Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Carrot Ring

Last week I talked about the virtues of a corn-syrup-free pecan pie. There's just something about using plain sugar that seems more wholesome than corn syrup. In a way, it's like serving dishes using ingredients available at the very first Thanksgiving. (Of course, I'm not sure what that means for our stuffing, but I'm working on that front.)

And while I'm not so big on pecan pie because of its inherent sweetness, I am a devout lover of carrot ring.

You might be wondering what "carrot ring" is. It's somewhere between a souffle and a pound cake in texture. It's simultaneously dense and light. As for the flavor, it's certainly more intense than run-of-the-mill carrot cake, but it's not so overpoweringly sweet as to be considered a dessert. In fact, it's a side dish on our Thanksgiving table, and it has been for as long as I can remember. Quite simply, I adore it. Not only is it a wonderful supporting member of the Thanksgiving cast, but it is also delicious for breakfast (or dessert).

Like the origins of pecan pie (dark, mysterious, corn syrup-laden origins), the beginnings of carrot ring were somewhat questionable. While corn syrup irks me a little, shortening just plain freaks me out. The combination of its color, flavor (ahem, lack thereof), goopy texture (reminiscent of Vaseline), and solidity at room temperature are enough to make me rid all recipes I come across of this "ingredient."

(Now that I've thoroughly grossed you out talking about a "food" resembling Vaseline, please read on. I promise it gets better. And tastier.)

Luckily, my mom shares similar feelings when it comes to shortening (only countered by the fact that she a) tried the whipped lardo at Del Posto ["It tastes like bacon fat"... duh] and b) continues to grease the bundt pans for carrot ring with shortening). When my mom first received this recipe from my paternal grandmother (Nama) many years ago when she started to host Thanksgiving, she immediately set out to rid it of the unnecessary fat and calories. (Indeed, you can see the original ingredients on the recipe card below.)
Another heirloom recipe, but (warning!) these directions are super confusing.
Terse instructions on old recipes really annoy me.

Thankfully, she succeeded exceptionally well. By replacing the fat with whipped egg whites and applesauce, she both lightened the texture and moistened the crumb. She cut back on the sugar substantially, which lets the carrot flavor really shine through and justifies its side dish status. Of course, I've never had the original version, but my guess is that her changes accomplished these feats. Either way, the result is a dish that I eagerly await every year and one that will forever be on my Thanksgiving table. Enjoy this - it's a Rogovin family classic.

(Unfortunately, I have no picture to show you of this beautiful carrot ring. However, I think I successfully identified it in this picture. It is just below the wall outlet, to the left of the large green bowl. Note to self: take pictures of everything you make this Thanksgiving!)

Carrot Ring
Adapted from Nama

To cook the carrots, we place them in a microwaveable dish with some water and cook them until they're very tender. Then we put them in a food processor and process until they're mostly smooth. You don't want them to be completely pureed; lumps are perfectly fine. You could also just use a potato masher or fork to mash them up. You can use either a hand mixer or stand mixer to beat the egg whites. This recipe makes 2 carrot rings. We bake one in a pretty Bundt pan mold and serve it on Thanksgiving. The other we keep, unbaked, in the refrigerator for a few days and bake it whenever the first carrot ring is almost gone. I prefer carrot ring either warm or cold. It's a delicious complement to a sweet/tart cranberry conserve.

Yield: 2 carrot rings

1 3/4 cups applesauce
8 large egg whites, divided
2 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 pounds carrots, peeled, cooked, and mashed (see note)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease two Bundt pans (or ring-shaped cake pans) with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the applesauce and 4 of the egg whites. Add the water, lemon juice, vanilla, and brown sugar and mix until well-blended. Mix in the carrot puree.

In a separate bowl, mix the salt, baking powder, baking soda, and flour. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until just blended.

Meanwhile, beat the remaining 4 egg whites until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the beaten egg whites into the carrot mixture. Divide the batter between the two Bundt pans (they should be about halfway full).

Put a kettle of water on to boil. Place the Bundt pan in a larger roasting pan. Put the whole set-up in the oven. Quickly and carefully pour the boiling water into the roasting pan so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the pan. Bake for 1 hour.

Let cool before inverting onto a serving platter. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature. The carrot ring will keep, covered well with plastic wrap, for at least a week.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Grandma's Pecan Pie

Necessity is the mother of invention. I believe very strongly in this old adage.

While Thanksgiving is certainly the most indulgent day of the year in my book, in our family we always try to make our recipes only moderately indulgent. Faced with a recipe or concept that makes our arteries clog just when mentioned, the idea of making it a little healthier or more wholesome certainly beats not serving it at all.

For example, using low- or reduced-fat cream cheese and sour cream in the pumpkin cheesecake, using half the olive oil called for in the roasted vegetable recipe, or concocting a minimalist but divine applesauce that consists of nothing more than at-their-peak apples and water (no lie). Of course, while the goal is often to cut down on the fat content or calorie count, taste is never sacrificed. (Using the pumpkin cheesecake example, I firmly believe that swapping lower-fat cream cheese and sour cream for the full-fat versions will go unnoticed in a cheesecake with flavors as bold as earthy pumpkin and spicy ginger. The resulting product is no less delicious and allows me to justify eating a slice of it, along with samples of all the other desserts, with a clear conscience.)

The recipe I'm going to tell you about today is one that makes a regular appearance on our table each Thanksgiving. This is a pecan pie that contains absolutely no corn syrup. This may seem insignificant but I'd venture to say that about 99% of pecan pie fillings contain some form of corn syrup (either dark or light). Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with corn syrup. But doesn't a combination of brown sugar and white sugar just sound more appealing than some clear goo? Brown and white sugars just seem more "wholesome" and "healthful" than corn syrup, if such words could ever even apply to sugar.
A stained recipe card is one of the best indicators of how tasty something is.

This recipe comes from my grandma, who, according to my mom, took it from a specific Betty Crocker cookbook edition. Go figure. Besides the exclusion of corn syrup there's really nothing special going on here. You still get that same crackly crust that forms at the top, reminiscent of praline pecans. The interior maintains its semi-solid, sweet integrity. And if all that isn't enticing enough, the whole thing makes your house smell like toasted nuts. And you just can't argue with that.
Thanksgiving 2008: Triumphant with my four desserts, including pecan pie (bottom left). But what's up with the awkward pot holder hand?
Pecan Pie
Adapted from Grandma

Since I've yet to conquer my pastry fears, I don't have a recipe for a crust to use. However, any pie crust will work for this recipe. Let your imagination run wild! Use shortening if you must! Use lard, but don't tell anyone (namely, me - not that I'm judging or anything)! The "adapted" part of this recipe comes from the use of butter rather than oleo. The pecans do not need to be ground to a powder, but there shouldn't be any large chunks either (imagine trying to cut your fork through a whole pecan). You could run your knife through some pecan pieces, or use an old-fashioned nut crusher (which used to be my task in this pie's preparation).

Yield: one 9-inch pie

1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick butter, melted
1 1/4 cups chopped pecans, plus about 20 halves for decorating (optional)
1 (9-inch) pie shell

Adjust a rack to the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a large bowl, mix together the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and flour. Thoroughly beat in the eggs, milk, vanilla, and butter (this is easily accomplished using a whisk, which will break up all the lumps). Fold in the chopped pecans.

Pour the filling into the prepared pie shell. If you're feeling fancy, decorate the top of the pie with the pecan halves (I like to arrange them around the perimeter).

Bake until just set, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool and serve, preferably with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Note: This filling can sometimes overflow the pie pan, burn on the bottom of the oven, and cause you to wonder what that "burn-y" smell is. Two ways to prevent such an occurrence are to line the floor of your oven with some heavy-duty aluminum foil, which is convenient should any other overflow catastrophes occur on the big day. Alternatively, you could also set the pie pan on a cookie sheet, which is advantageous since it allows you to easily remove the pie from the oven (especially if you opt to use a ceramic pie plate that, while beautiful, has no nifty handles to boast of).

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Perfect Cheesecake, Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, I think I've found my new standby.

A while back, I talked (okay, rambled) about my ideal cheesecake. Since I'd already found my ultimate restaurant slice, the only obstacle left in my cheesecake conquest was the ideal homemade cake.

I called that post "Part I," anticipating that "Part II" would follow very closely behind it. I was preparing to make Dorie Greenspan's Tall and Creamy Cheesecake, which sounded absolutely wonderful to me, because, well, it's... tall and creamy. I love tall and creamy. (I also love tall, dark, and handsome, but that's another story.) Unfortunately, the recipe that I followed was incredibly flawed. It was missing a vital step and I ended up underbaking the cheesecake. Don't get me wrong, the cheesecake was still delicious enough to eat, but it was underbaked.

Wednesday is my dad's birthday and he requested a simple menu of "sausages, kraut, and cheesecake." Since I'm home for fall break, I decided it was time to give Dorie's recipe another go, this time with accurate instructions.
The final result was, thanks to an extra 90 minutes of baking time, perfectly baked. It definitely lives up to its namesake qualities. The gingersnap crust that I used once again added a much needed spicy element. The cake itself is just sweet enough and ethereally creamy.
However, it's just not as dense as I like. I really wasn't expecting it to be, though. All I was hoping for was a modest (and moderately prepared) recipe that I could come back to whenever I needed to make a cheesecake. Until I summon the courage to use 5+ blocks of cream cheese and half a dozen eggs, I'll continue to use this recipe. Only in my world would this recent series of events feel like a weight lifted off my shoulders. One culinary obstacle down, infinitely more to go.

(Next mission: master pie crust. Stay tuned on that front.)

Tall and Creamy Cheesecake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

This cheesecake is a great base recipe for any plain cheesecake, and the quantities are painfully easy to remember for such a wonderful end product. That said, I took a few liberties with the ingredients. The crust is gingersnap because that's my favorite, but you could certainly substitute graham crackers or vanilla or chocolate wafers. Also feel free to add sugar (up to 3 tablespoons) or spices to the crust to your taste (I prefer a less sweet crust). You can also add more butter if you want a sturdier crust. I used low-fat cream cheese and sour cream, but full-fat would work just as well. And I also added half a vanilla bean because... well, it was there. Upon serving the cake, I was frustrated that some of the crust stuck to the sides of the springform pan. For aesthetic reasons, take the extra five seconds and spray the pan with nonstick spray to ensure an easy release. You'll thank me later.

Yield: 12 to 16 servings

For the crust:
About 7 ounces gingersnap cookies
1/4 teaspoon tables salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the cheesecake:
4 (8-ounce) packages Neufchatel cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups l0w-fat sour cream
1/2 vanilla bean
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick spray and wrap it in a double layer of aluminum foil. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the gingersnaps and salt together until the cookies are ground into crumbs. Add butter and pulse until the crumbs have begin to clump together and have taken on the appearance of wet sand.

Pour the buttered crumbs into the springform pan. Using the bottom and sides of a measuring cup, press the crumbs onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

Meanwhile, prepare the cheesecake batter. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (you could also use a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium speed until soft and creamy-looking, about 4 minutes. Add the sugar and salt and beat until well-blended, about 3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure the batter is well-blended. Add the vanilla and mix until well-blended. Beat in the eggs, one by one, mixing well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add in the sour cream, again scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Scrape the beans from half a vanilla bean (or a whole one if you have it) and add to the batter. One last time, use a rubber spatula to make sure the batter is entirely incorporated and smooth.

Put a kettle of water on to boil. Pour the cheesecake batter into the prepared crust and place the springform pan in a roasting pan (I use the bottom of broiler pan because we don't have a roasting pan). Quickly (but carefully!) place the roasting pan on the center rack of the oven. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.
Bake the cheesecake for 1 hour and 30 minutes. It will rise just above the top of the pan, but it will be beautiful, lightly golden, and crack-free (that's because of the water bath). Turn off the oven and crack the oven door open with a wooden spoon. Allow the cheesecake to "rest" for an hour in the turned-off oven.

After an hour, pull the cheesecake out of the oven. Take the springform pan out of the roasting pan and set it on a paper-towel lined plate (to absorb any water from the roasting pan and to reduce slippage). Let it come to room temperature. Transfer the cooled cheesecake to the refrigerator; chill at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.

To serve, run a knife around the circumference of the cake and remove the sides of the springform pan. The easiest way to cut the cheesecake is with a long, sharp knife that has been dipped in warm water in between slices.

The cheesecake will keep in the refrigerator, wrapped well, for up to a week, or up to 2 months in the freezer. Defrost the frozen but still wrapped cheesecake in the refrigerator before serving.

That Strawberry Sauce You See

Yield: about 1 cup of sauce, enough for 4-6 servings

About 8 medium strawberries (I used frozen)
1 teaspoon sugar

Put the strawberries in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add enough water to come about halfway up the sides of the strawberries. (This is all very approximate because I just made this up as I went along, but I'd guess I added about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of water.) Cook, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries begin to break down. Add the sugar. Use a potato masher or fork to mash the strawberries. The strawberries will never become completely smooth but you want to make sure there are no huge chunks of strawberries. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the mixture until it is reduced and syrupy. Cool and serve alongside cheesecake or pound cake, on top of ice cream, or straight off the spoon! Yum....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Help Wanted

I have a problem.

Okay, I'll be more specific. I'm positively bewildered at what to make for dessert this Thanksgiving. Any and all help and guidance will be very much appreciated. Thank you.

Okay, I'll be a bit more more specific. Allow me to provide you with some background information....

You see, my absolute favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. There's really no comparison in my book. How can you compare any other day to this great American tradition? As such, I regard it as my own sort of "culinary Olympics." If there is ever a time to bust out your best game, it's the fourth Thursday of November. Excess and indulgence are practically encouraged. In particular, as the self-proclaimed maker of all desserts, I regard each and every Thanksgiving as my opportunity to break out of my comfort zone, try something new, and perhaps satisfy my culinary curiosities.

Ever since I began making the desserts (going on four years, I think), I've always tried to switch the lineup. Usually we have at least six people for dessert, which gives me the excuse to make three or more treats. Because I so adore classic fall flavors, I go for one pumpkin dessert, one apple, and one cranberry. Usually pears and/or nuts also make an appearance. Additionally, I try not to make more than one of the same dish. That means there is only one cake, pie, cheesecake, bread pudding, crumble, etc. (My justification for this is that I like to have a variety, to be challenged, and not to get bored making three different kinds of pies.)

If my memory serves me correctly, here are the desserts we've served at the past three Thanksgivings, along with my tasting notes.

Thanksgiving 2007:
Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust: Oh, yes. I believe this was the first time we made the pumpkin cheesecake. We found the recipe on Epicurious and adapted it a bit for our own tastes (adding more/less spices, making more of the crust, etc.). Put simply, this is the best cheesecake (aside from my all-time favorite, that is) I've ever tasted. It's also one of the best cheesecakes I've ever made. Bonus points for the requirement that it must be made ahead of time (perfect for Thanksgiving, then!)
Pecan Pie: We make my grandma's recipe for pecan pie, which, as my mom aptly puts it, is foolproof. It doesn't contain any corn syrup, like about 99% of other pecan pie recipes, just a combination of sugars. I'm not a huge fan of pecan pie (too sweet), but my grandparents almost always come over for Thanksgiving dessert, and it's my grandpa's favorite, so it's usually on the menu.
Apple Crumble (or Crisp): We probably used Ina's recipe, which is to die for and loaded with tons of crumble topping. Again, bonus points for being able to prepare it ahead of time (just rewarm it in the oven before serving). (There may have been cranberries in this one. Agh. Can't. Remember.)

Thanksgiving 2008 - better known in the Rogovin household as "The One with The Germans"
Pumpkin Bread Pudding: After discovering that Katie doesn't really the divine pumpkin cheesecake (I believe my exact reaction was something like "Whaaaaa?!"), I somewhat grudgingly agreed to go down a separate pumpkin path. Enter Martha Stewart and her recipe for pumpkin bread pudding. Holy. Cow. This was absolutely divine. We used a Raisin Challah that we had bought and froze around Rosh Hashanah and it was perfect. The best part, though, aside from the wonderful variation in textures (crispy bread bites and creamy, warm/spicy custard), was the rum raisins. I heart rum raisins.
German Apple Cake: This was an underdog dish that really shone through. I think the reason I decided to make it was because it "German" and we had Germans coming for dinner, so.... Anyway, it was very good - moist, but not spongy, and relatively light for a Thanksgiving dessert.
Pecan Pie: See above.
Pear and Cranberry Crumble: I adapted this recipe from one in Bon Appetit, using the idea for a pear and cranberry filling and then adding Ina's normal fruit crumble topping. It was very good; the only problem was that it was too soupy. I think the original recipe may have used apples instead of pears, but since I have my crazy rules, I decided to substitute pears. I've since learned that apples and pears are not interchangeable in recipes. The pears give off too much moisture. After a day, the juices had thickened very nicely, but I was nevertheless a bit annoyed by the outcome. Live and learn.
Thanksgiving 2009: or the Thanksgiving when there were almost as many desserts as people
Pumpkin Cheesecake: That's right, I brought it back. It's too good to pass over two consecutive years. As a more experienced baker, I again made some more adjustments, which I can't remember now but likely involved using less butter and sugar in the crust, baking in a water bath (always do it!), etc.
Apple Pie: My sister made a delicious apple pie. We struggled with the pretty (but impractical) Williams-Sonoma pie crust cutters. Also with making pie crust. Turned out beautifully in the end, though.
Pear-Cranberry Almond Cake: This was the true surprise of the year. It was my "challenge" recipe so to speak, as it was something I had never made before and I had been dying to try almond paste in a recipe. It's like baby steps toward frangipane and classic pastry. I absolutely loved this.
Rum Raisin Ice Cream: Have I mentioned how much I love rum raisins? Finally in possession of an ice cream maker, we just had to make a batch for Thanksgiving. Yes, we were required.
Pecan Pie: Last minute addition, as we felt as if three desserts and an ice cream weren't enough for six people. It's a testament to how easy this recipe is that we could decide at the very last minute to prepare it.

So that leads me to 2010. The head count is not entirely confirmed for dessert, but we have at least four. I'm planning on four desserts, but that could easily change as the big day draws closer. Luckily, ice cream is already covered. I'm going with an autumn-spiced (think cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc.) ice cream that I discovered a few weeks ago.

Next up is apples. I've really had my heart set on an apple frangipane tart, but most recipes are either for miniature tartlets or use the more traditional pear instead. I think it'd be a nice take off of apple pie, which we had last year.

Cranberries are also a conundrum. I have a tendency to shy away from making them the star of a dessert because their tartness can be dominating if not treated properly. Plus, we usually have three or more types of cranberry preparations to go with the main meal. However, I've been eyeing a Martha Stewart cranberry almond tart recipe for a few years. However, that would knock out the apple frangipane tart (two tarts, two almond desserts).

Pears are not usually a main priority at Thanksgiving for me, but I'm always open to recipes that feature them either in a star or supporting role. I'm particularly fascinated by this apple pear brioche cobbler. Part of me is dying to try out this enticing combination, while another part of me thinks it might just be too much work for the feel I try to create through my cooking. What exactly is that feel? I like to think of it as comforting, yet classy. Yeast doughs may just be too fussy.

Pumpkin poses a somewhat different challenge. While I do want to stretch myself and expand my baking horizons, a Thanksgiving without pumpkin cheesecake just doesn't seem right. I've toyed with the idea of adding a crumb topping to cheesecake, but a part of me feels that the cake is likely better unadorned. Often the simplest things are the tastiest. Nevertheless, I've seen so many delicious-looking pumpkin recipes in the past few weeks that the possibilities almost seem too good to pass up.

So this is where you all come in. Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? What are you planning on for your Thanksgiving dessert? I'm ready and willing to listen. (And trust me, this won't be the last time I discuss this topic over here.) Until then, I'll continue ruminating over the relative merits of meringue topping versus cranberry balsamic glaze....