Friday, November 27, 2009


In the wonderful realm of fruit and cheese combinations, it's back to the basics. It doesn’t get any more fundamental than pairing the wonders of Membrillo and Manchego from Spain.

Membrillo is a sweet paste made from cooking and caramelizing fresh quince. There is so much natural pectin in quince that it forms a thick paste when it is combined with sugar and cooked slowly over low heat. Membrillo takes a bit of time to prepare, but it keeps well for quite a long time. It also makes a great gift for your cheese loving friends.

Manchego is probably the most famous cheese from Spain and readily available just about anywhere. It’s made from sheep’s milk and has a firm, crumbly texture and an ivory color with a flavor that is piquant, buttery, salty and nutty. It’s made on the plain of La Mancha, sharing territory with our fictional Don Quixote. It’s sold at various stages of aging: fresh, known as Manchego fresco; moderately aged, known as Manchego curado; and Manchego viejo, aged up to a year. The rind always bears the characteristic basket weave pattern.

In some regions, the combination of Manchego cheese and Membrillo paste is known as Romeo and Juliet. It’s a wonderful exercise for the imagination to entertain the origin of this application with each fabulous bite. In this case, I’ve added a pinch of sel gris and chili powder to pique the flavors and take this storied couple out of Shakespeare’s quaint countryside and into the spicy mystery of Iberia.

Bench notes:

- Membrillo also goes very well with lots and lots of other cheese, such as chèvre, Garrotxa or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- Raw quince are quite hard, so be careful when peeling and cutting into them. Use a very sharp chef’s knife and a non-slip work surface and watch your fingers. I find it easier to core if they are first cut in quarters.
- If you don’t have a scale, you can use volume measurements to roughly determine the right amount of sugar.
- If you love quince, you might also enjoy Goat Cheese Flan with Poached Quince or Quince Pound Cake.


4 – 5 fresh quince
juice of 1 1/2 lemons
equal weight or volume of sugar to pureed quince
salt to taste

To poach the quince, put enough water to cover the quince in a large pot and add the juice of one lemon. As you peel and core each quince, cut them into quarters and place them in the lemon water to keep the oxidation at a minimum. Bring the quince and lemon water to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the quince are tender and easily pierced with a fork, about a half hour or so. Drain completely and cool a bit, then puree the cooked quince in a food processor.

Prepare an 8” square pan with enough parchment for a short overhang on two sides.

Weigh the quince puree and add nearly the same amount of sugar. I had 780 grams of puree and added 700 grams of sugar. Add the juice a half lemon and a pinch of salt and stir the mixture to combine.

Cook the quince puree over medium low heat, stirring the whole pot routinely to prevent scorching. The mixture will bubble and thicken and caramelize, becoming thicker as the steam evaporates and darker as the mixture reduces and the flavor intensifies. Cook for about an hour or so, until you have a very deep bronzy orange color. Take off the heat and taste for additional salt.

Pour the quince paste into the prepared pan and let cool and set up. Membrillo can be stored for quite a long time. I wrap mine in parchment, then tightly in foil and keep in the refrigerator. Serve with your favorite cheese, Serrano ham, toasted nuts and a nice Cava or some delicious Albariño or Rioja.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pecan Pillows

It’s hard to resist the rich buttery goodness of toasted pecans, especially during the holidays. These cookies are my idea of a cozy pillow of pure pecan luxury nestled inside a light and crumbly cookie. I stick with a few simple natural ingredients so the cookie isn’t too rich or gooey. I think they have just the right measure of sweetness and satisfaction for a deliciously simple but unforgettable little pastry.

This is a very forgiving dough. It comes together quickly in a food processor and after a bit of a rest in the refrigerator, it is very easy to handle even as it warms up at room temperature. The pecan filling doesn’t contain any extra fat and can be prepared in a food processor with just a few pulses.

It's time to bake! This is a dreamy formula for the winter season that will remind you just how much pleasure a cookie platter can bring.

Bench notes:
- To toast pecans, spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in a 350 degree oven for about ten minutes, stirring them a couple of times to prevent burning.
- I use a small ice cream scoop #40 (the #40 refers to 40 scoops per quart) to portion the dough. This makes the job very quick and easy.
- For a wonderful and very intriguing walnut version, try Ma'amoul.

Pecan Pillows
Makes 18

Cookie Dough

1 3/4 C flour
3 T sugar
1/4 t salt
6 oz (12 T) cold butter, cut into small cubes
2 T milk
1 t vanilla

Pecan Filling

3/4 C toasted pecans
pinch of salt
3 T brown sugar
2 T + 2 t honey
scant 1/4 t cinnamon
zest of 1 orange
1/4 t vanilla

To prepare the dough, place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a processor and mix. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is in pieces the size of small grain rice. Combine milk and vanilla and add to the flour butter mixture. Pulse just until the mixture starts to clump. Remove and place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap. Pull it together to finish blending and smoothing out. Pat it into a circle about 1” think, wrap and refrigerate to rest for a couple of hours or overnight.

Place the pecans, salt, brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and orange zest in the bowl of a processor and pulse just a few times to chop the pecans into smallish pieces and blend the ingredients. Don’t over process. You want small pieces but not paste. Pour into a bowl and add vanilla. Stir to combine.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit for a bit just until it's malleable.

To shape the cookie dough, portion into 18 pieces and shape each into a ball that is about 1 1/2” in diameter. Take each portion and push your thumb in to form a cup for the filling. Continue to press it out with your thumbs to form a somewhat flattened open pocket about 2 3/4” in diameter. Place about a good half-teaspoon of filling in the center. Gather the ends and press them together to seal the cookie. Roll gently in your palms to even out the shape and place seam side down on a small parchment lined tray. Press the top of the cookie gently to flatten slightly and shape. Wrap the formed cookies with plastic and refrigerate until completely chilled.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or silpat for about 20 to 25 minutes. The cookies should not take on any color but the bottoms will brown a bit. When they are done, they will move easily without any resistance when nudged with your fingertip. Cool on a wire rack. Dust lightly with powdered sugar.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chocolate Prune Cardamom Cake

This is a cake for the season. It combines the deep earthy comfort of cocoa and bittersweet chocolate with the haunting warmth of cardamom and the tart pleasure of dried fruit. And what a heavenly irresistible combination it is.

This cake is for anyone who loves the deliriously happy co-mingling of chocolate and spice and especially for those with a freaky fear of prunes. Fruit in all its forms is such a luscious element in pastry and here the dried plums add a great layer of chewiness and a wonderfully complex backnote of flavor. Factor in the supreme moisture of the cake and the silky texture of the glaze and you have a true treasure.

These ingredients were made for each other. The prunes are steeped in Earl Grey tea until softened. They lend a tart and acidic amplification of the chocolate as does a hint of lemon zest. The cardamom brings just the right level of mystique and helps to create such a complex yet balanced flavor profile that you won’t be able to keep yourself from taking another bite. It's rich without being heavy and the soft aromas that emanate from the oven will brighten your kitchen with enough temptation to bring in a whole host of wandering visitors.

This is one of those old-fashioned cakes that can be mixed in one bowl in just a few minutes. Once it’s baked and cooled, simply pour the glaze, let it set for a few minutes and serve. And bid adieu to any well-honed discipline or restraint. This is a cake made for its delicious unbridled enjoyment.

Bench notes:

- The prunes are steeped in a cup of unsweetened Earl Grey tea just until they are soft and pliable. They should still hold their shape and not be mushy. Drain them completely and discard or enjoy the liquid. As the cakes bakes, the chopped prunes will sink to the bottom to form a nice textural layer.
- I used regular undutched cocoa powder for the cake. I dusted the finished cake with dutched Valrhona cocoa powder and some ground cocoa nibs.
- To prepare the glaze, pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let the mixture sit for two or three minutes before stirring so it has a chance to begin to melt the chocolate. Then stir slowly to prevent the mixture from cooling down too fast so you're not left with any lumps.
- Corn syrup adds to the viscosity and shine of the glaze. I rarely use corn syrup and often substitute honey, but in this preparation it is a very small amount and I didn't want anything to interfere with the flavor of the cardamom.

Chocolate Prune Cardamom Cake

3/4 C prunes (about 20)
1 C water
2 t (or 2 tea bags) Earl Grey tea
1 C cake flour
1 1/2 T cocoa
1/2 t ground cardamom
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 C canola oil
3/4 C + 2 T sugar
1 egg @ room temperature
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 C buttermilk @ room temperature
1 t vanilla

Chocolate Cardamom Glaze

3/4 C heavy cream
1 T corn syrup
5 cardamom pods
6 oz bittersweet chocolate

dutched cocoa powder for dusting (optional)
ground cocoa nibs for dusting (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare an 8” x 2” cake pan with a light coating of oil and a parchment paper circle.

Boil the water, add the tea and let steep. Chop the prunes into about a 1/2” dice. Remove the tea bags, add the chopped prunes and set aside for about 1/2 hour until they are softened but still hold their shape. Pour into a strainer and drain off all liquid.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, cardamom, baking soda and salt.

Whisk together the oil, sugar and egg until smooth and well blended. Add lemon zest, buttermilk and vanilla. Slowly sift in the dry ingredients, whisking until fully combined. Fold in the drained prunes.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 35 – 38 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Cool cake in pan for 10 minutes. Run a thin bladed knife or small metal spatula around the edge of the cake and turn out. Peel off the parchment and invert the cake to cool completely on a wire rack.

When the cake is cooled, prepare the glaze.

Chop the chocolate into very small pieces and place in a medium bowl.

Bring the cream and corn syrup to a simmer. Crush the cardamom pods and add to the cream. Take off the heat, cover and let steep for about 1/2 hour.

To glaze the cake, place the cooled cake on an 8" cardboard round or removable tart pan bottom. Return the cake to the cooling rack and place over a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Strain out the cardamom and reheat the cream until just about to the boiling point. Keep your eye on it because it will spill over if left to boil. Pour the cream over chopped chocolate and let sit for about 3 minutes. Then stir slowly and gently, starting in the middle until thoroughly combined and then working outward in concentric circles until the mixture comes together.

Glaze the cake, pouring quickly in the center and around the edges. If necessary, tap the baking sheet on the work surface to encourage the glaze to run down the sides of the cake. Just as it begins to dry, run a small spatula around the underside of the cardboard round to smooth the bottom edge and prevent “feet” from forming. Let glaze firm up a bit before serving.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pumpkin Gingerbread Ice Cream

At this point in time, pumpkin pie and gingerbread are among the many treats dancing through our thoughts, especially since they only seem to come around once a year.

This began as an experiment to deconstruct pumpkin pie. I had ideas about what I could do with luscious pumpkin and shards of buttery caramelized pâte brisée crust, but let’s face it, there really isn’t anything that can rightfully take the place of the simple iconic satisfaction of a pumpkin pie. But still wanting to mix it up a bit, I decided to blend the spicy warmth of both pumpkin and gingerbread in a soothing seasonal ice cream. It’s a rich custard base with a chewy bite of ginger and that touch of molasses that reminds us that we are surely heading into the middle of November.

Bench notes:
- This is a half recipe for gingerbread and can be baked ahead and wrapped or stored in an airtight container. You’ll only use about half for the ice cream so you’ll have a few bites leftover.
- It’s very important to taste for salt once the pumpkin, vanilla (and rum if using) is thoroughly mixed into the custard. Salt will really make the flavor pop, so keep adding a few grains at a time until you can tell the difference.
- When making a crème anglaise, do not let the mixture boil. Stir constantly and make sure you’re scraping the bottom of the pan continuously to distribute the heat and keep the mixture from becoming scrambled eggs. Pull off the heat if it starts heating up too fast.
- Now is a really good time to take inventory of your spices and replace any that may have lost their mojo.

Pumpkin Gingerbread Ice Cream


2 oz butter @ room temperature
1/3 C brown sugar
1 1/2 t peeled and grated fresh ginger
zest of 1/2 orange
1 egg @ room temperature
3 T molasses
3/4 C flour
1/4 t + 1/8 t baking powder
1/4 t + 1/8 t baking soda
1/8 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t ground ginger
1/8 t ground cloves
1/4 C + 2 T buttermilk @ room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare an 8 1/2" x 4 1/2” loaf pan with oil and a piece of parchment paper large enough to form an overhang along the length of the pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.

Cream the butter and brown sugar on medium speed for about 4 minutes until it is smooth and pale. Add the grated ginger and orange zest and beat 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the egg and continue beating until emulsified. Slowly pour in the molasses and mix thoroughly. The mixture will look like it’s broken but it will come together when the dry ingredients are added.

Alternately add a third of the flour mixture and half the buttermilk to the batter, starting and ending with the flour. Finish the mixing by folding the batter with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just absorbed. Do not overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and level the surface.

Bake for about 22 - 24 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.

Pumpkin Ice Cream

1 C heavy cream
1 1/2 C whole milk
1/2 C brown sugar
1/2 t ground cinnamon
scant 1/2 t ground ginger
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
1/4 t salt
4 egg yolks
2 T granulated sugar
1 1/4 C pumpkin puree
1 t vanilla extract
1 t rum (optional)

Combine the cream, milk, 1/2 cup of the brown sugar, spices and salt in a saucepan and simmer over medium low heat until sugar is dissolved.

Whisk together the egg yolks and 2 T granulated sugar until smooth. Remove the cream mixture from the heat and slowly whisk into the yolks just a little bit at a time until smooth. Pour the egg mixture back into the pan. Keeping the custard at a low simmer, cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and leaves a clear trail when a finger is drawn through it, about 4 to 6 minutes. Do not boil. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl.

Whisk the pumpkin mixture into the custard. Add the vanilla (and rum, if using). Taste for salt and keep adding until you have a bright flavor. Cool the custard, pour into an airtight container and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Freeze according to your ice cream machine’s instructions.

Pour about a third of the ice cream into a clean container. Layer with 3/8" slices of Gingerbread, covering the whole surface. Pour another third of the ice cream over the Gingerbread and smooth out the surface. Place another layer of Gingerbread on top of that and pour remaining ice cream on top and smooth the surface. Press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface, cover and place in your freezer until firm

To serve, scoop the ice cream and then let it sit for a bit to soften the Gingerbread.