Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ringing in the New Year - with sweet treats

A new year, and a new decade. What better way than to celebrate with something sweet and sinful? We went party hopping, to a potluck dinner party and then to a drinks-and-snacks one. I love potluck parties and always jump at the chance to bring dessert. For me, it's fun to be able to lavish a little bit more time on dessert than if I had to cook the rest of the meal as well.

This is the holiday season, when folks often stop by with goodies. Hidden among those bags of candies and cookies was a jar full of assorted nuts in the shell - Santa's gift to the squirrels in the backyard, perhaps? I didn't think they'd mind if I helped myself to a few (okay - a lot!) and so I settled on a caramel nut tart as my dessert offering.

The recipe I used is adapted from one we used in a class I took at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York last year. Kathryn Gordon, a pastry chef who's worked at some of New York's famous restaurants, teaches a class on petits fours. It's a great class for baking enthusiasts wanting to expand their repertoire and to learn some cool tricks from a pro. We made miniature tarts, financiers, caramels, truffles, pate-de-fruit and more. Labor intensive but fun, not to mention delicious! I had always been a little shy of working with caramel and pastry before, but Kathryn's skilled demos banished my fears and I've since added them to my dessert repertoire.

For the snacks party, I took along some cookies. There's been many a New Year's Eve that I've been struck with a sweet craving in the wee hours, with not a cookie in sight! I decided to solve that potential problem by providing the cookies myself ;) Continuing with the nutty theme, I made Karen DeMasco's Pecan Shortbread cookies, which came to me by way of Jill Santopietro's blog on the New York Times. They are a snap to make, since the dough can be made and shaped into logs ahead of time, so when you are ready to bake them, all you have to do is pull them out of the fridge and slice them.

Happily, both the tart and the cookies were a hit. The combination of crisp hazelnut pastry with gooey, nutty, orange-scented caramel screams "holiday!" You could drizzle it with some melted dark chocolate if you wanted to make it totally over-the-top indulgent, but I opted to leave it plain. The cookies were the perfect post-champagne bite - lightly sweet, buttery shortbread, studded with pecans and subtly flavored with vanilla.

A great start to the new year - hope it brings many more sweet treats!
Pecan Shortbread Cookies
Caramel Nut Tart (Adapted from Kathryn Gordon's recipe for Caramel Nut Barquettes, makes 1 10-11" tart)
3 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tbsp sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup hazelnut meal (you can buy readymade or grind your own)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch sea salt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup orange juice
Big pinch fleur-de-sel or sea salt
1 1/2 cups mixed nuts, toasted and chopped coarsely - I used hazelnuts, brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts and pistachios
Generous splash Grand Marnier (or other liqueur of choice - optional)
For the pastry, cream the butter and sugar together till fluffy. Mix in the egg and then fold in the combined dry ingredients. Form into a ball, flatten it and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour. When the pastry is rested, remove it from the fridge, allow to soften a bit, then roll between two layers of parchment paper. Line the tart pan (I used a 10" pan with a removable bottom) with the pastry and chill for another hour or overnight. When you are ready to bake it, preheat the oven to 350F(180C). Line the pastry shell with foil and fill with dried beans, rice or pastry weights. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and continue baking for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 300F (150C).
While the pastry is baking, make the filling. Heat the cream, juice and salt in a small pan and keep warm. In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place the sugar and the water on medium heat. Cook until it reaches a deep golden-brown color, cleaning the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water. When the caramel is done, pour in the cream mixture all at once. Stand back, it will bubble up dramatically. Stir with a wooden spoon till the caramel is smooth and even, then stir in the nuts and liqueur, if using. Allow to cool slightly.
Pour the filling carefully into the crust and bake for another 25-30 minutes, till the caramel is bubbling. Allow to cool completely before serving.