Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkin Treats For The Grown-Ups

It's nearly Halloween, and there are pumpkins everywhere. So why not here? Now, I don't have any munchkins of my own, as yet, so my fall / Halloween / Thanksgiving get-togethers will be just a wee bit more grown-up. Not too stuffy though, because I'm the first to bail out on a boring party! So when it comes to dessert, I think the adults will get excited about taking some fire-power into their own hands. And while some of you may not agree with me, I think there's something really sexy about a well-made, silky-smooth creme brulee.

I have a tender spot in my heart for these petite French custard pots topped off with a hard caramel top. For one thing, I didn't even have a proper creme brulee till I was in my early 20s. Luckily, the first time was a revelation, because it happened to be in a cute little French bistro tucked away in a busy corner of Paris. After that first time, I made sure that I had a creme brulee every single day that I was in Paris for that vacation - I literally wouldn't bother going in to a restaurant if they didn't have creme brulee on their dessert menu. I don't even care if I lived up to their stereotype of "zat typical Americaaaan" (even though I'm Canadian, please!) by doing that. You see, at that time I had no idea if I was ever going to have a creme brulee back home (naive, I know), which was as good as all the ones that I was feasting on in Paris, so I had no qualms about pigging out (after all, that is what one does on a vacation). Fortunately, I eventually discovered that this dessert isn't too hard to put together at home, and buying that one special little tool for it really empowers you and turns you into the Creme Brulee Queen in your family!

My handy-dandy kitchen torch - it's already done so much good in the world!

Pumpkin Creme Brulee (original Gale Gand recipe from The Food Network)
Serves 4

Click here for printable recipe

1.5 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
2 pinches ground nutmeg
1 pinch ground ginger
1 pinch ground cloves (or two whole cloves)
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/3 cup coarse sugar or raw sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the cream, milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it comes to a boil. Then take it off the heat and let the mixture steep for about 15 minutes (take out the whole cloves before going to the next step!).

3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the granulated sugar till it turns creamy, smooth and a lighter shade of yellow. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the warm cream mixture. Add in the pumpkin puree then whisk it in till completely combined. Pour the mixture into 4 oven-proof ramekins. Place them in a baking pan filled halfway with hot water.

4. Bake these for about 40 mins. The custard should shimmy a bit when you take it out of the oven. Let the ramekins cool on your counter for about an hour, then cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-4 hours.
Good enough to eat right now, but these get even better after the next step.

5. It's best to brulee these just before you serve. Sprinkle the raw sugar in an even layer over the top of the custards. You can either stick them under your oven broiler for a few seconds (watch them like a hawk), or use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar till it melts, darkens and then hardens after a minute or two. This will create the perfect caramel top that you will hear that satisfying crack from when you dig into it with your spoon.

I like to use raw cane sugar for the topping on creme brulees - I think it caramelizes better.

Burn, baby, burn!

The perfect play on hard and soft textures. Gimmegimmegimme!

Verdict: I adore this version of creme brulee, and have made it a number of times over the years. It's so fragrant and packed full of lovely flavors. I'm also rather proud to be the one to introduce the magic of creme brulees into DH's life. It was so much fun to see his face change when he took his first-ever bite. This is now one of his all-time favorite desserts - he just wishes there was more of it. As a matter of fact, now he is the one who orders creme brulee at restaurants if they happen to have it on their dessert menu. So try out this pumpkin recipe for your next party, and let everyone torch their own individual creme brulees - assuming they're all sober and adult enough to handle all that power in their hands!
Don't you just want to dive right in?!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Girly Cupcake

This was one of those weekends that was eventful and exhausting, yet infinitely satisfying. The highlight of the past three days was attending an Indian classical dance performance at Yale University on Friday night. Dear readers, it was sublime. I always try to attend any kind of dance performance in my area, but Indian classical has always been my favorite, because it's so graceful and intricate, sensual and rhythmical. Most of these ancient classical styles have the dancer using his/her facial expressions, costume, hands, body and feet to tell a story - often a mythological tale of triumph or loss, jealousy or love, or simply celebrating the virtues of a god/goddess. It's fascinating stuff, and I never get tired of it.

I've been lucky enough to see some excellent, world-class performances so far, and Samarpita Bajpai was no exception. She did a Kuchipudi dance recital, which is one of the seven important Indian classical styles (one of the rarest ones, actually), and she is a master at it. It was great that she also explained what each dance was about before doing it, and she was so well-spoken and entertaining, that even the kids in the audience were completely enthralled (don't you love parents who drag their kids to cultural events?! Trust me kids, it may want to make you tear your hair out now but you'll thank them later!). We were also really lucky to have Samarpita perform an almost-extinct form of this temple dance (used to be performed in the 14th/15th centuries), called Simhanandini, where the dancer paints a picture using some really intricate footwork (in this case, a lion, which was what the goddess Durga used to ride on). She does tour all over the US and India, so if you get a chance to catch one of her shows, and you love dance, don't think about it - just go for it.

Now that I've done my small part in promoting the dance arts (see, you never know what you could learn when you visit my blog!), I have to dedicate the remaining portion of this post to singing the praises of the culinary arts! But wait, you don't need me to do that - you want to talk to the protagonist of this story herself. Dear readers, meet Ms. Girly Cupcake. Why is this cupcake so girly, you might ask? Well, first of all, it's a cupcake (when's the last time your guy asked for cupcakes?! not as often as you do, ladies). Secondly, it's a strawberry cupcake. Then it's pink. And really pretty. And very delicate. And did I mention that it's pink?!

My Girly-Yet-Secretly-Coveted-By-Guys Strawberry Cupcakes (using Cathy's recipe
from her brilliant blog, Gastronomy)
Makes 12 cupcakes

Click here for printable recipe

Ingredients for cupcakes:
2/3 cup whole fresh or frozen strawberries (I used a mix of both)
1.5 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp coarse salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg whites

Ingredients for frosting:
1/2 cup frozen strawberries thawed
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, firm and slightly cold
Pinch of coarse salt
1 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, preferably sifted
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. (I ran out of the paper liners, so used some of my silicone baking molds as well - but I prefer the paper liners any day; you'll see why in a bit)

2. Puree the 2/3 cup of strawberries till smooth - you should have about 1/3 cup of puree.
3. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together the milk, vanilla and strawberry puree; set aside.

4. In the bowl of an electric mixer (just think, a couple of months ago, I couldn't even make this darn recipe - oh how my world hath changed! For the better!) fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed till light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar until well combined. Reduce speed to medium and slowly add egg and egg whites until just blended.

5. With the mixer on low, slowly add half the flour mixture till just blended, then all the milk mixture till blended, and finally the remaining flour mixture till blended. (remember to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl)

6. Divide batter evenly in the baking pan, and bake the cupcakes for 22-25 mins. Transfer to a wire rack (also a recent purchase) and let cupcakes cool completely before icing.

7. For the frosting: Puree the strawberries. Once again using your electric mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and salt on medium speed till light and fluffy. Slowly add in the confectioners' sugar until well combined. Add vanilla and about 3-4 tbsp of the strawberry puree. Mix until just blended - do NOT overmix. Consistency should be dense and creamy, like ice-cream. Use a piping bag (like I did - my first time ever, so please forgive my amateur doodling) or an off-set spatula, or anything you please, go ahead and frost the cooled cupcakes. Refrigerate them for about 20-30 minutes before starting to devour them one by one.

Verdict: My main criteria for a successful cupcake is how moist and tender it is - and these were so on the money! They smelled amazing too - like walking through a field of strawberries every time you took a bite. The frosting was a little sweeter than I like, but it wasn't enough to bother me. Or DH. Yes, he had his fair share of these, though to be honest, I was the main perpetrator in polishing these off. They lasted for about 5 days in my fridge, without any problems. I just had to leave them out on the counter for a couple of hours before I wanted to eat them - so that they could soften up a bit. They're all gone now, and I miss them, because they were my oh-so-delicious bites of summer on a cold fall days. I wish I had prettier cupcake liners to display these in! My silicone molds are cute, but I found that the cupcakes rose better and were fluffier in the paper liners - see for yourself.

I'll be submitting these girly-pink cupcakes to the latest Girls Night In event over at Dragon Musings' blog. She is going Pink For October (to spread breast cancer awareness, bless her).