Monday, July 21, 2014

Tiramisu for Those Who Love Chocolate

When I was a bit younger (a lot younger) busy cooking in restaurants in the ‘80s, tiramisu made a sensational debut and became a very popular dessert in chic restaurants not only in the U.S. but around the globe.  It is a very simple cold dessert, but this combination of Italian cream cheese (mascarpone), strong coffee (espresso) and liquor flavor was a very fresh idea – so provocative and enchanting to the palate that no one could resist it. I, too, instantly loved it when I first tasted it. Since then tiramisu has become the number one Italian dessert (something like sushi has become for Japanese food in America).

What I really like about this dessert (besides that all pretty women will be impressed if you can make it) is that it is very easy to make: You just mix the ingredients and assemble... no baking. The only problem is that people cannot wait to taste it before it has chilled/set for at least a few hours.  It is a great dessert any time of the year – whether in summer or during the winter holidays. These days I often put some shaved dark chocolate on top, to make it ... over the top!

I have tried many different recipes but this one is simple and comes out perfect. Nowadays domestic mascarpone is widely available in supermarkets. However, you should try using imported Italian Mascarpone. It is creamier and more flavorful, and you can taste the difference in the results. If you cannot find lady finger cookies (Amazon has them), you can make your own (even a gluten-free version). You can also use sponge cake (which I often do at work) or simple butter or sugar cookies instead. 

6-8 servings

1/4 cup (125ml) espresso at room temperature
1-2 tablespoons dark rum, brandy or grappa
3 “very fresh” large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100g) sugar, divided
8 ounces (250g) mascarpone at room temperature
About 20 Italian ladyfingers/Savoiardi (7 ounces/200 g)
1 ounce (30g) bittersweet chocolate, shaved
Unsweetened cocoa powder, for sprinkling between layers and on top

1.      In a small bowl combine the espresso with rum or cognac. Set aside.

2.      In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with whisk, or by hand, beat the egg whites until they begin to get stiff. Beat in half of the sugar until stiff. Set aside.

3.      In a medium-sized bowl, beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar until thick and light-colored, about 2 minutes. By hand, beat in the mascarpone with a spatula or whisk, until lump-free.

4.      With a large spatula, fold in half of the beaten egg whites gently, then the remaining half, just until fully incorporated.

5.      Place a single layer of 12 ladyfingers (two rows of six each, end to end) in a 9-inch (22.5-cm) square baking dish or glass dish. Dip a pastry brush into the coffee mixture and brush/soak the biscuits with the liquid. Spread about half of the mascarpone cream over the biscuits. Sprinkle with about one half of the grated chocolate and cocoa powder.

6.      Repeat with a second layer of the biscuits, brush the biscuits with remaining liquid, and cover with the remaining mascarpone cream. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, allowing the cream to firm up slightly and the biscuits to absorb some of the liquid, preferably overnight.

If using individual cups (about 6-ounce), put a heaping soupspoon of the mascarpone cream into each individual glass cup/ramekin. Break a ladyfinger and place onto the cream. Brush or drip espresso mixture onto ladyfinger and top with some shaved chocolate and cocoa powder.  Repeat with a second layer of biscuit and remaining liquid, and then cover with remaining mascarpone cream. Cover and chill in the refrigerator until firm – at least 3-4 hours. Use about 2-3 ladyfingers per individual cup.

To serve, divide the tiramisu into rectangular slices and transfer to chilled dessert plates. Right before serving, shake powdered cocoa generously on top and add more shaved chocolate.

Note:  I used an 11-inch x 7-inch (2 quarts) Pyrex glass baking dish for the photography. The Italian ladyfingers I used are 4-inches long and 1-inch wide. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wine with screw cap, no cork

I am a minimalist but also a traditionalist. Until a little while ago I did not pay any attention to wine in bottles with a screw-top cap. They are normally associated with cheap, poor quality wines. However, I am changing my policy, or, maybe I should say, my stereotype about these wines. Some of them are quite good  these days, and there is that convenience factor -- no corkscrew is required to get into the bottle. It may also be good for those who suffer stiffness and hand pain such as carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis (my right hand is getting it). And then there is the time and expense of teaching new service staff how to use a waiter’s corkscrew to open a bottle. I have to give my staff a lot of practice opening "sacrificial" wines, and that costs $$ (my boss is not happy!). Unfortunately, some people never can get the hang of it (or maybe they just want to drink a lot of wine).

Anyway, more and more wines are coming in screw-cap bottles these days. I recently visited my favorite neighborhood wine shop, K&L Wines, and was surprised to see many screw-cap wines available in the mid-price range/quality (around $20-$30 a bottle); some of them are even more expensive ($40-$50). I noticed that many are from Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Oregon and Washington, and it is gradually becoming more common among California wines as well.

I still do not see many from France or Italy. However, I definitely prefer screw-cap wine to those with plastic or synthetic corks, which are quite often very hard to remove from the bottle and also hard to take out from the corkscrew. Bravo screw cap!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Riesling and Gewürztraminer—Perfect Wines for Spring!

Spring is my favorite time of year. It's the time of renewal, soft sunlight, warm air, new green leaves, flowers, rose-colored garlic, asparagus, strawberries, fresh goat cheese and good milk chocolate. Everything smells fresh and tastes good.  And we can finally go out again with light and colorful spring outfits and walk through the warm breeze.

When it comes to wine, I highly recommend enjoying two light, aromatic white wines right now -- Riesling and Gewürztraminer.  Just as you are now wearing silky light shirts, cotton pants and slip-on shoes rather than a heavy winter jacket, wool pants and boots, it's time to hang up the rich Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Chardonnays a little while. Riesling and Gewürztraminer are the perfect wines for spring -- they make you feel rejuvenated and refreshed!

Riesling and Gewürztraminer are not well known in America, but they are generally affordable and easy to drink. The wines are fairly dry, but with a slightly sweet style, aromatic and intensely flavorful, yet delicate enough for light and elegant spring meals (composed salad, seafood pasta, sushi and other light but also a bit spicy Asian foods like Thai and Vietnamese dishes). Another good thing is that many of the wines are lower in alcohol (often below 10%), particularly Riesling.

At the wine shop, Riesling and Gewürztraminer  are easy to spot. They are both in tall slender bottles called a “hock” or Rhine, normally colored brown in Germany’s Rhine region and green in Alsace, France and the Mosel region of Germany. This shape is used elsewhere for grape varieties associated with Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

The following descriptions of Riesling and Gewürztraminer are from Wine for Women, A guide to Buying, Pairing, and Sharing Wine,” by Leslie Sbrocco, published by William Morrow:

The Grape Story
Both Gewurztraminer and Riesling are highly aromatic varieties, but have uniquely different personalities. The two share intensely floral, spicy, and fruity qualities and an uncanny ability to age, yet Gewurztraminer shows its appeal the minute it’s poured. Riesling tends to be more reserved, revealing itself slowly in the glass.

Gewurztraminer: The Flower of the Vine
When you pour Gewurztraminer, a mélange of floral, fruity, and spice aromas jumps from the glass and begs you to take a sip. Once you do, the wine can range from crisp and fresh to soft and smooth, depending on its birthplace.
    Though Gewurztraminer reaches its pinnacle of expression in the French region of Alsace, the name comes from the German word for “spiced—gewürz. The traminer par harks to a village named Tramin in northern Italy, which is where the grape is thought to have originated.
    Like Pinot Gris, the skin of Gewurztraminer grape is more deeply colored than many other white grapes. Its pinkish/golden skin often imparts a more golden color and gives the wine oomph. The acidity is generally lower than in Riesling, which adds to the wine’s voluptuous character.

The Incredible Lightness of Riesling
While Gewurztraminer is a crowd pleaser, Riesling can be a bit harder to understand. Some Rieslings are fruity and lightly sweet, while others are so steely and acidic they take years to soften and express themselves. For lovers of the elusive grape, though, there’s nothing better. It is arguably the world’s greatest white variety and produces wines of ethereal lightness and complexity.
    Riesling can smell of minerals and fruit (peach, apricot). In the mouth there’s a sparkling snap of acidity and juicy freshness. But in its youth it can be angular, like a young supermodel’s face. When the best wines age, however, they become fleshy and immensely interesting.
    While delicious Rieslings can come from a variety of locations around globe, the grape’s origin is Germany. It is planted all over the country in cool to downright cold regions. Riesling gleefully takes the climatic abuse and keeps coming back for more, thriving in conditions that would make most other varieties run for the sun.
    That’s because Germany pushes the northernmost limit for growing grapes. To maximize their exposure to the sun and actually get the fruit ripe, winegrowers in places like the Mosel River Valley plant vineyards on slopes that would make skiers salivate. It works, though, because the grapes get ripe, gloriously so in many cases, and produce some of the world’s most coveted white wines.

And of course many other countries and regions produce good Riesling and Gewurztraminer: California, New York, Oregon and Washington State in the U.S., Austria, Australia, Chili, Italy and New Zealand. Each region produces interesting characteristics due to different climates, soils and winemakers. Cooler climate regions tend to produce wines that are light and crisp; in warmer regions, the wines are ripe, flavorful and more aromatic. However it’s all a matter of style, so try discovering the differences. They are all delicious. Cheers!

Note:  In Germany Riesling is made in a variety of styles ranging from dry to very sweet: Kabinet --dry and light, Spätlesesemi-sweet and full-bodied, Auslese -- sweeter, Beerenaulese sweet, strong, intense, and Eiswein-- very sweet, big flavored, sharp, concentrated. So make sure you identify the variety on the label. Also, the sweeter wines are more expensive than the dry ones -- Auslese and Beerenaulese are very expensive. California produces high-quality dry, fruity and slightly sweet Rieslings, sometimes called Johannisberg Riesling. California also makes excellent Late Harvest wines from botrytis-infected grapes (as are France’s famous Sauternes). Oregon and Washington State produce good Riesling also.

For more interesting wine information go to:

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Quatre-quarts Cake – French Pound Cake with Chocolate

Pound Cake has become an American classic, although it is originally from Europe. It’s the first dessert I was served when I was invited to a home dinner here in America. I still remember it was served with vanilla ice cream, then whipped cream and strawberries. I thought dessert is most important in America. Since then I have eaten it countless times and in countless variations. It can be jazzed up with dried fruits, nuts, blueberries, coffee, cocoa... just about anything.
I have made pound cake both at home and for work. I often mix a small mashed/chopped banana into the batter, which makes the cake moist (but you’ll need to bake it about 10 minutes longer) and creates a great aroma in the kitchen.  However, people still ask me why it’s called “pound cake” and what is the recipe.  I found out a long time ago, because, well, you know, I am a cook... I needed to know.
Quatre-quarts means  “four fourths” or “four quarters” in French. It has four main ingredients – egg, butter, sugar and flour – in about equal amounts, originally a pound each (which makes a very large cake). That is why it’s called pound cake, which makes sense!  Using this recipe, the cake comes out soft and light, because powdered sugar is used instead of granulated sugar. It is simple but delicious, and is the perfect cake for spring!

Quatre-quarts au beurre salé et au chocolat – Pound cake with salted butter and 
chocolate chips

Recipe adapted from Cuisine et Vins, Février – Mars 2011, N°138

Makes 8-10 servings

1 loaf pan (1 ¼ quarts-5 cups)

4 oz (110 g) dark chocolate chips
4 large eggs
7 oz (200 g) salted butter at room temperature, preferably French style + 1 tablespoon for the pan
7 oz (200 g) powder/confectioners’ sugar
7 oz (200 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

1.       Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Grease the pan with 1 tablespoon butter and dust with flour. In a medium-size mixing bowl or stand mixer at medium speed, cream the butter  then slowly add the powdered sugar until completely incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time until well mixed.

2.       In a small bowl, mix the flour and the baking powder then sift them together into another bowl or onto baking/wax paper. Using a whisk or rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the batter,  1/3 of the flour mixture at a time until just combined; do not over mix.

3.       Pour  the batter into the pan. Then spread the chocolate chips over the batter. Using your wet fingers or rubber spatula or spoon,  push the chocolate chips into the batter. Bake in center of the oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

4.       Cool/rest the pan on a wire rack at least 10-15 minutes before unmolding the cake. This cake is best served warm. Top with whipped heavy cream and fresh berries if you wish.

For more fun chocolate information (and mouth-watering photos), go to

Saturday, April 19, 2014

White Chocolate Custard – Use up those egg yolks!

Well, I assume that you have read my last post “Simple Chocolate Mousse“ ...maybe have already tried making it, and are wondering about those three leftover  fresh egg yolks. Hopefully you did not throw them away.  Many people are concerned about egg yolks because of the  fat and cholesterol.  Egg white is a good protein source, but it is the yolk that makes everything tasty!  In addition, the fat from the yolk is not very high (4.5 g per large yolk), and the cholesterol from food is not really a big issue (it isn’t the same as blood cholesterol ... our body makes that in response to too much saturated fat – not dietary cholesterol – plus  other health factors). Crème brûlee, crème caramel, crème anglaise, crème pâtissière (pastry cream), and even pasta alla carbonara all require egg yolks. You cannot make them without yolk.

Anyway, this is another “chocolate” dessert that I guarantee you will adore.
Note that white chocolate is not technically chocolate (it contains no cocoa solids, from which chocolate’s color and most of the flavor come). It is made from cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids and usually vanilla. It is important that melt white chocolate always very slowly over low heat to keep it from scorching and clumping.

White Chocolate Custard with Fresh Berries

Makes 4 servings

4 six-once ramekins or custard cups (about 3.5-inch diameter and 2-inch high)

1  cup (250 ml) milk or half-and-half
4 oz (115g) white chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
3 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons Kirsh (clear cherry brandy) or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh blueberries or raspberries for topping

1.       Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the half-and-half then add white chocolate and sugar. Stir gently until the white chocolate is melted, then remove from heat.

2.       In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Gradually add the warm half-and-half mixture, stirring gently with a whisk. Add the Kirsh or the vanilla extract.

3.       Place the 4 ramekins in a baking pan that is at least 2 inches high, and pour the custard into the ramekins. Add warm water to the baking pan so that the water reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins (creating a water bath). Cover the pan with foil and bake for about 30-35 minutes, or until the custard jiggles slightly when nudged.

4.       Remove the custards from the water bath and cool on a wire rack.
Serve custards in the ramekins at room temperature or chilled, topped with fresh berries.

For more fun chocolate information (and mouth-watering photos), go to

This is my current photo at San Francisco International  Chocolate Salon in March 2014. I was invited as a judge. I had a lot of fun.

Friday, April 11, 2014

SIMPLE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE - light for spring

The beauty of spring has come again to the Bay Area. We have been having a record-breaking drought in California since last year, with an unheard-of dry, brown winter. Finally, a few days of rain over the past two weeks brought us the bright green and other signs of spring.  So many different birds are coming to my small backyard, and the squirrels are chasing each other with lightning speed, almost flying from lawn to tree branches and to the garden fence in seconds. It makes my neighbor’s cat speechless. I guess I am not the only one feeling recharged.

I have been gone many months from this blog, and I missed writing the posts, but I was so busy working for a new, challenging job I started last summer. I just did not have any free time until recently.  Anyway, I am back, just like this nice spring came back to my garden. The past couple of months I have thought of quite a few topics for this blog – about wine,  chocolate, seasonal tarts, seafood, local fruits and vegetables, and simple light food for spring.  Here is my first one... for the chocolate lovers.

The recipe and anecdote come from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé , a world-famous French pastry chef, with the great dessert writer Dorie Greenspan. It is very important when making this mousse to use  good quality chocolate and very fresh eggs.

Mousse as it’s meant to be: Whisper-light in texture, exclamatory in taste. The main ingredients are bittersweet chocolate, lightened by whipped egg whites, enriched by an egg yolk, and sweetened by just the tiniest bit of sugar. Milk is the unexpected but just-right ingredient in this recipe. Because it is lighter than cream, it brings smoothness to the mousse without adding richness or masking the flavor of the chocolate.

I think of this mousse as a base recipe, one I can play around with and change at whim. Often I’ll add another flavor just before serving, topping the mousse with chocolate shavings, Caramelized Rice Krispies, thin slices of banana – raw or sautéed, whole raspberries or raspberry coulis, toasted nuts, or chopped fresh mint. Sometimes I’ll add a different flavor to the mousse while I’m making it, infusing the milk with grated orange zest, a spoonful of instant coffee, a little ground cinnamon, or a pinch of cardamom. PH


Makes 4-5 servings.
6 oz (170 g) bittersweet chocolate (52% or more cacao), finely chopped
1/3 cup (30 g) whole milk
1 large very fresh egg yolk
4 large very fresh egg whites
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

  1. Place the chocolate in a medium-size mixing bowl. Bring the milk to a boil, then pour it over the chocolate. Using a small whisk, gently blend the hot milk into the chocolate. Add the egg yolk and whisk it into the chocolate, again working gently; stop when the yolk is incorporated.
  2.  In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed just until they hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and gradually add the sugar. Continue to beat the whites until they are firm but still glossy. Scoop one-third of the whites out onto the chocolate mixture. Working with a whisk, beat the whites into the chocolate to lighten the mixture. Now, with either the whisk or a large flexible rubber spatula, delicately but thoroughly fold the rest of the beaten whites into the chocolate.
  3.  Turn the mousse out into a large serving bowl – clear glass is very nice for this dessert – or into individual glass cups, and refrigerate at least 1 hour, preferably 3-4 hours, to set. The mousse can be kept (refrigerated) for a couple days.

Note: I used Guittard’s Semisweet Chocolate Wafers 61% cacao for making the mousse shown in the photos. It worked perfectly and my tasters loved it. I could have used the 72% cacao (Bittersweet), but 61% is best for a wider range of palates. E. Guittard Chocolate is a San Francisco-area company and has been making good quality chocolate since 1868. Their couverture chocolate wafers (these are not chocolate chips) come in a convenient one-pound box. No chopping required -- it's ready to go. These make me want to keep making more chocolate desserts!