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Happy Endings

Finish the Big Meal With Desserts Everyone Will Remember

November 05, 2000|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven last wrote for the magazine about preserved lemons

Coming up with a dessert that will please everyone at holiday time is no easy matter. Some guests aren't happy with anything but pumpkin pie, while others expect a breathtaking finale. We asked Merilee Atkinson, the pastry chef at Pasadena's Cayo Restaurant, to come to the rescue with recipes that will satisfy both the traditionalist and thrill-seeker, yet are not too complicated, too time-consuming or too easy to mess up. Atkinson's solution: Let each person create his or her own plate of this and that from what she calls a "dessert buffet."

When she sets out to create a dessert at Cayo, Atkinson considers "flavor combinations, seasonal products, a different approach to the familiar and, to some extent, practicality and 'likableness' for a restaurant audience." Sometimes a tool, a pan or a mold will catch her fancy, inspiring her to experiment with a new recipe.

For this dessert buffet, Atkinson said she "wanted the flavors and ingredients to be appropriate to the season and to evoke a holiday mood." For starters, she likes a seasonal pear and ginger poundcake with a splash of brandy added to the batter. "I've been a fan of the pear-ginger combination ever since I made a conserve with those flavors as Christmas gifts about 10 years ago," says Atkinson, who grew up on a farm in the Central Valley. "Pears tend to be underused, always in the shadow of their sturdier relative, the apple. And the cornmeal in the cake echoes the graininess some pears have and adds some textural interest."

A deeply colored cranberry-boysenberry compote is meant to be served warm or at room temperature, atop or mounded alongside a slice of the cake. The berries are cooked in caramelized sugar, which candies them and concentrates their flavors. "Credit for this cooking technique goes to Nancy Silverton," says Atkinson. "I learned it while working at Campanile." While boysenberries are not exactly in season, they demonstrate Atkinson's willingness to bend her own rules. "It's hard to be strictly seasonal," she says, "and, after all, frozen boysenberries are available year-round."

A bowl of candied spiced pecans adds a bit of crunch and nuttiness--they can be scattered on top of a dessert or eaten solo like candy. A rich vanilla sauce can be spooned around the cake, drizzled over the compote or pooled on the plate beneath the slice of cake. Atkinson adds a whimsical star-shaped cookie to the mix that can be cut in different sizes and sprinkled with sugar--powdered, coarse-granule or cinnamon sugar. "These cookies could also be used as ornaments," she says.

And in keeping with the something-for-everyone spirit, there is the pie--a warmly spiced persimmon tart, at once a distant relative of the pumpkin pie and a brand-new face at the table. Whipped cream or ice cream--Atkinson suggests vanilla with caramel--adds the finishing touch. "I still hold dear to my heart my mother's candy-cane cookies and spritz," she says. "But I've developed a taste for finer ingredients and more complex flavors that I like to include along with the old favorites."

Merilee Atkinson's Sweet Somethings

Pear and Ginger Poundcake

Serves 8 to 10

3/4 cup cornmeal

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup fresh ginger root, grated

6 extra-large eggs

6 tablespoons milk

3 tablespoons brandy

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup candied ginger, chopped

1 1/2 cups firm ripe pears, cut into 1/4-inch chunks (about 11/2 whole pears, peeled and cored) Powdered sugar for dusting

*

Coat decorative tube pan with nonstick spray and dust with flour. Sift together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Place butter in large bowl of electric mixer. Cream until smooth. Add sugar and cream until fluffy. Stir in grated fresh ginger. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in milk, brandy and vanilla extract.

Stir in sifted dry ingredients, mix just until combined. Stir in chopped candied ginger and then stir in pears, being careful not to mash pears or over-mix batter. Spread batter in pan, smooth top with spatula. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto plate or rack to finish cooling. Can be made a day ahead; wrap well in plastic wrap to prevent drying out. Before serving, sprinkle powdered sugar over cake through fine strainer.

Cranberry-Boysenberry Compote

Yield: about 1 quart

1 cup orange juice

1/2 pound dried cranberries

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 whole nutmeg, grated

1 pound frozen boysenberries

3/4 cup brandy

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons cold water

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