For the past three years, I have been making the same dessert for Easter: a fragrant almond cake with an orange-scented custard filling. It’s lovely and dramatic; the cake is a tasty golden square, sealed with a crusty edge of almond, and each bite contains a whole range of textures, from crunch, to a dense chew, and into a soft pillow of custard. I usually host Easter, but this year ECG and I planned to take a redeye out to DC that night, so we accepted the invitation to join friends at their home. I volunteered to bring my Easter dessert. I also toyed with the idea of bringing a spring-y strawberry-rose sorbet—something lighter for those who may want it.
Saturday morning I hit the farmers’ market to get ingredients for both the cake and the sorbet. I made the sorbet base as soon as I got home. Mundane weekend chores filled the rest of my morning, and I spent most of the afternoon working on the cake. Because it requires mixing the dough, chilling the dough, rolling the dough, filling the dough with the custard (which you’ve hopefully remembered to make before this step), and chilling the whole thing again before baking, it’s a terribly time consuming (and therefore a once-a-year) recipe. I finished the cake in the evening, and let it cool to turn out before going to bed that night. After working for a few hours to get my house into some semblance of order before leaving the next day, I pulled out the cake plate, set it over the baking dish, and flipped. Did I not wait long enough? Did I hesitate? Did I shake the baking dish just a little too hard?
You know what is coming.
Shit. I dropped the whole thing.
Custard. Crust. Curse words. It was messy.
Wracked with fat snotty tears, I accepted ECG’s hug of comfort, tried to calm down, then set out to clean up the disaster. Slopping custard up in big spoonfuls and scrubbing it out of the grout between the tiles just made me cry again, so I gave in to the tears and wept while I cleaned. I felt like a sponge absorbing frustrations: the dessert was ruined, it was a bitch to clean up, it was late and I was very tired, and I had no idea what to do for Easter dessert the next day. I felt stupid and angry at myself.
I did the only thing I could do in such a state; I went to bed.
If it were the movies, I would say next that in the morning, the sun shone brightly, birds sang, and a whole cake, free from disaster, waited for me downstairs. It was Easter after all. I mean, resurrection is expected. But alas, all that waited for me downstairs was a messy bowl of mushy cake remnants in the refrigerator. I woke spitting angry invectives at myself, but realized it was Easter and I better practice the whole point of the day. I forgave myself. It sounds so cheesy to say that, but it isn’t nearly as easy to do as it should be. I did it though. Once I was no longer angry, I felt flexible and able to conquer the challenge ahead of me. As we all know (it is no new lesson here) being angry takes a lot of mental energy and letting go of it allows one to apply that mental energy to much more productive tasks. Short on time—two hours before church, after which would follow the Easter lunch—I had to figure out something to do. Making the cake again was impossible since I had neither enough time nor enough eggs to pull it off. The sorbet, once a backup plan, now would have to be central to the dessert. I’d need to make something to complement it. I thought of the crust of the previously planned cake, and figured that I had just enough time to throw that part of the recipe together and turn it into cookies or bars. I added a little extra Sauternes to the batter to make it even more fragrantly delicious, pressed the batter into pie pans, and voila, created a perfect Easter dessert. The combination of crust and dense interior of the bars (if any one knows a prettier term for “bars,” please let me know, as this recipe could certainly use it), along with the undeniably wonderful flavors of almond, Sauternes, and vanilla made them irresistible, while the strawberries and rosewater melded together into gorgeous true-red scoops of perfumed perfection.
Forgiveness sure is delicious.
Strawberry-Rose Sorbet and Sauternes-Almond Bars
For the sorbet (from April’s Sunset), you will need:
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound fresh strawberries, rinsed, and stems removed
1 ½ tablespoons of rosewater
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
To make the sorbet:
Bring the sugar and ½ cup of water to a simmer over medium high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then remove from heat and set to cool to room temperature.
Purée strawberries in a food process until smooth then pour through a sieve into a mixing bowl. The sieve will catch the seeds, but you’ll have to press the fruit through. It will take a few minutes of scraping the solids with a large spoon against the side of the sieve to get most of the fruit through. Toss the seeds.
Into the mixing bowl with the fruit, pour the sugar syrup, rosewater, lemon juice and salt. Remember to taste the sorbet base before chilling: as with all frozen desserts, it should be a little too sweet because the cold will dampen your taste buds' ability to taste sweetness. Stir well, then place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill completely before following the directions from your ice cream maker to freeze into a sorbet.
For the bars (adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 2004), you will need:
2 ¼ cups flour
½ cup ground almonds
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ cups sugar
3 egg yolks
¼ cup Sauternes
1 teaspoon almond extract
The seeds scraped from one vanilla bean*
*To do this, place the bean lengthwise on a cutting board. With a short, sharp knife, cut the bean along its length. You will end up with two long halves. Hold one end of the bean half tightly against the cutting board and scrape out the tiny seeds with the knife by dragging it forcefully along the beans interior. Do the same to the other side. You will end up with about ¼ teaspoon of seeds. Do not discard the bean shells, but instead, place them in a small jar, fill the jar with sugar, and let sit in a dark place. After a few days, the sugar will be perfumed beautifully by the bean shells. Use the wonderful vanilla-scented sugar to flavor whipped cream, your coffee, or anything else in which you’d like the flavor of vanilla.
To make the bars:
Whisk together the first four ingredients and set aside while you work at the electric mixer. Into the bowl of the mixer, place the butter and the sugar. Mix on medium until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, making sure that the sides of the bowl are scraped down to thoroughly incorporate the yolk. Once completely combined, add the Sauternes, almond extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Beat on medium thirty seconds or so to mix completely. Add the flour mixture in two additions, beating until the ingredients just come together.
Place the dough into the refrigerator to firm up for at least a half-an-hour. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 375 and grease two pie pans. After the dough has firmed up a bit, remove it from the refrigerator, divide it into two portions, and press each portion into one of the pie pans. Flatten the dough against the bottom of the pans with your fingers. If you’d like to prettify this, you could use a fork or another implement to press a design into the batter.
Place the pans into the oven, and bake about 25 minutes, or until the edges and top of the bars are toasty-golden. Remove from the oven, let cool completely, then cut into wedges. Serve with a dusting of powered sugar and a scoop of sorbet.