Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Snippets of Thanksgiving Dinner

Jeff and I had the pleasure of hosting his family for Thanksgiving this weekend. It was our first time cooking a turkey dinner for guests, and I was equal parts nervous and excited. Since it was such a busy day, I didn't get around to documenting things as well as I would have liked, but I do have a few dishes to share.

While Jeff took care of the fresh turkey from Stephen Taylor's farm (stuffed with onions, apples, carrots, and lemons, and rubbed with a lemon and herb butter,) gravy from scratch, and the potatoes (mashed with my roasted-garlic butter, and cream cheese) I tackled the rest of the dinner. First up is homemade cranberry sauce:

I followed a Martha Stewart recipe, but made it my own with a few generous shakes of cinnamon. Mmmm, it was spicy and tasted like autumn. I hated cranberry sauce until I started making it myself; there's really no comparison, and it's only slightly harder than locating the can opener.

Inspired by this month's recipe for Whole Wheat Stuffing with Pancetta, Chestnuts, and Parmesan in Bon Appétit, I tried something different for my dressing. I think chestnuts are more of an American holiday tradition; anyway, I'm not at all familiar with them so I substituted with walnuts. Also, because I have a hard time reading recipes very attentively, I didn't realize until later that this one called for cubed pancetta, and instead asked the kid at the deli counter to slice mine like bacon. While I can see why cubes of pancetta would work very well, texture-wise, with the cubes of bread in this dish, the sliced pancetta was perfectly tasty and added a lot of flavour. I also loved the complimentary, yet subtle, addition of Parmesan in this dressing.

I decided to use dried herbs in this dish instead of fresh, because I was afraid that fresh ones would wilt and lose their oils and flavour during the long baking time. In addition to the thyme and rosemary listed in the recipe, I added some ground savoury, inspired by a friend who raves about her mother's stuffing and credits this herb as a major player. I was very pleased with this dish, as it had great texture (toasting the bread cubes beforehand keeps the dressing from getting soggy) and amazing flavour. I smell a tradition!

For a vegetable side dish, I cut butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots into equally sized pieces, tossed them with olive oil, salt, and freshly cracked pepper, and roasted them at 450C for 20-25 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through. I then drizzled the vegetables with a bit of maple syrup, tossed them some more, and put them back in the oven for 10 minutes to glaze.

They were delicious. Once roasted and caramelized, it was difficult to tell which vegetable was which, because the dish was a bright and shiny mass of orange. This side dish was full of deep, sweet flavour, and I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Finally, my crowning achievement. I made cheesecake for the first time, a pumpkin one. I followed yet another Martha Stewart recipe, replacing the graham cracker crust with one made from gingersnaps (I used a bit more crumbs than the recipe called for, and omitted sugar.) I also made my own pumpkin pie spice by combining ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
The cheesecake cracked in the oven, which I hear is a common problem. I just brought individual slices cut from the intact portion to the table for our guests, instead of displaying the cake before serving. No one seemed to mind! Made with 4 blocks of cream cheese, this dessert was incredibly rich, and required no sauce or whipped cream for garnish. Pure decadence!

For the first time, I truly appreciate how much work goes into putting on a Thanksgiving dinner. Although exhausting, it was very satisfying to invite people into our home to enjoy a holiday meal. I hope that this year's dinner was only the beginning of new traditions, and look forward to future feasts with loved ones.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Auchentoshan Chocolate Pecan Pie

When Jeff had a milestone birthday this summer, our dear friends bought him a bottle of 12-year-old Auchentoshan. As this was his first nice bottle of single malt scotch whisky, they offered to host a tasting for us. Since they are both scotch connoisseurs, we knew we were in for a treat; in fact, one of them, Mortie C, is the blogger behind The Spirit Safe. Definitely check it out; he is very knowledgeable and informative. I've learned a lot from him!

Mortie and I thought that it would be interesting if I used the Auchentoshan in a dessert, so that we both could blog about the tasting (for Mortie's complete review of the Auchentoshan at The Spirit Safe, click here.) I knew exactly where to look for a delicious recipe: Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, is a book full of classic-with-a-twist desserts that includes Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie. As a novice baker, most of their recipes are a little advanced for my abilities, but the book is so gorgeous and inspiring that I've read it from cover to cover at least 4 times. The Baked pecan pie recipe, I thought, seemed manageable, and I was excited to actually use the book for the first time.

Another first for me was making my own pie crust. Oh, boy. On my list of "Things that Terrify Me to My Very Core," making my own pie crust is sandwiched between being mauled by a grizzly bear and burning the house down with my hair straightener. So, as I began my pie adventure, I was even more frazzled than usual. Thankfully, after two attempts, I ended up with something that looked OK; in fact, I was quite pleased with myself!

Once the crust had a chance to freeze, the recipe called for a single layer of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Clearly, the gentlemen behind Baked know what they're doing!

Onto the custard filling. I combined eggs, corn syrup, white and brown sugars, butter, salt and vanilla. I replaced the bourbon in the recipe with Auchentoshan, of course, and increased its amount from 3 tbsp to 1/4 cup so that I could be sure it would shine. I mixed in some chopped toasted pecan halves from the farmer's market, and poured it carefully onto the chocolate layer.

Then, it was time to arrange the rest of the pecan halves on top of the filling.

After about an hour of baking, the pie was done. I had a moment of sheer panic when I realized that the pie looked like a soufflé! The custard had puffed right up to a dome that was three times as high as the crust! I set it out to cool, and thankfully, while I was pacing around the kitchen, sweating and muttering, it settled down to a normal height for pie. I've since done some research, and it turns out the puffing up is typical. Apparently, this is common knowledge to the point where no recipe that I looked at even bothered mentioning it. What, am I the only moron in the world who would bake a pecan pie and not expect this hot air balloon phenomenon? How are we beginners supposed to know these things?! WHY WASN'T I WARNED?!?!!!

Aaaaaaah, much better.

When I finally cut into the pie at the tasting, it was clear that something had gone awry with the dough. Although it looked nice, the texture was all wrong. The crust was too tough, and more crunchy than flaky (both Jeff and Mortie's wife likened it to phyllo). I was somewhat comforted by the fact that it had a really nice, buttery taste, which motivates me to perfect my method. I've read Deb's tutorial at Smitten Kitchen, and I suspect that I added too much ice water to the dough before resting it. Oh well, you can't win 'em all, and I've read many times that it takes a lot of practice to master pie crust. I shall soldier on!

On the bright side, I really enjoyed the filling. The pecans were nice and toasty, the custard was sweet and gooey, and the chocolate provided an added layer of richness. I particularly enjoyed the Auchentoshan, which I thought came through nicely in the final product. With notes of toffee, vanilla, and nuts, it complemented the pecan pie in the most delightful way.
Mortie C kindly provided this picture of a leftover slice of pie, so that you can better appreciate its layers. He reported that he enjoyed the pie even more cold, right out of the fridge, as the custard had a chance to set.

Baked does flavour right, and I know I will make this Auchentoshan Chocolate Pecan Pie again when I'm more confident in my technique. Although I was disappointed, what's important is that I had a wonderful evening with great friends and a good spirit. You know you've found nice people when they'll not only hack through a pie with a rock-solid crust without complaint, but even give compliments. Today's lesson: when in doubt about your dessert, be sure to serve it with copious amounts of delicious scotch whisky!