Archive for the ‘sweet things’ Category


Candy Canes in Julyh

August 10, 2011

Recipe development for national magazines and large companies can be tricky. You have the obvious challenge to make something new and delicious, but the harder part can be getting ingredients out of season. The lead time is up to six months, from creating the recipe to print and the Internet.

Scoring rhubarb in early February I thought was a no-go, but I miraculously found a few overpriced forlorn stalks in a local grocery store. The check out woman gave me a weird look as I spent $20 for pretty sad looking fruit, but I didn’t care. I bought it all.

Berries can be easier to locate as South American fruit is available in winter. Frozen peaches work as long as they aren’t packed in sugar, and you have to dry them off to get rid of excess moisture. Neither of these fruits tastes the same as the local in season counterparts so you have to channel the summer fruit and adjust accordingly.

Recipes for winter publication pose problems even though they don’t rely on delicate summer fruit. Need cranberries in July? You won’t find them at Safeway. Luckily I found a half a bag in the back of my freezer. Here’s a tip I learned later on: Whole Foods has them in their freezer section all year.

Candy canes and fruit cake were last week’s search. I looked all over and asked a couple of stores if they had any stashed in the back leftover from last year. Thank goodness for Amazon. In a day they were on my door step.

Now that I am provisioned I have to get my head wrapped around the idea that even though I am cooking in shorts and flip flops I have to think Christmas. The good news is gingerbread men and women are as good in August as they are in December.


Cream Dream

March 24, 2011

It’s true baking requires recipes. When you make a cake you can’t haphazardly throw a bunch of ingredients into a KitchenAid mixer, combine everything and bake it in the oven. Flour, eggs and sugar have to be measured. You don’t simply add things until it looks “right.”

That being said, there is one dessert I make without much precision. It’s a favorite for Waterbar and Farallon staff meals. I call it Cream Dream. Technically it’s a trifle but it’s so much more. I don’t want to completely mislead you and give the impression it is completely a random kitchen sink dessert, but it’s close. You need to have dessert leftovers and heavy cream.  Creating the desserts to get those leftovers does require a recipe.

To make Cream Dream you need any combination of cake, cookie, brownie pieces or scraps, plus caramel and/or chocolate sauces.

Whip the cream with a little sugar until soft peaks. Layer the cut or broken up cake/cookie pieces, your sauces and the cream in a bowl. (Keep the sauces cold or at room temperature) Sprinkle in a few chocolate chips, nuts and coconut if you have them. You want enough cream so it holds together and isn’t dry, but not so much that all you taste is cream.  Layering everything rather than folding it together keeps the texture of the cakes and cookies intact. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

No Cream Dream ever tastes the same. They all depend on the flavor of your cakes and cookies. Our version usually has chocolate as invariably some of our leftovers are chocolate.

When I go out of my way to bake a special dessert for staff meal it never seems to be as popular as Cream Dream. Eyes light up when the staff sees it on the table with the savory food. The pastry cooks and I laugh, wishing all our baking was that easy.



February 23, 2011

Vanilla is used so frequently in desserts it is easy to take them for granted. But there is a great deal behind this common flavoring.

Growing them takes patience and care. A member of the orchid family, the vine blooms once a year in the spring and must be hand pollinated within 12 hours of opening. When the beans are picked they look more like a green bean than the vanilla bean we would recognize in the store. After harvesting the beans are cured and dried, a labor intensive process that includes wrapping them in cloth to sweat, laying them in the sun to dry and placing them in air tight boxes. The time between harvesting and selling takes months.

Vanilla became a part of the American palate by a rather circuitous route. Cortez took vanilla to Spain from Mexico where it became popular throughout Europe. Thomas Jefferson brought it to the United States after one of his visits to France.

Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla beans. They are called Madagascar Bourbon beans as they grow on the Bourbon Islands off the east coast of Africa. The name comes from the French who ruled that area and has nothing to do with bourbon from Kentucky. Bourbon beans are smooth, sweet and mellow.  The other vanilla bean I like is Tahitian. Their production is smaller and comes from a different variety of orchid. The flavor is floral and perfumy.  Mexico also produces good beans and extract. Be careful when you travel there and see bargain vanilla. Mexico does not have the same quality restrictions on vanilla and if you don’t pay attention you can buy something that tastes pretty bad.

At work I buy Nielsen- Massey vanilla extract by the half gallon and use it in cookies and cakes but there are recipes where I prefer to use a vanilla bean. I like to infuse it in other ingredients or scrape out the seeds from the pod for their intense flavor and the speckled appearance they offer. 

I use Madagascar beans when I want the vanilla to be a background flavor and help draw out other flavors like chocolate or coffee. I also like to use them with citrus for it pairs nicely with the acidity of the fruit.

All vanilla beans are expensive but Tahitian beans even more so. I reserve them for recipes where vanilla is the main flavor such as an ice cream or a crème brulee.

A bean should be plump and supple. When you rub it between your fingers you should be able to feel the seeds inside.  Since vanilla beans aren’t cheap you want them to be the best possible quality when you open your wallet. Fortunately for me restaurant suppliers have good ones but that doesn’t help the retail buyer.

Too often beans in the spice rack in the grocery store are dry and brittle.  To spend almost $10 on one bean and be able to snap it in two like a twig is frustrating. Sealed inside a glass jar, it’s hard to tell the quality by just looking. Experience has taught me to purchase my beans other places.

Surprisingly I have found good beans at Costco. They came in a glass tube. You can also find beans on line. The Vanilla Queen at sells good beans as does

Here’s a recipe for vanilla ice cream. All you need is the chocolate and caramel sauces.

Vanilla Ice Cream 

6 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup whole milk

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise with the insides scraped out

To make the vanilla ice cream: In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1/4 cup sugar, and salt in a bowl. Combine the milk, cream, vanilla bean and the remaining 1/4 cup of the sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepot. Over medium heat, heat the milk and cream until hot. Slowly pour the liquid into the egg and sugar mixture, whisking it together as you pour. (To keep the bowl with the eggs and sugar from spinning while you pour in the cream and whisk, place it on a towel.)

Return the cream and milk mixture back to the saucepot. Over medium low heat, cook, stirring continually with a heat resistant rubber or wooden spatula, until the custard reaches 175 degrees.

Strain the custard into a clean bowl and cool over an ice bath until at least room temperature. (Rinse off the vanilla bean and air dry it. Put it in your sugar container to flavor your sugar.) Refrigerate the custard for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. Freeze according to ice cream manufacturer’s instructions. Place in the freezer until scoopable, at least one hour.


Candy Bars in the Kitchen

February 3, 2011

Pastry chefs get dessert ideas from candy bars. While most supermarket versions taste too sweet, the ingredients and flavor combinations give us a great starting point for our creations. Here are some of my desserts inspired by candy bars.

Snickers: Milk Chocolate Caramel Peanut Tart — milk chocolate mousse with caramel peanut filling in a chocolate crust.

Almond Joy: Coconut macaroons with an almond center dipped in bittersweet chocolate

Peppermint Pattie: I called my dessert a Peppermint Pattie too — white chocolate peppermint mousse on top of a brownie, covered in chocolate glaze.

Kit Kat Bar: Crispy Chocolate Ganache Bars — crushed crispy wafer cookies mixed with milk chocolate and coated with bittersweet chocolate ganache

Heath Bar: Frozen Heath Bar Vanilla Ice Cream Parfait — with Ben & Jerry’s paving the way this one is a no brainer. Chop them up (or drop a case of them at a time from the top of a tall ladder as they did in the early days) and mix in vanilla ice cream.

Reese Peanut Butter Cups: I bow to Loretta Keller’s COCOcups at COCO500. Made with bittersweet chocolate they are the gourmet version of the original.

What candy bars have I left out that I should use to create my next dessert?


How to Publish a Cookbook

January 26, 2011

The process to get a cookbook published involves more than what most people think. By the time you see a cookbook on a shelf in the store it’s been worked on for at least a couple of years and is the result of a small army of people.

First you have to come up with the idea. For me, I mull around a bunch of ideas in my head and over a period from anywhere from 2 to 6 months one idea rises to the surface. An idea has to be interesting  but it also has to be broad enough to comprise a book. This is also the time where I psych myself up for the project. Writing a book is a significant amount of work and if you’re  not truly excited about your idea and ready to commit to the process you won’t make it to the finish line.

I got the idea for A Passion for Ice Cream when Chronicle Books asked me to write a book on chocolate. There were so many books already written about chocolate from every angle conceivable I thought the world didn’t need one more. They asked me what I thought was lacking on the market. Cookbooks on ice cream had been written but they focused on flavors — not what to do with the ice cream once it was made. I picked up on that idea and a book was born.

Second is the book proposal writing stage. This takes another couple of months. Even with five cookbooks to my credit this part is the hardest. It is the time where you have to turn your hopefully brilliant idea into a book outline. It is the blueprint for all the work going forward. The proposal consists of an introduction explaining what the book is about, how the chapters will be organized, sample recipes, why you think the book will sell and how it differs from other books on the subject.

This time I engaged Lisa Weiss as my co-writer because I wanted to have conversations between myself and home bakers, and she is a much better writer than I am. My proposals are also vetted by my wonderful book agent.  She sends them back with thoughtful researched comments. As an agent she knows the book market inside out.

Hopefully in a month or two your book gets bought by a publisher. The book market is tough as there are thousands of new cookbooks published each year. Not to mention all the good ones from previous years are still vying for consumer’s dollars. At this point the trim size, number of pages, and the approximate retail cost of the book are determined.

Once the book is sold I have to get to work. When I am asked how I get a book written I say “I signed a contract.” A due date is a great motivator. Depending on the publisher you generally have about a year. Recipe testing takes the bulk of the time. I test recipes anywhere from 1 to 6 times to get them right.  It’s a maddening frustrating process, especially in baking where if you add one thing you have to start over. Not as simple as adding a little more salt to the soup.

The book becomes your life. You test seven days a week. You become a bore. When people ask you what you are doing the answer is the same — testing recipes. I invite people over and dinner consists of several variations of desserts. My friends know if they want protein or veggies it is best to bring it themselves.

When I hand in a manuscript I am happy to have it off of my desk. I can put the measuring spoons pencils and away. At least for a little while.

Once the manuscript is handed in the FEDEX deliveries between the publisher and the author begins. Even with the advances in technology, the bulk of cookbook editing is still done on paper. The book is like a ping pong ball. I send it to my book editor who reviews it for overall content who sends it back to me for my comments.

It then goes to a copy editor who goes through the book line by line. Are all the ingredients listed used in each recipe? Is the baking time included? Are the recipes consistently written? Copy editing is a painstaking job and I firmly believe there is a special place in heaven for copy editors. Little Brown, the publisher I am working with now, even brought in a second copy editor for a fresh pair of eyes.

Each review round has questions or inconsistencies written on Post-Its. They are called queries. When I respond I use a different color Post-It to differentiate them from the copy editor’s.

While the book is being copy edited, the design team starts laying out the book. If a book has photographs or illustrations this is when they are done. They create numerous sample covers which are scrutinized by the marketing and sales team.

For my latest book, The Fearless Baker, I handed in the first draft of the manuscript on April 1, 2010. The finished book will come out at the end of April of this year. Only then does it really sink in that I have written a book and haven’t just been working on a seemingly endless project with a growing stack of 8 1/2 by 11 pieces of paper.

After I have handed in each of my books I swear I will never write another book but once I hold an actual copy in my hands I can’t help but start thinking of the next one.