Spring & Easter

macarons.jpgI love all French desserts and confections, but one of my most favorites is the macaron. Available in countless colors and flavors, macarons are very popular in France. In Paris, customers line up to buy them at many famous pastry shops, such as Dalloyau or Ladurée, which invented the double-decker sandwiched macaron in 1930. Since Paris is a bit too far for me to travel, I usually buy them at Bouchon Bakery in New York. I love all the flavors they offer even though their selection is not as wide as in France. But for me it doesn't matter, because the chocolate macaron is what I consider to be the best.

French macarons are basically meringue cookies made only of powdered sugar, egg whites, and almond flour. Getting the proportions exactly correct is key to the perfect macaron. Unlike the dense and chewy coconut macaroons, which French macarons are almost always confused with, macarons are smooth, light as air, and only slightly chewy. A smooth and flavorful filling in between two of the cookies is the icing on the cake. Pastry shops have come up with very unusual macarons and fillings, such as passion fruit and green tea, but the chocolate macaron is probably the most popular.

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hazelnutasparagus003.jpg I get excited when I see fresh asparagus standing tall in the produce department at the grocery store. It tells me spring is almost here. Although fresh-from-the-garden asparagus probably won't be available around here until sometime in June, I know that when spring hits the produce department it won't be long before we actually feel that season in northern Minnesota. Now, that's something to celebrate.

I've been blanching, steaming, sauteeing and roasting asparagus for the last week. I've discovered I love having blanched asparagus in the refrigerator. I can grab a spear and nibble on it just the way it is or dab it into some of the roasted red pepper and garlic hummus that I whip together in my food processor and store in the refrigerator for a healthful snack.

Asparagus with Hazelnut Crumble is a quick-to-make dish that takes advantage of blanched asparagus. On a recent evening I melted some butter in a saute pan. When it was hot, I added some minced shallot (because I had some in my little garlic basket on the counter) and cooked it just until tender. Then, I added blanched asparagus spears and kept shaking the pan back and forth so that the spears would be totally coated with butter.

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greencheesecake002Way back in March of 1990 I started making a cheesecake from a recipe that I clipped from an issue of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch. It's called Absolutely Sinful Chocolate Grasshopper Cheesecake. Its pale shade of green comes from the addition of green creme de menthe. I've always enjoyed serving it as a perfect dessert for a St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Over the years I've made little changes to the recipe. It was always sinful, but now it's mortally sinful.

Light and creamy with a hint of mint on a crunchy chocolate crust and smothered with a chocolate topping that stays soft even after chilling in the refrigerator, it's a little like Jello -- there's always room for it, even after a big meal. It's not too sweet and not nearly as rich as it sounds, making it a great go-along to a late-night cup of coffee.

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deviledeggsWhat's Easter without Easter eggs? Hide them. Roll them. And, best of all, eat them. Of the many dishes associated with Easter, deviled eggs have always been high on my list. Traditional deviled eggs are delicious but with some adventuresome spices, hardboiled Easter eggs take center stage on this festive occasion.

Our fingers stained blue, red and yellow, my sister and I loved dyeing and decorating Easter eggs. Our parents would hide the eggs around the house and outside. I'd race against my sister, each of us hoping to find more than the other.

Ultimately when we had delivered the eggs back into the kitchen, our mother turned our colored eggs into deviled eggs with a simple recipe: peel off the shells, cut the eggs in half and remove the yolks. Chop up the yolks, add a bit of mayonnaise, season with salt and pepper and spoon the mixture back onto the egg white halves.

When were kids those flavors were good enough. But for my adult palate, deviled eggs need spicing up. With experimentation, I discovered that doing something as simple as adding cayenne or Mexican chili ancho powder gives mild-mannered eggs a mouth-pleasing heat. Sweeten the flavor up a notch by stirring in finely chopped currants or borrow from Indian cuisine and mix in curry powder that has first been dry roasted in a sauté pan.

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easterpound.jpg Along with the first calls of the loons, the chirping of birds, the bright sunshine and the earthy fragrance of the woods, comes my desire for pound cake. Most years, these signs of spring in northern Minnesota coincide with Easter.

This year, though, snow still covers the grass around my house and it's cold enough outside to warrant a warm jacket. But even an Easter with no sign of spring in sight does not prevent my thoughts from turning to the tantalizing aroma of a baking pound cake wafting through my kitchen.

Every year, during the week before Easter, the pound cake season begins. Using the best butter I can buy, lots of eggs, flour and sugar along with my favorite flavorings, I bake at least one cake in an old cast-iron lamb mold that has been handed down to me through generations of use in my dad’s family. I nibble my way through pound-cake season as I bake that same batter in a bundt pan and serve it with clusters of fresh grapes or topped with fresh strawberries. I cut generous chunks from the cakes and wrap them up tightly in clear plastic wrap to share with friends.

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