Each year, hundreds of cookbooks are released, which means that inevitably, many must go to make room for the new. But I was always surprised, and delighted, to hear from so many people that mine were the ones in their collection that they used the most.
When I began writing cookbooks over a decade ago, someone told me, “If a book has one great recipe in it, then it’s a good book.” So while I considered calling this book David’s Greatest Hits, that idea was (wisely) nixed by the powers that be. But, from all the positive feedback my cookbooks have received, I don’t know if that title would’ve been all that far off. Over the years, I’ve heard again and again from enthusiastic home bakers that many of the recipes from my first two books were their all-time favorites.
Room for Dessert was released in 1999. I hadn’t written a book before, but was thrilled when the New York Times singled it out for praise in a very crowded field of cookbooks. It was also lauded by colleagues such as food writer Arthur Schwartz, who complimented the book as “deceptively slim,” meaning it packed an expansive variety of desserts in a very approachable, and not at all daunting, format.
My second book, Ripe for Dessert, continued that philosophy with an emphasis on baking with fruit. I’m very keen on incorporating fruits and berries into my desserts and know that many people share my affection for fruit desserts. The book came out in 2003 just as Americans were rediscovering the rewards of using regional ingredients. At the same time, there was a rising national awareness about healthy eating. Although it was certainly not a diet book, fruits played a central role in all of the desserts, rather than just an ornamental one, and the recipes let home bakers put to delicious use the new abundance of fruit available in farmers’ markets and at their local grocers. Shopping baskets overflowed with long-forgotten varieties of heirloom apples, unusual and exotic tropical fruits, deep-red cherries, and soft, tangy raspberries, all of which simply begged to be used during their all-too-brief seasons. I also included recipes starring some of the more elusive fruits—such as quince, figs, and persimmons—which were slowly becoming more familiar as they made their way from upscale farmers’ markets into mainstream grocery stores.
And it wasn’t just home bakers who were using my books. I got a great thrill out of spying a flour-dusted copy of one of my books on a shelf in a restaurant or bakery kitchen. It was tremendously gratifying to know that the recipes met the demanding standards of professionals.
After a long run, both Room for Dessert and Ripe for Dessert went out of print. In the meantime, through my website and blog, www.davidlebovitz.com, I was able to introduce my recipes to a whole new audience and to those who were disappointed that my books were no longer available. Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to update the recipes and present them in this all-new edition, I jumped at the opportunity to do so.
Like so many other things, techniques, tastes, and even the availability of ingredients change over time. At first, I thought I’d just revisit a few recipes and make some minor changes. But as I flipped through the pages, invariably I’d land on a recipe and say, “Hmm, I wonder what that would be like if I reduced the sugar, and melted the butter instead of creamed it?” Or, “What about sharing those cookies I made last Christmas that everyone loved?” Off to the kitchen I would go to try out these new ideas.
So just about every recipe has been revised in some way—ingredients were added or swapped out with another or techniques have been changed. Plus, I couldn’t resist including a dozen new recipes, ones that have become favorites of mine, which I hope will become favorites of yours as well.
As a baker, my strongest influence was Lindsey Shere, the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, whose ideas prompted some of my favorite desserts in this book, including Blanco y Negro (page 176) and Champagne Gelée with Kumquats, Grapefruits, and Blood Oranges (page 114), as well as her now-classic recipe for Chocolate Pavé (page 25), which she kindly allowed me to share. Some of these recipes were from our repertoire at Chez Panisse, and like many good recipes, they’re the result of a variety of influences, an appreciation for delicious desserts, and years of kitchen experience.
I was fortunate to work with the same people for nearly thirteen years, and I learned almost everything I know from working with them, most notably Mary Jo Thoresen, Lisa Saltzman, Shari Saunders, Diane Wegner, and Linda Zagula. Every day was a collaboration—there was no finer dessert “think tank” than the pastry team at Chez Panisse.
At Chez Panisse, some of the world’s best cooks were welcomed into the kitchen to collaborate with us, including Bruce Cost, Marion Cunningham, Niloufer Ichapouria King, Richard Olney, Jacques Pépin, and Shirley Sarvis, as well as our own chefs, David Tanis, Catherine Brandel, Paul Bertolli, Jean-Pierre Moule, Peggy Smith, Gilbert Pilgram, and, of course, Alice Waters, who wrote the introduction to my original book.
Pastry whiz Nick Malgieri likes to say, “Bake something. You’ll feel better!” And nothing could be truer. People constantly ask me, “Why do you bake?” It took me over a decade (I’m a slow learner) to come to the conclusion that baking is about sharing. The best bakers I know aren’t merely armed with a bunch of recipes, but baking is truly their passion, as it is my passion. We just love to do it, not just for ourselves, but for others—I’ve yet to come across a dessert recipe that makes only one serving. Cakes, pies, and batches of cookies are meant to be shared.
When people tell me “I can’t bake,” I’m truly puzzled because baking is the least fussy of the culinary arts. Sure, you need to measure carefully, but 1 cup of sugar is 1 cup of sugar. Eight tablespoons of butter isn’t really open to interpretation. To me, baking has much of the guesswork taken out of it. (I often think the world would be a safer place if people would drive with the same exactitude and precision that they think is necessary when baking.)
As much as I’d like to be baking right beside you, I can’t be. You’ll often need to make some of your own judgment calls, but there’s no need to panic. The French have a wonderful term, au pif (“by the nose”), that is used to describe cooking or baking in that fashion. If the cookie recipe says, “Bake for 11 minutes” and in your oven they look done at the 10-minute mark, take them out. (I’ve never met two ovens that bake the same, no matter how fancy they are.) Your pears may not be as sweet as the ones I call for. Or you might have decided to use one of the newer high-percentage chocolates or European-style butters available these days, both of which can alter textures as well as baking times. So once in a while, don’t be afraid to do a little bit of baking “by the nose.”
Although lots of things have changed over the years, my tastes remain the same. I still crave chocolate cakes that have the “screaming chocolate intensity” that I wrote about ten years ago. I still don’t think that desserts need to be fussy or overly elaborate. And I’m even more convinced nowadays that it’s easier to make something tasty if you start with good ingredients and do as little to them as possible. So if you’re going to take the time to make a dessert, select your ingredients with care. I’m confident that no one ever tasted something delicious and sighed, “Gee, I wish I had used cheaper ingredients.”
So here’s a collection of many of my all-time favorite recipes, the ones I turn to over and over again. It’s not often that one gets a chance to revisit his or her work, update it, and make it even better. Thankfully, I got the chance, and I couldn’t be happier to have the opportunity to share these recipes with you, once again.
If you’re going to take the time to bake a cake or churn up a batch of homemade ice cream, the results should truly shine. My desserts don’t have a lot of fussy decoration. Instead, they impress with pure flavors, so it’s imperative that you begin with good-quality products. But you need not go broke buying the most expensive or exotic ingredients. Good-tasting chocolate costs only slightly more than the mediocre stuff. And ripe fruit in season is a lot cheaper and infinitely better tasting than its out-of-season counterpart. There’s absolutely no reason to use rock-hard blackberries from the other side of the world or apples that have spent eight months in storage when there’s so much to choose from that’s fresh and local.
There’s been a spate of “premium” or “European-style” products on the market, everything from baking flours and sugars to high-fat butter. Aside from a few recipes that benefit from high-percentage chocolate, I don’t use specialty ingredients when creating recipes since the results can vary widely and I strive for everyone to have the same results that I do. If you do want to use them, just keep in mind that they’ll sometimes behave differently and you may have to rely on your baking instincts when working with them.
“Organic,” “locally produced,” and “sustainable” are important factors to consider when shopping. I don’t like to get preachy, but I do my best to try to buy products that I feel make the most sense for my circumstances. When you shop, you’ll need to make some decisions, too. Should you buy organic and locally grown or conventional strawberries? Is that organic milk in the glass bottle really worth the additional cost? Will farm-fresh eggs make a more flavorful ice cream? In spite of how much we all like to economize, I think it’s okay to splurge for your family and guests. Not only is it a nice gesture, but it’s fun to discover new products. And it feels good to support the local growers and producers who are part of your community.
I’m often asked about ingredient substitutions. For the most part, in recipes, I’ve reduced my use of sweeteners and fats to modest amounts without sacrificing flavor or texture, and I strongly encourage you to make the recipe as written for best results. Substituting nonfat milk for whole milk for custards and ice cream bases is inadvisable, and I avoid using artificial sweeteners. For those on restricted diets or with food allergies, you’re likely familiar with how to choose and modify recipes, and which ingredients will work for your particular needs.
Any alcohol used in baking should always be of good quality, especially since it will likely be consumed outside the kitchen, too (at least in my house it is). I always have on hand: dark rum, Cognac, bourbon, Chartreuse, kirsch, pear eau-de-vie, and an orange-flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Triple Sec. You don’t need to buy the most expensive brands, but do buy ones that are drinkable.
This rich mixture consists of nearly equal parts ground blanched almonds and sugar kneaded into a paste. You can find it in the baking aisle of most supermarkets and specialty food stores. Or you can order a very good-quality almond paste from Love ’n Bake (see Resources, page 270). Note that almond paste is not the same as marzipan, which contains more sugar and is mostly used for modeling and shaping.
This is a leavening agent. I use only baking powder that is aluminum free because it has no bitter, metallic aftertaste. Rumford is the most common brand, available at natural food markets and well-stocked grocery stores. Replace baking powder that is over 6 months old, or test its efficacy by mixing some with a small amount of hot water—it should bubble vigorously.
This leavening agent usually appears in recipes that also contain an acid ingredient to activate it. Often it’s a partner to natural cocoa powder, which is more acidic than Dutch-process cocoa powder (see page 8). Unlike baking powder, baking soda doesn’t lose its oomph over time.
I prefer the wonderful, natural flavor of butter to that of margarine or vegetable shortening, products I don’t use. For most cakes, it is important to use room-temperature butter and cream it with the sugar (beat the mixture until light and fluffy) to incorporate air into the batter. When making cookies, however, you need to cream the butter only long enough to thoroughly combine it with the sugar, about 1 minute. Don’t overbeat the butter or the cookies will spread too much during baking.
The recipes in this book mostly call for unsalted butter, although in recent years I’ve become fond of using salted butter. When small amounts of salted butter are called for—a tablespoon, for instance—the quantity of salt added isn’t going to make a difference in a dessert, so I often call for either. But since most people are accustomed to using unsalted butter for baking, a majority of the recipes call for that. Salted butter contains about 1/4 teaspoon of salt per stick; if you prefer to use salted butter, adjust the salt in the recipe accordingly.
I love chocolate and you’ll notice there are quite a few chocolate recipes in this book, something I feel no need to apologize for. Americans have always been chocolate lovers, and a recent surge in bean-to-bar chocolate makers has made the chocolate aisle a much more interesting place. Until the last decade or so, if you wanted good chocolate, you had to choose one that was European. And while a lot of European chocolates are excellent, you now have the choice of some really good American-made chocolates as well. (See Resources, page 270, for ordering information for some of my favorites.)
I normally don’t recommend specific brands unless it’s very important to the recipe. Instead, I encourage you to discover on your own which brands you prefer. The best way to find a good chocolate, and one that you like, is to taste as many as you can, a task that most people won’t find all that difficult. I’m often asked what’s a “good” chocolate. My response: “If you like the taste and think it’s good, then it’s good chocolate.” If price is a concern, buy chocolate in bulk or large tablets, which are much more economical than individual bars.
Unsweetened, bittersweet, and semisweet chocolates will keep for several years if well-wrapped and stored in a cool, dry place. Milk chocolate is more delicate—wrapped well, it will keep in a cool, dry place for up to 1 year. White chocolate is perishable and should be purchased in small quantities as needed.
If a recipe calls for unsweetened chocolate, that means chocolate without any added sugar. Sometimes it’s labeled “99 percent” or “100 percent” unsweetened chocolate, references to the percentage of cacao solids. If you come across “bitter chocolate,” verify that it’s unsweetened chocolate by looking at the ingredients list (it shouldn’t contain any sugar) or look carefully for the percentage of cacao solids.
Bittersweet or Semisweet Chocolate
If a recipe calls for bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, you can use either as they’re interchangeable. Both, by law, are required to have a minimum of 35 percent cacao solids, but many premium brands have much higher percentages, sometimes over 70 percent.
The recipes in this book that call for bittersweet or semisweet chocolate were tested with chocolate that’s between 50 percent and 65 percent cacao solids. I like a lot of the high-percentage chocolates (ones with more than 70 percent cacao solids) for eating. I don’t bake with them, however. One can run into problems due to their lack of fluidity, a result of reduced amounts of sugar and cocoa butter. And their greater acidity can cause mixtures to curdle.
Not too long ago, our only option for milk chocolate was those vapid brown bars sold in the candy aisle of the supermarket. But milk chocolate has come a long way and we now have good-tasting choices. Contrary to my advice for buying dark chocolate, I recommend getting milk chocolate with the highest percentage of cacao solids as possible. Standard milk chocolate bars usually contain about 10 percent whereas some of the new “dark” milk-chocolate bars have 35 to 40 percent and taste a lot better. I use those.
Buy only real white chocolate, one that contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder. In products labeled “white coating,” the flavorful cocoa butter has been replaced with vegetable fat. It’s awful and I don’t use it—and neither should you.
When a recipe calls for “chopped chocolate,” the pieces should be in coarsely chopped 1/2-inch (1.5 cm)chunks. If it specifies “finely chopped chocolate,” the pieces should be in very small bits, about the size of tiny peas, so they’ll melt very quickly. I use a serrated bread knife for chopping chocolate. If chopping from a block, start at a corner and shave downwards with the knife, rotating the block and beginning at another corner when you’ve reached a point that’s too wide and the chocolate block gets difficult to chop.
Making Chocolate Curls
To make chocolate curls, use a sharp vegetable peeler to shave thin curls of chocolate in long strokes from the sides of a tablet of dark or milk chocolate. Milk chocolate works best for shaving, though a mix of milk and chocolate curls makes for a more dramatic presentation.
Chocolate melts at a relatively low temperature and can easily burn if overheated, so always melt it in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, or what’s known as a double boiler. Make sure the hot water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir the chocolate gently as it melts, and take it off the heat just when, or slightly before, it’s completely melted. If you’re very familiar with all those buttons on your microwave oven, you can melt chocolate in the microwave at low power, opening the door and stirring it as it warms, to make it more fluid.
When melting chocolate by itself (without any other ingredients), it is extremely important that no moisture gets into the chocolate, or it can seize and turn into a grainy mess. Check your utensils and bowls and wipe them completely dry before using them. For the same reason, do not let steam from a neighboring pot or from the bottom of the double boiler get into the chocolate. If your chocolate does seize, you can turn it into chocolate sauce by adding some water, cream, and maybe some butter. Then you’ll need to start again with some fresh chocolate—and be more careful.
A majority of the chocolate chips are made of what’s called “baking resistant” chocolate, which means that they have less cocoa butter so that they hold their shape during baking. This makes them suitable for cookies but not great for melting. Some upscale brands are made from regular (melting) chocolate. But with so many brands out there, unless you know for sure that the chips melt smoothly, don’t use them in place of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate that will be melted.
To make cocoa powder, cocoa butter is pressed out of unsweetened cacao paste until the paste is reduced to a powder. There are two kinds of cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-process. “Dutching” cocoa powder involves treating the cacao with an alkalizing agent to neutralize acidity, which also darkens the color of the cocoa.
I generally use Dutch-process cocoa since it tastes better to me. But there are some good natural cocoa powders out there, although they’re not easy to find (see Resources, page 170). Dutch-process cocoa is usually labeled as such. If you’re questioning whether it is, check for an alkalizing agent (potassium bromate or carbonate) in the ingredients list; if it’s listed, then it’s Dutch-process. Always use the type indicated in the recipe. In some cases, I give you the option to use either. If your cocoa powder is lumpy, sift it before using.
When using dried coconut, I use unsweetened, which can be found in natural and specialty food stores. If a recipe specifies unsweetened coconut and you don’t have unsweetened coconut, you can soak sweetened coconut in boiling water, wring it out well in paper towels, and dry it in a low oven. I use dried shredded coconut (sometimes labeled “desiccated”) that resembles coarsely grated Parmesan cheese. Dried coconut sold in larger, longer shreds can be pulsed in a food processor until it’s in smaller pieces.
Toasting Dried Coconut
Toasting doesn’t just give the coconut a nice brown color; it also gives it a much deeper flavor. Spread the dried coconut out on an ungreased baking sheet in an even layer and toast in a 350°F (175°C) oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir it several times for even baking, as most ovens have hot spots. The coconut is done when the flakes are uniformly deep golden brown and smell nutty and toasty. Let cool before using.
Canned coconut milk is not the watery liquid from inside the coconut, but a mixture of the flavorful, rich meat blended with the liquid. It’s very time-consuming to make, so I use Thai canned coconut milk, available in Asian food stores and well-stocked supermarkets. My favorite brand is Chaokoh (beware of similar-sounding brands). Always shake the can before opening because the milk separates as it sits. Unused coconut milk can be frozen in a plastic container for future use.
All the recipes in this book use large eggs. For purposes of measurement, one large egg contains 2 tablespoons of white and 1 tablespoon of yolk. When a recipe calls for room temperature eggs, remove them from the refrigerator 30 minutes before using. If you forget to take them out, put the eggs (in their shells) in a bowl filled with warm water for 5 minutes before using.
Salmonella in raw eggs is a rare occurrence. According to the American Egg Board, the average consumer “might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years.” Still, salmonella is cause for concern for some people. You can mitigate risk by buying eggs from a trusted source. When cooking custards on the stovetop (for ice cream, pastry cream, and crème anglaise), check their temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Health experts say eggs should be brought up to a temperature of at least 160°F (70°C) in order for them to be considered “safe.” Almost all the recipes in this book call for eggs to be cooked. In those that call for uncooked eggs, I offer alternative methods.
Whipping Egg Whites
To properly whip egg whites, two things are important: One is to make sure your bowl is clean and dry (don’t use a plastic bowl, which, even if well washed, can harbor oil and prevent your whites from whipping). The other is to make sure your whites are at room temperature, which will help them whip up faster.
Using a heavy-duty stand mixer with the whip attachment (or by hand with a wire whisk), start beating the egg whites at low speed until they’re frothy, which establishes the foam structure. Then, increase the speed to high and whip until the whites are stiff, but not dry. If you’re adding sugar, begin gradually spooning it in once the whites have begun to hold their shape. Take care not to overbeat the egg whites; if overbeaten, they will separate and appear curdled when you fold them into a batter or another mixture. You’ll know they’re done when you lift the beater and the whites hold a soft peak that droops a bit at the tip (like a chocolate kiss).
The bold flavor of espresso is important in my recipes that call for it, so do not substitute coffee. If you don’t have an espresso machine, consider making a deal with your local barista, trading a slice of cake for a few shots. Otherwise, I recommend an inexpensive stove-top espresso-maker called a moka pot. Non-purists can mix 1 heaping teaspoon of instant espresso powder (or to taste, depending on the brand) with 1/4 cup (60 ml) of boiling water and use that in place of espresso.
Nearly all of the recipes in this book that use flour use all-purpose flour. Either bleached or unbleached is suitable. There are a couple recipes that call for cake flour and one that calls for buckwheat flour. Buckwheat flour is available in well-stocked supermarkets and natural food stores.
Wheat flour compacts under its own weight in storage. If measuring flour by cup, always use the “dip and sweep” method: scoop it up in a dry measuring cup (a measuring cup made for use with dry ingredients) and sweep away the excess with the back of a knife.
Granules of gelatin need to be softened before they’re heated or added to other ingredients. To soften, sprinkle them evenly over the surface of the cold water called for in the recipe, then let stand for 5 minutes. Once “bloomed,” stir the swollen granules and the liquid over very low heat until just dissolved, or heat the water or liquid called for in the recipe, then pour over the softened gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Gelatin-based desserts need to chill for several hours or overnight to set, so plan accordingly. If you want a gelatin dessert (such as panna cotta, page 135, or gelée, page 114) to set quickly, put the mixture in a metal bowl set over an ice bath and stir constantly with a rubber spatula to promote even jelling and discourage lumps from forming until the mixture is cool but still fluid. Pour it into the serving dishes or molds and refrigerate until set. Chilling the serving or storage containers before filling them will speed things up, too.
Most packets of gelatin contain 21/4 teaspoons (7g) of powder. If you purchase gelatin that’s loose, use that measurement as your guideline.
Milk, Cream, and Crème Fraîche
In this book, “milk” always means whole milk. Do not substitute low-fat or nonfat milk unless the recipe indicates you can, as you won’t be satisfied with the results.
I strongly recommend finding good heavy cream from a local dairy that has not been ultrapasteurized and has a fresh, sweet taste. Keep it well chilled until ready to use. If you are making whipped cream, it’s a good idea to chill the bowl and the beaters before whipping the cream.
Crème fraîche is cream that has been cultured, giving it a slight tang and a thick, silky richness. You can make your own version of crème fraîche: mix 1 cup (250 ml) of heavy cream with 1 tablespoon of buttermilk (or crème fraîche from a previous batch) and store it in a warm place until thickened, about 24 hours. Crème fraîche is also available in well-stocked supermarkets and online (see Resources, page 270). Homemade crème fraîche will keep for about 1 week.
Most of the nuts called for in this book are easily obtainable. Nuts do not improve with age, so buy them from places that sell lots of them and whose supply is constantly refreshed. Farmers’ markets are wonderful sources of nuts, as growers usually sell them as close to harvest as possible.
The primary enemy of oil-rich nuts is rancidity. Pecans and hazelnuts are especially vulnerable. Check for visible mold or signs of infestation before buying. Bakers with lots of freezer space at home, which excludes me, may wish to store them in the freezer.
In a recipe, when nuts are called for—1 cup (100 g) pecans, for example—I mean whole nuts. If coarsely chopped nuts are specified, the pieces should be cut into large, irregular pieces about one-quarter or one-third the size of the whole nut. If you need finely or very finely chopped nuts, make the pieces about the size of peppercorns.
Toasting enhances the flavor of nuts and makes them crisp. Nuts should be toasted on an ungreased baking sheet in a 350°F (175°C) oven for approximately 10 minutes. When done, they’ll smell, well, nutty and have light brown flesh when one is cracked open. Keep an eye on the nuts and stir them occasionally while toasting to prevent burning.
Some recipes in the book call for vegetable oil. Any neutral-tasting, unflavored oil is suitable. One exception to the unflavored rule is Lion & Globe peanut oil, which has the flavor of roasted peanuts. It’s stocked in Asian markets. When available, I like to use it in my Fresh Ginger Cake (page 42).
Most of the recipes specify ground spices. But certain spices, like nutmeg and cardamom, should be freshly ground right before using, because once ground, they quickly lose their distinct aroma. Nutmeg can be grated with a rasp-style grater; cardamom seeds are best ground with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, or can be crushed in a sturdy freezer bag with a rolling pin.
Buy ground spices in small quantities and use them within a year. There are excellent spice merchants in cities and online (see Resources, page 270), and it’s always worth searching out top-quality spices for best results.
Sugar and Other Sweeteners
Sugar is, of course, a sweetener. It also provides moisture, and in small quantities, it heightens the flavors of fruits, chocolate, and other ingredients. Granulated white sugar is the most widely used type, but there are a few other sugars and liquid sweeteners that I bake with.
Granulated White Sugar
When “sugar” is called for in the recipes, I mean granulated white sugar. Baker’s sugar or superfine sugar is finely ground granulated sugar. It can be used anywhere granulated sugar is called for.
Both light and dark brown sugars are fluffed up during processing and need to be firmly packed into a measuring cup for proper measurement. Use the type of brown sugar called for in the recipe for the best results.
Just as its name suggests, granules of coarse-crystal sugar are large and coarse. When sprinkled over a cookie or pastry before baking, the sugar gives the finished dessert a pleasant crackly crunch. Raw coarse-crystal sugars, some known as turbinado or demerara sugar, are amber in color, while other types are white or translucent. I prefer the raw ones. Hawaiian washed raw sugar made by C&H Sugar Company is available in supermarkets on the West Coast. You can buy coarse-crystal sugar online (see Resources, page 270) or in natural food and baking supply stores.
Sometimes called confectioners’ sugar, this is pulverized white sugar with a small amount of starch added to prevent caking. If it’s lumpy, sift before using. Because it contains starch, powdered sugar shouldn’t be substituted for granulated sugar.
Obtained by juicing agave plants, this naturally sweet nectar has become popular because of its low glycemic index and because it’s a natural alternative to refined sugars. I like it because the taste doesn’t overpower other ingredients. It’s available in natural food stores in light and dark varieties, and I’ve offered it in a few recipes as an alternative to corn syrup. If using it in place of corn syrup, use a light agave nectar that has a mild flavor.
Light corn syrup is vital in a few recipes to prevent sugar from recrystallizing or because it provides the correct texture. If it’s possible to substitute another liquid sweetener, I’ve indicated so in the recipe.
Any locally produced honey is always better than bland supermarket varieties. Some are syrupy sweet and others, such as chestnut and buckwheat, have a pleasant bitter edge. My taste tends toward the latter, but you can use any kind when a recipe calls for honey. If your honey crystallizes, warm the jar in a small saucepan of barely simmering water, or in a microwave, until it liquefies.
This natural product comes in various grades. I always get one labeled “dark amber,” which has a stronger maple flavor than light amber syrups.
When called for in recipes, use mild-flavored unsulphured molasses (sometimes called “light” molasses, which can be confusing as “light” is a term often used to describe reduced-calorie products). Both “full flavor” and blackstrap molasses have rather assertive flavors that can easily dominate, which is why I prefer lighter-flavored molasses. But, if you like a strong molasses flavor, feel free to use “full flavor” or blackstrap.
Pearls of tapioca are made by squeezing manioc (aka cassava) root over a hot plate; when the sap hits the plate, it bounces off and creates little pearls. Grind tapioca pearls into a fine powder and you get tapioca flour, an excellent thickener. Tapioca flour is available at Asian markets and from the King Arthur Flour Company (see Resources, page 270). Small pearl tapioca, which is used in Coconut Tapioca Pudding (page 139), is easily found in Asian markets and is not the same as the boxed quick-cooking tapioca stocked in supermarkets.
I don’t mind spending top dollar for wonderful vanilla and I treat my bottles of extract and vanilla beans like precious jewels. Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry place—but not in the refrigerator where the moisture invites mold.
Even if I use a vanilla bean in a recipe, I always add a capful of vanilla extract as well, as I find that the extract provides a dynamic vanilla flavor, while the bean provides something more perfumed and aromatic.
If you wish to substitute one for the other, 1 vanilla bean is the equivalent of 2 to 3 teaspoons of extract, depending on the quality of the bean. Due to variations in strength, substitutions using vanilla bean pastes and powder can vary. I find 1/2 teaspoon powder or paste equals the strength of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Be sure to only use pure vanilla extract. There simply is no substitute. Tahitian vanilla has a delicate floral scent and flavor and I like it with desserts that feature tropical fruit. Bourbon vanilla is more assertive and is best used in cakes and cookies as it stands up well to baking. Real Mexican vanilla is excellent, although hard to find. It’s my favorite vanilla of all. (Beware of the cheap imitation stuff that’s sometimes labeled “real” and sold by the quart to tourists south of the border.) Vanilla extract should be stored in a cool, dark place and kept tightly capped.
The fragrant dried and cured pods of a tropical orchid are ideal for steeping in ice cream and custard mixtures. Avoid cheap vanilla beans, which often smell smoky, as well as beans that are dried out and brittle. A good sniff should help you gauge the quality of the vanilla beans.
To use vanilla beans, split them lengthwise with a paring knife and scrape the tiny flavorful seeds into whatever you’re cooking. The pod can be used for infusing flavor as well. You can reuse the pods by rinsing and drying them thoroughly, then storing them embedded in white sugar, or in a jar of rum or bourbon.
Vanilla Bean Paste and Powder
Both of these are made with dried vanilla beans and seeds that are ground to a fine powder. Vanilla bean paste is made by macerating the powder in a sweetened liquid base. See above for substitutions.