Snack Break: Messing with Tradition
Although celebrity chefs do it all the time, it's not considered "normal" home cook behavior to mess with traditional recipes. That being said, I've never cared much for normal. Classic Thanksgiving day desserts are almost always some kind of pie, and more often than not, pumpkin or pecan. But as a college student with very few kitchen resources and only a mild fondness for flaky crust topped with spiced pumpkin or sugar-soaked pecans, I decided to mix things up a bit.
I should qualify my decision however because I am putting together this dessert for my bridge club, and before you go rolling your eyes, don't worry, we play euchre. Therefore, my determination to do something unique in celebration of the coming holiday has no effect on actual dinner served Thursday afternoon, giving me as much freedom as a student's budget will allow.
So what is grand concoction?
Directing relating to the inspiring world that is Trader Joe's, on tonight's menu is:
- Corn bread cake with whiskey-soaked cranberries, white chocolate chips and iced with a brown sugar/molasses cream, and
- spiced pumpkin hot chocolate
Sound fancy? That's all in the wording. Honestly, the whole thing consists mostly of throwing things in bowl together and adding heat.
Don't believe me? Just listen.
Step 1: Take package of dried cranberries and put as much as you think you'll need into a bowl. I used about 4oz for serving four people. Add in a generous splash of whiskey (1/4 cup), or more if you so desire, and about a tablespoon of brown sugar. Add enough water to cover all the cranberries. Cover with plastic wrap and let soak for several hours, ideally overnight.
Step 2: The next day or whenever your cranberries are properly soaked ( they should be plump and relatively soft), mix together a box of corn bread following the directions on the box. Don't forget to preheat the oven! Drain the cranberries and if you want to take things to next level, save the whiskey mixture to make a quick syrup (see Step 5). Fold in the cranberries and whatever amount of white chocolate chips you want to the mixed batter.
Step 3: Since I only have muffin tins, I made mini cakes, but you can use any baking pan that fits your batter. If you're not using cupcake liners, you may want to consider buttering the pan and dusting on a little flour to insure an easy removal. Pour the batter into the pan and back according to directions. CAUTION: The baking times that boxed mixes give are almost always longer than you want. To be safe, check your cake a few minutes before it's suppose to be done.
Step 4: To make the brown sugar cream, open a package of cream cheese, and if it's not at room temperature, microwave it for a few seconds (less than 15) out of its wrapper to soften it. I wanted to use maple syrup for the flavoring, but I wasn't able to afford it, tthe brown sugar/molasses combo. If you are lucky enough to have maple syrup, just use that. Add two tablespoons or so of brown sugar and a little less than a tablespoon of molasses to the cream cheese and stir. Add more sugar if you want it sweeter or add a little heavy cream/milk if you want it thinner. To make it more like real frosting, you can use canned frosting mixed with whipped cream cheese and just the molasses or even just a little cinnamon. Otherwise it may be too sweet.
Step 5 (optional): If you are feeling adventurous or you just happen to really like the flavor of whiskey, you can make a cranberry whiskey syrup by heating the leftover liquid from the cranberries with a little extra brown sugar until it boils and beings to reduce. Just keep adding sugar until it thickens. If you want, add more whiskey/water before you start the reduction because the amount you start with will be considerably reduced by the end. Also remember that it will thicken even more when it cools, so don't reduce down to what you think is the perfect consistency or else when it cools it may be more like hard candy or you may have to deal with that gets-stuck-in-your-teeth unpleasantness. And don't ever touch the hot syrup.
Step 6: When making the spiced pumpkin hot chocolate it's important to remember three things: don't use anything less than 2% milk, use real chocolate, and watch out it might boil over. Because I enjoy spoiling my bridge club, I make my hot chocolate with 75% half-and-half and 25% milk. If you like thick hot chocolate, this is the way to go. Otherwise you may prefer straight milk or as I do sometimes, milk topped with a little heavy cream. Heat the milk on the stove and add a few spoonful of pumpkin pie filling. If the filling is already spiced and sweetened, you don't have to add anything else. If it's just pumpkin, add in a spoonful of brown sugar and some pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, cardamon, and lemon peel). I used a spice blend.
Add in small amount (about 1/4 cup) of chocolate chips or chopped chocolate. For a sweeter blend, use milk or white. I prefer dark chocolate and since the cake is rather sweet, the drink I made is a little more on the bitter side. Careful, you don't want to add so much chocolate as to over power the other flavors. Stir until everything is melted and hot chocolate tastes good. (Seriously. All the amounts are up to your own taste preferences)
Step 7: When the cake is out of the oven and has had time to cool, you can start assembling. Putting together all these components is again completely up to you and I will only tell you what I did for clarity's sake. Since I used cupcake liners, I unwrapped each cake but still treated it like a cupcake. I iced it with the cream and sprinkled it with chopped pecans and a few of the leftover dried (unsoaked) cranberries. Then, I drizzled everything with some of the syrup. You also can decorate the plate with a little sprinkle of the spice blend, chocolate shavings, or a swirl of the syrup.
Serve garnished cake with hot chocolate.
And that's it. It may have sounded like a lot, but all you need is base-line physical ability, basic equipment and common sense.
As much as we glorify top chefs and cookbook authors for their amazing innovations, it doesn't take a culinary degree to mess with the classics. All you really need is a few standard grocery ingredients and some creativity.
Enjoy everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving.