Friday, July 30, 2010

Easy Answer for "What to do with summer fruit?"

photo by Anthony Palatta


Sometimes, I just get tired of baking.  You know how it is, all that fussy measuring and sprinkling of flour, standing by the oven door, just praying not to burn any edges of a sensitive cake or delicate cookie.

When I feel that way, and I'm also in the mood for a delectable dessert, I turn to crisps. Some people call them cobblers, but I was brought up on "crisps."

This recipe is less a set of instructions than a method that can be used for any number of fruits, particularly in summer.  It was something I would make before I learned to cook, following a simple set of instructions from my mother, an apple-lover, who is famous for her apple crisps.

Begin by preheating an oven to 375, then peeling and slicing up your favorite fruit.  There happened to be some nice plums at the supermarket when I was there, so I chose 10 of those.  Put the fruit into an 8x 8 glass baking dish (or whatever you have on hand).  Cover the fruit with sugar (I used 4 teaspoons), then sprinkle liberally with cinnamon (about 1-2 teaspoons).

Next, make your topping.  My mom goes for a flour-sugar combo.  For this topping, I did 3/4 cup of flour, 3/4 cup of oats, 3/4 cup white sugar, and 3/4 brown sugar.  Plus a scant sprinkle of cinnamon.  Next I softened-melted half a stick of unsalted butter in the microwave, enough so that some of the butter was liquid, but there were still dots of solid butter left.  I mixed this in with the flour mixture until it looked like wet sand and when I pressed down on it, I had something that looked like a crust.  Pour the crust mixture over the fruit and pat it down evenly across the top.

Bake the crisp for about 30 to 40 minutes.  The fruit should be bubbling and the crust should be brown.  Hot out of the oven, the crisp leaked a small puddle of water from the plums, which I could have avoided by adding cornstarch to the filling or just waiting, because the next day, the leakage had stopped.

I like to serve a piece heated with a dollop of cool vanilla ice cream, which melts over the warm fruit and crispy, sweet topping.  I particularly liked the plum version, which has a sourness that contrasts with the sweetness of the topping.  Other great versions to try are pear (also delicious), peach-blueberry, apple, and of course my own strawberry rhubarb from several weeks back.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Luscious Lemony Love...

photo by Anthony Palatta


When I first made these cookies, my partner Anthony (the photographer) took one bite, turned to me with a moan of satisfaction, and said in a grave voice:  "You could sell these."

These lemon cream sandwich cookies are not only every lemon lover's dream, but also extremely simple to make--and I've found a way to make them even simpler.

The recipe comes from Everyday Food Magazine. (Note:  Some readers have expressed confusion about how to find recipes.  Just click on the word "recipe" above, and you'll find it.  Also, if I don't include a recipe on this site, please know it's because it's only available in print and I haven't obtained permission to reprint it here.)

Begin by creaming butter with confectioner's sugar, lemon zest, and salt.  Using confectioner's sugar rather than regular granulated in cookies, I find, produces a more delicate cookie, which also brings out the flavor of the butter.  Almost like shortbread.

At this point, I begin to diverge from the recipe by adding a drop or two of concentrated lemon oil, a product I've found at Whole Foods, which really brings out the lemon flavor of baked goods.  Lemon oil is much more powerful and not to be confused with lemon extract, which you could also use.  Start with about 1/4 teaspoon for this recipe and see how you like the taste.

My other innovation for this recipe is rather than going to the bother of rolling out the dough and cutting out shapes, I roll the dough into a log and cover it with sprinkles, then slice off circles with a shiny sugar border.  The first time I tried this with yellow sprinkles, only to find that the yellow sprinkles blend in with the dough.  For this latest version, I used purple sprinkles (the complimentary color to yellow), which are pretty, but don't have much to do with lemon.  Maybe next time I'll do a mix of green and yellow.

The cookies bake at 350.  Mine were done about 5 minutes faster than the recipe said, so take note, and don't leave those cookies unguarded in the oven!  The filling couldn't be easier:  confectioner's sugar, lemon zest, and cream cheese.  The recipe calls for 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar, but I found I needed 1 3/4 to 2 cups.  Add the sugar slowly.

There's no info about storing the cookies, but I've found they freeze just fine (even filled).  If you want to keep them on hand, and crispy, store them in the fridge, up to a week.  The longer they sit at room temperature, the softer the cookies get, which may be a plus in your world.

As for the taste, imagine a flaky buttery-lemony cookie, with a subtle crunch, paired with a rich, creamy, citrusy filling.  You might want to make these cookies small, as it's impossible to eat just one.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dressing Up Your Banana

photo by Anthony Palatta


With the exception of bananas foster, when you think banana-themed desserts, you tend to think of informal comfort food:   banana pudding, banana splits, banana muffins frozen bananas on a stick.

What I love about this recipe for banana-almond tart, from 500 Pies, (ps. 62 and 78) is that it dresses up the often homey banana, making it the kind of showcase dessert for the most formal of meals.

This recipe begins with an almond crust:  butter, flour, ground almonds, a pinch of salt, an egg yolk mixed with a tablespoon or two of cold water.  Mix them all, but not too well.  As with any crust, you want little blobs of butter to remain in your dough.  One thing I learned was not to grind the almonds too finely, or their natural oils come out and moisten the dough.

After chilling the dough for at least half an hour, preheat your oven to 375 and try to get the dough into a 10-inch tart pan.  Mine was too sticky to roll out, so I finally just gave up and pressed it in, which turned out just fine.  Bake the crust "blind" for 15 minutes (meaning covered with parchment or greased tin foil weighted down by beans or pie weights), then remove the covering and bake it an additional 10 minutes until it's golden-brown and firm.  Set it on a rack to cool.

While it's cooling you can make the filling:  ground blanched almonds with sugar, a bit of flour, softened butter, an egg, and some vanilla.  (See the book for exact measurements.  This recipe plus the grasshopper pie recipe make the book a fantastic resource, well worth the investment.)  Mix and chill until ready.

After spreading the almond filling in the cooled pie shell, slice up your bananas.  The book didn't specify whether to cut the bananas into coins or long planks.  I decided to go for planks to achieve a pinwheel effect.  I recommend using younger bananas if you're concerned about looks—older ones turn brown in the oven—or slightly more mature bananas if you're interested in sweetness.  I went for sweetness.  You can see the result in the picture.

Bake the filled crust at 350 for about 45 minutes.  I covered the edges of the crust with tin foil to protect them from browning.  When you take the tart out of the oven, there may be a bit of moisture in the center from the bananas, but don't worry about it.  Focus on the almond filling, which should be puffy and light golden brown.

Dust with confectioner's sugar and sprinkle with sliced almonds, then amaze your friends at dinner, then have the leftovers for breakfast.  The cookbook mentions that the tart goes particularly well with a cup of cafe au lait. I say an even better option is a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tiramisu Without Coffee--Heresy?

photo by Anthony Palatta


When I tell my Italian friends that I make tiramisu without coffee, they look at me as if I've suggested making brownies without chocolate, or replacing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with scratch and sniff stickers.

"Then it's not tiramisu," they say.

Despite their outrage at my defilement of a classic dessert, it turns out tiramisu is not a traditional staple of Italian cuisine.  In fact, it only dates back a few decades, probably to the 1970s.

So why not play with it?

True, losing the coffee makes a mockery of the reference to caffeine in the dessert's name, which in Italian means literally "pick me up."

But that's a small sacrifice to me for a couple of reasons. First, because I don't really like coffee.  Second, because when I ditch the coffee, I get to replace it with flavors like lemon or chocolate, as in this easy-to-make, unbelievably creamy and rich double-chocolate tiramisu recipe from Everyday Food.

One of the things I like about this recipe is that it replaces the more expensive marscapone cheese with ordinary cream cheese (full-fat, of course).  Besides the economic benefit, I actually prefer cream cheese for this recipe because its mild yet rich flavor compliments this recipe's rich chocolate base.  The deep tang of marscapone would prove too distracting.

Also, the use of whipped heavy cream obviates the need for bothering with the laborious process of whisking egg yolks and whites as you would in most tiramisu recipes.

No, this is not a "traditional" tiramisu recipe.  It's easier, and better.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bananas for Cupcakes

photo by Anthony Palatta


There's a difference between a banana cupcake and a banana muffin.

That's one of the things I learned from a cupcake class I took at Butter Lane, a cupcake bakery near my home in the East Village.

Butter Lane is famous for having three types of cupcakes (chocolate, vanilla, and banana), which you can mix and match with their bewildering array of frostings.  In the course I took, I learned to make all three base cupcakes, as well as a few frostings to go with them.

All the cupcakes are quite good (though I will say that I still find Sugar Sweet Sunshine to be the best cupcake in NYC), however, their banana cupcake is something special.

The secret to the recipe, as my instructor told me, is to puree the bananas until they're as smooth as cream, with an immersion blender if you have one.  You don't want chunks of banana, as you might in a coarser banana bread or muffin.  This is cupcake time.

The rest is pretty straightforward.  Make sure to use a good quality buttermilk.  If you're in New York, Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market carries the best I've tried.

Banana Cupcakes from Butter Lane
(adapted from a version published in Glamour Magazine)

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick butter, room temperature (Leave it out for an hour, but not much more.  You don't want your butter to turn into mush.)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 cups pureed bananas (about 3 bananas)

Preheat oven to 350.  Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixer.  Add eggs one by one, just until incorporated, then add vanilla.  Whisk together all dry ingredients in a bowl, then add alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture.  Fold in the banana puree.  Line two cupcake tins (with 12 cups) with cupcake liners.  Fill each 2/3 full.  Bake for 10 minutes, rotate, then bake an additional 8-10 minutes.

Frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting.

Makes about 2 dozen.