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.
This decadent sorbet recipe is from Shauna Sever’s new book, Real Sweet. I’ve never met Shauna in person, but we’ve known each other online for awhile now. She has a warm, approachable voice and a really contagious enthusiasm for everything she writes about — whether it’s how to make homemade confectioners sugar or how to brown butter. And this book really strikes a chord with me because we use natural sugars most all of the time at home these days. I rarely bake with white sugar anymore, much preferring coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, dates, or a number of natural cane sugars instead. So! A whole baking book devoted to experimenting with the ways in which natural sugars can add layers of deep, complex flavors to everyday sweets? Yes, please.
I think I’ve mentioned the vegan ice creams I’ve developed for The Kitchn before? There was my very favorite, incredibly addicting Vegan Coconut Almond Chip and then, of course, that Strawberry Swirl. For these recipes (and others I make at home), I generally use full-fat coconut milk for the base, but Shauna’s sorbet recipe intrigued me because she uses plain almond milk instead. She warms it with a dark blend of bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder, thickens it with a touch of cornstarch, sweetens it with natural sugars and folds in toasty, salted almonds at the very end.
In her recipe, Shauna calls for muscovado sugar which has a really nice dark, damp sweetness (a natural cousin to dark brown sugar, really). We happened to be out, so I used coconut sugar instead, which has a similar dark sweetness that I thought would compliment the cocoa flavors in this recipe beautifully. The result is a flavor-packed sorbet that’s decadent without feeling heavy or overly indulgent, and maybe just as delicious on a warm, blossomy afternoon in Seattle as it would be on the streets of Bologna. Just maybe …
Megan’s Notes: If you want to make this recipe truly vegan, look for a vegan chocolate and opt for the agave nectar; this wasn’t critical for me, so I used a good 60% bittersweet chocolate and ended up using the agave, but you could certainly use honey instead. Like many homemade ice creams and sorbets, you really need to let this soften for a good 15 minutes before serving or it’ll be quite hard. I didn’t this sorbet to get icy, but if you don’t let it soften, it’s not going to be as smooth and creamy as it deserves to be.
If you’d prefer to use a different toasted nut here, hazelnuts would be wonderful as would peanuts. I also found myself thinking about little flecks of white chocolate folded in with the almonds at the end, and next time around I’m going to make that happen. I did not include prep/total time for this recipe as ice cream machines all work at different speeds; do note, though, that the base must chill for at least four hours.
Slightly adapted from: Real Sweet
In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the almond milk with the cornstarch. Whisk to dissolve.
In a large (4-quart) saucepan, whisk together the remaining 2 cups of almond milk, sugar, cocoa powder, agave nectar, and salt. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring mixture to a low boil. Boil for 1 minute. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Continue whisking 1 minute more, until thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and add chopped chocolate and vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth.
Set a fine-mesh sieve over a medium heatproof bowl. Pour the sorbet base through the sieve. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until completely chilled, at least 4 hours. Whisk vigorously to smooth out any lumps. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Toast the almonds: place a dry, medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the almonds and toast until pale golden and fragrant, about 6-7 minutes. Sprinkle with fine sea salt. Cool completely.
When the sorbet is finished churning, fold in the cooled almonds. Pack into an airtight container and freeze until firm. Let soften for about 15 minutes before serving.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.