Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dessert Evolution: Beyond Pumpkin Pie

Once the final mouthful of stuffing is consumed and the table is now strewn with empty wine bottles and dirty dishes, how will you entertain your Thanksgiving guests after dinner?  Perhaps all will join together in a communal collapse on the couch for a football game or a family classic film?  Or maybe the girls will begin strategically plotting coordinates for the next day’s Black Friday expedition, sending the guys to flee to a game of poker in the other room.  Whatever the evening’s destination may be, there are sure to be desserts in the equation.

Typically, Thanksgiving Day desserts are relegated to a couple of hours post-dinner, in the hopes that the gastronomic overindulgences and the tryptophan-induced daze will lift.  The excitement of a touchdown, or of a hoard of flying monkeys for that matter, will tend to whet appetites once again.

Thanksgiving desserts have spanned far beyond the ubiquitous pumpkin pie.  Even the humble pumpkin pie has now evolved to incorporate cheesecake batter, mousse, meringue toppings, streusel crumb toppings and, sometimes, not even a pie at all.  Pumpkin parfaits, pumpkin ice cream, dessert breads and pumpkin roulades have now joined the lineup that celebrates the autumnal gourd.

What were once simple apple pies now add a pop of color, thanks to the addition of seasonal cranberries within the shroud of pastry crust.  Apples also now nestle peacefully with pears under the cover of a crispy crumb blanket.  Today’s caramel craze has led to heavy drizzles of caramel over a topless apple pie.

If you’re seeking a unique twist for a Thanksgiving dessert, look no further than your family’s year around favorites.  The dessert police will be too occupied with gobbling up their own pumpkin doughnuts to haul you away in handcuffs because you opted out of the pumpkin pie tradition.  If your family consists of shameless chocoholics, run with it.  A chocolate torte can be made festive for Thanksgiving by spreading orange hued frosting between the layers as well as on top of the cake, followed by a finishing touch of fall colored candies or casting sugars.  In fact, one of the most ideal flavor pairings is that of dark chocolate and orange, so try incorporating some orange flavor as well as color into that frosting.  Candy making hobbyists can get creative by making some chocolate cornucopias – molds can be purchased in craft stores that sell chocolate making and baking supplies – and then filling them with homemade truffles.  Pecan pie is so much more decadent when chocolate is incorporated into the filling.  If your family is nuts about nuts, try making a chocolate pecan pie with a mix of nutty favorites, whether that list includes cashews, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts or all of the above to cover all bases.  Go with lightly salted nuts, as the flavor combination of sweet and salty is deliciously satisfying.

Cheesecake is another perpetual favorite.  While last Easter’s strawberry-covered cheesecake may seem out of place on an end-of-harvest feast, the topping can be switched up to highlight autumn’s cranberries instead of spring and summer varieties of berries.   Below is a recipe that I have come up with that I will be using this Thanksgiving to crown a Coeur a la Crème, a super easy French dessert that resembles a rich and creamy soft cheesecake.  In fact, the generosity of the holiday season is coming over me; I’ll share the whole dessert.  However, if you prefer to use a traditional cheesecake, this topping will work on that too, as well as over a pumpkin pie or vanilla ice cream.

Coeur a La Crème with Cranberry-Port-Hazelnut Topping

1 ½ 8-ounce blocks cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 ½ cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon finely grated orange zest

Place the cream cheese and sugar in a mixer bowl.  Using the paddle attachment, beat on high speed until thoroughly combined.  Change from the paddle attachment to the whisk attachment.  Add the remaining ingredients and beat until the mixture is well blended and thickened.

Line a large, fine-meshed sieve with cheesecloth and hang the sieve over a large bowl, making sure that the bottom of the sieve is suspended above, not against, the bottom of the bowl.  Pour the cream cheese mixture into the sieve and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.  Fold the overhanging cheesecloth to rest gently over the top.  Place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, make the topping.

½ tablespoon water
½ teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
½ cup sugar
½ cup ruby Port
1 tablespoon Cointreau
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup fresh cranberries

½ cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts

Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin powder over it.  Set aside.  In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the sugar, Port, Cointreau, cinnamon and cloves.  Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Stir in the cranberries and reduce the heat.  Allow to simmer until at least half of the cranberries have popped.  Transfer a ladle full of the hot mixture to the bowl containing the gelatin.  Stir to combine.  Now transfer the contents of the bowl into the remaining cranberry mixture in the saucepan and stir until combined.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Allow to cool to room temperature.

Remove the sieve from the refrigerator.  There should be liquid accumulated in the bottom of the bowl.  Discard the liquid.  Peel back the cheesecloth that was folded over the top of the cream cheese mixture.  Place a serving plate upside down on top of the sieve.  Invert, turning out the mixture onto the plate.  Remove the sieve and gentle peel off the cheesecloth.  With an empty, clean ladle, gently press down on the center of the dessert, creating a well.  Ladle the cranberry topping into the well, allowing it to overflow and trickle down the sides.  Sprinkle with hazelnuts and serve.

  • Traditionally, this dessert was so named because it is made in a porcelain dish with tiny holes in the bottom.  A coeur, meaning ‘heart,’ is the shape of this dish.  However, as most households may not possess such a dish, a large, fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth works just as well.

Whatever dessert you choose, traditional or nouveau, the sweet mouthfuls will comfort all with the perfect, happy ending to this family holiday.  Be sure to accompany dessert not only with coffee or tea, but consider also offering espresso, cordial liqueurs such as Frangelico for an autumn nutty flavor, Port, a warmed spice wine, or a sweet dessert wine such as moscato.

Food for Thought

If you need further inspirational reading for Thanksgiving menu planning, read all about potatoes, flavorful vegetable dishes such as braised fennel or Brussels sprouts, cranberries, pumpkins, desserts and even a comforting way to use up that leftover turkey! 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Thyme

Well it's about thyme!  After a summer of thrusting fresh basil from the garden into the culinary spotlight, thyme will now have its season of stardom.

Thyme is a perennial member of the mint family, originating in southern Europe and Mediterranean cooking.  There are numerous sub-species of this popular aromatic herb, including the prevalent lemon thyme and common thyme, the narrow-leafed French specimen and the broad-leafed English variety.  It is easily grown in garden plots and windowsill pots.  Thyme infuses a pungent minty-lemony aroma into culinary creations.

Although thyme hails from warmer regions, it's a highly coveted ingredient in cold weather fare.  It is added to soups and stews, sprinkled over fish, meats and poultry, stirred into gravies and mashed potatoes and used to flavor sautéed or roasted vegetables.  Classic French favorites like coq au vin and boeuf bourgignon just wouldn't be authentic without plunging whole sprigs of thyme into the simmering pot.

While I stock almost no dried herbs in my kitchen because fresh is always superior, there are two jars in my spice rack: oregano and thyme.  These herbs are strong enough that as a dried variation, the flavors are, in my opinion, an acceptable substitute for use in soups or stews in a pinch or if one is pressed for time to harvest thyme leaves.

Thyme is one of the most widely used herbs in Thanksgiving cookery.  It is used for seasoning the turkey and as a flavor booster in gravy.  Thyme is used to flavor stuffing and mashed potatoes.  Some cranberry sauce recipes call for the herb as a savory counterpoint to the condiment's sweet component.  Thyme may also be used in the dough for making biscuits.

There are only a scant few prep tasks that I really abhor, and one is dealing with thyme leaves.  When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, that is a sure way to put a scowl on my face until the tedious task of stripping those tiny leaves off of the stem is behind me.  Under perfect conditions, you can strip them off by running your thumb and forefinger along the stem against the direction in which the leaves are pointing.  Alas, this is not always successful and thus individual picking of each leaf, accompanied by some grumbled choice words, ensues.  One technique that often works, though not always, is to leave the needed thyme sprigs out on the counter the day before its rendezvous with your dish.  If climate conditions are favorable, it will dry just enough to make the leaf-stripping process more productive.

Here are three simple recipes that feature thyme in the short ingredient lists.  The third recipe also helps you to utilize some of that post-Thanksgiving leftover cranberry sauce.

Cornish Hens with Orange Thyme Glaze

2 Cornish hens
½ orange, cut in half
2 small bunches thyme sprigs
½ cup orange marmalade
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place the hens in a roasting pan.  Stuff one quarter of an orange and one small bunch of thyme sprigs into the cavity of each hen.  Sprinkle each hen generously with salt and pepper.  In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine all remaining ingredients and stir until the marmalade is melted and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.  Brush one-half of the mixture over the hens.  Place hens in the oven and bake for one hour, brushing with the remainder of the sauce halfway through cooking time.  Serves two.

Lemon Thyme Shrimp and Scallops

1 pound sea scallops
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon cold butter

Heat the olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the scallops and shrimp and sauté until the shrimp have turned pink and the scallops are opaque.  Remove from the skillet with a slotted spoon and arrange on four plates.  Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for one minute.  Add the wine, lemon juice, lemon zest and thyme.  Deglaze the pan and allow to simmer until slightly reduced.  Add the 1 tablespoon of butter and stir until the mixture is thickened.  Pour sauce over the seafood.  Serves two.

Cranberry Thyme Topper

1/2 cup white wine
1 cup cranberry sauce (preferably homemade with whole berries)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bunch scallions, green parts sliced crosswise into ¼-inch slices

Combine the above ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until combined and heated through.  Allow to simmer for five minutes.  Remove from heat and spoon over four pork chops or four salmon filets before roasting them in the oven.

Food for Thought

Many recipes for stews call for a bouquet garni.  Just what is a bouquet garni?  Exactly what it sounds like, a bouquet garni is a cute little bouquet of whole sprigs of various herbs.  The bouquet is either held together within the confines of a cheesecloth sachet or tied together with kitchen string.  Thyme is one of the usual suspects to be found in a bouquet garni, along with parsley, bay leaves and, sometimes, marjoram.  The bouquet is typically added to the pot to simmer with the other ingredients, the aromatic flavors permeating the stew.  Before serving, the bouquet is simply fished out and discarded.  When tying a bouquet garni together, leave a length of string to make it easier to find when it's time for removal.