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Desserts

{Editor’s note: When Jake sent me the email containing this photo, it had just one line accompanying it: “It tastes way better than it looks.” Disclaimed! -Sam}

You may have noticed that, unlike most food blogs, this one isn’t loaded down with desserts. The reason is that we’re not all that creative in this field and actually prefer a piece of cheese or fruit at the end of a meal. Best leave the sweet stuff to the experts.

When a birthday or other special occasion demands something more, we fall back on one of the local patisseries here in France and, as often as not, the local Safeway in San Francisco for their gaudily decorated chocolate supreme birthday cakes. Some in the family just can’t get enough chocolate.

But the beautiful peaches we bought at the market yesterday made us think with longing of Richard Olney’s Peach Bread Pudding. We haven’t made it in a few years mostly because it has a zillion calories in each serving, even without the crème fraîche we like to ladle on top.  But an indulgence every now and then can’t be that sinful, particularly when the memory of the last bite sustains you for a couple of years.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

2 oz. unsalted butter

2 cups day-old country bread (not levain) cut into 1″ cubes, crusts left on

3 ripe peaches

2-3 tablespoons sugar, depending on the sweetness of the peaches

2 eggs

2 cups half and half (mixed milk and cream)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Melt half the butter in a large frying pan and cook the bread over medium heat, tossing it until it’s lightly golden and crisp and adding more butter as necessary. Empty into a buttered baking dish.  

Plunge the peaches into boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen the skins.  Peel them and cut into fairly thin slices. Scatter the peaches over the bread, tucking them in to form a fairly even surface.

Whip the sugar into the eggs, then whisk in the half and half.  Pour over the bread and peaches – it should just about cover them.  Bake for about 35 minutes until the custard is set.  Serve tepid, with cream if you like. 

The English make really excellent desserts. Many of them, like syllabubs, trifles, custards, puddings and fools go back four or five centuries. I particularly like fools for their simplicity – at their best they’re made just with fruit, sugar and  thick cream – and yet they’re grand enough to serve at a special dinner party.

My favorite fools are strawberry and rhubarb. If most of the strawberries that come your way are in a carton, covered with plastic wrap, with maybe some large beauties on the top but either over or under-ripe ones lurking underneath, making a fool may be your answer. I am not suggesting that any old strawberries will do but if you are lucky enough once in a while to acquire perfect strawberries, you should just sprinkle them with a little sugar, perhaps a squeeze of lemon and douse them with thick, luscious cream.

Strawberry Fool

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pint strawberries (about 1 lb.)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup whipping (or heavy) cream

Select four of the best-looking strawberries and keep them aside for garnish. Remove stem, white core if there is one, and any blemished parts from the rest and pulse briefly in the food processor with the sugar. Be sure to keep some texture (your don’t want too liquid a puree.)  Meanwhile in a chilled bowl whip the cream until it just stands in peaks.  Carefully fold in the pureed strawberries. Taste for sweetness – you may need more sugar. You may also want to add a teaspoon of lemon juice. Divide the fool between four champagne coupes or other suitable glasses, top with a reserved strawberry and chill for an hour or two. Serve with a cookie, if you like.

Rhubarb Fool

1 lb. rhubarb (as young as you can find)

6 tablespoons sugar

1 cup whipping cream or créme fraiche

Wash and cut the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces. Put it and the sugar in a heavy bottomed pot (no liquid), cover, and cook over the lowest possible heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionly, or until soft and well cooked.  Drain the rhubarb, reserving the liquid, and puree it lightly in a food processor. Check for sweetness – you may need extra sugar which it’s best to add while the rhubarb is still warm.  Chill until very cold.  Meanwhile whip the cream until it just stands in peaks. Carefully fold in the rhubarb and a little of the reserved liquid to make ribbon-like streaks. if using creme fraiche, fold in the rhubarb and a little juice in the same way.

Mound the fool into champagne coupes or glasses and chill until ready to serve.

Variation: If you love the combination of strawberry-rhubarb (as in pie), you can certainly combine the two fruits before adding the cream, making enough for 8 servings.

In the holiday season it’s easy to be overwhelmed by rich desserts.  We always make a Christmas trifle, but other than that we prefer our sweet calories in the form of berries or seasonal fruit such as pears, persimmons or tangerines.  Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for an occasional tart or two.

Poached pears are so common that it’s almost superfluous to give a recipe for them.  They can be poached – whole, halved or sliced – in white or red wine, in simple syrup, or any other creative liquid of your choosing. As well as adding all manner of  spices and herbs, you can top them with chocolate (the French then call it Poire Belle Hélène) or a myriad of ice creams or sorbets or the liqueur Poire William.  So what does this recipe have to offer?  Well, it’s our favorite way to poach pears and we took these really neat pictures that it seemed a pity to waste.  I added a small pinch of saffron to the poaching liquid, mainly to give them their golden glow. It gives their flavor a slightly mysterious note.

Poached Pears

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 firm (not too ripe) pears –

2 cups full-bodied white wine (chardonnay, viognier)

1/2 cup vanilla sugar  (or 1/2 cup sugar and a stick of vanilla)

1 cinnamon stick

Water (enough to cover the pears)

Peel the pears, retaining the stem. (If you’re not going to cook them immediately, put them in acidulated water.) Put them in a pot, small enough to just hold them upright. Add the wine, sugar, cinnamon stick and enough water to just cover them.  Poach until they pierce easily with a fork (10-15 minutes).  Remove the pears and reduce the liquid until you have about half a cup, enough to glaze the pears.  Serve as is, or with whipped cream or ice cream.

Pears also have a wonderful affinity for blue cheese.  There is an old – and often quoted – Tuscan expression that says that a peasant will never tell you how well pears go with cheese.  My husband finds this utterly charming, but the meaning has always baffled me. I suppose centuries ago it meant that the wily peasant could keep this delicious secret  from the rich landowner.

A restaurant near where we live in the south of France makes a beautiful tart whose sliced pears radiate from the center alternating with slices of an ancient blue cheese, Forme d’Ambert.  When it bakes, the cheese melts and flows around the pears and the resulting combination of crisp pastry, juicy pears and melting cheese is quite sublime.  I make it using whatever good blue cheese is available.

I have to admit that baking is not my strong suit (Sam, on the other hand, loves to bake.)  It’s not that I’m too lazy to make pastry–I do make it, but I’m just not very good at it.  So I tend to buy pastry shells or frozen puff pastry, especially in France where the variety and quality is excellent.

Pear and Blue Cheese Tart

Serves 4 – 6

Ingredients

1  9″ pie shell

2-3 ripe pears

4 oz. blue cheese (Stilton, gorgonzola, roquefort or a good domestic blue)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pre-bake the pie shell until it’s beginning to brown around the edges (about 15 minutes.)  Let cool.  In the meantime, peel the pears and slice them lengthwise into thirds, removing the cores.  Slice each third crosswise, into thin slices, keeping the whole together.  Place each section in the pie shell, fanning them out a bit.  This sounds complicated but as the picture shows, it’s really quite simple.  Slice the cheese into thin slices and tuck them between the pears, saving a few pieces to scatter on top.  Bake until the crust is golden, the pears are cooked through and the cheese has melted.  Serve immediately.

As for the walnut pie, we were given about a bushel of wonderful fresh walnuts in the fall.  We have cracked them and eaten them, put them in salads, made pesto, and finally run out of ideas.  Until we thought why not substitute them for pecans in a pie?  The recipe is pretty standard for a pecan pie, and the walnut version is a not-so-sweet and pleasant change.

Walnut Pie

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 cup light corn syrup

3 eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1-1/2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped

1 9″ pie shell

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, mix first five ingredients until well blended. Stir in the walnuts. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake for about 45 minutes. When a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, the pie is done.  Cool and enjoy!