Unfussy Fare

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust

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I have a little Thanksgiving issue. I don’t care for pumpkin pie. Go ahead. Report me to the House Committee on Un-American Thanksgiving Cooking.  I adore pie. I like pumpkin. I just don’t see what they need with each other. And as any of the nice people who hacked, drilled, or sawed their way through my pumpkin pie crust last thanksgiving will tell you, pumpkin pie senses my cool reception. It doesn’t like me, either. But I’m okay with that. I’m through making pumpkin pie for the tradition-bound. They can make their own pies. (Did you hear that collective sigh of relief?) Who needs pumpkin pie when there’s pumpkin cheesecake to be had?

Now THIS is a dessert worth giving thanks for.  This is no dense, heavy cheesecake. Dense, heavy cheesecakes are a disgrace. Like any good cheesecake, this one feels light and airy in the mouth. The pumpkin tastes delicate and flowery, buoyed as it is by fat-fluff and spice. The crust delivers a lively kick of ginger, and a satisfying crumbly crunch. The filling is the burnished orange of an autumn poplar. Between the scent of the spices and the silk of the filling and the sienna shade, this cheesecake makes a quintessential holiday dessert. So long, pumpkin pie.

If you have any pangs about trying out a new recipe at Thanksgiving, don’t. I’ve made this several times and I haven’t screwed it up yet. If I can do it, believe me, so can you. Word to the wise: The first time I made it, I ignored the “wrap the pan in foil” step. (I don’t follow instructions when I don’t understand why they’re there. This has caused me much grief in life, but still I persist.) I shouldn’t have skipped that step. The cake oozes what I assume is melted butter. So do as I say and not as I do, and follow the instructions. Then, for good measure, put it all on a rimmed baking sheet. You won’t regret it.

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PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE WITH GINGERSNAP CRUST – serves 12
adapted from an old Bon Appetit recipe, which for some reason I can”t find on epicurious.com

CRUST

1 ½ cups gingersnap cookie crumbs (I ground up cookies in the food processor for these)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap outside of nine-inch springform pan with foil. (Mine is a ten-inch pan, so I made some extra crust, and baked for a little less time because it was a thinner cake.)

Mix crumbs, butter, and sugar in a bowl.

Press mixture onto bottom and two inches up sides of pan.

Bake crust until slightly darkened, about five minutes. Set aside. Maintain oven temperature.

FILLING

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned pure pumpkin
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pecan halves

Blend cream cheese and sugar in food processor until smooth.

Add pumpkin, eggs, vanilla, and spices. Process until smooth. Transfer filling to crust.

Bake cheesecake until center is set and edges begin to crack, about one hour. Cool in pan. Chill until cold (a few hours). Run a knife between the cake and the pan sides. Remove sides.

Arrange pecan halves decoratively on cake.


Soft Almond Cookies

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Recently I spied a recipe for butter cookies printed on the inside of a Land-o-Lakes butter box.  It called for just a few simple ingredients, including my beloved butter. It used just one bowl. Excellent. The only problem I could discern was that the recipe didn’t call for almonds, and I am on an almond bender. That issue was easily enough remedied with a little almond extract and almond paste. Oh, and I added an almond glaze. My husband thought these cookies were possibly a little overly-almondy. As if.

My almond excesses were validated when the best cook in the neighborhood requested the recipe. Ha. Vindicated. Almonds reign supreme.  Almonds are elegant in every way. They’re great with sugar and with salt, and certainly with butter. They have a subtle perfume, and a silky texture, and a sleek shape. They are the jungle cat of the nut world. And these cookies? They’re the best cookies ever to cross these lips. This is not a claim I make lightly.

These cookies are so soft they’re nearly fluffy. There is no crunch here whatsoever. There’s just the tiniest give as your teeth break the glaze. A smidge of chewiness from the almond paste.  Then the cookie just melts in your mouth. (Not in a pasty kind of way, more in a “I-have-been-waiting-for-this-cookie-my-whole-life” kind of way.) So, if perfectly-pillowy, extra-almondy, one-bowl cookies tempt you, read on. I promise I’ll simmer down a little with the hyphens.

The dry ingredients in this recipe are not combined before adding them to rest. No whisking, sifting, or stirring. You just throw them into the bowl, willy-nilly. After a lifetime of mixing dry ingredients in a separate bowl, this struck me as akin to blasphemy. But there it was, printed oh-so-officially on the inside of the butter box.

After tasting these heaven-sent cookies, I blinked hard and pondered how many hours of my life I have spent sifting and whisking and washing that extra bowl. Was it all for NOTHING? Rather than sink into existential despair, I took a glass-half-full approach. I’m starting a list of all the meaningful things I can do with the time I’ll save not combining dry ingredients.

I don’t think the texture of these cookies can possibly be improved upon. Naturally, this makes me wonder what other steps I could be skipping (in cooking and in life) with no negative fall-out. Professional bakers and purists among you should maybe read a better person’s blog.

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SOFT ALMOND COOKIES

1 ¼ cup sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature
2 tablespoons almond paste (sold in tubes in most bakery aisles)
2 eggs
2 teaspoons almond extract
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, beat sugar, butter, almond paste, and eggs until creamy.

Add remaining ingredients and mix on low until combined.

Scoop by round tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. (I lined mine with parchment paper, but I’m sure that’s not necessary. It just makes the clean-up easier.)

Bake for 10 minutes – they”ll be very soft, but brown on the bottom. Cool for five minutes on the cookie sheet, then move to a rack or a flat surface to cool completely before glazing.  (I’ve never owned a cookie rack. I cool them on a cutting board. Pathetic, I know.)

ALMOND GLAZE

1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons milk

Place ingredients in a small bowl and stir with a spoon until smooth. If it seems too thick, add more milk. If it’s too thin, add more sugar. The glaze should be smooth and spreadable.

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Triple Sesame Ginger Chicken

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Do you like sesame noodles? Are you tempted to lick the falafel sandwich dressing right off your fingers? Yes? Then this is a recipe for you. Sesame rules the roost here. It”s deep, subtle, and toasty. Sesame is the perfect companion for roast chicken, which boasts a toasty subtlety all its own. The meat stays lusciously moist, since it cooks right in the marinade. At the same time, the skin turns a lovely, crispy, burnished brown. The green onions are meltingly delicious after an hour of stewing in the sauce. And the pan sauce…well if it weren”t for my pesky pride, I would tuck right into a big bowl of  it. Since I still retain a teensy little bit of decorum, I”m forced to settle for savoring the sauce-drenched rice in slow, deliberate mouthfuls. This one is a keeper.

I shy away from recipes with long ingredient lists. I like to be able to taste each ingredient, which is hard when there are 243 of them. I make an exception here, because I typically have all these ingredients on hand. And in spite of their numbers, they come together in a unified marinade with its own heft and personality. Besides, this recipe is blessedly simple to make. Chop, stir, and pour. Then, hours later, or even the next day, just pop it in the oven. If the stock market offered this kind of return on investment, I”d be retired by now.

Triple Sesame Ginger Chicken helped redeem me for overlooking my husband’s birthday until the day was nearly over. Luckily, he’s as pitiful as I am when it comes to remembering special dates. It’s best to have more than one date-forgetter in a marriage. Unless you’re armed with sesame chicken, in which case you may just be forgiven. If you”re only halfway out of the doghouse on day one, this chicken makes delectable leftovers on day two.

I adapted this recipe from a book I picked up at an airport newsstand years ago. It looks and feels like a magazine, but I guess it’s technically a book. It’s called , from the Best of Fine Cooking series.  It’s got plenty of intriguing recipes, a flimsy magazine binding, gorgeous pictures, and all sorts of helpful pointers on cooking with chicken.

P.S. The picture above doesn”t include the magnificent sauce. Sorry for that little oversight.  It”s a lot to juggle: the food, the hunger, the family, the camera. Oh, and there”s no law that says you have to use thighs for this recipe. You could mix it up with some other chicken parts. I’m just partial to thighs. On chickens, that is.

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TRIPLE SESAME GINGER CHICKEN
serves four

1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1/3 cup sesame tahini
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry
1/3 cup honey
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons Tabasco or other hot sauce
8 chicken thighs, with skin and bone (about three pounds)
1 bunch scallions (reserve one for garnish), white and light green parts, cut into one-inch pieces
1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Mix first ten ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir well to blend.

Poke three or four slits in each piece of chicken with a sharp knife. I usually cut off big loose flaps of skin with kitchen shears, to reduce the fat factor a bit. Your call.

Place chicken thighs in a 9×13 baking dish. Pour marinade over and flip the chicken pieces to coat.

Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours, turning chicken a few times.

Remove chicken one hour before roasting, to bring to room temperature. Turn the pieces skin-side up. Tuck scallion pieces under and around the thighs.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Roast chicken uncovered for one hour. Baste with pan juices a couple times in the second thirty minutes.

Remove chicken from pan and tent with foil. Pour pan juices into a bowl or a gravy separator. Skim fat off pan juices.

Serve chicken on cooked basmati rice. Pour some of the pan sauce over, sprinkle with sesame seeds and chopped scallion.


Creamy Braised Brussels Sprouts

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My favorite, go-to Brussels sprouts recipe has reigned unchallenged for eons. It involves roasting the Brussels sprouts with bacon and garlic, then sprinkling them with balsamic vinegar, and it is beyond delicious. This assumes you like Brussels sprouts, which I realize is the minority of people in this world. Those of you who will eat them if they’re disguised thoroughly enough, you”re good sports. I admire that. But you do not love Brussels sprouts. I am WILD for Brussels sprouts. I could eat them every day. So believe me when I tell you I take my Brussels sprouts recipes seriously.

I would have scoffed if you had said a month ago that I would find a recipe to rival my go-to Roast Brussels Sprouts. But this one really does. They’re neck and neck. This recipe even gets some extra points for using the stovetop, which can be handy at the holidays, when the demand for oven space exceeds the supply at our house.

I was suspicious of this recipe at first. For one thing, 30 minutes sounds like plenty enough time to ruin a perfectly good Brussels sprout. I worried it would be mushy, which would be unforgivable. I was also put off by the sheer amount of cream. That’s a lot of cream. I like rich food, but it sounded like a bit much, even for me.

But don’t be put off! This dish is not heavy. Not a bit. It positively floats on the tongue. It’s hard to believe it has all that cream in it. Some sort of alchemy takes place between the Brussels sprouts and the cream when they simmer together for a long time. They are both better for it.

As for texture, these Brussels sprouts are not the least bit mushy. The silky texture is divine. They taste mellow, and nutty, and green. They have less bite than some Brussels sprouts, but not less flavor. The lemon adds exactly the right amount of tang. They are truly very hard to stop eating. Guard your portion with care. Wrap your arm around it, hunker down, and poke your fork at would-be sprout snatchers. Some things in life are worth fighting for.

Give braised Brussels sprouts a test run before the holidays. Guaranteed you’ll end up adding it to a menu or two. This recipe comes from All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking, by Molly Stevens.  It”s a book after my own heart, what with ”uncomplicated” being right there in the title and all. Everything I”ve made from it so far has been a winner.

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CREAMY BRAISED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
makes four generous servings

1 ¼ pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (small ones) or quartered (big ones)
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Add Brussels sprouts, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally (not too much, they need to brown a little), for about five minutes.

Add cream. Stir, cover pan, and reduce heat to very low. The liquid should barely be simmering. Cook for about 30 minutes.  The cream will reduce some and turn a “fawn color.” (Molly Stevens’ description. I love it.) The Brussels sprouts should be tender enough to pierce easily with the tip of a sharp knife.

Add a generous squeeze of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

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P.S. If you are inspired to do a side-by-side taste test, here’s the recipe for the also-mighty-fine Roasted Brussels Sprouts:

Toss two pounds of halved (or quartered) Brussels sprouts with salt and pepper, two tablespoons of olive oil, two cloves of garlic (minced) and six ounces of chopped pancetta or thick bacon. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast at 450 degrees for about fifteen minutes, stirring a couple times. Drizzle with two tablespoons balsamic vinegar.