Friday, December 9, 2011


Finally, as some approximation of winter settles in here in New York, I am reminded of visiting Vienna in its pre-Christmas cheer a couple of years back.  I was doing research for Sweet Invention, traipsing from pastry shop to pastry shop.  (Yeah, I know, it's a tough job.)  And I kept running across groups of people standing around, their cheeks rosy and their fists filled with steaming mugs.  Needless to say, I had to investigate, and discovered one of Vienna's winter wonders:  punch (pronounced "poonch").  No this isn't the cold, spiked Kool-Aid you find at office parties but more like a rich, mulled wine.  There are dozens of variations: some spiked with brandy, others with schnapps (aka eau-de-vie).  They're delightfully warming and, given their alcohol content, they are highly conducive to holiday cheer.  There was a punch craze all over Europe about two hundred years ago but whereas the taste for it faded in places like France and even England (its birthplace, thus the name), here the tradition held on.

Here's a recipe I put together by combining a few online sources.  Great after a skating party, a day on the slopes or the most dangerous sport of the season, competitive holiday shopping.


makes about six, 6-ounce servings

1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup golden rum
2/3 cup raw sugar or to taste
3 cloves
1 small cinnamon stick
2 pods cardamom
2-inch piece of vanilla pod, split lengthwise
4 slices orange (preferably organic)
4 slices of lemon (preferably organic)

1 bottle red wine (Beaujolais works well or if you want to be more authentic use something like Blaufrankisch)

Combine brandy and rum with sugar, spices, orange  and lemon slices in a small pan.  Heat to about 150°F.  (Do not allow to boil!) Remove from heat, cover and let stand for several hours.  Combine wine and brandy mixture and heat until very hot but not boiling.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Origin of the Bûche de Noël

I was recently contacted by a journalist from Saveur about the origins of bûche de Noël, the “traditional” French Christmas dessert.  (For the article and a recipe, see Gabriella Gershenson, “A Slice of Christmas,” Saveur, December 2011) Today, you’ll see the cake in every single French pastry shop around the holiday, made in the shape of a yule log.  It is generally made in the form of a sponge roll cake frosted and filled with buttercream.  The idea derives from a folk celebration of Christmas where a log, large enough to burn for 3 days, is ceremoniously placed on the fire.  The Brits have a similar tradition.  (For the log, not the cake.)

But what of the cake?  The earliest recipe of the cake shows up in Pierre Lacam’s 1898 Le memorial historique et géographique de la pâtisserie.  The earliest mention however is a couple of years earlier in Alfred Suzanne’s 1894 La cuisine anglaise et la pâtisserie where he notes in passing that it is (was?) the specialty of a certain Ozanne, presumably his friend Achille Ozanne (1846-1898).  Of course we have no idea of what this looked like.  An article in the French newspaper Figaro adds an interesting tidbit (see Pierre Leonforte, “La bûche de Noël : une histoire en dents de scie,” Figaro, 17 December 2000):  according to Stéphane Bonnat, of chocolatier Félix Bonnat her great grandfather’s recipe collection from 1884 contains a recipe for a roll cake make with chocolate ganache.  Admittedly she makes no claim to this being the first bûche de Noël.

It makes sense that the cake, like so many other Christmas traditions (think Santa, decorated Christmas trees, Christmas cards, etc) dates to the Victorian era, to a time of genteel, bourgeois domesticity.  In France, in particular, a certain romantic image of peasant traditions had become part of the story the French told themselves about themselves and while the average Parisian bourgeois could hardly be expected to hoist logs into their 4th floor apartment, they could at least show solidarity for their country cousins by picking up a more manageable bûche at the local pâtisserie.  That the result was a little kitsch fit the middle class sensibility too.

If I had to guess, I would date the cake to the 1880s though it seems not to have taken off until the following decade.  For an early recipe that begins to resemble today’s version see Joseph Fabre’s 1905 Dictionnaire universel de cuisine pratique (This is the second edition of the book—the first was in 1894—but I haven’t been able to locate that particular edition), or look for Gershenson’s article.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ladurée Comes to New York

Despite my considerable curiosity, I held off some months before visiting Ladurée's new outpost on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Quite frankly, I didn't want to deal with the lines of macaronophiles eager to plop down $2.70 for each little cookie.  And then there was that little snooty voice inside of me that kept saying, well it couldn't be as good as Paris. 
To give a little background here, in Paris, Ladurée is the high temple of the macaron.  Perhaps Pierre Herme's macarons are better and more inventive, but it is Ladurée that put these almond meringue cookies filled with buttercream on the map.  They claim that the idea of creating the little sandwich cookies came from Pierre Desfontaines, a distant cousin of the Parisian shop’s first owner, some 60 years ago.  While the claim is difficult to corroborate I'll take their word for it until something better comes along.  Not that the idea of macarons is in any way new–in France it dates back to at least 1643.  Even the idea of filling them was around in the 1800s, though the filling was jam in those days.
But today Ladurée is the last word on macarons and they've turned the little cookie into a world-spanning empire with outposts all over Europe, the Middle East and Japan. It's a little surprising that it took them this long to get to America.  Needless to say, Ladurée is far from a small artisanal operation, it's more on the order Tiffany's or Louis Vuitton, though admittedly the French confectioner's luxuries are a lot more affordable.  But can they keep up the quality while manufacturing macarons by the ton?  Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes, at least if the cookies at the Madison Avenue branch are any indication.  A friend and I split four of them and here's my brief review (the texture on the cookies themselves was perfect, crisp yet barely resisting to the tongue):
Coconut:  these were perfect, a delicate distillation of coconuttiness
Lemon:  great flavor though I was a little surprised that the lemon buttercream was a little broken, this happens to me all the time, but I expect better than that from the Parisian masters
Raspberry: brilliantly intense flavor though I'm not convinced that leaving in the raspberry seeds does anything to the flavor
Violet-cassis:  this was perhaps the one dud, any violet flavor was swamped with the cassis and, while the texture of the cookie itself was exemplary, the filling seemed, well, gummy

That said, they are likely the best macarons in New York.  Though if you have the option, get on that plane to Paris.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nun's Breasts

Well I just couldn't resist sharing a brief article that appeared in Centro, a local paper in the southern Italian town of Pescara, brought to my attention by Luca Colferai (a Venetian and the primum movens of Il Ridotto). To see the photo gallery associated with the article see this link. The following is a rough and ready translation of the abridged version that comes with the photo gallery, the full article is here:

photo: Federico Deidda

Nuns' Tits, Abruzzo's wicked dessert celebrates 125 years.

A simple but delicious dessert made with just a few quality ingredients: sugar, flour and eggs to make the sponge cake; fresh milk, eggs, lemon zest and flour for the pastry cream. These were created in Naples between 1884 and 1886 by a native of Abruzzo who had come to Naples to learn the secrets of pastry. As for the rest, such as the quantities of the ingredients, this remains a secret passed down from generation to generation, unknown outside pastry shops. The origin of the name of what is now the sweet symbol of the town of
Guardiagrele [a town in Abruzzo] is also a mystery. The first theory is that the original term was "tre monti" [three mountains], which referred to the mountains of the Maiella [now a national park], but was then transformed into nuns' tits by the popular imagination. The second hypothesis originates in the common belief among the laity that nuns, to make their feminine shape less evident, placed a lump of clothes (the third breast) between their breasts. The third theory has it that nuns of the Order of Saint Clare simply invented this sort of sponge cake and thus the association with the sisters. The colloquial name was simply a malicious play on the dessert's shape. Article: Rossano Orlando.

If you're interested in a recipe you could give this one a shot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pastry Jeremiad

Like just about everything that happens in New York, the opening of Dominque Ansel’s new pastry shop in Soho was accompanied by a great deal of hype.  And truth be told, I was excited too, because ever since François Payard closed his patisserie on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the city hasn’t had a decent French pastry shop.  Ansel has good pedigree. Most recently he was the pastry chef at Daniel which has the reputation of serving up some of the best French cuisine in town. So my hopes were high as we weaved and darted through the stream of Soho shoppers on a Sunday afternoon. 

The pastry shop is modest, with a small glass-enclosed kitchen at the back that reveals a couple of banks of convection ovens.  There is a very pleasant back yard where you can take the pastries, something of a rarity in New York.  

We came on a Sunday afternoon so the full assortment wasn’t out, though looking at the board there appear to be no more than about a half-dozen pastries available at any given time.  There is also a selection of Viennoiserie and Ansel has to be lauded for selling that Breton specialty the kouign amman, a disk of butter, pastry and caramel.  Can’t report on that because they were sold out.  I did try a palmier though, which isn’t made so differently.  It was OK, more dense and doughy than buttery and ethereal.  So let us return to the pastry.  Which was fine.  About the level of a provincial French pastry shop without too much ambition or technique.  In other words just about the level of other New York French-style pastry shops. 

Take the “bunny cake” which exhibited about as much finesse as a Crumbs bakery or the gingerbread which looked like something sold at Zaro’s.

My wife had the mini tarte tatin which seemed like the beginning of a good idea.  An individual thick round of apple nestled on a cookie base.  But it’s as if there was no follow through.  Somehow for $5.50 you expect a flight of imagination, or at least a modest leap.  Like Starbucks you’ll find the cups and plates are paper, the forks plastic.

It’s an interesting question, why French-style pastry shops here are so mediocre.  Obviously it has something to do with an undiscerning clientele weaned on Twinkies and Dunkin Hines.  But that can’t be all of it.  After all we have good Italian restaurants which is clear evidence that we can overcome Chef Boyardee.  Real estate may be part of it too as well as the wage structure.  After Payard closed his wonderful pastry shop uptown he opened Francois Payard Bakery, which is all about mass production.  My suspicion is that he just can’t get the workers with the necessary skill level to make genuinely artisanal pastry. 

In France pastry cooks have to go through a multi-year apprenticeship (with little pay).  Why would anyone bother to do it here when you can just open up another cupcake bakery and hire workers with the skill set of twelve year olds.  Another reason why French pastry seems to be holding on in France in ways that it can’t here was pointed out to me by Emmanuel Hamon a talented pastry chef in Brest.  In France people visit their neighborhood pastry shop virtually every day because they buy their bread there as well.  As a result buying pastry isn’t some sort of esoteric, once a month activity it is a quotidian reality.  This, in turn, supports numerous pastry shops which increases competition leading to better quality and variety.  Of course those conditions don’t exist here but still, you'd think a city like New York could support at least one stellar patisserie.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pumpkin Macarons

Macarons can be made in dozens of flavors but given the season, I thought it would be fun to do a pumpkin version.  I have a bit of a pumpkin obsession, having authored a whole book on the subject:  The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook.  Macarons do require a certain degree of precision but they are not as hard to make as some people would have you believe.

You will need some almond flour.  If you can’t buy it, you can make your own, just make sure the almonds are really dry.  Separate the eggs at least 1 hour before using or preferably the day before.  And if you want to ensure all the macarons are the same size draw circles of the desired size on the back of the parchment.  And do use a scale, it makes a huge difference here.  And, oh yeah, don’t make them on a rainy day!  (The pictures below were taken on a rainy day which is why the macarons didn't rise as evenly as they would otherwise.)

The recipe makes about 2 dozen 1 ½-inch macarons

215 g (7 ½ ounces) confectioners’ sugar
140 g (5 ounces) almond flour or sliced almonds
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
100 g (3 ½ ounces) egg whites (about 3 large) at room temperature
pinch salt
25 g (2 tablespoons) castor or superfine granulated sugar
orange food coloring preferably paste or gel
Pumpkin buttercream (see following recipe)

1. Line two 18- by 13-inch cookie sheets with parchment paper adhering them to the sheets with a little butter.
2.  If sliced, grind the almonds very fine in a food processor with about half the confectioners’ sugar, scraping regularly.  Add the remaining confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon and process until very fine.  Pass through a medium-coarse sieve and regrind the remaining almond bits if necessary.  If using almond flour, sift together with the confectioners’ sugar.
3.  Beat the whites and salt with an electric mixer until soft peaks form.  Add the granulated sugar and beat until stiff and shiny.  Add enough coloring for an attractive orange color and beat until homogenous. Using a rubber spatula fold in the almond mixture in two additions until just homogenous.  The mixture will deflate.

4. Fit a piping bag with a 3/8-inch (1 cm) round tip. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheets in circles about 1 inch in diameter.

Let the macarons dry about 20 minutes (a little longer is OK if you need to cook them in two batches) so a little skin forms on the outside. 
5. Preheat oven to 425°F.
6. Set the macarons in the center of the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 350°F.  Prop the door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon or something similar.  For small macarons, bake about 8-10 minutes, larger ones will take about 12-15.  They are done when shiny and hard on the outside.  When you pry one apart it should be a little moist in the middle.  Set on a cooling rack and cool briefly.  Remove from the macarons from parchment while still warm. Cool on cooling racks.

7.  Sandwich the macarons with 1-2 teaspoons of buttercream.  Set in an air-tight container and refrigerate overnight.


makes about 2 cups (enough for about 4 dozen macarons)

2 large egg whites
2/3 cup raw sugar
pinch salt
6 ½ ounces (13 tablespoons) unsalted butter, slightly cooler than room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup canned pumpkin puree (at room temperature)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
large pinch ground cloves
orange food coloring, preferably paste or gel.

1.  Beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until they form soft peaks.
2.  Meanwhile combine the sugar and about 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan over moderately high heat.  Bring to a boil and cook to the soft ball stage (235-240°F) on a candy thermometer.
3.  Gradually pour the syrup into the egg whites with the mixer on low speed.

Scrape down the sides and beat on high speed until the meringue is at room temperature.

Gradually add the butter and salt, scraping down the sides of the bowl regularly.  Beat until completely smooth and fluffy.

Gradually beat in the remaining ingredients adding enough orange food coloring to give the buttercream an attractive pumpkin color.  If the buttercream seems to be separating beat on high until it comes back together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Little Cookie Detective Work

Among the many desserts that I never covered fully in Sweet Invention because I just ran out of time and space was the humble drop cookie, perhaps one of the defining recipes of the home-baked American repertoire. What I mean is all those doughs make with sugar and butter that spread in homey, irregular rounds: chocolate chip, oatmeal, peanut butter and their kind.

The word cookie is undeniably Dutch in origin (from koekje=small cake) and began to be used English-language American cookbooks by at least the 1850s. Still, what it seemed to mean at this point was a small cake, a kind of muffin, rather than what we would think of as a cookie. In those days drop cookies were mostly called drop cakes. These little cakes came here from England. The eighteenth century cookbook author Hannah Glasse has a recipe (she calls them drop-biscuits). These, however, resemble lady fingers in texture rather than what we would think of as a cookie. Closer to the idea of a cookie is something called a “rout cake.” Mary Eaton, a British cookbook writer gives a recipe in The Cook and Housekeeper's Complete and Universal Dictionary (1822):

To make rout drop-cakes, mix two pounds of flour with one pound of butter, one pound of sugar, and one pound of currants, cleaned and dried. Moisten it into a stiff paste with two eggs, a large spoonful of orange-flower water, as much rose water, sweet wine, and brandy. Drop the paste on a tin plate floured, and a short time will bake them.

(For an explanation of the name, see Most drop cakes are what would consider a “cake”. And the same is true of early drop cookie recipes. The first real drop cookie recipe that I’ve been able identify (though the rout cakes do seem to be a distant ancestor) is something called “Boston Cookies” which begin to show up in the 1880s. These are essentially the earlier rout cakes but with less liquid and flour but more sugar. The Household: A Cyclopedia for Modern Homes (1881) gives the following recipe.

One cup butter, one and one-half sugar, two and one-half flour, one and one-half raisins chopped fine, one-half teaspoonful soda dissolved in a little warm water, three eggs, a pinch of salt and nutmeg and other flavoring to the taste. Mix well, roll thin, or better still, drop into the pans with a spoon and sprinkle granulated sugar over each.

When you look at the original Toll House cookie recipe, the proportions of butter, sugar and flour are identical (Nestlé later altered the proportions slightly.) This then may the direct ancestor of the drop cookie. Now to figure out whether it really did originate in Boston!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bashing Wedding Cakes

So I was in a taxi cab with an NPR reporter (busy shilling Sweet Invention, my new book on the history of dessert) when he told me a story that I find just fascinating. He was originally against the idea of having a wedding cake at his nuptials but he eventually relented, but in a rather singular way. He and his bride to be decided to replace the usual multistory extravaganza with a wedding-cake-shaped piñata and fill it with small bottles of booze and Twinkies. To top it all off, the couple placed sugar day of the dead skulls on top. I have to say that I was equal parts fascinated and horrified.

Having spent the last couple of years delving into the symbolic baggage of desserts (chocolate money, Barbie cakes, bone-shaped cookies, and so on) I couldn’t but stop and rejoice at all the symbolism inherent in bashing apart a symbol of wedding bliss filled with toy-sized bottles of booze and sweet relics of childhood.

Let me very briefly note the symbolism of the more ordinary wedding cake (or bride’s cake as it was sometimes known in the 1800s). In those days there was a kind of parallel between the virginal bride and the white-frosted cake, sometimes made explicit by the orange blossoms placed on both the bride and cake. The fashion for these white cakes originates with multi-story confection created by (mostly likely) Alfonse Gouffé for the wedding of the future King Edward VII and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The idea caught on and white wedding cakes (they used to be pink or even red) became de rigueur.

One anthropologist has noted that the act of the newlywed husband and wife plunging a knife into the cake represents the consummation of the marriage. If that is the case what does the smashing of the piñata represent?

The next step is, of course, to share the cake among the guests. They are, in effect, the witnesses of the marriage act. The cake, quite literally embodies this. You can draw a parallel to the sharing of the host in a Catholic mass. So what does it mean to consume a plastic-wrapped, industrially-produced mélange of chemicals? Moreover one that is associated with childhood? Are we bearing witness to the creation of a new consumer unit with child-like impulses born out smashing apart a traditional symbol of marriage. Then there are the toy-sized bottles of booze. In the nineteenth century, candy manufacturers used to make sweets in the shape of gin bottles, guns and cigars so that kids could play at being adults. Like so many of candy-like cocktails popular today, the little bottles seem to point to the fact the line between child and adult is little more than a blur. But what should we make of the sugar skulls? An ironic reminder that all, including symbols and marriage, are as dust to dust? Or just more spooky candy, no more threatening than Jack-o-lanterns on Halloween. Well I guess kids will be kids…till death do us part.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Gelato on a Stick

As a rule, I’m usually not fond of downmarket desserts go upmarket. You know, the fancy restaurant smores, the French pastry chefs making ring dings but while I have some principles they tend to get weak-kneed when it comes to gelato. Which brings me a little hole-in the wall in Greenwich Village called Popbar. The conceit here is that the place makes it’s own popsicles/ice cream bars which you get to dip in one of several chocolate coatings, sort of good humor on an expense account. The gimmick wouldn’t be much more that cute if it weren’t for the quality of popsicles which are either made with gelato or sorbetto (sorbet). On a cool September day, the ones made with fruit sorbet didn’t seem quite as inviting as the gelati, so we went for the chocolate, gianduia and pistachio gelato. All were yummy: the chocolate was terrific, the pistachio only a trace less so. Only the gianduia seemed a little wan. The friendly lady behind the counter dipped them in melted chocolate and rolled them in nuts. Worth a detour if you’re shopping at nearby Murray’s Cheese Shop or the other worthy stores of Bleecker Street nearby.