Category Archives: Pastry

The Death of Dessert?

I was recently reminded that I neglected to comment on a couple of interesting articles from the Washington Post that appeared last month discussing the decline of dessert. Not the decline of sweets or pastries mind you, but the decline of dessert as a meal course. Dessert, so claims reporter Roberto Ferdman, is a happening that’s vanishing both in the restaurant and in the home. The chief culprit isn’t health or calorie concerns, but time.

Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year, the lowest reading in more than 30 years, according to data from market research firm NPD group. Just 10 years ago, in 2004, 15 percent of families indulged after the main course. And 28 years ago, in 1986, the number was nearly 25 percent.

“People don’t have the time for dinner that they used to,” [Balzer] said. “And dessert is seen as the least important part of the dinner meal.”

At the current rate, after all, dessert is on pace to vanish altogether, according to Balzer. “There’s a real possibility that your grandchildren won’t know what after dinner dessert is,” he said. “If the trend continues, 2054 will be the last time dessert is served at the dinner table at the end of the meal.”

The trends aren’t as clear at the restaurant level, though the simple economics of dessert lend support Ferdman’s argument.

“It’s hard to make money on desserts in the restaurant business today,” said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about the economics of eating out. “I don’t think many [restaurants] benefit when people order them anymore.”

There are many problems with dessert, but it all starts with one pretty simple truth: The restaurant industry is a place of razor thin margins, and dessert tends to offer one of the thinnest.

Food in general is tough to make money on. Restaurants have long relied on the mark-up they tack onto drinks, not grub, to boost profits. As food costs soar, that reality has only become more true, because there’s a limit to how much people are willing to pay for different parts of their meal.

And then there’s the time problem again, since time is money at a restaurant, at least during peak hours.

Parties that might have finished their dinner in a little over an hour instead linger for closer to two when they opt for dessert. And they stay the extra 30 minutes while consuming only a fraction of what they did during the first part of the meal. It would be different if people ordered drinks more often alongside cake, but they often don’t. It would change things if dessert wines were more popular, finer and more expensive, but they aren’t.

“A cocktail brings in twice as much money as a dessert, and it doesn’t hold up a table at the end of the meal. You have to turn the tables,” Mark Bucher, who owns D.C. restaurant Medium Rare.

Interesting stuff, though it’s far from definitive. It would have been nice had the restaurant article been backed up by some specific research. Still the overall thesis makes a lot of sense and makes me wonder — not whether pastry has a future, but what the dessert course might turn into, because diners definitely aren’t tired of sweets, especially if they’re made well.

Could pastries become more of a midday meal as they are in European cafés? Could restaurants make more of an effort to attract a patrons during off-peak hours to enjoy a pastry or plate of cookies? Why not? In such a scenario everybody would win: the restaurant makes a sale when it ordinarily wouldn’t, the customer has a new occasion to look forward to and the pastry chef has a job. If it sounds far-fetched just think about the recent explosion of brunch. Who ever saw that coming?

Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject. Comment away!

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Now What?

It’s become traditional to ask for project suggestions after my late winter fishing trip. With the exception of the candies (which I have yet to tackle since I’m not very good at confectionery) I completed most of last year’s project requests, and many more besides. What shall I plan for the this coming year? Please weigh in if you’re so inclined.

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Where do amaretti come from?

That’s a tricky one. There are a couple of origin stories, one a myth and the other a probable myth. The first one goes like this: once upon a time in the early 1700′s, in the northern Italian town of Saronno, there lived a pair of newlyweds. These two loved to bake and make sweets, so when they heard that the Catholic Cardinal from the nearby city of Milan was preparing to visit, the wanted to make something special. They gathered the meager ingredients they had: almonds, sugar, egg whites and apricot kernels, and using a mysterious technique that remains a secret to this day, prepared a batch of small cookies in the Cardinal’s honor. Tasting them, the Cardinal was so delighted that he blessed their marriage — and their cookies — wishing them a long and prosperous marriage. Today of course that secret is owned by the D. Lazzaroni Company who makes the classic Amaretti di Saronno. No surprise that they are the people largely responsible for propagating this myth.

Food lore is packed with stories like this, in which peasants throw together unlikely concoctions to please a visiting priest, cardinal, pope or member of the royalty. I think of them as a sort of Renaissance advertising. “Endorsed by popes for over 200 years!” None of them are true, but to this day people love to repeat them. Goes to show that the form has natural appeal.

The other origin story is simpler. It holds that amaretti were invented in the middle 1600′s by a pastry chef by the name of Francesco Moriondo who worked for the House of Savoy (Savoy being a mountainous region that is now located in the extreme southeast of France). How true is that legend? It probably isn’t, but then again there’s no way to know for sure.

What is known for sure is that cookies of this type (macaroons) have been around in Italy (or at least what is now Italy) for some 700 years. Maccarone means a baked mixture of egg whites, honey (or sugar) and nuts. Amaretti are certainly that, though exactly when and by whom almond maccarone were combined with ground apricot pits to create these “little bitter things” will remain a mystery.

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What are amaretti?

Some people call them cookies, these days it’s hip to refer to them as “macarons”, but really they’re little almond meringues that are flavored with almond. Macaroons is probably more like it. I first tasted them as a kid when the neighbors who lived behind our house would take me into Chicago’s inner suburbs to visit their Italian grandma. In classic Old World Grandma style she’d feed us no matter what the hour, and amply. We dined crowded around the table in her cramped little apartment kitchen, since the dining room table was covered with doilies and only used for special occasions.

She was fond of serving us amaretti as soon as we walked in the door as a sort of tide-me-over until the real food hit the table: an antipasto starter, then pasta which I’d usually gorge myself on, forgetting that a meat course was coming next. By the end of the meal I’d be so engorged I practically had to be craned out the window.

But where was I? Ah yes, amaretti. The thing about amaretti is that while they can be enjoyed on their own they make a great component for other types of simple desserts. Crush them and they make a fantastic crumble that you can use to top fruit cups, ice cream or sorbets. They’re also frequently used to add textural interest to custards, frangipane, mousses and creams. Very versatile things indeed.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the most famous amaretti are Amaretti di Saronno from Lombardy in Italy. They’re the standard by which all others are compared and the go-to amaretti in most Italian restaurant pastry departments. If you frequent speciality food shops you’ve no doubt seen the trademark red containers. For store-bought goods, they’re excellent. But since I’m a do-it-yourself type of guy, I’m not going to let their legendary status intimidate me. Much.

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Amaretti Recipe

For simple-but-elegant Italian preparations like these I always turn to Gina DePalma first, and she rarely disappoints. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by a Gina DePalma recipe come to think of it, which is why I recommend her book, Dolce Italiano so highly. This recipe is in The Babbo Cookbook. If the ingredient list looks an awful lot like what you’d need to make marzipan, that’s no coincidence. Amaretti are basically baked, fluffy marzipan.

6 1/4 ounces (1 1/4 cups) blanched whole almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 ounces (1/2 cup) powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
2 egg whites
2.75 ounces (1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons) granulated sugar
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto
3.75 ounces (1/2 cup) turbinado sugar for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place the almonds, cornstarch and powdered sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the almonds are finely chopped. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip. Add the salt and whip until the mixture is foamy. Add the granulated sugar in a stream until the egg whites reach the stiff peak stage, then whip in the almond extract and amaretto.

Gently fold the almond mixture into the egg white mixture. Spoon the batter into a pastry bag fitted with just the collar and pipe 1″ rounds onto greased baking sheets. Sprinkle each cookie with turbinado sugar if desired.

Bake the amaretti for 15 minutes or until the cookies are a pale gold color and begin to crack on the tops. Lower the oven temperature to 200 and prop open the oven door with a spoon handle to let some of the heat out. Leave the amaretti in the oven for about another 30 minutes, until they are dry and crisp in the center. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. Store them in an airtight container.

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Next Up: Amaretti

These little cookies sometimes appear on little plates in Italian restaurants along with a meal-closing cup of coffee. If you’ve been to those sorts of spots, or live around many people of Italian descent, you’ve probably seen amaretti before. They’re small, puffy and round with crackled tops. They’re the sort of things which, if they not fresh or well-made, you generally won’t notice. However if they are well made and fresh they stop you in your tracks. Whoa, what the heck are these things?

Reader Sarah had that experience recently with some amaretti she bought in an Italian bakery in Toronto. I’ll see what I can do to help re-create her experience here. So off we go…

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Return from the Planet of the Apes

Back from Florida and what an interesting trip. Here I am fishing beside what looks like an old set from the late 60′s Planet of the Apes movies, put up on stilts in the Gulf of Mexico. Evidently this was a single family house that was once on land, but beach erosion did a job on the real estate. These days it’s abandoned save for the odd band of pot smoking teenagers that apparently hole up there, but the fish like it. Or more specifically the pylons beneath it. Good fishing, you just can’t let the fish run too much after you hook one.

Anyway, I’ve got an awful lot of comments to go through, so please be patient if you’ve been trying to correspond these last ten days or so, it might take me a while. But I’ll get some baking happening here before too long!

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Ta-Ta For Now!

Headed to Florida for a week or so then up to Wisconsin on business, so I’ll be gone the next ten days. I’ll do my best to answer questions in the comment fields when I’m not fishing for gulf trout. See you soon! – Joe

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In-Oven Bread Hearth

Cool Kickstarter project here: a miniature cast iron bread baking enclosure that fits right inside your home oven. It strikes you as kind of an odd idea at first: if I want to do bread in a cast iron pot, why not just use my dutch oven? Until you realize that boules get a little tiresome after a while. With this Forneau Bread Oven you can expand your shape and texture horizons quite a bit. Nice idea, Strand Design. Happy to help get the word out!

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What’s the difference between “spoiled” cream and “cultured” cream?

…asks reader Adam. Great question. The difference is that one term sounds more appealing than the other. In practical terms, they mean pretty much the same thing. However I’d hasten to add that if you’re planning to make your own cultured butter it’s always better to “spoil” your own milk or cream with a culture you know is safe rather than to take a chance on a dairy product that’s inhabited by God-only-knows what. For there are quite a few types of microbes capable of growing in milk or cream and not all of them are harmless.

Truthfully I’ve been known to make cultured butter out of cream that’s soured on its own in my refrigerator, but in general I strongly advise that when you set out to ferment dairy, you inoculate it with a heavy dose of a known commodity, like store-bought buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt. A tablespoon or so per cup is usually enough to crowd out anything else that might consider making a go of it in the fermentation bowl. I should also add that once you’ve achieved your fermenting goal, you refrigerate the finished product, again, to discourage any adventurism by bugs from the wrong side of the tracks.

And of course, should anything you ever ferment give off a funky odor or exhibit a strange color (blue, green, pink), take no chances. Throw it out.

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