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.

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.

Chopped Challenge #3: Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline

Course: dessert

Ingredients: Hawaiian rolls, chocolate syrup, bourbon, sea salt.

For my first foray into dessert, N. gave me a list of ingredients that, at least in two cases, were deviously chosen with ulterior motives. As he’s currently training for a marathon (twenty-six miles and change! My brain can’t even fathom how long that is!), he is consistently hungry, and always looking for protein-laden snacks. He goes through chicken thighs, hard-boiled eggs, and toasted tempeh at alarming rates. Recently, he decided chocolate milk would be a fantastic mid-afternoon pick-me-up indulgence, and thus the chocolate syrup was assigned. As for the Hawaiian sweet rolls, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the leftovers would be “great for pulled pork!” so, of course, that was also added to our menu for the week…

I have to admit that this quartet stumped me for a while, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact, as soon as N. handed me the post-it note on which he’d written his choices, I had an answer in mind: this screamed bread pudding. The rolls could be toasted, and would be perfect for absorbing a bourbon-spiked custard mixture. The chocolate would make it extra indulgent, and the sea salt could get sprinkled on top, as with my favorite cookies, for a briny unexpected crunch.

But I couldn’t make bread pudding. I couldn’t. As easy as it would be, and as well as the ingredients lent themselves to it, doing so would make me a hypocrite. As N. (or anyone who has had the misfortune to watch the show with me) can attest, bread pudding is one of the dessert choices contestants make that instantly evokes bellows of protest from me. “DON’T MAKE BREAD PUDDING!” I yell. “YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME!” And they usually don’t! Their custards don’t set, their bread isn’t properly soaked, and they usually wind up with runny undercooked messes. I say other things about their choices too, which are even less nice. But we don’t have to talk about that here.

So even though I am not restricting myself to a time frame, I just don’t think I can get away with making bread pudding – not with as rude as I’ve been to the television about it. Neither can I make French toast, nor panna cotta, nor crepes (though this last one is less about not having enough time, and more about me explaining, tiredly, over and over, as if they can hear me, that “of COURSE your first couple are going to be disasters; that’s what crepes DO! Try again!). I had to go with something I don’t, from the safety and anonymity of my living room, routinely take contestants to task for, as natural as the choice might be.

I’m not sure what made me come around to ice cream, but from that point I realized the small size of the Hawaiian rolls might make the dessert a play on sliders. The scoop of ice cream, spiked with bourbon and browned with chocolate, would stand in for the burger patty. There would need to be something bright and acidic to break up the richness, so smashed raspberries might make a fun alternative for a slice or tomato or a slick of ketchup.

As for the sea salt, the only thing I could think of was salted caramel, and this dessert didn’t really need another creamy, drippy, sweet component. I was stumped until I remembered an episode of The Great British Baking Show in which the contestants made hazelnut dacquoise, an elevated meringue cake sweetened by praline, essentially toasted hazelnuts encased in hard caramel that had been reduced to a powder. That would be the perfect place to put the salt and another glug or two of the bourbon, and the powder could be rolled around the edges of the ice cream, like a more sophisticated sprinkle lining to an ice cream sandwich.

So here’s how it went: the ice cream was without question the best component. I’m using here a version of a recipe I’ve played with before – a no-churn, egg-free miracle from Nigella Lawson that, sure, takes about six hours to freeze up and requires one specialty ingredient, but hey, with chocolate and bourbon in there, and since I’ve always been able to find that specialty item at Whole Foods, was no big deal, really. I’d just make the ice cream the day before.

The praline was delicious and surprisingly successful. As I was making the caramel, using bourbon rater than water to help the sugar dissolve, things start to crystallize a bit, but rather than dumping the mess out and starting again, I added about a tablespoon of water, stirred it up, and magically the crystals dissolved and a gorgeous caramel the color of maple syrup bubbled its way into being. With no added dairy, it solidified into a sheet of colored glass around the hazelnuts, and the powder turned out to be equally delightful paired with the ice cream as it was an indulgent sweetener for oatmeal a morning or two later.

As for the Hawaiian rolls, while they made a reasonable vehicle for getting the other ingredients to our anxious mouths, I couldn’t help but feel as though they weren’t really needed. This could just as easily have been an ice cream sundae: smooth, luscious scoops dollops with smashed raspberries, generously sprinkled with praline, then topped with freshly whipped cream. And the rolls… well, since they had to be included, perhaps I could have toasted them, ground them up, and mixed them into the praline.

A project for another month, perhaps. Regardless, my judge says I am “on to the next round,” and now that I’ve done one of each course, April’s challenge is unknown. N. might give me an entrée, or an appetizer, or he might drop another dessert in my lap, considering he’s got twenty-six miles to run and a continually growling void in place of a stomach. We’ll just have to wait and see…

 

Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline
Ice cream adapted from Nigella Lawson
At least 6½ hours, counting time for ice cream to chill and harden
Makes generous 1 pint ice cream and approx. 1 cup praline
For bourbon chocolate ice cream:
⅔ cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounces double cream (I found mine at Whole Foods)
2 tablespoons bourbon
¼ cup chocolate syrup
For spiked, salted praline:
¾ cup whole hazelnuts
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1-2 tablespoons water, if needed
¾ teaspoon sea salt
For serving:
Split Hawaiian sweet rolls, one per person
1 pint raspberries (or fewer, depending on how many are enjoying), smashed with a fork (add a sprinkle of sugar if you want, but the rest of the dessert is pretty sweet)
Additional chocolate syrup, if desired, to decorate the plate

 

  • To make the ice cream, add sweetened condensed milk, whipping cream, double cream, 2 tablespoons bourbon, and ¼ cup chocolate syrup to the bowl of a stand mixer. You could do this in a regular mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer too.
  • Using the whisk attachment (or regular beaters), whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. For me, this took only 3-4 minutes. It may take more or less time for you depending on the speed of your mixer.
  • Using a rubber spatula, scrape the fluffy clouds into a freezer friendly container – I used a clean empty Greek yogurt tub – and freeze for at least 6 hours to let the mixture harden up.
  • While the ice cream chills, make the praline. Roast the ¾ cup of hazelnuts 10-12 minutes in a 350F oven, until they are slightly darker in color and have begun to release their oils. If you wish, dump them into a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to help remove their skins.
  • When the hazelnuts are roasted (and skinned, if desired), stir together the granulated sugar and the bourbon in a small pan or skillet. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is the color of dark maple syrup and almost smoking. If the mixture seems to seize up and crystalize while the sugar is dissolving, stir 1-2 tablespoons water. I found this eliminated the crystals handily.
  • Remove from heat, stir in the sea salt and the hazelnuts, then spread onto a piece of parchment paper and let cool for at least 1 hour.
  • Break up the solidified mixture into smaller pieces and whiz them into a powder in a food processor. Don’t go too far, though; since the nuts contain fat, if you continue processing eventually the powder will turn into a paste.
  • When the ice cream is set and the praline is ready, assemble your “sliders”: place a scoop of ice cream on the bottom of one of the split Hawaiian rolls. Sprinkle it generously with praline on all sides. Spread a dollop of smashed raspberries on the top half of your split Hawaiian roll, then smash together over the ice cream. If you wish, decorate the plate with additional chocolate syrup and maybe some whole raspberries, and eat immediately.