Gluten-free desserts a natural choice for Passover

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Spring desserts are full of fresh, bright flavors to celebrate the turning of the season — think lemon, strawberry, coconut and other cheerful ingredients to mark the return of warmth and sunshine. And if you’re baking gluten-free, relying on nature’s bounty will make your treats truly stand out.

After a long, wet winter — at least to this recent transplant — we’re now solidly in the midst of spring. Take advantage of the fresh, light flavors coming back into season.

When I make gluten-free desserts, I lean on recipes that are naturally gluten-free, meaning that they are not meant as substitutes for desserts made with flour but as recipes in their own right. The recipes included here adhere to that philosophy.

From a rich almond cake drizzled with a lavender-spiked glaze to chocolate cupcakes topped with fluffy strawberry buttercream to a gorgeous pavlova loaded with fresh fruit, they are perfect for gluten-free friends as well as your flour- loving family.

These recipes also are appropriate for Passover, or Pesach, which ends on April 27. During the eight days of the annual Jewish holiday, no leavened products such as wheat flour, grains, cornstarch, baking powder or baking soda may be used. Popular desserts often include a torte made with nuts, coconut macaroons, or dishes made with matzo meal, the only flour-containing product that is deemed to be Kosher for Passover.

Fortunately, many naturally gluten-free desserts rely on the airiness of whipped eggs whites or the rich texture of ground nuts as key ingredients and don’t need flour or baking powder or soda, thus making them fine for Passover (or any other gluten-free celebration during the year) or for those keeping to a gluten-free diet.

Try making a cake that uses almonds for heft and egg whites for a bit of loft. Punchy lemon zest in the batter is carried through into a glossy glaze created by steeping fresh lemon juice and fragrant lavender, then whisking in a little powdered sugar.

Likewise, delicate chocolate cupcakes consist of not much more than semi-sweet chocolate melted with butter or margarine and folded with whipped egg whites. After 20 minutes in the oven, these little beauties transform into confections reminiscent of a soufflé. They’ll firm up the longer they rest in the fridge (if you can, make them at least a day before you plan to serve them, two if you can manage it. You’ll be rewarded with a denser crumb and a deep chocolate flavor.). The cupcakes can be frosted with a rich vanilla buttercream or a buttercream swirled with strawberry jam.

For a pavlova — the baked meringue cake served with whipped cream and fruit popular in Australia and New Zealand — you may already have all the ingredients you need — after all, it calls for just a few fridge and pantry staples.

The cake gets its marshmallow-like texture from a long bake at low heat. It’s then piled high with softly whipped cream and fresh fruit and scattered with toasted almonds and coconut.

It makes for an elegant and impressive finish to any meal.

Other naturally gluten-free options that incorporate the lighter flavors and textures of spring include French-style macarons — little meringue-like sandwich cookies made with whipped egg whites folded into ground almonds — with fillings of rhubarb jam or lemon curd.

Walnut ghriba, a traditional Moroccan cookie made with ground walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, is a fine offering to serve to anyone at the tea table (omit the baking powder during Passover for a denser yet still delicious cookie).

Recipes abound online; search for “gluten-free ghriba” to find recipes without flour. Other nuts like almonds may be swapped for the walnuts.

Almendrados, Spanish cookies made with almond meal, egg whites and a hint of lemon, are another solid gluten-free option.

Lemon bars with a gluten-free crust — use ground nuts or mix things up and leave off the crust completely — would also fit in nicely.

Or coconut macaroons, a classic Passover dessert that by no means must be saved solely for the holiday. Cookies may be half-dipped in melted semisweet chocolate for a twist on a black and white cookie.

And when you’re short on time or want to keep things very simple, try poached pears, baked apples, a fool (whipped cream folded with fruit) with strawberries, rhubarb, or raspberries, or simply dip strawberries in melted chocolate.

Gluten-free desserts don’t have to be intimidating. With a little patience and a bit of spring’s bounty, you’ll be able to produce beautiful sweets perfect for a holiday — or any day.

Note that if you are preparing these desserts for Passover, you may wish to use kosher for Passover chocolate as well as kosher for Passover powdered sugar —an alternative homemade option is included below. Dairy-free substitutes are also provided where applicable.

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This is a simple yet pleasing cake redolent with the scent of lemon and a touch of lavender. If you prefer to omit the lavender, don’t heat the lemon juice and simply whisk it with the powdered sugar to make the glaze.

Lemon Almond Cake with Lavender Glaze

Makes 10 servings

— For the cake:

1/2 pound (about 1 3/4 cups) whole almonds

6 large eggs, separated

1 1/4 cups sugar

— Grated zest of 2 lemons

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

— Large pinch of cinnamon, optional

— For the glaze:

— Juice of one lemon

2 teaspoons dried culinary lavender (available online or at Whole Foods market)

1/2 cup powdered sugar (see note below)

Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch springform pan with butter or coconut oil and line with parchment paper.

Finely grind the almonds in a food processor.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the egg yolks and sugar into a smooth, pale cream. Beat in the lemon zest and vanilla. Add the ground almonds and mix very well. Add the pinch of cinnamon if using.

In a large bowl and with clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold a little bit of the white into the almond mixture to loosen it, then gently fold in the rest of the whites until no white streaks remain.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, place in the oven, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until cake feels firm to the touch. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack before turning out onto a plate.

Make the glaze: In a heavy bottom sauce pan, stir together the lemon juice and dried lavender and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and let steep for 5 minutes. Strain out the lavender if desired. Whisk in the powdered sugar until mixture is smooth. Pour over the cake.

Leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days.

Note: To make a kosher for Passover powdered sugar substitute, combine 1 tablespoon potato starch and 1 cup sugar in a food processor and process until it is very finely ground and resembles powdered sugar.

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It’s best to make these cupcakes a day or two before you plan to serve them, or if you’re pressed for time, let them rest in the fridge for a few hours after baking. This will help firm them up and develop the chocolate flavor.

Flourless Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla or Strawberry Buttercream

Makes 12 cupcakes

— For the cupcakes:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine, diced

6 ounces good quality semisweet chocolate, chopped or as chips

1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

6 large eggs

1/2 cup sugar

For the frosting:

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

2 cups powdered sugar (see note for Kosher substitute)

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

3 to 4 tablespoons strawberry jam (optional)

Make the cupcakes. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cupcake tin with 12 liners.

In a double boiler or metal bowl, stir together chocolate and butter. Place over a saucepan filled with water so that water is not touching bottom of double boiler. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring until chocolate and butter have almost melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the salt and vanilla until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.

Separate the eggs and place the whites in a large mixing bowl and the yolks in a small bowl. Using a stand or hand mixer, whip egg whites on high until soft peaks form. Slowly add sugar a little bit at a time, whipping until glossy peaks form.

Whisk the egg yolks into the chocolate mixture until evenly combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold egg whites into the chocolate mixture in 4 increments until just combined and no white streaks remain.

Divide batter evenly into the cupcake liners. Place in the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes; tops will spring back when ready. Remove from the oven and place tin on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then turn the cupcakes out to cool completely. Slight collapsing is normal.

Meanwhile, make the frosting: In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, cream 1/4 cup of the butter. Add 1 cup of the powdered sugar, jam (if desired), and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and whip until the mixture is light and fluffy,

In another large bowl, with clean beaters, cream the remaining 1/4 cup butter. Add 1 cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Frost the cupcakes with the frosting. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for five days.

Note: To make a powdered sugar substitute that is kosher for Passover: combine 2 tablespoons potato starch and 2 cups sugar in a food processor and process until it is very finely ground and resembles powdered sugar)

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The trick to a beautiful pavlova is to use a very clean bowl and beaters, egg whites at room temperature (I let mine sit overnight), and make sure there is not a speck of yolk in the whites. Your goal is a pavlova with an outer crust and an inner texture that is reminiscent of a marshmallow.

Pavlova with Fruit and Cream

Makes 6 servings

4 large egg whites at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons arrowroot starch or cornstarch

2 cups heavy cream or coconut cream, whipped

2 cups sliced fruit of choice such as kiwi, strawberries, raspberries (leave whole)

1/2 cup toasted, unsweetened flaked coconut (optional)

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds, optional

Heat oven to 300 degrees and place rack in center of oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, place the egg whites and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form.

Add the sugar a tablespoon at a time and continue beating until it forms a glossy meringue.

Fold in the vanilla, lemon juice and arrowroot starch. Using a rubber spatula, transfer into a circular shape, about 8 inches wide, onto the parchment paper. (You may use a cake pan to trace a circle on the parchment to help.)

Make a slight indentation in the center with your spatula. Place in the oven and bake for one hour.

Remove from oven and transfer parchment paper and pavlova to a wire rack to cool for one hour. When the meringue is cool, carefully remove the parchment paper and place the pavlova on a large plate.

Cake may be made several days in advance and stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Topping should be added just before or soon before serving. To assemble, spread the whipped cream in the depression in the pavlova, then top with the fruit and liberally shower with the toasted coconut and almonds, if using. The assembled pavlova is best eaten the day it’s made.

Nicole Spiridakis is a Sebastopol-based writer. Her cookbook, “Flourless: Recipes for Naturally Gluten-Free Desserts,” was published in 2014.

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