It wouldn’t be a true Thanksgiving without some pie after your turkey. But, at least in my house, which is probably true for many others, the Thanksgiving dessert spread hasn’t changed at all during my 20 years of existence (and probably for even longer than that). Classic desserts such as apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie are as important to Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Parade, the green bean casserole, or the yearly anticipation for Black Friday sales. But of late, I’ve grown restless with these traditional baked goods, and so I’ve decided to revamp the Thanksgiving dessert table.
My quibble with the usual turkey day desserts is their predictability – their sugary predictability, that is. Every year it’s the same assortment of pumpkin, apple, pecan, or chocolate pies. Each and every one often tastes like a single droll note of sweet. No real spice, no interesting or unexpected flavor pairings, and no plays on texture. Just the same plain crust and standard sugary fillings – the only real difference is whether your whipped topping came from a can or a tub.
I love churros. They’re amazing. But I never realized that we here in America had made them the wrong way, until I went to Spain. At fairs, in schools, in bakeries, and all over in the United States, churros are served long, covered in sugar and cinnamon, and only eaten one at a time. I used to eat them at my school that way and loved them. Everyone waited in line for a long time to get the churros, and they were really good because they were served hot. But a new principal wanted to make things “healthy” and took away churros from the lunch room (I think it was just budget cuts). Eventually the churros came back, but they were served cold, shipped in from somewhere else, and by the time lunch came, they no longer had the same goodness. I still bought them, though, because it was the only option. But then I went to Spain.
When I was growing up, the one good thing about coming down with the flu was the guarantee that there would be pudding. My mom firmly believed that it was good for tender stomachs and since it was made with milk, it offered enough nutrition to get us back on the road to recovery. She’d alternate between a basic stovetop rice pudding and vanilla pudding from a packet.
For years, I thought puddings and custards were only good for those sick days when you needed something slightly sweet and easy to slurp. However, thanks to Faith Durand and her new book, Bakeless Sweets, my eyes have been opened to the many possibilities that exist in the world of puddings (as well as in panna cottas, jellies, and fluffs). MORE
Milk chocolate gets a
Myth #1: milk chocolate is too sweet. This is sometimes true, but only because there’s so much bad milk chocolate out there. And, the FDA only requires milk chocolate to contain a minimum of 10% cacao solids (from the cacao bean) and 12 percent milk solids, leaving the door wide open for mass-market chocolate companies to add a bunch of sugar, fake flavors, and additives you can’t pronounce.
Myth #2: milk chocolate is juvenile. Dark chocolate is perceived as more sophisticated and therefore, inherently better than milk. All those research studies linking dark chocolate to heart health don’t help, either.
Over the years, my mother has taken a lot of criticism from me, both in my writing and private conversations, over her cooking—or lack thereof. She wasn’t much for family meals cooked from scratch. “But I always loved baking,” she reminded me recently.
And it’s true. Not only does she like to bake, she’s very good at it. Baking, of course, is mostly about attention to detail, weighing and measuring with precision, and being willing to faithfully follow instructions. My mom, a teacher, really excels in these departments.
As a kid, I never wondered where the treats or their recipes came from. I just knew I loved her repertoire of cookies and cakes, especially her chocolate cake. A sweet, densely cocoa-y two layer number whose soft crumb and dark-chocolate edge paired perfectly with someone’s birthday and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was my very favorite and I requested it often. For years, it had no identity beyond my mother’s chocolate cake. MORE
When I was in culinary school, I learned that the tools of any pastry chef are flour, butter, milk, and eggs. With these four ingredients, you can make nearly anything in a pastry shop: flaky croissants, moist cakes, toothsome breads and more. The ingredients are few; the execution nuanced and complex.
Similarly, with two basic ingredients: cacao beans and sugar, plus the occasional dash of lecithin or vanilla, bean-to-bar chocolate makers create chocolate. Cacao beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and crushed into small pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste, to which sugar and lecithin is added, and the resulting chocolate is refined until it’s silky smooth.
In the examples below, these chocolate companies add salt and nibs to their chocolate. The result is chocolate in two forms—the kind that melts on your tongue, plus the kind that crunches between your teeth—kicked up with a salty crackle. And tasters diligent (or curious) enough to pry the nibs from the bar can taste chocolate’s more primitive form.
The first morning of a recent business trip to British Columbia, I walked into a bakery for coffee and walked out with coffee and a fascinating treat called a Nanaimo bar. I took a bite. I was a goner. Along with the butter tart, the Nanaimo (pronounced Nuh-NIME-oh) bar is one of the great Canadian sweets, a 3-layer chocolate-and-vanilla cream confection that puts the drab brownie to shame. The genius of the bar lies in its contrasting flavors and textures. A nubby cocoa crust is iced with cool, smooth vanilla cream which is in turn capped with a thin layer of melted chocolate. The recipe first appeared in a 1952 hospital auxiliary cookbook under the name “chocolate square” and while no one is sure who invented it, or where, the town of Nanaimo takes the credit. I spent the next four days of my trip sampling Nanaimo bars everywhere I went, which was easy because they are ubiquitous, the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. For the record, if you’re ever in Victoria, Bond Bond’s bakery made the best Nanaimo bar I tasted, although the Nanaimo bar at a Vancouver Starbucks was pretty terrific. MORE
If licorice conjures memories of movie theaters and popcorn, then turn your thoughts to the dark side. The distinctive flavor of black licorice is usually associated with chewy candy, but there’s so much more to it. Salted licorice offers a satisfying chew that’s part savory, part sweet. Anise seeds have an earthy, almost spicy character. Fennel gives two more options: Raw, it has a crisp, bright taste and cooking brings out its syrupy sweetness. Star anise makes for a pretty garnish, but it also has a delicate sweetness. And tarragon’s subtle licorice flavor is tempered with herbaceous notes.
Given the versatility of licorice flavors, it’s a prime candidate for combining with chocolate. It can be tricky to pair the right type of licorice flavor with the right type of chocolate, but in the hands of these three chocolate companies, the results are something to savor. MORE
Peanuts get a bad rap these days, from outright bans at schools to bags of Halloween candy proudly declaring their peanut deficiency. But when I was a kid, the more peanuts, the better. I present for your deliberation: Mars versus Snickers. Mars bar? Cloyingly sweet with an oddly slick texture. Snickers bar? Caramelly, chewy, and delicious—and stuffed with peanuts. I rest my case.
If peanuts are good, then peanuts and chocolate is better. There’s a reason that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have endured since 1928, and it isn’t because my college roommate used to—and probably still does—eat them compulsively. MORE
During my childhood, my parents always gave homemade gifts to their friends, co-workers, and employees during the holiday season. My dad would stir up industrial-sized batches of his super-secret pancake mix, package it in zip top bags, and pair it with jars of my mom’s blueberry jam.
In exchange, we’d receive plates of chewy homemade toffees, tins of dense, sugar-dusted pfeffernusse and giant bags of long-roasted Chex Mix. (I loved the nearly burnt bits most of all.)
Since becoming an adult, I’ve spent years searching out my signature holiday treat, so that I could have a thing that my friends and neighbors would look forward to each December. I’ve tried tiny frosted sugar cookies (too much work), dark chocolate toffees (delicious, but I could not abide the endless wrapping), and pumpkin seed brittle (good, but not everyone likes grassy flavor of pumpkin seeds). MORE
If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship—one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.
Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier—someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient. For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man. MORE
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about ladies in southeastern Alabama who bake fantastic multi-layer cakes to give away every December. A transfixing photograph illustrated the piece, a portrait of a grandmotherly Southerner and her so-called “little layer cake,” a towering confection of 14 yellow discs sandwiched with what appeared to be solid, glossy fudge.
As a native Californian, I find recipes from elderly Southern women far more mysterious and alluring than recipes from, say, Alice Waters. The cake went onto the list of things I want to bake someday, a list I consult every few days as I do not want to die before I make Sussex pond pudding, apple stack cake, or syllabub. MORE
My mom grew up in the fifties and sixties, in one of those idyllic suburban neighborhoods where kids walked to school unsupervised and played outside in the afternoons until the streetlights came on.
There was no better day of the year in her community than October 31. The streets would fill with miniature hobos, ghosts and witches, all clutching brown paper shopping bags to hold their treats, warm winter coats concealing most of their costumes.
These were the days before candy companies got wise and started producing snack and “fun” sized candy bars and long before homemade treats were deemed dangerous. This meant that my mom’s grocery sack ended up filled with full-sized Snickers and Chunky bars, freshly baked gingerbread men from Mrs. Rath and Mr. Brown’s famous popcorn balls. MORE
When it comes to home baking, I tend to be utilitarian. I can turn out a serviceable loaf of banana bread, am fairly comfortable with basic yeast doughs and make a mean oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. However, once I stray beyond my familiar territory, things often go sideways.
It’s not that I’m not interested in more adventurous baking, I simply haven’t had much luck when I’ve tried things like homemade Oreo-style sandwich cookies (the filling separated and tasted like a grease slick) and many-layered cakes (never has a baked good so resembled the leaning tower of Pisa). And while even the ugliest disaster can still be delicious, it’s nice when you find that sweet spot of both visual and palatable success.
Knowing this, you’ll understand that I approached Hedy Goldsmith’s Baking Out Loud with both excitement and a little trepidation. Goldsmith is a pastry chef based in Miami, Florida, who is known for making over-the-top versions of familiar treats (like Twinkies and Cracker Jacks) and her glossy, beautifully photographed first book contains many of the items that have made her famous throughout the South. MORE