Category Archives: desserts


The cookies are definitely not sugar-free

It’s much easier to omit sugar from recipes that don’t need leavening agents, such as custards or fruit desserts like crumbles. Here is my revised version of a maple pot de creme. I insist on using Grade B Maple Syrup (and none of the fake stuff, that would be sugar anyway) as its taste is fuller and caramel-y. The original recipe calls from some brown sugar which I converted into agave syrup.

This is not exactly fat-free but we have been talking about avoiding sugar only. For now…

RECIPE – Yields 8 portions (4 oz ramekins)

1/2 C      Maple Syrup, Grade B

2 C          Heavy Cream

1/4 ts     Salt

1/4 ts     Vanilla Extract

3              Yolks

1               Egg

2 T          Agave Syrup

1. Place maple syrup in a sauce pan and bring to boil until thick and reduced by about half. Remove from heat and whisk in cream, salt and vanilla extract.

2. In a bowl combine egg, yolks and agave syrup and whisk until smooth. Slowly add the cream mixture, constantly whisking so the eggs won’t curdle.

3. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and pour into ramekins.

4. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan and add hot water to reach 1/3 up the side of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake at 300F until set – about 30 minutes depending on oven.

5. Let cool and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.


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EVIL SUGAR (and how it works in baking)

Evil sugar and its healthier cousins

One of my best friends is, temporarily, on a restricted diet and lamenting the loss of sugar. Like me, actually even more so, she has a phenomenally sweet tooth and no meal is complete without something sweet enjoyed at the end of it. I have been limiting my sugar intake for a few years now, with complete abstinence during my 6 week yearly cleanse and, like most addictions, it has become easier and easier to eat less sugar – although I don’t think I could conceive of a life without it. My daily dose of dark chocolate testifies to that.

When I talk about sugar, I obviously intend the refined variety, and I include brown sugar (which is just sugar and molasses) and all those kinds that might be less refined such as Demerara or sugar in the raw but just mildly less unhealthy. No need to explain the famous sugar high or what the white powder does to your teeth but, recently, scientists have established a pretty solid link between sugar and cancer. Refined cane or beet sugar is a very recent addition to the human diet. Our forebears went for many centuries without it, until it was introduced in the late 1400’s and, even then, it didn’t become commonplace until the end of the 18th century as it was too expensive for anyone but the upper classes (earlier civilizations in Asia consumed sugar cane as early as 400 AD but certainly not in vast amounts).

What has worked for me, in my attempt to lower my sugar intake, include changing the way I think of breakfast that, most days, means a gigantic smoothie of fresh and frozen fruit, almond milk, a bit of avocado, protein powder and a splash of agave syrup. To my coffee, nowadays I add Stevia. On my hot cereal, I will pour either agave or maple syrup, and chopped dates have helped sweeten my home-made granola. I have passed all these suggestions on to my poor friend who, to her credit, has followed them to the letter but she is still begging for sugar-free dessert recipes. I know she means cakes and that is tricky.

Baking, more than an art, is a perfect alchemy of ingredients. Take one out and the whole sand castle falls apart. Substituting sugar in baking that is predicated on a batter rising is incredibly hard. Let’s look at why.

Sugar has many properties, amongst which the ability to inhibit gluten development, thereby making baked goods tender. It also does that by drawing water to its molecules – if one of your creations turns out a bit too dry, you might be able to overcome that by adding a bit more sugar.

Sugar caramelizes at 330F and it’s responsible for the pretty browning of your baked goods. Above all, it helps with the rising. Without going into too many chemical details, when you beat sugar and butter (or any other fat), the molecular structure of the sugar makes little tears in the fat, creating tiny pockets of air that will expand in the oven. Now you can see why substituting stevia, xylitol or other sweeteners is not going to create the same effect.

Xylitol (a sugar alcohol found in many plants and safe for diabetics) can be used with a 1:1 sugar ratio for any chewy baked goods (soft cookies, some muffins) but don’t expect it to brown. I like agave syrup better than honey, as the taste of honey is too distinctive; it can overpower a dessert and it’s harder to marry with other flavours. When using agave syrup, a good rule of thumb is to use 25% less than the recipe calls in sugar.

Once again, I have been going on at too much length. For a delectable sugar-free dessert, you will have to stay tuned.

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Small tapioca pearls

Bless the Mayans. Besides predicting the world will end this year, leaving behind impressive pyramids and playing a sort of basketball game with the heads of sacrificial victims or enemies, they were also responsible for  discovering and utilizing a multitude of foods we still enjoy today.

Cacao, for one, makes me forever indebted to the Mayans, who used to drink it pretty much the same way we drink cocoa nowadays (minus the sugar part); chia seeds, that have taken the health food community by storm, were also known to the Mayans who might not have been aware of the omega 3 fatty acids and the fiber the seeds contain but they knew they were mighty nutritious. And then there is tapioca, a by-product of the cassava root. Indigenous to Brazil and most of South America, the Spanish and Portuguese managed to spread it to the four corners of the world, and now cassava is grown pretty much everywhere.The Mayans, though, figured out how to remove the poisonous toxins before eating it, a process still required today.

Tapioca comes in many forms but in this country it’s mainly found as small or large pearls and flour.  Being gluten-free, the flour is ideal for baking, mixing it with other gluten-free flours. Tapioca lacks any protein but it does contain vitamin B and it is a decent source of fiber.

I like using tapioca as a thickening agent (in flour form) in any dessert where fruit needs to be cooked – it’s much gentler on the palate than cornstarch.

For that old staple, tapioca pudding, small pearls are recommended as large ones require overnight soaking.

Here is my true and tried Tapioca Pudding Recipe, which is adapted from Bob Red Mill’s .

1/3 C Small Tapioca Pearls

3 C Milk (you can use rice or almond milk too)

2 Eggs, separated

1/2 C Sugar

1 Vanilla Bean, split lengthwise, seeds removed (or 1/2 ts vanilla extract)

1/4 ts Salt

  1. Soak the tapioca pearls in water for 30 minutes.
  2. Drain, place in a sauce pan with the milk, add the salt and heat on medium heat until boiling.
  3. Break up the egg yolks with a fork in a small bowl. Add a ladle of the hot tapioca mixture and whisk vigorously, then pour into the pan and keep on whisking. Simmer, uncovered, for 10/15 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Beat the egg whites with the sugar to soft peaks. Fold about 3/4 cup of hot tapioca into the egg whites, then gently fold the mixture back into the saucepan. Stir over low heat for about 3 minutes.
  5. Remove from the stove and scrape the vanilla seeds into the pudding. Serve warm or chilled.

You can serve it as is, or add fresh or dried fruit. Cocoa powder added before folding the egg whites in, will make a great chocolate tapioca pudding.

You can even make it without sugar and fold agave syrup to taste at the end.

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OF DUTCH DESSERTS – The actual recipe

After my Dutch reminiscences, let’s get down to the real work.

The ingredients of this Dutch concoction belie simplicity but not blandness. The overall effect is subtle, creamy and unexpectedly grown up. Sour cherries, instead of raisins, would add a touch of refinement and I also imagined shaved dark chocolate on it. The tanginess of the buttermilk is  nearly gone but it adds an element of depth to the end result. Let’s just say, I had two helpings.

RECIPE – Drained Buttermilk with Soaked Raisins or Hangop met Boerenjongens

4 C Buttermilk

1 1/2 T Sugar

1/4 C Raisins, possibly golden

1 1/2 T Brandy

1/2 C Heavy Cream

  1. Put a colander over a large bowl. Wet a kitchen towel or cheesecloth folded at least four times and wring out as much water as possible. Fold the towel in two and line the colander with it. Pour the buttermilk in the colander, wrap with plastic and refrigerate 24 hours.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in 3 T of boiling water and add raisins and brandy. Let the raisins soak at room temperature for an hour and then refrigerate until ready to use.

    Let the raisins soak

  3. Remove the buttermilk from the fridge – using a spatula, scrape the thickened buttermilk from the towel (or use your hands). Stir – it should be really smooth.
  4. In a separate bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks and fold it into the buttermilk. I didn’t add any sugar but  you can, if you want a sweeter dessert.
  5. Spoon into individual bowls and top with raisins and a bit of the juice. Having become a fully fledged Californian, instead of adding more sugar, I swirled some agave syrup on it, which lends a gentle sweetness to the overall effect.


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The Netherlands was one of the first foreign countries I got acquainted with. To my untrained palate, and because of my mother’s restrictive policy when it came to candy, Holland pulled a curtain to reveal a wealth of treats that might account for the sweet tooth I developed early on. Or it might have been my friend Diego’s fault by introducing me to Bounty, a dark chocolate and coconut candy bar I can now  find only in an English pub in Santa Monica, and to another delicious thin sheet of chocolate filled with crunchy mint I never encountered again. Or it might have been on account of Diego’s mother, who took us to a windmill where they served Poffertijes, little silver dollar pancakes drenched in syrup. And what about those tins of round, thin wafer sandwiches with sticky caramel inside?I had never seen such wonders.

Later on in life, as I got more familiar with all kinds of cuisines and as I kept on going back to the Netherlands time and time again, mainly for business reasons, I skimmed over Dutch cuisine that, to me, amounted to an ungodly amount of cheese and cold cuts in the morning and bland offerings for dinner (sorry Stefan – if you are reading).

But I have developed a morbid attraction towards what I perceive as unusual recipes, whenever I come across them. A little while ago, I found an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine on modern “traditional” Dutch cuisine and, being a pastry chef,  my eye fell on Hangop met Boerenjongens (apparently meaning Buttermilk with Soaked Raisins). The recipe languished in my files for a while, until I had some cream I did not want to toss and decided to get to the store for some buttermilk.

I have the sneaky suspicion that our supermarket bought buttermilk pales in comparison to the Dutch version – after all, it’s the land of milk and cheese (and did I mention Droste Pastilles, another childhood love of mine? I wonder if they actually taste as good as I remember..).

The recipe calls for soaking raisins in brandy – I opted for some peach flavoured brandy that has been languishing in my liquor cabinet for years, brought by a long forgotten guest, who knows when, the type of drink no one in their right mind would dare to touch.

The beauty of this ultra-simple dessert is that it’s so easy the most novice of cooks couldn’t screw it up. And it doesn’t require an oven or a stove. Just a fridge. But I have been blabbering too long. For the recipe, I guess, there is always tomorrow.






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Many times in my life I had to make do with a tiny kitchen or a corner of a room vaguely resembling a kitchen. The most primitive was a in a beautiful, if run down, pink house, in Kensington, just steps away from Kensington Palace. I was actually told that the house used to be part of the Palace’s stable. Maybe but at the time I was living in it, it belonged to a octuagenarian spinster, Ms. Hague, virtually bedridden, who used to rent  the upper half of her property to well-behaved young ladies like Margaret and me (with Margaret being much better behaved than me).

Forced to walk past Ms. Hague’s bedroom on our way in or out, Margaret and I would always edge our bets on the creaking stairs alerting the old crone to our presence, followed by a baritone voice shouting “Claudia, is that you?” At that point, one of us would be trapped, sent to the kitchen for a can of boiled carrots or to switch the kettle on for a cup of tea.

I used to sleep in a turret, with beautiful bevelled windows that, in winter, would let gale force winds through, and no heating besides an ancient electrical heater, the dangers of which I wasn’t savvy enough to recognize. I would have to set up the alarm clock 45 minutes before getting up, sprinting to switch the heater on and jump back into bed to face the coldest mornings. The kitchen featured a sink, a minibar size fridge and a camping stove. That was it. At the time, my meals mainly consisted of bowls of corn flakes so that arrangement wasn’t a great impediment to the culinary skills I didn’t yet possess.

In Milan I rented an adorable top floor flat with sloping ceilings and a bright orange kitchen that lacked an oven. By then, my dietary habits had evolved and I purchased a counter top oven that did the job (apart from the time when the pizza burst out of it and threatened to take over the living room – I hadn’t quite calculated the yeast ratio correctly).

So I am sympathetic to the young man who is venturing in the world alone and can’t afford more than a bedsit, with a kitchen unit but no oven, and is looking for bake free desserts. There are very many but the first that came to mind was panna cotta (For recipe, click here)

For something a bit more involved, he should try a semifreddo (which does need a freezer). As good as ice-cream, and just as creamy, it does not need an ice-cream maker either.

The coconut macaroons can be made at home (with an oven) but store-bought ones will do.

COCONUT SEMIFREDDO – yields 8 servings

12 Coconut Macaroons, dried up.

3/4 C Sugar

3 Eggs, separated

1 ts Vanilla Extract

2 C Heavy Cream


  1. Grind the macaroons in a food processor or crumble them by hand. Set aside.
  2. Heat the sugar with 3/4 cup of water until it reaches 230F on a candy thermometer.
  3. Meanwhile, whip the yolks until fluffy.
  4. In a different bowl, whip the egg whites to firm peaks. Fold the yolks into the whites.
  5. When the sugar is ready, with the mixer running on medium (or whisking by hand), slowly pour the syrup into the egg mixture. Add the vanilla extract. Reduce the speed to low and keep on whipping until the mixture is no longer hot.
  6. Whip the cream and fold it into the egg mixture.
  7. Line the bottom of a mold (a loaf pan will do) with parchment paper. Spoon half the macaroon crumbs on the bottom. Cover with the mousse and spoon the rest of the macaroons on top. Cover with plastic and freeze overnight or at least 8 hours.
  8. When ready to serve, unmold and cut into slices or wedges.

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TORTA DELLA NONNA (Grandmother’s Tart)


Individual size torta della nonna

Tuscan cuisine is a celebration of peasant food and the “poor man’s ingredients” (aside from the beef steak, with a Chianina cut of beef as precious as gold). It’s become popular in this country, over time, as the appreciation for seasonal ingredients has grown hand in hand with their availability. Pappa al Pomodoro is an ode to stale bread, ripe tomatoes and good olive oil. All kinds of soups that are to be found in the Tuscan cookbook feature pulses, grains and whatever vegetables are in season. A Ribollita is made with humble vegetables and cannellini beans and delicious in its simplicity.


Tuscan desserts are also not very exciting, at least not in the creamy, rich, fussy way we think of desserts. My favourite are Schiacciata all’Uva (a sort of grapes flatbread) and biscotti (known as cantucci) which have gone to conquer the world –  Tuscan cantucci are actually extremely plain, seasoned with just fennel seeds and almonds and made to be dipped in sweet wine.


There is another dessert, somewhat ubiquitous in Italy, called Torta della Nonna (Grandmother’s cake) that originated in Tuscany and quickly spread to the rest of the peninsula. An absolute crowd pleaser: two layers of pate sucree with a filling of pastry cream, dotted with pine nuts. And if you are a pie maker, it’s a great alternative to the usual pies in your repertory. The Neapolitan version of this dish is even better – no pine nuts but fresh Morello cherries folded into the pastry cream.




Pastry cream, cooked very thick and cooled in the refrigerator for a few hours. For pastry cream recipe, click here

Two 9″ disks of pate sucree, rolled to about 1/4″ of an inch For pate sucree recipe, click here

1/4 cup of pine nuts

Powder sugar

1. Fit the first disk of pate sucree in a 9″ fluted pie plate.

2. Pour the cooled pastry cream inside. Cover with the second disk of pate sucree and crimp the edges, sealing them well.

3. Brush a little bit of milk or egg wash on the top of the tart and scatter the pine nuts to cover. If you are feeling creative, you can create pretty patterns.

4. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes or until the dough looks golden.

5. Let cool and dust with powder sugar before serving.

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Right before being devoured

The hostess of the Christmas lunch expected chocolate but I didn’t feel that was the right occasion for a 100% chocolate concoction. After all, the thirty guests were mostly Italian and used to ending Christmas lunch with a panettone. So I borrowed from Russia.

Never mind that a babka is usually made at Easter or, in the version I picked, typical of the Eastern European Jewish tradition. I liked the idea of crossing boundaries and, mostly, of a brioche-like cake laden with dark chocolate.

The recipe I favour is Martha Stewart’s, with a few modifications – I don’t care much for the streusel that goes on top and I slightly decreased the amount of chocolate but I left the rest intact. If it seems long and winded, it’s only because the methodology is slightly lengthy to explain. Once you make it once and have the twisting down, it will be easy forevermore. For Christmas, Easter or Sabbath.

RECIPE – Makes 3 loaves

1 1/2 C Milk, warm

2 packages Active yeast (1/4 oz each)

1 3/4 C Sugar (+ a pinch)

3 Eggs, room temp

2 Yolks, room temp

6 C All Purpose Flour

1 ts Salt

1 3/4 C Butter (3 1/2 sticks, an ungodly amount, I know), cut into small cubes, room temp

2 pounds Semi Sweet Chocolate, chopped (if you find them, buy pastilles which are easier to chop)

2 1/2 T Cinnamon

1 T Heavy Cream


  1. Pour warm milk into a small bowl and sprinkle the yeast and a pinch of sugar over it. Let stand for about 5 minutes, until foamy.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together 3/4 C sugar, 2 eggs and the yolks. Add to yeast mixture and whisk to combine.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture and beat until incorporated. Change to dough hook. Add 2 sticks of butter and beat on medium until you have a soft, slightly sticky dough, with the butter completely incorporated, about 10 mins.
  4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead a few turns. Place it into a large buttered bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  5. Place chopped chocolate, remaining cup of sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl and stir to combine. Using a pastry cutter or your hands cut in remaining 1 1/2 sticks of butter until well combined. Your filling is now ready. Set aside.
  6. Butter 3 9×5 loaf pans and line them with parchment paper. Beat remaining egg with one tablespoon of cream and set aside. Punch back the dough and transfer it to a clean board. Let rest 5 minutes and then cut it into 3 equal pieces. Keep 2 pieces covered with plastic while, on a floured board, roll the first piece onto a 16” square, about 1/8” thick.
  7. Brush the edges with the prepared egg/cream mixture. Spread 1/3 of the chocolate filling evenly on the dough, leaving a 1/4” border. Roll the dough up tightly like a jelly roll. Pinch ends together to seal. Twist evenly 5 or 6 turns (don’t worry, the dough will stretch nicely). Brush top of the roll with egg wash. Press 2 T of the chocolate filling on the left half of the roll. Fold right half of the roll over the left. Fold the ends under and pinch to seal. Twist the roll 2 turns and fit into the first pan. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
  8. Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash. Loosely cover each pan with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place for 20/30 minutes.
  9. Bake loaves at 350, rotating halfway through, until golden, roughly 55 mins. Lower the temperature to 325F and bake the babkas until deep golden, 15 to 20 mins more.
  10. Remove from oven and let cool before unmolding. You can freeze them up to one month.

When you cut into them, the dense chocolate filling wrapped around the buttery dough will draw oohs and aahs! Thoroughly delicious and the leftovers are perfect for breakfast.

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A cake needed frosting. Fast. As it seems to be the norm these days, I had left the making of a cake for an office party until the very last minute. Not quite sure of what the plan would be, I whipped up a basic vanilla chiffon cake, into which I had baked some chocolate chips. And now I was looking at my two round disks of yellow cake, weighing the options – I didn’t really have time for buttercream nor did I want a boring chocolate frosting. Strawberries or any other frosting worthy fruit are not in season and I only had an hour before the party.

Luckily, I was at work, where I have a wide array of ingredients at my disposal. I walked out for some air and some inspiration which came with the small cup of espresso I was holding. Mocha frosting. Perfect for an afternoon cake and a potluck party where everyone else would be contributing holiday themed goodies.

I used some of the frosting to fill the cake too so you can halve the recipe if you just need it for the outer layer (it calls for an ungodly amount of butter). The sweetness is balanced by the intense acidity and bitterness of the espresso. To keep the frosting smooth, make sure to sift the powder sugar.

As I was in a hurry and I didn’t have time to apply one coating, let it harden and then continue, I only frosted the cake once and then hid the mistakes with rosettes of whipped cream, a pastry chef’s best friend.

The cake was an incredible success, long gone before ginger breads and pumpkin pies and what began as a whim might very well end up as a staple.




6 C Powder Sugar, sifted

1 pound Butter, softened

1/3 to 1/2 C   Espresso or strong coffee

1/4 C      Chocolate chips

1 Vanilla Chiffon cake cut into two rounds


  1. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter and sugar on high until smooth and creamy.
  2. Add the coffee in small amounts and taste in between. Mix until well combined.
  3. Remove 3/4 to 1 cup of the frosting and mix about 1/4 cup chocolate chips. Use it to fill the cake.
  4. Use the rest to frost the cake.


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Having lunch or breakfast at Huckleberry in Santa Monica requires a fair amount of patience. And some time. Not that you will not be rewarded but the system on which this bright and fancy cafe is built is decidedly imperfect.

First, the queue,typically stretching all the way to the parking lot. While in line, you can squint to read the giant blackboards or grab one of the paper menus – you will have plenty of time to ponder what to order and even more time to admire the cornucopia of pastry cases, where Pastry Chef Zoe Nathan’s creations beckon, inviting. You will then place your order with one of the smiling 12-year-olds who will reassure you the salad you want is indeed available (only to sit down and be told by another 12-year-old that no, they were only kidding and could I pick something else?). Some more waiting and inching along the pastry case until you can order your drinks after the cashier finds your original order, briefly misplaced, pay and finally hunt for a free table (having a friend sit down and reserve the table while you order is frowned upon). By the time you sit down, you are downright exhausted. I can see how the system works for the kitchen by spacing the orders but it’s unfriendly to customers.

But, then again, one goes to Huckleberry for the splendid bread made on the premises (which can be purchased in loaves, baguettes and ciabattas), for the hot breakfast and for the pastries and cakes. Restraining myself to a salad of goat cheese, poached quince and arugula was a plan that didn’t work (all the salads  share the same red wine vinaigrette) – I quickly added a fruit square and an eclair.

The fruit square was delectable, on a bed of shortbread and topped with oatmeal, the fruit cooked just right and barely sweetened. As for the eclaire, the pate a choux was a bit thicker than it should have been and the filling was too runny but the dark chocolate glazing was perfect, definitely made with high quality chocolate.

All the sandwiches come on thick and soft bread, too big to eat in one sitting. Ingredients are seasonal, the meat from high-end purveyors like Niman Ranch or La Quercia. But, in the end, it’s Ms. Nathan’s rustic and appealing creations that have me returning: a moist, frosted chocolate layer cake, splendid buttery croissants and pains au chocolat, fruit tarts and on and on, appealingly displayed. The kouign amann doesn’t come close to the one I ate at Bouchon and some of the puff pastry offerings might benefit from a few more minutes in the oven but most of the desserts are worth the fairly exorbitant prices.

Next time, it will be on a week-day, at 10:30 am with a newspaper, a cup of coffee and enough wheat and sugar to put it me in a permanent allergic state. No queue and worth every crumb.

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