I love preparing thanksgiving dinner, but in my little kitchen with one small oven and limited counter space, I feel more like a circus ringmaster than an experienced cook when I’m trying to get everything on the table. When I’m simmering peas, stirring gravy, sautéing Brussels sprouts, and trying to find someone to carve the turkey, the last thing I want to worry about is dessert. But for a pastry chef like me, dessert happens to be the most important part of the meal—and one is never enough. To satisfy my desire for a groaning table covered with sweets, I rely on gorgeous, old-fashioned cakes and tarts packed with traditional autumn flavors—crunchy nuts, honey, warm spices, pumpkin, cranberries, and even chocolate—that I can bake a couple of days or even weeks ahead.
The desserts featured here are some of my favorite examples. The Chocolate-Honey Ganache Layer Cake and Pumpkin-Pecan Cake with Brown Sugar and Bourbon Glaze actually taste better if given a day or two to age; their flavors become more nuanced and complex, and their textures more luscious and moist. The Maple-Walnut Tart has a forgiving crust that’s both tender and flaky, and a rich maple filling that’s reminiscent of pecan pie. The Cranberry-Almond Shortbread Tart showcases the fruit in an elegant dessert that comes together with the ease of a bar cookie. With a little planning and these recipes in your back pocket, your holiday juggling act is about to get a whole lot easier.
You can tell if a cake will keep well at room temperature just by reading the recipe. If it includes a good amount of butter or oil, along with brown sugar, liquid sweeteners like honey, molasses, or jam, or fruit and vegetable purées, it’s a keeper. These hygroscopic ingredients absorb moisture from the environment. That’s why a cake made with pumpkin, brown sugar, and butter tastes richer and more flavorful when given a day or two to rest before serving.
Desserts that freeze and defrost well are also good keepers. Not every dessert freezes well—sponge cakes dry out and custard pies can get watery when defrosted. But moist, dense, intensely flavored cakes are great candidates. (Note that it’s best to freeze cakes without frosting them, since freezing will compromise the texture of a glaze or ganache. Fortunately, both are easy to stir together later.)
Because they are loaded with fat or sugar or both, buttery shortbread desserts and syrupy nut-filled pies freeze and defrost beautifully. Unlike custard and cream pies, they have little liquid, so when they freeze, fewer ice crystals form; it’s the thawing ice crystals that can change the texture of a pie and make the crust soggy. These tarts need only a little reheating in the oven to crisp up the crust for a just-baked texture and flavor.
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