Poached pears were the symbol of a sophisticated dessert when I was a kid. Not that we ever had them, but I saw them standing tall on the pages of Gourmet magazine and always thought how magical it would be to eat something so beautiful. They’re just so elegant and complex and generally boozed up with wine. I poached these in a chai tea cider mixture and they are just as satisfying without the buzz. The cake is spicy with a kick of freshly grated ginger and tons of warm spice from cloves and cinnamon. It’s by no means an overly sweet cake, which is how I like them. The molasses gives it color and that edge of bitter that I love. I’ve made it using more molasses and I love it, but I mellowed it down by adding some brown sugar to the mix. I think this is a perfect Thanksgiving dessert!
The dacquoise is a delicate cake layer that is sadly under used by home bakers. It is a cousin to a pavlova, but has the richness of nuts. It is made of French meringue that has nuts (almond meal and coarsely crushed roasted almonds) folded into it and baked in a thin layer. The dacquoise is crisp and used to add a sweet, nuttiness to your cake layers or can be used all on its own. I’ve piled the layers high with whipped cream, lemon curd, mixed berries and topped the whole thing with shards of white chocolate painted with edible luster dust. Without the chocolate it is really a very simple dessert, but if you are going to a party it’s nice to fancy it up a bit.
The patriotic colors and summery flavors combine to make this white chocolate berry tart the perfect 4th of July dessert. Red raspberries, white chocolate pastry cream and blueberries top an almond shortbread crust. Add a dusting of confectioners’ sugar and you have an easy, yet elegant pastry. Given the holiday I made the tart in a rectangular pan to mimic the shape of the flag, but it also works well in a more traditional round pan or even as individual tartlettes. Later in the summer try this same dessert, but switch the berries for fresh peaches or plums.
My story with sugar is long (my whole life long) and a bit convoluted. I was raised by hippies in the the 1960s. We lived on communes, as one did. Until I was about 7 it was really the only life I knew, so never struck me as unusual. It wasn’t until I started to attend school that I understood that my life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont wasn’t the way the whole world lived. It was sugar that was the first and most profound indication. I’d grown up thinking (being lead to believe) that raisins and other dried fruits were candy. I was perfectly happy with this, until I went to kindergarten and someone produced a Twinkie from their Mickey Mouse lunch box. WTH is that? I was mesmerized and completely distracted by this sweet smelling cylinder of cake. I must have convinced that kid to give me a bite and there began my obsession. It became my life’s work to get more of it. This was no easy chore, considering all I had to trade were peanut butter and honey sandwiches. And when I say peanut butter, I mean the kind we ground ourselves and honey from our bee hives, on bread my Aunt Melissa made from wheat we milled. Today that sandwich sounds like heaven, but wasn’t so popular with those kids eating Ho Ho’s and Twinkies. Every once in a blue moon I’d score something sweet and be amazed.
Eventually in college I went through a naturally sweetened phase. I couldn’t exactly admit that my parents had been right to deny me all the sugary snacks, but I found myself pushing them aside for honey and maple syrup. This was right around the time I started to bake and was really curious about how to make baked goods that were delicious and had a wonderful texture, without sugar. There weren’t a lot of people doing this, not in a graceful way, and I didn’t have the skills to make the recipes up. I eventually went to culinary school to figure out the food science behind baking, with a notion that I’d retool pastry with natural sweeteners. But, their pantry was stocked with sugar and I was too impressionable to resist. I loved what the sugar could do. I was fascinated not only by it’s ability to transform flavor, but it’s ability to take on structure. When heated to just the right temperature I could make candies, both hard and soft, or spin it into gossamer threads. I didn’t really look back to honey and maple, except as a flavor, until I had my boys.
You guessed it. I didn’t let them eat sugar until they discovered it on their own. Yep, I did exactly what my parents had done, and I was a pastry chef. They were little and just didn’t need the sugar, then they got bigger and had a similar discovery that I went through. I wasn’t as hard core about denying them sugar and how could I be, since I worked with it all day. I think I struck a healthy balance and my boys ate their fair share of sweets, but all homemade and I think they didn’t have a Twinkie until they could pay for it themselves and they weren’t as impressed as I had been.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love sugar and all that it can do. I also love playing with honey, maple, agave and other natural sweeteners. They have some nutritional value, true enough, but more importantly they are amazingly delicious. Back in the day, when I was going to culinary school, everyone there looked at me crosseyed when I wanted to make meringue without sugar. Now there are many books on the subject and I am creating all kinds of gorgeous treats that even my folks would have allowed me to eat in my commune days.
These Tea Cup Rose Cakes have no sugar. NO SUGAR! They are also gluten-free (not an issue for me, but is for many of my friends and readers), Dairy-free (if made as the recipe was written, but I did use butter). And, they are delicious and so beautiful, no one will ever know they’re remotely healthy.
These paleo stuffed apples are the perfect dessert for the week after Thanksgiving. I’ve personally vowed not to eat pie this week, although leftovers don’t seem to count. I doubt I’m alone in feeling like I may have overdone it a bit last week and my body is craving lighter fare. This feeling doesn’t hit me often; I often think my appetite for decadence is insatiable. So, I figure my body is telling me something and for once I’m eager to listen.
I have a wonderful mentor in all things Paleo. My friend and neighbor, Stephanie Meyer, of FreshTart, has been inspiring us all with her Autoimmune Protocol Diet for months. When she first went on this mind-bogglingly-restrictive diet I wept for her. She loves food and cooking more than just about anyone I know, and this diet seemed a cruel end to that love affair. Well, I was dead wrong. I found myself lusting after all of her AIP postings on Instagram and wishing I was eating that way too. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to eat just about anything I want, although I had a bout of dairy intolerance, which has thankfully mostly passed. Giving up cheese, yogurt, ice cream and all things custardy was no easy task for me, but I managed and felt better for it. You don’t have to be on a Paleo diet to love these honey sweetened stuffed apples. I made them to bring to a dinner at Stephanie’s house and didn’t feel as if I was giving anything up. In fact, who cares that they happen to be Paleo, they’re freakin’ awesome and perfect for a week of eating cleaner.
I started off thinking this Cherry Cheesecake was a Valentine’s post, with a heart-shaped sensuous cheesecake, topped with ruby-red cherry sauce. It still is, but I have to digress for a moment and talk about the Olympics. It is more connected and less random than you might think. When I was researching the origin of the cheesecake I found out, thanks the internet, that this favorite cake (which I think is really a custard, but now I digress in my digression) dates back to about 250 bc, where a Roman politician first wrote down the recipe. I am sharing it with you, because the translation is hysterical and I can only imagine the range in results with such crude instructions:
“Recipe for libum (cheesecake) – Bray 2 pounds of cheese thoroughly in a mortar; when it is thoroughly macerated, add 1 pound of wheat flour, or, if you wish the cake to be more dainty, ½ pound of fine flour, and mix thoroughly with the cheese. Add 1 egg, and work the whole well. Pat out a loaf, place on leaves, and bake slowly on a warm hearth under a crock.”
It goes on to talk about covering it in honey and poppy-seeds if you so desire. Even the “dainty” version sounds a bit severe to me. The editor who translated this couldn’t help themselves and added a note at the end that reads…”These recipes cannot be considered alluring.” They were, however, hearty and fed to the ancient Olympians during the games to keep them well fueled. Oh, how far we have come from the times when you had to “bray” (grind) cheese to get it soft enough. This rather utilitarian version of the cheesecake may have satisfied the ancient Romans, but today we are going for something a little bit sexier.
My cherry cheesecake is made with ricotta and a touch of honey, as a nod to the original Romans, but that’s as far as the similarities go. Just a touch of flour is used as a slight binder, but not so much as to ruin the luxurious texture. I whipped the egg whites and folded them into the cheese batter to keep it lighter than some of my denser, custard-style cheesecakes. The crust is crushed ginger cookies and the cherry topping is made with a hint of vanilla, cardamom and ginger extracts. This cake would keep any Olympian going, but it’s romantic enough to serve to your sweetheart on Valentine’s day.