Friday, December 30, 2011

Apple Brown Betty

After a week of lots of amazing food at many different celebratory tables, this might be a good time to return to something not terribly rich or fussy. This Apple Brown Betty certainly fits the bill. Although it’s been around since colonial times, I’ve just discovered in the waning days of 2011 yet another way to enjoy the pleasures of fresh fruit prepared simply.

Bread makes a strong showing in the realm of desserts in the form of Apple Charlotte, bread pudding and summer pudding. Apple Brown Betty is a combination of simmered apples and toasted breadcrumbs. Not at all fancy but tremendously satisfying and easy to prepare. Some recipes call for baking the dish in the oven but I took the easy route. In this version, I toast the breadcrumbs with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and simply sprinkle them on top of apples that have been sautéed with vanilla and a splash of lemon on the stove top. Just a few ingredients and a couple of quick steps and you have an enjoyable treat to share on a cozy evening.

I wish everyone a very, very Happy New Year. May we all have lots of delicious moments and morsels in 2012 and savor each and every one of them to the fullest.

Bench notes:

- I chose Fuji apples for this dessert.
- Use your favorite bread, such as pain de mie, whole wheat or levain. I used a baguette, including the crust.
- Add a small dash of rum or brandy to the apples for something a bit more festive.
- For more embellishment, serve with ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream or honeyed yogurt.
- You can make this ahead and reheat in a 350 degree oven for about 10 - 15 minutes.

Apple Brown Betty
Serves 6

5 slices of firm bread
2 oz (4 T ) butter
2 T dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 t cinnamon

5-6 apples
3 T butter
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
1 vanilla bean
1/4 C sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Tear bread into small pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor. Process briefly to make coarse bread crumbs. Pour into a bowl.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Melt the butter and whisk in the brown sugar and cinnamon. Drizzle over breadcrumbs and toss quickly to coat. Spread out in one layer on baking sheet.

Toast the breadcrumbs in the oven, stirring occasionally and turning pans halfway through, until golden brown and crisp, about 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Peel, core and slice apples into 1/4" wedges. Melt butter in a large sauté pan. Split vanilla bean, scrape the seeds and add to butter along with the bean casing. Stir to distribute. Add apples, lemon juice and zest. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Remove vanilla bean. Add sugar and continue to cook and stir until the sugar dissolves. Taste for sweetness. Top with toasted breadcrumbs and serve warm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Chocolate Phyllo Napoleons with Pear and Raspberries

As we busy ourselves preparing for upcoming holiday meals and festive parties in celebration with friends and family, perhaps among your platters there will be small morsels of phyllo dough hors d’oeuvres. And if you happen to have a few spare sheets of phyllo, Chocolate Napoleons are an easy and super delicious way to enjoy the remainder.

This is a riff on a dessert from Gale Gand featured in the grand Baking with Julia collection. It’s a crispy crunchy lighter-than-air dream of a pastry that has guests devouring every morsel faster than you can say, would you like some dessert? It’s one of my favorites because it’s a perfect combination of textures and flavors that combine seamlessly, one into another. The cocoa is not overwhelming, the pears and raspberries freshen the palate and the cream makes it feel like the purest of luxuries. It's nearly weightless and there is no feeling of over consumption once you’ve enjoyed every last bite.

To prepare the pastry, cocoa powder is added to melted butter to make a thin paste, which is then slathered on sheets of phyllo. Each sheet is sprinkled copiously with sugar that I’ve combined with cardamom. The phyllo is baked flat and then broken randomly into crisp, crunchy shards of pastry. Using phyllo instead of the usual puff pastry creates thinner, crispier, lighter layers that snap into tastes of only slightly sweet chocolate.

It took me much longer to think about composing this than it actually takes to make it. Once you have the phyllo baked off, the dessert is assembled in just a few seconds. Poached pears are layered with billows of whipped cream scented with almond extract and the whole dish is garnished with a few slightly sauced tart raspberries. And in no time at all, it will be blissfully enjoyed by all.

I send everyone my very best wishes for a really wonderful holiday. May your days be merry and bright. Cheers!!

Bench notes:
- A few tips for working with phyllo: 1) Phyllo is usually found in the frozen food section of your market. Let it thaw at least 24 hours in your refrigerator without opening the package. (Trying to hurry the thawing process @ room temperature will result in phyllo that has too much moisture. Also, if you try to work with it when it’s too cold, it will crack.) Thawed phyllo in the package will keep in your refrigerator a few days. 2) Always have all your ingredients ready before you remove the phyllo from the packaging. Set up your work station so your phyllo and butter are in close proximity. 3) Remove the phyllo from the packaging and unfold it on a clean dry towel. Cover it immediately with another clean dry towel so that the entire surface is covered. (Although some suggest a moist towel, I find that only tends to render the phyllo sort of gummy.) The sheets are very thin and they will dry out and become brittle very, very quickly if they make contact with air for just a couple of minutes. So cover them completely after you remove each sheet. Keep your hands dry. 3) Don’t worry if a sheet tears. Just patch it with the piece that broke off. It doesn’t matter much because the sheets get layered. 4) Unused phyllo should be rewrapped tightly in the same protective packaging ASAP and refrigerated immediately. It will keep for a couple of days. Some people say it can be tightly packaged and re-frozen but I haven’t tried it.
- Gale Gand’s version of this dessert looks delicious and includes layers of chocolate ganache and simmered cranberries instead of raspberries. I omitted the ganache because I wanted the dessert to be lighter and I thought it would overpower the fruit. I couldn’t find fresh cranberries so I used raspberries. I think they make a perfect substitution. I also cut the butter in half. (She doesn’t appear to use it all in the making of her version.) For a step-by-step demonstration of how Gale Gand prepares her dessert, watch the video. Her original recipe is also included there.
- If you have a standard 13" x 18" half-sheet baking pan, you can simply make one large 3 layer pastry rather than cutting the phyllo in half and making two separate 3 layer pastries. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar on each layer.
- Once the chocolate phyllo is baked let it cool completely before handling. It will darken and firm up once it’s cool. Carefully peel off the parchment and handle it very gently.
- In general, I never suggest canned fruit but if you’re crunched for time or if you don’t have access to fresh and you can find a good can of pears go ahead and substitute that for the fresh. Be sure to drain the pears on paper towels before assembling the dessert.

Chocolate Phyllo Napoleons with Pear and Raspberries

based on a recipe by Gale Gand in Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan
Serves 4

2 small firm but ripe pears
2 1/2 C water
1 C sugar
1 t fresh lemon juice
1/4 vanilla bean, split and seeded

2 oz (4 T) butter
2 T cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
1/4 C sugar
1/2 t cardamom
3 sheets of phyllo, 13” x 17”

1 6 oz packet of fresh raspberries
2 t sugar
1 C whipping cream
1 T sugar
1/4 t almond extract, to taste

confectioner’s sugar, for dusting

To poach the pears, bring the water, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla bean to a low simmer. Peel the pears. Slice in half and core them. Place in the poaching liquid as you go. Cut out a piece of parchment to fit the surface of the poaching liquid and place it on top to seal in the steam. Simmer for about 10 - 15 minutes until tender. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the pear halves from the poaching liquid and place on paper towels to absorb any excess liquid. Take a paring knife, slice into quarters and cut 1/4” vertical slices into each piece from blossom to stem end, stopping about 1/2 inch from the top so that the slices remain connected. Set aside.

Melt the butter and whisk in the cocoa to make a thin paste. Set aside. Combine sugar and cardamom together and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place two more sheets of parchment and another baking sheet nearby.

Open the phyllo package and place the sheets on a clean dry towel. Cover the entire surface of the phyllo immediately with another clean dry towel. Remove 3 sheets of phyllo and cut in half crosswise to create six 8 1/2” x 13” rectangles. Return them back under the dry towel and keep them covered.

Place one of the half pieces of phyllo on the parchment-lined baking sheet, brush it with cocoa butter mixture and sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon of the cardamom sugar mixture. Cover with another sheet of phyllo, brush with cocoa-butter, and sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Repeat with one more phyllo sheet and sprinkle the last phyllo sheet with 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Cover the stack with a piece of parchment paper and repeat this process - stacking, brushing, and sprinkling with the remaining 3 sheets of phyllo and sugar. Cover with parchment paper and top with a baking sheet to weight the phyllo and keep it from puffing.

Bake the phyllo for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sheets are golden and crispy. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack, remove top baking sheet and cool completely. Once cooled, carefully remove the parchment and separate the two consolidated stacks of pastry. Gently break each sheet into 6 pieces for a total of 12 pieces to allow 3 phyllo shards for each napoleon.

Place half the raspberries in a small bowl and sprinkle them with 2 teaspoons of sugar. Macerate for about 20 minutes, then press through a strainer to remove the seeds. Toss this sauce with the remaining fresh whole raspberries. Set aside.

Whip the cream, sugar and almond extract just to a very soft peak.

To assemble the napoleons, place a small dab of whipped cream in the center of each of four dessert plates. Rest a shard of cocoa phyllo on the cream and press it down gently to anchor it. Top with a spoonful of whipped cream. Fan the slices of pear and place them on top of the cream. Add another small dollop of cream. Repeat with phyllo, cream, pear and more cream, topping with a third piece of phyllo. Dust each top piece of phyllo with confectioner’s sugar. Garnish with raspberries. Serve immediately.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pfeffernüsse Cookies

For me, the holiday season hasn’t really begun unless and until I reach into my cupboard for several jars of spice. Whether it’s pumpkin pie, gingerbread or cookies, the kitchen isn’t really firing on all cylinders until it’s full of the aromas and flavors of the sweetness of cinnamon, the brightness of nutmeg, the complexity of allspice, the magic of cardamom or the depth of cloves.

Most countries have a long tradition of preparing some sort of spice cookie for the holidays. Some of my favorites are Lebkuchen (Germany), Cuccidati (Italy), Pepparkakor (Sweden) and Basler Brunsli (Switzerland). I’m sure your family has its own must-haves each year.

One cookie I haven’t tried is the Pfeffernüsse from Germany. Translated as “pepper nuts,” these include freshly ground pepper for a more complex spicy sensation. There’s also molasses for the delicious richness so typical of the season.

This recipe is from Williams Sonoma. The cookies are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and are a perfect representation of the holiday spirit. I hope you are well on your way to preparing your cookie platters to the delight of family, friends and neighbors.

Bench notes:
- There are of course lots of different versions of this cookie. Some are finished with lemon glaze rather than confectioner’s sugar, which sounds intriguing.
- I used a #40 ice cream scoop to portion these cookies. It speeds up the process and creates uniform cookies. You can make smaller cookies for a higher yield and bake them 10 – 12 minutes.
- This is always a perfect time of year to check your inventory of spices to make sure they’re fresh. I like to buy in small quantities from my local bulk store.
- If you're like me, you may want to increase the spices if you like more depth. I doubled the cinnamon and used heaping amounts of allspice and nutmeg.

Pfeffernüsse Cookies
adapted from Williams Sonoma Holiday Baking by Jeanne Thiel Kelley
Makes 28 2” cookies

2 1/4 C flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground black pepper
1/2 t crushed anise seed
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t nutmeg
1/8 t cloves
4 oz (1 stick) butter @ room temperature
3/4 C light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 C molasses
1 egg @ room temperature
2 C confectioners' sugar, for dusting (I used much less)

Sift together the flour, salt, pepper and spices.
Beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beat in the molasses.
Add the egg and combine thoroughly. Scrape down the bowl.
Lower the speed and add the flour mixture. Beat just until the dough is nearly combined. Remove from the mixer and finish mixing the dough using a rubber spatula. Place the dough onto a piece of plastic and shape into a disc. Wrap tightly and refrigerate until the dough firms up.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets with parchment or silpats. Portion dough into balls 1 1/2” in diameter. Place cookie sheets about 2” apart.

Bake until the cookies are golden brown on the bottom and firm to the touch, about 13 - 15 minutes. Cool slightly on a wire rack. Dust or roll the cookies in confectioner’s sugar.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Olive Oil Cake with Candied Orange

There is a long tradition of semolina cakes in the Middle East and the Mediterranean that benefit from a dousing of syrup usually made from honey. There are varying ingredients and shapes and flavors that have endured through history but all are celebrations of culture and sharing. And though there are many wonderful variations, this particular Olive Oil Cake with Candied Orange is so deliciously constructed it rises to the top of most other cakes I’ve had in this genre.

The cake is enriched with olive oil and yogurt and lightly scented with cardamom and orange zest. There’s just a bit of interesting texture provided by semolina. But it’s the crowning touch of oranges that get candied in a sensational aromatic cardamom orange syrup that really sets it apart. It’s festive and beautiful and full of wonderful flavor that only the happy combination of all these great ingredients can provide.

Next time you're in search of a delicious dessert to share with friends and family, try this splendid cake. It's certainly befitting as the grand finale to any delicious feast where adventure is the centerpiece.

Bench notes:
- For the candied orange and syrup, I used 1 orange but only made half the syrup, which I thought was plenty. But you may want to make the whole recipe if you want to really soak the cake. Leftover syrup can also be used as a topping for ice cream or a sweetener for tea or a cocktail. Store the syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator. [half syrup recipe: 1/2 C sugar, 1 1/2 C water, 1/4 C + 2 T honey, 1 1/2 T cardamom pods.]
- I didn't have any trouble inverting the cake but you may want to either leave the cake on the bottom of the springform pan or be extra careful if you soak the cake with the full recipe of syrup.
- Semolina is available at better supermarkets, Italian markets or in bulk food groceries.
- Use a very sharp knife to cut the oranges into thin slices.
- The syrup and candied orange slices can be made a day ahead. Pour the syrup into an airtight container and place in the refrigerator. Store orange slices separately. Warm the syrup just a bit before using.
- Choose a good olive oil for the cake. I used a delicious Arbequina extra virgin olive oil from California Olive Ranch.
- The cake has only 1/2 cup of sugar in it because the syrup sweetens and moistens it.
- For better ease of serving after presentation, set some of the candied oranges on the cake aside so you can slice it. Garnish each plate with some of the orange slices.
- If you like the combination of orange and cardamom, also try the Orange Cardamom Cake.

Olive Oil Cake with Candied Orange

adapted from Bon Appétit magazine
Makes 12 servings

Candied orange and syrup
1 C sugar
3 C water
3/4 C orange blossom honey
3 T green cardamom pods, crushed
1 small orange, thinly sliced

1 C flour
1/2 C semolina
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t kosher salt
1 t ground cardamom
3 eggs, separated
1/2 C olive oil
1/2 C sugar, divided
2/3 C plain yogurt
1 1/2 t grated orange zest
1 t vanilla
Chopped unsalted pistachios, for garnish

For the candied orange and syrup, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat. Cut the orange into thin slices. Bring sugar, water, honey and cardamom pods to a boil until sugar dissolves. Add orange slices. Reduce heat to medium low. Simmer, turning orange slices occasionally, until they are tender and the syrup is reduced to 3 1/4 cups. This will take about 30 - 40 minutes. Arrange orange slices in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Strain syrup. Set aside.

For the cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9" springform pan lightly with oil. Line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together flour, semolina, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ground cardamom. Separate the eggs.

Beat the 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup sugar for 1 minute. Add the yolks and combine thoroughly. Add flour mixture and beat until blended. Beat in yogurt, zest and vanilla. Set aside.

Using a clean dry whisk attachment, beat egg whites in another bowl until opaque and soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until firm peak stage. Gently fold egg whites into cake batter in 2 additions. Transfer to prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes.

Place the cake pan on a wire rack. Pierce hot cake with a toothpick. Slowly drizzle 3/4 cup warm syrup over the top of the cake. When syrup is absorbed, slowly pour 3/4 cup more syrup over. [I skipped the second application of syrup.] Reserve remaining syrup for serving.

Cool completely. Run a thin knife around edge of pan to release cake. Remove pan sides. Carefully invert cake onto a plate and remove parchment paper. Invert again onto a serving platter so it’s right side up. Arrange candied orange slices over the top. Garnish with pistachios. Serve drizzled with more syrup, if desired.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Brown Sugar Brown Butter Cookies

If you’re a fan of the rich nutty flavor of brown butter and also a fan of the caramel notes that come from using brown sugar, chances are you’ll enjoy this super tender cookie that features the subtle deliciousness of both.

There’s nothing terribly fancy or complex about these cookies but they are somehow pretty irresistible. Pecans are finely ground with the flour to enhance the nuttiness of the brown butter. The brown sugar adds its distinctive flavor while the granulated sugar preserves the crispy texture. The egg yolks provide a large measure of tenderness. Vanilla adds to the flavor profile and salt gives the cookie a distinct edge.

So there you have it - a crispy, crumbly, buttery, not-too-sweet shortbread cookie to share with cookie lovers, especially during this season of appreciation and giving.

Bench notes:
- Toast pecans in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.
- If you don’t have a vanilla bean, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the butter after it has browned.
- For a good illustration of how to brown butter, see the guidance at Simply Recipes. Use a stainless steel pan so you can watch the butter carefully as it can take just a moment to burn. Once you begin to detect a nutty aroma, it’s just about ready. I lift the pan off the heat and swirl for more control if I think it’s browning too fast or nearly done. It will continue to brown once you take it off the heat. Pour immediately into a heatproof bowl to stop the cooking.
- I used a #40 ice cream scoop to portion these cookies. It speeds up the process and creates uniform cookies. (The #40 refers to 40 scoops per quart.)
- One test for doneness for cookies is to gently nudge one with your fingertip. If the cookie slides easily, they are done. If you feel a lot of resistance, bake for another minute or so. Once removed from the oven, most cookies will need to firm up for a minute or two before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.

Brown Sugar Brown Butter Cookies
Makes 2 dozen 2" cookies

8 oz (2 sticks; 16 T) butter
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 t vanilla extract
2 C flour
1/2 C pecans, toasted
1/2 t salt
1/4 C + 2 T dark brown sugar
1/4 C + 2 T granulated sugar
2 egg yolks

Cut the butter into small pieces and melt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. If using a 1/2 piece of vanilla bean, cut it lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and add it to the butter along with the casing. Swirl the butter carefully as the foam subsides, the mixture begins to brown and the flecks on bottom of pan turn golden. Lift off the heat periodically to check on the browning and to avoid burning. The browning only takes about 5 – 6 minutes. Pour into a clean container and set aside to cool. If you didn’t use a vanilla bean, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract at this time.

Place the flour and pecans in the bowl of a food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground. Add the salt and sugars to the flour mixture and pulse to blend. Remove the vanilla been casing from the browned butter and add. Pulse just a few times to begin to combine. Add yolks and pulse until the dough starts to clump around the center of the machine.

Pour the dough onto a piece of plastic. Press into a disc and wrap tightly. Place in the refrigerator for about an hour to allow the flour to soak up the butter and the dough to firm up.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silpats. Shape dough into balls about 1 1/4” in diameter. Place 12 on each baking sheet and press down gently to flatten just a bit so cookies measure about 2” in diameter.

Bake for about 15 – 18 minutes until slightly brown and firm to the touch, rotating pans from top to bottom and front to back about half-way through the baking. Cool on a wire rack.