Rich Tart Dough

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I admit it. I’m sometimes scared of making pastry. Yes, it’s true. I would like to say my confidence is as high and secure as that of the most successful pastry chef, or even my late grandmother. But let’s face it. Usually when we have to make pastry it’s for a special occasion like Thanksgiving or Christmas or a celebratory summer gathering. So the pressure is on.

Here, though, is a recipe I have developed and used repeatedly for a variety of desserts and savory items. It is just right for folding over fruit to form a rustic tart; shaping a pretty unbaked shell for quiche; or, as the method below reveals, forming a perfectly golden prebaked base for a savory or sweet large tart or mini tartlets.

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Unlike traditional pie dough, this is a rich, almost cookie-like pastry. Slightly yellow in color from the egg yolk and just a bit sweet from a small amount of sugar, it bakes into a beautifully formed golden vessel.

As with all pastry, keep your ingredients cold and work quickly. As soon as the dough just starts to come together in the food processor (it will appear a bit crumbly and shouldn’t form a ball), turn it out onto a large sheet of plastic wrap, shape it into a disc, and set it aside to rest in the refrigerator. If the dough becomes too hard from chilling, let it set out for a few minutes until it is workable. If you need to prepare the dough ahead of time, this recipe will keep well in the freezer for about two months.

Makes enough for one 8-inch tart pan or 16 to 18 tartlet pans

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons sugar

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into about 1/4-inch pieces

2 tablespoons water

1 large egg yolk

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Pulse several times until the ingredients are incorporated. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture has the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. The pieces of butter should be no larger than peas or lentils.

Whisk together the water and egg yolk in a small bowl and, while pulsing the processor, gradually incorporate the liquid mixture. The dough might look dry, but should just begin to clump. If it does indeed appear too crumbly, drizzle in a bit more water. You don’t want the dough to gather into a ball, however. Drier is better here. Turn the dough out onto a large sheet of plastic wrap, gather it into a flat disc, and wrap tightly. Set in the refrigerator to chill and rest for at least 20 minutes.

Butter sixteen to eighteen 2 1/2-by-3/4-inch tartlet pans and set aside on a large baking sheet. (Of course, you can use any size you prefer.)

Using about 1/2 of the dough at a time, roll it out on a generously-floured work surface to about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into discs using a 2 3/4-inch round cutter. If you find the discs are becoming too soft, arrange them on a baking sheet and set in the refrigerator to chill a bit. Roll out the remaining dough in the same manner, re-rolling the scraps, as necessary. Fit the rounds of dough into the prepared tartlet pans, pressing down the sides to create stability and removing any excess from the edges by scraping it off neatly with your fingers. Arrange the prepared tart shells once again on the baking sheet and set in the refrigerator to chill until fairly firm, at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Prick the bottoms of the formed tart shells, using the tines of a fork. (This will help prevent the dough from puffing in the oven.) Bake until the tart shells are golden brown and fragrant, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool at least to warm before carefully turning the shells out of the pans to cool completely. If not using immediately, store the prepared shells in an airtight container in a cool dry area for up to 5 days.

Strawberry Butter Cakes

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Almost no other food says spring like strawberries, and these petite butter cakes celebrate them in two ways. First, a traditional butter cake is perfumed and flavored with the fresh fruit, and then an exceedingly rich Swiss buttercream transforms into a red-speckled elegantly pale pink confection with the addition of strawberry jam. Making them the perfect sweet ending to a brunch, both the cakes and the buttercream can be prepared ahead. Wrapped well in plastic wrap, the cakes will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days and in the freezer for at least one month. The buttercream, too, stores well refrigerated or in the freezer (see the recipe for details). For an extra special detail, decorate the cakes with sugar decorations or flowers.

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Strawberry Butter Cakes

Makes 10 cakes little cakes or about 20 cupcakes

Strawberry Buttercream

4 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups strawberry jam

Strawberry Cakes

1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

6 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and cut into about 1/4-inch pieces

To make the strawberry buttercream, set a medium saucepan filled with about 1 inch of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and maintain at slow simmer. Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl in the saucepan over the simmering water (the bowl should not touch the water) and, using the whisk, gently stir the mixture until the sugar begins to dissolve and it is warm to the touch (about 1 or 2 minutes). Immediately place the bowl on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat at high speed until the meringue is fluffy and cool, 5 to 7 minutes or so. Reduce the mixing speed to medium low and gradually incorporate the butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time, whipping until the buttercream is smooth and glossy and stopping once or twice to scrape the sides of the bowl. Incorporate the vanilla and strawberry jam, reduce the mixing speed to low, and continue to beat for another 2 to 5 minutes to dissipate any air bubbles. Transfer the buttercream to airtight containers or cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the cakes are ready.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour 10 six-ounce ramekins and arrange on a large rimmed baking sheet, or line about 20 standard muffin cups with paper liners.

To make the strawberry cakes, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating until each one is fully incorporated. Stir together the milk and the vanilla extract. Reduce the mixing speed to medium low. Alternately incorporate the flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with the flour and stopping several times to scrape the sides of the bowl, until the batter is thick and smooth. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the strawberries.

Divide the batter between the prepared ramekins and bake until the tops are golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool the cakes on wire racks in the ramekins until only slightly warm, at least 15 minutes.

Carefully run a paring knife around the edges to loosen the cakes and turn out onto another baking sheet or serving plate, or transfer the cupcakes to a wire rack to cool. Briefly whip the buttercream again on the machine or whisk by hand and pipe or spread onto the cakes, as desired. (Store the remaining buttercream in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks or in the freezer for up to 2 months.)

Lemon Meringue Chiffon Cupcakes

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Lemon, of course, is an ingredient that inspires us year round. Somehow, though, using the bright, refreshing flavors of lemon zest and juice in these cupcakes seems perfectly suited to the colorful, hopeful, sunny, and happy season that is spring.

This recipe relies on the two essential ingredients of traditional lemon meringue pie: lemon filling (or, better yet, curd) and meringue. What makes this dessert unique, however, is the replacing of soft lemon chiffon cakes for the crisp pie crust. Moist and perfumed and flavored with citrusy lemon zest and juice, they form a delicious pillowy vessel into which the creamy, lemony curd is spooned and then topped with billowy dollops or swirls of meringue.

The cupcakes can be prepared in a couple of hours, or make the lemon curd and cakes ahead and finish them later with the meringue. Once the cakes are assembled, I have called for caramelizing the meringue in the oven. If you have one, though, a small kitchen torch (available at most cookware stores) works just as well and more quickly, too.

Makes 12

Lemon Curd

4 large egg yolks

Zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)

Juice of 1 large lemon (about 5 tablespoons)

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

5 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Cakes

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, separated

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 tablespoon)

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 medium lemon)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Meringue

6 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

6 tablespoons sugar

Pinch of salt

To make the lemon curd, whisk together the egg yolks, lemon zest and juice, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Set over medium-low heat and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until the curd has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon. Immediately remove from the heat and stir in the butter, 3 or 4 pieces at a time. Strain into a small bowl, place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the curd to prevent a skin from forming, and set in the refrigerator to chill.

To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of a standard 12-cup (1/2-cup capacity each) muffin tin with parchment paper rounds.

Whisk together the flour, 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of the sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the egg yolks, oil, lemon zest, water, lemon juice, and vanilla in a small bowl until combined. Add to the flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until foamy, and add the cream of tartar. Gradually incorporate the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and whip to stiff, but not dry, peaks.

Immediately fold about one-third of the whipped egg whites into the batter, mixing until incorporated. Add the remaining whipped egg whites and fold until combined.

Divide the batter among the muffin cups, bang the pan firmly against a firm work surface to dissipate any air bubbles, and bake until the cakes have risen, are fragrant, and a wooden skewer inserted in the centers comes out clean, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, set on a wire rack, and cool the cakes completely in the pan. To unmold the cakes, run a paring knife around the edges of the cakes and carefully coax out of the muffin cups. Peel off the parchment paper rounds. (If you’re not serving the cakes immediately, they can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight or frozen for about 2 weeks.)

To finish the cakes, reheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut a cone-shaped piece out of the top of each cake, leaving about a 1/2-inch rim and cutting about 3/4 inch deep into the cake. Remove the very tips of the cones. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of lemon curd into each cakes, replace the tops, and set aside. (You might have a bit of curd left over, or you can divide the remainder evenly among the cakes.)

To make the meringue, put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until foamy, and add the cream of tartar. Gradually incorporate the sugar and pinch of salt and whip to stiff, but not dry, peaks.

Using about half of the meringue to start, spoon it into a pastry bag fitted with a star or plain tip, and pipe swirls or stars on top of the cupcakes. Refill the bag as necessary. You might have some meringue left over, depending on how much you pipe onto each cake. (You can also simply dollop about 1/3 cup of meringue on top of each cupcake and, using a spoon or an off-set spatula, swirl it and create pretty peaks.)

Arrange the cakes about 2 inches apart on a large baking sheet and bake just until the meringue is golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Serve the cakes immediately, or store in an airtight container (the top should not touch the caramelized meringue peaks) and chill for up to 24 hours.

Salted Chocolate Toffee

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I never had success making toffee until a friend shared her recipe with me. It’s not a difficult process, but I somehow managed to throw enough unsuccessful batches in the trash over the years that I thought maybe I was missing the toffee-making gene.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I finally happened upon a recipe that worked perfectly the first time without a fuss. As I am usually want to do, I have altered it a bit over the years, adding brown sugar and vanilla, and sprinkling the top chocolate layer with coarse sea salt to add texture and a pleasant saltiness that so well complements the sweet, rich caramel essence of the toffee. This confection is firm, but also so luxuriously tender that it will melt in your mouth.

The key is in cooking it patiently to the proper temperature. Watch the caramel carefully as it cooks. Once you place the candy thermometer in the saucepan, stand at or near the stove as the toffee cooks. Don’t do dishes or answer the phone, as the mercury zooms to the final temperature during the last few minutes of cooking.

This toffee is as pretty as it is tempting. The chocolate layer and sprinkling of sea salt add complexity of flavor and texture, as well as an understated, minimalist panache. Arrange the pieces in an attractive dish for parties, place them in cellophane bags tied with ribbon for tasty gifts, or keep some stashed in your pantry whenever the mood for an extravagant sweet hits.

Makes 1 1/2 pounds

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Coarse sea salt for sprinkling

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the butter in the pan and heat over medium heat until melted. Stir in the sugars, corn syrup, and water and bring to a boil. Place a candy thermometer in the pan and cook the toffee to 290ºF (soft-crack stage), about 10 minutes, watching carefully as it approaches this temperature. Remove the toffee from the heat and quickly but carefully stir in the vanilla extract. (Be careful as the toffee might spit a bit when the cool extract hits the hot mixture.) Pour the toffee evenly onto the prepared baking sheet and set aside for about 5 minutes until it begins to harden.

Sprinkle the chopped chocolate evenly overtop and let it sit and begin to melt, about 30 seconds. Spread the chocolate over the toffee until it is completely melted and smooth and set aside for a few minutes, just until it starts to set. Sprinkle with salt and set aside on a wire rack in a cool area until firm, about 1 hour.

To serve, break the toffee into pieces. (Store in an airtight container in a cool area for up to 3 weeks.)

Double Chocolate Meringues

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Double Chocolate Meringues

I have been making meringues for years. They are sweet and satisfying, but also so light and delicate that one almost never has to fear feeling overindulgent when consuming a handful.

Take your time when whipping the egg whites and sugar. Using superfine sugar isn’t absolutely necessary, but I do think it dissolves more quickly and makes the finished meringue smoother. After the sugar is completely incorporated, continue whipping the meringue until it is very thick and glossy. It is tempting to rush the process, but the final minutes really do make a difference and increase the stiffness of the batter. The more dense and stable the meringue, the easier it will be to pipe onto baking sheets, and the higher and lighter it will be once baked.

When possible, prepare these crisp morsels when the weather is dry and cool. I have prepared them when the humidity is high, but it is risky. Any moisture in the air will likely result in tacky meringues, and they will stale rather quickly. The good thing is, however, that no matter when you whip up a batch, they are sure to be consumed in no time.

Makes about 48

4 large egg whites

1 cup superfine sugar

Pinch of salt

3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder

1/4 cup finely chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 200°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and begin beating on high speed. When the whites are frothy, sprinkle in about 1/4 cup of the sugar. Continue adding the sugar gradually, every minute or so, until it is all incorporated. Whip the meringue until it is thick and glossy and holds medium-stiff to stiff peaks, about 10 minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer, sift the cocoa into the meringue, add the chopped chocolate, and fold until combined.

Transfer the meringue to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch-diameter round tip and pipe rounds, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and about 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets. (Alternatively, you can spoon similar-size mounds onto the baking sheets.)

Bake until the meringues are puffed, fragrant, and possibly cracked, about 1 hour. Turn off the oven, open the door a little, and allow the meringues to cool on the baking sheets. Remove the meringues from the baking sheets and store in airtight containers or re-sealable bags.

Pavlovas with Strawberries and Whipped Cream

Pavlovas with Strawberries and Whipped Cream

There’s nothing better on a warm day than crunchy and soft pavlovas married with homemade strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, and velvety whipped cream.

These individual pavlovas are very elegant, but indeed deceptively simple assemblages of basic items: soft, chewy meringues, homemade strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, and whipped cream. They do require several steps, but you need not accomplish them all at once. You can prepare the jam days ahead of time and cut the strawberries and bake the meringues hours before you use them. The latter will keep for several days, but the characteristic soft, chewy centers will become firm the longer they sit. As for the whipped cream, prepare it last as it will lose volume and smoothness the longer it waits in the refrigerator. If you are traveling with this dessert, carry the parts separately and assemble them on site.

Serves 8

Meringues

4 large egg whites

1 teaspoon vinegar

Pinch of salt

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Jam

16 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whipped Cream

1 1/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream

Sugar (optional)

Assembly

16 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

To make the meringues, preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and begin whipping on medium-high speed. When the whites are very frothy, add the vinegar and salt. Begin incorporating the sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time, whipping for about 30 seconds to 1 minute after each addition. When all of the sugar has been added, continue whipping the meringue to stiff but supple peaks and until thick and glossy, about 5 minutes more. Spoon the meringue into 8 mounds onto the prepared baking sheet. Shape them into about 3 inch rounds, pressing the centers a bit to make shallow nests. Bake until firm (the meringues might color slightly and crack a bit), 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside on a wire rack to cool completely on the pan. (At this point, the meringues can be carefully removed from the baking sheet and stored between sheets of parchment paper in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Be advised that the moist, chewy centers will become firm the longer they sit.)

To make the jam, combine the strawberries, sugar, and salt in a large saucepan and, using your hands or a potato masher, crush the ingredients together until syrupy and mushy. It’s okay if you still see some pieces of berries. Cook the mixture over low heat, gently simmering and stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Transfer to a bowl to cool, or pour into jars and seal with airtight lids. The unsealed jam will keep in the refrigerator for several days and the sealed jam will store well in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.

To make the whipped cream, whip the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment to soft peaks. Whip in sugar, if desired.

To assemble the pavlovas, toss together the sliced strawberries with about 1/3 cup of the jam. Arrange the meringues on serving plates or a large platter. Fill each one with a dollop of whipped cream and spoon the strawberries and jam mixture evenly on top. Serve immediately.

Roasted Nectarine Bread

I love summer fruit. Problem is, however, that in recent years, I’ve developed an allergy to a variety of fruits, including all stone fruits. The season’s loveliest and most flavorful peaches, nectarines, plums, and cherries are all off limits to me. As soon as the sweet nectar touches my tongue, my lips, throat, and areas around my mouth itch and develop little blisters, causing me to run for the Benadryl. This reaction seems to be due to the chemical interaction that occurs between the pollens and proteins found in these fruits (see more about fruit allergies at http://allergiesspring.com/fruit-allergies.php).

Happily, though, I have discovered that when these fruits are cooked or dried, my reactions are lessened or disappear completely. This is apparently quite common in allergy sufferers like myself, as cooking or drying (particularly at higher temperatures, I imagine) destroys the pesky pollens and proteins.

So, although I would prefer eating luscious summer fruit out of hand, I have taken to cooking virtually any variety that bothers me in ways that are not only delicious, but celebrate their natural sweetness, perfume, and flavor.

Just about any stone fruit (or other fruits, for that matter) can be grilled, poached, stewed, sautéed, or roasted. I like all of these methods, but roasting is my newest favorite. In only a matter of minutes, pitted and sliced nectarines, peaches, plums, or cherries can be tossed with a little sugar or honey, if desired, spread onto a baking sheet, and cooked into soft caramelized gems that are delicious on their own, served with a dollop of whipped cream or yogurt, blended into smooth purees (for babies, especially), or used to add flavor and texture to other recipes.

Recently, I have been playing with fruited quick bread recipes. Chopped roasted fruit adds unique flavor and moistness to these comforting loaves. The recipe that follows celebrates ripe nectarines. This is a fragrant, moist bread that develops a delicate caramel flavor from the addition of brown sugar, a slight nuttiness from almond extract and whole-wheat flour, and a sweet fruitiness from the roasted nectarines. Serve it warm or room temperature, on its own or with butter and jam (blackberry or apricot would be particularly lovely). This recipe makes one large (9 ½-by-5 ½-by-3-inch) loaf or four small (5 ½-by-3 ¼-by-2 ¼-inch) loaves. Store the baked and cooled bread in the freezer for up to a month or in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Roasted Nectarine Bread

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter and flour one 9 ½-by-5 ½-by-3-inch loaf pan or four small 5 ½-by-3 ¼-by-2 ¼-inch loaf pans.

Remove the pits from 4 nectarines, cut them into ½-inch slices, and arrange on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with raw sugar, or drizzle with honey or agave nectar, if desired. Roast until the fruit is tender, lightly browned and caramelized, and fragrant, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Coarsely chop the fruit and set aside to cool completely (you should have about 1 ½ cups).

Whisk together 2 cups all-purpose flour, ½ cup whole-wheat flour, 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon in a medium bowl.

Combine 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of room temperature unsalted butter, 1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon almond extract in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on medium-high speed until smooth and creamy. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth and stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl.

Reduce the mixing speed to low, mix in the chopped roasted fruit, and gradually incorporate the flour mixture, again stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s), arrange the pans on a baking sheet, and bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center(s) comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from the bread from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool in the pan(s) for about 20 minutes before turning out each one to cool completely.