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Tinker with holiday tradition by focusing on dessert

Kate Lawson
The Detroit News

Everyone's talking about the turkey. But for me, Thanksgiving is all about the dessert. Let's face it, turkey is turkey; as a clever colleague of mine once quipped, "if turkey was that terrific we'd be eating it all the time." So there you have it. In fact, every year my sister and I propose that we enjoy the holiday dinner in reverse, starting with dessert and seeing if we've left room for the bird and the trimmings.

Of course there will be pie; I look forward every year to making my mother's perfect pumpkin pie. But for this occasion when I want to give the folks at the table a reason to be thankful, I like to offer a sidekick or two to the traditional favorite.

Don't those cute little cranberries deserve a starring role rather than simply being popped into relish? Pair them with pears to make individual cobblers with whole grains. And those sweet potatoes that Grandma always tries to gild with marshmallows can really shine in a strudel. And if you're up for tinkering with tradition, you can switch up the pastry package for that pumpkin filling by serving it in purchased cannoli shells instead of pie dough. Not only is this an impressive, finger-food way to get a pumpkin dessert on the table, it's also easy. It all comes together in just minutes. In fact, the filling can be prepped the day ahead, then piped into the cannoli shells shortly before serving. To garnish, dip the ends in chopped pistachios or chocolate or dried cranberries and pecans.

Speaking of pecans, they can become even more tooth-achingly sweet when drowned in caramel and chocolate. But if you're bored with the usual selection of fruit and pecan pies, you can create something different with a penuche fudge filling that gets hidden beneath the layer of vanilla custard piled into a shortbread crust.

The layers can be prepared well ahead, but it's important to assemble this pie just before serving; the penuche will soften once the custard layer is added. The penuche can be poured into the crust and held at room temperature for up to two days. The custard can be refrigerated for two days.

In fact, several of these desserts have make-ahead friendly elements. What better way to leave room to focus on that turkey? Or at least, have a little breathing room on what might be the busiest cooking day of the year.

Alison Ladman of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Spiced Pumpkin Cannoli

Recipe from Alison Ladman of the Associated Press

½ cup packed brown sugar

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground dry ginger

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

3 eggs

15-ounce can pumpkin puree

1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese

30 miniature or 15 large purchased cannoli shells

Chopped pistachios, chopped dark chocolate or chopped dried cranberries and pecans (optional)

In a medium saucepan off the heat, whisk together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Lastly, whisk in the pumpkin puree.

Set the pan over medium heat and, whisking constantly, bring to a simmer. Cook until the mixture thickens, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the ricotta. Set aside and allow to fully cool.

When the pumpkin mixture has cooled, spoon it into a zip-close plastic bag and snip one corner. Gently squeeze the bag to pipe the mixture into the cannoli shells. Once each shell is filled, gently press both ends of each into the chopped pistachios, chocolate or fruit and nuts to lightly coat the exposed filling. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 15 large cannoli.

Make-ahead tip: Can be prepped 2 hours ahead of time.

Per serving: 199 calories; 8 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 36 percent calories from fat); 25 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 52 mg cholesterol; 105 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Penuche Cream Pie

Recipe from Alison Ladman of the Associated Press

Servings: 8

One 8 to 8 ¾-ounce package shortbread cookies

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup packed brown sugar

¾ cup granulated sugar, divided

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided

Pinch kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 egg yolks

1 ½ cups whole milk

1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Whipped cream, toasted walnuts or pecans (optional)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, pulse the shortbread cookies and flour until they are reduced to fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and pulse just until evenly moistened. Press the crumbs over the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, prepare the penuche layer. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the brown sugar, ½ cup of the granulated sugar, the corn syrup, ½ cup of the cream, and the salt. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 230 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour into the prepared pie crust. Allow to cool at room temperature.

While the penuche cools, prepare the custard. In a medium bowl, combine the cornstarch with the remaining ¼ cup of granulated sugar. Add the yolks and beat until smooth. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium, heat the milk along with the vanilla bean, splitting and scraping the inside of the pod into the milk. When the milk comes to a simmer, slowly pour it into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the entire thing back into the pan and heat, whisking continuously, until the mixture comes to a simmer and thickens.

Remove the vanilla bean and transfer the custard to a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly over the custard and refrigerate until completely chilled.

When ready to serve, whip the remaining 1 cup of cream with the powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Pour the custard over the penuche filling in the pie, then top with whipped cream and toasted nuts, if desired.

Per serving: 600 calories; 33 g fat (18 g saturated fat; 50 percent calories from fat); 71 g carbohydrates; 55 g sugar; 160 mg cholesterol; 180 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Pear Cranberry Cobblers

Tart but healthy little cobblers won't make you feel guilty about dessert. Recipe from Self magazine.

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1/3 cup steel-cut oats

2 large pears (about 1 pound), peeled, cored and cut into chunks

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

¼ cup whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 egg

½ cup packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons lowfat vanilla yogurt

Sweetened whipped cream or vanilla frozen yogurt

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place four 8-ounce ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet and coat each with cooking spray. Place oats in a bowl and stir in 3 tablespoons boiling water; cover and steep about 10 minutes. Divide pears and cranberries among ramekins. Mix next 5 ingredients in a bowl. Stir egg and brown sugar into oats; add flour mixture and yogurt. Stir but don't over mix. Spoon batter over fruit and spray tops with cooking spray. Bake until topping browns and puffs, about 25-30 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream or frozen yogurt. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 288 calories; 4 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 13 percent calories from fat); 61 g carbohydrates; 37 g sugar; 59 mg cholesterol; 265 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Sweet Potato Streusel

Bon Appétit

Filling

3 pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 large), peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

¼cup (½ stick) butter, room temperature, plus more for dish

¼ cup sugar

1 cup half and half

2 eggs

1/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger (about 1 ½ ounces)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Topping

1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

½ cup all purpose flour

½cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup sweetened flaked coconut

To make the filling:

Butter 13-by-9-by 2-inch glass baking dish. Cook sweet potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain; return to same pot. Stir potatoes over medium-high heat until excess liquid evaporates. Remove from heat. Add butter and sugar and mash potatoes until almost smooth. Mix in half and half, eggs, ginger and vanilla. Season with salt. Spread in prepared dish (filling will be about 1 inch thick).

To make the topping:

Rub together sugar, flour and butter in medium bowl until moist crumbs form. Mix in pecans and coconut.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle topping over filling. Bake until filling is set and topping is brown, about 40 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Serves 12.

Make-ahead tip: Filling and topping can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover separately and refrigerate.

Per serving: 451 calories; 24 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 48 percent calories from fat); 56 g carbohydrates; 36 g sugar; 76 mg cholesterol; 180 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 4 g fiber.

Pecan Caramel and Fudge Pie

Bon Appétit

Crust

1 ½ cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (about 7 ounces)

5 tablespoons butter, melted

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling

¾ cup unsalted butter

¾ cup (packed) golden brown sugar

6 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 cups pecan halves (about 10 ounces)

3 tablespoons whipping cream

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

To make the crust:

Blend all ingredients in processor. Press crumb mixture onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Cover crust and freeze while preparing filling. (Can be made 1 week ahead. Keep frozen.)

To make the filling:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter, brown sugar and corn syrup in heavy medium saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring often. Boil 1 minute. Stir in nuts and cream. Boil until mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Add chocolate. Stir until chocolate melts and mixture is well blended.

Pour hot filling into crust. Use a spoon to make sure the nuts are evenly distributed. Bake until filling bubbles all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer pie to rack and cool. Serves 8.

Make-ahead tip: The crust can be made 1 week ahead. Keep frozen.

Per serving: 757 calories; 61 g fat (22 g saturated fat; 73 percent calories from fat); 58 g carbohydrates; 36 g sugar; 71 mg cholesterol; 154 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 5 g fiber.