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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

Yes.  Yes.  Sweet Jesus, yes.

makes your twelve closest friends’ day

  • 1/3 c popcorn
  • 4 strips of high-quality, thick-cut bacon
  • 1 large sprig of rosemary
  • 3 T butter
  • 1/2 c maple syrup

Get some corn poppin’.  Meanwhile, put a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Chop the bacon into 1/2-inch pieces and add to the skillet.  Cook slowly to render the bacon fat and crisp the bacon without burning, about 10-15 minutes.  (I prefer my bacon with a little bit of chew left in it, but suit yourself.)  When the bacon is ready, drain off all but a tablespoon or so of the bacon fat (you can use it for another purpose, if you like); keep the bacon pieces in the skillet.  Roughly chop the rosemary leaves and add them along with the butter to the skillet.  (The rosemary really ties the sweet and savory elements of this dish together.  It’s magic, that rosemary.)  

Here comes the fun part:  Add the maple syrup to the bacon mixture and turn the heat up to medium.  Cook until the maple syrup is hot and bubbly and starting to reduce, about 5 minutes.

Toss the maple-bacon mixture with the popcorn; the popcorn will shrivel in agony under the hot syrup.  It’s fun to watch.  Toss the popcorn, adding salt to taste.  Serve as soon as it’s cool enough to eat, and see how many non-bacon-eaters are converted by this caramel corn of the gods.

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My mother-in-law recently gave me Seven Fires, an encomium to grilling over live fire by the Argentine chef, Francis Mallmann.  Seven Fires passes the crucial test of any cookbook:  It makes me want to cook.  Particularly, this book makes me want to cook an entire cow over a bonfire by a secluded lake in Patagonia, but, barring that, it makes me want to grill anything, anywhere.

So, the recent World Cup match between Argentina and Germany seemed like the perfect pretext for starting a fire at 7:00 AM and testing Mallmann’s infectiously presented philosophy that everything tastes better when grilled.

Since we don’t happen to own a grill (or a TV, for that matter), and since we are already in the habit of exploiting the generosity of our good friends, The Bearded Quaker and Nurse Lanois, we decided to host the game at their place.  They seemed a little taken aback when I showed up at their house the night before for the pre-game slumber party armed with clarified butter, crêpe batter and a dozen sausages, but, good friends that they are, they have learned to roll with my various eccentricities.

I figured that if I could grill panqueques, savory crêpes to be filled with dulce de leche, I could grill anything.  While I was out there, I might as well throw some sausages on the fire; there was no Argentine chorizo to be found, but some German bratwurst seemed like a noble and diplomatic concession to the opponent.  (My Lovely Vegetarian Wife is also of Polish heritage, so some kielbasa had to find its way on to the menu as well.  She would have been bitterly disappointed without it, I am sure.)  To round out this menu, I had been dying to try Mallmann’s recipe for burnt oranges with rosemary, a dish that he strongly urged should only be prepared outside due to the prodigious amounts of smoke it was sure to create.

Cooking, like all crafts, can be an act of self-discovery when it calls upon our resources and ingenuity to their fullest extent.  There were many uncertainties about my plans for an asado para desayuno (including whether my in-laws would disown me for coining absurd Spanish phrases like that):  Would I be able to fire up a grill at 6:30 in the morning?  For that matter, could I even wake up at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday?  Would I be able to adjust the coals sufficiently under a cast-iron skillet to control its heat?  Could I do this while also grilling sausages?  And would anybody else be awake to make me a cup of coffee??

The answer to all of those questions was “Yes”.  The crêpes cooked almost instantly and got gorgeous crispy edges; the oranges were sweet, jammy, nicely charred and herbal from the rosemary; the sausage was sausage (i.e., the single greatest food known to humanity).

The game, alas, did not go nearly as well as the breakfast.  According to my wife, we have banished this game from our collective memory.  It is not to be spoken of.

We drowned our sorrows with mimosas.

Panqueques con Dulce de Leche

serves a dozen hungry soccer fans

  • 1 1/2 c butter (Don’t worry—you’re not going to eat all of it.)
  • 3 c flour
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 c water
  • 2 c milk

Make the panqueque batter and the clarified butter the night before, or at least 1 hour in advance:  Melt all of the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat.  Combine 1/2 c of the melted butter, the flour, eggs, water, milk and a hefty pinch of salt in a blender; blend on high speed until thoroughly mixed.  Refrigerate.

Finish clarifying the butter:  Skim off and discard any foam from the top of the butter.  Carefully pour off and reserve the melted butterfat, leaving the milk solids in the bottom of the pan behind.  Discard the milk solids.  Refrigerate the clarified butter; it will solidify in the fridge.  If you want to melt it before using it, simply microwave for about 20 seconds.

Using charcoal (or, even better, hardwood), build a hot fire.  Pile the coals to one side of the grill so that they reach up almost all the way to the grill rack.  Place a flat cast-iron griddle on the grill rack directly over the coals.  Cover the grill and allow the griddle to preheat for about 10 minutes.  (Alternately, simply heat up the griddle indoors over medium-high heat.)  When a drop of water evaporates instantly on the griddle, it is ready.

Stir up the pancake batter in case it has separated.  Put a tablespoon of the clarified butter on the griddle, spreading it around to coat the griddle evenly.  Ladle about 1/4 c of the batter onto the griddle, spreading it around with the ladle to form a thin layer over the whole griddle.   The panqueque will cook very quickly:  When the edges are brown and firm, flip the crêpe.  Cook for about 15 seconds more on the second side until the pancake is cooked through.

Transfer to a plate.  Put a heaping spoonful of dulce de leche on the panqueque and spread it around.  Roll up the pancake like a jelly roll.  Repeat with the remaining panqueques, adding more clarified butter to the griddle before each one.  Serve with…

Naranjas Quemadas con Romero (Burnt Oranges with Rosemary)

  • 6 oranges
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 sprig of rosemary

Preheat a cast-iron griddle for ten minutes over a hot wood or charcoal fire (or, if you have a stove with a powerful exhaust fan, heat the skillet over high heat).  Meanwhile, peel the oranges and slice them in half through their “equator”.   Place the sugar on a plate.  Strip the rosemary leaves from the sprig and add them to the sugar.  Press the oranges, cut side down, into the sugar.

When the griddle is hot (a drop of water will evaporate instantly), put four of the orange halves, cut side down, onto the griddle.  Add a little more of the rosemary-sugar mixture to the griddle between the oranges.  Cook the oranges over high heat without moving them until the edges brown and start to blacken.  Carefully flip the oranges and cook on the second side for 1-2 minutes more.  Serve along side panqueques con dulce de leche and grilled sausages for brunch, or with a little sweetened yogurt for dessert.

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I often remind my Lovely Vegetarian Wife that it is because of her that I am such a big steak lover.  Although her response to this varies between “Whatever” and a mere roll of the eyes, it is indisputably true.  Because meeting my Lovely Vegetarian Wife led me to meeting my in-laws, both of whom are from Argentina, where, it seems, steak is ubiquitous.  You can’t swing a dead cow in Buenos Aires without hitting a restaurant that serves incredible grass-fed beef, expertly grilled over wood fires.  It wasn’t until my in-laws treated me to a real Argentine-style asado that I appreciated the sheer genius of having several different cuts of steak at one meal along with chorizo, morcilla, and whatever else is on the menu.  Hence, I am now a rabid steak lover.

This posting isn’t about steak, however.  It’s about the other thing that makes Argentine cuisine so compelling (well, besides the empanadas, the Malbec and the first-rate Italian food):  dulce de leche.  Imagine the thickest, creamiest caramel you’ve ever had—that’s dulce de leche.  It’s great with pastries, on toast, on ice cream, with old socks… Unfortunately, we don’t get to Argentina nearly as often as we would like, and my mother-in-law (who makes fantastic dulce de leche with the help of a pressure cooker) lives on the other side of the country.

But then I decided to use my brain.  Brain, I said, what are we talking about with dulce de leche?  We’re talking about taking sweetened condensed milk and caramelizing it.  I caramelize things all the time:  onions, Brussels sprouts, you name it.  Why can’t I caramelize sweetened condensed milk?  All I have to do is avoid scorching it.  What’s the easiest way to do that?

By putting the sweetened condensed milk in the oven, I can apply even, moderate heat to make sure that everything browns but doesn’t blacken.  Wikihow added the extra brilliant idea of using a bain-marie (or water bath) to ensure that the milk heats evenly.

To put things over the top, I decided to add the seeds of a vanilla bean to the finished dulce de leche.  It’s pretty darn fantastic.  It’s not as good as my mother-in-law’s, and it’s not quite like being in Buenos Aires, but it will do in the meantime.

  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 vanilla bean

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Remove the condensed milk from the can (this is an important point:  a lot of recipes call for heating the can directly) and pour into a Pyrex baking dish.

Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil, place it in a roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with hot water about halfway up the side of the baking dish.  Bake for 1 1/2 hours.

Carefully transfer the dulce de leche to a mixing bowl.  Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the dulce de leche (reserve the vanilla bean pod for another use).  Whisk the dulce de leche until it is smooth and silky.

Eat with unrestrained abandon.

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I know that I’m prone to flights of hyperbole on this blog, a tendency that I should work to curb.  However, I would be doing you a great disservice if I didn’t tell you that these are the BEST CUPCAKES EVER.  Because they are.

  • 1 c blanched, slivered almonds
  • 1 c whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 t baking powder
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 8 T (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1 c sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t orange zest
  • 1/4 c Amaretto di Saronno, Licor 43 or Grand Marnier (depending on whether you want to ramp up the almond, vanilla or orange flavor in the cake)
  • 1 recipe Salted Caramel Frosting (see below)
  • flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

Salted Caramel Frosting (adapted from a posting on chow.com):

  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 2 T water
  • 1/4 c heavy cream
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • 8 T (1 stick) butter, room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 c powdered sugar

Here’s the itinerary, the plan of attack, the critical path method:

  • Step 1:  Make the caramel for the frosting.
  • Step 2:  While the caramel cools, make the batter and bake the cupcakes.
  • Step 3:  Make the frosting.
  • Step 4:  Ice the cupcakes.

So, looking at the ingredients list for Salted Caramel Frosting, put the 1/4 c sugar and 2 T water in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  Boil for 6-7 minutes without stirring (you can swirl the pan around if you want, but don’t go sticking any foreign objects in the sugar syrup, especially your fingers).  The caramel will look like this:

Remove the caramel from the heat and add the cream and vanilla.  Everything will bubble up fantastically; start stirring and don’t stop until you have smooth, creamy caramel.  Let this cool for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, back to the cupcake batter:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grind up the almonds in a food processor.  They won’t exactly turn into flour, but they’ll end up as couscous-sized pieces.  Mix the almonds with the flour, baking powder and salt.

With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs one at a time while the mixer is going (scraping down the sides occasionally); the mixture should become nice and fluffy.  Put the mixer on low and add the dry ingredients.  When the dry ingredients are incorporated, add the zest and liqueur; stir until combined.

Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners; fill each liner about halfway full of batter.  (This recipe should yield about a dozen cupcakes.)  Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcake comes out clean.  Place the muffin tin on a rack and cool for 15 minutes before icing the cupcakes.

Back to the frosting!  (But first, wash out your mixing bowl and clean the paddles of your electric mixer:  You need them for the frosting, too.)  Beat the butter and salt on medium-high until fluffy and light in color, about 3 minutes.  Turn the speed to low and mix in the powdered sugar.  Scrape the bowl, then add the caramel to the butter-sugar mixture.  Beat on medium-high until the mixture is light and airy, about 2 minutes.

Ice the cupcakes.  Sprinkle with sea salt.  Savor the superlative sweet-and-saltiness.

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These might quite possibly be the Best Cookies Ever.

I based this recipe on one in Cook’s Illustrated; the combination of dried cherries and pecans had instant appeal for me.  Really, I couldn’t stop eating them.

  • 1 1/4 c whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 t baking power
  • 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1 1/4 c old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 handful pecans
  • 1 handful dried cherries
  • 3 to 4 oz. dark chocolate
  • 1 egg
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 3/4 c butter, softened
  • 1 1/2  c brown sugar

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl.  Put the oats into a second large bowl.  Crush the pecans with your hands as you add them to the oats; add the cherries to the oats and pecans.  Put the chocolate in a plastic bag (or leave it in the wrapper) and bash it with a rolling pin to break into pieces.  (This step is a lot of fun.)  Add the chocolate to the oat mixture.  In a third bowl, combine the egg and vanilla.

With a mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed, and sampling the mixture copiously, also as needed.  When the butter-sugar mixture is well-combined, light and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla; mix until well-incorporated.  With the mixer on low, carefully add the flour mixture; mix just until combined.  Add the oat mixture, and mix until all of the ingredients are well distributed.

Grab a handful of cookie dough, roll into a ball and smoosh onto the baking sheet.  Make sure to smoosh it well, since you need to flatten the cookie dough out for it to spread properly.  It should look like a thick, juicy hamburger patty if you do it right.  Repeat the process; you should be able to fit about six cookies on the sheet (this recipe will yield about a dozen and a half big cookies).   Bake for about 20 minutes, until the edges are brown but the centers still look a little underdone.  Try to resist eating them before they have cooled down.  Serve with ice cream or vanilla pudding and unbridled enthusiasm.

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Vanilla Bean Pudding

You don’t need to have friends who travel to foreign locales and bring you back exotic ingredients in order to make excellent vegetarian food, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Our friends, the Bearded Quaker and his wife, Nurse Lanois, recently made a ten-day tour of India.  In gratitude for our excellent dog-walking, chicken-feeding and all-around zoo-keeping services, they returned with several bags of spice mixtures and a bag of vanilla beans for us.

I had never cooked with a vanilla bean before.   I had heard that they were culinary gold, magical ingredients to which vanilla extract simply could not compare.  How best to use this wonderful gift, I pondered.  What would be the best expression of the vanilla bean, the purest, most intense, ur-vanilla experience?

Pudding, of course.

Now, do not despair.  You can make this recipe.  You can buy vanilla beans at your supermarket or, for a better value, online.  You could also make this recipe with vanilla extract, and it will taste great.  But perhaps you are thinking, as I did for a long time, that pudding is one of those things that comes in a little plastic cup next to the Lunchables in the supermarket.  It’s not the sort of thing that anyone actually makes, is it?

It is, and it’s much easier than you might think.  Pudding is, essentially, milk thickened with cornstarch.  (Tempting, I know.)  It requires a little bit of stirring and a little bit of patience, but the result is worlds better than anything that comes out of a “Pak”.  And vanilla is only the beginning:  the sky is the limit for flavors.  For vegan possibilities, you could use coconut milk (for coconut pudding, obviously) or soy milk, but I’m not sure I condone the latter.

  • 2 1/2 c whole milk, separated
  • 1/2 c sugar*
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 T cornstarch

*The recipe on which I based this, from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, called for 2 2/3 c sugar for 2 1/2 c milk.  Fortunately, I did a double-take  before I started scooping out the sugar.  That can’t be right, I said.  Equal parts sugar and milk?  I consulted with a recipe in the Joy of Cooking which called for 1/3 c sugar for 2 c milk:  a one-to-six ratio!  Clearly, there is some sort of typo in Mr. Bittman’s book, or he has an unparalleled sweet tooth.

Put 2 cups of the milk in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat; stir in the sugar.  Cut open the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape all of the seeds into the milk mixture; toss the empty pod into the milk mixture as well.  Cook the milk mixture until it just starts to steam.

Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of milk with the cornstarch thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps.  (I actually used 3 T of cornstarch when I made this the other day, but it came out a little too thick, almost pasty in texture, so I’m recommending 2 T [1/8 c].)   Remove the vanilla bean from the saucepan and reserve for another use, such as Vanilla Sugar.  Turn the heat up under the saucepan to medium-high.  Stir in the milk-cornstarch mixture.  Stir constantly.  Nothing will happen for a few minutes.  Suddenly, the mixture will begin to thicken, almost as if by magic.  Turn the heat down to low and continue to stir for 2 minutes.  Pour the pudding into a bowl or into individual serving dishes.  Cover the pudding with plastic wrap, pressing right onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.   Chill for at least two hours.  Serve with cookies or toffee crumbs left over from Christmas as in the picture above (thanks, Mom!).  Savor the vanilla.

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Tarte au Sucre

You might think from this picture that you are looking at a piece of shoofly pie, served up at a roadside diner somewhere off, say, route 522 in central Pennsylvania, an impression reinforced by this table’s unfortunate resemblance to the fake wood counters at many such establishments.  But oh no!  You would be gravely mistaken, and you would be betraying your own rusticated upbringings by comparing such common peasant food with this much more refined, illustrious and pedigreed dish.  Shame on you.

This dish is French, you see.

At least, it is according to Mark Bittman, whose The Best Recipes in the World is the source for this dish.  The crust is simply pâte sucrée (i.e., sweet pie dough); the filling is brown sugar creamed with eggs and butter.  However, I had to deviate from Mr. Bittman’s recipe because it turns out that I don’t have a tart pan.  (How did that happen?)  So, after putting the crust in my Pyrex pie pan, I realized that the amounts his recipe called for wouldn’t generate enough filling for a pie.  So I doubled the amount of filling to come up with this recipe:

  • enough pâte sucrée for one pie
  • 1 c brown sugar (I used dark, but I think light might work even better)
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 T butter, softened

Press pâte sucrée into pie plate.  Cream remaining ingredients and pour into pie plate.  Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or so.

Having done this, I waited what I thought was a seemly interval before cutting into the tarte, only to create an oozing torrent of liquid caramel syrup atop some crumbled pieces of crust.  (Interesting ontological question:  Can a torrent ooze?)   So, I decided to chill (the tarte, and out).

The refrigerator is a magical thing.  After a few hours, the tarte had sufficiently firmed up to be nice and easy to slice.  It was really wonderful.  My Lovely Vegetarian Wife and I devoured it more quickly than I care to admit.  It tasted great, reminiscent of something fantastic that I used to eat.  In fact, it tasted exactly like… shoofly pie.

I think next time I’ll base this pie on the same dough that one uses for cream puffs or profiteroles.  That way, I can give it a new name:  tarte choux-flaille.

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