Posts Tagged ‘Dessert’

My Stuff

Crunchy Peanut Butter Cookies

Crunchy Peanut Butter Cookies

I am not an appliance junkie. That does not mean that I am immune to the charms of the shiny, beautifully lit toys in the Williams-Sonoma catalogue. I find them endlessly fascinating, especially the coffee makers. But that is purely window shopping on my part. I’m strictly an analog, boil-water / pour-into-Melitta kind of guy.

This reminds me of the “My Stuff” section of the magazine “Vanity Fair” where they question successful creative types about the brands of clothes and household items they use, including underwear, toothpaste, and coffee makers. I always imagine the Luddite thud that would reverberate off the page if the “Vanity Fair” editors ever asked little ol’ me for my preferences. “Ah, Melitta. How unstylishly retro…,” they’d smirk in caffeinated superiority. “Crest? Sounds so rugged…”

If I ever start depending on an eleven-hundred dollar coffee maker for my daily brew, there had better be an exponential increase in the square footage of my bank account.  No sir, for now, I get suckered in a much lower rent district. If it’s under ten dollars I’m in. I look at it this way: if I were to buy a niche appliance for several hundred dollars, I may use it once or twice then pack it back in its box until the next time I need it. Under ten bucks? I’m less likely to feel guilty about tossing a failed experiment to save space. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not appliance averse. I just prefer workhorses like my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Yeah, I have a waffle iron, and I do use it. Once a year.

Certain smaller specialty food markets are ideal for shoppers like me because they tend to carry items rife for discovery. I’ve actually made some great discoveries this way, including Ines Rosales tortas, and Damak chocolate. This past summer I fell under the spell of Bindi Coffee Gelato. Bindi is not a new name in the freezer case, but I’d never seen their gelato in a market here in New York before. I kept telling myself that it was lower in fat than regular ice cream. So is crack. They have a lot in common.

During one of my trips in search of some Bindi crack gelato, I happened to pass the display of various brands of peanut butter.

PB2 Peanut Butter Powder

PB2 Peanut Butter Powder

I’m not sure how things catch my eye. I have a friend whose career is centered on the art and science of brand recognition. I have my own scientific approach: I have the supermarket memorized. Shopping for me is a gigantic game of “one of these things is not like the other.” In other words, the new stuff sticks out. On the trip in question it was powdered Peanut Butter that stuck out. Far from being a skeptic, my first instinct was to assume that there was some important use for this product about which I knew nothing. Therefore I simply had to buy it.

As it turns out, I am not the only one playing the “one of these things is not like the other” game. The cashier was right there with me. She gave the jar a close examination, gazed up at me and asked, “What do you do with it?” I told her I’d have to get back to her on that one.

Bringing home an item like this is not unlike adopting a new puppy from the pound. (A very quiet puppy.) You sit and stare at it for a few minutes, and wonder, “Okay, what do I do with you now?” Indeed this period of wonder extended to several months as the powder sat on my kitchen shelf until I could think of a use for it.

This is not to say that the product has no reason for being. It is perfect for folks who are on a low-fat diet but still want the flavor and protein of peanut butter. Finally, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get inspired would be to just open the bottle and taste a little bit of the powder. Good news: It tastes like peanuts. (Duh.)

But this got me thinking about it not as a peanut butter substitute but as a flavor source. When you add peanut butter to a recipe you get the moisture of the fat in the bargain. The downfall with that is that whatever you are making can end up too “loose.” Peanut butter powder has the potential of providing the opposite service: all the flavor, plus it can act as a thickener—or at least not loosen things up. Hmmm. Peanut butter frosting? Satay sauce? All good uses for this stuff.

With Halloween coming up I am test driving a few things that I will be bringing to a friend’s party. Peanut Butter Cookies seemed like a perfect old fashioned treat that kids and adults would enjoy. They can be tricky though, because sometimes they simply lack peanut flavor. So, I added a generous two tablespoons of the powder to my recipe.

The result is a bit crunchier than the usual peanut butter cookie, but that’s all for the better. The peanut butter flavor is pronounced, making these cookies as addictive (to me) as a jar of peanut butter. In fact, that’s how the cookies taste: like a sweetened, crunchy slab of peanut butter.

The basic recipe is great even without the peanut butter powder, but with it the flavor can stand up to a few chocolate chips thrown into the cookie dough.

Hey, Vanity Fair editors! How about a new section called, “My Cookies”?


Click here for the recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies.


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Mmmm: Crunchy tweeter butter…

The Joys of Applesauce

Making applesauce

Making applesauce

My odd sense of humor has reared its ugly head: “The Joys of Applesauce.” For some reason this has me laughing hysterically. It’s like a chapter from some now obscure 1950’s home ec handbook. The subject of applesauce came up the other day when I started having cravings for Apple Turnovers.

I’m not sure how or why these cravings come over me. This time it could be that my internal calendar and the one on the wall both agree that it is September. It could be that I was minding my own business the other day and stumbled upon the little greenmarket that happens every week across from Lincoln Center. Now that I walk through these greenmarkets more often, I’ve really started to notice the cyclical nature of the offerings. Like some whimsical botanical fashion show, breezy cottons (i.e., tomatoes) have moved off to the marginal tables, while woolens (i.e., apples) have taken center stage.

It may be those very apples that implanted in my mind a craving for hot apple turnovers, straight from the oven. I can practically smell them as I type this sentence. I happened to mention those cravings to a friend who reminisced that his Mom used to serve them hot, straight from the oven, courtesy of Pepperidge Farm.

As much as I crow about baking from scratch, I have to admit that I used to love those too. It’s been years since I had them, but the memories are still as warm as the spicy apples inside the flaky crust. While I’m not crazy about some of the ingredients they use, Pepperidge Farm has one big advantage over my making them from scratch: theirs turn out okay, mine #fail (as the kids write on the Twitter these days.)

Yes, I still struggle with pastry dough. I could blame it on many external factors: my kitchen is too small, my kitchen is too hot, my dog ate my homework, but I think the truth is I just need some practice. I just don’t have a feel for it yet, and in baking and cooking you cannot underestimate having a feel for certain things. I’ve watched any number of folks on TV rolling out seamless, smooth, gigantic sheets of pastry dough that never stick. My pastry dough practices the unholy trinity of crack, crumble, and stick. (Sounds like a bad law firm.)

I suspect that I am too skimpy with the amount of water I add, but specifics aside, my failed Apple Turnovers served as a reminder that I should never get too confident in the kitchen, as there’s always a recipe waiting to take me down a peg.

That’s not to say that I didn’t make Apple Turnovers. I did. There’s a joke that should go here about being able to do something with one hand tied behind my back, I’m just not sure what the joke is, other than the sight gag of seeing my Turnovers. (Gag being the operative word here.)

Yes, the dandy thing about baking is that you can eat your mistakes, and the Turnovers remain in my refrigerator daring me to do so. Sadly though, my feelings towards these failed Turnovers are like a page out of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Only one page though, as these Turnovers will never grow to be swans. (Gee, I hope they can’t read.) (Actually they weren’t bad cold the next day)

It’s not all bad news though. Unlike baking pie, when you make Turnovers you usually get the best results if you cook the fruit first. In this case it meant that I needed to make applesauce. In my mind, I somehow think of applesauce as some slow-simmered, long cooking concoction. In reality I worked for a few minutes, the apples simmered for a few minutes, and the result was an ad-libbed, layered, refreshing alternative to the applesauce you buy in jars.

Because the original purpose was to fill the Turnovers, I cut the peeled apples into rather large chunks—no baby food smoothness here. I was using four Rhode Island Greening apples, a tart, green apple, so I peeled them. If you use red apples there can be some value in leaving the skin on and letting it tint the sauce.

I also added a couple of teaspoons of sugar, the juice and zest of a lemon, a teaspoon of frozen concentrated orange juice, ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and the seeds scraped from a whole vanilla bean. It all bubbled and squeaked for eight or nine minutes.

After my pastry dough crumbled into dust, I was left with a pot of this applesauce. Rather than feeling cheated, I felt rewarded by this: the glass was half full, thank you. This chunky apple sauce makes a great quick dessert shortcut. Serve it warm over some vanilla ice cream, or topped with some buttered, sugared, breadcrumbs then baked in a small crock. (Cue the ice cream again.)

These, of course, are only some of the joys of applesauce.

Up next: “An Ode to Tapioca.”


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After dinner tweet anyone?

Fall Back: Springy Ahead

Citrus Chiffon Cake

Citrus Chiffon Cake

The couple of weeks that follow Labor Day are like a limbo. It still feels like summer, but you can sense Fall running up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. If you’re like me you slow your walking down a bit so Fall can catch up. That also means the Jewish High Holidays will soon be tapping the other shoulder, and like High Tea, it’s really all about the food. (Pardon my sacrilege.)

No matter how devout you are, chances are that at some point during the season you’ll end up with someone placing a napkin containing either a slice of Honey Cake or Sponge Cake in your hand. Honey Cake evokes both the apples and honey tradition of welcoming a sweet new year, and the European Pain d’Epice influence earned from thousands of years of the Diaspora.

On the other hand, Sponge Cake is the Jewish Wonder bread.

Ah well, I come here not to bury Sponge Cake but to make peace with it, kind of like striking up a conversation about politics with a cranky old uncle. (Good luck.)

Perhaps I am painting with too broad a brush. Perhaps it is not Sponge Cake that is the enemy, but poorly made Sponge Cake, baked way too far in advance, and wrapped tightly in plastic. (Mmmm. Sounds yummy, right?)

The Sponge Cake to which I am referring, a staple of High Holiday supermarket fare, is actually Chiffon Cake. Chiffon Cake was created by an American named Henry Baker. (Baker! I love it when peoples’ names work out like that: Tommy Tune is a musical theater performer and director. We had a relative (by marriage) named Ike Oven who was also a baker. A friend swears he knows a Dr. Doctor. By those rules my last name should be Thinksheisawriter.)

Chiffon Cake differs from Angel Food Cake or Jelly Roll sponge (biscuit) because of the addition of oil. While the oil does provide moistness, it also makes for a damp cake, and lacks the rich flavor of butter—a potential pitfall in a cake that lacks other flavorful ingredients.

Don’t blame baker Henry Baker; he didn’t intend for Chiffon Cake to be served plain. He piled it with fruit, custard, whipped cream—anything to dress it up. His Chiffon Cake was the canvas, the other stuff was the paint.

So there you go: we’re serving the canvas. No criticism from me though, because I understand why: convenience. Chiffon Cake is a “little something” traditionally served after observing a long worship in temple when the blood sugar of millions of Jews has crashed lower than yesterday’s Dow. When I was a kid you got cake and grape juice. Chiffon Cake was cheap, easily obtained, and ready for a crowd with just a few swipes of a knife. Also, kids wouldn’t get it all over their clothes.

There used to be something so essentially Jewish about cake. The comedian Jackie Mason has made it the subject of a whole routine: “It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!'”

When the comedian Rosie O’Donnell was trying to thank Barbra Streisand for being on her show she brought her cake. (Streisand was an aficionado of the late, lamented Ebbinger’s bakery chain. O’Donnell had one of the Ebbinger’s recipes recreated for the occasion.)

Mason’s riff on cake always made me think of a Sour Cream Coffee Cake my mother used to make. Even now it brings to mind cinnamon, brown sugar, and walnuts. Chiffon Cake? No.

None of this solves the issue of bad Chiffon Cake, but I would do well to mind the old adage, “One man’s feast is another man’s famine.” Translation: just because I don’t like Chiffon Cake doesn’t mean the world shares my opinion.

As a test I decided to make my own Chiffon Cake therefore putting to rest the debate about whether or not fresh, homemade Chiffon Cake makes a difference. For this little contest I held myself to one rule: it had to be baked in a loaf pan to match the format of the supermarket brands.

The supermarket brands have an indeterminate sweet, cakey flavor. I thought it might make my cake more interesting if it made a specific choice, as if it could say, “Hello, I am a Citrus Chiffon Cake.” My old trick ingredient, frozen concentrated orange juice, was nominated, as was fresh lemon zest and juice, plus a bit more vanilla extract than usually called for. No need for subtlety here as the hefty amount of eggs in the recipe tends to blunt the sharp edges of any added flavors.

The result is springy in texture, bright in flavor, but still unquestionably the High Holiday Sponge Cake I’ve come to know and be bored by. Still better than the fossilized supermarket loaf, but screaming for some ice cream and strawberry sauce.

I don’t need a holiday for that.


Click here for my Citrus Chiffon Loaf.

Also good for the High Holidays: Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake and Challah.


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Sweet tweet (complete)


Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

No special occasion needed...

Some years ago I was invited to a party at the home of a close friend. When I arrived I made the usual and expected round of “Hellos” to all the people I knew at the party. My greetings included those to one who would best be described as a friend of a friend. She extended a disinterested hand and introduced herself as one would to someone you’d never met. Polite.

Unfortunately we’d played this little charade more times than I am comfortable mentioning. I had met this individual for the “first time” enough times that I don’t have enough fingers to keep count. I was seemingly purged from her memory after each meeting like the contents of your computer’s recycle bin. No recollection at all. Yet, I knew her name, both of her husbands’ names, how many kids she had, and a vague idea of their ages.

After another friend who witnessed this scene picked her jaw up from the floor we recovered nicely and had a nice party.

The next day I called the close friend who had proffered the invitation to thank him for his hospitality and in a moment of fed up candor let fly with the opinion that his friend was a dope. (Yes, I may have used a more explicit compound word.)

He offered some weak excuses for his friend that mainly revealed an acknowledgement and acceptance of her social shortcomings…her “problem” as he called it. He’s simply not a judgmental person. Rather than feeling slighted by this, I actually ended up wishing that I could be less judgmental.

Through the years the same scenario has happened to me a couple of other times with a couple of other people. I may be getting to the age that I just don’t care anymore. Wait. No. I’m not quite there yet. It still rankles and still doesn’t answer the question: if I remember you, why don’t you remember me?

Conversely, a few years ago I was at the theater seeing an awful play. I stepped outside to the street to use my phone. After I finished my conversation I turned to head back into the theater and was stopped by a smiling man who looked at me and yelled, “Bobby!” It took a moment to register that he was talking to me because my name is not Bobby. (Never has been.)

I shrugged, “Sorry, I think you have the wrong guy” and continued into the theater. But he persisted and followed me. In the brighter light of the lobby I could see he wasn’t some unhinged homeless man on a chemically induced field trip. He was nicely dressed, clean, and looked more than a little bit insulted.

“Are you sure you’re not Bobby Smith?”

Taking refuge amongst the theater’s front-of-house staff, I avowed, “Oh, yeah” but the man remained unconvinced—skeptical perhaps that a long lost friend was either playing a joke on him, or had entered the witness protection program.

It was at this point that one of us entered “The Twilight Zone” because he asked me to prove my identity by showing him my driver’s license. Luckily the gentleman was otherwise persuaded that I was, indeed, not Bobby, and departed.

(Actually, I think in part he was intimidated by one of the tougher looking ushers who was giving him the evil eye. I wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her either.)

Tall, bald, bespectacled, and what my grandmother used to call “hamish”: here in New York we are a rather interchangeable, dime-a-dozen crowd. Legions of us swarm the city taking each other’s Bar exams, drug tests, and marriage vows when the real guy is unavoidably detained or just off fishing. Will the real Bobby Smith please stand up?

And what of my insistent pursuer of mistaken identities? One could make a few guesses about him: unacknowledged poor eyesight…unobservant…perhaps he assembles the “no fly” lists for the TSA? Poor Bobby Smith (or is it Smythe?). With friends like that…

The ironic soundtrack to this little documentary is Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable.” (Use the version where they superimposed his daughter’s voice to create a duet. It’ll be easier to cross cut the film.)

It seems to me that the world may be divided into two groups: the first group looks at you, remembers you, and files you away in the appropriate area of their cortex to be recalled at will by the human brain’s amazing face recognition system. The other, much smaller, group lacks the ability to retain this information. It is to those poor, sad, souls that we must extend a hand to help them through the lunar landscape of social interaction.

Advertising copywriters have been addressing this problem for years in perfume ads. There’s even a perfume named “Unforgettable.” This is all based on the theory that the whiff of a perfume will implant itself in the cortex along with other memories of you. If the proximity is close enough, sometimes it really does work.

Some of us just aren’t the perfume type. That’s why they invented the chocolate cupcake. While we cannot wear cupcakes, we can bring them to work or to friends. There’s no need for a special occasion—we’ll create memories nonetheless. Someone will always remember you. Just play it very cool. “Oh, those? I had a few minutes so I threw them together.”

You won’t be lying. The recipe is part of my Bowl & Spoon program. No mixer is needed, even for the ganache frosting. They mix together quickly, and to frost them you only need to dip the tops in the ganache: no frosting technique is needed. If you can dunk, you’re in.

BTW: if you know Bobby Smith tell him that some guy who looks like the actor Kevin Pollack was looking for him.


Click here for the recipe for Bowl & Spoon All-Occasion Chocolate Cupcakes.


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Aluminum. Mine.

Passsover Honey Cake Slices

Passover Honey Cake

Growing up in a Jewish home I was always made acutely aware of how important good food was—is—at any occasion. Even the post-funeral gatherings we call “sitting shiva” are excuses to pull out the good napkins. That’s why I am always mystified by my people’s willingness to put up with bad food on Passover. The excuse is always that you cannot cook with “chametz”, the umbrella word describing ingredients that are not allowed on Passover. This usually refers to anything bread or flour related, and any kind of leavening, but the actual rule bans things made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt. The only wheat product allowed is matzo and what I lovingly refer to as its derivatives: matzo that has been ground, crumbled, or otherwise processed so that it can be used in other recipes.

There is such a thing as Passover Baking Soda, which confuses me because I thought the purpose of the Passover holiday was to commemorate bread not being allowed to rise. Passover Baking Soda’s loophole? No cornstarch.

From a baker’s point of view it’s kind of like being told that you must substitute breadcrumbs for flour.

Generations of commercial kosher bakers have been putting their kids through Harvard and Yale just by selling Passover desserts to even the most unobservant Jews (hello) who have always been willing to pay for Passover-compliant cakes and cookies. Here’s the problem: a lot of it just isn’t very good, especially the supermarket brands. A lot of it is also…shall we say, “premium-priced.”

Apologies to the folks who produce the supermarket Passover stuff (and to their well-educated progeny), but a cake that has been sitting in a box for an unknown amount of time has a few strikes against it.

Is it heresy for me to complain? All I want is a good piece of cake, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I’m handy in the kitchen and have figured out a few tricks that result in desserts that aren’t just good for Passover, they’re good anytime of the year. Last year I made a Northern Italian-style Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua, a chocolate, almond, egg white torte. I actually served it before Passover to a group of non-Jewish friends who loved it, and remains one of my favorite recipes. (It is very light so perfect for summer.)

This year I decided to re-visit the Grandmother of all Jewish Holiday desserts: Honey Cake. When I was a kid with (I’m guessing) a much less discerning palate, my presence at any event could be secured with the promise of honey cake. The typical honey cake comes in a loaf, usually encased in (don’t get me started) a disposable aluminum pan. To my adult palette though, honey cake always tastes a bit syrupy, and manages to be both too dry and too sodden. Not sure how that’s possible.

Blame science. In baking, the type of flour, its grind, the kind of wheat used, and how the milled flour has been treated are some of the things that rule how a cake gelatinizes (mixes with liquid then bakes into a solid). Passover Cake meal is basically powdered Matzo and has its own rule book, but it is easy to predict that this ingredient will lend density to a cake. The usual trick has always been to lighten the cake meal in a way that imitates traditional cake flour. This is usually accomplished by adding potato starch. The results vary according to the other ingredients in the cake. In the case of honey you end up with a wet, damp cake because honey is hygroscopic: it actually pulls moisture in even when baked.

Okay, I promise: no more science. But the takeaway here is: use too much honey and you’ll have a damp, heavy cake. Too little, your cake is dry. Just the right amount and you’ll have a cake that works at staying fresh. The question is: what can you add that will give the cake a true “crumb”, texture that makes a cake feel like a cake when you take a bite?

For the answer you can thank the current popularity of macarons, the colorful French-style almond macaroons. I have been trying to learn to make them (they’re tricky) and have a bag of almond flour sitting in my refrigerator. Almond flour is just the man for the job: it will mix well with the Passover Cake Meal to make a nice crumb and is Passover-friendly on its own.

Using almond flour in cake is certainly nothing new. Europeans have been baking with it for generations. So taking a cue from a French Galette, the simple round torte, I called my Springform pan into service.

The beauty of my concept was that with the honey and almond flour I already had two very flavorful ingredients. A couple of more layers of flavor would be ideal, so I used a delicate sprinkle of orange zest, and a not so delicate dash of frozen concentrated orange juice whose character would slightly overlap the honey while adding a sunny note of its own. A little cocoa powder and vanilla extract would bring some perfumed but earthy notes to the cake.

The result has the slight chewy crumb of a galette and a delicate honeyed sweetness that some may find reminiscent of the desserts the Spanish Sephardic Jews favor.

No disposable aluminum loaf pans required…or allowed.


Click here for the recipe for Passover Honey Cake.

Click here for the recipe for Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua.


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Six Degrees of Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie


The actress Melissa Leo dropped “the “F” bomb” in her Oscar acceptance speech the other night. Personally I find this endearing and ironic. Endearing because it was a “real” moment—I place “real” in quotation marks because, let’s face it, it was an Academy Awards acceptance speech; how real could it be? It’s not like they pulled someone in off the street, stuck a statue in her hands and told her to give a speech. Nevertheless there was something genuine about the moment.

I find it ironic because she won the award for playing a rather foul-mouthed character. Or am I simply projecting a self-created veneer on this character? The movie for which she won, “The Fighter”, is a true story set in Lowell, Massachusetts, not all that far from where I grew up. I knew dozens of women like her. To be honest, I was more struck by the hair and makeup in the movie. They nailed it—that’s what those women really looked like.

Like another recent movie, “The Town”, I may have had moments where the accents let me down—the Boston accent is deceivingly difficult to do, and on film is more often done wrong than right. Pahkin ya cahr in Hahvid Yahd (trans: Parking your car in Harvard Yard) is not as easy as it seems. For that matter, I’d be willing to bet that Harvard Yard has a strict no parking policy.

While we’re on the subject of my heavily Irish-influenced home town, I’m reminded that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t far off. Pity the poor foodie on this day. Would it be terribly snarky to suggest that, food-wise, St. Patrick’s Day lacks subtlety? St. Patty’s day is usually celebrated with all things green, including beer and bagels. (I shouldn’t complain: in Chicago they tint the entire Chicago River green.) Irish Soda Bread? I did that last year. Corned Beef and Cabbage? It’s not calling my name.

Ah, but what about dessert? Some of us need a dessert that isn’t mugged and foamy after the Corned Beef and Cabbage. Don’t worry, I practice a strict “No Green Cake” policy.

First, pupils, here is this week’s history lesson. During the years I was growing up in Boston, the Ritz-Carlton was considered the city’s most luxurious hotel. That may or may not still be true, but it was the dowdier Parker House Hotel that was the backdrop against which quite a bit of history was played. The Parker House Hotel has been around in one form or another since 1847, the current building dating back to 1927. Aside from being the first Boston hotel to have hot and cold running water and an elevator, it is also where JFK announced he was running for the Senate, where he proposed to Jackie, and where he held his bachelor party. (We’ll let that last item slide.)

Authors like Edith Wharton and Stephen King wove portions of their stories through the Parker House (although in King’s short story “1408” he names the hotel “The Dolphin.”) Even more interesting is the parade of world-changers like Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X who walked its halls—as employees. (According to Wikipedia, Ho Chi Minh was a baker. Who knew?)

Naturally the most interesting part of the hotel’s history—to me—is that it is the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie, and, of course, the Parker House roll.

Boston Cream Pie is one of those old-fashioned diner desserts that we take for granted. For the uninitiated, it is not a pie, it is a cake. It is easy to take it for granted because by modern standards it is—like the Parker House was for many years—dowdy, or plain. Keep in mind that it wasn’t created to be dowdy or plain. It was created to be cutting edge; it is only the passage of time that has dulled that edge.

To make a Boston Cream Pie is to appreciate the tradition and the art that went into its creation. Let me explain it this way: making a Boston Cream Pie is like dancing an old but well choreographed ballet: it’s all about classic technique and basic steps.

In this case the basic steps are chiffon cake, pastry cream, and ganache. Don’t be fooled. While it is only three steps, you must dance each of them perfectly.

The chiffon cake may actually be the easiest. The original recipe likely used genoise, but I like the fragrant, sugary, yolkiness of a chiffon cake better. The vanilla pastry cream just requires a bit of patience and a good whisking arm, but learn to do this step well and you’ve conquered Éclair filling, and perfect, silky, pudding. Ganache requires a good eye for texture: your eyes tell you when it is ready, although there is a bit of leeway here in the definition of “ready.”

The result is like a step back into a scene from “The Age of Innocence.” Or in the case of me and my friends, an Oscar party where it earned very positive notices. The fragrant, eggy chiffon cake blends with the intense vanilla of the pastry cream (which I blended with whipped cream) to make an almost lemony sweetness. I used a whipped ganache on top, although to tell the truth, next time I’ll skip that step and drizzle warm ganache over the top. That will result in a lighter touch with a more intense chocolate hit.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Ho Chi Minh’s Boston Cream Pie was like?


Drop me a note if you want the recipes for Boston Cream Pie.


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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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