117 grams potato starch, unmodified

1/2 cup or 56 grams tapioca flour

Directions

Measure out each dry ingredient.

Mix together. Stir well.

Store in an airtight container.

Main photo: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif. Credit: David Latt

In the video, Fields shows how to freeze the cookie dough in individual portions.

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Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, both to serve or give as a special homemade gift. Credit: Corsini Biscotti Company

Cantucci, crunchy almond biscotti, are a Tuscan classic. Created in Siena, they are popular throughout Italy. While in the United States we sometimes dunk cookies in milk, Italians traditionally dip them into the famed golden-amber dessert wine — vin santo.

Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, to serve or to give as a special homemade gift. The dough is easy to work with, and the cookies come out perfect every time. One key to the great flavor is the addition of vin santo, which provides a nice aroma and a subtle fruity balance. Another is the touch of honey, which keeps the cantucci wonderfully moist.

There are dozens of ways to vary the recipe, so you can make several different batches. For a hint of orange tang, add 1/4 cup finely minced candied orange peel to the batter; for chocolate cantucci add 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate; and for anything goes cantucci add 1/2 cup of your favorite dried fruit, such as chopped dates, apricots or figs. Substitute a different nut for the almonds or omit the nuts completely.

In Italy these luscious cookies are also featured as an ingredient in many desserts such as whimsical chocolate salami, an adorable dessert that really looks like a salami, especially the way Italians serve it: coated in confectioners’ sugar and tied with kitchen twine like real salami. When it’s sliced, the nuts and cookie bits add to the salami look, too. Think of it as a giant truffle!

Cantucci (Almond Biscotti)

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

Prep time: 10 minutes

Bake time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: About 2 dozen

Ingredients

3 cups Italian OO flour or cake flour, plus more as needed

3/4 granulated sugar

1/3 cup honey

2 eggs

2 yolks

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup vin santo

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole almonds, skins-on

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, honey, eggs, yolks, butter, baking powder, vin santo and salt. Using your hands, knead until dough forms, then add the almonds. If the dough is too moist add a little extra flour. Divide the dough into 3 sections. The dough will be a little sticky, that’s normal.

3. Put the dough onto the prepared baking sheet. Using wet hands, mold each section into a log shape, about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. No worries about it being perfect. The dough will come together while it bakes.

4. Bake for about 25 minutes then remove from the oven, but keep the oven on. Allow the dough logs to rest for 5 minutes, keeping them on the baking tray. While still hot and on the baking tray slice the logs on the diagonal, about 3/4 inches wide, using a sharp knife and one firm cut. Put the slices back into the oven and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, until lightly golden.

Chocolate “Salami” (Salame al cioccolato)

cantucci

This whimsical dessert looks like salami, but it is really made of biscotti. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but needs 2 hours refrigeration to set

Yield: 4 to 6 servings, makes one 6-inch “salami”

Note: Vary it any way you like: Add a shot of freshly brewed espresso or liqueur instead of the rum; try different kinds of nuts or even add dried or candied fruit if you like.

Ingredients

2 ounces dark chocolate

1/2 cup superfine sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup chopped cantucci

1/4 cup coarsely chopped nuts such as pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds

1 tablespoon rum

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl in the microwave or over a pan of simmering water. Allow to cool to room temperature. Reserve.

2. Beat the sugar and butter with a spatula or electric hand mixer until creamy and smooth. Stir in the chocolate, cookies, nuts and rum until well combined.

3. Spoon the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper and form into a salami shape, about 6 inches long and 2 inches thick. Wrap well and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

4. To serve, roll the salami in confectioners’ sugar and tie with kitchen twine, so it looks even more like real salami.

Main photo: Cantucci are easy to make and last for months, so they are terrific cookies for the holidays, both to serve or give as a special homemade gift. Credit: Corsini Biscotti Company

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Persimmon pudding cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.

This cake has been a project.

Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.

Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.

By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.

When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.

I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.

It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.

Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.

On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!

I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.

Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).

Persimmon Pudding Cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)

1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 stick butter, soft

3 eggs

2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups cream

Directions

1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.

3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.

4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.

6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.

8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.

9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.

Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

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This prized Turkish pumpkin dessert, kabak tatlisi,

Pumpkins are a fixture at autumn farmers markets in Turkey, where they grow so large that they’re often cut with saws and sold in halves or by the slice. Like Americans, Turks love their pumpkin both savory — in soups, stews and as stuffed vegetables — and sweet.

Perhaps the most prized Turkish dessert is kabak tatlisi (literally, “pumpkin sweet”), wedges of pumpkin simmered in a syrup made by using sugar to leach the gourd of its natural juices. Because the recipe doubles or triples easily and the result keeps well for a day or two in the refrigerator, it’s a perfect dessert for holidays that demand do-ahead short-cuts, like Thanksgiving.

A sweet dessert tamed by nutty toppings

I’ve been a pumpkin lover all my life, yet until recently, kabak tatlisi, which is often served on its own or with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), left me cold. Then I sampled it in Hatay province in southeast Turkey, where the pumpkin is served drizzled with tahini (that is a Turkish pantry staple) and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. The tahini’s slight bitterness tames the cloying sweetness of the pumpkin and crunchy walnuts complement the pudding-soft texture of the vegetable. The tahini’s oil content lends a rich, satisfying mouth feel, but since it’s made up mostly of vegetable, kabak tatlisi settles lightly in the stomach.

Though Turkish cooks usually make kabak tatlisi in a covered pan on top of the stove, I’ve found that the dish cooks wonderfully — and with less bother — in the oven. It emerges a lovely burnt orange, tinged with brownish bits from the caramelization.

Do not fear the sugar

Be prepared. This recipe calls for what will seem like a lot of sugar. Resist the temptation to cut back. The sugar is there to pull liquid out of the pumpkin. Yes, the result is super-sweet, but kabak tatlisi isn’t meant to be eaten in American pumpkin-pie-sized wedges. Just a few cubes per diner — three or four little bites of caramel-y,  tahini-nutty sweetness to end a meal — will do.

Resist also any urge to reduce cooking time by cutting the pumpkin into smaller pieces than this recipe indicates, or it will turn to mush before it caramelizes and the syrup has reduced. Be sure to use unadulterated tahini, without peanuts or peanut butter. Its bitter edge is essential to the success of this dish.

Plan ahead: the pumpkin must “soak” in the sugar for 8 hours (or overnight) before baking.

Caramelized Pumpkin with Tahini and Walnuts (Firinda Kabak Tatlisi)

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled, halved, cut into thirds. The rule of thumb is one part sugar to two parts pumpkin. Do not serve kabak tatlisi hot out of the oven. Room temperature or slightly chilled is best. Make sure your tahini is at room temperature when you serve.

Prep time: Up to 1/2 hour to prep the pumpkin; 8 hours to “soak” the pumpkin

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Ingredients

1  1/2 pounds peeled pumpkin

3/4 pound (1 1/2 cups white sugar)

12 tablespoons pure tahini, at room temperature and whisked to remove any lumps

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges "soaked" for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

This Turkish pumpkin dessert features pumpkin wedges “soaked” for hours in sugar to draw out the liquid from the gourd. Credit: David Hagerman

Directions

Prepping the pumpkin:

1. Cut the pumpkin into wide (3-inch) wedges and/or large (4-by-4-inch) chunks.

2. Arrange the pumpkin pieces in a baking dish or tray just large enough to hold them closely, but without crowding.

3. Sprinkle the sugar over the pumpkin and cover the dish with plastic wrap.

4. Leave the pumpkin at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight. Turn the pumpkin pieces occasionally – once every few hours, or once before bed and once after you get up — to expose all sides to the sugar.

Baking the pumpkin: 

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Before baking, turn the pumpkin pieces one last time in what has likely become a mixture of syrup and lumps of wet granulated sugar.

3. Place the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 minutes, gently turning the pumpkin pieces and basting with the sugar syrup once or twice.

4. Check the pumpkin for doneness by piercing a piece with a sharp knife. There should be no resistance.

5. Baste the pumpkin once more, then raise the heat to 400 F and continue to bake until it shows bits of caramel brown in some spots and the syrup bubbles, about 10 to 15 minutes.

6. Cool the pumpkin in its baking dish.

7. To serve, cut the pumpkin into small cubes or wedges and carefully transfer to bowls or plates. Spoon a bit of syrup over it, if you like, or leave it in the dish. Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of tahini over each serving of pumpkin and sprinkle with walnuts.

Main photo: This prized Turkish dessert, kabak tatlisi, features pumpkin wedges simmered in a sweet sugar-based syrup and topped with tahini and walnuts. Credit: David Hagerman

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Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

Was there pumpkin pie at that first legendary Thanksgiving? My bet is there was.

You will recall from grade school that the first grand feed was held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 by the Pilgrims to mark their first harvest — and the fact they were alive. This was something to celebrate, given that 50% of their compatriots didn’t make it through the first year. We know they the feast lasted more than three days, but exactly what was on the menu remains a bit of a mystery.

The English being English, the reports of the event mention only the meat. We know they invited about 90 Wampanoag who brought plenty of venison, and the Englishmen managed to bag a week’s worth of unnamed game birds, so there’s a pretty good chance wild turkeys were among them. As far as cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, marshmallow-topped yams and Campbell’s green bean casserole, or even pie, the record is silent. We know they had no potatoes, marshmallows or Campbell’s soup.

But there’s a semi-decent chance they might have sent the kids into the cranberry bogs to pick the autumn fruit and stewed some sort of condiment out it. After all, this sort of thing was popular enough in England at the time. And they probably did have pie, an English staple if ever there were one, though apple pie would have been out of the question — not because they wouldn’t have been familiar with it. Apple pie is mentioned as early as the 14th century, and the cookbooks familiar to the Puritans included plenty of apple pie recipes. The trouble was, any apple trees in Massachusetts would have been no more than seedlings.

What were the other options? Back across the Atlantic, pie shells — or “coffins,” as they were known — could be filled with just about anything: pigeons, mutton haunches, minced meat, baby pigs, rabbits. For a lark, four and twenty live blackbirds might be tucked away in a pie crust and released at the dinner table. Fruit and vegetables were popular fillings as well, often sweetened, but not always. Pumpkins, or pompions, as they were called, had taken up root in England long before the Mayflower sailed and consequently pumpkin pie recipes showed up early, though not in a form the test kitchens at Libby’s would recognize. John Gerard recommended baking them sliced with apples in the 1590s. Hannah Woolley’s popular 17th-century culinary guide, “A Gentlewoman’s Companion,” described a “pompion pye” made by sautéing pumpkin pieces with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. These are mixed with eggs and sugar and layered in the pie shell with apples and currants. To serve the pie, you lift off the lid, stir the pumpkin to a purée and replace the lid.

Apparently, there were parts of England where pumpkins were cultivated specifically for a custardy apple pumpkin pie. It’s reasonable to surmise that early New England settlers made something similar but with just pumpkins. Maybe pompion pye, made of familiar native squash, was one of the exotic European preparations the Wampanoag guests got to taste in 1621.

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Inside the pumpkins. Credit: Michael Krondl

Certainly the kind of smooth pumpkin custard-filled pie we’re familiar with became commonplace in New England. Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” from 1796 has a couple of recipes for it as well as a variant made with apples mixed with squash. All these are based on old-world models, on pies filled with a sweet purée of potatoes, chestnuts, quinces or even African yams. The main difference: In the king’s English, these were called “baked puddings”; in America they eventually came to be “pies.”

No Libby’s for this apple pumpkin pie

Compared to 100 or more years ago, today’s cook is presented with both advantages and impediments to making a decent pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin is ubiquitous, almost all of it made by Libby’s, from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson that resembles a giant, tan football. Finding your own cooking pumpkin, however, isn’t always easy.

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

Pumpkins for pie. Michael Krondl

There are plenty of those big, happy, orange pumpkins, but they are intended for carving jack-o’-lanterns, not eating. Their flesh is scrawny, insipid and altogether useless for pie, or any other culinary effect. Like the Libby’s variety, cooking pumpkins tend to be the color of butternut squash, with a thick layer of orange flesh. The so-called cheese pumpkin is one kind that can be found at farmers markets this time of year. But even these, you can’t just roast and use. To get the desired density for a custard-type pumpkin pie, the roasted pumpkin flesh needs to be lightly puréed (a food processor or food mill will do the job) and then drained. The easiest way to do this is to line a large sieve or colander with a coffee filter. After two or three hours, the consistency will approximate what comes from a Libby’s can.

Is it worth the effort? That’s not the sort of question a Puritan would ask.

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie slice. Credit: Michael Krondl

Apple Pumpkin Pie

Adapted from “The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook”

Prep time: about 1/2 hour

Cook time: about 1 hour

Total time: 1 1/2 hours plus time needed to make pastry

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

While this doesn’t exactly reproduce the consistency of the old British custardy pumpkin apple pies, it is a tasty departure from the usual autumn staples. If a cooking pumpkin isn’t available, a butternut squash will serve the same purpose.

1 recipe double crust pie pastry (recipe follows)

1 1/2 pounds cooking pumpkin or butternut squash

1 pound firm cooking apples such as Northern Spy, Baldwin or golden delicious

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg

Large pinch cloves

1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions

1. Roll out half of the pastry for a bottom crust and place in a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate.

2. Preheat oven to 425 F.

3. Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, cut the pumpkin into 1-inch strips, cut away the peel and slice the strips into 1/8-inch thick pieces. (You should have 4 cups.)

4. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.

5. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin with the apples, vinegar, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Arrange in the pastry-lined pie pan.

6. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg.

7. Roll out the remaining dough and place on top of the filling. Crimp the edges. Cut vent holes in the top crust and brush the top with the egg.

8. Set on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 F. Continue baking until golden brown and the pumpkin offers no resistance to a knife or skewer, about 1 more hour.

9. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

Double Crust Pie Pastry

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes plus 2 or more hours of chilling

Yield: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies.

Ingredients

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening

about 1/3 cup ice water

Directions

1. Sift together the flour, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, break up the two fats in the flour until the mixture is about as fine as rolled oats.

2. Add just enough water to moisten the flour. Toss to form a rather dry dough. Do not overmix. Gather the dough together and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Note: The dough may be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for several months.

Main photo: Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl

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