Friday, March 22, 2013

Peanut Butter Jelly Ice Cream Sandwiches, with Rosemary and Marionberry

This post has something of an odd musical soundtrack. First off, just to get it out of my system is this "song", which I cannot for the life of me get out of my head ever since I started thinking about peanut butter.

To understand why peanut butter's been on my mind, I have to rewind the story to this music, which started it all: the Mendelssohn piano trio, no. 1 in d minor. I first heard this piece when I was at that young impressionable age when you want to do everything your older siblings are doing. Every morning at 6am during middle school, I would wake up to the sounds of my older cousin (who grew up with me, like a sister) practicing the piano part--the arpeggiated d minor chord in the opening was my alarm clock. It became so internalized that without even seeing the music, I found that I could play the first few pages of the piece, too.

Suffice it to say that I fell in love with the Mendelssohn. I once convinced my cousin to let me turn pages for her in one of the concerts in which she performed the piece, and I would just sit, completely mesmerized by the gorgeous dark tones of the cello melody and the hanging high A of the violin in a dramatic mid-movement pause, nearly forgetting to actually turn the pages! (She never asked me to turn pages for her again....) But the sticking point was that I've never actually had the opportunity to play the piece myself. For some reason, my musical path took me into jazz and percussion, and I never got to do chamber music with classical piano when I was still playing seriously.

In early graduate school, I did get the chance to do some classical chamber music (the Brahms horn trio, namely), but the Mendelssohn eluded me still--I never seemed to know quite the right combination of people to make up the instrumentation. Until one day, I discovered that my friend Rob plays cello. (the same Rob from the SF Dessert Day! --Apparently, some people just never broadcast their talents, sigh.)

Long story short, at long, long last, I got to play the Mendelssohn! And let me tell you--the experience was so divine. On violin, we had another linguist (whom I played with a few years ago). And to finally hear the two string parts after years of only being able to hear myself play the lonely piano part--to hear the gestalt--was amazing, like the universe was being made whole again. (not that we played it anywhere near perfectly. I missed probably a good 35% of the notes!, but still!)

Anyways, we're getting to the peanut butter. I invited everyone to stay after we'd played for dinner to celebrate. It turns out that Rob's favorite dessert flavor is peanut butter, which, despite my love of Americana, is just one all-American ingredient that I've never really gotten into. So I wracked my brain for a good week or so trying to reconcile the strong, sometimes-overpowering flavor of peanut butter with the type of desserts I like to make: something sophisticated, subtle, many-layered. What I came up with was my play on PB&J sandwiches: a peanut butter jelly ice cream sandwich, made with rosemary-peanut butter cookies and peanut milk + marionberry swirl ice cream.

Peanut butter cookies are something of a classic, and I found that the rosemary really helps lend some complexity to the cookie, with just an extra hint of something special peeking through the peanut butter nuttiness at the end. These cookies are chewy and hit with a dash of turbinado sugar and smoked sea salt right before baking for a bit more sophisticated oomph.

For the ice cream, I took inspiration from a visit last summer to State Bird Provisions, where they serve this peanut milk drink with dessert. I wanted something that wasn't so boisterously PEANUT BUTTER!-y, and peanut milk--made by steeping peanuts and vanilla in milk overnight--was the perfect solution. The ice cream ends up with this smooth and softly subtle nutty flavor and a beautiful golden cream color. It was incredibly lucky that I happened to stumble upon freshly-made marionberry preserves at the local market the day I shopped for peanut butter because it made a great mix-in for the ice cream: sweet and dark and wonderfully purple. Blackberry jam would probably work just as well, if you don't serendipitously happen upon marionberry preserves. :)

Along with the PB&J ice cream sandwiches, this was our menu that evening:

Tartine's walnut bread
with brie and Seville orange marmalade

goddess salad
romaine, Point Reyes blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, roasted cacao nibs, and avocado-creme fraiche green goddess dressing

beets in apricot marmalade
with goat cheese

curried roasted carrots

#1: chipotle bbq chicken with apricots, smoked gouda, red onion, avocado
#2: margherita

grapefruit-blood orange soda
ginger-lime soda
apple cider

PB&J ice cream sandwiches

Given how prevalent peanut butter is as a dessert ingredient, it's funny that it's taken me so many years to actually post a peanut butter-related dessert on the blog. But, I think I just needed time to get it right--to find the right combination and to make it my own. I guess that's just how life works sometimes, like with the Mendelssohn, too: it took a lot of years for me to finally get to play the piece, but when I did, it was with a couple of my favorite people, and it was just right.

Read on for recipes...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Passionfruit and Espresso Tosca Cake

I've always maintained that the best desserts I make are ones that are designed with a specific person in mind. There's something about crafting the perfect personal dessert, targeted and fine-tuned to one person's unique palate... it's a challenge in how well I know someone, how well I've figured out their tastes and likes and dislikes and favorites (that sometimes they don't even know they had), and when I get it right, it's better than any general, all-purpose dessert that I make, no matter how high the bar is to begin with. In a sense, this is my ultimate definition of the practice of baking with love.

(This is also why I realized a long time ago that I couldn't ever do cooking contests. Cooking for myself is just never as rewarding--and never tastes as good!--as cooking for someone else.)

This cake was for a friend of mine who has this unique talent in making sense of the world in the most lucid manner, no matter how convoluted the situation. Her advice has helped me through many major scrapes in the past few years, and after nearly eight years of knowing her, I *finally* got her to reveal her birthday this year, so I had quite a few birthdays and years to make up for! This surprise cake had to be nothing short of perfection.

One of my favorite things about how this passionfruit and espresso Tosca cake turned out is that the cake boasts this quiet and understated drama. It's a natural layer cake without all of the boisterous pomp and circumstance of a traditional, tall cake-and-frosting-and-cake-and-frosting layer cake: the nutty and slightly crunchy topping of the toasted almonds melts into the salty-sweet, espresso-tinged caramel, which soaks into the top of the underlying, fluffy but moist genoise cake base, which itself bursts with the tart, tropical boldness of passionfruit. It might seem like a lot going on at once, but the beauty of the cake is the simplicity with which all of these complex flavors find a balance together in the continuous layers of the dessert. Somehow, they just all make sense together here, which I thought was particularly befitting of my friend.

Her response to the cake:

"Best. birthday. cake. ever."

Mission accomplished.

(Special shout-out to Emma of Poires au Chocolat for posting about Tosca cakes.)

Read on for recipe...