croquembouche and an anniversary

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We turned three on November 20th. How about that?!!

I had originally planned on making a cake for the occasion. But for one reason or another, I just couldn’t get it together that day. So I went without the cake. And instead celebrated at home that evening with a Manhattan.

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While I enjoyed and needed that quiet celebration (especially the Manhattan), it didn’t feel right not being here with you. I felt like I had missed my best friend’s birthday. Something had to be done.

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So I started thinking about desserts that were worthy of an anniversary. Chocolate mousse popped into my head. But what I really wanted was something grand. And then I remembered the croquembouche. I first encountered the croquembouche a million years ago while watching Great Chefs, Great Cities, a PBS cooking show I would watch when I’d get home from school. The closing credits of the series featured a chef assembling a tower of cream puffs with a cascade of spun sugar; this was mind blowing stuff in the 90’s. I filed it away in the “some day” section of my brain.

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A tower of cream puffs was just the thing for this occasion. Dripping with ambered caramel and  adorned with spun sugar, it’s quite the show stopper. And the caramel cream inside of the puffs is insane – you’ll want to eat more than one, and you should. This is most definitely the pièce de résistance. Perfect for the holidays, a big birthday, an anniversary, a blogiversary. It’s a winner.

Here’s to us and to you! Thank you for being a witness to the madness! We love you! Cheers!

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croquembouche 

caramel cream, caramel, and assembly adapted from Martha Stewart

makes two small or one large tower

for the caramel cream

makes 3 cups

1- 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

2 cups heavy cream, divided

1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

pinch of coarse salt

Prepare an ice-water bath. Heat sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until mixture boils and sugar dissolves, washing down sides of pan often with a wet pastry brush to prevent crystals from forming. Reduce heat to medium, and cook until sugar turns dark amber, 5 to 7 minutes more. Immediately remove from heat, and carefully whisk in 1 cup cream. Return to medium heat, and cook until sugar melts completely and mixture boils.

Remove from heat, and pour into a bowl set in ice-water bath. Let caramel cool, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Stir in creme fraiche, vanilla, and salt. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 5 days.

Just before using, beat remaining 1 cup cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into caramel sauce, using a rubber spatula, until incorporated. Whisk to thicken, about 1 minute.

for the cream puffs 

adapted slightly from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

Makes about 24 large or 40 medium puffs

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1 tablespoon sugar 

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 425°F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

Bring the milk, water, butter, sugar, and salt to a rapid boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat. Add the flour all at once, reduce the heat to medium-low,  and immediately start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon or heavy whisk. The dough will come together, and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring – with vigor – another minute or two to dry the dough.  The dough should be very smooth.

Turn the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or into a bowl you can use to mix with a hand mixer or a wooden spoon and elbow grease. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next, and don’t be concerned if the dough falls apart –  by the time the last egg goes in, the dough will come together again. Once the dough is made, it should be used immediately.

Transfer dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch round tip. Pipe 1.5-inch puffs (a bit larger than a quarter) onto each prepared sheet, leaving about 2 inches of space between each mound of dough.

Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375°F.  Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom. Continue baking until the puffs are golden, firm, and of course, puffed for another 12 to 15 minutes or so. Allow the puffs to cool on the baking sheet.

for the caramel: 

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Prepare an ice-water bath. Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, washing down sides of pan often with a wet pastry brush to prevent crystals from forming. Cook, without stirring, until sugar dissolves, 5 to 6 minutes. Raise heat to high, and cook, swirling pan to color evenly, until syrup is amber, about 5 minutes. Remove caramel from heat, and set bottom of pan in ice-water bath for a few seconds to stop the cooking. Use immediately.

to assemble: 

Transfer caramel cream to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch round tip. Insert tip of pastry bag into base of each puff, and fill each. Return to sheets in a single layer as you work.

Dip top half of each filled puff into caramel (be careful not to burn your fingers), letting excess drip back into pan. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let stand until caramel is set.

For a small tower, carefully dip bottom half of 1 puff into caramel, letting excess drip into pan. Transfer puff, hot caramel side down, to a serving platter. Repeat with 6 more puffs, forming a connected ring as you work. Repeat with more puffs, layering rings to form a 5-layer pyramid, using 20 puffs total. (If the caramel begins to harden, reheat briefly over low heat.)

To make the spun sugar topper, use any excess caramel and reheat briefly over low heat. Let cool slightly. Test by dipping a fork into the caramel and holding it over the pan; the caramel should fall back into pan in long golden threads. Dip fork into caramel, and spin caramel threads over a large piece of parchment paper or onto a wooden rack. Transfer spun-sugar to croquembouche, swirling to cover.

Serve immediately, or let stand at room temperature for up to 2 hours.

To make a second croquembouche, make another batch of caramel, and repeat with remaining filled puffs. (Alternatively, serve the remaining puffs on the side.)

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pear cranberry bundt cake

This year, I’m going to make a serious effort to have a relaxing Thanksgiving. I’m going to prep the night before, maybe even two nights before because it’s that serious. I’m going to stick to the plan, and not decide to make a different dessert the morning of or make an extra dessert just for the hell of it. I’m going to arrive to dinner on time, my pies will not still be in the oven when I’m already supposed to be at my aunt’s place with the rest of the family. I’m going to be rested and put together AND I will still have energy to see friends after dinner (and maybe even go out dancing to burn off some of that turkey). My mind is made up.

If you’re still looking for a dessert to make for Thanksgiving, I have something for you. This gem comes from the final issue of Gourmet. It’s been three years and I am still mourning the loss of Gourmet. Because it was the Thanksgiving issue, I find myself  thumbing through the pages every holiday season, flagging recipes that I want to add to my repertoire. I’m finally getting around to trying one of them.

I was pretty set on making my usual pie and gallette for Thanksgiving this year. But this pear cranberry cake really grabbed my attention. It just screams “happy holidays.” So I decided to give it a whirl last weekend and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. I was also surprised by how much I consumed. I’ve test driven it twice in the past week and it has gotten the thumbs up from my most discerning tasters.

This cake is the perfect ending to your Turkey Day feast, especially if you’re not a pie person. But even the most die-hard pie lovers will swoon over this cake. You can make it in a bundt or tube pan. It’s studded with tart, fresh cranberries and diced pear, and finished off with a generous coating of brown sugar caramel sauce, which is to die for. And since it’s the easiest thing to throw together, you can have yourself a cocktail (or three) and take it easy this Thanksgiving.

pear cranberry bundt cake

adapted from Gourmet, November 2009

serves 8-12

for the cake:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

1-3/4 cups sugar

1-1/4 cups vegetable oil

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons rum (optional)

3 Bosc pears (1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 cups cranberries (thawed if frozen)

for the glaze:

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 (3-inch-long) cinnamon sticks

special equipment: 10-by 4-inch angel food cake pan or 15- cup Bundt pan

Make cake:

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together sugar and oil at low speed. Continue mixing and add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated before adding the next. Add the vanilla and rum and beat on low until combined well.

At low speed, mix in the pears and cranberries, then mix in the flour until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

Cool in pan 30 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Make glaze: 
Bring cream, brown sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, cinnamon sticks, and a pinch of salt to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, then simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Cool glaze 5-10 minutes, until it is the consistency of a medium-bodied caramel sauce. Discard cinnamon sticks, then pour glaze over cake, letting some drip down sides.

bacon bourbon pecan pie

Let’s start November off the right way, shall we? It is the month for indulging, after all.

Bacon. Bourbon. Pecan. Pie. The ultimate of pies.

I first started dreaming of this pie two years ago. I was obsessed with the idea of bacon fat pie crust. At the time, I really thought a sweet-savory sweet potato pie was going to be the answer. It was fine. But not life altering. So I went back to the drawing board the following year, and it went from being a sweet potato pie to a pecan pie, which was the obvious solution. Though it did require a little bit of experimenting (bacon or no bacon in the filling?). But then I found the sweet spot.

Bacon fat pie crust + gooey, crunchy pecan filling = love at first bite. A little bit of bacon fat in the pie crust really makes magic happen; it’s an instant flavor booster and makes for an ultra flakey base. And the pecan filling, spiked with bourbon and maple syrup, gets a subtle hint of savoriness with the addition of finely chopped bacon. And there you have it. Bacon and bourbon dreams really do come true. But you’ve gotta be careful with this sort of pie – it’s highly addictive. You might just end up eating straight from the pie pan if you don’t check yourself. You have my blessing, of course.

bacon bourbon pecan pie

makes 1 9-inch pie, serves 8

bacon bourbon pie crust (from the LA times)

1-1/2 cups (6.4 ounces) flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

3 tablespoons cold bacon grease or shortening, cut into 3 pieces

5 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

2 tablespoons cold bourbon

2 tablespoons ice water, more as needed

maple bacon pecan filling (heavily adapted from Bon Appetit)

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

4 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups pecan halves

1/2 cup bacon, finely chopped

3 tablespoons bourbon

for the crust:

Whisk together the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add the bacon grease and incorporate using a pastry cutter or fork (the dough will look like moist sand). Cut in the butter just until it is reduced to small, pea-sized pieces. Sprinkle the bourbon and water over the mixture, and stir together just until incorporated. Gently press the crumbly mixture together with a large spoon, rubber spatula or the palm of your hand just until it comes together to form a dough. Mold the dough into a disc roughly 6 inches in diameter. Cover the disc tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a round roughly 13 inches in diameter. Place in a 9-inch baking dish, crimping the edges as desired. Freeze the formed shell for 20 to 30 minutes before filling and baking.

for the filling:

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 350°F.

Stir syrup, brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves and butter melts. Increase heat and boil 1 minute. Cool to lukewarm, about 45 minutes.

Whisk eggs, vanilla and salt in 4-cup measuring cup to blend. Gradually whisk maple syrup mixture into egg mixture. Stir in the pecan halves, bacon, and bourbon. Pour filling into crust. Bake pie until filling is slightly puffed around edges and center is set, about 55 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack.

Can be prepared 8 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Cut pie into wedges and serve.