Cowgirl Chef: Fall desserts that warm the soul

Posted Tuesday, Nov. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Bread pudding with butterscotch sauce Makes 4 servings This is my mom’s recipe for bread pudding, always one of my favorite fall desserts. About 2 tablespoons butter, for greasing 1 cup whole milk 1 cup whipping cream 3 eggs 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon sea salt Two-thirds of a French baguette, torn into half-inch pieces (about 6 heaping cups) 1 recipe butterscotch sauce (recipe follows) 1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and generously grease four ramekins with butter. 2. In a large bowl, mix milk, cream, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and sea salt. Add bread pieces, then smoosh down so they soak up as much liquid as possible. Let rest for 15 minutes. 3. Divide among four ramekins, and place in a large baking dish. Pour water about halfway up the sides, cover with foil and cut a few slits in the foil. Bake for 45 minutes or until the puddings are set, removing the foil for the last 10 minutes so the tops get crunchy. Serve warm with butterscotch sauce. Nutritional analysis per serving, entire recipe: 837 calories, 47 grams fat, 94 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 295 milligrams cholesterol, 824 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.
Butterscotch sauce Makes 1 cup 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup boiling water 4 tablespoons brown sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat; whisk in flour. Slowly add boiling water and brown sugar and stir the sauce until it boils. Cook for 5 more minutes over low heat. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Serve warm. Nutritional analysis per 1/4-cup serving: 153 calories, 12 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 121 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 67 percent of calories from fat.
Pain d’epices (spice bread) Makes 1 loaf (12 slices per loaf) There are lots of recipes for pain d’epices in France — some are less sweet than others, and toasted, served with foie gras — but I like this recipe because it’s just as nice for breakfast, toasted, as it is for dessert. 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 stick butter 1/3 cup honey 1/2 cup milk 3/4 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup buckwheat flour 1/4 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 to 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice 1/4 teaspoon sea salt 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 eggs, lightly beaten 1 teaspoon lemon zest 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a 10-inch-by-4-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. 2. Melt brown sugar, butter, honey and milk in a saucepan over low heat. 3. Whisk together dry ingredients; add beaten eggs and lemon zest to mixture. Pour melted sugar mixture into this and mix until the lumps disappear — you can do all of this by hand, with a wooden spoon. 4. Pour into loaf pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until the cake springs back slightly when you touch it. Let cool on a rack. Slice and serve with salted butter, cream cheese or a bit of jam, or dust with confectioners’ sugar. Nutritional analysis per slice: 175 calories, 9 grams fat, 22 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 242 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.
Chocolate pôts de crème Makes 6 (4-ounce) servings A richer, baked version of an American pudding, pôts de crème are usually served in small portions and with strong coffee afterward. 7 ounces good-quality chocolate (60 to 70 percent cacao) 1 1/2 cups cream 1/2 cup whole milk 1/4 cup sugar 6 egg yolks 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put chocolate in a medium-size heatproof bowl and set aside. 2. Bring cream, milk and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. When it boils, pour it over the chocolate, let it sit for a minute or two, then whisk until the chocolate is incorporated. 3. Beat egg yolks with a mixer, and while it is running, add chocolate mixture to eggs — a little at a time so they don’t scramble. 4. Pour into six 4-ounce ramekins, and place them in a casserole dish large enough to hold them all. Pour water up to two-thirds of the sides and cover with foil. Cut a few slits in the foil. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the puddings are set. Carefully remove from oven and water. Let cool completely, then refrigerate. Nutritional analysis per serving: 422 calories, 39 grams fat, 21 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 268 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber, 75 percent of calories from fat.
Pear and pistachio tartelettes Makes 6 (4 1/4-inch) tartelettes I wanted to make something that was lighter than a pie or a crumble and just as easy to make. I’ve never seen a pear and pistachio tartelette in France, but I’m sure someone’s making it in a patisserie kitchen somewhere, since it combines two classic baking elements: a sablé crust and pastry cream. 1/2 cup pistachios, finely ground, plus a few nuts for garnish 1 cup flour 1/4 teaspoon sea salt 1 stick butter, at room temperature 1/2 cup powdered sugar 1 extra-large egg yolk Vanilla pastry cream (recipe follows) 2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced 1. Make crusts — six big cookies, basically: Whisk together pistachios, flour and salt, and set aside. 2. In a mixer bowl, beat butter until it’s light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar and mix well. Add pistachio-flour mixture and combine. 3. Pour in egg yolk and pulse until you have lots of large, slightly moist crumbles. Dump this onto a wooden board or a flat surface; roll it out to 1/8 inch thick and cut out 4 1/4-inch circles. Refrigerate or freeze until firm (this will keep the tart bottoms from spreading too much). 4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake shells for 10 to 12 minutes or until brown on the edges. Let cool completely. 5. Top with a couple tablespoons of vanilla pastry cream, sliced pears and a sprinkling of pistachios. Nutritional analysis per tartelette: 323 calories, 22 grams fat, 29 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 77 milligrams cholesterol, 237 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 59 percent of calories from fat.
Vanilla pastry cream Makes enough for 6 tartelettes 1 cup whole milk 3 large or extra-large egg yolks 1/4 cup sugar 3 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted 1 teaspoon vanilla 3 tablespoons butter 1. Bring milk to a boil in a saucepan. 2. While the milk’s warming up, whisk egg yolks together with sugar and cornstarch in a mixer. With the motor running, slowly add the hot milk to the eggs, then return the entire mixture to the saucepan to thicken. Whisk constantly while the mixture comes to a boil again, and let boil for 1 or 2 minutes, or until it’s nice and thick. 3. Whisk in vanilla and butter. Pour into a bowl and put into an ice bath, or simply let cool, cover the top with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. Nutritional analysis per serving: 155 calories, 10 grams fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 127 milligrams cholesterol, 82 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 56 percent of calories from fat.

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Just as there are seasons for soups — cold ones in the summer and warm, hearty ones in the winter — there are seasons for desserts.

As it gets cooler outside and I stack the piñon wood near my front door, I transition from berries, ice creams and sorbets to things that’ll warm up my kitchen. Baked things, like cookies, cakes and pies. Tarts and creamy puddings, desserts that are richer and fuller than their summer cousins.

Don’t get me wrong, summer. I love your blueberries, your peaches, your cherries and your relentless sunny days — but fall means I get to return to my kitchen, where I can once again wrestle with my small but formidable Barbie-size oven, which heats like a box four times its size and must be carefully watched so my cookie bottoms don’t get too brown.

With an endless supply of French press coffee nearby, I dive back into the buttery doughs that a non-air-conditioned summer makes more challenging. (Hello, pie. Bonjour, tartes!) More chocolate and caramel. Warming spices — cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves — that are lovely in some baked goods, but not everything.

One of the easiest fall desserts is bread pudding, made with stale bread (cinnamon if you’ve got it, brioche or croissants if you’re in France and want to be over-the-top) and a simple egg-milk mixture and baked till the top is crisp and golden, the insides pillowy soft. Classic comfort food, it is all the better served with a warm sauce of some sort (I make one with a butterscotch sauce, just like my mom) and a scoop of ice cream. I like to make bread puddings in small ramekins for a higher crispy-top-to-soft-insides ratio. Plus, it feels slightly more special.

The nice thing about bread pudding, besides being old-school and just plain good, is you can add different things if you want, like dried cherries or apricots. Or you can serve it with a chocolate sauce. It’s one of those desserts that’s a great blank canvas to play around with.

Ditto with any sort of spice cake, whether it’s like the French pain d’epices, or spice bread, or a darker, molasses-sweetened gingerbread, or even the classic American carrot cake, which I think of as fallish because it has a similar flavor profile. I like to make these cakes (carrot, too) in loaf pans and cut them into thick slices to snack on with afternoon coffee or tea. To me, they don’t always need a thick, sugary icing. They’re spectacular on their own.

There are also pies and classic Frenchy-inspired tarts. As much as I love an apple pie or a caramelly tarte Tatin, the French upside-down apple tart — both great served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — I also like something even lighter and more elegant. Enter the pistachio-pear tartelettes (recipe follows), an impressive-sounding dessert that comes together in three easy steps: Make the crusts, which are simply large cookies; make a pastry cream and refrigerate; and thinly slice a couple of very ripe pears. Assemble. Eat.

Finally, there’s chocolate. It’s great any time of year but seems even more fitting now that the weather has finally turned cooler. In France, I often swap out drinkable, puddinglike chocolat chaud for my afternoon coffee when it’s scarf-and-cashmere weather, or I make chocolate pôts de crème — insanely dense, egg-yolky and creamy puddings that are best served small.

That way, you can eat one now and one later, for breakfast maybe. Isn’t this what stretch pants and bulky sweaters are for?

Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press, $25).; @cowgirlchef.

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