Sticky Toffee Pudding, Rum Ice Cream, Caramel

Sticky Toffee Pudding, a classic British dessert, has quickly become one of our favorite sweet dishes. The first time we tried it was at Feast restaurant in Houston where they make an outstanding version. It’s gooey, rich and sweet with deep mildly bitter toffee flavor. Feast’s version has become our gold standard and none we’ve tried have come close.

The recipe for the cakes is one I had seen in an old Food and Wine issue years ago. For some reason that recipe stuck with me and I finally got around to giving it a try. Basically Sticky Toffee Pudding consists of a cake made with lots of dates then the cake gets soaked in a rich toffee (caramel) sauce. I also like that the recipe from F&W uses no spices in the batter mix that could overpower the flavor of the dates and caramel. Options to how the cake is baked, in what pan and how the toffee is incorporated vary a bit. You could bake the cake in a baking dish and top it with toffee while warm. Another option is to introduce the sauce in the bowls only when serving the warm cake. The pudding can also be baked, un-molded and then somehow dipped in toffee, covered with it and returned to the pan.

My favorite option is the one where the puddings are individual cakes. This way you get a very nice serving that looks neat and more importantly it has a nice ratio of cake to toffee sauce. I used my dome shaped stainless steel molds to bake the cakes and I unfortunately filled them a bit too much it seems. So, the batter overflowed on most of them while baking. That’s mostly a shame since it wasted what could’ve been one more delicious dome-shaped cake. As far as aesthetics, the cakes needed to be trimmed anyways and those trimmings sure did not go to waste.

I made the toffee sauce while the cakes baked by simmering a load of butter, cream and sugar together  until the mixture caramelized. Then more cream is added in until you get a deep dark and insanely delicious caramel sauce. I made half the amount of sauce in the recipe and still ended up with an extra jar of toffee sauce that I saved and am using for ice cream topping, brownies or just to eat with a spoon.

This pudding is typically served with clotted cream, lightly sweetened cream or maybe even custard. I wanted to serve it with ice cream that would complement it perfectly. Something that is a bit sharp but that would work well with the flavors of caramel and dates. I’ve been using the recipes from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams At Home book almost exclusively for a while now. Her flavors are great but more importantly her base recipe is simple, uses few ingredients and results in ice cream with a perfect texture right out of the freezer. I opened the book for ideas and found her recipe for Cognac Ice Cream. Bingo! Alcohol sounds great with this dessert, but instead of cognac I went with dark rum.

At service time, I cut the cakes in half horizontally and put a tablespoon of toffee sauce in each of the metal molds that I used to bake them in. I then layered the cakes back in the molds with toffee in between the layers and on top. These went back in the oven for a short while until they got bubbly and soaked up the toffee. I served them with a nice oval of ice cream, some more toffee sauce on the plate and a smear of store-bought Dulce de Leche (the lighter colored sauce). How did it compare to our favorite pudding from Feast? It is pretty much a perfect match. The taste and texture were just about perfect and the rum ice cream worked just as well as I imagined.

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Panna Cotta, Pineapple, Pistachio

It all started with the honey-yogurt panna cotta. I wanted something light and creamy and had a lot of yogurt on hand so the idea to make this luscious and refreshing pudding was a natural. Panna cotta is an Italian pudding usually made with cream (after all, its name translates to “cooked cream”) and is set with gelatin as opposed to eggs or a starch. The recipe I used does not eliminate the cream but instead uses yogurt for a big part of the dairy in the base. The tang and lighter mouth-feel from the yogurt makes for a delightful dessert. The recipe I used is based on this Honey-Yogurt Panna Cotta from Martha Stewart.

Pineapple, for some reason, was the first ingredient that came to mind to accompany the panna cotta. At first I wanted to dice and quickly sautee the fruit with butter and sugar. Then I figured I’d make it more substantive by quickly pan grilling and butter basting thick rings of pineapple. That’s when I remembered Thomas Keller’s pineapple ‘chop’ dessert from “The French Laundry” cookbook. It sounds weird but it makes perfect sense and looks fantastic. The idea is to cut the pineapple in a way it would resemble a small rack of meat with bones attached (pictures really help with this). Really, it’s very natural to cut the pineapple like that by splitting it in half, removing the core and half of the pineapple flesh. The pineapple rack is cooked much like a meat rack, it’s seared in butter and vanilla, roasted in the oven for a while till golden brown. Before serving, the pineapple is reheated in a light caramel and basted continuously before trimming and dividing up into thick “chops”.  

The last two components both involved pistachios. I made pistachio cookies that are inspired by French sable cookies. These are rich, crumbly and have excellent pistachio flavor. The other component is a pistachio-mint coulis. The pistachios are cooked until tender and the mint is blanched then the two are blended till smooth with simple syrup. This is one tasty dessert that works on every level. It looks beautiful, smells fantastic and the flavors just pop.

Gingerbread, Pumpkin and Walnut-Pear-Bourbon Ice Cream

Just like the venison dish I posted about earlier, this dessert happened because of Diana. More specifically, it was because of her dislike of gingerbread cookies. Earlier in December I had made some gingerbread cookie dough in hopes of making gingerbread men with my son, however Diana was sure that he will not like those spicy cookies and that I should’ve made sugar cookies instead. So, into the freezer the dough went. I certainly did not want to throw it out but I figured that most of it will go to waste if I simply bake gingerbread cookies. Diana did say that she would not mind a dessert that would use gingerbread cookies. Pumpkin pie or tart was the first idea that came to mind using the dough for the crust. That was the theme, with a few more “twists”, that brought this dessert together and this is a dessert I am very proud of, it was delicious and looked stunning.

My original plan for plating this, and the one I actually sketched, involved making “cannoli” shells from the gingerbread dough and filling that with the pumpkin mousse. I did doubt that this would work though, considering the high percentage of butter in the dough, and I was right. They simply fell apart when fried and got bent out of shape when baked. So, I just cut the thin dough into squares, baked them and broke some of them in half to get smaller rectangles.

For the ice cream, I cooked pears sous vide with butter, vanilla seeds and a little sugar. That, by the way, made the most amazing poached pear slices. I had to keep myself from eating them all. I pureed the pears with ice cream base made from  walnut flavored cream/milk (toast walnuts, and steep them in the dairy mixture for 24 hours, then strain them out), eggs, sugar and bourbon. This is also another recipe I was very happy with and will make again. All the flavors worked great together and were distinct.

I candied a few butternut squash rings and reduced the now squash (plus clove and cinnamon) flavored candying liquid into a thick syrup to serve as a sauce for the finished dessert. The pumpkin mousse is basically pumpkin pie filling. So, I roasted a a small pumpkin (or that might’ve been a butternut squash as well) and pureed the flesh. Then I followed a recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking: From My Kitchen to Yours” and made a pumpkin pie filling with eggs, cream, sugar and a little spice. I baked this in a brownie pan till set, then pureed it to a smooth mousse when it cooled.

For garnishes, I used more walnut. I caramelized roasted walnuts and salted them lightly and made dry walnut butter. To make the butter I followed a similar process to making my regular peanut butter. I processed roasted walnuts, a pinch of salt and sugar and a couple of table spoons walnut oil until I got a fairly smooth and spreadable walnut butter. To dry it up, I processed it with Tapioca Maltodextrin unitl it got dry and crumbly. At plating time, I broke it into irregular shapes, almost like rocks and sand, and scattered it around the plate.

Here is a slightly different plating I served the day after