Earlier this month, upon realizing that I had officially become my mother, not only in my preferences, but also in how I impose my preferences on others — dark meat chicken, cakes without frosting — I decided it might be wise to branch out a bit, to bake a cake with not one but two layers and to guild it not with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar but with a slathering of silky frosting.
It was a healthy exercise. You see, I didn’t know that frosting — chocolate buttercream in this case — has the ability to silence a table surrounded by both toddlers and adults and afterwards to elicit unprompted comments such as: “You are such a good cooker.” This cake, made with buttermilk and oil — no butter — and exclusively cocoa — no melted chocolate — is incredibly light and moist and stays this way — tasting freshly baked — for days. It’s another Ina Garten recipe, one she begged for from a friend, the grandson of Beatty, after taking one bite.
When my friend Anne announced she was getting married in my neck of the woods and asked if I might be interested in making some apple pies in place of a wedding cake, I immediately called my aunt Marcy to consult. I hadn’t made a pie in a long time — years! — and I not only needed a refresher on the basics — how many apples? what spices? tapioca or flour? how much sugar? — I also needed help with the logistics: would I realistically be able to make, bake and store enough pies to feed an entire (albeit small) wedding? Could I face this challenge with grace and dignity?
The conclusion we came to pretty quickly was no. Absolutely not. In my wise old age I have learned that sometimes it just makes sense to accept my limitations. Deep thoughts by Ali.
After explaining to Anne that for the wellbeing of everyone in my house I would have to decline, we came up with a saner solution: I would make two ceremonial pies for the pie-cutting ritual. Two pies I could handle. Nobody in my house would be harmed.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me she had checked out Canal House Cooks Every Day from the library and described it as the loveliest cookbook she had seen in a long time. Middle child that I am, afraid to miss out on any fun, I immediately followed suit. That night by the light of my itty bitty book lamp, I poured through every chapter, making mental notes of ingredients to purchase and recipes to try, feeling more wound up with every page I turned, finally closing my eyes to a photo of a sheet pan lined with chocolate chip cookies, the last beautiful image in the book.
The following morning, before even thinking about coffee, I set butter out to soften and turned to the recipe, credited to Katherine Yang, a New York City pastry chef. When the Canal House ladies sought Yang’s guidance for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever, Yang passed along this one, a thin and crisp variety, one that perfectly balances that irresistible salty-sweet dynamic — there’s no need to top these off with any flakes of fancy sea salt. Crisp on the edges, chewy in the center, buttery with chocolate chunks throughout, these delicate cookies are enough to convert the thick-and-chewy-chocolate-chip-cookie lover in me forever. They are delectable. Even Ben, who never does any heavy lifting in the dessert department, eats them by the half dozen and swears he could eat them by the whole. I wouldn’t put it past him.
There is nothing I don’t love about a summer fruit galette: the sugared and golden crust, crisp and flaky throughout; the delicate ratio of fruit to pastry; the rustic look of dough enveloping fruit. At the height of stone-fruit season, I love nothing more than making these free-form tarts, always with a layer of frangipane slicked over the pastry, the combination of almond cream, warm fruit and buttery pastry nothing short of perfection.
But if I were feeling nitpicky and had to find one fault with this dessert it would be its circular shape, which doesn’t lend itself to feeding a crowd. And in this season of backyard celebrations, the height of which is nearing, feeding the masses is the name of the game, one at which cobblers and crisps, in the fruit-dessert category at least, succeed in particular.
The trouble with homemade ice cream, in my experience at least, is its half-life: what tastes smooth and creamy, light and airy on day one, becomes icy and hard, choppy and crystalized on day two. The texture after a day in the freezer just doesn’t compare to the best store-bought varieties.
So when I tried Jeni’s Splendid ice cream recipe for the first time a few weeks ago, what struck me more than the flavor — dark chocolate heightened by coffee — was the texture: dense and creamy, almost chewy, a consistency that persisted for days. Jeni’s ice cream scoops as well as the big dogs even after a week in the freezer.
For those unfamiliar with Jeni, let me fill you in: Jeni Bauer opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio, and her company now operates nine shops in Ohio and one in Tennessee. In her book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, Jeni shares her ice cream base recipe, which can be transformed however your heart desires. So far, I’ve made the darkest chocolate ice cream in the world, a recipe from Jeni’s book, and this rhubarb ice cream, a combination of Jeni’s base and a vanilla-bean flecked rhubarb jam, which I only wish I could can by the barrel-full before rhubarb season passes.
On one Mother’s Day many years ago, my sister and I ordered our mother a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Although unoriginal and basically thoughtless, the idea might have been somewhat good had we not used mom’s credit card to pay for the transaction. Oops. Let’s just say once the details of the purchase surfaced, mother was less than pleased.
“Have I taught you nothing?!” she cried. “All I want is a card! All I EVER want is a card! It’s so simple. A handmade card!”
While I likely knew all of that back then, over the years I have learned that I can’t go wrong on gift-giving occasions when I keep in mind the things that truly make our mother happy, namely said handmade card, photos, phone calls, tins of sardines, cold beer, popcorn, Jack Black, tea (preferably PG Tips served in thin-thin porcelain cups), an extra pair of scissors… simple things, really.
Last week, a series of brilliant ideas led to a series of kitchen mishaps. Not only did I waste some food along the way, I also unjustly (perhaps) lashed out at my three-year old. For this, I feel it my duty to warn you about what could happen should these same brilliant ideas enter your brain, too.
So, upon deciding that it’s finally time to try your hand at making ricotta gnudi, you might decide you want to make the ricotta from scratch, because you can’t help but think homemade gnudi would be all the more delectable if you were to start with homemade ricotta.
You might even decide, once you make your ricotta, to save that whey — waste not want not! — and to make a couple of loaves of homemade bread with it, because you know that making bread is no big deal, it is adored by all, and it is so nice to have on hand.
In the meantime, you might breeze through the gnudi-assembly process pleasantly surprised to discover there’s not much to it — a little mixing, piping, snipping, and flour dusting. You might even photograph the process and with each snap of the shutter get a little more excited to share this project with a few of your friends. But you know, too, you must be patient, because gnudi require some pampering: three-days in the fridge with a quick flip every day to make sure they are nicely coated in that semolina flour.
On Easter Sunday 2003, my sister made Nigella Lawson’s Easter Egg Nest cake, a cake that had been featured in The New York Times the Wednesday prior. Studded with flecked pastel eggs, this cake could only suit my sister better if a flock of Peeps and a colony of white chocolate bunnies were nestled among the eggs.
I’m not sure anyone in the family including my sister has made the cake since, but upon finding an old photo of Lindsey presenting her creation at the dinner table, I felt I had to make it. At the very least, I knew it would look festive on the table, the kids would find it enchanting, and my few guests would welcome a sliver of anything chocolaty.
On Christmas Eve my mother served this torta caprese — a flourless, chocolate-almond torte originating from the Isle of Capri — for dessert. If this is any indication of how it was received, not a single person sitting at the table, nine in total, turned down seconds. Later that evening, Santa even helped himself to thirds.
I love this class of cakes, those that can stand on their own, that don’t beg for layers of buttercream, pools of crème pâtissière, glazes of chocolate ganache or even dollops of whipped cream. This one, like the orange-and-olive oil cake and the Chez Panisse almond torte, fits into this class.
Containing no flour and leavened only by whipped egg whites, this torte is at once light, rich and moist. Ground almonds give it a wonderful texture throughout, and a splash of Grand Marnier offers a hint of orange. Made with bittersweet chocolate, it is perfectly sweet, and when it bakes, that brownie-like, most-delicious, paper-thin crust forms on the top-most layer. It is every bit elegant the finale of a special occasion should be, Valentine’s Day or otherwise. I hope you find an occasion to celebrate it soon. Continue reading
After a month of abstaining from serious dessert (inordinate amounts of dark chocolate, providing heaps of antioxidants, don’t count), a sugar craving and a magazine blurb had me unearthing baking pans and once again scribbling down butter, chocolate and brown sugar on my grocery list. The blurb described a treat offered at San Francisco’s Black Jet Baking Co — brown butter blondies made with Maldon sea salt — which I needed to have in my mouth immediately. Sorry, but I did. Continue reading