Friday, November 23, 2007


Pear Crisp

It is Thanksgiving in the United States of America, my second home. My angelheart Eric returned to LA yesterday after a heavenly 8-day sojourn in New Zealand, which was far too short. Although terribly depressed, as anyone is when apart from his or her most loved one, I am thankful that he was able to come over and spend some time with me, for it may not be months now until we next see each other.

As is typical in a state of sadness, I felt the need to bake. I also wanted to contribute something to the Thanksgiving table. Of course, we don't have cans of pumpkin purée lining our supermarket shelves in New Zealand - at least, not typically - and butternut squash is not in season, so I couldn't make any purée for myself. I headed to the market for other American favourites in the Autumn: pears and pecan nuts.

I first had pecans by way of the infamous Southern delight: pecan pie. Pandoro Panetteria in Parnell (on the inner-city fringe of Auckland) used to make a nutty and sweet pecan pie. I adored its custard filling made with both brown and white sugar. I say this in past tense because I haven't had one for years and don't know if they still make it. I should stop by. It is criminal that I never had one in all of my years (and Thanksgivings) in the USA - or, at least, I didn't have one that I remember.

I do like pecans a great deal, though. I love their oval shape and the ridges cracked into their maple-to-deep brown skin. Pecans are rich in flavour, particularly of butter, which is perfectly heightened with any recipe that involves melted or brown butter. Storing them isn't terribly difficult. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, shelled pecans should be refrigerated or frozen. They need to be kept away from air and light as they have a high oil content; exposure to heat will quickly make the pecan's natural oil go rancid.

Thanksgiving is a time of year that is associated with all things richly hued. This is the season in which I never seem to tire of the clichés that are presented in store fronts or on magazine covers, where everything is brown, orange and burnt red. Deep in a sepia haze, one can be forgiven for wondering what it's like to see "normal" again. Of course, I don't find it suffocating or overwhelming because I don't have the cultural associations that go along with it, whether it be dealing with the emotions caused by family hysteria or by a post-colonial reality. But bring it on: roasted squash, braised mustard greens, carrot puree, fennel gratin, roast turkey (first brined then stuffed with citrus), toffee apples, maple ice cream, brown butter sauce, dark cups of coffee, pumpkin pie, and, of course, all the nuts of the fall: hazelnuts, chestnuts, and pecans...

Pear Crisp
(Adapted from the Brown-Sugar Apple Cake recipe in Martha Stewart Living, October 2006)

95 1/2g (3 1/3oz) butter, melted
2 medium pears (I used Bosc), approximately 2/3 kg (1 1/2lb)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar, any colour depending on desired depth of flavour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
2/3 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

1) Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
2) Butter a loaf pan. Mine measures 22 x 13cm (8 1/2 x 5").
3) Peel, core and cut pears into 1cm (> 1/3" but < 1/2") slices. You can dice them, if you prefer a neater presentation when the crisp is inverted after the initial cooling period once baked.
4) Add sliced pears to a medium bowl and toss them with the cinnamon, nutmeg and granulated sugar.
5) Spread the spicy pear slices on the bottom of the loaf pan.
6) In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, flour and salt.
7) Add the egg and butter and whisk until just combined.
8) Stir in the pecans.
9) Pour batter over the spicy pear slices.
10) Bake until the top is a maple brown and a skewer comes out clean, approximately 35 minutes. I checked after 25 minutes and poured out any excess butter that was bubbling on top.
11) Let cool slightly on a rack.
12) Use a knife around the edges of the loaf pan to loosen and invert.
13) Cut into squares or cut across into slices.

The base is chewy and redolent of the butteriness imparted by the pecans, the toasted pieces of which full each mouthful with warmth. The soft slices of pear are spicy in the most comforting of ways - What would Thanksgiving be without spices?

To my angelheart Eric and all my wonderful American friends:
Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thursday, November 08, 2007


Dense Chocolate Cake

I thought that I was like most people, which is to say: I thought that I was a chocolate-lover. This year has taught me that I don't especially care for it in all forms, mostly because I don't think it is always accented enough. My angelheart Eric will tell you that I scoff chocolate biscuits (cookies) if they're around, and he'd be right. But that is only because they are in the pantry, from which I have taken many a biscuit. It's not a chocolate addiction, but a habit of snacking when I need a break from trying to read and write my thesis.

In its least overworked form, which is to say melted with cream and formed into a truffle, chocolate can satisfy me. But I think that my favourite use of chocolate is in a cake or pudding. I love it to be rich in chocolate goodness and never diluted of flavour. Too many flavourings are a bad thing in my books when it comes to cooking with chocolate - and though I am sad to say it, I don't often go in for fancy truffles that incoporate every ingredient under the sun (I might however be attempted to try some of Vosges' delights, following the review by Garrett of Vanilla Garlic). I find that even a small amount of freshly ground coffee heightens the flavour of the chocolate. And I am a sucker for pairing brandy with chocolate. (I'm sure, by now, you have seen that brandy is my preferred plonk with which to bake and cook.)

You can melt chocolate on a stovetop or in a microwave. If you are going to use your stovetop, a double-boiler will need to be constructed out of a saucepan and a non-reactive bowl. Bring water in the saucepan to a boil then turn down to simmer. Place a bowl over the saucepan, into which is placed the chocolate. The bottom of the bowl should never touch the water. Chocolate melts at 30 C/95 F but burns, splits and cannot be used if it reaches or surpasses a temperature of 50 C/120 F.

Dense Chocolate Cake
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess)

225g/1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 2/3 cups brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
120g bittersweet (70%) chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon coffee, freshly ground
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon brandy

1) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
2) Butter and line your baking vessel. A 23 x 13cm/9 x 5" loaf pan is ideal. I used a 24cm/9" springform cake pan. I have one loaf pan, which is half the dimensions, and I didn't not want to halve the recipe for fear of seeming miserly. I couldn't think quickly enough as to what I would do with the remainder of the batter, save for eating it (I'm not above eating raw egg and flour - goodness only knows how often I ate the biscuit dough when mum wasn't looking), hence the springform pan. Place baking vessel on a lined baking sheet in case there is a bit of spillage.
3) Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.
4) Beat eggs in well.
5) Fold in the melted and slightly cooled chocolate until blended, but do not overbeat because there is still more folding to come.
6) Combine coffee, flour and bicarbonate of soda.
7) Add flour and bicarb mix by the spoonful to the chocolate mix alternately with a spoonful of boiling water. This takes a while to do, folding with each addition, but it only requires patience, not technical prowess.
8) Stir in the brandy.
9) The batter will have the appearance of swamp mud - that is to say, it will look quite liquid.
10) Pour into prepared baking vessel.
11) Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 163 C/325 F to bake for a further 15 minutes.
12) The loaf will not pass a skewer test, for it is meant to be quite damp in the centre, but the outside should look done.
13) Cool completely on a rack before opening the springform pan or turning it out, if in a loaf pan.

If using a loaf pan, the cake will sink in the middle because it is damp in the centre. The photo to the left should give you an indication of that. However, the top is fairly crisp, adding a textural contrast to the interior. As much as I love brandy, any more would have been overkill; one tablespoon is enough for the cake to be slightly boozy, making it acceptable to eat before cocktail hour.

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