The Gut Buster

Eating good, healthy food is an admirable goal. It’s a really good goal.

Sometimes though, it’s just. so. dang. hard. Ya feel me?

Exhibit A: three sticks of butter. When does that ever make sense? Well, a lot of times, that’s when. Just ask Joy the Baker, or Bon Appetit magazine, or Paula Deen, or my Aunt Faye. They’ll tell ya the truth about butter.

Exhibit B: bourbon and homemade vanilla extract? These make sense practically all the time, and I’m not even joking. They are much less problematic than those sticks o’ butter.

Exhibit C: pe-cans? coconut? These are problems, too. I grew up shelling pe-cans, eating ice cream full of pe-cans, pies loaded with them (and not just Thanksgiving day, either), and almost everything sweet is better with pe-cans.

Coconut? Well, I even like coconut in my hair, so I think I don’t need to say anything more here.

So let’s imagine a utopia where all of these things existed at one time. Let’s imagine that such a place was fat-free, calorie-free, and just as tasty. But truthfully, that isn’t the case, as we all know. Truthfully, some things are just meant to bust your gut.

These bars are those things. I can’t even begin to warn you about how ridiculous they are, how sweet and rich and heavy and butter-laden they are. How much they remind me of every Southern pe-can pie I’ve ever eaten, which is to say that they are a-freaking-mazing, each and every little gram of fat contained in them. Which, if you haven’t noticed, is probably a lot.

But some things are worth a splurge. Like maple cheesecake. Red velvet cake. Homemade Oreos (yep!). Rhubarb-Cornmeal tarts.  And now, these: ooey, gooey, buttery “bars” that taste just like your favorite Southern woman’s pe-can pie.

Go ahead, bust a gut. Or three.

Pecan Pie Bars
Adapted from The Pastry Queen; makes 2 1/2 dozen bars

time commitment: 2 hours (includes 1 hour cooling time)

printable version

ingredients
crust
1 1/2 c (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
4 c all purpose flour
1 t salt

filling
8 large eggs
6 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 c bourbon
6 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T vanilla extract
1 c all purpose flour
1 t salt
2 c unsweetened flaked coconut
2 c pecan halves

instructions
Preheat oven to 350 F.

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter in a large bowl on medium speed (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat about 1 minute, until fluffy. Add the flour and salt; mix on low speed until evenly incorporated but still crumbly. Press the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan (I used a 9×13″ pan and used about 2/3 of the mix, but the recipe itself calls for 12×17″ pan but I didn’t have one that big. You could probably divide the mixture between two 8×8″ pans as well and just adjust the baking times accordingly and watch more carefully). Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until it has darkened to a deep golden brown. Leave the oven at 350.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Stir in the bourbon, butter, vanilla, flour, and salt, then the coconut and pecans. Once the crust is parbaked, pour the filling over the crust, spreading evenly. Bake until set, 25 to 30 minutes (mine baked longer, like 40 minutes, since I poured all of the mix into a smaller pan, resulting in less “surface area” to bake). Cool thoroughly, at least 1 hour. Once cool flip over on wax paper to cut into 3-inch squares or diamonds. (Yields about 2 1/2 dozen bars)

Fennel-y-dee

One of the downsides to losing the Iron Chef battles, or rather the downside to losing, is that you don’t get to choose the ingredient next time around. Okay, I retract that statement; there is another downside – crushing of pride. Embarrassment. Resulting fear and anxiety about the next one, another losing battle for sure. Soul-stealing. Losing leftovers – who wants those?! I couldn’t even look at the sliders from last time.

Wow, that was intense. And maybe a little dramatic. Whatever.

But when you don’t get to pick the ingredient, you just never ever know how you’re gonna feel about it, until you do. Know, that is, which generally doesn’t happen until the Wednesday before the actual event. So you wait two months in anticipation, since you, er, lost. Remember?

And then someone announces that FENNEL is the god-forsaken theme ingredient. Fennel. Shitfire (yes, this is a word).

As it turns out, f-ing fennel is not my most favorite ingredient on the planet. I was hoping for, I dunno, cheese? Bacon? Crabs? Fire-breathing dragons? Rattlesnake? Durian? Definitely not fennel.

And dang, here I go being dramatic again. I really don’t hate fennel. Honest. I just, as my gramma would have said, I just don’t love it. And these secret ingredients – they need to be loved. You need to be excited about them. You need to want to slather them all over your body, and eat them till the cows come home.


dishes, left to right: fennel crackers with roasted fennel dip, fennel-lamb kebabs with fennel chutney, green salad with shaved fennel and parmesan, fennel ice cream sundae, random shot of food, homemade smoked salmon and pear crostini with fennel cream, porchetta-fennel pulled pork with pickled fennel, fennel ice cream with chocolate fennel tuile, fennel angel food cake with candied fennel

Or do you?

The top three:

  1. Heather’s Fennel Dessert Sundae (fennel ice cream, fennel-manchego shortbread, and orange-fennel caramel) AND Jeff’s house-made smoked salmon with fennel and fennel cream fraiche)
  2. Elizabeth’s fennel ice cream (which was better than mine) with chocolate fennel tuile
  3. Kevin’s lamb-fennel kebabs with fennel chutney

 

Four SF battles in, I finally made a dish worthy of a win, or at least a shared win. With fennel, of all things. But I sucked it up and I liked it, and I liked ALL of the dishes made. And my dish? I just stuck with things that I do LOVE – ice cream, caramel, and shortbread. I figured, even if I don’t LOVE fennel, I’d at least love the mediums that included it.

So here we are – at an Iron Chef first – a tie. Picking the next ingredient (or ingredients, depending on what we decide) should be fun. Plus, my pride will be intact – for once. 🙂

ps – the shortbread recipe is coming soon. but it’s so dang good, I just had to give it it’s own post. had to.

Fennel Ice Cream
From Gourmet 2007 via Epicurious; makes ~1 quart

time commitment: variable. at least 3 hours (1 hour active time), or you can do this in steps and make the base the night before and freeze the ice cream the next day.

printable version

ingredients
1 2/3 c heavy cream (or 1/2 & 1/2)
1 T fennel seeds, crushed
1 c whole milk
3/4 c sugar, divided
4 large egg yolks

ice cream maker

instructions
Bring cream and fennel seeds just to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, then cover and let steep about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring milk, 1/2 c sugar, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring.

Whisk together yolks and remaining 1/4 c sugar in a large bowl, then add milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Return mixture to medium saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Immediately strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a heat-proof bowl. Strain fennel cream into the same bowl, pressing on solids while straining to extract as much flavor as possible. Mix together.

Quick-chill by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally until cool, about 15 minutes. You can also just chill the mixture in the fridge overnight, if you allow an extra day for this.

Once mixture is chilled, freeze in ice cream maker according to machine’s instructions (usually 15-20 minutes). Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, about 1 hour.

 

Orange-Fennel Caramel Sauce
original recipe; makes ~1/2 c

time commitment: 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
1 c sugar (+ more to thicken, if needed)
1/4 c water
zest of 1 orange
1/2 c fresh orange juice
1 T fennel seeds
1/4 c heavy cream
1 T butter
1 t sea salt

instructions
Combine sugar and water in heavy small saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil and DO NOT STIR. Also, DO NOT WALK AWAY. On occasion, pick the saucepan up and swirl the mixture, but don’t stir. Somewhere between 5-8 minutes the mixture will begin to turn from clear to a light golden color. Once the golden color is more noticeable, remove from heat more often and swirl the mixture. The caramel color will quickly change colors, and will continue to cook in the pan once removed from the heat, so don’t wait to remove the pan when it’s dark, or your sauce will burn. What you want to end up with is a nice, deep golden color that isn’t burnt, so if you don’t get the right color after removing from the heat and swirling, then add it back to the stove for a few seconds at a time. Make sure it’s spot-on before you continue to the next step – it’s better to toss out a little burnt sugar and start over than to have to start all over once you finish everything and realize your caramel tastes burnt and gross.

Once the sauce is the right color, carefully add zest, orange juice, fennel seed, and heavy cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Stir over low heat until smooth and any caramel bits dissolve. Strain the mixture (twice, if needed) through a fine mesh sieve and pour back into the saucepan.

Now, once I got to this point my sauce was a tad too “watery” for my liking, so I added about a teaspoon of sugar at a time, cooking on medium-low, until it thickened up. I adjusted the amount of sugar on the front end when I wrote this recipe, so yours should be thicker, but feel free to do this if you want to thicken up your sauce and just slowly cook it without a ton of heat until it gets where you want it. Once it does, finish the sauce with the butter and sea salt, and remove from heat to let cool completely. You can strain at the end if you want, but straining earlier was helpful for me to check the thickness.

The sauce will keep for a few days (weeks?) in the fridge. Zap it the microwave for ~30 seconds before serving.