Missing The Pastry Baking Gene? Improvise.

By Dina Eliash Robinson

If you have ever been ridiculed by in-laws at the family Thanksgiving dinner with stories of your pastry baking disasters; or had a cooking class instructor roll his eyes as you pulled a collapsed, rock-hard or gooey cake out of the oven, you, too, might have given up making baked desserts—just as I did, for many years.Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.03.26 AM

My self-confidence as an oven-jockey survived only because of the praise lavished by family and friends on my casseroles, turkey loaves, roasted vegetables and other savory baked dishes I like to improvise. Anyway, I’m glad that the only cooking gene I seem to be missing is the one for pastry baking.For a while, our friend and FRC partner, Catharine—a nationally syndicated food columnist and talented pastry chef, known to her fans as The Kitchen Shrink—covered for that missing gene by providing generous assortments of her home-made goodies, which always turned our dinner parties and occasional English High Teas into celebrations.

In the end, however, it was my frustration about not being able to find store-bought pastries that were free of toxic chemicals, trans-fats and genetically modified (GMO) ingredients when I craved them, that pushed me to risk humiliation by giving the art of home-baked desserts another try. That—along with my newly adopted and quite liberating attitude of “why should it matter what others think?”—spurred me to improvise some recipes Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.04.28 AMthat did not require rising dough, tedious steps, precise weights and measures of prescribed ingredients or perfect timing, which even I could pull off.

The three recipes below are the ones that have pleased most of those who not only had the courage to taste them, but who kept coming back for more—thankfully, without suffering any adverse effects.

If you’re familiar with the “Jazz Cooking” recipes we’ve been posting on this site over the last 10 years, you might notice the similarities between the improvisational method used in those and the one in the “Jazz Baking” recipes below. Other similarities include…

  • the use of nutritious, organic and otherwise health-protective ingredients;
  • tastier, fuller and more varied flavors than are found in most other, same-kind foods—in this case, other low-sugar and low-caloric (and gluten-free) pastries;
  • a wonderful “mouth-feel” (i.e., moist and chewable);
  • that even small servings are satisfying and filling; and, Eureka!
  • how inexpensive these desserts are when made with locally grown, in-season harvested fruits.

Flaky Apple Strudel

 Ingredients (organics preferred—but you are free to adjust ingredients, proportions and measurements to your pleasure, creativity and taste):Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.10.51 AM


  • A box of frozen, Organic Filo Dough (sold at Whole Foods and elsewhere)
  • 6-8 medium size apples—Fuji, Honey Crisp, Gala or other hard and crunchy types
  • Approx. 2/3 (two-thirds) stick of butter (if preferred, canola, grape-seed or other oil appropriate for high temperature baking can be substituted or used in combination with the butter to lower the cholesterol content of this recipe)
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • ¼ cup dry cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons raw or brown sugar—or 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon peel zest
  • 2 whole eggs
  • ½ cup egg whites
  • 1 tablespoon ground walnuts or almonds (optional but recommended for nutritional value)
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon Turmeric
  • 1-tablespoon cognac or liquor (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon (or less) of liquid vanilla extract
  • pinch of sea salt or pink Himalayan salt
  • 2/3 cup of crumbled cinnamon crackers to combine with the ground nuts for a crunchy, toasted topping.



  • Choose the size of a stainless steel or Pyrex-style glass (my preference) baking pan that best fits the size of strudel you plan to make.
  • Unroll and lay out separately, on flat surfaces, 3 sets each of 4-5 Filo Dough sheets carefully separated and reassembled to allow some air between the sheets; sets to be large enough to completely cover the bottom of the entire baking pan and each of the 2 (approx. 1-1/2 inch thick) layers of mixed apple ingredients between the bottom layer and second set of sheets and between the second layer of ingredients and the top set of Filo Dough sheets (each of the latter to be well tucked in around the fillings).

NOTE: Don’t worry if some of the Filo Dough breaks up as you work with it. Just layer them as densely as possible to look as if the sheets are whole.

  • Cover the baking pan’s bottom with half of the melted butter and cover it with the first batch of Filo Dough sheets. Set pan aside.
  • Prepare (i.e. wash with Castile soap, dry and core) the apples.
  • Cut up 4 -5 of the apples into bite-size pieces and put them into a big bowl.
  • Purée 2 apples (i.e. turn them into apple sauce) in a food processor & add to the bowl.
  • Rinse the raisins and cranberries and add to the bowl.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients (cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, sugar or honey, vanilla extract, lemon juice and zest, eggs and egg whites, half of the remaining melted butter—or equivalent in canola or grape-seed oil—salt, etc.) and mix well. (Note: If you prefer, more nuts could be ground up and included in the filling—i.e. the mix—in addition to their use for the topping.)
  • Spread first one layer of the mixture onto the bottom set of Filo Dough, then cover it with the second set of Filo Dough and spoon some of the melted butter (or cold oil) on top of it.
  • Repeat by spreading the rest of the mixture on top of the second set of Filo sheets; cover it with the third set of sheets.
  • Crush, crumble and spread cinnamon cracker crumbs, mix them with the remainder of the ground nuts and spread as evenly as possible on the top Filo Dough set of sheets.
  • Spoon the rest of the butter on top. (Note: It might be better to have butter on the top sheets, rather than oil—your choice.) f needed, sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of additional melted butter on the top set of Filo sheets to achieve a rosy, crunchy crust during baking.
  • Bake at 350 degrees until cubed apple pieces are soft and visible Filo sheets are rosy and crisp—start checking for ‘done-ness’ after 30 minutes; if apples are still too hard, turn up the oven to 400 degrees and bake for another 10-15 minutes.

Mixed Fruit Pie

Ingredients: (organics preferred—but you are free to adjust ingredients, proportions and measurements to your creativity and taste):Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.20.35 PM


  • Buy frozen “Organic, Whole Wheat, 9” Pie Shells” (they come 2 per package—refreeze the one you do not use)
  • 6-8 medium size apples (we prefer the crispier species, like Gala, Honey Crisp, Fuji)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon Turmeric
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ¼ cup dry cranberries
  • ¼ teaspoon liquid vanilla extract
  • 1 whole egg
  • ½ cup egg white
  • ½ bar of butter (Note: To lower the cholesterol content of this recipe, you could use half butter & half grape-seed or canola oil, which are high-heat tolerant)
  • pinch of sea-salt (or pink Himalayan salt)
  • 1 cup (crushed) cinnamon cracker crumbs
  • ¼ cup ground walnuts or almonds

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.19.55 PM


  • Remove pastry shells from freezer & leave one out for 30 minutes before using (return the unused one to the freezer).
  • Core, cut & purée 2 whole apples in food processor or blender & pour into big mixing bowl.
  • Slice the remaining 3-4 apples into whole or half slices (judge the quantity you need to fill the pie shell), but not so thinly that they fall apart; & add them to the bowl.
  • Rinse raisins & dry cranberries & add to bowl.
  • Melt butter (but remove from heat before it completely liquefies & let the remaining solid parts melt on their own) & set aside.
  • Add to mixing bowl: honey, cinnamon, vanilla extract, eggs, egg whites, salt & turmeric & mix all ingredients well, but gently so as not to break up the apple slices.
  • Pour 1/3 of the melted butter on the shell, slowly, covering its entire inner surface.
  • Pour 1/3 of the melted butter (or oil) into the mixing bowl & carefully blend it into the rest of the ingredients, coating them.
  • Pour the contents of the mixing bowl into the pie shell. (It is OK if the content forms a mound, as long as it is not too tall & bound to collapse or overflow. If you are left with too much of the mixture, don’t worry about wasting it—just coat with UNmelted butter an oven-proof Pyrex-style glass bowl of an appropriate size & pour the excess mixture into it & top it the same way you will top the pie itself:)
  • Mix the cinnamon cracker crumbs with the ground nuts.
  • Top the pie & the leftover filling (if any) with the mixture of crumbs & nuts—and pour the rest of the melted butter over the top. If the melted butter is not enough to cover the pie (& the extra filling if necessary), melt a few more pads of butter to finish the job.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for as long as it takes the crust to be crisp & rosy, & for the sliced apples to be soft. If it takes longer than 35 minutes, turn up the oven to 400 degrees for 5 or 10 minutes, which should complete the process.

Biscotti With Nuts, Currants & CranberriesScreen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.28.56 AM


 ½ cup almond flour

½ cup unbleached all purpose flour

¾ cup canola or grape-seed oil or melted butter

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 pinch salt

½ cup brown or raw sugar & 2 tablespoons honey

4-5 drops vanilla extract

3 whole eggs, beaten

½ cup crushed walnuts or pecans

½ cup dry cherries or cranberries

Directions:Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.25.43 AM


  • Mix wet ingredients first;
  • blend dry ingredients into mix;
  • cut into 5-6 loaves;
  • lay them out on a baking sheet (best to have baking surface covered with baking-proof parchment paper);
  • bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes;
  • take out of oven & cut into ‘biscotti’ slices; &
  • return to oven & bake for another 10 minutes.




One Comment on “Missing The Pastry Baking Gene? Improvise.”

  1. This entry really hit home. I have NEVER been a baker, though I pride myself on cooking healthy meals. I am so grateful to Dina for these natural recipes, which I hope I won’t fail at! Studies are coming out daily about all the cancer-causing poisons that are in processed bread and baked goods. So, it behooves us all to bake at home, simply and with all the health benefits of natural ingredients. Can’t wait to try your recipes Dina!

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