For those of us who like to bake with the seasons, the winter months often feel less than glamorous. Gone are the berries and stone fruits of summer and instead, we’re left with an assortment of sturdy apples and homely squash. Good for the occasional pie, but not much else, right?
As Tammy Donroe Inman’s new book Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home proves, that notion is entirely wrong. This volume shows with style and ease just how varied and delicious winter desserts can be. The photography is beautiful and inspiring, and the writing is personable, fun, and crystal clear. Arranged by main ingredient (Apples, Pears & Quince, Nuts & Chocolate, Citrus, etc.), Wintersweet includes both twists on classics (Ginger Apple Crumb Cake) as well as novel end of meal offerings (Honey-Roasted Pears with Blue Cheese and Walnuts).
As I read my way through the book, I marked more than half the recipes as things I’d like to try and finally settled on three that were perfect for this holiday season.
First out of my kitchen was the Pecan Praline Bark. I’ve had a fondness for praline anything since childhood and was delighted to see how few ingredients were necessary for this treat. Inman’s directions were impressively details and my bark turned out perfectly (though mine never did make a sticky sound during the final stirring).
The Butternut Squash Cake came next. Based on a classic pumpkin loaf, once you have your cup of squash puree (if you don’t have a butternut on hand in your kitchen, there’s no shame in using canned), this cake takes all of five minutes to stir together. I baked mine off in two smaller loaf pans so that I could keep one and give the other to my favorite neighbor. It is sweet, well-spiced, and could happily work either on a brunch table or as a casual potluck dessert.
Last came a batch of Hermits. I’d never heard of this beloved New England cookie before opening this book (though in the last week, I’ve seen mention of them half a dozen times) but I’m so glad to have discovered them. I chose this recipe because I have travel coming up and like to arrive with some small sweet treat in my suitcase for immediate sharing. These cookies were billed as improving “with time and isolation” and so fit the bill. Right out of the oven, they are tender and a bit sticky. As they sit, they get a little denser and the sweetness of the molasses seems to intensify. They are a welcome addition to my baking repertoire.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the items I made from Wintersweet and I can’t wait to bake a few more of the recipes I marked. Any home cook who likes to end the meal with a small sliver of something homemade should add this book to their personal library immediately.
Pecan Praline Bark
1¼ cups (170 g) pecan halves
1 cup (215 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter
½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or kosher salt ground fine with a mortar and pestle), plus more as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or bourbon
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or foil.
In a medium dry skillet, lightly toast the pecans over medium-low heat, tossing occasionally, until they are fragrant and softly hissing, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to a plate to cool.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed, high-sided saucepan, mix together the brown sugar, granulated sugar, cream, butter, salt, and vanilla. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, until the mixture bubbles to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the pot and continue cooking until the temperature reaches 238°F (114°C), 3 to 5 minutes. (If you live above sea level, decrease that temperature by 1°F for every 500 feet of elevation, or 1°C for every 300 meters of altitude.)
Remove the pot from the heat, unclip the thermometer, add the pecans, and stir vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. The mixture will start to thicken and lighten in color. When it starts to make a sticky sound when stirred (you’ll know it when you hear it), pour the mixture onto the lined sheet pan, spreading the pecans evenly. Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt, if desired. Let the bark cool completely.
Break the cooled bar into irregular 2-inch (5-cm) pieces and watch them disappear.
They can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 4 to 5 days, theoretically, but they never last that long.
Makes about half a sheet pan
Butternut Squash Cake
1⅔ cups (230 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
1½ cups (300 g) granulated sugar
½ cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 cup (230 g) pureed butternut squash
2 tablespoons water
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a standard 9 x 5 inch (23 x 13 cm) loaf pan.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. In another medium bowl, mix the sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, squash puree, and water until well combined.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir well.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly, and bake the cake for about 1 hour and 10 to 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The top should be well browned. Let it cool to room temperature before slicing. The cake can be stored, covered, at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.
Makes 1 loaf
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
½ cup (125 ml) molasses (not blackstrap)
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, from 1 orange (shiny orange part only)
3 cups (420 g) whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mace
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup (125 ml) milk, at room temperature
½ cup (75 g) dried currants
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 13 x 9 inch (33 x 23 cm) baking pan.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar for 1 to 2 minutes, and then mix in the molasses and orange zest. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, mace, and cloves. On low speed, mix half of the milk into the butter mixture, and then add half of the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. Alternate adding the remaining milk and dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Add the currants and mix until well distributed. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.
Bake the hermits for 16 to 22 minutes, or until the edges are set and turning golden-brown, and the center is still a little soft.
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 5 minutes, and then cut the sheet into about 32 bars while still warm. Let the cookies cool completely on a wire rack before transferring them to an airtight container. Let them sit for a least a day at room temperature to let the flavors mingle and the texture soften. They can be stored that way for up to 1 week.
Makes one 13 x 9 inch (33 x 23 cm) pan