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Demanding Desserts: Bolognese Torta di Riso

Torta di riso

Our friend Leona (so dubbed for his ever-so-slight similarities to the phone-flinging hotelier) invited us to dinner this past weekend and as I generally do, I offered to bring dessert. He is an accomplished cook, lovely friend, and one of the few people not afraid to invite us over for dinner (sigh…), so I am always happy to bring something along to Leona’s, particularly since he’s gluten-free and safe baked goods are generally few and far between. This time around, though, he went all-out “only the little people pay taxes” on me and specified a dessert that was not only gluten-free, but dairy-free as well. Lord.

Now, this isn’t nearly as complicated as it may seem, what with decent gluten-free all-purpose flour blends and various types of vegetable shortening. And yet… shortening? Blergh. I think not. So, a recipe with no gluten and no butter OR shortening. Pavlova? Ehh, with no whipped cream (CREAM) or fruit curd (BUTTER), it’d seem a bit spare. Daquoise? Same issue.

I was discussing this challenge with Dae Dae, our PassionFruits European correspondent, and she suggested a torta Bolognese, an Italian cake flavored with citrus and nuts, but mercifully sans flour and butter. Intrigued, I put my Google-ing hat on and got to it. Turns out  that torta Bolognese is a cheesey baked pasta dish… neither gluten-free, dairy-free, or even a dessert. Undaunted, I pressed on to figure out that she’d been talking about Bolognese torta di riso, which does indeed have candied citron and ground almonds and relies on rice for body. SOLD!

Four different “ricettas”, some iffy Google translating, a few adjustments, and voila, we have cake! It’s basically rice pudding that gets almond flour, egg yolks, and candied citrus peel mixed in and then lightened with beaten egg whites. Of course, I had to fudge a bit on the whole dairy thing, but I think using almond milk to cook the rice rather than cow’s milk is legit.

Legit, and delicious. Cake-y around the edges, pudding-y in the middle, and suffused throughout with the flavors of almond, citrus, and vanilla, this was a big winner. The starch from the rice held everything together, but the beaten egg whites kept it from being gluey or heavy, a common fault of gluten-free baked goods. Instead, it was lush and creamy–without, mind you, any actual cream. Perfect not just for the gluten-free or lactose-intolerant, but even for the most demanding of dessert divas!

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A Sweet for All Seasons: Indispensable Almond Cake

Yes, hello. Hope everyone’s doing well in the calm between storms. I’m still not sure which one’s likely to do more damage–Sandy or the election–but hopefully the latter will go better than the former. Given, however, that I am neither meteorologist nor political pundit, we shall now return our discussion to cake. Thank goodness.

And this is quite a cake. Super simple and yet totally sublime, this moist, intensely almondy number comes from the Chez Panisse Desserts book by way of Francophile (well, MOST of the time) blogger, raconteur, and food guru David Lebovitz. So long as you’ve got a food processor, the batter is very much of the dump n’ buzz variety. Very easy.

And people, I cannot overstate how delicious this cake is. The almond flavor is rich and intense. The crumb is tight, bouncy, and so moist that it makes a crackly noise like a damp sponge when you poke it. It is just… toothsome, and inspires a desire that borders on the unseemly all on its own.

That said, for all its barefaced virtues, it’s also quite amenable to being tarted up a bit. Split and schmeared with a tiny bit of very tart jam and you’re in ur-tea time territory. A bit of bitter ganache and you’re dressed up for dinner. Some fruit compote and creme fraiche on the side and you’re rustically seasonal. Or, just all by itself, still blissful. Basically, there’s no excuse for you not to be making this right now. I’m sure you could find some occasion to celebrate. Monday, for example.

Some tips, though, before I send you on your way. DO use a 9″ springform pan. It’s just easier all around. DO be sure you buy almond paste and not marzipan. The latter has a higher proportion of sugar and is more pliable for making shapes and decorations. Here, you want the hi-test almond paste for flavor. Also, for whatever reason, the packages sold in the US are seven ounces, while the recipe requires eight. Not to worry, the cake will come out perfectly well with just seven ounces, which makes shopping a bit less painful.

Go here for the recipe.

Fall Weekend or Bust: Easy, Rustic Plum & Almond Cake

Woo! Right. So, like Stella, I’m trying to get my groove back. (Hopefully my blog will be better behaved than her man. *ahem*)  Please do bear with me as I get back in the swing and figure out my snazzy new camera… (though the below image is courtesy my friend Kate, who actually had the presence of mind to bring HER snazzy new camera).

We recently spent a lovely fall weekend out in the country with some friends. And when I say “some” I mean “the friends whose lives rudely interrupted what should have been a lazy weekend of walks, foliage, wine, and games”. Unfortunately, there were enough problems–both dire and not–that the whole Friday evening departure descended into farce and only two of us managed to make the full weekend tucked away in our little cottage, surrounded by trees, goats, chickens, and awakened by the sounds of hunting season–muzzle-loader edition. (Uh, hooray?)

While I think everyone managed to enjoy the time that they had, perhaps the only unmitigated success of the weekend was this lovely rustic almond plum cake. The quick to come together batter is basically the filling to the perennially adored pear-almond tart spread in a pan with some end of season plums–or any soft fruit, really–tossed on top and bunged into the oven.  It’s slightly less unctuous without a pastry case, but forms a lovely golden crust and pops right out of a well-prepared pan. We had it as a decadent breakfast cake, but it’s just as lovely with ice cream for a suitably seasonable dessert. I’ve made it several times since–with pears, grapes, and apples lightly sauteed in butter–and it’s been just the thing each time.

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Pulling Delicious from the Jaws of MEH: Transcendent Apricot Tart

As Joe’s pointed out, we’re at the cusp of open season for apricots–though he used dried ones for his snappy appy. Color me similarly underwhelmed by fresh apricots. The ones I’ve had have never even come close to delivering on their transcendent reputation. All  the fresh apricots I’ve managed to find fresh thus far have tended to be mealy, tinny, mooshy, bitter, or bland.

But, because I am dumb, I was totally seduced last weekend by a pile of soft, prettily hued apricots at the U Street Farmers’ Market. Alas, these too were extraordinarily “meh” eaten out of hand. While there was an undercurrent of lush apricot-ness, it was diluted and obscured by less palatable textures and flavors. Thoroughly dispirited, I had to do SOMETHING with them, and after some thought, I decided to give them the almond tart treatment–throwing them into a pastry shell filled with frangipane. A no-brainer as stone fruits are supposed to go well with almond. I was also hoping that baking would concentrate the tasty essence of my recalcitrant fruit.

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Cupcake Crusader 2: Halva Cupcakes

 And we’re back. Per my post from earlier this week, I was tasked with developing recipes for a couple of the cupcakes mentioned in this NYT article. While I was kind of captivated by the “Blind Date” cupcake–by name alone, really–the request was for pomegranate cupcakes and for halva cupcakes. 

halva cupcakesAnd, though I’m not a huge fan of halva itself, I think the resulting cupcakes are pretty good.  They carry the scent and flavor of nuts and sesame with a hint of warm spice, and while the cake is nicely moist, the almond flour and tahini gives it an authentic touch of grit.  The saffron buttercream was slightly less successful, being rather pale in color and flavor. The textural contrast between the cake and the buttercream is really delightful, though, so maybe I just need to find a better way to extract color and flavor from the saffron.

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Tres, Tres Chic: French Pear Tart

This traditional French sweet marries meltingly tender pears with a fragrantly nutty frangipane in a crisp pâte sucrée. One of the most delicious things to do with those lovely poached pears, it *is* kind of a production, but all the components are actually very easy to make and the tart is ample reward. It might be wise to spread it out, though, as the pears take some time and the crust needs to rest a bit in the freezer. I might suggest poaching the pears and prepping the crust one night, then par-baking the crust while you make the filling before putting it all together.

peartartThis is an elegant combination–crunchy, buttery crust; nutty, creamy frangipane; and mellow autumnal fruit–it has a little something for everyone and is almost universally adored. This is one that you’ll be asked for time and again–friends really do ask for it by name. Fortunately, I think, you’ll be all too happy to oblige.

This comes from Dorie Greenspan’s latest (it’s surely already been covered by TWD) and I’ve noted any modifications, mostly inspired by Joe Pastry’s version, in brackets. As noted above, breaking the components out makes for a less harried baking experience, though there’s nothing really difficult about any of it. The crust in particular is quite forgiving, and can just be lightly pressed into the pan instead of rolled out–a boon to novice bakers.

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