Archive for the ‘sweet things’ Category


Dulce De Leche

September 9, 2010

I just got back from the source of dulce de leche: Argentina. They serve it everywhere and in everything. On breakfast buffets in the hotels it is translated as “milk candy.” A little much for me in the morning, but if a little spread on your toast gets your day going-why not? 

If a country had a national cookie it would be the alfajor. LAN Airlines offers alfajores on their flights, and they sure beat  peanuts. The alfajor consists of two light shortbread like cookies (but a bit lighter and made with cornstarch) sandwiched together with a dulce de leche filling. There are different flavors of cookies. Some alfajores are rolled in coconut, others dipped in chocolate. You can also find them with a lemon filling instead of dulce de leche. 

At candy kiosks you’ll find at least 12 different brands of alfajores. Oreo even has one but I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Brands vary in taste and quality. Havana has alfajore stores throughout the country, more than 10 in Buenos Aires, and they are the ones you find at the Duty Free Shops when you are trying to spend your last pesos. My favorites are made by the company Cachafaz. 

Dulce de Leche also finds its way into layered cakes (see picture above). The one I tried is actually not really a cake as we know it. It had the flavor of a thin cake and the appearance of a tortilla. The cake is made with egg yolks and flour, no sugar. At bakeries and restaurants I saw anywhere from 5 to 12 layers, each spread with a thin swipe of dulce de leche, and then topped with meringue. When I first saw it I thought it would be too sweet, but it was delicious. 

Even thought dulce de leche is a part of South America’s heritage, my Argentinean friend told me that it didn’t take off in the United States until recently because during World War II  there was a shortage of fresh milk so many Americans had to drink sweetened condensed milk with their coffee. It didn’t catch on until the next generation grew up and  lost the negative association with that flavor. 

Other countries make their own versions of dulce de leche. In Mexico, it is primarily made with goat’s milk and called Cajeta. The French make confiture de lait (milk jam) to spread on  day old baguettes. 

In the United States imported dulce de leche is expensive. It is made by combining and slowly reducing,either in the oven or on top of the stove, sweetened condensed milk or by putting an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pot of simmering water for several hours.  Food scientists frown upon this latter method since the can may explode it if it is not covered properly with water. 

But now that I have tasted the real stuff I won’t be making it much anymore. It isn’t worth my efforts because what I get there is so much better. The flavor is less sweet and more intense with  a beautiful golden brown caramel color. On my next trip I will take an extra suitcase.


Breakfast Food?

August 5, 2010

I was getting off a plane last week and I could smell the Cinnabons before I got off the gateway and into the terminal. (No, it wasn’t SFO.) Maybe it was the jet fumes wrecking havoc with my brain but they smelled good. It was kind of scary but I had to try one. I knew I would be disappointed but it’s been a couple of decades since I had one and my curiosity got the better of me.  Could that warm cinnamon sugar aroma taste that bad?

My excitement ended quickly. It did taste pretty awful. It was way too sweet and at the same time bland. I got a sugar rush and my teeth hurt after the first bite. It was so big I almost offered to share it with the man and woman in line behind me.

When I got home I looked up the calorie count online and it weighs in at 730 calories. Thank goodness I didn’t finish it. It got me to thinking about what many Americans eat for breakfast. Lots of white flour.

Yes, my world is made of sugar and fat and my desserts are not for the calorie shy. I am not a fat free gal. But my portion sizes aren’t as big and I don’t serve the stuff for breakfast. With a normal amount of daily calories if you eat a Cinnabon for breakfast your fat allotment for the rest of the day is miniscule. 

Perhaps it is not fair of me to pick on the Cinnabon but it is the quintessential example of what is bad about breakfast food. Many people think they are eating healthy if they have a fresh baked pastry or a bowl of low fat but high sugar cereal.  Even if it is made with good organic ingredients and no preservatives a muffin or a scone is still up there calorically. You might as well have a piece of cake for breakfast but that would seem crazy and indulgent.

I am not saying we should never eat blueberry muffins or buttery scones but like all desserts they should be in moderation. Several times a week have whole wheat toast or a multigrain cereal with yogurt.  I am much more apt to stick to better eating habits if I start the day without having too much flour and sugar. Also if breakfast is going to sustain me until lunch I need to add some protein to those carbs. Other cultures eat smoked or pickled fish. As long as you don’t try to pair it with coffee it’s good.

Anything is better than a cinnamon roll that’s practically the size of your head.


My Love-Hate Relationship with Creme Brulee

July 29, 2010

There are some desserts pastry chefs simultaneously love and hate. Crème Brûlée is one of them.

When we eat out a perfect crème brûlée is an ideal way to end a meal. The combination of creamy custard and brittle topping are quintessential dessert textures that help make a great dessert. It also hits the spot because after being around sugar all day we want straightforward and clean flavors.

Too often it is executed poorly and we go away disappointed. The custard is overcooked or eggy and the brûlée layer is too thick or so caramelized it is dark brown, almost black, in color and tastes burnt. Ideally the custard should be creamy and the burnt sugar crust a thin layer of golden caramel.

Which tool to use to make the caramelized top is key. Traditional branding irons, used by French chefs before gas and broilers, are hard to control. The circular metal piece is heated up in the flame and then placed on top of the custard. Just like a cattle branding iron. It is impossible to see the color of the caramel and know when it is just right. If you take it off too soon the whole caramel layer sticks to the iron. Too late and it is burnt. You have to be really good to work with these. Sometimes the custard is put under a broiler but the problem here is that broilers/salamanders don’t get hot enough to make a crunchy top or the custard gets too warm before the sugar caramelizes. The best implement to use is a construction blow torch. A bit daunting to new dessert platers but they quickly get the hang of it and love it for its accuracy. (Home versions of the torch with a smaller flame are less intimidating but they have to be filled with butane which is much more of a pain than learning how to use a big torch.)

 As sellers of crème brûlées we love them because when it is on the menu we sell a lot of them regardless of the custard flavor. If we make them correctly our guests leave happy. On the flip side, we grumble because when brûlées are on the menu it seems as though that is all we sell. All the other desserts we love and have labored over get trumped by crème brûlée every time. From a production stand point they are tedious to make. When you bake a hotel pan full of about 18 ramekins they will be finished at varying times. You have to be patient to take them out just when they are done. Its many trips back and forth to the oven. It is a real labor of love.

 I know some pastry chefs who refuse to put brûlées on their dessert menus because they are burnt out making them and they are discouraged that is all they sell. I think that’s a bit extreme. We are in the people pleasing business. I run crème brûlées often but will take them off when we have another custard-type dessert on the menu.

Pastry chefs agree a really made crème brûlée is a work of art.  We just don’t want them to take over our lives.


My Cookie Jar Up for Auction

May 17, 2010


This is the cookie jar I put together for Meals on Wheels’ Star Chefs and Vintners Gala. It’s filled with lemon cornmeal shortbread, dried cherry pistachio biscotti and chocolate cocoa nib cookies. As part of the silent auction it will be taken home by the highest bidder. Meals on Wheels is a great organization that delivers meals to senior citizens who want to stay in their own home but cannot shop or prepare meals for themselves. It is a national organization and this gala at Fort Mason in San Francisco will benefit people in my city by the Bay. We all need to lend a hand so senior citizens can stay as independent as possible. I hope my cookies help.



Something About Paris

January 29, 2010

Last week I went to Paris with a friend to celebrate her cancer remission. Not surprisingly we had a fabulous time, tasting, walking, eating, using the Metro, shopping (everything is on sale in January) and tasting some more. We even managed to find time for a couple of museums. January is a super time to go as the city has few tourists and it is easy to get into restaurants and museums. I almost didn’t write about my trip in this blog because there are countless internet posts about Paris.  I am not providing any new information by telling you not to miss Pierre Herme’s macaroons, Patrick Chapon’s Chocolates or Ladurée’s croissants. (Don’t worry I had my share of all these things).

But then I started thinking about the underlying factors in the French culture that make Paris so incredible from my vantage point as an American pastry chef. Parisians have a deep appreciation for the quality of food. They take it seriously but also get an immense amount of pleasure from it. They expect good quality but do not take it for granted. The food is displayed attractively. Shopping is a visual experience. Even in grocery stores it’s not wrapped in plastic wrap with a bar code slapped on top.

The French have a healthy perspective on eating and indulging. The answer isn’t in low fat and/or over doing it. They have dessert and are in shape. They eat small portions. Pastries are expensive in Paris (as is everything) but the expense helps them keep them special.  Like other expensive things they are treasured and savored.  Each sweet is not wolfed down like the bag of cookies you get on sale at the supermarket for $3.99. They make a smaller amount last longer. This trait is commented on and agreed with here in the United States but not many people follow it.

There are an amazingly large number of excellent quality pastry shops. Every neighborhood has at least a couple of good boulangeries and pastry shops. A sizeable population and a dedicated clientele allow French pastry chefs to specialize in a smaller number of items. Many of their selections vary and they do not feel compelled to make everything all year long. At home we are lucky to have several great bakeries in an entire city.

My pastry style is classics with a twist. When I walk the streets of Paris and window shop in the patisseries I get inspired. I don’t even have to eat anything. France has always and continues to do an amazing job at French classic desserts. While French savory food has evolved and changed the basic fundamentals of French pastry are consistently alive and well.  Seeing the Mona Lisa a couple of times is enough for me but I can never get enough of displays of freshly made baba rhums, financiers or apple chaussons. I see these and it gets my mind turning on how I can twist them so they are still recognizable but have just a little bit more. French pastry chefs make twists on the classics but the original is always recognizable. Fauchon’s éclairs and Le Ble Sucre’s apple tarte tatin show how well French pastry chefs combine the new with the old. They are wildly creative but rarely go too far. Everything works.

When I got home there was a phone message from my credit card company asking me to call their automated number to verify some charges. The system was efficient. The “guy” on the phone stated the amount spent and then said if it was a restaurant, bakery, or clothing store. I pressed “1” if it was a legitimate charge and “2” if I wanted more information. I easily verified three charges. On the 4th, it said at a “fast food place”.  I pressed 2 for more information and the voice said “Pierre Herme”. I guess it was fast food as they were efficient and I wasn’t in the shop very long but his work is a long way from American fast food. I will take  French fast food over a McSundae any day.


Michael Pollan’s Rule #39

January 1, 2010

Michael Pollan in his new book, Food Rules, helps us figure out what we should eat and why we should not eat certain things. Some of it is common sense but with all the contradictory scientific and marketing information in the news and on the internet we do not know what to believe. The only thing we can be certain of is that we will get conflicting information. As soon as one study comes out another one will soon follow that says the opposite.  (I really wanted to believe the one about cookies making you lose weight but even as someone who gets paid to make cookies I knew that was a bit of a stretch.) Michael helps us take a step back and sort through it all.

I am still in the first part of the book but my friend Janet who has finished the book told me about Rule #39 so I skipped ahead. Rule #39 states– Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. This has been my mantra for years. I only eat desserts that are homemade and not buy items with sugar that come in a factory packaged box and have a shelf life six months out. As Pollan says: There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries, even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we’re eating them every day….The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you’re willing to prepare them—chances are good it won’t be every day.

I agree with this 110%. Not only will you not feel like baking every day since you did take the time to make it you will have a greater appreciation for it. You won’t wolf it down or let others wolf it down without savoring the flavor and really enjoying it. Packaged desserts don’t have as much flavor as something homemade. Half a box of Chip Ahoy cookies will satisfy you as much as 2 homemade cookies.

I stretch Michael’s rule a bit.  If a dessert or baked good is made from a high quality local bakery then I consider it homemade. Good chocolates and artisanal ice cream are also in this category. With these “homemade” items that someone else has made I am grateful for the time and effort he or she took to make it as if I made it myself. I buy these “homemade” desserts when I want a treat or when I am short on time and need a dessert for a party. I don’t throw them indiscriminately in my basket when I am at the market. A dessert that is not made by me it has to be made with two hands- not on an assembly line with stainless steel machinery and people in hairnets.

If we keep this in mind we can be healthy and enjoy the sweet things in life. Call it more of a compromise for taste than a sacrifice. This is a good way to start the New Year.


Christmas Sweets

December 18, 2009



It’s official. I have finally decided what I will make for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day desserts. Making up my mind is not a simple task. There are so many choices. Since it is Christmas I want to make sure they are worthy of the occasion. For weeks I go back and forth muttering several options to myself. It drives my poor husband crazy. On Monday I will tell him we are having one thing and Wednesday I say something else. He will say “But what about the …. you were so excited about two days ago?”  Once he has heard me say the same dessert several days in a row then he figures that is what he will get to have.

I always choose classic desserts. It’s a traditional holiday so I like to go with something time-honored. In past years I have served Crepes Suzette, croquembouche, tiramisu, passion fruit soufflés, Baked Alaska and buche de noel. This year I have decided to make a frozen bouche de noel with chocolate cake and brown sugar ice cream. I will cover it in meringue and serve lots of chocolate and caramel sauces on the side. Come to think of it I better make two so there is enough for Santa. I leave a note telling him where to find leftover dessert. Funny thing it is always gone in the morning.

For Christmas Day we will have Gingerbread with warm apples and cider sabayon. While this is not a classic dessert by other people’s standards it has become part of our Christmas since I first developed the combination in 1991 when I worked at Stars Restaurant.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday.


Frozen Bouche de Noel

If you want to stagger the production over a couple of days, make the cake and ice cream on the 22nd or 23rd. Spread the meringue on the 24th.

Serves 8 to 10

Brown Sugar Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup milk

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Chocolate Roulade

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons water

6 large eggs, separated

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

To make the ice cream: Combine the cream, milk, brown sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until almost simmering. Pour the mixture into a bowl and cool over an ice bath to room temperature. Refrigerate the custard for at least 4 hours or up to overnight. Churn in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze until firm but still spreadable, about 2 hours, depending on your freezer.

While the ice cream is freezing, make the roulade: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray an 11-inch-by-17-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Melt the chocolate and water together in a double boiler over hot water. Stir until smooth.

Whip the egg yolks on high speed until light in color, 2 to 3 minutes with a stand mixer, 3 to 4 minutes with a hand mixer. Reduce to medium speed and add 1/3 cup of the sugar. Increase speed to high and continue to whip until thick and ribbony. On low speed or by hand, stir in the 1/4 cup of the cocoa powder and the salt. Stir in the melted chocolate.

In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy and begin to increase in volume. Gradually whip in the remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a steady stream. Whip until satiny, stiff peaks form. In two additions, fold the whites carefully into the chocolate mixture. Gently and evenly spread the mixture in the prepared pan.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the top of the cake springs back when pressed with your fingertip and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, lay a clean thin cotton dish towel on the work surface with a short end toward you. Dust an area of the towel the size of the cake pan with the remaining 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. Remove the cake from the oven and run a small knife around the inside edges of the pan. Place one of the long ends of the cake pan on the right side of the towel and invert the pan and the cake on top of the towel so it falls at the end of the towel closest to you and on top of the cocoaed area. Carefully remove the pan and then the parchment paper. If the cake is not sitting at the end of the towel, fold the towel under itself so it is. From the end closest to you, carefully roll the cake and the towel up together like a jelly roll. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.

To assemble the roulade: If necessary, soften the brown sugar ice cream while the cake is cooling. It should be firm but spreadable. Carefully unroll the cake. (If it splits anywhere, carefully push the broken pieces together.) Gently spread the ice cream over the cake with a thin metal spatula, leaving a 1/4-inch border on all sides. Reroll the cake without the towel. Place on a large platter or baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap. Freeze until firm, about 3 hours, depending on your freezer. Cover with meringue (see recipe below). If desired torch just before serving.


1/2 cup egg whites (about 4)

1 cup sugar

In a bowl, whisk together the egg whites and sugar until combined. Put the bowl in a saucepan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the egg whites are very warm. Remove the whites from the hot water and whip with an electric mixer on medium-high speed with a stand mixer, or high speed with a handheld mixer, until stiff, glossy peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature. Remove the ice cream log from the freezer. Using a small spatula, spread the meringue about 3/4 inch thick over the cake completely covering it. This can be done several hours in advance. Do not cover. Keep frozen until ready to serve.

Just before serving, using a butane torch, constantly move the flame over the meringue about 1 inch from the surface of the meringue until lightly browned. Or briefly put underneath a preheated broiler.

Gingerbread with Apples and Cider Sabayon

The gingerbread can be made a couple days in advance. Store at room temperature. The apples two days ahead and the sabayon one. Keep both of these refrigerated.

Yield: 9 by 13 inch pan


1 cup molasses

1 1/2 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon baking soda

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 large egg

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the sides and bottom of a 9 by 13 inch pan.

Mix molasses, boiling water and baking soda together in a large bowl. Cool to room temperature.

With an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light. Mix in the egg.

Sift together the ginger, cinnamon, flour and baking powder. Add the salt

In three additions, alternately add dry ingredients and the molasses mixture to the butter mixture. Mix thoroughly after each addition to make sure there are no lumps.

Spread batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool before cutting.


7 medium apples (Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Braeburn)

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons (Approximately) apple juice or water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pinch kosher salt

Peel, core and slice the apples 3/16 inch thick. Cook the apples with the remaining ingredients until the apples are soft but still hold their shape. If the liquid evaporates before the apples are cooked, add more apple juice.

Cider Sabayon

8 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch kosher salt

3/4 cup sparkling apple cider, hard cider or 1/4 cup Calvados and 1/2 cup apple juice

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

To make the sabayon: Fill a medium bowl two-thirds with ice and water to make an ice bath. Fill a medium pot one-third full of water and bring it to a low boil. In a stainless steel bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, salt, and sparkling apple juice until smooth. Place the bowl over the pot of water and cook, whisking constantly, until thick, about 2 minutes. Place the bowl in the ice bath. Cool, whisking occasionally until at least room temperature. Remove the bowl and discard the ice bath.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold the cream into the apple mixture.

Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

Serve the gingerbread with the apples (warm or room temperature) and the apple sabayon.