Sic Semper Chocolate Cookies

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

A trainer at my gym related an experience he had a few nights ago. Just to set the scene, this guy is in tip-top condition; not an ounce of body fat. A seemingly virtuous paragon of discipline and self control.

Until the cookies called his name.

He reported that he woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep because a package of chocolate cookies was calling his name. He ate the entire package before returning to sleep.

Some of you reading this may think, “Well, if he has such discipline, one slip like that isn’t going to kill him.”

My reaction veers more toward relief: Relief that my struggle with will power is not as abnormal as I think. Relief that even those among us who seem to be paragons of self-control have their own “moments.”

And, relief that I am not the only one on a first name basis with his cookies.

Of course, it is my own darn fault. Nobody puts a gun to my head and orders me to bake cookies.

With that swirling in my mind, a friend called and invited me to a barbecue this weekend. Would I mind bringing dessert? (Is the Pope…?)

Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the usual onslaught of news stories about how this is the “unofficial first weekend of summer.” For some folks this may mean that it is time to head over to Kmart for a new inflatable pool, but for me it means (and yes, I can tell you’re way ahead of me here) the official first weekend of summer eating.

Everyone loves the warm weather (except for pale, sweaty me.) But, I think there’s an unacknowledged caveat here: in the warm weather we have less material with which we can camouflage our various bodily flaws. So yes, everyone loves the summer, but everyone is self-conscious about this bump or that bulge (or both, in my case.)

Under the circumstances, I feel guilty foisting my usual parade of sweets upon a sun-baked, half naked, will power-compromised audience.  I sympathize: if I eat enough of my own desserts, it’ll be hard to distinguish me from the pool float, so light and easy does it.

A trip to the market answered all doubts about my ability to provide something summery, sweet, and light (ish), but still hit the proverbial “dessert spot.” (I can’t stand getting home from a party and feeling like I need to root through my fridge for a little something, so I want to make sure the other barbecuees will be equally sweet tooth sated. I take the request, “Will you bring dessert?” as a job description, not a social nicety.)

This week, California blackberries and strawberries are in abundance and cheap at the market. There’s the backbone of my Memorial Day dessert right there, yes, but the question remains: what to do with them?

The berries are very sweet and juicy, so it would be a shame to bake them into a pie or crisp. Nevertheless, dumping them in a bowl, even with whipped cream seems anticlimactic. What if I made a pie – deconstructed? Perhaps I’ve been watching too much of the last half hour of “Iron Chef” (the only part of the show I like; that’s when they eat) but here’s an example of what I mean: You and I both know what an Ice Cream Sandwich is, right? But as seen through the lens of a pastry chef, an Ice Cream Sandwich is really just ice cream and cookies. You could serve them in any order and still call it an ice cream sandwich, granted, at times what a pastry chef serves may be stretching the name of the item to the limit.

(Some years back we had a happy family meal with our 90-plus year old aunt at one of “superstar” chef Bradley Ogden’s restaurants. Auntie reveled in the whole thing, giggling like a schoolgirl as the waiter described the ranch from which her Veal Chop was sourced. Dessert time rolled around and the chef presented us with an extra dessert, Fresh Citrus Agar. As we dug in, we all had the same reaction: “Oh! Lemon Jello!” Yes, we are a sophisticated bunch.)

But I digress from my digression. The point is that I can do whatever I darn well please with my berries and crust, and still call it a pie or tart.

I checked my freezer and found some Pâte Sucré waiting for an assignment. (Doesn’t everyone?)

(Pâte Sucré is the slightly sweeter version of pie crust.)

When I was a waiter, I used to see the old cliché berry tarts all the time: fluted crust, frangipane filling, and berries glazed to within an inch of their lives. Delicious, yes. Berries in their natural state? No. For Memorial Day I’m stripping away some of the varnish.

I started by rolling the thawed Pâte Sucré to ¼” thick, and cutting 3” diameter round disks. Before baking I washed them with egg and sanded them with granulated sugar. As they baked briefly in the hot oven, they puffed slightly. The result is like a dryer version of puff pastry, the dryness being desirable because I’m not a fan of puff pastry, which always seems tasteless and greasy to me.

I dabbed a bit of Crème Fraiche on the cooled rounds, and plopped a few chilled blackberries on top. Other rounds got Chambord-spiked whipped cream and sliced strawberries, the latter being too plump whole to fit on the pastry. An ample sprinkling of Demerara sugar added sweetness, a bit of amber twinkle, and a soft crackle in the mouth. Three or four of these little pastries on a plate swiped with very, very soft chocolate ganache should keep everyone happy.

Now the important question: do I really have to wait an hour after eating before jumping into the inflatable pool?

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