Food for Soul

Dessert classics updated: Hot toddy pudding and hazelnut cream pavlovas for Christmas



I’ve been relativity controlled when it comes to pandemic baking projects. Believe me, I want to make all the breads, focaccia and pies I’ve seen all over social media. Filling the house with temptation just isn’t a good idea for me. But the guardrails are off this holiday season.

I want to bake for family, friends and neighbors. Sweet supplies fill my baking cabinet. New this year: sturdy containers to package desserts for front porch drop-offs and boxes for mailing.

Nearly every one of my baking marathons include meringues. These airy, sugar confections symbolize friendship — I’ve bonded with some of my closest friends over crisp and gooey meringues. This holiday season, I’m baking individual disks of vanilla-scented beaten whites for the base of pavlovas. After baking, a swirl of hazelnut chocolate spread proves an easy upgrade.

Pavlovas, the simple meringue desserts, are enriched with drizzles of chocolate hazelnut spread and dollops of chestnut cream.
Pavlovas, the simple meringue desserts, are enriched with drizzles of chocolate hazelnut spread and dollops of chestnut cream. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune; Shannon Kinsella/food styling)

The meringues keep well in a sealed plastic box or tin for several days. I package them separately from their chestnut cream filling (which needs refrigeration) so they can be assembled just before decorating with candied orange rind and mint sprigs. They also taste great topped with ice cream — peppermint gets my vote.

A hot toddy signifies comfort — my mother would make the simple hot cocktail (which comprises hot water, honey, lemon and a spirit, such as bourbon) to soothe sore throats. Now, we warm whiskey with lemon and honey to celebrate a snowy evening by the fire. I can’t literally embrace my friends, but I can send them a hot toddy spice cake, complete with a small jar of hot toddy sauce and thin strips of candied ginger and fresh pomegranate seeds.

British chef Heston Blumenthal’s hot toddy bombe, sold in pretty boxes at Waitrose grocery stores in the UK, inspires the spice cake. His individual ginger spiced cake has a molten center and loads of sherry, whiskey and rum. The recipe here simplifies that idea with a generous douse of buttery, warm sauce.

The moist cakes keep well for several days and, like most booze-laden sweets, actually improve with age. A couple of seconds in the microwave will warm it nicely before serving. I strongly encourage you to make a double batch of the sauce — it’s absolutely great on everything, even French toast.

Of course, I’ll bake cookies — the molasses cookies from the pages of the Chicago Tribune have been a staple for more than three decades. To honor my mom’s memory, we’ll make the cherry bars she baked for dad.

Sweets with memories and meaning will fortify us. Happy holidays. Stay safe and keep baking.

Hot toddy spice cakes are topped with a sauce featuring cream and a nip of whiskey.
Hot toddy spice cakes are topped with a sauce featuring cream and a nip of whiskey. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Hot toddy spice cakes

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour

Makes: 8 servings

Measure the volume of the ramekins by filling one to the rim with water and then tip the water into a measuring cup. Small, 4-ounce, ramekins make individual desserts; larger ramekins mean sharing. Take the time to grease, then flour, them so the cakes release easily. Generously ladle the warm sauce over warm cakes. To save time, substitute bottled caramel sauce, warmed, for the homemade hot toddy sauce.

Vegetable spray and flour for dusting ramekins

6 ounces dark raisins (about 1 ¼ cups) or pitted Medjool dates (about 1 ½ cups)

4 tablespoons whiskey or dry sherry

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon each: baking powder, ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon each: baking soda, ground cloves, salt

½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup packed dark brown sugar

1 large egg

Grated zest of 1 lemon or 2 tablespoons finely chopped candied lemon peel

About 1 cup hot toddy sauce, or jarred caramel sauce, warmed

Pomegranate seeds or finely sliced crystallized ginger

Mint sprigs

Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream

1. Generously coat the inside of eight 4- or 6-ounce ramekins (or four 10-ounce ramekins or oven-proof coffee mugs) with cooking spray. Sprinkle with flour to coat, then tap out excess. Set the ramekins in a baking pan so you can move them easily in and out of the oven.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Simmer raisins or dates with ¾ cup water in a small saucepan, stirring often, until very soft, about 10 minutes. Cool completely. Puree with pan juices and 2 tablespoons of the whiskey in a blender or food processor until smooth. Makes about 1 cup.

3. Whisk together ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves and salt in a bowl. Beat the butter and brown sugar in a medium mixer bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg until smooth. Beat in the raisin puree and lemon zest. Gradually beat in flour mixture just until incorporated.

4. Spoon the batter evenly among the ramekins so each is about half full. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes for small ramekins and 40 minutes for larger ones. Transfer to a wire rack.

5. Use a wooden pick to poke a few holes into the cakes. Gently brush remaining 2 tablespoons whiskey over the tops of the cakes.

6. Cool cakes until you can handle the ramekins. Use a knife to loosen the edges. Invert onto serving plates. Ladle about 2 tablespoons hot toddy sauce over each pudding. Garnish with pomegranate seeds or ginger and mint. Serve warm with a spoonful of ice cream or whipped cream.

Nutrition information per serving: 451 calories, 20 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 69 g carbohydrates, 54 g sugar, 4 g protein, 197 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Hot toddy sauce

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 35 minutes

Makes: 1 ½ cups

Leftover sauce will keep refrigerated a couple of weeks. Reheat it to use warm.

1 cup heavy whipping cream

¾ cup sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

⅓ cup honey or light corn syrup

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (yellow part only)

2 tablespoons whiskey

1 tablespoon dry sherry or more whiskey

1. Put cream, sugar, butter and honey in a small saucepan. Heat to a boil; cover and boil 2 minutes longer to dissolve the sugar completely. Uncover and boil over low heat, stirring often using a clean spoon each time, until deeply caramel in color, about 30 minutes.

2. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon zest, whiskey and sherry. Transfer to a jar. Cool, then cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks. To warm, heat in a microwave-safe dish or set the jar, uncovered, into a small saucepan full of simmering water. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 98 calories, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 0 g protein, 3 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Individual pavlovas with chestnut cream

Prep: 30 minutes

Bake: 1 hour

Makes: 8 servings

You can skip the chestnut cream and fill the meringues with a festive ice cream flavor, such as rum raisin, butter pecan or peppermint.

6 large egg whites

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

¼ cup chocolate hazelnut spread (such as Nutella)

Chestnut cream, see recipe

Fresh raspberries

Candied orange rind or fresh orange peel curls

Powdered sugar

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Draw four 3-inch circles onto each sheet. Flip the paper so the ink is on the underside.

2. Put egg whites into the large bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high speed until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually beat in granulated sugar until peaks hold when you lift the beaters. Beat in cornstarch and vinegar. Mixture will be glossy with soft peaks that hold when you lift the beaters.

3. Divide the meringue evenly among the circles drawn on the parchment paper. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, building the edge slightly. This should leave a slight depression in the center.

4. Bake, rotating baking sheets once or twice, until meringues are golden and crisp, 50 to 60 minutes. Turn off the oven and let meringues cool in the oven.

5. Heat the chocolate hazelnut spread in a small dish in the microwave oven until warm, about 20 seconds. Use a fork to drizzle the spread evenly over the meringue circles. Let stand until dry. Store meringues in a single layer in a covered tin or plastic container up to several days.

6. To serve, use a spoon to indent the center of each meringue. Pile a generous dollop of the chestnut cream into the center. Sprinkle with raspberries, orange rind and powdered sugar.

Nutrition information per serving: 202 calories, 3 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 44 g carbohydrates, 43 g sugar, 1 g protein, 18 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Chestnut whipped cream

Prep: 10 minutes

Makes: about 2 cups

You can save time by using ¾ cup sweetened chestnut spread or chestnut jam (available online) in place of the chestnuts and other ingredients in step 1.

1 cup (5 ounces) roasted peeled chestnuts or ⅔ cup unsweetened canned chestnut puree

½ cup powdered sugar, sifted

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons amaretto or dark rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1. For chestnut puree, put chestnuts, ¼ cup of the powdered sugar, brown sugar, Amaretto and vanilla into a blender or food processor. Process until very smooth. Makes: about ¾ cup.

2. Beat cream in a medium bowl with remaining ¼ cup powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Gently fold in the chestnut mixture just until incorporated but some streaks remain. Refrigerate covered up to 1 day.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 47 calories, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 0 g protein, 2 mg sodium, 0 g fiberJeanMarie BrownsonCONTACT 

JeanMarie Brownson chronicles a life spent cooking in her bimonthly column for the Chicago Tribune, “Dinner at Home.” An award-winning cookbook author, specialty food consultant and former Tribune test kitchen director, JeanMarie creates recipes for Food & Dining readers to nourish family and friends with the pleasure of a beautiful meal.

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