Archive for the ‘Fresh Berries’ Category

Is that sand between my toes or are you happy to see me?

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana Walnut Bread

I’ve decided to build an iPhone app that will help people answer the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The twist—the gimmick—will be that you can’t write a word until Summer has receded into memory, your flip-flops have been thrown under the bed for the winter, and you can’t leave the toasty warmth of your kitchen without wearing something made of wool.  Yes, friends, this will be “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Summer Scrap Booking.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this…eventually.

Following that general timeline, I’m just getting around to jotting down a few poetic thoughts about what came out of my kitchen during the warm weather. Hint: I could fit these thoughts on a cheap postcard of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Why Ocean Grove?  It’s a really nice summer place, but I’m scared to go there because John Quinones and the crew from ABC’S “What Would You Do?” keep popping up, documenting people’s bad behavior. Hey, I’m an angel, but with the wrong editing I may come off badly. And as Nora Ephron said, “Lighting is everything.”

But I digress…

The kitchen of my expansive New York City apartment (with views of Central Park, the Hudson AND East Rivers—framed) gets very hot during the summer. I find it interesting that something grown in tropical climates, the common household Banana, cannot survive a 90-degree New York City apartment kitchen without becoming the botanical equivalent of road kill.  Yet, stored in the refrigerator they begin to resemble the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Predictably, I gave in to the common solution of using dying bananas to make Banana Walnut Bread.  I used the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s version of “The New York Times Cookbook” which dates back to 1961.  As with most things from that era, it has a bit more charm (hello), although this is due to Claiborne having called it, “Banana Tea Bread”.  That name conjures up the vibe of a different era, but I don’t own a tea service or a doily, so this Banana Walnut Bread—with canola oil replacing the recipe’s shortening—was purely a weekend snack.  Toasted, then topped with a little cream cheese, it also made a really good high carb pre-workout breakfast. (I make no claims about this being health food, but it certainly is wholesome.) Using Canola Oil means you can eat it straight from the fridge without it being like a big, cold, brick, but toasting it brings out its earth tones.

Pumpkin Blondies

Pumpkin Blondies

A few weeks ago, one of my treasured yoga teachers, Kyle Miller, decamped to Los Angeles.  All of my teachers are amazing, but yoga seems to waft from Kyle’s pores like the scent of patchouli from a burning incense stick.  I started practicing yoga at a fairly late stage in life, and am about as flexible and graceful as a “two by four”, so I consider myself lucky to have had someone as skilled, enthusiastic, and spiritual as Kyle to get me enthusiastic about returning to the mat.  Kyle has teamed up with some colleagues to start a business called Yoga for Bad People.  I hope someday she’ll return to New York and start “Yoga for Good People who are Bad at Yoga”.  I’ll be there.

Kyle’s final New York class was a packed, emotional (and sweaty) treat to attend. She is beloved. My Bon Voyage gift to her was a short stack of Pumpkin Blondies. I was hoping that the pumpkin and maple flavors would give her a little taste of the Northeast to savor in Sunny LA.  These were based on a simple Blondie recipe I found on line; the pumpkin, maple syrup, and chocolate chunks were my addition. (I struggle when it comes to making things without chocolate. The Banana Walnut Bread mentioned above almost succumbed.)

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

This past summer I found myself craving the delicate richness of home-made ice cream…often.  Perhaps too often. My excuse was that I was experimenting with using the same base to make different flavors.  Really. It was for the greater good. My favorite flavor remains Peppermint Stick. I tried adding chocolate to it, but the chocolate gets too cold, which blunts its flavor. I had better results adding finely chopped chocolate to the top of the scooped ice cream.

To accompany one particularly silky batch of Vanilla Bean, I made very simple, little Berry Crisps.  These make suitable baking subjects during the hot weather because the berries are (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and because you can throw them in the oven and retreat to the air conditioning while they bake.  The zaftig smoothness of the ice cream cuts the spiky, almost vinegary sweetness of the berries.  And the cold / hot “thing” is my second most favorite food juxtaposition, after “salty / sweet”.  So, there may have been the odd salted pistachio in the crumb topping.

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Strawberry Ricotta Ice Cream

Strawberry Ricotta Ice Cream

Southerners have a way of speaking that is infinitely more colorful than us folks up north. I’m not talking about the ubiquitous use of “y’all” which I gather has as many rules as a French pronoun. A Serbian woman who speaks five languages and taught French language classes in Alabama explained the proper use of “y’all” to me.

What I’m talking about are expressions like, “he ran as fast as a bobcat with a burr under his tail.” I once worked with a guy who had a seemingly bottomless hat full of those. Unfortunately the one that stuck to me was, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hittin’(Your Noun Here)!” Example: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hittin’ a Starbucks!”

I shudder to think of the number of times I have had to fight the temptation to use those words. I believe the trick is to not think about the words too intently. It’s like cockney rhyming slang. The intent trumps the words. It makes the English language a more colorful place to live (so to speak.)

Well, lately I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Ricotta Ice Cream. Actually, not the ice cream itself, but recipes, stories on TV, and magazine covers. I was, at first skeptical—a healthy skepticism, I might add, based on real-life experience.

Greek yogurt has taken off like a dog after a shiny hubcap. (I made that one up. How’d y’all think I did?) During the past few years Greek yogurt has grown from a niche product to a dairy aisle staple. My preferred brand, Fage, no longer imports the stuff, they now make it here, and have done for quite some time.

This summer Ben and Jerry’s has gotten into the act by introducing a range of frozen Greek yogurt. I tried a couple of them and found them like eatin’ a mouth full wet cheese. The latter was not me making another attempt at the Southern idiom. That’s what it tasted like to me: an odd, mildly sour cheesiness. Frozen Kefir? Same.

So, perhaps you can see why I might be a bit hesitant about Ricotta, which, to damn it further, is often called Ricotta cheese.

Yet, like any responsible adult I must step back a moment and survey the playing field. Cheese isn’t necessarily a bad thing in desserts, is it? There’s Cheesecake, yes? I’ve been eating ricotta-filled Cannoli all my life. So in spite of my skepticism, I decided to jump into the ricotta pool. Or at least make some Ricotta ice cream.

At first I was tempted to make a frozen version of the classic chocolate chip-studded Cannoli filling. But then I happened to find some beautiful strawberries and thought they might pair well with the ricotta (like cheesecake with strawberry topping.) (They also make the photograph above much prettier than if I’d used chocolate chips.) There’s also the issue of temperature: I find the freezer tends to blunt the flavor of chocolate chips, and also makes them too hard for my fragile little teeth. (I could start a blog called “Adventures in Adult Orthodontia – or— My Life on Gas” but will resist the urge. For now.)

So the pretty red strawberries were elected.

Throwing fresh fruit into ice cream can be as tricky as going ‘round your elbow to get to your thumb. (Mark Twain would have loved that one.) If you cook the fruit you run the risk of losing its bright color, and it can also become unrecognizable. The plus side to cooking the fruit is that by adding enough sugar you can ensure that it doesn’t freeze to the “hard rock” stage. (The more sugar you add, the less something will freeze.)

My compromise was to macerate the sliced berries in a healthy amount of vanilla sugar. If you let them sit long enough like this you can soften the berries, preserve the bright color, and hopefully have them absorb enough sugar so that they won’t freeze rock hard.

I also thought it might be interesting to experiment with part-skim ricotta. I can never tell the difference between regular and part-skim in other cooking, so why not try that trick here? While I was at it I figured I’d go for broke and substitute half and half for heavy cream too. (I know. Aren’t I dangerous?)

The result was perhaps not as silky smooth as cooked custard ice cream, but it had a very nice light quality. The ricotta taste was definitely there, but the generous shot of vanilla in the recipe seemed to be magnified by it, and there was a tangy yogurt character without the odd cheese smell.

This makes a nice, quick alternative to the slow custard ice cream, and is lower in fat due to the part-skim yogurt and half and half. Yippee!

And it’ll keep you cooler than an Eskimo in an air conditioned igloo.


Click here for my Ricotta Ice Cream recipe.


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I dunno. Surprise me.

Pavlova Sweet Heart

Pavlova Sweet Heart

If certain magazines are to be believed, true love is only an exercise / diet / new outfit / new attitude / new rule away. Yes, it’s that easy.

As I am a skeptic, I question whether love can be found by following someone else’s template, like learning to salsa by using one of those old home dance lessons where you put the footprints on the floor and followed them by number. Where’s the magic? Where’s the chemistry?

I know couples for whom love came in the blink of an eye. The late playwright Arthur Laurents agreed that it’s all about the dance, that look in the eye. “Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow you’ll know…” was Oscar Hammerstein’s version, and depending on the singer, it has the breeze of truth.

Every February we celebrate love, or at least toast its possibility, by eating chocolate, drinking champagne, and sneezing over roses. I am on the fence with this one. Every year I see the line flowing out the door onto the sidewalk as the clerks at the Godiva store near me struggle to keep up with the desperate hordes. Every year I cannot decide whether I think that kind of predictable, clichéd behavior is really fun, or tragically lacking in imagination. That must mean it’s both, yes?

Here’s one side: some folks want—expect—to get that stuff on Valentine’s Day. To deviate from that checklist would be a cardinal sin. On the other side are the folks who couldn’t care less. For them the real hearts and flowers derive from using your imagination. “I dunno. Surprise me,” would be their credo. Who can say which is right and which is wrong?

Me? I dunno. Surprise me. Let nature take its course. As long as there’s chocolate involved I’m good.  I thought of that the other day while at the supermarket. Winter is not traditionally a fertile time for fruits and vegetables. Our bounty of year-round fruits and vegetables really only dates back to the beginning of the jet age. Berries used to be only a summertime treat. Now you can get strawberries in February from South America or Florida. Personally, I think Strawberries are often overlooked on Valentine’s Day—not forgotten mind you, just pushed to the bottom of the list.

Yes I know Godiva comes in the pretty gold ballotin, and a rose is a rose is a rose, but to me strawberries are like Gisele Bündchen. You can dress them in anything and they look amazing. Think about it. Put them in a brown paper bag and they retain the berry version of great cheekbones.

Dress them in something special and oo-la-la. Valentine’s Day is a special occasion, so Gisele had better throw on more than just a pair of blue jeans.

I’m not sure why Pavlovas aren’t as popular in the US as they are elsewhere—especially on Valentine’s Day. There’s something unexpectedly luxurious about Pavlovas—including the fact that the dessert was created as a tribute to a Russian ballerina during one of her world tours in Australia or New Zealand.

Essentially a big meringue topped with fruit, when executed just so, Pavlova has a rather ethereal appearance, mimicking the dancer’s tulle skirts. Where most people expect meringue to crunch away into powdery oblivion after a couple of bites, Pavlova stays gooey in the middle.

For Valentine’s Day I made the usually round or freeform Pavlova into a heart, by piping the meringue, but that is purely formality; shaping with a spoon will do the same duty, without the formality. If you’re ambitious but not feeling dexterous or confident with the piping bag, feel free to make a square basket.

After baking, I dipped the bottom of the Pavlova in chocolate then filled it with fruit, and dusted it with a puff of confectioner’s sugar. I used Star Fruit to give my big strawberries a color counterpoint, but use what looks good to you. An extra swoop or two of chocolate (made by sweeping melted chocolate on parchment paper, letting it set, then peeling it off) serves as anxiously amorous punctuation.

Or there’s always a box of Russell Stover from Duane Reade. I meant it when I said, “If there’s chocolate I’m good.”


You can use the same meringue recipe I used to make Halloween ghosts to make these Valentine’s Day Pavlovas.


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Bowl And Spoon

Blueberry Crunch Cake

Blueberry Crunch Cake

It often occurs to me that if I weren’t in the kitchen cooking or baking I would likely be fixing (okay, breaking) something mechanical. I’ve always been like that. Always fiddling with something, pushing its buttons, seeing how it works. I’m a “Popular Science” man in a “Bon Appétit” world. Truth is though, having watched chefs at close range I realize that the best of them are just gearheads in white coats. While they have huge respect for craft and technique, they also love trying out a new toy. Crème brulee blow torch anyone? (Don’t forget your safety goggles.)

It is only natural to become a bit reliant on these toys. When was the last time you didn’t plug in a toaster to make toast? Not the same thing, you say. Really?

I’m not being judgmental but merely pointing out that it is human nature to constantly seek out the right tool for any job. The Williams-Sonoma catalogue plays right to that strain of DNA. Sure, you could hammer that nail with the heel of your shoe, but why would you when there’s a great invention called a hammer? Granted, hammering with your shoe has its advantages, not the least of which is storage. When you’re done hammering you simply put the tool away by putting it back on your foot.

Hey. I think we’ve got a great idea for a new “as seen on TV” item here. The Shammer? The Shoemmer? We’ll work on it. Surely we can do better than “Pajama Jeans.”

I am the first to admit that I may have an over reliance on my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. If I could drive it like a car I probably would. I make no apologies for this; it is built like a Sherman tank and I have no doubt that even New York City cabbies would veer out of my way if they saw me driving around the city in it.

This, of course, begs the question: if my Kitchen Aid were somehow incapacitated could I still bake something decent? An even better question is: in a city full of folks just starting out, who have varying amounts of limited time, kitchen space, and equipment, can some decent scratch baking get done?

If you don’t live in Manhattan you may not realize some of the great oddities of everyday life here (I’m talking about the stuff that doesn’t get aired on Eyewitness News.) We live without things that people elsewhere take for granted. I know plenty of folks here who don’t have a real kitchen. Instead they have a couple of burners, and a below the counter fridge. They may have supplemented this with a toaster oven and perhaps a microwave. Almost none of us have a washer and dryer in our apartment, even in the fanciest of buildings. (This is the reason I hate doing laundry.)

Carrie Bradshaw may have been as hooked on her couture as I am on my All-Clad, but you never saw her lugging her dirty La Perlas and a jug of Tide down to the Laundromat. A glaring omission.

Cooking-wise, this reminds me of one of my great “pet –peeves.” My admiration for Ina Garten or Martha Stewart aside, the thing you never, ever see on TV cooking shows is the clean up. You think when the director yells, “Cut!” at the end of a taping that Martha rolls up her sleeves and starts washing the dishes? Uh-uh. That’s what the interns are for.

(Now THAT’S an idea for a TV show: “Battle of the Network Dishwashers.” Sorry folks. I’m keeping that one for myself.)

(That’s not to say that Martha can’t wash dishes. Something tells me that she can do it better, faster, and more efficiently than you and me put together. No I’m not scared of her. Much.)

I may be overly reliant on my Kitchen Aid, but I wasn’t born with it in my hands. Give me a big bowl and a wooden spoon. I’ll still get the job done. My mission? A small vocabulary of recipes that can be made in any kitchen with only the most basic ingredients and equipment. The payoff? Wholesome baking, from scratch, that you would be proud to share with friends, office-mates, family, or someone special (cue saxophone.)

Please don’t be turned off by the word “wholesome.” I don’t mean Donny Osmond (yeah, yeah, I know, “What’s wrong with Donny Osmond?” Nothing.) I mean good food, with healthy, recognizable ingredients. Wholesome. The other payoff is that limiting the equipment makes clean up easier and faster. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never use a mixer in this set of recipes, but if I do, you can use the hand-held kind. (A cheap, easily stored investment.)

For me, the downside of limiting ingredients is that there may be times when you lose a bit of complexity in the flavors. If that’s the case, I’ll mention a few options that you can add if you are feeling ambitious. There are a few expectations: you must have a big bowl, measuring spoons, measuring cups, and baking pans that fit your oven. That’s the price of admission. Oh, and that bowl? I prefer glass, but stainless steel is fine too, and get one bigger than you ever think you’ll use. You can also serve salad from it, or store other bowls in it. Mine is (I think) 6 to 8 quarts.  (Here’s a good example.) Why the fuss over the size of the bowl? Because to me there is nothing more aggravating than trying to stir something in a bowl and having it overflow. A big bowl means you can stir with abandon.

Every few weeks or so I’ll add to this list of recipes. This week’s recipe has an added bonus: it is actually three recipes, all from the same ingredients, with slight variations in the preparation.

With local blueberries so abundant during this time of year, I decided to start with a Basic Blueberry Crunch Cake. If you choose, you can use the same recipe to make muffins, but I prefer the cake, and you should feel free to serve it straight from the pan. The crunch topping is a very basic streusel, but with less butter, so the topping is looser. The cake is yummy, but I would have preferred the spiciness of some cinnamon, and maybe the springiness of a scraping or two of lemon zest. Twice the prescribed amount of vanilla extract wouldn’t be a bad change either. If you’re feeling ambitious, add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to the crunch topping, and a teaspoon of lemon zest to the cake batter when you’re mixing the sugar into the egg.

Besides the cake and muffins, you can use the same recipe to make blueberry pancakes.

By the way: I’ve already cheated. I used a rubber scraper to transfer the batter from the bowl to the cake pan. I could have used my hand, I guess, but c’mon.

Next mission: to see if I can get my Kitchen Aid to do my laundry.


Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.


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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?


Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart


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American (as Apple Pie)

Berry Cobblers

Cobbler...slump...or grunt?

Politicians love to speculate what our nation’s forefathers would have thought of whatever policy they are advocating.

This thinking is usually lost on me. I’d rather know what they would choose from the dessert menu. I’d rather speculate whether or not Thomas Jefferson would have liked Jell-o.

I can’t help but wonder what Messrs. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were eating during the hot, muggy Philadelphia days that led up to July 4th. I can say with some confidence that during the long hours it took for him to write the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t eating Domino’s.

John Adams was a Harvard grad and a lawyer, but he was also a farmer. Abigail (Mrs. Adams to you) likely served what was fresh and in season, straight from their own fields. There was no choice: the only place she would have found an Israeli tomato was in Jerusalem. While championing the use of locally grown farm ingredients may have made Alice Waters seem like a revolutionary in the 1980s, what she really was doing was recapturing a time before fruits and vegetables were flown in from elsewhere. Folks lived off the land and bought what was grown locally; this also shaped their menu. It is only in our time that the new-fangled jet airplane has made food from around the world available in your neighborhood supermarket.

Some popular desserts in revolutionary times were cobblers, pan dowdies, and stewed fruit desserts called grunts or slumps. Supposedly the latter were called grunts because of the noise they made while cooking. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound promising, but these desserts were likely borne from a combination of the available technology (the kitchen stove = the hearth) and the available ingredients.

Just what you wanted: a history of the Revolutionary War as told through the dessert menu. My high school history teacher would be so proud. I finally got something right.

I know that the thought of a hot dessert on a hot summer night seems out of place. I won’t apologize. Fresh berries are bouncing off the shelves right now, and yes, they’re wonderful in a bowl with a little sugar and a dollop of cream. But there’s a problem with cold desserts: there’s no aroma to make your home smell like, well, home.

It’s not by accident that one of the oldest tricks up the sleeve of any Real Estate agent worth her salt is to bake apples and cinnamon in the oven when they’re having an open house. They’re not after a low-fat dessert, they’re after a sale. They can “stage” a house with fancy furniture and knick-knacks, but if the place smells like poopie it’s “No Sale.”

That tasty concept aside, I was also thinking that summer is the season when people take time to entertain friends. Perhaps they have a house near the beach which is the target of many a weekend trek by friends and family. For folks who live the other nine months of the year in their little New York City apartments, this may often be the only time during the year when they get to eat “at home” with their chums at a real dining room table as opposed to having everyone perched on the sofa.

The desserts in the picture above are like a colonial cobbler or a slump. I lightened them up a bit by substituting a very light cake batter for the usual biscuit dough topping. The cake batter makes the dessert lighter for summer, and is easier to prepare. I used my Kitchen Aid, but a bowl and wooden spoon will do you fine. You can bake these for varying lengths of time depending on how “puddingy” you want them. The longer you bake them the cakier the top becomes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to present your visiting chums with four different versions of the same dessert? Sounds ambitious, yes? Is it ambitious? No.

I’m still kicking myself. In my shopping haste I grabbed only blueberries and raspberries. My repeat performance will show me grabbing the blueberries and raspberries, but also the blackberries, strawberries, and maybe a summer stone fruit like a peach or nectarine. Each item will get its own little dessert.

The dishes are little 4 ¾’’porcelain crème brulee dishes; at about four bucks a pop they’ll hardly break the bank, and I can also use them for nuts and other snacks. (Ummmm, and crème brulee too.)

Assembling the dessert is easy: tumble the berries or cut fruit into the dishes, top with the batter. Bake. A touch of ice cream and some serving spoons are all you need. You don’t have to wait for the beach or the backyard barbecue for this: it also makes a great “coffee table” dessert. (Be careful though. Blueberries and rugs don’t mix well.)

While this isn’t strictly a cobbler or a grunt / slump, I’m calling it a slump. It’s a dessert name you don’t hear anymore, and has a free history lesson attached.

If you prefer, stick a feather in your hat and call it macaroni.


Click here for my recipe for Berry Slump


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Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick


Is this dessert...or breakfast? Yes.

I have nothing against gimmicks, especially when they involve food. That’s the good news. The bad news—if you can call it that—is that I may be about to insult someone by calling fondue a gimmick. Does acknowledging that this is just my opinion take the sting off that statement?

I actually like fondue, especially the chocolate variety. I also happily admit that I may be practicing a bit of food snobbery. So sue me. As much fun as fondue can be to eat, the preparation is too easy. Cut up some chocolate (or cheese) (or both), slice some fruit, or cake, or bread, and light a match. Done. I like a bit more of a challenge even if the end result lacks polish. But that’s me.

Up until a few years ago fondue was considered a relic of postwar foodies, or at the very least, a culinary tourist trap for folks visiting Switzerland. Suddenly it was back, rediscovered by gen-x’ers the way they rediscovered the Lava Lamps downstairs at Urban Outfitters. Granted a lot of this has to do with the fact that fondue is so easy to prepare that even a kitchen-less dorm dweller can make it.

As I said, I like something that requires a bit more skill. I don’t want to make food that requires a bit of skill just so I can show off. Like so many home cooks I also want to learn new tricks and techniques. Even if the end result isn’t very good I can still eat it, or in the case of disaster, throw it away. (How many folks have had…uh… “trouble” baking a pie and ended up calling it a “crumble” instead? Yeah, I’m on to your tricks.)

Recently my Baby Niece (“BN”), an angelic, attractive, fashionable fashionista (and gen-x’er), planned a casual family meal. She texted me a request for crepes as dessert – she was having a craving for them paired with some fresh fruit and Nutella. And speaking of gimmicks…

Crepes were huge in the 60’s and 70’s. Flaming Crêpes Suzette was synonymous with fine dining dessert for the first three quarters of the twentieth century. The latter part of that period showed the rise and fall of American chain-crêperies like “La Crêpe” and “The Magic Pan.” Remember those names? If you are a certain age chances are you were towed to one of those early theme restaurants by your parents.

We’ve all heard of Crêpes Suzette but many folks are a bit vague about what this fussy dessert was all about. The gimmick was simple: get a sauté pan, throw in a few thin pancakes and some sugar, pour in some highly alcoholic, therefore extremely flammable orange-flavored liqueur, light a match, stand back and pray you won’t singe your eyebrows. The result—hopefully—was that the flame would caramelize the sugar, and burn off the alcohol, leaving a delicately-sweetened orange-scented pancake. Naturally results varied according to the skill level of the “garçon” waiting on you.

“La Crêpe” and “The Magic Pan” took the gimmick a step further by wrapping the complete meal in a crepe. “Seinfeld” fans may remember an episode where Kramer hired some guys he thought were Cubans to roll the crepes at “The Magic Pan.” Turned out they were Dominicans who rolled the crepes too tightly, a funny “Seinfeld-ian”riff on cigar snobbery.

Prior to BN’s request I had never made crepes, and that is what made the request perfect for me. Gimmick or not, this was a chance to learn something new. After doing a bit of research about recipes and techniques I got to work in the kitchen.

Most crepe recipes require that you refrigerate the batter for an hour before using. The usual explanation for this is that letting the batter rest allows any air bubbles evaporate. I suspect that there is more going on there: the longer you let the batter sit, the more hydrated the flour will get, the advantage being that the crepes will retain a bit of flexibility in the sauté pan, making them easier to flip.

The great mystery of crepes is their reputation for being difficult to remove from the pan; in fact most recipes recommend that you use a nonstick pan. I don’t have any nonstick pans, and didn’t want to buy one just to make crepes, so I used a plain 8” sauté pan. As an alternative to Teflon I used what we’ll call the oil painting method: I poured a bit of canola oil into a small bowl, folded a paper towel into a small square (approx 2” x 2”) and using my tongs, grabbed the folded towel, dipped it in the oil and “painted” a very thin layer of oil in the warm pan. I then ladled slightly less than ¼ cup of the batter in the pan before swirling it around to cover the bottom. The crepes cook very quickly (less than a minute for the first side, even shorter for the second side) and I quickly developed an assembly line rhythm (“oil, ladle, swirl, flip”) that produced about twenty crepes in about twenty minutes.

After letting the crepes cool for a few minutes, I stacked them, wrapped them tightly, and stuck them in the freezer. A few days later: I warmed them in the oven (still wrapped) for ten minutes and they were ready for their Nutella and fruit treatment.

“BN” was delighted. I was inspired. I can see serving the crepes exactly the same way (including Nutella) for breakfast. I don’t see myself making Crêpes Suzette – I am a flame-o-phobe, especially in my small kitchen. But as gimmicks go, crepes are fairly versatile, somewhat easy, and cheap (although I did see some incredibly expensive pre-made ones at the supermarket.) They’re a great make-ahead special weekend breakfast, letting you sleep later.

That’s a gimmick I really, really like.


Click here for the recipe for Crepes.


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Back From the Beach

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake

This is one of THOSE years: the Labor Day weekend is late and the Jewish holidays are early; in fact, they commence just a couple of days after the weekend. I’m no sooner rinsing the beach sand from my feet when I have to start thinking about dessert for the family Rosh Hashanah dinner — my yearly assignment. Luckily I have had a little something stored in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

When I wrote about blueberries a few weeks ago I mentioned — almost in passing — the famous blueberry muffins from Boston’s beloved but now dearly departed Jordan Marsh department store. I haven’t been able to get those off my mind. When you have an itch you’re not supposed to scratch it, but I’m only human: I can’t resist.

On paper the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is an unlikely star: oversized, sugar-crusted, less muffin than cake, and perhaps even a bit on the dry side, although the better for dunking because of it.

(Does anyone still dunk? Never my cup of tea — pardon the pun — dunking was best demonstrated by Clark Gable in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Yeah, they still call them “Dunkin’ Donuts” but I don’t think anyone still does. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

Ask any Bostonian, current or former, about the Jordan Marsh muffin and you will likely get some kind of fond memories recalled about Aunties or Grandmothers bringing them on visits, not to mention quick side trips to “Jawdin’s” bakery counter whilst in the store on other business. While muffins are usually reserved for breakfast or Hollywood gift giving (muffin baskets are big business out there), we were never shy about occasionally eating the Jordan Marsh muffins for dessert.

Like dunking, the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is no doubt the product of a different age. For a big chunk of the mid-twentieth century, the big department stores always had in-house bakeries. Granted many, including Macy’s (which absorbed the Jordan Marsh chain some years ago), still do. But with rare exceptions the fare is trucked in from a vendor. The stuff they sell is hit or miss. The old time department store bakery was likely a bit more modest in scope, with muffins, cakes, cookies, and brownies (the Jordan Marsh nostalgia silver medalist) being the focus. I have a fond memory of my Mom returning home with a B. Altman’s Chocolate Cake from a trip accompanying my Dad to New York City. That was a few years ago — B. Altman’s is a library now — but I remember that big swirly-frosted cake as if it was last week. The latter will likely produce a phone call from my Mom remarking on my elephantine memory.

But I mention that cake as an illustration of the aesthetic I am trying to highlight. I can’t say for sure that everything those bakeries sold was golden, but it was good dependable stuff that didn’t try too hard.

This brings us back to blueberry muffins and an early Rosh Hashanah. I thought it might be nice to let summer influence the choice of desserts this year. They usually are tinged with the rustier flavors and colors of the fall season, like my pumpkin cake from last year. This year they’ll be bright and summery, and the aforementioned idea of serving blueberry muffins for dessert seems apt.

Two problems, or shall I say, minor roadblocks, require equally minor detours: The first is that “Jawdin’s” is gone and so are their muffins. The second is that I can’t serve muffins at a holiday dinner. Serving muffins as dessert is a cute trick best saved for another time.

Luckily, I can easily swerve around both roadblocks. Jordan Marsh may be gone, but with a bit of internet digging the real, real, recipe (as opposed to the real recipe) is not hard to find. And if I don’t want to serve muffins for dessert I can just pour the batter into a cake pan or two and serve it as a cake.

I did just that, using two five inch cake pans which gave them great height. But feel free to use one standard eight or nine inch pan.

My only real problem was my own nagging desire to bring my own twist to this recipe. Luckily a little experimentation quickly made me retreat from that idea. I thought it might be nice to serve this as a real cake, including frosting. Bad idea. I tried a simple white frosting which had the double whammy of making the whole thing too sweet while completely obliterating the blueberry flavor. Ditto a really nice lemon frosting: triple whammy. Too sweet, no blueberry, all lemon.

So, going back to basics, I decided to let the cake shine as is, in all its basic mid-century home-spun glory, kind of like an edible version of thumbing through an old copy of Life Magazine. For the holiday dinner, if I decide to gild the lily at all it will be by dabbing a bit of barely sweetened whipped cream on the plate, as much for looks as for the blueberries and cream simulation.

Bear in mind that the highlights of these muffins, the crunchy sugar crown, the thick brown crust, and the abundance of blueberries are the things that require just the slightest extra attention while mixing the batter: be sure to carefully fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula using caution to break the berries as little as possible. And the sugary, crusty crown? Just use a heavy hand with the sugar. As with any muffin, mix this relatively heavy batter as little as possible.

And if you’ve just got to make muffins, I say, “Go for it,” but be sure to fill the muffin tins almost to the top so they develop a big crunchy “crown,” Don’t use paper liners or you won’t get the trademark brown crust.

Everybody out of the water! Fall is here!


Click here for the recipe for “Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake.”


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Summer Blues

Blueberries with Mascarpone

Oh my! We are fancy, aren't we?

The other day I was walking down my street when I spied a woman sitting on her stoop, a dog parked patiently and loyally by her side. This was a scene clipped out of a Ralph Lauren magazine ad: the woman, whippet-thin, prototypically WASP-y in bearing, and her dog, a spotted Springer Spaniel-style elegant creature whose own bone structure gave his mistresses’ a run for its money.

Aside from the fact that this slice of Connecticut Hepburn-style Americana seemed so out of place in my heavily Dominican-influenced neighborhood, what drew my eye was that the woman was sitting eating a peach. Yes, a wise choice of refreshment on a stinky-hot New York City Summer afternoon, but my internal dialogue tut-tutted, “Hmph. She would be eating a peach!”

Why so judgmental? Jealousy. I have never been able to eat a peach out of hand. I find them too mealy — and that’s after I remove the fuzzy skin. I love the flavor, hate the journey. Every summer rolls around finding me determined to “find the Zen” of eating a peach out of hand, and every summer rolls away having found me unable to do so. Could it be that I have never actually had a good peach? That hardly seems likely.

I have tried grilling peaches with a bit of brown sugar, albeit with mixed results: they taste good, but they’re still mealy. (Throw enough caramelized sugar on a baseball glove and it’ll taste good too.)

I do love peach ice cream, but the peaches have been chopped into small pieces, and the mealiness is frozen, so that’s cheating. Ditto Peach Crisp: “Yum-o” to borrow a Rachael Ray-ism.

So, like two other summer activities — sun tanning and riding roller coasters — where lack of success has forced me to redirect my ambitions (a/k/a “Quit”), I think I’ll just have to shelve my peachy ambition too. (The last time I rode a roller coaster I wasn’t “right” for days. Pale, queasy — and now peach-less, that’s me.)

So what does one do when life presents you with mealy peaches? One eats blueberries. (At least that’s what I do.)

What I like about blueberries is that they are so easy going; they will happily follow you down any path. When I was a kid we used to eat them straight off the bush — talk about a fresh and easy snack — but truly, there’s not much that is easier, faster, and more satisfying than cold blueberries in a bowl with a bit of milk and a few grains of sugar.

If, however, you are looking for something with a bit more ceremony, blueberries are just the ticket, no matter what the ticket happens to be. Think of them as the culinary equivalent of the fine worsted wool fabric a bespoke tailor uses to build a suit. (Wha??)

When I was a kid, my Mom always used to find tiny Wild Maine Blueberries. Unfortunately, here in New York I can only find those bagged and frozen. She always cooked them a bit, which only magnified their natural sweetness, making them pair beautifully with the aforementioned milk.

Even better, — for me — would be to drizzle the cooked berries and their juices over a small biscuit with a touch of very softly whipped cream for an instant shortbread.

Big fat New Jersey Blueberries are currently the easiest to find in New York, so I played with those over the weekend. You can see my comic “riff” on fine dining in the picture above. Laugh with me not at me: I painted the plate with a swoop of Blueberry Coulis, carefully placed a couple of quenelles of honey-sweetened Mascarpone cheese over a ladyfinger, arranged the berries so they’d look as if they didn’t care, and then finished the whole thing with a sprinkle of pearl sugar. A ridiculous exercise. The only reason to present food like this at home is to get a laugh, even if it is your own. But it does illustrate blueberries’ innate elegance and that they are versatile enough to stand up to anything. Evidently, they’re up for a laugh every now and then too.

You wouldn’t have laughed if you had tasted my silly, deconstructed, decaffeinated Tiramisu. The gently sweetened Mascarpone didn’t mask the blueberries; rather it added a creamy underscoring that plain whipped cream doesn’t have the chops to play. The coulis added sweetness and a bit of liquid to relax the cheese. Even the pearl sugar played a subtle role by adding a light crunch. I’ll be trying this again, although in a slightly more casual form.

I haven’t forgotten Blueberry Pie, but for me that’s just a happy excuse for ice cream.

I know that Blueberries have become the “vitamin-pill food of the moment” due to their high levels of anti-oxidants, but it seems a shame to obliterate them (as many do) by throwing them into a blender to make a breakfast smoothie. Okay, if that’s what works for you, go for it.

Mentioning blueberries and breakfast together makes me think lovingly of the gigantic, sugar-crusted Blueberry Muffins that used to be sold at the in-store bakeries of the old Jordan Marsh department store chain in Massachusetts. More cake than muffin, you could frost those behemoths, stick a plastic bride and groom on top, and be ready for a wedding.

Hmmmm…Blueberry cake with white frosting…that sounds mighty tasty. I think I owe you a recipe.

Why wait for a wedding?


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Q: How do you make chocolate bark?

Cherry Cordial Tart

A: Pull its tail.

Sorry. I never met a corny joke I didn’t like. Cherries are a different story. With apologies to lovers of Cherry Pie I must reveal that I can’t abide cooked cherries. Uncooked? Yes. Love ‘em. Cooked? I’ll pass. I think it’s a texture thing, although I think it may also be a taste thing too. Straight from the refrigerator they are so cool and refreshing. Why jump through the proverbial hoop of cooking them?

With all the fresh cherries now showing up in markets everywhere I know the expectation may be for one of those lattice-topped pies to appear in this venue, but I’m afraid the lattice work will, for now, be relegated to the trellis in the garden of my imaginary Hamptons beach house.

(One can dream, yes?)

In the meantime there are fresh cherries to eat. Here’s the thing though: If I’m sitting at home alone after a long day, I have no problem eating the cherries and spitting the pits into a small dish. But if there are other folks present I become self-conscious of such behavior. Perhaps I am overly sensitive. My friends and family are a non-judgmental group and wouldn’t take offense at a bit of cherry pit removal (a/k/a spitting), yet I still think there’s a better way.

Now, I know I said I don’t like cooked cherries, but that doesn’t mean that I hang up my apron during cherry season. The desserts that follow are baked, yes, but my dirty little secret is that I add the cherries uncooked at the end. 

One obvious solution here is shortcake. We’ve been enjoying uncooked strawberries in shortcake desserts for eons, so why not extend that courtesy to cherries? But instead of making a sandwich of the fruit, whipped cream, and biscuit why not turn the whole thing on end and fill a jelly roll with slightly sweetened, kirsch-spiked whipped cream and serve sliced, pitted cherries on top? Folks who don’t like “boozy” desserts can leave out the kirsch, or substitute vanilla. You can also bake the jelly roll recipe as directed then instead of rolling it, slice it into squares and make your sandwich using that instead of the biscuit.

Don’t think that I am ignoring the cherry’s magical, symbiotic relationship with chocolate. Li-Lac Chocolates here in New York has long been famous for their Cherry Cordial chocolates. As much as I admire the fine work that goes into making an artisanal product like that, every time I bite into a Cherry Cordial I can’t help but wish that there was just chocolate and cherry but no goo in the filling.

Here’s my chance to make things – or at least cherries – the way I want them. I have married the best features of Cherry Pie to the best features Chocolate Bark (How do you make…oh sorry. I did that already.) Call it Cherry Cordial Tart.

I prebaked a bit of Pâte Sucré dough in a classic rectangular tart tin. Once the pastry cooled, I poured in a layer of gently melted good milk chocolate, then patiently lined up rows of sliced, pitted fresh cherry halves.

The gimmick is that you’re really making two desserts here. Eaten now, the lukewarm melted milk chocolate becomes like a sauce for the cherries. Eaten later, after a rest in the fridge, it becomes Cherry Chocolate Bark. (What’s amazing is how much more of it you can eat while the chocolate is still warm. It’s very smooth.) My illustration above shows a dab of whipped cream. It is totally unneeded, except to dress up the plate.

Another slightly more portable variation is to use a very simple shortbread cookie dough cut into two or three-inch rounds. Dip them in or paint them with the chocolate, and place the cherry halves on top.

As I write this, I feel compelled to run out and buy an ice cream maker (the late hour makes it unlikely that I will find a local store open. Hmmmm. The internet is still open…) What could be better than my fresh cherries swirled into home-made vanilla ice cream? I could swirl in a bit of the melted milk chocolate – the freezer doing a bit of passive labor to transform the slippery melted chocolate into chunks that would play a counter melody to the chewiness of the deeply chilled cherries.

(I’ll experiment and report back to you.)

Now that’s a dream that doesn’t have to wait until I get that Hamptons beach house.


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