I have to admit that I haven’t done any Christmas baking this yet. And it probably won’t happen until Christmas. Wait, that’s not true. There will be my mom’s Swedish cinnamon buns on Christmas Day and snickerdoodles over the weekend. Usually I am the poster child for Santa’s bakery, if there ever was one. I’ll be cooking Christmas dinner (well late lunch for us) and will be making a sticky toffee pudding cake (F&W Dec 15 issue). Probably because I like saying sticky toffee pudding with the voice of Kermit The Frog or Gollum.
I did bake a few things despite my lack of holiday baking. Mostly cakes and pies that were devoured as fast as they were coming out of the oven. Almost. During our last workshop a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that I could not turn galettes fast enough for dessert for the attendees! I’ve had a hard time resisting fall and winter fruits at the market. Apples, seckel and forelle pears, kumquats, cranberries. They all ended in my basket at some point.
It’s no secret that I do love making (and eating) tarts. I grew up watching my grandmother making loads of them on a regular basis and even more around Christmas time. Her tart fillings were simple and straightforward, always letting the fruit take center stage. Sometimes, there was a supporting actor such as a custard base, lemon curd or frangipane. If I had to choose which one I favor the most, I honestly could not. I love the pillowy softness of a vanilla custard, the acidulous tickle of a lemon curd and the tantalizing taste of an almond filling.
Pears and frangipane go hand in hand like good company and a good meal. They never outplay each other. A classic combination that everyone in my family enjoys. A bit of vanilla bean added to the frangipane never hurts either.
I hope the holidays treat you well and are a source of comforting meals with friends and family.
It’s never easy to find balance this time of year but a slice of pear frangipane tart and a glass of wine might just do that!
Yesterday, I packed a change of clothes, the 16 year-old pup and we headed down to Charleston for the weekend. I almost said, "home to Charleston" but home has become this "in between" where my heart resides. Charleston will forever be home. This is where I fell in love. With him. With the South. With this incredibly puzzling time of history. With a city living at a sound of a very peculiar beat. Where unbelievable friendships formed and tested time, growth and loss.
Yet, there is not much of what people would consider a home remaining for us in Charleston. Our house there is now empty and Bill moved in with his parents for the time being. But we have a home. We have multiples. They are not made of wood or stone. They have been build with our hearts, our stories, our tears and worries, our joys and laughters. While I could become completely nostalgic and sad of times passed, I just take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have made a home of wherever we are together, regardless of wherever is.
Everytime I make the drive down to Charleston, my heart stops in its track at the first sign of marsh land and tall grass. There is a definite look to that part of the world. It lures you, grabs you and never lets go of you. I do miss sunsets and sunrises over the marsh. At the same time, I have fallen completely in love with the luscious foliage of Birmingham, the drives up and down the hills of the city, the genuine kindness of the people there. I was dragging feet getting out of the house yesterday morning to get down here. I felt home. I was going to the other home.
Home is truly where the heart is and I am incredibly lucky to be able to call both places home.
There is something that will always make me feel anchored to a new place and that is baking. The simple act of putting a cake in the oven and being rewarded with the scents of vanilla, pears and cake batter is enough to make anyone feel good anywhere. I could be in my grandparents' home and making an apple tart with my grandmother or with my mother next door making madeleines. I could be here or there and I would feel the same. Grounded.
If making a simple cake is any reflection of the life I lead, well, I made this cake at home in Alabama and took it home to Charleston to be shared this morning around the breakfast table at my in-laws. I am happy and comfortable in my own skin wherever I am. And right now this wherever is "in between". And I will always make a good simple cake to remind me of that (Recipe after the jump).
It’s been a week of catching up here since New Year. Catching up on family, catching up on friends, emails, snail mail, thank you notes, love notes. The holidays have been so busy and wonderful that every bit of everyday is truly dedicated to organizing. At the end of the day, feeling both mentally spent and elated, we welcome a little break and a treat.
It does not have to be anything fancy or sweet. Sometimes it’s just a slice of bread and some honey, a couple of cookies, a piece of bread and a cracker, etc… Sometimes, it’s a treat I made specifically for a tea break. Sometimes, like the other day, it was pulling ends and pieces together to make something utterly scrumptious: Pear and Almond Frangipane Tartelettes.
On New Year’s day I made all the traditional Southern foods since my in-laws were coming over such as ham, black eyed peas, collard greens, biscuits, etc..I also added one of my family’s traditions by making a galette des rois with gluten free puff pastry. I know I was a few days early, but that’s how it goes in my family because of everyone’s travel and work schedule during the holidays. At least, we make time to gather, eat a piece of galette and have a glass of Champagne to toast the new year.
This NY Day, I made more frangipane than I actually used in the galette so I parked it the fridge. I did consider eating it with a spoon as it was if you must know. There is something about frangipane that is just creamy enough and rich enough to make me forget reason…
It took a couple of extra days and I had all the elements necessary to make proper (read dignified) use of the frangipane. Some very ripe pears, some pastry dough saved over from making quiche and these little tartelettes were born. We barely waited until they were cool enough to share one during a little mandatory work break.
I am just very sad we are both starring at the last one right now! Have a great weekend!
Pear and Almond Frangipane Tartelettes:
Makes six to eight 3.5-inch tartelettes or one 9-inch tart
For the crust:
5 tablespoons (70gr) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup (80gr) superfine rice flour
1/2 cup (60gr) millet flour
1/4 cup (30gr) sorghum flour
1/4 cup (40gr) corn starch (or tapioca flour)
2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup cold water or milk
For the frangipane:
1 stick (115 gr) butter, softened
1/3 cup (115gr) honey
1 cup (100 gr) ground almonds (blanched, slivered, whole, your call)
1/4 cup (60gr) heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
3 medium pears, cored, halved and thinly sliced (I left the skin on but feel free to peel them before hand)
Prepare the crust:
In a mixer, whip the butter on medium speed until light and airy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time and beating well after each addition. Mix until incorporated. Add the salt, and all the different flours, and mix briefly. Add some water or milk, one tablespoon at a time if the dough feels too dry. Dump the whole mixture onto a lightly floured (use more rice flour) board and gather the dough into a smooth ball. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat oven to 350F and position a rack in the center.
When the dough is nice and cold, roll it out on a lightly floured board or in between two sheets of plastic to fit your prefered pie pan or eight 3.5-inch tart rings. If the dough tears while you roll or/and transfer into the pan, just patch it with your fingertips. Line the dough with a piece of parchment paper, fill with pie weights or dy beans and par bake for 10 minutes until almost partially baked. Remove the weights and parchment paper. At this point you can refrigerate the baked crust for up to 5 days before using. Let cool while you prepare the filling.
Prepare the frangipane:
Place the butter, honey, ground almonds, and the eggs in a large bowl and whisk until smooth (can also be done in a food processor). Add the cream and cardamom but stir in it instead of whisking not to emulsify it or it will rise while baking.
Assemble and bake:
Divide the frangipane among each tart rings, add a few slices of pears right on top (no need to push them through) and bake for about 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
We like ours with creme fraiche and a bit of vanilla sugar.
As I was making this tart for Shauna’s Gluten Free Thanksgiving Baking Round Up, I started reflecting on how much I enjoyed being an expat in America around the holidays. I now have an entire second family, a tight group of friends and handful of added occasions to celebrate new traditions and holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc… Even Christmas in B’s family is light years away from mine. Starting with the food of course.
I did not grow up around pumpkin pie, pecan pie or double crusted apple pie but like anyone entering another family, expat or not, there are new traditions I have come to love. Some I have been privileged to make my in-laws discover as they let me bring my own creations to their tables. One of these dishes was my grandmother’s Tarte Fine Aux Pommes. She was famous for it. And for good reason. One of the simplest and yet most aromatic and satisfying thin crusted pie I have ever had.
She’d start by making a very basic applesauce with heirloom and very tart apples, a bit of cardamom, and lemon. She’d then layer it at the bottom of a very thin pate brisee crust and top the tart with thin slices of fresh apples. It was thin on all counts, rustic and absolutely amazing. The textures, fragrances. That bit of crunch from the crust, the oozing applesauce underneath and the pretty slices of apples on top. A feast for all senses.
When Shauna sent out an email to put together a massive round up of gluten free baking recipes for Thanksgiving, my head started spinning. Wow! Thanksgiving was indeed so close and I felt like I was already one train wagon behind! But it is indeed necessary to start such a big round up filled with so many options for baked treats for the holidays. Whether you are gluten free or need to bake gluten free for someone coming to break bread at your table, that round up provides you with so many delectable options.
Go check it out on Shauna’s blog. It’s awesome. And tempting. And delicious.
I first thought about making pumpkin pie but it’s not our true favorite to celebrate. We tend to like apple pie and tarte tatin, tarte fines and the like. Instead of using apples like my grandmother, I chose one of my favorite Autumn fruit, Forelle pears. They are juicy and fragrant. Cute as can be and one fits in my pocket quite perfectly…
I was going to go with Shauna and Danny’s recipe for Asian Pear Tart in their book but the Asian pears were literally the size of mini watermelons so I substituted Forelle pears and instead of making applesauce like Grandma would have, I followed Shauna’s directions to use apricot jam. I knew there was a reason I was holding on to that last of homemade apricot jam from this summer! You don’t have to go that extent but don’t skip on the quality is all I’m sayin’…
Did you see the giveaway going there on her blog? Pretty cool, non?! Guess what?…Shauna is graciously giving one copy of their book to one of you guys! Whether you like stories, recipes, tips, challenges, there is something for everyone. There is love to share. Beautiful words, delicious recipes and inspired photography by Lara Ferrroni. A feast for the senses!
All you have to do is leave a comment on this post between now and Sunday November 21st at midnight Easter time, when my better half will draw a winner at random. No anonymous comment, sign an initial, X or a name so I know you are not a robot! One entry per person. Good luck!
Notes: I am writing down the recipe as Shauna and Danny wrote it for their book and adding my changes as I go along. The only reason behind my substituting flours was due to our personal preferences and what I have on hand in the pantry.
For the crust:
1/2 cup sorghum flour – I used millet flour
1/2 cup tapioca four – I used corn flour
1/2 cup potato starch
1/2 cup sweet rice flour
2 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon – I left it out
pinch of salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) frozen butter
1 large egg
1/4 cup ice cold water
6-7 medium Asian pears – I used 10 Forelle pears
1/3 cup sugar – I used 1/4 cup honey
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped – I used 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/3 cup apricot jam
Prepare the tart shell:
Sift together the millet flour, corn flour, potato starch and sweet rice flour into a large bowl. Add the sugar, cinnamon if using and salt. Sift into another bowl (I admit I skipped that part).
Grate the frozen butter directly into the dry ingredients with a medium cheese grater. Work with your fingertips until the dough feels like cornmeal or large pieces of sand.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg and the water together with a fork. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the liquid, and start gathering the dough together with your hands or a fork. Gather the dough into a ball and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.
Butter and flour an 11-inch tart shell (I used 2 rectangular pie shells). Pull the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature a little. Roll the dough between 2 pieces of parchment paper to the approximate size of your tart pan. If the dough tears a little, just piece it back together with your fingertips.
Freeze the tart dough for about 30 minutes.
While the dough is freezing, preheat the oven to 375F. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough, fill with dry beans and blind bake for 15 minutes. Let cool.
Prepare the filling:
Core and peel the pears and toss them with the honey and cardamom (or vanilla bean and sugar if using).
Spread the apricot jam evenly at the bottom of the pie shell and layer the pear slices on top. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and serve with whipped cream if desired.
If you read this from France or are an expat anywhere in the world, you’re probably looking at this picture and thinking "Oh! Helene made Poire Belle Helene!" and move on to the rest of the post. If you had never had such a dessert and read a title like this, you’d think I’d blown a fuse by naming a dessert after myself. And as if that weren’t enough, adding the adjective "belle" to describe it all. Hmmmm….No.
I did not come up with name, heck I did not even liked the dessert this much until in my late twenties! Auguste Escoffier created the Poire Belle Helene in 1870, naming it after one of Offenbach’s operette, La Belle Helene. Yes. 1870. Makes me wish Escoffier had had a blog in 1870. Or a twitter account. I bet his updates would be of the most delectable kind. Seriously.
This is probably one of the core desserts of French cuisine. At least of bistros and restaurants when I was growing up. Funny thing is that I never did make much of it though because it bears only half my name. Indeed, I was born and baptized Marie-Helene like some are named Marie-Louise or Jean-Luc. However computers here in the States don’t seem to recognize hyphens and cut my first name in half. If I was going to be halved somehow, at least I’d get to pick which one, darn it. So I’m Helene. Except when I am in trouble, ehehe!
So, there is part of the little story. Or at least part of the reason why I never really appreciated Poires Belle Helene until well into my twenties. Why this late? I have an aversion for fruits and chocolate combined. There, I said it! I love nuts and chocolate. I love lemon and chocolate. I used to hate all fruits with chocolate. My most least favorite pairing was orange and chocolate. My less least favorite (!) was pear and chocolate.
There is something about the soft fragrance of pears that plays well with chocolate and either brings it forth and mellows it just so. Poached pears and hot chocolate sauce especially. They like each other, it’s obvious. They’re not sure on who should lead though and artfully play that up. And much like two people attracted to each other, poached pears and hot chocolate sauce are kind of the ultimate in sexy when it comes to dessert.
It’s the only fruit – chocolate pairing that enthused me this much. Add a good scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and the combination hot chocolate, cold vanilla, soft fruit just has me weak in the knees. There are indeed moments of bliss to be experienced with the simplicity of certain flavors, textures and temperatures. Poire Belle Helene is just that. Hot and cold, creamy, crunchy, soft. We did a few "hmmmm" and "aaaahhhs" with the first spoonfuls. I even caught one of my friends sashaying her hips around the living room the night we shared these for dinner.
Poire Belle Helene won’t bring on World Peace but I guarantee it’ll make everyone at your dinner table a tad bit happier inside…It won’t cure whatever ails you but it won’t give you a brain freeze. It will just super activate all your senses…
Tiny Forelle pears make it remarkably easy to plate and portion out but you can use any of your favorite pear variety. As I have three major deadlines all coming to a clash for November 1st, this dessert has been the easiest thing to fix myself for a little midnight reward. That’s my sly way of saying "I know I suck big time at posting right now and wait, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It might get worse!…"
Please send chocolate…
Poires Belle Helene – Spiced Poached Pears with Chocolate Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream
For the poached pears:
6 Forelle pears (or other small-ish pears)
2 tablespoon mulling cider spice mix
juice of one lemon
For the chocolate sauce:
4 oz semisweet best quality chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon honey
For the ice cream:
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
1 cup (200gr) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
Prepare the pears:
Place the pears, spice mix, lemon juice and enough water to cover them in a tall saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Lower the heat and let them simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the pears are just soft (poke with a toothpick to check).
Remove from the water using a slotted spoon and allow to cool on paper towel or baking rack.
Prepare the sauce:
Place the chocolate in a non reactive bowl and set aside.
In a heavy saucepan set over medium high heat, bring the cream and honey to a strong simmer. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 5 minutes then slowly stir until the mixture comes together.
Prepare the ice cream:
In a large saucepan, stir together the cream, milk, and sugar. Cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape the inside with the tip of a knife. Add that pulp (the seeds) to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium low heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let steep as it cools to room temperature. Refrigerate, preferably overnight. Strain if desired.
Process the mixture into your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s intructions.
Growing up, my brother and I did not have any kind of special relationship. We did not dislike each other but we did not like each other either. I guess you could say we had one typical brother-sister relationship. I had crushes on his friends just about every week and he found my friends a bit too Strawberry Shortcake for his taste. We had wrestling fights, screaming fights, pillow fights and he often hid in my closet to scare me before bedtime. Typical.
I often wondered if we would ever find some common ground. Some place of understanding. We did find it when our brother passed away. Right there, in front of me, stood a broken man. He was not this "my brother-this pain in the rear" boy anymore. He was in pieces. I was too. And we picked them up together. We held each other up and found each other then. There is no reason why things happen. They just do. And we knew what we had to do then. And we still do it. Our way.
We still don’t call each other that often. Or send cards. Or email. He knows I got his back and he’s got mine. He’s always smart with business and techie advice for me. He loves food and is an amazing cook. He gave me two beautiful and smart nieces.
While chatting on the phone the other day, we were catching up on each other’s work, progress, accomplishments and to hear him say that he was proud of me was the biggest validation of my life. Like Christmas had come in March. There was also a pause. Very unusual if you know the speed of my brother’s conversations. That’s when he dropped a line that I didn’t expect…
"Hey, I really like when you write me a post on your blog for my birthday. I also really like when all your virtual friends come wish me a happy birthday." Silence on my part. A bit surprised that he would admit this. I laughed. Out loud. Then I apologized and promised that, yes, I would post something on his birthday. I virtually made him some (gluten free) Upside Down Pear and Cardamom Cakes that we quickly devoured last night.
As a kid, his birthday dinner would always include frog legs with tons of parley and garlic and a chocolate cake with walnuts and oranges that I was not particularly fond of. I did think about making it for him again as a wink to the past but my mom had brought over the new French Saveur and Elle a Table and I kept coming back to the article on upside down cakes in Elle a Table. So many variations from one simple base that it would have been difficult not to find one that suited everyone.
I adapted the base recipe to make it gluten free and added some cardamom to the ripe pears I used in the cake. There is something about pears and cardamom that is almost magical once baked together. Instead of doing the cakes and the caramel with sugar, I used wildflower honey. I am really enjoying baking with sucanat, honey and maple syrup versus regular granulated sugar these days. So much more fragrant. So many more health benefits too.
The cake was moist from the millet and sweet rice flour, oozying with honey and vanilla bean caramel, and the smell permeating the kitchen was unbelievable. We quickly brewed some fresh coffee and sat down with some cake.
So here’s to you Arnaud! Happy Birthday! Joyeux Anniversaire! Upside Down Pear Cardamom Cakes, adapted from Elle A Table
Makes four 4-inch cake or one 8-inch cake. Serves 6-8
For the honey caramel:
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup water
1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
For the cake batter:
3 pears, peeled and thinly sliced
3 large eggs
1/2 cup (125ml) honey
1 1/2 (160gr) stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 1/2 oz (100gr) superfine sweet rice flour
2 oz (50gr) millet flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Preheat oven to 350F. Line the inside of four 4-inch springform pans or one 8-inch pan with parchement paper. Place the pans on a baking sheet and set aside.
For the caramel:
In a large heavy bottomed saucepan, place the honey, water and vanilla bean seed and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and let the syrup simmer down until thickened, should take 5-8 minutes. Remove from the heat. Divide the caramel among the prepared cake pans.
For the cake:
Divide the pear slices among the bottom of each cake pan and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs and honey on medium speed for about 2 minutes. Slowly add in the melted butter. Add the flours and cardamom and mix until fully incorporated, about 1 minute. Divide the batter in between the pans and bake for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Unmold carefully over a plate. Watch out for the oozing honey caramel.
All weekend long I kept hearing about the snow falling down, heavy and thick in some places, watery and clumpy in some others. Friends here were making hot cocoa and shoveling driveways. My parents back home in France were describing the park in our village as wearing a light dusting of snowflakes. Here, we started to wonder if we would spend Christmas day in shorts like we did last year. Probably not but neither Bill nor I have put on coats yet this year. Indeed, we finally had signs of Fall. In December.
I have long understood that the South beats to a different rythm. It’s in the air. Literally. It suits my personality just fine. Winter breeze at 5am and reddish-brown leaves still falling, blanketing the yard by 5pm. Winter citrus sharing shelf space with Fall pears and apples at the market. I just felt compelled to fill my basket with the juiciest mini d’Anjour pears I could find, go home and make these gluten free Poached Pear and Almond Fallen Souffle Cakes.
One thing I have inherited from my mother and grandmother (beside the all-in-or-nothing temperament) is their love for poaching fruits in the colder month and using them in all sorts of desserts. I don’t really care what the thermometer reads outside lately. I am a bit homesick. It’s the holidays. I’m poaching. As I told Bill "French Christmas carols and lots of poached fruits – deal with it!". His eyes lit up and he replied "let me pull out some pillows and we can cozy up and you can tell me all about all the Christmases of your childhood." Love that man.
Fo us, one of the many joys of being in a relationship is to share just about everything. Even a bad cold. I don’t mind having a cold. I do mind when it hovers between cold and flu with fever, aches and chills but without knocking you down completely. This thing we have been sharing back and forth has been lowering all our levels by 40%-50% or so. It angers the bejesus out of me. Especially a few days before Christmas when there is still a ton to get done and lots of friends to see. But as we sat down with a cup of ginger tea and a warm pear and almond cake, we felt instantaneously better, warmer and happier.
I did convert the recipe to be gluten free to work with my diagnosis (yes, I know, research is still out on that one but I see the rewards of going gluten free and almost sodium free and that’s good enough for me) and I snuck in a whole poached pear instead of a half like my grandmother used to do. However, I know it wasn’t the reason why they rose as high and fell as quick as souffles.
We then changed their names too. The original was more of a scribble on a piece of paper from Mamie reading "Gateaux Amandes et Poires Pochees. Faites attention, ils degringolent" which could be translated as "Almond and Poached Pear Cakes. Watch out, they tumble down". And she was absolutely right. Hence B. felt compelled to rename them – he’s a stickler that way, ahah!
Whichever name you choose, all I know is that they are the perfect cross between a souffle, a cake and a custard. That for a brief moment they stopped my coughing and sneezing and that "Douce Nuit Sainte Nuit" never sounded more beautiful.
That is good enough for me…
Poached Pear And Almond Fallen Souffle Cakes:
Note: you can core the pears from the bottom to about 1 inch from the top with an apple corer but these are so tiny that I just removed the stem button at the bottom. Everything else in the core baked to very soft texture and the seeds were easy to remove while eating (kind of like tails on baked shrimp).
For the poached pears:
6 mini d’Anjou pears, peeled (or other small pears like Forelles or Seckel)
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2-3 cardamom pods
1 stick cinnamon
5-6 allspice berries
1-2 star anise
4 cups (1 liter) water
For the cakes:
3 tablespoons (40gr) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup (190ml) heavy cream
1 cup ground almonds (blanched or skin on – your preference)
1/4 cup (40gr) sorghum flour (or use 1/4 cup all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Prepare the pears:
Place the pears, spices, lemon and water in tall saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Lower the heat and let them simmerfor 15-20 minutes or until the pears are just soft (poke with a toothpick to check).
Remove from the water using a slotted spoon and allow to cool on paper towel or baking rack.
Prepare the cakes:
Preheat the oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle.
Slightly butter or spray 6 ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Set aside.
In the bowl if an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffly (about 3 minutes). Add the eggs, one a time and beat well in between each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla, heavy cream, almonds, flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated. Fill each ramekins about 1/3 full with the batter and place a poached pear in the center.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
I appreciate this time of year when night falls so much earlier. It makes me want to rush home and cozy up with loved ones, a book or a good project. Unlike summer when things are so bright up in my face, I love that Fall and Winter are seasons of shadows and angles with night and day playing cat and mouse so well. So many holidays around the corner. So many friends dropping by, parties hosted and kitchens in full roar. Time to connect and reconnect with people and things. Time to lose half your brain too if you don’t pay attention!
When things get plenty busy, it’s always good to have a few staples in your kitchen repertoire that are not only show stoppers but easy to prepare and make ahead, almost ensuring your guests will ask for more. My holiday staples almost always include cremes brulees, pots de creme, and panna cottas. Among the variations I like on this traditional Italian favorite, these Pomegranate and Caramelized Pear Panna Cottas have come to rank high on the list.
Panna Cotta is said to have originated in the northern region of Italy where dairy is one of the main agricultural productions but spread out to the entire nation and the rest of the world throughout the years. Variations of panna cotta exist in almost every country as it is a very convenient way to use up extra dairy like cream, milk and yogurt. I grew up on Blanc Manger for example which is a close cousin to the creamy silky no-bake Italian custard.
There are many, many reasons to start putting panna cottas on your list of "reliable-good-things-to-make-for-people-I-love." For starters, what is really fun about panna cotta (beside listening to an Italian saying it outloud) is that you can add flavors and ingredients inside, outside, above and below. You can also mix up the choice of dairy to be used as long as you make sure to balance the acidity and fats of each appropriately. You can prepare them up to 48 hours in advance and keep them snuggled up in the refrigerator until ready to eat. You can top them with whatever strikes your fancy that day or what is available during the season. And…they are gluten free!
November is synonymous with pears and pomegranate to me. Where my mother-in-law tries to find the biggest Comice and Bosc pears for cooking, I tend to favor Seckel and Forelles, my absolute smaller favorites. Where she feels like she hit the jackpot with the biggest pomegranate on the shelf, I always dig for the tinier ones. Yes, I like small and tiny anything but for a reason. Almost everything here is bigger than where I am from. Bigger roads, bigger houses, bigger stores and bigger produce which unfortunately doesn’t always mean bigger on taste. I often find that smaller fruits and veggies pack so much more flavor and I’d rather have a small anything full of aroma any day like small servings of creamy and silky Panna Cotta.
Can I say out loud how much I love caramel? If you know me a tiny bit, you know that the mere idea of caramelizing anything gets me moving. When I made these panna cottas for a catered event earlier this week, I kept the base relatively simple with just a touch of vanilla bean and focused more on the toppings. I caramelized some seasonal Forelle pears with just a touch of butter and brown sugar and kept them at room temperature until the guests were ready for dessert. However, when it comes to pomegranate, nothing beats eating them straight out in their natural form. I just love the tart pop that comes with biting into pomegranate seeds. They were just the perfect texture and color contrast to the richness of the panna cottas.
One thing that you can play with and never reach the end of your playtime when it comes to Panna Cottas (beside the flavors) is the combination of dairy you use. Most recipes give you a combination of heavy cream and milk, some add buttermilk or/and yogurt to the mix. All are good, all work…in the proper ratios. If you use more acidic dairy like buttermilk and yogurt (even full fat) make sure to keep twice the amount of heavy cream in the mix. The more acidity is mixed in, the greater risk you run of the base separating into one part cream, one part whey. Nothing to do at this point but to start from scratch. Live and learn. If I can save you a major "Oh no!" and an extra trip to the store, then I’ve done my job!
If you are vegetarian or vegan, panna cottas can still be well within your dessert favorites. You can substitute any of the dairy for their vegetarian or vegan equivalent such as soy, almond, oat, hemp milks or vegetarian cream as long as they are the full fat kind. Panna cottas rely on the addition of gelatin which is a no-no if you are not a carnivore but kosher gelatin is often vegetarian and agar agar and carrageen are often used as substitutes. I am not proficient with any of these but you can find more information in this article on their nature and preparation.
Panna Cottas are pretty much a bottomless well for your tastebuds and imagination.
Pomegranate and Caramelized Pear Panna Cottas:
Notes: I make my own yogurt and used a freshly made batch in this recipe but you can substitute with store bought plain full fat yogurt, just don’t use light, pretty please.
If you are not used to working with gelatin, in all its various forms, I recommend this article written by David Lebovitz. Gelatin won’t be a mystery anymore!
For the panna cottas:
2 tablespoons cold water (more if using sheet gelatin)
2 teaspoons (5gr) unflavored powdered gelatin (1.5 sheets to 2 sheets gelatin)
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
1/3 cup (70gr) sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lenghtwise and seeded
1 cup (250ml) plain whole milk yogurt
For the caramelized pear topping:
1 tablespoon (15gr) unsalted butter at room temperature
2 tablespoons (30gr) light brown sugar, packed
2 Forelle or Seckel pears or one Bosc pear, peeled, cored and cut in small dices
One pomegranate, seeded
Prepare the panna cottas:
Place the water in small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Reserve.
In a large heavy bottomed saucepan placed over medium heat, bring the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla bean seeds to a simmer. When the cream is hot, remove from the heat and whisk in the reserved gelatin until it is completely dissolved. Add the yogurt and whisk until well blended.
Divide the mixture among 8 glasses or ramekins. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes and then refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving to let the cream set properly.
Prepare the caramelized pears:
In a heavy sautee pan set over medium heat, melt the butter and sugar together. When the mixture starts to sizzle, add the pear dices and sautee them until they start to become translucid and a little soft to the touch, about 2 minutes. If you cook them too long, you will end up with pear compote which is good too, but does not have the same biting contrast as barely sauteed pears.
Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Top the panna cottas with some caramelized pears or pomegranate seeds as desired.
When I look out the window, it is hard to imagine that Fall officially starts tomorrow. We have two seasons here more or less, Warm and Hot. Christmas celebrated in a summer dress, well, "it ain’t fittin'. It jes' ain’t fittin'" But there are signs that cannot be mistaken. Night falls earlier, the wind has finally picked up, the pecans are weighing the tree branches down. The light is now giving cold blue undertones, I put the diffuser back up in the studio, my shooting schedule has changed. Most importantly, the oven is buzzing with tarts, custards and cakes like these Double Chocolate And Pear Cakes, a gluten free adaptation of my mother’s recipe.
I like spontaneity as much as I like certain family rituals. One that my folks have back home is to get together for tea time everyday around four or five o’clock. Even now that my grandmother is gone, my mother makes the same one yard walk to my grandfather’s and continues the tradition. One of my fondest memories is always this moment shared around their dining room table right when it is getting darker outside and we cozy up around a slice of cake and a hot cup of tea and chat.
As a kid, I’d sit quietly and listen to a mix of conversations ranging from politics and literature to the more basic questions of what to cook for the next family get together. As a teenager I started taking part by bringing treats of my own like madeleines and langues de chats. As an adult, every time I go home, I just sit quietly and listen, literally captivated by every word they say, every event or family member they talk about. I try to encapsulate those precious moments for the long strips of time I spent away from them.
Comes Fall when my "cozying-it-up" starts to kick in, I make this cake every weekend so that we can have tea and cake like they do back home. I have no idea where my mom got the original recipe, I just found several copies of it in different recipe tins around the house. I love it for the simple reason that you can make it your own with the flavor that you like. October might be cardamom and pistachios, November might give way to almond and vanilla while December might see some colorful candied fruits. Right now it’s pears and chocolate.
After successfully adapting a chocolate tart recipe earlier this month to a gluten version, I thought my favorite cake would be next to become gluten free. The cake was not difficult to adapt using different flours and eggs and butter are there to help ingredients bind and raise properly. I mean, it’s hard to mess things up when there are eggs and butter. I added cocoa powder and melted dark chocolate to the batter and topped each cake with slices of ripe pears. I knew the flours could lend a different, sandy texture to the finished cakes so I slightly underbaked them so they’d remain moist for a couple of days.
I purposely left out any kind of spice this time but I am thinking cardamom for the next cup of tea. I also want to try adapting this gorgeous Olive Oil Cake by Connie and these cute Nutella pound cakes by Dana. I can tell Fall is here…
Double Chocolate And Pear Cakes:
Makes five 3-inch cakes (I used these liners) or one loaf cake.
1 stick (113gr)unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2 oz (60gr) semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
1/4 cup (60ml) buttermilk
1/3 cup (60gr) sweet rice flour
1/3 cup (60gr) sorghum flour (you could use amaranth or quinoa)
OR 1 cup (125gr) all purpose flour instead, if not going gluten free
3 tablespoons (15gr) cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 pear, ripe, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 350F and position a rack in the center. Grease cupcake liners or a loaf pan and place them on a baking sheet. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and creamy, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, scarping the sides of the bowl in between each addition. Add the melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Add the buttermilk and beat, still on low, until incorporated. Add the flours, cocoa and baking powders and beat for 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat for a minute. Pour the mixture into your prepared pan(s) and place the slices of pears on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes for a loaf, 20-25 minutes for individual cakes. Check at the earliest baking time indicated as each oven runs differently and you want to keep the cake(s) moist inside.
On this eve of a brand new year, (edit: I was writing this last night) I have spent a good part of this last week reflecting on the year gone by while helping our best and dearest neighbors move. We dealt with it the only way we have handled life in the past three years on our street: a long table in the backyard, lots of oysters and a bucket of cold beers, all hurdled around a big fire, watching the kids run around, the dogs chase each others and the adult pretend they were still twenty and carefree. No, it wasn’t all rosy but not everything is and as we went around the table and gave personal highlights of the year passed, I exclaimed "It’s been a pretty fantabulastic year!".
Professionaly for sure as I am currently buckling down in finishing the manuscript for the cookbook and working on a couple of surprises for you. But looking at all these friends gathered around the table hugging, laughing and reminiscing, my heart was soring for having formed stronger ties will all of them and all of you in the past year. I love and live hard and you listen…
As a last get together in the tradition of 2008, we each brought our own specialty and as you can imagine, I brought dessert. We decided to go all out and have a pre New Year’s Eve celebration since much like Christmas our little nucleus would be spread out on Wednesday night. Candles and garlands were hung around the yard, Champagne replaced beers and toast and smoked salmon replaced chips and dips. In my family, we share a slice of Galette des Roison New Year’s Day but I decided to change things around keeping the main components of the galette, puff pastry and almond frangipane cream and layering poached quince and pear slices that I had in the freezer. I did tuck in a little ceramic figurine inside one of the tartelette as the tradition calls for and one of us was indeed crowned king that night. Good cheer and good fun.
Poached Pear and Quince Frangipane Tartelettes Recipe:
On a lightly floured board, roll the puff pastry into a 15×6 rectangle, cut out 6 rectangles (5×3). Prick them with a fork, lay them falt on a parchment lined baking sheet and refrigerate while preparing the fruit and the frangipane.
For the poached pear and quince:
1 quince, peeled, cored and sliced
1 pear, peeled cored and sliced
4 cups water
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons lemon zest
In a large saucepan set over medium high heat, place the quince only and the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to cook for about 45 minutes, or until soft. Remove the quince from the liquid and let cool to room temperature. Proceed the same way for the pear but only cook it for 15-20 minutes.
For the frangipane cream:
1 stick (115 gr) butter, softened
1/2 cup (100 gr) granulated sugar
1 cup (100 gr) ground almond
seeds from one vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons vanilla paste or extract
1/4 cup (60gr) heavy cream
Place the butter, sugar, almond powder, vanilla bean seeds and the eggs in a large bowl and whisk until smooth (can also be done in a food processor). Add the cream but stir in it instead of whisking not to emulsify it or it will rise while baking.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Evenly spread the frangipane cream over the puff pastry rectangles and layer the quince and pear slices over it. Sprinkle with chopped almonds or pistachios if desired. Bake for 35-40 minutes.
I am looking forward to 2009! You might see some new and familiar faces come and tend the fort while I wrap things up writing. They illustrate what 2008 has been for me: discovery after discovery of talents, creativity and friendships. A year in which the support and art of others have pushed me to get better, live better, breathe stronger.
You all have made 2008 a wonderful year for me and this site. I will continue to give back to you the best way I can through baking and photographing it of course but also by being more regular on your blogs as soon as things calm down a bit.