The Nutcracker Sweet

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Since our last regular blog talked about my childhood pet rooster, Pecker, a post on nutcrackers seemed like a logical follow-up.  But I’m really more interested in the suite sweet part than I am in nutcrackers per se.  Oh, and nuts, too.  In fact, I have a slight nut addiction (I certainly am not insinuating anything about Andy).  Andy, meanwhile, is getting a little squirrelly about this blog idea.

Because of my addiction, I am happy to report that a little on-line research – done while I was sneaking pieces of the delicious “Swedish Almond Visiting Cake” – reveals some great facts about nuts.  Almonds provide Vitamin E and fiber (though the water demands of the almond tree make almonds a mixed bag: health vs environment); “Nut Consumption Reduces Risk of Death;” A Few Walnuts a Day May Help Boost Memory; nuts are one of  “Ten Foods to Boost Your Brain Power.” According to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, nuts may help us

  • have a healthier heart
  • keep our minds sharp
  • prevent age-related weight gain (I’m on my way out the door to get even more nuts now!)
  • prevent and manage type 2 diabetes
  • ease our aching joints
  • side-step cancer (“side-step” – from the USN&WR writer – is an interesting choice of words)

(FAMILY SPOILER ALERT!!!!) So I’ve given up buying the family fancy presents this year and instead am wrapping little packages of nuts to put under our Christmas tree…of course, with a cautionary note that they are to be consumed gradually and over time.  Brazil nuts, filled with selenium, for the family’s men and boys.  Walnuts for those whose brains fuzz over now and then – which would be pretty much all of us.   Almonds, high in Vitamin E, for those concerned about complexions.  Hazelnuts to hasten healing after one or more of the family has been clawed (or bitten) by our sweet Siamese cats.  Pecans from Louisiana for everyone, just because.

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One of our sweet Siamese cats

A final note before going to the sweet part of this blog.  Researchers say that nuts are helpful in preventing a craving for sweets.  The irony here is great.

Irony aside, here for your holiday feasts are four marvelous and all-over-the-world sweet recipes with nuts: Swedish Almond Visiting Cake, Louisiana Pecan Tassies, Honolulu Walnut Date Christmas Pudding, and Italian Chocolate Hazelnut Torte.  Let the nut-cracking begin.

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Swedish Almond Visiting Cake

  • Servings: 8
  • Print
This is a variation on a recipe from one of my favorite dessert cookbook authors, Dorie Greenspan.  It’s called a “visiting” cake because you can whip it together quickly – after unexpected visitors announce their almost-immediate arrival.  Sad to say, I think that kind of an event is a “blast from the past” – but it’s great to have a fast-do, delicious cake recipe.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 c sugar
  • grated zest of 1 lemon (I had about 1 T of zest)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract (optional)
  • 1 c flour
  • 1 stick (8 T) butter, melted and cooled
  • 3/4 c unblanched, sliced almonds
  • 1 T sugar to sprinkle over the top of the batter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9″ cast-iron frying pan or a 9″ round cake pan.

Put the sugar in a medium bowl; add the lemon zest and rub the sugar and zest together with your fingers.  Whisk in the eggs, one at a time.  Whisk in the salt and the vanilla and almond extract.  With a rubber spatula stir in the flour, then fold in the melted butter. Be sure the butter is incorporated well into the batter.

Put the batter into the pan, smooth the top with a spatula.  Scatter the almonds over the top of the batter and ever-so-lightly press them a teeny bit into the batter, then sprinkle the 1T sugar over the almonds.  Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the cake is golden and nicely browned on the edges.

Let the cake cook on a wire rack – in the pan.  If you try to turn it out onto a cooling rack, you’ll get lots of almonds flying around.

This cake is not going to be big and birthday-cake-like, so don’t be disappointed or worry that you’ve done something wrong. If you want to be wild and crazy, serve it warm, drizzled with caramel sauce. To die for. Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals and Andy and Ann

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Louisiana Pecan Tassies

  • Servings: about 32 mini-pies
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Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 3 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 c flour (scoop it out and level it)
  • 1 cube (8T) butter, at room temperature

For the filling:

  • 1 large egg, slightly beaten
  • 3/4 c firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 T butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2/3 c finely chopped pecans

To make the dough combine the cream cheese, flour, and butter in a small bowl, using a pastry blender or a spatula – or your hands.  Mix it until you get a firm dough with all the flour incorporated. Make it into a ball, then wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to 2 days.  If it’s been in the fridge for more than 2 hours, it will need to set out a bit to soften before filling the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  The recipe will make 24 mini-muffin size pastries, so you need pans to accommodate that.  My mini muffin tins have inside measurements of 2″ wide and 1″ deep.  Do not try to use a regular muffin pan.  Do not grease the pans (though if you have a non-stick pan, use it).

Take pinches of the chilled dough and shape into about 1 1/2″ round balls.  Place each ball in one mini-muffin well and press the dough with your thumb, working the dough until it comes near the top of the well and also covers the bottom.  Be sure there aren’t any places where the filling can leak through.

For the filling, combine the egg, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and pecans in a small bowl.  Mix well.  Then carefully fill each dough shell until it’s about 3/4 full.  If you go higher than that you risk the filling expanding over the top as it cooks and sticking to the sides, making the tassies very VERY hard to get out.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the tops of the tassies are golden.  Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for at least 15 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the outside edges of the pan.  The tassies should then be lifted gently out.

The tassies freeze exceptionally well, so you can just whip them out of the freezer as needed.  The absolutely perfect dessert for the busy holiday season….except that your guests may eat too many!

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann

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Honolulu Walnut Date Christmas Pudding

  • Servings: makes 2 regular-sized loaves
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You’re going to scratch your head when you’re done and wonder why this is called a pudding.  To me, it’s a date/walnut fruit cake without any fruit other than dates – which is a blessing.  My mom passed this recipe along to me.

Ingredients

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Put a pan of water on the oven rack under where you will bake the loaves.  Line two standard size bread pans (about 9″x5″) with parchment paper or grease and flour them.

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 c sugar
  • 1 1/2 lbs dates, pitted and cut in half lengthwise
  • 1 1/2 lbs walnut halves, not cut, about 6 c
  • 2 T (yes, Tablespoons) vanilla
  • 2 1/2 c flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder, rounded (maybe 2 1/4 tsp, if you want to be more precise)
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • bourbon to soak the cheesecloth wrap before refrigerating

Beat the eggs and sugar and vanilla together with a whisk until they’re very well-mixed, then add the dates and walnuts and stir, being sure the dates aren’t sticking together in clumps.

In a separate bowl, gently whisk together the flour, baking, baking powder and salt, and then fold that into the egg/date/walnut mixture.  Mix until the flour mixture is totally incorporated.  The batter will be very stiff.

Scoop the batter into the prepared pans, smooth the tops with a spatula, and bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes (a little longer or shorter, depending upon the size of your bread pans).  The loaves should be nicely browned on the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a rack, and let cool for about 15 minutes, then remove the date/walnut “puddings” from the pan.  When the loaves are completely cool, wrap them in cheesecloth which has been soaked in bourbon (you could probably get by using a fruit juice for soaking but the flavor won’t be as wonderful).  Then wrap again in plastic wrap and a plastic zip-lock bag and refrigerate.  Slice as thinly as possible when you’re ready to serve.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream would go well, or include slices on a tray of holiday sweet things.

I usually make these loaves in late November, keep them refrigerated, re-soak the cheesecloth now and then with bourbon – and find the “pudding” is still delicious in January. Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann

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Italian Chocolate Hazelnut Torte

  • Servings: 12
  • Print
This flour-less torte isn’t just for those wanting gluten-free sweets; it’s a keeper for anyone – especially chocolate connoisseurs or freaks; here’s lookin’ at you, FAD!

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 c hazelnuts (about 8 oz), toasted and husked (I bought hazelnuts at Whole Foods which were already toasted, so avoided that step)
  • 8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 10 T butter
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 c sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour an 8″ or 9″ springform pan.

Finely grind the hazelnuts in a food processor.  Stir the chocolate and butter together in a medium pan over low heat.  Cook and stir until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is totally melted.  Remove from heat and let the mixture cool.

In a large bowl with an electric hand mixer beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Without cleaning the beater, in a small bowl beat the yolks and sugar until the yolks are thick and pale yellow – about 3 minutes.  Don’t get lazy here.  Your cake will suffer if the egg yolks are under-beaten.

Fold the yolk mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture, then fold the yolk/chocolate mixture into the beaten egg whites.  Fold in the ground hazelnuts.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 35 minutes.  The cake should be set, but a toothpick inserted in the middle may have a few crumbs.  Transfer to a rack and let it cool for about 30 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake.  Remove the pan sides and invert the cake and remove the pan bottom and let the cake cool completely.

The cake can be served with a chocolate glaze, but I prefer just a dusting of powdered sugar and maybe a bit of whipped cream – or perhaps a decadent caramel sauce. 

Note: the cake will cut better if it’s been refrigerated. This cake keeps beautifully in or out of the the fridge for at least 4 days – I actually find it tastier the second day – and will freeze well too. Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann

 

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