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November 20, 2008

            Welcome back to the kitchen! This week I’m going to take a listener recipe request. Kathy wrote in saying she loved all the dinners we’ve been making, but with the holidays right around the corner, she wanted some dessert inspirations. So we’re going to go beyond the basic pumpkin or pecan pie. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classics, but we’re going to try a few more creative twists of our own.  

            Our dessert is actually made up of three different sweet treats, each of which could be served on their own. I’m thinking of making a ginger-sweet potato custard with wine poached pears and a sweet/salty hazelnut praline topping. Custards can be a little finicky, and so can sugar candies like praline and brittle. But with a little practice, I think you’ll find this dessert easy as, well, pie!

            So let’s start with the custard and see how that goes. This is a perfect time to use up an extra sweet potato or two that didn’t get eater at dinner. Just peel a couple of baked sweet potatoes or yams and puree them up smooth until we have about one cup. If you don’t have leftover baked sweet potatoes, just poke a few holes in the skin of raw ones and microwave them, alternating five minutes per side until they are soft.

            You could certainly substitute a cup of pureed pumpkin or winter squash like acorn. I recommend baking or steaming it yourself, but you can also use the unsweeted canned stuff to save time.

            The rest is basically the same as your pumpkin pie recipe:

1 cup pureed sweet potato/yam/pumpkin
1 3/4 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
dash salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
dash fresh ground nutmeg
dash ground cloves
about ½ inch of fresh ginger root, squeeze through a garlic press. Leave out the pulpy stuff and stick with just the juice.
A little vanilla extract
And a little bit more freshly ground nutmeg or ground cinnamon for topping
Heat oven to 350°. Butter 6 medium custard cups or ramekins; set cups in a large baking or roasting pan.

Heat the milk until very hot, but not boiling. Be careful not to scald it. When the milk is steaming, set it aside.

In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. I guess for custard perfection you don’t want to over-whip the eggs, so I’d stick with a fork or whisk and avoid the electric mixer. Add the sweet potato, sugar, salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and dashes of fresh grated nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and the crushed ginger. And come to think of it, you could substitute a little bit of finely diced dried, candied ginger, which would have a mellower flavor than the fresh stuff.

Whisk in the milk and beat the custard until it’s nice and blended. Now we’re ready to pour the mix into the prepared custard cups. You could also do this in one big custard dish, or bake it into a traditional pie crust. But we’re going crust-less and individual servings on this one.

Before we start pouring the custard mix, let’s arrange the baking cups in the larger baking pan and fill it up with hot, hot water about halfway up the sides of the cups (maybe six cups or so). We’re doing this because the custard needs to be kept moist during the baking process. Now, in order to avoid unnecessary spilling, let’s open the oven and pull out the shelf. This way we can set down the cups and fill them right at the mouth of the oven, we won’t spill it moving all that liquid from way over on the counter. Fill each cup, but not all way.

Now we’re ready to bake our custards for 25 to 30 minutes, until edges are firm. The center of the custards will still jiggle a bit like a nicely set jello. If you overcook the custard, it will crack. You can plunge overcooking custard cups partway into an ice water bath to stop the cooking, if needed, but you should just keep an eye on them so you don’t have to resort to that. Allow a little more baking time if you're using larger custard cups, and check early if using very small or shallow cups.

When the custard is firm, remove the cups from the water immediately and place on a wire rack to cool. Cover the cooled custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. The custards may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. But we’re going to make a wine poached pear topping and some hazelnut praline to serve immediately.

So while the custard is cooling, let’s core 4 or so large local pears. I recommend using firmer pears, if they are too ripe they’ll just fall apart when we poach them. Bartlett’s tend to work well.

Some recipes will have you peel the pears, but I think that’s too finicky. Just cut out the stem, seeds, and core of each fruit.

We also need

-about a half to a whole bottle of dry local red wine

-1/2 cup of honey, and maybe a few teaspoons extra sugar if you like

-one orange and/or lemon

-a couple of cinnamon sticks

-4 cardamom seed pods

-2 star anise (optional)

-and/or a couple dried cloves or vanilla beans

-I’m also going to use a couple of black peppercorns for a slightly exotic taste.

            Pour the wine into a wide saucepot and add the honey. Juice the orange or lemon into the pot, then grate in about a teaspoon of the zest, which is the flavorful skin of the fruit. Add all of out spices and seasonings and stir, bringing to a boil.

            Add in the pear halves, flat cut side down. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for about 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pears are nice and tender. Remove the pears from the pot with a slotted spoon, and set them aside. When they have cooled a little, slice the pears into half inch pieces and arrange on a plate or in a  bowl

            Increase the heat under the wine mixture in the pot and bring it up to a boil. Stir occasionally until the wine thickens into a sweet syrup. When the sauce is done, which should take about 10 minutes or so, pour it over the sliced poached pears. Set them in the fridge, covered, to cool.

            Now finally for the quick sweet/salty hazelnut praline. We’ll need:

2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons light corn syrup (or agave nectar)
1 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place sugar, water, and corn syrup or agave nectar in a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Cook over medium-high heat, without stirring, until mixture starts to brown, about 14 minutes. Gently swirl the pan to incorporate color evenly until it is deep amber, about 1 minute more.

Immediately remove from heat and quickly stir in nuts and salt. Pour immediately onto the baking sheet, spread in an even layer, and let cool. Once cool, break into pieces and serve.

So there we have it, our amazing dessert. Serve each person a ginger sweet potato custard cup topped with the wine poached pear slices and some of the sweet wine reduction. Then stick a long shard of hazelnut praline into each cup, or just serve some of it on the side. Beautiful work everyone!

 Well, that’s about all the time we have for this week’s recipes, but I hope this has given you a few dessert ideas. Let me know how your’s turn out, or what variations you try. If you have any questions or comments, or recipe suggestions of your own, drop me a line at our website Cooking local in the KOHO kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.




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