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Local Cookbooks: Crafton native's cookbook touts 'sweet quartet'

Thursday, December 12, 2002

By Kathleen Ganster

Fran Gage considers sugar, almonds, eggs and butter "the DNA of desserts."

They provide the title -- and theme -- of her latest cookbook, "A Sweet Quartet -- Sugar, Almonds, Eggs and Butter" (North Point Press; $27.50).

Gage, who has lived in San Francisco since 1969, is a native of Crafton, and was recently in town to visit her mother, Jean Boland of Crafton.

The book is more than just a cookbook. In fact, it has only 33 recipes. "It is a book of stories about the ingredients and desserts," said Gage.

Billed as a "Baker's tour," the book details Gage's trips to farms and factories, where the four ingredients are grown and prepared for public consumption.

"We take these ingredients for granted. They start at farms and it takes great lengths to get them to our tables," she said.

Gage visited small organic farms, as well as a large sugar mill. "I rode a harvester at a sugar cane farm in Louisiana," she said.

We share her visit with Judy Garrett, who raises cows only for her own family's use. We also accompany Gage to France, the butter capital of the world.

"It took about two years on and off to research this book," she said.

At the end of each section about an ingredient, Gage includes recipes that she created. "Each recipe highlights that particular ingredient. You will find that many of these recipes could have gone after any of the sections."

Gage became interested in cooking when she and her husband, Sidney, lived in France more than 30 years ago. She taught herself to cook with cookbooks and ended up returning to France to study.

"I became obsessed with French pastry," she said. When she returned to San Francisco, she opened her own bakery, Patisserie Francaise. Ten years ago, a fire destroyed her bakery. She decided not to rebuild, instead focusing on writing about food. This is her second cookbook.

Many of the recipes are adaptations of those Gage made in the bakery. "They are variations. Some I would have to try a few times to get it right," she said.

Gage said some recipes are simple while others are more complex.

"I wanted to include both the simple, and some for when someone is feeling more adventurous," she said, "Even if you don't want to try the recipes, you can read and enjoy the stories."

Almond Chocolate Drops

  • 1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) whole blanched almonds
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a large baking pan with parchment paper.

Use a food processor to finely grind, but not pulverize, the almonds. Mix the almonds with the powdered sugar.

Put the egg whites in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment, starting on medium speed. When they start to froth, add about a third of the granulated sugar, and beat until they become opaque and increase in volume. Add another third of the sugar, and beat until they start to become firm; then turn up the mixer speed, add the remaining sugar, and beat until they are stiff but still glossy. The whites will hang in soft, droopy peaks from the whisk when it is lifted from the bowl.

Using a spatula, fold the almonds and powdered sugar into the whites by hand, and then fold in the chocolate.

If you are adept with a pastry bag, pipe the mixture into 1-inch rounds, 1 inch apart, onto the baking pan. Don't use a tip; the nuts and chocolate may clog it. Or drop the batter on the pan from a teaspoon.

Put the pan on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake the cookies until they are lightly brown, firm on the surface, and able to be detached from the papers, about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan to a rack to cool. When the cookies are completely cool, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.

"A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs and Butter" by Fran Gage

Chocolate Meringue Sandwiches

Fran Gage said that you could prepare the separate components ahead of time. Store the meringues, airtight, for up to two weeks in advance, and the filling up to five days in advance, in a refrigerator.

  • For the meringues:
  • 1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) powdered sugar
  • 4 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa
  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
  • For the filling:
  • 3/4 cup (6 ounces) heavy whipping cream
  • 8 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Make the meringues: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Draw 20 circles, two inches in diameter, one inch apart, on a piece of parchment paper. Put the paper in the baking pan, marked side down.

Sift the powdered sugar with the cocoa. Set aside.

Put the egg whites in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment, starting on medium speed. When they start to froth, add about a third of the granulated sugar and beat until they become opaque and increase in volume. Add another third of the sugar and beat until they start to become firm, then turn up the mixer speed, add the rest of the sugar, and beat until they are stiff but still glossy. The whites will hang in soft, droopy peaks from the whisk when it is lifted from the bowl.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Sift a third of the powdered sugar and cocoa over the bowl (this will be the second time it is sifted) and fold this into the whites. Use a rubber spatula to fold, going to the bottom of the bowl in the center coming up along the side. Rotate the bowl slightly after every fold. Fold in the remaining powdered sugar in two stages, sifting it into the bowl each time.

Fit a pastry bag with a plain 3/8-inch tip, and fill it with the meringue. Starting in the center of each circle, pipe a coil, filling the circles. (Tester's note: We made these by dropping the batter from a spoon.)

Bake the meringues on the middle shelf of the oven until they are firm and can be detached from the paper, about 1 hour.

Cool the baking pan on a rack. When the meringues are completely cool, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.

Make the filling: Bring the whipping cream to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove it from the heat. Add the chopped chocolate and let it sit for 5 minutes. Whisk the chocolate into the cream until it is smooth. Transfer the chocolate cream to a bowl, cover it and refrigerate.

Assemble the desserts: The filling should be the consistency of thick mayonnaise. If it is freshly made, cool it until it thickens; if made ahead, leave it at room temperature until it softens. Pile a generous tablespoon of filling in the middle of eight meringues. Gently place another meringue on top of each, being careful not to push down too hard, so that each sandwich maintains some height. Put the meringues in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Crush the remaining meringues between pieces of wax or parchment papers. Remove the filled meringues between pieces of wax or parchment paper. Remove the filled meringues from the freezer. Using a small offset spatula or a kitchen knife, smooth the remaining filling onto the sides of the sandwiches. Roll each finished sandwich in the crushed meringues. Refrigerate the desserts until 30 minutes before serving.

Variation: To make these for a dessert buffet, pipe the meringues into 1-inch instead of 2-inch disks.

"A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs and Butter" by Fran Gage


Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton-based freelance writer.

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