We scooped nuts too, almonds most of all, into the bowlfuls of sugar on the scales, or processed them to a powder. We cracked flat after flat of eggs, using some whole and separating others into yolks and whites. We cut 60-pound blocks of butter into manageable slabs for rolling, beating and melting. Then we mixed these four staples in countless permutations, using different proportions and baking techniques to create a profusion of pastries. The absence of any one of them would have brought our work to an abrupt halt -- no more croissants, tart dough, dacquoise, no more chocolate cake with almond paste, no more brown-sugar scones.
Yes, there are other ingredients in a baker's repertoire. Flour gives her creations structure, and chocolate imparts its unreplicatable flavor. But while flour plays an important role in pastry, it is in the bread kingdom, not the dessert realm, that it reigns supreme. And chocolate's deep complexity demands an arena of its own.
While chocolate will dominate the taste of any dessert that includes it, any combination of sugar, almonds, eggs and butter will blend more harmoniously. I can't visualize a dessert that doesn't contain at least two of this sweet quartet.
The factors that get these ingredients into the kitchen in the first place are infinite and ever-variable: weather conditions, human trial and error, symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, technological innovation, genetic manipulation, and government intervention. A flaw in just one of these can mean a less-than-perfect product. Then, no matter how much alchemy the pastry maker employs, the resulting dessert will not be gold. But when all goes well and the ingredients arrive in a pristine state, wonders can occur.
Desserts are sweet -- sometimes just a hint, sometimes a punch -- but sweetness is a defining quality, especially in the Western world. Our fondness for sweet food seems to be part of our genetic makeup, just as our attraction to music distinguishes us from other animals. Early people relied on fruit to bring this special taste to their diets. Tens of millennia ago, early Homo sapiens raided wild bee hives, braving stings from the inhabitants, for the pleasure of eating the insects' food.
Later, people chewed fibrous sugarcane because it tasted good. Eventually, the canes were crushed to extract their sweet juice, and the first primitive sugar processing began. Cane sugar became a highly prized commodity and a staple of world trade. It reigned supreme until the eighteenth century; then a chemist extracted sucrose from beets, which could be grown in a wider range of climates. Today, much of our food contains sweeteners, most often corn syrup, so familiar a taste it may be hardly perceptible to us. Fortunately, fine desserts still depend on sugar to impart the taste that most of us crave.
Although other nuts are liberally sprinkled into desserts and pastries, almonds hold an exalted place in the desserts of the great cuisines, especially French, Viennese and Italian. Their versatility is vast. Finely ground, they add texture as well as flavor to meringues, macaroons, tart dough, and financiers. Left whole, then cooked with sugar, they harden into a confection, to be broken into bits and swirled into ice cream or buttercream, or mixed with chocolate to make candies. If this cooked mass is ground between heavy rollers, the result is almond paste. With the addition of sugar syrup, almond paste becomes more pliable, and can be rolled into sheets to drape over cakes or hand-shaped into confections. The preparation of the almonds themselves is almost as diverse as the desserts they grace.
Just as ancient people stole honey from bees, the first eggs eaten were pilfered from wild birds. When fowl were domesticated, eggs were still precious, and no wonder, as they are almost the perfect food, containing all the essential amino acids and most of the necessary vitamins. It wasn't until the 20th century that a shadow fell over the egg because of its saturated fat content. More recently, a worry about salmonella bacteria in eggs has made people cautious about how they are cooked. Now people eat them with less abandon, rationing their weekly allotment. And they have strong opinions about the eggs they do eat -- brown versus white, fertilized or otherwise, from chickens that roam versus those in pens, from chickens given organic feed versus those given commercial.
Duck eggs roll into American kitchens occasionally too. Their yolks are larger and fattier, astonishing in custards. I almost bought an emu egg at a farmers' market last year, a heavy gray football with iridescent green blotches, but as one of them scrambled would feed 15 or 20, it seemed excessive for just my husband and me.
So many desserts and pastries, from cr?me br?l?e to virtually every cake in existence, depend on eggs. Weighing less than two ounces, an egg possesses the chemical properties for countless baking feats. It is a powerful player in a baker's repertoire. Beaten egg whites trap air that can make a cake rise, bake into crisp meringues, or make a silky meringue to fold into a mousse or mound on a lemon tart. Egg yolks add their richness to ice cream, pastry, and butter cream. Heated and beaten with wine and sugar, egg yolks foam into an almost instant dessert.
Butter's unctuousness vies with its taste in determining its importance to pastries and desserts. Its starring role in puff pastry, with support from flour, water and salt, is a prime example. If the ingredients were simply mixed together in a bowl, a leaden paste would result. But assembled in a certain way -- fashioned into a soft dough made with the flour, water, salt, and part of the butter, then wrapped around a larger piece of butter, rolled and folded numerous times, resting between each "turn" -- they make a delicate construction of hundreds of layers of dough interspersed with sheets of butter that, in a hot oven, will release steam, pushing the dough to triple its height and giving an incomparable tender crispness.
How can I best convey my appreciation and spread my enthusiasm for these essential ingredients? With recipes, certainly, but each offers so much more. Each has a rich past, beginning before recorded history. And each has a complicated story to tell, right up to the present. I want to make the ingredients come alive, to celebrate their essences. However sterilely it is packaged, each begins on a farm. I realized I had to start there too. So I made phone calls and sent e-mails, looking for sources and information. Rather than merely talking to people who processed sugarcane, grew almonds, kept chickens, or milked cows, I knew I needed to visit the cane fields, then the mill and refinery. I needed to walk through an orchard with a farmer, not merely open a bag of almonds in my kitchen. I needed to peer inside a chicken coop; to visit dairy cows. My research took me far from home -- to Louisiana, a major sugarcane producer in this country, and to France, home of the butter some think is the best in the world. Visits alone weren't sufficient; I needed to read to fill in the gaps, and to give the tales a sense of history. And I needed to taste. All the visiting and reading and time in my kitchen stirred memories, so I wove them into the stories too.
Although many desserts showcase one or another of these ingredients, like a true string quartet, their qualities are so intertwined that some of the recipes featured in a given section of the book would be comfortable in more than one chapter -- meringue triangles with almonds, for example, could appear with equal ease after a discussion of sugar, almonds or eggs. Sometimes one ingredient is the undisputed essence of the delicacy. Shortbread without butter? Each ingredient has its glories, and any two of them can unite to make a sterling dessert. But beware if someone offers you a delicacy that contains all four: It may be the pleasure experience of your life.
Pumpkin Swirl Cake
Pumpkins speak of fall, and the autumn months are the best time to make this cake. Sage pairs with pumpkin in savory dishes. The soup?on of sage in this cake gives it a different twist. The pumpkin can be cooked a few days ahead.
1 small pumpkin, either sugar pumpkin or rouge vif d'?tampes
Soft butter for the pan
2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
15 tablespoons (7 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, preferably Madagascar Bourbon
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage, about 5 leaves (don't use dry sage)
Cook the pumpkin:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a large baking pan with parchment paper. Cut the pumpkin into halves. Place the pieces on the baking pan, cut side down. Bake in the oven until a skewer pierces them easily, about 30 minutes.
Cool the pumpkin halves. Scrape out the seeds and discard them. Scrape the flesh out of the rinds. Pur?e the flesh in a food processor. You will need 3/4 cup of pur?e for this recipe. Save the rest for another use. (It makes great soup.)
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a 2-quart Bundt pan. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves together. Put the 15 tablespoons of butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Beat it with the paddle attachment at medium speed until it is creamy and smooth. With the mixer on low, add the sugar in a steady stream. Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until the mixture is lighter in color and fluffy. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together with a fork. With the mixer running, dribble the eggs into the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla to the buttermilk.
Alternately add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the mixer bowl, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl when necessary.
Stir the sage into the pumpkin pur?e. Add about 1 cup of the batter to the pumpkin pur?e and fold the two together. Now fold the pumpkin mixture into the rest of the batter. Fold only two or three times, leaving swirls of pumpkin in the batter.
Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Place it on the middle shelf of the oven, and bake until the top is brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes.
Cool the cake. Unmold it, and place it, right side up, on a serving plate. One cake makes 10 servings.
Chocolate Balls with Caramelized Almonds
Flavorless oil for the baking sheet
1 1/4 cups (9 ounces) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (2 ounces) water
1 2/3 cups (9 Ounces) whole blanched almonds, at room temperature
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Lightly oil a baking sheet with a flavorless oil. Mix the sugar and water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Use an unlined copper sugar-pot if you have one. Cook the syrup over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until the sugar dissolves. Put a candy thermometer in the pan. Wash any sugar crystals from the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in cold water. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the thermometer reaches 248 degrees F.
Remove the thermometer, and turn off the heat. Add the almonds. Stir until the sugar syrup clumps and turns opaque. Over low heat, continue stirring until the sugar remelts and coats the nuts with a caramel-colored syrup. This will take about 20 minutes. If the nuts start to smoke, remove the pan from the heat for a minute, turn down the heat, and continue to cook.
When the sugar has melted again, carefully pour the almonds in the syrup onto the oiled baking sheet. Be careful -- the almonds will be very hot. When the candy is cool, break it apart. Store it in an airtight container (not in the refrigerator) until you are ready to make the chocolate balls.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water. Use a food processor to grind the candy into a powder. Mix the candy powder and the warm chocolate together. Drop the mixture by teaspoonfuls onto a baking sheet covered with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the candies until firm, but bring to room temperature before serving. Makes about 60.
Chocolate Meringue "Sandwiches"
Chocolate lovers, rejoice -- this is your dessert. Cocoa powder flavors flat disks of meringues, and rich bittersweet chocolate is the base for the filling that holds them together. The components can be made ahead. Store the meringues, airtight, for up to two weeks, and the filling, refrigerated, for up to five days. Let the assembled desserts sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving, so the filling softens.
For the meringues:
1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) powdered sugar
4 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
For the filling:
3/4 cup (6 ounces) heavy whipping cream
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Make the meringues:
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Draw 20 circles, 2 inches in diameter, 1 inch apart, on a piece of parchment paper. Put the paper in the baking pan, marked side down. Sift the powdered sugar with the cocoa.
Put the egg whites in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment, starting on medium speed. When they start to froth, add about a third of the granulated sugar and beat until they become opaque and increase in volume. Add another third of the sugar and beat until they start to become firm, then turn up the mixer speed, add the rest of the sugar, and beat until they are stiff but still glossy. The whites will hang in soft, droopy peaks from the whisk when it is lifted from the bowl.
Remove the bowl from the mixer. Sift a third of the powdered sugar and cocoa over the bowl (this will be the second time it is sifted) and fold this into the whites. Use a rubber spatula to fold, going to the bottom of the bowl in the center and coming up along the side. Rotate the bowl slightly after every fold. Fold in the remaining powdered sugar in two stages, sifting it into the bowl each time.
Fit a pastry bag with a plain 3/8-inch tip, and fill it with the meringue. Starting in the center of each circle, pipe a coil, filling the, circles. Bake the meringues on the middle shelf of the oven until they are firm and can be detached from the paper, about one hour. Cool the baking pan on a rack. When the meringues are completely cool, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.
Make the filling:
Bring the whipping cream to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove it from the heat. Add the chopped chocolate, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Whisk the chocolate into the cream until it is smooth. Transfer the chocolate cream to a bowl, cover it, and refrigerate.
Assemble the desserts:
The filling should be the consistency of thick mayonnaise. If it is freshly made, cool it until it thickens; if made ahead, leave it at room temperature until it softens. Pile a generous tablespoon of filling in the middle of eight meringues. Gently place another meringue on top of each, being careful not to push down too hard, so that each sandwich maintains some height. Put the meringues in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Crush the remaining meringues between pieces of wax or parchment paper. Remove the filled meringues from the freezer. Using a small offset spatula or a kitchen knife, smooth the remaining filling onto the sides of the sandwiches. Roll each finished sandwich in the crushed meringues. Refrigerate the desserts until 30 minutes before serving. Makes eight servings.
To make these for a dessert buffet, pipe the meringues into 1-inch instead of 2-inch disks.
Many people approach the task of making puff pastry with great trepidation. How can I allay their fears? When I watched a young French chef make this pastry in the courtyard outside his cramped kitchen in 90 degrees F heat, the butter didn't melt, and in the oven, the pastry rose beyond expectation. In a cool kitchen, anyone can succeed.
Puff pastry rises in the oven because of its unique construction -- thin sheets of dough separated by thin sheets of butter. This is accomplished by rolling the dough into a rectangle, then folding it onto itself, not once, but six times. (Each rolling and folding is called a turn.) With each turn, the layers become thinner and more numerous, resulting in 729 layers of butter sandwiched between 730 layers of dough when the pastry is ready for its final shaping. In the oven, air trapped between the layers, and steam formed from the moisture in the dough, push the layers apart and make the dough rise dramatically.
Although the dough needs some rest periods, the actual time spent manipulating it is only about 30 minutes from start to finish. Then it will rest in the refrigerator or freezer until its creator wants a dessert that only its multitudinous layers can provide. Use a butter whose taste you like, provided it contains at least 82 percent butterfat.
3 1/4 cups (1 pound) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 pound unsalted butter, refrigerator temperature, divided into 4 ounces and 12 ounces
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup (8 ounces) cold water
Mix the flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Cut 1/4 pound of the butter into 1/2-inch pieces. Put them in the bowl, and, using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, rub the butter and flour together. The butter will break into smaller pieces, each coated with flour. Continue until the mixture looks like a coarse meal.
Put the lemon juice in the water. Pour the water into the bowl, a little at a time, mixing with your other hand. Turn the resulting dough onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead it a few times, until all the dough is gathered into a ball. It will still look rough. Flatten it into a disk about 1/2 inch thick, enclose it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and put it on a lightly floured work surface. Poll it into a 13-inch disk, leaving a center area about 6 inches in diameter thicker and thinning the periphery, so that it has a shape like a hat lying on a table.
Take the remaining 3/4 pound of butter from the refrigerator and, on a lightly-floured work surface, beat it with a rolling pin into a disk about the same diameter and thickness as the fat center of the dough. Put the butter in the middle of the dough, and fold the edges over it. Now you have a piece of butter completely enclosed in dough.
Turn it over so that the folded side is on the work surface. Pound the package (not too hard) a few times with a rolling pin to flatten it somewhat. Roll the dough into a rectangle 20 by 11 inches, with one of the narrower sides facing you. Dust off any excess flour. Fold the bottom part of the dough up about a third of the way, then fold the top down, like a letter. Turn the dough so that the outer fold is on your left, like a book. Roll and fold the dough one more time. Make two finger indentations in the top of the dough to remind you that you have made two turns. Wrap the dough in plastic, and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and repeat the process, rolling and folding the dough two more times. Make four finger indentations in the top of the dough, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
If at any time the dough resists your efforts to roll it, let it rest a few minutes and try again. And if butter breaks through the dough, lightly flour that portion and continue.
Remove the dough, and roll it and fold it two more times. Now the dough has six turns (and 729 layers) and, after a rest of 60 minutes, is ready to be rolled and shaped to make the pastry of your choice. Either refrigerate it up to three days, or wrap it in two layers of plastic wrap and freeze it up to one month.
If the dough has been refrigerated more than one or two hours, gently beat it with a rolling pin before rolling it into its final shape. If it is frozen, defrost in the refrigerator for about three hours. Makes about 2 1/2 pounds of dough -- enough for one Galette Des Rois or two Tartes Tatin, plus leftover dough for Palmiers.