Sister fall lovers will understand: life can begin again after the purgatory of summer temperatures in far Northern California. The best choice is to hide in the house. The first early morning when cool air creeps over the doorstep is the first moment you can start to entertain the idea that autumn will actually arrive, that the days of over 100˚ will eventually end, days when turning on the oven will not feel like an act of self-torture. Oh, the promise of chilliness! It takes awhile to get to actual cool days. I have to hold on to the hope that “summer” will finally be over in October.
With the delusion of summer ending in September, we scheduled camping near Napa. Um, not the best idea I’ve ever had. We arrived to set up camp in record 115˚ temperature. While everyone kept their cheerful face plastered on, we all agreed that it was the hottest we’d ever been in our lives. On the brighter side, I left the rainfly off the tent so we had the full moon shining down on us through gorgeous oak branches. Here’s the still dreamy daytime view, below:
While near Sonoma, I’d planned on taking the campers wine tasting at Gloria Ferrer Winery. I’d first tried their sparkling wines at the Carneros winery many years before. Not only is the wine reliably delicious, it is usually a good value. Best for our current needs, the winery has a tour of the wine caves which keep several degrees cooler all year round.
In the end, we skipped out of the Napa Valley heat zone and headed straight to the Bay Area for the cooler part of the vacation. To cheer myself up later, I found a bottle of Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut at Costco. Champagne is a wonderful accompaniment to rich desserts, so I paired it with the pumpkin pot de crème that I made for this pumpkin blog. Full disclosure, there’s not much I think doesn’t pair well with champagne.
I bought most of the ingredients for my pumpkin baking at Trader Joe’s, mainly because they have my favorite canned pumpkin, their store-brand organic pumpkin puree. It has a deep, fresh pumpkiny flavor. I also wanted to pick up the maple leaf-shaped sandwich cookies to accompany the pot de crèmes. I bought sugar pumpkins and the weirdest green speckled gourd for décor, too. The sugar pumpkins will eventually be turned into fresh pumpkin soup, thanks to Kristin’s now legendary recipe and willingness to break down a pumpkin each fall.
Old-fashioned cup custard is an egg custard baked gently in little cups, in a water bath. I grew up with the familiar clear Pyrex set in which we often made baked custard, flavored simply with vanilla or with pumpkin puree in fall. We all loved the pumpkin version because you could pretend you were eating pumpkin pie without the crust. As you probably know, pumpkin pie is a custard pie with spices and pumpkin or squash stirred in. Same deal with southern sweet potato pie.
Pot de crème is simply a richer custard with a French name. If you’re feeling indulgent and devil-may-care, use more butter, cream, and the extra 2 egg yolks while luxuriating in the satin-smooth texture of this tiny portion of heaven. If you’re feeling rather New Englandish and wholesome, use all or mostly milk rather than cream, the modest 2 tablespoons of butter, and the Spartan 6 egg yolks. Remind yourself of the health benefits of pumpkin, including high levels of vitamins A and C and potassium. Be sure to feel smug when serving to guests or yourself.
Some cooks serve pot de crème in little white ramikins which are available in many sizes. The 6 ounce size works well here but you could serve very rich custards in 4 ounce or generous servings in an 8 ounce version. I am very fond of the brown earthenware custard cups we scored years ago, in a thrift shop. For our fall tea party, I look forward to getting them out and serving pumpkin soup, custard, or miniature trifles in these little gems.
Preheat oven to 325˚F
Special equipment: large tea kettle or other pot for boiling water, heavy-bottomed, medium-sized saucepan, wooden spoon, whisk, mixing bowl, fine mesh strainer, 8 cup batter bowl or other spouted container, custard cups or ramekins set on a rack in a large roasting pan, silicone spatula, foil, cooling rack
- 2-4 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 3 cups cream or whole milk, warmed up for a minute or two in the microwave, do not let boil
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 6 or 8 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 1/3 cup pumpkin puree, canned is fine
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or a blend of your favorite warm spices (equaling 1 teaspoon) such as cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom
Optional garnish: Maple sandwich cookies
- Boil a large kettle of water for the water bath. Stir together butter and brown sugar in saucepan over medium heat until sugar is melted. The mixture may look lumpy but with constant stirring will come together. Continue to stir until mixture begins to brown, taking off heat momentarily if mixture starts to get too dark.
- Add warm cream or milk, whisking constantly, one cup at a time, until sugar dissolves again. Repeat until all cream has been added. Stir in vanilla and salt. Remove from heat.
- Place beaten egg yolks in mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in about a cup of the hot cream mixture to temper the egg yolks. Pour the yolk mixture carefully back into the saucepan, whisking to combine. Pour mixture through mesh strainer into 8 cup batter bowl. Stir in pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice.
- In prepared roasting pan with custard cups, carefully divide mixture equally into cups. Set pan on oven rack and carefully pour in boiling water, halfway up the outsides of the cups. Tent with foil.
- Bake for 25 to 40 minutes, until custards are just set. They should jiggle like set gelatin when gently shaken. Be sure not to over bake as that will make the texture turn from silky to grainy.
- Set roasting pan on cooling rack and let cups cool in water bath. When cooled to room temperature, remove from water bath and chill for at least an hour before serving. The custards can be made a few days ahead. Serve with maple sandwich cookies, if desired.
Makes 1 loaf
Preheat oven to 350˚F after second rise, at the end of step #3
Special equipment: stand mixer with dough hook, plastic wrap, medium bowl, wooden spoon, 9” by 5” loaf pan, lined with parchment paper and greased, offset spatula or butter knife, sharp knife, small bowl, small whisk or fork, pastry brush, foil, cooling rack
- 2 ¼ cups flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast*
- ½ cup pumpkin puree, canned is fine
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons milk
- ¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter, cut into cubes and softened
- 1-2 teaspoons vegetable oil, for greasing bowl
- ¼ cup softened butter
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ cup chopped pecans
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, optional
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon water
- Make the dough: In mixer bowl, add 2 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, salt, and yeast. Attach dough hook and and mix at low speed for a few seconds. Add pumpkin, egg, and milk and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until combined. Beat in one cube of butter at a time until completely incorporated. The dough should come off the sides of the bowl and will be sticky. Mix in the remaining ¼ cup of flour until a ball forms. Remove the dough hook and pat and shape the dough into a ball. Pour the oil over the ball and spread it around with your fingers. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in a warm corner of the kitchen to rise. The dough should double in bulk in 2 to 3 hours.
- Make the filling: In medium bowl, stir together ¼ cup softened butter, brown sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, and cinnamon. Stir until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Set aside. Pecans and optional pumpkin seeds will be added in next step.
- Assemble babka: On clean work surface, shape dough into a rectangle approximately 9” by 18.” Spread the filling on the dough, up to an inch of the edges. Sprinkle with pecans and optional pumpkin seeds. Starting with the short end, roll the dough into a log, sealing the seam and ends. With sharp knife, cut the log in half lengthwise. With cut side up, gently twist the two halves together, tucking ends underneath. Transfer to prepared loaf pan. Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let rise until almost doubled in bulk, 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours. Preheat oven.
- Prepare egg wash by whisking egg yolk and 1 teaspoon water in small bowl. Using pastry brush, brush egg wash on top of loaf. Bake in preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes. During the last 15 minutes, if the top is getting too brown, tent with foil. Remove from oven and immediately run a knife around edges of pan. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool complelely. The babka cuts best when totally cool. Best eaten the day it is made but will keep at room temperature for a few days, if well wrapped. Makes excellent toast and extravagant French toast. It also freezes well.
*I used regular yeast because I had it on hand. If using instant yeast as the recipe calls for, the rise times might be less.
Bottom, steps of a previous babka, showing the rolling, cutting, and twisting technique.