"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cranberry Cognac Trifle, or Melissa Wins the Office Thanksgiving Dessert Bake-Off!

Readers, if you've been following along you know that I am very very close to finishing the Cakes chapter--and this multi-part dessert extravaganza was on the list of Cakes Yet to be Baked. Cranberries...Thanksgiving...seemed like the perfect dessert to bring to my parent's house for my annual dessert contribution!

And then...an interoffice email announcing that the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the company would be providing a BBQ lunch, and for employees who were so inclined there would be a dessert competition with a modest prize.

My friend Leigh asked me if I was going to compete with one arm tied behind my back? Hell no, sistah--when it comes to desserts, I bring it.

But I'm not stupid. Why not, I figured, just preview Cranberry Cognac Trifle for the company lunch? That way I can trouble-shoot the recipe if need be, and since (as I've mentioned) there are many parts to this dish I'd just double them and basically get two desserts for the time spent on one. And since many of these parts can be made in advance, I could knock them out on Sunday and assemble the night before.

This is an intimidating recipe to look at. Let me just type it here so you get an idea:

6 large eggs, separated
6 large yolks
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoons salt

Cranberry Jam (recipe follows)
Cognac Syrup (recipe follows)
Rich Custard (recipe follows)

See what I mean? And that's not even including the Cream Topping. Or the Special Equipment. Embedded recipes are usually blockers for me, which is no doubt why this is one of the last cakes in the chapter to be made.

But I made it! Not once, but twice!

First, the Cranberry Jam. If you've made fresh cranberry sauce, you'll have the basic idea--cranberries in a pot with a little water and sugar. This one also called for a fresh vanilla bean and some orange juice.

Then boil it--not for long, just about 20 minutes. My pan was a little too small so I had to keep a close eye on it for boil-overs:

Then it says to put it through a food mill, but since I freakin hate food mills I just pushed it through a fine-mesh sieve:

Doubling the recipe, I ended up with about four cups:

Done! On to the next component--Cognac Syrup. Now here was a small problem--no cognac. Actually I have a few nips back somewhere in my liquor cabinet, but not quite enough for what I needed. I had lunch with my folks earlier and my dad was loathe to sacrifice his cognac to this baking project, but he did point me in the right direction for a nice bottle at a pretty good price--Landy. The Cognac Syrup is super easy--you combine water, sugar, orange zest and cognac--bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes.

Next, Rich Custard.

OK, confession. Custard and I do not always get along. Actually, Custard is a temperamental bitch. So I was a little apprehensive--there are just so many ways to screw custard up. The recipe says this one has just the right amount of body to be absorbed by the cake yet not be soupy, which is to say it's thickened slightly with cornstarch. OK, game on, Custard.

First a small amount of cold milk is whisked into a little sugar, cornstarch and salt:

Then add the remaining milk and orange zest:

Bring to a boil, it says, whisking frequently. For me this means bring to a boil while you're separating the eggs, and then realize that the milk on the bottom of the pan has scalded to brown and try not to stir it up. Into the aforementioned eggs (yolks, specifically) whisk sugar, then set it up near your milk:

Now, the idea with custard is that you slowly whisk hot milk into the egg yolks, which tempers them. And the recipe says to put this mix back in the pan and heat to 170, no more. But I also know that sometimes when you put the boiling milk in the eggs, it's more than 170 and so that magic number has already been reached as far as the eggs are concerned.

This was complicated by the fact that I had browned milk cooked at the bottom of the pan and wanted to wash it off. So while I was scrubbing that stuff out the eggs and hot milk sat there and lo and behold when I went to pour it back into the clean pan, it had already thickened up! But I'm a direction follower, so I heated it again, and it instantly became SUPER THIN. Like heavy cream thin. ARGH CUSTARD WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO FREAKING IRRITATING? I went ahead and strained it into a metal bowl sitting in ice water:

And it never did thicken up after that, even when chilled. Readers, I was so pissed off I MADE IT AGAIN. 10 more eggs. Do you know how many egg whites I have in my freezer? Lots.


On to the cake! The three cake layers (baked in jelly roll pans) are a genoise--sort of spongy and absorbent--which means the egg yolks and whites get separated. The yolks are whisked up with sugar, milk and vanilla:

Then you beat the macaroni out of the egg whites with more sugar:

And fold the latter into the former.

Pour into three pans, and bake for 10 minutes or so.

Cake part done! Now comes the assembly part--this is supposed to be done at least 8 hours before you serve it so the cake has time to absorb the booze and the custard--so for me that meant after dinner on Monday night. The idea here is to cut the cake layers in half and spread the cranberry jam on one side and kind of make a sandwich--which you then brush all ways with cognac syrup. I couldn't find a trifle dish but I got the next best thing, a glass mixing bowl:

The recipe asks you to pack the cake/jam strips along the sides very tightly:

For me this involved cutting many triangular pieces. They were really packed in there. If you ever make this yourself, try to find a trifle dish (they have straight sides) and save yourself some time in the geometry department.

Now it's all about layering the cake/jam with the custard. Here we go!

Then the whole blessed event gets covered up with saran wrap and tucked away in the fridge overnight. Here it is the next morning, after undergoing its magical absorption period.

Now for some heavy cream whipped with yet more cognac and a little confectioner's sugar...and a little cranberry jam for attitude...and we're off to the races:

Winner, winner, chicken dinner--out a field of STRONG contenders! Though I do feel bad about two of my young co-workers--Indian gals who are strict non-drinkers according to their religion but didn't know cognac was alcohol. They thought it was amazing up until that point and then all they could talk about was how their mothers were going to kill them.

And the prize? Yay, $25!!! Modest indeed, but that's ok--lord knows I'm not doing this cook-through business for the money. Best of all, I'm even closer to the Cake chapter finish line--only six cakes left. Hmm, I wonder if they'll be doing a Christmas bake-off? Maybe I can knock out that wedding cake recipe.


Georgia said...

I would have totally skipped this cake. The pumpkin cheesecake I baked for Thanksgiving (a Cook's Illustrated recipe) was complicated enough. The effort was worth it, though.

Have you ever dried canned pumpkin puree with paper towels? Or

Bake until center of cake is slightly wobbly when pan is shaken, and center of cake registers 145 to 150 degrees on instant-read thermometer, about 1 1/2 hours (see note). Set roasting pan on wire rack and use paring knife to loosen cake from sides of pan. Cool until water is just warm, about 45 minutes. Remove springform pan from water bath, discard foil, and set on wire rack; continue to cool until barely warm, about 3 hours. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or up to 3 days.

Martha said...

I substituted a panetone from the Italian deli. It worked really well and significantly reduces the amount of labor needed for this dish. It was a huge hit.