Lavender Crème Brûlée

Lavender Creme Brûlée from ZoeBakes, photo by Zoë François

Crème Brûlée was the first French dessert I’d ever had in a restaurant. When I was in junior high school, I’d take the train into NYC from CT to visit my aunt. She was fashionable, impossibly sophisticated and took me to lavish meals at restaurants that were way over my head, at the age of 13. When I dipped into the creme brûlée I was instantly aware that this was an adult experience. I felt like I was playing grown up and was certainly aware that I was participating in something special.

The texture of crème brûlée like velvet, because it is made with egg yolks, which make it rich and creamy. Unlike it’s custard cousins, flan and creme caramel, the crème brûlée doesn’t get inverted, so it doesn’t need the strength of the egg whites to hold it’s shape. It is made in a shallow ramekin, so it can be partnered with just the right ratio of burnt sugar. The gossamer thin layer of caramel cracks like glass, but the contrast to the custard below is the perfect yin and yang of the pastry world. In truth creme brûlée is so simple to make, despite it’s reputation of the opposite. There are a couple of tricks to guarantee success and I show you them in my instagram video.

I bought a lavender plant for my kitchen and can think of no better place to use the perfumed plant, than in a custard. You want to use enough to scent the creme brûlée, but not so much that it tastes like the perfume counter at Bloomies (another stop on my trips into NYC). You can flavor your creme brûlée with lavender, tea, spices, coffee, or just about anything else you can steep in the cream. See my instagram video to see how I did this.

Lavender Creme Brûlée from ZoeBakes, photo by Zoë François

Lavender Crème Brûlée

1 quart heavy whipping cream

1 vanilla bean, scraped or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch salt

10 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers or 12 fresh stems of flowers (see my instagram video)

Berries and lavender for garnish

Heat the cream, vanilla bean, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, salt, and lavender over medium heat, until it comes to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover and allow to steep for at least 30 minutes, but this can be done the day ahead (stored in the refrigerator) for a more intense flavor. Warm the cream again if you’ve chilled it.

Preheat oven to 300°F

Mix the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a medium bowl. Liaison the warm cream mixture into the egg yolks. Strain the custard mixture into a measuring cup. Fill six 4-inch Crème Brûlée Dish. Bake the creme brûlées on a baking sheet filled with water, to create a water bath. Bake until the brûlées are just set, like set jello, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the temperature of the custard going into the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, but can be made a day or two ahead.

To brûlée the top, dust with sugar and caramelize the sugar with a Blow Torch or under a gas broiler (electric broilers don’t work well for this).

See my instagram video to watch me make, bake and brûlée the tops.

Lavender Creme Brûlée from ZoeBakes, photo by Zoë François

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Perfect Peach Pie with Lattice Crust

peach pie with lattice crust on ZoeBakes. Photo by Zoe Francois

When the peach season is a good one, and this year it is spectacular, it is best to keep peach pie simple. There is nothing more beautiful than a perfectly ripe, juicy, smooth, sweet peach, so don’t fuss it all up with too much extra stuff. This peach pie is really just peaches, a touch of booze, which is optional and some raw sugar (use brown sugar if you don’t stock raw). The trick is binding the peaches enough to keep them together in a neat slice, without adding so much starch that is gets gloppy. This is an art, rather than a science (that’s only partially true), because each batch of peaches produces a different amount of juice. I tend to go on the under-bound edge of the spectrum, so keep that in mind when you are making your filling.

If you happen to get your hands on a bunch of peaches and you want to make more than one pie, you can make the pie, freeze it and bake it later in the summer or even save it (if you have a really good freezer) for chillier weather, when you are desperate to remember the taste of summer.

You can watch me make this pie and I give more details on freezing a pie in my instagram videos.

peach pie with lattice crust on ZoeBakes. Photo by Zoe Francois

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Red Velvet Cake with Basket Weave

Red Velvet Cake is a decidedly Southern treat. According to the NYTimes it originated in Texas in the 1940s, but red velvet cake spread to the rest of the south and then found it’s way north. I first heard about it from my stepmother, who is from Alabama. Her mom made it for her when she was young and now I make red velvet cake for her at her birthday. I think this recipe, which is adapted from Sarah Kieffer’s white cake recipe from her book The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, is the best one yet. It is not a traditional take, but the results are tender and tasty, with a beautiful color. I just added cocoa for flavor and color, red food coloring (otherwise the cake is not red velvet) and a bit of vinegar to keep the color as cheeky as possible. I always pair red velvet with cream cheese icing (which is one of the classics), but if you are going to attempt this basket weave finish (see my video on instagram to watch how I did it) I would suggest going with a buttercream icing, which is much easier to pipe and less temperamental in a warm kitchen.

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Pavlova

This ethereal crown of meringue, filled with cream and berries is a Pavlova. The name comes from the ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who was performing around the world in 1926 and made a stop in the land down under. From there the details get a little fuzzy and no one is quite sure if it was a pastry chef from Australia or New Zealand who first made this dessert for her. It causes a heated debate amongst them if you declare it one way or the other, so I am staying vague on the origin. This is one of my favorite desserts, because I am a huge fan of meringue in just about any form. I love how it looks, how it tastes and the texture it lends. Pavlova, unlike other meringues, is made with vinegar and cornstarch, so the end result is crisp on the outside, but still has some tooth (chew) on the inside. Traditionally it is served with fruit, such as berries and passionfruit (that’s what is dripping off the edge) and whipped cream. I also added lemon curd, but there are no rules and you can fill this with whatever moves you.

To watch me make, shape and bake this Pavlova see my instagram video. 

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Tuscan Ricotta Tart with Peaches

Tuscan Ricotta Tart with Peaches. I’ve met so many incredibly talented and lovely people through Instagram. That’s where I first found Giulia Scarpaleggia (and her website Jul’s Kitchen), who lives and cooks in Tuscany. Her food is gorgeous and when she told me she had a cookbook coming out, I couldn’t wait to see it. The book is a beautiful guide to the Markets of Tuscany and the recipes they inspire, including this fresh ricotta tart (I added the peaches for a summer twist). The flavors are a classic combination from this region. I adore the food, the people, the terrain, the wine and the sweets of Tuscany. I’ve often fantasized about moving abroad and the Italian countryside is always first on the list.

This ricotta tart, caught my eye when I was flipping through the pages of Giulia’s book. Her tart, which she calls, Torta Squisita “exquisite cake”, is made with ricotta (I made it from scratch, which is so easy), chocolate, candied orange peel and a star anise flavored liqueur. It is quintessentially Italian. I happen to have some juicy, perfectly ripe peaches sitting on the counter, so I decided to top the tart with them. It is super tasty and an ode to summer, but it would be just as good without the peaches, served with a strong cup of coffee.

I made homemade ricotta for this tart and you can watch me make the super simple cheese and the whole tart in my instagram videos.

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Cherry Olive Oil Cake

Cherry Olive Oil Cake | photo by Zoë François

A family friend is Greek and sent me a honey from Ikaria. It is a little smoky and tastes of caramel. Bees never cease to amaze me in what they create. I wanted to bake it into a cake and decided to go with other flavors you might find on that Greek island. Olive oil, of course. It is best known for savory dishes, but I think it is beautiful in desserts. I like a fruity oil, but you can use an extra virgin if you don’t want anything too over powering. Lastly, but not least, cherries. Apparently they abound in Ikaria and they pair beautifully with honey and olive oil, so they were the natural pick. I used sweet cherries, but I think sour cherries would be even better and they are in season at the moment. You could use any other fruit you like and add them in the same way.

Watch the cherry olive oil cake come together in a video on my instagram page.

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