October 21, 2011

the pumpkin game changer

While tallying up more than 2,000 miles on a recent business trip across Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, I took advantage of the hours of solitude by listening to two audio books. I recently discovered audio books, or at least discovered how they could fit in my life.

I don't know why I haven't done this before. When I lived in Houston, I borrowed a few books on tape from my mom and listened to them on the 14-hour drive home once, but other than that I never did it. I think about the 10s of 100s of thousands of miles I've driven in the past three years (and yes, I'd estimate it is more than 100,000 miles), I think about how many books I could have listened to and checked off my "to read list."

Regardless, I listened to two audio books, including Promises to Keep by Jane Green. I read the description on the back, and knowing it was a Jane Green book, I figured it would be light-hearted, funny and a great book to listen to while I drove.

I was wrong. I'm not saying the book was bad. I'm just saying it was sad. I mean really sad. Like, sad enough I sobbed out loud for about four hours total while I listened (split between two days, of course). I'm glad one of my Tweeps warned me, because I would have been completely shocked by the turn the novel took if she hadn't told me to prepare to cry. Without giving away any major plot details, I'll just say it was sad, and bittersweet, and did I mention sad? Thank goodness I listened to the most emotional part after I was done meeting customers, or I would have had to explain my puffy eyes, tear-streaked cheeks and stuffy nose.

The only thing that kept me from completely falling into despair was the recipes. This book is filled to the brim with recipes. One of the main characters is a vegan/ vegetarian chef (even better for a pescetarian gal like me), and the characters are always talking about food. Jane Green made it even easier for a book foodie like me by including a recipe with every chapter of the book.

And then she went ahead and put them all on her website. Ms. Green, thank you so much for doing that. After all the research and planning I normally have to do to find recipes, your website is a jackpot.

I made mental notes to check out a few of the recipes (which I may write about in future weeks), but one stood out to me from the rest: Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle. I know. It sounds awesome, doesn't it? This particular dish was one a book club shared together and raved about, and my stomach rumbled when they described it.

I knew I would make this recipe when I heard it. I love pumpkin. I enjoy gingerbread. I was so distracted thinking about trying this dish, I almost missed an exit. Or I would have, if I weren't such an observant, dedicated driver.

The first day I was back from my trip, I went to the grocery store and bought the supplies to make the trifle. Unfortunately, I didn't read the recipe entirely, and I missed a couple of ingredients that I had to go back for later. Even then, I didn't have enough half and half, but I'll come back to that.

Following Jane's advice, I went for a box mix for the gingerbread. I'm not opposed to a little adventure in the kitchen, but I'm with Jane on this one, as she explains how she and a friend differ when making this dish:
The first thing The Sherpa does is make gingerbread, which frankly, seems to me to be absolutely bonkers. The Sherpa is a wonderful cook, but she and I cook very differently. She likes fine, French food, and I like throwing things together, very easily, and eating family style.
I'm not proud of my decision to half ass this recipe with a boxed mix. It was, I realize, the right choice for me at that time. Don't judge me. Or do. I don't care. I have no regrets.

The night before my friends were scheduled to come over to paint pumpkins, I decided to make the trifle. I wanted it to be a fun treat while we got creative, and I only hoped it turned out as well as I imagined.

I had just pulled the box of gingerbread out of the cupboard when someone knocked at my front door.

"I'm here ready to paint," my visitor said, waving a bag of mini pumpkins at me.

"Oh," I said, caught off guard. "We're actually painting tomorrow..."

Both of our smiles fell. If you love painting pumpkins as much as my friends and I do, you understand the sheer disappointment of being told you have to wait another day.

"Hey!" I said, brightening, "I'm being domestic and baking. Want to watch?"

So with an audience and a cooking buddy, I went to work. I started with the gingerbread. It was easy. I read the directions on the box, and I followed them. Fair enough.

While that was baking in the oven, and I was distractedly chatting away, I started the custard.

First, scald 3 cups of half and half in a saucepan. Her directions say that means, "take it to the edge of boiling" before removing from heat. This sounded easy enough, except I realized too late that I had only purchased a 1-cup container of half and half. Crap. I debated going to grocery store, but with gingerbread in the oven and a guest in tow, I went to plan b: check my fridge. I had a freshly opened carton of soy milk, and figuring it was worth a shot, I poured two cups into the sauce pan.

While the half and half got its scald on, I beat together 6 eggs, 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar, 1/3 cup molasses (yes, now I have molasses in my pantry to use up some how, too), 1/4 teaspoon salt, cinnamon and my always faithful pumpkin pie spice in lieu of ginger, nutmeg and cloves. Though Green provides suggestions for how much spice to use, I channel my inner cooking goddess and sprinkle it in until it feels right. It's like I become one with the seasoning and I just know. Actually, I've just made enough pumpkin pies and baked goods in the past two years that I'm good at ball-parking it.

Meanwhile, I basically abandoned the scalding milk while I gossiped and mixed. I realized this, too late.

*Expletive!* I shouted, as the milk overflows. (I'll let you imagine, which one I used. Hint, it is four letters, but not terribly shocking.)

I managed to salvage most of the milk, but still had the joy of cleaning it later. Complacency is dangerous, friends, and in the kitchen it can lead to bigger than normal messes.

Annoyed, and slightly embarrassed to have a friend witness my cooking faux pas, I poured in the milk and a large can of pumpkin puree. Green suggests 3 cups, but this was close enough.

By about this time the half-assed gingerbread was done. I still had not learned my lesson about the importance of paying attention in the kitchen, though. It had already cost me the correct amount of half and half and an overflowed pot of milk. The worst was still to come.

In my distracted excitement, I burned my poor thumb removing the pan of gingerbread. Burns happen in the kitchen, but his one wasn't good. I included the picture I took of it a few days later when it still hurt. COMPLACENCY IS BAD. Let my pain and suffering be a lesson to you all.

While the gingerbread cooled, I poured the custard batter into a greased 9x13 pan and threw it in the oven at 325 degrees. I bid my friend farewell and settled down to mope about my injured thumb.

About 25 minutes into the suggested 50-plus minutes of baking, I re-read the directions and realized I'd made another big mistake. The recipe said to place a smaller dish inside a larger dish filled with hot water.

*Another expletive.* Now I'd really done it. I could bare the mark of my disgrace on my thumb, but there was no way I was going to lose this pumpkin custard now that it was in the oven.

So I called Mom, hoping she would have some magic trick.

She did. She always does.

"Pour some water into another pan and put it in the oven on the rack under the one you have in baking," she said. "It might take a bit longer to cook, but that water should give you the humidity you need in the oven."

Mom saves the day again. Her suggestion worked, because after baking the custard for 10 minutes longer than suggested it looked perfect. As directed, I covered the dish and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

I assembled the trifle the next evening about an hour before my friends came over. I cut the gingerbread into little squares, which I planned to place in layers. Though in the book, and in Green's recipe, you are supposed to make one trifle in a large bowl, I decided to make individual mini-trifles in cups so I could more easily serve them to my friends.

I made whipped cream by taking a cartoon of whipping cream and adding some sugar, vanilla, gingerbread crumbs, cinnamon and molasses to it. I whipped it up into a batter and set it aside.

In each of the little cups I put a layer of gingerbread, a layer of pumpkin custard, a layer of whipped cream and then repeated once more. I shared a couple of servings with one of the broomies and his friend, and neither said much while they ate. Each of them mumbled that it was good, but both seemed pretty intent on eating their dish.

That seemed to be the reception I received from everyone I shared the trifles with that night and the following days. They would say, "it's good," then spend the next several minutes eating it, maybe making an appreciative sound or two, until they were done.

Then it was my turn. I took the first bite, and I was just about moved to tears all over again.

This dish is as unbelievably fantastic as the book was sad. I loved this dessert with a passion and depth I can barely comprehend

How can I describe it? Let's just say, if the Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle was a man, I'd throw a big splashy wedding, settle down in a three-bedroom house in the 'burbs with our kids and kittens and co-chair the PTA with it. It's that good.

My sister gave me a more tangible review," Yes, it did taste good, but I really liked the texture of it. It wasn't so much like pumpkin pie, but fluffier."

I likened the pumpkin to being sweeter and more custard-like than standard pumpkin pie filling, but I still couldn't quite describe what made the dish work so well together.

Then one of my co-workers put it perfectly when she tried a few bites of it, "It's kind of like Tiramisu," she said.

That's exactly how I would describe this — the pumpkin and gingerbread lover's Tiramisu.

I happily ate leftovers for the rest of the week (this yields a LOT of servings). I can definitely see why the characters in the book raved about it. And I'll say this — I'm making this again, but this time, I'll pay more attention.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to submit book food ideas by posting a comment here or messaging me on Twitter @lmchap. While you're at it follow me, and I'll follow back. To see more Reading in the Kitchen posts, click on the tab on the top tab. We'll be back next Friday for another recipe.

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