Category Archives: Dessert

Croissants (Buttery, Flaky, Delicious Croissants!)

I don’t bake croissants very often. Not because we don’t love them (oh, how  we love them!!),  but because I am always trying out new recipes for our cooking school, and with just two of us eating, it’s hard to justify making a batch of croissants  when I know we really can’t eat more than a few at a sitting… Freezing the rest just seems so sad! All that delicious butteriness, that perfect flakiness, FROZEN? Being a bread and pastry purist, I never freeze my desserts or breads unless I really don’t have a choice (like a sudden trip or WAY too much food in house).

Unlike most people who are signing up for gym memberships and vowing to eat less in the New Year, this week we decided that New Year’s Day was the perfect time to indulge in homemade croissants, and that freezing a few uneaten croissants was better than not eating any at all. Even if the thawed croissants would be a little less perfect than the fresh-from-the-oven croissants, I would make peace with that.

Making croissants at home is not difficult, but requires a bit of time and patience. The techniques used are drawn from bread-baking (the dough is yeasted) and puff pastry-making (the butter is layered between sheets of dough and the dough is turned repeatedly). The resulting croissants (when properly made) are a beguiling combination of crisp, bread-like exterior and soft, flaky, buttery puff pastry interior. Hence, I categorized them as both bread and dessert on this blog:  they are either a very rich bread or a somewhat lighter pastry… your call.

For best flavor, it is absolutely essential that you use good quality, unsalted European butter rather than domestic butter. French, Italian, and Danish butters all work well (they have a higher fat content than American butters and a deeper, creamier flavor). We tasted several imported and European-style butters last year, and determined that Lescure from France was our favorite brand. So before making croissants, seek out a  good European butter; it will make a huge difference.

One more thing: All of the recipes (with just one exception) I have ever seen for croissants  call for the dough to be made with milk. I have made croissants with both water and milk and we have decided that the flavor of the butter is more pronounced when water is used. Feel free to try milk, or half milk and half water, instead of water as below, and see what you think. Milk croissants will brown more quickly in the oven, due to the sugars in the milk.


Makes 10 medium croissants (or 6 large croissants if larger shapes are cut from the dough before baking)

For the dough:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 3/4 cup room-temperature water
  • Butter for greasing the bowl

For the butter paste:

  • ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 12 tablespoons (1 and 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted European butter (our favorite brand is Lescure)

To bake:

  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water

Make the dough: Mix the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl. Pour in the water and mix quickly until you have a soft, sticky dough; the dough will be ragged and not smooth. Don’t overmix or the dough will be tough; 1 minute is long enough. You don’t need to knead the dough, just gather it together. Place in a buttered bowl, turn to coat lightly with the butter, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (but no more than 12 hours), as the dough is easier to handle when cold.

Make the butter paste: Pour the flour on a counter and place the chilled butter on top of the flour. Using a metal pastry cutter or dough scraper and working quickly to avoid melting the butter, cube the butter and incorporate it with the flour; be sure to avoid touching the butter directly with your hands or the butter will melt. Use the scraper to break up the butter into tiny pieces; any hard lumps will ruin the texture of the dough and force it to tear. When the butter is soft but not melted, there are no lumps or hard bits remaining, and it is uniformly mixed with the flour, shape it into a 5-inch square. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.



Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured counter. Do not knead it or work it, or it will toughen. Using a rolling pin, roll it into a 12-inch square. Place the butter on the central portion of the dough at a 45 degree angle so it looks like a diamond on top of a square. Fold the corners of the dough over to  enclose the butter perfectly: you will now have a diamond-shaped package of dough encasing butter. If needed, wet your fingertips lightly with water to help seal the edges properly. No butter should be visible or oozing out of the dough package.

Turn the dough diamond so it sits like a square on the floured counter. Flip it upside down so the seam is underneath.




Using the rolling pin and working quickly so as not to melt the butter, roll out the dough into a 1/4-thick rectangle, about 20 inches long by about 4 inches wide. Flip the dough over a few times as needed to prevent sticking to the counter and dust lightly with flour as needed.

Fold the left third of the dough towards the center and then flip the right third of the dough over, to cover. Make sure the edges line up nicely and brush off excess flour with a dry pastry brush.

To ensure a proper texture and plenty of puff, do not roll the rolling pin beyond the edges of the dough, or you will inadvertently seal the layers together and crush them, preventing proper puffing.

Turn the package 90 degrees so the spine (the closed edge) of the dough sits at the left. Roll out again into a 1/4-thick rectangle, about 20 inches long by about 4 inches wide. Fold again into thirds as before, then wrap the resulting rectangle in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours (or up to 8 hours). The dough has now been turned twice and has 9 butter and flour layers.

Place the rectangle of dough on the counter so that the spine of the dough sits at the left. Repeat the rolling out and folding process two more times, for a total of 4 turns. The dough now has 81 layers of butter and flour.

Wrap the resulting rectangle in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or as long as overnight.



To bake: Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Lightly dust a counter with flour and roll out the dough into a rectangle that measures about 21 inches x 7 inches; it should be 1/4-inch thick. Working quickly so the butter does not melt, trim the edges as needed (use the trimmings to make other pastries, such as almond croissants, as below) and cut into 10 triangles (to make 6 larger croissants, cut into larger triangles).




Dust off excess flour with a clean, dry brush.

Cut a small slit in the middle at the base of each triangle; this will help you get a better curvature to the finished croissants and will allow you to elongate the corners.

Gently stretch each triangle, especially at the base and tip. Roll each triangle, starting from the wide end and working towards the point, into a log, keeping the layers tight.

Fold the two corners down to create a crescent shape. Place the croissants on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart (they will rise dramatically in the oven so they need room to expand, or they will bake up pale and soft instead of golden and crisp if they are overcrowded).



Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature at least 2 hours, or until the croissants are almost doubled in bulk. If your kitchen is cold, the dough will rise more slowly; don’t rush the proofing step or the croissants will end up heavy rather than feather-light.

When the croissants are noticeably bigger, brush with the egg wash.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 degrees convection.



Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until golden all over and crisp; if underbaked, the croissants will be soggy in the center. Remove to a cooling rack.

Enjoy within minutes of baking if possible (or at the very least, within hours). Croissants can also be frozen once cooled, double-wrapped in plastic wrap and then sealed in freezer-safe plastic bags; to reheat, remove the plastic wrap, place on a baking sheet, and bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until defrosted all the way through and crisp.


Take a look at the two photos below: one batch of croissants was left to proof until doubled in bulk before baking, and another was proofed just until the croissants grew about 50% of their original volume. The difference in the lightness of the layers is amazing once baked: the top photo (fully proofed) shows light, flaky, distinct layers, while the bottom photo (underproofed) shows  undistinct, cakey, thick layers.




croissantalmondtrio1And remember the leftover scraps and dough trimmings? Gather them gently, roll out into rectangles, and fill with a few pieces of bittersweet chocolate, some apricot jam, savory items like Gruyere cheese and sauteed spinach, or (our favorite) a combination of almond paste, butter, and sugar (I beat 1 and 1/2 ounces almond paste with 3/4 ounces butter and 1 tablespoon sugar until creamy and smooth to fill 3 rectangular croissants).  Spread the filling of choice on the dough, leaving a wide border all around, and wrap to enclose in thirds. Place seam side down on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, then proceed as above for glazing with egg wash twice and baking.

Classic Panna Cotta

Creamy, smooth, and almost ridiculously easy to make, panna cotta is one of my favorite comfort food desserts. Recipes with all sorts of embellishments and variations abound. My favorite, though, remains the simplest of all: scented with vanilla, tasting purely of cream (panna cotta means, after all, cooked cream).

You can swap in almond extract for the vanilla if you’re feeling experimental, or add a few crushed amaretto cookies for texture just before spooning the panna cotta mixture into the ramekins. Whatever you do, be sure to let the cream come to a full boil before pouring it over the softened gelatin, or else the gelatin may not dissolve properly, resulting in an improperly set panna cotta; and allow at least 6 hours for thorough chilling, so it is creamy and set all the way through.

For a jolt of color and contrasting acidity, you can cook a cup of fresh berries with a few spoonfuls of sugar into a jammy coulis, about 10 minutes over medium heat; cool thoroughly, then spoon over the chilled panna cotta upon serving.

Serves 4

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla pod, scraped
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 package unflavored gelatin

Combine 1 and ½ cups of the cream with the vanilla and sugar in a small pot over a medium flame. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and the sugar dissolves. The cream has to come to a boil, or the gelatin may not dissolve later.

Meanwhile, sprinkle the gelatin over the remaining ½ cup of cold cream in a medium bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine. Let stand 2 minutes. Pour in the boiling cream and whisk constantly to dissolve the gelatin. If needed, strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any undissolved gelatin particles.

Pour into 4 individual 3-ounce ramekins and cover each ramekin with plastic wrap. Refrigerate about 6 hours (or up to 1 day). Serve chilled.


Two-Layer Blueberry-Pistachio Semifreddo

Don’t be daunted by the long ingredient list and multiple steps in the recipe below. This is quite an easy semifreddo to put together and requires no special tools or ice cream machines. It looks striking, with two distinct layers, one intensely blueberry-colored and flavored, the other creamier and richer in dairy notes. It tastes like summer on a plate, and the surprise element is definitely the pistachios, which have a real affinity for blueberries. I used Sicilian pistachios from Bronte, which are deeply green and very aromatic; but any unsalted pistachios will do. Store any leftover pistachios (or all nuts for that matter) in the freezer to stave off rancidity; the high fat content of nuts makes them turn faster than you’d like.

Serves 8

For the cooked blueberries:

  • 3 cups blueberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in tablespoon cool water

For the dark mousse:

  • ½ cup shelled unsalted pistachios
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¼ pound cream cheese, softened
  • ½ cup heavy cream, chilled

For the swirled mousse:

  • 3 ounces sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 ounces milk
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 shelled unsalted pistachios, finely chopped

Make the cooked blueberries: In a 1-quart saucepan, combine the blueberries with the sugar and bring to a light boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until jammy, about 10 minutes. Return to a vigorous boil, stir in the cornstarch slurry while whisking, and cook 30 seconds, or until glossy and the juices are thick. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Make the dark mousse: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pistachios out on a tray and roast in the preheated oven 8 minutes, or until toasty. Cool and coarsely chop. Set aside.

Place the sour cream and cream cheese in a food processor and add ½ cup of the cooked blueberries. Puree until smooth and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the heavy cream to soft peaks. Fold in the blueberry-cream cheese mixture until blended, without deflating the cream. Stir in the chopped pistachios and 1 cup of the cooked blueberries.

Line a loaf pan or terrine mold with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over the sides. Spoon the dark mousse into the mold and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Meanwhile, make the swirled mousse: Combine the condensed milk, milk, and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat; cook 3 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves and the mixture bubbles. Place the cream cheese in a medium bowl; gradually add the hot milk mixture, whisking until smooth.

Stir in the yogurt and vanilla. Cool completely. Stir in the remaining cooked blueberries until the mixture looks swirly; don’t overmix, as you want to keep the mousse looking marbled. Pour over the frozen dark mousse in the mold and sprinkle with the finely chopped pistachios.

Freeze until firm, then wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and keep frozen until ready to serve (up to 1 week).


Sicilian Almond Cookies

There is no kitchen on earth, I think, that treats almonds better than Sicily’s. Trapani’s pesto calls for almonds and parsley, and cooks on the Aeolian Islands sauce their pasta with a thick tomato and almond sauce; almonds are also ground and added to a veal and chocolate stuffing for savory pies, stirred into chicken stews, and scattered over salads.

As far as sweets go, almond paste is so important in Sicily that it goes by the name of pasta reale (royal paste). Sicilians are skilled at making marzipan pastries shaped like fruit painted in bold colors (a specialty of the nuns of the Martorana convent) and an abundance of almond cookies, macaroons, and cakes. The best time to enjoy all of these sweets is February, when almond trees are in bloom and islanders are busy celebrating spring with almond festivals that hark back to pagan days.

The cookies here are chewy, dense, and sweet, the sort of almond cookies every Sicilian bakery offers. They can be studded with pine nuts or enriched with chopped nuts. For best results, I suggest that you weigh the almonds and sugar rather than measuring by volume, as the amounts will be consistent every time. And when making this dough, remember not to add all of the egg whites; add only as much as needed for the dough to come together. If you add too much egg white, the dough will be too liquid, and the cookies will flatten and spread while baking; while they will still be delicious, they will be crisp rather than chewy. Since the cookies harden as they cool, don’t overbake them; once they are set and blistered (they will still be pale), they are done.

Makes 2 dozen cookies

  • 8 ounces blanched almonds
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 and ½ teaspoons almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 large egg whites, beaten to blend
  • ½ cup confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (preferably set on convection bake).

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the almonds in a food processor. Add the sugar and salt, and process to a very fine powder, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine the honey and almond extract.

Place the ground almond mixture in a bowl. Stir in the honey mixture with a fork. Add just enough egg white to make a mixture that holds together when compressed firmly between your fingers. Do not add too much egg white or the cookies will flatten and lose their shape as they bake (even a teaspoon too much egg white will yield flat cookies, so be careful at this step).

Turn the dough out on a counter and knead for 1 to 2 minutes, forming a cohesive dough. Dust the counter with the confectioner’s sugar.

Working on top of the confectioner’s sugar, roll into a 2-inch-wide log. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces, roll each piece into a ball, and place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Pinch the top of each cookie twice between your thumb and index finger, creating four small indentations.

(If making pine nut cookies, at this point you shjuld insert about 6 pine nuts into each cookie, pointy side down. Press gently to imbed the nuts into the cookies.)

Bake the cookies for 7 minutes, or until set and blistery and still white. Do not overbake: these cookies should be moist and chewy, not dry, and should not take on any color. (It is best to err on the side of underbaking; the cookies will dry as they cool.)

Cool on a rack. Store in airtight tins up to 2 weeks.


Chocolate-Almond Meringues

When I was little, my mother made two desserts: creme caramel, which I adored; and meringues, which I did not adore. She made very good meringues, mind you: perfectly crispy and airy, not too sweet, pale, and light. Somehow, though, I never developed a taste for them. And then one day in Matera, I ate a cookie that looked just like a pebble, and discovered it was a chocolate and almond meringue… I was hooked. I worked out the recipe back home, and here it is.

Easy to make, meringues nevertheless require a light touch when the flavorings are stirred in, lest the egg whites deflate. They also need a low, slow bake, allowing the interior to dry fully rather than remain gummy. My mother always leaves her trays of meringue in the turned-off oven after they are baked, and only removes them when the oven is completely cold.

What makes the meringues below special is the almond extract stirred into the batter, which magnifies the almond taste immensely; and the dark chocolate ganache holding the two meringues together, which cuts down on the meringues’ natural sweetness and provides a deep, lingering chocolate finish.

For the meringues:

  • ½ cup almonds, skin on
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon white vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate

For the ganache:

  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Make the meringues: Preheat the oven to 300°F (preferably set on convection bake). Line two 11-inch x 17-inch baking sheets with parchment paper.

Toast the almonds in the preheated oven until aromatic and a shade darker, about 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Chop coarsely in a food processor and set aside; do not pulverize the almonds, or the meringues will be too dry. The almonds should be in fine, small crumbs.

Chop the chocolate in the food processor until it is roughly the size of the almond crumbs, and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt and vinegar until soft peaks form; add the sugar in a thin, steady stream until it is all incorporated and the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Very gently fold in the almond extract, chocolate, and almonds, being careful not to deflate the egg whites.

Spoon the egg white mixture into a piping bag fitted with a wide, smooth tip, and pipe onto the lined baking sheets, leaving at least 2 inches of space in between the mounds. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature to 200°F (preferably set on convection bake) and continue to bake the meringues until crisp and dry, about 25 more minutes. Cool to room temperature on a rack.

Meanwhile, make the ganache: Place the cream in a small pot and warm until boiling. Immediately pour over the chocolate in a bowl and stir until the chocolate is fully melted, stirring as needed. Cool to room temperature.

To serve: Spread the cooled ganache onto the flat side of half of the meringues. Place another meringue half, flat side down, over the ganache. Serve immediately, or store in hermetic containers at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.