Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scary Things To Do with Pumpkins

My scariest Halloween involved several confused Dutch semanticists, a screaming French-Canadian dressed like a skeleton, and half a dozen seriously mutilated pumpkins.

I was living and teaching in Vancouver at the time, and attending a Halloween party hosted by a young colleague of mine and his wife. That year, Halloween fell the night before a conference our department was organizing, and my friends (who I’ll call Ben and Marcy) were not only throwing a party, but providing crash space for three conference participants from Amsterdam.

And Ben and Marcy were determined to show our international visitors the full spendor of a North American Halloween.

“Do you guys celebrate Halloween in Holland?” Marcy asked.

“No.” one of then said.

“You’ll see, it’s really fun. People put on costumes, and kids go from door to door to get candy from people. And we carve jack-o-lanterns.”


“Oh! That’s what we’re going to do tonight!” Ben replied. “See these pumpkins?—“ he pointed to the pile of basketball-sized pumpkins by the fireplace, “—We’re going to hollow them out and carve faces in them. Then we’re going to put candles in them and put them outside! It’s going to be great!”

Imagine you are a doctoral student from the Netherlands, and you have just flown halfway around the world to give a talk at a major conference. You are jet-lagged, you’re exhausted, and you’re wondering if there’s a flaw in that structure you proposed in section 3.3.1. And now the very professors you were hoping to impress want you to spend the night before your talk carving faces in fruit.

“Ah. Interesting.” one of the Dutch visitors said.

“And then we’re going to make a pie from all the pieces we cut out!” Ben added. “Have you guys ever had pumpkin pie?”

Ben and Marcy had everything all worked out. In minutes, several back issues of the Vancouver Sun were spread over the living room floor, and knives were procured for all present. We each grabbed a pumpkin and sat on the floor. I explained to our guests the niceties of pumpkin-carving, from how to cut out a lid around the pumpkin’s stem, to the benefits of saving the seeds for roasting and snacking, to the strategic wisdom of drawing your design on the pumpkin with a black Sharpie before carving.

They nodded slowly as they pondered my advice. “I really enjoyed your paper on Principle C violations in Zapotec,” one of them said.

The doorbell rang.

“Hey guys!” Ben yelled, “It’s Dave and Marie-Claire!”

Dave was the chair of our department, and an all-around good sport. His perpetually effervescent wife, Marie-Claire, was the life of every party she attended– a pretty amazing feat for a teetotaler. Tonight she was wearing a black bodysuit bearing a glow-in-the-dark skeleton design. She pulled off her latex bloody skull mask to give us all proper Gallic kisses on the cheek.

Dave and Marie-Claire immediately put our guests at ease. We settled in on the floor and began hacking away at our pumpkins as Dave chatted about Halloween traditions, snowboarding in Whistler, and his own work-related travels to the Netherlands. Almost all of us had feeble little steak knives, which were not quite up to the task of penetrating the rock-hard pumpkin rinds. But eventually, a goopy pile of pumpkin shards and innards accumulated in the middle of the floor and vaguely face-like patterns emerged on some of the pumpkins.

“Save all that stuff so we can make pie!” Marcy yelled from the kitchen, tossing us a big Tupperware bowl.

We gathered up the gloppy pieces piled on the newspaper and dumped them into the bowl. I wondered if the Vancouver Sun used food-safe ink. And if I should suggest to Marcy that we sort through the pieces to make sure no seeds, residual dirt, or soggy remains of Bank of Montreal ads got into our pie. But I held my tongue: this was Marcy’s home and Marcy’s show. Not my kitchen – not my problem.

“Do any of you guys know what goes in pumpkin pie filling?” Marcy asked.

“Wait—what the hell?” Ben jumped up and peered out the front window. “Those kids are setting stuff on fire!”

We all ran to the window. A loud group of teenage boys was working its way down the street, tossing lit firecrackers at houses. (Fireworks at Halloween are a Canadian thing.)

“That’s dangerous!” Dave said.

“Ooh! Let me take care of this!” Marie-Claire wiped the pumpkin goo from her hands, put on her skull mask, and ran out the door.

“What are you doing?” Ben yelled.

But it was too late. She was already outside.

“OOH! OOOH! WOO WOO! BOO!” she shrieked. (For full effect, imagine this in a very excited Quebecois accent.)

Our dangerous band of hooligans suddenly looked confused. “Lady!” one of them gasped, “What are you doing?”

“OOOH! OOOH! WOOOOOO!” Now she was lunging at them with her hands above her head in the classic Bela Lugosi pose. “BOOO!” she yelled, thrusting her hands and face at the largest of them.

“Oh my God, she’s trying to RAPE me!” he brayed.

“She’s crazy!”

“Let’s get out of here!” one of them yelled, even as his cohorts sprinted down the street ahead of him.

“Wow.” Ben said, stepping away from the window.

Dave smiled. “Irrational behavior tends to throw people off.”

The low-level sore throat I had been nursing all week had just exploded into a full-fledged fever, and now my brain was reeling. What the hell just happened? We didn’t know anything about those kids; Marie-Claire could have gotten beaten up or worse – but somehow, she knew she wouldn’t be. And how did she know her stunt would work? And weirdest of all, WHY did it work? Since when were teenage boys terrified of petite middle-aged women?

And exactly what was going into Marcy's pie? On further reflection, I decided I really didn’t want to know.

I’ve never been one of those with a connection to the unseen. For me, the mysteries of the living are scary enough.


Here’s a non-scary thing to do should you find yourself with a pound of random pumpkin shards. Instead of making a pie, one can use mutilated pumpkin bits to make gnocchi – little Italian dumplings.

Because pumpkins are so firmly anchored to autumn, they scream for autumn flavors: I’ve topped the gnocchi with a sweet/salty sauce of crumbled sausage and maple gravy. (The gnocchi recipe is based on one by Lidia Bastianich; the sauce is loosely inspired by the sausage-maple gravy served with foie gras and biscuits at Animal, a lust-inducing Los Angeles eatery.) The combination of pumpkin, sausage, gravy and maple reminds me of all my favorite parts of a classic Thanksgiving dinner – I like to think of it as a preview of coming attractions.


For the gnocchi:

1 (1-pound) pumpkin or butternut squash (or 1 pound clean, leftover fresh pumpkin bits from carving)

Olive oil as needed

1 large russet potato, baked, riced, and cooled

1 egg

½ cups shredded parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, or more if needed

Additional parmesan for serving (optional)

1. If using a whole squash or pumpkin, cut it in half, remove the seeds, brush the cut parts with olive oil, and bake uncovered at 400 degrees until soft, about an hour and a half. (If using pumpkin pieces, brush or toss lightly with olive oil and bake until soft—pieces will cook faster than halves.)

2. Scoop out the baked pumpkin flesh from its skin and place in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, mashing the pumpkin as you go, until any visible liquid is cooked off and the mixture is smooth and thick. If using pumpkin pieces, put them through a food mill before this second cooking to remove the skins.

3. Measure out 1 cup of mashed, reduced pumpkin; set aside any remaining pumpkin for other uses.

4. Measure out 2 cups of the cooked, riced, and cooled potato.

5. Combine the pumpkin and potato with the remaining ingredients. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is firm enough to shape. Expect the dough to stay a bit sticky.

6. Divide the dough into 8 portions. Roll each portion on a floured surface into a 12-inch rope, and cut the ropes into ¾-inch pieces. Lay the pieces on parchment-lined baking sheets.

7. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi pieces in two batches, and cook each batch about 10 minutes. When fully cooked, the gnocchi will swell, float, and no longer taste floury. (Note that the gnocchi will probably float to the top before they’re completely done, so don’t take them out just because they’re floating.) Remove finished gnocchi with a slotted spoon and return them to the parchment-lined sheets.

8. To serve, spoon hot gnocchi into a serving bowl, top with sausage gravy (and cheese, if desired), and serve immediately.

For the sausage-maple gravy:

½ pound bulk breakfast sausage (the type flavored with sage)

¼ cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola

1 ½ cups milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon dried sage, crumbled

1 ½ tablespoons maple syrupsalt and white pepper to taste

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. Crumble in the sausage and cook until lightly browned and cooked through. Remove sausage from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In a separate saucepan, heat the milk until it starts to steam.

3. Sauté the onion in the oil remaining in the first saucepan until it starts to brown. Stir in the sage, then stir in the flour and whisk the mixture for about a minute.

4. Add the milk and continue to whisk until flour is fully dissolved and the gravy starts to thicken.

5. Return the sausage to the gravy. Add the syrup, then add salt and white pepper to taste.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cheesecake for Dinner!

When I made my ill-advised decision to go to cooking school, I chose a certificate program in pastry and baking. This choice was motivated by two factors: first, I’d heard that work in the pastry kitchen was slower paced and less stressful than work on the hot line. (This is indeed true—in the same way that life in Gitmo is less stressful than life in Abu Ghraib). The second motivator was my love of fancy desserts – they’re fun to make and even more fun to eat. Who wouldn’t want a career where you get to work with chocolate every day?

But the strangest side effect of my short life in professional baking was the crazy craving I got for savory foods. My five-hour nightly cooking school classes—where we turned out endless mousses, pies, and cakes—started right at dinnertime. So I’d arrive home at midnight longing for a big bowl of chili. Or braised lamb. Basically, anything salty or spicy and NOT sweet.

And my lust for savories only grew after I graduated and actually started getting paid to make desserts. At the (seriously dysfunctional) five-star hotel where I landed my first culinary gig, my colleagues and I in the pastry shop were free to eat as many day-old cookies and éclairs as we wanted, and we did so with impunity. Our stringent quality-control standards also required us to eat lots of goodies straight out of the oven. But nothing made us happier than the occasional plate of taco salad or bruschetta brought over by Paco, the garde-manger chef, or the occasional treat of bacon or sausage liberated from the main kitchen in the dead of night by Bob, our graveyard-shift baker.

My classmates and instructors back in cooking school clearly shared my craving. One night, a tray of fried chicken arrived in our training kitchen – the leftovers of a project from another class – and we tore into it like a pack of starving hyenas. And any time a savory item worked its way into our curriculum, we'd throw ourselves into it with lustful urgency. Beef Wellington Night—tucked into our course on puff pastry, croissants, and danishes — was one of the best nights of my culinary training, if not my life.

To encourage culinary awareness and creativity, our instructors worked more and more savories into our program, often in unexpected places. The most surprising of these was the seemingly repulsive—but addictive—savory cheesecake. Who would have expected that gorgonzola, prosciutto, and shrimp could pop up in a course entitled "International Patisserie, Custards, Fillings, and Creams"?

But pop up they did—and to amazing effect. The first thing we learned about savory cheesecakes was how to get our heads around the idea. It only took a taste of the chef’s demo cheesecake to convince us not to think of a Sarah Lee cheesecake gone bad, but of a creamy, piquant terrine, prefect for spreading on toasted baguette slices as a buffet appetizer. Or, as we presented them in class, cut into modest slices and served with a vinaigrette-dressed mesclun salad, garnished with toasted nuts, as a first course.

Of course, we didn't make savory cheesecakes in class just to prove it was possible. Our goal was for us to learn how to make great cheesecakes, period. The secrets to making cheesecakes of any sort can be summed up in two words: low and slow.

Like their sweet counterparts, savory cheesecake fillings have a cream cheese base. We learned to beat the cream cheese until soft and completely lump-free, using a mixer with a paddle attachment, before adding the other filling ingredients: this ensured that no unpleasant lumps would appear in the filling. But unlike standard cake batters, cheesecake batters must be mixed gently, at slow speed. Beating the batter too fast and hard would whip too much air in the filling which would cause it to rise, then sink, in the oven, which would make the top of the cake crack. (One of our instructors told us why so many commercial cheesecakes come topped with a thick layer of sour cream: to hide the cracks.)

Also, cheesecake fillings are technically baked custards, and like flans and related preparations, need to be baked in a water bath: this keeps the filling moist, ensures even cooking, and prevents excess browning.. And cheesecakes like a long, mellow bake at relatively low heat: this ensures the eggy, creamy filling merely sets, rather than scrambles.

Below is my version of a savory cheesecake. It’s flavored with blue cheese and sage, and based on a recipe developed by one of my instructors (his included a swirl of pesto and a sprinkling of chopped prosciutto, instead of the sage). The crust is my innovation—or rather, my mistake: on Cheesecake Night, I put the butter for the crust on the stove to melt, and went off to do something else. When I returned, the butter had not only melted, but browned. The instructor who caught the near-catastrophe said that the browned butter was not only still usable, but potentially better than plain butter. And it was.


(Makes one 10" cheesecake or two 6" cheesecakes)


1 cup panko (Japanese dry bread crumbs)

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 325°. Lightly grease the bottom of a 10" round cake pan or spring-form pan (or two 6" round cake pans), and line the pan or pans with a 10" circle (or 6" circles ) of parchment paper. Melt the butter and cook over medium heat until lightly browned. Combine with remaining ingredients. Press into a thin (about 1/8" thick) even, firmly packed layer on the bottom of the prepared pan (or pans). Bake until crust is set and lightly browned. Set aside the cool while preparing the filling. (If using spring-form pans, double-wrap them in foil to waterproof them--the next stage of cooking will involve a water bath.)


1-1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup sugar

6-1/2 ounces sour cream

4 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 large eggs, beaten

1 pint whipping cream

1-1/4 cup finely crumbled blue cheese (Gorgonzola or Maytag)

2 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon melted butter

Salt and black pepper to taste

Lower the oven temperature to 300°. In a mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese and sugar together on low speed until they are thoroughly combined and the cheese is soft and free of lumps. (Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl frequently while mixing the filling.) Mix in sour cream, then the beaten egg and lemon juice.

Separately, combine the whipping cream and cornstarch, then stir them into the cream cheese mixture. Briefly saute chopped sage in the melted butter and cool. Fold the blue cheese and cooled sage into the filling. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper to taste.

Pour prepared batter into the crust-lined cake pan (or pans). Place the pan or pans inside a larger roasting or baking pan; fill this larger pan halfway with room-temperature water. Bake the cheesecakes, uncovered, in the water bath until set (about an hour for larger cakes; about 50 minutes for smaller ones.). Cool completely in pan before serving. If using a springform mold, gently remove the outer ring of the mold once the cake has cooled. If using a cake pan, place it briefly over a stovetop burner to warm the bottom and sides and the cake, run sharp knife dipped in hot water around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a plate over the cake pan and flip the cake onto the plate. The cake will now be upside-down (crust-side up) on the plate. Now place a serving plate over the cake and flip it over again; the cake will now be be right-side up.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grossing Out My Inner Child: Savory Apple-Onion Galette

When I was a kid, I had a couple of non-negotiable views about apples. First among these: they were fruit, which meant they didn’t count as dessert unless cooked and sweetened in some way. Apple pies and apple turnovers counted as suitable desserts. Slices of apple and apple pieces in fruit salad didn’t, and only marginally counted as acceptable after-school snacks.

My second fundamental belief about apples was that since they were fruit, they were sweet. And sweet things such as fruit didn’t belong anywhere near non-sweet things. Allowable exceptions were pineapple chunks in sweet-and-sour pork, which was inherently sweet anyhow, and the apple chunks Mom sometimes put in her chicken curry. But other mixtures of fruity and savory things were, quite simply, wrong. The idea of putting cheddar cheese on top of apple pie struck me as downright repulsive. And I made a point of not going to sleepovers at the homes of classmates whose tuna sandwiches contained apples or raisins. Eew.

An important part of growing is learning how to cope when your most cherished beliefs are challenged: When you’re small, you dig in your heels, cover your ears, and hope the offensive information just goes away. When you’re a bit bigger, you start thinking of ways to justify why your take on things is the only right one. Only much later does one develop the fortitude needed to consider the possible merits of an opposing view and, if needed, admit to being – gasp – WRONG!

My beliefs about the ontological status of apples were subverted, ever so slowly and sneakily, by the most unlikely of sources: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.

I grew up devouring Wilder’s tales of her girlhood on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. I loved how honestly Wilder portrayed her youthful indiscretions: she worried about her looks, got thrown out of school for losing her temper, and wrote a snarky poem about an annoying teacher that, to her horror, went viral among her classmates at her one-room school. (This itself was an education for me: based on everything adults of my acquaintance had told me about their childhoods, I believed all kids until my era were perfectly behaved little angels.) I loved – as did most grade-school social studies teachers – how vividly she portrayed the daily routines of life on the frontier. But most of all, I loved how she wrote about food.

She wrote lustfully of crackling cornbread and biscuits and homemade (and home-grown) pickles and preserves. She described unfamiliar but scrumptious-sounding treats such as birds’ nest pudding – an eggy baked confection holding several whole, cooked apples and served with cream. Apples – ever the quintessential American fruit – played a big role in the culinary workings of her books: she described drying them for winter storage, making vinegar from their peels and cores, and feeding them to horses. Farmer Boy, the volume depicting her husband’s childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York, is almost non-stop food porn: meals on the Wilder farm invariably ended with several kinds of pies, including apple, followed a bit later by an after-dinner snack of buttered popcorn and yet more apples.

Farmer Boy also contained the most disturbing recipe in the series – one that grated against my sensibilities and haunted my nightmares for years. Horrifyingly, it was the favorite dish of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband:

...They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples ‘n’ onions.

When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.

Apples. And onions. Fried together. Good God, this was just wrong. Reading this as a youth, I felt terribly disappointed in Almanzo, who otherwise seemed like a pretty cool kid. Everyone knows apples are supposed to go with cinnamon or caramel. And onions go with whatever you had for dinner before your apple dessert. But together? No way.

I eventually grew up and gave up childish things. And I had nearly recovered from the trauma of fried apples ‘n’ onions when, a few years after I’d finished college, I got a copy of The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories for Christmas. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one taken with an urge to make salt-rising bread and maple candy after reading the Little House books, and an intrepid soul painstakingly reconstructed many of those old-time recipes. And one of them was fried apples ‘n’ onions! Ack!

I read through that recipe with fascinated repulsion dozens of times, but didn’t quite work up the nerve to try it. But after years of trepidation, I’ve finally made peace with the concept.

The recipe in The Little House Cookbook involved sliced, unpeeled apples and sliced onions fried together in bacon fat. When I first saw the recipe, I grudgingly admitted that the presence of bacon fat made the dish seem slightly less repulsive. But now I realize why: First, bacon makes everything it touches taste better. Second, bacon has both sweet and savory notes, and could potentially mediate and meld the contrasting flavors of apples and onions. Pure freaking genius!

The more my rational adult mind thought of it, the better the apple/onion/bacon combo sounded. Onions are traditionally associated with savory dishes, but can be quite sweet when cooked. Chutneys, which I never found problematic even in my most finicky years, contain a mix of sweet fruit and savory vegetables. And now, previously unthinkable mixes of sweet and savory are almost mainstream: in some places, salt is an almost obligatory topping on caramels and chocolates, and bacon has worked its way into chocolate bars and even doughnuts.

The Little House Cookbook, written in the 1979, describes fried apples ‘n’ onions as a down-home country dish, one of those under-the-radar preparations so routine few people thought to write down recipes for it. Thirty years later, it feels downright modern, if not shamelessly trendy. And I’ve always wanted to be one of the cool trendy kids.

To make this old-time, yet weirdly prescient, preparation even more modern, I’ve enlivened the apples and onions with a touch of rosemary, and turned it into a filling for a galette – a free-form, open-face tart. (The galette dough recipe is lightly adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.) It makes a nice light meal with a salad on the side. Think of it as an apple pie for grownups – that you get to have before dessert.


For the yeasted galette dough:

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour, or as needed

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water in a medium size bowl.

2. Add egg, oil, and salt, then stir in the flour. When the dough is too stiff to stir with a spoon, turn it onto a floured surface for kneading.

3. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes. Add additional flour if the dough is sticky.

4. Set the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

For the apple-onion filling:

4 cups thinly sliced onions

4 cups sliced tart apples (such as Granny Smith)

1/4 pound bacon

1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary

salt and sugar to taste

1. Fry the bacon in a large skillet. When done, set aside. Remove all but 3 tablespoons bacon grease from the skillet.

2. Saute the onions in the remaining bacon fat until wilted. Toss in the rosemary while the onions are cooking.

3. Add the apples and another tablespoon of the bacon fat to the wilted onions. Stir and cook until the apples are tender.

4. Taste the mixture and add salt and sugar to taste. Set the filling aside to cool before assembling the galette.

To form the galette:

1. Roll the dough out into a thin 14-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. (The circle need not be completely regular.) If there is extra dough, cut it away and use for another purpose. Fold the dough into quarters and transfer it to the back of a sheet pan or a cookie sheet without sides. Unfold it. It will be larger than the pan.

2. Top the dough with the cooled filling, leaving a border 2 to 4 inches wide. Fold the edges of the dough over the fruit, overlapping them as you go. (The folded-over dough will not cover all the filling; the middle of the galette will remain exposed.)

3. Brush the folded-over dough with melted butter or an egg beaten with a little milk or cream. Sprinkle the glazed dough lightly with a mixture of equal parts sugar and salt. Bake the galette at 400 degrees until the crust is browned and the apples are tender, about 40 minutes.