Tag Archives: dessert

Rosemary Brown Sugar Panna Cotta

No sooner had the spiced pumpkin custard and flaky pie crust touched his palate than a shudder ran through him and he stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening.  An exquisite pleasure had invaded his senses, and he ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come, this all-powerful joy? He sensed that it was connected with the taste of the pie, but that it infinitely transcended those savors. Whence did it come? What did it mean?

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My friend K judged a pumpkin pie contest last weekend, and when I asked him what about the winning pie had clinched it for him, he shrugged, with a little smile, and said, “It tasted just like my mom’s.  It brought me back to my childhood.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust was neither the first nor the last to reflect on the connections between eating and memory.  But his narrator’s intensely-felt wave of nostalgia upon eating a madeleine dipped in tea is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the history of food writing (heavily paraphrased with much humility in my first paragraph).

I haven’t yet read Remembrance of Things Past, but I think about Proust often.  More specifically, I think about his madeleine.  How lucky are we, I think, that the sensory pleasure of eating is made richer by its relation to memory, that not only can we superficially enjoy a delicious gingerbread cookie, hot from the oven, but that we can at the same time enjoy the flood of memories, perhaps the childhood memory of building snowmen in the cold, then sitting by a fire with a steaming mug of cocoa, or the memory of baking cookies for our own children, long since grown up and gone.

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Sticky, dark, and golden, brown sugar is one of those ingredients that gives me “exquisite pleasure.”  As a child I was an inimitable cookie-baking helper, instilled at a very young age with the importance of compacting brown sugar into the measuring cup; pressing it in with my small fingers, then dumping it into the bowl and watching the sugar slowly decompress, fall all over itself, like a crystalline creature that just can’t keep itself together.

My relationship with rosemary is newer, but assuredly growing to the same nostalgic proportions.  In Oregon, rosemary flourishes year-round, so the sharp piney scent that accompanies plucking a sprig or two is never far away.  And while brown sugar, too, is always in my pantry, it seems that I reach for both ingredients most often when the skies are dark and gray.

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Panna cotta with fresh herbs is a far cry from the pumpkin-shaped cookies I stamped out as a child, but this dessert makes me feel nostalgic all the same.  Maybe I’ve grown into a woman who steps outside her back door to fetch a sprig of rosemary, and who serves her desserts in quilted mason jars, but I still linger over the brown sugar as I measure it out, still enthralled by its glittering grains.

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I like the ease and aesthetic of serving custards in half-pint mason jars, but if you’d like to serve your panna cotta on a plate or bowl, use custard cups or ramekins and lightly oil the dishes before pouring.  Once chilled, run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen, and tip out onto your serving dish.

Rosemary Brown Sugar Panna Cotta
2 C heavy cream
¼ C brown sugar
½ vanilla bean, or 1 t vanilla extract
3” sprig of rosemary
2 ¼ t powdered gelatin
3 T cold water

Combine cream, sugar, rosemary, and vanilla bean in a small saucepan.  Heat over medium-low and stir until sugar is melted.  Remove from heat, cover, and let sit 30 minutes to infuse.

In a large bowl, mix the gelatin powder with cold water and let sit 5 minutes.  Remove the rosemary and vanilla bean from the cream mixture and gently reheat.  Pour the warm cream over the gelatin and stir until gelatin is dissolved.  Pour into containers and chill until firm, 2-4 hours.

Serves 4.

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies

We have a pretty small freezer, and for someone like me this can be a bit of a problem.  In any given season, you will probably find:

  • Partially-used bags of no fewer than eight and no more than twelve different flours
  • Sauces of all colors frozen into ice cubes, from tomato paste and peanut sauce, to green curry paste and pesto
  • At least one ball of some sort of dough, frozen with the intention of whipping it out at a moment’s notice to impress guests (who have yet to materialize)
  • Recycled yogurt containers full of various soups and broths, well-labeled (and well-hidden behind bags of flour)
  • Several bags of vegetable trimmings, haphazardly frozen on the off-chance that they will be reused in some future soup
  • Gallon bags bursting to the seams with berries, mostly to satisfy A’s compulsion to freeze berries of all kinds, which he will promptly forget about as soon as apple season begins

On top of all that, we now have to make sure there’s room every other month for our 10-lb. delivery of meat from Moomaw Farm.

So occasionally a kitchen project is determined by how to create as much empty space in the freezer with as little effort as possible.  Thus it happened that today, as fall announced its undeniable presence with blustery downpours, I found myself baking with decidedly unseasonal sour cherries.

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Sour, or pie, cherries have a limited growing season, and since they don’t travel well, they need to be used quickly.  I managed to get my hands on 4 lbs. of fresh cherries back in July, but was about to head out of town, so I pitted and froze them all immediately.  And as you might imagine, they got a bit lost in our crowded freezer—that is, until I was musing aloud that I might make a pie soon, and A asked for a cherry pie.

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Well, I’ll do you one better: twelve cherry pies!  Hand pies, that is; smaller than a turnover (so you can eat two without feeling guilty), and with quite a large pie crust-to-filling ratio.  Hand pies really are the cream of the crop; both your crust and your filling have to be top-notch to stand up to that ratio.  That little bit of filling has to be immensely satisfying, and the crust needs to be so flaky and flavorful that you don’t mind eating a handful of it.

Of course, twelve hand pies are still more than A and I can (or should) eat in a couple days.  So six of these went back into the freezer, to be baked off some other rainy afternoon when A least expects it.  And I made more cherry filling than I needed, so that went back in the freezer as well, and it really doesn’t seem any emptier than it was this morning….

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies
Crust:
2 1/2 C flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
1/2 C cold butter, diced
1/2 C cold shortening, diced
½+ C cold water

Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.  With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the butter and shortening until mixture is crumbly.  Quickly work dough into a ball, then divide into 12 portions and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Filling:
1 1/3 lbs. fresh pitted pie cherries (or 1 ½ 14.5-oz cans)
1/4 C sugar
1 T bourbon
1/2 t orange bitters
1/4 t vanilla
1-2 T arrowroot powder, or 3 T flour or cornstarch

Combine all ingredients except the arrowroot in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Cook until cherries break down, 10-15 minutes.  Lower heat and add the arrowroot powder, one teaspoon at a time, mixing completely after each addition to avoid lumps.  When syrup has thickened, remove from heat and cool completely.

Preheat oven to 375° and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Set a small bowl of water by your work space.  On a floured surface, roll each ball into 5-6” circle.  Place 1 heaping tablespoon of filling in each circle (resist the urge to add more or you won’t be able to seal it cleanly), dab edge with water, and crimp shut.  Slice off any ragged edges.  Place on prepared baking sheet.  Cut slits to vent, and sprinkle the tops with sugar.  Keep chilled until ready to bake.  Bake until golden, about 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

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Zucchini Bread with Coconut Crust

The sad thing about zucchini bread is that it doesn’t actually use up that much zucchini.  Every summer, it’s touted as the answer to everyone’s zucchini problems, as if all we need to do to rid the world of the shiny green invasion is to each make a loaf or two of zucchini bread.  But most recipes, including mine here, only use about a cup of grated zucchini per loaf–which in whole-zucchini terms, isn’t even one regularly-sized squash.

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A young British woman once told me that in England, when the zucchini (which they call courgettes to begin with) get too large and watery, they’re called marrow, and everyone makes marrow jam.  This is, in fact, a terrific way to get rid of lots of zucchini, but the jam is typically British, and by that I mean tooth-achingly sweet and thick with chunks of ginger and caramelized squash.  I made a batch last year and will probably be wiping out the last jar in 2020 or so.  I find it hard to imagine that even in the empire of treacle people are able to go through a batch of marrow jam every year, but I suppose one has to eat something with your afternoon tea.

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Nevertheless, before the end of every summer I do feel a driving need to make zucchini bread.  And even if it doesn’t use up very much zucchini, no one around here is complaining.

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You can substitute whole wheat flour for up to 1 C of the white flour.  Like most sweet breads, this freezes well.

Zucchini Bread with Coconut Crust
Makes 2 loaves

3 eggs
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
1/2 C apple or pear sauce
2 C sugar
2 C grated zucchini
1/2 C chopped walnuts
2 t vanilla
3 C flour
3 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
1 t salt

Coconut Crust:
1/2 C shredded coconut
3 T sugar
1 t cinnamon
2 T coconut oil, melted

Preheat oven to 325° and grease 2 loaf pans.  In a large bowl, beat eggs until light and frothy.  Mix in the oil, applesauce, and sugar.  Stir in the grated zucchini, walnuts, and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix into the large bowl.  Distribute evenly into the prepared pans.

To make the crust, mix the shredded coconut, sugar, and cinnamon.  Work in the coconut oil with a fork or with your fingers.  Crumble the topping evenly over both loaves.

Bake 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Rotate the pans halfway through for even baking.

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Spiced Apricots with Cardamom and Rosewater

People generally think of farmers markets as benign places: frolicking children, adults enjoying the fresh air, smiling sunflowers.  But twice in the last couple years, my local farmers market has been a place where the worst side of our nature has come out, the innocence of that bucolic beauty marred by ugly violence.  Of course I’m referring to the trash-talking that precedes the biannual pie contest.

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I will admit to all the world that I am one of the ugly offenders.  I have a very specific sort of competitive streak; I’ve never been very good at sports, and I’m certainly not the strongest, fastest, smartest, or even funniest.  But I know what I am capable of, and in certain situations I will push myself relentlessly to achieve it.  So when I first found out about the summer fruit pie contest back in 2011, I immediately set my mind to winning.

My pie had to be memorable.  To stand out from the crowd, a pie needs one of two things, if not both: an outstanding crust, or a creative filling.  In this case the filling had to highlight summer fruit at its peak of perfection, but it needed a twist that would make the judges perk up in their seat a little.  My first attempt was indeed memorable, but not in a good way.  Wanting to play with the pie’s visual aspects and texture, I hit on the unfortunate combination of blueberries and tapioca, in a pie that elicited negative comparisons to fish eggs.  One look and I knew it was back to the drawing board.

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I mused over other, more radical ideas: what truly constitutes a pie?  What are the minimum characteristics needed to qualify for the contest?  What about a deconstructed pie–an inverted pie–a mathematical pie (oh the fodder for puns)?  Finally I asked myself: is it better to be clever or to be a good baker?  Did I want to make the judges laugh, raise an eyebrow, or reach for another slice?  And thus this simple apricot filling was born.

Apricots are a natural partner for cardamom, rosewater, orange blossom water, or anything with floral notes.  When cooked, their tartness and bright flavor concentrates into the essence of summer.  I poured these apricots over a pre-baked tart shell made with whole wheat pastry flour and flaked coconut, topped it with pistachios, and knew I had a winner on my hands.

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That’s when I became more or less insufferable whenever someone mentioned the pie contest.  I wouldn’t reveal my secrets–wouldn’t even divulge the fruit I was using–but I let everyone know they would have to step up their game.  Lest you think of me as a bully, I sure got as good as I gave (you know who you are).  And when the dust settled I think we all knew we had acted in ways that were unbefitting a farmers market–but also entirely necessary in such a serious situation.

Lately I’ve found that the recipe works equally as well on its own as it does in a tart shell.  We’ve eaten them with vanilla ice cream, ricotta, pound cake–you name it.  It’s also suitable for water-bath canning, so it’s a simple way to preserve a large amount of apricots with something more interesting than sugar syrup.  This past weekend I canned 10 pints of these lightly-spiced fragrant apricots, and I know that when we open them in the depths of winter, they will taste exactly like summer–and a little like victory as well.

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Spiced Apricots with Cardamom and Rosewater
For one 8″ tart:

1 lb. apricots, halved and pitted
1/2 C + 6 T water
6 T honey
1 cardamom pod
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/2 t rosewater

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Cook until apricots are soft and just falling apart.  Remove apricots with a slotted spoon and reduce syrup until it coats the back of a spoon.  Remove spices, return apricots to the syrup, and simmer one more minute.  Pour into prepared tart crust and top with 1/4 C chopped pistachios.

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Strawberry Bread Pudding

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately.  Balance in almost every sense: between working and relaxing, between eating lots of fresh, healthy food and not feeling tied to the kitchen, between watching how I spend my money and not feeling like I’m denying myself comfort, social time, or fresh strawberries.

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I know it’s responsible to think this way to some extent, to not eat ice cream for dinner (at least not every night) or throw your money around like it grows in the garden.  But to be honest it’s kind of exhausting when I get into these phases.  It seems like every thought that pops into my head requires a multi-step analysis before I can take action.

As an example, here’s a conversation A and I had at the farmers market today, as I was eyeing bags of rose- and tamarind-flavored popcorn:

Me: “Maybe I should buy some popcorn today.”

A: “Sure.”

Me: “But we did just get that popcorn popper.”

A: “That’s true.”

Me: “But there’s no way I’m going to make saffron rose syrup for my popcorn.  That seems like a lot of work.”

A: “I guess so.”

A pause.

Me: “Also I’m going to make that bread pudding later, and how much sugar do we really need?”

A: “Uh-huh.”

We didn’t buy popcorn.  I can talk myself out of anything.

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I wonder if this line of thinking has to do with the onset of spring, as we move in this in-between time, no longer winter but not quite summer.  I wonder if the push-and-pull of the seasons is being mirrored in my mind, or if the anticipation of a summer almost here is drawing my mind’s eye to the distant horizon, where I can see more clearly than usual the ramifications of what I do.

So here is my ode to an in-between season, a custardy bread pudding that would sit happily on any winter table, paired with some of the first sweet strawberries of the year.  It’s a true spring dessert, a little too heavy and too long in the oven for summer.  As far as balance, well—somehow I’m always able to talk myself into dessert if it’s homemade.

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Strawberry Bread Pudding
2 C milk
4 eggs
½ C white sugar
¼ C brown sugar
½ t vanilla
1 T Grand Marnier
13 oz. bread, cubed
1 pint strawberries, sliced

Place cubed bread in a large mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl whisk together milk, eggs, sugars, vanilla, and Grand Marnier.  Pour over the bread cubes and let soak for 15 minutes.  Butter an 8”x 8” baking dish.  Fold the strawberries into the bread mixture.  Bake at 350º for 35-45 minutes, until custard is set.

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Cornmeal Pound Cake with Pistachios, Saffron, and Rose

A couple weeks ago, A and I went on a road trip across southern and central Oregon.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: the Pacific Northwest in February, that must have been delightfully cold and wet.  Not so!  It was completely gorgeous and just a tad chilly….except for that first day, when we drove south through a torrential maritime storm, with 15-foot waves pounding the cliffs below US-101.

Our destination that night was Sunset Beach, a campground just south of Coos Bay on the central coast.  We had reserved a yurt there, our first experience in one of these fanciful dwellings, and were excited to sleep that night with the sound of waves crashing nearby.

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The thrill of the road was brand new that day and despite the weather we stopped to explore multiple times—lighthouses, parks, cliffs overlooking the angry ocean.  By the time we reached the campground, a secluded spot bounded by a creek and decorated with the thick hanging mosses and ferns of the Oregon rainforest, we were thoroughly soaked.  We squelched our way to the camp host to deliver our check-in form, and then retreated to the yurt to dry out, warm up, and revel in relaxation.

We cranked up the heat, put our wet shoes by the vent, pulled on wool socks, got out blankets and books, and settled in to enjoy the tap-tap-tapping of the rain from the safety of our warm refuge.  It was still too early for dinner but that really just means it’s time for hors d’oeuvres, so we rummaged through our bulging bag of road snacks and pulled out the Snack That Would Change My Life.  Or that would, at least, stick in my head for weeks and result in this cake being created.

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The snack was local producer Masala Pop’s Saffron Rose Popcorn with Pistachios.  When the bag was opened, we were sitting side by side, with the popcorn propped up between us.  With each new handful I slowly rotated and slumped down on the couch so that my right shoulder stood between A’s hand and the popcorn.  He never suspected a thing.  I successfully ate almost the whole bag myself (and then lay awake most of the night listening to the tapping rain and crashing waves with a bit of a tummy ache—turns out you can have too much of a good thing, including popcorn and crashing waves).

Even before the bag was empty I knew I wanted to recreate those flavors in a more substantial form.  The Moroccan combination of saffron, rose, and pistachios led me to think of the syrup-soaked Moroccan semolina cake called basbousa; from there all I needed was a vehicle for the buttery sweet corn flavor.  This recipe is dangerous.  Someone really needs to get over here and make sure I don’t eat the whole cake.

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Cornmeal Pound Cake
1 C unbleached white flour
1 C corn flour or finely-ground cornmeal
1 C butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 1/3 C sugar
¼ t salt
5 eggs, beaten
1 t vanilla extract
1/3 C pistachios, roughly chopped

Saffron Flower Syrup
1 C confectioner’s sugar
¼ C + 1 ½ T water
1 T rose or orange blossom water
1 pinch saffron threads
 

Preheat oven to 325°.  Butter and flour a loaf pan.  Soak the saffron threads in ¼ C of just-boiled water for 20 minutes.

Mix white flour and corn flour in a small bowl.  Beat butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy.  Gradually beat in sugar, then salt.  Drizzle in beaten eggs by spoonfuls, beating constantly, then add vanilla.  Add dry ingredients in three additions, beating just to blend.  Pour into prepared loaf pan.  Sprinkle the top with the chopped pistachios.  Bake about 1 hr. and 15 min., or until top is golden brown and tester comes out clean.

Shortly before the cake is done, combine the saffron water, rose water, sugar, and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  While the cake is still hot, brush syrup over the cake, waiting a minute or two in between layers to let the syrup soak in.  Let cake cool at least 15 minutes before unmolding.

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