Friday, December 26, 2008

Herme’s Viennese Chocolate Sablés

Pierre Hermé was trained in some of the best of the classic pastry kitchens of Europe, starting out as an apprentice to Gaston Lenôtre at the very young age of 14. Hermé has steadily built on those traditions over the years and nowadays he is mostly known for his big bold flavors and complex compositions. If you just glance at his cookbooks, especially the luscious The Patisserie of Pierre Hermé, you can see he is famous for his unending search for bright and contrasting textures and tastes and the beauty of his creations. So I was somewhat bowled over by the utter simplicity and delicacy of his recipe for Viennese Chocolate Sablés. To be sure, he learned the beauty of this lovely cookie while in service to Wittamer, the venerable Viennese pastry shop known for its dressed up mousse-laden sponge cakes, Bavarian creams and glimmering tarts. In his cookbook devoted entirely to the subject of chocolate, Hermé has added cocoa to the classic Wittamer recipe. Not a dose of heavy chocolate on the palate, it is instead a full sensation of dark earthy cocoa and the unmistakable power of butter transformed into an ultra delicate burst of fine crumbs in your mouth. A feather-light drift of snowy confectioner’s sugar adds to the velvety texture but allows the butter and cocoa to shine, an homage to the purity and simplicity of quality ingredients.

Be careful. These don’t survive any last minute packing for the road. But they are inordinately easy to consume on the premises.

Bench notes:
- If you can find Valrhona cocoa powder, it’s put to its best use in a recipe like this one.
- Hermé pipes these in the classic “W” of Wittamer's. (I used Ateco #9825.) You can pipe your own design of course - just be sure to make them approximately the same size.
- I baked mine for 10 minutes. They won’t be hard and should not take on any color on the top or bottom. They’ll set up fairly quickly as soon as they are out of the oven.
- Hermé suggests dusting them with confectioner’s sugar. I don’t think they need it, but you may find it desirable.
- These will keep for up to a week packed delicately in a cookie tin. I think they are better the next day.
- I’ve included the metric weights, preferable for a recipe such as this.

Viennese Chocolate Sablés
adapted from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé, written by Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 65 cookies

1 3/4 C + 1 1/2 T (260 g) flour
5 T (30 g) dutched cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
2 sticks + 1 1/2 T (250 g) butter, very soft
3/4 C + 2 T (100 g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
pinch of salt
3 T light beaten egg whites @ room temperature (lightly beat 2 large egg whites and measure out 3 T)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
Fit a pastry bag with a medium open star pastry tip.

Sift the flour and cocoa together.
Whisk the very soft butter until light and creamy.
Add the sugar and salt and whisk until fully incorporated.
Whisk in the egg whites.
Whisk in the flour and cocoa in three additions, stirring only until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Spoon about half of the dough into the pastry bag and pipe cookies that are about 2” x 1 1/4”, spacing them 1” apart on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until they are just set but are not hard or browned.
Cool on a wire rack.

Friday, December 19, 2008


In the annals of cookie baking, we all have our guarded favorites. Some of them are passed down through our grandmothers or aunties. Others are clipped from glossy magazines and stacked among yellowed newspaper clippings of years gone by. Some are tasted in distant and faraway foreign bakeries where we resolve to recreate them in our own kitchens, chewing slowly as we mentally calibrate the ratios of ingredients that might someday produce the right texture and unique flavor we hold in our memories. I can’t say that I remember where or when I tasted my first Lebkuchen Cookie, but it was love at first bite. It struck all of the favorite notes on my palate and for me, it is of the essence of this season. Deeply rich with spices, nuts, citrus and honey, cloaked in a veil of chocolate and crowned with a light glaze, these are among my very favorite cookies.

Since these delicious cookies are quite cakey in texture, this year I thought I’d see if I could make a Lebkuchen Cake. I think the Lebkuchen first baked by Medieval monks in the 13th century began as a cake, so I'm not too far off the mark. It does translate very well and comes together pretty quickly when you’d like a festive treat but perhaps don’t have the time to form, bake and decorate dozens of cookies. With all of these wonderful old world winter ingredients, this cake definitely brings the holiday spirit into sharp focus.

Bench notes:
- Since kuchen means “cake,” it’s a bit redundant to call this a Lebkuchen Cake, but I’m not sure how else to refer to it!
- This cake is not exceedingly rich, so would be a nice ending to any meal.
- The citrus element is really central. If you don’t have any candied orange and lemon peel, try adding zest.
- When blending the cream and chocolate for the glaze, 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.
- If you aren’t comfortable with glazing a cake, make more glaze than needed to be sure you can generously flood the cake. Use 1 C heavy cream, 8 oz chopped chocolate and 1 T honey or corn syrup. The extra can be retrieved from the parchment, rewarmed and used for dipping cookies or chilled and rolled into truffles.

Lebkuchen Cake
Serves 8

1 C flour
1/4 C hazelnuts
1/4 C almonds
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
2 T cocoa
1 1/4 t cinnamon
1/2 t ginger
1/4 t cloves
1/8 t nutmeg
1/8 t cardamom
6 oz butter (1 1/2 sticks) @ room temperature
1 C brown sugar
2 eggs @ room temperature
2 T honey
1 T cognac or brandy
1 1/2 t candied orange peel, very finely chopped
1 t candied lemon peel, very finely chopped

Chocolate Glaze

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3/4 C heavy cream
1 T honey or light corn syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush an 8-inch cake pan with butter and line the bottom with a parchment round. Butter the parchment and dust the bottom and sides with flour.

Place the flour, almonds, hazelnuts, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in a food processor. Process a couple of minutes until the nuts are very finely ground into the flour. Pour into a bowl.

Beat the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and cream the mixture on medium speed until pale, light and very fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding the next and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the honey, cognac, orange and lemon peel. Using a large rubber spatula, fold in the nut flour by hand in three batches, mixing just enough to moisten and blend. The batter will be quite thick. Scrape into the prepared cake pan and smooth out the top.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 26 – 28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin blade knife around the cake to loosen and invert. Flip the cake back over to right side up and cool completely.

To glaze the cake, place the cooled cake on a 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.

Chop the chocolate into very small pieces and place in a medium bowl.
Bring cream and honey or corn syrup to a boil, stirring to dissolve. Pour over chocolate and let stand a couple of minutes. Whisk slowly and gently starting in the middle and then working outward in concentric circles until completely combined.

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fresh Ricotta Ice Cream

I know we are all knee deep in cookie making, but if you are beginning to feel like you might want a fantastically delicious and soothing detour, I’d suggest making this quick and easy Fresh Ricotta Ice Cream.

This unusual recipe comes from Mary Canales, the owner of Ici, a fabulous little ice cream shop in the Elmwood District of Berkeley where all the products are hand made from organic ingredients. Prior to opening her business, she spent several years as the Pastry Chef at Chez Panisse, which is where I was very lucky to have met her. If you’ve ever had the supreme pleasure of eating ice cream at Chez Panisse, you know it’s some of the very best. Pure fresh ingredients and delicious lush flavors, it's everything ice cream is supposed to be. If you have never dined at Chez Panisse, you must do so someday. The food, ambiance, kitchen and wait staff are unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever known. And of course, be sure to make a stop at Ici.

This is a very unique ice cream. There are no eggs and no cooking since the base is not a custard. It’s very light and tastes purely of fresh ricotta. The texture is a bit flaky, which makes this a fun new sensation in ice cream. The few bits of pistachio, chocolate and candied orange peel are wonderful if you choose to add them. Yes, it’s a lot like having an incredibly fresh, cool bite of cannoli, something that’s often very hard to find outside of Italian neighborhoods. Magnifico.

If you have a few spare moments, I strongly urge you to make the recipe I've included for fresh ricotta. It really takes no time at all and the product is so superior to anything you could ever buy at the market. Honestly, the sensation of quality is immediate. Once you taste the difference, you may never go back to spending good money for very mediocre ricotta.

Bench notes:
- To fully enjoy the best of homemade ricotta, it should be used immediately but it will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days.
- You will need cheesecloth to make fresh ricotta, which you can find at most grocers and hardware stores.
- If you don’t make your own ricotta, look for a good brand. Mary uses half Bellwether Farms ricotta (coarse and tangy) and half Calabro ricotta (smooth and sweet).
- Strega is an Italian liqueur originating in the mid 1800s. It’s made from approximately 70 different herbs and spices and often used as a digestive elixir. Saffron accounts for its bright yellow color. I used rum in this version.
- If you don’t have chocolate, candied orange or pistachios on hand, the ice cream is very good on its own. I can also imagine it with fresh blackberry or raspberry coulis in summer. Or toasted almonds and honey or a very light caramel. Or a compote of quince or figs!

Ici's Ricotta Ice Cream

Makes 1 1/2 quarts

2 1/2 C whole-milk good quality ricotta
1 C sugar
3/4 t vanilla
zest of 1 lemon
pinch of kosher salt
1 C heavy cream, preferably not ultra-pasteurized
1 T Strega liqueur or rum, to taste
2 to 3 T each of chopped pistachios, candied orange peel and bittersweet chocolate, or any combination (optional)

Place fresh ricotta, sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and salt in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add cream and blend. Taste for the important balance of salt. Add Strega or rum to taste. Refrigerate until completely chilled.

Freeze in an ice cream machine. Add the chopped pistachios, orange peel and chocolate at the end. Transfer the ice cream to a freezer container, top with a piece of plastic wrap pressed into the surface and freeze until firm.

Fresh Homemade Ricotta
adapted from Gourmet

2 quarts whole milk
1 C heavy cream
1/2 t salt
3 T fresh lemon juice


Line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and place it in your sink.

Over moderate heat in a large 6-quart pot, slowly bring milk, cream and salt to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. When it reaches a boil, add the lemon juice, then reduce heat to low. Stirring constantly, simmer until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.

Carefully and slowly pour the mixture into the cheesecloth-lined colander and let it drain for 1 hour. Discard the liquid. Cover and chill the ricotta.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Baby Buttons

As you might guess, there’s a new baby in our family. My nephew and his wife have a beautiful little girl who is now 3 months old. Her name is Eliana and she has our entire family very excited to be fussing over her at every opportunity. It’s funny how a new baby will transform everyone in their midst.

I discovered these little cookie gems browsing through Food & Wine and instantly knew I had to make them. I revised the recipe to add a tiny pinch of salt and freshly grated nutmeg since it seems like the season for nutmeg. I also changed the preparation method and baked them at 325 degrees instead of the stated 350 for the same amount of time.

Sometimes the simplest things are the best and these cookies prove this point beyond any measure. They are incredibly simple and delicious. Pure, tiny, delicate, impossibly tender, perfectly sweet and absolutely irresistible, just like our new little girl. I can’t wait to make these cookies with her some day!

Bench notes:
- I used a truffle scoop to form the cookies. I chilled the dough for a couple of hours before scooping to firm it up. I also chilled the cookies before baking.
- These cookies will keep for about a week in an airtight container. Stack them between pieces of parchment or wax paper. I must warn that this will be highly unnecessary. These cookies will disappear as soon as they’re plated.

Baby Buttons
Makes about 48 cookies

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 C confectioners’ sugar
1/2 C cornstarch
pinch salt
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
8 oz cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 t pure vanilla extract

1 C confectioners’ sugar for coating

Sift together the flour, cornstarch, confectioner’s sugar, salt and nutmeg and pour it into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and vanilla and process until a very soft dough begins to form.

Divide the dough into four equal pieces, wrap in plastic and chill for 2 hours.

Use a piece of parchment to roll each piece of dough into a 12” rope. Cut each rope into 12 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place the cookies on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet. You can fit 24 on each sheet as they do not spread.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Bake on the center rack of the oven for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The bottoms should be golden but the tops should not take on any color. Cool.

Sift 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar into a bowl. Toss a few cookies at a time to coat and place on a baking sheet. Sift a bit more confectioner’s sugar over all the cookies for a final coating. Use a sharp toothpick or a skewer to poke 4 shallow holes in each cookie.