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 #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.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies

I love a great many things about my job. Being a community college professor is rewarding in a number of ways, and my biggest fears: that it would be just an amplified version of high school, and that there would be limited opportunities to make lasting connections with students, have proved fairly unfounded. In fact, more students follow me from class to class and contact me semesters and even years after they have left our campus than anyone at the university level ever did. It’s gratifying.

The thing I didn’t expect to miss, though, was a big library. Coming from a research university to a large community college, where the focus shifted from scholarship with teaching on the side to teaching with occasional, non-required research, was a big change for me, and it’s sometimes hard to access the materials I need. Yes, my library helps me get interlibrary loan materials, and I have a library card for UCLA’s massive collection, but sometimes things are missing. Sometimes things are checked out, or libraries say no. So I turn to other options: my research assistants. Funny enough, I probably have more unofficial, unpaid, unaware “RAs” than I would were I at a research university. And they aren’t RAs, really; they are just lovely people who sometimes help me access materials.

Most recently, I branched out from my usual RA – my sister – and got some help from E., who sent me a few chapters of a book no one local could or would loan me. I’d found an electronic version of the parts I needed through Google’s book preview which, oh so helpfully, didn’t have any page numbers! How’s a responsible prof to cite her sources, if her sources won’t cooperate?

So in thanks to E., who is revising his dissertation and clearly has much more important things to do than scan and send book chapters to his needy friend across the country, in spite of his loud insistence no such action was necessary, I decided to mail him a box of thank you cookies.

I’d considered this combination a month or so previous: dried apricots and white chocolate in an oatmeal based dough sounded different and delicious, and my sister and I had talked about playing with its clear granola resonances and adding, say, flaked coconut, and maybe chopped, toasted nuts or seeds.

For this version, though, I decided to keep it simple (though I did add guesses for quantities of coconut and nuts to the recipe, if you want to experiment). For the dough, I used an adaptation of my favorite oatmeal chocolate cookie recipe, one that Ghirardelli used to print on its semi-sweet chocolate chips bags, but has since changed to include both less butter and less flour. The products of that original recipe used to come with me, in great, craggy, unevenly shaped mounds, to field show competitions when I was in high school. After the first time or two, they never made it past the table at the entrance to the band room.

But anyway, egregious quantities of barely soft butter (thought it does make a lot of cookies, so don’t despair), heaps of rolled oats, and a generous dosing of both white chocolate chips and meaty, moist dried apricots get mounded into tablespoon-sized heaps and baked until they are barely cooked through – they come out still quite soft and a little raw looking in the middle – and set up as they cool. The butter should be malleable but still cool from the fridge, never melted, and the dough should be stowed back in the fridge to keep the butter cool in between baking each batch; as with pie crust or biscuits, this keeps the cookies from flattening out as they cook. In high school I used margarine instead; if you do this they will stay puffy, but I prefer the flavor and make-up of butter. The oats should be of the old fashioned rolled variety, not quick cooking, for texture in the final cookie.

When I sampled the first one, still quite hot from the oven, I thought it was good but a touch too sweet. But then I found myself eating another one, and then had to slap my own hand to prevent myself from downing a third in a row, so I figured I had to be on to something. Cooled, they lost a little of that initial saccharine hit, and considering that several dozen lasted all of two hours in my department mailroom when I brought them in last week, I’d say they were a reasonable success.

Oh, and my primary reason for baking? I won’t embarrass him by revealing how many he told me he ate at one go, but I will say they had a good reception and I’m glad they are there to comfort him as he plows through his dissertation revision process. A little cookie comfort in the middle of that trying process, especially when that is happening as only part of the weirdness and horror of the world right now, is so necessary.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies
Adapted heavily from the old Ghirardelli’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe
Makes approximately 4 dozen
About an hour
3 sticks unsalted butter, medium soft
¾ cups brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups rolled oats (not quick cooking oats) OR 2 cups oats and 1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (note: this is an approximation; I did not use coconut in mine)
12 ounces white chocolate chips
1 cup diced dried apricots
optional: ¾ cups roughly chopped unsalted toasted nuts, like walnuts or pistachios (note: this is an approximation; I did not add nuts to mine)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is broken down a bit. Add the sugars and cream on medium speed until very light in color and texture, 3-4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once to ensure even integration. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla and mix at low speed until incorporated.
  • At low speed, mix in the first ½ cup of flour with the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When it has incorporated a bit, add another ½ cup flour, mix to incorporate (don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl), then the final ½ cup flour. This ensures you don’t get flour everywhere.
  • If you are using an electric mixer, switch now to a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon and prepare to work out your upper arms. If you are in a stand mixer, continue at low speed. Stir in the oats until well incorporated, then the fruit and white chocolate chips just until mixed in.
  • Scoop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets. I did 8 per sheet, to ensure no overcrowding. Bake in the preheated 375F oven for 9-10 minutes, storing the remaining dough in the refrigerator while each batch is in the oven. When they come out, the cookies will look underbaked in the centers. Take them out of the oven anyway, and let them sit on the cookie sheet for 3-4 minutes to set up, then remove to a rack to cool for at least another 2 minutes before scarfing.

 

Talking About Thinking About Food *

* with apologies to I.’s podcast “Talking About Thinking About Records”

It’s funny how vacation works, isn’t it? You dive in with ambition: goals! Plans! But the first thing you want to do is relax, right? I mean, you need some definite time for relaxing, especially if the vacation starts with a holiday that requires preparation. And then once you’ve relaxed for a week… or maybe two… you start thinking about those plans. You start one of them. You consider another. And then when you clear your head again, there are only three days left before work starts again, and you realize that since you can’t accomplish everything you set out to do, it would be better to just stubbornly do nothing, telling yourself you are enjoying the time left as hard as you can.

At least, that’s what you do if you’re me. I had six tasks written down that I wanted to accomplish over the winter break. I did two of them. At first I was fairly gung-ho. I embarked on one of my big projects, but circumstances were more complicated than intended, and then a few things took longer than I thought, and there were shows to watch, and a dog who needed attention, and a husband who wanted the same, and suddenly it was February and I had to start thinking about my classes for the impending semester.

One of the tasks I had set for myself, as it seems I always do during breaks, and always fail to fulfill, was to create a backlog of posts so that for the first month of school, I would already have something ready to go and thus stay ahead of the curve, if a week lacking in time or inspiration came along. But in the actual weeks when I should have been doing this, I was by turns uninspired and resentful. I realize that this blog isn’t my job – it’s my hobby! But sometimes, because I give myself a weekly deadline, it feels like a job. Therefore, when I start to think about plotting out and executing a recipe, especially if that’s going to involve doing a round (or two) of dishes first, I feel like I’m giving up my vacation. Even though this is supposed to be my fun “work.”

So clearly I don’t have a recipe for you this week. “Just post a photo of food!” my mom said when I talked to her this weekend. But I’m a writer more than a photographer, so instead I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the food I ate during this break, and some of the dishes I’m thinking about now. I can’t promise all – or any! – of them will appear here, but maybe it will be a good way, as I teeter on the precipice of the new semester, of getting me back into all of my “jobs,” not just the one I get paid for.  🙂

The best thing I ate over the break may have been the dessert my sister, my mom and I made for Christmas. This year, we decided on a theme of “spiced.” Breaking from our appetizer tradition, we made a sit-down dinner, and everything in the meal – in fact, everything we ate all day (minus the odd chocolate truffle) – had to have a spiced component. Apple cardamom cake for breakfast, avocado toast with dukkah for lunch; N. even brewed a winter-spiced ale to fit the theme. Dessert, then, was an opportunity to show off all those warm tingling flavors in the spice cupboard, which we did with a trifle. In a huge balloon of a wine glass, we layered chunks of Mom’s best gingerbread, dollops of nutmeg and rum custard, ginger apple compote, and a generous heap of whipped cream. It was an indulgent project to dig your spoon all the way down and pick up a taste of everything, but the components went together perfectly, and the custard and compote were sufficiently rich, and the whipped cream, well, creamy enough, that you couldn’t tell I’d overbaked the gingerbread just a touch… Actually, I do have a photo of this one:

Other break foods that were definitively worth eating included the lamb burger from the recently shuttered San Francisco location of Park Chow, perfectly medium in the center and so juicy it required rolled-up sleeves. I tried a deliciously crunchy Hong Kong style crispy noodle dish at a Chinese restaurant near my parents’ house and wanted nothing else for two days. We made a lightly amended version of Melissa D’Arabian’s wine braised pork tacos that went over extremely well, especially with bright red cabbage strands and chunks of avocado on top. Perhaps most recently, we took a large, lightly toasted pavlova topped with stewed berries, toasted almonds, and amaretto whipped cream as a dessert offering for dinner with friends with a severe wheat allergy. The pillowy, marshmallowy center hidden inside the light crispness of the meringue’s exterior is a revelation.

Looking forward, I have an eclectic mix of things I think sound good. I’ve finally caught N.’s taco bug and now I just want them all the time. This week I’m taking an Ottolenghi recipe for squash that drizzles butternut batons with an herb oil and dollops them with yogurt, and folding them into a tortilla because why not? I’m dreaming of a winter taco that involves beer braised beef, shaved brussels sprouts, and definitely some radish. Maybe a horseradish crema of some sort. On the sweet side, I’m thinking about cookies studded with dried apricots and white chocolate, and just this morning (well, I guess it will be yesterday morning when this goes live) I thought about how lovely a thick, densely crumbed chocolate loaf cake – almost fudgy – would be topped with a light frosting, maybe a swiss buttercream or the like, flavored with something unusual. Marmalade, maybe, or ginger. Or tea.

And then of course I have my Chopped Challenge. N. tells me he has the entrée “basket” of ingredients for February worked out, so maybe that’s what I’ll have to share with you next week. Until then, be well, and tell me what you’re loving (or dreaming of) eating!