August 26, 2012

A Lemon-Berry Tart and a vote of confidence

I might be overdoing it with the desserts this summer; it feels like I don’t know anything else but sweet delights.  Still, who can resist so much ripeness and aromas, and ultimately so much fresh fruit left and right?  I know I can’t, and I want to take full advantage while they last.  And besides, there are so many different and versatile desserts to create.  Today, I have a tart for you – a Lemon-Berry Tart


Have I told you that my parents-in-law are visiting us these days?  Yep…for a short while.  So, here’s my dilemma.  When we have visitors I usually prefer to cook or bake things that I’ve already perfected or at least I’m familiar with; I don’t like stepping into unfamiliar territory and start experimenting.  But my mother-in-law is all about the innovative, the different and the odd. She wanted me to cook something new and she insisted on being my guinea pig.  Needless to say I was terrified.  My brain froze.  My entire world came to a halt.  The guinea pig job belongs to Adrian – he’s my first taster and the one who first criticizes the new recipes!  But who can argue with the mother-in-law?  So, I said a quick prayer and went for it. 

I had some extra berries leftover from yet another one of these.  And I really loved how the raspberries and blackberries turned out in the Plum-Berry Upside-Down Cake, so I thought that they might also work beautifully in this Lemon-Berry Tart.  And they did.  The tart was stunning – a glossy canary yellow lemon-flavored custard with the consistency of crystallized honey, dotted with red and dark berries, and defined by a thin mildly sweet crust.  Dreamy… 

There was some extra custard, which didn’t make it into the tart but made it into a ramekin and went into the oven next to the bubbling tart.  When we took a bite from the tiny ramekin, it was like savoring a lemon crème brulee – heavenly!  

When the tart came out, we were mesmerized.  Both my mother-in-law and I kept staring at it, hesitating to dive the knife in it and disturbing the perfection in front of us.  But we couldn’t contain our excitement and had to taste it!  The tart was so elegant, so delicate, and oh so lemony.  Sweet and sinful in one spoonful.  The tart passed the test and so did I.

Lemon-Berry Tart
Adapted from Our Best Desserts Magazine (Spring 2012)

Serves: 8-9 servings

The recipe calls for a 9-inch pie plate; I didn’t have that (but I’m planning on getting one, soon), so I used my 10-inch tart plate and it worked out perfectly.

Ingredients for the Sweet Butter Pastry:

·         1 cup all-purpose flour
·         3 Tablespoons sugar
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         ¼ cup cold butter

Ingredients for the Custard:

·         3 eggs, at room temperature
·         2 egg whites, at room temperature
·         ¾ cup sugar
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         ¼ cup grated lemon zest (set aside)
·         ¾ cup fresh lemon juice
·         ¼ cup butter, melted
·         1 cup fresh raspberries
·         1 cup fresh blackberries

Instructions for the Sweet Butter Pastry:

Preheat oven to 400°F. 

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, the sugar and the salt.  Put the ingredients in a food processor and add the cold butter.  Pulse the ingredients together until the pieces of butter are pea size.  Transfer the mixture to the bowl and sprinkle 1 Tablespoon cold water over part of the mixture; toss gently with a fork.  Push moistened dough to side of bowl.  Repeat with additional cold water, 1 Tablespoon at a time (4 to 5 Tablespoons in total), until all of the flour and butter mixture is moistened.  Shape into a ball. 

On a lightly floured surface, use your hands to slightly flatten dough.  Roll dough from center to edge into a 12-inch circle.  Wrap pastry around rolling pin; unroll into a 9-inch tart or pie plate.  Ease pastry into tart or pie plate without stretching it.  Trim pastry to ½ inch beyond edge of tart or pie plate.  Fold under extra pastry.  Crimp edge as desired.  Prick bottom and side of pastry with a fork.  Line pastry with double thickness of foil.  Bake for 8 minutes.  Remove foil.  Bake for 5 to 6 minutes more or until pastry is golden.  Cool on a wire rack. 

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.     

Instructions for the Custard:

In a large bowl, combine eggs, egg whites, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon juice.  Beat with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until thicker and lemon colored.  Stir in melted butter and lemon zest. 

Place raspberries and blackberries in bottom of backed pastry shell.  Pour lemon mixture over berries.  Bake about 30-35 minutes or until lemon mixture is set.  Cool on a wire rack.

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

August 12, 2012

From torte to upside-down cake

A good while back I revived the German influences in our Romanian cuisine with one of my favorite sweet treats – Vanilla Pudding Apple Torte.  This bold and buttery cake that gets a regal touch from the warm and smooth vanilla pudding topping is so reminiscent of my childhood and the rugged sights of my old Transylvania.  One bite and all those vivid memories are back.  I was daydreaming about it this past week; but strangely enough, I’m still meandering amid ripe stone fruits and luscious berries.  And this time I wanted something along those lines.  So, I took out my Bon Appétit Desserts tome and I found the perfect candidate – Plum-Berry Upside-Down Cake.  And just like that, I was in for a party; a party of flavors and a colorful visual; all in an upside-down cake. 

In my previous entry, I told you how desperate I was for some glossy red currants and how scarce they were around here.  But… wait for it, wait for… miracles do happen and today, these currants have made it into my kitchen… at least in a picture format.  Yes, I know, still pretty disappointing.  These are the exact currants that I pick every summer in my 92 year-old great-grandmother’s backyard.  Unfortunately, this year I missed our currant picking ritual and especially the currant picking contest against my great-grandmother.  I didn’t get the chance to be faster at currant picking and finally defeat her.  Truth be told, I’m never faster than my great-grandmother; maybe next year…   

Although some currants would have worked beautifully in this upside-down cake, they’re not mandatory.  This cake is just drop dead gorgeous without them and one hundred percent delectable!  It was the first time I had made this cake, and to be quite frank I wasn’t sure what to expect; but somehow I knew that if you add crimson plums, scarlet raspberries, and dark blackberries, you will create something great.  And I was right.  As it turns out, stone fruits and berries complement each other really well; and not just in color but also in taste!    

After a ride in the oven, the transformation is evident: the fruits become soft; the plums go from piquant and slippery to sweet and slipperier; the berries release their deep colors; they all blend in with each other, eat up the buttery brown sugar syrup that a moment ago they were comfortably lounging in, and sink into the dense and fragrant dough.  The lustrous top is still thriving, though.      

The taste?  Definitely tasty.  It sort of goes from sweet to tart and back to sweet, emphasizing a distinct undertone of warm and spicy cinnamon, which also gives a discrete darker hue to the springy dough. 

The most exciting part?  Presenting the cake on a beautiful platter.  Ironically, this is not an apple tart (obviously), but that doesn’t make it less entitled to be displayed on this pretty French tart platter.  After all, I was thinking of an apple torte before I baked this cake. 

Plum-Berry Upside-Down Cake
Adapted slightly from Bon Appétit Desserts by Barbara Fairchild

Serves: 8 servings

Ingredients Topping:

·         ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
·         ½ cup (packed) light brown sugar
·         3-4 medium plums, pitted, cut into ½-inch wedges
·          ½-pint (in total) raspberries and blackberries

Ingredients Cake:

·         1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
·         2 teaspoons baking powder
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1 cup sugar
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         ½ cup plus 1 Tablespoon whole milk


Topping: Melt butter in medium saucepan over low heat.  Add brown sugar; whisk until well blended.  Pour syrup into 9-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides, spreading to cover bottom evenly.  Lightly press plums into syrup in circle around edge of pan.  Spread berries in center. 

Do ahead: Can be made 3 hours ahead.  Let stand at room temperature.

Cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F.  Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl.  Beat butter in another medium bowl until smooth.  Gradually add sugar to butter and beat until well combined.  Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in vanilla extract.  Stir dry ingredients and milk alternatively into butter mixture, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.  Spoon batter over topping in pan. 

Bake cake until top is golden and firm and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 60 minutes.  Let stand 10 minutes.  Run small sharp knife around pan sides to loosen cake.  Place platter over pan.  Using oven mitts or pot holders as aid, firmly grasp pan and platter together, then turn over.  Let stand 3 minutes, then gently lift pan off cake.  Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.  

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

August 3, 2012

Berry Fool

We’re switching gears a bit from all those juicy fragrant peaches, plums, apricots, and their stone fruit companions, and we’re putting berries under the magnifying glass… yet, my fruit bowl is still overflowing with peaches and plums as I’m typing these words, and they are winking at me for attention.  If I’m not happily munching some of these peaches in the next ten minutes, they’ll most likely end up in yet another baked concoction in the next day or two.  Have I mentioned that I’ve been baking a lot with stone fruits, lately?  Yep… I think I have.    

So, bring out the berries; I’m in the mood for a fool… a berry fool that is.  The initial recipe, which got me so inspired, asked for blueberries.  Well, tough luck!  Blueberries don’t really sing to me; we don’t get along as we should.  For me they’re sort of… faint.  They just need that extra zing and enthusiasm and pop of color from other berries to really shine.  On their own, blueberries fall short; in the company of other bold luscious berries, they flourish like there’s no tomorrow… and then we get along just fine.  

And so, the original blueberry fool became a berry fool with the generous help of some strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries; pretty much any berry I could get my hands on.  Of course, I didn’t leave out the blueberries.  It would have been a crime!  So, into the mix they went.  Still, I desperately wanted to boost the party with some currants, but these glossy red little suckers are so scarce around here that if you find them they are worth an absolute fortune. 

With or without currants this berry fool impressed me.  It turned out to be a light and frothy mousse flecked with tart bright berries.  It was like air.  Dunk a crackly pecan shortbread cookie in the fool and you’ll get that much deserved crunchy bite; a hefty dollop of toasted sliced almonds, or walnuts, or hazelnuts or whatever you have lounging around will also do the trick.  With this berry fool, you can relish a cool dessert, tonight; put an extra one in the fridge and tomorrow morning you’ll enjoy an invigorating breakfast!   

Berry Fool
Adapted from Food Network Magazine (July / August 2011)

Serves: 4 servings


·         2 cups mixed berries
·         ¼ cup granulated sugar
·         Pinch of salt
·         Zest and juice from 1 lemon
·         1 1/3 cups heavy cream
·         1 Tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         Shortbread cookies or toasted sliced almonds or hazelnuts etc., for serving


1.    Make the berry sauce:  Heat 1 ½ cups berries, the granulated sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbling.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries are soft, about 5-7 minutes.  Stir in the grated lemon zest and juice.  Remove from the heat.  Stir in the remaining ½ cup berries and let mixture cool to room temperature.
2.    Using an electric mixer, beat the heavy cream with the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract in a bowl until soft peaks begin to form.  Gently fold all but 1/3 cup of the berry sauce into the whipped cream.  Divide among glasses and top with the remaining berry sauce.  Serve with cookies or sprinkle the toasted sliced almonds on top.   

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)