Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Lemon Blueberry Scones

Well, that whole “feeling promising” thing really panned out, didn’t it? I could give you a whole list of reasons I didn’t post last week, ranging from puppy to visiting relatives to bad weather, but the simplest and most truthful explanation is lack of inspiration. It happens every now and then: in spite of my dozens of cookbooks and long lists of dish ideas, sometimes I just don’t get excited about making anything. I used to fret about this, but anymore I try to give myself a break. Some weeks I don’t come up with anything I want to cook for dinner, much less anything worthy of posting here; some weeks I have four ideas for the next week ten minutes after I come home from the grocery store.

To get myself back on track I think I’m in need of a little structure. I did so well back in the days of Twelve Loaves because I had loose guidelines to follow and a set deadline (not to mention I was only working part time…). Yes, last year I had my Chopped Challenge project, but I ended up getting stymied on an entrée challenge N. set me because his inclusion of pretzel rolls put me in sandwich blinders. I just couldn’t see a creative approach, and that led to ignoring the prospect completely. That was, perhaps, too strict a guideline. A touch more flexibility is in order for this year.

One of my friends and former colleagues (hi H!) does a weekly baking project that she photographs and posts about on Facebook. This, with its similarity to Twelve Loaves and the reminder that baking was my first love in the kitchen, sparked a glimmer for me. I can’t always come up with a beautiful, delicious, post-able dish, but I can almost always think of something to bake. So we’ll try that for a bit and see if it feels, to quote myself again from a fresh few weeks ago, “promising.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be baking something every week, but it’ll be a bit of a safety net for me to rely on. I’m sure my coworkers and our office staff won’t mind either, since they are usually the ones responsible for preventing N. and me from eating the whole batch.

I learned early in our relocation to southern California that winter is citrus season. That being the case, lemon feels right for January: it’s sour but bright, and its color promises spring to come. Zest and some of the sparkling-sharp juice fit well in so many applications. I love blueberries with lemon, and since they were unexpectedly on sale at my grocery store, that was enough of an inspiration for me. I decided on scones, those not-quite-a-biscuit pastries beloved of a British tea spread. This rendition replaces the usual cream with buttermilk to capitalize on the tang of the lemon zest – the sugar in the dough balances out their combined sourness, and if you still want more sweetness, I’d suggest a glaze of powdered sugar and a dribble of lemon juice to spread or drizzle over the top. You can also add some finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger, if you want sweetness with extra zing. I’ve included suggestions for both in the instructions below.

Holly, my new kitchen helper!

Key to scones is not overworking the sticky mixture. One, continuing to work it makes for tougher scones, as you’ll start to activate the gluten in the flour. Two, the more you mix, the stickier the dough becomes. You want it to just come together, and then make use of a well-floured surface to pat or roll out the dough before quickly slicing and relocating the unbaked scones to a cookie sheet. Don’t worry about perfect shapes; they will be delicious regardless.

N. and I shared one of these while they were still a touch warm, and then immediately shared another one. The outside was just crisp, the interior moist and barely flaky, and the blueberries and lemon play well together. N’s favorite thing about them, though, was the occasional crunch of salt – I used Morton kosher salt rather than everyday table salt, and though these are definitely not salty, once in a while your teeth hit a crystal that didn’t fully dissolve in the oven and it’s a lovely little punch that somehow enhances the flavors of the fruit.

Although scones are best on the first day, just like their biscuit brethren, I found these reheat remarkably well in the toaster oven, regaining a bit of crispness. Then, it’s a simple task to split them in half and spread with butter or clotted cream and some jam, or munch alongside a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit, or just pop straight into your mouth as is.

Lemon Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Makes 16 scones
35-45 minutes
½ cup granulated sugar
zest of two lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (12 tablespoons or 1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6-8 slices for easier integration
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup fresh blueberries, roughly chopped (this was about 6 ounces for me)
optional: ¼ cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and lightly grease or line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest into the sugar between your thumb and fingers. Supposedly this releases essential oils from the zest, so its lemon flavor is enhanced. But more practically, it also makes the zest easier to integrate into the mixture (thus helping to prevent overmixing), so don’t skip this part!
  • Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda with the sugar and zest in the large bowl. Dump in the chunks of butter and use a pastry blender or your fingertips to combine – you are looking for a texture between pea-sized chunks of butter and “coarse meal.”
  • Add in the chopped blueberries, the ginger if using, and the buttermilk, and bring together with a rubber spatula or a fork. The dough might at first feel too dry, but in a minute or two as the buttermilk hydrates the flour it will become sticky and “shaggy.” Knead it by hand two or three times right in the bowl to ensure any dry chunks at the bottom are mixed in.
  • Transfer the ball of dough to a well-floured board, and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to divide it in half. Roll or pat one half into a ¾ inch thick round. With a sharp knife, cut it into 8 wedges. Using a bench scraper or a thin spatula, quickly and confidently move these to one of your prepared cookie sheets, leaving space in between each scone and its neighbors. Repeat with the second half of dough.
  • Bake in your preheated 400F oven for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the scones are beginning to brown and the exterior is set. The moment you remove them they will look underdone. Let them cool a minute or two on the cookie sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. As they cool, they will firm up.
  • Once scones are completely cool, either eat them immediately, or if you wish, whisk together about 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few dribbles of lemon juice to form a thick glaze. You can then spread or drizzle this over the tops of the scones, or dip each scone in for smoother coverage. Let them sit until the glaze hardens, and then get on with your snacking.

 

Winter Risotto

In tenth grade, my English teacher assigned us a journal. Once a week, we were to write an entry about a page in length, and from what I recall it could be about whatever we wanted. Mine usually tended toward flights of fancy, as I wrote about elves or nature or about dreams I’d had. To my current shame but my then-pride, these were typically composed the morning the assignment was due, sometimes only in the class period just before English. My teacher, however, seemed to think my hastily penned essays were carefully considered marvels, even mentioning me once as an example to the class about how planning ahead and revising led to beautiful, crafted writing. I tried not to smirk.

One of these spur-of-the-moment entries discussed winter after Christmas: a season of sharp winds, unforgiving temperatures, and frost-slowed aspirations. It was dingy and cold, a harsh contrast to the joy-crammed, spiced festivity of the holiday-gone-by. As a high school student, winter after Christmas meant a return to school, so it’s no wonder I wasn’t enthused. Reflecting now, though, winter after Christmas feels a little different. Maybe it’s that I don’t go back to work until February, but winter after Christmas – winter after New Year’s, really – feels a bit more promising. I’m not talking resolutions, necessarily; I have those, but I’m not trying to turn my whole life around. Instead, it feels like an opportunity for some revising – the kind I never did on my writing as a high school student.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but I haven’t done very well with this blog lately. So I’m not promising anything, because that sort of promise leads so quickly to disappointment or to shoddy, hasty products, but posting a recipe on January 7th does feel fairly promising, particularly after a disastrous fall/pre-Xmas performance.

As my high school self knew, this promising season is sometimes hard to see. It’s cold (at least colder than usual, yes, even in Southern California). The sun is steely and the sky sometimes threatens to open. But there are already small indications of warmth and growth and goodness to come. Some brave bulb plants have poked a curious tip or two of green above ground. For me, at least, the urge to organize has reared its head – look out, garage! And for my household, if you follow blackberryeating on Instagram you’ll already know there’s promising newness in the form of four speckled, brindled paws and a pair of liquid brown eyes. No one could ever replace Lucy, but this past weekend we welcomed a shy-but-affectionate little pup named Holly into our home and into the dog-shaped holes in our hearts. She’s a little shy about the big camera at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll be seeing plenty of her as she gets more comfortable.

So: post-Christmas chill but promising growth. You need something comforting with sparks of brightness. I decided on risotto: the warmth of creamy, just-cooked rice, fragrant with the stock and wine it has absorbed, punctuated by the vegetal freshness of whatever accompaniments you decide to stir in (and this seems to be a common thing for me, as seen here). As we’re working with a kind of winter-into-spring theme, I wanted vegetables that bridged the gap. Brussels sprouts stand in for the ragged roughness of winter, sturdy, but peeled into leaves and sliced so thin they become tender with only a minute or two of cooking. Leeks, my favorite member of the onion family, with their wintry white bulbs but supple, pale-green interiors, provide an aromatic bolster, made rich after a slow sweat in butter. Lemon zest to wake things up, and a generous palmful of dill to pull things forward into spring. Little tastes as springy to me as grassy, fresh, green-tasting dill.

We liked this as-is, but I could immediately see that a few perfect scallops, or a handful of shrimp seared with butter and lemon, would make a beautiful topping. So there you have it. Not a promise, but a dish that is, perhaps, promising. Promising of the season to come, promising of impending freshness and growth, and promising of good things on the horizon.

Winter Risotto
40-45 minutes
Serves 8
5-6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth or stock
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only
2 cups short grain white rice
½ cup white wine
1 pound (16 ounces) brussels sprouts
zest of one lemon
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste, which you will use to season throughout the cooking process

 

  • Start by heating the broth or stock to a simmer in a medium pot. It will warm up faster if you put a lid on it. You might not use it all, but risotto lore affirms absorption will be better and the dish will be ready faster if the liquid is already hot.
  • While the broth warms, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Prep the leeks by lopping off the roots, if there are any, and cutting off the very dark greens, which are quite tough. Split each leek section lengthwise, so you are left with two half cylinders. Run these under water, using your thumbs to separate the layers a bit and rinse away any grit within. Shake off the excess water, then return to your cutting board and slice each leek very thinly into little half-moon shapes.
  • When the butter and oil have melted together, add the sliced leeks, a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and, stirring occasionally, let them sweat down and soften for 7-10 minutes. The goal here is not to brown them, but to cook gently.
  • With soft, tender leek ribbons achieved, crank the heat up to medium high and add the rice all at once, stirring it into and through the vegetables and fat to coat it evenly. Let it toast, stirring gently, for 3-5 minutes. Then pour in the white wine and stir gently but consistently until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
  • Now starts the part of risotto making that people consider labor-intensive: turn the heat down to medium and begin adding the stock or broth about a cup at a time. With each addition, stir gently but firmly and frequently as the liquid absorbs. I don’t think you need to stir the whole time, but the more you stir, the creamier your end product will be. The first few additions of broth will seem to absorb very quickly, so more stirring is needed. After ten minutes or so, the broth will absorb more slowly, so you’ll have time for things in between.
  • Once the absorption rate slows down a bit, you should have time to prep your brussels sprouts. Trim off a bit of the stalk end, especially if it is discolored, and peel away any wilted, yellowed, or discolored leaves. If you are feeling exceptionally patient, peel the sprouts into individual leaves. If you are feeling less patient, cut them into slices as thin as you can manage. Stir in the sprout slices and/or the leaves with your last addition of broth. Sprinkle in a bit more salt to account for the unseasoned veg you just added.
  • When this final addition of liquid is almost absorbed, the rice should be fully cooked, with just a tiny bite, but not a crunch, in the center. At this stage, add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the lemon zest and juice, and the dill. Stir through, sample and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • If you are adding seared seafood of some kind to round out the meal, serve by adding a scoop of risotto to a shallow bowl, then topping with the protein and, if you like, a final sprinkle of lemon zest and/or dill. If you are not adding anything, I’d still suggest a final sprinkle of zest and dill for punch and aesthetics. Serve hot.

Gochujang Glazed Cauliflower

One of the many amazing, beneficial things having a culturally diverse population does is make our food more interesting. Though Sriracha is pretty recognizable to most people at this point and salsa is, of course, an everyday condiment, my newest spice-related obsession might still be a bit of an unknown. Gochujang, which is a Korean staple made from hot peppers that falls somewhere between sauce and paste, has now taken up permanent residence in my fridge. It’s a more complex, rounded taste than a sauce like Sriracha or sambal, with a slight fermented kick and an affinity for sweet companions, but it packs no less of a punch.

I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I first learned about gochujang as a result of the amount of food television I watch, but I’m delighted that I did. Since purchasing the bottle that sits jammed in amongst my mustards and capers and olives and preserved lemons on the door of my refrigerator, I have added it to every sauce I can think of and drooled over its application on chicken, steak, anything grillable.

Weirdly enough, though, the food I have applied this wonder-sauce to that made me the most excited was cauliflower. Through a roundabout voyage starting with the hipsterized version of the age old bar-and-tailgating tradition that is buffalo wings, I found my way to a tray of cauliflower lightly seasoned and roasted until tender, then brushed thickly with a mixture of gochujang, molasses, and oyster sauce before being broiled to caramelize. Served over a scoop of fluffy brown rice and topped with conservatively confetti-ed lime zest, it requires nothing else.

I know, I know, I just said it requires nothing else. But I want to add a few notes before we get to the recipe part because how much you love this depends on you doing a little taste testing. I use a spare amount of olive oil to roast the cauliflower because there’s melted butter in the glaze. Were you going light you could skip that, but I love the way it enriches and rounds out the end result. As for the “big three,” so to speak, of sauces we’re combining, you’ll want to start with ¼ cup of each and then play according to your taste. I find I end up wanting a little more gochujang and just a drizzle more molasses, but remember as you sample it in progress that this is going to be divided up over two heads of cauliflower and tempered by the neutral nuttiness – if you choose to serve it the way I do – of brown rice. In either case, the lime juice I couldn’t resist adding winds up being non-negotiable: you don’t taste it, quite, but that little bit of acid, as is so often the case, balances the whole thing.

Gochujang Glazed Cauliflower
Serves 4 (with sauce and rice left over)
50-60 minutes
2 cups long grain brown rice
chicken broth and/or water to cook rice
2 large heads cauliflower
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
¼ cup oyster sauce
¼ cup molasses
juice of ½ a lime
zest of one lime

 

  • Start the brown rice cooking in a rice cooker or a large pot (if you use a rice cooker, follow its directions for quantities of liquid. If you use a pot, you’ll need about 4½ cups of liquid for 2 cups of rice). It will take about 45 minutes.
  • Set the oven to 450F, then drizzle two large baking trays with 1 tablespoon of olive oil each and put them in the oven to preheat as well. This ensures that the cauliflower starts to roast immediately upon adding it to the pan, since the oil will already be hot.
  • To prep the cauliflower, carefully use a sharp knife to cut out the core from the bottom of each head. Remove that central core and any lingering leaves, then set the heads floret side up on a cutting board and slice into thick slabs – about ½ inch – and florets as some of the slabs separate. Remove the preheated trays from the oven and arrange the slabs and florets in a single layer on the hot oiled trays. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top, 1 tablespoon for each tray, and sprinkle lightly with the salt.
  • Place the trays into the oven and roast at 450F for 20 minutes, then carefully flip over each piece using tongs; return to 450F oven for another 20 minutes.
  • While the cauliflower roasts, make the sauce. In a small saucepan or a heat-safe bowl set over a small pot of simmering water, melt the butter, then whisk in the remaining ingredients. Taste to see how you like it, then add more of the gochujang, molasses, or oyster sauce as desired. I find I like a little more gochujang and just a drizzle more molasses.
  • This is a good moment to check on your rice: once it has absorbed all its liquid, let it sit with the heat off (or on the “keep warm” setting of your rice cooker, if it has that) for a few minutes for a fluffier end result.
  • When the cauliflower is tender and lightly golden on both sides, remove it from the oven and preheat the broiler. If your broiler element is at the top of your oven, move the top rack up so it’s positioned right underneath the flame. Either brush cauliflower pieces generously with glaze, or tumble them into a bowl and toss with the glaze. I prefer the former because it keeps the pieces more intact, but the latter method would make for a more even coating of sauce.
  • However you glaze them, return the trays of sauced cauliflower to the oven, now on broiler mode, and broil for just a few minutes to allow the glaze to bubble and caramelize.
  • To serve, pile a generous helping of cauliflower over a scoop of brown rice, add additional sauce if desired, then sprinkle with lime zest.

 

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars

I’ve tried to start this post three times. Each time I deleted what I’d written, and ultimately it took me a week in between actually making the thing and knowing what to write (hence the Halloween plate) because as usual, it’s hard to know how much from “out there” belongs here in my little virtual kitchen. I feel like I want to talk about it, even though it is hard, because to separate and live only in an idealized, happy little blog space feels disingenuous. Yet to try to write about a massacre in the same breath as a dessert feels just as bad. And it is happening more and more often.

So I’m going to try to write this post by talking about my friend M. instead. M. is an amazing woman who, in my last two years of graduate school became a firm friend, and in the years since has risen in my esteem to be one of my favorite people. She is smart. She is complex. She is opinionated and feisty and loud and dedicated and… just a really cool human being. She is also vexed with a complicated set of food allergies. And she happens to be Jewish. She deserves, as do all people, to live safely, have the freedom to practice their faith or lack thereof, and to pursue happiness in their own way. And so because I’m having trouble writing out my thoughts about Pittsburgh and what has happened there in a way that makes sense, I made a dessert for M.

It’s not enough. It’s not even a related action. But I saw a post on Facebook the day I made these from a woman named Kim Weild that told me “The Talmud says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We have so, so much work to do. And on this day I could not complete the work, but baking was a tiny way of doing something I felt capable of doing. And I voted while it was baking, so there. Are you going to? Tomorrow’s the day…

One of the challenges of feeding M. is that she cannot have dairy or eggs. Rice is out of the question, as is beef. So is avocado, of all things. Gluten isn’t a no-no, but it should be a rarity. So M. has spent several years investigating alternatives, and though I don’t see her very often, I occasionally concoct something she can eat, in the off chance I’ll get a chance to feed her. There’s an allergy-free coconut cream pie recipe deep in my mind that I want to get to someday.

This one, though, is inspired by a now-lost-to-the-ages conversation she and another food-interested friend had on Facebook once that I eavesdropped all over. It involved pumpkin, turmeric, and other various spices. It may have included oatmeal. What it did for me, however, was to get me thinking of what would happen if you combined a lot of warm spices with Indian flair in a pumpkin pie, subbed out the eggs for silken tofu, and instead of a traditional crust, pressed together a combination of nuts and coconut oil graham cracker style. And then I scrapped the whole pie idea entirely and went with bars instead.

These are rich, taking a long time to bake and an insistence on cooling completely before they can be dealt with. Ideally they should be refrigerated overnight to let the coconut oil and the oils the nuts release chill and reconstitute, while the pumpkin and tofu mixture solidifies into something creamy and almost smooth. But in addition to a baking dish, they do require only one food processor and a small bowl to mix up, so that’s easy. They fit right into a long, slow afternoon when you need something sweet and tender and spiced to comfort you.

M., here’s a humble plate of comfort I made thinking of you. Happy belated Hallow-birthday-ween.

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars
Makes 9×9 inch square pan
About 1½ hours plus cooling time
Crust:
1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios
1 cup raw walnuts (halves or pieces)
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
scant ⅓ cup coconut oil
Filling:
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
16 ounce block silken tofu, drained and patted dry
½ cup soy, almond, or coconut milk – your preference
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line your baking dish with a “sling” of parchment paper: one piece that covers the bottom and extends past the top of opposite sides, and a second piece positioned perpendicularly, so it adds a second layer to the bottom and extends past the top of the other two sides.
  • To make the crust, add the walnuts, pistachios, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse function, pulverize into fairly even bits about the size of lentils, though some will be smaller. Reserve ¾ cup of this mixture for later.
  • Add the coconut oil and buzz on high until very well combined but not quite buttery. You want the coconut oil to be fully integrated, but you still want to be able to manipulate the mixture.
  • Once well combined, dump the crust mixture into the prepared pan and use your hands or a spatula to press it into an even layer across the bottom. Stow this in the fridge while you make the filling.
  • In the same food processor (you can wash it out if you want to, but I didn’t bother), combine the pumpkin puree, the silken tofu, the milk, the ¾ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, all the spices, and the vanilla. Process on high until the mixture is very smooth, then stop the machine and scrape down the sides to be sure – sometimes little clumps of tofu remain.
  • Remove the crust from the refrigerator and pour the velvet-smooth filling in, then carefully transfer to the oven and bake for about 60 minutes. The edges of the filling will be firm and the center will be extremely wobbly but set on top.
  • Remove from the oven, gently sprinkle the reserved nut mixture over the top in an even layer, being sure to get it into the corners. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven but leave the dish inside for about 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before refrigerating, ideally overnight, but at least for a few hours.
  • Carefully remove from the pan and the sling, then slice while still cold and serve. Alternatively, serve by scooping big spoonfuls into bowls or pretty glasses and adding a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top.

Haters Gonna Hate Pumpkin Spice Loaf: Now with photos!!

People have such vitriolic responses to the phrase “it’s pumpkin spice season” that by this point some of you have already stopped reading. I’ve heard a few interesting theories about why this is, including the idea publicized by a student at Swarthmore College a few years ago that since the drink that popularized this craze is popular among women, hating on it is another subtle way we’ve internalized sexism: pumpkin spice lattes are a girly thing, so just like other girly trends it must be devalued. Vox and various others picked up on this idea, also evaluating the pumpkin spice connection to capitalism, class, and being “basic.”

But I tend to sympathize more with the point made near the end of the article, and which I’ve seen in a few other places, which is simply: there’s enough trauma and horror and viciousness going on in that weird world we inhabit, so let’s let people find harmless joy where they can. And further, let’s face it: by and large, the mixture of warm autumnal spices that we mean when we say “pumpkin spice” are, even if you don’t want them in your coffee, frankly delicious.

So I’m on board the pumpkin spice train, and although I’m not terrifically enthused about them being swirled through my latte, a liberal dosing in pies, cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads of almost any kind is a-okay by me. And since my Trader Joe’s had a big end cap display of their pumpkin butter this week and Los Angeles is STILL resisting its usual September heat wave tendencies, I decided to take advantage of the season my calendar reports we’ve just fallen into (get it? get it?) and bake up a yeasted loaf infused with all those spices pumpkin benefits from.

My loaf started with an old favorite I haven’t worked with in a while: my Nana’s sweet dough. It’s a firm but soft product, elastic and pliable, and though in this incarnation it’s fairly sticky from all the wet ingredients, it just sighs when you roll it out in such a lovely way. I added a full cup of pumpkin puree to Nana’s original recipe, plus the requisite cinnamon and nutmeg the pumpkin spicing requires. You could use ginger and cloves as well, but this time around I decided to complete the trifecta with cardamom; its slightly citrusy brightness feels right for “fall” in Southern California.

To get that luscious, deep, spicy sweetness of the pumpkin butter into my creation, I decided to do a swirl in the center of my loaf: once risen, I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle, smeared it with butter, added a glossy layer of the deep orange spread, and on a whim, zested on some orange rind for additional lift.

This is a monstrous loaf. I bake so often with only sourdough anymore that I forget how high and how certainly active dry yeast rises. Even though it climbed in both its first and second rise, the oven spring as the loaf actually baked was incredible; I couldn’t believe it was holding its shape as it pillowed, hugely, almost like a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, above the loaf pan, and was disappointed but not surprised when it deflated a bit as it cooled; a huge air pocket between the bulk of the loaf and the mountaineering dome was the source of much of its swollen majesty.

Never mind that aesthetic imperfection, though; the loaf itself was a delight. Not too sweet, it boasts a pillowy, soft-but-chewy texture that reminds me of my mom’s challah, but with a subtle pumpkin flavor pushed along by the warm spices, and a just-toothsome crust for a pleasant contrast. The pumpkin butter slathered into the center is sweet and rich, but there’s only a bit of it swirled through the while thing, making the addition of jam or preserves extraneous: it’s baked right in. To me, that means you can eat this at any time of day, just like its latte-based inspiration. Haters gonna hate, it’s true, but that just means another slice for you.

Pumpkin Spice Loaf
Makes 1 very large loaf
About 4 hours
Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
½ cup warm whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup softened butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups bread flour
Filling:
¼ cup softened butter
¼ – ½ cup pumpkin butter spread
zest from 1 orange

 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm milk with the pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up.  It will begin to get bubbly and smell warm and bready.
  • While you wait for the yeast, add the ¼ cup softened butter, the pumpkin puree, the egg, and the vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl). Mix with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Add the yeast and milk mixture to the combined wet ingredients and mix them together briefly using the paddle attachment (if you are not using a stand mixer, an electric handheld or some elbow grease and a whisk will do nicely here).
  • Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, and 2 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment (or a sturdy wooden spoon if you aren’t a stand mixer sort of person), mix just until the flour is moistened and you have created a lumpy dough. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to begin hydrating the flour.
  • After the dough rests for 20 minutes, switch to the dough hook (or turn your dough out onto a well floured board) and knead for 5-8 minutes in the mixer, or 10-12 minutes by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first – we’ve added a lot of fat and a lot of moisture.  Don’t despair. Add more flour a ¼ cup at a time just until the dough cooperates (up to 3 cups of flour, though depending on the relative humidity of the day, you might not need that much).  It will still be a bit sticky, but it will become more elastic and supple and much easier to work with.
  • When your dough is smooth and stretchy and a bit springy, plop it into a greased or oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled, around 90 minutes.
  • Once doubled, punch down the dough to release trapped gas by gently deflating it with your fist. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×24 inches.
  • Smear the second ¼ cup of softened butter over the surface of the rolled out dough. Add the pumpkin butter and spread this atop the butter, leaving a half inch border at one of the long ends. Sprinkle on the orange zest, if using.
  • Begin to roll up the dough from the long side opposite the edge on which you left a border. Start with the middle and move out to the sides, as you would for a jelly roll.  Continue rolling until all the filling is enclosed, and then fold up the remaining, bare edge and pinch it firmly against the roll to create a seam.
  • Twist your log of dough a few times by gripping it and rotating your hands in opposite directions. This will ensure that a pretty swirl of filling is formed as it bakes. Fold the thinner ends underneath the fat middle and settle the whole thing into a buttered or greased loaf pan. Cover it lightly with greased plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • At the end of the second rise, remove the plastic wrap form the loaf and bake it for 35-40 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped or the internal temperature is between 180-200F (the thump test is the standard way of checking for doneness on bread, but it seems sort of impossible when you are baking a big loaf in a loaf pan. I prefer to take its temperature).
  • When it tests done, using whatever is your favorite method, remove it from the oven and let it cool for at least twenty minutes in the pan.  This will allow the structure to firm up so it slices nicely, rather than collapsing and squashing into itself when you so much as approach it with a serrated knife.
  • Slice and consume. I don’t think it needs a thing to accessorize it, but especially on the second or third day, a sweep of unsalted butter or a smear of cream cheese probably wouldn’t hurt anything…