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Three Food Writers Battle Over Christmas Desserts In This Cooking Challenge


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T’was the night before Christmas, on the Uproxx page,
And the Internet’s legions were all stirred up with rage,

They’d been given a gift — Star Wars: The Last Jedi,
“Complaints?” the OG fans wrote, “You bet I…”

“…Have issues with Luke, Rey and Finn,
In fact, I’m so pissed… where to begin?

The rants poured forth, a few of them vile,
So let’s check out the food page for awhile.

It’s a quite civil place — not to say we don’t bicker,
But when tempers are lower, forgiveness is quicker.

Today our fair topic is tarts, brulees, and cakes,
So let’s tease one another’s most minute mistakes.

When comments get going, it’s a hell of fight,
Perfect for warming a cold winter’s night.

So come Tronner, come Verbal, come Dancer and Blitzen,
Fartakiss, get in here, be sure you get hits in.

Tell us how Santa would be ashamed of our treats,
How our texture is mushy and our cakes look like feets.

Keep it fun, keep it fresh, keep it nice, keep it light,
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve
Thanksgiving Side Dishes Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 18
VINCE: 17
STEVE: 13

VINCE’S APPLE GALETTE WITH SOUR CREAM DOUGH AND SALTED CARAMEL DRIZZLE

Even before my shocking win in the last challenge, I was convinced that Steve is deciding these things based on what will best keep me from winning. He did Thanksgiving sides after I’d already cooked my favorite Thanksgiving side for a previous challenge and he took the obvious choice, scalloped potatoes, for himself. I won anyway, cooking a dish that wasn’t even American. So now we’re doing Christmas desserts. I’m at an even greater disadvantage here on account of I don’t even really know what a “Christmas dessert” is. Don’t people just eat, like, pie and cookies and shit? I’ve never once eaten a fruit cake, and mostly I’m only aware of them as a sitcom punchline from the 80s. Figgy pudding is a lyric to a Christmas song that I’m not entirely sure is about a real thing. Like, pudding made from figs? Never seen it, it sounds terrible.

What desserts do I actually like? Apple pie. I like apple pie. So I made a galette, which is like an apple pie for lazy asses. My girlfriend sent me this recipe for a Smitten Kitchen galette that had ricotta dough. I liked the dairy-in-the-dough idea, and it said you could also use sour cream in your dough. I already had some Mexican sour cream in my fridge (on account of it’s one of my favorite things), so I used that instead. I changed the filling to apple and did a salted caramel drizzle, because while salted caramel is everywhere and kind of obnoxious, well, it’s also really good.

The Dough

It’s actually probably a good thing I didn’t know how easy pie dough was before this. Way easier than pasta. I used:

Flour
Sugar
Salt
Mexican sour cream
Lemon zest
Butter

Mush it all together in a big bowl.

The Filling

I’ve never made an apple pie before so I don’t know which are the best apples to use. I figured the weird ones that aren’t as good for eating raw because why else would they exist? So I used two granny smiths, a golden delicious, and an Arkansas crisp (some Whole Foods ass variety I’d never seen before). Another recipe I read said you should put all your seasonings on your apples and let them sit for 20 minutes and then drain so they don’t soggy-up your galette dough. That sounded right so I did that.

4 apples, peeled and cored
3 tbsp sugar, 2 tbsp brown sugar
Juice of half a lemon
half a cinnamon stick
pinch of salt

It turned out… good? Note: I had way too many apples.

The Caramel

I think we all understand the basics of caramel, right? I used sugar and butter. You normally add cream to make it easier to work with, but I used sour cream since I already had it out for the dough. It tasted basically the same. Added a little salt at the end.

Construction

I made a pile of apples a few apples deep, then added butter chunks and more cinnamon. I covered all the dough with egg wash, then folded over the edges and baked at 425 for 30 minutes. Drizzle with salted caramel to finish.

Guys, gals, and even my haters: I won’t lie to you, drizzling is not my strong suit. This galette contains some uneven ass drizzling. We’re talking disabled kid with puffy paint at Build-a-Bear level drizzlery. No one ever accused me of being a master drizzler. But credit where credit is due, I made an apple pie thingy with caramel sauce in like an hour. How’d it taste? Well, it tasted like apples, butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, sour cream, and caramel. It was god damn amazing.

Zach on Vince’s dish:

My inner Padma isn’t so sure. So let’s get nit-picky! The biggest complaint is the apples. They look way too thick for a galette. Do you even mandolin, bro? Also, pick an apple and stick with it. Oh, and dude, pie dough is even easier than the pastry dough you made here (zing!).

Listen, I’d eat this for sure. It does have the stink of Bramucci on it with the sour cream in places that sour cream don’t necessarily need to be. I’m sure it’s still edible. But it feels more like that dish your slightly toxo-gondii’d aunt brings that used to be a masterpiece but now it’s just okay.

Steve on Vince’s dish:

I’m going to use my one “I just don’t like fish, bro” exemption that cost me the Valentine’s Day competition (#NeverForget) and admit: I fucking hate baked apples. They’re just always too tart for me to enjoy in a dessert. I make the occasional apple crumble, and when I do I saute those apples with butter and cinnamon until the tart flavor is a far off memory. With how these are cut — thicker than Drake in sweatpants — I can’t imagine the dessert didn’t have some tart notes, which, as I said, just isn’t my thing.

That said, I take issue with none of Zach’s nitpicks besides the thick apples, so this must be freaking good, execution wise.

Here’s my one issue:

Vincent, Hans Landa, and I are so disappointed in you, right now:

WHERE IS THE CREAM??? Or ice cream! Something!

ZACH’S EGGNOG CREME BRULEE WITH SALTED CARAMEL CANDY

I’m not a sweet tooth and rarely — if ever — order dessert. I’ll grab a piece of cake with a nice cup of coffee once or twice a year. But that’s about it. So, when I do make desserts, I like it to be simple and classic. So, I’m making a creme brulee with a seasonal twist.

At the end of the day, a creme brulee is a really well-constructed pudding with caramelized sugar to crack. That’s all — simple, classic. I’m adding some eggnog spices to the mix and changing up the caramel factor. Basically, eggnog is a short step from a pudding (cream, milk, eggs, sugar) so it’s not that crazy a stretch. I’m just adding nutmeg, allspice, and cloves to the mix. The ripple here is that I’m going to experiment with some caramel and candied toppings and forgo the normal blowtorch scorched sugar that usually accompanies the dish. Let’s see how it goes.

Prep
This is actually pretty straightforward beat four egg yolks with 1/3 cup of very fine white sugar. Then I bring two cups of heavy cream (32 percent fat) to a simmer. Let that cool a bit and then pour the warm cream through a sieve into a measuring cup. The reason you pour the milk through the sieve is to aerate it. That’s what gives creme brulee its effervescence.

Next, I slowly temper the cream into the eggs while constantly whisking. Once that’s done, I add about a dozen cranks from the nutmeg mill along with about a half-teaspoon of each ground allspice and cloves. Lastly, I add in the seeds from a vanilla pod and whisk until the spices are evenly blended.

Cook
I decided to sous vide these bad boys. So I set the temp to 195F and prepare my serving jars. I’m upcycling some old jam jars to serve these because a) we all need to stop throwing so much shit away and b) we all need to stop throwing so much shit away! You can dock me for not using some fancy-ass ramekins. I don’t care.

Anyway, I pour the eggnog creme brulee evenly into four jars. I put on the lids and drop the jars into the water bath. You actually have to stack them to stop them from floating. I set the timer for an hour and done.

Caramel Candy
Since I have an hour, I decide to play around with some salted caramel candy. I throw about 2/3 cups of white sugar into a pan with 1/3 cup of water and bring that sucker to a hard boil. I also add in a fair punch of salt. It says “salted caramel candy” up top, so I guess that’s what I’m making. 15 or so minutes later, it starts to caramelize.

At this point there’s still a lot of air bubbles in it, so I make some blotches on a piece of grease-proof paper. These experiments are there to let the bubbles do the heavy artistic lifting. As the caramel candy cools, the bubbles give way to a clear, dark tan candy. Once that happens I do some designs on some plates for serving. Then as the caramel candy starts to get tacky, I pull spiderweb thick strings to create some caramel straw. Basically, this leaves me with several garnishing options and a lot of hard candy to eat. Seriously, this made about ten times the amount I needed.

Once the candy sets, it’s super (really) brittle. So handle with care.

Serve

After the eggnog creme brulee comes out of the water bath, I place them on the balcony to cool and set. It’s cold in my neck of the woods so that only takes about 15 minutes. I know creme brulee is supposed to be served warm from the oven, but something about ‘eggnog creme brulee’ sounds better served cold. Does anyone drink warm eggnog? Exactly.

I gather some bubbly caramel candy and some of the straw and place it over the eggnog creme brulee and serve it. The creamy and delicate pudding is sooo soft and tastes like the most satisfying mug of eggnog you can imagine. The crunch of the salted caramel candy is the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness, spice, and velvet. It’s a flavor and textural delight.

Vince on Zach’s dish:

First off, Steve, was most of your critique about garnish? You want ice cream with your pie? That’s how I like it too. Put some ice cream on it. That’s how I ate it. I took a picture before I put the ice cream (that I didn’t make) on top so that you could, you know, actually see the thing I made. Also “I don’t like baked apples” is possibly the lamest critique ever. I agree that “I just don’t like fish” is a bad critique, but are you going to carry that commenter who hurt you with you everywhere you go? You’ve gotta let go, man. As Deepak Oprah or whoever once says, resentment is like eating fish and then hoping it will gross out your enemy.

Anyway, onto Zach. Oh hell yeah, it wouldn’t be a Zach entry without fanciferous descriptions like “effervescence” and phallic exhortations like “knob” and “crank.” As for the dish… it’s fine. Thing about creme brulee is that it’s always going to be creme brulee. Which is always… fine. It’s basically pudding, which is… fine, a creamy sweet thing good for a few bites, but with no textural contrast, hence the crispy top, which is made from blowtorched sugar, which is… fine. Like you said, it’s hard candy and pudding. Your version of the pudding sounds like it’d prob be in the top 10 of creme brulees I’ve had (I keep track of all my brulees in a moleskin Zach bought me), the bubbles and the sous vide sound perfectly deployed, but I’m not sure the fancy squiggle candy is an improvement over the regular hard shell. Feels like a classic example of high risk, low reward. Best case, someone’s going to go “oh this looks neat,” and then eat it, and it’s a lateral move from the usual top; worst case it’s like eating barbed wire.

Steve on Zach’s dish:

Hey guys,

So sorry, I’m going to have to do this later. My mouth is bleeding from Zach’s candied caramel and I need to get my gums stitched up. I promise to circle back on this critique, but for now, I have to attend to the fact that there’s a sugar-flavored razorblade wedged between two molars.

***

Okay, fine. I kid. But that’s my critique. As always, Zach is a master of technique. But this is weaker than the sum of its parts. I’d rather have the creme brulee that is actually… bruleed. Call me crazy, I love tapping my spoon against the top.

This dish isn’t integrated together and I think it’s weaker for it. But hey, ZJ, I’ll give you this: This was a solid application of the sous vide.

STEVE’S FIGGY PUDDING

Man… Have you ever Genius.com’d the lyrics to the caroling classic, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas“? I have (four minutes ago) and it turns out the whole entire song is just a front for some stragglers fiending for dessert like goddamn drug addicts. It starts out innocuous enough:

We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Nice, a jolly good show of goodwill. ‘Tis the season and whatnot. Thanks, joyful carolers. I’ll see you all next ye–

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Got it. 10-4. Tidings received. To you and yours, too! Have a great–

Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring some out here

Um… you’re coming off a little demanding. Figgy pudding is indeed a tasty holiday treat, but I just don’t have access right now to the figgy pudding supplies that would satiate a caroling group of your numbers. I’m really–

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy new Year

Ah… there’s the old holiday cheer! I’m sure you all just had low blood sugar for a second. You can see, rationally, how hard it would be for me to come up with figgy pudding for–

We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here

The fuck? I don’t have that much figgy pudding.

And frankly, the singing is a little flat. My point being, this carol isn’t worth me making a figgy pudding over. Can I interest you instead in a creme brulee with caramel razors on top, so that you can all cut the shit out of your mouths? Or maybe an apple turnover without whipped cream, so that your throats get too dry to ever sing again? We have lots of both of those around here!

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

I’ll tell you where you can put your tidings.

We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Get off my lawn or I’m calling the cops.

Annnnnyway, “figgy pudding” is bomb. It’s essentially a gooey cake, made with figs and dates, that’s then broiled with caramel on top. I favor dates over figs in mine and slather it with ice cream, because I do that with all desserts.

Being that A) his wife is British and this is a UK dish, and B) he can get pedantic with the best of them, I don’t want to ire Zach’s food critic side. So for our purposes, let’s actually call this:

Steve’s Figgy Date Pudding With Salted-Malted Vanilla Ice Cream And Deschutes IPA Caramel

Has there ever been a more “Steve Bramucci” title for a dish? I doubt it! Annnnnddddd away we go!

The key to this dish is found in three ingredients that I had to buy imported:

  • Lyle’s Golden Syrup
  • Lyle’s Black Treacle
  • Pure Vanilla Bean paste from Madagascar

It’s also heavy on a Steve Bramucci favorite:

  • Browned butter.

I don’t think I’ve ever really explained my browned butter fixation, so here goes: It burns cleaner, the flavor is stronger, the grassiness of raw butter is replaced with nuttiness, it adds tremendous depth to savory dishes and savory-ness to sweet dishes.

I am ride or die on browned butter. It’s too much, prolly.

The next crucial bit is your rehydrated figs and dates. You simply chop them up and cover them with boiling water. This is two cups full. I blended mine too, because who wants big chunks of fruit in their cake? Not this guy.

After that it’s basically just a cake batter mix. I have a few pics, but they’re shit. I’ll uploaded them to the comments so that you believe me. But here’s what’s in the recipe (which can be pulled up online):

  • Figs and dates
  • Black treacle
  • Golden syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Flour
  • Baking soda
  • Eggs
  • Nutmeg

The mix of the three different sugar products (black treacle is essentially molasses) is up to you. I leaned more into the golden syrup and less to the treacle because molasses is too smoky for some people. My cake is huge, so my specific amounts were: 1/2 black treacle, 1 cup golden syrup, 1/2 organic brown sugar.

That’s the cake in the oven. While it bakes, let’s talk ice cream.

“Salted-Malted Vanilla Bean.”

That’s my go to flavor these days.

Here’s the logic:

Did you ever have a “malt”? They’re the best. It’s a milkshake with malted milk powder. There’s a certain earthiness to it. Also, I can’t deny my food nostalgia. To me, this tastes like childhood in Portland (where malts were served at Cal’s Pharmacy — which was also our local skate shop) and teen years hitchhiking down old Route 66.

Some movie, a long time ago, had characters in the fifties saying to a diner clerk: “I’ll have a vanilla malted, please.” And I’ve loved that line ever since. Is it from Grease? Back to the Future? I’m not sure.

Why add salt to it? Well… you saw how much freaking sugar went into the cake. Let’s not forget balance, friends!

To the beer caramel!

  • Browned butter.
  • Brown sugar.
  • Vanilla bean.
  • Deschutes IPA

The beer might just be the “Bramucci, you just Bramucci’d the whole Bramucci out of this and now you have a big pile of Bramucci on your hands” moment.

But…

COUNTERPOINT:

  • Beer caramel is dope.
  • This dish is sweet enough.


Why have hard caramel when you can have it soft, friends?
Then pour it on the whole cake, like frosting and back into the oven, under the broiler.

Broil until it looks sticky. The result is a tiny bit of crunch with none of the teeth shattering.
Plate.
Tangerine zest to brighten the palate.
Devour.

Zach on Steve’s dish:

I always know Steve is in trouble when he spends 500 words pontificating about a tangent before diving in. This one is close to Steve hitting perfection. Then came the IPA. I. P. A. Oh, it hurts, Steve. Why do you hurt us so???

Dude, there’s a great opportunity here to tie all three components of this dish together and I think you completely missed it. Figgy pudding needs rum. It should really be soaked in rum then lit on fire to burn off the alcohol before serving. That gives you a chance to rum up your malted vanilla ice cream/milkshake. And then you could have tied it all together by adding a rum-barrel aged stout or porter to the caramel sauce (incidentally Deschutes makes an awesome one). Just that heady, hoppy IPA is such a crucial misfire in flavors that only compounds the missing rum from the fruitcake. Whereas the smoked malt and vanilla textures of a stout or porter would have made perfect sense here.

So close, Steve, yet so very far away.

Vince on Steve’s dish:

I just want to point out that before any copyeditors got ahold of it, part of Steve’s entry read “I favor dates over figs in mine and slater it with ice cream, because I do that with all deserts.”

Mmm, yeah, Steve, Slater my desert.

But typos aside, thank God we got another description of why Steve likes browned butter. Yes, that one really required some unpacking.

I’ll be honest, when you started describing what a figgy pudding was (before this I truly had no idea), I started to get worried. Oh no! It’s actually bread pudding with gooey buttered fruit! That actually sounds pretty good! Then you went a Bramucci’d a cake with an IPA on it. Adding “IPA” to a dish is a great way to make me walk out of the restaurant. I hate IPA so much. IPAs ruined craft beer. But IPA caramel, whatever okay fine. I thought you were going to break up the cake and add eggs and butter and turn it into, you know, like a pudding. I guess it’s more just eggy cake with… a milkshake on top? You were a little vague about that part, actually. It got lost in your reveries about getting molested by a hitchhiker during Grease. It sounds like you mixed malt powder with some kind of pretentious faux-worldly vanilla (was the ice cream not already vanilla flavored?) and ice cream to make a milkshake, and then dumped out the milkshake on top of your beer-covered fruitcake.

And hey, don’t forget the TANGERINE ZEST. But there were no herbs this time, which I call progress.

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