Red, White & Blue Berry Cheesecake for 4th of July

Raspberry, Vanilla and Blueberry Cheesecake | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

I’m not sure anyone would describe me as a perfectionist? My house is neat enough, but it is clearly lived in.  I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who irons my sheets, my table clothes or even my clothes, but so far it’s just a fantasy. The only place I admit to being really obsessive is my work. I’ve been known to make a recipe over and over and over, until I am happy. It also has to pass the test of the François family, which can often feel like an episode of Chopped. They are neither shy, nor sparing with their criticism (and praise), but it seems they enjoy the criticism even more and I’ve come to trust and rely on their opinions. So, when I cut into the first round of this blueberry cheesecake, they didn’t hesitate to tell me it was “WAY TOO SWEET!” None of us are a big fans of cloyingly, teeth-on-edge, sweets.  We prefer to taste the vanilla, the berries and even a touch of sour cream in cheesecake.  After a bit of adjusting and a lot of testing, I’ve got it “Just right!”

Red (raspberry), white (vanilla bean) and blue (blueberry) layers of distinct flavors, all work beautifully together in this 4th of July Cheesecake. The fresh blueberry topping is held together with just enough gelatin to give it a gorgeous, glossy look and makes it easy to cut. In order to achieve the clean layers you’ll need to have some time to let each one set, so it isn’t a recipe for a last minute dinner party. It’s super easy and completely worth the extra time to present such a fun dessert at your holiday party. Read More

Black Velvet Apricot Upside Down Cake (Gluten Full and Gluten-Free Versions)

Black Velvet Apricot Upside Down Cake (Gluten-Free Version included) | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

Recently I stopped at Whole Foods to pick up some stinky cheese and taste-test all their gluten-free crackers, for research. On the way to the cheese counter these velvety little apricots shouted across the room at me and I was powerless over their beauty. I am a little embarrasses to say that I wasn’t familiar with Black Velvet Apricots, which have the deep color of plums, the lusciously soft skin of a peach and the glorious flavor or an apricot. What will nature think of next? I have seen them in other stores recently, but none are as deep in color or as juicy as the ones that Whole Foods is sourcing. These came from California, because nothing this gorgeous, ripe and flavorful is being grown locally, yet. The growing season here in Minnesota is just in its first days. Maybe come August we’ll be plucking fruit from trees.

I am not gluten-free, as you may have guessed from the content of this blog, but I am doing more and more g-f baking. I have several friends who are celiac or have gluten sensitivities, so I’ve been experimenting with making tasty treats for them. I dove into the mysterious world of g-f baking when we decided to add gluten-free breads to our books. As a baker it was like being blind folded and set into a pantry of products I ‘d never used before. Just the kind of challenge I love. Once the terror subsided I realized that this stuff can be just as easy and tasty as baking with wheat. I have been passing off breads, cakes, cookies and more to my family, none of whom need to eat a gluten-free diet. If they can’t tell the difference, then I know I’ve got this down, because they are super critical of everything I make. I’ve spoiled them.

The cake is inspired by one of my favorite pastry chefs, Karen DeMasco. The upside-down cake is a classic for good reason, but she has made it even richer with almond flour and lots of brown sugar. I’ve made some changes to her recipe, but the essence is still hers. This is one of the few recipes I’ve made, so far, that is an easy switch from gluten full to gluten-free, in fact it is exactly the same recipe. I used the Thomas Keller product Cup 4 Cup All-purpose Flour for this cake. I really like this product for this cake, but find it doesn’t work so well in many of my bread recipes. The only problem with this flour is the price, but it is worth it for something so delicious and you could never buy this cake for so little money. This is how I justify it to myself.

Black Velvet Apricots | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François Read More

Homemade Fresh Strawberry Jello for Mother’s Day

Homemade Jello With Strawberries Recipe | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

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 homemade jello 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. Read More

Pineapple Quesito (Puerto Rican Breakfast Pastry)

Pineapple Quesito and Coffee | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

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!  Read More

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

Lemon-Lavender Meringue Tarts | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

These lemon-lavender meringue tarts 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:Whipped meringue | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

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… Read More

Puff Pastry Pears

Puff Pastry Pears | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

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. Read More