Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Fear of dessert

In "Waiting for Dessert," Laurie Colwin writes: "It often seems that the world divides (evenly or unevenly) into those who are waiting for dessert and those who have to produce it." (119)

To which I would add: and those able to produce it.

Nigella, Tamasin, Julia, and Alice aside, few are the lay cooks able to move from pie to pork chop with equal dexterity. Many of the cooks I know shun dessert preparation; there's all that measuring and weighing and careful stirring lest the egg white collapse or the cream overbeat. Then the confection goes into the oven, and you, the baker, may only peer through inadequate stove window, hoping for the best. No opening the oven to eyeball your creation--maintaining temperature is critical in baking--no quick taste to determine salt level. No checking for doneness: real bakers use oven timers. As for the toothpick test, I can tell you that a steaming hot cake, moments from the oven, will produce a clean tester. Cool that same cake, and an hour later you might end up with something akin to Play-Doh.

This has happened to me many, many times. Either my oven is hopelessly off or I just can't get the hang of cakes. Further, baking requires a great deal of equipment: pans of specific sizes and/or shapes, scales, a flour sifter. Serious bakers invest in cooling racks and those little turntables that permit smooth frosting action. Oh, and then there's pastry bags and tips, cookie cutters, and molds. Marble slabs for pastry, offset spatulas, mixers. A kitchen large enough to hold all this gear is helpful.

I can bake quick breads, muffins, some cookies, and really good brownies. But cakes, pies, confections, or anything calling for egg whites are out. Egg whites scare me.

Fortunately, I am married to a man who is largely indifferent to sweets. Hockeyman likes pies and doughnuts, but not on a regular basis. I doubt I will ever muster the courage to prepare a pie crust, and I take a firm stand against deep frying anything in my kitchen. Combine boiling oil with Barking Kitten and your only result will be a Darwin award.

I know two people able to move from mixer to oven with equal skill. Both are trained pastry chefs whose interests shifted toward the savory. More personally, my grandmother, a fantastic cook (at her funeral, all people were able to talk about was her food), was a talented baker who once prepared a yeasted coffee cake dough before taking a nap. When she woke, the dough had overflowed the bowl and was making its way down the hall. By the time I came along, butterhorns and coffeecakes had given way to poppy seed cookies and a chocolate cake with a confectioner's sugar glaze. I have no idea how she made that cake or what went into it, apart from lots of chocolate. One snowy Saturday afternoon when I was seven, we went to visit my grandparents. My grandmother had baked us the cake (that's what we called it: "the cake") to take home. Carefully snugged into wax paper and tinfoil, it had an alluring heft.

"Don't fall on the ice," My grandmother warned.

I promised I would not, made it down the steps and nearly to the car before going flying. In an act of preservation, I stuck cake out in front of me. It landed in the snow. So did I. I looked up to the second floor window, hoping against hope my gaffe had gone uneen. But there in the window stood my grandmother.

The cake was in pieces. This did not stop my family from scarfing it as usual.


I had a friend in college who was an amazingly talented cook. I learned a lot from Cecilia (not her real name): how to make risotto, the uses of lemons and garlic, the absolute need for olive oil, which I first tasted in her home. She lent me Mollie Katzen's The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and shared her subscription to Gourmet. She once decided to make some sandwiches that appeared on the magazine's cover. Without benefit of a food stylist, photo studio, or perfect ingredients, she made the recipe look exactly like the cover shot. I begged her to open a restaurant, offering my services as kitchen slave. "We'll make a fortune!" I cried.

But Cecilia only shrugged. She wanted to get married and have babies. In short order, she did.

I hope she doesn't bake her babies their birthday cakes, for wonderful as her pasta en brodo was, her desserts were inedible. Cecilia loved salty desserts, and always increased the salt in dessert recipes. The bottoms of her chocolate-chip cookes glistened with salt crystals; I remember a fruit pie so awful that I brought it to my campus job, reasoning that starving students would eat anything. They wouldn't.

Granted, Cecilia is an extreme example. I do not oversalt my cookies and have the good sense not to bake cakes. But once in a while, I attempt dessert.


A few weeks ago we invited friends to dinner. They were entrusted with dessert. A tasty chocolate mousse was presented. It was dense, incredibly rich, and a bit chalky. My friend had used the wrong kind of chocolate--I forget which--dark when it was supposed to be milk, I think. I felt the textural issue was minor: the mousses tasted deeply and compellingly of chocolate, which goes a long way in my book.


As Laurie Colwin once said about dinner parties, when you invite people over, they invite you back, and pretty soon what you have is called social life. So it was these friends invited us to dinner last night. This time I was the bringer of dessert. I drove to Andronico's and bought a lovely mixed berry pie. I carried it upstairs, in a hurry, as usual, carrying too much, as usual, and my inner-seven-year old emerged. There being no ice in my kitchen, I did not fall, but the pie did.

After some choice words I inspected the damage. The packaging was intact; a bit of the pie's crimped edge leaked a pretty purple juice, proof, I reasoned, that this was a berry pie. I tucked it into the fridge. This was Wednesday. On Thursday, one of my neighbors appeared with two pints of strawberries. She was going on vacation. Would I please take them?

I cleaned the berries, froze them, then leafed through a few cookbooks. I landed on Mollie Katzen's fresh Strawberry Mousse, from Enchanted. I thought this might be nice to bring with the slightly dented pie.

Provided you have a mixer, a food processor, and time, strawberry mousse is easy to make. Somehow, though, I decided to begin preparations at five p.m. yesterday. Dinner was at seven. What was I thinking? I don't know. I wasn't thinking. Prep--cooking down the berries, stirring together cornstarch, sugar, and fresh lemon juice, combining this with the berries--was simple. So is chilling, when you have four hours. One is then supposed to fold the berry mix into the whipped cream and serve.

Whipped cream is a fragile substance akin to a soufflé: both are all about air. Left to its own devices, whipped cream tends to weep, demanding renewed whisking. It does not take well to being folded with a warmish fruit mixture, then being put into a car for a drive. In fact, both actions cause air loss. Never mind. I spooned the "mousse" into a chilled bowl, wrapped it in ice packs, and stuffed it into a bag.


The result was very pink and overly sweet, with a consistency resembling yogurt. Hockeyman and our friends said it tasted fine; they spooned it over the pie, which even I couldn't destroy, and lapped it all up. We agreed that a true mousse is somewhere between the chalky chocolate and strawberry soup. I leave it to the experts.


Some desserts even I can make:

Berry Clafouti
This recipe comes from a cooking class I took years ago. The teacher did not say where the recipe came from.

1/2 cup milk (low fat, part skim, or full are all fine)
1/2 cup part skim ricotta cheese (I use full fat)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar (I use a scant 1/2 cup to good effect; consider the sweetness of your berries)
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp vanilla extract (my vanilla is a bean soaking in a bottle of brandy, and I'm generous with my teaspoon)
2 cups or approximately 12 ounces of berries, fresh or frozen.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine milk, ricotta, eggs, sugar, flour, and vanilla. The recipe calls for a mixer, but you can do this easily with a whisk.
Mix or whisk until you have a smooth batter.

Using an ovenproof 8-10 inch pie dish, spread the berries evenly over the bottom. Pour the batter over.

Bake about thirty minutes. The clafoutis will appear puffed and golden brown.

Note: having no pie plate, I use a pyrex baking dish with great results.

Chocolate Raspberry Bars
From Gourmet Magazine.

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
12 tablespoons (1 and a half sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
4 eggs
2 cups sugar (I use a scant two cups)
1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 dgrees.
Line a 13x9 inch baking pan with foil. Butter the foil.

Combine chocolate, butter, and jam in a medium saucepan. Stir contantly over low heat until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat.

Whisk eggs in a large bowl until foamy. Add sugar, vanilla, and salt. Whisk to incorporate. Stir in chocolate mixture. Add flour, mixing just to incorporate. Don't overmix.

Spread the batter in pan. Bake thirty minutes, until springy to touch. Tester will not come out clean.

Note: again, I use a Pyrex baking dish. It's 13x9 inches and does the job beautifully.

This recipe comes with a topping calling for whipping cream, raspberries, butter, and chocolate. The brownies themselves are rich and velvety; the jam adds a subtle fruit note and a unctuous texture. I think the topping would push this dessert into the inedibly rich zone.

Alice Waters' Lemon Clove Cookies
From The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

1/2 pound unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1 tablespoon lemon zest
pinch salt
2 and 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, or to taste (I've gone up to 1/2 tsp, but be careful--clove can overwhelm the lemon)

Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer at medium speed. Add vanilla, egg, and lemon zest. Change to low speed, gradually adding the salt, flour, and cloves.

The dough will be soft. Divide it into two pieces, rolling each into a cylinder. Wrap cylinders in plastic wrap, then foil. Chill 2-12 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove wrapping from dough. Slice into 1/4 inch thick rounds. Place them on a cookie sheet and bake 8-10 minutes.

Notes: If Meyer lemons are available in your area, use them.
I freeze the dough, making it easier to work with. I also line the baking sheet with baking parchment.

These cookies freeze well if you actually have any left over.


Laurie Colwin: More Home Cooking: "Waiting for Dessert." New York, Harper Perennial, 1995. 119.

Alice Waters: The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1982. 79.


Blogger Holly said...

Really, you were too kind about the chocolate chalk. My apologies. But what was I thinking making something I'd never made before. It only had like 6 ingredients - how hard could it be? Ha-ha-ha-ha...

We'll not make the same mistake again. I swear.

December 15, 2007 10:25 PM  

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