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Cowgirl Chef: Fall desserts that warm the soul

11/05/2013 10:43 AM

11/05/2013 10:44 AM

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?

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