Dark Chocolate Pots

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that you were invited to dinner at a friend’s house and you say “what can I bring?” and it ends up that you’re bringing dessert. And then let’s just say, for example, that you had bought a bag of lemons and were planning to make a lemon tart, but then the crumb crust that you put in the oven while your dear spouse is taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon starts leaking butter into the bottom of the oven and billowing smoke sending you running into the hallway with a towel to frantically wave under the fire alarm in the direction of the kitchen window that you flung open so that it doesn’t go off and wake everyone up. And then just say you are totally out of ingredients to make the crust again and your totally fed up with crusts anyway and are completely over pastry in general and don’t feel like going to the grocery store but are still on the hook for dessert in a couple of hours. What is one to do? Hypothetically, you know. Ahem.

Chocolate Cream Pots

serves 4

– 1 cup heavy cream

– 6 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)

– 2 egg yolks

– 2 tablespoons raw sugar

– 1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso

– 1 tablespoon rum

– 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

– tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

– sweetened whipped cream*

Chop the chocolate into little bits. Heat the cream in a heavy bottomed pan until it comes to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the chocolate; let the chocolate sit in the cream for a minute or two and then whisk together until dark and smooth. Beat the two egg yolks together with the sugar and then pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs to heat them up. Put the pan back over low heat and whisk the egg mixture back in. Heat until the faintest wisps of steam begin to rise, stirring the whole time; it should only take a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the coffee, rum, butter, and cayenne, whisking to melt the butter and blend everything into a silky smooth custard.

Pour the hot custard into small bowls, espresso cups, or ramekins (I used little jam jars) and allow it to cool. Because this is such a rich dessert, it only takes a small amount to satisfy; and because of this richness, it’s best not served cold, but at a softer, silkier room temperature.

Top with a generous drift of sweetened whipped cream. *I whipped the cream with sugar and a splash of rum and vanilla extract. The contrast of airy vanilla scented cream and meltingly truffle-like chocolate is heavenly.

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Banana Bread

We had a short visit this past week from Grace and her husband, one last visit before the baby is born. One of the reasons they are great guests is that they will enthusiastically eat whatever I cook. Jonathan once at so much potato leek soup at my house that he had to lie down on the floor for a little while afterward to recover. Come to think of it, that may have been when I decided he was probably a keeper. Since I’ve been tinkering around with a banana bread recipe for a while, I made a loaf of my latest version to see what they thought.

It’s not like there is a shortage of banana bread recipes. It’s just that a lot of them are too something (sweet, greasy, crumbly, dry, cakey, dense) or not enough something (banana-y usually) to suit me. I don’t want cake and I don’t want something that tastes too “health food-y.” I’ve had banana bread that is so buttery that it will leave a grease stain on a napkin. That’s not what I want. So I tinkered.

I kind of think of bananas you want to use to make your banana bread in terms of the story The Velveteen Rabbit, the premise being that if you love your velveteen rabbit enough (in the case of bananas, love = letting them sit on the counter), when it gets old and ugly and looks like garbage, it becomes a REAL rabbit (in the case of bananas, REAL = banana bread). The bananas in this picture are gorgeous compared to what you want. You want them to be brown and soft and ripe to the point when as many of the starches in the banana have turned into sugar and intense banana flavor and they have a face only a baker could love. That’s when a banana really shines. What I was trying to figure out was how much: you want enough of them so that you aren’t needing to add lots of extra sugar to sweeten the bread or more butter to keep it from being dry.

I think I’m going to keep this version. I may still tinker a little for fun; I’d like to try coconut oil instead of butter sometime. But this one gets the “Family Taste-tester’s Seal of Approval”; we ate the whole thing in two days.

Banana Bread

-2 or 3 large very ripe bananas, mashed (enough for 1 1/2 cup coarsely mashed)

– ¾ cup brown sugar

– ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, melted

-1 egg

-1 teaspoon vanilla extract

-1/2- teaspoon lemon extract

-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

– 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

-1/8 teaspoon ginger

-1 ½ cups all purpose flour (or white whole wheat)

-1 teaspoon baking soda

-1/3 cup ground flax seed

Preheat oven to 350°.

Butter and dust the inside of a loaf 9×5 inch loaf pan with flour, tapping out the extra flour.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the bananas, sugar, butter, and egg until thoroughly combined. Stir in vanilla and lemon extracts. In a separate bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together thoroughly, then fold the flour mixture into the banana mixture. Spoon the batter into the loaf pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, 45- 55 minutes. Cool before removing from the pan.

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

I am, finally, back home in New Jersey. It’s still winter here; I’d been sort of hoping it would be done with if I stayed gone long enough. But alas, it is still February. There are mountains of gray snow everywhere, mounded above my head in parking lots and roadsides. The days are shorter here and the high temperature today was supposed to be 25°F. It’s strange and sort of exotic in a way to one who is not even accustomed to many days with the low temperature of 25°. But speaking of exotic Northern climes….

When I was little, my paternal grandparents lived in upstate New York. Whenever they came to visit their grandchildren in Atlanta, they would bring gifts of apples and maple syrup and sharp cheddar cheese. I remember apples with names I had never heard, exotic and fragrant Winesaps with their coarse skin and red-veined flesh, tart/sweet crisp Empires, Northern Spy and Cortland. They favored crisp crunchy apples with balanced sweet and tangy flavor and brought bags full from the roadside stands they passed on their drive down. They also introduced me to the awesome combination of a cool slice of  apple and a sliver of creamy sharp cheddar cheese, one of the most perfect bites ever devised, in my humble opinion.

With that combination in mind, I started working on this tart a few months ago. I had the idea of a sharp cheddar short crust with a tart apple filling and combined the easy cream cheese tart crust recipe I love to make with a Southern-style cheese straw recipe to make the crust. It has the faintest kick , more like a poke really, of cayenne that just underscores the tang of cheese in the crust. It’s a tart that combines the flavors of fond nostalgia with my ideal of sweet/salty/tangy/crisp balance.

 

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

Crust-

1 stick (8 oz) butter, softened slightly and cubed

5 oz finely grated extra sharp cheddar

1 tablespoon sugar

dash cayenne pepper

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

Use the whisk attachment on a stand mixture to blend the butter and cheese, sugar and pepper, until it’s a smooth blend.

 

 

Throw in the flour. Slowly mix to combine the flour with the butter and cheese. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then speed things up until the dough starts to look like pebbles and pull together. Stop and gather the dough into a ball, kneading it a couple of times to keep it from crumbling.

 

Press the dough into the bottom of a 9 -inch tart pan. Using your fingertips, start from the center of the pan and press the dough out and up the sides as evenly as you can manage. Cover well and chill the crust in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

In order to keep the edges of the crust from slumping when I blind bake it, I put a ring of rolled up foil around the inside of the sides while it cooks. Blind bake for about 20 minutes at 325°.

Cool a bit before putting in the apple filling; it will help keep the crust from getting soggy.

Bump the oven temperature up to 375°.

 

Filling:

3-4 sweet/tart baking apples, peeled and thinly sliced

(save the peel and core)

2 tablespoons  apple cider vinegar

¼ cup sugar ( I used turbinado, but white or brown is fine)

1 tablespoon butter

Arrange the apple slices in the crust in an arrangement that pleases you; I did a sort of homage to the spiral tarte tatin arrangement, but in my typically disheveled fashion. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until the apples are crisp-tender.

Meanwhile, simmer the cider with the apple peels and sugar until the peels are soft. Strain the peels out through a fine mesh strainer. Whisk the butter into the syrup . Brush the syrup generously over the top of the apples.

Easy Peasy Key Lime Squeezy

We’re celebrating a birthday at our house this week. The tough thing about a December birthday is the tendency for it to get swallowed alive by the greater holiday season. People are busy, headed out-of-town, shopping, going to Christmas parties. I really try to maintain its individual specialness by not using Christmas wrapping paper for presents, not doing Christmasy stuff on the actual birthday and not fobbing off Christmas baking as birthday cake. The birthday boy likes pie, so pie is what he gets.

 

 

This year, I took about 20 minutes out of my busy schedule to make what may be the best bang for your buck homemade dessert ever- Key lime pie. I have told people how to make it before and gotten “Seriously? That’s it?” in response. Yes, seriously. It is a crumb crust and three ingredients, baked for about 15 minutes and that’s it. If you want to get really fancy, you can make the crust yourself,  but don’t even think about squeezing the limes, or you are on your own as far as I’m concerned.

 

Key Lime Pie

1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)

1/2 cup bottled Key Lime juice

3 egg yolks

1 Graham cracker crumb crust

 

Preheat the oven to 350. Blend the first three ingredients with a whisk or electric mixer until smooth. Pour into the crust and bake for 12-15 minutes until it has a softly set, slightly jiggly center. Cool. A snowdrift of whipped cream would also be lovely dolloped on top.

 

 

See? Tangy, custardy, creamy, and easy peasy!

 

I’m adding, for those of you who might want to make you own crust, and in keeping with the three ingredient limit on this post, a recipe for a crumb crust.

Crumb Crust

1-9 inch crust

about 1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs, like graham crackers, gingersnaps, or vanilla wafers

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup white sugar

Mix the three ingredients together, thoroughly combining to make sure the butter is all mixed in. Pour the crumbs into your pie plate and firmly press them into the bottom and sides to cover it evenly. I use the bottom of a glass or another pie plate to get a smooth, even crust. Bake for 7-9 minutes at 350˚.

Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.

When life hands you lemons: Sweet Milk Scones with Candied Orange Peel

Every cook goes through slumps; meals that should have been spectacular are insipid, the weather sets the chemistry of a baked good off, the no-fail recipe is a dismal failure. All of the above happened to me this week. Venison steaks with blackberry mustard sauce, rhubarb strawberry crisp, and most spectacularly, candied orange peels, while not being inedible, we’re not what my mouth was set for when I started cooking.

So what does one do with two large baking trays of candied orange peels that just won’t dry? I’ve made candied citrus peels before. They should be tender, but not soft, the translucent color of shards of stained glass.These, not even close. More like those candy orange slices, which I realize is not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting.

But I started thinking about the cake I had heard of, a Southern recipe, that includes Orange Slices. A simpler thing to make would be candied orange scones. Scones are very similar to Southern biscuits with a hint of sweetness in the dough and usually some sort of fruit or flavoring mixed in. I found a basic sweet milk scone recipe by America’s Test Kitchen.

I incorporated about a half cup of the candied peel into the dry ingredients and formed it into a disk, cutting it into wedges before baking it instead of using a round biscuit cutter. I sprinkled some of the sugar from the peels over the top and into the oven it went.

Oh the agony of waiting! would I break my losing streak or break my teeth on a rock hard scone?

I think I did it! And the orange peel is perfect. It has subtly infused the scones with their fragrance, and are soft and chewy bursts of flavor through each bite I take. The blood orange lemon curd isn’t bad either. Perfect with a cup of black coffee.

Everyone has their off days (weeks). Sometimes it is equipment or ingredient failure. Sometimes the elements just don’t add up. Julia Child said “never apologize” and I think she has a good point. Just keep trying and looking forward to next time, when you can turn those lemons into candied orange peel scones.

Sweet Milk Scones with Candied Orange Peel

 2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tbs sugar

4 Tbs unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

3/4 cup milk

 Optional:

½ cup chopped candied orange peel

Granulated sugar to sprinkle over the top

 Preheat oven to 450F

 Whisk dry ingredients together in a large bowl until mixed. Add the cold butter pieces and use either a pastry cutter, a couple of forks, or your fingertips, mix the butter into the flour until the mixture has a pebbly texture.

 Add the candied orange peel and the milk, stirring just until the dry mixture is moistened and forms a ball, being careful not to overmix. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead 4-5 times to form a ball. Flatten the ball into a round disk and place on parchment on a baking pan, in a large cast iron skillet or on a non-stick baking sheet.

 Using a bench scraper or other blade, score the disk of dough into wedges, like the spokes of a wheel. Sprinkle the top of the scones with a light coat of granulated sugar.

 Bake for 10-12 minutes until the top is golden.