Category Archives: Pastry

Sticky Toffee Pudding Recipe

I don’t often do “plated” desserts, so this will be fun. It’s kind of fun to play with sauces and squeeze bottles every so often, no? This recipe is adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas, but why not serve it in July? I can’t think of a reason!

2 cups chopped pitted dates
3/4 boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant espresso
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) butter
4.5 ounces (2/3 cup) sugar
2 eggs at room temperature
6.25 ounces (1 1/4 cups) flour, sifted
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 recipe the toffee sauce
1/2 recipe créme Anglaise or melted vanilla ice cream
walnuts for garnish


Place the dates in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Allow the mixture to cool, then add the vanilla, espresso powder and soda — stir. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and butter eight 6-ounces ramekins.

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle beat the butter and sugar together on medium high speed until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time until they’re fully incorporated, scraping down the sides after each addition occasionally.

Combine the sifted flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and whisk them together. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture, then fold in the cooled dates. Divide the batter among the ramekins, place them on a baking sheet and bake about 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven, let them cool five minutes then invert the puddings onto a parchment-covered rack to cool completely. The puddings can hold at this point for several hours or be refrigerated for several days.

To serve, preheat the broiler. Pour about a tablespoon of sauce onto the puddings. Place the puddings under the broiler until the tops are crunchy and the sauce is bubbling. Transfer the puddings to individual serving plates and top with remaining toffee sauce and nuts. Serve with custard sauce dribbled around the edges of the plate.

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Next Up: Sticky Toffee Pudding

I do love a good British pudding, and if I can serve it with two sauces, so much the better. Like strawberries Romanoff this is a classic that rarely sees the light of day nowadays. It’s time to turn things around.

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Making Strawberries Romanoff

Should, upon placing an elegant little bowl like this in front of your dinner guest, he reply “I don’t like strawberries and cream” you shall grasp the nearest available pair of leather riding gloves and slap them with great force against his cheek bone. Villain! Do you not recognize strawberries Romanoff when you see them??? At that point you can challenge him to pistols at dawn if you like. It’s a judgement call.

I made mine in the Russian style with sour cream added to the sweetened whipped cream because, well, why not? I started of course with the best strawberries I could find. This is a half batch of two cups. I picked the smaller ones because I like the presentation of the uncut berries and the smaller they are the better the better the flavor balance you’ll have. I added the orange juice…

Sprinkled on the Grand Marnier which as I mentioned previously is a clover match to the curaçao that Carême would have used.

I gave that a stir and let it macerate in the fridge for on hour. You can chill them for up to three hours before they start getting a little too soft.

When I was ready to serve I whipped my chilled cream to just shy of soft peaks, then added the sugar and vanilla. I whipped a bit more to the soft peak stage.

Before I added the sour cream I stirred it a little to break up the gel and get it ready for folding.

I added it, then folded it in with three or four stokes of a broad spatula. Could I have whipped it in? Yes I could have, however I prefer folding a few times instead of thoroughly incorporating the sour cream because the former technique creates stripes of sour cream spread through the topping and some delicious variability spoonful to spoonful.

Had Czar Alexander I eaten this every day he would never have gotten so depressed, I’m sure of it.

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The Mystery of Czar Alexander

Is it really true that Czar Alexander I staged his own death and assumed another identity? Quite a few people believed that, reader Alice, and not just conspiracy nuts. Most Russians of the time believed he was still alive after he was reported dead. Even members of the late Czar’s own family seemed to believe it. But why would they? Possibly because Alexander talked about vanishing and becoming a hermit almost incessantly. He certainly made no secret of his distaste for the trappings of wealth and power and his deep guilt over the death of his father, Czar Paul I, was well known.

Alexander had, shall we say, a troubled relationshhip with his family. His grandmother, Catherine the Great, hated his father (her own son) and made no secret of it. She considered Paul I to be an unstable tyrant-in-waiting. When Alexander was born Catherine immediately took charge of him (Alexander’s mother was indifferent to him) and educated him in the classical liberal virtues. Despite Paul’s attempts to literally beat some toughness into the boy, Alexander grew up sullen and sensitive. When Catherine died in 1796, Paul ascended the throne. His subjects quickly came to see that Catherine’s instincts were entirely correct and by 1801 a coup plot was hatched.

Alexander was predictably ambivalent about the plot, but ultimately gave his assent on the condition that his father be left unharmed. One night in early 1801 a mixed band of angry nobles and military men burst into Paul’s chambers in St. Michael’s Castle with the 23-year-old Alexander in tow. They tried to force Paul to sign his own abdication decree and when he refused they stabbed and strangled him, then cast his body to the floor where they trampled all over it. Alexander spent the rest of his life wondering exactly which part of “leave him unharmed” they failed to understand.

He spent the next 25 years feeling guilty. He looked to friends, family, priests and mystics for relief but found none. And even though he was broadly popular for his attempts at liberal reforms (the end of serfdom, free press and free institutions) he openly longed to be liberated from the burdens of leadership. Which is why, when the vigorous 48-year-old Czar, after a year filled with personal disasters including the death of his 18-year-old daughter, was suddenly reported dead from typhus more than a few people looked at each other and said: so, he finally did it. Was the disfigured corpse placed in a coffin in Taganrog in December of 1825 really his? Many, many Russians doubted it. Indeed they believed their melancholy Czar had boarded a ship and sailed to parts unknown.

Then, 11 years later in the Siberian city of Krasnoufimsk, a strange man by the name of Feodor Kuzmich appeared. He was described as a man of noble bearing and considerable education, but for some reason this elegant stranger refused to give up any information about himself to local authorities. So they beat him up and sent him off to work in a distillery where he remained for five years. After a 15-year period of wandering, Kuzmich settled in the city of Krasnaya Re chia where the locals honored him as a starets, a holy and enlightened elder, and began to seek his counsel and blessings. They also wondered about him. How did Kuzmich come to learn so many languages? Where did his intimate knowledge of St. Petersburg and the royal court come from? Why did he seem to have so many important visitors including — some say — his brother and heir Czar Nicholas I?

No one knew, but many speculated. Today there is more than a little evidence, though granted it’s virtually all anecdotal, that Kuzmich was indeed Czar Alexander I. Of course only a DNA test of the Alexnder’s (or Kuzmich’s) remains would ever prove it definitively. Thanks for getting me going on a Monday morning, Alice!

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Who invented distillation?

Reader Rikki, that’s a darn good question. All we know for sure is that somewhere around 900 years ago people in and Europe and China started having a lot more fun on Saturday night. Greek alchemists had mastered water distillation long before, in about 100 A.D., but alcohol distillation took longer. It’s likely the technology traveled the Silk Road either East to West or West to East but nobody knows for sure.

Brandy was probably the first hard liquor in the western world, evidently an attempt to create a reconstituted beverage that was easy to transport and sell. Reduce your wine at production point, take it by ox cart to the point of sale, add water and presto — wine. That was the thought anyway. Tasting the first brandy, I can only imagine what that early entrepreneur said to his business partner as he approached with the water jug. Take another step and you’re dead, buzzkill.

It’s thought that the first brandies were made around the 1100 A.D. and got really popular in Europe around 1300. Why the process of acceptance took so darn long is anybody’s guess. Thanks, Rikki!

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Carême and the Czar

So if Antonin Carême lived in Paris, why did he design a dessert to appeal to Russians? There are two parts to that answer. First, Russian food and manners were all the rage in Paris around 1810. Napoleon and Czar Alexander I of Russia were allies then, and Czar Alexander had dispatched a very dapper and glamorous ambassador to look after Russia’s interests in Paris. His name was Alexander Kurakin, and it was he who not only introduced Russian dishes to Parisian society, but also the single-plate course-after-course dining style known as service à la russe. We employ it in our restaurants, even homes, to this day.

The second part of the answer has to do with the dissolution of that alliance I mentioned. Napoleon being Napoleon, it didn’t take him long to alienate Alexander. Indeed relations turned downright icy when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and sacked and burned Moscow for good measure. Napoleon’s Grande Armée got the worst of it in the end, however. During the disastrous winter withdrawal from Russia most of Napoleon’s 450,000-man army either froze to death or were killed by raiding Cossacks. But that didn’t make Alexander feel any better. He threw away Napoleon’s BFF pin, then deleted Napoleon’s name from his list of Facebook friends.

Even worse he joined forces with the Austrians and Prussians, Napoleon’s bitter enemies. Together in late 1813 they defeated Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Leipzig and in March of the following year they, er…marched into Paris. It was the first time the city had been taken in some 400 years. Arriving in Paris, Czar Alexander was in no hurry to leave. He considered taking over the Palace of Versailles as a temporary residence but heard it was booby trapped, so he moved into Talleyrand‘s Paris house instead. There he stayed for many months enjoying Talleyrand’s hospitality, the centerpiece of which was the food prepared by Talleyrand’s personal chef, Antoine Carême. It was probably here and under these circumstances that Carême created strawberries Romanoff, named for the Russian imperial dynasty of which Alexander was member.

When June of 1814 arrived the last of the strawberries had presumably been eaten. Which meant it was time to leave. Czar Alexander went to London, where he failed to find any more strawberries, and eventually on to Vienna, but strawberries had been out of season there for months by then. Frustrated, he completed the divvying up of Europe at the Congress of Vienna and went home to St. Petersburg. There he sent repeated offers to Carême imploring him to come to Russia and work for him. In time Carême accepted Alexander’s proposition, but in the end stayed only a few months in St. Petersburg before quitting and moving back home to France.

As for Alexander, he lived the rest of his life without ever again tasting Carême’s cooking. Which wasn’t easy for a man of his refinement and sensitivity. Ever a moody sort he spent the last half dozen years of his life trudging gloomily around his empire, bereft of macerated fruit. He died in 1825 while on a state visit to the southern port city Taganrog, or at any rate that’s the official story. For indeed more than a few people believe that he didn’t die — he was only 48 and in robust health at the time — but rather engineered his own disappearance. Whose identity might he have assumed? Where might he have gone? What did he eat once he got there? Were there any strawberries involved? These vital questions may never be adequately answered.

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What exactly is brandy?

And how is it different from, say, whiskey? Reader Jimmy, thanks for a delightful question. We here in the States drink precious little brandy and a result a lot of us wonder exactly what it is and what relationship it bears to other mysterious Continental spirits like cognac.

The word brandy — and I love this — is actually taken from a Dutch term that means “burning”. It’s nothing more than wine that’s been distilled into something quite a bit stronger. Wine is about 12% alcohol when it’s made. Distilled into brandy it can be up to 60% alcohol (120 proof), and that’s where the burning part comes in.

Looked at this way, brandy is indeed a lot like whiskey or any other distilled spirit. It starts out as a fairly weak alcohol solution. Heat is applied to it to cause the alcohol to evaporate and that alcohol vapor passes through a long tube where it cools, re-condenses into a liquid and drips into another container where it’s collected. (And shortly afterward consumed). Most of what isn’t alcohol is left behind in the original container.

Notice I said “most”. Because the alcohol molecules don’t leave the surface of the hot wine all by themselves. They take with them odd molecules of water, essential oils and other flavor-giving compounds, the result being that the refined liquor retains a distinct flavor of the fermented fruit juice from whence it came.

As you’re no doubt beginning to infer from my description, distilled spirits differ from one another primary in their source material. Brandy comes from wine. Whiskey comes from a mash, basically a fermented grain beer. Rum, from something very similar that’s made from sugar cane. Europe is known for brandy, and it’s no coincidence that wine grapes grow well there. Scotland and America, where grain thrives, make a lot of whiskey. Sugar cane likes the climate in the Caribbean, and that’s where rum is from.

Cool, no? Oh and if you’re wondering what cognac is, it’s a type of brandy named for a town in Western France. Hope that answers your question, Jimmy!

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There was curaçao in 1814?

Yes indeed there was, though not the brand name we know now, that didn’t come along in the late 1800′s. Curaçao, originally, was a generic term for orange-infused brandies that were originally produced by the Dutch. The Dutch owned, and indeed still do own, the island of Curaçao which is located in a chain of islands called the “Lesser Antilles” just off the coast of Venezuela. There an odd variety of citrus known as the “laraha” grows. It’s a descendant of the Valencia orange, originally brought to Curaçao by the Spaniards in the 1500′s but which, due to the island’s relatively poor soil, soon evolved (devolved?) into something else. That thing is the laraha, a small, green, bitter and thick-skinned citrus that just happens to be terrible for eating but great for flavoring alcohol.

The Dutch, being canny traders, were quick to pick up on that fact. They brought larahas home to the Netherlands by the shipload, where they steeped them in brandy along with other spices collected from the Carribbean. “Curaçao” was the result, and it was all the rage in Carême’s day. So much so that he incorporated it into his (then) very trendy “strawberries Romanoff”. How popular was curaçao back then? Let’s just say that it wasn’t long after Carême seized on this hot new ingredient that a fellow named Jean-Baptiste Combier created France’s first orange-flavored liqueur, then known simply as “Combier”. It was such a smash that he shortly launched another orange-infused product he called “Curaçao triple sec”. We of course know it today as simply “triple sec”.

Seeing Combier’s success, a candy and spirits maker by the name of Adolphe Cointreau decided he’d better get into the orange liqueur game as well. He called his creation “Curaçao Blanco Triple Sec de Cointreau”, a name he’d later simplify, much to the delight of his label designer. Here I should insert that there was a fundamental difference between French curaçao and Dutch curaçao. Where the Dutch used brandy as a base, the French used a neutral clear alcohol that was fermented from sugar beets. Today triple sec, Cointreau and Curaçao (the brand name liqueur produced on the island itself) all use neutral clear spirits as a base.

Which raises the question: was Carême’s curaçao based on brandy or sugar beet alcohol? My guess, since strawberries Romanoff was created at least 15 years — and as many as 25 years — before Combier ever hit the market, Carême probably used the Dutch stuff. Which means his liqueur was closer to Grand Marnier (an orange-flavored brandy) than any curaçao we know today. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is truer to the spirit (no pun intended) of Carême’s recipe.

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I thought the optional sour cream in the strawberries Romanoff recipe was an attempt to re-create the flavor of whipped cream in the days before refrigeration. I’ve since discovered that Carême made two versions: one with plain whipped cream and one with sour cream added. The former was designed to appeal to French audiences, the latter to appeal to Russian audiences. Americans came along later and added ice cream. I’ll leave it up to you to determine the best fit for your table.

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Who Was Antonin Carême?

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