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Jeremy Jackson's Killer Desserts

Jeremy Jackson's latest cookbook is filled with delights: hot milk sponge cake with citrus syrup, queen of puddings with cherries, and the "indispensable chocolate torte," a confection that Jackson calls the "little black dress of the dessert world."

At a time when cookbooks have turned into glossy tomes the size of New York City phone directories, Jackson's Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me is almost pocket-sized with fewer than 150 pages. The ingredients are simple, the instructions straightforward. NPR's Michele Norris, host of All Things Considered, talks with Jackson about his passion for simple, indulgent desserts.

Three recipes from his cookbook:

Whole Wheat Poppy Seed Cake

Makes one 10-inch tube cake; serves 16

My mother developed this cake with a friend almost 40 years ago, and despite my best efforts and cleverest tricks, I couldn't improve upon it... . The original recipe calls for maple flavoring, but vanilla extract works just as well. My favorite flavoring, though, is fiori di Sicilia, a combination of citrus oils and vanillin available from The Baker's Catalogue. Plain citrus oils would be a great flavoring, too, but don't use too much. This moist cake keeps well at room temperature or it can be frozen, and doesn't need any frosting. I always eat it plain, but it goes well with berries. Try to get your poppy seeds from a source that has a rapid turnover -- they do go rancid pretty quickly.

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
4 large eggs, separated, along with 3 or 4 additional egg whites to make 1 cup of whites
1 1/2 teaspoons maple flavoring or pure vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia
3/4 cup poppy seeds
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Get out a 10-inch tube pan; do not grease it.

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the oil, egg yolks, 3/4 cup cold water, and the flavoring. Beat the batter until it is smooth. Stir in the poppy seeds.

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar in a large bowl until they form soft peaks. Pour the poppy seed batter over the whipped egg whites and gently fold the mixtures together just until barely combined. Don't overmix -- there should still be streaks of egg whites visible.

Pour the mixture into the ungreased tube pan and bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely upside down before removing it from the pan.

Indispensable Chocolate Torte

Makes one 9-inch torte; serves 10

Basic, beautiful, versatile. To my mind, it's the little black dress of the dessert world... . It includes only five ingredients, but it's so much more than the sum of its parts.

Here are some serving ideas:

-- dust with confectioners' sugar
-- serve it with a modest dollop of sweetened whipped cream
-- coat it with jam glaze
-- serve it with raspberry coulis or blackberry coulis
-- serve it with ice cream, of course

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
5 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl placed over simmering water, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool until it's about body temperature.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour the sides of a 9-inch springform pan (see Note). Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper or wax paper.

Beat the butter until creamy. Then add 1/3 cup of the sugar and beat until smooth and fluffy. This could take several minutes. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Fold in the melted chocolate.

Beat the egg whites on low speed in a large bowl until they are foamy (like dishwater). Increase the speed to high and slowly add the remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Then beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks.

Stir one-quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the rest of the egg whites until the mixture is uniform. Sift the flour onto the batter in 3 separate additions, folding it into the mixture after each addition.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cake is somewhat spongy and a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let the torte cool in the pan on a rack. It will shrink, sink in the middle and pull away from the sides of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: A sturdy 9 x 2-inch round cake pan can be substituted for the springform pan. Carefully slide a think knife around the edges of the cake when it has cooled, then gently turn it upside down to remove it from the pan, then turn it right side up. The round parchment paper or wax paper in the bottom of the pan should release the cake easily.

Raspberry Clafouti

Serves 8

Clafouti is a simple rustic dessert traditionally prepared with cherries. I happen to think raspberries are better. There's so much to love about this clafouti: it's not too sweet, it's basically foolproof, it's gorgeous and it's unique. Fresh berries work best here, but frozen berries make a mean clafouti, too. If you're lucky enough to get golden raspberries, try them in combination with red berries for a real treat.

3 cups (about 12 ounces) fresh or frozen raspberries
1/2 vanilla bean
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon framboise
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan and coat it with granulated sugar, knocking out any excess. Scatter the berries in the pan.

Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into a saucepan; add the bean pod too. Add the milk and cream and heat over medium-high heat until small bubbles begin to rise. Remove from the heat. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs in a medium bowl while slowly adding the sugar. Then beat this mixture until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Sift the flour and salt together and add them to the egg mixture in four stages, beating on low speed, mixing well after each addition.

Remove the vanilla bean from the milk mixture and slowly drizzle the milk mixture into the egg and flour mixture, beating at low speed. Finally, stir in the framboise. Pour the custard into the pie pan.

Bake the clafouti in the middle of the oven for 30 to 38 minutes, until puffy, browned and set in the center. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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