Friday, October 31, 2008


There are some culinary pleasures we just never forget. A few years ago I had the distinct enjoyment of tasting an incredible cookie called Ma'amoul. I’d never heard of this pastry before and it was so delicious I knew I had to learn more about it. We’ve all experienced how powerful food sense memories can be and this is one of mine.

There was something so simple yet so different about this cookie. As I researched lots of different recipes, I learned that it’s basically a combination of a very tender and crumbly cookie stuffed with chopped walnuts, a hint of spice and the exotic perfume of orange blossom water. It’s also commonly filled simply with dates or pistachios and rose water. Some versions of this cookie dough include semolina. I’ll be experimenting soon with that, too, as I love the texture it brings to pastry doughs.

The discovery of how to extract essential oil from flowers was made some time around the 10th century. Today hydrosols for culinary use are common. Orange blossom water is distilled from the fragrant blossoms of Seville oranges. If you use flower waters sparingly, they offer a hint of intrigue.

As you have probably guessed from the ingredients, Ma'amoul is a cookie that originated in the Middle East, specifically Syria and Lebanon. These little bundles of deliciousness are ordinarily shaped in a decorative wooden mold. I shaped mine by hand. If you have a favorite cookie stamp, you may want to use it here.

My riff on Ma'amoul starts with a recipe for a dough from Nick Malgieri that I altered with sugar, vanilla and salt. Then I worked from my sense memory of that Ma'amoul from all those years ago. If you love walnuts and the lightness of a tender melt-in-your mouth texture, this cookie is incredibly simple and unusually irresistible.

Bench notes:
- This dough is very easy to work with. Even as it warms, it still has great flexibility.
- 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.
- Since cinnamon and orange blossom water quality varies, taste the filling for flavor adjustments.

Makes 18

Cookie Dough

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


3/4 C walnuts
1/4 C + 1 t sugar
heaping 1/4 t cinnamon
zest of 1/2 orange
2 - 3 t orange flower water, to taste

Cut the cold butter into small cubes.

Place flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and mix. Add 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” thick, wrap and refrigerate to rest for a couple of hours or overnight.

Place the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and orange zest in the bowl of a processor and pulse just a few times to chop the walnuts into smallish pieces. Don’t over process. You want small pieces but not paste. Pour into a bowl and add orange flower water. Stir to combine. Taste for flavor adjustments.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.

To shape the Ma'amoul, portion the dough into 18 pieces and shape each into a ball. 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 pocket. 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 parchment lined tray. Press the top of the cookie gently to flatten slightly. Decorate with the tines of a fork or a decorative stamp if you wish. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate until completely chilled.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place 12 cookies on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a silpat. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. The cookies should not take on any color but the bottoms will brown a bit. Cool on a wire rack. Dust lightly with powdered sugar and savor with your favorite spot of tea.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Apple Crisp Ice Cream

Absolutely nothing says autumn like apples. Quintessential fall menus always include various versions of apple pie, apple crisp, apple tarts, apple streudel, tarte tatin. These are the most comforting desserts imaginable and we never ever tire of them. It’s not until the holidays come around that we’re even tempted by anything else.

Today I thought I’d have a little fun with the idea of a delicious apple crisp. I decided to put together an ice cream swirled with apples and top it with a crisp streusel. This combines the creamy texture of luxurious cinnamon ice cream, the soul-soothing bite of caramelized apples and the chewy crunch of baked streusel all packed into one fabulous bowl. Wowie. This is a very fun twist on our favorite slice of Americana. I think you’ll be very glad that apples are now proudly center stage.

Bench notes:
- This can be made over two days. Bake the streusel on day one and store in an airtight container. Make the ice cream base and chill overnight. On day two, sauté the apples, spin the ice cream and assemble.
- I added a tiny bit of oatmeal to the streusel because I’m on an oatmeal jag. I also love sliced almonds or pecans. Do your thing.
- Always be careful when working with caramel. It’s very hot and a tiny splash on your skin will hurt. Use a long-handled spoon to stir and stand back when adding liquids, especially if they are not at room temperature. Once the caramel is the right color, quickly add the butter, cream, water and apples to stop the cooking. This is all done off the heat. Return to the heat to finish cooking the apples.
- You may want to add a splash of rum or brandy to the apples that get added to the ice cream to keep them from getting too icy.
- There will be a little bit of leftover caramel sauce that has a wonderful apple flavor. I like to add a tiny splash of apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar to brighten it. It will keep refrigerated for a while.
- I used ground Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon, which is far more aromatic and stronger than regular Korintje Cassia cinnamon. Taste your base to see if it has the right strength.

Apple Crisp Ice Cream
Makes about 1 quart

Cinnamon Ice Cream

1 C milk
2 C heavy cream
1/2 C sugar
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 t ground cinnamon
5 egg yolks
1/2 t vanilla extract

Warm the milk, cream and sugar with the both kinds of cinnamon. Do not let the mixture boil. Turn off the heat and steep the spices for about 15 minutes or until you have the right flavor, tasting as you go.

Whisk eggs yolks and add some of the warm milk to temper, stirring constantly. Pour into the remaining milk, whisk and return to low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon and a finger traced through it leaves a clean track. Strain immediately into a clean container. Cool and chill thoroughly. If you want a stronger cinnamon flavor, leave the cinnamon stick in the custard.

Remove cinnamon stick and freeze according to your machine’s directions. Fold in the chopped apples. Pour into a clean container, press a piece of plastic wrap over the surface and place in your freezer to firm up.

Caramel Apples

2 Granny Smith apples
1/2 C sugar
1/4 C water
1 oz (2 T) butter @ room temperature
3 T cream @ room temperature
pinch salt

Peel and core apples. Cut into 1/4” slices and set aside.

Bring sugar and water to a boil and cook until it reaches a medium amber color. Take it off the heat and let it get a bit darker on its own. When it takes on a deeper amber color, add the butter then slowly add the cream. Stand back as it may sputter. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt. Swirl the pan to combine the ingredients. Add 2 tablespoons of water to loosen the mixture. Add the apples and swirl the pan to coat them.

Return to low heat and cover. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the apple slices are tender. Take off the heat. Remove the apples from the caramel and split into two portions. Set aside one portion and cut the remaining apple slices into bite-size pieces. Store the remaining caramel sauce for another use.

Streusel Topping

2 oz (4 T) butter @ room temperature
3 1/2 T brown sugar, packed
6 T ground almonds
pinch salt
pinch cinnamon
1/4 C + 2 T flour

Beat the butter with spatula until creamy. Blend in each ingredient. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour. Break up into pieces, spread on parchment and bake at 325 degrees for ten minutes. Stir and break up pieces and continue baking 5 – 10 minutes until well browned. Cool.

Warm the apple slices just a bit. Place a couple of scoops of ice cream in a bowl and garnish with apples and streusel. Ah, autumn.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Yeasted Plum Tart

Continuing along in my plum reverie, I stumbled upon another delicious recipe from Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz. We can see the fruit of the season narrowing but it’s still easy to find a few varieties of plums. And I think this is a great way to use them right at the moment.

Now I know some of you may feel some trepidation about working with yeast. It can seem like it has its own life. And it does. But it can also be easily mastered. You'll see that this recipe sets out to prove just that. And honestly, everybody has their weak spot. Some people resist working with chocolate or doughs or making a cake. I used to fear the caramel until I had to make it every day for months when I worked for a chef who used versions of it as a backnote in many desserts. It was astonishing what he could do with it. So just a couple burns and botched batches later, I slowly learned to understand how it works and it has become one of my favorite flavorings that can be used in multiple ways. Just keep your eyes and ears and nose open and you can figure out just about anything in the pastry world.

So this tart dough comes together with the snap of a finger. No scary temperature testing or wish-making. Just throw everything together and about 3 minutes later you’re done. Give it two hours to rise, layer some fruit and give it 30 minutes. Bake it and voila! A delicious little tart that is brimming with exactly the right amount of yeast, butter, vanilla, sugar, salt and of course blessed fruit. Snap!

Bench notes:

- This dough is very wet and sticky. If you have a pastry scraper, use it to scrape the dough into the prepared pan. Or a rubber spatula will work just fine.
- When it comes to finishing the tart, 1/4 C of sugar seems like an ungodly amount. But it does seem to be needed to sweeten the fruit just right.
- The tart is great with or without the sauce. If you make it, use a good fruity wine such as Zinfandel.
- The tart will keep for a couple of days.
- There are a number of ways to improvise on this. Use your imagination.

Yeasted Plum Tart

adapted from Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz
Serves 8

3 T whole milk
2 t (1 pkg) dry yeast (not instant)
1/4 C sugar
2 eggs @ room temperature
1 1/2 t vanilla
1 1/2 C flour
3/4 t salt
3 oz butter @ room temperature and cut into 1/2” pieces
5 medium plums (approx 1 lb), pitted and cut into 1/2” slices
1/4 C sugar

Red Wine Plum Sauce
1/2 C red wine
1 plum, cut into 1/4” pieces
1/4 C sugar
optional: 1 C raspberries or blackberries

Generously butter a 9 1/2” springform pan.

Stir together the milk and the yeast in a mixer bowl and then add in the 1/4 C sugar, eggs and vanilla. Using the paddle attachment to finish the mixing, add in the flour and salt and mix for one minute. Add butter and continue beating for another minute. Gather the dough into the prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm space to rise for 2 hours.

Dampen your hands a bit and gently press down on the dough, spreading to cover the bottom of the pan evenly. Arrange the plum slices in a decorative way over the dough, leaving a 1/2” border all around the edges. Press the plums down firmly. Sprinkle a generous 1/4 C sugar over the entire surface and let the tart stand for 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake the tart for 40 minutes or until the tart is lightly browned and the center feels slightly firm to the touch.

Bring the wine, plums and 1/4 C sugar to a simmer. Cook on low heat until plums are tender. Cool the mixture and puree.

Serve a slice of the warm tart with a generous helping of sauce.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Oatmeal Banana Cake

For those who love bananas and for those who love oatmeal, which is pretty much all of us, here is a snack cake that combines the best of both worlds.

If you’re on your way to a brunch and you need a pastry that’s fresh and not too rich, this might be just the thing. Or if you are yearning for something to go with a nice cup of tea on a rainy afternoon, this will do the trick. Only slightly sweet with a dense texture and a nice chewy bite, this cake will seem familiar enough to give you a satisfying indulgence without feeling like a terrible vice has been committed. But honestly, there's nothing old-fashioned bananas and oatmeal can't cure.

Bench notes:
- Banana is the central flavor, so the bananas have to be very, very ripe. They should smell like bananas and look pretty gooey. Ripe bananas will add the right levels of flavor, sugar and moisture to the cake.
- This cake will keep up to 3 days in an airtight container or sealed in plastic wrap. I think it tastes better the next day.
- Add pecans or walnuts to the topping if you'd like. I’ve also used a combination of sunflower, sesame and flax seeds in place of nuts for a nice textural alternative.

Oatmeal Banana Cake
Serves 8 to 10

4 oz (8 T) butter @ room temperature
3/4 C brown sugar
2 eggs @ room temperature
2 large very ripe bananas, mashed
1 t vanilla
zest of 1/2 lemon
3/4 C flour
1 1/4 C oats
heaping 1/4 t salt
1 t baking soda


3/4 C oats
1/3 C brown sugar
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t cinnamon
1 T flour
1/3 finely chopped nuts or seeds (optional)
2 oz (4 T) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare a 9” springform cake pan with butter and parchment.

Whisk together dry ingredients for the topping. Add melted butter and stir with a fork until crumbly. Set aside.

Whisk together flour, salt, baking soda and oats.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition.
Scrape down the bowl and add mashed banana and vanilla. Mix thoroughly.
Stir in dry ingredients until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and smooth out evenly.

Sprinkle topping over cake batter and press down gently.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out moist but clean. Cool completely on a wire rack. Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake and remove cake pan ring.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango

Coconut and mango always seem to evoke the warm sunshine and cool breezes of some faraway and exotic locale. You know, sort of like a vacation dream sequence filled with laughter and sunscreen. Well, now that we are firmly planted in the fall season, I thought maybe we should slip away for just a while to savor these great tropical flavors before the rain arrives.

Rice is the centerpiece of so many diets around the world. Rice desserts are also a mainstay in several cultures. I’ve talked about the beautiful Gâteau de Riz, which is a simple but delicious baked and caramelized variation on rice pudding, a kind of crème brulee of the rice family. Today I decided we should make a simple rice pudding that would serve as a postcard from our dreamy getaway.

Rice pudding is a cinch to make. It just needs to cook slowly with occasional stirring. If you like coconut, this version will have you wondering if it shouldn't be among the more comforting coconut desserts found anywhere in this world. The creamy texture, light coconut flavor brightened by lime juice and the unmistakable sunburst of mango is truly satisfying. Enjoy it as we dust off our umbrellas and tumble quickly into October.

Bench notes:

- This recipe calls for unsweetened coconut milk. I use the very reliable and widely available Thai Kitchen brand (regular, not lite).
- Arborio rice is a white short grained rice grown in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of northern Italy. It is typically used for risotto, so the end result is a thick and very creamy pudding.
- When the pudding has finished cooking, add the lime juice to taste and be sure to adjust the salt, which makes the whole dessert come together.
- The pudding is best when served the same day. It can be refrigerated, but it will thicken considerably.

Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango
Serves 6

1/2 C Arborio rice
2 cans (14 oz each) unsweetened coconut milk
generous pinch of salt
1/2 C sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split open and scraped
1 C milk
juice of 1 lime
2 ripe mangoes, peeled and diced

Cover rice with hot water and let sit for 1 hour. Drain.

Mix rice, coconut milk, salt, sugar and vanilla bean and bring to boil. Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 - 1 1/2 hours or until mixture reaches desired thickness and rice is done. Add milk throughout last 1/2 hour of cooking and stir more frequently to prevent scorching as the pudding absorbs most of the liquid. Remove from heat and add lime juice to taste and adjust salt. Cool. Serve with fresh ripe mango tossed with any remaining lime juice.