Hot and Cold… and Caramel

22 11 2010

A few weeks ago, Jenni of Pastry Methods and Techniques posed an interesting challenge.  She wanted to play with hot and cold, temperatures and flavors.  I love this sort of game.  Let’s see, cold custard… crème caramel is one of the easiest and tastiest ones I know.  Now how can we warm it up?  This being Fall, warm spices like cinnamon and ginger immediately spring to mind.  (I considered star anise, but upon sticking my nose in the jar, I decided that anise/licorice is a distinctly cool flavor.)  So we have a warm-tasting cold thing, how about a cool-tasting warm thing to go with it?  I think pears are on the cool end of the flavor spectrum, so to speak, but if we cooked them with butter and sugar until they were caramelized and a little sticky?  Then they would be hot, and awesome on top of a creamy dessert.

An autumnal caramel palette

And are they ever!  The spiced crème caramel has an almost pumpkin pie-like flavor, the caramel makes it decadent, and the pears keep it from going overboard.  Personally, I think these would make a great Thanksgiving dessert, as long as you don’t have any die-hard traditionalists at your table.  And maybe even if you do – it’s good enough to change some minds.

I’m very interested to see what other people have come up with in response to Jenni’s challenge, so it’s fortunate that she’ll be posting a roundup of hot-and-cold inspired desserts on December 1st.  Which means you still have time to play along, if you’re so inclined.

Spiced Crème Caramel with Hot Caramel Pears

Warm spices, cold, creamy custard, hot pears and a double dose of caramel make this darn near my ideal Fall dessert. It would be right at home at the end of an elegant holiday meal. As a bonus, it’s completely do-ahead: the custard needs time to chill, and the pears can be reheated in a snap.

For the Crème Caramel:

9 oz. / 265 ml milk (whole is best, 2% is ok, but please not skim)
3 oz. / 89 ml cream
3 Tbsp. Brown sugar
2 Tbsp. Sugar
1 stick cinnamon
2 whole cloves
A few flakes of whole mace, if you can get it, or a few grates of fresh nutmeg
1 piece of crystallized ginger, sliced
A pinch of salt (I used vanilla salt, which is salt with a vanilla bean scraped into it)
3 eggs
½ cup sugar, or thereabouts, plus some water.

  1. Preheat the oven to 330 F / 165 C.
  2. Combine the milk, cream, sugar, spices, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring up to a boil, remove from heat, cover, and let steep 15-30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put the sugar in a small pan and add just enough water to moisten it. Place over medium-high heat and cook without stirring until it begins to brown. Swirl it gently until it is a deep amber color (or even darker – I like mine when it just starts to smoke). Quickly pour a thin layer of caramel into the bottom of five ramekins. Set aside.
  4. Strain the spiced milk into a blending-appropriate container, add the eggs, and blend until smooth. Pour this custard into the prepared ramekins.
  5. Place the ramekins into a large oven-proof dish. Put the dish in the oven, then fill it with hot tap water until the water level is about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custard is just set (it should wobble a bit in the middle when jostled), about 30-35 minutes. Cool completely. These can be made up to four days in advance, but keep them covered and chilled.

For the pears:

3 ripe Bosc pears, peeled, halved, and cored
2 Tbsp. / 30 g unsalted butter
½ cup / 100 g sugar

  1. Melt the butter in a medium nonstick skillet. Add the sugar and cook until the sugar starts to melt.  Place the pear halves in the sauce and cook over medium-low heat, turning occasionally, until evenly caramelized. Serve immediately or chill and reheat.

For the dessert:

To unmold the chilled custards, run a thin-bladed knife around the edge. Invert the ramekin onto a plate and shake a bit to loosen. It should come out in a splash of caramel sauce. Top the custards with a warm pear half and a little extra caramel sauce from the pears.

Makes 5 desserts, plus one extra pear half.

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Two of a Pear

21 09 2009

Last week I teased you a bit with the mention of a tarte Belle-Hélène.  Of course it isn’t much of a tease if you don’t know what a tarte Belle-Hélène is.  Just to get everyone up to speed, Belle-Hélène on a French menu signifies pears and chocolate, be it a simple sundae or a fancy entremet.  A tarte Belle-Hélène is basically a variation on the classic pear-frangipane (almond cream) tart, with thick chocolate ganache spread over the pears on the baked tart.  It is one of those great desserts that manages to be both rustic and elegant at the same time.  So that’s what I wanted to make with my first batch of CSA pears.

Docking the dough

It turned out that we had a last-minute dinner invite that weekend, and, as usual, I volunteered to bring dessert.  (Nobody ever seems to mind being a dessert guinea pig.)  I started with a sweet version of the whole wheat pastry crust I raved about earlier this summer.  I parbaked it while poaching some pears in a mixture of white wine, water, sugar, lemon, and vanilla bean.

This smelled absolutely divine!

Prior to the pear prep, I was wishing I had a melon baller (ironic other name: Parisian scoop) for coring the pear halves.  After a few days searching came up fruitless, I realized that with pears as juicy and ripe as these, I could probably get away with using my teaspoon to core them.  And I was right.  Yay for multitasking kitchen tools!  The peeled and cored pear halves were then gently simmered for about 5 minutes, until they were completely tender.  I carefully removed them to a rack to drain.  (I saved the poaching liquid to use again.)

Poached pears all in a row.

Then I set about making the filling for the tart.  Traditionally, it is made with almond frangipane, but I thought that hazelnuts would be a delicious twist on the classic.  So I made hazelnut cream – a straightforward ratio of equal parts butter, sugar, hazelnut meal, and egg – instead.  I spread it into my baked, cooled tart shell, and sliced up the pears in order to fan them out in an attractive manner over the tart.  Like so: Read the rest of this entry »





One of a Pear

16 09 2009

Ye olde CSA panier has been keeping me flush in pears lately.  After doing it up one weekend with a tarte Belle-Hélène (stay tuned…) I wanted something simple the next.  With the weather starting to cool off, warm spices sounded like just the thing to enhance the luscious, buttery pears.  And the idea of putting them in a coffee cake made me anxious for the weekend.

Pears in the afternoon sun

Trying to decide on a coffee cake recipe, I was flipping through Ratio, wondering whether coffee cake was more like muffins or poundcake, when I caught a glimpse of Beyond Nose to Tail.  Remembering the rhubarb crumble cake I cooked from it last spring, I thought that recipe would be a good jumping-off point.  I changed it quite a bit, from the flour (self-raising?  come on, it’s not that hard to add baking powder and salt to flour) to the sugar (brown sugar and pears make each other happy) to the liquid (wanted to use crème fraîche – maybe I was out of milk, maybe I just wanted something richer, with a hint of tang) and even the scale (only two eggs in the house, plus my loaf pan is on the small side).  But in the end, the cake was delicious.  The texture was spot-on, with just a hint of heady spice to complement the sweet pears.  Breakfast was well worth the wait.

Spiced Pear Coffee Cake

 Spiced Pear Coffee Cake 

This cake is excellent with a cup of coffee, making it equally suited to breakfast and dessert.  It’s great on its own for breakfast or a snack.  For dessert, dress it up a little: lightly toast slices of cake and serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

For the pears:
350g / 12.5 oz. pears, peeled, cored, and diced
1 Tbsp. raw sugar (turbinado or cassonade)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Squeeze of lemon juice (to keep the pears from going brown)

  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and let marinate while you prepare the cake.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 C / 350 F.

For the streusel:
85g / 3 oz. all-purpose flour
65g / 2¼ oz. unsalted butter, cold, cubed
40g / 1½ oz. brown sugar
20g / ¾ oz. almond meal (or just use that much more flour)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Hefty pinch of fine sea salt

  1. Mix all ingredients in an electric mixer with a paddle attachment until a clumpy dough forms.  Alternatively, you can rub in the butter with your fingers.

For the cake:
105g / 3¾ oz. cake flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. fine sea salt
85g / 3 oz. unsalted butter, softened
45g / 1½ oz. brown sugar
40g / 1½ oz. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
35g / 1¼ oz. crème fraîche or sour cream

  1. Did you remember to preheat the oven?  Also, butter a 23cm / 9” loaf pan and line the bottom and long sides with parchment paper.  (Bonus tip: if you leave some paper hanging over the sides of the pan, it is super easy to pull out the baked cake!)
  2. Sift together the cake flour, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Cream the butter and sugars until fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well in between additions.  The mixture may look a little broken, but don’t worry.  Beat in the vanilla.
  4. Add half of the sifted flour and give it a couple of quick stirs.  Mix in the crème fraîche, then the rest of the flour, stirring just to combine.
  5. Spread half of the cake batter (it will be fairly thick) in the bottom of the prepared loaf pan.  Top with half the pears and half the streusel.  Repeat.
  6. Bake about an hour, rotating the pan halfway through to ensure even cooking.  When a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, the cake is done.  Cool 10 minutes in the pan, then take it out to finish cooling (you may need to loosen the non-papered ends with a knife).  Serve warm or at room temperature. 
  7. Wrap any leftover cake in foil.  It will keep about two days.

Makes 1 loaf, serving about 6.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Polenta, Two Ways

18 04 2008

I recently discovered a number of shops nearby which sell beans, grains, and so on in bulk from large sacks.  Apart from the quaintness of it all, you can get some really cheap staples as well as some cool, harder-to-find items.  I had been harboring a latent polenta hankering for a while, and when I walked into the first of these shops (which also happened to have the smallest selection, it turns out) I was struck by the variety of different sizes available for each grain.  Not only is the polenta at the grocery store expensive, it’s downright powdery.  I prefer a coarser grind, both for flavor and texture.   So I was delighted to find a range of different cornmeal grinds.  I bought two bags, one very coarse, one medium.

The dish I had in mind was an Italian-style braised chicken with spring vegetables, namely fennel.  I got some cheap chicken leg quarters from a butcher and brought them home to cook.

Browning the chicken

The first step in any good braise is to get the meat nice and brown to build up the fond.  Once my chicken legs were deeply bronzed on both sides, I moved them to a plate to cool so I could remove the skin.  (Chicken skin makes for some tasty fond, but you don’t want all that extra grease in your final dish.)  I added sliced onion and fennel to the still hot pan and used the moisture released to scrape up the browned bits.

Sweating the vegetables

I also added salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and dried oregano to the pot.  While the vegetables softened, I went about the slippery task of removing the skin from the chicken leg quarters.  Once they had been denuded I returned them to the pot, along with a can of diced tomatoes, some red wine, and water to just about cover everything.

Braising the chicken

There were probably a couple cloves of garlic and a bay leaf thrown in somewhere along the way.  I partially covered the pot and turned the heat to low to let it simmer while I cleaned up the mess I had made so far and got the polenta going.  The beauty of braising chicken is that it takes about half as long as pork or beef, so you can have a really flavorful stew in about an hour and a half.

For the polenta I followed the recipe I’ve been using since culinary school.  Cream, stock, salt, white pepper, polenta.  I chose the medium polenta because I was hungry and figured it would cook faster.

Perfect polenta, every time.

While the polenta was simmering, I removed the chicken from the pot and pulled the meat off the bones.  This didn’t take much effort, as the chicken was nice and tender by this point.  I also reduced a little balsamic vinegar on the stove and stirred that into the stew with the chicken pieces.

This is really just a variation on a recipe I often make in the winter, with Swiss chard added at the end and no fennel.  It came out every bit as good as I had hoped, and was the perfect meal for a rainy evening.

Braised Chicken and Fennel with Soft Polenta

But I still had plenty of polenta…

Read the rest of this entry »








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