Chopped challenge #5: Tiramisu Trifles

Course: dessert

Ingredients: chocolate wafer cookies, cream cheese, espresso powder, balsamic vinegar

When I quizzed her about this set of ingredients, my mom (it’s her birthday today; happy birthday, Mommy!) immediately said cheesecake, and as I think about it, that makes a lot of sense. The wafers and espresso get pulverized into a caffeinated crust, the balsamic becomes some sort of glaze or syrup for drizzling, and the cream cheese is allow to stay pristine and tangy in the center.

But as soon as I heard the espresso powder component of this quartet, my mind went to tiramisu, that famous Italian dessert of soaked ladyfingers piled with rich custard. The best tiramisu I’ve ever had was in a lovely little restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, now sadly defunct. Our server, overwhelmed by the busyness of the evening, brought us a free slice in an effort, I’ve always thought, to get us to stay a little longer so she wouldn’t immediately be hit with another new table of guests. It was so good – the custard silky and thick, the cookies melting after their marsala and coffee bath, and just the right dusting of completely unsweetened cocoa powder across the top to contrast the sweetness of the dessert and enhance the coffee flavors.

Mine would obviously be a little different. The chocolate wafers, in all their Styrofoam-textured glory, would clearly take the place of the ladyfingers (confession: I love these terrible cookies. I love their waffled surface design and their overly sweet filling and their fake, near tasteless exteriors. We had to hide the package while I planned this recipe out because I was going through them at least two at a time every time I walked past them). They would be soaked in espresso, and the cream cheese would be folded into the custard as a replacement for some of the traditional mascarpone.

The sticking point was the balsamic vinegar. After some consideration, I determined I would add some to the espresso to soak the cookies (and spent an entertaining few minutes tasting the wafers with some vinegar dribbled on and deeming them “weird but not terrible” – this is what I do for you). That didn’t seem like quite enough, though, until I thought about strawberries as a bridge: they are great with chocolate, they go well with cream cheese, and they pair beautifully with balsamic vinegar. Clearly what I needed to do was top the dessert with slices of strawberries, then boil down some of the balsamic into a syrup to drizzle over the fruit.

This was sounding further and further from the beautiful slice of tiramisu that we fought over in Ashland, which was served simply in a square portion with a little powdered sugar on the plate. The combination of cookie, custard, and fruit made me think of a trifle, and I determined I would serve these not as plated slices cut from a large cake, but in pretty cocktail glasses, with layers of each component to add visual appeal.

The result was terrifically rich, and while I’m not sure espresso, balsamic vinegar, and chocolate wafer cookies truly belong together, we did enjoy them. The real stand-out to the dessert, though, was the custard. At my first few spoonfuls, I was bowled over by a tartness I thought was the balsamic vinegar. The next day, though, when I allowed myself another serving, I realized the tanginess I was tasting came from the cream cheese. Mascarpone, the traditional thickener for the custard component, lacks this slight sourness (especially prominent in the Philadelphia brand); it is much more mild, almost like overwhipped cream just before it becomes butter. But the tangy flavor in the custard was reminiscent of cheesecake, which in my book is never a bad thing, and it kept the whole dessert from being overly sweet.

One note: you do have to watch the balsamic vinegar closely as it reduces, if you decide to go with the syrup option. In the space of about ten seconds, it goes from a lovely thick drizzle to an over-reduced sludge that hardens into a sticky caramel my fillings are still quivering about. Pull it off the heat a little before it seems reduced enough; it will continue to thicken as it cools.

These looked fantastic in my cocktail glasses, as you can see, but they were tremendously large and we ended up sharing just one to avoid overload. Smaller glasses, or even little jars, would be good for more, and less gluttonous, servings.

Tiramisu Trifles with Balsamic Drizzle
Makes 2 enormous or 4 small trifles, with custard left over
Minimum of about 3 hours, including chilling time (though chilling overnight is even better)
3 egg yolks
⅜ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
⅜ cups whole milk
4 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon espresso powder
½ cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons rum, brandy, or marsala, optional
~ 12 chocolate wafer cookies, chopped or crumbled
4-6 fresh strawberries, sliced

 

  • Fill a large bowl about halfway with ice cubes and water. Use another small bowl and small pot to create a double boiler: bring a cup or two of water to a simmer in the pot, then set the small bowl atop it, being sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Add the egg yolks and ⅜ cups of sugar to the bowl, then whisk until the sugar dissolves – you will no longer feel rough sugar granules against the whisk and the bowl.
  • Whisk in the ⅜ cups milk and then cook, whisking slowly and constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 170F. This should take 10-15 minutes; look for the custard to become light and foamy, and thicken slightly.
  • Once the mixture hits its target temperature, remove the small bowl from the heat and place it gently into the larger bowl of ice water. Whisk for at least a minute until the mixture cools, taking care not to allow any ice water to slop into the custard.
  • In a medium bowl, use a spatula to firmly mix together the room temperature mascarpone and cream cheese. Then fold in the cooled custard just until fully incorporated and smooth. Top the bowl with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until the other components are ready.
  • Now, add the espresso powder, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and the 2 tablespoons alcohol, if using, to the boiling water in a small pot or bowl. Stir to combine, then set aside to cool (I got impatient and shoved mine into the freezer for a few minutes).
  • When the espresso mixture has cooled, you are ready to assemble. First, soak the chopped or crumbled chocolate wafers in the espresso liquid for a few seconds. You want the liquid to permeate but you don’t want the cookie to sog into nothing. In cocktail glasses or dessert goblets, carefully add a layer of soaked cookie pieces. Top that with a layer of the cooled custard – it will still be fairly thin – then repeat: another layer of cookies, another layer of custard. You want at least two layers of each.
  • If it’s possible without disturbing the dessert layers, top each glass with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge again for at least 2 hours, but ideally longer – overnight is best.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready for dessert, slice the strawberries. In a small pot, combine the remaining ½ cup of balsamic vinegar with the final 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar and sugar bubble down into a syrup; aim for the thickness of maple syrup, which will cool into something more like molasses. This will probably take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on your stove and your pot.
  • Rescue your trifles from the fridge and for each, place a layer of strawberry slices in some artful design over the top. Drizzle on a few teaspoons of the balsamic syrup just before serving.

Stone fruit and herb sangria

Summer is here. All that stands between me and falling deeply, fully, thankfully into it is one class of final essays and a little bit of paperwork. And then! It’s all soaking up sun and aimless wandering on the beach and all the vacation I can stomach. No, wait, that’s someone else’s life. For me it’s gardening and finalizing an article and planning a class and, well, okay, vacationing. But more on that later…

In celebration of the summer hanging just out of reach, I thought a nice little beverage might fit the bill. The inspiration for this one came a couple of Sundays ago, as we had lunch with M., a friend from graduate school who happened to be in town for an extended birthday voyage. We decided the occasion merited drinks with lunch, and I had a sangria that, oddly, is NOT the direct inspiration of this one. Rather, as we clinked forks and glasses, M. told me about her favorite way of making the drink in question, which involved stone fruit and herbs – her preference is sage; here I’ve used thyme as I tend to find sage a mite strong, but you could easily do both. This drink is easy to play with.

Typically sangria involves wine, fruit, and something a touch stronger to fortify it like brandy or liqueur. It gets lightly sweetened, and the fruit is allowed to steep a while to soak up some of the liquid. M. replaces the typical apples and oranges with stone fruit, and rather than the usual simple syrup she uses a spoon or two of apricot preserves, which very cleverly reinforces the stone fruit flavor while sweetening the drink.

Between the preserves and the fruit pieces, which break down a little bit as they sit in the wine, this isn’t a crystal clear brew. But it is crystal clear that it deserves to be drunk. It is bright and light – a perfect aperitif – and would pair well with almost any snack you can think of: flatbread, crostini, savory cheeses, maybe some cold salmon, and definitely the wine-soaked fruit at the bottom of your glass. As my sister noted when I sent her a preview photo, “Looks delightful. A+ Would drink.” Some people like to top up their sangria with sparkling water or lemonade. I do not, but you can if you want to. This is, after all, your summer.

* a note for serving: I used a champagne glass here for presentation purposes and loved the look of it, but once loaded with fruit, it held an unsatisfying quantity of actual drink. I’d suggest a wine glass or even a tumbler. Additionally, while the slices of peach looked very pretty, smaller chunks are a little easier to navigate both while pouring and in the glass itself.

 

Stone Fruit and Herb Sangria
I wouldn’t dare estimate how many people you like to serve out of one bottle of white wine…
At least 2½ hours (mostly time chilling), but could be prepared as much as a day in advance
750ml bottle crisp white wine (I used a vinho verde from Portugal, which was slightly effervescent)
2 tablespoons peach or apricot preserves
3-4 large sprigs of thyme or sage
3 ripe peaches or other stone fruit, pitted but not skinned, cut into thin slices or chunks as you desire
½ a lemon, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
optional: ¼ cup orange liqueur or limoncello
ice plus extra herb sprigs to serve
sparkling water or lemonade to serve, if desired

 

  • In a small pot, combine the preserves with about ¼ cup of the wine and the thyme or sage. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the preserves melt down and emulsify, so to speak, into the wine.
  • While this mixture is simmering, put the peaches and lemons into a large pitcher or punch bowl, then add the hot wine and preserves mixture, including the herb sprigs. Add the remaining wine and the liqueur, if using.
  • Refrigerate until cold; at least two hours is enough, but overnight is even better to let flavors mingle.
  • Serve over ice, being sure to get some of the fruit into your glass. Add an extra sprig of thyme or sage if desired, and top up with sparkling water or lemonade if that’s your thing.

Chopped Challenge #4: Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: sourdough bread, buttermilk, mayonnaise, ginger

Unlike other Chopped Challenges N. has issued me, this one emerged Athena-like: fully formed and near immediately (though admittedly without the headache). Though the most commonly recognized form of gazpacho is tomato-based, as I offered to you last fall, a green version, usually blended with bread for viscosity and sometimes with some kind of acidic dairy product (more typically yogurt), is also reasonably well known. Thus two of my requisite ingredients were already attended to.

Though the green iteration of this cold soup can include anything from tomatillos to green bell peppers, I decided on cucumbers for the crisp, liquid coolness, and grapes for a sweet touch that I thought would go well with the ginger. To keep things feeling savory, a few scallions made their way into the mix, as well as a handful of parsley for an herbaceous flavor and a more brilliant green color.

As for the mayonnaise, a traditional gazpacho incorporates generous glugs of olive oil, and what else is mayonnaise if not another fat source, already emulsified in itself? The few tablespoons I decided to allow in the soup didn’t feel like adequate representation of the ingredient, so I sliced up the other half of the sourdough batard, slicked it with a thin layer of mayo, and toasted it under the broiler for a warm, crunchy accompaniment to provide contrast. For aesthetic value and interest, as you can see, I dolloped in a touch of yogurt and a few halved grapes just before serving.

We found this tasty, and I think it would be an incredibly refreshing first offering at an outdoor gathering, particularly fun served in tall shot glasses (perhaps without the garnish) for cool, quick sipping. It wasn’t our absolute favorite, though I must admit its flavor improved given a night in the fridge to let the flavors intensify. Straight out of the blender it will taste quite sweet, but after the requisite minimum of two hours’ chill time, it edges back toward the savory side as the cucumber asserts itself. We found the buttermilk needed a touch of help from some vinegar for the right tang, and the ginger in my version was surprisingly mild, so I’m offering a range in my ingredient list below; aim high if you want a more assertively spiced soup.

Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts
Serves 6 as an appetizer
2½ hours (includes chilling time)
For gazpacho:
1 cup crumbled or torn sourdough bread
1 cup buttermilk
3 small seedless cucumbers (I like the Persian variety)
1 cup seedless green grapes
3-4 scallions, white and pale green parts
⅓ cup parsley leaves and stems, or a combination of parsley and mint
1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
For toasts:
Thin slices of sourdough
Mayonnaise to spread
To serve:
Dollops of yogurt, optional
A few additional green grapes, halved, optional
Snipped chives, or individual parsley and/or mint leaves, optional

 

  • To make the gazpacho, combine the torn or crumbled sourdough and the buttermilk in a bowl and let sit 10-20 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cucumbers and scallions into rough chunks and add to a blender with the grapes, parsley (or parsley and mint), ginger, mayonnaise, and vinegar. After the bread and buttermilk have soaked, add this as well and blend until smooth. Return to the bowl (or just keep it in the blender, if you prefer) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight for more intense flavor.
  • When you are ready to serve, preheat your broiler and spread the slices of sourdough with a very thin layer of mayonnaise, being careful to get it all the way to the edges (otherwise burning results, as you can see from a few of mine). Set the toasts in a single layer on a broiler pan or other oven-safe tray and broil just until they are lightly browned and just starting to become crisp.
  • Pour or ladle the gazpacho into small bowls or glasses, garnish with a dollop of yogurt, a leaf or two of complementary herbs, or a few fresh grape halves, and serve with the toasts on the side.

Rain check

Guys, I thought I could do it. I really did. Two weeks in a row! Back to normal! And then there was a weekend punctuated by a wonderful play, wonderful friends, wonderful food, and one too many wonderful daiquiris… followed, not so surprisingly, by a day during which I got no momentum until mid-afternoon, and grudgingly decided I needed to be responsible with my time and prep for the week ahead instead of racing to make and photograph something for us.

But rest assured, all is not lost! I have one more Monday left in May, my Chopped Challenge “producer” is back with lots of ideas, and I have an appetizer in mind that I hope will be the perfect bright, springy addition to whatever your Memorial Day weekend might hold. Just… hold that… for a little bit… and I’ll be back soon.