Tag Archives: Dessert

Don’t Laugh. Don’t Even Snicker(doodle).

“I need to bake cookies on Wednesday night,” she said. “And maybe a cake.”

We’ve been hooked on The Great British Baking Show (or …Bake-Off, as it is known everywhere but in America), and it has improved both the quality and quantity of our baked goods, but need seemed rather strong a word. I asked for clarification. She explained that she was going to interview a bunch of young people on Thursday, and thought bringing some treats might make them a little less nervous about telling their stories.

Cookies. And maybe a cake. On Wednesday night, when she wouldn’t arrive until well after 7. Before catching an early train on Thursday. It just seemed impractical to leave the work for her. Especially when I’ve been working from home lately.

I took a late-morning break and looked around the kitchen. I figured I’d start with the cake. I was not thinking about the fact that she dislikes baking cookies and I should have left the cake for her; really, I was thinking I could get a cake into the oven and while it baked I’d sort out the cookie situation.

We had apples and ginger, so a recipe I found in the New York Times seemed like a good place to start with the cake. I might have misread it, or maybe my apples were larger than the ones the recipe was expecting, because it came out very apple-filled. Nothing wrong with that; it took a little longer to bake than the recipe said, but it looked fine and smelled better.

Time for cookies. I was pretty sure nuts were off-limits, considering the possibility of allergies; and I knew we didn’t have any chocolate chips. And I didn’t have forever. Sugar cookies? No, too dull. Snickerdoodles. Lovely, soft cinnamon-covered beauties. The cinnamon would go nicely with the spices in the apple cake. I followed the recipe precisely.  I checked the oven thermometer twice. I put 8 perfect little dough balls  on a half-sheet pan, put the pan in the oven, and set the timer for 5 minutes–half of the allotted baking time, after which the pan was to be rotated. I opened the oven door and found to my dismay that all the cookies had melted together.

Whoops. 8 must have been too many.

I scraped off the pan, washed and dried it and let it cool, took the dough out of the refrigerator and tried a batch of 6. And they pooled together, too. Maybe 4? and on the insulated cookie sheets? Another glob.

It should be noted that these cookies tasted great. They just had no structural integrity. I saved what I could of them, even tried cutting perfect circles of them with a biscuit cutter, but they just wouldn’t hold shape. I was not going to send misshapen, crumbly cookies to work with her.

I tried again the next morning, with a recipe from her favorite cookbook. Why didn’t I think of that in the first place? Because, as it turned out, it didn’t matter. They melted together, too. I don’t know what was going wrong, but I was surely glad that I was home alone and the cat doesn’t mind hearing a little cussing from time to time.

By the end of batch number 2, I had a big container full of Tasty But Ugly Snickerdoodles, and I had run out of time. Unless she really wanted to stay up late on Wednesday night, trying again, store-bought would have to do. She dropped me at home to start making dinner while she went to the market.

After dinner, she sliced and packaged the cake. Whatever I did, it was wonderfully moist and spectacularly ginger-y. I did not steal a piece to find this out; my sample was from one of the scraps. The cake was a hit with the older kids, she reported on Thursday night, and the little ones loved sprinkle-covered sugar cookies. Good enough for me.

On Sunday, we had tickets to see a production of the musical Hairspray that friends of ours were doing—at the same theatre where, a year ago May, she asked if I might like to marry her. We planned to pack a picnic, as usual, but the week got away from us and there wasn’t much time left. “What say we order a pizza from the Awesome Shop, and pick it up on the way?” She agreed readily. We had a quick text-message exchange with the couple who were joining us for the show—no anchovies, no garlic—and decided what to do about dessert. I did not have the emotional fortitude to try another batch of snickerdoodles, and I wasn’t going to take the bin of broken ones…

But I could use them to make a pie crust.

And I did.

Chocolate-Marscapone-Cherry Pie with Don’t Even Snicker-doodle Crust

For the crust
Crumble failed snickerdoodles in the food processor until you have at least 2 cups; pour into a large bowl.
Add 1/3 stick melted butter (no need to add sugar). Stir to combine.
Press moistened crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, leaving at least a 1-inch high rim.
Bake until golden brown; cool completely before filling.

Filling, adapted from Bake or Break
Melt 8 oz. chocolate, chopped (I used 3/4 dark, 1/4 milk). (I did it in the microwave on low power, stirring ever 30 seconds or so). Cool the chocolate slightly.
While the chocolate cools, whip in a stand mixer 8 oz. marscapone cheese, softened.
Add the cooled chocolate and 2 tbsp cherry preserves to the cheese; stir to combine.
Spoon the filling into the cooled pie crust and chill for 2 hours.
Serve with whipped cream. If you’re at home, this should be home-whipped, and topped with shaved chocolate. If you’re going on a picnic, don’t make your self crazy: pick up a can at the market on the way.
Accept compliments graciously. And enjoy the show.
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We hear that Bake Off is changing networks, and losing its two charming hosts and the more delightful of its two judges. Ah, well. We’ll still bake.

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Traditions

Two more layers of creamy goodness will top this lemon-covered shortbread. Talk about gilding the Easter lily!

My grandmother had a pre-wrapped gift box. I’m sure it had once been a beautiful thing, but by the time I came to know it, it had seen better days. Its glittered and flocked exterior showed plenty of wear. The ribbon wrapped around its lid was more than a little frayed. The bow formed by that ribbon would never be as pretty and puffy as when it was new.  But every Christmas, it came out of her closet, and was filled with a token gift for her youngest son, my uncle. And on the day after Christmas, she’d take the box back and put it back into her closet to wait for the following year.

After she passed away, my mom found the box and continued to use it for her baby brother’s Christmas present–which was usually a small batch of his favorite cookie, wrapped carefully in plastic so it didn’t damage the box. (The rest of the cookies were presented in a more practical container, usually a zip-top bag.) As time went on, those orange flavored cookies with a faint orange glaze might not even have been my uncle’s favorite, but they were tradition.

My grandmother’s recipe collection is in storage while renovations on the Country House are underway. This might not be her exact recipe, but it’s close.  While she was living, nobody but my grandmother baked the orange cookies; then, only my mother did. One of my cousins does it now for her dad.

We don’t have many solid food traditions here. Turkey on Thanksgiving, sure. But we’ll have fried rice on New Year’s Eve, or popcorn for Christmas, or pancakes any night of the week if that’s what we feel like doing. That might change; we’re still figuring things out.

Her aunt–who is as much like a big sister to her as anything else–is known in the family for her lemon squares. They’re requested for every big family occasion, and nobody else makes them. Her aunt gave us the recipe–not because she’s handing over the reins, but because we’re far enough away that we aren’t encroaching on her turf. I’m honored. And delighted. I made a batch last Easter, surprised that I so enjoyed a recipe that had ingredients I’d never otherwise use: Cool Whip? Pudding Mix? I’m a from-scratch guy! 

When we were invited to a friend’s home for Easter dinner, her aunt’s lemon squares the first thing it occurred to us to bring. We tag-teamed: I baked the shortbread crust before I left for rehearsal; she took it from there. Creamy, tart, and addictively delicious, they were of course a hit.

I’ve seen variations of the recipe on lots of sites, so I don’t know that her aunt invented this treat; it seems to be a family tradition that only she made them.

And now we do, for Easter. Pudding and Cool Whip. Life is full of surprises. And unexpected traditions. I think I’ll bake some orange cookies at Christmastime. I’m looking forward already to next Easter.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box--but it's every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box–but it’s every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

It Doesn’t Take Much

A friend of mine used to work in the food business–by which I mean he was an owner of some restaurants in Philadelphia, and had helped Julia Child publish one of her cookbooks. On matters of food I trust his views. When we were working on a dinner theatre project once, and I was trying to wrap my head around the per-customer price of napkins, and getting schooled in why green beans made more economic sense than tossed salad, he said something I’d never thought of: “If dessert is satisfying, they’ll forgive anything.”

Obviously we were hoping never to serve a bad meal, but I took that advice to heart. Something luscious can save the day. And if the day doesn’t need saving–if things are already going well–it’s the metaphorical cherry on top of the seven-layer cake.

But it doesn’t take seven layers, or a gigantic bowl of ice cream, to make a good last impression. When the ingredients are good, a spoon will do.

An inch-square piece of brownie, cut into two triangles. A strawberry, hulled and thinly sliced. Two dabs of vanilla ice cream. A few drops of mulled-wine syrup drizzled overtop. One luscious mouthful. One bit of sweetness to end the meal.

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We never opened the dinner theatre, as it turned out. That town was far more interested in another bar and another supermarket than in what we had to offer. Just as well. I’d rather make One-Spoon Sundaes for a small gathering than a big crowd.

Mulled-Wine Syrup

This recipe can be scaled up, but it’s perfect for using some leftover wine. 

1-1/2 cups red wine
1 tbsp mulling spice (packaged, or a combination of dried spices: cinnamon stick,  clove, orange peel, allspice)
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)

Put the wine in a saucepan over low heat. Put the spices in a tea strainer (metal or ceramic, not plastic) or tied up in a small piece of cheesecloth or tea bag and add to the saucepan.
When the wine is warm, add the sugar and stir to dissolve.
Continue to simmer 20-30 minutes or until the wine is reduced to 1/3 or less.

Use the syrup to top ice cream or cake, or add a small drizzle to a glass of seltzer, ginger ale, or sparkling wine.

Endings Are Hard

Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life is the story of a 40-year-long relationship, from the day Erika and Vicky meet until what well be the last elevator ride they share. Its chronology is shuffled, though, shown in what might be an associative manner–one fragment of conversation leading to another that happened years earlier or later. It was enormously well performed by two strong actresses on a simple set, supported by light and sound design that helped us follow the action forward and back in time. The play was fascinating for 60 of its 65 minutes, but my attention flagged in the homestretch. Since it was clear from early in the play that the relationship ends, late-in-the-play flashes to much-earlier moments diminished in impact. If there was a Crucial Moment that those late moments were supposed to illuminate, I missed it. This particular elevator ride didn’t seem important enough to be the Big Finish–certainly not paralleled with the skydiving scene that was interspersed with it. Or maybe I missed it.

Or maybe the point was to provoke discussion, which it did.  We walked from City Center to Grand Central, considering the production and the play’s structure, the believability of the fictional characters’ relationship, and comparing them to couples we knew, and to us. (We came out favorably ahead, I am pleased to say.)

The last play we’d seen in that theatre was similarly fascinating–funny, creative, and thoughtful–until its last five minutes, when the writer or the director or somebody decided what the play needed was a truly weird finish, like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner where the pumpkin pie crust is made from beach sand and Vaseline.

Endings are hard, we agreed. So are beginnings and middles, for that matter, but especially endings. It’s that last image that stays, the one that lingers as you leave the theatre. Or the table: you can get the appetizers wrong and foul up the main dish, but a terrific dessert will save the day. We weren’t grumpy about Bright Half Life, not even unsettled, but unsatisfied.

We turned down 43rd St., and found Baskin-Robbins still open. We ordered chocolate milkshakes. Nothing too complicated, nothing weird. We got the ending right.

Taking Turns

She’d been reading The Long Winter for comfort in the wake of the ice-dam damage, then turned to her other favorite we-can-make-it-through-hard-times book for dinner inspiration: “Mom’s Version of Great Grandmother Matilde’s Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut.” Savory, sweet, sour, earthy and very sustaining.

Potatoes would go nicely with with pork, but we’ve had them a lot lately. She suggested a salad, and I agreed readily. (I always say yes to a pile of vegetables.) She’d done the marketing and presented the best bagged salad I’ve ever encountered: romaine, cabbage, kale, and shredded carrot, topped with sunflower seeds, a little crumbled bacon, and a citrus vinaigrette. We finished our shared bowl, and I asked if she’d like more.  Her eyes widened, and the Girl Who Doesn’t Like Vegetables Much said, “There’s more? That’s the best news all day!”

She didn’t, in fact, want more salad at dinnertime, but was delighted to know that we could have it again sometime soon. I’d send the rest with her for lunch, but she tends to eat salad only if she thinks she’s stealing it off my plate. That wouldn’t work at the office.

This was very much a taking-turns weekend.  We were seldom in the kitchen together, and we didn’t do a lot of elaborate cooking–as befits a weekend full of work and unexpected household setbacks–but we ate well, and will continue to do so all week: toasted muffins and fruit; pasta al limone; scrambled eggs with asparagus and tomatoes; soup and toast; pork chops and many vegetables. Leftovers and sandwich fixings are in the fridge; granola and banana bread are cooling on the counter. We’ll be fine.

I brought dessert to our guest-room campsite: tiny sundaes served in small wine glasses, a riff on profiteroles using donut holes as a substitute for cream puffs. She giggled at the sight of dessert in wine glasses.  That was precisely the desired effect.

Sometimes I cook, sometimes she cooks, sometimes we cook together. Sometimes someone else entirely does the cooking. That’ll be the case tonight, before we attend a Big Fancy Theatre Event. I’ll meet her at the office, and we’ll figure it out from there.  Pancakes from a diner, Thai take-out, a slice of pizza as we walk to the theatre–who knows?  We need food as fuel, to be sure, but it’s the company that really matters.

A small, sweet ending to a busy weekend before a stressful week.

A small, sweet ending to a busy weekend before a stressful week.

How Firm a Foundation

A slushy, messy snowstorm began just as it was time to head out for Sunday afternoon errands. March was arriving like a very frosty lion. Still, we made all the stops we needed: groceries, pet supplies, and a new sink for the powder room were acquired without incident. In fact, our trusty Prius fared better than many all-wheel drive vehicles we saw sliding around.

Home and safe, unloaded, we set to work.

She stirred together a marinade of soy, Worcestershire, garlic, and spices in which a small London Broil was bathed.

I chopped aromatics while she browned some sausage; then the vegetables sautéed in the drippings. She added beef stock, water, and a simple-and-tasty red wine, red lentils, shaved carrots, and probably a spice or four.  The whole lot simmered, then chopped kale was added. Half an hour later, she asked how it looked.  I fought off the urge to stop what I was doing and eat the entire pot.

I’m not sure which spices or herbs she’d added to the soup, because I had moved onto my next project.  Strawberries had been on sale, but in a larger container than we usually buy. “Well, you could make shortcake for dessert,” she said. She may have been kidding, but I thought it was a good idea.  Besides, there was a little cream left in the fridge, and there is a new immersion blender. Whipping the cream was a snap. I added a little powdered sugar and a drop of vanilla to the whole batch, served a bit of it sprinkled with cocoa powder as a treat for her, and stowed the rest in the fridge.

I made a batch of biscuit dough, dividing it in half and adding a little sugar to one portion. I was improvising, here, because I had forgotten that the actual shortcake recipe is slightly different than the one for biscuits. I patted out each section of dough and used different sized cutters to differentiate the ones for shortcake from the unsweetened biscuits. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make a breakfast sandwich on a sweetened biscuit, but the first bite might be a little strange. Both sets came out well, though a little darker than I’d intended, due to an oven-timer-setting error.

She scrubbed and roughly chopped some potatoes and set them to boil. When they were tender, she drained the pot, added butter and sour creme, and “smashed” them with a potato masher.

“Should I do the lamb now?” she asked.

Ground lamb, cooked in a tiny amount of oil and spiced heavily with cinnamon, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and paprika, will be topped with toasted pine nuts and accompany a batch of hummus made from the chick peas that spent hours in slow cooker. Scooped with bits of pita or crackers or really good toast, it’s one of our favorite Middle Eastern dishes.

I said she should go ahead. The kitchen was so fragrant by this point that one more batch of something wouldn’t make me any more likely to swoon than I already was.  Besides, I was pretty sure that once we cooked the steak, the day’s cooking events would be all over. Better to delay gratification a little and finish our homework.

She cooked and drained the lamb, and set it aside to cool, but we decided to make the hummus another day. She went off to fold a load of laundry while I turned my attention to tonight’s dinner.

I heated the cast-iron skillet, adjusted the temperature of the still-warm oven to 325F, and removed the steak from its marinade. It wasn’t a huge steak, but it was too long to fit in the skillet.  She cut it in half using the chef’s knife she was still holding after washing; she washed the knife again–probably the sixth or seventh time it had been washed during the afternoon–then dried it and finally put it away. I seared the steak on both sides, then slid the skillet into the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. And checked to be sure I had set it correctly.

While she folded a load of laundry, I got the chef’s knife again to trim a bunch of asparagus–then washed and dried it and put it away again again. The asparagus was wrapped, burrito-style, in a moist paper towel, and microwaved for a minute. We reserved a quarter-cup of the marinade when putting the steak in the rest of it; this reserved portion went into a skillet to reduce and be fortified with a bit of butter. While the sauce-to-be did its thing, I washed, hulled, and sliced some strawberries–using a paring knife for a change–and sprinkled them with a little sugar and a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Halving the steak had a side benefit: I could cook the halves to different temperatures.  The rare side came out and was tented with foil to rest while the rest stayed in the oven for another few minutes. When the second half came out and began its rest, I stirred the pan juices from the steak into the sauce, wiped the skillet and used it to slightly brown the par-cooked asparagus.

It was, at long last, dinner time, and the first time either of us sat down in many hours. We had juicy, spicy sliced steak, a mound of smashed potatoes, a lineup of intensely green asparagus spears. And the makings for lunches and quick dinners for days to come.

We enjoyed a little Sunday evening television, pausing during what would have been a commercial break save that we watched streaming video rather than broadcast TV for dessert assembly and kitchen tidying.

Late nights of work and rehearsal, takeout food, and exhaustion had left us a little dietarily grumpy last week. We had resolved that this week would be better, and Sunday was the foundation on which that resolution would stand. We didn’t end up listening to the audiobook she’d suggested. I’m sure there are plenty of things we didn’t get done, but we also didn’t cook so much food that anything is likely to go to waste. Even if we weren’t completely ready to face every challenge the week might present, we were well-fed, and we had spent the day in each other’s company. The snow might have stopped falling by this point.  We didn’t look.

All the Things

All the things: (Back row) Sausage and kale soup, chickpeas, spiced lamb, shortbread and biscuits. (Front) London Broil (rare and well-done), steak sauce, smashed potatoes, pan-grilled asparagus, whipped cream, macerated strawberries.

Every night does not warrant a fancy dessert. All things in moderation. Especially moderation.

Every night does not warrant a fancy dessert.
All things in moderation. Especially moderation.

Blended

It’s February, the thermometer hasn’t seen a temperature above 30 for a week, and the heat pump isn’t functioning properly.

So we had milkshakes.

We’d gone to exchange some shirts I’d bought in the wrong size and stopped to browse in the kitchen section on the way out of the store. Amid all the kitchen implements we had in our blended kitchen, neither of us had brought a blender. There had been talk of blenders at Christmastime, but we hadn’t found one we really liked at a price we also really liked. Although the idea of a high-powered, do-everything machine has some appeal, we’re not convinced we want another large appliance. Besides, we don’t crush ice all that often, and I’m not sure that homemade peanut butter is any better than store-bought.  An immersion blender seems the better option for pureeing soup and mixing the occasional milkshake. It seemed possible that the Cuisinart model we saw was exactly what we needed. The price was certainly appealing. We brought it home, stopping at the dairy store for ice cream, along with milk and eggs–snow was predicted, after all.

That morning, we’d put sauerkraut, kielbasa, chopped apple, and a little caraway seed in the slow-cooker. It was almost ready; there was just enough time to turn some leftover mashed potatoes into pancakes to go along with the kraut-und-wurst, and to sauté a few green beans and tomatoes, just because. It was not a heavy meal at all, but hearty and warming.  Maybe a little more caraway next time; maybe a little celery seed, too.  But overall, no complaints.

Halfway through an episode of Sherlock, we paused for dessert. She is unconvinced that the blender is comfortable to hold, so she scooped the ice cream and poured the milk; I did the blending.  The new machine works perfectly, though I see her point about its handle being a little thick.  We’ll give it one more try; if we’re still not happy, it goes back to the store. As is her custom, she drizzled chocolate sauce down the side of the glasses before pouring in the milkshake. As for Bailey’s or Kahlua or Starbucks liqueur, we passed: these were straight-up delicious ice cream treats with no “adult” components needed.

One might argue that the depth of winter is not the right time for a cold dessert. She might say that’s a matter of thermal regulation: putting cold inside when it’s cold out makes sense to her. If milkshakes make us want to snuggle tighter under a blanket while finishing our movie, that’s a good enough reason for me.

Chocolate shakes in a vanilla kitchen: the new backsplash is installed!

Chocolate shakes in a vanilla kitchen: the new backsplash is installed!