Desserts: 31 posts

Tested recipes for desserts, fragrant baking and sweet treats

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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Haft Seen

Out of all holidays, Nowruz and Easter inspire me the most with their promise of rebirth and hope. Nowruz, which means “new day” in Persian, falls on the spring equinox (March 20th in 2016) and is celebrated for the thirteen following days. Often called Persian New Year, it’s an important celebration not only in Iran, but also Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Georgia, India, Turkey, and other lands that were once part of the political or cultural Persian sphere.

haft seen1

I received a glimpse of Nowruz through my Azeri stepmother, although my own explorations directed me further down the path. While today it is by and large a secular event, observed by people of different religions and communities, Nowruz is a 3000 year old holiday with rich symbolism and ties to ancient Zoroastrian traditions. Nowruz contains beautiful, colorful and uplifting elements, a great reason to celebrate it.

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Persian Rice Cookies (Nan-e Berenji)

One of the best things I tasted in Iran was a cookie. On the tray next to the rosewater flavored walnuts, almond baklava, salty dried cherries and pistachio nougat, little pale rounds topped with poppyseeds looked the least impressive of the lot. But when I bit into one biscuit, and it melted into buttery cream in my mouth, I was instantly smitten. That’s how I discovered rice cookies, Nan-e Berenji, the classical Iranian pastries.

nan-e berenji

Nan-e Berenji has a delicate sablé-like texture and a rich perfume of cardamom. Throughout my trip, I looked for this simple confection in every town I visited, but none have rivaled the version I found in Yazd, a city famous for sweets. Yazdi rice cookies were the same golden color as the adobe walls of the ancient town, and a simple shape belied their decadent flavor.

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Crepe Cake with Sweet Cheese, Raisins and Raspberries (Solozhenyk)

I love nothing more than to pour a cup of tea and to flip through my great-grandmother Olena’s recipe books. Although there are many good cooks in my family, Olena was uncontested in her expertise and passion. I was a toddler when she passed away, but my mother and aunt’s stories and Olena’s handwritten books give shape to the woman of whom I only have a few sepia tinted photographs. Our family lore wouldn’t be complete without stories of Olena’s garlicky pork roasts, bright yellow sponge cakes filled with vanilla cream and raspberry compotes.

solozhenyk1

My favorites among Olena’s recipes are the forgotten old dishes that got lost during the decades of Soviet food shortages, standardization of the cuisine and obliteration of regional traditions. Some of it was forced by the state to create a market for commercial products; some of it was a part of a natural process as more women joined the work force and no longer had time to prepare complex meals. Olena’s recipes belong to another generation, but this is not to say that all of them are time consuming, extravagant affairs. For instance, her solozhenyk, crepe cake filled with lemony cheese garnished with raspberries, is elegant, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to make.

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