THERE’S an episode of the late-'90s PBS series “Baking With Julia” that features Berkeley-based pastry chef Alice Medrich (in some circles, fondly referred to as the Queen of Chocolate) and one of her cakes -- a beautifully executed spectacle of framboise-soaked, chocolate genoise layered with chocolate mousse, whipped creme fraiche and raspberries, wrapped ‘round with a sheet of chocolate, topped with elaborate chocolate ruffles and dusted with powdered sugar.
No wonder that by the end of the episode, both Medrich and Child need a seat and a glass of Champagne.
Though undoubtedly delicious (she’s also not called the First Lady of Chocolate for nothing), no such chocolate-raspberry ruffle cake makes an appearance in Medrich’s new cookbook, “Pure Dessert.” Instead, you’ll find a simple, elegant almond cake decorated only with the handful of toasty, sliced almonds that line the cake pan.
How easy is it to make? As Medrich says: “It starts with whole almonds in the food processor, and two minutes later, you have batter.” A far cry from having to triple-sift cocoa with flour. Or there’s a vin santo chiffon cake, served plain with a little whipped cream and maybe a few orange slices drizzled with more of the sweet wine and some honey. It’s Medrich unruffled: no glazes, no mousses, no frostings.
With the ruffles swept away, we can now appreciate Medrich’s gift for combining flavors: corn tuiles with salt and pepper, a cake scented with sesame oil and vanilla, figs roasted with cardamom. And her guidance in coaxing the best texture from often-adventurous ingredients.
Medrich founded Cocolat, a chocolate dessert company, in the 1970s (it was sold in the ‘90s) and has written and contributed to several cookbooks. (By the way, the recipe for that chocolate-raspberry cake later was published in the book “Baking With Julia.”)
“Pure Dessert” lives up to its subtitle, “true flavors, inspiring ingredients, and simple recipes.” Chapters are categorized by flavors: milk; grains, nuts and seeds; fruit; chocolate; honey and sugar; herbs and spices, flowers and leaves; and wine, beer and spirits.
In each chapter are recipes for tarts, cakes, cookies and ice creams, with an occasional recipe for candied citrus peel or chocolate pudding or honey caramels. It’s not intuitive when you’re looking for, say, cake recipes, but that’s what the index is for. It’s great when you have a farmers market fruit or special ingredient on hand.
I found myself returning again and again to the grains, nuts and seeds chapter, which includes some of the book’s most intriguing recipes: bourbon-nutmeg pound cake made with whole wheat or spelt flour, golden kamut shortbread (kamut is an ancestor of modern wheat), sesame seed cake, whole-wheat sable cookies with cacao nibs, and those corn tuiles (thin, crisp, wafer-like cookies) with salt and pepper.
Sweet and salty
The corn tuiles came out amazingly thin and crisp, light and delicate. They’re made with corn flour, finely ground cornmeal (Bob’s Red Mill brand is available at Whole Foods markets and at health-food stores). The flavor of corn is heightened by the cookie’s sweetness, which is in turn balanced by a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Medrich suggests eating the tuiles on their own, or -- refreshing to hear in a dessert book -- with a selection of cheeses. In one of the instructional sections interspersed throughout the book, she points out that tuiles carry flavor so well because they don’t require egg yolks (just whites), which she says can have a dulling effect.
And her smart, creative versions -- jasmine tea, dried lavender, fresh thyme, crushed saffron, freshly grated cinnamon -- take full advantage. Her tuile batter is great because you don’t even have to refrigerate it before shaping the cookies.
Medrich is exacting when it comes to measuring flour and includes in all recipes both the weight and volume measurements for flour. If you have a scale, use it, for the tuile recipe especially; a little too much flour will render a not-so-delicate cookie.
And the delicacy of her cookies is what makes them so elegant. Whole-wheat sables are tender and fine-crumbed and perfectly baked. The recipe suggests adding hempseed, currants, hazelnuts or cacao nibs to the dough; I tried the cacao nibs. The nutty flavor of the wheat and the deep-chocolate flavor of the cacao nibs were a perfect combination, and the nibs melt a little during baking but keep much of their crunchiness.
The shortbread crust for tarts was somewhat disappointing. It’s fabulously easy to make; mix together melted butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and flour, then press the dough right into the pan. But maybe because of all that melted butter, it slumps into the “corners” of the pan during baking.
I got much better results from her cake recipes -- such as the vin santo chiffon cake. It had a perfectly moist-but-light texture and with the wine and a little olive oil, an almost ethereal flavor.
And then there’s an Italian chocolate-almond torte made with lots of ground, unsweetened chocolate and almonds folded into egg whites. It’s rich and nutty but not overly dense. It gets dusted with a little cocoa. No chocolate ruffles required.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat. Or line with foil, dull side facing up, and smooth the foil to remove any wrinkles (to avoid distorting the cookies). Lightly butter the mat or foil.
In a small bowl, combine one-eighth teaspoon of the salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the butter, sugar, egg whites, flours and the remaining one-eighth teaspoon salt. The batter will have the consistency of thin, runny Cream of Wheat cereal.
If using a silicone mat: Drop level teaspoons of batter 2 inches apart onto the baking sheet. If you intend to shape the tuile, bake only four or five at a time to allow time for shaping. Using a small offset spatula, spread the batter into rounds, ovals or elongated shapes about one-sixteenth-inch thick. Sprinkle a pinch of the salt and pepper over each. Bake, watching carefully, until the wafers are golden brown one-half to three-quarters of the way to the centers, but still pale in the centers, 10 to 15 minutes. If the cookies are not baked long enough, they will not be completely crisp when cool. As soon as you can coax a thin metal spatula under a cookie without destroying it, transfer it to a rack to cool flat. Or shape it by draping it over a rolling pin, nestling it into a little cup or twisting it with your fingers. Working fast, remove the remaining tuiles; reheat for a few seconds if necessary. Repeat until all of the wafers are baked.
If using foil: Drop level teaspoons of batter 2 inches apart onto the baking sheet. If you intend to shape the tuile, bake only four or five at a time to allow time for shaping. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper mixture over each. Bake, watching carefully, until the batter spreads and the cookies are golden brown one-half to three-quarters the way to the centers but still look pale in the center, 10 to 15 minutes. If the cookies are not baked long enough, they will not be completely crisp when cool. If the cookies do not spread thin while baking, try using a little more butter on the foil and/or spread the batter with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. For flat tuiles, slide the foil sheet of cookies onto a rack to cool. For curved tuiles, grasp the edges of the foil when the sheet comes out of the oven (without touching the pan or the cookies) and roll it into a fat cylinder, gently curving the attached cookies like potato chips. Crimp or secure the foil with a paper clip. When cool, unroll the foil carefully and remove the tuiles. Alternatively, remove individual tuiles from the foil while they are hot and shape them as described above. Flat or curved, tuiles are easiest to remove from the foil when completely cool. Repeat until all the wafers are baked.
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