Life Is Sweet

Pastry chef Rebecca Rather has whipped up a cookbook chock-full of sugary treats that are the perfect ending for your holiday meal, when you couldn’t possibly eat another bite—but always do.

November 2004By Comments

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 »

Silken Chocolate-Walnut Tart »

Caramel-Filled Brownies »

Cream-Filled Pumpkin Roll »

Festive Milk (Sure Packs A) Punch »


Southern Comfort Apple Pie

Basic Piecrust

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.

Topping

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.

Apple Filling

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.

Rum-Caramel Sauce

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
pinch salt
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 and salt all at once, and stir to combine (it will bubble up). Add cream a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring after each addition. (Adding cream slowly keeps caramel from clumping.) Continue stirring until mixture is melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in rum.

Serve pie warm or at room temperature, with Rum-Caramel Sauce on the side or drizzled over each slice.


Silken Chocolate-Walnut Tart

Tart Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup (10 2/3 tablespoons) chilled unsalted butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chilled whipping cream, plus more as needed

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl on low speed for about 30 seconds. Cut butter into 1/2-inch pieces. Add butter to flour mixture and combine until mixture forms crumbs about the size of peas, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes.

Whisk egg with cream, add to flour mixture, and combine until dough begins to clump together. Continue mixing for 10 seconds longer. If dough does not form a ball, add more cream, 1 tablespoon at a time. Mold dough into a disk, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Roll out dough 1/8-inch thick and transfer to a 10-inch tart pan, crimping edges with your fingers or a fork.

Filling

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
14 ounces chopped chocolate, semisweet or bittersweet or any combination
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons dark rum or whiskey (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place walnuts on a cookie sheet and toast until a rich brown, 7 to 9 minutes.

Put butter and chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on medium-high for 1 minute. Remove from microwave and stir. If chocolate is not completely melted, keep heating in 30-second increments. Stir until blended. (Or combine butter and chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan filled with 3 inches of simmering water. Stir until melted and combined, then remove bowl from saucepan.) Whisk sugar into butter-chocolate mixture. Add eggs 1 at a time, whisking until smooth after each addition. Whisk in vanilla, salt, cream, and rum or whiskey.

Spread nuts on bottom of unbaked tart crust, then pour chocolate mixture over nuts without stirring (do not fill to more than 1/2 inch below top of crust). Bake for 50 minutes. The filling will seem undercooked and jiggly in the middle, but remove tart from oven anyway; it will set as it cools. Do not cut tart until it has cooled at room temperature for at least 2 hours (or refrigerate to firm it up more quickly).


Caramel-Filled Brownies

1 1/2 cups pecan halves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package (14 ounces) individually wrapped caramels, unwrapped
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

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. Line bottom and sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving several inches hanging over short ends of pan. Grease foil with butter or cooking spray; be sure to coat sides thoroughly or caramel will stick.

Put butter and chocolate in a medium-sized heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth. (Watch carefully so it does not burn.) Transfer chocolate to a large bowl, add sugar, eggs, and vanilla, and mix until thick and glossy. (This takes 1 to 2 minutes using a wire whisk or about 1 minute using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on medium-high speed.) Whisk or stir in flour and salt. Transfer half of batter (about 2 1/2 cups) to baking pan and spread evenly; bake for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 20 minutes.

Put caramels and cream in a medium-sized heavy saucepan and stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in half of pecans. Immediately spread caramel mixture over baked brownies (if you let it sit, it will harden). Pour remaining brownie batter evenly over caramel mixture and spread gently to cover (do not pour either the caramel or the brownie batter all in one place or it will be difficult to spread without messing up the layers). Sprinkle chocolate chips and remaining pecans on top and bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely in pan (for quicker cooling, put pan in the freezer for 30 minutes).

To remove from pan, grasp overhanging foil and lift up. Cut brownies into squares. Individually wrapped in plastic, they will keep for 1 week unrefrigerated or for 1 month in the freezer. Makes 2 dozen bars.


Cream-Filled Pumpkin Roll

Filling

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup cold mascarpone cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans
1/2 cup whipping cream

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese on medium speed until creamy. Add mascarpone and beat until incorporated. Add powdered sugar, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt; beat on medium-high speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stir in pecans. In a separate large bowl, using a mixer, whip cream on high speed until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Fold whipped cream gently into cream cheese–pecan mixture.

Cake

4 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and one short side of a rectangular baking pan (approximately 12 by 17 inches) with parchment paper, leaving several inches hanging over short side. Coat paper and sides of pan lightly with cooking spray.

Using a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat egg yolks in a large bowl on medium-high speed until thick and frothy, about 2 minutes. Add brown sugar and mix on medium speed for 1 minute longer. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add dry ingredients to egg yolk mixture a third at a time, beating on medium speed after each addition. Add pumpkin and mix on low speed until combined.

Pour egg whites into a large clean bowl. Using a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip on high speed until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed after each addition. Fold egg whites gently into batter. Spoon batter evenly into pan and smooth it carefully; it will not even out as cake bakes. Bake until cake is golden brown and springs back when touched lightly, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes, but no longer, then remove from pan without peeling off parchment paper (use paper as a handle to gently slide cake out). Cake should be rolled while still warm or it will break, so immediately top it with filling and then—starting with short end closest to you—roll it up, peeling away parchment paper as you go. When cake is completely rolled up, carefully transfer to a rectangular serving plate.

Garnish

2 ounces dark chocolate
2 ounces white chocolate
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar, plus some for dusting
1/2 cup toasted walnut halves
Rum-Caramel Sauce

Place dark and white chocolates in separate bowls and melt in a microwave on medium-high for about 45 seconds. If not fully melted, stir and return to microwave for 15 seconds more.

Using separate spoons, drizzle melted chocolates over pumpkin roll in a zigzag pattern. Whip cream with powdered sugar and pipe down center of roll. Top with walnuts and dust with powdered sugar. Slice with a serrated knife, and serve with remaining whipped cream and warm Rum-Caramel Sauce.

Serves 10 to 12.

Rum-Caramel Sauce

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
pinch salt
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 and salt all at once, and stir to combine (it will bubble up). Add cream a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring after each addition. (Adding cream slowly keeps caramel from clumping.) Continue stirring until mixture is melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in rum.

Serve pie warm or at room temperature, with Rum-Caramel Sauce on the side or drizzled over each slice.


Festive Milk (Sure Packs A) Punch

1 1/2 gallons premium-quality vanilla ice cream
1 quart whole milk
2 cups bourbon
1 cup rum
1/4 cup brandy
nutmeg, for dusting

Remove ice cream from freezer and let sit at room temperature until it begins to soften, 15 minutes or more (cut into chunks to speed process). Put milk, bourbon, rum, and brandy in a large punch bowl and stir to combine. Spoon ice cream into bowl and stir lightly so that some is mixed in and some floats on top. Dust with nutmeg and serve immediately.

Makes about 30 eight-ounce cups, or almost 2 gallons.

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