Panna Cotta

As far as desserts go, Panna Cotta has it all. It’s dead simple to make, but absolutely satisfying and delicious. Depending on what you top it with, it can be rustic or elegant, or anywhere in between. It’s creamy and sweet, but it’s not full of eggs, so it’s lighter than a custard, mousse, or pudding. Basically, if you have baking fatigue right now, but still have some festivities to get through, consider this my gift to you.

This version is from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and it serves 8 in very small ramekins, but I usually do 6 larger portions.

1 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
2 TB cold water
3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste
Pinch salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

1. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water, and let stand for 5 minutes.

2. Heat the rest of the ingredients, except the sour cream, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, until hot, but not boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the gelatin until completely dissolved. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.

3. Put the sour cream in a bowl. Gently whisk in the warm cream, a little at a time, until completely combined and smooth. Taste for sweetness, and add a little more sugar if needed.

4. Pour into ramekins or custard cups, Cover, and chill for at least 4 hours, or over night.

Because there are very few ingredients involved, please use the best ones you can find. You can top it with fresh fruit, jam or compote, any kind of sweet sauce, crumbled cookies, or, honestly, just have it plain. You can also substitute yogurt, chevre, or any other creamy-but-sour dairy semi-solid for the sour cream. I always serve it in the dish I make it in, but you can unmold it and plate it up if that’s more your style.

Christmas Candy

We usually make cookies for Christmas, but this year the kids wanted to make candy. Clockwise from the top, we have: New Orleans-Style Pralines from the most recent issue of Saveur, Tiger Butter Fudge from Butter with a Side of Bread, Apple Cider Caramels from Smitten Kitchen, Honeycomb Brittle with Chocolate and Sea Salt also from Saveur, and Almost-Famous Peppermint Bark from Food Network Magazine.

Whatever holidays you are celebrating this winter season, I hope they are merry, sweet, and full of light.

How to make a Milk Bar(ish) cake

This is not a recipe post, because a.) Milk Bar cake recipes are pretty involved, and b.) I’m not making a recipe from the book anyway (the cake is for my son’s 19th birthday, and he picked out what he wanted, which was kind of a s’mores-inspired, but with lots of chocolate, kind of situation). Instead I’m just going to describe the style of the cake, and the process of making it. If you’re feeling inspired, you can freestyle your own, but Christina Tosi is a mad dessert genius, and I highly recommend picking up one of her cookbooks, or patronizing a Milk Bar near you.

Part 1: The Cake

Bake your cake in a sheet pan, then cut out rounds to use for your cake layers. The cookbook makes a quarter sheet cake, but, since I only have half sheet pans, and since everyone likes extra cake, I usually double the recipe. Use a 6-inch cake round to cut out 3 layers, and save the extra for snacking on. Or, you could make a taller cake, a wider one, or just make the original amount of cake and stop listening to me because I always make too much food. I’m making a pretty simple chocolate cake for this, but you could use any kind of cake, as long as it’s sturdy enough to cut out.

Using the cake round and an acetate strip, set up the cake form apparatus on a flat, portable surface, and put your first layer in there. If you’re using the quarter sheet pan, then the bottom layer is going to be a mishmash of cake scraps.

Part 2: The Soak

This is for moistening your cake layers. Milk Bar is obviously famous for their cereal milk, but I was worried that this cake was going to be very sweet, so I’m just using plain milk. You can use this step to add some extra flavor with any kind of syrup, juice, or milk.

Part 3: The Frosting

The whole deal about a Milk Bar cake is that it’s not frosted on the outside, keeping all the layers visible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have frosting as one of your layers. Since this is kind of a s’mores-y cake, I’m using graham frosting.

Part 4: Other Fillings

Here’s where you get to go nuts, maybe literally. There are so many options for adding some crunch, or something gooey, maybe some fruit, I don’t know. Use your imagination! We’re going with chocolate crumb, and toasted mini-marshmallows.

Part 5: Repeat

Try to make your layers even, but messiness is kind of the whole charm of this type of cake, so please don’t try to be perfect! However, since the layers are going to be visible, do try to push them all the way out to the edge. After you’ve done the first layer of frosting/fillings, add another strip of acetate between the cake ring and the first acetate strip, then repeat all the previous steps (cake, soak, frosting, fillings), and top with the last round of cake.

Part 6: The Top

Here’s where you might put any decorations you might want. I’m simply using chocolate fudge sauce.

Part 7: Freezing, Thawing, and Finishing

So the cake needs to go into the freezer overnight to set. Then, when it’s done, you pop it out of the mold and let it thaw out before serving it. Maybe throw it on a fancy platter or something.

Or don’t. It’s a pretty good time even served on a plain white plate.

The Annual Strawberry Shortcake Post (with recipe and rant)

Strawberry shortcake

strawberry shortcake

Strawberry Shortcake is my number one, most favorite dessert (done properly, see below), and has been for as long as I can remember. I used to request it every year for my birthday, but strawberries aren’t exactly in season in April around here, so now I make it every June. My grandpa Jack used to have it for his birthday, too, which conveniently was in June. He passed away earlier this year, and I’m happy to have such a sweet way to remember him, now.

The recipe I use is from In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley. Since I just did a biscuit recipe, I’m not going to go too deep into the shortcakes, but you can always refer to that post if you need tips.

Image of a cookbook

I don’t understand why they don’t give cookbooks better bindings

Makes 6
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 TB baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
5 TB heavy cream

Additional 1 TB each heavy cream and sugar, for topping the scones

2 quarts strawberries, hulled, then sliced, chopped, or mashed
3 to 4 TB sugar

Chantilly Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 TB sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Note: I wrote the recipe as it appears in the book, but you can easily get away with half the strawberries and whipped cream if you’re only making six servings.

I usually make the strawberries first, so they can sit and get juicy, but you can make the scones first as the recipe suggests, if you want.

A colander full of large strawberries

the local strawberries we got at the supermarket were some big boys!

A large strawberry

an absolute unit

For the strawberries:
1. Mix the sliced, or otherwise mangled, strawberries with the sugar — taste the berries to determine how much you’ll need. Let them sit while you’re doing the other things. Maybe give them a stir from time to time.

For the scones:
1. Preheat the oven to 425° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Mix the dry ingredients together. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter, or two knives, until there aren’t any chunks larger than a pea.

2. Mix the eggs, milk, and cream together. Add them to the dry ingredients + butter, and stir until just combined. Gather into a ball, and dump onto a floured surface. Pat into a circle (or square, or whatever, the shape doesn’t really matter), about 3/4″ to 1″ thick (you want it a little thicker than the biscuits, because it’s not going to rise as much), and cut with a large biscuit cutter.

3. Place the scones on the baking sheet. Brush the tops with the cream, and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake for 14 – 18 minutes, rotating halfway through, and checking to make sure the bottoms don’t get too dark (slide a second baking sheet under them if you’re worried about that happening). Remove to a rack and cool for 10 minutes or so, but you’ll want to serve them warm, so plan accordingly.

For the whipped cream:
1. Whip the cream and sugar. Add the vanilla and whip a bit more. You can do this while the scones are baking, or while they’re cooling.

1. Split the scones in half. My grandparents used to butter them, so I do, too. Top the bottom half with strawberries and cream. Put the top on top, then cover with more strawberries, and more cream. If you’re feeling fancy, you can reserve some good-looking strawberries to put whole on top.

Strawberry shortcake ingredients ready for assembly

And now, the rant:
‘Shortcake’ is short for ‘shortening cake’, i.e., a cake made with a solid fat (including vegetable shortening, but also butter and lard). Sponge cake, pound cake, and angel food cake all taste good with strawberries, but they do not a strawberry shortcake make. No, not even if you put whipped cream on top.

A true strawberry shortcake features a biscuit or scone, or even crumbled up pie crust, topped with macerated strawberries, and sweetened whipped cream. If you try to advertise something else for shortcake at your supermarket, I will laugh to myself as I go by at how deluded you are. If I order strawberry shortcake at your restaurant and I get something other than a shortcake, well, I’ll be very disappointed, and complain about it the whole ride home. (What? I don’t throw fits in grocery stores and restaurants, because I’m not a monster.)

Strawberry shortcake

the perfect dessert (we had them for brunch, though)

Seriously, strawberry shortcake, made when strawberries are in season, is basically the perfect dessert. Don’t mess with perfection, folks!