Rabbit Hole Rewards

It always mystifies me how recipes evolve.  It’s like falling into a rabbit hole and not wanting to come out.  Of course, with a blog named Culinary Distractions, that is not a big reveal.

If you happen to read the previous post, you’ll know this one is inevitable. The major reason for the dulce de leche preparation was to have a supply available to test this idea.  Before that, it all started because I had too much buttermilk.

Old-fashioned tapioca made with toasty sweet dulce de leche seemed a perfect match with the creamy tartness of buttermilk.  But I was wary of buttermilk in tapioca pudding.  The pudding must simmer in order to cook the pearls and thicken it, and the heat could cause the buttermilk to separate in the process.tapoica cooking

When I realized I could use less buttermilk and simply add it once the pudding had thickened, the idea finally came together.  Tapioca is fine without the addition of egg, but even a little makes a difference, even one yolk.  Cooking the egg yolk too long is also problematic, but incorporating the yolk once the tapioca thickens would add just enough egginess to do the job and lend a thick creamy mouth feel.  After that, the buttermilk could be heated to blend flavors, but not boiled.

tapioca spoonSo here it is, I’m out of the rabbit hole, back in the sunlight enjoying the rewards of a lovely discovery.taapioca partial glass

Dulce de Leche Buttermilk Tapioca

Old fashioned tapioca gives pearly thick results blended with the sweet-tart combination of dulce de leche and buttermilk.

1/3 cup pearl tapioca
2 ½ cups milk
1/2 cup dulce de leche, depending on preferred sweetness
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Soak the tapioca in 1 cup milk for 1 hour.
  2. In a heavy medium pot over medium-high heat, combine the tapioca mixture, dulce de leche, the remaining 1 1/2 cups milk, and salt.  Whisk to incorporate the dulce de leche and bring mixture to a simmer.  Reduce heat to low and cook until mixture thickens, pearls swell and become translucent, 10 to 12 minutes; whisk frequently to keep the bottom from sticking and scorching.
  3. Temper the egg yolk by mixing a bit of the hot mixture into it and adding it back into the pot.  Continue whisking, about 1 minute. Add the buttermilk and cook until it returns to a simmer, approximately 1 minute longer.  Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
    Cover the surface with plastic wrap and let cool.  Serve warm, room temperature or chilled.  It will thicken substantially as it cools.  Store in the refrigerator up to 3 days.  Serves 6

As a pudding, sprinkle with fresh grated nutmeg.  Thin it and use it as a warm sauce over fresh fruit or cake.

Reason to Celebrate

We have a real glut of apples happening at my local market―a most certain nod that the winds of fall are fast approaching. Meanwhile, leaves begin to display golden shades and shadows stretch longer in the afternoon sun, it’s as if nature is taking one long breath.  I have mixed feelings about this change of seasons:  I’m both sad that summer is all but gone, yet excited for the approaching harvest.

Living closer to the land again, I’m regaining my awareness and connection with the natural life cycle. Peaches and nectarines replace summer berries now, while apple varieties like Jonathon, honey crisp, gala, and Fuji steadily gain prominence.  Absolutely nothing compares to eating produce at its peak. Freshly picked for consumption means it hasn’t been sitting in a cooler for months making its way to my grocery store.

Fuji apples
Fuji apples

I recently bought a few early Fuji apples to make a nice dessert for friends, and my favorite French Apple Torte came to mind.  I have been making it for so long that I have lost the original documentation. There’s nothing terribly unique about it―your normal baking staples and a few sweet, crisp apples wrapped in a moist custard-like batter. Just know that it is all about the apples.

The batter only requires a few stirs with a whisk or large spoon. The apples are added and it is unceremoniously dumped into a baking dish.  While in the oven, a simple topping is quickly put together and poured over the semi-baked torte. It continues to bake until fully set and the edges of the apples caramelize.Apple Torte

This little beauty hits all the right notes.  It’s bursting with bright nuances from fresh sweet apples and further enhanced by the rich egginess of the crazy-custard-like batter that binds it all together. The caramel topping’s buttery sweetness and texture becomes the perfect counterpoint to the clean apple flavors.

Apple Torte Slice (1)Elegant in taste and appearance, it is a dessert suitable for just about any occasion.  Consider it as the finish to a special dinner, an impromptu treat for drop-in company, or perhaps the best reason of all, to celebrate the apple harvest.  Do enjoy it warm from the oven with ice cream or a custard sauce.

French Apple Torte

1/2     cup all-purpose flour
1/3     cup sugar
1        Tbsp baking powder
1/8     tsp salt
1/2     tsp vanilla extract
2        eggs, lightly beaten
2        Tbsp olive oil
1/3     cup milk
4        baking apples such Braeburn, Rome, Fuji, etc, peel, core, thick slices (about 2 pounds)
3      Tbsp butter, melted
1/3   cup sugar
1       egg, lightly beaten

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9″ springform pan or ovenproof quiche dish and set aside.
  2. In large bowl combine flour through salt and blend well.
  3. In small bowl combine vanilla through milk and blend well.  Add liquid to dry and stir until well blended.  Add the apples and stir to thoroughly coat with batter.  Spoon into pan and bake until firm and golden, about 25 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile prepare topping by combining butter, sugar and egg in small bowl.  Stir to blend, and set aside.
  5. Remove torte from oven and pour the topping mixture over it.  Return to the oven and bake until top is deep golden brown and quite firm when pressed, about 10 minutes.
  6. Remove to rack and cool from 10 minutes.  Run knife around edge and remove sides or serve from dish at room temperature or warmed served with vanilla ice cream or custard sauce.  Serves 6 to 8.

Vehicle of Convenience: Custard Sauce

An old friend used to call ratty old cars that didn’t look like much, but ran well—vehicles of convenience.  I’m not sure that my favorite custard sauce falls exactly into the old-beater-category, but it is pretty unremarkable to look at.  And it certainly has rescued me on more than one occasion.

In some circles this sauce could be considered a Crème Anglaise, and we have already covered its wonders back in September with Floating Islands and Eggs in Snow.  Today’s custard sauce is the trimmed down version:  instead of 4 egg yolks, we use only 1 egg—just enough to supply that eggy flavor we crave.  For additional body we include a bit of cornstarch, much like Britain’s well-loved Bird’s Custard Powder. The cornstarch not only helps to thicken the sauce, it also improves its holding power, making it far more stable and less fickle than the usual egg-based custard sauce.

Not only is this convenient sauce delicious and fast; it is extremely versatile and especially handy when time and resources are limited. It can be made in an easy 10 minutes and will hold for two days in refrigerator.  Serve it hot, warm or chilled over pound cake, fresh or baked fruit; flavor it to suit the occasion:  add citrus, almond or other extract, a jigger of brandy or a favorite liqueur.  Yes, I’ve even served it on hot oatmeal…Blackberries, cooky, custard sauce

Today at the market I picked up a slim basket of tempting blackberries (no, they weren’t local; but I tell self that in Texas they rarely are anyway).  Later I whipped up a quick convenient sauce to honor the berries.  I briefly marinated them in a bit of sugar plus a dash of balsamic vinegar.

blackberries with custard sauce


At dessert they were liberally doused in plenty of the silky, thick custard sauce.  What a glorious sight:  blackberries floating amidst a burnished brown marinade and creamy custard sauce—a stunning marbleized swirl in the glass.

Custard Sauce

1 large egg, room temperature
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp genuine vanilla extract
1-1/2 cup milk, divided


  1. In a medium bowl whisk the egg and sugar together until light and sugar is incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Place cornstarch in a small bowl, stir in 2 Tbsp of the milk, and mix until smooth. Whisk the slurry into the egg mixture and beat until well combined, about 1 minute.
  3. In a small pan over medium-low setting, heat the milk until bubbles form on edges and steam is rising from the surface, but not boiling.
  4. Whisk about ½ cup of the scalded milk slowly into the egg mixture to temper the eggs. Pour the egg and milk mixture into the pan, whisking into the remaining hot milk.  Return the pan to low heat, stirring constantly until mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon, about 4 minutes—the temperature will reach 170 degrees, but not boiling.  Stir in the vanilla extract.
  5. Strain the sauce through a fine whisk and let cool.  Cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid surface film from forming.  Serve warm, room temperature, or cold.   Serves: 3 – 4

Crazy about Canelés

For anyone fond of custard creations like crème brûlée or flan, you are hereby forewarned about canelés.  On first glance, they don’t look like much.  Not known for perfect shape or artful finish, the crisp little cakes may appear more like pâtisserie rejects—some malformed, with exteriors ranging from extremely dark to downright burnt.

Cute as a bug's ear
Cute as a bug’s ear

But, if there is heaven in a bite, this would surely be it.  Beware:  it takes only one to set off a profound physical and/or spiritual reaction.  It may also make your eyes bug out and simultaneously cause you to swoon.

Canelés are not new; they have been around France for centuries—and could be one of their better kept secrets.  These charmers have a fascinating pedigree.  Hailing from the Bordeaux region, the crepe-like batter was originally baked in tin-lined copper molds, brushed with bees wax.  Turns out the bees wax provides a natural non-stick coating, along with a lovely hint of honey flavoring.

It was discovered that baking them in a very hot oven caramelizes the exteriors to resemble something like the tops of crème brûlée.  Meanwhile, their interiors develop an enchanting cake-like custard filling.  It is this contrast in textures and flavors that yields a package in a class of its own.  Without competition.Caneles

canele moldOnce on the canelé trail, I was thrilled to discover that there are alternatives to the horrifically expensive copper molds.  Silicone molds are also available; they are affordable, easy to work with and provide surprisingly good results.  As far as baking with beeswax, that is still to come; I buckled and added a bit of honey to my batter as a tasty alternative. Food grade quality beeswax is available on line at a number of websites.

Canelés are delicious anytime (from personal experience).  Of course, the French enjoy canelés with a nice glass of wine, but they are equally delicious with coffee, at breakfast, a mid-day sweet, as a fine dessert, or, you name it…



2 cups milk
2 Tbsp butter, plus 1 Tbsp butter for molds
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup less 2 Tbsp sugar (variation: ½ cup sugar + 1/3 cup honey. Add honey to milk to equal 2 cups)
¼ tsp salt
3 eggs, room temperature

Special tools:  Small canelé baking molds


  1. Scald the milk and butter until bubbles form on edge of pan (183 degrees), remove from heat and add the vanilla. Cool to warm.
  2. In medium bowl sift the flour, sugar and salt together and make a well in the center. Lightly beat the eggs with a fork and pour them into the center of the flour.  Add the milk mixture and stir with a spatula to incorporate the wet with the dry. To remove lumps, pour mixture thru a sieve into a holding container.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours, and up to 3 days.
  3. The day of baking, brush silicone molds with butter. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
  4. Gently stir the cold batter to re-combine; it will have separated. Place the molds on a wire rack over a baking sheet and fill the molds with batter about ¾ full.  (Return batter to refrigerator.)
  5. Set molds on rack over baking sheet in oven, close door and reduce heat to 425 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes. If browning unevenly, reverse the molds.  Close the door and reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Bake for an additional 45 to 60 minutes, until very dark brown, almost burnt.  Continue to reverse the molds every 20-30 minutes.
  6. Let canelés cool in their molds (about 10 minutes) on wire rack — this will help them firm up and avoid collapse.  Remove from molds, place canelés on their sides on cooling rack; they will become crisp and more stable as they cool.  Wipe out molds with toweling to remove any baking debris and repeat; it is not necessary to brush the molds with butter for 2nd  Yield:  about 36 canelés.

Canelés are best eaten the same day.  To freshen, reheat in 450 degree oven 5-10 minutes.

Dessert Not Easily Forgotten

Even the names are enchanting: œufs à la neige (eggs in snow) and ȋle flottante (floating island). Picture pristinely shaped ovals nested in snowy cream, or billowy meringues adrift in a sea of custard. Pure fantasy.Ala Neige in glass

Although the French names suggest culinary ownership many countries claim their own unique versions. For the most part they are all about tender clouds of sweetened egg whites briefly poached and combined in some fashion with custard of eggs, milk and sugar.

For years I was captivated by the name and wanted to give Eggs in Snow a try, but only paused, blinked, and moved on. It seemed daunting; a lot of work for something that appeared simplistic and inconsequentially light.

But I was wrong. This is a complex dessert with both great style and whimsy; a sweet with such wide appeal that it would play equally well to adults and children as well as the healthy and the infirm.

Perhaps I have had a major culinary shift. These days I am in awe of all the well-constructed basics that incorporate eggs: i.e., meringues and custards. In this case, I was pleased to combine two of my favorite things and carry it a step further.

a la neige poaching


I was fascinated by the process of poaching meringues in simmering liquid. I watched as the beaten egg whites swelled into moist, firm puffs of air; the most perfect ‘marshmallow fluff’ imaginable.




a la neige custard


Of course, anything that includes custard has long been a friend of mine. In this case, crème Anglaise thriftily transforms the residual yolks into a thin, regal custard—the sea upon which the islands of meringue rest.




Ah, those lovely Floating Islands. I spooned the custard sauce into individual glasses and perched a couple of the meringue clouds atop. For contrast, I sprinkled on a few crunchy candied almonds. You would not think one of these elegant beauties would be enough—so light and ethereal, yet I was amazed and completely satisfied.

a la neige dosAs with some île flottantes, perhaps the addition a cookie or bit of cake is in order. It’s your call. Whatever you call it, it is not a dessert easily forgotten.

Eggs in Snow and Floating Islands


4 egg whites
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Pinch salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Poaching Liquid
2 cups milk, water or a combination of both
2 Tbsp granulated sugar

Crème Anglaise Custard
2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Garnish: ½ cup candied almonds, raspberries or other fresh fruit

Prepare the Poaching Liquid
In a wide pot over medium high, heat milk and sugar to dissolve the sugar. Keep warm while preparing the meringue.
For the Meringue
1. With electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy and add the cream of tartar. Continue beating the whites until a firm foam forms. Add the salt and then very slowly add in the sugar, beating until whites are glossy and thick with soft peaks. Add the vanilla and beat until stiff peaks begin to form.
To Poach the Meringues
1. Using 2 serving spoons shape the meringues into attractive ovals and gently lower the spoonfuls into the simmering milk.
2. Poach the meringues about 2 minutes per side; turn when set and cook on the other side. Remove with slotted spoon and set on toweling to drain; and repeat.
For the Crème Anglaise
1. Strain the poaching liquid and add enough milk to equal 2 cups. Heat the milk in a small pot until it is hot but not boiling.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, with a hand held mixer, beat the egg yolks until frothy and slowly whisk in the sugar; continue beating until it is thick and light in color. Slowly stir in about 2/3 cup of the hot milk to temper.
3. Lightly whisk the custard back into the pot of warm milk. Over low heat stir constantly until it is hot and coats the back of a spoon and when a line drawn through it does not run. It should reach about 170 degrees: a few bubbles may appear along edges but it does not boil. Add the vanilla and strain into a clean bowl to cool. If refrigerating, cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid skin forming on surface.

To Assemble: Spoon the custard into a low serving bowl, individual wide bowls or serving glasses; float the poached meringues on top and sprinkle with candied nuts or fresh fruit. Serves 4.

The Génoise Project

Lately I have been preoccupied with conquering the génoise and some of its many accoutrements.  Similar to our sponge cake, génoise is considered the go-to all purpose cake in France.

I am very excited about adding a well-structured basic cake to my baking repertoire and the génoise is one of the legendary building blocks in French patisserie work.   Beginning with the “simple” génoise formula, endless sweet options are attainable:  individual cakes and glazed petit fours, molded madeleines and free-formed lady fingers; novelty filled rolls and stylish holiday logs; and of course stunning cakes for every occasion.

There are a few hurdles.  The cake’s tight structure comes from a lengthy beating of eggs and sugar until it is triple in volume.  A bit of flour is folded in and then a little melted butter is added on the finish.  How hard can that be?

I’m learning a fair amount of precision, gentle handling, and adept folding are required to successfully pull this off, as the fragile eggs tend to deflate into a bewildering puddle. But, my goal is to create the perfect chocolate génoise for my daughter’s birthday in August.  I have time to tinker.

With that I mind, I continue to crank out my own génoise creations.  For the 4th of July, it was a strawberry cake soaked with orange syrup, slathered in whipped cream.  A tad dense, but with all those goodies, no one complained.
Plum Cake with sauce
Today I achieved another moderate success: an upside-down Pho-flavored plum cake accompanied by a head turning ginger-lemon pastry cream.

I’m not sure the cake would receive high marks in any French bakery, but the more I eat, the more I like it…especially the pastry cream; but for now I will not bore you with further cake details.  You will be hearing more about the “génoise project”, as we lead up to the main event in August.

Pastry Cream
Pastry Cream

Today’s focus was all about running the pastry cream through its paces and testing a companion syrup for the cake.  Pastry cream, or creme patisserie is a basic cream filling with endless potential. It is used to fill a variety of cakes, tarts, cream puffs and other pastries.  Similar to a custard, eggs and milk are simmered to thicken, but now flour and cornstarch are added not only to thicken but to also strengthen and stabilize the custard for greater durability.  Almost any flavoring or liqueur can be added to the cream to suit the desired effect and composition:  vanilla, almond, chocolate, etc.

Since génoise can be slightly dry, complementary syrup is often brushed on the cut layers to moisten and provide additional flavor.  However, my upside down cake was tricky enough with caramel glazed plums; I opted to pass on further slicing and filling.

Ginger-Lemon Sauce
Ginger-Lemon Sauce


Here, I thinned the pastry cream with additional ginger-lemon syrup to make it thinner and more pourable – a return to the custard sauce state.  You will note how well it continues to hold its shape in the photo provided.

Following are basic recipes and ideas for flavored syrup and pastry cream.

Simple Syrup


  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup hot water
  • 1 Tbsp light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or other flavoring


In small pan dissolve sugar in water.  Add syrup and bring to a boil.  Simmer 2 – 3 minutes.  Add flavoring and cool.


Orange:  substitute orange juice for water.  Add peel of ¼ orange to pan.

Ginger-Lemon Syrup: steep 1 ginger-lemon tea bag in 1 cup boiling water for 5-10 minutes.  Use this infusion for the syrup water along with peel from ½ lemon and ½” slice fresh ginger, peeled.  Proceed and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.  Let cool and remove ginger and peel.  The lemon strips can be used to decorate the cake, if desired.

 Pastry Cream


  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp vanilla, vanilla bean paste or other extract, or 2 tsp liqueur such as Grand Marnier
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces


  1. Heat milk to near boiling, with the milk steaming hot.
  2. In small saucepan mix the egg yolks and sugar to combine.  Sift the flour and cornstarch together and slowly add to the egg mixture, stirring to incorporate before adding more until a thick mass forms.
  3. Slowly add the hot milk to the egg mixture until it is combined and there are no lumps.
  4. Place pan over medium heat; while whisking bring mixture to a boil and cook briefly until it is thick.
  5. Remove from heat and add vanilla or other flavoring.
  6. Let cool 4-5 minutes and whisk in bits of butter until smooth.
  7. Place in bowl and cover surface with plastic wrap to avoid skin forming.  Cool and store in refrigerator up to 3 days.  Stir well to remove any lumps before using.  Yield:  a generous cup , suitable for filling a 9” cake


Ginger-Lemon Sauce, thin the pastry cream with ginger-lemon syrup to desired consistency.