Desserts: 29 posts

Tested recipes for desserts, fragrant baking and sweet treats

How to Candy Violets

Last spring I found myself short of sugar sprinkles to decorate a cake but I did have a big bouquet of violets from the garden. My grandmother, never at loss for ideas, flipped through her notebooks and found a simple recipe for making candied violets at home. “Brush each petal with egg white, sprinkle with sugar and leave on a rack to dry,” was the only instruction. So I followed it and ended up with pretty candied flowers. They not only lasted for a few months in a tightly covered tin, but also retained their bright color and delicate flavor.

Unlike commercial candied violets, homemade flowers don’t have an aggressive purple color nor the strong scent of synthetic ionone. If your violets are scented, you can taste the real violet flavor, which is a combination of raspberry and rose. It’s more subtle, but also more nuanced and complex.

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Chocolate Cake with Pistachios and Apricots

The romance that appeals to me has a dark side, such as the poetry of Paul Verlaine, novels by Mary Shelley, gowns by Elsa Schiaparelli and Alexander McQueen, and music by Modest Mussorgsky. In perfume, dark romance is expressed in fragrances like Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin, Caron Nuit de Noël, Arquiste Nanban, and Guerlain Vol de Nuit. If I extrapolate this idea even further into flavors, then it would be my dark chocolate pound cake with pistachios and apricots. It’s darkly romantic and decadent.

Bitter chocolate is complex enough to be paired with a variety of other flavors, but the combination with pistachios and apricots is one that I love for its harmony. Apricots give a tart floral note, while pistachios hold their own. Their sweetness becomes more pronounced against the dark chocolate foil.

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Pomegranate and Orange Blossom

Along with blood oranges, quince and yuzu, pomegranates make me anticipate winter. Their season starts in the autumn and continues even when our northern European lands enter the somber grey days of February. Most of the pomegranates in Belgium come from Turkey, but I’ve discovered that Spanish and Californian fruit has the best taste, a rich melange of sour, sweet and mildly tannic notes that calls to mind red wine and Cornelian cherries.

To select a good pomegranate, look for a glossy, heavy fruit that doesn’t have soft spots. Different varieties of pomegranates range from dark red to pale pink, so pick the richest colored fruit from the batch. Opening a pomegranate holds a sense of suspense–what will it hold inside its leathery skin? The moment when the orb breaks open to reveal the segments full of garnet beads is a small wonder. I’ve opened hundreds of pomegranates in my life, but this giddy delight never lessens.

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Rum Raisin Cake

Next to the cookbooks written by my great-grandmother Olena, my other beloved ones are by the Ukrainian food writer Daria Tsvek. I love her voice, advice, and of course, recipes that highlight the flavorful Galician cuisine of Tsvek’s native Lviv. Last week I tried Tsvek’s rum raisin cake that comes from a book called For the Festive Table (До Святкового Столу). Published in 1973, it offers menus and recipes for holidays and celebrations, along with suggestions on how to organize one’s time and host dinner parties.

I picked up the book for my cookbook collection, but I ended up cooking so much from it that I made a photocopy to use in the kitchen. Tsvek’s imaginative and inventive flair fill the pages. She’s able to concoct an elegant feast out of the simplest ingredients, and reading her book I’m not even aware of the endemic Soviet shortages that must have made the task of a recipe writer difficult. Her rum raisin cake turned out to be buttery, crumbly and fragrant, a recipe to add to my baking repertoire.

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Apricot Poppyseed Cake

The smell of a ripe apricot is mesmerizing enough to make me want to give up perfumery and tend an orchard instead.   It smells of cream, sweet orange, bitter almond, and a hint of rose. Unfortunately, unless you have access to an apricot grove, finding such a perfect specimen is difficult. Apricots are invariably picked green, and even if they soften, they never develop the perfume of tree-ripened fruit.

apricot-poppyseed2

There is, however, one technique to unlock some of the apricot’s fragrant potential. It’s to cook it. Even the hard supermarket variety becomes luscious and perfumed, especially if you add a touch of vanilla. I often sprinkle apricots with vanilla sugar and rosewater and roast them just until they start to turn jammy and tender. You can add cream, but that’s already gilding the lily. Or I make a poppyseed cake topped with apricots, an ideal late summer-early fall dessert.

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