We live one block away from a hot chocolate cafe here in Seattle where they also happen to sell really nice truffles and little sweets. When Sam works out of his home office, he’ll often go there for a change of scenery and without fail, he brings me home a truffle. My favorites tend to be the vanilla sea salt, but it’s really a toss up between that and the dark chocolate marzipan. I’m not sure where he got the idea, but last month for Valentine’s Day, Sam decided to strike out on his own and made homemade truffles instead of buying them. He researched how to make marzipan and bought these little chocolate molds to turn them into truffles. I wasn’t privy to any of this, really, and the night before I had strict instructions to stay out of the kitchen. My best guess was that there was chocolate cake on the horizon. Little did I know the next day would include truffles with our morning coffee.
When I was in my twenties, I had a lot of thoughts about how holidays should be or what I felt my partner should do for occasions like birthdays or Valentine’s Day. For whatever reason (probably because holidays were such a big deal in our house growing up; my mom did, after all, invent the “birthday table,” a tradition in which she transformed our dining room table into a themed celebratory centerpiece with streamers, balloons and the ever-present birthday crown), I felt like I should have a certain kind of Valentine’s Day — that if it was the right person and if they truly loved me, they’d surely know that you were supposed to get flowers and chocolates and write a sentimental card worth saving for years. I think a lot of those feelings were centered around the constant questioning about whether the person I was with at the time was the right one, if they were really ‘my person.’
But a funny thing happens as you get older – or seems to have happened as I’ve gotten older. It began to occur to me that what love and gestures I could make were at least as important as those I hoped for in return. I also began to suspect that my many prescriptions, the affirming gestures, devotions and rituals I’d practically formed into a checklist, actually fell so far short of the serendipities, surprises and gesturing of a truer love. A lot of those shoulds really needn’t have been, really (although let’s not get carried away: I do still really love birthday cake).
So Valentine’s Day came and went without a grand dinner or many of the things I used to feel it should include. Instead, we woke up to bagels and lox from Eltana, strong coffee and Sam’s marzipan truffles. The sun came out for the first time in a quite few days, so we decided to go on a long walk and ended up visiting our friends, Brandon and Molly, and sipping small berry smoothies from straws at their kitchen table. Later that afternoon, we walked down to the beach with Molly and June to look for sea glass, the sun bright and the air brisk, the day so casually unfolding on its own without any of the prescribed notions or forced gestures that I’d once clung to. It was several hours later, the afternoon light mostly faded, before we all got home, feeling a little windswept but like we’d had quite a day. Suffice it to say, I’ll take long impromptu walks, sea glass and wood-fired bagels over a dozen roses any Valentine’s day of the week.
I was so impressed with Sam’s little marzipan jewels that we decided to make them again and photograph them — we timed it around Oscar weekend so we could share them with a few friends who came over. I thought this would be a full day project, but the marzipan really takes a mere 5 minutes to come together and let’s just say it’s reallllly good I didn’t know this fact until now. So if you’d like, you can just follow the marzipan recipe here, store it in the refrigerator, and slice off little bits to have with tea or coffee. That’s treat enough.
If you want to go all the way and turn them into truffles, you will need a little mold and you simply melt dark chocolate in a double-boiler (we didn’t fuss with tempering it and it still came out shiny and snappy) and put a dollop in the bottom of the mold, place a little truffle ball on top of that and cover it with a spoonful of chocolate. Then chill to firm. Alternatively, if you don’t have a mold, I think you could easily just spear your little marzipan balls with a toothpick and dip them into the chocolate, laying them out on parchment to cool. They’ll be more rustic looking that way, but no less delicious.
Megan’s Note: If you can find almond meal made from blanched almonds (versus the more “natural” almond meal made from almonds with the skin still on), that’s the easiest route. Alternatively, you can blanch and grind your own almonds; if you do this, just aim for a very fine texture. Second, there seems to be a lot of discussion on the internet about the relative safety of the raw egg white in most marzipan recipes; our consensus (and the consensus of many) is that most eggs today are pasteurized and since you’re refrigerating the marzipan, it’s really not an issue. If you have personal reason to be concerned or are still nervous, Sam assures me that you can use two spoonfuls of corn syrup instead of the egg white, but we’ve not tested this so I can’t speak to the flavor or consistency.
The first time Sam made these he used more sugar and a stronger extract; we both agreed it might be nice to try and tone both down, and I think this ratio is spot on. While I’m often nervous about the addition of rose water to desserts as I think it can become overpowering very quickly, it’s so subtle here you will barely notice. I’ve seen bakeries who use a little orange blossom water instead, and that would certainly be nice, too.
For the marzipan:
For the chocolate coating:
To make marzipan: Scoop the almond meal and powdered sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix to break up any lumps. Add the almond extract and rose water and mix to combine. Add the egg white and mix again until it takes on a dough-like consistency. If dry and crumbly still, add a little water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, until it comes together into more of a dough. Turn the marzipan out onto a clean surface and knead a few times so that it fully comes together and begins to soften into one nice ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Store marzipan wrapped in plastic wrap or waxed paper, refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, or frozen for up to 6 months.
To assemble truffles: Using low, controlled heat, melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, stirring frequently to ensure it melts evenly. Using your favorite truffle mold, dollop a little chocolate in the bottom of each indent and swirl around until the interior is completely covered. Grab a small piece of marzipan and roll it into a ball and then a flat little disk roughly the diameter of your mold. Press the marzipan disk into each of the molds, and then top each with enough chocolate to reach the top of your mold. When finished, place in the refrigerator to cool and firm up (or the freezer if you’re eager like us). If you’d like to top each with a sprinkling of salt, get a small cup of water ready and dip your finger in the water. Moisten the top of each truffle lightly and sprinkle the salt on top — the little wet spots will dry leaving a pretty, salted top.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.