Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chocolate Fruit Cake

I kicked off my holiday baking with a Date, Dried Cherry & Chocolate Torte. I ran across the recipe in an old issue of Gourmet magazine, but it is originally from Deborah Madison's book Local Flavors. For the most part I try to post things on my blog that I have put my own stamp on in some way, but occasionally I just want to pass along a recipe that I think more people should know about. This is one of those recipes.

I think that this cake, with its abundance of slightly boozy fruit and its dense texture, could most accurately be described as a chocolate fruitcake. But since (as I mentioned last year in my Brandied Fruit & Almond Pound Cake post) not too many Americans will try a cake with "fruitcake" in the title, "Date, Dried Cherry & Chocolate Torte" is a clever name. If, like me, you love dates, dried cherries and chocolate, you will probably love this cake. I made it on Saturday and started eating it on Sunday. I expected it to be best the day after I made it, but I have been surprised to discover that it continues to get better—becoming moister and more intensely fruity with each passing day.

The original recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of two varieties of dates. I only had one kind of date on hand (Medjool—my favorite), so instead of making the cake with all dates, I substituted some nice white Turkish figs for a half cup of the dates. If the distinctive seedy crunch of the figs would bother you, go ahead and use all dates. But, if you are a fan of those little Italian Fig Cookies called Cucidati, you will enjoy the cake when it is made with the figs.

I think this cake would make an elegant holiday dessert...cut in small wedges and served with a little whipped cream. But it is also excellent served with an afternoon cup of coffee (or tea). And I don't really need the whipped cream...or even the plate. I have discovered that my favorite way to eat a slice has been with my hands—using my fingers to break off little chunks of this chocolate-y, fruity treat.

Date, Dried Cherry & Chocolate Torte

1 c. Medjool dates (6 oz), pitted and each cut into 6 pieces
1/2 c. Dried figs, stemmed and cut into uniform dried cherry-sized pieces or use another variety of dates, pitted and each cut into 6 pieces (3 oz)
1 c. dried tart cherries (5 oz)
1 t. baking soda
1 c. boiling water
1/4 c. brandy
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process), sifted to remove lumps
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 c. sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 t. vanilla
zest of one orange
6 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), coarsely chopped
3/4 c. pecans (3 oz), lightly toasted and finely chopped

Combine dates, cherries, and baking soda in a heatproof bowl, then stir in boiling water and brandy. Set aside to cool.

Whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and zest. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just combined. Add half of flour mixture and beat at low speed until just combined. Add date mixture with liquid and beat at low speed until just combined. Add remaining flour mixture and beat until just combined. Stir in chocolate and pecans.

Pour batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch springform pan, smoothing top. Bake in middle of a 375 degree oven until center is slightly rounded and top of torte is cracked (edges will be dark brown),

about 55 minutes. Let torte stand 10 minutes in pan on a rack. Run a small knife around side of pan to loosen, then remove side. Cool torte on rack. Cake tastes best if allowed to sit, well-wrapped, for 24 hours. Serves 12 to 16.

(Recipe adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turkey Leftovers...

I have been teaching people how to prepare the Thanksgiving feast for as long as I have been teaching cooking classes.  But during all of that time I think I have only had the privilege of preparing the entire spread for my own family a couple of times.  This turned out to be one of those years.  I of course love it when I have the opportunity to enjoy someone else's cooking, but there are a lot of things I miss when I don't get to prepare the meal.  I think the thing I miss the most is having left over roast turkey.  Since there were just seven of us at my table this year, and I roasted a fifteen pound bird,

 I had lots of leftovers....and I have been enjoying every bite.  We are still working on them, but I thought I would take a moment to share what I have made so far. 

I think everyone starts out their first round of "leftovers" with a reheated plate of everything they had at the main event.  It's a way of truly savoring the meal—knowing that such a spread really only happens once a year...and you have to make it last.  Next up is the roast turkey sandwich.  My perfect leftover turkey sandwich includes lettuce, slivers of cheese (something like a sharp Cheddar is good—but I wouldn't turn my nose up at a bit of Brie), leftover cranberry sauce and plenty of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard.  My bread of choice is a nice artisanal loaf of Rosemary Olive Oil bread from a local bakery.  It is substantial enough to stand up to all of the filling, but not so much so that it overpowers the sandwich.  Since it is also the bread I like to use to make dressing, I have it on hand any way. 

Another favorite—albeit old-fashioned (maybe I should say "retro" sounds much more cool)—is Turkey Tetrazzini.  A simple baked casserole of spaghetti, turkey, cheese and mushrooms, bound in a rich velouté and topped with breadcrumbs,

there are literally hundreds of versions of this recipe floating around.  Mine is a variation of one that ran in Gourmet magazine several years ago.  Besides the classic ingredients this recipe includes some sherry and scallions.  When I make it, I make my velouté with turkey stock and, if there is any left, some turkey gravy—which truly makes this dish a once a year treat.

This year I also had a lot of leftover sweet potatoes.  I knew from the start that there were only going to be a couple of us at the table who would eat sweet potatoes, but since it isn't Thanksgiving to me without the sweet potatoes—and I was in charge of the meal—I made them.  They were delicious.  They were also the perfect "glue" for some lunchtime quesadillas.  Besides a thin layer of the sweet potatoes, I added some caramelized red onion,

a scattering of chopped turkey and some Monterey Jack cheese. 

With a spoonful of cranberry sauce on the side, they were quite a treat.  The purée that I made this year was a combination of sweet potatoes and carrots, but any simple sweet potato purée would work—just make sure you don't pile it on too thickly (or your quesadillas will ooze). 

For dinner this evening—to go with the last of the sliced turkey breast (there are still lots of chunks and shredded pieces that will be great in soups, casseroles, quick pastas...)—I made a big salad that was loaded with some of my favorite Thanksgiving ingredients.  To baby lettuces, I added diced roasted sweet potatoes, blanched green beans, dried cranberries and toasted walnuts.  I dressed it with a simple sherry vinaigrette (1 small shallot, 1 T. sherry vinegar, 3 T. olive oil) and piled it on top of the turkey that had been warmed up in a bit of leftover turkey stock.  It was a very good salad.  Even if I don't have any turkey on hand to serve it with, we will be having this salad again. 

There are so many ways to use up roast turkey that I know I will run out of turkey long before I run out of ways that I want to eat it.  Earlier this month I posted a soup and a casserole that would both be excellent places for some of those leftovers.  Other simple ideas include quiche, frittatas, quick pastas and grain pilafs.  It isn't necessary to reinvent the wheel or do something wildly unusual.  As a chef I am sometimes a bit dismayed as I look at the same old things on my family's holiday table year after year.  But the same things show up every year for a reason:  they are the favorite foods that everyone grew up with...they are well-loved.  And as a friend said to me this morning (as we were comparing turkey leftover notes over the pews), it is the same with Thanksgiving leftovers.  They are all about combining turkey in a variety of different ways with your other favorite holiday foods.  

Turkey Tetrazzini

3 1/2 to 4 T. butter, divided
1/2 c. coarse breadcrumbs
6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2 green onion (including most of green), trimmed and thinly sliced
1 to 2 T. dry sherry
8 oz. (1 1/2 to 2 cups) shredded roast turkey
2 T. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
1 c. turkey stock (or use chicken stock)
1/2 c. leftover turkey gravy (or use 1/4 c. milk plus 1/4 c. stock and increase butter and flour in the roux by 2 t. each)
8 oz. spaghetti
2 oz. grated Gruyère (1/2 cup)
1/2 oz. grated Parmesan (about 3 T.)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Generously butter a 1 1/2 quart gratin or casserole and set aside.

Toss the bread crumbs with 1/2 T. of melted butter and set aside.

Sauté the mushrooms in 1 1/2 T. of butter in a non-stick sauté pan set over medium-high heat. When the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated reduce the heat and add the green onions. Cook briefly to wilt. Add another 1/2 T. of butter if the pan seems dry. Add the sherry and reduce to a glaze. Transfer the mushrooms to a large bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Add the turkey to the bowl with the mushrooms.

Prepare the velouté: In a small saucepan, bring the milk and stock to a simmer; keep hot. In another small saucepan, melt 1 1/2 T. of the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow. Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk/stock, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the remaining milk/stock mixture. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Add the gravy and bring to a simmer. Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper. Keep hot while you cook the pasta.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of rapidly boiling water seasoned generously with salt. Stir and cook until the pasta is al dente (since it will continue to cook as it bakes with the sauce, it can be left quite firm). Drain the pasta.

Add the pasta and velouté to the bowl with the turkey and mushrooms and fold in. Add the cheese and quickly fold in—the cheese does not have to melt. Turn the mixture into the prepared pan. Scatter the buttered breadcrumbs over the top and place on a baking sheet.

Bake until hot through (it should be bubbling around the edges) and lightly browned—about 25 minutes. If necessary, place under the broiler (about 4 inches from the heat) until the top is golden. Serves 4.

• This recipe doubles easily to feed a larger group. Use a 13- by 9-inch (3 quart) baking dish.
• If you prefer a looser, saucier version, reduce the quantity of spaghetti to 6 oz.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Quinoa Pilaf with Mushrooms & Walnuts

For our dinner on the night before Thanksgiving, I felt the need for something light, sustaining and simple. The quinoa pilaf I made that night filled the bill perfectly and was so good I wanted to share it here. Since it was also quick to prepare and didn't dirty too many dishes, it made a perfect holiday weeknight meal.

If you aren't in the habit of preparing main course pilafs, you will find a primer of sorts in a post I wrote over a year ago for a bulgur pilaf. Pilafs are great, not only because they tend to be whole grain-based, but also because they take easily to adaptation and variation. If you keep your favorite grains on hand and are in the habit of regularly stocking up on seasonal vegetables, a pilaf is easy to put together.

The basic components of the quinoa pilaf I made—shallots, garlic, mushrooms, walnuts and parsley—will combine well with all kinds of winter vegetables. I topped ours with some baby Brussels sprouts and the last of the beautiful little white topped turnips from my farmers' market. But if you don't have turnips, you could top the pilaf with the Brussels sprouts and some chunks of roasted winter squash or maybe some roasted carrots. Almost any roasted root vegetable would be good. For a pretty presentation, you could roast some half circles of Delicata squash and then pile the pilaf, followed by the Brussels Sprouts, on top of the squash (as I did in the vegetable medley I posted a few days ago). If you don't have any Brussels sprouts on hand (I always keep Brussels Sprouts around during the fall and winter months—I love them), some cooked kale, spinach or chard—folded into the pilaf—would be good, too.

For us, the quinoa and vegetables really were just the thing for the eve of The Feast. But if a grain pilaf with vegetables doesn't sound like dinner to you, then you could always serve it as a side dish. I think it would go particularly well with salmon (perhaps on a bed of wilted spinach). But it would also be good with chicken...or maybe even some leftover turkey.

Quinoa Pilaf with Mushrooms & Walnuts

1/2 T. olive oil
1/2 T. butter
5 to 6 oz. mixed mushrooms (crimini, oyster, shiitake, etc.), trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick or cut into uniform pieces
1 T. olive oil
1 small shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 c. quinoa, well-rinsed and drained
2/3 c. hot chicken stock or water (or turkey stock...I just happened to have some on hand)
1/4 c. toasted walnuts, coarsely broken and tossed with a small amount of olive oil and some salt, if you like.
2 T. chopped parsley

Sauté the mushrooms: Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and the butter. Add the mushrooms and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt and pepper.

oyster and crimini mushrooms

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan set over moderate heat. Add the shallot and garlic along with a pinch of salt and cook until tender and translucent Add the quinoa and cook, stirring to coat in the fat until hot through. This will take a minute or two. The quinoa should be sizzling and snapping in the hot fat. Add the stock along with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered for 15 minutes—or until cooked through. The grain will be translucent and the thin germ coil will be white. Remove from the heat, scatter the mushrooms over the surface of the quinoa and let rest, covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork, adding the walnuts and parsley. Makes 2 portions. Recipe is easily multiplied.

To prepare the Brussels sprouts (and turnips, if using): Fill a shallow, straight-sided sauté pan that is wide enough to hold the vegetables in a snug single layer with a quarter inch of water. Add some butter and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the Brussels sprouts (and turnips)

and some optional picked thyme and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are crisp-tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the lid and boil over moderately high to high heat until water is evaporated and the vegetables are sizzling in the butter and beginning to caramelize, 3 to 4 minutes.

Spoon over the pilaf. For two portions, I used 5 or 6 oz. of each of the Brussels sprouts and the turnips. The Brussels sprouts should be halved and the turnips cut into uniform wedges that are about the same size as the Brussels sprouts halves. For every pound of combined vegetables, use about a tablespoon of butter.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Learning to use a pizza peel and a recipe for Pizza with Mushrooms & Butternut Squash

We have been eating a lot of pizza lately. Not that pizza doesn't in the normal course of things make regular appearances on our table.... It's a perfect meal for two (just add a salad) and there is usually a left over piece or two for one lucky person at lunch the next day. Pizza is also a great blank canvas upon which to improvise a quick meal from whatever you happen to have in the house. But the reason we have been enjoying it more in recent days is because I have a new toy.... I mean tool. For my birthday this year, I was given a pizza peel and for the past few weeks I have been happily putting it through its paces.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have always thought that using a peel would be tricky....that it would take lots of practice to master the particular flick of the wrist necessary for depositing the uncooked pizza intact onto the hot stone. I was pretty sure that my pizzas would end up looking like accidental calzones or strombolis. So for years I have been perfectly happy with my "peel-less" method: Build the pizza in a pizza pan (or on a baking sheet) and place the pan directly onto the hot stone. When the crust is set (this usually takes less than five minutes), slide the pizza off of the pan and on to the stone. This works very well—producing a lovely crisp crust. I highly recommend it if you don't have a peel. The chief drawback to this method is that if you aren't fast your oven temperature will drop dramatically while you are sliding the pizza off of the pan.

As I have worked with my new peel, I have been so pleased to discover that it is remarkably easy to use: Start by generously flouring the peel (see note)—you don't want gobs of flour, but you want the surface to be well-dusted (I actually rub the flour lightly into the peel). Before you put the round of dough onto the peel, make sure that all of the ingredients are on hand and ready to go. You only have a small window (a minute or two) of time before the dough starts to stick to the peel. When you place the rolled out dough onto the peel, gently slide the peel back and forth to make sure the dough isn't sticking. Quickly layer the toppings onto the pizza. Open the oven (which should have been preheating—with the stone—for at least a half hour at 450° to 500°) and hold the paddle just above the stone. In one quick motion, move the peel forward just slightly and then jerk it back, laying the pizza onto the hot stone as you pull the peel out of the oven. Close the oven door and bake the pizza until the crust is golden brown on the bottom (take a peek, using the peel to lift it up) and the toppings are bubbling. This should take about 8 to 12 minutes.

So far I haven't had any disasters...or even any ugly pizzas. In fact, I think my pizzas are better now. The crust bakes more quickly than it did when I used a pizza pan so the toppings don't get quite so dark. I don't know why the fact that my pizzas are now better should surprise me. Obviously the peel and stone are the implements of choice for serious pizza cooks everywhere for a reason. I also don't know why I waited so long to learn how to use a peel. If you love to make pizzas at home, the peel and stone are both worthwhile investments.

A few nights ago we enjoyed a pizza topped with one of my favorite combinations of autumn vegetables: winter squash and mushrooms. The mushrooms are simply sliced and sautéed. The squash can be sliced or diced before it is quickly roasted—if you like you can give the squash a start in a sauté pan before transferring it to the oven. The finished squash should be tender and lightly golden. To build the pizza, give the crust a light smear of herb (rosemary...or maybe sage) and garlic oil, followed by a handful of a nice melting cheese (I had Dubliner on hand), the cooked vegetables, some crumbled goat cheese and more of the melting cheese. Slide the pizza onto the stone. While the pizza bakes, dress some greens with a nice olive oil and some lemon or vinegar and you are done.

Butternut Squash & Mushroom Pizza

10 to 12 oz. butternut squash (half of a small to medium squash)—see note
Olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic
pinch of pepper flakes
1 to 2 t. minced rosemary
6 to 8 oz. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
3 oz. Fontina, Gruyère, low-moisture mozzarella or any good melting cheese, coarsely grated
2 oz. Goat Cheese, crumbled (or, simply use another couple of ounces of the melting cheese)

Halve the squash and scoop out the seed and fiber from the cavity. Set aside any extra squash for another use (see note). Peel the remaining squash. Cut the squash into a half-inch dice. Over medium-high heat, warm some olive oil in an oven-proof sauté pan that is large enough to hold the squash in a single layer. Add the squash.

Sauté until the squash is beginning to color. Season with salt and pepper and transfer the pan to a 375° oven. Roast the squash until tender—about 20 minutes. (If you prefer, you may simply slice the squash cross-wise into ¼-inch slices, toss with olive oil, salt & pepper and spread on a baking sheet. Roast in a 450° oven until tender and beginning to brown—about 20 minutes.)

While the squash roasts, peel and mince the garlic. Stir the garlic, along with the pepper flakes and the rosemary, into 1 1/2 T. of olive oil. Set aside.

Sauté the mushrooms: When sautéing mushrooms, do not over-crowd the pan. If necessary, sauté in batches. Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil to coat the pan, then add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper.

Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza peel that has been dusted with flour or semolina. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. Quickly spread a thin layer of the seasoned oil over the crust. Scatter with half of the Fontina. Arrange the roasted squash in an even layer on top of the cheese. Scatter the mushrooms evenly over the squash. Crumble the goat cheese over all and top with the remaining Fontina.

If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).

If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 12 minutes.

When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

Note: It is unlikely that you will find a butternut squash that only weighs 10 to 12 oz. If you do, use the whole squash. For a larger squash, use only what you need, saving the remainder for another use (e.g.—roast with butter and honey/brown sugar for a side vegetable, or roast and scoop and purée for soup or baked goods).

Printable Recipe

Pizza Dough:
1 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 package (2 1/4 t.) active dry yeast
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 T. olive oil
1 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two pieces (for 12”-pizzas) and roll into balls. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10-20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.

(Crust recipe adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)

Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 1 ½ c. bread flour and 1 to 1 ½ c. whole wheat flour (the new “white” whole wheat flour is a good choice).

Printable Recipe (for "one ball")

Note (5 January 2017):  Since writing this post I have switched from dusting the peel with plain flour to using semolina flour.  While regular flour works fine, it isn't nearly as effective as semolina.  The coarser semolina acts like little ball bearings, allowing the crust to slide freely on the peel.  Furthermore, the semolina is not absorbed into the dough the way that all-purpose (or bread) flour is.  This gives you a much wider window of time in which to build the pizza.  I think I can say that I have never had a crust stick to the peel when I'm using semolina flour.  I keep a bag on hand, just so I can use it for my pizza peel.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pumpkin Cake with Browned Butter Streusel

Today, in honor of the upcoming holiday—and for those of you who might not be crazy about pumpkin pie—I thought I would share my favorite pumpkin cake. Unlike most pumpkin cakes it isn't covered in cream cheese frosting (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead it is a single layer cake topped with a lovely browned butter streusel. I find it to be positively addictive and during "pumpkin season" it is rare for me not to have several slices stashed away in my freezer.

This cake was inspired by a winter squash cake in Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I have taken the browned butter streusel from her recipe with almost no alteration. I love the flavor browned butter vegetables (it makes a great simple sauce for asparagus or those Thanksgiving Brussels sprouts)...and to desserts. Earlier this year I posted a Pear & Dried Tart Cherry Crisp recipe that used browned butter in the topping and a couple of summers ago I posted a Butter Pecan Ice Cream recipe that featured browned butter.

If you have never made browned butter, check out the latter of those two posts for detailed instructions. If you have never tasted browned butter, you are in for a treat. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and consequently goes very well in desserts that include nuts. Its flavor is always accentuated by the presence of lemon or salt. One of the things that makes this streusel special is the simple inclusion of a little extra salt. If you are a person who is particularly drawn to the combination of salty and sweet, this streusel will hit all of your taste buttons.

The cake itself is an adaptation of a cake I found in the wonderful little cookbook Camille Glenn's Old-Fashioned Christmas Cookbook. I mention this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I always want to give appropriate credit for a recipe that is not my own—and while I have made enough changes to the recipe that I could get away with calling it mine, I know I wouldn't have come up with the recipe for this cake without her recipe as a starting place.

The other reason I wanted to mention Ms. Glenn's book is because it is a great resource for people who appreciate southern food and southern cooking. Camille Glenn was a food columnist and caterer who ran a cooking school in Louisville for many years. She was widely considered to be an authority on southern cooking. Her other book, The Heritage of Southern Cooking (Workman Publishing), is a treasure trove of reliable and authentic southern recipes. Both books appear to be out of print but would be worth seeking out if you love Southern food.

I don't think it is any secret that I love cake. In particular I love simple, unfrosted cakes—laden with fruit or topped with a streusel. I find these cakes to be eminently versatile. With a blob of whipped cream or a dusting of powdered sugar they can be served for tea.  Accompanied by a dollop of mousse, a scoop of ice cream, a pool of stirred custard or a fluffy sabayon...or possibly some fresh or poached fruit...they become a formal dessert. But most importantly (to me at least), they are especially fine served plain...for breakfast.

Such is the case with the pumpkin cake I am posting today. While it would be wonderful as part of your Thanksgiving spread—with whipped mascarpone...maple ice cream....or crème anglaise—I like it best for breakfast. But for those of you who aren't quite ready for something so sweet first thing in the morning—and who would be threatened with bodily harm if you didn't serve pumpkin pie at the big feast—you might consider making this cake and serving it as part of a holiday brunch.

Pumpkin Cake with Browned Butter & Pecan Streusel

Pecan Streusel:
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. light or golden brown sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. salt
4 T. unsalted butter, browned (see below) and cooled
1/2 c. pecans, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

Combine the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon & salt in a medium-sized bowl. Drizzle the butter over and stir with a fork until the ingredients are combined and have formed clumps. Stir in the pecans and chill until ready to use.

Pumpkin Cake:
2 c. cake flour (7 1/2 oz.)
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. nutmeg
1 c. solid pack pumpkin (or use fresh pumpkin purée—well dried)
1/2 c. milk
1 t. vanilla
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. light or golden brown sugar
1/2 c. sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature

Grease a 10- by 2--inch round cake pan, line with a round of parchment and grease the parchment. Flour the pan. Set aside.

Sift the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, milk and vanilla. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy, stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides. This will take 3 to 5 minutes at medium-high speed.

Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition. Increase the speed to medium-high and briefly beat until the mixture lightens in color and expands in volume. By hand, fold in half of the dry ingredients, followed by all the liquid ingredients, followed by the remaining dry ingredients.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly over the cake.

Bake in a preheated 350° oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 35 to 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes. Loosen the sides of the cake by running a thin knife around the edge of the pan. Turn the cake out of the pan. Cool the cake, streusel side up, on a wire rack.

• To “brown” butter, place the butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. As the butter begins to sputter and pop, whisk occasionally. The butter solids will begin to turn brown. When the solids are a deep golden brown and the butter has a pleasantly nutty aroma, transfer the butter to another container to stop the cooking process.
• If you don't have a 10-inch round cake pan, this cake may be baked in a 9- by 9- by 2-inch square baking pan. To see what it looks like when baked in a square pan, check out the post at Baking and Boys from a few weeks ago.

Printable Recipe

Monday, November 14, 2011

Market Inspirations—a Simple Platter of Roasted Vegetables with Kale & Sausage for Sunday Dinner

I spent my free moments this weekend pulling the remains of the summer annuals out of my garden. I had wanted to spend Sunday afternoon playing/working in the kitchen, but as the weekend wore on, my amount of free time dwindled and garden clean up seemed to take priority. The annuals are usually just a memory by now, but this year—even though it is mid-November—we have not yet had a hard freeze (at least at my house). The annuals have hung on, blooming sporadically, giving me an excuse to let them be for a while longer. But this weekend I noticed they were looking pretty ragged (having endured a few light frosts), so I finally decided it was time. As I worked, I found that the annuals weren't the only things still in bloom; I discovered Shasta daisies, anemones, perennial geraniums...even a clematis....all valiantly putting on a bit of a farewell show.

When I finally made it to the kitchen on Sunday, I really just wanted to get dinner on the table. I had been thinking about my purchases at Saturday's market and the contents of my pantry as I worked, and had decided on a very simple meal of braised kale, roasted delicata squash and Italian sausage. It was not fancy, but it was nourishing, full of flavor and filling. It also seemed like a celebration of Autumn on a plate.

Delicata squash has the most fleeting season of the winter squashes. It is thin skinned (thin enough that the skin is edible), so it isn't a good candidate for long term storage. Now is the time to enjoy it. It has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. It is perfect for stuffing, but it also makes beautiful rounds or half circles for sautéing or roasting. To prepare it, simply wash it, trim away the stem and blossom ends, halve it lengthwise and remove the seeds. Cut the halves cross-wise into 1/2-inch thick semi-circles.

If you want rings, after trimming the ends, cut the whole squash into cross-wise slices and then remove the seeds from the center of each slice.

For our dinner, I combined the squash with Yukon potatoes and carrots. I dressed them as usual for roasting (olive oil, salt & pepper), adding in a scattering of minced rosemary. If you are not adept at roasting vegetables, take a moment to look at the tutorial I posted last year on how to roast vegetables. The kale that I had from my market was young and tender and consequently easy to cook. I stripped out the center rib, cut it into a fat chiffonade and cooked it (covered) in some garlic infused olive oil. But if you have more mature kale, it will be easier to cook if you blanch it before you add it to the garlic oil. You can find directions for this method on my post from last week on Baked Pasta with Kale & Chicken.

The exact quantities and choice of seasonings in this dish are not so important—to me what is important is the idea....a big rustic plate of layers of braised greens and roasted Autumn vegetables. As I worked in the garden, I arranged and rearranged the possibilities in my mind. At one point I thought about stopping what I was doing long enough to go inside and start a pot of beans. Some cooked beans (Great northern, Cannellini, Garbanzo...), added to the kale along with a small amount of their cooking liquid, would turn this layered vegetable dish into a rustic stew of sorts. They would also be a nice starchy stand-in for the potatoes. The vegetables could be varied according to whatever root vegetables or squash you have on hand (turnips and parsnips seem like particularly good ideas). Just cut everything in roughly half inch thick slabs—the plate will look best with large dramatic pieces. The rosemary could be replaced with sage or could even take the dish in a whole different direction by seasoning the roasted vegetables with cumin and smoked paprika. The sausage too could be replaced...maybe with Kielbasa...or a scattering of olives (for a vegetarian variation). The dish could be topped with a poached egg...or a generous spoonful of aïoli.....  The more you think about it, the more the possibilities begin to multiply.

Roasted Vegetables with Kale & Sausage

Olive oil
1 lb. Delicata Squash, trimmed, halved lengthwise, seeded and halves sliced cross-wise at 1/2-inch intervals
1/2 lb. small Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
1/2 lb. Carrots (2 large), peeled and cut into ½-inch thick slices on the diagonal
minced Rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
hot pepper flakes, to taste
1 bunch Kale (about 6 to 8 oz.), stemmed and cut into 1-inch wide ribbons (wash the kale, but do not spin it dry)
4 oz. link Italian sausage

Place the squash in a bowl with the carrots, potatoes and rosemary and toss with olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Spread in a snug single layer on a baking sheet.

Place in a 400° to 425° oven. Roast, stirring once or twice, until all of the vegetables are caramelized and tender—about 40 minutes.

While the vegetables roast, heat some olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until the garlic begins to sizzle—do not let it brown. Add the kale to the pan a handful at a time, turning it with a tongs to coat it with the oil as you do.  When all of the kale has been added, season lightly with salt.  Cook, covered, until wilted and tender—15 to 30 minutes depending on the kale.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Set aside until the vegetables are ready.

Meanwhile, brown the sausage. Transfer to the oven and continue to cook until the juices run clear. Set aside.

When the vegetables are golden and tender, heat the kale through. Reheat the sausage if necessary. Slice the sausage into 6 to 8 fat slices on the diagonal. Arrange 1/2 of the vegetables on two plates. Spread half of the kale over the vegetables. Repeat these two layers, reserving a slice of two of squash to place on top of the second layer of kale. Tuck the slices of sausage amongst the vegetables and kale and serve.

Serves 2 generously. The recipe is easily multiplied for more than two diners.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fresh Pumpkin Purée (for Baked Goods & Desserts)

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, and there are probably many cooks out there who would like to try their hand at preparing their pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin. Since making your own pumpkin purée—at least of a quality that is appropriate for baked goods—is not as straightforward of a process as most cookbooks would lead you to believe, I thought now would be a good time to write a short tutorial on how to make pumpkin purée from a fresh pumpkin.

Standard recipes for fresh pumpkin purée go something like this: Cook the pumpkin (by steaming, boiling, baking/roasting). Purée the cooked pumpkin (discarding the skin and seeds)—either in a food processor or by pressing through a sieve or food mill. Use the pumpkin in your pie (or cake, muffin, bread, custard...) just as you would use "solid pack" canned pumpkin.

Almost everyone I know who has dutifully followed these instructions has confessed that they were disappointed in the pumpkin pie (or other dessert) made from the fresh purée. Most of the time the complaint is that it just didn't taste "pumpkin-y" enough. It is with some reluctance of course that people will admit to this, because fresh is always supposed to be better.

The problem people are encountering is a result of a couple of things. First of all, in my experience, the flesh of a pumpkin is quite watery. If you follow the standard recipe (outlined above), you will actually be able to see the water—the fresh purée will bleed and you will notice pools of yellow liquid around the edges of the container or anywhere there is a divot on the surface of the purée.

Obviously if the purée is watery, it will have a watered down taste (it won't be as "pumpkin-y"). The solution to this is to either drain the pumpkin (in a cheesecloth, for example), or to dry it out. I dry the purée out by spreading it in a gratin-style dish (a large, shallow casserole) and placing it in a low oven where the excess water will slowly evaporate.

The second "problem" encountered with fresh pumpkin is the very fact that it is a fresh vegetable. As a living thing that takes its nourishment from its environment, it is naturally greatly affected by its growing conditions. Location, climate and weather are significant. Two identical cultivars, grown in different places (or the same place in different years) will not have the same moisture content, sweetness, starchiness, etc. Pumpkins grown in the New England states or California may indeed be naturally dense and sweet with little excess moisture. It is also entirely possible that I live in a region that just tends to produce watery pumpkins.

No matter where you live, the fresh pumpkins will vary in their water content from year to year and farm to farm. Every time you prepare a fresh pumpkin purée, you will need to do what you do whenever you cook anything: use your senses to produce a final product that looks and behaves the way you want it to. Some pumpkins will need little or no time in the oven to dry....others may need more than an hour. The first time I began to experiment with this process, my goal was to continue to dry the pumpkin until it looked more like the stuff that comes out of the can: thick enough to stand up on a spoon, dry (it shouldn't "weep" liquid) and deeply orange in color. This should be your guide too. The pumpkin you use may never obtain the deep orange color of the canned "solid pack" pumpkin—but it should not have a pale or translucent look to it.

I don't know why I have never seen this issue addressed in any cookbook (maybe I haven't looked at enough cookbooks), but it seems to me that it makes a substantial difference in the taste and consistency of the final purée. Recently I roasted a pumpkin that weighed 4 lbs., 14 ounces. The initial purée weighed 2 lbs. 12 ounces and measured a little over 5 cups. After drying, the remaining purée weighed 1 lb. 13 ounces and measured about 3 1/3 cups. For those doing the math, you will have noticed that there was almost a full pound (2 cups) of excess water in my original purée. If I had used 15 ounces (the standard amount that most pies call for) of the original purée in a pie, about a third of that would have been water.

Canned on the left; Fresh purée, before "drying", on the right

Canned on the left; Fresh purée, after "drying", on the right

By writing this post, I am not trying to discourage anyone from baking with fresh pumpkin. Rather, my goal is to help those who want to use fresh pumpkin in their holiday baked goods to be able to do so with good success. Most recipes for pumpkin baked goods (bread, cake, pie, custard, etc.) have been developed to use the "solid pack" pumpkin that comes out of a can. If you bake with something that has a substantially higher water content than the canned product, your recipe won't perform the way it was intended to, and you will probably be disappointed in the result.

To prepare fresh pumpkin purée to be used in baked goods: Use a sugar pumpkin or something that is specifically labeled "pie pumpkin". Choose one that feels heavy for its size. I prefer to bake or roast pumpkin that will be made into a purée, because this method doesn't introduce any more water. To bake the pumpkin, cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds.

Place the pumpkin halves cut side down on a greased rimmed baking sheet.

Bake in a 350° oven until very tender (pumpkin may begin to collapse)—about 1 hour, depending on the size of the pumpkin. Remove from the oven and carefully turn the halves over so the flesh is exposed and can "steam dry" a bit.

Allow the pumpkin to cool. Separate the flesh from the skin and discard the skin. Purée the flesh in the food processor or pass through a food mill fitted with the fine disc.

Dry the purée by spreading it in a shallow pan and baking at 300°, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof rubber spatula (scrape the sides well so the purée won't burn around the edges), until the desired consistency is reached—it will darken a little, will no longer "bleed" water and a clear path will remain when you draw a spatula through the purée.

A medium-sized pumpkin (2 1/3 to 2 1/2 lbs.) will produce a 10 to 12 oz., or about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups, of purée.

Before I end this post, I wanted to mention that there are lots of recipes on my blog—particularly from last November and December—for things that would make wonderful additions to your Thanksgiving celebrations. I hope you will take a minute to look through some of these old posts as you plan your holiday menu. You will find very traditional recipes (a scratch version of Green Bean Casserole, Brussels sprouts with Chestnuts), traditional ingredients used in not-so-traditional ways (Winter Squash Pizza, Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Butternut Squash and Bulgur Pilaf, Savory Kale & Chestnut Bread Pudding) and of course lots of baked goods and desserts (Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones, Pumpkin Pot de Crème, Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart). Additionally, over the next few weeks, I will keep doing my best to post recipes that will fill your tables with good things to eat as you gather with your families and friends this year. Happy Holidays!