Bourbon vanilla pastry cream over pan-roasted stone fruit

2015 Blog August-0309After a few scrapped drafts of this post, both on the computer and in the kitchen, I’ve decided it’s basically a food representation of “To a Mouse” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Though the title may not ring familiar, it contains perhaps the most famous – or at least well-known – line of his whole oeuvre: “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” or, if you’re not adept in 18th century Scottish diction, “often go awry.”

2015 Blog August-0265Things go awry. They just do. In this case, the inspiration, the trial run, the ingredient acquisition, and even the writing itself (there are two previous drafts of this post in my trash can that I never want to see again), all caused enough problems that this post almost didn’t happen.

2015 Blog August-0274But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to bourbon. Through a conversation with a friend and former colleague on Facebook, I assigned myself a project: she said she’s been experimenting with bourbon dessert sauces, and wanted tips. In particular, she’s interested in a bourbon vanilla sauce that would be good served over ice cream and peaches. There had been texture and thickness and sweetness imbalances along the way, and I was immediately hooked on the challenge.

2015 Blog August-0278For the next month I took this sauce through a ridiculous number of mental transformations – at first it was going to be a riff on this nutmeg sauce, then it was going to be more like a caramel, and then it was going to be akin to a crème anglaise, thickened with egg and carefully tempered. Never mind that pouring what is essentially unfrozen, unchurned ice cream over a bowl of ice cream seems excessive.

2015 Blog August-0282The crème anglaise plan, though, went awry, as you might have suspected. I crawled out of the kitchen leaving behind a bowl of curdled weirdness that had used up the last few tablespoons of bourbon in the house and refused to think about it for a few days. It wasn’t an eggs scrambling problem. It was a two-fold issue, I think, of poorly managed temperature differences, and the fat in the sauce not getting along with the quantity of alcohol I added.

2015 Blog August-0285When I tried again, the sauce had, again, transformed. Now, in a house with limited air movement, during a patch of quite warm weather, as the sun slowly dripped across our roof, sauce seemed too fast-moving. As if echoing my own sluggishness in my appetites, I wanted something thick and smooth to dollop atop a piece of fruit. And I wanted it to be ice cold.

2015 Blog August-0307So I ended up with a pastry cream. This is not a sauce, B., even though that’s what you were after. It’s not particularly easy or quick, and it’s almost not even pourable. What it is, though, is rich, and cold, and thick, and strongly bourbon-y (so make sure you choose one you like!), and magnificent draped thickly over whatever stone fruit you happen to have. It’s also a good option for entertaining, because once it has been cooked it needs to chill for a few hours, which makes it very easy to casually slide it out of the fridge, spoon it thickly over a row of grilled or pan-roasted plums, or peaches, or apricots, and sit back down again before your guests really registered you were “making” dessert.

2015 Blog August-0308This, then, seems an apropos message for the week before the semester starts up again: things go wrong. They are going to go wrong. And then you have to decide what you’re going to do about it and work it out. So if you’re expecting hiccups, and imperfections, and requisite second takes, you’ll likely be calmer and cooler in the long run. Not a bad state of being in a heat wave or a first week of school. And if we’re being absolutely honest, having a new bottle of bourbon in the house during that week is not a bad state of being either. Just in case.

2015 Blog August-0318

Bourbon Vanilla Pastry Cream over Pan-Roasted Stone Fruit
Makes 2 – 2½ cups of cream
For the pastry cream:
2 cups half and half or 1 cup cream and 1 cup milk
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
Pinch of salt
½ cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cold butter
For the roasted stone fruit:
1 whole plum OR ½ a peach OR 2-3 apricots per diner
1 tablespoon raw sugar per diner
Pinch ground black pepper, optional (best on plums, I think)
2 tablespoons butter


  • To make the pastry cream, heat the half and half (or milk and cream mixture), ¼ cup of the bourbon, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and the pinch of salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a bare simmer. We don’t want it to reach a full boil.
  • While the liquid mixture warms, whisk the egg yolks together with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a small bowl. Beat well until you can no longer feel any graininess from the sugar.
  • Whisk the cornstarch into the yolk and sugar mixture until all powder is gone and the mixture becomes thick and pale. It will take on a texture like melted ice cream.
  • When the milk mixture has come to a simmer, remove it from the heat and dribble about 2 tablespoons of it into the yolks, whisking furiously and continuously. This tempers the egg yolks – that is, heats them up just enough so that when they are added to the pot, they will be less likely to scramble.
  • Now, take a breath and a firm hold on your whisk, and pour the yolk mixture into the pot of milk, whisking continuously. Place the pot back over medium heat and continue to whisk until the mixture returns to a simmer. It will quickly become very thick – a bit like slightly diluted mayonnaise in texture – and take on a glossy sheen. The occasional big, sluggish bubble might emerge.
  • Once the mixture simmers, remove it from the heat and add in the vanilla, the remaining 2 tablespoons of bourbon, and the cold butter. Whisk continuously until the butter has melted in and everything is combined.
  • Pour the hot pastry cream through a fine sieve or mesh strainer into a bowl. Stir and push through with a spatula to catch any solid bits of egg or other unwelcome textural imperfections.
  • Place a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the hot pastry cream (this prevents it from developing a “skin” across the top) and deposit it in the refrigerator until well chilled. The finished product will be approximately the thickness of mayonnaise.
  • When dessert looms near, prepare the fruit. Cut each fruit in half and twist or cut out the pit. Set halves cut-side up and sprinkle the exposed flesh with the raw sugar, using about 1 tablespoon per serving (so if you’re serving peaches, you might want less fruit per person than if you’re serving apricots. Either way, evenly distribute 1 tablespoon of sugar per serving over the halves of fruit). Sprinkle on the pinch of black pepper, if using.
  • Heat the butter over medium-high heat in a skillet large enough to accommodate all of the fruit halves. When it sizzles, add the fruit, cut-side down, and let it cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, until the sugar is well melted and has caramelized into the fruit.
  • Flip the fruit over so it is cut-side up and cook another 2 minutes, until the skin wrinkles and tears a bit. This will result in fruit that is warmed through, but still firm to the bite. If you like your fruit softer, cook a few minutes longer or cut into smaller pieces.
  • To serve, position the fruit cut-side up on a plate, and dollop on a few spoonfuls of the pastry cream. If you go back for seconds, consider letting a friend drive you home.


Project Sauce: Peppercorn Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Plum Gastrique

Today’s entry rounds out my eighth month of this sauce project. I’ve learned a number of things thus far, but the one that remains the most challenging is this: sauce is a component, not a complete product. That means you must not only execute the sauce itself, but you also have to decide what to drizzle, spoon, scoop, pour, or dab it over!

Food Blog August 2014-0442Sometimes this is quite simple. Hollandaise, for example, is such a classic that eggs benedict spring immediately to mind. A few weeks ago, my meunière sauce had a similar effect, demanding as it does a particular fish to moisten and flavor. And in fact, once I figured out what the next entry in my little project would be, I had no trouble dreaming up how I would serve it. It would be a gastrique – a French sauce that melts sugar and vinegar together into a thick, sweet-sour glaze. Mine, since it’s the height of summer and every week I can’t help but fill a bag with stone fruit at our local Farmers’ Market, would be dressed up a touch with the addition of plums. As soon as I knew this, I knew I wanted to serve it over moist lovely slices of pork tenderloin. Easy. Done.

Food Blog August 2014-0440Except.

Let’s straighten out an unfortunate item of business here, friends. N. doesn’t like pork. Oh he loves bacon. Sausage, especially breakfast sausage, is a treat. He’ll eat various smoked and cured pig-based items: prosciutto and pancetta are consumed with gusto and exotics like guanciale or chorizo are just fine. He’ll even tolerate ham, though it wouldn’t be his first choice. But pork itself, not treated with smoke or salt or brine, elicits a sneer. He would never order pork tenderloin in a restaurant. Ribs are more trouble than they’re worth. Even pulled pork had better be swimming in a pretty flavorful sauce to keep him interested. I have to get my pork chop fix when I visit my parents without him. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s breaded and fried, grilled up, or seared and roasted. He’ll have the chicken, thanks.

Food Blog August 2014-0426This, as you can imagine, was a considerable wrench aimed at my little plan. But the idea of silky, tangy, liquid plum dribbling over a thick slice of tenderloin sounded too good. I decided he would just have to deal. So I rolled the tenderloin in a blend of crushed peppercorns, coarse salt, and thyme leaves. I seared it, I roasted it, I let it rest. I cut it in thick, moist slices and served him a few with a coating of ruby sauce.

Food Blog August 2014-0428He went back for seconds. Later, I caught him in the refrigerator tasting just one more slice. He considered piling the leftovers onto some sourdough for a lunch sandwich the next day. Um, pork.

Food Blog August 2014-0432I can only figure one of two answers here. One, it could be that the heat from the crushed peppercorns was so powerful that it disguised the porcine flavor he’s so tepid about. Two, and this is the option I choose to believe: the pairing was so perfect, and the gastrique so sublimely flavored, that he couldn’t help himself but to fall hard for the combination.

Food Blog August 2014-0434Whichever it was, and however you feel about pork, this sauce is definitely worth trying. No butter this time; this sauce contains no dairy, no eggs, and no flour. It’s completely different from every other sauce I’ve approached thus far, with one exception: it must be simmered to thicken. Here, though, rather than emulsifying butter or letting flour granules soak up liquid or gently cooking egg yolks to coax out their protein strands, we’re contending with melting sugar and evaporating water content. In my version, the sugar and vinegar required to make this a gastrique are joined by gloriously ripe red plums, cooked down into a jammy pulp (helped out with the determined application of a potato masher), strained, and then returned to the pan just to help a few bits of diced raw plum heat through, for some texture. And all of this happens while the pork is cooking, so everything is ready to go at roughly the same time.

Food Blog August 2014-0437Food Blog August 2014-0438If you’re not a pork tenderloin fan, I think this would also work really well with salmon, or with various varieties of poultry. It would also provide the perfect wilt as the dressing in a warm salad of dark leafy greens; I’d opt for spinach. And save the skins and pulp after you’ve strained out the glorious velvet sauce. Warm or cool, perhaps with an additional sprinkle of sugar, they make a fantastic tart spread for toast.

Food Blog August 2014-0441

Peppercorn crusted pork tenderloin with plum gastrique
Gastrique recipe adapted from The Tomato Tart
Serves 4
For the pork:
1 lb. boneless pork tenderloin
1-2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, crushed (we used 2 tablespoons, which was aggressively peppery. If you are concerned about spice, try 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, for searing
For the gastrique:
4 ripe plums, divided (the riper they are, the faster they will cook down)
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt


  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it warms, combine crushed peppercorns, thyme, and salt on a large plate or a sheet tray, and roll the pork through it, coating it on all sides.
  • Heat the olive oil over medium-high in a large skillet. When it is rippling but not quite smoking, add the pork and sear it until golden-brown on all sides. This should take 2-3 minutes per side. As each side sears, leave it alone. You won’t get a lovely golden crust if you shake the pan and move the pork around too much.
  • When the outside of the pork is a uniform golden-brown (though of course quite raw on the inside still), relocate it to a rack on a roasting pan (I just placed a rack over the sheet tray I’d used earlier) and roast in your 350F oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the interior tests 150F. Then remove it from the oven, wrap tightly with aluminum foil and leave it for 10 minutes. During this time the temperature will rise to 160F, which is perfect.
  • Slice and serve with warm plum gastrique. A few slices, nicely sauced, over a bed of goat cheese polenta is quite nice.


  • While the pork is roasting, make the plum gastrique. Pit and quarter three of the plums. Pit the fourth plum, cut it into a small dice, and set aside.
  • Add the three quartered plums, the vinegar, and the sugar to a saucepan and cook over medium heat until simmering.
  • Turn the heat down, maintaining the simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Then, using a potato masher (or, if they are really ripe, just the back of a spoon), mash up the plums, skins and all, into a pulpy mess.
  • Cook, stirring often, until the mixture gets syrupy – about 15 minutes.
  • Pour and/or smash the mixture through a strainer to separate the pulp and skins. You can do this into a bowl, or right back into the saucepan. Either way, once the mixture is strained, pour the sauce portion back into the pan, add the diced plumps and a pinch of salt, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes just to heat everything through.
  • Serve warm.

Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog July 2013-1940As you can perhaps intuit from the title of this post, this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge was just that for me: a challenge.  Called upon to incorporate stone fruit into a bread item, my mind went in a thousand directions at once and came up blank.  For me, stone fruits belong in pies and cakes.  The idea of combining cherries, or peaches, or apricots, or nectarines with the slow, yeasted rising of a bread was an odd one (although now that I’ve considered it, chocolate and cherry bread sounds fantastic.  Inspiration, if anyone still needs an idea for this month?).  So I struggled.  I wrote down ideas that sounded like madness:

Caramelized apricot yeasted mini loaves, baked in muffin tins  too weird.

Plum cobbler  not really a bread.

Peach upside down cake  not a bread at all!

Irish soda bread with… stone fruit… somehow…

And that was where I landed, nibbling at the edges of this idea.  It would be, I decided, a skillet bread: fruit caramelized in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, soda bread dough mounded atop it and then baked and flipped, like the weirdest version of a pineapple upside down cake bread you’ve ever heard of.

Food Blog July 2013-1919Once this weirdness was determined, I settled immediately on plums as my fruit choice.  I always forget how much I love plums as a cooked component.  None of the insistent fuzziness of peaches to deal with, but bursting with juice, brightly veined, and hiding just the right hit of tartness in that secret microscopically thin layer between skin and flesh.  I love that part.

Food Blog July 2013-1923Food Blog July 2013-1926Food Blog July 2013-1929I envisioned bubbling slices of that sweet tartness in a slick of butter and brown sugar, mounding on heaps of gussied up Irish soda bread dough and baking the whole thing into a puffed, flippable cake/bread to have for breakfast, afternoon “tea” (N. and I rarely drink hot tea in the 3pm hour, but love the idea of stopping for a bit of a snack), or maybe even wedges wrapped up in wax paper to take on the road as we head into vacation.

Food Blog July 2013-1931Food Blog July 2013-1932What I got was a stunner-in-progress.  I’m going to give you the recipe for exactly what I made, but I know this is not the final iteration of this dish for me.  The plums were perfect: juicy, melting into the caramel and the bottom of the bread, sticky and jammy and reminiscent of a triumphant batch of plum butter my mom made one summer with pounds and pound of plums delivered to our door in a brown paper bag straight from a neighbor’s tree.  The bread itself was good: solid Irish soda bread, a little richer and a little sweeter from the addition of brown sugar, extra butter, and an egg, perfect for the breakfasts and snacks I envisioned, and better the second day than the first.  But as I dug in, I found myself wanting the bread part to be more like cake: more egg, less flour, a hint of vanilla or nutmeg or maybe cardamom.  The plums were so good, so gloriously gooey and tooth-sticking-ly caramelized, that they deserve a proper dessert – something you can watch a scoop of ice cream melt over.

Food Blog July 2013-1938Make this.  It’s solid and scrumptious: the perfectly not-too-sweet energy boosting slice.  But consider yourself warned: this won’t be the last time you see upside down plum something here…

Food Blog July 2013-1945

Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake
Serves 8-10
2-3 plums, thinly sliced
2 TB butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups cake flour (this adds some lightness – if you don’t have cake flour, you can use all AP flour instead with slightly denser results)
¼ cup brown sugar (again)
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
¼ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 egg


  • Preheat the oven to 400F.
  • In a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe skillet), melt the 2 TB butter and toss in the first ¼ cup brown sugar.  Stir around until butter and sugar melt together into a sticky, bubbly mass.
  • Pull the skillet off the heat and add the plums in an even, single layer right on top of the caramel you’ve created.  You can place them in concentric rings if you want, for aesthetics, but so long as you have a complete single layer, you’re in good shape.  Set the skillet aside.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar, the baking soda, and the salt until well blended.
  • In a small bowl or a 2-cup glass measuring cup (I like it easy), combine the melted butter, buttermilk, and egg.  Beat thoroughly with a fork.  Some of the melted butter will solidify again when the colder buttermilk hits it, but that’s okay.  It will all work out.
  • Pour the liquid mixture into your whisked dry ingredients.  You can make a well in the center first if you want, but the important thing is just to get them in there.  Combine with a fork, as you would with the liquid in biscuits, just until everything is incorporated into a rough, lumpy heap of dough.
  • Plop the dough onto the layer of plums and use a spatula or your hands to press it down a bit into an even layer that covers the fruit below.
  • Bake in a 400F oven for 30-40 minutes, until the bread is puffed, golden, and reaches an internal temperature of about 180F.
  • When the bread is done, let it cool for 5-10 minutes.  You can use this time to gather your courage, because the step that comes next is a little bit scary.
  • Place a large plate over the top of your cast iron skillet.  Being very careful, and using pot holders because that sucker is still smokin’ hot, invert the plate-skillet contraption so that the skillet is resting on the plate, bottom side up.  What we’re after is for the bread to give up its hold on the skillet and drop gently onto the plate with the plum layer on top.  This may take another 5-10 minutes.
  • Once the loaf has unstuck itself from the skillet and landed on the plate, remove the skillet and scrape out any remaining plum slices to add to the top of the cake itself.
  • Serve warm, room temperature, or cold, but I think this bread tastes better on day two, when the flavors have had time to meld and deepen a bit.