Good Taste: From coconut macaroons to French macarons, and baklava in between

Vineyard Delights baklava is made with butter, sugar, honey, walnuts, and phyllo dough.
File photo by Ralph Stewart

Vineyard Delights baklava is made with butter, sugar, honey, walnuts, and phyllo dough.

When I was four years old I decided to make dessert for Christmas. It consisted of graham crackers, milk, sugar, and whipped cream mashed together in a bowl. Needless to say, this dessert was enjoyed immensely by me, but only by me, as is evident in our family video. Since then there have been ups and downs in the kitchen.

As a child, I mastered almost every recipe in Mrs. Field’s Cookie Book, my go-to presents for holidays. Last year I threw my mother a surprise birthday party and made a labor-intensive chocolate cake. Then I realized that I had no idea how I was going to transport the cake, perched on top of a stand. So I drove to the party, evoking the statue of liberty, holding the cake up in the air on its pedestal with one shaking arm.

We have all had those uh-oh moments in the kitchen. Recently, I heard a disastrous story of a mile-high pie collapsing all over someone’s car. But the best stories are not about the missteps that we have along the way: they are about getting back into the kitchen and trying something again or trying something new for the first time.

Here are tips and stories from a selection of Island bakers and pastry chefs.

Have patience

Polly Conway, a seasonal pastry chef at the Harbor View Hotel, has been living on the Island for three and a half years and has been baking professionally for almost six years. Ms. Conway develops her own desserts depending on the season.

“Usually when I come up with a dessert I’ll make notes and then scratch out what doesn’t work,” she says. Her method is based on trial and error. “Part of the challenge of baking is that you don’t know how it will work out.”

One of these daunting desserts that she developed was a peanut butter and jelly tart with a pretzel crust and toasted milk foam. This was a recipe with all scratches and no notes. “You can’t make a tiny portion,” says Ms. Conway. “In theory, it should work out and then when it doesn’t, you have product that you’ve wasted.”

To find inspiration, Ms. Conway prefers cookbooks to the Internet, because not all Internet recipes are tested. “I love flipping through cookbooks, and if something looks really cool, I replicate it with different flavors or components,” she says.

Once she finds a good base, she tweaks it to what she ultimately envisions. “I like to stick with a flavor profile but reinvent what I’m using it for,” she says. Last fall she used this approach to make pumpkin blondies.

When baking cookies at home, Ms. Conway is a big fan of Silpats, reusable non-stick silicone baking mats that are “almost a fool-proof way to keep things from sticking and burning,” she shares. A lover of rich chocolately and gooey desserts, she has been on a chocolate pudding kick this winter.

Right now, her favorite ingredient is unsweetened dried coconut or coconut rappé. This coconut is much smaller than sweetened dried coconut and is wonderful in coconut macaroons (one of Ms. Conway’s favorites) because you are able to adjust the sweetness. Look for unsweetened dried coconut in the bulk section at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven. For cakes, plated desserts, and individual pastries, contact Polly Conway at pollyconway@hotmail.com.

Follow the recipe

With cooking you can channel Jackson Pollock, adding a little of this and a little of that, but baking is more suited to da Vinci’s attention to detail and exactness.

Whether you are making a soufflé, bouche de noel, or sugar cookies, you should always follow the recipe (for the most part).

Although he just graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School this past year, Maxwell Moreis has years of cooking experience under his belt. He knew that he wanted to become a chef at a young age and got his first cooking job with Jan Buhrman at Kitchen Porch. Since then he completed the culinary arts program in high school and is beginning a 38-month modern haute cuisine culinary program at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York. You may recognize Maxwell from his popular cupcake booth at the Ag Fair where he showcases his baking techniques.

Although his training at CIA is focused primarily on savory cooking, Maxwell still has a soft spot for sweet treats. “Cupcakes hold a special place in my heart,” he says. “And I really really love French pastry, especially macarons, beautiful colorful cookie sandwiches.”

Maxwell has always been ambitious when it’s come to cooking. When he was eight, he made 200 strawberry shortcakes to serve at the Vineyard Transit Authoity, where his mother worked. “People’s faces were like, ‘what is this?’” he recalls, laughing. It turns out that he added too much baking powder to his biscuits. “Baking is a science: you need to measure things correctly. “And timers are really helpful too.”

Plan ahead

Liz Kane is the force behind Cakes by Liz. Over the past 25 years, she has been creating birthday and wedding cakes as well as desserts at Chesca’s, the Edgartown Yacht Club, and treats that she sells at Cronig’s Market. “I love it, but it’s stressful,” says Ms. Kane. “Even if it’s a birthday, it’s important to the person.”

With the advent of cake decorating television shows, Ms. Kane has received more unique and creative requests. Recently she made a groomsman cake in the shape of a dartboard. For a wedding that served pie, when the bride wanted cake, Ms. Kane made a cake that looked like a pie. She also created a tiramisu wedding cake for a client and was “sweating bullets” when the soft construction of the cake came to room temperature. “The woman was thrilled, so that’s all that matters,” recalled Ms. Kane.

But cake isn’t Ms. Kane’s preferred dessert. She loves ice cream. One of her favorites is a frozen mocha soufflé made with a chocolate graham cracker crust and chocolate and Kahlua ganache. “That’s all that some people order,” she says.

Ms. Kane recommends planning ahead. She carries a “cake kit” that is filled with paper towels, spatulas, butter cream, and extra frosting tips when she is on the road. “Always have extra icing on hand,” she says, alluding to the time when she and her assistant were transporting four wedding cakes and a few birthday cakes that didn’t make it all the way.

For home cooks looking to make the perfect cake, Ms. Kane offers advice: “Don’t try to make a cake and ice it all in the same day,” she says. “Putting it in the freezer for a couple of days adds moisture,” and then you frost it. For decorating tips she recommends Youtube.com videos that have step-by-step instructions. And for her favorite ingredient: “You can’t go wrong with Oreo cookies.”

Be on the lookout for Ms. Kane’s cooking demo at LeRoux at Home in Vineyard Haven in March where she will make rustic fruit tarts that “people go mental over.”

For more information, check out cakesbyliz.com or call 508-696-8444.

Use quality ingredients

Georgia Thoutsis grew up summering on the Vineyard and has been coming back here for the past 67 years. Born in the United States, Ms. Thoutsis’s father emigrated from the Kalamata region of Greece. Her company, Vineyard Delights, features Greek desserts such as baklava and koulourakia, twisted lemon butter cookies.

“I would like to add a few more as time goes on,” says Ms. Thoutsis. “Perhaps a Greek pastry called karithopita, a walnut cake with syrup.” She prides herself on the quality of ingredients in her desserts, using lots of butter, sugar, honey, walnuts, and phyllo dough.

In business for just over one year, Ms. Thoutsis speaks positively about her experience so far. “It’s been easy and joyful doing it,” she says.

Practice makes perfect, especially working with temperamental ingredients such as phyllo dough. “Nothing is difficult if you know how to do it,” she says. “If you are making a recipe for the first time, it’s difficult. Once you know the recipe it’s easy. I like to try new desserts, but they don’t always come out right. Sometimes you have to watch someone make it first.”

One of her favorite desserts is one that she learned from her mother. Diplef is a pastry-thin fried dough, dipped in a honey and sugar syrup with walnuts, sesame seeds, and cinnamon. “It’s labor intensive, not something you can make in an hour,” says Ms. Thoutsis, “its time-consuming but it’s worth it.”

Vineyard Delights are available at Cronig’s Market, Tony’s Market, and during the summer at Farm Neck’s Sunday brunch. Or email vineyarddelights@yahoo.com.

For Polly Conway’s Coconut Macaroon recipe, see this article at mvtimes.com.

Coconut Macaroons

Recipe by Polly Conway

1 ¼ cups sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

½; cup egg whites (approximately 5 large eggs)

12 ounces coconut rappè*(approximately 4 ½; cups)

2 ½; tablespoons AP flour

Space racks evenly in the oven, preheat to 375

Combine sugar, corn syrup and egg whites in a metal bowl. Lightly whisk over simmering water until the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is dissolved (approximately 140°F/60°C).

Toss together the coconut and flour in a large mixing bowl. Pour hot mixture into coconut, and blend completely using a rubber spatula.

Portion dough into approximately 2 tablespoon mounds. These cookies won’t change shape when they bake, so neatness counts; rolling the mounds into balls is optional. Place cookies onto parchment or Silpat-lined sheet pans with 2 inches between cookies.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating after 8 minutes. Cookies are done when they are gently browned on all sides. Allow to cool completely before removing from pans.

These can be finished by striping the tops or dipping the bottoms in dark chocolate.

* Coconut rappè, also sold as desiccated coconut, is an unsweetened dried grated coconut.