The Dessert Initiative

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  I don’t like the term ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ with its connotation of clenched teeth, white knuckles, and inevitable failure.  Typical resolutions involve either prohibitions (Resolved: I will eliminate junk food, I will stop smoking/shooting smack/shopping, I will never bite my toenails again) or unpleasant tasks (I will lose 10 pounds, I will organize my office/home/garage, I will find a new job).  It’s depressing to think about starting a new year with so much work to do.  The ball drops, the fireworks go off, you kiss and clink glasses, and Bam!  You’re already under pressure.  Lay off the toenails immediately or admit you’re a failure around January 15th.   Clearly, the internet would not be full of advice on how to keep resolutions if resolutions were actually things anyone wants to do. 

I prefer to use the phrase ‘New Year’s Goals’, which avoids the negative vibe of ‘resolutions’, and to me, implies a journey toward something that I actually look forward to.  It’s not pass/fail, it’s a process.  I like to set goals that are positive, that will improve my life, and most importantly, that are fun. 

One of my goals for 2010 is to find more desserts that I like.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  It’s not about willpower for me.  I was just born this way.  There are plenty of foods to which I am drawn like a moth to flame, foods that I can and will eat until I feel sick or the plate is empty, whichever comes first.  I’d just rather have salty than sweet any day.  Given the options having of seconds on dinner or saving room for dessert, I’ll take the seconds. 

This makes me the odd woman out as a group clusters around the cookies or the cake.  But it’s not that I eschew all desserts.  I like creamy, fatty, rich, and chocolaty just fine in small doses–it all depends on the particular dessert.  Sugar in and of itself simply doesn’t call to me. 

It has occurred to me that maybe I’m just not trying hard enough.  So I don’t like cake, or pie, or cookies, or brownies, or most ice cream…there is still a whole world of desserts out there waiting to be explored.  And I am nothing if not tenacious in pursuit of my goals.  I started by investing in a new cookbook: Rustic Fruit Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies, by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson.

After serious consideration, I decided to lead off with Caramelized Pear Bread Pudding with Vanilla Brandy Sauce as it has all of the elements of a dessert that doesn’t suck.    

Making a dessert, I found, is a bit of a chore.  Oh, this one was simple by the standards of all you bakers out there.  But all of that measuring and so many finicky steps that must be followed precisely!  How do you people do it?  By the time I got to the part where I was supposed to strain the vanilla sauce through a sieve into a bowl set over an ice bath, I was tired of the Dessert Initiative and ready to plunk down on the couch with some chips and salsa.  But when I finally pulled the pudding out of the oven, all crispy brown bits and golden melting pears and fragrant steam, I regained some faith in this process. 

I served it up to Michael and our friends Allyson and Tobin who came by to share the goodness.  And it was good!  Good enough that I actually ate my entire portion and went back for just a little bit more, a nearly unprecedented event.   Dense and creamy, every bite was infused with the richness of the boozy vanilla sauce.  The caramelized pears were tart and mellow all at the same time. 

Too bad we gobbled most of it up before I remembered to take a picture!

Caramelized Pear Bread Pudding

(From Rustic Fruit Desserts) 

 Serves 8-12

Custard

  • 10 cups stale Challah bread, cut into 1”-1 ½” cubes
  • 5-6 eggs                                                                       
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar  
  • ¼ cup pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream

 Fruit Topping

  • 6-8  medium pears, peeled, quartered, and cored
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 3/4  cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350°.

Whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a large enough bowl to hold bread cubes. Whisk in the milk and cream. Toss in bread and with your hands push down on the bread to submerge it into custard. At this point cover the bowl and refrigerate the pudding overnight or continue with the recipe while occasionally stirring or pushing down on the bread to keep it covered with the custard.

Caramelizing pears:

Melt butter in a large skillet (big enough to hold all your pears in a single layer) on low heat. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the melted butter and lay pears over the sugar. Turn the heat to high and allow the pears to cook undisturbed for 8-10 minutes. Once the juices and pears begin to caramelize, carefully shake the pan to distribute the heat and turn the pears over onto their other sides. Once the pears and juices are a medium amber caramel, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the bread and custard into a greased 9” pan. Distribute the pears and their juice evenly over the pudding. Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes or until the custard is set and the bread that is popping up between the pears is crispy. Allow to cool 10 minutes before serving. This pudding is great on its own or with a pear-brandy-spiked vanilla sauce.

Storage: This bread pudding is best served the day it is made but any leftovers can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 2-3 days. Re-warm in a 300° oven for 10-15 minutes.

 Vanilla Sauce

  • 1 cup whole milk 
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2-4 tsp brandy (optional)

Heat the milk in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat just until warm.  In a bowl, whisk together the yolks, sugar, and salt until slightly thickened and lighter in color.  Slowly pour half of the warm milk into the yolk mixture, whisking continuously.  Next, pour the yolk mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and thickly coats the back of a spoon.  Set a bowl over an ice bath, then strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve set over the bowl.  Add the vanilla and stir until cool.  Stir in liquor to taste, then refrigerate for about 2 hours, until completely chilled, before serving.

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