January 28, 2013

Meyer lemon tartlets

I've been craving lemon tart for months now.  Ever since I made my first last Spring, I think about it every so often.  This time, instead of a big tart, I went with mini tartlets.  I'm a big fan of things, like food, in miniature.
And I got my hands on some meyer lemons to use here.  I remembered seeing them a few months ago at Trader Joe's and hearing that they're in season, I was hoping to find them again and lucked out.  So this time around, I made meyer lemon tartlets.

I was a bit mesmerized by these meyer lemons.  I've never used them before or even gotten an up-close look at them until now.  They're smaller than your typical lemons, with a thin, bright yellow-colored skin.  They're a cross between lemons and mandarin oranges, and less tart than regular lemons.  Because of that, you can reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe when you use it.  I only used 1/3 cup of sugar to sweeten my six tartlets.  Unlike the sharp, bright smell of regular lemons, I was surprised that meyer lemons have a floral, almost pine-like, scent to them.
These meyer lemon tartlets are the individualized version of the last lemon tart I made.  I used the same press-on tart shell I've used a few times now, pressing the dough into six 4-inch tart tins like I did for the mini fruit tarts.  The lemon curd filling I used is the same as the last recipe, only using meyer lemons and with the amount of sugar dialed down to 1/3 instead of 1/2 cup.  That (intentionally) makes for a fairly tart filling.  I think if you're having lemon, it should taste that way but if you prefer it sweeter, add an extra tablespoon of sugar.

Ironically, I was concerned that my tarts wouldn't be tart enough using meyer lemons.  In all honesty, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the difference between a "regular" lemon tart and a meyer lemon one in a blind taste-test but I am glad that this version using meyer lemons provided the same satisfying lemon flavor and zing that I've been craving.
There's something really satisfying about making your own tart crust and luckily, this recipe is quite forgiving.  This shortbread crust is buttery, crunchy, and sweet.  The lemon curd filling is tart, a good counterbalance with the sweetness from the crust.  I love that yin and yang combination.  My husband and I love to savor a lemon tart with some hot coffee, and we did just that during a recent date night at home.
Making tarts may seem demanding but it really isn't if you break up the work (and don't need to take pictures for your blog!).  On a quiet weekend afternoon, make the tart crust in advance.  Press it into the tart tins, wrap it up, and freeze it for up to a month.  On the day you want to make and serve your tart(s), bake the crust and cook the filling on the stovetop.  It's not as complicated as you might think.

January 24, 2013

Individual tiramisu

This is another first for me: tiramisu.  It's one of my husband's favorite desserts - the one he's likely to order by default at an Italian restaurant unless something really outstanding catches his eye.  I'm actually not a big fan of it (other pure chocolate options call out to me way more) but I've always wanted to make it since he enjoys it so much. 
I want to jump right ahead and tell you these turned out great!  It was a relief since I was nervous about it.  My husband actually said it's the best he's ever tasted (granted, he's biased) and I also thought it was really good (and I'd tell you if I thought otherwise).  The tiramisu was pretty much everything we wanted it to be: creamy, fluffy, and light, with plenty of moisture, coffee flavor, and a noticeable hit of booze (in the form of amaretto, in my case) embedded into those ladyfingers, which magically transform from hard cookies into moist cake.  I admire the wizardry of the Italians more and more everyday! 

I'll be making these again for sure but to give you a little back story, the idea of making tiramisu always seemed a little daunting to me - the espresso, the liqueur, the eggs, the dipping, the layering, etc.  And I'm used to tiramisu in a big pan and I couldn't very well make a "regular" portion and expect or want my husband to polish off the majority of it himself.  But I was encouraged by a recipe I found in Cooking for Two from America's Test Kitchen that reduced the portion and made it sound do-able.
But you know how it goes sometimes...you start off with one idea or recipe, then you look somewhere else and something there appeals to you.  Long story short, I ended up essentially going with David Lebovitz's recipe, with a few tweaks, and making individual portions (instead of using a teeny 3-cup baking dish as per the Test Kitchen recipe). 

I liked David's somewhat more-traditional recipe incorporating egg whites instead of heavy cream.  This is where I should inject the usual warnings about consuming raw eggs.  There was raw yolks in both recipes so I figured I might as well go with the whites and stay closer to tradition, and hopefully get a lighter product, in the process.  David also tucks a little grated chocolate on top of each layer of creamy filling and that sounded like an excellent idea to me!
Since we don't make or drink espresso at home, I kept things simple by using making a brew using instant espresso powder, which I use often in baking.  And instead of the more typical dark rum, I used Amaretto since that's what I already had in the house.  I think it all worked out beautifully.  I made 5 individual portions with this recipe but two of the three are smaller, with two layers of ladyfingers and mascarpone cream as opposed to three.  When I was making this in the little glasses, I realized I was assembling a trifle - I never thought of tiramisu that way before.

Some family members stopped by to taste-test with us.  Glasses were emptied quickly and I was glad I tucked the last one in the fridge so that my husband could have an extra.  And tiramisu sits really well in the fridge and is a great make-ahead.  The ladyfingers soften, the filling mellows, and the flavors meld together.  Just add some cocoa powder and/or chocolate shavings right before serving.  I took the opportunity to take out my chocolate molds (an impulse buy from the craft store I knew I'd eventually be able to justify) and embellished the desserts with even more chocolate.  Chocolate and coffee just go together.

January 20, 2013

Thin, crispy tuile "cigarettes"

Maybe I'm a gluten for punishment or miss the baking projects of December because I made tuile "cigarettes" the other day.  Apparently, the proper name for them is "cigarette russes" and they are basically very crisp cookies or rolled wafers in the tuile family.  Growing up, I'd find these cookies in one of those assorted cookie tins we'd get around the holidays.  I'm fond of them like I am of butter cookies, which I also favored as a child but for various reasons don't eat much of now.  It also dawned on me that these cookies are very similar to Chinese biscuit rolls, which I've eaten plenty of.
These tuiles are different from the other ones I've made in the past.  While those have been of the lace variety, these are solid, almost crepe-like.  They're sweet, shatteringly-crisp, and buttery (not greasy but dry), with a kiss of vanilla flavor.  They taste like a very thin, crispier, version of homemade waffle cones, which is probably why they make an excellent accompaniment with ice cream but they're also great just on their own.

I made these last Sunday morning when the fellas had gone off to see a Knicks game and mom (that would be me) had most of the day to herself.  It was foggy and dreary, a perfect day to lounge around, eat, read, and do a little cooking.  I decided to try this tuile recipe I'd seen on Serious Eats because they looked so good (so thin and brown that I could almost taste the shattering golden buttery-crispness of them!) and it reminded me of how much I like them.
Now the "punishment" part of these cookies is in forming them.  As with other tuile recipes, the batter is a cinch to make - it literally takes only a couple of minutes to stir a few ingredients together.  The trick is in the rolling/shaping, to get the freshly baked, hot, tuiles successfully into a tight cylinder shape (hence, the "cigarette" moniker, which I generally don't like but describes them appropriately).  And there's a good reason for the shape - rolling them creates layers; you bite into it and the cookie satisfyingly shatters in your mouth.

Now to shape them and create these layers, you have to deal with the problem of handling the scorching hot tuiles straight out of the oven and the extremely narrow window of time you have to roll them before they cool, which seems to happen in an instant.  Because of this delicate balance, I usually end up with thick, wide rounds whenever I've tried to roll tuiles (albeit the lacey kind), if I'm successful at all!
It took me 3 tries to figure out what I was doing wrong and to get into the rhythm of making these.  I followed the recipe, rolling them by hand, not around a straw, chopstick, wooden spoon or any other implement but just onto itself, and it seemed to be the trick to getting a thin, tight tube.  I finally got the hang of it and let me warn you, your fingers will be in a bit of pain and the process is also quite time consuming since you can really only make 2 at a time.  It's definitely not something you can mass-produce...making a few as a special snack makes more sense.

I ended up with a handful of rolled cookies (and some equally delicious scraps from my first failed attempts) and I'm actually glad I did it!  It was worth the effort - and the scorched fingertips - because I ended up with these cookies that taste just as I described above. 
I like these delicate and crispy tuiles just as they are.  It may be gilding the lily but you can dip one end in dark chocolate.  I topped a few with green sprinkles for my "main squeeze", who is partial to that color.  Instead of sprinkles, some finely chopped toasted almonds would be delicious.

January 16, 2013

Banana bread cookies

This is a cookie for all banana bread lovers out there.

In recent years, I've become very fond of banana bread and the like.  Bananas add so much moisture and natural sweet flavor and aroma to baked goods.  So when I found this recipe from America's Test Kitchen's Christmas Cookies magazine during the holidays, I wanted to try it.  I've never used banana in a cookie before so this is a first.  These are banana-walnut chocolate chip cookies, which I like to think of as just banana bread cookies.
Banana-walnut chocolate chip cookies (hence, the bananas in the background)
These look like your basic chocolate chip walnut cookies but they smell and taste just like banana bread!  Seriously, that sums them up exactly.  We got such a kick out of these because you look at them and expect chocolate chip cookie so the banana comes as a surprise (not literally, of course, since I did bake them myself).  I'm not sure about you but I don't expect to eat banana bread in a cookie form, which is essentially what's going on here.  In case you're wondering, the texture is fluffy, somewhat cake-like, clearly moist, with a teeny bit of crispness around the edges when they're first cooled out of the oven.  The flavor is full on banana bread!
Once I started toasting nuts before adding them to cookie dough and such, I didn't look back.  Taking the extra step of toasting the nuts really deepens their flavor.  My husband and I didn't need to share this batch with the little guy since he's not a fan of most nuts in his desserts (I must've mentioned that fifty times by now).  So even though I divided the recipe in half, there was plenty for us.  And because of the banana and brown sugar, the cookies stay pleasantly moist for a few days.  Just store the cookies between parchment or wax paper since they tend to stick together due to the moisture.  We loved popping open our cookie container and taking a whiff of the wonderful banana bread aroma.

I think these qualify as a breakfast treat (just ask my husband).  Afterall, they have banana and nuts in them, and we all know how good dark chocolate is for us.  This recipe is a keeper; if you like banana bread, check this one out for yourself!  Make sure you use very ripe bananas for maximum flavor. 

January 13, 2013

Chocolate chunk blondie bars

I've never been a fan of blondies.  For a long time, I wasn't sure what they were.  When I did finally figure out the whole blondie business and learned that they are basically "blonde" brownies (i.e., without the cocoa or chocolate in the batter itself), I didn't pay much attention because, quite frankly, why would I want a blondie when I could have full-on chocolate brownies instead?
But here I am with a blondie recipe I made because of a picture I saw.  It was blondies from Ina Garten's latest book - studded with big chunks of chocolate and looking infinitely moist and delicious...

And she said something interesting in the header before the recipe.  She said they're just chocolate chunk cookies, only in bar form.  I'd never thought of it that way and it was a little "Ah ha!" moment for me.  Although...not being a blondie expert, I'm not sure if that's a fair blanket statement for blondies in general or if it just applies to this recipe.  Because from what I can tell, most blondie recipes start off with melted butter, mixed with sugar, followed by the usual supporting lineup.  This recipe, however, follows the course of most cookie recipes where you begin by creaming the butter and so on...
If you know Ina Garten, you know she doesn't skimp when it comes to ingredients.  Well, her blondies boost a whooping pound and a quarter of chocolate chunks  (I choose to use a bit more restraint).  She surprised me by suggesting Nestlé's chocolate chunks (literally, a picture of the bag is right there next to the recipe).  Well, if it's good enough for Ina, it's good enough for me!  You can look for other premium brands of chocolate chunks and there's no stopping you from chopping up some gourmet chocolate for your blondies but ready-made chunks are a huge time saver (as well as money-saver in the case of using the Nestlé's) and I really like the distinct look of the dark chunks against the pure blonde batter.  If you chop your own chocolate, you end up with bits and shards of chocolate that, once stirred into the mix, will sort of "muddy" the whole thing (unless you're willing to sift the chocolate bits and dust away and only use the big pieces...).
Ina shared a good tip; she mentioned that blondies tend to dry out (another reason to go for the brownies, in my opinion) but you could keep them moist by storing them in the refrigerator.  I individually wrapped my blondie bars and did just that.  She also mentioned under-baking the blondies a bit, which is what I generally try to do when it comes to brownies and certain cookies I want to keep gooey and moist.  The soft center is definitely my favorite part.
These truly are chocolate chunk cookies in bar form.  I really like bar treats because there's something special and a little retro about them.  So blondies or cookie bars, I figure I'd just call them "blondie bars".  I still prefer brownies over blondies but it really isn't fair to compare the two in this case.  I look at this as just a different way of eating our everyday chocolate chip cookie. 

And sometimes when inspiration strikes, even when it's just a little thing like seeing a picture of something delicious-looking in a book, you just have to go with it...

January 10, 2013

Light, lemon custard cakes

This time last year, I spent a little too much energy focusing on "light" recipes all in the name of January and this belief that we need to talk only about skinny recipes after the holidays.  There's nothing wrong with going light or eating lean but I want to do away with any restrictive kind of "must-do" attitude and just make enjoyment-with-moderation an everyday lifestyle.  And while I love a rich chocolaty dessert, I also enjoy lighter options and actually lean towards them for daily eating even when it comes to desserts.  So I actually wanted to try these light lemon custard cakes not only because it's January but because it sounds like something I'd like to eat any time of year.
These small lemon custard cakes are a lot like soufflés - a cross between airy soufflé/sponge cake and a custard.  By separating the eggs and incorporating whipped whites into the batter, the baked cake is slightly puffed on top, much like soufflé or a fluffy sponge cake, while the bottom reveals  a ready-made sauce in the form of a lemony custard.
I mixed and whipped everything together by hand, using a handful of ingredients.  If you have some lemons, eggs, and milk around, you're well on your way to making this refreshing dessert.

January 5, 2013

Tri-color cookie cupcake bites!

I am very excited to talk about this recipe today!  We're going to revisit those delicious Italian tri-color cookies (also known as rainbow or seven-layer cookies) but give them a twist into mini cupcake form!  My tri-color cookie cupcake bites taste very similar to the original in cookie form but take much less time to make.  The "twelve-hour project", as I've called it, becomes a less than two-hour project!  (Apologies in advance for what's likely to be excessive use of "!" in this post.)
Let me take a small step back and talk about the cookies (pictured below, left) again.  When I eat them, I marvel at how genius the marriage of rich almond cake with apricot preserve and bittersweet chocolate is (and I'm not a jam person).  I used to enjoy the cookies occasionally from Italian bakeries where I could find them but hit the jackpot two Christmases ago when I learned how to make them.  That's been one of the biggest success/highlight for me as far as discoveries thanks to this blog.  They really are our family-favorite cookie, although the title "cookie" doesn't seem to do them justice.  I think of them as petit fours, or small dessert cakes.
Since that first time in December 2011, I've made at least six batches of the cookies.  I'd do it more often but they are time consuming, taking as much as 12 hours to make, although much of it is wait-time, waiting for the layers to chill in the refrigerator.  My husband requested tri-color cookies for his birthday a few months ago in November (come to think of it, he also asked for them for Father's Day), then I made another batch for us to savor over Christmas.  As we were finishing the latest batch, we were already hankering for more but as much as I love them, I was thinking "again?...it's a lot of work!"  So I started thinking about a way to shorten the time involved and wondered if I could turn them into cupcakes so I could skip some of the steps.

I googled it and as it turns out, my idea wasn't totally original, although there's not much out there or an actual recipe that I could find.  And in thinking about it, I became convinced that mini cupcakes were the way to go.  They're more like the petite 1.5-inch cookies and I think the mini size creates a better balance of almond cake to jam to chocolate (each layer of flavor being integral to the whole) that makes them so good.
After testing these mini cupcakes using liners and without, I recommend baking them with liners
As with any cupcakes, these do involve a bit of fuss.  I baked the batter in mini cupcake tins, then carved out a little hallow inside each to pipe strained apricot preserve into so that there's a good amount of it in each cupcake.  Finally, I topped each generously with a cap of bittersweet chocolate - not ganache or chocolate frosting but straight up dark chocolate as it should be.  I found that using cupcake liners helps the mini cakes bake up more evenly and makes the job of adding the chocolate topping quicker and easier versus not using them.
Now here's what you don't need to do when making these cupcakes instead of the cookies:  You do not need 3 pans or to bake 3 batches/layers.  You do not need to chill anything for at least 8 hours.  You skip the layering, flipping, trimming, and coating of both sides with chocolate.  Plus, you don't have to worry about slicing them and doing so without cracking the chocolate. 

These mini cupcakes are a big time saver, the major benefit being you don't need much advance planning and can eat them same day, within a couple of hours.  If you really want to cut the time and work down further, eliminate the food coloring altogether so that there's no extra separating and mixing; just bake plain, yellow color cupcakes.  The flavor will obviously be the same.  I made the colors here to drive home the point of what they are but next time around, I'd like to skip the food coloring (little guy seriously protesting this intention though).
Now on the crucial question of taste, these are very similar to the tri-color cookies, particularly when you take a big bite and get that combination of flavors in your mouth.  In other words, they are yummy!!  But of course, tri-color cookies are still "king" because of their more uniform layers (all seven of them!) and flavors of chocolate-almond cake-apricot preserve.  The cupcakes tend to be a tad bit dryer around the exposed sides whereas you get to trim away the dry edges of the cake before cutting them into cookies.  But baking and storing the cupcakes in paper liners largely solves that problem.
All in all, this little experiment worked out really well and I'm very happy I gave it a go.  My family and I all loved it and I'll be making these when the need for a little tri-color cookie "fix" arises but I don't want to spend 12 hours on it.  This is a great alternative if you want to reserve the cookie project for the holidays or special occasions and make these during other times.

I know many people share our love of Italian tri-color or rainbow cookies (thank you to the Italian-American immigrants who created it to honor their country and flag).  I hope anyone who enjoys the cookies and decides to give that recipe or this cupcake version a try find it worth their time and effort, like I do.  Or I hope there's a good Italian bakery near you where you can get these delectable treats.

January 2, 2013

Time to give "world peace" a try

In the days when we used to watch beauty pageants on TV, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at those contestants saying their ultimate wish was..."world peace".  Those ladies may have been wiser than I gave them credit for though because, all kidding aside, I say give us all peace and serenity, i.e., security and happiness, in 2013 and beyond.  While I might not be able to deliver this grand objective to you, I can make cookies (and so can you!).
If you're a baker, a lover of pastry, or follow food blogs, chances are you've heard of Dorie Greenspan's "World Peace Cookies", originally called "Korova cookies" which were created by French pastry master, Pierre Hermé (or if you're my 7-year old, you call him "Pierre-re Her-may").  We took a family trip to Paris last April and got a chance to sample his famous macarons as well as chocolates.  One of the reasons I'd like to go back is to taste Hermé's pastries, maybe even these very cookies, because it just so happened that none of his shops we went to stocked pastries and we didn't have time to make a special pilgrimage for them.

Unlike Hermé's ultra elaborate and intricate pastries, these cookies are something we can all make at home.  They are chocolate sablés, the French version of shortbread cookies with a signature sandy texture, although these are more complex than that.  Like American icebox cookies, this cookie dough gets rolled into a log and sliced before baking.  Sounds fairly straightforward but is this cookie worthy of its title - as though a cookie could be so good as to induce world peace?  Well, many people have raved about them (hence, the lofty title) and I finally had a chance to judge for myself.  What better time to try "world peace cookies" than at the start of a New Year...
My take: these really are some special cookies!  First off, I'm not sure what it is (there are no mystery ingredients) but this cookie dough smells amazing before, during, and after baking.  And the texture is what's outstanding.  My husband and I don't think we've ever eaten a cookie with quite this texture before.  There is the sandy element as you'd expect from a sablé (literally translated into "sand" in French) but it's also moist, soft and a bit chewy in a way that reminds me of a brownie (particularly when still slightly warm)!  The fleur de sel - that flakey, coarse French finishing sea salt - dances on your tongue and makes the whole thing all the more interesting.

I think a dark chocolate sablé is unusual in and of itself (there's even brown sugar in it) but this cookie really has a very attractive and unusual combination of textures and flavors.  It looks dark but it's not too dark; it's also not too sweet, the sweetness balanced by unsweetened cocoa and bittersweet chocolate bits.
So I've concluded that world peace, in any form, is a very good thing...


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