Almond Tart with Vanilla Pastry Cream and Apricots

Summer: Flowing dresses, colorful toenails in flip-flops, road trips to see the unseen, wind in the hair, splashing water, warm breezy evenings with friends and wine. I adore summertime more than anything else in the world, and I’d gladly give up any other season to have more of it. That’s probably why I love apricots so much – to me they’re a perfect symbol of leisurely summer days, each and every one like a tiny, round, orange sun. I do my best to fill up on them while they’re in season, and also try to preserve the sunshine they embody in any way I can – whether it’s jam, frozen pulp to add to my morning smoothies, or just quartered fruit to throw in my cakes later. Then when we’re in the depth of (rainy and gloomy) winter, I can just open the freezer or pop a jar, and have a dose of apricot sunshine therapy.

I like them best when they’re freckled, mushy, and overripe with sweetness, but of course for baking it’s better to find fruit that’s a little more firm and holds its shape.  Whether to peel it or not, that’s up to you, but I rarely bother. Apricots are a wonderful accompaniment for any of your summer baking endeavors: muffins, quick breads, yeast goods, you name it – everything will taste amazing with apricots in it!

This weekend I’ve decided to make a tart: I filled an almond short crust pastry with vanilla pastry cream, and sat slices of poached apricots on top. The mild tartness of apricots complements the sweet taste of pastry cream very well, but I love the tart’s looks the most: Deep orange, with almond sprinkled all over… Sunshine in every bite.

 img-2015-06-21-8643

Almond Tart with Vanilla Pastry Cream and Apricots

Almond tart:
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) all – purpose flour (for gluten – free alternative, please see Note)
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) ground dry toasted almonds
  • pinch salt
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 114 g (4 oz., ½ cup) unsalted butter, chilled and diced
  • 2 egg whites, divided
Vanilla Pastry Cream:
  • 2 cups (500 ml, 16 oz.) half-and-half or whipping cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 140 g (5 oz.) granulated white sugar
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract (I used Frangelico liqueur instead)
  • 2 teaspoons powdered gelatin, bloomed in 2 tablespoons water
Poached Apricots:
  • 500 g (1 lb.) fresh apricots, halved and pitted
  • 1 l (32 oz.) water (+ extra iced water for cooling the apricots
  • 230 g (8 oz.) granulated white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

+ 140 g (5 oz.) granulated white sugar – for sprinkling the poached fruit
½ cup sliced almonds, divided
40 g (1.5 oz.) apricot preserves, mixed with 15 ml (0.5 oz.) water – to brush the apricots

img-2015-06-21-8634

Method:
  1. First, prepare the tart shell: Place all the dry ingredients in a bowl of your food processor; pulse couple of times until combined.
  2. Add chilled/cubed butter, and pulse until the butter resembles peas. Add the egg white and mix just until the dough comes together in a ball. Wrap the dough and chill for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper into a rectangle that fits into a 13 x 4 inch (33 x 10 cm) tart pan with removable bottom. The dough should be about 1/8 (3 – 4 mm) thick. Chill the rolled out rectangle for about 20 minutes so it’s easier to transfer into the pan. When it’s chilled, peel off the top parchment paper and invert it into your pan. Chill again for 20 – 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  4. Place a sheet of parchment paper onto the dough in the pan and fill it with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until set. Remove the parchment with weights/beans, brush the tart with a beaten egg white and continue to bake for 10 – 15 minutes more until golden brown. Let cool completely in the pan.
  5. Make the pastry cream: Combine powdered gelatin with water and set aside to bloom.
  6. In a saucepan, heat the half-and-half/cream with sugar, almond extract and vanilla extract. Mix the egg yolks with cornstarch, temper the mixture with a little of warm cream/yolk mixture and pour it into the rest of the cream/yolk mixture in the pan, whisking constantly. Cook for about 2 – 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until the pudding thickens and remove it from the heat.
  7. Let the vanilla cream cool a little, and then liquefy the gelatin over a pot of hot water and mix it into the hot vanilla pastry cream. Set aside for now.
  8. Make the poached apricots: Bring the water, sugar, and vanilla to a boil. Add the halved fruit and cook over a medium heat for 2 – 4 minutes, until the apricots are soft when pierced with a fork, but not mushy. Immediately place them into a bowl of iced water.
  9. Pour the lukewarm vanilla pastry cream into the tart shell and sprinkle it with half of the sliced almonds. Chill in the refrigerator.
  10. Drain the apricots and cut them into neat slices (3 – 4 slices per half) and sprinkle them with sugar. Let stand for couple of minutes.
  11. Arrange the apricots on the pastry cream. Warm up the apricot jelly with water, brush the fruit and sprinkle it with the rest of the sliced almonds.
  12. Return to the refrigerator and chill until serving.

img-2015-06-21-8637

Note:

To make the tart gluten – free, replace the all – purpose flour with your favorite flour mix (don’t forget to add 1 teaspoon guar/xanthan gum if your mix doesn’t contain it already). I usually mix my own flour mixes, but for this recipe I used Bob’s Red Mill Pie flour mix, and it worked beautifully. Please check that your vanilla and almond extracts are gluten – free as well; gluten often hides in the most unexpected places!

Salted Peanut Chocolate Caramel Cups

Becoming a Father is quite easy. Being one can be much more complicated. I’m quite sure Mr. Photographer didn’t expect to become a Father quite so soon, but he took to his new role with pride and determination. Bottles, diapers, nighttime waking, you name it, he did it. Many times the only thing I had to do at 3 a.m. was to attach the already changed baby to the boob and could continue to snooze, only to find out in the morning that *someone* had to detach him from the milk source  at some point and take him back to his crib, because he was not next to me and I didn’t remember doing so.

And babies were just the beginning.  Then there were slides, roller blades, and countless school projects I had absolutely no idea what to do about. You see, I have a confession to make. I am not artsy. At. All. I mean, I bake, and am able to do so reasonably well, but hand me scissors, and you risk I’m going to have a panic attack. So from the first day of school Mr. Photographer took all these things on his shoulders. I don’t know if he lovingly wanted to make my life easier, or was simply afraid the kid would fail the class if he didn’t, but honestly, I don’t really care. I hate scissors. And needles. And glue.

But that’s still not all. You know how they say that home is an oasis of peace? Well, not quite. At least not all the time. I don’t care to count how many times Mr. Photographer walked in the door in the evening and stepped right into a heated Mother – son squabble. I’m sure it wasn’t what he’d prefer, but he took my hand, walked me into an empty room, sat me down, and closed the door behind him. And then he found his son and dealt with whatever problem we were passionately discussing. I’m telling you, in such moments it’s very handy to have someone who can actually, you know, think 🙂 Not just feel.

He taught them to ride their bikes. He explained how to calculate the vertex of a parabola and the probability that two brown-eyed parents will have a blue-eyed kid. But more importantly, he taught them to get off their butts and do the work, even if they didn’t feel like it. He taught them that things don’t have to be perfect, but it’s important to try. He taught them it’s OK to rest, which is something their Mother the locomotive still doesn’t know all that well. I either go full speed ahead or crash big time because I forgot where the brakes are. He taught them that women are not men; that when a woman talks, a man needs to look at her; and sometimes the best thing for him to do is to hand her a bar of chocolate and leave her alone.

Fathers just have a way of putting everything together. They are our rocks and our lightning rods. If we don’t understand, they come and figure it out, time and time again.  So here it is to Mr. Photographer – the best Father my sons ever had 🙂 Thanks, Dad. We love you to pieces 🙂

img-2013-04-08-3385

Salted Peanut Chocolate Caramel Cups

(adapted from http://www.davidlebovitz.com)

  • 340 g (12 oz.) best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (if making the cups for someone who’s gluten – intolerant, make sure the chocolate is gluten – free)
  • ½ cup (125 g; 4 oz.) salted peanut caramel
  • flaky sea salt
Salted peanut caramel:
  • 1 cup (250 ml; 8 oz.) heavy cream
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup (200 g; 7 oz.) white sugar
  • pinch salt
  • ¾ cup (100 g; 3.5 oz.) roasted salted peanuts, chopped

+ about 20 small paper or foil baking cups

img-2015-06-14-8385

Method:
  1. First, make the salted peanut caramel: Combine the sugar with water and salt in a deep pan, and heat it up. Cook on a medium heat, swirling gently only if necessary, until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden brown. Do not stir; stirring encourages crystallization.
  2. While the sugar syrup cooks, heat the heavy cream until hot. Set aside.
  3. When the sugar turned to caramel, remove it from heat and carefully add hot cream. The mixture will sizzle (you need a deep pan, so that the caramel – cream mixture won’t boil over at this point). Stir gently until combined and smooth.
  4. Let cool slightly and stir in the chopped peanuts. Chill until ready to use. (The salted peanut caramel can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator until needed.)
  5. Make the chocolate cups: Over a water bath, melt the chocolate, stirring constantly.
  6. Spoon the chocolate into the cups, covering the bottom and sides (I used a paintbrush for this). When the chocolate is set, add a dab of salted peanut butter caramel into each cup, and cover it with more melted chocolate.
  7. Sprinkle some flaky salt on top and chill until set.
Note:

The salted peanut caramel recipe makes more caramel than is needed for the cups. I never bother to halve the recipe and simply make more, adding peanuts to portion of it; and keep the rest in the fridge. It is wonderful in coffee or drizzled over ice cream! When needed, just heat it up a little until pourable and enjoy.

img-2015-06-14-8392

Flourless Chocolate Almond Cake with Bi-Colored Chocolate Mousse

When you first learn you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, it can be a shock. (What? No bread and cookies? For the rest of my life?!) You’ll most likely go through mourning and an adjustment period. Your pantry and kitchen will need a makeover, but I found that was actually the easy part. The bigger problem was the need to change my thinking. At first I thought I’d just have to swap the old white wheat flour for a gluten-free one, and that’s it – the process of baking as well as the results would be the same. Except… they weren’t. The breads and cakes were anything but the goods I remembered from our pre-gluten-free days. It took me a long time to understand that I shouldn’t expect gluten-free goods to mirror their gluten-filled counterparts, that I needed to embrace the change and see the gluten free baking as a completely new world and give it a fair chance to show me what it has to offer. And from that point things began to change and my success rate started slowly climbing up.

Authors of gluten-free cookbooks will tell you that their flour blend is the best in the world, and when you make bread according to their recipe you won’t be able to tell the difference and it will taste just like the wheat bread you remember. I’m no cookbook author (yet :-), but after five years of baking gluten-free for Mr. Photographer, I have to say I haven’t found such bread recipe yet. The gluten-free bread is simply different – usually it will be more dense, and it definitely doesn’t have the open crumb structure of an artisanal wheat bread.

The cakes, cookies, and quick breads on the other hand are not only comparable, but can be even better than the wheat varieties, precisely because they don’t contain gluten. Remember what your recipes almost always tell you? Mix the dry ingredients into the wet; stir just until combined, do not over mix. Over mixing activates the gluten, which in turn can make your baking creations tough. But with gluten-free flour you can mix all you want, because there is no gluten to activate, and your cakes will stay light and airy.

A big part of baking experience is sharing, though, and many gluten-ingesting folks won’t believe you when you tell them what I just said. In their mind, gluten-free is a synonym for “dry, crumbly, and tasteless”. When you’ll try this cake, you’ll see for yourself just how wrong they are. All the three men at my house were fighting over the last piece, regardless of their gluten-eating or gluten-avoiding status. The cake uses a combination of chocolate and almond flour, is somewhat dense, and the  bi-colored light mousse provides a nice contrast. I wouldn’t think twice about serving it to a company, and I love that I wouldn’t even need to use the disclaimer “gluten-free”. I can just say I made a chocolate almond cake and then watch my guests devour it. I can guarantee they won’t have a clue they might have just eaten their first gluten-free dessert. Good baking doesn’t need disclaimers. Gluten-free or gluten-full, if it’s tasty, it just is.

img-2015-05-10-6285

Flourless Chocolate Almond Cake with Bi-Colored Chocolate Mousse

Cake:
(recipe from onceuponachef.com)
  • 1 ½ cups slivered almonds
  • 170 g (6 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • ¾ cup sugar, divided
  • 1½ sticks (170 g, 6 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Dark Chocolate Mousse:
  • 150 g (5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons baking cocoa
  • 8 tablespoons water, divided
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 – 4 g powdered gelatin (1 envelope Knox gelatin equals about ¼ oz./7 g)
  • 375 ml (12 oz., 1½ cups) heavy whipping cream
White Chocolate Mousse:
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white chocolate, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 – 6 g powdered gelatin
  • 375 ml (12 oz.., 1½ cups) heavy whipping cream

img-2015-05-10-6286

Method:
  1. For the cake, preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Butter and flour 9-inch (22 cm) round springform pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. (If baking gluten-free, be sure to use gluten-free flour or breadcrumbs for the pan.)
  2. Melt the chocolate by placing it in a pan over a pan with boiling water and stirring it constantly. Let cool to room temperature.
  3. Process the almonds with ¼ cup sugar until ground (Do not over mix, or you will end up with almond butter.) Set aside.
  4. Cream the butter with ¼ cup sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition. Beat in the chocolate and almonds and mix until combined.
  5. Beat the egg whites with salt and lemon juice. When soft peaks form, gradually add remaining sugar and continue beating until stiff.
  6. Fold about 3 tablespoons of egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, and then very gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Do not over mix.
  7. Transfer the batter into your baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the temp down to 325 °F (165 °C) and continue baking for additional 50 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes and then remove the sides of the pan and let cool completely. (The cake will probably crack during baking – that’s ok. It will also sink in quite a bit while it cools; just level it off when cooled completely.)
  8. Carefully invert the cake and remove the bottom part with the parchment paper. Wash and reassemble the cake pan, place the cooled cake in and set aside.
  9. To make the dark chocolate mousse, melt the chocolate over a water bath. Combine the cocoa with 6 tablespoons water until smooth and add the mixture to the melted chocolate. Let cool.
  10. Bloom the gelatin in 2 tablespoons water for about 15 minutes. Liquefy it over a pot of hot water; do not cook, or the gelatin won’t set. Combine the gelatin with the warm chocolate mixture, stir until smooth.
  11. Whip the cream with sugar until firm. Add couple of tablespoons to the cooled chocolate – gelatin mixture, fold it in gently, and then add the remaining whipped cream to create a light mousse. Spread the mousse onto the cake a and place the cake in the fridge so that the mousse will have a chance to firm up a bit while you make the white chocolate mousse.
  12. For the white chocolate mousse, melt the white chocolate over a water bath. Bloom the gelatin in 3 tablespoons water and liquefy it over a pot of hot water. Do not cook. Combine the gelatin with the warm white chocolate; stir until smooth.
  13. Whip the cream with sugar until stiff peaks form. Add couple of tablespoons of whipped cream to the white chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit, and then gently fold in the remaining whipped cream.
  14. Spread the white mousse over the dark chocolate mousse, which should be at least somewhat firm at this point. Place the cake in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
  15. Decorate with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings if desired.

Chocolate Cake with Cheese and Cherries

I love clearance sales. I won’t pay a full price for anything if I can help it, and I proudly refer to myself as a crazy coupon lady. I love playing with coupon codes, combining them, and then getting a $140 dress for $40!  But it’s not just dresses, shoes, and purses. When I see a yellow sale sticker at the grocery store, my eyes light up, and quite honestly, I often stop thinking. There is no other explanation of why I would otherwise come home from the store with two gallons of milk this past Friday. For my European friends, that’s 7.5 liters of cow-produced white liquid. Yes, I should probably talk to a doctor. But it was organic! And 50 % off, gosh darn it! What was I supposed to do, just leave it there?!

Not even an hour later I had a pound and a half of white cheese from said milk sitting on the counter and was left pondering what to do with it. (If you’ve never tried making your own cheese, you should absolutely give it a try. It is a very rewarding experience, and farmers’ cheese is the easiest of them all. Here is the recipe I use; for this cake you’ll need to double it). So this dessert was created by a lucky coincidence: I had the cheese, and I also picked up fresh cherries from the farmers market. The combination of vanilla and lemon scented sweet cheese and luscious cherries seemed like such a taste treat, and I added a chocolate cake base for a visual contrast. Granted, it isn’t the most sophisticated and elaborate cake I ever made, but it disappeared within a day just between my two teenagers, so I’m guessing it must’ve been good. Besides, sometimes you just need something quick and easy to satisfy the craving, and if you’re in such situation, this baby fits the bill perfectly. Honestly, the hardest part was to pit the cherries!

Run to the store and get a gallon of milk (sale sticker or not), and make it. You won’t be sorry, it’s sweet and juicy, and with the red cherry sticking out of each piece it’s also sassy and playful. A perfect forerunner of upcoming sunny days!

Cheese - cherry cake

Chocolate Cake with Cheese and Cherries

Cake:
  • 250 g (9 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 250 g (9 oz.) white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 5 large eggs, room temperature
  • 250 g (9 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 50 g (1.5 oz.) dark unsweetened cocoa powder
Cheese Filling:
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 140 g (5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 90 g (3 oz.) vanilla pudding powder (or cornstarch)
  • 750 g (26.5 oz.) fresh farmers cheese (you can buy it or make your own – see link at the beginning of the post)

+ 1 ½ kg (3 lbs.) fresh pitted cherries
cherries with stems for decoration (optional)
cherry - cheese cake detail

Method:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Line your half-sheet cake (11 x 15) pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. First, make the cheese filling: Cream butter with sugar and vanilla. Gradually add egg yolks, mixing well after each addition. Mix in fresh lemon zest, vanilla pudding (cornstarch), and farmers cheese. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form and fold them into the cheese filling. Set the cheese filling aside.
  3. For the cake, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and lemon zest, and gradually add eggs, mixing well after each addition. Mix dry ingredients and add them to the butter/sugar mixture, mix just until combined. Spread the batter evenly into the lined pan.
  4. Cover the batter with pitted cherries. Spread the cheese filling over the cherries, covering them completely. Decorate the cake with cherries with stems so that there is one cherry in the center of each future slice.
  5. Bake the cake in a preheated oven for about 50 – 60 minutes until the cheese filling is almost set (it can still be a little moist), and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Let the cake cool, cut into square slices and serve dusted with powdered sugar.

cherry cheese cake