Three Simply Delicious Holiday Desserts

A trio of top Portland chefs share simple dessert recipes to satisfy your winter cravings.

By Benjamin Tepler November 16, 2012

1212 toffee gingerbread e8tfc4

Nostrana's famous butterscotch budino with caramel sauce

Cloying gingerbread people, oppressive fruitcake—these are the bane of the intrepid holiday baker. In defiance of tired Christmas standards, we probed some of Portland’s best dessert chefs for their favorite holiday recipes, with just a few stipulations: no candy thermometer, no pastry bags, and please, no xanthan gum. On our roster is former Sugar Cube owner Kir Jensen with rosemary butter cookies, a lavish and aromatic entry from her arsenal of retro-sassy comestibles; Bella Mercato's Michelle Vernier with a gooey, taste-of-the-season toffee gingerbread (pictured); and Nostrana’s Cathy Whims with her legendary, creamy, salty, sweet butterscotch budino, adapted from the famed Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. Let the holiday madness begin! 

Cathy Whims’s Butterscotch Budino with Caramel Sauce

Makes 10 6-oz ramekins

For the budino: 

  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1½ cups milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 5 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 1/8 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1½ tsp kosher salt
  • 5 tbsp butter, at room temperature
  • 1½ tbsp dark rum (like Meyer’s)

(1) COMBINE cream and milk in a bowl or pitcher, and set aside. (2) WHISK egg, egg yolks, and cornstarch in a medium bowl, and set aside. (3) COMBINE brown sugar, kosher salt, and ½ cup water in pot, and place over medium-high heat, tilting pot as needed until caramelized and deep brown, about 10 minutes. (4) REDUCE heat to low and whisk in cream-and-milk mixture immediately—it will steam and caramel will seize and harden. (5) INCREASE heat to high and cook until seized sugar dissolves. (6) TURN off the heat and whisk half of the caramel mixture, a cup at a time, into the egg mixture until incorporated. (7) SLOWLY whisk egg mixture back into pot and cook over medium heat, stirring consistently, until custard is very thick, about 3–6 minutes. (8) REMOVE from heat, and whisk in butter and rum. (9) PASS through a fine strainer and divide among 10 6-oz ramekins. (10) COVER with plastic wrap, allow to cool, and refrigerate until chilled, about 3 hours.

For the sauce:

  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • Scrapings from 1-inch piece of vanilla bean, or ¼ tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp light corn syrup
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup crème fraîche
  • 1¼ tsp fleur de sel 

(1) COMBINE ½ cup  of cream with vanilla in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. (2) ADD butter and remove from heat; set aside. (3) COMBINE corn syrup, sugar, and 3–4 tbsp water in a large, heavy saucepan to make a wet, sandy mixture. (4) COOK over medium-high heat, swirling pan for even cooking, until caramel mixture is medium amber, about 10 minutes. (5) REMOVE from heat and carefully whisk in cream mixture; set aside to cool. (6) WHISK remaining ¼ cup cream in a separate bowl until it begins to thicken. (7) ADD crème fraîche and whisk until thick and fluffy. (8) SPOON 1 tbsp warm caramel sauce over each budino, sprinkle with 1/8 tsp fleur de sel, and add a dollop of cream topping.

Michelle Vernier’s Sticky Toffee Gingerbread*

Serves 12

For the cake:

  • 1 cup dark beer (stout or porter)
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1½ tsp baking soda
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1½ sticks butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg

(1) PREHEAT oven to 350. (2) BUTTER and flour an 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan, tapping out excess flour. (3) BRING beer and molasses to a simmer in a large pot, remove from heat, and whisk in baking soda (mixture will bubble up and triple in volume.) (4) WHISK together eggs, sugar, brown sugar, applesauce, melted butter, and ginger in a large bowl. (5) WHISK in dry ingredients. (6) ADD hot beer mixture slowly, and whisk. (7) MIX batter using a spatula to ensure it is completely blended, and scrape into prepared pan. (8) BAKE for 1 hour, or until cake feels firm to the touch and a skewer comes out with a few moist crumbs, and remove, keeping oven on.  

For the toffee sauce: 

(make while the cake bakes)

  • 1¼ sticks butter
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1½ tbsp honey
  • 1½ cups heavy cream
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

(1) COMBINE butter, sugar, and honey in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and bring to a boil. (2) COOK over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is a deep toffee brown color, about 15–20 minutes. (3) REMOVE pot from the stove and slowly whisk in cream (mixture will steam.) (4) WHISK in salt and vanilla. (5) SPOON 1½ cups toffee sauce over the baked cake and return to oven for an additional 4 minutes, then let cool for 20 minutes before serving. (6) TOP with additional toffee sauce and whipped cream, if desired. 

This cake can be refrigerated for up to three days, and the toffee sauce can be refrigerated for up to one week

1212 rosemarys baby cookies y2elzq

Kir Jensen’s Rosemary’s Baby Cookies

Makes 60 cookies

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup finely ground cornmeal
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter,at room temperature
  • ½ cup plus one heaping tbsp  granulated sugar
  • 1 heaping tbsp grated tangerine or orange zest (from about 1 ½ to 2 tangerines)
  • 1 ½ tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup superfine sugar, for coating

(1) WHISK flour, cornmeal, and salt in a medium bowl. (2) BEAT butter and granulated sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on medium-high speed until in-corporated but not fluffy, about 1 minute. (3) SCRAPE sides of the bowl and add citrus zest, rosemary, and egg yolks one at a time, beating just until incorporated. (4) SCRAPE sides again and add dry ingredients with the mixer on low, mixing just until combined. (5) SCRAPE dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gather it into a ball, and divide ball in half. (6) SHAPE each half with floured hands into a 12-inch-long rectangular log, pressing sides against your work surface to flatten them. (7) WRAP logs tightly in plastic wrap or waxed paper, twist the ends, and refrigerate for several hours, or until completely firm. (8) PREHEAT oven to 350 and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. (9) CUT logs crosswise into 1/3-cups-to-½-inch-thick slices. (10) POUR superfine sugar into a small bowl and toss each slice in the sugar to coat. (11) PLACE cookies at least 1 inch apart on baking sheets, and bake until the edges are lightly golden, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating sheets from front to back and between upper and lower racks halfway through. (12) COOL cookies for several minutes on baking sheets before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. 

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