Tag Archives: Dessert

Stout beer gingerbread cake

One day last fall, my spouse came home with five growlers of stout. How he got them is a long and boring story, but suffice it to say fridge space was at a premium for a while. I don’t drink beer, so I couldn’t help make a dent in the stash. Then, during dinner on Christmas Day, a friend mentioned she was craving gingerbread. A bit of quick Googling and easy baking later, and black beer gingerbread entered my life. Now, whenever my husband brings home stout while the weather’s chilly, I make him set aside a bottle for baking.

This is gingerbread the way I like it: plush and cakey, bittersweet and spicy. The beer and molasses make it impenetrably dark brown, and lend a gruff bitterness underneath all the flour and sugar. (If you don’t want to use beer, black coffee makes a reasonable substitute.) I also up the ginger ante by using two types. The ground ginger gets whisked into the dry ingredients; the fresh ginger gets finely grated and gently warmed with the wet ingredients, so that its hot bite mellows and infuses throughout the cake. You could easily omit the fresh stuff and just use ground, though—the cake will still be plenty intense.

The first time I made this gingerbread, I baked it in a bundt pan, as instructed on Epicurious and Smitten Kitchen. But, like many commenters on both sites, I ran into problems: the cake stuck to the pan, and it cracked along the seams when I turned it out. It turns out that this gingerbread’s wonderful qualities—its stickiness and softness—make it tricky to bake in a tall, narrow pan. Fortunately, there’s a much better alternative: a 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper. The parchment eliminates any risk of sticking, and the shallow pan means the cake stays flat and sturdy.

When ready to serve, use the parchment to lift the gingerbread out of the pan, then dust the whole thing with powdered sugar and cut it into squares. And here lies the one caveat of a rectangular cake: you may need to warn people that they’re about to eat gingerbread, not brownies.

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Blackberry raspberry crisp

About a month ago, Sam and I took a jaunt up to Portland. It was a glorious trip, the kind that passes you by in a swirl of color and sunlight and leaves you with a jumble of picture-frame memories. We crashed with one of my college friends, met up with a few others, spent the trip happily tangling ourselves up in conversations that lasted for hours and rambled for miles. We meandered all over the city, took in the roses and the Sunday market art stands and the surprising cloudless sky, spent hours combing through the shelves at Powell’s. We drank our fill of Portland’s phenomenal beers, and some remarkable hard ciders as well. We ate dreamily, greedily, filled ourselves with brewery food and bagels and ice cream and donuts. And berries. Lots of berries.

It was my friend Leslie who tipped us off to the Oregon Berry Festival. Self-centered California girl that I am, I’d had no idea that the Pacific Northwest is so renowned for its berries. But the calendar had handed us a sweet seed-studded opportunity: a feisty little celebration of all things berry, coinciding exactly with our weekend in Portland. Of course, we had to go. For science.

oregon berry festival sign

We went to the festival on our first full day in the city, a gloriously warm day bathed in white sunlight, and discovered a riot of tented stands, bearing treat after berry-flavored treat. There were stands selling berry shortcakes and berry vinegar and berry salsa and berry barbecue sauce and berry cider, all of it tasty, some of it memorable. But Sam and Leslie and I kept getting drawn to the stands selling berries themselves, in neat cardboard baskets, lined up in rows, each table a starburst of colors and textures.

We tasted, of course–eagerly, asking questions around each mouthful. There were the familiar ones: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, all perfectly ripe and summer-sweet. There were boysenberries, which tasted just like the syrup I put on my pancakes as a child, and olallieberries, which I’d heard of but never thought to try. I tasted my first gooseberry, a rare ripe one–pinkish-red and veined with green, fleshy and tart like a slightly unripe grape. There were blackberry-raspberry hybrids I’d never heard of: tiny shadow-black tayberries and chubby red loganberries and marionberries, oh, marionberries, dark and rich like blackberries but with just a whisper of raspberry roundness. I didn’t know marionberries existed until that morning, and now I miss them desperately.

oregon berry festival berries

Later in the trip, over lunch in a nondescript restaurant, Sam and I shared a marionberry crisp for dessert. The flavor was just right, deep and resonant and not-too-sweet, but the crisp itself was a mess: gluey filling, soggy topping, barely lukewarm all through. It felt like an injustice to the fruit. So last weekend I decided to right that wrong, and make a really good berry crisp to remind us of Portland. I haven’t gotten my hands on marionberries yet–not for lack of trying, mind you–so had to make do with a mix of blackberries and raspberries. I studded the crumble topping with pecans, for a little added crunch, and waited till the berries bubbled volcanically before taking the crisp out of the oven. It was barely cooled before we dove in with spoons.

This is quite possibly the best dessert I’ve made all summer (and I’ve made a few). The blackberries kept their juicy burst, and the raspberries melted around them to create a purple-red liquor, almost like red wine in its intensity. The topping itself was as crisp and nubbly as I could have hoped, and just sweet enough to support the summer-ripe berries. It took me right back to the berry festival, standing at a table, eating berry after gorgeous berry, trying to tease out the the balance of blackberry and raspberry in each one.

I love cooking this way, bringing back flavors from abroad and creating food that’s as bound up in memory as it is in taste. It’s probably the most pleasurable thing I do in my kitchen. Especially when the results taste this good with a scoop of ice cream on top.

blackberry raspberry crisp

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Peach basil cobbler

Okay, I’m starting this post with another photo disclaimer: It’s awful. It’s an awful photo. I’m sorry. But it was after dark, in a crowded kitchen, and I could only manage one photo before the whole thing was devoured by a dozen hungry friends.

I said devoured. This was peach cobbler, and it was profoundly delicious. It started with the best possible fruit–we were at my friend Sarah’s house, and she has a peach tree, and we found a few furry globes hiding under the leaves, just waiting to be picked and devoured. Sarah has a basil plant too, so I decided to pinch a few leaves and add them to the filling. It’s a lovely combination, peaches and basil: the basil is sweet, in its own way, and sharply grassy against the yielding sugary tartness of the peaches. Cover the whole thing with crumbles of biscuit dough, and you’ve got a sophisticated twist on a homey classic.

There’s one optional step here: it’s up to you whether or not to peel the peaches. It’s not totally onerous, but it does require a little extra maneuvering. The peaches get X-slashed at the bottom, then blanched in boiling water and shocked in an ice bath. After their trip from hot to cold, the peach skins slip off effortlessly, like a satin robe. I don’t mind the extra work, personally, since it feels more like performing a magic trick than cooking. But the whole process is totally optional, if you don’t mind bits of skin in your filling. And, of course, if you wanted to skip the bother and make this any time of year, you could easily use frozen thawed peaches instead.

Please. Ignore the photo. Instead, imagine a heap of peach basil cobbler on a plate, still warm from the oven, with a scoop of slowly-melting vanilla ice cream on top. Not much that’s better than that.

peach basil cobbler

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Triple chocolate cookies

All right. Time to let these cookies out into the world.

These started out as a Nigella Lawson recipe that failed on me. I followed the recipe to the letter, and came away with a single amorphous cookie-blob on a baking sheet. Normally I would have just chalked it up to bad luck and let it go, but something about this recipe stuck with me. Maybe it’s the fact that it calls for three types of chocolate: melted, cocoa, and chips. Maybe it’s that I’ve never had a chocolate-chocolate-chip cookie that really lived up to my daydreams. Whatever it was, I had to perfect these cookies.

I don’t think I’ve ever obsessed over a recipe like I have this one. I’ve tweaked and fiddled and ruined more batches than I care to count, all in service of my one dream cookie: intensely dark and decadent, sturdy at the edges and soft in the middle, with an absurdly high chip-to-dough ratio. It’s taken at least a year of frenzied testing; at the end of it, I was back at approximately the same proportions as when I started. But I think I’ve finally cracked the chocolate chip cookie code, and it comes down to four things:

  • Melted butter. I don’t own a stand mixer, and beating cookie dough with a hand mixer never goes well for me. So I always cream sugar and butter by hand, and that can make for wildly inconsistent cookies. Melting the butter along with the chocolate solves this problem, and helps the cookies stay soft and yielding. It does, however, make for an almost alarmingly gooey dough, so soft that you may worry it won’t hold together when scooped. Trust me–it will.
  • Size. I’ve tried shaping and scooping the cookies several different ways, and there’s no getting around it: bigger is better here. Larger cookies hold their shape better in the oven, are more resistant to overbaking, and yield a lovely range of textures: crumbly on the sides, crisp on top, soft and melting in the middle. I’ve had best results with my beloved #16 cookie disher, but you could also use a 2 oz (1/4 cup) ice cream scoop, as long as it’s got some sort of spring release mechanism.
  • Temperature. You could certainly scoop and bake the cookies straight from the mixing bowl–they’ll spread quite a lot and become chewy-crisp all over. But if you have time, I highly, highly, highly recommend that you scoop the cookies in advance and freeze them. Just portion the cookies out onto a baking sheet, freeze them till rock-solid, then pop them into a zip-top bag and bake as many as you want, when you want, straight from the freezer. Baking the cookies when they’re ice-cold means they’ll spread less and rise more, yielding a tall and tender cookie with a crisp exterior and a luscious, fluffy center. Yum.
  • Time. The cookies are best when baked until they’re just barely set–there should be a thin, firm crust on top, but the interior should still feel gooey and unstable. For my oven, the magic number is 12 minutes for fresh cookies, and 14 minutes for frozen. Once they’re out of the oven, let the cookies cool for at least 15 minutes on the baking sheet, so that the heat from the metal underneath can gently coax the interior to doneness. You want the cookies set enough to handle, because breaking into that pillowy interior is an absolutely glorious thing. And don’t worry about losing the fresh-from-the-oven magic–the cookies will stay warm for at least 30 minutes, and the chocolate chips inside will stay molten for at least an hour.

Oh, and about that chocolate: don’t bother with the expensive stuff here. You’re going for big, brawny, chocolate-dense, nothing subtle or refined; supermarket chocolate fits the bill nicely. This is San Francisco, so I use Ghirardelli all the way–bars, cocoa, and chips. The cookies are still seriously indulgent.

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Hazelnut biscotti

Several months ago, the lovely and talented Daisy over at Daisy’s World did a giveaway featuring hazelnut flour and polenta from Bob’s Red Mill. As one of the lucky winners, I was tasked with sharing a recipe using one of the products. I can do that, I said. The moment the box arrived on my doorstep, with my winnings tucked securely inside, I tore open the bags and went to work.

I’m still working on finding a polenta recipe worth sharing–I slipped quickly into the tasty rut of topping it with crispy mushrooms and sausage, and haven’t deviated much since. The hazelnut flour, on the other hand, has gotten a serious workout. I’ve worked it into chocolate chip cookies, blended it into mole sauce, and used it as a crust for turkey tenders. But I keep getting drawn back to the most unassuming recipe I’ve tried: hazelnut biscotti.

They’re deceptively simple, these cookies, with the round richness of hazelnuts front and center. Unlike many biscotti recipes, which bulk up with butter, these rely only on the fat within the hazelnut flour itself. (Near as I can tell, that brings them closer to the spirit of the original Italian almond biscotti, which contain no added fat.) They’re pebbly-crisp and subtly nutty, with a breath of cinnamon for warmth and a kiss of orange zest for brightness. And they’re flecked with chopped hazelnuts–but finely chopped, almost invisible, not the massive tooth-testing nut-hunks you usually see in biscotti.

“Biscotti” translates to “twice cooked,” which is where the cookies get their unmistakable shape and nubbly texture. First, the dough is formed into logs, and baked until it puffs and sets, almost like a cake. Then it’s sliced, breadlike, into thin flat cookies, which are toasted on both sides until they’re dry and crumbly all the way through. These work best when they’re formed small and sliced thin, for maximum crumbly crunch. Once they’ve cooled and crisped, you could dip them in chocolate, if you wanted to. But I prefer them naked.

These are nice enough on their own, but they’re just about perfect with a cup of tea. Coffee or hot chocolate would work also, but good black tea is my favorite. Dunked in something hot and soothing, these biscotti make an ideal after-dinner wind-down.

Thanks, Daisy!

hazelnut biscotti

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Strawberry pie and strawberry berryoska

Yesterday my friend Molly and I threw a Memorial Day weekend party. We went to the farmer’s market beforehand. And ended up going a little strawberry-crazy.

It’s certainly the time of year for it. Citrus has all but disappeared from the markets, and stone fruits are still a few weeks away from being great. But strawberries are at their heady best right now, and our local market is crowded with berry vendors. We sampled from all the stands, and zeroed in on the really good fruit–not too big, not too squishy, deep Valentine red, strong-smelling. Strawberries this good deserve star treatment, and we came up with two glorious ways to show them off: a pie and a cocktail.

Initially the plan was strawberry-rhubarb pie, but for some unknown reason there was no rhubarb at the market. So we decided to forge ahead with an all-strawberry pie, based of course on my go-to rye crust. We stuck with an old-fashioned berry pie filling: fruit, a little sugar, cornstarch, a big glug of balsamic vinegar, and a healthy grind of black pepper (my favorite strawberry spice). Although the recipe we adapted was for a lattice-top pie, we decided to make it with just a single crust, to keep the fruit-to-crust ratio as high as possible. The strawberries on top dried out and singed slightly in the heat of the oven, so to make up for it, I melted a little honey in the microwave and brushed it over the top. (Next time I’d turn the oven down partway through to prevent burning; I’ve amended the recipe below to reflect that.)

It’s not often that my baked goods turn out beautiful, but this one was a stunner.

strawberry pie whole

This was the fruit pie that other fruit pies aspire to be: jammy fruit suspended in a light cornstarch jelly, with a subtle shine from the honey glaze and red juices bubbling over a dense buttery crust. We let it cool for an hour, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time, leaving the pie just warm in the center but still firm enough to slice. Even after a rich pasta lunch, we had no trouble devouring it in about 10 minutes flat. After finishing his first piece, one of our friends said, “Now I’m racking my brain to think of where all the other pies in my life went wrong.”

strawberry pie slice forwards

While we were slicing strawberries for pie, Sam decided to steal a few for a cocktail. A quick Google swipe turned up something called a “strawberry berryoska,” a muddled mix of strawberries, lemonade, and vodka. In Sam’s creative hands, the berryoska morphed into a sweet, lightly fizzy affair, thick with strawberry pulp and laced with a touch of Grand Marnier. It was dangerous, to say the least, and perfect for a spring-to-summer party. The only thing that would have made it more perfect was crushed ice, which we didn’t have. But no one really seemed to mind.

In fact, once the pie went into the oven and we realized we had no more strawberries for drinks, Molly was so devastated that she called her late-arriving boyfriend to bring us more. He showed up with a full half-flat of strawberries. Looks like we’ll be strawberry-crazy here for a while yet.

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Apple pandowdy

Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy

Makes your eyes light up and your tummy say howdy.

Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy,

I can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff.

Of all the songs I learned in high school choir, “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” was one of my favorites. It was upbeat, jazzy, a little silly, and mercifully easy to sing. I had never heard it outside the rehearsal room, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned it was a beloved old standard, recorded by the likes of Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald. Years later, in moments of mind-wandering, I still catch myself singing it.

For a long time I assumed the words themselves were nonsense–made up to suit the bouncy rhythm of a song. But, as it happens, shoofly pie and apple pandowdy are both very real, and totally all-American. Oddly enough, they hail from a community not much known for its contributions to popular music: the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Of the two, shoofly pie seems to get more attention. It’s a rich molasses-based custard pie, said to be so sweet that it attracts flies that must be shooed away. I’ve never found it particularly compelling. Apple pandowdy, on the other hand, intrigued me quite a bit. What is a pandowdy, I wondered, and how does it differ from its other evocatively-named cousins–crisps, crumbles, cobblers, grunts, slumps, buckles, brown betties?

The answer, at least according to an hour or so of Internet research: apple pandowdy is reminiscent of cobbler, with a fluffy biscuit topping laid over a pan of sweetened, spiced fruit. But unlike cobbler, which has its topping laid down in “cobblestone” pieces, apple pandowdy gets a single rolled layer of dough laid on top. Then, partway through the baking process, the cook takes a wooden spoon and pushes bits of topping down into the fruit below. The result is a rough, “dowdy” surface, with a mix of textures and flavors underneath: some of the biscuit stays pillowy on top, while some gets gooey and soaked with juices. It’s quite lovely.

This version, which I found through good old-fashioned Google timewasting, has a dark, spicy apple filling, sweetened with molasses and candied ginger instead of sugar. It’s a gutsy, down-to-earth variation on the familiar chord of apple-cinnamon-butter-sugar. And it still passes the true test of any good American apple dessert: it pairs effortlessly with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. Clearly this California girl should look to Pennsylvania Dutch country more often.

apple pandowdy

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