December 31, 2008
As some of you may recall from last year, some people in our neighborhood have a tradition of doing a progressive dinner on New Year's Eve, with each couple being assigned one of five courses, except for the lucky sixth couple; they are dubbed "the assistants."
In fact, last year Jim took pictures of all the courses, but this year he balked at the idea of taking his camera out in the cold and snow, so we only have pictures of our course. We drew dessert this year. I couldn't settle on a single dessert, but I had a brainstorm: why not present a dessert tray? I could bake all day, and end up with, say, four desserts. I liked the idea. I spent a lot of time browsing through cookbooks and on the internet--I wanted something chocolate, of course, and something fruity; a pie, a cake, and a something else. After a lot of different combinations and permutations, I finally decided on a white chocolate cheesecake, a lemon tart, a cranberry upside-down cake, and a layered chocolate-vanilla pudding served with World Peace cookies.
I will tell you at the outset that disaster never struck and I finished everything with enough time left to take a shower. So if you're hoping for a little schadenfreude, you'll have to look somewhere else.
I started with the cheesecake, a white chocolate variation on Rose's Cordon Bleu cheesecake. I had heard high praise of Rose's cheesecakes, and, indeed, this was probably the richest, creamiest cheesecake I've ever eaten. Her cheesecake recipe is for a cake that is served au naturel, without a crumb crust. I don't know about other parts of the country, but I know that in Minnesota, a cheesecake without a graham cracker crust would just not pass muster. (Did anyone else think the phrase was "pass mustard"? As a teenager, I remember spending a fair amount of time wondering how one passed mustard and what it signified. Now that I'm a lawyer, I know how to use the phrase, "passed constitutional muster," which would be even odder as mustard).
However, back to the cheesecake. So I made a graham cracker crust.
And then I used a 9-inch springform pan instead of an 8-inch, because the crust took up enough space that I was afraid it would overflow. The 9-inch was perfect. Do you notice anything about the top of this cheesecake? It does not have a giant crack in the center, as other of my efforts have done. In fact, I don't think I will ever be disloyal to this cheesecake recipe because I don't see how it could be done better. Now I just want to try the original, pure version. I did the white chocolate version, which just requires less sugar, less lemon juice, and the addition of white chocolate. I learned that you should steer clear of most things that claim to be white chocolate and peruse the label carefully to make sure the supposed chocolate actually has cocoa butter in it. Naturally, this is the most expensive kind.
I served it with a raspberry coulis and a few fresh raspberries. The coulis is not very artful, but I like the effect of the two raspberries plunked on top.
I was feeling pretty confident when the cheesecake came out of the water bath intact, so I went on to the lemon tart, a Dorie Greenspan recipe which she got from Pierre Herme. This was the thing I feared most because it had two possibilities for going amiss: the crust and the lemon cream. An all-butter pastry crust can go wrong in so many ways and the lemon cream could not thicken or could scramble. As it happened, the crust turned out to be delicate and flavorful and the lemon cream was a perfect, unscrambled consistency. This is not just any lemon tart; it's "the most amazing" lemon tart, according to Dorie. I don't know if it's the "most amazing," but it's pretty darned good.
It looks innocuous, but that pale yellow packs a huge lemony punch, and a melt-in-your-mouth creaminess. I had what I thought was an artistic presentation idea. I would serve a wedge of tart with a dollop of whipped cream into which I would place a smaller dollop of Trader Joe's lemon curd. I was quite pleased with the effect until my so-called friends pointed out that it looked like a fried egg and started calling it the sunny-side-up dessert.
Next up was the pudding course--again, a recipe from Baking From My Home to Yours. This is a recipe that Dorie calls Split Level Pudding, and I called Black and White pudding. It's extremely easy, but relies heavily on the quality of the chocolate and the quality of the vanilla, so you don't want to scrimp on either. The first layer is a chocolate ganache made with just cream and chocolate. I upped the quantity of both because it didn't seem like 1/3 cup of cream would make enough ganache for six ramekins, and I was glad I did because it was still a pretty thin layer. The chocolate layer is topped with a layer of standard vanilla pudding and decorated prettily with chocolate shavings. What really made this pudding special was serving it with Dorie's famous World Peace cookies, which I also baked.
About those chocolate shavings. I have heard that you can make chocolate shavings with a vegetable peeler, but whenever I've tried it, I've ended up with chocolate sawdust. Inspiration struck--I checked "chocolate shavings" in the index of The Cake Bible. Who else but Rose would tell you that you can't shave chocolate unless it's just the right temperature, which happens to be 80 degrees, which also happens not to be the temperature of my kitchen in January. Rose says just warm the chocolate in the microwave in 3-second bursts. After about five bursts, the chocolate actually peeled right into shavings.
It was 3:00, and I had only one recipe left--a cranberry upside-down cake that took about five minutes to put together. I didn't like the way the top looked when I took it out of the oven--to plain and white--but then I remembered that I was supposed to top it off with a red currant glaze. That was just the ticket.
I tried to think of a clever presentation, but couldn't, so I settled for whipped cream.
Jim's considered opinion: the lemon tart was the best. (He has to phrase this very carefully, or I accuse him of not liking the other desserts). I think I may agree, although the cheesecake was so creamy, and the pudding was so chocolatey, and the upside down cake was so homey....
Split Level Pudding
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup heavy cream
2-1/4 cups whole milk
6 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
3 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
2-1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Chocolate shavings for decoration (optional)
Put the chocolate in a 1 or 2 cup glass measuring cup. Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let it sit for 30 seconds, then gently stir to blend. Divide the chocolate ganache among six ramekins or custard cups and set aside.
Bring 2 cups of the milk and 3 Tbsp of the sugar to a boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan.
While the milk is heating, put the cornstarch and salt into a food processor and whir to blend. Turn them out onto a piece of wax paper, put the remaining 3 Tbsp sugar and the egg yolks into the processor and blend for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the remaining 1/4 cup milk and pulse just to mix, then add the dry ingredients and pulse a few times to blend.
With the machine running, very slowly pour in the hot milk mixture. Process for a few seconds, then pour everything back into the saucepan. Whisk without stopping over medium heat- making sure to get into the edges of the pan - until the pudding thickens and a couple of bubbles burble up to the surface and pop (about 2 minutes). You don't want the pudding to boil, but you do want it to thicken, so lower the heat, if necessary.
Scrape the puddding back into the processor (if there's a scorched spot, avoid it as you scrape) and pulse a couple of times. Add the butter and vanilla and pulse until everything is evenly blended.
Pour the pudding into the cups over the chocolate. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of each pudding to create and airtight seal and prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate the puddings for at least 4 hours. You can serve it chilled or at room temperature so the ganache was soft and blended with the pudding.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
14 tbsp butter (at room temperature)
1 cup minus 2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup whole milk
1/4 cup red currant jelly (for glaze)
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan; sprinkle in 6 tablespoons of the sugar and cook until it comes to a boil.
Pour the butter/sugar over the bottom of an 8 inch round pan, then scattter the nuts and berries over the top, making a smooth layer. Set aside.
Beat the remaining butter until smooth. Cream in the remaining sugar, beating for about 3 minutes.
Add the eggs and the vanilla.
On low speed, stir in half the dry ingredients, then all the milk, then the last half of the flour mixture.
Spoon the batter over the berries, smoothing the top with a spatula.
Bake for 40-45 minutes at 350ºF, or until the top of the cake is golden.
Once the pan is cool enough to handle, turn the cake out onto a serving platter, rearranging any cranberries that fall out of place.
While cake is still warm, melt the red currant jelly and brush on top.