Perfecting the Traditional Pumpkin Pie

•November 7, 2007 • 4 Comments

America’s favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a particular favorite of mine. And over the many years of preparing them, I have learned they can be quite persnickety and are rarely “perfect” without a little tweaking.

Most home bakers will buy some cans of pureed pumpkin on sale this time of year and use the recipe on the back of the can. By the way, go right ahead, since these filling recipes are not only standard, but delicious. Most will also purchase pre-made pie pastry, which is a timesaver. But whether you use canned pumpkin or fresh, pre-made pastry or homemade, you are still going to face a few challenges.

Foremost is the likelihood that the pastry shell will become soggy during baking, a rather notorious condition when making custard-based pies. This is easily avoided by partially pre-baking the shell before filling, and cooking lower in the oven.

The fillings will often curdle if the pie is cooked in too high a heat, or overcooked, producing a filling that separates (really making the crust soggy) and becomes grainy with a thick browned film on the top of the pie. For this inescapable threat, one does not cook a pumpkin pie so much by time, as one does by “feel” of the custard filling. Never cook so long that a knife inserted into the center returns clean, but only to the point where the center no longer “sloshes”, but jiggles like jello.

And if you roast your own pie pumpkins to make your own pumpkin puree (as I always do), you’ll never go back to using the canned stuff, despite how long it takes to make your own. The reason for this is not only flavor, but texture. (There may be some obstinacy on my part here, too.) Homemade pumpkin puree is smooth as silk and has an unbelievable deep, rich flavor that makes any effort on buying pie pumpkins worthwhile. Canned pumpkin is notoriously fibrous and almost always has that “canned” taste you clearly discern when tasting homemade puree and canned puree side-by-side.

However, it is certainly great to use canned pumpkin and just two steps are all you need to follow to make the canned stuff taste almost as good as homegrown and home-roasted (although you will never achieve the depth of pumpkin flavor found in one fresh from the vine): (1) Before using canned pumpkin puree, run it through your food processor for a minute or so to completely puree any fibrous bits; and (2) precook this puree with the sugar and spices and the “canned” flavor will quickly disappear.

Here is how to make the best pumpkin pie of your life, regardless of whether you use fresh or canned pumpkin, from a few tips you will never find on the back of a can. I offer my preferred recipe two ways, the first with a drop-dead wonderful filling from fresh pumpkins, the second that illustrates how to create a canned pumpkin filling that even I couldn’t guess was canned…after a couple of glasses of wine, of course.

The Perfected Classic Fresh Pumpkin Pie

1 partially pre-baked pie pastry in a 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish

2 cups fresh roasted pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt (not sea salt, please)

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup milk (2% is fine)

4 large eggs

You will need to prepare your fresh pumpkins the day before making this pie.

There are several varieties of pie pumpkins available across the country, but Sugarpie and Sweetiepie are probably more common to find in farmers’ markets and larger stores (like my Central Market). You can generally expect a 2-pound pie pumpkin to produce 1 cup of puree. I always buy several usually around 3 to 4 pounds in size, roast them at the same time, and then can and/or freeze the extra puree for other uses (like soups, cookies, cakes, cheesecakes and future pumpkin pies). Inspect the pumpkins carefully and reject any with dark spots or abrasions/cuts to the skin or having any mold around the stems.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees (F). Line a jelly roll pan with heavy duty aluminum foil extending over the sides and crimping into place, then oil the foil generously with vegetable or canola oil. (If you roast several pumpkins at once, place your two or three oven racks spaced evenly in your oven above center, (at center, if using three racks) and below center, and prepare two or three jelly roll pans as described.)

Using a sharp chef’s knife, remove the stem end from each pumpkin. Cut each pumpkin in half and remove all of the seeds and fibers. Cut each half again creating quarters, then cut each quarter in half across the middle creating triangles.

Arrange the pumpkin triangles evenly on the oiled foil with the outer skin side up. Place into your preheated oven and roast for about 2 hours, or until the pumpkin pieces are fork-tender. (If roasting two or three pans-full, the roasting time will probably require three hours of cooking to reach fork tenderness.)

When tender, remove from the oven and transfer the pumpkin pieces to wire racks to cool completely for about 2 hours, placing the pumpkins skin side down on the racks.

When cool, remove the skins using a sharp knife and discard. Also slice off any hard or dried-out spots that may form in the flesh, especially toward the ends that touched the baking pan. Slice the pumpkin triangles into 1-inch pieces and place into a large bowl.

Fill your food processor bowl or blender with the pumpkin chunks and pulse a few times to reduce the pieces. Then puree the pumpkin for 1 full minute, or until completely smooth. (If you have roasted two or more pans of pumpkin triangles, you will need to puree in batches.)

Measure out two cups of puree and set aside for the pie filling, then can and/or freeze the balance of puree for use elsewhere.

Meanwhile, prepare your pastry shell:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F) and place your rack below the oven center.

Mix your pastry, roll out and line the 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish. Once your pastry is done and has nicely fluted edges, place it into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and line the inside of the pastry with a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil pressed gently into place and with the edges of the foil extending over the edges of the pastry. Completely fill the foil cavity with ceramic pastry weights or dried beans.

Bake in your preheated oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry looks complexly dry, but is still unbrowned. Remove the dish from the oven, carefully gather the corners of the foil and lift out the weights and set aside to cool. Return the pastry to the oven to cook for another 5 minutes, or until the pastry has turned a light golden brown. Set aside on a wire rack.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees (F) and carefully place your cooking rack below the center of your oven.

Next comes the filling:

In a small bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the eggs until the whites are completely blended and the eggs smooth. Add the cream and milk to the eggs, whisking briskly until the eggs and cream are completely combined.

In a separate large bowl, combine the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, spices and salt and whisk well to completely blend. Continue to whisk for a couple of moments to help dissolve the sugar. Pour 1/3 of the egg-cream mixture into the pumpkin and whisk well to combine. Add half of the remaining egg-cream mixture and whisk well again. Then add the balance of the egg-cream mixture and whisk well once more until the filling is well combined and smooth.

Pour the filling slowly into the partially pre-baked pastry shell. Brush the edges of the pastry with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water).

Place into your 350-degree oven and bake for 35 minutes, then pull it out for a test. Insert a clean dinner knife 1-1/2 inch from the crust edge. If it returns clean, great! But shake the pie dish – if the 2-inch diameter of the center of the filling sloshes about and is still very loose, return to the oven for ten more minutes, then recheck by the jiggling method. Once the very 2-inch diameter of the center, when shaken, jiggles like firm jello, remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack. The residual heat will continue to firm up the center of the filling.

Allow the pie to cool on the wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving warm, or after the hour, cover the pie with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator to chill completely for another hour.

Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream that is flavored (during the whipping) with 1 tablespoon of bourbon or brandy. Alternatively, serve the pie with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream.

The Perfected Pumpkin Pie Using Canned Pumpkin

1 partially pre-baked pie pastry in a 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish

2 cups (16 oz.) canned pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt (not sea salt, please)

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup milk (2% is fine)

4 large eggs

Begin by “de-canning” your canned pumpkin puree:

Place the pumpkin puree in your food processor and puree on high for 1 minute until completely smooth.

Pour the puree into a heavy medium saucepan and add the brown sugar, spices and salt. Bring to a simmer on medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. When at a simmer, reduce heat to low and continue to cook at a simmer, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes or until the pumpkin is thick, creamy and shiny.

Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.

Meanwhile, prepare your pastry shell:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F) and place your rack below the oven center.

Mix your pastry, roll out and line the 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish. Once your pastry is done and has nicely fluted edges, place it into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and line the inside of the pastry with a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil pressed gently into place and with the edges of the foil extending over the edges of the pastry. Completely fill the foil cavity with ceramic pastry weights or dried beans.

Bake in your preheated oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry looks complexly dry, but is still unbrowned. Remove the dish from the oven, carefully gather the corners of the foil and lift out the weights and set aside to cool. Return the pastry to the oven to cook for another 5 minutes, or until the pastry has turned a light golden brown.

Remove the pastry shell from the oven and place on a wire rack.

Increase your oven’s temperature to 400 degrees (F).

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until the whites are completely combined. Add the cream and milk and whisk briskly until the eggs and cream have completely blended. Next add the warm spiced pumpkin mixture and whisk well until the mixture is completely blended and smooth.

Pour the filling into your partially pre-baked shell and brush the edges of the pastry with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water).

Place into your 400-degree oven to bake for 25 minutes, then pull it out for a test. Insert a clean dinner knife 1-1/2 inch from the crust edge. If it returns clean, great! But shake the pie dish – if the 2-inch diameter of the center of the filling sloshes about and is still very loose, return to the oven for five more minutes, then recheck by the jiggling method. Once the very 2-inch diameter of the center, when shaken, jiggles like firm jello, remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack. The residual heat will continue to firm up the center of the filling.

Allow the pie to cool on the wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving warm, or after the hour, cover the pie with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator to chill completely for another hour.

Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream that is flavored (during the whipping) with 1 tablespoon of bourbon or brandy. Alternatively, serve the pie with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream.

Perfecting the Pound Cake

•November 7, 2007 • 40 Comments

For each holiday season, I make a few dozen pound cakes in heavy Bundt pans, most of which will be wrapped in cheesecloth and bathed weekly in Knob Creek bourbon, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Chambord, or my homemade Limoncello or Peach Brandy over the course of a month before distributing them in fancy tins. Giving these “appointed” cakes as Christmastime nears has been my tradition for many years, and each year new requests for these cakes grow exponentially as they are shared with friends, colleagues and family.

Many years ago, I learned not all pound cake recipes are the same. Not by a long shot. The significant difference among the hoards of recipes out there is texture. Most use the “traditional” method of creaming the butter with sugar, adding eggs, adding the flour and folding in whipped egg whites. I find this method produces a tough, dry and heavy cake (sometimes downright rubbery) that wasn’t nearly rich enough for my palate. A lot of other recipes use significant amounts of cream or milk to improve the flavor, but these are heavy and dense as a water-logged sponge…and their “improved” taste leaves much to be desired. I have even found a short ton of pound cake recipes that call for baking powder to do its magic and lighten the texture, but baking powder is the Number One killer of a pound cake’s pure taste of butter and eggs.

When it comes to pound cakes, I give thanks sincerely and profoundly to having grandmothers who knew what they were doing, and did they ever do it well and often. The pound cakes they provided from their Confectionary in Aberdeen were famous and highly coveted…and the recipe they used was handed down to them by my paternal great-grandmother. From her recipe, I first discovered the magic of lecithin (in egg yolks), and pounded into me more than anything else was that technique is everything, especially in baking! The only change I made to this original recipe (other than modernization and translation) was in using modern cake flour because of its lowest protein content and much finer grind that I find indispensable in baking cakes with a high sugar-to-flour ratio.

I offer you the recipe for the very best pound cake you will ever produce and enjoy. It has produced the perfect pound cake – deeply rich in flavor, tender and toothsome, fairly dense, very moist and having a gorgeous golden color – for more than 130 years in my family.

The Perfect Classic Pound Cake

(Yields 1 large Bundt (14-cup capacity) or 2 traditional loaves)

6 large eggs, plus 6 large egg yolks (at room temperature)

3 tablespoons good vanilla extract (I suggest Penzey’s Madagascar)

3 teaspoons water 4 sticks butter (use unsalted), slightly softened

2 2/3 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups of cake flour

Place your oven rack in the very center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees (F).

Next, prepare your baking pans.

If baking in a large Bundt, make certain the pan is heavy weight (never, ever use light-weight cheap baking pans, folks!) and non-stick. Regardless that it is non-stick, lightly coat the pan generously with an oil-flour spray, making certain to reach into any design crevasses.

If baking in traditional 9-by-5-inch loaf pans, make certain the pans are heavy weight. Grease generously the sides and bottom of each pan with shortening, then line the pan with parchment paper. (The easiest way here is to cut two sheets of parchment paper, one the size of the pan bottom, the other the length of the perimeter (which is 28 inches long by 5 inches wide). Place the long parchment paper along the interior sides of the pan, pushing the paper into the corners well and extending the bottom edge over part of the pan’s bottom. Add a light touch of shortening to the top of the parchment paper extending onto the pan bottom. Next place the bottom piece in place, pressing down well to seal.)

Now to make the batter…

In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the 6 eggs well until the whites are completely blended, then add the 6 egg yolks and whisk more until the eggs are smooth. Next, whisk in the vanilla and water until everything is well blended. The more you whisk, the better this will be for the cake.  Set aside.

Place the butter into the bowl of your stand mixer and beat on medium-high speed, using the paddle, for about 30 seconds until the butter is perfectly smooth and glossy. With the mixer running at this same speed, begin adding the sugar to the butter by pouring it in SLOWLY and no more than 1/4 cup at a time, allowing the sugar to be blended exceptionally well before adding more. When half of the sugar has been incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl and resume beating. Be prepared to spend 5 minutes simply adding sugar to the butter. When the last of the sugar has been added, beat for two more minutes, scrape down the bowl sides, and beat for one minute more. The blended butter and sugar will be practically white in color, light and fluffy in texture, and absolutely not grainy in the least.

With the mixer still running at a medium-high speed, SLOWLY begin pouring the egg mixture in a very slow, thin stream. This, too, will take several minutes, but don’t rush it at all. When the entire egg mixture has been incorporated, add the salt to the batter and continue to beat for one full minute.

Remove the mixer bowl from the stand. Using a sieve or sifter, sift only 1/2 cup of the flour over the batter and fold it in gently with a rubber spatula. Make certain to pull the batter up from the bottom of the bowl and fold it over the flour on the top moving slowly. Repeat folding using only 1/2 cup of flour each time until all the flour has been incorporated.

Scoop up the batter and evenly fill your Bundt pan, or divide the batter evenly between your two prepared loaf pans, gently evening the surface with your spatula.

Place into your preheated oven and bake for 70 to 80 minutes. A crack will have formed along the top of each cake. You will know the cake is done when a clean dinner knife (or thin skewer) inserted into the center of the crack in the cake’s middle returns clean.

Remove the pans from the oven and allow to rest on wire racks for 10 minutes. Then invert the cakes onto the rack, turning them right-side up, and allow to cool to room temperature for about 2 hours. If you baked loaves, leave the parchment paper on the cakes during this cooling process and remove when completely cooled.

At this point, you can wrap the Bundt cake (or loaves) in strips of cheesecloth, using several layers, place each cake into its appropriately-sized tin, and drizzle each wrapped cake with a liquor or liqueur (as noted above) until the cheesecloth is saturated. You will use about 1/2 cup of liquor or liqueur to do this. Close the tin and place in a cool pantry. Resoak the cheesecloth each week for at least 4 weeks before consuming or giving away. After this process, these cakes will last another two weeks, so be certain to denote same on box labels or cards when giving as gifts.

As a side note here for those of you considering giving these liquored-up cakes as gifts, go the extra mile and include with them an appropriate serving sauce. Mine are homemade and placed into canning jars and decorated and labeled. For example, I will include a jar of dark chocolate sauce with the bourbon-soaked cake; a jar of raspberry sauce with a cake soaked in Chambord; a jar of fresh lemon curd with a cake soaked in Limoncello; orange marmalade with the Grand Marnier cake, etc.  And even if you don’t want to soak your cakes in liquor, it is always wonderful to include a sauce when gift-giving.

If you don’t wish to soak the cakes, believe me they are absolutely PERFECT unadorned. Their taste and texture is unrivaled and truly the epitome of what a pound cake should be, but rarely is.

Unsoaked cakes should be wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap and placed into an airtight container. Store at room temperature up to 7 days…if they last that long.

Homemade Butterfinger Candy Bars

•November 5, 2007 • 31 Comments

Are you, too, a fan of Butterfinger Candies with their crunchy, almost “splintery” peanut butter toffee goodness surrounded by thick chocolate?  I ate more than my adult weight in Butterfingers during my childhood, but that’s a post better left unwritten in favor of providing you with the recipe for how to make them yourself.

Butterfingers are a simple candy to make, but the Weather Gods must be in your favor providing a day with low humidity (under 60%). This recipe of mine makes a candy that is a dead-ringer for the original Nestle’s creation…but without their chemicals and additives that allow them to exist on the shelf for years….

Butterfinger Candy Bars

(Yields about 96 miniature candy bars)

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/3 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup peanut butter

Spray Vegetable Oil (Pam, etc.) for keeping the knife lubricated in scoring

1 Pound of Tempered Semi-Sweet Chocolate for dipping

First begin by greasing a 12-by-17-inch jelly roll pan (with 1-inch sides) with safflower, vegetable or canola oil. Place the pan into a slightly warm oven to warm the pan while making the candy. (Don’t allow the pan to become hot, only barely warm to give you more time to spread and score the candy later.)

In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, combine the corn syrup and water, stirring well to combine. Place over medium-low heat and add the sugar. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it is clear and then stirring often until it reaches a full boil. Clip on your calibrated candy thermometer, raise the heat to medium-high and continue to cook – without stirring – until the mixture reaches 310 degrees (F). During this cooking period, should sugar crystals form above the boiling line, carefully wipe away using a damp pastry brush, but be careful not to touch the boiling mixture. Rinse the pastry brush well – and make certain to blot-dry the brush well – between each swipe.

Remove your pan from the warming oven and place on your work surface.

Remove the candy from heat and add the peanut butter, stirring to blend completely using a clean wooden spoon. Working quickly, pour the mixture onto your well-greased jelly roll pan, and spread as evenly as possible. Score the mass with an oiled, heavy chef’s knife into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces, cutting at least half way through the candy. (The more quickly you do this, the easier and deeper your scoring will be.) It is helpful to spray the knife with cooking oil occasionally to aide the knife in scoring.

Allow the scored mixture to cool at room temperature about 2 hours. When cool and hard, complete cutting the scored pieces using a sharp, heavy knife (I like to use my Chinese cleaver here) and break into individual pieces.

Place the cut candies into the refrigerator while you temper your dipping chocolate and allow to chill for 15 to 30 minutes. Remove the candies from the fridge and dip each piece into the chocolate, then place on parchment paper to allow the chocolate to harden completely (About 3 hours).

Note: You can add a certain flair to the candy by taking a clean dinner fork and touching the tops of each freshly dipped piece raising lines of “peaks” (akin to meringue peaks). Just use the back of the fork laid parallel to the chocolate cops, touch, lift and slightly pull to one side. Looks pretty snazzy….

Store on waxed-paper sheets in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

A Pair of Outstanding Pecan Pies

•November 2, 2007 • 1 Comment

As Thanksgiving dinner is approaching, my thoughts are turning to my favorite of desserts to serve after the feast: Pecan Pie. Each year, I make two different pies, the first a classic pecan pie with a rich, firm custard and thick layer of chopped pecans, the second (my absolute all-time favorite) is made with a maple syrup reduction that lends the pie an unbelievably rich sophistication that is the oft-exclaimed delight of everyone to whom I have served it.

If Pecan Pie is on your dinner menu, I strongly recommend either or both of the following outstanding recipes from my kitchen to yours.

My Best Classic Pecan Pie

4 whole large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 Tablespoons vanilla
1 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons melted butter
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped

1 rolled-out round of pastry for a 9-inch pie dish

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F).

First begin with the pastry: Place your rolled pastry into a buttered 9-inch pie dish. Trim the excess edge of the dough leaving 3/4 inch of overhang. Fold the overhang under, pinch it together and create a high, fluted edge on the pan rim. Place the shell in the refrigerator while mixing the filling.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs and egg yolks and whisk until smooth. Add the vanilla, brown sugar, salt and melted butter and whisk until well blended. Slowly blend in the corn syrup and mix well. Last, add the pecans and stir until they are well coated in the mixture.

Pour the filling into your prepared pastry shell, making sure the pecans are evenly distributed with an even depth.

Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and continue to bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the filling has set and a knife or toothpick inserted into the center returns clean.

Remove from the oven and place the pie on a wire rack to cool slowly for 2 hours before serving with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream flavored with 1 Tablespoon of bourbon.

************************************************

Before beginning the Maple Pecan Pie, I would like to offer a wee bit of a preface. First, you will notice the baking method is different. For this pie, the filling is much warmer when poured into the shell prior to baking and therefore requires a partially pre-baked shell. The pie also cooks a shorter amount of time, but at a higher temperature.

Secondly, not all maple syrup is created equal. I’m an admitted snob there, having long, long ago become completely addicted to the good stuff, which in my mind is Grade-B Amber and made in Vermont by the Sugarbush Farm.

The flavor (not quality) of pure maple syrup actually is defined in three main grades that, in a very general sense, are created from sap collected at different times of the year. Usually the lighter the grade, the earlier the sap was collected. And while several states produce maple syrup, only Vermont has an especially strict guideline for the making of their syrups that outlaws pesticides and requires the use of more sap in the making of its trademark thicker, richer syrups. Canada produces the VAST majority of maple syrup in the world from Quebec and Ontario, but in the US, Vermont leads the domestic pack in production and quality control. If you have the choice or are looking to buy the good stuff online, please buy Vermont (with all due respect to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, et al).

Grade A (also found as “Grade AA” and “Fancy”) is the stuff typically found on grocery shelves. It is clear gold, has a nice, delicate flavor, and is fairly thin in consistency. Good on pancakes and waffles, etc., but it DOES NOT hold up well in cooking. Grade A syrups are further subdivided into “Light Amber,” “Medium Amber,” and “Dark Amber”, but the latter two are more difficult to find the further south from sugar shacks one goes.

Grade B maple syrup is the only maple syrup ever to be found in my kitchen. It has a much richer maple flavor than the watery Grade A and has a lovely dark gold color. There is Grade B Amber and Grade B Dark Amber, the latter being even slightly darker and richer in flavor. Both Grade B’s are outstanding on pancakes and absolutely perfect for cooking, whether in cakes, pies or even high-temperature candies, but I personally prefer the Grade B Amber over its darker sister.

Grade C maple syrup is thick, dark, tastes like sulfured molasses and is used commercially as the basis for making other syrups and flavorings. Absolutely nasty stuff, IMHO, and I do love sulfured molasses.

Last, but not least, understand that maple syrup needs to be refrigerated after unsealing. I buy a gallon just about every year and divide among pint Mason Jars that I process in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes, label and keep in my pantry for use throughout the year.  I re-seal these smaller jars only because they collectively take up too much refrigerator space.  So if you buy in individual quantities or have the fridge space to spare, be certain to keep opened jugs/jars in the refrigerator, where the stuff will last perfectly for a couple of years.

While there are almost as many maple syrup producers in the Northeast as there are wineries in California, my absolute favorite comes from the Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, Vermont. And while most maple syrup producers now tap their trees with plastic tubing and use commercial evaporators, the descendants of Marion and Jack Ayers (who founded the farm and its products in 1948) still do EVERYTHING the old-fashioned way. It is a lovely, lovely working farm with something to offer year-round and I can’t relate how much I miss visiting them in person. But having successfully pioneered mail ordering in this country more than 50 years ago, ordering by mail from Sugarbush has always been a sincere breeze. And for the last several years, I’ve been able to do that online. Check them out, you’ll be very, very glad you did!

My “I Miss Vermont” Maple Pecan Pie

1 rolled-out round of pastry for a 9-inch pie dish

2 cups pure maple syrup
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F), with the rack in the middle of the oven.


First begin with the pastry: Place your rolled pastry into a buttered 9-inch pie dish. Trim the excess edge of the dough leaving 3/4 inch of overhang. Fold the overhang under, pinch it together and create a high, fluted edge on the pan rim. Place the pie shell in the refrigerator and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the fridge and line the pie shell with aluminum foil that extends up the sides and fill with pie weights or uncooked beans (or even uncooked white rice).

Place into your preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes, then lift an edge of the foil. If the dough looks wet, seems sticky, or is not browning, return to the oven and continue to bake — checking every 5 minutes — until the dough has browned slightly to a pale gold. (Mine are always ready in 20 to 25 minutes tops.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees now.
In a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the maple syrup to a boil and boil for about 10 minutes until the syrup has reduced to 1 1/2 cups of syrup. (Pour into a heatproof measuring pitcher and, if necessary, return the syrup to the saucepan and continue to boil until sufficiently reduced.)

Place the syrup into the refrigerator for 10 minutes to cool a little.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the eggs until completely smooth. Add the brown sugar, salt, melted butter and vanilla until well mixed. Next add the reduced maple syrup, pouring the syrup in a slow stream and whisking quickly until mixed well. Then and the pecans and stir well.

Pour the filling into the partially baked pie shell, making sure the pecans are evenly distributed and at an even depth.

Bake the pie for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife or other tester inserted into the center returns clean and the pie is slightly puffed and firm to the touch.

Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool at room temperature for two hours before serving with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream flavored with 1 tablespoon of bourbon.

Traditionally in my home, a wee dram or two of a good port will accompany the pies. Might I suggest Moon Mountain’s 2003 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon Port or Warre’s Otima 10-year-old Tawny Port for the occasion?

Homemade Mounds and Almond Joys

•October 31, 2007 • 4 Comments

The “fine print” on the back of a Hershey’s Almond Joy wrapper reads, “Corn syrup, sugar, coconut, vegetable oil (Palm, Shea, Sunflower and/or Safflower Oil), Almonds, Chocolate, Whey (Milk); Contains 2% or less of: Nonfat Milk, Partially Hydrogenated Oil (Soybean and Palm Oil), Milk Fat, Salt, Cocoa, Soy Lecithin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Hydrolyzed Milk Protein, Sodium Metabisulfite and Sulfur Dioxide to maintain freshness, Caramel Color”.

Need I say more?

Make your own absolutely delicious homemade Hershey favorites without the additives and preservatives. The only downside is that your homemade Mounds or Almond Joys won’t last on the shelf into the next millennium….

Coconut Mounds or Almond Joys

(Yields 24-30 candies)

¾ cup light corn syrup

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup water

1 tsp. vanilla

2 heaping cups of shredded sweetened coconut

Whole almonds (for Almond Joys only)

For Mounds Bars: 12 ounces of a good bittersweet chocolate, chopped and tempered***

For Almond Joys: 12 ounces of a good semisweet chocolate, chopped and tempered ***

Butter the sides of a heavy 2-quart sauce pan. Into the pan, combine the corn syrup, sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar.

Attach your calibrated candy thermometer to the inside of the pan and cook until the syrup reaches 240 degrees (F). Add the coconut and continue cooking, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (F).

Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour the mixture into a heatproof bowl and set it aside to cool completely. This will take about 4 hours and leave it alone. After this 4-hour rest, you may refrigerate the candy for another hour or so to make it easier to handle and shape.

Butter a large cookie sheet and line it with waxed paper. Butter the waxed paper and set the cookie sheet aside.

Using your very clean hands, pinch off a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and shape it into a small rectangle 1-inch wide by 2-inches long. Repeat shaping the candy with the remaining mixture, placing each shaped piece onto the buttered waxed paper.

For Almond Joy candies, press one or two whole almonds into the top of the candies, slightly imbedding them in the coconut. (I do this individually as I shape each candy, so as not to distort the rectangular shape.)

*** Melt and temper your chocolate. Then dip each piece.

Using a dinner fork, place a candy onto the fork and dip into the chocolate then lift out and rake the base of the fork against the edge of the chocolate bowl to remove the excess chocolate. Then, using a second fork for assistance, carefully slide the candy off of the fork and back onto the cookie sheet to harden.

Allow the dipped candies to rest at room temperature for 4 hours for the chocolate to harden.

Store in an airtight container in layers, separated by waxed paper, at room temperature for up to 1 week, in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Bring the candies to room temperature before serving.

All A’Twitter for Truffles!

•October 29, 2007 • 1 Comment

Few treats are as sinfully rich as chocolate truffles, nor as warmly welcomed during the holidays. Truffles are, in my mind, the most elegant of candies, yet perhaps the easiest of all to make. They require very little cooking and practically no candymaking experience to quickly master, nor are they weather-fickle. And unlike most other candies, young children can safely join in the making of truffles once the ganache is chilled and ready to roll…just be prepared to perform some serious kitchen cleaning in the aftermath. 😉

The foundation for traditional truffles is in a deep, rich ganache. They are usually dipped in tempered chocolate, or rolled in finely chopped or ground nuts, cocoa powder, or sweetened, shredded coconut that has been “pulsed” a few times in your food processor to slightly grind into smaller shreds. Truffles do not have the shelf life of most other candies and must be eaten within two weeks, but I’ve never known of any to remain uneaten long enough to even begin to dry out.

With the holiday season so quickly approaching, my kitchen is gearing up to produce many, many pounds of these delights. All will be presented in beribboned, labeled boxes and offered in many gift baskets that will be given to family, clients and dear friends.

I offer here my basic recipe used literally hundreds of times, along with simple variations and stand-alone recipes to offer additional flavors, too. All are absolutely delicious and fairly fool-proof. The basic ganache recipe may be doubled, quadrupled, etc. to meet quantity needs, then divided for making different flavor variations. I make truffles in such quantities that I devote two entire days to the task…

Basic Chocolate Truffle Ganache

(Yields approximately 2 dozen truffles)

1 pound (16 ounces) semisweet chocolate, chopped fine

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon butter, at room temp

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ cup unsweetened cocoa, ground nuts, coconut (for coating) or

1 pound of tempered chocolate for dipping. (See my post “Extraordinaire de Chocolat” for chocolate and coverture descriptions, as well as to find tempering techniques.)

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium non-plastic bowl and set aside.

Warm the cream in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring a few times to distribute the heat. As soon as you begin to see tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan (scalding), remove from heat and pour the cream over the chopped chocolate. Using a whisk, slowly stir until the chocolate melts and is completely smooth. Add the butter and stir until it is completely incorporated. Stir in the vanilla and blend well.

Keeping the ganache in its mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour, or until it is quite firm. (I usually chill for two to three hours.)

Scoop out a heaping teaspoonful of the ganache and roll it into a ball between your palms, and place onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Continue until all ganache has been formed into balls. It is very helpful to lightly dust your scrupulously clean, dry hands with cornstarch to prevent sticking during formation.

If you are making a large batch and the mixture gets too soft to hold its shape or becomes especially sticky, place the ganache back into the fridge for 10-15 minutes to reharden and resume rolling.

When all truffle balls have been formed, place the cookie sheet into your refrigerator to reharden for at least an hour before proceeding.

At this point, your truffle balls are ready to be rolled in cocoa powder, nuts or coconut, or dipped into tempered chocolate. While the balls rechill, prepare your coatings and/or temper your chocolate.

To coat with cocoa powder, place each ball into a small bowl containing the cocoa powder and roll around with a spoon until it is completely covered. Roll the ball again lightly in your hands to make sure the cocoa sticks, then reroll in more cocoa powder. Repeat with the remaining truffle balls, placing them on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets to set.

Another outstanding coating for these chocolate truffles is to roll the balls into finely ground pecans.

Store the truffles in layers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, but always allow the truffles to come to room temperature before serving.

Variations:

Chocolate-Covered Truffles (The ultimate in decadence)  Dip into tempered bittersweet chocolate instead of rolling them in cocoa. Once the chocolate shell has hardened (after resting 4-6 hours), these truffles may be stored without refrigeration (on waxed paper in an airtight container) for two weeks and make lovely gifts during the holidays.

Chocolate-Coconut Truffles. Add ½ cup of sweetened, shredded coconut to the ganache with the butter and stir to distribute well. Form into balls and roll in more coconut (that has been “pulsed” a few times in your food processor to reduce the size of the shreds). “Kick this up a notch” by then dipping the rolled coconut-covered balls into tempered milk chocolate.  (Rest at room temperature 4-6 hours until completely hardened.)

Almond Truffles – Add 3 tablespoons of Amaretto with the butter to the ganache and roll in about a half of a cup of ground almonds using the same method as in rolling in cocoa powder described above. Alternatively, you can push a whole toasted almond into the center of the ball, reshape, then dip into tempered chocolate. (That one’s a big favorite around here!) And when the chocolate shell is hardened (after resting 4-6 hours), these truffles may be stored without refrigeration…again lovely holiday gifts!

Wine Truffles – Add 3 tablespoons of some good cabernet with the butter to the ganache, as above, then roll in cocoa.

Bourbon Truffles – Add 3 tablespoons of good Kentucky Bourbon (I like to use Knob Creek) with the butter to the ganache and dip into tempered bittersweet chocolate. For added flair (and help in identifying later), I drizzle melted white chocolate over these truffles once their chocolate shell has hardened. Absolutely delicious! No refrigeration required for storage.

Champagne Truffles – Add 3 tablespoons of champagne with the butter to the ganache, then roll in cocoa powder.

Orange Truffles – Add 3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier and 1 teaspoon of orange zest to the ganache with the butter. I prefer these dipped in tempered bittersweet chocolate and they are especially beautiful when also drizzled with orange-tinted melted white chocolate once the chocolate shell has hardened.

Honey Truffles – Dissolve 2 tablespoons of honey into the warming cream before adding to the finely chopped chocolate, then roll in cocoa powder to finish. Wow, are these ever delicious and so very creamy!

Raspberry Truffles – Add about 3 tablespoons of Chambord with the butter in the ganache. This one is on the top 5 list of Truffles for me! Also better dipped into tempered bittersweet chocolate. I “kick these up a notch” by drizzling red-tinted melted white chocolate over the chocolate-dipped truffles after the shell has hardened.

Mint Truffles – Add 5 drops of peppermint oil to the ganache in place of the vanilla, then dip into tempered bittersweet chocolate.

White Chocolate Truffles

(Yields about 50 truffles that literally melt in your mouth!)

2/3 cup heavy cream

1 ½ pounds of white chocolate, chopped fine

1 tablespoon vanilla (or 1 teaspoon orange or rum extract)

Tempered bittersweet chocolate for dipping

Place the finely chopped white chocolate into a medium (non-plastic) bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tiny bubbles appear around the edge. Pour the hot cream over the chopped white chocolate and stir with a whisk until the white chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Add the vanilla (or orange or rum extract) and blend in well.

Place the bowl into the refrigerator to chill for two hours. Roll heaping teaspoons of the white ganache between the palms of your hands and form into balls. Place the formed balls onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and chill for an hour to reharden. Then dip into tempered bittersweet chocolate. When the shells have hardened, drizzle melted white chocolate over the tops of each truffle (I use a cross-hatch pattern to differentiate among other truffles) and allow to harden before storing on sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container.

Peanut Butter Truffles (my version of “Reese’s Cups”)

(Yields approximately 50 truffles)

1 cup heavy cream

1 ½ pounds of milk chocolate, chopped fine

1/3 cup creamy peanut butter

Tempered semisweet chocolate for dipping

Place the chopped milk chocolate into a medium (non-plastic) bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the cream over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tiny bubbles appear around the edge of the cream. Remove from heat and add the peanut butter, whisking gently until the peanut butter is fully incorporated and blended smooth. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chopped milk chocolate and stir with a whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth.

Place the bowl into the refrigerator and chill for two hours until firm. Roll heaping teaspoons of the chocolate-peanut butter ganache between the palms of your hands and form into balls. Place the formed balls onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and chill for an hour to reharden. Then dip into tempered semisweet chocolate. IMPORTANT NOTE: If giving as gifts, PLEASE be extra careful to label these truffles as containing peanuts for any who may be allergic to same. Also, do not allow any cross-contamination of this mixture into any other truffle recipes by sharing utensils, etc. to prevent those allergic to peanuts from being exposed. A LOT of youngsters (and some adults) these days are highly allergic to peanuts and related products!!!!

Last, but not least by any means, is a recipe provided to me by Chef Dean Fearing (formerly of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas). I’ve made these many, many times and they are truly the cat’s meoooowwww!!!

Chocolate Espresso Truffles

(Yields approximately 2 dozen truffles)

1 cup unsalted butter

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup strong espresso coffee

8 ounces semisweet chocolate

3 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Adjust rack to center of oven.

Melt butter, sugar, coffee, and chocolate in top half of double boiler set in simmering water. Pour the mixture into your mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks and whole eggs and beat slowly until well blended. Pour into an eight-inch nonstick cake pan. Place the pan into a bain marie (a larger baking dish that holds the cake pan easily and with boiling water poured into the larger pan to a depth of no greater than half the height of the cake pan) and bake for 60 minutes.

Remove the cake pan from its bain marie and place into the refrigerator to cool. When completely cooled (about 2 hours), scoop up heaping teaspoons of the mixture and roll in the palms of your hands into balls. Place the formed balls onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and chill again until firm (about an hour). Dip each truffle into the tempered chocolate of your choice (I prefer bittersweet) or roll each truffle in cocoa.

Happy Truffling!

Cinnamon Rolls and Buns

•October 22, 2007 • 5 Comments

When the rainy, chilled Autumn weather arrives (as it did this morning in North Texas), every fiber of my being cries out for one of my favorite childhood delights:  Cinnamon Rolls.   I prefer mine tender and fluffy, the filling sweet and spicy, and a glaze so sinful no one can resist licking the gooey remnants from fingertips.  I offer two versions below, one the old-fashioned style using yeast and requiring several hours to bring to fruition that absolutely cannot be equaled in terms of taste and texture, and the other an outstanding quick-rise bun that takes very little time to make and is exquisitely delicious.  Again and as always, these recipes are tried and true over countless times.

Yeast-Based Cinnamon Rolls

This recipe creates a very, very light and fluffy roll that is the standard by which all cinnamon rolls are judged by me.  These rolls have greeted my family on every Christmas Eve morning since I have had a family (some 25 years).  The roll is slightly sweet and compliments the filling nicely, which may or may not include nuts, depending upon your preference.  The less flour you work into the dough during kneading, the better and softer this roll will be in the end.  Without exaggeration, these are outstanding!

2 Tbsp. yeast (I use Saf-Instant)  (Yes, 2 Tbsp.!)

1 cup warm water (115-degrees F.)

1 cup granulated sugar, divided

1 cup milk

1 cup butter

2 teaspoons salt

2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks, slightly beaten

5-6 cups all-purpose flour

6 Tbsp. melted butter

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (F), with the rack placed in the middle of the oven.  Butter well as 13-by-9 inch baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine yeast, warm water and 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Stir and set aside to proof until bubbly.

In a small saucepan and over VERY low heat, place the milk and butter heating just until the butter melts.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to 100 degrees (F).

In your stand mixer bowl using your paddle, mix together the yeast mixture, remaining sugar and eggs at low speed until blended.  Add the salt, warm milk-butter mixture and 3 cups of flour and mix on medium speed until smooth, scraping the sides often.  Change over to your dough hook and add 2 additional cups of flour and knead on medium speed until the dough is smooth and remains free from the sides of the bowl (about 10 minutes).  (You may need to add additional flour.  If so, add only 1/4 cup at a time, trying to add as little as possible.) 

Remove from the mixing bowl and form the dough into a round.  Place the dough into a lightly-oiled bowl and cover. Set in a warm place until double in bulk, about 1 1/2  to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare your filling and glaze (below).

Punch down dough and let it rest for 5 minutes. Then roll the dough on a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, to a 12-by-24-inch rectangle.   Brush the rectangle liberally with melted butter, but leave 1/2 inch of dough uncoated along one long side (the top).

Add filling onto the dough and spread evenly to one long and two short edges of the rectangle, but leaving 1/2 inch of bare along the second long “top” side.  Beginning with the long end with the filling spread to the edge, roll the dough into a log and pinch the seam along the uncovered 1/2 inch long side (top) against the back of the roll to seal.  Next, cut into 1-1/2 inch rounds using a sharp serrated knife.

Place the individual rolls into a well-buttered 9×13-inch baking pan and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled (about an hour). Brush tops gently with melted butter, then bake in a preheated 350-degree (F) oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until golden.  Remove to a wire rack, cool slightly (5-7 minutes) and spread generously with glaze.

The Cinnamon Roll Filling

1 cup dark brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

2 Tbsp. melted butter

Combine the sugars, spices and salt in a small bowl.  Add the melted butter and stir with a fork until the mixture resembles wet sand.  Add nuts and stir until well distributed.  Set aside.

The Cinnamon Roll Glaze

8 ounces softened cream cheese

2 Tbsp. corn syrup

2 Tbsp. whipping cream

1 cup sifted Confectioners Sugar

1 teaspoon good vanilla

1 pinch of table salt

While the dough is rising, combine all ingredients into your mixing bowl and blend together at low speed until combined. Then raise your speed to high and mix until the glaze is completely smooth (about 2 minutes). Pour into a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Quick and Delicious Cinnamon Buns

Please do me (and you) a huge favor and cease buying those cans of chemical-laden disgusting facsimiles of cinnamon buns.  This recipe is easy, quick and SO much better.  Even a bread snob like me enjoys the delicious, tender buns that come from this, a variation on cream biscuits.  You’ll never go back to the cans again!  Time needed from measuring to eating is 45 minutes!

1 Tbsp. melted butter (for greasing the baking pan)

2 1/2 cups unbleached AP flour (plus about 1/8 cup for dusting the work surface)

2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

6 Tbsp. butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 425 degrees (F) and place rack in the middle of the oven.  Coat a 9-inch round nonstick cake pan with the 1 Tbsp. melted butter and brush up the sides.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and 2 Tbsp. of the melted butter until well blended.

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid is just absorbed (the stuff will look very rough and lumpy) (about 30 seconds).  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead until the lumps are gone and the dough is smooth.

Form the dough into a 12-by-9 inch rectangle.  Brush the dough liberally with about 2 Tbsp. of melted butter.  Sprinkle evenly with the filling, leaving a 1/2-inch border of dough at one long edge uncoated.  Press the filling firmly into the dough.  Then roll into a long roll, pinching the seam at the long, uncoated edge to seal.  (You will need to use a dough scraper or metal spatula to free the dough from the work surface to roll.

Cut the roll “log” into 1-inch rounds and place into your buttered cake pan (1 in center, 7 around the perimeter).  Brush the tops liberally with melted butter.

Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.  When done, invert the cake pan onto a plate to remove the cooked rolls and transfer the rolls onto a wire rack to cool about 5 minutes before icing.

The Cinnamon Bun Filling

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves (I also sometimes add this to my roll filling)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 Tbsp. butter, melted

Combine the sugars, spices and salt in a small bowl.  Add the melted butter and stir with a fork until the mixture resembles wet sand.  Set aside.

The Cinnamon Bun Icing

2 Tbsp. softened cream cheese

2 Tbsp. buttermilk

1 cup Confectioners Sugar

While the buns are cooling on the rack. place a good sized sheet of parchment paper on your work surface (for easy cleanup) and place the rack of rolls on the paper.  Whisk together the cream cheese and buttermilk until smooth, then sift the confectioners sugar over the mixture.  Whisk for another 30 seconds or so until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture completely smooth.  Spoon the glaze evenly over the buns and serve immediately.

Enjoy!