101 Cookbooks

Essence of Autumn: Pumpkin

It's Fall, finally. Although today was in the 60's, our misguided October of 2010 has determined to let the leaves linger mostly on the trees while we soak up the rapidly shortening days in relative comfort. Traditionally, our October is a cold and often mean month, saturated with rain and requiring me to lament over the lack of a coat I can never seem to buy. (Oh, I have a huge parka, comfort rated by L.L. Bean to like 50 below zero, but I have no "stylish, walking around in usually sweltering stores" coat.)

I often feel so fortunate that we have 4 seasons; I couldn't even tell you my favorite if you asked. The brink of each brings it's own unique set of loves and enjoyment - I doubt I'd be so excited to garden and mow the lawn if I never saw the barren and bleak snow covered yard for what, at the time, seems like an eternity.

Our circle of seasons reminds me of life on a more specialized scale. Lately, and more specifically, my experiments with fermentation seem to echo life and our seasons - first with spurts of growth and then the maintaining, next a slowness created by increasing chill and, finally, inevitable death if not cared for properly (and sometimes even if cared for properly). Seasonal living really is extraordinary, and worth appreciating as often as I think of it. And, while I don't crave it in the Spring and Summer, some things are just inherently Autumn and the Autumnal onset brings with it my cravings for pumpkin and the endless tweaking of the classic pie.

Pumpkin pie is probably one of my top loves. It is home. It requires a modicum of beforehand thought since it takes a long time to bake, and an even longer time to cool down before that first slice can be wedged out and properly plated with appropriate amounts of ether whipped heavy cream or ice cream. I hardly know a person who doesn't love it, and if you hate making a pie crust, filling a supermarket readymade cheat will also provide nearly as much gustatorial enjoyment as the olfactorial treat you get when the whole house smells of spiced pumpkin. (Never mind if I'm introducing new words to the English Language here, I just get excited about pumpkin!)

My first pies of this season were not actually pies, but rather miniature tarts that I stole from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks. Any time I read over a recipe and see that coconut milk has been substituted for something, I get pretty excited. I also took a nod from my Mother, and decreased the amount of said milk, since it produces a richer, more custardy version - and Heidi's addition of an extra egg or two also help with that. Heidi also includes a layer of hazelnuts - boosting that Autumnal feel of this dessert sevenfold. It's good. No, it's Love.

Of course, you can use whatever pie crust you like - I opted for Dorie Greenspan's Pate Sablee. I mixed it up in the food pro, and pressed it into the 4 inch tart tins. For each tin, I used 1/2 c. plus 2 T. of crumbly dough, and a single recipe of her pastry perfectly fills 5 shells.

Pumpkin Custard Tarts (adapted from 101 Cookbooks)
makes 5 4 inch tarts, or 1 9 inch pie
  • 2 c. hazelnuts
  • 1/2 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 T. pumpkin pie spice (I slightly altered the 101 Cookbooks one, and listed it below)
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 T. cornstarch (or arrowroot)
  • 1 can (1 1/2 c.) pumpkin puree
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • half a can of coconut milk (about 6 oz. If doubling the amounts for two pies or 10 tarts, use a whole can (13+ oz.) of coconut milk)
Preheat oven to 350.

Puree 1 1/2 cups of the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor until they turn into a hazelnut paste, past the 'crumble' stage. I added a teaspoon or so of maple syrup to help it along. Set aside. Chop the remaining 1/2 cup of hazelnuts and set aside to use as garnish.

To make the pumpkin pie filling, whisk together the brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice blend, salt, and cornstarch (or arrowroot). Stir in the pumpkin puree, and vanilla, then stir in the eggs and coconut milk until just combined. Set aside.

Before filling the pie crust, crumble the hazelnut paste on top of the pie dough into the pie plate, quickly and gently press it into a thin layer across the bottom creating a layer of hazelnuts that will sit between the dough and the filling. Fill the pie crust with the filling. Fill the tins fairly full - (it will puff up a little as it bakes, then fall slightly as it cools, ) and bake for 35-40 minutes (up to 50 minutes or so for the pie). For the 4 inch tarts, I used a heaping 1/3 cup of filling in each... and then baked off any remaining pumpkin custard in ramekins. The center of the pie should just barely jiggle when you tap the pans, the edges should be set, and a thin knife inserted at the centers should come out cleanly.

Let the tarts cool fully before digging in. I like to think that it lets everything "marry" nicely. Of course you can eat them how you wish. Serve plain, or with barely sweetened whipped cream and a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts, or with ice cream.

Pumpkin Pie Spice (adapted from Kathy FitzHenry, via 101 cookbooks)
  • 1 T. cassia (Saigon) cinnamon
  • heaping 1/2 t. allspice
  • 1/4 t. cloves
  • 1 1/2 t. ground ginger
Dorie's Pate Sablee: (Baking: From My Home to Yours)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk
Put the flour, confectioners' sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine.

Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in--you should have some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas.

Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses--about 10 seconds each--until the dough, whisk will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. You may need to add a tiny bit of ice water if the dough doesn't stay together when pinched.

(You can gather the dough up into a ball, and gently knead it out into a disk, then roll on a floured surface like a traditional pie dough. But, it also works to simply pat it out into the tart shell.)

I'm a glutton for Cassia cinnamon. I first tasted it's spicy, red hot related flavor at the Spice House, and ever since I have to stock both "True Cinnamon" and Saigon Cassia Cinnamon in my spice pantry. It is so addicting, a fully unique cinnamon experience. I made these tarts a couple of different times this week, and dusted some with extra cinnamon, as my Mom also does, for looks and for extra spicy cinnamon kick.

I'm sure these are just the first of the pies to take me through to the new year. I have a couple of pie pumpkins that need the roasting and puree treatment, something I generally leave to Libby's since I actually really like the flavor of canned pumpkin.

It's not too often that I like some prepared and out of a store-bought can, but canned pumpkin is one of those things, and as this FoodinJars post reminds us, it isn't advisable for home canning in any form anyway. So, go ahead and add a sauteed leek or onion, maybe some celery and a carrot, (chile flake of course) and in mere moments your can of store pumpkin can turn into a lovely soup. Pancakes and muffins too, all perfectly accepting of a can of pumpkin. I like the cheat once in a while, and with the brevity of Fall in full swing, I'll be sure to indulge frequently.

Oh, Canada: Nanaimo Bars! January 2010 Daring Baker Challenge

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and http://www.nanaimo.ca/.

I had never heard of Nanaimo bars, or even of Nanaimo, BC Canada. I also was unaware that some people actually detest these bars and even chose to sit this month out. Being from the Midwest, where bar-making is somehow an inherent gene, I was more than excited to make them. I pretended to not be so excited to eat them, since there was well over a half pound of butter in one 9x9 baking dish... but they were delicious, and completely worth the splurge. (It also helps that I was able to give half the pan to Maeckel, and that they freeze like a miracle!)

I actually
did this challenge on the 8th of the month, instead of waiting until the last second - which has sadly become my usual habit. Though Lauren chose to use gluten-free ingredients (her recipe is here), I opted to use my pantry staples. As I grow in experimentation of the gluten-free universe, I may try these graham crackers again using rice flour and the like. But for this challenge, I used the 101 Cookbooks recipe which is actually Nancy Silverton's.

I adore Nancy Silverton, and credit her for my original love of baking bread. Though, I don't follow her rather labor intensive approach, reading all about her method a few years ago was fascinating, and obviously the stuff of passion that is absolutely infectious. You can tell that dough runs in her veins. Ordinarily, I wouldn't even consider altering a proportional baking recipe of hers, such as this one for graham crackers, but I did - since I wanted to use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose.

I did use the food pro to mix everything up, and since I used the wheat flours, I knew I would need more liquid. Fortunately, there were verbal clues as to how this dough should feel: very soft and sticky. I simply added a splash of half and half and pulsed until the dough looked appropriate enough to me. Then I dutifully stashed it in plastic and placed it under cold storage for 2 hours as recommended. When it came to the rolling, however, I did not refrigerate the cut crackers for 30 minutes prior to baking as recommended. I simply don't have space in my fridge for half-sheet pans unless it is completely empty. Happily, it worked just fine!

Whole Wheat Graham Crackers (by way of 101 Cookbooks, Nancy Silverton and Rebecca Gagnon)
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur Flour)
  • 1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour (KAF)
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. kosher salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1 inch slices and frozen
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • 5 T. milk (I used the 1% I had on hand)
  • 2 T. vanilla extract (this is the main flavor component, so try not to skimp!)

Combine flour, sugar, soda and salt in a food pro - or a stand mixer with paddle attachment. (If using the stand mixer, I'd probably cut my pieces of butter a bit smaller before freezing them.) Pulse (or mix, if using the stand mixer) to blend, and then add frozen butter. Pulse or mix until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Mix honey, milk and vanilla and add at once to the dry mixture. Pulse or mix until a dough comes together, using a couple of T.'s more of milk or half and half to make the dough feel soft and somewhat sticky.

Form into a disk about an inch thick and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350. Divide dough in two halves, and roll out to about 1/8 of an inch, and cut into squares using a pizza roller or fluted pastry wheel. Gather scraps and set aside. Transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment and bake 12-15 minutes until browned. They will continue to harden as they cool. (I actually re-baked some of my first batch when they were not crisp enough after cooling, and it worked fine.) Re-roll any scraps and cut into squares or use cutters to make shapes. If you prefer crackers with a cinnamon sugar topping, sprinkle the mixture on the crackers prior to baking... you may use the proportion 1 t. cinnamon to 3 T. granulated sugar.

I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping, since I knew there would be plenty of sugar in my finished product. The square crackers above were the first rolling, using plenty of AP flour to prevent sticking. Don't be shy with the flour either, since it is extremely sticky, especially since I did the additional liquid by feel. I made a second batch of crackers later in the month, complete with cinnamon sugar dusting, and didn't add quite as much additional milk. Still sticky! Fortunately, the texture is the only thing that changes with additional rollings and additional flour on the board. I like them both ways equally.

The stars were the very last rolling, scraps really, and were probably my favorites since they were nice and crisp. Graham crackers have officially made the list of things I'll never buy again.

No complaints from my taste tester, either. We now have a graham cracker spread with peanut butter nearly every day for a snack. One day, I had some leftover MonkeyShake (bananas, milk, honey and cocoa powder), and happened to eat a graham cracker spread with peanut butter while I was drinking it... I don't even need to tell you how good that was!

The second batch later in the month. I need to invest in a fluted pastry wheel, since I used a fluted french fry cutter, and it wasn't working so well.

So, now on to the actual bars! As if the graham crackers alone aren't worth their weight in gold for this month's challenge, I now knew that bars made with them had to be wonderful. You can, of course, make them using regular store-bought graham cracker crumbs, but what fun would that be? The Nainaimo link above has the recipe.

When I began my melting of a whole stick of butter together with sugar and cocoa powder, I knew that I was going to be in for something special. Everything is heated in the top of a double boiler, and when hot and melted, an egg is added. It's startling to see how thick the hot mixture becomes. It is then added to a mixture of unsweetened coconut, ground almonds and a cup and a half of fresh graham cracker crumbs and pressed into a baking dish.

I chilled it well at this point, before adding my other two layers. After an hour or so, I mixed up the mostly butter "frosting" layer for the middle.

After sitting another hour or so, I melted the now small amount of butter - 2 T. - with 1 oz. of bittersweet chocolate for the ganache top. I had to spread quickly since I had such a firm and cold base, and the chocolate was cooling very fast.

My only mistake was trying to cut the bars too soon out of the fridge. I was eager, after all, to taste these. They were ragged and tasty, though not nearly as professional and texturally pleasing as the ones I cut after sitting at room temperature for 30 minutes. All of the butter in the middle layer became infinitely more palatable, and the whole bar tasted like the most amazing and luxurious candy bar you've ever had. These are rich, and one bar certainly will hold you for a while.

I was secretly glad my Husband knew there was coconut in them and wouldn't even take a bite... he dislikes it except for, strangely enough, in curry. I served them when Maeckel came for dinner, and then sent some along with him. The rest popped into the deep freeze. I have only 2 left, that I'm still saving for some dessertless occasion. One bar on the counter at room temperature thaws in about 3o minutes - not a bad wait for bar perfection!

Thank you to Lauren for this month's challenge! I'm glad to know of Nainamo, BC Canada, and of these bars of legend. This challenge did make me stop and think a bit more about food allergy. I am becoming increasingly perplexed with the amount of food allergy in the world, and secretly wonder if all this genetic modification and chemical application in our agriculture is partially to blame. I am thankful that should food allergy arise, there are inspired people working on ways to make an "eggless" egg so to speak, and the creative abilities of trial and error home cooks out there are astounding. Whatever your allergy or food preference, you can rest assured that a baker somewhere is tirelessly at work so that you can enjoy something sweet on occasion. What a comforting thought that is!