Raspberry Lemon Bars

Continuing my current fascination with layers and my own tendency toward unnecessary complication, this week I decided to fix what ain’t broken. I love the combination of raspberry and lemon (incidentally, these are the only two flavors that I allow to come in contact with cheesecake, which is saying something), so I wondered how the classic lemon bar would fare if I required it to carry a layer of tart ruby compote between the crust and the curd.

I decided to let myself off the hook on these in terms of recipe development – there are so many excellent lemon bar recipes out there that I saw no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, if my objective was just to add some fancy rims. I went with Deb’s whole lemon bars from her first cookbook, a riff on this tart. I like that they use the whole lemon (less waste! more flavor!), I love that they use a food processor for both components, and I’ve been pleased enough with the result on previous baking missions that this time I only adjusted her filling requirements by jamming in yet more citrus.

Speaking of jam, if you wanted to make your life easier for the raspberry component you could probably just empty a few tablespoons of preserves over the parbaked crust and wind up with something completely satisfactory. I opted instead for a defrosted bag of frozen berries – it’s winter and grocery store selections are less than desirable for a number of reasons – and cooked them down with a few tablespoons of sugar. You could go fresh too if you wanted; I include estimates below.

We found these delightful. And we keep on finding them to be so. In fact, every time I go back to the cutting board where I left them, I find fewer there. At first I thought the raspberries overpowered the lemon, but after my … well… we’ll call it my nth sample, I’ve decided there’s a nice harmony between the different sources of tartness. I do think the lemon takes a slight backseat, so I’m also including measurements here for a version I think you’ll find less raspberry-forward.

One note: to get that gorgeous, traditional, snowy-topped powdered sugar garnish, you must wait for these bars to cool completely. If you sprinkle it on when the bars are even slightly warm, the powdered sugar melts frustratingly into the lemon layer and all but disappears.

Raspberry Lemon Bars
Adapted very lightly from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Makes 16 squares of about 1½ inches
A little over an hour, plus cooling time of at least 30-40 minutes
For crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
For raspberry compote:
12 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for a raspberry-forward layer
6 ounces frozen or fresh raspberries, for more subtle raspberry presence
1-2 tablespoons sugar
For lemon filling:
2 medium lemons
1⅓ cups sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, to finish

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the middle. Cut two pieces of parchment paper slightly larger than an 8-inch baking dish and arrange them perpendicular to one another across the bottom and up the sides. You’ll use these as a sling to remove the bars from the pan later. Lightly grease for extra insurance.
  • Add the raspberries and 1-2 tablespoons sugar to a small pot. Cook over medium to medium-low heat until they have expelled some juice and thickened slightly. Alternatively, if you are using fresh raspberries and want them less processed, toss them with the sugar, crush them very gently with the tines of a fork, and set them aside for a few minutes.
  • While the raspberries cook, make the crust: blend the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor by pulsing 3-4 times for 1-second intervals. Add the butter and continue this 1-second pulsing routine until the crust just starts to come together – it will still be powdery, but hold its shape if pinched between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Dump the crust crumbs into the prepared baking dish and use your fingers or the bottom of a cup measure to press them firmly across the bottom and about ½ inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then stow in the preheated 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until it is lightly browned. If any bubbles appear, gently prick them with a fork. Leave the oven on.
  • While the crust bakes, make the lemon filling: cut the lemons in half and assess the pith (the white layer below the skin). If it is more than about ¼ inch thick, remove the skin and pith from one of the lemons, leaving only the flesh. If it is less than ¼ inch thick, keep it all. Cut the lemons into slices and remove any seeds. Then, add the lemon slices – skin and all! – and the sugar into the same food processor bowl you used for the crust (you don’t even need to wash it out), and process on high until the lemon is thoroughly pureed – about 2 minutes.
  • Add the butter chunks to the pureed lemon and process again until the butter is well integrated. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and salt and pulse in 1-second intervals until the mixture is well combined. Don’t forget to scrape the sides of the processor bowl down once or twice with a spatula to ensure an even mixture.
  • To assemble, pour and scrape the raspberry puree over the parbaked crust, using a spatula or the back of a large spoon to spread it evenly across the hot crust. Next, pour and scrape the lemon filling over the raspberry puree. I was worried about the fillings bleeding into each other, but found the lemon stayed on top just fine provided I was pouring from a very low height.
  • Bake the bars for 35-40 minutes, until the filling is set and the top is lightly browned; you are looking for only a slight jiggle when you move the pan. The top may look a touch browner than you wanted – don’t worry. Powdered sugar covers that right up.
  • Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool completely, either on a rack or in the refrigerator.* Gently use the parchment sling to remove the entire square to a cutting board. Trim off the edges, if desired (I like this for neatness and consistency), then slice into 16 squares. If the knife is pulling at the top layer, clean it in between slices by dipping it into a glass of very hot water and then wipe away the residue. Sprinkle gratuitously with powdered sugar, then serve.

* Cooling completely is important: if you add the powdered sugar garnish when the bars are even a tiny bit warm, it will melt frustratingly into the lemon filling layer and disappear.

 

Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Haters Gonna Hate Pumpkin Spice Loaf: Now with photos!!

People have such vitriolic responses to the phrase “it’s pumpkin spice season” that by this point some of you have already stopped reading. I’ve heard a few interesting theories about why this is, including the idea publicized by a student at Swarthmore College a few years ago that since the drink that popularized this craze is popular among women, hating on it is another subtle way we’ve internalized sexism: pumpkin spice lattes are a girly thing, so just like other girly trends it must be devalued. Vox and various others picked up on this idea, also evaluating the pumpkin spice connection to capitalism, class, and being “basic.”

But I tend to sympathize more with the point made near the end of the article, and which I’ve seen in a few other places, which is simply: there’s enough trauma and horror and viciousness going on in that weird world we inhabit, so let’s let people find harmless joy where they can. And further, let’s face it: by and large, the mixture of warm autumnal spices that we mean when we say “pumpkin spice” are, even if you don’t want them in your coffee, frankly delicious.

So I’m on board the pumpkin spice train, and although I’m not terrifically enthused about them being swirled through my latte, a liberal dosing in pies, cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads of almost any kind is a-okay by me. And since my Trader Joe’s had a big end cap display of their pumpkin butter this week and Los Angeles is STILL resisting its usual September heat wave tendencies, I decided to take advantage of the season my calendar reports we’ve just fallen into (get it? get it?) and bake up a yeasted loaf infused with all those spices pumpkin benefits from.

My loaf started with an old favorite I haven’t worked with in a while: my Nana’s sweet dough. It’s a firm but soft product, elastic and pliable, and though in this incarnation it’s fairly sticky from all the wet ingredients, it just sighs when you roll it out in such a lovely way. I added a full cup of pumpkin puree to Nana’s original recipe, plus the requisite cinnamon and nutmeg the pumpkin spicing requires. You could use ginger and cloves as well, but this time around I decided to complete the trifecta with cardamom; its slightly citrusy brightness feels right for “fall” in Southern California.

To get that luscious, deep, spicy sweetness of the pumpkin butter into my creation, I decided to do a swirl in the center of my loaf: once risen, I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle, smeared it with butter, added a glossy layer of the deep orange spread, and on a whim, zested on some orange rind for additional lift.

This is a monstrous loaf. I bake so often with only sourdough anymore that I forget how high and how certainly active dry yeast rises. Even though it climbed in both its first and second rise, the oven spring as the loaf actually baked was incredible; I couldn’t believe it was holding its shape as it pillowed, hugely, almost like a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, above the loaf pan, and was disappointed but not surprised when it deflated a bit as it cooled; a huge air pocket between the bulk of the loaf and the mountaineering dome was the source of much of its swollen majesty.

Never mind that aesthetic imperfection, though; the loaf itself was a delight. Not too sweet, it boasts a pillowy, soft-but-chewy texture that reminds me of my mom’s challah, but with a subtle pumpkin flavor pushed along by the warm spices, and a just-toothsome crust for a pleasant contrast. The pumpkin butter slathered into the center is sweet and rich, but there’s only a bit of it swirled through the while thing, making the addition of jam or preserves extraneous: it’s baked right in. To me, that means you can eat this at any time of day, just like its latte-based inspiration. Haters gonna hate, it’s true, but that just means another slice for you.

Pumpkin Spice Loaf
Makes 1 very large loaf
About 4 hours
Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
½ cup warm whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup softened butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups bread flour
Filling:
¼ cup softened butter
¼ – ½ cup pumpkin butter spread
zest from 1 orange

 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm milk with the pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up.  It will begin to get bubbly and smell warm and bready.
  • While you wait for the yeast, add the ¼ cup softened butter, the pumpkin puree, the egg, and the vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl). Mix with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Add the yeast and milk mixture to the combined wet ingredients and mix them together briefly using the paddle attachment (if you are not using a stand mixer, an electric handheld or some elbow grease and a whisk will do nicely here).
  • Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, and 2 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment (or a sturdy wooden spoon if you aren’t a stand mixer sort of person), mix just until the flour is moistened and you have created a lumpy dough. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to begin hydrating the flour.
  • After the dough rests for 20 minutes, switch to the dough hook (or turn your dough out onto a well floured board) and knead for 5-8 minutes in the mixer, or 10-12 minutes by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first – we’ve added a lot of fat and a lot of moisture.  Don’t despair. Add more flour a ¼ cup at a time just until the dough cooperates (up to 3 cups of flour, though depending on the relative humidity of the day, you might not need that much).  It will still be a bit sticky, but it will become more elastic and supple and much easier to work with.
  • When your dough is smooth and stretchy and a bit springy, plop it into a greased or oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled, around 90 minutes.
  • Once doubled, punch down the dough to release trapped gas by gently deflating it with your fist. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×24 inches.
  • Smear the second ¼ cup of softened butter over the surface of the rolled out dough. Add the pumpkin butter and spread this atop the butter, leaving a half inch border at one of the long ends. Sprinkle on the orange zest, if using.
  • Begin to roll up the dough from the long side opposite the edge on which you left a border. Start with the middle and move out to the sides, as you would for a jelly roll.  Continue rolling until all the filling is enclosed, and then fold up the remaining, bare edge and pinch it firmly against the roll to create a seam.
  • Twist your log of dough a few times by gripping it and rotating your hands in opposite directions. This will ensure that a pretty swirl of filling is formed as it bakes. Fold the thinner ends underneath the fat middle and settle the whole thing into a buttered or greased loaf pan. Cover it lightly with greased plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • At the end of the second rise, remove the plastic wrap form the loaf and bake it for 35-40 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped or the internal temperature is between 180-200F (the thump test is the standard way of checking for doneness on bread, but it seems sort of impossible when you are baking a big loaf in a loaf pan. I prefer to take its temperature).
  • When it tests done, using whatever is your favorite method, remove it from the oven and let it cool for at least twenty minutes in the pan.  This will allow the structure to firm up so it slices nicely, rather than collapsing and squashing into itself when you so much as approach it with a serrated knife.
  • Slice and consume. I don’t think it needs a thing to accessorize it, but especially on the second or third day, a sweep of unsalted butter or a smear of cream cheese probably wouldn’t hurt anything…

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies

This is the story of a batch of cookies that almost didn’t happen. I’ve had them in the back of my mind for the better part of a week, now – a rehash of these brownie chunk cookies I’ve been playing with for a few years – and Sunday morning, as N. headed off to run a 10k in Santa Monica, I was ready to bake.

Until.

The previous night, I’d decided to make some little pesto swirled buns to use up a bit of fed sourdough starter, and plopped the kneaded dough right back into the bowl of my stand mixer to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. So of course when I got ready to make the cookies Sunday morning, I walked straight over to the mixer and only remembered after a few seconds of confused staring why the bowl wasn’t there: it was full of raw dough.

No matter. I’d just use my old handheld electric mixer ad my biggest glass mixing bowl… which, it transpired, was full of potato salad. A big old metal bowl it would be, then. Not as photogenic, but that’s a bit of a tiniest violin complaint.

So I creamed up the butter, added the sugar, lifted the electric mixer to clear out some of the collected mixture from inside the beaters, and the whisk part of one of the beaters – just the little bulb bit at the end that does all the work – fell off its metal post right into the butter.

I just stood there for a few seconds, considering the wisdom of options that included washing my stand mixer bowl and just throwing the butter and sugar blend I’d started right into the garbage, and decided on perhaps the laziest, least responsible option, which was to jam the beater back onto its post and mix the rest of the batch with that side smashed up against the bowl so it wouldn’t come off.

So I did. And everything was great. Until I went to add the flour, and realized I didn’t have any. Well, that’s not quite true. I had bread flour, and I had whole wheat flour. But who wants that in a cookie? (Actually, there is a bit of bread flour in these, but using such a high protein flour for the whole allotment was untested and might be less than pleasant.)

It turns out the Ralph’s down the street from my house is pretty uncrowded just before nine in the morning on a Sunday, which meant I got back from my unexpected errand quickly enough that I couldn’t be too annoyed, but still. How many setbacks is one batch of cookies worth?

The answer is at least this many. Many even one more. These cookies are triumphant. There are toasted walnuts. There are shards of bittersweet chocolate. There are hunks of brownie that somehow don’t get dried out and overbaked. And there are cherries.

I’ve never been a big fan of chocolate and cherries. Chocolate and strawberries are, of course, a worthy classic, and though I would go for one or two Mayfairs, those See’s candy creations with chopped cherry and walnuts inside, other incarnations didn’t thrill me, I think because most of the chocolate and cherry combinations I was tasting involved maraschino or other sweet cherries. These cookies, though, rely on the opposite: you need tart or sour dried cherries for this one. I used Montmorencies, which are still sweet but carry the same slight pucker as a dried cranberry – enough to make your mouth water just a little – and this hit of contrast is perfect in these chocolate-drenched cookies.

These are a project. Before actually baking the cookies, each tray of which require almost twenty minutes in the oven, you have to make the brownies and toast the walnuts, and the whole mission sets you back a full pound of butter. But when you are faced with trays of perfectly golden, chocolate studded cookies that are just crisp at the edges and softly chewy in the center, and when you crunch into the first flake of sea salt scattered decadently across the top, all of that extra preparation, even an emergency grocery store quest, feels justified.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine
Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a ½ inch slab of about about 10×15 inches
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (unless you’re lazy like me)
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed (see parentheses above)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, or parchment paper leaving at least an inch overhang on all sides to lift with.
  • Create a double boiler by filling a medium pot about half full of water and setting a glass or metal bowl over the pot, being sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water. Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl, and bring the water in the pot to a bare simmer over medium heat. Stir frequently until chocolate and butter are smooth, glossy, and completely melted. Set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.
  • When chocolate is barely warm to the touch, whisk in the sugar and vanilla. The mixture will become clumpy. Add the eggs and salt; whisk firmly until fully combined. Switch to a spatula and stir in the flour until no white streaks remain.
  • Dump and spread the batter over the prepared pan to create a thin, even layer. You may have to manipulate it quite a bit to get it to spread that far.
  • Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs; about 20 minutes. Cool in pan, then cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  • To remove from the pan, lift using the foil overhang and reserve about ½ of the slab (or maybe a bit more) for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
Makes 2½ – 3 dozen
1½ cups room temperature butter (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, + more for sprinkling
1 cup walnuts, toasted, then chopped (I like to pop them in while I’m preheating the oven – by the time it reaches 325F, the walnuts are usually ready)
1 cup dried tart or sour cherries, such as Montmorency
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
½ – ⅔ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into ½-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (toasting the walnuts while it’s preheating is a good way to multitask)
  • Cream the butter in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and the brown sugar and cream again until well integrated – be sure there are no errant chunks of butter.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and mix well to combine, scraping down the sides to create a homogeneous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts cherries, and chopped chocolate, stirring well to combine. Finally, gently fold in the brownie chunks – we don’t want to break them up too much.
  • Spray a ⅓ – ½ cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup with non-stick spray and use it to scoop the batter into rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart (this allowed me to fit six balls of dough on each sheet). Once spaced, press down with two fingers to flatten each ball slightly.
  • Sprinkle the top of each cookie sparingly with coarse or flaky sea salt and bake in the preheated 325F oven for 18-20 minutes, until edges of cookies are starting to turn golden and the middle is set but still very soft.
  • Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

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.