Forget Charlie Bucket. I’ve scored the last golden ticket with this cherry-blossom-themed Frugal Foodie. Buzz pastry chef Josh Short and Firefly bartender Alice Gaber accepted the challenge and agreed to whip up a dessert/cocktail party for ten for less than $75.
My Willy Wonka fantasies, however, are quickly sidelined at the grocery store. Short, notepad in hand, is all business. He and Gaber discuss a menu and budget, then traipse through the supermarket picking up groceries. When the bill rings up at just more than $40, leaving Gaber plenty for alcohol, Short visibly relaxes. Willy Wonka, I realize, wasn’t constrained by a budget.
At my apartment, Gaber candies edible flowers by brushing them with egg whites and dipping them in sugar. Short starts the mixer, whipping up a meringue, then a batter for sugar cookies. He cuts premade pie crust into small circles, then places them into the mini-tart tins he brought along. Normally, he’d do this a day in advance and assemble the treats right before guests arrive.
While the meringues cook, Short starts on the tart fillings. He cooks cherriesand stirs up pastry cream and royal icing. As he finishes each component, he hands me something to try—a still-warm sugar cookie, a spatula smeared with icing. But even through my doped-up sugar haze, I see how hard Short is concentrating. Baking is a science, and adding anything but the precise amount to a recipe can make your dough too tough or your crust too flaky.
While surely there’s a science to making cocktails, Gaber takes a more freewheeling approach to her recipes. In a big mixing bowl, she pours sake, cherry lambic, a pint of vodka, and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. She tastes the creation and decides it needs a little sweetness. A green-tea-flavored simple syrup does the trick. She strains the batch into a glass pitcher to show off its sumptuous pink color.
Short fills the mini-tarts, ices the sugar cookies, and adds a dollop of cream and bits of fruit to the top of the meringues. Then he lays out the spread of desserts on my table, using stacks of books under cloth napkins to create different heights for the platters and tea lights to add a little sparkle. It’s a miniature wonderland of pastel-colored, fruit-filled desserts—the perfect way to celebrate the cherry blossoms and spring. Now if only I felt more like Willy Wonka, welcoming my guests with an acrobatic flourish, instead of Augustus Gloop, swollen to such a size that he gets stuck in the chocolate works.
All recipes serve ten.
Pastel Sugar Cookies
For the cookie dough:
8 ounces butter
4 ounces sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
12 ounces flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixer, cream the butter and the sugar. Add the egg and vanilla extract and combine until mixed. Add the flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix to combine. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Roll out the dough and use a cookie cutter to cut out circles. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the cookies are done. When the cookies have cooled, decorate them with royal icing.
For the royal icing:
1 egg white
½ lemon, juiced
10 ounces powdered sugar, sifted
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. If the icing is too thin, thicken it with more powdered sugar; if it’s too thick, thin it with more lemon juice. Divide into bowls and add whatever food coloring you like.
Baked Meringues With Pastry Cream and Fresh Fruit
For the pastry cream:
2 cups milk
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 egg yolks
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons butter
In a medium saucepan set over low heat, add the milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Bring to a simmer.
Combine the egg yolks and the flour. Very slowly, whisk the hot milk into the yolks. Return the mixture to the saucepan, bring to a boil, and shut off the heat. Strain and stir in the butter. Chill and use for the meringues, miniature tarts, and crepes.
For the meringues:
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
1⁄3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
Assortment of fresh fruit
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees.
In a mixer, whip the egg whites and lemon juice until they form soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar followed by the powdered sugar. Continue whipping until it reaches the stiff-peak stage.
Spoon the meringues onto a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet. Using the back of a spoon, make a hole in the middle of each meringue.
Bake for 1 to 1½ hours or until crisp and cooked through. When the meringues are cool, fill them with pastry cream and top with whatever fresh fruit you prefer.
6 ounces good dark chocolate (Short likes the 70-percent Valrhona available at Trader Joe’s)
1 tablespoon butter
2 to 4 tablespoons cream (depending on what thickness you like)
Wash and dry the strawberries. Let them come to room temperature. Make sure they’re dry (water and chocolate are bitter enemies). Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a double boiler set over simmering water, heat the chocolate and butter until they’re just melted, then take off the heat. The mixture should be 100 degrees but no hotter. Thin the chocolate mixture with cream, adding one tablespoon at a time (Short prefers two tablespoons, but use more if you like it thinner).
If you have long-stem strawberries, hold them by the stem and dip them in the chocolate. If you don’t, use a toothpick or skewer to hold the berries while dipping them.
Miniature Tarts With Lemon Curd, Cherry Compote, and Pastry Cream
For the tart shells:
Using a cookie cutter, cut premade pie-crust dough into small circles. Fit circles into miniature tart shell pans. After they’re cool, remove them from the pans and fill with lemon curd, cherry compote, or pastry cream with fresh fruit.
For the cherry compote:
12-ounce package frozen sour cherries
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a medium saucepan, add the cherries, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Bring to a boil. In the meantime, mix the cornstarch with 1 to 2 tablespoons cold water to make a slurry. Slowly add the slurry to the cherries and bring back to a boil. Adjust the thickness by adding more slurry. Use for the crepes and the miniature tarts.
For the lemon curd:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
Combine all ingredients in a double boiler over simmering water and cook until thick, about ten minutes.
Crepes With Pastry Cream and Cherry Compote
For the crepe batter:
½ cup milk
½ cup water
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted
In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs, milk, and water. Add the flour and salt and mix to combine. When the batter is mixed, whisk in the melted butter. Spread the batter in a nonstick pan and cook the crepes. Fill with the pastry cream and cherry compote from the previous recipes.
For the punch:
2 cups freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1½ liters sake
1 pint vodka or gin
2 grapefruits (cut into chunks and squeezed or muddled without the peel)
¾ liter Kirsch ambic
1 cup green-tea syrup (add more if you like it sweeter)
Strain the grapefruit juice through a sieve to remove the pulp. Combine all the ingredients. Serve over ice. Garnish with candied flower petals.
For the green-tea syrup:
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
4 bags (or 4 teaspoons looseleaf) jasmine green tea or other tea of your choice
In a saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and tea bags and simmer. After four minutes, remove the tea bags or leaves and continue to reduce for ten minutes to achieve a syrup-like consistency.
For the candied flower petals:
Edible flowers, as needed
1 egg white mixed with equal parts water
Finely ground sugar, as needed
With a paintbrush or small pastry brush, thinly coat each flower petal with the egg-white/water mixture. Dust the flowers with finely ground sugar on all sides and let dry for several hours. Use a flower to garnish each glass of punch.