A Cloud of Meringue: Pavlova Dessert

This dessert is one of my favorite go-to recipes for holidays, dinner parties, and the like.  Not only is it delicious, but it’s a relatively easy dessert to put together, and it looks impressive.  But the best thing about this dessert is that it is so light and airy that it can top off any 20-course holiday smorgasbord and still leave room for a cocktail or coffee.

There are many recipes and variations of this dessert available, but the basic combination is simple:  meringue + whipped cream + fruit.  Winter is a great time for making this, at least in the northern regions in the U.S., because meringue is much easier to cook and store when there is not much ambient heat or humidity.  Of course, the storing problem usually isn’t an issue because I never seem to have leftovers!

The name Pavlova was apparently given in honor of Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballerina from the early 20th century.  The meringue takes 2-3 hours in the oven, so it’s best to prepare that part the night before you plan to serve it.  The rest of the assembly can be done relatively quickly and at the last minute.

Meringue

6 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 Tbl. cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whipped Cream

1 pt. heavy or whipping cream, chilled
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 Tbl. sugar, to taste

Fruit – fresh or frozen, choose one option from below

1 1/2 c. berries (blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries) + 2 Tbl. berry jam
or
1 mango and 1 kiwi, both peeled + 2 Tbl. apricot jam
or
1 1/2 c.  peeled and sliced peaches, nectarines, or apricots + 2 Tbl. apricot jam

Garnish (optional)
1/4 c. fresh fruit, sliced or cut decoratively
1/4 c. chopped unsalted pistachios

Preheat your oven to 250º and line a baking sheet with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Using a whisk attachment, beat the eggs in an electric mixer on slow to medium speed until soft peaks begin to form.  Increase the speed and slowly add the sugar. Continue beating for several minutes more until the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Fold in the vanilla, cornstarch, and vinegar until combined.

Spoon out the egg whites onto the baking sheet in the shape of a circle no larger than the dish you plan to use for serving (about 8-9 inches in diameter). Then hollow out a wide, shallow crater in the center that will later serve as a “bowl” for the fruit. The egg whites should look like a shiny, white, fluffy cumulus cloud, with a slight volcano center. Avoid sharp peaks because they will just break off after the meringue is cooked.

Bake the meringue at 250º for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 175º and bake for another 1 1/2 hours more. Turn off the heat and let the meringue rest in the oven for an additional hour or so (or overnight), until the oven and meringue are completely cooled. The outside of the meringue should seem hard and crispy to the touch. Store the meringue in a cool, dry place until ready to serve.

Place the meringue “cake” in one piece on the serving plate. When removing the meringue from the parchment paper or baking mat, it’s best to use a large off-set spatula. Don’t worry if a few small pieces crumble off. They can be placed in the “crater” with the fruit before covering it all with the whipped cream. And if it cracks a bit, no big deal — it will be undetectable under the cream.

Take half of the fruit (whichever kind you choose) and either mash it or lightly puree it with the jam. Chop the rest into small chunks and add it to the mashed fruit. Spoon the fruit mixture into the crater of the meringue. Depending on the size of the crater, you might not use all the fruit.

In a chilled bowl, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Cover the entire meringue with the whipped cream, making it look like a very white, fluffy cloud. Garnish with the reserved fruit pieces, if you like. I like it just smooth and creamy, but if you want to add a little crunch, you can also sprinkle chopped unsalted pistachios on top. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Fruit Pizza

Fruit pizza is a fun and easy dessert that is loved by kids and adults alike.  It is customizable to just about anyone’s tastes, and it a festive treat for all those holiday gatherings.

The basic formula for this delectable delight is sugar cookie crust + a spreading of sweetened cream cheese + fruit spread as “sauce” + fresh fruit.  Beyond this, the possibilities are endless.

Step 1:  Roll half of a batch of cookie dough out into a circle, 8-10 inches in diameter (recipe provided below).  Dust the rolling surface with powdered sugar to avoid sticking, if necessary.  Trim the edges to make it perfectly round and smooth (I use the bottom of a spring-form pan as a guide) and transfer to a lined or greased cookie sheet to bake.

Step 2:  Bake at 350º for 12-15 minutes, or until the top and edges are brown.  Allow to cool completely.

Step 3:  Cream together 8 ounces of cream cheese with 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla until soft and fully combined.  Spread the cream cheese mixture carefully and evenly to the edges of the cookie crust.  (This is enough for 2 round pizzas or one rectangular fruit pizza.) 

Step 4:  To make the fruit spread, combine one cup of strawberry jam (or whatever flavor you choose), two tablespoons of water and the juice from one half of a lemon in a blender until smooth.  Spread the fruit spread over the cream cheese.  (As with the cream cheese, this is enough for 2 round pizzas or one rectangular fruit pizza.)

Step 5:  Top with your choice of fresh fruit.  Have fun with this.  If you have kids, let them get involved, and be creative by making fun designs, pictures, or words with your toppings.  My favorite choices include berries, grapes, kiwi, peaches, and pineapple….or whatever is in season.  I’m not a fan of crunchy fruits, like apples, as a topping.  And be careful about adding fruits that quickly oxidize (or turn brown), such as bananas, too far in advance.  To slow the oxidation, squeeze lemon or lime juice over the fruit before adding it to your pizza.

Check out this version to the right that I made for the 4th of July holiday a few years ago with strawberries, green grapes, and blueberries…

Easy cookie crust option:  To avoid the complication of having to roll out the sugar cookie dough, spread the chilled dough into the bottom of a greased cookie sheet, jelly roll pan, or glass baking dish.  Continue to follow steps 2 through 5 above.

Sugar Cookie Dough Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl or standing mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth.  (Save the butter wrappers for greasing later.)  Add the egg and beat until light and fluffy (in a standing mixer, that’s about 3 minutes).  Add the vanilla and stir until it’s combined.  Add the flour mixture, one cup at a time, and mix until it is combined and the dough pulls away from the sides.  Cover and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes. 

Notes:

  • The dough can be made a day or more ahead of time.  Store it in the refrigerator if you plan to use it within 24 hours.  Otherwise, store it in the freezer.
  • One batch of dough is enough for two fruit pizza crusts.

TDB Homemade: Shamrock Shake

It’s that time of year again when, in the past, I used to enjoy making my annual visit to…(gasp and shudder)…the Golden Arches.  I, like so many other people, am (er, was) a sucker for McDonald’s Shamrock Shake.  I’m not sure exactly what kept me going back for so many years — it might have been the novelty of something that’s only available once a year, or perhaps it was the nostalgia (involving some great college memories) that it invoked.  But I know one thing — it certainly was not the quality of the ingredients in the shake that kept pulling me back.  The last time that I tried it and saw the ingredients separate, in a matter of minutes, into an artificially-colored mess of grainy solids and oily liquid, I realized how suckered I had been.

So this year I set out to find a recipe to make at home, but when I Google-searched it, I came up with the same recipe posted over and over of ice cream, milk, mint extract, and green food coloring.  But I don’t want to artificially color what I make, and why use mint extract instead of the real thing?  With fresh mint leaves, perhaps I can cover both flavor and color bases, right?

My first attempt was made with some plain yogurt instead of ice cream (just because that’s what I had in the house at the time).  I started by making a simple syrup* that, when slightly cooled, I blended with an equal amount of loosely-packed mint leaves.  I then blended the mint syrup with some yogurt, milk, and a little vanilla.  I let the mixture freeze a bit and then blended it again to get a smooth and thick consistency.  Result — the color was a bright speckled green from the mint leaves, not an even, consistent color, but the mint was finely blended into the syrup, so the texture was smooth.  The flavor was good too, but the tartness of the yogurt gave it more of a smoothie quality than milkshake, and it didn’t quite hit the mark.

The next day I picked up some vanilla ice cream and tried again.  I simply mixed the ice cream, milk, and some freshly-chopped mint leaves with an immersion blender.  Result — the flavor was perfect, and the color, again, was a nice speckled green, but the mint leaf pieces didn’t blend completely and left a slight chewiness to the texture, which I didn’t like.

To avoid the chewy flecks of mint leaf, I steeped some mint in the milk overnight, strained it, then mixed the minty milk with an equal amount of vanilla ice cream.  The flavor was minty, creamy, and delicious!  But the color had only a slightly green hue, and what’s a Shamrock Shake if not green?!?

After a couple tries with some of my other favorite green foods, I tried adding some avocado to the creamy concoction, and I loved the result.  It turned the milkshake into a nice light shade of green without doing much to change the flavor.  In fact, I think the texture was improved by the avocado!

So, here we go, after 2 weeks of “research” and almost daily intake of ice cream (someone had to do it, right?), I provide you with the Two Dancing Buckeyes’ version of a Shamrock Shake.

FINAL RECIPE —  makes 4 8-ounce servings.

Ingredients:

2 1/4 cups milk

1 cup coarsely-chopped and loosely-packed mint leaves

2 cups vanilla ice cream

1/2 avocado (this is mostly for the color, so it is optional)

whole mint leaves for garnishing

Directions:

Heat the milk until it is steaming, but not boiling, and pour over the mint leaves.  Once it has cooled nearly to room temperature, cover and refrigerate overnight.  Strain the leaves from the milk with a fine mesh sieve (a French Press also works well).  Combine the milk, ice cream, and avocado in a blender and blend until smooth.  Pour into 4 frosty glasses and garnish with the mint leaves.

Notes:

  • Use whatever flavor of vanilla ice cream you prefer (vanilla bean, French vanilla, etc.), but be sure to get “Premium” or “Super Premium” ice cream, such as Häagen-Dazs® or Ben and Jerry’s (I happened to use the Trader Joe’s brand, which was good).  This means that it will be more dense (less air added in the churning process), so it will hold up better as a shake.  Other airy, double-churned, or “light” ice creams, such as Breyers® or Edy’s®, will liquefy almost immediately.
  • Lesson learned:  at one point I attempted to thicken the shake by turning the milk into a custard.**  This added too much of an “eggy” taste to the shake, and it did not make it any thicker.
  • Whole milk and 2% reduced-fat milk work well, but do not use skim milk (too watery) or heavy cream (leaves your mouth feeling coated).
  • Look for a brand of ice cream with as few ingredients as possible.  Some brands sneak in fillers, stabilizers, preservatives, and even colorants to vanilla ice cream — keep it natural!

Variations:  consider adding one or more of the following…

  1. 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder per serving or some Organic chocolate syrup;
  2. 1 ounce of your favorite alcoholic additive per serving, such as Irish cream, hazelnut-flavored liqueur, or coffee-flavored liqueur;
  3. the seeds scraped from one-half of a vanilla bean (per 4 servings).

This was homemade, yet so simple, and, best of all, no mystery ingredients!!  The minty milk has to be made a day ahead, but the total time to make this is less than 10 minutes.  Of course, I do not purport this to be healthy or low-fat, but you get something natural rather than what is handed to you in the drive-thru***.  Enjoy!

*A simple syrup is equal parts of water and sugar heated to a boil and stirred until the liquid runs clear.

**A custard is made by slowly adding heated milk to a beaten egg yolk, then heating the mixture while constantly stirring until it thickens.

***For your comparison, click here to see the ingredients from McDonald’s website for their McCafé Shamrock Shake. Additionally, whether you frequent the Golden Arches or not, it’s a good idea to be knowledgeable about the nutritional effect of eating what they serve.  Take some time to explore their website to see what’s in some of the items that you (or a loved one) perhaps have consumed.

Easy Chocolate Truffles

Think about this — how much would you pay for a dozen REALLY good truffles?  Could you imagine being able to make them yourself and have them taste just about as good as they do from your favorite chocolatier?  Well, I want you to know that it’s not only possible, but surprisingly easy.  Probably the hardest part is locating a purveyor of high quality chocolate.  You need to find a dark chocolate with a content of cocoa solids that is at least 60% or higher.  I usually buy chocolate disks that are meant for cooking / baking with either 72% or 85% content of cocoa solids.  If you don’t have a store specializing in chocolate near you, you should be able to find pure chocolate bars that list the cocoa content in a well-stocked supermarket.

Now to make the truffles…  The recipe below is very basic — easy and no frills.  It’s simply a ganache, which essentially is a mixture of chocolate and cream.  Ganaches are used in desserts for frostings and fillings, as well as for truffles.  The proportion of the ingredients when making a ganache will differ, depending on how it’s to be consumed.  Below is what I consider to be ideal for truffle-making.

Ingredients:

12 ounces dark chocolate with cocoa solid content 60% or higher

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

cocoa powder for coating

Directions:

Chop the chocolate into small pieces, if necessary.  Place the chocolate in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Combine the cream and butter in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over low-to-medium heat.  As soon as the cream mixture starts to boil, remove it from the heat and pour it over the chocolate.  Without stirring, let it sit for one full minute, allowing the cream to melt the chocolate.  After one minute, stir the cream and chocolate together until it is completely smooth.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes.  After the ganache is cool, you can make your truffles.  Using a small melon baller or a spoon, scoop about 1 tablespoon of ganache for each truffle.  Lightly roll it into a ball with your hands and place on a plate, tray, or sheet of your choice.  You should have about two dozen truffles.  Chill the truffles for another five minutes, if necessary, so that they do not become too messy.  Next, place 2-3 spoonfuls of pure cocoa powder in a small bowl and roll each truffle in it to coat.  Now the truffles are ready for immediate consumption!  Or, if your will power is abounding, store them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator or the freezer.

As I have already stated, this is a VERY simple and basic recipe for truffles, but there are many other options that can add a little flare to your chocolate.  You can flavor the ganache with rum, brandy, or your favorite flavored liqueur by heating it with the cream.  Or your can steep warmed cream with zested orange rind for about 10 minutes before bringing it to a full boil.  Remove the rind through a fine wire mesh strainer before pouring the cream over the chocolate.

Instead of dusting the truffles with cocoa powder, try finely chopped hazelnuts, coconut, or even a sprinkling of fine sea salt.  There is also the option of coating each truffle with melted and tempered chocolate, which will give it a glossy look and a delicious snap when bitten.  The art of tempering, however, requires very careful attention to the temperature at which the chocolate is melted, so this is not recommended if you’re looking for something easy.

So if you want to make something impressive and delicious, try this for your next movie night, dinner party, or romantic soirée, and enjoy!

Mi Favorito Arroz Con Leche

If you do not yet have a recipe for arroz con leche, this is the one to save.  Arroz con leche is a delicious dessert that is ubiquitous in the Spanish-speaking world, and there are as many occasions and traditions associated with this dish as there are ways to make it.  Take a few heavenly bites, and you will never look at plain pudding the same way again.  Like so many things, this recipe is an amalgamation of many that I have tried, resulting in sweet and creamy (yet flavorful and slightly chewy) spoonfuls of pure goodness.

Ingredients:

3/4 cup arborio rice

1 1/2 cups water

3-4 pieces of lemon peel, about 1″ in length each

1 cinnamon stick

4 cups whole milk

1 14-ounce can coconut milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

Place the rice, water, lemon peel, and cinnamon stick in a 5-quart dutch oven.  Cover and bring to a low simmer for about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine the coconut milk, milk, salt, and sugar in a separate pot and heat to just under a boil.  Slowly add the milk mixture to the rice and maintain the slow simmer at the lowest heat.  Stir the mixture often, making sure to scrape the bottom to avoid any scalding.  If you have a whole vanilla bean, make a cut down the length of the bean, scrape out the seeds, and stir them into the rice.  Before the milk gets too thick, remove the lemon peels and cinnamon stick and discard them.  At this point add the vanilla extract if you did not use a whole bean.  Continue to cook, uncovered, while stirring frequently until most of the milk is absorbed.  Total cooking time is about 30-45 minutes.  As an option, after ten minutes of cooling, the texture may be smoothed with a wand blender.  I like to smooth it partially, leaving small lumps, but this is up to your discretion.

To me, a small dish of arroz con leche is a wholesome indulgence.  It can be garnished with raisins or a sprinkling of cinnamon.  Some people also like to add a small spoonful of sweetened condensed milk to the top.  It can be eaten warm or cold — a Colombian friend explains that she likes to eat it warm, like soup.  Another friend says that in Panama, they traditionally serve arroz con leche when a baby sprouts a first tooth.  The pudding is served in small containers to family and friends to mark the milestone!  In fact, it is often served around the holidays and for celebrations, but a special reason is not necessary for this delicious treat.  This makes at least 8-10 servings, so enjoy it and invite over your loved ones to share!