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No pumpkin! No pie! No problem!

CHICAGO - This Thanksgiving, forget the pumpkin.

Heck, forget the pie.

Heresy, you say? Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie wouldn't seem like Thanksgiving at all, you say? OK, put pumpkin in the rolls. Or in the soup. And save the pie for the day after, when it can stand out amidst all the leftovers.

Instead of that staid old standard pie, try a turn on tradition. We conferred with some of the city's pastry pros, who rose to the challenge when we said, "No pumpkin; no pie." We asked them to come up with something seasonal and appropriate for a festive meal, whether it's Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. We wanted something that tasted right, seemed luxurious and - here's the hitch - had no pastry.

Christine McCabe, corporate pastry chef for Chicago's Bluprint, Rhapsody and the Park Grill, will be eating pumpkin pie at her house on Thanksgiving, she said, "because it's my brother's favorite. But people are more open nowadays and not so traditional." Everyone but her brother, apparently.

McCabe devised an apple-oat cake with maple-mascarpone cream. "I tried to do something a little healthy, since everything is so rich at Thanksgiving. I used egg whites and vegetable oil to lighten it up a little bit. I included traditional Thanksgiving spices - cinnamon, ginger, cloves - to make it fit the season." And that maple mascarpone cream? McCabe laughed. "That is that little bit of decadence you have to have with every dessert, that little bit of cream on top." The cake is easy to assemble, and although "it's great right out of the oven," she said, "it's even better the next day. But the big thing is, don't overmix it; it'll get tough, like hockey pucks. Just mix it until it's barely combined, like making muffins." McCabe also noted that the cake is very versatile. "You could substitute pears or squash or raisins for the apples," she said. And why not? It's the season for all those things too.

Up in Northfield, Kate Coyne and Ann Heinz own Three Tarts Bakery. Coyne agreed that apples just say "fall" to her, and said the bakery's customers are wild for apple-caramel cupcakes this year.

"We started that this fall, and they really like that combination," she said. "I think they're very popular because the guilt for a cupcake is so different from the guilt for a piece of cake." But, she said, her recipe also can be baked as a bundt cake, if a more festive look is what you are after.

Had our rules been a little different, Coyne said, she might have shared her family's favorite holiday dessert. "It's still about pumpkin pie at my house, but we like it with penuche on top. It's just to die for. We take regular pumpkin pie at the bakery and top it with a brown-sugar fudge with toasted nuts on top." But, our resolve firm, we stuck to our no pumpkin-no pie guns.

Coyne said coming up with the apple-caramel idea was easy. "A lot of the inspiration is taking the flavors of fall and coming up with new combinations," she said. "We want apple and we want spices. So you've got those flavors that you like combined in a new way." Don't discard tradition completely, she advised. Just consume it in moderate portions.

"Give dessert a new twist. People want the comfort of tradition, but in small amounts," Coyne said. "Maybe serve one of these new desserts in addition to the pie" You can never, ever have too many sweets, Coyne noted.

Carol Watson, whose Milk & Honey Cafe in Wicker Park has inspired a sibling, Milk & Honey Bake Shop, said our challenge came along at the right moment.

"We always go to our house in Michigan for Thanksgiving," she said. "I'm actually thinking about what to serve for dessert on Thanksgiving right now. I'm kind of known for these mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and truffle oil ... but wait, that's the wrong course. I haven't gotten as far as dessert in my game plan yet." For us, she combined forces with pastry chef Kate Croell to offer a ginger custard with cornmeal shortbread cookies.

"I originally made this at Tizi Melloul." Watson said. "I like to make it at the holidays. I love ginger, and especially fresh ginger. This (custard) is rich, but not real heavy, actually kind of refreshing and very good after the meal." The cookies, Watson said, come from Croell. "The cornmeal makes the cookies seem a little more rustic. We loved that very contrast between the gritty cornmeal cookie and the silky creme brulee." Last year's dessert chez Watson was "something like a pumpkin bread pudding," she recalled. "We've been doing these little gingersnap cookies with lemon filling at the restaurant and I might do those. Or maybe we'll just have a good cheese plate." The Michigan celebration has its own rituals, she said. "We keep it pretty simple, and sometimes we finish dinner and do a `scary walk' with a flashlight in the woods. Then we come back and have dessert. It gives everybody time to get a little room" in their tummies.

Say, that's a great idea! A walk after dinner would give everybody room for seconds on dessert too.

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APPLE CARAMEL CAKE

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Yield: 14 servings

_Kate Coyne, owner of Three Tarts Bakery & Cafe in Northfield, Ill., said this recipe was inspired by a recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of "The Cake Bible" and other baking books. Make it in a bundt pan or as cupcakes. She used Mrs. Richardson's brand caramel sauce.

2 eggs

¾ cup light brown sugar

½ cup canola oil

2 cups applesauce or grated Gala apples

1 ½ cups sifted cake flour

1 teaspoon each: baking soda, cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon each: ground cloves, salt

2/3 cup chopped walnuts, toasted, see note

½ cup store-bought caramel sauce

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray bundt pan with non-stick baking spray or line muffin tin with paper liners. Combine eggs, brown sugar and oil in bowl; beat with electric mixer on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Stir in the applesauce; set aside.

2. Combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt in a large bowl. Add to the egg mixture; beat on low speed just until mixed. Stir in walnuts. Pour batter into prepared pan (for cupcakes, fill cups three-quarters full).

3. Bake until tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 30-35 minutes for cake, 20-25 minutes for cupcakes. Cool 5 minutes on rack before turning cake out of pan.

4. Gently pierce cake with a fork about 1-inch deep all over surface of cake. Heat caramel sauce in microwave until warm, 20 seconds; drizzle over top of cake.

Note: To toast walnuts, heat, stirring, in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat until starting to brown, about 5 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving:

260 calories, 41 percent of calories from fat, 12 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 188 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

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GINGER CREME CUSTARD

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Standing time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

_Carol Watson of Milk & Honey Cafe said she likes the contrast of crunchy shortbread cookies (see recipe) against the silky texture of this classic custard. She often adds an optional burnt sugar topping; see note.

1 container (1 pint) whipping cream

4 cups milk

1 piece (4-inches long) ginger root, skin on, chopped

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

¾ cup sugar

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine the cream and milk in a large, heavy saucepan; heat over medium-high heat until hot. Remove from heat; add the ginger. Cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 30 minutes.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar together in a separate bowl until sugar dissolves. Heat the cream mixture again until hot; slowly add a small amount to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Slowly whisk in the remaining cream mixture.

3. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer; pour into eight 4 ½-ounce ramekins. Place in a large, heavy roasting pan. Add water halfway up the sides of the ramekins; place in oven. Cook until set but still jiggly in the center, about 45 minutes.

Note: For the classic creme brulee topping, chill the custards 2 hours; sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly over the surface of each custard. Place ramekins under broiler until sugar caramelizes, 3-5 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving:

397 calories, 65 percent of calories from fat, 29 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 298 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 96 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

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CORNMEAL-SPICED SHORTBREAD COOKIES

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Chilling time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen

_From Carol Watson of Milk & Honey Cafe, these slightly gritty, delicious cookies would pair beautifully with a custard or sorbet. She uses a leaf-shaped cookie cutter to cut out the cookies for seasonal appeal.

1 stick butter (½ cup), room temperature

¼ cup plus 1 ½ teaspoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

¾ cup flour

¼ cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon each: pumpkin pie spice, ground cardamom

½ teaspoon black pepper

Confectioners' sugar, optional

1. Combine butter, sugar and salt in bowl of electric mixer; beat on medium speed until fluffy and smooth; set aside.

2. Combine the flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, pumpkin pie spice, cardamom and pepper in a large bowl; add to creamed butter in three additions, beating well after each addition. Divide the dough in half; flatten into rounds. Wrap in plastic wrap. Chill 1 hour or up to 2 days.

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough ¼-inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut cookies to desired shapes; place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake until lightly colored, 15-20 minutes. Dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

Nutrition information per serving:

66 calories, 52 percent of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 13 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

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APPLE-OATMEAL CAKE WITH MAPLE MASCARPONE

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 cakes, 10 servings each

_This cake uses mascarpone, the triple-cream Italian fresh cheese, available in market dairy cases near the sour cream. Pastry chef Christine McCabe of Bluprint said the trick is to barely combine wet and dry ingredients, as you would in making muffins. The topping can be made ahead and chilled.

1 ½ cups packed brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups plain yogurt

8 egg whites

½ cup milk

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons each: baking soda, cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 apples, peeled, diced

¾ cup whipping cream

6 ounces mascarpone

¼ cup maple syrup

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the brown sugar and granulated sugar in a large bowl. Beat in the yogurt until the sugar dissolves. Beat in egg whites, milk, oil and vanilla until smooth. Combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a separate bowl. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture, stirring just to blend. Stir in the oats and apples.

2. Pour the batter into two greased 8-inch cake pans. Bake 45 minutes, or until tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean; cool.

3. Combine the cream, mascarpone and maple syrup in a large bowl; whisk to soft peaks. Cut cake into wedges; serve with topping.

Nutrition information per serving:

441 calories, 28 percent of calories from fat, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 70 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 300 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

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