The Sweet Comforts of Fall

Spicing up desserts

Jeff Amberg; Styled for photography by Susan Fuller Slack

Autumn is never in a rush to arrive in South Carolina — it creeps upon us slowly. It is the season of football and tailgating, trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving, dazzling fall foliage, and comfort foods. As the weather slowly cools down, our kitchens begin to heat up. Holiday baking begins. The season is evident during a stroll through the local farmers’ markets. The stalls are filled with fall produce, including pumpkins, squash, pears, and colorful apples. 

The bountiful harvest of deliciously perfumed apples, each with unique characteristics, offers endless opportunities for the kitchen. Honey Crisp apples are juicy with a honeyed flavor and crisp texture. Granny Smith apples are crisp and tart, perfect for baking. Other wonderful choices include the cider-tasting Stayman Winesap, the sweet-crisp Fuji, and the sweet-tart Jonagold. Choose your favorite variety to bake the fragrant Spiced Apple Cake and the Apple Pie Muffins featured in this article.


Cranberry Plum Streusel Bars

These tangy, buttery bars are best made with the finest plum jam or raspberry preserves available that is not overly sweet. The warm bars can be topped with ice cream. After chilling, they become firmer.

About 1/2 recipe Nutty Streusel          (see recipe below)

3/4 cup high-quality plum jam or raspberry preserves

1/2 rounded cup of fresh cranberries

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare the Nutty Streusel. In a small bowl, combine plum jam, cranberries, and vanilla. Line the inside of a 5- by 9-inch glass loaf pan with foil. Firmly pat 2 generous cups streusel crumbs over the bottom of the pan. Spread with the fruit filling. Sprinkle 1 cup streusel on top; do not pat down. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until filling is slightly bubbly and streusel is golden brown. Cool completely. Lift pastry from the pan and foil to a cutting surface; cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half into four or five bars. Serve warm or refrigerate. Bars can be frozen. Makes eight to 10 pieces. Variation: The recipe can be doubled; use a 9- by 13-inch pan.


Nutty Streusel

Streusel is a crumbly, nutty mixture that can be used as a topping on pies, crisps, muffins, bar cookies, cakes, and more. Prepare ahead and refrigerate or freeze in a zip-top plastic bag until needed. Vary the nuts and spices to suit your personal taste. Crunchy demerara sugar is an unrefined, light brown sugar with larger grains. Turbinado sugar, often available in coffeehouses, is similar with large, off-white grains.   

2 sticks unsalted butter (8 ounces), cut into tablespoons

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup golden brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup demerara or turbinado sugar (or light brown sugar)

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Scatter the butter over the bottom of a large bowl, then top with the remaining ingredients in the order listed. With your hands, rub and blend the mixture until it becomes very crumbly. Use as desired. Makes 6 1/2 cups of streusel. Variations:  Stir in 1/4 cup minced, crystallized ginger or 1/2 cup coconut.

Baked Streusel

Prepare one recipe of Nutty Streusel. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread streusel over a parchment-lined, large baking sheet with sides. Bake, stirring occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy. Cool slightly before use. Use at once or store in an airtight container three to four days. Sprinkle baked streusel over ice cream, yogurt, and cooked fruit. Or eat as a snack.


Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake

This two-tone, fall cheesecake is made with pumpkin, spices, and dulce de leche, a caramel-like spread that can be purchased in a 13.4 ounce can from Nestle or made from scratch by boiling down sweetened condensed milk. It is a sweet tradition in Argentina and in other South American countries. This pretty cheesecake can be topped with pastry leaves cut from a pre-made pastry sheet, chocolate leaves, cookie acorns, or other edible decorations.

Crumb Crust (see recipe on page 48)

4 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup dulce de leche

1/4  teaspoon sea salt

4 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 300 degrees F. Wrap the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with heavy foil. Prepare the Crumb Crust; pat into pan. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until fragrant and set; cool slightly. With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese on medium speed, 3 to 4 minutes, until smooth and creamy. Lower the speed and slowly beat in the sugar, salt, dulce de leche and the eggs, one at a time. Reserve 1 cup of the cream cheese mixture. Pour the rest into the prepared crust. Level the top; set aside. Blend reserved cheese mixture with the spices, pumpkin puree, and vanilla until smooth. Spoon evenly over cream cheese layer. With a blunt knife, gently swirl layered batters three to four times. Bake 1 hour or until mixture is set but still jiggly in the center. Turn off oven, and let the cheesecake set 45 minutes. When chilled, run a knife between the edge of the cheesecake and the pan. Remove springform ring; place cheesecake on a serving platter. Decorate the top with pastry leaves, if desired. Cut into slices. You can drizzle each one with leftover dulce de leche that has been thinned with heavy cream to the desired consistency and flavored with 1 to 2 tablespoons dark rum.

Crumb Crust

In small bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups cookie crumbs from gingersnaps or vanilla wafers, 2 packed tablespoons light brown sugar, 1/3 finely chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts), and 6 tablespoons melted butter. (Graham cracker crumbs may require 1-2 tablespoons more butter.) Press crumb mixture in bottom and 1 inch up side of pan. Bake 10 minutes or until fragrant and set.


Sliced Apple Cake

A slice of this flavorful, moist cake tastes especially nice with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream or lightly whipped heavy cream.

2 large apples, peeled, cut in 1/4 inch dice (3 cups)

1/3 cup cider or quality apple juice

3 cups all-purpose flour (whisk flour before measuring)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder

3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

1 3⁄4 cups sugar

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cider Drizzle or confectioners’ sugar (recipe on next page)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Brush the inside of a large Bundt pan or tube pan evenly with a light coating of solid shortening and then dust with flour; set aside. Put cut apples into a microwave bowl; pour in cider. Microwave 1 1/2 minutes. Stir and let cool. In a large bowl, blend flour, spices, salt, baking soda, and baking powder together with a whisk for 20 seconds; set aside. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar at medium high speed until fluffy and pale. Beat in eggs, one at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl occasionally. Turn mixer to low; add flour mixture in three batches until well blended. Stop machine, and scrape bottom of the bowl. Drain apples but reserve the liquid for the glaze. Beat in apples, orange rind, and vanilla until blended. Spoon mixture evenly into prepared pan; smooth top. Bake 55 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out dry. Cool 20 minutes and then turn out onto a serving plate. When cake is completely cool, spoon Cider Drizzle over the top, letting it drizzle down the sides. If you prefer, simply add a light dusting of powdered sugar over the top.    


Cider Drizzle

Reserved liquid from apples (3 to 4 tablespoons)

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, more if needed

2 tablespoons molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

Whisk together all ingredients until smooth. Thin with a little more cider if desired.


Apple Pie Muffins

Cannot decide between a slice of apple pie or a muffin? Why not have both?  If you are in a hurry, omit the Apple Topping and substitute about 1/2 can quality, prepared apple pie filling (without high fructose corn syrup). Cut up the prepared apple filling and bump up the flavor with a little cinnamon or nutmeg, vanilla, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt, to taste. Not overly sweet, the muffins are extra delicious with the Mascarpone Cream Topping (recipe to follow) and a drizzle of caramel or butterscotch sauce. Or enjoy plain.

1/2 cup safflower oil or melted butter

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup buttermilk   

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour (whisk flour; spoon into measuring cups)

2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 medium tart apple, peeled, finely shredded

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 12 cup, nonstick muffin tin with cooking spray; dust with flour. Prepare Apple Topping recipe (to follow); set aside. In a large bowl, blend oil, brown sugar, sugar, and buttermilk. Whisk in eggs, lemon rind, and vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. With a spatula, stir flour mixture into buttermilk mixture until partially combined; don’t overmix. Fold in grated apple. Scoop batter into muffin tin, about 3/4 full. Add a spoonful of Apple Topping (or pie filling) to each portion of batter. Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Cool 10 minutes; remove muffins from the pan. If desired, place each one inside a muffin liner for serving. Prepare the Mascarpone Cream Topping; refrigerate until needed. To serve, pipe a swirl of the topping on each muffin. Add a drizzle of caramel or butterscotch sauce, if desired. Makes 12 to 14 muffins.


Apple Topping

2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored, diced

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Prepare apples. In medium skillet, melt butter over medium high heat. Cook apples, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Cook 3 to 4 minutes longer. Stir in lemon juice. Let cool.


Mascarpone Cream Topping

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup mascarpone

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup heavy cream, chilled

Mix confectioners’ sugar, mascarpone, and vanilla until smooth; set aside. Whip cream in a small mixing bowl until soft peaks form. Drop in 1 tablespoon of the mascarpone mixture at a time until cream forms stiff peaks. Do not overbeat or mixture could curdle.

Variation: For giant-size bakery-style muffins as shown in the photo, bake the batter in a 6-cup, nonstick muffin pan. Fill pan 3/4 full; top each muffin with a generous tablespoon of Apple Topping or ready-made apple pie filling. Spoon any remaining batter on top. Optional:  Nutty Streusel can be sprinkled on top before baking. Bake 18 to 20 minutes. Cool and decorate with cream topping just before serving.


Five-Spice Carrot Cake

Nutty-tasting wheat germ and Chinese five-spice lend character and intrigue to this moist, flavorful cake. I often decorate the center with beautiful, fresh, edible orange tiger lilies or a sweeter variety made of gum paste.

1 cup cooked, pureed carrots

3/4 cup safflower oil

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons plump, golden raisins

1 cup sugar

1 cup all-purpose, soft wheat flour

1/4 cup wheat germ

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup walnut halves, lightly toasted, broken

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and line with parchment paper a deep, round 8 or 9 inch baking pan. Grease parchment and dust with flour. In a large bowl, combine carrot puree, oil, eggs, vanilla, and raisins. Into a medium-size bowl, whisk remaining ingredients well, except walnuts, for 30 seconds. Stir dry ingredients into carrot mixture just until blended. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes or until the cake tests done. Cool 10 minutes; turn onto a serving plate. Frost cake. Press walnuts evenly over the sides. Makes 8 to 10 servings.


Orange Frosting

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

3 cups powdered sugar

1 tablespoon orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier) or tangy orange juice

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

In a medium bowl, cream butter and cream cheese. Beat in remaining ingredients until smooth. Makes about 3 cups frosting. Recipe from Cooking with Grains by Susan Slack.


Pecan Meringue Torte

This elegant meringue strives to be a French dacquoise, but it is really a heavenly taste of Americana. The main additions are pecans and humble soda crackers. Invented by American pioneers, soda cracker pies became popular in the mid-19th century. Twentieth century versions were often called mock apple pie or mystery torte; my great aunt’s recipe included chopped dates. In addition to fall fruits, seasonal fresh peach slices or a blend of berries complement the meringue’s chewy texture and sweet, slightly salty taste.

3 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup sugar

14 soda crackers, finely crushed

1 cup pecan or walnut halves, lightly toasted and chopped

2 teaspoons rum or vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon vinegar

1 cup heavy cream, whipped with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla

Topping: pomegranate seeds, cranberry-apple compote, or caramelized apple slices, as desired   

3 Heath bars, coarsely chopped, or milk chocolate English toffee bits, or plain English toffee bits

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. In a mixing bowl, whip eggs until foamy. Add cream of tartar and then gradually sprinkle in sugar, beating until stiff. Fold in crushed crackers, nuts, vanilla, and vinegar into the meringue. Spread over the bottom of a 9 to 10 inch springform pan or pie pan. Bake about 30 minutes. Turn off the oven and let meringue stand for 1/2 hour. Remove from oven and cool. Frost with whipped cream; chill several hours or overnight. At serving time, remove sides of the springform pan. (Serve from the pie pan.) If used, spoon cranberry-apple compote on top or serve on the side. Sprinkle with Heath bar pieces and drizzle with caramel.

Variations: If desired, use a large spoon to shape the meringue into a rustic 9-inch circle on a parchment-lined pan; top as directed above. Or make small, individual meringue, and top with scoops of pumpkin ice cream, caramel sauce, and chopped Heath bars.