Valerie Gordon launched Valerie Confections several years ago with her partner, Stan Weightman Jr., with a box of chocolate-covered toffees. They have since expanded into a full-fledged bakery. Gordon's just-published cookbook, "Sweet: Inspired Ingredients, Unforgettable Desserts" (Artisan), chronicles the menu of iconic cakes, petit fours, pies, cookies, chocolates, jams and more.
A self-taught baker and confectioner, Gordon's desserts might be described as super-refined homemade: Everything is made with the best possible ingredients and to exacting standards with a clean aesthetic. And the spectrum of flavors hits all the right notes: chocolatey, buttery, creamy, fruity, nutty and spicy.
The cookbook is divided into categories that cover desserts for celebrations, everyday cakes, pies and tarts, chocolates and confections, spoonable desserts, cookies and bars, jams and snacks. The cakes are spectacular: retro cakes that Gordon has revived such as Blum's coffee crunch cake, the Brown Derby grapefruit cake, Chasen's banana shortcake and Scandia's apple cake, as well as her own creations including mini-cakes and really luscious petit fours in flavors such as lavender-Earl Grey cake with lemon ganache and vanilla bean cake with rose petal-passion fruit ganache.
Gordon always seems to add the right "extra," such as grated aged Gouda in the crust for her apple crostata or matcha in her white chocolate macadamia cookies or fraises des bois in mousse. But there are plenty of the kinds of simple dishes that resonate with elemental sweet-tooth cravings: glazed citrus pound cake, salted peanut blondies and Eton mess, to name a few.
The chocolates and confections chapter will keep busy anyone inclined to make caramel and temper chocolate. There are mendiants, bark, toffee, truffles, meringues, marshmallows and caramels.
Gordon's tip: Be precise. "When prepping fruit for jam, I am a chatterbox. While frosting a cake or making a batter, I am selectively conversational. But when making chocolates, I work in silence," she writes. "I plan my chocolate and candy sessions in advance, adhere to my tested recipes and focus on creating beautiful, flawless confections."
Also, follow the weight measurements (there are both volume and weight measurements throughout the book) for consistency.
But if you are looking for easy recipes for the holidays, to feed friends and family or to give as gifts, there are several delicious desserts to make. Three favorites from the book include Gordon's gingersnap cookies, Winter Luxury pumpkin pie and tangerine sour cream pound cake. (Note: These were not tested by the Times Test Kitchen.)
"I make gingersnaps year-round, not just during the holidays. I love the chewiness of these cookies, and because of their yielding texture, they are especially good for ice cream sandwiches."
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1 cup (6 ounces) light brown sugar
3 1/2 cups (17.5 ounces) flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (5.5 ounces) unsulphured molasses
1. Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large heavy baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
2. In a small bowl, mix together 1/2 cup each of the granulated and brown sugars. Set aside.
3. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, ground ginger and cinnamon into a medium bowl. Mix in the candied ginger.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, using a handheld mixer), combine the butter, the remaining 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and the remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the molasses, beating until no streaks remain. Add the flour mixture 1 cup at a time, beating just until the batter is smooth.
5. Using a 2 1/2-inch ice cream scoop (or a 1/3-cup measure), scoop the dough onto the lined baking sheets, spacing the cookies 3 inches apart. Sprinkle the cookies with the sugar mixture. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the surface is cracked and flat. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets on cooling racks for 10 minutes.
6. Using an offset spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to four days or transferred to freezer bags and frozen for up to two months.
For chocolate gingersnaps: Add 1 cup (5 1/2 ounces) 61% bittersweet chocolate chips after the dry ingredients are incorporated.
TANGERINE SOUR CREAM POUND CAKE
"We have had some interesting cake requests over the years, but the most popular cake is so old-fashioned that it almost feels new -- a sour cream pound cake. The tangerine zest and juice enhance the cake's sour cream tang."
For the cake
3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups (1 pound 5 ounces) sugar
6 large eggs
1 cup (8 ounces) sour cream
2 tablespoons grated tangerine zest (from about 8 tangerines)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the glaze
1/2 cup (4 ounces) fresh tangerine juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
2 cups (9 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
To make the cake
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Coat the inside of a tube pan with nonstick baking spray or butter.
2. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, using a handheld mixer), cream the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add the dry ingredients, 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape the sides of the bowl.
5. Mix the sour cream, tangerine zest and vanilla together in a small bowl with a fork or small whisk. Add to the batter and mix until smooth. Fill the prepared tube pan with the batter and smooth the surface with an offset spatula. Bake for 45 minutes, then rotate the cake and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the top of the cake is cracked and golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack for 45 minutes.
6. Invert the cake onto a cooling rack set on top of a baking sheet, to catch any glaze drippings. The cake should still be a little warm to the touch.
To make the first glaze
Mix 1/4 cup of the tangerine juice, the lemon juice and granulated sugar together in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, pain the entire surface of the cake with this clear glaze, continuing until all the glaze has been used. Let the cake cool completely, about 1 hour.
To make the second glaze
1. Whisk together the powdered sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup of tangerine juice in a bowl. Let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
2. Pour the glaze very slowly over the top of the cake, so it drips down the sides. Leave the cake uncovered until the glaze sets, about 20 minutes.
3. The cake can be stored, in a cake box or under a cake dome, at room temperature for up to three days; the unglazed cake can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and frozen for up to two months.
WINTER LUXURY PUMPKIN PIE
"The wise farmers at Windrose Farms in Paso Robles, Calif., introduced me to the Winter Luxury variety of pumpkin at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. A sign next to their pumpkins read, 'Best Pumpkin Pie Ever!' They weren't lying."
For the pie dough
Makes enough dough for one 9-inch double-crust pie or two 9-inch single-crust pies
2 1/2 cups (12.5 ounces) flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/4 to 1/3 cup (2 to 2.5 ounces) cold water
For the pie dust
"A scant sprinkling of this simple mixture prevents pie crusts from getting soggy on the bottom; I use it with all wet pie fillings."
Makes 1/2 cup
1/4 cup (1.25 ounces) flour
1/4 cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
For the pie
1 (3- to 4-pound) pumpkin, preferably Winter Luxury
3/4 cup (4.5 ounces) light brown sugar (not packed)
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup (4 ounces) creme fraiche or heavy cream, plus more if needed
1/2 recipe pie dough
1 1/2 teaspoons pie dust
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
To make the pie dough
1. To make the dough in a food processor: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the processor bowl and pulse once or twice to combine. Drop the pieces of butter through the feed tube, continuing to pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Slowly add 1/4 cup water as you continue pulsing a few more times, then add more water if necessary; stop when the dough just starts to come together.
2. To make the dough by hand: Put the flour, sugar and salt into a medium bowl and mix together with a fork or small whisk. Cut the butter into the dough using a pastry cutter or a large fork until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Drizzle 1/4 cup water directly over the dough, mixing with the pastry cutter or fork, then add more water if necessary, mixing until the dough just comes together.
3. Remove the dough from the processor or bowl and form into 2 equal disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 3 days. The dough can be frozen for up to 2 months; thaw in the refrigerator.
To make the pie dust
Sift the flour and sugar together in a small bowl. The pie dust can be stored in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
To make the pie
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Using a sharp chef's knife, cut the pumpkin in half. Scoop out the seeds. Place the pumpkin cut side down on the prepared baking sheet and roast for about 40 minutes, until the flesh is very soft. Pierce it with a fork to check for doneness. Let the pumpkin cool completely.
3. Scoop the pumpkin flesh out of the skin and puree in a food processor or blender, scraping down the sides once or twice. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the puree for the filling. (The extra puree can be packed into a freezer bag and frozen for up to three months.)
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, using a handheld mixer), beat the brown sugar and eggs on medium speed until blended, about 1 minute. Add the pumpkin puree and beat until smooth. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then add the cinnamon, ginger, salt, cloves and cornstarch and beat until incorporated. Add the creme fraiche and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. If the filling looks stiff, add more creme fraiche 1 tablespoon at a time. (The filling can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to two days.)
5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place on a floured cool surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a 13-inch circle: Start from the center of the dough and roll outward, rotating the dough 2 to 3 inches after each roll -- this will help create a true circle. After every four to five rolls, run a large offset spatula under the dough to release it from the work surface. Add a little flour to the surface, rolling pin and/or dough if the dough sticks or becomes difficult to roll.
6. Roll the dough up onto the rolling pin, then unroll into a 9-inch pie pan, centering the round. Gently press the dough into the bottom of the pan and against the sides, making sure there are no air pockets. Press the dough against the upper edges of the pan so it extends about 1\2 inch beyond the edges, then trim any excess dough with kitchen shears. Crimp the dough. Chill the crust for 15 minutes, or until the dough is cool and firm.
7. Cover the bottom of the crust with the pie dust. Pour in the filling. Using a pastry brush, paint the crimped edge of the dough with the beaten eggs, then sprinkle with the granulated sugar.
8. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges of the crust look golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and cover the edges of the crust with a pie ring.
9. Bake for an additional 25 to 35 minutes, until the edges of the filling are set but the center jiggles slightly when the pan is gently shaken. Start checking the pie after 20 minutes, then continue baking, checking at five-minute intervals, or until the pie is just set. (Do not bake the pie so long that it starts to brown on the top.) Transfer the pie to a cooling rack to cool completely. The pie can be stored in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 2 days.