Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bûche de noël

It’s not that I’ve never had any interest in attempting a bûche de noël before—it’s just that I never had the incentive. For most of my life, I’ve celebrated Christmas in close proximity to Freeport Bakery.

That Sacramento institution has been the source of many defining dessert moments—a Chocolate Charlotte wreathed in delicate ladyfingers, a marzipan-domed Honeybee Cake, a buttermilk Champagne Cake layered with strawberry custard mousse—but the greatest of these is their bûche de noël.

According to their website, this perennial holiday special involves a “light golden sponge cake layered with chocolate and brandy hazelnut mousse filling rolled into the classic yule log, frosted with bittersweet chocolate buttercream.”

In other words:


Say what you will of caroling or tree-trimming: the bûche is without a doubt my favorite holiday tradition. Alas, having now relocated to the East Coast, it’s a tradition that I can look forward to with less and less certainty.

And so this year, after a heroic but failed effort to convince Freeport to overnight a bûche to Massachusetts, K and I decided to make our own.

Below, a photo essay of our journey:

Smoothing the batter with the back of a tablespoon, per Carole Walter's instructions.
Not quite sure why a tablespoon, specifically.


The sponge cake, more velvety than spongy.

Spreading the hazelnut mousse.

We left a small portion of the cake unmoussed, for sealing.

Rolling the cake—the moment of truth.

We used a fork to create the "natural" bark effect. Alas, no marzipan mushrooms on hand.


Our major challenge, as it turns out, was more ideological than technical: how loyal should we be to the Freeport template? The closer we stuck to their model, the closer we might get to yule log glory. But we also risked greater disappointment.

Not wanting to fly too close to the sun, we settled on a similar flavor profile (chocolate and hazelnut), in a composition adapted to our own ambition and know-how: chocolate-hazelnut génoise with hazelnut mousse and dark chocolate ganache.

For those who’d never tasted the Freeport original, it was completely, unequivocally delicious. For the rest of us, still delicious, but not without a little twang of unfulfilled longing.

***


Chocolate-Hazelnut Génoise with Hazelnut Mousse and Chocolate Ganache

This was largely our own invention, but I used a few recipes in Great Cakes, by Carole Walter as my guide.

For the cake:
3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1/4 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted (skins removed)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flower
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar

For the filling:
1 tablespoon cold water
1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Frangelico
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts (skins removed)

For the ganache:
6 ounces good-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon Frangelico
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot water, if needed

Position the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom (but not the sides) of a 10½” x 15½” x 1” jelly roll pan and line with parchment. Lightly butter the parchment.

Make the cake: Place the cocoa, nuts and flour in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 8 to 10 times, then process until the nuts are ground very fine. Set aside.

Place the egg yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with beaters. Beat on medium speed until thick and light in color, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking about 3 minutes to blend it in well. Reduce speed to low, and add the vanilla, then the nut mixture, mixing until just blended. Do not overmix. Transfer the batter to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and beat until whites form moist peaks. With a rubber spatula, fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter, taking about 20 turns to lighten. Quickly fold in the remaining whites.

Pour the batter into the pan. Gently smooth the top, spreading it evenly into the corners. Tap the pan gently on the counter to even out the batter.

Bake 12 to14 minutes, or until the top has risen and the cake feels soft to the touch. (It will not feel springy.) Take care not to overbake.

While the cake is baking, get ready a fine strainer and 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, a sheet of waxed paper at least 18 inches long, and a dampened kitchen towel.

Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a rack. Immediately sprinkle the top with the confectioner’s sugar. Run a thin sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the sides. Cover the cake with waxed paper, then the dampened towel, and invert onto the countertop.

After 20 minutes, carefully lift off the pan. Very gently peel off the bottom layer of paper. Cool the cake flat for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Place a large mixing bowl and beaters in the refrigerator to chill.

Pour the cold water into a small heatproof custard cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand 5 minutes without stirring. Gelatin will swell and turn opaque.
Set the custard cup in a skillet filled with 1/2 inch of boiling water. Stir until the gelatin is clear and completely dissolved. Remove the custard cup from the skillet and cool to tepid.

Pour the cream into the chilled bowl, and with chilled beaters whip the cream on medium speed. When it begins to thicken, add the confectioners’ sugar and the gelatin, then the Frangelico and vanilla. Beat until the cream forms soft peaks. (Do not overbeat or the filling will become grainy.) Finish whipping the cream by hand until thick, using a wire balloon wish. Fold in the chopped hazelnuts.

Trim 1/4 inch off the sides of the sponge sheet with a sharp knife to remove uneven edges. Spread the whipped cream across the cake, leaving about 1¼ inches on the far side. Gently slide the towel out from the under the cake.

Holding the edges of the wax paper closest to you, begin rolling the sponge sheet over. Press along the edge to curl the cake slightly downward. Center a cake plate or board on the far side of the roulade. Make the final turn of the roulade and gently remove the wax paper. Be sure the seal of the cake is underneath. Using two wide spatulas, carefully center the cake on the platter.

Make the ganache frosting: Using a serrated knife, finely chop the chocolate and place into a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream and corn syrup on low heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let stand for about 1 minute, then slowly stir the chocolate and cream together until all the chocolate is melted. Blend in the Frangelico and the vanilla. If the surface is oily, add a bit of hot water. Chill the ganache in the refrigerator until it reaches a spreadable consistency.

Using an offset spatula, carefully spread the roulade with the ganache. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate the cake to set. Let the cake stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

pumpkin pie

I'm reluctant to call this the best pumpkin pie ever. I will only say that, where pumpkin pie is concerned, this is my magnetic north. It’s the pumpkin pie against which K and I weigh every other pumpkin pie (or pie in general), and we have yet to find its equal.

Marcey’s Pumpkin Pie

I find this pie peaks on the second day—particularly when chilled. Straining the mixture ensures a smooth filling.

1¾ cups pumpkin (one 15-ounce can)
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup half and half
3 eggs
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1¼ teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
one 9-inch pie crust, blind baked
Sweetened whipped cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine sugar, spices and pumpkin. In another bowl, beat eggs then add half and half and heavy cream. Whisk until smooth. Combine wet and dry ingredients, and mix until well incorporated.

Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer set over medium bowl, using a spatula to press solids through strainer.

Pour mixture into the pie shell and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the edges are set. If the custard only jiggles slightly in the center, it's done. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.

Monday, December 28, 2009

brussels sprouts, three ways

I recently learned there is a scientific explanation for brussels sprout dissenters. Apparently, it’s a condition common among supertasters, whose abundance of taste buds makes them particularly sensitive to the bitter compounds in certain vegetables (tiny cabbages included). Which, frankly, sucks for them. I would gladly trade a hypersensitive palate for a plate of roasted brussels sprouts.

Below are a few of my favorite recent renditions.

***

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

We dressed up these Christmas dinner sprouts with buttery chestnuts. Pancetta or bacon would make another nice addition.

2-3 pounds brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup peeled and roasted chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Toss the brussels sprouts in a bowl with just enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and some of the leaves have become caramelized.

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chestnuts and stir until glazed. Add the roasted brussels sprouts and thyme, if desired. Toss to combine. Test for seasoning and serve.


***

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Pecorino
Adapted from Andrew Feinberg

Further proof of my nut + vegetable formula. The recipe comes from Franny’s restaurant in Brooklyn, which is always a good thing.

1/2 cup walnuts
24 Brussels sprouts, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Aged pecorino Toscano cheese for topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until they smell toasty; set aside. Crumble them when they're cool enough to handle.

Turn the oven up to 450 degrees.

Toss the Brussels sprouts in a bowl with enough olive oil to coat each sprout, 2 to 3 tablespoons. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange the sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and some of the leaves have become crunchy.

Let the sprouts cool on the baking sheet, then toss in a large bowl with the walnuts. Drizzle liberally with olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Shave some of the cheese on top and serve warm.

***

Braised Brussels Sprouts With Pancetta And Toasted Bread Crumbs
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

Goin is an expert at layering flavors and textures, but here the pancetta almost overwhelms the flavor of the brussels sprouts. (Which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.) I think I’ll reduce the amount of pancetta next time.


Serves 6

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 teaspoons thyme leaves
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds baby brussels sprouts, washed and trimmed (cut larger ones in two)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 ounces pancetta in small dice
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup veal stock or rich chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix bread crumbs and thyme with 1/4 cup olive oil, and spread on a cookie sheet. Toast, tossing frequently, until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

Heat butter and remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until foamy. Add brussels sprouts, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and sauté, tossing frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add diced pancetta, and sauté, tossing frequently, until sprouts are well browned and softened slightly and pancetta is crisp, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat, add shallots and garlic, and sauté until fragrant.

Increase heat to high, add balsamic vinegar and stock, and cook, tossing frequently, until sprouts are glazed and tender, about 10 minutes; add more stock if needed. Taste for seasoning, and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and scatter bread crumbs on top.

graham cracker chewy bars

My immediate thought on seeing these in the LA Times was: I want to go to there. Somehow, it took me about seven months to achieve that objective. And it’s taken me almost as many weeks to document it here. No excuses: it’s just plain unacceptable.

This feels less like a recipe, and more like a paradigm shift—a long-overdue “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment for the humble graham cracker.


Graham Cracker Chewy Bars
Adapted from Celebrating With Julienne, by Susan Campoy

Imagine the graham cracker as you know it—in a crumb crust or a campfire s’more—and multiply it by a power of ten. Then combine that with a pecan pie. Voila, the graham cracker chewy bar.

For the crust:
3 cups graham cracker crumbs
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour

For the topping:
2 1/2 cups brown sugar (I used 1 1/2 cups light, 1 cup dark)
4 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup pecans, chopped
Powdered sugar
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the crust: In a large bowl with an electric mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar and flour until moist and well-blended. Press the mixture firmly and evenly over the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan. Bake until the crust is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.

While the crust is baking, in a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and eggs to blend. Whisk in the graham cracker crumbs, vanilla, salt and baking powder until well-blended. Stir in the pecans.

Spread the mixture over the baked crust and return to the 350-degree oven until the filling is dark-golden on top and jiggles slightly when tapped, 20 to 25 minutes. [They will set more as they cool.] Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool completely. The bars can be made 1 day in advance. Wrap in plastic and keep at room temperature.

Cut into 24 bars, and sprinkle a light coating of sifted powdered sugar over the top. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

spoon cookie redux

Just as I knew these brown butter spoon cookies were destined to make a holiday cameo, I also knew they were ripe for experimentation. For this batch, I ventured away from the recommended cherry-strawberry preserves filling, substituting other jams I had on-hand: Bonnie’s Jams Black & Blue, Sarabeth’s Strawberry-Raspberry, and L'Épicurien Coco-Passion (which manages to distill the genius of Oleana's coconut-passion fruit Baked Alaska into a condiment).

But curiosity and a simple code of ethics demanded that chocolate somehow enter into the equation. Plain ganache, I feared, would fail to distinguish itself from the cookie base. And then I spotted the unopened package of Andes Mints on our microwave (intended for this recipe). A mint-chocolate ganache, maybe?

Thus, the refined brown butter spoon cookie was transformed into the most awesome imitation Mint Milano known to man.

For civilized company, I’ll be sticking mostly to the recommended template—I like the acidity and the elegance the fruit preserves provide (of the variations mentioned here, I liked the strawberry-raspberry and coco-passion the most)—but I’ll make an extra batch of these little guys just for M and me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

sweet butternut squash and coconut jam

If my summer had gone according to plan, I would have spent most of August in food preservation mode, channeling the season’s bounty into tomato sauce, pickled okra, and fruit conserves. Instead, October found me with a box of empty Mason Jars and a dozen dog-eared Christine Ferber recipes.

Where does this leave me? Demoralized, yes, but not defeated. In fact I’ve decided that winter, with its narrow roster of ingredients, will be perfect for honing my craft, so come spring I’ll be pickling ramps with the best of them.

Already, I’ve made a stockpot’s worth of vanilla applesauce—the consummation of a fall-foliage / apple-picking day trip to Chester, NJ (New Jersey: really quite beautiful. Who knew?) —and now, this butternut squash coconut jam.

I suspect Madame Ferber would not be pleased with the recipe—it bears none of her restraint or refined technique. But it’s bold and coconuty and scarily easy to eat by the spoonful.


Sweet Butternut Squash and Coconut Jam

Adapted from The Kitchn

Note the absurd quantity of sugar (really, it’s more confection than condiment)—next time, I’d reduce this a bit, to let the natural sweetness of the squash come through. I’d also experiment with more spices—ginger? nutmeg?

Makes about 4 cups

1 large butternut squash, approximately 2 pounds
2 cups milk
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
8-10 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean, split
1 cup dried unsweetened coconut

Peel the butternut squash and cut into small pieces - about 1 inch or less to a side. You can also grate it. The smaller you cut the pieces the faster it will cook. Put in a large (4 quarts or more) heavy pan over medium heat. Add the milk, sugars, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla pulp and bean.

Cook over medium heat until the squash is soft and tender. Keep a close watch on it as the milk simmers; it has a tendency to foam up. After the milk comes to a simmer it will be 10-15 minutes before the squash is soft. As the squash becomes soft and tender, mash it into a pulp with a potato masher or a pair of forks. Stir well.

Keep the heat on medium and continue simmering, stirring frequently. When the mixture is reduced and thick like jam, remove from the heat. [This will take between 20 and 45 minutes.] Remove the vanilla pod and spices. Stir in the coconut and let cool before serving. Store in the refrigerator.




Vanilla Applesauce
Delicious warm, at room temperature, or straight from the refrigerator. Feel free to adjust the sugar and spice quantities to your liking.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

5 pounds apples (I used a combination of Mutsu, Fuji and Jonagold), peeled, cored, and quartered
1 cup apple cider
1/4 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3-4 strips of lemon peel (from one lemon)
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Combine all ingredients in a wide, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until apples have broken down, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove from heat the vanilla pod and lemon peel. [I like to let the cinnamon stick steep with the applesauce overnight.] Using a potato masher or immersion blender, puree to desired consistency. Taste for seasoning.

Refrigerate leftover applesauce in an airtight container, or freeze for later use.

Monday, December 14, 2009

world peace cookies

This cookie needs no introduction (it’s practically a food blog prerequisite), nor does it require further exposition. But let me speak for a moment to its texture—the sandy delicacy of a classic sablé punctuated by oozing potholes of melted chocolate and tiny fleur de sel crystals. It’s a beautiful, genre-bending hybrid that manages somehow to melt and dissolve in your mouth all at once.

For the recipe (a Pierre Hermé original via Dorie Greenspan), click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

braised rabbit with black olives and polenta

Mmmm. Bunny. Or, more precisely, Braised Rabbit with Black Olives and Polenta.

If that sounds familiar, it's because you've most likely salivated over the original at Al Di Là Trattoria, of Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Cake fame. The entire dish, en Le Creuset, was transported here straight from our friend's oven, making for a delicious centerpiece to our weekend meal. (Yes, said friend is both a braising wizard and the best potluck guest ever.)

It was basically like getting Al Di Là delivered to our doorstep, which is a seriously dangerous proposition. (Round-the-clock Beet Ravioli with Butter and Poppy Seeds?) True to the original, we served it over creamy polenta—I used Andrew Carmellini's recipe, subbing out most of the milk for chicken stock—with Marcella Hazans's braised carrots and a cauliflower-pear-hazelnut dish I'll get to one of these days.


Braised Rabbit with Olives
Adapted from Anna Klinger

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 (2- to 3-pound) rabbit, cut into serving pieces as you would a chicken

Salt and black pepper

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 or 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 cup white wine

2 to 3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

1/2 cup canned tomatoes, chopped (don't bother to drain)

12 black oil-cured olives

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the oil in a deep skillet or casserole, and turn the heat to medium-high. A minute or so later, when the oil is hot, add the rabbit, season it with salt and pepper and brown it well, rotating and turning the pieces as necessary; the process will take about 10 minutes. Remove the rabbit to a plate, pour off excess fat, if there is any, and return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Add the garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is lightly colored, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the wine and raise the heat to high; scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, and reduce the wine until there is just a tablespoon or two of liquid remaining in the pan.

Turn the heat down to medium, return the rabbit and any juices to the pan, and add the stock, tomatoes, and olives; cover and transfer the pan to the oven. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the rabbit is tender but not falling off the bone (it tends to dry out at that point). Remove the rabbit, olives, rosemary, and garlic to a plate. Return the pan to the stovetop and reduce the liquid to a thick, sauce-like consistency (you want about 1 cup liquid) over high heat. Stir in the butter, pour over the rabbit, and serve.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

pumpkin-gingerbread ice cream with ginger spice cookies

An approximate timeline of my Saturday morning:

9:47 am: Browse through recently acquired cookbook, Sherry Yard's Desserts by the Yard. [Old school, I know, but watching her pull molten strands of sugar with her bare hands on an Iron Chef rerun was enough to earn my eternal respect. The woman is fierce.]

9:59 am: Spot recipe for Giant Gingerbread cookie.

9:59 am:
Experience violent craving for soft, chewy ginger-molasses confection.

10:13 am:
Draft spreadsheet comparing the ingredient quantities and oven temperature of the above cookie with those from three other recipes—an attempt to mathematically determine the perfect recipe. My old favorite, from Bon Appétit, seems to have the thick and chewy [read: vegetable shortening] edge on the competition.

10:19 am:
Contemplate chocolate chips as an addition to ginger cookies: crazy or crazy good?

10:21 am:
Discover someone has already gone there.

10:26 am:
Decide on taste test for evening dessert: classic Bon Appétit Ginger Spice Cookies (the control batch) vs. Orangette's Chocolate Chip Ginger-Molasses Cookies.

10:27am:
Realize that cookies alone represent an unbalanced dessert, may require ice cream accompaniment.

10:30 am:
Remember that chamber for Cuisinart ice cream maker is already chilling in freezer. (Can make, not buy ice cream.)

10:32 am:
Brainstorm ideal autumnal ice cream flavor to complement cookies.

10:34 am:
Pumpkin.

10:35 am:
No wait: Pumpkin gingerbread.

And so it came to pass that by lunchtime two cookie batters and one ice cream custard base were resting snugly in the refrigerator. Together, they made for a delicious dessert experiment.


First, the cookies:


In the end, my loyalty to the Bon Appétit recipe was reaffirmed. Orangette’s version was tasty as well, but once you got past the allure of melted chocolate (considerable, I’ll grant you), I'm not sure that the chocolate chips actually enhanced the cookie; in fact, at times, their flavor seemed to clash with the molasses. The chocolate variation was texturally inferior as well—less chewy and yielding, which is what I like in a ginger cookie.



Next, the ice cream:

Under the influence of multiple cookies and mild illness, M proclaimed this to be the best ice cream he'd ever tasted. And for me it's definitely up there. Of course, it had the textural advantage of being served straight from the machine, with nary an ice crystal to its name. But it was delicious the next night, too.



***

Ginger Spice Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit

Yield: 30 cookies

If memory serves me, I think I preferred these rolled in granulated sugar. This time, I used sugar “in the raw”—the title of a bad Meg Ryan movie?—which had a lovely crystalline appearance, but perhaps a less appealing texture. I may be making this up.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/4 cup mild-flavored molasses [I used unsulphured, dark molasses, as it was the only thing available]
Granulated or demerara sugar, for rolling

Combine first 6 ingredients in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Mix in crystallized ginger. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar, shortening and butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg and molasses and beat until blended. Add flour mixture and mix just until blended. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. Spoon sugar in thick layer onto small plate. Using wet hands, form dough into 1 1/4-inch balls; roll in sugar to coat completely. Place balls on prepared sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake cookies until cracked on top but still soft to touch, about 12 minutes. Cool on sheets 1 minute. Carefully transfer to racks and cool. [Can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.]


Pumpkin-Gingerbread Ice Cream
Partially adapted from The Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco

DeMasco’s recipe came approved by David Lebovitz, which meant I knew it would be good. Though I’m partial to this variation, the pumpkin base is very mix-in compatible. Next time, I may have to attempt the Pumpkin Mascarpone-Cocao Nib Ice Cream I had from the Bent Spoon at October’s New Amsterdam Market.

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon freshly-grated ginger [I used ground ginger]
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
5 large egg yolks
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 teaspoons rum or brandy (optional)
3/4 cup canned pumpkin, or homemade
4 ginger spice cookies (recipe above)

Make an ice bath by putting some ice and a little water in a large bowl and nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts) inside it. Set a mesh strainer over the top.

In a medium saucepan mix the milk, cream, granulated sugar, ginger, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, and salt. Warm the mixture until hot and the edges begin to bubble and foam.

Whisk the egg yolks in a separate bowl and gradually whisk in about half of the warm spiced milk mixture, stirring constantly.

Scrape the warmed yolks back in to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heatproof spatula, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read between 160º-170ºF.

Immediately pour the mixture through the strainer into the bowl nested in the ice bath. Mix in the brown sugar, then stir until cool, then chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

Whisk in the vanilla, liquor (if using), and pumpkin puree. Press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Fold in the broken pieces of ginger spice cookies.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

winning hearts and minds cake

I had my first piece of flourless chocolate cake on Mother’s Day, 1995.

K, three years my senior and significantly more worldly, proposed we make a flourless cake for dessert. (I knew little about baking, but enough that “flourless” felt somehow dangerous and iconoclastic.) The result, through my twelve-year-old eyes, was sunken and sad-looking, and missing all the signifiers of a good chocolate cake (multiple layers, buttercream frosting). But it tasted incredible. Clearly, K had uncovered a culinary secret lost on the likes of Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker: in matters of chocolate cake, flour content is inversely proportional to deliciousness.

In recent years, I've refined, or rather renounced this theory. In fact, I’ve soured on the whole notion of flourless chocolate cake. Tasty? Yes. They're just so predictable, and, next to the molten chocolate cake, comically ubiquitous on restaurant menus. They've gone from revolutionary to run-of-the-mill in a little over a decade.

Or at least, that's how I felt until a few weeks ago, when I made this "Winning Hearts and Minds Cake." Suddenly the world is new again!

Truly, it's like no other flourless chocolate cake I've ever had. (I realize it's not technically flourless, but 1 tablespoon keeps it in the same general genre.) I don't know if I should credit the above-average quantities of butter or eggs, or perhaps even that sneaky tablespoon of flour, but oh man it's good—rich and silky, with a texture that's somewhere between a chiffon and a mud pie.


Winning Hearts and Minds Cake
Adapted from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg, who adapted it in turn by Je veux du chocolat!, by Trish Deseine

Make sure you make this cake a day ahead. Molly, who's had a great deal of experience with this cake (as she served it at her wedding), even recommends freezing it for at least a day, then allowing 24 hours for it to return to room temperature.

7 ounces best-quality dark chocolate [I used Scharffen Berger Bittersweet], finely chopped
7 ounces unsalted European-style butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
whipped cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment too.

Melt the chocolate gently with the butter in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring regularly to combine. Add the sugar to the chocolate-butter mixture, stirring well, and set aside to cool for a few moments. Then add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. The batter should be smooth and dark.

Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the center of the cake looks set and the top is shiny and a bit crackly-looking. [I began checking around the 20-minute mark. You’ll know it’s done when the top jiggles only slightly, if at all.] Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it, so that the crackly side is facing upward. Allow to cool completely. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools.

Serve at room temperature with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

cashew chicken and caramelized broccoli

Full disclosure: It wasn't until recently that I distinguished between Chinese food and Chinese-American food. Specifically, I was pretty much ignorant of the former, convinced that the take-out staples of my youth (sweet-and-sour pork, General Tso's, and *oh sweet god* honey-glazed shrimp with walnuts) were entirely authentic. Since then, my understanding, and my palate, have evolved considerably, as I've been schooled on soup dumplings and Sichuan peppercorns. But deep inside, a candle still burns for the cornstarch-filled, sealed-with-a-fortune-cookie meals I remember so fondly.

This cashew chicken appeals to teenage take-out lover in me. It may not be authentic—let’s be clear, the recipe comes from Martha Stewart—but it's so fast and tasty and even moderately healthy—I can forgive all that. M., who is far better versed in these things, agrees.


Cashew Chicken
Adapted from Everyday Food

I'm not going to say this is the best version of cashew chicken I've ever tasted; my friend Susanna, for instance, makes a version that easily rivals this one. But for a first attempt, I'm pretty pleased. I also think the (minor) fault may have been with my soy sauce, a fancy artisanal variety (fermented in 100-year-old barrels!) that didn't perform as well as say, Kikkoman, under these conditions.

Serves 2-4

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons dry sherry (or cooking wine)
2 teaspoons minced, peeled, fresh ginger

3 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

Coarse salt

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2/3 cup unsalted cashews, toasted
2 green onions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced

In a medium bowl, toss chicken with sherry, ginger, and 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch; season with salt. Refrigerate 30 minutes. In another bowl, combine broth, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch. Set sauce aside.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken and cook until golden and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to a covered plate. Add 1 teaspoon oil to skillet and cook remaining chicken (reduce heat if chicken is over-browning). Transfer to plate.

To same skillet, add 1 teaspoon oil, garlic, cashews, and green onion whites. Cook, stirring constantly, until garlic begins to soften, about 30 seconds. Whisk sauce and add to skillet along with chicken. Cook until sauce thickens, about 30 seconds. Top with green onion greens and serve with rice or noodles.


Caramelized Broccoli with Garlic
Adapted from Food & Wine

To all of the broccoli haters burned by memories of soggy, water-logged florets—please, give this recipe a chance. Crunchy and caramelized, it went perfectly with the cashew chicken, but I suspect it would perk up any plate.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 heads of broccoli (1 1/4 pounds total), stems peeled
1/2 cup water
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Cut the broccoli into thick slices. In a large, deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the broccoli, cut side down, cover and cook over moderate heat until richly browned on the bottom.

Add the water, cover and cook until the broccoli is just tender and the water has evaporated. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil along with the garlic and the crushed red pepper and cook uncovered until the garlic is golden brown. Season with salt and black pepper, drizzle with the lemon juice and serve.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the best cranberry sauce

I know this looks ridiculous. I know.

It's just that I take the subject of cranberry sauce seriously. I'm
not one for culinary orthodoxy, but when it comes to Thanksgiving, certain rules must be observed. Foremost among these is this: One cranberry sauce is simply not adequate. Two, at minimum—preferably three, even if the third happens to be a Jello-fied cylinder, straight from the can (just for nostalgia's sake).

Which brings us to this year's cranberry taste test—a pet project
that's been in the works for some time now. In the past month, I've experimented with several acclaimed recipes, in addition to resurrecting some old favorites. What resulted was a tournament bracket of cranberry condiments, in order to determine the best cranberry sauce/chutney/relish (or in my case, the best triumvirate of cranberry sauces/chutneys/relishes) in all the land.


The Winners:

Cranberry-Horseradish Relish
Or, the dark horse(radish) candidate, a staple of our Thanksgiving table for several years running. People respond to the flavor combination at first with skepticism, then (inevitably) with total submission. Technically, it's a relish (read: made with raw cranberries), and, with the aid of a food processor, dead-easy to prepare. Please trust me and try it.

Cranberry Fruit Conserve
Ina Garten, in her usual more-the-merrier wisdom, opts for a serious sugar-to-cranberry ratio. Combined with chopped apple, walnuts, and dual citrus action, it makes for a conserve so good you'll spoon it over toast, yogurt, breakfast cereal. (Warning: the rest of your Thanksgiving meal will pale in comparison.)

Triple Cranberry Sauce:

I loved the concept of this sauce, which concentrates the cranberry threefold (cooked, juiced and dried), but on first taste it didn't blow me away. Rather than abandon the batch, I nestled in a cinnamon stick and let it chill overnight, hopeful that the flavors would blossom into something delicious. They did.


The Runners-Up

Cranberry-Ginger Chutney
Of all my new test subjects, this is the one I most wanted to love (primarily out of loyalty to its creator, Molly of Orangette). I think, perhaps, I should have minded the title. This is definitely a chutney—with significantly more sweet-sour twang than your average sauce. I did really like it — particularly the bursts of crystallized ginger (which I'll borrow for future recipes)—but it's not quite what I'm looking for on Thanksgiving.

Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel
Not pictured here, unfortunately, but the recipe stands out in my mind
from Thanksgivings past. I know it sounds annoyingly schwa, but the effect is rich and perfect for the season, almost like mulled wine. If you're looking for a "spiced" cranberry sauce, this one is my favorite so far.


Triple Cranberry Sauce with Ginger and Pecans
A riff on the Triple Cranberry Sauce featuring pecans and ginger syrup (ginger syrup—genius). Very tasty, but in the end I preferred the (only moderately tweaked) original.


Not For Me:

Cranberry Sauce with Grand Marnier

This was one of the featured "signature dishes" in Saveur's Thanksgiving issue this year, so I couldn't resist. It's another brown sugar-spiced variation on the cranberry, with the clever addition of black peppercorns. For me, the flavor was not as well balanced as the others.


***

Do yourself a favor and make these the day before. [Covered, they'll survive in the refrigerator at least twice that long.] You want to allow enough time for the flavors to blend. Plus, you already have enough on your Thanksgiving day plate.


Cranberry-Horseradish Relish

Most of the measurements below are approximate—you can add these things to taste. This is one that really needs time to rest; I usually avoid seasoning until after it's been chilled. By the way, this one wins the day-after Turkey sandwich condiment award.


1 (12-ounce) package cranberries, thawed

1 small onion, quartered [I usually end up using about 3/4 onion]

½ cup sugar
1/2 cup light sour cream or plain low-fat yogurt

2 tablespoons drained prepared horseradish
Salt


Combine cranberries, onion and sugar in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add sour cream, horseradish and salt to taste. Refrigerate until chilled, preferably overnight.


Cranberry Fruit Conserve
Adapted from Ina Garten


1 (12-ounce) bag of fresh cranberries, cleaned
1 3/4 cups sugar [I tend to use a little less]
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped

1 orange, zest grated and juiced
1 lemon, zest grated and juiced
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans


Cook the cranberries, sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the skins pop open. Add the apple, zests, and juices and cook for 15 more minutes. Remove from the heat and add the raisins and nuts. Let cool, and serve chilled.


Triple-Cranberry Sauce

Adapted from Bon Appétit


1 cup frozen cranberry juice cocktail concentrate, thawed

1/3 cup sugar
1 12-ounce package fresh or frozen cranberries, cleaned
1/2 cup dried cranberries (about 2 ounces; I used a combination of cranberries and cherries)

3 tablespoons orange marmalade

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons minced orange peel
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cinnamon stick

Combine cranberry juice concentrate and sugar in heavy medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add fresh and dried cranberries and cook until dried berries begin to soften and fresh berries begin to pop, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in orange marmalade, orange juice, orange peel, allspice and cinnamon stick. Cool completely. Cover; chill until cold, about 2 hours. Remove cinnamon stick and serve.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

thanksgiving report



The Turkey:


Mmm. Brined and bronzed. Alton Brown's Good Eats recipe proved delicious, if a bit precarious. (Pray you have a self-cleaning oven.) But the crispy, Peking-duck-esque skin and moist flesh were worth all the smoke and splattering. Plus, it was really, really ridiculously good looking.


The Stuffing:

Prior to this year, I was a serial dater when it came to stuffings, perpetually playing the field. No longer. This stuffing, adapted from Silver Palate, is the equivalent of a culinary soul mate. It deserves its own holiday.


The Sides:

Our buffet included the familiar line-up of Thanksgiving sides, from Brussels sprouts to butternut squash puree. These glazed pearl onions may seem like an afterthought, but they've become a perennial favorite.


The Desserts:

Yes, five desserts (four plus one duplicate) is a bit optimistic for 12 people. But it's not a holiday for moderation. I can't take credit for the pies—two very tasty iterations of the Thanksgiving classics—but I can direct you to the recipes. The pumpkin is particularly of note, both for it's easy press-in shortbread crust, and it's bold spicing.

My contribution was a pear and chocolate cake, which seemed appropriately autumnal and wasn't at risk of redundancy. The pears and chocolate (who knew they made such tasty bedfellows?) sink during baking, enveloped by delicious brown butter cake.


***


Good Eats Roast Turkey
Adapted from Alton Brown

1 (14 to 16 pound) frozen young turkey

For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
1 gallon heavily iced water

For the aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs rosemary
6 leaves sage
Canola oil

2 to 3 days before roasting: Begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees. Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.

Early on the day or the night before you'd like to eat: Combine the brine, water and ice in the 5-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Remove the bird from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine. Place the bird on roasting rack inside a half sheet pan and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and 1 cup of water in a microwave safe dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add steeped aromatics to the turkey's cavity along with the rosemary and sage. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.

Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 161 degrees. A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes before carving.


Corn Bread-Sausage Stuffing With Apples
Adapted from Silver Palate Cookbook

We opted for an out-of-the-bird approach this year, which left the stuffing (or, in this case, dressing) moist and crisp in perfect proportion.

Serves 10-12

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
3 tart apples (we used Mutsu and Honeycrisp), cored and chunked; do not peel
1 pound lightly seasoned bulk sausage (breakfast sausage with sage is best)
3 cups coarsely crumbled corn bread
3 cups coarsely crumbled whole-wheat bread
3 cups coarsely crumbled white bread (French or homemade preferred)
2 teaspoons thyme
1 teaspoon sage
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups shelled pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Melt half of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and cook, partially covered, until tender and lightly colored, about 25 minutes, Transfer the onions and butter to a large mixing bowl.

Melt the remaining butter in the same skillet. Add the apple chunks and cook over high heat until lightly colored but not mushy. Transfer the apples and butter to the mixing bowl.

Crumble the sausage into the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring, until lightly browned. With a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to the mixing bowl and reserve the rendered fat.

Add the remaining ingredients to the ingredients in the mixing bowl and combine gently. Cool completely before stuffing the bird; refrigerate if not used promptly.

If you do not wish actually to stuff the bird, spoon it into a casserole. Cover the casserole and set into a large pan. Pour hot water around the casserole to come halfway up the sides, Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, basting occasionally with the cooking juices from the bird or with the reserved sausage fat if necessary.


Brown-Braised Pearl Onions
Adapted from Julia Child

Please don't be discouraged with the prospect of peeling these little guys. Once you blanch them, the skins slip right off... kind of.

18-24 pearl onions, about 1 inch in diameter
1½ tablespoons butter
1½ tablespoons olive oil
½ cup brown stock, or more [you can also experiment with dry white wine, red wine, or water]
Salt and pepper to taste
4 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme

To peel the onions, cut off the stems with a paring knife and cook in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and immediately plunge blanched onions into a bowl of ice water. Squeeze each onion gently at root end; the skins should pop off.

Heat the oil and butter in a skillet. Add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. (You can't expect them to brown uniformly.) Be careful not to break their skins.

Pour in enough liquid to come halfway up the sides of the onions, season to taste, and add the herbs. Cover and simmer slowly for 30 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herbs, and serve warm. [The onions can be cooked hours in advance, and reheated before serving.]


Easy Pumpkin Pie with Press-In Shortbread Crust
Adapted from Martha Stewart

For the crust:
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt

For the filling:
1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Whipped cream, for serving

Make the crust: Stir together butter and sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in yolk. Add flour and salt, and stir until mixture is dry and crumbly. Press dough into bottom and up sides of a 9-inch pie dish. Freeze until firm, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bake, rotating halfway through, just until crust turns golden brown, 20 to 22 minutes. Let cool in dish on a wire rack.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Make the filling: Whisk together pumpkin, heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and eggs in a large bowl. Pour filling into prepared piecrust.

Place dish on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, rotating halfway through, until filling is just set and slightly puffed but still a bit wobbly, 65 to 70 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool completely. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 6 hours. (Pie can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.) Serve chilled, topped with whipped cream if desired.


Torta di Pere [Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Cake]
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who cleverly convinced Al Di La restaurant to share the recipe

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room-temperature
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice [I used Bosc]
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour or breadcrumbs.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, set aside.

Using a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed until pale and very thick. [This will take at least 5 minutes, depending on your equipment.]

While the eggs are whipping, brown the butter. Place the rest of the butter in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise down the center, and using a paring knife to scrape the seeds and pulp onto the butter. Add the vanilla pod to the pan, and cook the butter until the butter browns and smells nutty, about 6 to 8 minutes. Scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last couple minutes to ensure even browning. Set aside. Remove the vanilla pod and discard.

Add the sugar and vanilla to the eggs and whip a few minutes more. Just as the egg-sugar mixture is starting to loose volume, turn the mixture down to stir, and add the flour mixture and brown butter. Add one third of the flour mixture, then half of the butter, a third of the flour, the remaining butter, and the rest of flour. Whisk until just barely combined — no more than a minute from when the flour is first added — and then use a spatula to gently fold the batter until the ingredients are combined. It is very important not to over-whisk or fold the batter or it will lose volume.

Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle the pear and chocolate chunks over the top, and bake until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch, about 40 to 50 minutes, or a tester comes out clean.

Monday, November 23, 2009

roasted winter squash and parsnips with maple syrup and marcona almonds

Like I've said before, when it comes to squash and sweet potato preparations, I overwhelmingly prefer the savory—excluding desserts, that is. But this dish, even with its maple syrup glaze, manages to get the sweet-salty balance just right. It's in large part thanks to the addition of toasted Marcona almonds, a blinged-out, why-didn't-I-think-of-that-before upgrade to the homely panko. All things considered, it's a perfect Thanksgiving compromise.

Roasted Winter Squash and Parsnips with Maple Syrup and Marcona Almonds
Adapted from Bon Appetít

Serves 6-8

2 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled kabocha squash (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 cups 1/4- to 1/3-inch cubes peeled parsnips (about 12 ounces)
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup coarsely chopped Marcona almonds (about 3 1/2 ounces)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish.

Combine kabocha and butternut squash and parsnips in large bowl. Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the maple syrup, garlic, and rosemary. Add butter to squash mixture and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish. [Can be made 1 day ahead: Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before continuing.]

Cover squash mixture with foil. Bake covered 40 minutes. Uncover; bake until all vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes longer. Sprinkle with almonds and bake 10 more minutes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

roasted sweet potato rounds with garlic oil and fried sage

I feel sorry for the sweet potato. Is there any vegetable more often defiled on the Thanksgiving table? It suffers countless humiliations, from miniature marshmallows to shredded coconut (in Paula Deen's world, both)—all before the dessert course even arrives. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for indulging one's sweet tooth—but I've never met a candied yam I truly enjoyed.

Which brings me to these roasted sweet potato rounds. Whoever devised this recipe clearly understands that a sweet potato is, by definition, sweet, and doesn't require any confectionary spin. Here they're roasted in garlic oil then tossed with fried sage leaves (which are by themselves a revelation). It's a simple, ridiculously tasty, and most of all dignified end for my tuberous friends.

Roasted Sweet Potato Rounds with Garlic Oil and Fried Sage
Adapted from Gourmet

Serves 4

3 large garlic cloves
1/3 cup olive oil
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
24 sage leaves
salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees with rack in upper third.

Heat oil in a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then fry sage leaves in 2 batches, stirring, until crisp, 30 seconds to 1 minute per batch. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Reserve the oil.

Purée garlic with 1/4 cup of reserved olive oil and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a blender until smooth. [You can also use fresh olive oil; I was looking to infuse more sage flavor.] Toss sweet potatoes with garlic oil in a large bowl, then spread in 1 layer in a 15-by 10-inch shallow baking pan. Bake until golden in patches and cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve sweet potatoes with sage leaves scattered on top.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

unlocking the carrot

"I know of no other preparation in the Italian repertory, or in other cuisines for that matter, more successful than this one in freeing the rich flavor that is locked inside the carrot." A bold claim, to be sure. But if you're Marcella Hazan, maven of Italian cuisine, you know you have the goods to back it up.

Alas, there's no secret ingredient, or trick to her technique. The real art to this preparation is patience: one and a half hours of quiet observation (and quality control) as the homely carrot round transforms into something buttery, caramelized, and f--ing delicious.

This next recipe, adapted from Tony Maws of Craigie on Maine, is less authentically carrot-y, perhaps, but uniquely boozy and wonderful. Carrots emerge from the pan rich and perfumy, with a deep garnet-red glaze.


***


Braised Carrots with Parmesan Cheese
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

It's hard to think of ways to improve on this recipe. Next time, I might experiment with some combination of chicken stock and water, to see if that will tease out some extra richness.

Serves 4

2 pounds carrots
1/3 teaspoon sugar
4-5 tablespoons butter
Salt
3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Peel the carrots, wash them in cold water, and slice them into 3/8 inch disks. The thin tapered ends can be cut thicker. Using one large or two medium saute pans, spread the carrot rounds in a single snug layer, without overlapping. Add the butter, and enough water to come ¼ inch up the sides. Turn on the heat to medium.

Cook until the water has evaporated, then add salt and the ¼ teaspoon sugar. Continue cooking, adding from 2-3 tablespoons water as needed. Your objective is to end up with well-browned, wrinkled carrot disks, concentrated in flavor and texture. It will take about 1 hour, during which time you must watch them, even while you do other things in the kitchen. Stop adding water when they begin to reach the wrinkled, browned stage, because there must be no liquid left in the end. In about 30 minutes, the carrots will become so reduced in bulk that, if you have been using two pans, you will be able to combine them in a single pan.

When done—they should be very tender—add the grated Parmesan, turn the carrots over completely once or twice, and transfer them to a warm platter.


Pan-Roasted Carrots in Red Wine
Adapted from Tony Maws

Serves 4

2 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced

2-3 tablespoons butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup full-bodied red wine

1 cup stock or water

Chopped chives and parsley

Saute carrots in butter, salt and pepper until slightly brown—about 10 minutes—or until the juices are released, stirring occasionally.

Add red wine and stir to combine pan juices and goodies. Cook until liquid is reduced to a syrup consistency. Add stock or water. Cover and continue cooking on very low heat until carrots are tender. If necessary, reduce liquid until thick. Add one tablespoon butter and chopped chives and/or parsley. Test for seasoning.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

two pumpkin pie alternatives

Alternatives may be the wrong word. For me, classic pumpkin pie is irreplaceable—a prerequisite for any up-to-par Thanksgiving table. But, while I'm not off looking for pumpkin pie substitutes, I still welcome any opportunity to sample a new squash dessert (preferably for breakfast).

As such, in the past month I've experimented with a couple of more avant-garde pumpkin recipes, just to test the waters. The first is from Pichet Ong, and to my mind it's enough to catapult him into pastry immortality:

This kabocha squash pie feels like a hybrid dessert—part pie, part cheesecake. (The 10 ounces of cream cheese, I suppose, place it decidedly in the second category, but they don't hijack the experience.)

It all starts with a walnut-graham cracker crust, which I highly recommend you dog-ear and export for future cheesecakes. It's genius (lime zest!), and, coupled with the slight twang of the pie filling and (to gild the lily) a generous drizzle of ginger-butterscotch sauce, totally addictive. I'll be honest, Mr. Ong nearly made me reconsider my no-pumpkin-pie-substitutes dictate.

The second specimen is a little harder to wrap my mind around, in part because it represents my greatest baking failure—aesthetically and emotionally—to date. Made with fresh sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and coconut milk, it's called Cazuela Pie, and Regan Daley (whom I generally trust) claims that it’s a personal favorite. (“It beats the pants off regular pumpkin pies!” she writes.) Oh, that I might say the same.

See that horrible fault line slashing down the left side? The soupy bog that's formed in the center (a refrigeration error on my part)? Those are just the start of my grievances—they don't account for the miserable 45 minutes spent sieving sweet potato (food mill, where art thou?); or the distracted moment in which I mistook cumin for ginger (don't worry, I fished it out...I think); or repeated botched attempts to cover the crust with tinfoil.

I naively hoped that, despite these mishaps, the pie would end in success. And it did, sort of. Texturally, once you got past the cosmetic issues, it was excellent. But I'm not 100% sold on the flavor. Cazuela was missing the classic spice profile I've come to desire in a pumpkin dessert, and the coconut milk was perhaps a little too sweet?

That said, seconds were had by many. And two people said they preferred this to classic pumpkin pie. Maybe you will too? For me there's a bit too much baggage here to be objective—this pie will forever serve as a reminder of my shortcomings. Approach it with an open mind, and a food mil, and I suspect you may feel differently.

***


Kabocha Squash Pie
Adapted from Pichet Ong

If you're not up for breaking down a kobocha, substitute 2 1/2 cups of canned pumpkin. I promise it will still be delicious.

For the filling:
1 medium kabocha squash, about 3 pounds or 2 1/2 cups of canned pumpkin
10 ounces (1 1/3 cups) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (about 1/4 of a nutmeg)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
2 eggs at room temperature

For the crust:
3/4 cup (2 ounces) walnuts
1/2 cup, packed, light brown sugar
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (about 7 crackers)
Grated zest of 1 lime
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter, melted
Crème fraîche or whipped cream, for serving
Ginger butterscotch sauce, for serving (see recipe)

For pie filling, bring an inch of water to a boil in a large covered pot fitted with a steamer basket or rack. Put in squash, cover and steam, replenishing water as needed, until fork tender, about 1 hour. Turn squash over halfway through steaming. Set squash aside until cool enough to handle.

Heat oven to 325 degrees. For crust, place walnuts on a baking tray, and toast in oven, stirring once or twice, until fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.

In a food processor, combine walnuts with a few tablespoons brown sugar and pulse a few times, until nuts are coarsely ground. In a large bowl, whisk nuts with graham cracker crumbs, remaining brown sugar, lime zest, spices and salt. Pour melted butter over this mixture, and mix with your fingers until butter is distributed. Press evenly into a 10-inch glass pie plate. Bake crust until lightly browned, about 12 minutes, then set aside. Keep oven at 300 degrees.

When squash is cool, cut it in half and scoop out seeds and pulp. Scoop squash flesh into a measuring cup until you have 2 1/2 cups.

In a food processor, process cream cheese with sugar, spices and salt until light and smooth. Scrape down bowl, add squash and process until smooth. Mix in brandy and then eggs, one at a time. Finish mixing with a rubber spatula.

Place pie plate on a baking sheet and scrape filling into crust. Bake until just set in center, about 1 hour. Let cool before serving, topped with whipped cream or crème fraîche and drizzled with butterscotch sauce.

Ginger Butterscotch Sauce
Adapted from Pichet Ong

1/2 pound dark brown sugar
1 1/4 ounces (about 2 inches) fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into coins
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped
5 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed
1 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Place sugar, ginger and vanilla pod and pulp in a heavy pot set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar is molten and fragrant with ginger and vanilla, about 8 minutes. (It won't melt entirely but will be somewhat crumbly.) Add butter (stand back, it will foam up), and stir until melted and smooth, about 2 minutes.

Pour cream and salt into pot, stirring, and bring to a simmer. Let sauce bubble until thickened, about 8 minutes. Let cool for at least 1/2 hour, then strain out ginger and vanilla pod. Warm sauce before serving. [This sauce will keep for up to 2 weeks in refrigerator.]



Cazuela Pie
Adapted from In The Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

Make sure the pie shell is thoroughly chilled to ensure the pastry won't over-bake during the long cooking time needed for the dense filling. If necessary, cover the crust with aluminum foil to prevent burning.

2 unbaked and well-chilled pie pastries, used to line 9 1/2 -inch glass pie dishes
2 1/2 pounds orange sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 1/4 cups water
1 large cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
5 whole cloves
1 star anise, crumbled
1 1/2 -inch-long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cups pumpkin puree
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tightly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup good-quality canned coconut milk (stir the contents of the can well before measuring)
Whipped cream, to serve

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the sweet potato chunks in a single layer in one large or two medium shallow, ceramic baking dish(es). Add the water, dividing it between the two dishes if necessary. The water should be about 1/2 inch deep; add more if the level is lower than this. Scatter the pieces of cinnamon stick, cloves, pieces of star anise and ginger slices among the sweet potatoes. Cover the baking dishes securely with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are very tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.

Remove the potatoes from the dishes and force them through a ricer, food mill, or sieve. Let cool. Strain the baking liquid, discarding the solids, and measure. You want about 1/2 cup of liquid; if you have less, add enough fresh water to make 1/2 cup; if you have more, simmer the liquid in a small saucepan on the stove over high heat until it is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Let the liquid cool. [The pumpkin, sweet potato and spiced liquid can all be prepared up to 3 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Bring each to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.]

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin and sweet potato purees and stir to blend well. Beat in the eggs, then stir in the melted butter and reserved spice liquid. In a separate bowl, stir together the granulated and brown sugars with a wire whisk. Sift the flour and salt over the sugars and stir to blend. Add the sugar-flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and stir well until there are no pockets of sugar visible. Blend in the coconut milk.

Scrape the filling into the two chilled pie shells, dividing it evenly and smoothing the tops. Place the pies in the lower half of the preheated oven and bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, turning the pies several times so they bake evenly. The point of a thin-bladed knife should come out clean when inserted into the center of the filling, and the surface should be unevenly cracked. If the edges of the pastry seem to be darkening too much before the filling is cooked, cover them with strips of aluminum foil. Transfer the pies to wire racks and cool completely before serving with lightly sweetened whipped cream.