Archive | December, 2010

Chocolate Pear Napoleon

30 Dec

The end of the year is always a little bittersweet for me. It’s a time when I start reflecting on the year past, looking back fondly on some experiences, with regret for others. It’s also a time filled with both hope and fears for the year ahead. Of all of the desserts I’ve made these past few months, the chocolate pear napoleon best reflects the mood of this experience for me with the melding of flavors of dark chocolate, sweet pears and tart cranberries.

This dessert is also a reminder of my favorite experience this year, which is when I took the plated dessert class at Laney College in the fall. In this class, all students were responsible for creating a menu item for the bistro on a weekly basis, and preparing and plating that item daily for the week. The program at the school isn’t catered towards vegan baking at all, but the chef instructor of this class allowed me to do all vegan desserts, which was very exciting! The plus side of this was that I was given free reign to experiment and had access to culinary professionals and students to critique my work on a daily basis. The negative was that every Monday morning–when we had to figure out who we wanted work with for the week–felt like being chosen last for the dodge ball team at recess. Actually, more like not being chosen at all because I ended up working alone a lot of the time.

It’s not so much that I minded working alone (a lot of the time, I prefer it) or that anyone was rude or mean to me (everyone was actually very, very nice), but being The Vegan Who Uses Her Special Ingredients Stored in Her Own Cabinet and Doesn’t Use Eggs or Dairy or Gelatin or Even Milk Chocolate Like the Rest of Us means the non-vegans automatically assume they can’t or shouldn’t work with you. When I did work with someone, it was almost without exception with my longtime-vegetarian classmate, Irene (us veggie folk have a way of finding each other!).

Vegan baking is still an icky, foreign concept to most people and seems to intimidate even the most confident and experienced baker. In attempts to combat any negative preconceptions about vegan desserts (of which there are usually many), I tried to pick desserts that were sophisticated and visually appealing but would also have a familar feel to non-vegan desserts. Basically, challenge people’s ideas of what vegan desserts can be, but nothing too out of the norm that may scare people off.

The chocolate pear napoleon with cranberry compote, derived from a recipe by acclaimed pastry chef Gale Gand, was one of the desserts I worked on. To create a vegan version, I adapted various components of the recipe that called for butter or cream. Also, rather than using poached pear, I decided to use pears that I caramelized in a pan with sugar, vanilla bean and brandy. I was skeptical of serving cranberry compote with a chocolate and pear dessert at first, but the tartness of the compote worked really well with the chocolate and sweetness of the pears. It was a delicious combination, and apparently a real hit with the omnivores as well. If I recall correctly, this was one of the desserts that completely sold out during the week. One of the bistro workers came up to Irene on the second day to verify the ingredients in the dessert, saying that one customer didn’t really believe that it could be vegan!

Give this napoleon a try and let me know what you think!

Chocolate Pear Napoleon with Cranberry Compote
Adapted from Chocolate Napoleon recipe by Gale Gand

Serves 5


The Phyllo

1/2 cup refined coconut oil, melted, or canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 sheets phyllo dough (9″x14″)
1/4-1/2 cup evaporated cane sugar
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Caramelized Pears
8 ripe, medium-sized pears, peeled, cored, halved and cut into 1/4″ slices
1 cup sugar (you can adjust depending on how sweet your pears are)
pinch of salt
seeds from 1 vanilla bean, or 1 Tb vanilla bean paste or extract
2 Tb lemon juice
splash of brandy

8 ounces dark chocolate, coursely chopped
1/2 cup non-dairy milk
1/2 cup regular-fat coconut milk
1/4 c  agave nectar

Cranberry Compote
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup sugar


For the phyllo: Preheat oven to 350* F. Mix together the melted coconut oil or canola oil with the cocoa powder. If using coconut oil, you can keep this mixture over a bowl of hot water to keep it liquid while you’re working with it. Lay a piece of phyllo on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush a light layer of the oil-cocoa mixture and sprinkle some of the sugar. Top with another layer of phyllo and repeat the process with remaining layers. Using a cutter or knife, score the the phyllo stack into 2″x3″ pieces (21 pieces total). Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the phyllo layers are crisp. *Tip: The cocoa makes it difficult to tell when the phyllo has baked long enough so include a plain phyllo layer on your baking sheet and use it to gauge when they’re done.

For the caramelized  pears: Combine the sugar, salt, vanilla and lemon juice in a large skillet. Toss pear slices in the mixture until all pieces are coated. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently to ensure even caramelization. Sauté pears until golden and softened. Stir in brandy at the end. Transfer pears to a pan and let cool to room temperature.

For the ganache: Place the chocolate in a small bowl. In a small sauce pan, combine the non-dairy milk of choice, coconut milk and agave nectar to a simmer. Pour over chocolate and let stand for a minute. Whisk mixture until smooth. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.

For the cranberry compote: Combine and mix all of the ingredients in a medium sauce pan. On medium high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and continue to simmer until the cranberries have popped and softened, and the juices have thickened. Transfer to a bowl and chill until cold. This can be made and stored a few days in advance.

To assemble: Place a dab of ganache at the center of each plate (this keeps the napoleon from shifting around when you move the plate). Place a piece of your 2″x3″ phyllo on top, gently pressing it down. Top with a thin layer of ganache and pear slices. Repeat until you have three layers of ganache/pear. Top with a fourth piece of phyllo. Dust top layer with powdered sugar. Spoon cranberry compote around the napoleon.


Bûche de Noël

23 Dec

"What's great for a snack and fits on your back? It's Log, Log, Log!"**

French colonialism in my motherland (well, my parents’ motherland) is to thank for my taste for European-style pastries today. Eclairs, profiteroles, bánh pâté chaud (a French-influenced, Vietnamese pastry consisting of puff pastry filled with a spicy pork meatball) and French fruit tarts were a part of my vocabulary and diet from a young age.  Bûche de Noël (AKA Yule Log), a traditional French cake, is something that my parents always brought home around Christmastime. It was usually a vanilla sponge cake filled with coffee buttercream and covered with ganache. As a child, I never really liked the flavors, and a cake that’s shaped like a log with mushrooms growing on it seemed odd to me. Now, as an adult, it sounds like a fun, kooky idea.

I’m not sure why, but at 10pm last night just before bed, I decided to attempt my first-ever Bûche de Noël.  I like fruity flavors, so my version consisted of a vanilla cake with apricot jam filling and a rum ganache frosting. For garnish, I made mushrooms, berries and leaves out of marzipan. I don’t know if it was because I’d used my regular vanilla cake recipe, which is really moist and not springy like a traditional sponge cake, or my rolling technique (I was trying to roll it pretty tight) but the cake cracked on me. Once I put the ganache on, though, you couldn’t really tell.  The roll held its round shape for a while, then collapsed to a sad-looking, flat log… Bummer. I think it’s because there wasn’t enough filling to hold the layers and keep them from collapsing (especially since I couldn’t roll the cake as tightly as I would have liked). Also, the ganache was not completely set, so it was a bit gloppy when I applied it. [Note to self: next time, don’t attempt new projects when you’re trying to go to bed!]

Eh, not my best work, but I had fun. Plus, vanilla cake + apricot + chocolate + rum = yum.

**If you were born after 1985 or had to babysit your baby brother like I did, you probably remember “The Log Song” from The Ren and Stimpy Show.


17 Dec

Pastry display at La Boulange Bakery in San Francisco.

Okay, so I don’t really speak French (unless you count the few basic phrases I remember from high school French), but somehow it seems appropriate to kind-of pretend since this is a blog about desserts and nobody–and I mean NOBODY–does desserts like the French do. When I come across photos of Parisian pâtisseries and see the kinds of pastries French people have access to every single day, I cry a little inside that I wasn’t born in France. My mom–a total Francophile–has very openly told my dad and me over the years that she wishes she had found and married a Frenchman (instead of marrying my Chinky-eyed dad) when she lived in Switzerland. It’s annoying and insulting, but sometimes I wish she had as well, if by some biological miracle I could still be her child and receive the benefit of access to French pastries. But it just wasn’t meant to be I guess.

There are some decent French-style bakeries here in the Bay Area. But alas, I do not get to enjoy them either. Why, you ask? Because I am vegan–that means no meat, eggs, dairy or any animal products or by-products. I do this by choice (yes, it’s true!) and have zero regrets about that decision, but I still have fully-functional taste buds that like to be exercised every once in a while. I had a very diverse palate and considered myself a foodie when I was still an omnivore four years ago, so switching to a diet of granola and sprouted wheat berries has never been an option for me. Finding restaurants with good vegan food and learning to prepare delicious meals haven’t been so much of an issue. Finding tasty, interesting vegan desserts, however, is much more difficult. (Yes, there are rare gems such as Millennium Restaurant, whose creative desserts  raise the bar for all of us wannabe vegan culinarians. But they’re exactly that — rare.)

Don’t get me wrong,  I am incredibly appreciative of vegan pioneers such Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, whose dessert recipes ensured that I maintained my robust figure while I transitioned to veganism. As someone who rarely entered the kitchen (except to eat other people’s cooking) before I became vegan in 2007, these women were an absolute godsend when I needed a chocolate chip cookie, a slice of cheesecake or piece of apple pie. These days, however, I’ve gotten all Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I want more, you know what I mean? And I want it without relying on vegan substitutes and alternatives like Tofutti “cream cheese” and Earth Balance “butter” that is in most of the vegan desserts available commercially and fills the pages of most vegan cookbooks. Many people enjoy these products, but they’re just not for me anymore.

So welcome to my new dessert blog in which I document my baking successes and failures, and quest to further push the boundaries of vegan pastry!