Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gingery Pumpkin Ice Cream


Pumpkin is an extremely versatile vegetable--it works well as the featured ingredient in desserts as well as it does in savory dishes. Which is a good thing, because as much as I love pumpkin pie, it can get a little predictable after a while. Here's a gingery pumpkin ice cream which I paired with a simple bourbon-laced caramel sauce and toasted pecans. You can use fresh pumpkin puree, if you want. Choose smaller pumpkins, which are sweeter than the big ones (but not the very small decorative ones). Cut them in half and remove the strings and seeds. Place them cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet and add about 1/4 inch water to the pan. Cover the pan with foil and bake at 400 degrees F. until tender. Halfway through baking, turn them over and drizzle them with melted butter. Roasted pumpkin is so good this way, you may even decide to skip the ice cream and eat it as is. It also makes the base for excellent soup.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Charleston Tradition


During the eighteenth century, many Scots settled in North and South Carolina. There's a Scottish word, 'sussy', that means 'to care', from which a Charleston tradition developed. The tradition is to give an unexpected gift, called a surcee, to friends and relatives. The custom still flourishes today, and The Charleston Cookie Company (www.charlestoncookie.com) offers an outstanding collection of sweets to send s surcee in style. The small company was started in 2003 by a passionate baker, Judith Moore, and has since developed into a thriving business.

I recently tried their White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies (pictured above) and Candy Cane Brownies. The cookies are packed with dried cranberries and white chocolate chips in a brown sugar cookie base, while the brownies are extra chocolatey with a hint of peppermint. Other standout items include Double Fudge Chip, Mini Key Lime, and Peanut Butter Cookies, Double Fudge Chip and Cappuccino Brownies. They also have a selection of whoopie pies and a range of gift baskets to choose from. So celebrate a little bit of Charleston this holiday season by sending someone you love (or just like a little) a sweet surcee, Southern style.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Bark You'll Want to Bite


Nothing generates as much consternation for home cooks as the notion of tempering chocolate. People avoid it at all costs. No small wonder—chocolate is expensive, and it’s somewhat demoralizing when things go wrong during the tempering process, which can be a matter of making the chocolate just a few degrees too warm or too cool. Recently I was working on a project which required me to devise an easy method of tempering for home cooks. I consulted a friend, Dennis Teets, who worked in R&D for Hershey’s for many years, and who is a bona fide expert on tempering and the science of chocolate. He suggested a very simple, streamlined method. It requires no ‘seeding’ or ‘slushing’, or anything remotely messy, and is simply a matter of assiduously monitoring the temperature of the chocolate and adding a small amount of grated chocolate when the chocolate cools to 87 degrees F. It’s the easiest method I’ve ever used, and is practically foolproof (emphasis here on practically). I like to make homemade chocolate nut bark around the holidays to give out as small gifts or bring along to holiday parties. I break it up and nestle the shards into cello bags, and tie them with a red or green ribbon. Though I prefer my bark with just nuts in it, you can also add chopped dried fruit such as cranberries, cherries, candied orange peel or apricots, or toasted pumpkins seeds, coconut or whatever strikes your fancy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cranberry Conundrum


There's no question that cranberry sauce is a necessary component of Thanksgiving dinner. This tart, bright condiment is the perfect counterpoint to bland turkey. The only decision here is canned or homemade? I actually had a good friend from college who insisted on having cranberry sauce from the can, complete with the raised rings from the sides of the can (which verified from whence it came). The beauty of homemade cranberry sauce, though, is that it can be made days ahead and doesn't take more than 10 minutes to make. And it's miles above the canned variety (sorry, Ocean Spray folks--nothing personal). My version has lots of ginger in it--fresh and crystallized--and a hint of orange. The toasted pecans give it some crunch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Pleasures of Pumpkin


The countdown to Thanksgiving is officially on. I'm not cooking this year, so the pressure if off me. No frenzied planning, list-making or blitz-shopping. I am, however, making a few pies for desperate friends who are cooking, but are somewhat dessert-challenged. Pecan and lemon meringue pies, chocolate caramel tarts, whatever the request, I'm happy to oblige (though I am not taking any more requests). Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and everybody has their own vision of what the perfect meal should be. It's not time to get really creative with dishes or try new recipes out for the first time. Even if you keep it really simple, let's face it, preparing this meal is arduous. But, for those among you who are looking for a dessert that's a little different, I am offering up an alternative: Creamy Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Ginger-Pecan Crust. The recipe works, trust me. Traditional? No. Really, really good? Yes. And the Sugared Pumpkin Seeds are addictive....

P.S.: The beautiful photo above was taken by the uber-talented food photographer (and my good friend), John Uher (www.johnuher.com). Thanks, John.

Creamy Pumpkin Cheesecake with Ginger-Pecan Crust

Makes 12 to 16 servings
Special Equipment: 9-inch diameter x 2 3/4-inch high springform pan

Ginger Pecan Crust:
1 cup (4.3 oz/121 g) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1.9 oz/54 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (1.2 oz/33 g) pecans
1/4 cup (1.4 oz/40 g) chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup (1 stick/4 oz/113 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon (15 ml) cold water

Pumpkin Cheesecake Filling:
1 cup (240 ml) pumpkin puree
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 pounds (567 g) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (3.5 oz/100 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (3.8 oz/108 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon (.26 oz/7 g) cornstarch
4 large eggs

Sugared Pumpkin Seeds:
1/2 cup (2.5 oz/70 g) hulled raw pumpkin seeds
1 large egg white
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons (.88 oz/25 g) granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Garnish:
Sweetened Whipped Cream

Make the crust:
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch diameter x 2 3/4-inch high springform pan. Cut an 18-inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap the foil around the outside of the pan. Set the pan aside. 2. Place the flour, sugar, salt, pecans, and ginger in the bowl of a food processor and process until the pecans are finely ground. Add the butter pieces and process until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Add the water and process until the mixture starts to come together as a dough. Press the dough into an even layer over the bottom of the prepared pan.
3. Bake the crust for 25 to 30 minutes, until it is just beginning to brown. Place the pan on a wire rack and cool completely. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.

Make the filling:
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, heavy cream, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese at medium-low speed until creamy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Gradually add the sugars and beat until blended. Add the pumpkin mixture and mix until blended. Add the cornstarch and mix just until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
6. Scrape the batter into the cooled crust. Place the wrapped pan in a roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan so that it comes 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake the cheesecake in the water bath for 70 to 80 minutes, until the center of the cake is set, but slightly wobbly (the cake will set completely as it cools). Remove the cake pan from the water and immediately run the tip of a paring knife around the sides of the pan to prevent the top from cracking. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool the cake completely.
7. Refrigerate the cheesecake for at least 4 hours before serving.

Make the Sugared Pumpkin Seeds:
8. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Place the pumpkin seeds in a small bowl. In another small bowl, whisk the egg white just until frothy. Add just enough of the white to coat the pumpkin seeds. Add the salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and toss well to coat the seeds.
9. Spread the coated seeds in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake, tossing them occasionally with a metal spatula, for 15 to 20 minutes, until they begin to dry and color. Place the pan on a wire rack and cool completely. With your fingers, separate any clumps of seeds. Store the seeds in an airtight container for up to a week.

To serve:
10. To serve, cut the cake with a thin-bladed, sharp knife, wiping the knife clean between each cut. Garnish each slice with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of sugared pumpkin seeds.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Almond Joy


Chocolate-Covered Almonds are among my favorite confections, second only to Chocolate Almond Bark. Coating fragrant toasted almonds with smooth bittersweet chocolate is a really good idea. Tossing them in a mixture of cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar makes them that much better. I like to bundle a bunch of these crunchy sweets in a small cello bag, tie them with a bright ribbon, and give them to friends as a treat. It also makes a nice little bribe when you need something done badly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Strawberry Shortcake, Cream on Top


Yesterday I had a food styling job which required me to create a Christmas tree out of strawberries (I'll post a picture of it sometime in December). After completing the project, I had about 4 pounds of fresh strawberries clogging up my fridge, so I thought I'd make one of my favorite comfort desserts, Strawberry Shortcakes. I love the contrast of the tender, crumbly shortcakes with the juicy, flavorful berries and the billowy whipped cream. Ok, so maybe it's not a typical fall dessert, like, say, apple pie, but boy, is it good. Every component can be made ahead (the shortcakes the day before, the berries and cream up to 8 hours before) and assembled just before serving.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Heart Macarons


I just received the book I Love Macarons (Chronicle Books, 2009) by Hisako Ogita, and it inspired me to make macarons for the first time in a long time. It is a charming little book (only 80 pages) which outlines in great detail the method for making perfect French macarons every time. It also offers lots of flavor ideas and options as well as recipes for various fillings and desserts to use up those leftover egg yolks. The book includes lots of step-by-step photos as well as images of brightly colored macarons in a rainbow of flavors. Since I love pistachio, I opted to make pistachio macarons with pistachio buttercream (I used my own recipe for the buttercream). The batter color lightens as it bakes, so next time I would add a little more food coloring for the shells (though I really don't like neon colors, so I'd rather err on the side of making them too light than too dark). Next up--how about pumpkin macarons with cinnamon buttercream for Thanksgiving?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Absolutely Chocolate (and Peanut Butter)


I've been a fan of Fine Cooking magazine since their first issue fifteen years ago. It's come along way since then--it's a lot slicker-looking now, with better photos and glossier paper. But it still has the same great tips and high level of detail in each recipe. Now they've released an excellent chocolate book, Absolutely Chocolate: Irresistible Excuses to Indulge (The Taunton Press, 2009). The book includes info on how chocolate is made, how to choose the right chocolate for baking, when to use cocoa vs. chocolate, how to decipher labels, and much more. There are 125 recipes, which include layer cakes, tarts, pies, muffins, cookies, brownies, candies, sauces and even hot chocolate. The recipe I picked out to test-bake combines two of my favorite flavors: dark chocolate and peanut butter, a culinary match made in heaven. The tart turned out to be pretty heavenly, too.

Chocolate-Glazed Peanut Butter Tart

Adapted from Absolutely Chocolate by the editors of Fine Cooking magazine

Crust:
1 cup finely ground chocolate wafers
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
1 ½ cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon table salt
3 large egg yolks
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
½ cup creamy natural peanut butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Glaze:
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Make the crust:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Have ready an ungreased 9 ½-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
2. In a medium bowl, mix the cookie crumbs and sugar until blended. Add the melted butter and mix with a fork until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Put the crumbs in the tart pan and use your hands to spread the crumbs so that they coat the bottom of the pan and start to climb up the sides. Use your fingers to pinch and press some of the crumbs around the inside edge of the pan to cover the sides evenly and create a wall about a scant ¼-inch thick. Bake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until fragrant. Cool completely.

Make the filling:
3. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk and salt to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, brown sugar and flour until well blended. Slowly add the hot milk, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens and comes to a full boil, about 3 minutes. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add the peanut butter and vanilla; whisk until well blended.
4. Pour the hot peanut butter mixture into the crust and spread evenly with a spatula. Gently press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the filling’s surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate the tart until cold, about 2 hours.

Make the glaze:
5. Melt the chocolate with the butter and corn syrup in a medium metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water) and whisk until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Carefully remove the plastic wrap from the top of the filling. Drizzle the glaze over the filling and spread it evenly to cover the tart completely. Refrigerate the tart in the pan until the glaze sets, about 30 minutes and up to 12 hours.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chocolate with a Hump


The one product that really stood out in my mind at this year's New York Chocolate Show was the Al Nassma Camel Milk Chocolate, billed as the "World's First Camel's Milk Chocolate." Yes, it is made with camel's milk. (Who even knew that camels had milk?) And yes, you can buy a big, hollow chocolate camel to serve as the centerpiece of your child's Easter basket (talk about confusing). Or scatter some mini solid camels amongst the jelly beans. This unique milk chocolate is the brainchild of Martin van Almsick, a very pleasant German man who is the former manager of the Chocolate Museum in Cologne. You may well ask how this chocolate tastes. Well, it has a mild flavor that is slightly tangy. Not as tangy as yogurt, but tangy-er than cow's milk. In short, it's not bad. If you found yourself in the middle of the desert and found a piece of Al Nassma in your pocket (probably a little melty), you would most certainly devour it.

Al Nassma's product line also includes five 70-grams bars in these flavors: Arabia (flavored with local spices); Date; Macadamia Nut and Orange; 70 percent Cocoa; and Whole [Camel] Milk. The hollow chocolate camels are available in two sizes,130- and 730-gram. For more info, visit www.al-nasma.com.

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