Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

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Fig, gorgonzola, and prosciutto crostini

Let’s talk about hazing for just a minute. I don’t mean the kind that covers the skies down here in Southern California – that filmy grayness that hangs a little thicker the closer to get to the skyscrapered center of Los Angeles. I don’t mean the kind that fills your brain when you remember there’s still a week of school left, and who knows how much grading after that. I mean the kind that happens when you’re the new guy. Being the new guy at my job means, through none of your own doing, that you are the party planner. At the department meeting in November, with no previous knowledge of customs or expectations, you suddenly get told that you (with any other new hires for the year) are in charge of planning the holiday party.
April May June 2014-3780You do it. It turns out fine. And in my case, you end up with some funds left over. And suddenly the hazing becomes self-inflicted. You find yourself sitting in your boss’s office suggesting we organize something for the end of the spring semester as well because, well, why not? We work hard. We might want a party to celebrate the close of the school year. So when May rolls around, you remember that suggestion, and those leftover funds, and suddenly you’re planning a happy hour for the colleagues you can’t believe you’ve grown so fond of in just a year, and feeling, under the weight of the grocery bags, again quite lucky to have landed this position.
April May June 2014-3770When I plan a party, I have a tendency to go overboard. Potlucks N. and I hosted during graduate school became theme parties. We were late to our graduation party because I wanted to make sure the pulled pork I’d made to share was perfect. Though I was determined to keep this work function a casual, easy-to-throw-together affair, I still found myself sketching out a shopping list two weeks in advance, when we weren’t even sure where the party would take place yet.
April May June 2014-3771And then I was suddenly not just adding ready-to-serve items to the list, but ingredients. I was menu planning.
April May June 2014-3773It seems to me that a gathering of the sort I executed this past weekend – a casual happy hour in a gorgeous community clubhouse in San Pedro – is perfectly lovely with entirely purchased snacks. A selection of red and white wines, good cheeses, some crackers and a vegetable platter, and perhaps some nice briny olives and hard salami, more than does the job. But adding one or two homemade items really makes things special. For me, these included some spring rolls and peanut sauce (I may share the recipe at some point, if I can get my act together), some freshly baked sourdough bread spiked with rosemary, and a crostini combination I am crazy for that was gone within the space of an hour.
April May June 2014-3775This crostini blends salty and sweet in a tremendously successful way. It’s pretty, it smells fantastic, it looks impressive, and it is so easy there’s barely a recipe at all. That’s what we all need, I think, for the end of the semester.
April May June 2014-3778Ready?
You slice a baguette, drizzle the slices with olive oil and pepper, and toast them. No salt, since we’ll be adding cured meat and cheese in a moment. You spread them with fig jam, nestle a half slice of prosciutto atop each, and then add a sprinkling of gorgonzola cheese. Then you shove the whole tray under the broiler for a few minutes until the edges of the prosciutto are crinkling and toasting with heat, and then you scoop your little toasts onto a platter and send them out to watch them disappear. Done. If you want, you can add a little wisp of baby arugula to the top for greenness and another peppery punch. As you can see, I did a tray without prosciutto, to allow vegetarian snackers to partake as well.

April May June 2014-3781*Note: these quantities are approximate. Depending on how well oiled you like your bread, how peppery you want your toasts to be, and how thick a layer of jam and cheese you want to offer, you may need slightly more or slightly less than I’ve suggested here.

Fig, gorgonzola, and prosciutto crostini
Makes 24-30 toasts, depending on how thick you slice your baguette
1 french baguette
¼ cup (approximate) olive oil (or olive oil spray)
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup fig jam
10-12 slices prosciutto, halved into fat rectangles (as opposed to long, skinny ones)
¾ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1 bunch baby arugula, optional
  • First, preheat your broiler.
  • Slice your baguette on a bias into ½ – ¾ inch discs. Arrange on two baking trays in a single layer. Brush (or spray) with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. Broil for 2-3 minutes or until the top of each slice is golden. Flip over each slice and broil another 1-2 minutes until these, too, are golden. Set aside to cool slightly.
  • When the toasts have cooled enough to handle without toasting your fingertips, spread each one with a thin layer of fig jam, being sure to get all the way to the edges.
  • Top the jam with a slice of prosciutto, fluting it a bit as you set it on the bread so that it sits up like a rumpled napkin, rather than lying flat. This will ensure a bit of crisping, and it looks awfully pretty.
  • Sprinkle some gorgonzola crumbles atop the prosciutto, trying to keep them on the toasts as much as possible, rather than on the baking tray around the toasts.
  • Place your loaded sheet trays back into the broiler and let them go for just a minute or two, until the edges of the prosciutto are sizzling and crisp, and the gorgonzola starts to wilt and bubble slightly.
  • Remove from the oven, settle on a serving platter, and top each with a curl of baby arugula, if desired.

Fig and Brie Flatbread #TwelveLoaves September

When I was a kid, my parents made me cassette tapes from several Disney albums to listen to in the car.  I mean real albums: records.  45s and 78s, that spun, some wobbly and warping, on a turntable at a speed that, when I was much smaller, seemed unreal.  But the cassette tapes were for long car trips, and we all learned every word in every song (this wasn’t so bad, according to my parents, with the Disney songs.  One of the other tapes – a John Denver greatest hits album – wasn’t so lucky.  I requested it so many times that the tenuous black strip of tape got tangled in the player, and even after attempts to repair it by winding it manually back into the plastic casing, one day it mysteriously disappeared.  I’m still convinced that my dad, sick to death of hearing the plaintive desire for country roads to take us home, chucked it out the window).

Interestingly, one of my favorite songs from that collection was from a movie I’ve never seen: Disney’s The Happiest MillionaireThe song, “Fortuosity,” was a happy ditty about luck and opportunity, and “fortuitious little happy happenstances,” and I loved it.  It’s an idea that I like, and the song itself comes back to me every once in a while at random moments, most often when I think about the word “fortuitous,” with which the song obviously plays, and when I remember road trips with my family.

Food Blog September 2013-2570This is a long-winded way of introducing the idea that this week’s post, and this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge, aligned entirely by fortuitous coincidence.  Last week I asked N. to grill up some leftover pizza dough, which I smeared with double cream brie, nestled in some halved figs straight from the farmers’ market, and drizzled with barley malt syrup and sprigs of fresh thyme.  Then I checked the Twelve Loaves challenge only to see that September’s theme is Farmers’ Market food.  Fortuosity indeed.

Food Blog September 2013-2566The idea for this combination – creamy cheese, soft, sweet figs, and a hit of herby freshness, came from a party N. and I attended recently.  Our hostess, who works with N. (we should have them over soon, N., if you’re reading this…), had quartered some black mission figs, settled them in around a wedge of brie, and dosed both liberally with honey and thyme.  My spin was based on the desire to use more of the barley malt syrup I bought for last month’s bagel experiment, and the obsessive love we have for homemade pizza, which means there is frequently a ball of dough either in the fridge or in the freezer, hoping to be put to tasty use.

Summer 2013-2503

Visitor to our thyme bush. I named him Algernon, because he looked like he might be impersonating someone.

We loved this combination.  The barley malt syrup is a roastier contestant than, say, maple syrup, and was therefore a welcome balance.  It is sweet, but there is an almost bitter edge to its flavor – no doubt the malt part.  It is, in fact, just a lower grade extract than what brewers use for beer, so the darker component makes good sense.  Drizzled judiciously across the blistered surface of our cheese and fruit studded flatbread, it enhanced both main players.  Though Los Angeles played some mind games with me last week, cooling off just as I published a post asserting that autumn hadn’t arrived yet, it has warmed up again.  Since this flatbread cooks on the grill, it’s perfect for a warm evening when you can’t bear the idea of firing up the oven.  But if you don’t have a grill, and you’re willing to risk the house-heating power of indoor cooking, I’ve also included directions for the oven.  Food Blog September 2013-2574

Food Blog September 2013-2569
Fig and Brie Flatbread
Serves 3-4 as an appetizer; 2 as a main course
Directions for grilling adapted from Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer’s Pizza on the Grill
12 oz. ball of pizza dough, purchased or homemade (I’m still working on perfecting my recipe; once it’s foolproof, I’ll post it for you)
Olive oil for stretching dough
6-8 fresh black mission figs, halved from stem to blossom end
8 ounces brie cheese, cut into thick slices
2 tablespoons barley malt syrup or your favorite honey
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (in small sprigs is fine – the stems are tender enough to eat near the end of the sprig)
  • If your dough is in the refrigerator, remove it about half an hour before you intend to cook it and let it rest, unwrapped, on a lightly floured or oiled surface.
  • While the dough rests, preheat your oven or grill.  For a gas grill, this will take about 10-15 minutes with the burners set on high.  Once the grill has preheated, turn down the burners to medium.  For a charcoal grill, this will take a little longer – perhaps up to 30 minutes for the coals to begin turning gray.  For an oven, preheat to 500F (or as close to this as your oven will go!).
  • Once you’ve got your heat source preheating, prep your toppings.  Halve the figs, slice the cheese, pinch the thyme into individual leaves or small clumps.  This is all going to go pretty quickly once we start cooking, so you’ll want to be ready.
  • When the dough has rested, set a 9×13 inch glass baking dish bottom side up on your counter.  Rub the bottom (now facing upwards) with olive oil, then push and stretch your pizza dough out on the bottom of the dish so it hangs over all edges, creating a rustic but relatively even rectangle.  If it springs back or threatens to tear as you stretch it toward the edges of the dish, let it rest a bit longer and then try again.
  • Bring your dough, still on the bottom of the baking dish, out to the grill.  If the dough is sturdy enough to lift without tearing, pick it up by two ends and lay it across the grill grates, flopping the sides drooping below your hands toward the back edge of the grill, in the same motion you would use to swing a tablecloth over a table.  If the dough is not so sturdy, put some gloves on, and carefully invert the baking dish only an inch or so above the surface of the grill. The dough will slowly disengage and drop gracelessly onto the grill grates.  Once dough and grates are in contact, close the lid of the grill and leave it closed for about 3 minutes, or until the bottom side of the dough is well browned with nice grill marks.
  • Use a pair of long-handled tongs to transfer the flatbread to a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet.  Use the peel or baking sheet to help you flip the rectangle of dough over and slide it back onto the grill, unmarked side down.  Close the lid of the grill and leave it closed for another 3-5 minutes, or until the whole thing is browned, marked, and nicely puffed.  I like the look of a few big airy blisters on the surface.
  • If you are using an oven, flop your dough onto a preheated pizza stone or the bottom of an oiled cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.
  • Once your flatbread crust is browned and blistered to your liking, transfer it from the grill or oven to your cutting surface.  Smear the whole top of the dough with the slices of brie cheese (I used the back of a spoon.  You could also use a spatula).  Nestle the figs in, spacing them evenly over the surface.
  • Drizzle the barley malt syrup over the top of the flatbread in a thin stream.  Don’t overdo it – the stuff is sweet.  You might not need the full 2 tablespoons.  You just want a light zigzag of caramel over figs and cheese alike.
  • Sprinkle on the thyme leaves, slice, and consume.

* You could, I suppose, top the dough either before cooking, if you are using the oven method, or immediately after flipping, if you are using the grill, and cook the toppings.  I didn’t do this, because I wanted the freshness of the figs, and knew the heat of the bread itself would be enough to melt the cheese.  If you choose to cook the toppings and you are using a grill, add the toppings after flipping, but turn off the burners on one side of the grill to create indirect heat, and cook your topped flatbread over the unlit burners for 7-10 minutes. This will allow the toppings to cook and the cheese to melt without burning the dough.

Giving thanks

The house feels empty.  Wednesday through Saturday, my family visited for Thanksgiving.  This morning, with them on the road home, fog hovering sticky in the sky, the cheery burgundy tablecloth in the washing machine, and a stack of lingering dishes I’m trying to ignore proclaiming themselves from the sink, our little home was stark and cold.  I could say that the memories of the holiday will keep me warm, but that would only be true in a metaphorical sense.  What I really want is another baked apple.

90. Baked Apples: Combine chopped pecans and chopped dried fruit (raisins, dates, figs, cranberries all work) and toss with maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg or all three. Fill the cavities of cored apples with the fruits and nuts, dot each with butter, put into a baking dish and roast about 30 minutes, until tender. Better with vanilla ice cream.”

We had a few small apples from our local Farmers’ Market waiting for attention in the fruit bowl, so I set about collecting partners for them to make a dessert for two.

2 small apples

¼ cup chopped pecans

¼ tsp pumpkin pie spice (I agree with Joy the Baker that we should probably just make our own, but if you, like me, purchased some in a moment of confused weakness, this seems a harmless way to put it to use)

1-2 TB each:

chopped dried figs (I used black Mission, my current favorite)

craisins

golden raisins

3 TB maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Core the apples, keeping the bottoms intact if you can.  If you can’t, just wrap the bottom quarter or so in aluminum foil and set them in a baking dish.  This will keep the filling from escaping.

In a small bowl, combine the nuts, fruit, and spice(s).  Drizzle in the maple syrup and stir gently to combine – you want even stickiness throughout.

Using a small spoon, or your fingers, insert as much filling as you can into the cored apples.  You will notice that this quantity makes about twice as much as you need for 2 small apples.  That’s okay.  The leftovers are a fantastic topping for oatmeal the next morning.

Once full, stow your apples in the oven for 30 minutes, or until they are tender when pierced with a knife.  Liberate, evacuate to a dessert plate, and pair with vanilla ice cream.

These were a lovely dessert.  They felt light, because they were primarily fruit, but were still sweet enough to satisfy that after-dinner craving.  The apples still had some resistance, but were warmed through and starting to collapse into themselves.  The ice cream was a perfect accompaniment – I wouldn’t want this dessert without it.  I might ideally have chosen an apple with more tartness to contrast against the sweetness of the syrup and dried fruit, but in such a case, especially if the apple were on the large size, I would advocate a longer baking time.  If the fruit and nuts protruding from the top of the apple start to brown too much, give them a tinfoil hat to hide beneath.

 

“84. Sage Crackers: Pulse 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ cup Parmesan and 4 tablespoons cold butter in a food processor. Add ¼ cup cream and 1 tablespoon finely chopped sage.  When just combined, roll as thinly as possible, score into squares, sprinkle with salt and bake at 400 degrees until golden.  Let cool, then break into pieces.”

I’ve always liked a nice cheese-and-crackers platter as an appetizer option, and these seemed like a good option to lead into the big Thanksgiving meal: relatively easy to make, but impressive – who wouldn’t be staggered by the effort of making homemade crackers even with a homemade feast to produce as well?

Bittman’s directions and quantities here are pretty specific, so I just followed his directions.  I omitted the salt, because Parmesan carries so much of its own tangy hit, and my parents are not big salt eaters.  It should also be noted that pulsing this mixture until just combined does not create a rollable dough, unless my idea of “just combined” is different from Bittman’s.  However, turning out the just-clinging crumbs onto a floured board and kneading for only a minute or two does produce a nice textured ball of dough that can be rolled out with minimal sticking.

I’d recommend aiming for a shape as close to a rectangle as possible.  Further, roll that rectangle to the size of your biggest cookie sheet.  That way you can carefully transport onto the greased or parchment-lined sheet tray by draping the dough loosely over the rolling pin.  Score it very gently into rectangles or squares of your chosen size (cut halfway through the dough with a knife, not all the way through), and into the oven with it!

When I checked these 20 minutes later, they were a little more golden than I wanted.  They were, in fact, heading toward a burnished bronze (is that not the kindest way ever of saying they were all-but-burned?).

After the cracker sheet had cooled for a few minutes, I broke it along the scored lines into neat (mostly) rectangles and we passed around a few samples.  The outside edges, which were thinner, had a slightly over-toasted flavor we didn’t love.  The inside rectangles, though, were crisp and flavorful, with a flaky – almost chalky – texture reminiscent at once of pie crust and shortbread.  My dad in particular, who enjoys this texture, thought they were great.

And now the confession: my final Bittman for this week is a bit of a cheat.  But I’m okay with that, because I also think it was a bit of a cheat for him, though in the best and most useful way.

“101. Buy some cheese. Unwrap it and put it on a plate with some walnuts and fruit; let come to room temperature. Serve with good bread.”

This is the final numerical entry of the list, and that means it’s in the dessert category.  While I accept that some people prefer a cheese course to dessert, I’m not sure I consider this an acceptable option for Thanksgiving.  It is, however, acceptable as an appetizer idea, as I mentioned above.  So that’s what I did.  In addition to the sage parmesan crackers above, I made my favorite craisin rosemary biscotti-style crackers with white bean and almond dip, and set them all out with some creamy Stilton, a nice rich chevre, and a wedge of Manchego obtained from a stand at the Farmers’ Market where we finally decided we’d had too many samples to feel right about not purchasing.  Surrounding these, I added dried apple rings, black Mission figs, and a fresh Granny Smith cut into slim slices.  The walnuts, which I was ready to add as well after a brief toasting, were subjected instead to accidental scorching, and had to be sacrificed.  We will speak of them no further.

What can you say about a cheese platter, besides that it was delicious?  We adored the Manchego, and soft crumbles of Stilton paired well with the fresh apples.  I tried fig and goat cheese together, and now I think chevre-stuffed-figs sounds like an amazing experiment.  We decimated the platter in little over ten minutes, but thankfully were not too stuffed to take full advantage of the turkey dinner that followed.

With Thanksgiving handled, that leaves only five weeks of 2012, and only twelve Bittman selections to go!  New Year’s Eve is on a Monday, but that still counts as this year if I need to jam in a few final selections, right?

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

Trick or Treat

Halloween is easily in my top three holidays.  I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place.  Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate.  No costume.  No party.  No decorations.  We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six!  The whole evening!  Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.

I did embrace the season, though, the following day.  Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).

The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner.  It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld.  In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.

“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.

Pairing figs, garlic, and orange juice seemed odd.  Nevertheless, I collected enough for one portion (this was not N.’s kind of dish):

6 dried black mission figs

1-2 tsp fresh rosemary

2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves

1 TB olive oil

juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)

I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely.  Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.

Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan.  I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde.  Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.

I plated, I ate, and I considered.  This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either.  The rosemary and the figs were lovely.  The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering).  The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable.  They just weren’t my favorite.

I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category.  I had eaten it straight.  This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it.  Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.

Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen.  I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Set it in the oven and preheat to 400F.  Yes, you are preheating the pan along with the oven.

Peel and halve a butternut squash.  Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes.  In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles. 

During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.

While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth.  When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.

During the last few minutes of roasting time, toast 2 TB pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to snap and crack.*  Be careful not to burn them.  Toss with bulgur and vegetable mixture.

In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle.  Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan.  Nasty trick, egg.

Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in.  It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish.  It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.

I turned to dessert:

“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.

I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.

1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced

½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like.  Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)

¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup butter

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Butter a 9×13 inch pan (my round, much smaller dish was a poor choice).

Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar.  Spread them out in the pan in an even layer.  Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.

Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.

I did few of these things.  My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar.  As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture.  I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.

Tricked again.

To remedy this problem, I tried several things.  First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt.  Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts.  Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top.  This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.

 

I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner.  As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!

This was clearly the right thing to do.  Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.

Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water).  Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.

These make lovely, tiny snacks.  The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing.  There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change.  The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.

Perfect November treat.

 

* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash.  I, clearly, am not.