Articles in Desserts w/recipe

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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Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.

A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.

A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.

Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.

Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)

In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”

This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.

Torciglione

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Baking time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

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

2 tablespoons rum

Zest from 1 lemon

3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 coffee beans

1 candied cherry

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.

3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

 Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Holidays have long inspired traditions, and, for me, nothing inspired them more than Christmas. Many of my family’s traditions were passed down from Mom Skanes, my maternal grandmother, whose Christmas joy belied her otherwise solemn demeanor.

Her house was the center of our celebrations. It sat on an island that, in winter, was overwhelmingly bleak. My grandfather painted the clapboards bright green to temper the slate sky and ocean, and at Christmas, when snow draped the eves and red lights shone from every window, the house beckoned us inside to celebrate.

Mummers, too, sometimes took part in the celebration. Wearing flour sack hoods or more elaborate and less frightening masks, they re-enacted a Newfoundland, Canada, tradition still observed then in isolated communities such as ours, of going from house to house in disguise, demanding glasses of rum and slices of fruitcake. Some, like Marley’s ghost, dragged chains behind them, slapping the links against doors for entrance but, if they wanted my grandmother’s bread pudding, they had to leave the chains outside. They would do so gladly for a taste of the Queen of Puddings.

British pudding recipes have withstood the test of time

Variations of Mom Skanes’ refined “bread soaked in milk” pudding date back to 17th century Britain, and one version in particular, Monmouth Pudding, was an early version of the one she made. Both consisted of layers of meringue, jam and bread soaked in milk (or milk and cream).

Her recipe came across the ocean to Newfoundland with her English ancestors. A story also accompanied the recipe on the journey, that of a duke tasting the pudding and declaring it the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted.

Although she told the story from time to time, Mom Skanes put no stock in such a fanciful tale — although, secretly, I think she thought any duke would have been lucky to taste that pudding. We commoners certainly understood our luck as we offered up our bowls and begged for more. At Christmas, though, there was no need to beg, because there was always plenty.

She served the Queen of Puddings after our traditional Christmas Eve supper of lamb chops, mashed potatoes and molasses bread. While my parents and grandparents lingered at the table, I took my pudding into the den, curling up in my grandfather’s big chair where I so often fell asleep to the sound of music on the radio. On Christmas Eve I was too excited for the sound of hoofs overhead to fall asleep, and, besides, there was pudding to get me through to the next treat.

I ate it in layers, starting with the meringue, which I slurped off the spoon, filling my mouth with sweetness. Then I ate the raspberry jam and bread custard layers together. Although it was terrible manners to lick the bowl, I did, and the telltale signs of guilt lingered on my chin when my grandmother came to check on me. On that night, however, instead of chastising me, she simply marched me upstairs to wash my face and hands.

Mom Skanes was generous with food throughout the year, but at Christmas she went out of her way to make sure there was enough, not only for family and friends but, more especially, for neighbors in need. She baked for weeks leading up to the holidays, often with me perched on a stool at her elbow, watching as she measured and sifted, mixed and stirred. She creamed butter and sugar for cakes by hand but whipped egg whites for the pudding with an electric mixer that whirled around the bowl, making a cloud of white that rose higher and higher. Soon, I thought, it would float up to the ceiling, but instead, it ended up on top of the pudding’s raspberry jam.

The pudding was the last thing she made, and on Christmas Eve morning, with Bing Crosby dreaming of the “White Christmas” beyond our windows, she began by slicing and then buttering stale bread. After layering the bread in a baking pan, she made the custard, allowing it to soak into the bread before carrying the pan to the oven, me trailing behind to make sure she didn’t spill anything. The pan was so heavy that her strong arms shook as she took it from counter to oven.

Soon the aroma of vanilla filled the kitchen and, later, when the jam and meringue had been added and the pudding returned to the oven, I was charged with watching through the glass as the meringue turned golden.

The Queen of Puddings was delicious, but some loved it most because of its lightness, a lovely change from the dense and heavy fruitcakes of Christmas. I loved the meringue the most because of the magical way my grandmother transformed egg whites into a cloud; for a while, I thought it was a skill only she possessed.

For Mom Skanes, the pudding was a way of using up stale bread, because she couldn’t abide wasting food that was a blessing. There was something else she loved about the pudding, though: It was refined and, serving it softened, for a little while, what could be a hard life on that bleak island.

I still make the Queen of Puddings on Christmas Eve, carrying on her tradition, making it as much for the memories it evokes as for its taste. Like the little girl who ate the meringue first, curled up in her grandfather’s chair, I still slurp it off my spoon and fill my mouth, again, with sweetness.

The Queen of Puddings (Mom Skanes’ recipe)

Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the bread pudding:

1 cup whole milk

1 cup table cream (18%)

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

5 slices white bread, crusts removed

1/4 cup melted butter

1 cup raspberry jam

For the meringue:

4 egg whites, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

For the bread pudding:

1. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, cream and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is light and creamy. Slowly whisk the egg mixture into the hot milk and cream, whisking constantly until the egg mixture is incorporated. Remove the pan from the heat.

2. Brush both sides of the bread with melted butter. Place the bread evenly into the bottom of a greased 2-quart baking dish.

3. Pour the custard mixture over the bread. Use a fork to gently submerge the bread so the liquid soaks into it.

4. Place the baking dish into a roasting pan (or another large, high-sided pan). Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish.

5. Carefully place in the oven and bake until the pudding is set (the bread will be firm when pressed with a fork), about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.

6. Increase the oven temperature to 375 F.

7. In a small saucepan, warm the raspberry jam. Spread the jam evenly over the bread pudding.

For the meringue:

1. In a large clean bowl, add the egg whites. Beat using an electric or hand mixer until soft peaks form.

2. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

3. Gradually add the sugar and beat until all sugar has been added and the meringue is thick and glossy.

4. Spread the meringue evenly over the jam layer. Bake until the meringue is golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Note: The pudding can be served hot or cold.

Main image: Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Jacquy Pfeiffer's coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing

At this time of year we’re always looking for recipes for gluten-free sweets, especially cookies, as more and more of our friends have forsaken flour. I always turn to my French pastry guru, Jacquy Pfeiffer, with all of my baking questions, even though I know that the Chicago-based, Alsatian-born pastry chef is not a gluten-free kinda guy. But he doesn’t need to be to offer an array of Christmas cookies that everyone can enjoy, whether they tolerate gluten or not. His moist, chewy almond-meal cinnamon stars (zimsterne), are among the most iconic of Alsatian Christmas cookies and date back to the 14th century, long before people even knew what gluten was, let alone gluten free.

There are several other gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s Alsatian repertoire. He did not have to invent these recipes, or make traditional cookies gluten free by working with special flours or ingredients and changing formulas. They just don’t happen to contain flour. Among my favorites are his coconut macarons, or rochers, incredibly addictive morsels made with lots of unsweetened coconut, egg whites and sugar. They are the easiest cookies in the world to make: You mix together the egg whites, sugar and coconut with a very small amount of applesauce or apricot compote (whose fruit pectin absorbs and retains moisture), and stir the mixture over a double boiler until it thickens a little and reaches 167 degrees F (75 degrees C). Then you refrigerate the batter overnight. The next day you scoop out the cookies and bake them until golden brown. They keep well for weeks, so you can begin your Christmas baking way ahead of time.

lemon mirror cookies

Lemon mirror cookies. Credit: Paul Strabbing

Lemon mirrors, macarons and more

Other cookies that I find irresistible and always make at this time of year so that all of my friends can enjoy them are called lemon mirrors. They are delicate, nutty cookies with a meringue base enriched with almond flour, an almond cream filling (the original recipe for the almond cream called for 1 teaspoon of flour, but that small quantity was easy to swap out for cornstarch), and a lemon icing. They’re called mirrors because the final glaze makes them shiny and reflective.

The coconut macarons and lemon mirrors are not the only gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s repertoire. Think macarons. Those iconic French cookies are made with almond flour, egg whites and sugar, without a jot of wheat. But they require a little more time and practice to make than the two Alsatian cookies here, and by now you are probably ready to get those cookie plates going. So get out your baking sheets and your whisks, and leave your flour in the cupboard.

Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Coconut Macarons

It’s best to mix up the batter for these cookies the day before you bake and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. They are naturally gluten free, with no flour in the batter.

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Prep time: About 15 minutes

Resting time: Overnight

Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes

 Ingredients

100 grams (about 3) egg whites, at room temperature

160 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar

100 grams (about 1 1/3 cups) unsweetened fine coconut flakes

10 grams (2 teaspoons) apricot compote or applesauce

1.5 grams (scant 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt

Directions

Day 1:

1. Create a double boiler by pouring 3/4 inch of water into a saucepan and placing it on the stove over medium heat.

2. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl that is larger than the saucepan, and mix them together with a whisk. Reduce the heat under the saucepan to low and place the bowl on top. It should not be touching the water. Stir continuously with a whisk — not like a maniac, but stirring all areas of the bowl so that the egg whites don’t coagulate throughout the mix into small white pieces. Stir until the mixture thickens and reaches 167 F/75 C. Remove from the heat, take the bowl off the pot and wipe the bottom dry. Scrape down the sides of bowl.

3. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the mixture, taking care to lay the plastic right on the surface of the batter so that it is not exposed to air. Cover the bowl as well and refrigerate for at least two hours or preferably overnight.

Day 2

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and arrange the rack in the middle. Line sheet pans with parchment or Silpats and, using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop, scoop the coconut mixture onto the sheet pan leaving one inch in between each cookie and staggering the rows. Each scoop should be leveled so that all the cookies are the same size and bake the same way. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, one sheet pan at a time, until golden brown. Allow to cool on the parchment before removing.

Note: Another way to make these cookies is to pipe them onto a sheet pan with a 3/4-inch star tip. A smaller tip will not work, as the coconut likes to clump up. Pfeiffer also likes to pipe them into small 1 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch pyramid shaped silicone Flexipan molds, then bake them right in the molds. To unmold, let them cool for a full hour. They will come out easily when they are completely cool.

Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Lemon Mirror Cookies

Here’s another naturally gluten-free cookie. The only flour required is almond flour.

Yield: 40 cookies

Prep time: 1 hour (assuming ingredients are at room temperature)

Baking time: 15 minutes, plus 15 minutes for glazing the cookies

Ingredients 

For the almond cream:

100 grams (approximately 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) skinless almond flour

100 grams (approximately 1 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar

6 grams (2 teaspoons) cornstarch

100 grams (7 tablespoons) French style butter, such as Plugrà

Pinch of sea salt

3 grams (3/4 teaspoon) vanilla extract

60 grams (1 large plus 1 to 2 tablespoons) beaten egg

20 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 1/4 teaspoons) dark rum

For the icing:

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted

12 grams (2 teaspoons) fresh lemon juice

For the meringue cookie base:

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar

50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) almond flour with skin

100 grams (about 3) egg whites

Pinch of sea salt

Pinch of cream of tartar

10 grams (2 teaspoons) granulated sugar

For the topping:

50 to 100 grams (scant 1/2 to 1 cup) sliced almonds with skin

100 grams (scant 1/4 cup) apricot jelly

Directions

Before you begin: Bring all ingredients to room temperature.

1. Make the almond cream. Sift together the almond flour, confectioners sugar and cornstarch. Tap any almond flour that remains in the sifter into the bowl.

2. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place the soft butter, sea salt and the vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.

3. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the almond flour mixture to the machine. Mix at medium speed for 1 minute. Gradually add the egg and mix at medium speed until it is incorporated, which should take no more than 2 minutes. Add the rum and mix until incorporated. The cream should look shiny and creamy. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch tip and set aside.

4. Make the sugar icing by mixing together the confectioners sugar with the lemon juice. Set aside.

5. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line one or two sheet pans with parchment.

6. Make the meringue cookie base. Sift together the confectioners sugar and almond flour onto a sheet of parchment paper.

7. Place the egg whites, sea salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of your standing mixer and whisk together for 10 seconds on medium. Add the sugar and whip on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until you have a meringue with soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently and carefully fold in the sifted confectioners sugar and almond powder until the mixture is homogenous. Make sure that you do not over-mix. Over-mixing the meringue mixture will make it soupy and the baked cookies will be gummy.

8. Using a bowl scraper, carefully transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip. Do this gently so that you don’t deflate the mixture. Pipe 1 1/2-inch rings onto the parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 1/2 inch of space between each cookie and making sure to stagger the rows. Sprinkle the edge of each ring with sliced almonds.

9. Pipe the almond cream into the center of each ring.

10. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.

11. While the cookies are baking, warm the apricot jelly in a small saucepan just until it becomes liquid. Keep the apricot jelly warm over the lowest heat possible so that it won’t seize up. If this happens just warm it up a little more and it will become liquid again.

12. Right out of the oven, brush each cookie with the apricot jelly, then right away with the sugar icing. Allow to cool completely before removing from the parchment paper.

Main photo: Jacquy Pfeiffer’s coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing, recipe and photo courtesy of Pfeiffer’s “The Art of French Pastry.”

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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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Zester Daily's holiday favorites. Compilation credit: Karen Chaderjian

Many lucky people reach a point in life where the last thing they need is more stuff. That’s why choosing the right kind of Christmas present — or holiday experience — can be the best gift of all.

Food is perfect, of course. Things to create food are handy, too. Then there is the gift of time together, the very point of a holiday and something that can be achieved with just the right kind of party.

Here’s a collection of Zester Daily stories to provide some ideas to brighten everyone’s holiday. The notes are directly from the contributors. Click on the links for each story.

Gifts

Maple-Nut Fudge: Easy as Pie for Holiday Gifts by Charles Perry: As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.

United States of Artisans: 51 Edible Holiday Gifts to Send by Emily Grosvenor: You can’t go wrong with edible gifts at the holidays. Edibles send strong messages of sharing, goodwill, pride-of-place and uniqueness, while not cluttering up the recipient’s house for the rest of their lives.

5 DIY Edible Gifts to Impress Everyone on Your List by Sue Style: Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself.

Need a thoughtful gift idea? Try These Cookbooks by Clifford A. Wright: Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier.

Turmeric Candy: Give a Gift of Health and Drink to It, Too by R. Eckhardt and D. Hagerman: By now, you’ve probably heard about turmeric: the yellow-orange rhizome native to South Asia recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Sweets

Mince Pies: Where’s the Beef? by Clarissa Hyman: “Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago.

A Fruitcake Everyone Will Love (Really!) by Julia della Croce: I never understood the aversion to fruitcake until someone sent me one of those clunkers that the humorist Russell Baker said he deplored, dating from a Christmas dinner when a small piece he dropped shattered his right foot.

A Trio of Italian Cookies for the Holidays by Francine Segan: Here are three unusual Italian cookies that you can make ahead for the holidays, each with a special featured ingredient.

Buttercrunch Lets You Slow Down, Enjoy the Moment by Kathy Gunst: The part of the holidays that always makes me feel warm and loved are the traditions my family has established.

Sugar and Spice: Italian Confetti by Francine Segan: Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.

Caribbean Black Cake Will Leave You Wanting More by Ramin Ganeshram: It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago.

A Fruitcake Recipe That Finishes With a Big Bang by Louisa Kasdon: Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you.

Cantucci: Tuscany’s Classic Cookie by Francine Segan: Cantucci, crunchy almond biscotti, are a Tuscan classic.

Celebrating Christmas — and Fruitcake — in East India by Rinku Bhattacharya: In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country.

Entertaining

How to Throw a Flawless Holiday Dinner Party by Clifford A. Wright: It is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food.

Holiday Menu Makeovers That Flip Ho-Hum to Yum by Francine Segan: Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again?

Pozole: A Go-To Party Food for Las Posadas by Karen Branch-Brioso: For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

The Dinner We All Want for the Holidays by Barbara Haber: I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu.

Main composite image: Zester holiday favorites. Composite credit: Karen Chaderjian

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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.

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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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