The first time I met Rebecca Rather, an alarm bell went off in my head: If you become friends with this woman, it warned, you could end up weighing five hundred pounds.
That was nine years ago, and it’s a miracle that I’m not a sideshow attraction today. I’ve never visited Rebecca’s little Fredericksburg bakery, Rather Sweet, without being pressed for my opinion on a new muffin or tart recipe. And I have never left without a chocolate chip cookie for the road. In gratitude for this largesse, I—along with countless other fans—have relentlessly nagged her about writing a cookbook. And now she has done just that.
Perfectly timed for holiday cooking binges, The Pastry Queen : Royally Good Recipes From the Texas Hill Country’s Rather Sweet Bakery & Café (co-written with Alison Oresman and published by Ten Speed Press) gathers in one place all the recipes that have emerged from Rebecca’s kitchen during her twenty years as a pastry chef. There is a cake from the period in the eighties when she catered weddings out of her home in Houston. There is a fancy pie from the four years, from 1990 to 1994, she spent working for famously demanding Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone, owner of Tony’s and a cadre of other glossy dining establishments. There are scones and kolaches like those she created for Bread Alone in Austin and Houston. And, of course, there are fried pies and fruit bars from her own place, which she opened in Austin in 1999, before relocating to the Hill Country.
What I love most about these recipes is their pull-out-the-stops Texanness. Perhaps because Rebecca is a self-taught chef and a Texan herself—she grew up in Beaumont—she knows what we like. And what we like are dishes that are big and rich and extravagant, like the five presented here, leading off with an apple pie that’s boozy with Southern Comfort. The other thing I appreciate about her creations is that—while they’re not for dummies—they sound like things you would actually attempt for your friends and family. In fact, I feel sure that—fortified with enough of that Southern Comfort—I could pull them off myself.
Southern Comfort Apple Pie
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup (10 2/3 tablespoons) chilled unsalted butter
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine flour, salt, and sugar on low speed for about 30 seconds. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes. Add butter to flour mixture and combine on low speed for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes until mixture looks crumbly, with bits of dough the size of peas. Add 4 tablespoons ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing on low speed for 10 seconds after each addition. After final addition, dough should begin to clump together in a ball. If it doesn’t, continue mixing for about 10 seconds longer. (If it still looks too dry, add 1 more tablespoon ice water.) Gently mold dough into a disk, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Transfer unwrapped dough to a lightly floured surface. Roll into a 1/8-inch-thick circle large enough to cover bottom and sides of a 9-inch-diameter deep-dish pie pan; do not use a regular (shallow) pan. Transfer dough to pie pan, crimping edges with your fingers or a fork. Prick bottom with a fork.
1/2 cup pecan halves
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) chilled unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast until a rich brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Coarsely chop nuts and set aside.
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process sugars, cinnamon, salt, and flour for about 1 minute. Cut butter into small pieces and add to sugar-flour mixture. Pulse 10 to 15 times until mixture is crumbly. Remove from processor and stir in pecans. Refrigerate topping, covered, until ready to use.
5 to 6 medium-sized tart apples, such as Braeburn, Cortland, or Winesap
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup Southern Comfort liqueur
1/2 cup whipping cream
Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees. Peel, core, and cut apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When butter starts to foam, add apples and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes. In a small bowl stir together cinnamon and sugar; sprinkle on apples, and stir to combine. Simmer apples over medium-low heat for about 1 minute longer. Remove apples from skillet with a slotted spoon, leaving as much of butter-sugar mixture in skillet as possible. Transfer apples to a baking sheet and arrange in a single layer until ready to use. (If heaped in a pile, they will become soggy.)
Pour Southern Comfort into butter-sugar mixture in skillet. Simmer mixture over medium heat until alcohol burns off, at least 5 minutes (sniff mixture at close range; if it burns your nostrils, the vapors are still burning off). Add cream and continue simmering until mixture is quite thick but still pourable, 5 to 10 minutes. Return apples to skillet and stir to coat.
Pour apples and cream mixture into unbaked piecrust (do not fill to more than 1/2 inch below top of crust) and sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until filling is bubbling and topping is brown, 50 to 60 minutes.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons dark rum, such as Myers’s
Put sugar in a heavy saucepan or iron skillet and cook over medium heat until it is completely melted and amber in color, about 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to low, add butter