Posts tagged desserts

It’s the Little Things

Over the years, I’ve revealed a few facts about myself on this blog. For example, I often mention my Italian-American upbringing and that I currently live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. You know that I’m married to a wonderful man named Jim, and that I join the local CSA every summer. Well, here’s another piece of information about me, albeit a bit more obscure: I have a fascination with small things.

Let me explain: In the back of my pantry, you’ll find an entire row of pint-size ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise jars. I used to collect sample packets of shampoo and hand lotion as a kid, and my Facebook photo is a picture of me eating a miniature creme brulee with a tiny spoon. Perhaps my obsession stems from the fact that I’m only 5 feet tall, I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, I’ve been fixated on little things for as long as I can remember.

On Valentine’s Day, Jim and I planned our menu around my small-sized fetish. A year ago we purchased two sets of Staub mini cocottes and promptly stored them away in the cupboard, forgotten. Cocottes are small cooking vessels, often shaped like Dutch ovens, that are suitable for individual portions of food. (Apparently cocotte is also the French word for a prostitute or promiscuous woman, but we’ll leave that discussion for another blog.) We pulled ours out from their dusty boxes on Valentine’s Day and finally put them to good use, primarily with the help of Le Creuset’s handy mini cocotte cookbook that we stumbled across during a recent trip to Pittsburgh.

First course
For the first course, we made French onion soup. Granted, the soup was first cooked in a big pot and then transferred to the tiny cocotte, but it fit the size requirement just fine. It was next topped with crusty bread, gruyère cheese, more onion, and baked in the oven for a few minutes. Hot and hearty, this soup was a cozy opening course on a chilly holiday.

Spinach souffles in mini cocottes

Second course
The next part of our tiny-themed meal arrived in the form of mini spinach soufflés. They had already started to deflate by the time I took this photo, and I’ll be honest, they weren’t the most successful part of our meal. We’re still not certain what went wrong; we beat the egg whites until they were stiff, and we followed the recipe closely. In the end the soufflés were a rather deflated and defeated mess of fresh baby spinach, eggs, and parmesan cheese.

Moving on from our soggy soufflés, we ended our meal with vanilla creme brulee, served in two small ceramic hearts that Jim bought for our first Valentine’s Day together. They were rich, creamy pick-me-ups after our disappointing second course. And of course they looked absolutely adorable.

So that’s the photographic tour of our Valentine’s Day feast. It was pint-sized all the way through, from start to finish. I’d love to eat out of these cute containers every day, but that would be impossible; my appetite is anything but cocotte-sized.

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A Rustic Fruit Dessert

Usually after a prolonged absence from the blog I take a few minutes to explain where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Well, this time is different, as I don’t have any excuses or stories to share. The simple and short explanation is that I got lazy, swept up in the easygoing vibe of summertime. I pushed the blog to the back burner and spent some quality time at the beach, computer be gone. But one look at the piles of fresh peaches and plums at the farmers’ market near my office last week quickly changed my attitude. The multiple baskets of tender stone fruit, bursting with their sweet, sticky juices, instantly awakened my urge for cooking, and yes, blogging.


I knew exactly what I wanted to make with this summertime bounty. During one of those relaxing afternoons at the beach (as I sat under an umbrella with my toes buried in the sand, of course) I came across a gorgeous-looking recipe for a stone fruit tea cake in Gourmet magazine. Published from a new cookbook called Rustic Fruit Desserts, this recipe seemed perfect for me and this sunniest of seasons: simple, forgiving, and filled with ripe fruit. 

The key to this recipe is in the dough. Instead of a traditional pie dough, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and eggs are combined into a loose, almost cream-like mixture. No rolling or painful dough transport required here, as I carefully spread half of the sticky dough into an even layer across my tart pan. After tossing the peaches and plums on top, I dropped the remaining dough in tablespoon-size pieces across the mounds of fruit, wherever I found room. This liquidy batter doesn’t follow any rules, but that’s what being “rustic” is all about, right? A sprinkle of brown sugar, 40 minutes in the oven, and my cake emerged. Bits of pink plums and orange peaches peeked through browned cushions of cake, promising a sweet taste of the season.


I brought the cake to a barbecue over the weekend, and all I can say is that if the rest of the recipes in Rustic Fruit Desserts are this good, then I have to run out and buy the book. Every bite revealed the inherent luscious nature of the fresh fruit, while the surrounding cake was light and airy in its own right. The recipe suggests serving this dessert with a dollop of cream, but we didn’t bother. Oh, and if you can’t tell, you don’t need to serve tea with this tea cake either. It is perfect on its own.

I didn’t change the recipe (except for substituting a sprinkling of turbinado sugar with brown sugar before baking), so I am not reprinting it here. You can access it in the August 2009 issue of Gourmet, on Gourmet’s website, or in the new cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts.

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Nunu Chocolates and a Bridal Shower


A maid of honor has numerous responsibilities. Some are emotional, such as keeping the bride calm and radiant on one of the most special days of her life. Others are more practical, like making sure all of the other bridesmaids are wearing the same color shoes. (Yes, it really does matter.) But perhaps the most crucial maid of honor responsibility is hosting a kick-ass bridal shower. A few weeks ago, I threw one for my younger sister Melissa, who is getting married in August.

For the favors, I turned to Justine Pringle of Nunu Chocolates in Brooklyn. I knew these handmade chocolates, with their creative fillings and shapes, from tasting them at the Brooklyn Flea last year. Pringle opened her own shop on Atlantic Avenue a few months ago, and that’s where I met her to discuss the favors. Tall, blonde, and extremely friendly, she asked me several questions about the upcoming wedding, my sister’s sense of style, and her wedding colors. We looked at different colored gift boxes and quickly came up with a plan for the package design. I knew within minutes that I had chosen the right person to create something special for my sister.

While I was originally interested in using Nunu’s chocolates because they tasted so delicious, I was also attracted to the story behind them. The chocolate ganaches, caramels, and other chocolate products at Nunu are totally natural, made from cocoa beans procured directly from a sustainable farm in Eastern Colombia. Being environmentally conscious has always been a strong theme in Pringle’s life, as she has a degree in Environmental Management and Technology, and worked in environmental waste management before turning to chocolate. Looking for unique merchandise to sell at husband Andy Laird’s music concerts, she studied at the Ecole Chocolat and started making chocolates. They soon became popular in their own right, and Nunu Chocolates was born.


For my sister’s favors, Pringle and I selected four different chocolates that demonstrated a wide range of Nunu’s flavors. I was immediately attracted to the salt caramels, whose gooey caramel center combined perfectly with the rich chocolate and crunchy salt on the exterior. The festive prosecco ganache was entirely appropriate for an Italian-American themed shower, while the floral earl grey and sweet organic raspberry ganaches calmly closed the day’s festivities. Unique and tasty, they were coveted by everyone who came to the shower.

Pringle will soon build a beer and wine bar, as well as a production kitchen, at her Atlantic Avenue shop. I can’t wait to stop by and relax with a selection of chocolates and a nice glass of wine, perhaps after Melissa’s wedding later this summer. Until then, a maid of honor’s work is never done.

Nunu Chocolates, 529 Atlantic Avenue, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, in Brooklyn. T: 917-776-7102. Check the website for ordering information and other locations that sell Nunu Chocolates.

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Vote for the King!

GetAttachment.aspxAttention all doughnut lovers! We’re taking a detour from our regularly-scheduled programming at Artichoke Heart to let you know about a fun contest over at Dunkin’ Donuts. You can help create the company’s next new doughnut, simply by clicking for your favorite design from 12 finalists. And we’re also here to shamelessly plug our favorite, called “The King.” It’s the brainchild of James Smith, the husband of one of my oldest friends. His dream doughnut is a Bananas Foster-filled treat topped with peanut butter icing and chopped peanuts. Yum! You can vote once a day until May 27, just by clicking here. Best of luck, Jim! Make sure you send us a free dozen when you win!

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The Tart That Changed Everything


A few months ago I made a firm and definitive statement on this blog: I don’t like yogurt. I told you how throughout my entire life I had attempted to make my peace with this sour dairy product by mixing it with granola or fruit, but to no avail. I simply hated it.

Well, today I am here to openly recant my anti-yogurt diatribe. I’d bow my head in shame except I’m so happy about my recent conversion I can’t hide it. And it’s all because last weekend I made Food & Wine’s glorious Honeyed Yogurt and Blueberry Tart. A smooth sea of honey-enhanced yogurt nestled in an electrically spicy graham cracker crust and dotted with plump, fresh berries has finally vanquished my yogurt-related negativity.

You may be asking why I would even attempt to make Food & Wine’s tart, given my professed aversion to the contents of its cool and creamy center. Honestly, I made this dessert because the recipe looked easy. All it requires is a quick whir of graham crackers, candied ginger, salt, sugar, and one egg white in the food processor. After being shaped into a tart pan, the crust is baked for a mere 20 minutes. (Actually, next time I think I will bake the crust for a few minutes less, as it was slightly overcooked and too crisp after 20 minutes.) The whole process takes less than half an hour and the crust can even be prepared the day before you plan to serve the dessert.

After mixing a few tablespoons of honey into the yogurt, spread the mixture into the cooled baked shell and top it with the blueberries. The slightly sweetened yet still tangy yogurt is perfectly complemented by the ginger-spiced crust and fresh berries. As I cautiously tasted my first bite, for once I was not overwhelmed by the sour flavors I usually associate with yogurt. It may have been the addition of honey that made the difference, or perhaps it was the powerful crust. Whatever the reason, I can’t wait to make it again when blueberries are actually in season. Try this tart. I promise, it will change everything.

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Valentine’s Day Hits and Misses

Poor Jim. February deals him a double whammy each year: First comes my birthday on the 9th, then Valentine’s Day less than a week later. To take some pressure off this celebratory one-two punch, instead of going out we cook dinner at home on Valentine’s Day. Some meals turn out wonderfully, like last year’s rack of lamb and chocolate pots-de-crème. This year was, well…okay. Let’s start with not-so-great and save the best for last:


The Miss: Greek-Style Braised Lambs Shanks
I knew I wanted to make some sort of braised meat for the main course. Doesn’t a slow-cooked, rich piece of red meat sound like the perfect foundation for a romantic meal? (Sorry, vegetarians.) I stubbornly thought so. Lamb shank, a tough cut that responds well to braising, had been on my to-cook list for a long time. I sent Jim off to the butcher with a wave and a smile while I looked for a recipe.

To my surprise, my cookbooks were no help, providing not a single recipe for my desired meal. I turned to the trusty Internet and came across these Greek-style braised lamb shanks. (I still don’t really understand what is so Greek about this recipe; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Greek about the dish apart from the lamb. Whatever, I’m not here to argue with Epicurious.)

I’ll cut to the chase: I halved the recipe from 6 shanks to 3, and in a dumb move I decided to reduce the braising liquid without reducing the cooking time. So, after 2 hours in the oven, my extravagant, Merlot-based sauce reduced down to almost nothing, resulting more in a roasted lamb shank dinner instead of the braised-meat-falling-off-the-bone-and-swimming-in-a-deep-romantic-sauce type meal I was hoping for.

Now I am also wondering if there was a mistake in the recipe, which instructed me to cook the shanks in the oven uncovered. Aren’t most braised dishes cooked with the cover firmly in place in order to prevent evaporation of the cooking liquid? The shanks tasted fine, but I have learned my braising lesson. Oh, we also made some lemon orzo and a spinach salad on the side. sorbet2Meh.

The Hit: Blood Orange Sorbet
Jim gave me a copy of Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook for my birthday, and we decided to break it in with the recipe for blood orange sorbet. Making this frosty treat gave me the opportunity to try yet another birthday gift I received, this time from my sister: the ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

As always, simple recipes yield the best results. After squeezing the juice from several crimson blood oranges, we mixed it with some (a lot of) sugar and threw the entire mixture in the fridge to cool. About half an hour later we put the ice cream attachment to work on the mixer. We didn’t have to lift a finger. The KitchenAid simply twirled away for about 20 minutes, and suddenly our fresh, sparkling dessert was ready. We placed it in the freezer for the end of our meal. 

And as I mentioned above, we truly saved the best for last. Cool, sweet, and simply pretty to look at, this refreshing sorbet cheered me up after my braising adventure gone bad. I can’t wait to see what other kind of sorbets and ice creams we come up with. Maybe I should start planning for next year. Jim, are you ready yet?

Recipe for Blood Orange Sorbet (adapted from Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook)

  • 6 medium blood oranges
  • 1 regular medium orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • fresh mint, for garnish

Wash 1 or 2 of the blood oranges and grate 2 tablespoons of zest from them. Halve and juice all of the oranges, discarding any seeds that fall in along the way. This will leave you with about 1 cup of juice. Put the orange juice and the zest in medium bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Refrigerate the mixture until it is very cold, around 40 degrees. Add the mixture to the ice-cream churner or machine. Churn the mixture until it starts crystallizing, about 15 to 30 minutes. You can stop churning it once it has reached your desired consistency. Transfer the sorbet to an airtight container and place it in the freezer until firm. When ready, scoop the sorbet into 2 bowls and garnish with fresh mint. (The sorbet can be stored in the freezer for 2 days.) Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Cooking with Yogurt: More Than a Snack in a Cup


As a teenager, I would browse through the shelves at the supermarket, picking out cups of yogurt infused with my favorite fruits. I’d get home, open a container, maybe mix in some granola. As I raised a spoonful of the creamy mixture to my mouth I’d think, this is it…I’m going to love yogurt.

Nope, it never happened. There was something about yogurt’s sour taste that always made me grimace and recoil from the container after a few bites. I knew it was full of healthy stuff like protein, calcium, and vitamin B. But no matter how hard I tried, I failed to make my peace with it and it has never been a regular part of my diet.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered that I enjoy the effect of yogurt in baked goods. It adds extra moisture and tenderness to muffins and cakes, and can be used as a substitute for high-fat ingredients such as sour cream. Best of all, its sour aftertaste is camouflaged by whatever I am baking it into. I’ve even used yogurt as a binder in meatballs with successful results.

Over the weekend I made Food & Wine’s Spiced Yogurt Muffins. In place of the low-fat yogurt called for in the recipe, I used skyr, a thick, non-fat yogurt that is actually Iceland’s most popular snack. Perhaps because of the thicker nature of the skyr, the muffins came out a bit denser than I expected. No matter, as they still retained the soft, spongy texture that I had been looking forward to; they were positively squeezable. Cinnamon, allspice, clove, and nutmeg combined with a bit of applesauce to create muffins as comforting as hot apple cider on a cold winter day.

I see infinite possibilities for these muffins: Next time I make them I think I’ll add some chopped walnuts, and perhaps I’ll substitute some whole wheat flour in with the white. Whatever I decide to do, I’m sure the yogurt will make everything taste great. I have finally found yogurt-related peace.

 Recipe for Spiced Yogurt Muffins (adapted from November 2008’s Food & Wine magazine)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups plain low-fat yogurt or non-fat Norwegian skyr
  • 4 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners. (Food & Wine suggests spraying the cups with vegetable oil. I skipped this step, and once the muffins cooled, I didn’t have a problem removing the muffins from the liners.)

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg in a large bowl. Whisk all of the ingredients together. Break up any large clumps of brown sugar with a fork.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, butter, applesauce, and vanilla. Gradually add the yogurt mixture into the dry ingredients until just blended.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Fill each cup halfway, as the contents will rise a bit during baking. Sprinkle the granulated sugar and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg over the muffins. Bake for 18 minutes. Cool the muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Enjoy!

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