Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Molasses Pecan Squares: Or the Cookbook, the Chef and Me

Molasses Pecan Squares/Heart of the Artichoke (Artisan/2010).

Sorghum Pecan Squares by Chef Linton Hopkins, Holeman and Finch (photo by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books)

When I was a little girl, just starting to bake, I would become very upset when my creations didn't look like the pictures in the cookbooks. The cakes would be lopsided, or cracked, too dark, sometimes too light. I remember my mom telling me that my creations were homemade and that's better than what's pictured in the book. Her advice has reassured me all these years in the kitchen because, while my food looks and tastes great, it still doesn't look like the picture.

I thought about this recently as I tried the recipe for Molasses Pecan Squares from David Tanis' wonderful cookbook "Heart of the Artichoke and Other Culinary Journeys." Tanis is part-time chef at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., the remainder of the year he writes and cooks from his home in France. I had the opportunity to meet Chef Tanis in December for lunch at Holeman & Finch Public House. Chef Linton Hopkins prepared a splendid meal for about a dozen Atlanta writers, bloggers and photographers, using recipes from Tanis' book.

The meal consisted of roasted chicken, Sea Island peas with ham hocks and bacon, cabbage with apples, and many more delightful items. The dessert was a very homey kind of sweet, typically Tanis, who has a gift for simple, elegant, seasonal food - Molasses Pecan Squares, the texture of a blondie and that molasses taste reminiscent of gingerbread (without the ginger). (The top photograph is from "Heart of the Artichoke" and shows Tanis' mouth-watering version of the recipe.) Chef Hopkins' version went all-out Southern, using sorghum instead molasses. The Holeman & Finch serving was flatter and larger and absolutely choked with pecans, as you can see in the second photograph, and was absolutely yummy. I intend to find some sorghum and give his version a try.

And here's my version, darker, flatter, with fewer pecans because I couldn't find that extra bag that I swore was in the freezer. Still, they were tasty and chewy and my Mom loved them. Thanks, Mom.

Homemade Molasses Pecan Squares by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Molasses Pecan Squares

Molasses is a classic American ingredient, and so are pecans. Here they make a dessert that is a little like gingerbread.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened, plus more for buttering the dish

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons molasses

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped pecans, plus a handful of whole pecans for topping

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch-square baking dish. Cream the 8 tablespoons butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. (An electric mixer is helpful.) Add the egg yolks, molasses, and vanilla and beat well.

2. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt, and add to the mixing bowl, stirring well. Stir in the chopped pecans.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold them into the batter.

4. Spread the batter in the dish, and sprinkle the whole pecans over the top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Check for doneness with a kitchen knife; when it comes out dry, the dessert is done. Cool in the pan and cut into 3-inch squares.

Excerpted from "Heart of the Artichoke and Other Culinary Journeys" by David Tanis (Artisan Books, 2010)

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer, unless stated otherwise.

For more stories and recipes from David Tanis, see:

Grapefruit Drinks

Black-eyed Peas with Ham Hocks and Bacon

Flat-Roasted Chicken with Rosemary

No comments: