I am not generally a dessert person. My idea of the best way to complete a meal is a cheese tray and glass of fine port, or possibly an after dinner cognac, but lately I have been having so many dinner parties that I feel compelled to complete the meal with a sweet. I am going to share some of my favorites and hope you enjoy them, too for a special occasion or an any-night treat!
First, I will start with a complicated dessert I made a couple months ago as the finale to a very special Czech meal I put together for a very special Czech lady visiting us from Chicago. Helen was born in Czechoslavakia in 1926 and this was the first time in our home so I wanted to pull out all the stops. I created a multi-course lavish Czech meal and even printed the menu in Czech.
The dessert I selected to end this meal was not necessarily Czech, although the Czech’s do love their baked treats, but Helen’s husband was a baker so I thought she would enjoy this ending to a fun and festive Sunday dinner.
This recipe has several steps, but is not really hard to make. I was a bit apprehensive as I am NOT an expert baker and Helen’s husband was a professional baker, but I gave it my best shot and they came out pretty good. I served them with a Czech flag thinking if they didn’t taste that great at least I
would score some points with the “cute” factor.
|This is her son, Dennis (and my good friend!) serving his Mom
Choux Paste (pate a choux)
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8Tbsp. butter), unsalted
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine the water, milk, and salt in a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil. Stir in the flour and while mixing, cook another minute or 2 to eliminate excess moisture. Transfer to a bowl and let cool 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Beat in one egg at a time. When they have all been beaten in and the paste is smooth and shiny, set aside to cool completely. The paste may be used immediately or covered and refrigerated for later use. (That is what I did as I had so many other things to prepare for this meal, making the pastry in the morning helped with the timing of things.)
Pastry Cream (Creme Patissiere)
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. white flour
3 Tbsp. corn starch
4 egg yolks
1 1/3 cups milk
3/4 tsp. vanilla
Combine the sugar, flour, corn starch, and egg yolks in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer for 2 minutes until mixture is thick and pale yellow.
In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Gradually pour the milk into the egg mixture, stirring it as you do so. When fully combined, pour all of it into the saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Stir in vanilla and set aside to cool.
Press plastic wrap, wax paper or parchment on surface of cream to prevent a skin from forming. This cream may also be made in advance, and kept in fridge, covered with plastic wrap for a day.
3/4 cup heavy cream
8 oz. good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
Heat the cream. Stir in the chocolate and continue heating and stirring until all of the chocolate is melted.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Form small logs (about 1 1/2 inches across and 4 inches long) out of the Choux paste on a baking sheet. If you have a pastry bag with a large tip, you can squeeze them out neatly or just form the logs using a spoon and your fingers. They do not have to be perfect.
Bake the pastries for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 10-30 minutes depending on the size of your eclairs.
When they are golden brown, turn the oven off. Poke a hold in the small end of the eclair and place them back in the oven for another 10 minutes to dry out. Remove the eclairs from the oven and let them cool.
To fill the eclairs, either use a pastry bag and squirt in the pastry cream (which is what I did) or you can slice the eclairs lengthwise and scoopy the filling inside and place the top half back on top. This kind of defeats the purpose of the fun puff pastry which when baked creates a very convenient cavity for filling.
For the topping, dip or dribble the eclairs in the chocolate ganache.
Side story about Eclairs:
My friend Aggie loved Eclairs. She used to go to her annual neighborhood block party in Boston with a big tray of Eclairs, which everyone raved over. She would get up early, go to Stop & Shop, buy fresh baked Eclairs at their bakery, bring them home, re-plate them. She never actually CLAIMED they were her own homemade treats, but did not deny it either. She graciously accepted all compliments!
CHRISTMAS BREAD PUDDING
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this gorgeous bread pudding, but believe me it is as moist and delicious as it is beautiful. I got the recipe several years ago from my friend Francine and usually make it around the holidays when you can easily get the Panetone, but you don’t have to wait until Christmas to make it. It is good all year round! The Amaretto gives it a nice, nutty flavor and elevates a traditional bread pudding into something quite special.
1 Panetone (about 1 lb.) cut into1″ pieces
1 Qt. Half & Half
3 Eggs (4 if they are not super large)
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. Almond extract (or use Amaretto is you don’t have the extract)
Preheat broiler. Arrange bread pieces on 2 baking sheets and toast on both sides until lightly browned. Set aside for an hour.
Place the toasted Panetone in a large bowl. Pour Half & Half over the bread making sure all pieces are moistened. Set aside for 1 hour until all liquid is absorbed.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generouslly butter bottom and sides of a 9x13x2″ baking dish (I like to use a decorative baking dish so it can be served right from this container.) In a medium bowl whisk eggs with sugar, vanilla and almond (or Amaretto). Stir into soaked bread and transfer to baking dish. Bake in middle of oven for 1 hr. until pudding is just set and top is golden brown. Cool.
1 stick Butter, cut in pieces
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup Amaretto*
3 Egg Yolks
Melt butter gently. Whisk in sugar until creamy. Add Amaretto and then egg yolks, one at a time.
Cook, whisking constantly until consistency of honey; about 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
Just before serving, preheat broiler. Spoon Amaretto sauce over the pudding and broil 3-4″ from heat until just browned. The sauce can “catch” quickly so make sure you don’t over-broil.
Serve with a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream. Do not add vanilla or sugar to the cream for a nice off-set to this sweet pudding. It is also delicious served with a tiny glass of Amaretto!
*Did you know that 1 nip of booze equals 1/4 cup? This is handy if you don’t want to buy a whole bottle and need just a bit for flavoring.
CARROT CHEESECAKE WITH MARZIPAN CARROTS
I LOVE cheesecake. It is one of my all-time favorite desserts. It is so versatile, easy to make, and usually better after it sits a day, so falls into my make-ahead category of simplifying fancy meals. When cheesecake sits overnight it becomes more dense so if you prefer it lighter and fluffier, bake and eat same day. I made this dessert for our Easter celebration this year. Here is the Carrot Cheesecake still in its springform pan, decorated and ready to plate.
FOR THE CHEESECAKE
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 medium carrots, peeled, finely grated
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened
4 large Eggs, room temperature
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (or the stuff out of the bottle)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated ginger (need the real thing here)
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
FOR THE CRUST
1/2 cup toasted pecans
8 graham crackres, finely ground
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp, salt
Make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pulse pecans in a food processor (or other blender type) until finely ground. Place in a medium bowl with graham crackers, and stir in melted butter, sugar and salt. Wrap the outside and bottom of 9 inch spring-form pan in 2 layers of foil. Press crumb mixture firmly into the bottom of pan. Bake until golden brown around the edges and firm; about 15 minutes. Let cool on wire rack. Reduce oven temp to 325 degrees.
Make the Cheesecake: Melt butter in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add carrots and 1/2 cup sugar and cook, stirring often, until carrots are soft, 3-4 minutes. Transfer with pan juices to a bowl and let cool.
Beat the cream cheese and remaining cup sugar with a mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add carrots and pan juices, nutmeg cinnamon, ginger, salt and vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Pour into crust.
Set springform pan in a large roasting pan. Fill roasting pan carefully with enough water to reach halfway up the sides of springform pan. Bake cheesecake until set, but still slightly wobbly in center, 80-90 minutes.
Lift springform pan out of roasting pan and place on a rack, remove foil. Let cool. Refrigerate uncovered at least 6 hours or overnight. Run a hot knife around edges of cheesecake to loosen, then remove sides of pan. Decorate with marzipan carrots just before serving.
I cheated on the marzipan. The original recipe (a Martha Stewart) called for what sounded like a fairly complicated way to make this decoration. I simply bought a tube of marzipan paste at the grocery store. Made the little carrots by pulling off a small piece of marzipan and forming with my fingers and then rolled the “carrots” in orange sugar. Since the marzipan (almond paste) is not real sweet, the colored sugar added just the right touch. I then decorated the tops with small pieces of mint and added a few jelly beans in the center just for fun! Here is the cake on its serving platter.
Next, I’m going to tell you about my Nanna’s Lemon Sponge Pie, which is really a pie/cake/pudding combination all in one. I wish I had a picture of this pie, but don’t. I usually decorate the top of the pie with small violets or pansies whose color (and flavor!) contrast nicely with the deep yellow of the pie. I like almost anything lemon and this pie dressed up with flowers is a lovely dessert for company. It is also very yummy served with an ice cold small glass of Limoncello.
NANNA’S LEMON SPONGE PIE
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. butter
Yolks of 2 large Eggs, save the whites
Beat these 3 ingredients together.
Add juice and zest (make sure to grate only the yellow part of the lemon rind; the inner white layer can be bitter) of one large lemmon, and 3 Tbsp. flour. Mix all together. Fold in the beaten whites of the 3 Eggs and pour into a pie crust. I sometimes cheat here and buy a prepared, raw, ready to bake crust. Of course it is not as good as homemade, but this frozen version is often better than my own…as I said earlier, baking is not my strong suit! Bake 3/4 of an hour in a slow oven; just make sure the crust is nice and brown. As the pie cools, a pudding-type consistency forms on the top and the bottom of the pie is cakier because of the addition of flour. Interesting texture!
Don’t you love the old recipes. They say things like ‘slow oven’ instead of 325 degrees; or measure butter by saying, ‘add butter the size of an egg’. Nanna often served this pie on Sunday when our whole family each week would gather for a big noon-time meal with Nanna and Grampa. We loved these visits!
The last recipe I will share today I made recently for my dear friends, Dennis and Diana on the 24th anniversary of their first date. I had never made it before, but will definitely make it again. Happy Anniversary Love-Birds!
For the Tart Dough:
1 large egg yolk
1 Tbsp. heavy cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups white flour, plus more for dusting work surface
2/3 cup confectioners suger
1/4 tsp. salt
8 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
For the Pastry Cream:
2 cups Half & Half
1/2 cup sugar
5 large egg yolks
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
4Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
For the Topping:
2 large kiwis, peeled, sliced
1 cup blueberries
1 cup strawberries
1/2 cup raspberries
Or any fruit you choose
To make the tart shell, whisk together the egg yolk, cream and vanilla in small bowl; set aside. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Process briefly to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour mixture; process to cut the butter into the flour (this can also be done the old-fashioned way by drawing 2 butter knives through the butter/flour mixture until the butter is about the size of small peas–the food processor is much easier!) until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 15, one-second pulses. With the machine running, add the egg mixture and process until the dough just comes together, about 12 seconds. Turn the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press into a 6″ dish. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 48.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Let stand at room temp until malleable (I like that word!). Unwrap and roll the dough out lightly on floured surface to a 13 inch round. Transfer the dough to a 9 inch tart pan and remove the excess off the top. Set the dough-lined tart pan on a large plate and freeze for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 375. Set the dough-lined tart pan on a baking sheet, press a 12 inch square of foil into the frozen shell and over the edge, and fill with pie weights. I used a 1# bag of dry beans which did the trick. All you are trying to accomplish here it to keep the dough from bubbling up as it bakes. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating halway through the baking time. Remove from the oven and carefully remove the foil and weights. Continue to bake until deep golden brown, 5-8 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
To make the pastry cream, heat the Half & Half, 6 tbsl. of the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat until simmering, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Combine the egg yolks and remaining 2 tbsp. sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until the sugar has begin to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds. Whisk the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds.
When the Half & Half mixture has reached a simmer, slowly add it to the egg yolk mixture to temper (you don’t want to scramble those eggs), whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Return the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter and vanilla. Strain the pastry cream through a fine sieve set over a medium bowl. (You can skip this step, but it does make the cream finer, more velvety.) Press plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours and up to 2 days.
To assemble the tart, spread the cold pastry cream evenly over the bottom of the tart shell. Arrange the fruit on top of the pastry cream as desired.
Happy Anniversary D&D…may you enjoy another 24 happy years together!
My teeth are starting to ache with all these sweets and I think I have gained 5 lbs. writing this. When we were kids, our hot-lunch lady, Mrs. Hayes, used to tell us she got fat on the smell of the food she cooked. I think I just got fat writing about it!
Desserts can and should be enjoyed; just not every day. When you do have them, I recommend you NEVER feel guilty as that spoils the flavor!
SEE YOU AGAIN SOON TO ENJOY MORE TASTY TREATS AND