Monday, November 21, 2011

The Fruits and Nuts Are Coming to Dinner

The fruits and nuts are coming to dinner.  Thanksgiving dinner, this week.  Yes, at your house, to your table.  No, we're not talking about your in-laws' quirky relatives or your second cousin twice removed who is only allowed out of the basement for special occasions.  We are talking about dessert!  No matter how much we doth protest and groan 'Oh, I'm so stuffed, I just can't fit in another bite or I'll explode...' everyone wants a piece of the pie.

As I have illustrated in the last couple of blogs in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday repast, most courses of the annual autumnal feast have graduated from the basics to culinary presentations filled with creative new twists.  Dessert is no exception, as the timeless trio of Thanksgiving dessert traditions has evolved to incorporate further dimensions of texture, flavor and color.  Those desserts which have withstood the test of time are the apple pie, the pumpkin pie, and the pecan pie.

The apple pie, once a basic pie shell baked with a filling of apples, sugar, a little flour and some spices, has now benefitted from the additions of additional ingredients such as pears or cranberries.  A new twist of flavor can be imparted by using a touch of almond extract in the dough when preparing the pie crust.  A whole new look to strut down the runway of the dining table is the substitution of cinnamon streusel covering the apple pie in lieu of a top crust.  Other apple pies who go topless include the apple crostada; and my mother's apple pie in which, during the dessert's hot date with the oven, the apples caramelize on the edges for a nice presentation as they settle into a cinnamon-infused custard-like filling.  Two years ago I celebrated Thanksgiving with Brian's family, where one guest presented an apple pie which had been piled high with at least five different varieties of apples under the hood.  For those who may be pressed for time to prepare a pie in addition to an appetizer, a turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, biscuits, vegetables, cranberry sauce - oh my, perhaps now is the time to start calling on other family members in the hopes of an invitation elsewhere - an apple crisp may be the easier alternative you are looking for.  Crisps do not involve making dough for pie crusts, because they require no crust at all.  A crisp is simply a similar combination of ingredients that would be used for the filling of the pie, the apples cut into chunks rather than sliced.  The mixture is placed into a baking dish and topped with a crumb topping, a quick alternative to the traditional apple pie.

The pumpkin pie is still served on many a Thanksgiving table and still prepared in its traditional incarnation, though many have sought new ways to prepare that sweet dining finale using the amber gourd.  Recipes are now widely available for pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin mousse trifles and parfaits,  and pumpkin roulades with cream fillings.  Last Thanksgiving I prepared Ina Garten's recipe for a pumpkin-banana mousse tart; the additional flavor of the banana was a wonderful fusing of flavors.  If you aren't so eager to stray from tradition however, there are many new presentations for the original pumpkin pie.  Two of my favorites include the addition of a hazelnut streusel topping; and also the cover of a cloud of fluffy sweet meringue which had a brief encounter with the kitchen blow torch.  I recently spied a recipe in a cooking magazine for pumpkin pie with a brulee top.  Whichever variation you choose, the pumpkin dessert remains the steadfast requisite for an all-American Thanksgiving menu.

Thirdly, we have the dessert pride of the southern United States, the pecan pie.  Several friends have made requests recently for pecan pie recipes, and so here I am to deliver.  As with the aforementioned desserts, there are many variations on the theme of pecan pie as well, including the maple pecan pie, the caramel pecan pie, and my recipe which satiates the chocolate cravers of your family.  This is one I have made year after year at Brian's requests.  The use of both bittersweet and semi sweet chocolate, plus the addition of instant espresso powder to the filling, really brings out the rich chocolate flavor.  Pecan pie is typically served with big dollops of whipped cream.  A nice alternative would be a scoop of homemade or high quality store-bought vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Pecan Pie
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into dice and chilled again
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/6 cup chilled vegetable shortening
1/4 cup ice water

3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup either light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cup pecan halves

In the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade, mix the flour, salt and 1/2 tablespoon sugar.  Remove the butter and shortening from the refrigerator from place into the food processor bowl.  Pulse ingredients until the mixture resembles small pea-sized pebbles.  Remove the water from the refrigerator and, with the processor on, pour it through the feed tube into the bowl.  Pulse the processor until the entire mixture begins to form one ball.  Turn out onto a floured surface.  Quickly form into a neat ball, pat down into the shape of a thick disc and wrap in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for about a half hour.

Return the ball of dough to a very well-floured surface, and begin rolling with a floured pin into a ten-inch circle, turning the circle one quarter turn every few rolls to prevent it from sticking to the surface.  Butter the inside of a pie dish.  Place the dough into the dish, and crimp or flute the extra dough along the edge decoratively.  Place pie dish into the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt 2 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate, 2 ounces of the semi sweet chocolate and the 3 tablespoons of butter, stirring frequently, until all of the chocolate is melted.  Add the brown sugar, espresso powder, eggs, corn syrup and vanilla and stir to combine.  Stir in the remaining chopped chocolates and the nuts.  Pour batter into pie crust.  Bake for about 55 minutes.  Allow to cool completely before serving.

For those who seek for something different, there is a whole world of sweet confections to offer up at your holiday table.  I do recommend however that you exercise the one tradition of Thanksgiving and stick to the concept of incorporating the season's bounty, which includes apples, pears, cranberries, pumpkin and nuts.  For those whose consumption of nuts is a medical faux pas, there are plenty of seasonal embellishments to enhance your fall baking endeavors, including the use of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, ground ginger, chopped crystalized ginger, maple syrup,  caramel, dried cranberries and raisins.  However you choose to write the happy ending to your holiday spread, enjoy.  To all of my family and friends - all of my readers - I wish you a happy, safe and delicious Thanksgiving holiday.

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