In the midst of chaos, being told (or even gently encouraged) to be thankful can be akin to having the Trifle-Eating Cat's Dad shout "Dropped it!" on hearing a crash from an adjacent room. That is, it's completely true, patently obvious even if you don't want to hear it, and therefore entirely infuriating*. And yet, there can be a lot to be thankful for, even if you have to poke under a few rocks to think of it. Good friends. Sleeping in. The prospect of Christmas. The absence of bagpipes. More occasions than usual to justify wearing sparkly shoes. The limitless patience of the Other Penguin.
Thanksgiving, a holiday that (unsurprisingly, given its origins) passes in Australia with barely so much as a peep, has just been and gone for another year (passing with a much louder peep indeed on the food blogs, where pumpkins and pecans abound in every possible incarnation). This was on my mind when I tackled this month's Daring Bakers challenge.
Catherine of Munchie Musings was our November Daring Bakers’ host and she challenged us to make a traditional Filipino dessert – the delicious sans rival cake! And for those of us who wanted to try an additional Filipino dessert, Catherine also gave us a bonus recipe for bibingka which comes from her friend Jun of Jun-blog. In a rare application of common sense, I decided that, much as I did want to try an additional dessert (when do I not...?), it was wiser to tackle one thing with conviction than bite off more than I could chew and end up grumpy (and with a pair of baking fails).
The finished recipe was a mix of invention and evolution. It began with the discovery that pumpkin was thin on the ground in my local supermarket, unless I felt inclined to roast and puree it myself (which I didn't). This led to some improvising with pumpkin soup and brown sugar, which produced a satisfyingly rich and pumpkin-y syrup. I also discovered that this was another recipe that didn't lend itself to a rustic baker - the assembly process had more in common with bricklaying than with Donna Hay.
However, after the finished cake had been put in the fridge to cool down and set, it turned out surprisingly well. It wasn't particularly cloud-like, as the nuttiness of the meringue gave it more substance and texture than the melting crunch of the regular variety. The deep caramel flavour kept the taste of the buttercream from being dominated by, well, butter. Combined with the pumpkin cookie dough, the finished cake had a complexity that was belied by its rather cobbled-together look. Still, it was very indulgent, and a little cake went a long way.
If you'd like to make your own Thanksgiving Sans Rival, here's what to do...
What you need
For the pecan meringue
(note: this was half the quantity in the original recipe, as I decided to make a smaller cake)
120 g chopped pecans
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ cream of tartar
113 g sugar
For the caramel sauce
(note: this makes more than needed for the recipe - I simply can't imagine what leftover caramel sauce could be useful for, though!)
115 g butter
200 g sugar
120 ml cream
For the maple buttercream
(note: this is the full quantity from the original recipe, as adapted for my flavourings. Why twice as much buttercream as meringue? Well, it matched the number of egg yolks remaining, as well as giving a bit of room for trial and error. But there was still way too much - enough to ice a batch of small cupcakes as well, for instance...
5 egg yolks, at room temperature
225 g sugar
60 ml water
275 g butter
2½ tbsp maple syrup
180 ml caramel sauce
For the pumpkin cookie dough
560 ml pumpkin soup (I used Darikay)
150 g dark brown sugar
75 g butter
125 g dark brown sugar, additional
200 g flour
1½ tbsp molasses
130 g roughly chopped pecans
What to do
For the pecan meringue
1. Preheat oven to 160°C. Line the base of two 10 cm springform cake tins (or four if you have them - I needed to do two batches of two) with baking paper, and grease the sides with butter, taking care not to miss any spots as the meringue will stick very easily.
2. Whiz the pecans in a food processor until they are roughly ground. (The recipe recommends not processing them so much that they become an even powder, as the textural contrast of the nuts is an important part of the cake).
3. Whisk the egg whites until frothy (around 2 minutes in a stand mixer), then add the cream of tartar. Continue whisking on high speed, adding the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time, until firm glossy peaks form.
4. Gently fold the ground pecans into the egg whites.
5. Carefully dollop the meringue batter into the prepared cake tins. Plonk the tins down on the kitchen bench to ensure there aren't any gaps (just the once or it'll knock out all the air), and level the top with a knife or an offset spatula
6. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cooked meringues from the tins 2-3 minutes after removing from the oven, and place on a wire rack to cool. Then, wash, re-line and grease the cake tins, fill with the second batch of meringue batter and bake.
Important notes on baking time: I scaled back the original meringue recipe by half, and cooked it in smaller tins. Even after this, I ended up filling the cake tin each time. In hindsight, thinner, flatter meringues would have cooked more quickly and evenly, and then been easier to work with when assembling the finished sans rival.
Interestingly, the results varied quite significantly between batches - while the same quantity was put in the tins, the first batch came out thinner and crispier, and the second batch was thicker and chewier. I left both batches in the warm oven overnight and then, before preparing to assemble them, cooked them (on the wire rack, not in their tins) for a further 60 minutes at 120°C. This helped dry them out and crisp them up appreciably more. And taught me (yet again) that tinkering with recipes I've never attempted before can have mixed results and need a bit of tweaking.
For the caramel sauce
7. Put the butter and sugar in a large saucepan and heat, stirring only minimally, until it turns golden brown. When it's ready, it will be starting to turn a darker brown, and may still look almost frothy. If you leave it till it's going too much darker, it'll get beyond salvation as it keeps cooking after removed from the heat.
8. Remove the pan from the stove and add the cream, ¼ cup at a time, stirring in between. The mixture will froth and bubble up as the cream is added, so be careful not to get scalded. Also, be careful not to sound like a little old woman when writing recipes full of boiling sugar...
9. Allow the caramel sauce to cool to room temperature before using it in the buttercream.
For the maple buttercream
10. Put the egg yolks in a mixing bowl and beat on high speed until they are thick and pale yellow, and almost double in size (this took quite a bit longer than I expected).
11. Put the sugar and water in a large saucepan, and heat until it reaches 112°C. As it heats, brush the sides of the pan occasionally with water to avoid sugar crystals forming.
12. Make sure the splash guard is on your mixer, and very carefully, slowly pour the scarily hot sugar syrup into the egg yolks. Mix at high speed until the egg and sugar mixture has cooled to room temperature, which takes around 15 minutes.
13. Add the room temperature butter about a tablespoon at a time, and continue beating on high. It helps to make sure that each addition of butter is incorporated before adding more. Then, add the maple syrup and beat in until well combined.
Important note on adding the sugar syrup: The recipe requires this to be done with the mixer on high speed, but my wariness around boiling sugar meant it was on about middling speed, and the syrup went in far quicker than it should've. I was very, very nervous indeed that it was going to turn into scrambled eggs. While it wasn't perfect, it ended up not being too bad for my first ever attempt at French buttercream. It improved significantly as the rest of the steps were completed.
14. Refrigerate the buttercream for at least an hour (mine was in the fridge for over 12 hours, to enable baking to fit round important things like sleeping and going for brunch with the Penguin Wrangler). This is the finished buttercream as adapted from the original recipe - it reminded me that I find buttercream, well, entirely too buttery and without enough other flavour, so I decided now that it needed something else to give it some depth. That something was caramel...
15. When ready to assemble the sans rival, remove the buttercream from the fridge and beat on high speed. Add 180 ml of caramel sauce, a little at a time, and beat until thoroughly incorporated.
For the pumpkin cookie dough
16. Put the pumpkin soup and 150 g of dark brown sugar in a saucepan and heat until thick and syrupy - about 15 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.
17. Beat the butter until pale, add 125 g of dark brown sugar and cream together with the butter until light and pale.
18. Alternately add the syrupy soup and the flour, a little at a time of each, to the creamed butter and sugar, beating well at a slow speed after each addition.
19. Add the molasses and mix thoroughly, then add the chopped pecans and mix again to distribute evenly through the cookie dough. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.
To assemble the sans rival
20. Trim the edges of the meringue so that the layers are an even roundness. I also sliced each of the two meringues from my second batch into two thinner layers, so they were consistent with the thickness of the layers from the first batch.
21. Starting with a layer of meringue, alternate layers of meringue and buttercream, spreading the buttercream to the edges, Every third layer, add a layer of pumpkin cookie dough.
22. Spread the sans rival with buttercream and decorate with additional crushed pecans. I also added some chopped pecans in caramel sauce to the top of the cake.
23. Refrigerate the finished cake until ready to serve, and before cutting it.
Assembly is resoundingly not my strong suit, not by a long shot. My initial reaction to the sans rival was that it would have plenty of rivals, and would succeed on appearances only by pulling a proverbial Steven Bradbury... I ended up with a badly engineered tower with an uneven smeary coat of buttercream. Paddington Bear would have been very proud.
* It may not surprise you after hearing this to hear that the Trifle-Eating Cat's Dad has prior form in consulting, which involves saying much the same things, only about technical matters and getting paid for it...