Homemade Fresh Strawberry Jello for Mother’s Day

strawberry jello

Jell-O always seemed a bit like magic to me. Add water to the brightly colored, sugary powder and in no time it’s solid and giggles like a good belly laugh. The problem is, the stuff in the box tastes like congealed, watered-down kool-aid. There is no actual fruit involved, just artificial color and flavor. Luckily gelatin desserts have earned more respect in the past decade with the popularization of panna cotta and other sophisticated, intense flavors, like wine and espresso. The best part of using gelatin is being able to create sexy shapes out of a liquid. Panna cotta just wouldn’t be the same if it was a puddle of custard on a plate. Knowing how to work with unflavored gelatin properly means you can set a liquid, without having it bounce like a rubber ball. You want to use just enough to keep its shape, but still have a smooth, luscious feel. This dessert is nothing but pure, ripe, sweet strawberries pureed and set with a bit of gelatin in a fun mold. A bowl of perfect strawberries and cream is nice, but when you present this regal dessert to your mom, it will take her breath away and she deserves that. (more…)

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Pineapple Quesito (Puerto Rican Breakfast Pastry)

Pineapple Quesitos | ZoeBakes

This is a Quesito (Ke-see-toe) and it is delicious. Seriously, it is so perfect in its simplicity; flaky puff pastry wrapped around sweetened cream cheese and buttery pineapple. And it’s beautiful, in a shabby chic kind of way, nothing fussy, just rustic goodness with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. The best thing is that you can whip this together in about 5 minutes and instantly satisfy your craving for something sweet. I’ve made them three times for breakfast since I returned from Puerto Rico. You see, I am desperately grasping to my memories of being there. I just returned, less than a week ago, and already I miss it. It was paradise, which is enough to make one long for its sandy shores, perfect weather, gorgeous waters, friendly people, and the discovery of Puerto Rican pastries like Mallorca and the quesitos. But, returning to Minnesota and having to shovel my car out from the snow, in APRIL, was frankly, more than I was mentally prepared to handle. So, I make quesitos, shut my eyes, hold a shell to my ear and pretend I am still lying on the beach.

Puerto Rico | ZoeBakes

You can too!  (more…)

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Lemon-Lavender Meringue Tarts (The difference between French, Swiss and Italian Meringues)

lemon meringue

These may seem a little upside down, we usually think of the meringue piled high above the lemon filling, not the other way around. This is a simpler twist on the classic, but all the same tangy-sweet allure. The best part is there is no crust to deal with, which makes them lighter and faster to make. The meringue shell is whipped until it is as light as air, spooned into little clouds and baked just until they are set, but still slightly soft in the middle. Once cooled they’re topped with lavender scented lemon curd. The tartness of the curd is always a perfect match for the sweet meringue, and a bit of lavender creates a gentle floral touch, without going overboard. It tastes like spring, which I am desperately in need of on this April day, when we’re anticipating a snow storm.

A brief meringue primer…because so many desserts call for them and it can be just a touch confusing which type to use. There are three different types of meringue, with three distinct characteristics and three countries laying claim to them:meringue tarts 01

1. The simplest is the French meringue, which is just egg whites with sugar sprinkled over them as you whip them to peaks. If consuming raw egg whites makes you nervous, the French meringue needs to be baked to make the egg whites perfectly safe and keeps them from deflating. There are also pasteurized eggs whites on the market that eliminate any fear, but I find they don’t whip up quite as well. It is the least stable and most likely to be over whipped, but the fastest and easiest to prepare of the three types. It helps to create a lofty, shiny French meringue by starting with room temperature egg whites.

2. The Swiss meringue is made by heating the egg whites and sugar together over a double boiler until all the sugar melts. This process cooks the eggs enough to make them edible without having to bake them and gives the meringue great strength. It CAN be baked (its what I used for these tartlettes) or used to make buttercream, mousse or toasted meringue topping.

3. An Italian meringue is the most stable of the three types, but also requires the most effort to create. A sugar syrup is heated to about 242°F on a candy thermometer and then very carefully poured over whipping egg whites. This creates a very stable meringue, which will hold up in a buttercream, toppings for pies and folded into mousses or Baked Alaska.

You could make these tart shells using any of the three techniques, and it may be interesting to try them each way. For this particular go of it, I chose a Swiss meringue and here’s how… (more…)

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Puff Pastry Pears

Everything tastes better wrapped in puff pastry. Just like bacon, it makes everything near it better, no matter if the filling is sweet or savory. It’s the thousands of little layers of dough and butter that bake up together into a gorgeously flaky package. Last week I poached a bunch of pears in chai tea, then drizzled them in chocolate. They were delightful and will make a terrific Thanksgiving dessert. But, then I got to thinking about how those luscious pears would taste if they were encased in puff pastry and served warm with the ganache. Well, they rock. I suggest you serve the poached pears for Thanksgiving and then wrap the leftovers in the pastry to bake up warm for breakfast the next morning.

Puff pastry is one of those things that I think is just fine to buy if you are trying to save time. However, if you have a long weekend with nothing else to do, go for it and make your own. You will join the ranks of the proud, brave souls who can boast that they’ve survived homemade puff pastry. Just kidding, it really isn’t difficult, just time consuming, but well worth the effort. Having said that, you can find it in the freezer section of your grocery store. (more…)

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Chai Poached Pears and Sorbet

poached pears

This is the perfect dessert for Thanksgiving dinner. It can be made days ahead, doesn’t require any oven space and is decadent with flavor, but light enough to follow your Thanksgiving feast. The poaching liquid is homemade chai; a blend of sweet spices and black tea. Once the pears are finished poaching, the liquid can be chilled in an ice cream maker to serve as sorbet. A drizzle of chocolate ganache gussies up the dessert and makes it look like something you fussed over, even though this is one of the easiest desserts to create. No one needs to know that!

Be sure to pick firm, unripe pears for poaching. The harder the pear, the longer it will take to poach, which means it has more time to soak up the flavors of the chai. Slow poaching is key to great flavor. (more…)

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Homemade Jam, Jelly and Preserves!

homemade jam

It is nearly August and I am almost settled in my new house. By settled I mean the boxes are thinning out and I can find my toothbrush, but there is a long road ahead of construction and plaster dust. I seem to remember my husband saying, some many years ago, that he would never live in an old house again. So, today, when I write to you from the living room of our new- very old house, built in 1902, I have to smile at what lies ahead and what a patient man he is. The house we bought was broken up into apartments and there is no way to get to the bedrooms on the second floor without leaving the house…at no point did we stop to think this was a bad idea. Instead, we moved in and figured we’d have a staircase built eventually. Then there is the matter of having 3 tiny kitchens on 3 different floors, which on paper seems luxurious, but in reality you really want all your kitchen equipment on one floor. So, we are faced with ripping out the kitchenS and starting new. This may strike the casual observer as being stressful, since I still have 3/4 of my kitchen “toys” in boxes and no certain plan. But, I remain convinced this was a good idea. Then it occurred to me that it is nearly August and I haven’t fulfilled a promise to myself…this was to be the summer I started canning and making jelly, jams and preserves. It just isn’t going to happen for me this year, but that shouldn’t stop any of you from doing it. In fact, it would be almost as good to live vicariously through your adventure with jars. And, if my friends and jam mentors Barb, Suvir and Jennifer, care to give me some of their bounty as house warming gifts, I will have my spoon at the ready, as soon as I find that box.

For their recipes to make Blue Ribbon Jam and Canned Blueberries… (more…)

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