Lemon mascarpone layer cake is a four-layer tower worthy of any restaurant or bakery. (Hillary Levin / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Lemon mascarpone layer cake is a four-layer tower worthy of any restaurant or bakery. (Hillary Levin / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

These 4 recipes will prevent the heartbreak of blah desserts

Each of them is decadent and well worth the calories, and they’ll all become your new favorites.

  • Tuesday, September 22, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

By Daniel Neman / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It’s so disappointing.

You go to a restaurant or a friend’s house for dinner. All meal long, you are anticipating the grand event, the crowning glory — a superb dessert, rich and sweet, the perfect ending to an enchanting meal.

And then the dessert comes. And it’s, you know, OK. Could be better. Mediocre or not even that. Suddenly, the meal is no longer quite as enchanting.

It’s so disappointing, especially when you consider the calories that you needlessly consumed on a dessert that was ordinary. Run of the mill. Inadequate.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take it anymore — at least not when you’re cooking at home. To remedy this plague of deficient desserts, I decided to cook four dishes that are filled with all the decadent things that make desserts so sublime.

I made four desserts that are worth the calories.

Of the ones I made, my favorite is the lemon marscapone layer cake. This is a (relatively) towering four-layer cake worthy of any restaurant or bakery. It is made with three different types of lemony goodness, but they are light and airy and subtle so they blend into a happy, soft harmony.

The base of this cake is a plain old ordinary sponge cake, but don’t let that fool you. First you make a simple lemon syrup that you brush on each layer, which eagerly soaks it up. Then you spread each layer with a filling made from mascarpone cheese, whipped cream and lemon curd — homemade lemon curd is best (I’ve thoughtfully included a recipe), but you can use the store-bought version if you like.

And then each layer of filling is further topped with a thin spreading of more lemon curd. Because why not?

It’s a sturdy cake, but also delicate in taste and texture, topped with a gossamer-like frosting. It takes some time and effort to make — I wouldn’t recommend it to a baking novice — but each forkful is sheer bliss.

That said, my favorite of the four desserts is the raspberry and chocolate tart. Nothing goes better with chocolate than raspberries, and nothing goes better with raspberries than chocolate.

This tart has an abundance of fresh raspberries packed into a chocolate tart crust, which is then filled with a smooth and creamy chocolate ganache. The filling melts in your mouth as you eat it, and you get pleasing pops of bright flavor from each raspberry as you eat it.

The genius of the dish is the crust, which is flavored with cocoa powder and less powdered sugar than you’d think. In this way, the crust is a little bittersweet, which serves as a counterpoint to the rich filling.

It’s the sort of tart consumed nightly by the gods on Mount Olympus, who threw down their chalices of nectar in dismay after they first tasted it.

Even so, my favorite of the desserts is the cheesecake. It is our go-to cheesecake, the cheesecake we make whenever we make cheesecake. The recipe originally came from a restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine, called the Blue Hill Buffet. Our cookbook with the recipe in it dates back to 1964, which proves that great food never goes out of style.

It is a simple but pure recipe, and so it particularly benefits from using the best ingredients. The crust should be made with name-brand vanilla wafers, the cream cheese should be of a good quality and you should whip the cream yourself. Most important, the lemon extract should be fresh and preferably just purchased; the freshness makes a remarkably large difference.

It is the ideal cheesecake, rich and thick and creamy. All other cheesecakes are but imperfect reflections of it.

The fourth dessert that is absolutely worth the calories is an old-fashioned pearl tapioca pudding.

I know. A lot of people are a little repulsed by the thought of tapioca. They are afraid of the texture. But that’s just because they haven’t had this tapioca.

This tapioca is made with a thin custard called a creme anglaise. If you froze it, you would get ice cream. If you sprinkled sugar on the top of it and torched it, you would get a creme brulee.

Basically, this is creme brulee with soft, chewy tapioca pearls — which are the same thing you use to make bubble tea.

It’s fun to eat and, when you sprinkle just a touch of cinnamon on top, it is insanely delicious.

Of the four desserts that are worth the calories, it is my favorite.

Lemon mascarpone layer cake

For the sponge cakes:

6 large eggs, separated

7 tablespoons (½ cup minus 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar plus 7 tablespoons (½ cup minus 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar

1 ¾ cups sifted cake flour

For the lemon syrup:

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup water

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

For the lemon curd:

1 recipe lemon curd (see recipe) or 2½ cups purchased lemon curd

For the mascarpone filling:

2½ cups heavy whipping cream

7 tablespoons (½ cup minus 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar

1 pound mascarpone

Note: All the parts of this cake can be made in advance.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and position oven racks in the lower and upper thirds. Fit 2 cake pans with parchment rounds. Do not grease the pans.

Make the cakes: Whip the egg yolks and 7 tablespoons of the sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until thick and very light in color, 4 to 5 minutes. You can also use a hand mixer and a medium bowl, although you may need to beat the mixture a little longer to achieve the same results. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside while you whip the egg whites.

Thoroughly clean the mixer bowl and whisk attachment or beaters. Whip the egg whites on medium speed to soft peaks. With the mixer running, gradually add 7 more tablespoons of sugar; continue beating until the egg whites hold firm peaks. Fold ⅓ of the egg whites into the beaten yolks with a spatula, then sift half of the flour over the top and gently fold it in. Repeat. Fold in the last of the egg whites until no streaks of white remain.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, until the tops are golden, firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Halfway through the baking time, switch the pans on the racks so they bake evenly. Transfer the cakes to a rack to cool completely.

Make the lemon syrup: Heat ½ cup of sugar and water in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved and the liquid is clear. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Stir in the lemon juice.

Make the mascarpone filling: Thoroughly clean the mixer bowl and whisk or beaters. Place the cream and the remaining 7 tablespoons of sugar in the bowl and whip until soft peaks form. Place the mascarpone and 1 cup of the lemon curd in a large bowl and stir until blended — it should be the consistency of pudding. Gently fold in the whipped cream until the mixture is homogeneous and thick. If the mixture becomes overworked it will look grainy or separated. If this happens, stir in several tablespoons of cream and stir just until the mixture has smoothed out again.

Transfer 2¼ cups of filling to a medium bowl to use for piping decorations. Transfer half of the remaining filling to another medium bowl. Refrigerate all 3 bowls of mascarpone mixture. You may want to label the 3 bowls: one for piping, one for filling layers and one for frosting.

Unmold the cakes: Run a thin, flexible knife or spatula around the edge of a pan to loosen a cake. Turn the pan upside down and give it a sharp rap on the table if necessary to release (don’t worry, these cakes are very sturdy). Turn the cake right-side up, leaving the parchment paper attached. Repeat with the remaining cake. Level the cakes, if necessary, by cutting a thin slice off the top if it is mounded and not even. Use a serrated knife to cut each cake horizontally into 2 layers. Set aside one of the bottom layers to use last, and remove the parchment from the other layer.

Assemble the cake. Place a cake layer, cut side up, on the serving plate. Brush the cake with ¼ of the lemon syrup. Spread ⅓ of the mascarpone filling on top. Place 3 level tablespoons of the remaining lemon curd on top of the filling and spread evenly to the edge. Place a second cake layer on top, cut side up, and repeat with lemon syrup, mascarpone filling and lemon curd. Place third layer on top, cut side up, and repeat.

Top with the last cake layer, placing it bottom side up (cut side down). Remove the parchment paper; the surface will be crumb-free for frosting. Moisten it with the remaining lemon syrup. Spread the mascarpone reserved for frosting over the cake, spreading it quite thinly on top with more on the side.

Finish and serve the cake: Spoon the piping mascarpone into a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch star tip (or a gallon-size plastic bag with a small hole in one corner, fitted with a ½-inch star tip). Pipe rosettes over the entire top of the cake, starting around the outside edge and working your way to the center. Put a few tablespoons of the remaining curd into a plastic sandwich bag and squeeze it into one of the corners. Snip off the corner and pipe a center of lemon curd into each of the rosettes. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving, so the flavors and textures have a chance to meld. To serve, slice with a thin, sharp knife. The cake will keep, refrigerated, for 3 to 4 days.

Makes 12 servings. Nutrition per serving: 590 calories; 32 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 267 milligrams cholesterol; 10 grams protein; 66 grams carbohydrates; 49 grams sugar; 1 gram fiber; 182 milligrams sodium; 5 milligrams calcium.

— Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking” by Cindy Mushet.

Lemon curd

3 large eggs

3 large egg yolks

1 cup minus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

¾ cup strained freshly squeezed lemon juice

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water and set aside. Fill the bottom of a double boiler with 2 inches of water and bring to a roiling boil. Check to see the water is at least 2 inches below the top portion of the double boiler.

Place the eggs, egg yolks and sugar into the top of the double boiler (off the heat) and whisk until blended. Add the lemon juice and mix well. Reduce the heat until the water is at a gentle boil. Place the egg mixture over the water and cook, whisking constantly but leisurely, and scraping the edges frequently so the eggs don’t scramble there, until the curd is very thick, about 7 minutes. A finished curd should hold its shape; when the whisk is lifted and a bit of curd falls back into the bowl, it should remain distinct on the surface rather than blending back into the mixture. Do not let the curd boil. If you get bits of scrambled egg, immediately remove the bowl from the heat and proceed to the next step.

Immediately strain the curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl. Push the curd though the strainer with a spatula or spoon, leaving behind any bits of scrambled egg. Add the cold butter pieces to the curd, burying them so they melt quickly. Wait 1 minute, then whisk until the butter is completely melted and blended with the curd. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd, then set the bowl in the large bowl of ice and water. Once the curd has completely cooled, use or store for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

Makes 2½ cups. Nutrition per (1 tablespoon) serving: 44 calories; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 32 milligrams cholesterol; 1 gram protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; no fiber; 6 milligrams sodium; 5 milligrams calcium.

— Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking” by Cindy Mushet.

Raspberry and chocolate tart

1⅓ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

⅔ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

⅓ cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed, plus more for greasing, divided

3 egg yolks

3 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 cup light cream or half-and-half

4 cups raspberries (about 1 pound)

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and powdered sugar into a large bowl. Add 10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) of the butter and rub in using your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Add the egg yolks and gently mix together, then add 1 teaspoon of the vanilla and combine to form a smooth dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9½-inch diameter tart pan.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and carefully use to line the pan. Cover with parchment paper, fill the pastry shell with pie weights or dried beans, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and weights and return crust to the oven for 5 more minutes. Let cool.

Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, making sure the surface of the water does not touch the bowl. Meanwhile, put the cream into a small saucepan and heat until steaming hot, but do not let it boil. Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and slowly pour in the cream, gently stirring the mixture. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of vanilla, then the remaining 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) butter, and stir together.

Pack the cooled pastry shell with raspberries, saving a few for decoration. Pour the hot chocolate ganache over the raspberries to fill to the top of the pastry. Let set in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes. Serve decorated with the reserved raspberries dusted with a little powdered sugar.

Makes 6 servings. Nutrition per serving: 714 calories; 46 grams fat; 28 grams saturated fat; 176 milligrams cholesterol; 11 gram protein; 74 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams sugar; 12 grams fiber; 51 milligrams sodium; 93 milligrams calcium.

— Recipe from “Chocolat” by Eric Lanlard.

Blue Hill Buffet’s Cheesecake

The lemon extract must be recently purchased. It loses its flavor within a few months of opening.

8 ounces vanilla wafers (about 56), finely ground

¼ pound (1 stick) salted butter, melted

1½ pounds good cream cheese

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 eggs

¾ teaspoons lemon extract, see note

1 cup whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir together vanilla wafers and melted butter and press into springform pan or large pie plate. Bake 10 minutes; do not brown. Remove from oven and raise oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Place cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer or large bowl. In a bowl, mix together the sugar and cornstarch, and add to the cream cheese. Add the eggs and the lemon extract. Mix with stand mixer or hand-held mixer until thoroughly combined.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream until it reaches stiff peaks. Gently fold into the cream cheese mixture just until combined. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle a few cookie crumbs on top and bake until firm in the middle and a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 60 minutes.

Makes 8 servings. Nutrition per serving: 551 calories; 46 grams fat; 27 grams saturated fat; 157 milligrams cholesterol; 398 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams sugar; no fiber; 398 milligrams sodium; 90 milligrams calcium.

— Adapted from “Picasso & Pie” by Lynne Thompson.

Old-fashioned pearl tapioca pudding

A fresh vanilla bean is preferred for this recipe.

4 ounces tapioca pearls, preferably large

1 fresh vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (see note)

2 cups milk, plus more if needed

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream, plus more if needed

½ cup granulated sugar

Pinch salt

2 egg yolks

Cinnamon, for serving

Soak the tapioca pearls in water overnight, covered well with water. The next day, drain off the water. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape out the tiny seeds and add them and the bean pods to a heavy-bottomed pot with the milk, cream and tapioca. Bring to a very slow simmer, stirring often to avoid scorching. If the mixture becomes too thick and, um, like mucus, add more milk and cream as needed.

Stir in the sugar, salt and vanilla extract if using. Put the yolks into a bowl and stir in some of the tapioca mixture a very little bit at a time to equalize the temperature while not scrambling the eggs. (If the eggs do scramble, discard and begin again with new yolks). Add the warmed yolk mixture to the tapioca mixture while stirring. Pour into a bowl to cool before placing a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface and placing in the refrigerator.

Serve with a little dash of ground cinnamon.

Makes 6 servings. Nutrition per serving: 316 calories; 16 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 108 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams sugar; no fiber; 74 milligrams sodium; 137 milligrams calcium.

— Adapted from a recipe from “The Frog and the Redneck” by Jimmy Sneed.

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