Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup


  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

Quick Strawberry Preserves: A Matter of Taste

strawberriesWhen I spotted fresh strawberries at the market recently, I had a hunch the glory of this season’s berry days is just about behind us, so I grabbed some.  While out, I also tracked down powdered pectin.  Now, I was ready to tackle my first batch of strawberry jam.

I’m back living it up in another tiny space, playing with my appliances and challenging their capabilities, rather than relying solely on a stove top and oven.  Since this would be a small batch, I opted to give the microwave a try.

First, I did a bit more research on the pectin issue. Much of the information I had on hand was either confusing or did not apply; some was philosophical: making preserves is all trial and error and you will learn by doing.  Odd,  after 100’s of years of making strawberry preserves, we are still at that stage.

What made sense:  the fruit’s pectin plus the available acid will balance each other in a time driven equation resulting in thickened preserves. How much you need, and how long you cook it, is pretty much shades of gray.  Of course, there was also the microwave issue: how would that affect all of this?   Whatever.

I gathered up my collection of recipes and my ingredients and I simply began. I had my strawberries.  Since they are low on pectin, I would add a little pectin for good measure.  I had sugar, and I would also include a little lemon juice to help with the acid issue.

I used a wide glass microwaveable mixing bowl, approximately 2 quart in size. I read that mixing the pectin with the berries and cooking them together first would help the pectin setting process.

Once that came to a boil, I added the sugar and lemon juice.  Quantities here seem negotiable, but my berries were surprisingly sweet—an important factor in this balancing act.  Some recipes opt for huge amounts of sugar, and that interested me not; I settled on 2/3 of a cup.  On the lemon juice:  I decided lemon is good, so went with 3 teaspoons worth.  If my berries were bland or sour, I’d would back off on the lemon juice to 2 teaspoons.

Finally, in small batch strawberry preserves, many recipes agree that in the final stage, 5 minutes is a realistic duration—more or less. This will also depend on the wattage of the microwave, mine is mid-range, and not super-powerful.  Most important, the berry mixture must fully boil for 1 minute.

Strawberry Preserves, ala Microwave
Strawberry Preserves, ala Microwave

In Review:  My little unofficial science project worked out just fine.  The preserves set up very well, and were plenty sweet.  Mostly though, I was surprised by the pure strawberry freshness and fruitiness that is revealed.  In the end, that is what matters.

Quick Strawberry Preserves from the Microwave 

1 lb fresh ripe strawberries, trim and halve
1 tablespoon powdered fruit pectin
2/3 cup sugar
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice


  1. In a large microwaveable bowl, combine berries with pectin and mash berries leaving some shape. Microwave uncovered on high about 4 minutes, until it comes to a boil.
  2. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Microwave uncovered about 5 minutes.  Check every 2 minutes and stir well.  When it reaches a full boil, boil 1 minute, until slightly thickened.  Cool and store covered in refrigerator, will hold 2 weeks or longer.  Makes 2 generous cups.



Bread + Berries = Pudding

What do you get when you combine bread and berries together and let them set in the fridge overnight?  An unpalatable gob, perhaps?

That was pretty much my take whenever I considered Summer Pudding, that most cherished of British sweets. I could not wrap my brain around seriously wasting the season’s best fruit on this bizarre idea.

In all fairness, maybe it is another case of availability being the mother of intention:  or, when you’ve got bread and berries, you just make pudding.  Here, a mold is lined with bread slices and filled with berries that have been briefly simmered with water and sugar to create fruit syrup, which binds it all together.  It is then weighted down and pressed until it forms a congealed mass.

I know.  It still doesn’t make the heart race.

And so it was, until recently, while reading Judith Jones’s charming recollection of Summer Pudding for One in The Pleasures of Cooking for One:

“I always remember my childhood summers in Vermont as a procession of summer puddings made with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, or currant as they came along. This old-fashioned dessert couldn’t be simpler to put together, and you can do a single portion in a small cup mold…”

Well, I certainly value Judith’s perspective.  After all, she was most influential in getting Julia Child first published.  Besides, making only one serving meant I had very little at stake―especially since I had a half loaf of Banana Swirl Bread still breathing heavy in my larder.  And, it is berry season in the Willamette Valley.


It didn’t take long to accumulate plenty of berries:  raspberries, marionberries, strawberries, and tayberries (a new blend of raspberries and marionberries). In that same amount of time I also learned more about the magic that occurs in Summer Pudding.

Currants are not imperative here, but they provide a clue pertaining to why they are valued for more than their taste.  Currants are especially high in pectin, followed closely by other berries such as strawberries, blackberries and the like. Pectin becomes the active ingredient that binds and transforms these simple ingredients into something utterly bewitching.

Just in case you don’t have a loaf of Banana Swirl Bread, any firm homemade or Pullman style loaf that is not too light will provide the necessary structure to hold this all together.  Ina Garten’s Summer Pudding uses further insurance by inserting layers of bread in the center of her mold for increased substance.  I suspect this is more of an American conceit, and likely viewed as unnecessary by the average British cook.

If you have additional syrup, set it aside and save it to enjoy with the pudding.  To unmold, slide a knife around the pudding and turn it upside down onto a plate.

Raspberry, Marionberry and Tayberry Pudding
Raspberry, Marionberry and Tayberry Pudding

Serve it with more fruit, sweetened whipped cream, crème fraiche or yogurt. By the way, Summer Pudding is really good for breakfast―about as long as I can wait.Maybe it will bring out the kid in you, too!

Summer Pudding
Summer Pudding

You know, the British may be on to something here―Summer Pudding is light, fresh, and happy―and it certainly makes me smile.  Mixed Berry Pudding 1

Summer Pudding for One

Inspired by Judith Jones, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, also online article by Felicity Cloake,


1/3      c  raspberries, fresh
1/3      c  blackberries,, blueberries, currants, and or strawberries
1          tbsp sugar or to taste
1/4      cup water
2          slices homemade bread, trimmed and thinly sliced, approx.
Sweetened whipped cream or yogurt, additional fruit for garnish

  1. In a small saucepan place the washed fruit, the sugar and water. Over moderately heat, simmer 3 to 5 minutes or until fruit is softened but not mushy.  Taste the syrup, it should be pleasantly sweet, add more sugar if too tart.  There should also be enough syrup to fully moisten the bread liner, adjust liquid as necessary.
  2. Line a one cup mold with the bread slices: line the bottom of the mold, then cut triangles or rectangles to run up the sides fitting firmly without gaps.  Cut a round to fit on the top, which will be the bottom when unmolded, and set it aside.
  3. Arrange the fruit and syrup in the mold and place the reserved round on top. All the bread should be moistened. Place a small plate with a can or other heavy object on top to weight it down evenly.  Enclose it all with plastic wrap.
  4. Refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight. Unmold, running a knife around the sides.  Serve with sweetened cream or yogurt, and a few fresh berries.     Yield:  1  serving