January 27, 2015

Warm Chocolate Cakes for Valentine's Day!

Homemade Warm Chocolate Cakes 

I'm here to share a secret with you: The most sophisticated of chocolate desserts is unbelievably simple to prepare! At many fine dining establishments, you may see warm chocolate cake on the menu, described with elegant adjectives like "decadent," "sumptuous," "rich," "lava," "soufflé " or "molten". Ask for more details and you'll probably hear about the fancy chocolate that they use (Valrhona, Callebaut or Scharffen-Berger) or about the luscious melted center. However, what restaurants won't tell you is how easy this dessert is to make at home! 

A wonderful book by David Lebovitz!

This dessert always impresses guests, and no one ever guesses how little effort it took. You can complete the entire prep and baking process in 40 minutes! You won't be disappointed, and your beau will be delighted! I recommend David Lebovitz' recipe, which is designed to prepare several individual cakes. 

 Dandelion Chocolate Maya Mountain 70% Dark Chocolate

You need to use very dark chocolate, at least 62% cocoa up to 70% cocoa. I've tried the recipe with single-origin artisan chocolate from Dandelion Chocolate, and the results were excellent. The recipe also works well with Scharffen Berger Semisweet Chocolate (62% cocoa). You may use any type of baking tin (even cupcake molds), but I love the Williams-Sonoma Cakelet Tin. These individual heart-shaped cakelets are so cute!

Elegant Heart Cakelet Pan from Williams-Sonoma

Individual Warm Chocolate Cakes {David Lebovitz recipe}

An absolutely irresistible dessert, melty chocolate cakes are wonderfully rich yet light and fluffy. The texture is almost like a soufflé because the cakes are flour-less (so they're gluten free as well!) The recipe prepares six to eight individual cakes.

10 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate 
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
4 tablespoons of sugar
4 large eggs, separated

Before you begin, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. 

1.) Break chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl over a pot of boiling water. Combine with the butter and allow both ingredients to melt, then stir gently. Once melted and mixed together, remove from the heat.

2.) In another bowl, whip the egg whites. As soon as they get frothy, add the sugar and continue whipping until they are shiny and very fluffy. 

3.) Stir the egg yolks into the chocolate-butter mixture.

4.) Fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate-butter-egg yolk mixture, and stir gently. Then fold the remaining egg whites into the mixture.

5.) Spoon the batter into your cake molds (buttered and floured) and bake for 12 minutes. They should be slightly unbaked in the center so that the texture is like melted chocolate rather than a cake. After removing from the oven, allow the cakes to stand for a few minutes before releasing them from the molds. 

6.) Serve the cakes while still very warm! Add a touch of garnish such as powdered sugar, raspberries and mint leaves.

Copyright © 2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

January 21, 2015

Francophile Me! {Review of Tartine Bakery}

When I visit Tartine Bakery, as I am waiting in line (which takes a while because the line is always long), I like to imagine the following conversation that must have occurred before the bakery opened:

Tartine owners: "How do we know if Americans will like French pastries? There is no precedent. French pastries are so delicate and less sugary."

French baking consultant: "Oh, mon dieu, compared to your American pastries, anything would be better, no?!"

Tartine owners: "True, but still..."

French baking consultant: "If they are good, then people with refined tastes will come. And for the people without refined tastes, just make sure that your pastries are BIG, actually HUGE. The bigger the better in America, no? I saw the movie by Michael Moore..."

Tartine owners: "So how BIG exactly?"

French baking consultant: "Obscenely BIG, you know like a Big Mac or a Super-Size Slurpee. An entire day's worth of calories in one croissant!"

Tartine owners: "Ok, good idea! French pastries for American customers."

Croissant from Tartine Bakery (with dollar bills to show scale)

Chocolate Chip Cookie from Tartine Bakery (with dollar bill for scale)
In all seriousness, Tartine Bakery is one of the best French bakeries in San Francisco. In fact, the owners of Tartine, Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, were both awarded the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2008. Tartine Bakery is a must-visit place for anyone who loves desserts. This is a fact already well known to the local population—judging by the line winding down the street that you will see every Saturday and Sunday.

Hazelnut-Chocolate Tart
Tartine offers delicious pastries as excellent as the version you'd find in France, along with desserts that cater to more American tastes. Of the classic French desserts, one of my top choices is the chocolate-hazelnut tart. This pastry is absolute perfection: rich, creamy dark chocolate ganache with whole roasted hazelnuts in a flakey butter crust. The balance of flavors is wonderful and not too sweet. Definitely try the lemon tart, an amazingly citrusy and creamy custard on top of crisp butter crust.

Lemon Tart
Tartine also offers a selection of lunch options, including several different quiches, grilled sandwiches and its namesake "tartine," an open-face sandwich. Every option is filling enough for a meal. The sandwiches are made with Tartine's handcrafted rustic country bread, similar to the hearty pain de campagne that you get in artisan bakeries of France such as Poilâne in Paris (one of my favorite places anywhere!) If you want to have the authentic French experience of picking up your fresh baguette for the day from the bakery, you can call Tartine to pre-order your bread and skip the line! Bon Appétit!

Tomato and Shitake Mushroom Tartine (open-face sandwich)
Copyright © 2013-2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

December 28, 2014

Fresh Peppermint Ice Cream {Simple Recipe}

There is something so irresistibly wintery about peppermint. The cool sensation of this herb is the taste equivalent of skiing through a field of powder snow. Even just a small hint of peppermint's refreshing flavor reminds me of the holidays. 

To celebrate the season, create your own fresh peppermint ice cream. It is surprisingly easy to do, with a few simple ingredients. The key to success is infusing the mint leaves overnight.

Recipe for Fresh Peppermint Ice Cream

* Handful of fresh mint leaves
* 1 cup of whole milk
* 1 1/2 cup of cream
* 3 egg yolks
* 6 tablespoons of sugar

1.) Wash and dry mint leaves. Tear into small pieces, soak overnight in the milk and cream.
2.) Mix egg yolks in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of sugar.
3.) Use a whisk to blend until the mixture becomes lighter in color and frothy.
4.) Strain the mint leaves from the milk/cream. 
5.) Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar to the milk/cream.
6.) Simmer the milk mixture in a saucepan on medium heat.
7.) Remove from heat, then pour a small amount of milk mixture over the egg yolks.
8.) Stir together and then pour back into the saucepan.
9.) On low heat, simmer until reaching a low boil.
10.) Allow to cool down and then place in ice cream machine.
{Optional: Add small pieces of fresh mint leaves to the cooled mixture for a touch of color.}

Enjoy! Happy Holidays!!

Detail from the Gingerbread House at the Westin Saint-Francis Hotel in San Francisco

Copyright © 2014-2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2014

Rainy-Day Rustic Apple Tart {Easy Recipe!}

Whenever the word "rustic" appears in a recipe, you can translate to "really easy to make" and "don't worry about how it looks." This tart is a perfect example. The actual prep time is only about 20 minutes, and the presentation is very simple. 

This recipe is great for a rainy day or anytime you feel like quickly whipping up a simple treat. The tart is delicious served with vanilla ice cream or crème fraîcheGive it a try!!

1 cup of flour
1 stick of butter (room temperature)
2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of cold water
2 - 3 Granny Smith Apples (peeled, cored and sliced)

Make the pastry crust: Combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut the softened butter up into small pieces. Use your hands to blend the butter into the flour mixture. Mix in the water.

Continue blending until the flour-butter mixture has the consistency of pebbly sand. Then use the palm of your hands to work the dough, until it can be easily formed into a ball. 

Place the ball of dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. You can prepare the dough one to two days in advance.

On a clean floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/8 inch (0.5 centimeter) thick. You can make the tart crust any size in diameter, depending if you want mini tartlets or a large tart.

Use a bowl to trace the circular outline of the dough. Then cut off the excess dough.

Arrange the apple slices on the tart dough. Sprinkle with little bits of butter and brown sugar. It will all melt together during baking

Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Remove from oven when the tart dough is golden brown. 

Serve warm with a dollop of crème fraîche. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2014

Dreamy Cream Puffs {Review of Choux Bakery}

Choux Cream Puffs at 248 Fillmore Street

The Lower Haight just became more hallucinogenic, thanks to a fancy little boutique selling a rainbow assortment of colorful French cream puffs. Choux Bakery is just what the neighborhood needed to edge forward from hippie to shi-shi. It's a taste of Parisian chic!

Opened this October, Choux Bakery is the creation of Laura Athuil, who recently relocated from Paris. Athuil trained at the prestigious Ecole Lenôtre and Atelier Alain Ducasse—two of the most renowned culinary programs in France.

Choux specializes in cream puffs made with a traditional soft, flaky dough and filled with silky custard in different flavors. The bakery uses high-quality authentic ingredients. Some of the key ingredients are special items imported from Europe that are favored by French chefs. There are 12 varieties: chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, rum, hazelnut, chocolate coconut, salted caramel, lemon, and seasonal flavors such as pumpkin. 

Laura's flair for design (she has a degree in Architecture and Design) is evident in the exquisite decor. The attention to detail in the frostings reflects the quality of the ingredients and adds a touch of refinement. Choux cream puffs are definitely worthy of a special occasion—a birthday celebration, baby shower, afternoon tea or dinner party. 

Choux cream puffs are a magical treat! C'est magnifique!

Delicious Cream Puffs with Beautiful Decor

Choux Bakery
248 Fillmore Street at Haight, SF, CA 94117
Monday to Friday 11:30am - 7:30pm
Sunday: 10:30am - 7:30pm
Closed on Saturdays.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

September 23, 2014

September Strawberry Shortcake! {Recipe by Ina Garten}

Farmer's Market Strawberries inspired me to search for a good strawberry dessert recipe. I like this one from Ina Garten (the "Barefoot Contessa") because it's simple and delicious. For a touch of garnish, I added some fresh basil, a trend that's now popular in France.

Strawberry Shortcake Recipe by Ina Garten

*2 cups all-purpose flour
*2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
*1 tablespoon baking powder
*1 teaspoon kosher salt
*12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
*2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
*1/2 cup cold heavy cream
*1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk, for egg wash
*2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled and thickly sliced
*2 tablespoons Grand Marnier liqueur
*Whipped cream (sweetened with a little sugar)
*Fresh basil or mint (for garnish)

1.) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
2.) Sift the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the baking powder, and salt into the bowl
3.) Use an electric mixer with paddle attachment or mix by hand.
4.) Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is the size of peas. 
5.) Combine the eggs and heavy cream and then add to the flour mixture. 
6.) Mix until just combined. The dough will be sticky and lumpy.
7.) Place the dough on a well-floured surface. 
8.) Flour a rolling pin and roll the dough 1/2 to 5/8 inch thick. 
9.) Shape about 12 to 15 biscuits and place on the sheet pan
10.) Brush the tops of the biscuits with the egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar.
11.) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops are browned and the insides are fully baked. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes.
12.) Toss the strawberries with 1/3 cup of sugar and the Grand Marnier in a medium bowl. 
13.) Serve a spoonfuls of strawberries over a shortcake.
14.) Top with a dollop of whipped cream and garnish with basil or mint leaves.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

September 3, 2014

How to Make Caramel

Caramel is one of the great secrets of a pastry chef. It requires only two ingredients (sugar and water) and one technique (burning the sugar). "Caramel" sounds so much more appetizing than "burnt sugar," although the French are very honest about "crème brûlée" which means "burnt cream." 

Because of the special molecular properties of sugar, once it reaches a certain temperature the structure begins to change. The sugar changes color as it is burning and it becomes solid when cooled, like candy. 

Here's how to make caramel for use in other recipes:

1. Combine sugar and water. Place on the high heat.

2. Allow to boil for a few minutes.

3. You will notice that the bubble becomes more tightly packed.

4. Then the sugar will start changing color slightly.

5. At around 300° Fahrenheit, the sugar turns to caramel. Notice the change in color. Swirl the pan gently. Do not stir the caramel. 

6. The longer the sugar is heated, the more caramelized (burnt) it will become. For a traditional Tarte "Tatin" or other "Tatin" recipe, you will want to stop cooking the caramel around 350°- 360° Fahrenheit before the caramel becomes too burnt, as it will continue to caramelize during baking. Swirl the pan to even out the caramel color. Do not stir!
Ideal caramelization for a Tatin recipe.

7. When making caramel sauce, you can caramelize the sugar longer until it turns a darker color. Then add butter or cream. Be careful when adding the butter/cream to avoid splashing the caramel (to avoid burning yourself). Swirl the pan to blend the butter or cream and sugar, then remove from heat.

Keep in mind that the sugar continues to cook for a few minutes after you've removed the pan from the heat. 

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

August 28, 2014

Farmer's Market Late-Summer Plum "Tatin" Cake

{Recipe from "Barefoot in Paris" by Ina Garten}

If you like seasonal fruit desserts, here's the perfect recipe. The farmer's market in my neighborhood now has wonderful late summer plums. They're selling for $7 per basket of about 15 plums. It's a great deal and just the right inspiration for baking!

Farmer's Market Plums

"Plum Cake Tatin" Recipe
Recipe from "Barefoot in Paris" by Ina Garten
I love this recipe from Ina Garten (a.k.a. "the Barefoot Contessa") and highly encourage you to give it a try! Be sure to enjoy your Plum Tatin Cake with a dollop of crème fraîche. The cake is delicious served warm and also keeps well for several days.


6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter (room temperature) plus extra for greasing dish
10 to 12 purple "prune" plums, cut in half and pitted (or 6 to 7 regular plums)
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt


1.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a 9-inch glass pie dish and arrange the plums in the dish, cut side down.

2.) Combine 1 cup of the granulated sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until it turns a warm amber color, about 360 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Swirl the pan but don't stir. See how to make the caramel. 

3.) Pour the caramel evenly over the plums.

4.) Cream the 6 tablespoons of butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. 

5.) Lower the speed and beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the sour cream, zest, and vanilla and mix until combined. 

6.) Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and, with the mixer on low speed, add it to the butter mixture. Mix only until combined.

7.) Pour the cake batter evenly over the plums and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. 

Important Note: Be sure to put a rimmed cookie sheet under your pan to catch the overflowing caramel sauce. This will save your oven from needing a cleaning.

8.) Cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto a serving plate. (If a plum sticks, ease it out and put it back on top of the cake.) Serve warm or at room temperature. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2014

Eastern European Charm and Ten-Layer Honey-Cake!

{Review of 20th Century Cafe}

20th Century Cafe (198 Gough Street, San Francisco)

If only Gough Street were paved with cobblestones and lined with vintage European cars, then the Old World ambience of 20th Century Cafe would be complete. When you walk into this cafe, you half expect the hostess to start speaking with a foreign accent. 

Visiting 20th Century Cafe is like a mini vacation, it's an escape to another world. You are far, far away from the typical grunge San Francisco coffee shop. By contrast, 20th Century Cafe has a gorgeous interior decorated with exquisite attention to detail. From the marble tables to the Art Deco light fixtures, everything is beautiful. The cafe also uses elegant porcelain cups and plates along with polished silverware.

The chalkboard of delicious options at 20th Century Cafe
20th Century Cafe specializes in Eastern European baked goods such as pierogi and strudel. Chef-owner Michelle Polzine was inspired by her travels through Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and she scoured antique cookbooks to find the perfect recipes. The cafe's friendly waitresses also dress to fit the part, in charming 1940s outfits. 

The bakery counter at 20th Century Cafe showcases a selection of Eastern European baked goods and pastries including house-made bagels, babka, pierogi, potato knish, Sacher Torte and linzertorte. The cafe also offers lunch specials such as Hungarian Chicken Salad Sandwich, Reuben Sandwich and Cream of Garlic Soup.

The pièce de résistance at 20th Century Cafe is the Russian Honey Cake (Krasinski Torte). This amazing ten-layer creation features a caramelized honey mousse alternating with fluffy genoise cake. Even though the cake appears indulgent, it's surprisingly light.

Russian Honey Cake (Krasinski Torte)

To make the Russian Honey Cake, the cafe uses exceptionally fragrant honey. When the baking staff first starting preparing this cake in their kitchen, they noticed that the caramelization process was attracting local bees. So now they only prepare the cake at night when the neighborhood bees are off duty.

20th Century Cafe specializes in classic Easter European tortes (layer cakes). On the day of this blogger's visit, the cafe was offering a hazelnut torte. This dessert featured layers of moist hazelnut cake alternating with delicate Seville Orange marmalade, glazed with bittersweet chocolate ganache and served with a dollop of whipped cream.

20th Century Cafe is a great place to spend some quiet time, read a book or catch up with friends, while enjoying a leisurely lunch or dessert and coffee break. Treat yourself to an afternoon spent in grand European style!

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

May 30, 2014

Best Artisan Ice Cream in the 'Hood

{Review of Bi-Rite Creamery}

Cheesecake with Blueberry Swirl; Balsamic Strawberry; Mexican Chocolate
Bi-Rite Creamery, 3692 18th Street, San Francisco

Ah, summertime! Those glorious warm days of swimming in the lake and basking by the beach, cooling off with juicy watermelon and frosty snow cones, relishing wild amusement park rides and fluffy cotton candy at the county fair, wearing sundresses into the evening while fireflies flutter about. I've read about it in books but have never experienced it in real life (such is the weather during the months called "summer" in my hometown of SF).

Line for ice cream at Bi-Rite (photo taken in September, when it was actually sunny!)
Despite what you'd imagine to be a lack of demand, the foggy city of S.F. has some of the best artisan ice cream in the country. Perhaps this is how we console ourselves for bundling up in wool sweaters in June, July and August—by enjoying the refreshing iced treats of our summertime dreams. Take for example Bi-Rite Creamery, where you will find a line winding around the block even on chilly afternoons.

Bi-Rite offers exceptional ice cream, which is made by hand in small batches using Straus Family Creamery organic milk and fresh seasonal ingredients. Balsamic Strawberry is a favorite that's only available when berries are at their peak ripeness. Another signature flavor is Salted Caramel, which has a distinctive taste of burnt sugar. The flavor is so intense that you can tell the sugar was caramelized to the limit of burntness. I recommend trying some of the really unique ice cream flavors like Honey Lavender or Ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles).

What is your favorite flavor? Please post it below!

Bi-Rite's enticing selection of 20 seasonal ice cream flavors
Quote of the Day:
"When I'm no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg." -Snoop Dogg

Please share your comments. To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Look for the wording "Post a Comment" in tiny pink font.

Copyright © 2013-2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.