Early in our adult life, a former boyfriend and I couldn’t always afford to buy plane tickets home to Arizona for the holidays. This made me a little sad, as Christmas is quite the thing in my family. Being poor was depressing enough but missing our traditional holiday meals only compounded the situation. No Christmas Eve oysters? No pierogies? No crazy cooking marathon with my mom or opening stockings on Christmas morning like when we were kids? Exchanging gifts isn’t nearly as fun when you’re not there to see the recipients face. Luckily we had some family nearby and many friends who were happy to invite us to their celebrations, and this helped. One year, we were invited to the family home of a good friends girlfriend for what became a rather memorable Christmas.
Richelle was a lovely girl with a big Filipino family in the suburbs who welcomed us with open arms. I agonized over what to bring, even though she said it wasn’t necessary, because that’s what a good guest does. You bring something and hope, really hope, the hosts like it. This was early in my pre-professional baking days, when I was into large, complicated baking projects and my boyfriend cautioned me against my usual ridiculousness. This only served to make me more nervous, more doubtful. What to bring? A pie didn’t seem right for a large family gathering, as it would serve too few. A layer cake seemed odd; too birthday-ish. I wanted to do a traditional French Buche de Noel, with meringue mushrooms, candied cranberries and chocolate bark, but he talked me out of it. Too weird, too involved, too French, he said. Bah! He was always such a buzzkill. So we compromised: I’d make a pumpkin spiced roulade or rolled cake. I sort of got my way as it teetered into buche territory but was a little less over the top and would serve at least a dozen. It seemed holiday appropriate and the mere detail that I didn’t have much experience with rolled cakes didn’t concern me in the least bit. Wasn’t the first time I’d ventured into unchartered territories.
It really wasn’t that difficult to roll the cake and I filled it with a rich cream cheese icing studded with toffee bits and stashed a jar of caramel sauce in my purse. I was quite pleased with myself. We arrived, me carrying the roulade carefully on my lap for the entire drive, growing a little more anxious by the minute. Her street was lined with an endless stream of cars and I realized that when big Filipino families get together, they really get together. With a tinge of panic, I thought maybe my cake was too small. We walked in the house and were immediately greeted by a never-ending line of friendly cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and neighbors. Coming from a small family, it was a bit overwhelming at first. And I really hadn’t brought enough cake. Damn. I put the platter on the dessert table and slinked away.
As I turned the corner, I saw the food. Oh the food! Several long tables, heaving under family specialties … freshly fried lumpia, big heaping pans of pansit noodles and other gorgeous things I’d never heard of, much less tasted. But first we had to say hello to the parents. Big hugs and kisses and then Richelle’s mom took me aside excitedly. “Kathy! I have something special just for you! “ She turned to the fridge and proudly produced a big bag. “I bought you salad!” I was a bit surprised, not aware that I liked salad so much, but thanked her for her thoughtfulness. It was very sweet that she went to the trouble to buy me something special. But I was confused. Salad? Did I have to eat that and not the beautiful dishes on the table the family was eagerly digging into? I was running the scenarios through my head on how I could eat the salad but also all those gorgeous dishes without insulting anyone.
I turned to my friend with a confused look and mouthed “Salad??” He started laughing and Richelle looked a little embarrassed. Turns out, never having met, her mother was concerned that being a white Polish girl, I wouldn’t like the traditional Filipino dishes and went to the trouble to get what she thought I might like. And that was bagged salad. Our friend, still laughing, assured her that I was a champion eater and if there was anyone in the group who’d eat that food, it was me. She looked doubtful and waved the bag of greens, so I’d know they were in the fridge for me if needed.
Thankfully, Richelle’s amused father took me by the arm, grabbed a plate and led me through the menu, heaping my dish high with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I tried it all; even the strange to me fermented embryonic eggs. Didn’t care for them but I got points for trying, which made the bagged salad even funnier to the younger brothers and cousins. It was all incredibly delicious and I ate more than my fill, which seemed to make everybody happy. Then I ate a big plate of salad, because, well, you just have to. I might note that my boyfriend was a complete afterthought by everyone – not only did he not get a special purchase, he had to fend for himself at the food table with no one to explain what delicacies awaited. Served him right for making fun of me.
I was too busy eating my 50th piping hot lumpia and watching the incredibly involved karaoke set up in the living room that I had forgotten about my cake until several people made a point to compliment me. It was easy to find the white girl in the room who brought the French cake to a Filipino holiday gathering (thinking back, I should have done better research.) Richelle’s little brother asked me if I had brought another because he liked it so much. I don’t know if he was pulling my leg but it was a very sweet thing to say and I appreciated it. During the long drive home, bellies full of delicious food, I was thankful we were welcomed so openly and warmly. I had a Christmas quite unlike any other yet just as full of love and traditions and good food as the ones with my own family.
Above all, I hold very fond memories of Richelle and her family. After that night we’d occasionally go out for Filipino dinners with her family, where her dad introduced me to the wonders, and weirdness, of the dessert halo halo. We were alone at the table with our appreciation of that one. Some just don’t understand the appeal of shaved ice, coconut milk, red beans and little weird jelly things in one bowl. Their loss.
I haven’t made this pumpkin cake since that Christmas but I kept meaning too. It was moist, lightly spiced, filled with a rich cream cheese icing and terribly festive. Who doesn’t like cream cheese icing? I couldn’t find the exact recipe but remembered it was from one of the big cooking magazines so I’ve done a bit of sleuthing and patched a recipe together based on my memories of that night. I think this one is better, truth be told and the pumpkin spice caramel sauce is delighful. Don’t be intimidated by the rolling technique – it’s surprisingly easy and makes a showy, moist cake that holds well.
I’d lost touch with Richelle, the friend and the old boyfriend due to life circumstances but when I started this blog she somehow found me and sent an email, which was a welcome surprise. We corresponded for a while and tried to make plans to meet again, but somehow I dropped the ball. So Richelle, this one is for you and your lovely family. Happy Holidays old friend! Every time I eat a bagged salad, I think of that night with the fondest of memories.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: A SPECIAL KIND OF SIMPLE. Yes, there are many parts but none are overly complicated or time consuming. The cake comes together easily and bakes quickly. The caramel bits add a nice touch of spice and color to the filling, the icing is fairly straight forward and the caramel sauce brings it all together. For a fancy pants holiday dessert, which let’s face it everyone wants, this is one of the easier ones. It looks far more complicated than it is and can be made the day ahead.
On this blog four years ago: Gingerbread with the Kids
On this blog three years ago: Gingerbread with the Kids
On this blog two years ago: Homemade Gifts for the Holidays
On this blog one year ago: Gingerbread with Bourbon Sauce
PUMPKIN ROULADE WITH CARAMEL CREAM CHEESE ICING AND PUMPKIN SPICE CARAMEL SAUCE
makes one cake, serves at least 12
To simplify things, the recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice but if you don’t have that, you can make you own by combining 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, ½ teaspoon ground allspice, ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg. That should give you enough for this full recipe.
for the pumpkin cake:
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
6 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2/3 cup canned pumpkin puree
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
for the caramel pieces:
1 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon light corn syrup
3 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
for the cream cheese filling
16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup heavy cream, cold
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
powdered sugar for garnish
pumpkin spice caramel sauce (recipe follows)
- For the cake: Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 15”x10”x1” sheet pan with parchment paper and spray the pan sides and paper with cooking spray.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and pumpkin pie spice; set aside.
- In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup brown sugar on high speed until very thick, about 3-5 minutes.
- Switch to the paddle attachment and on low speed, mix in the pumpkin, then the dry ingredients. Scrape the bowl.
- Using a clean dry bowl and a clean whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and salt to stiff peak but take care not to overwhip to the point where the whites are dry. They should look almost creamy.
- Gently fold the whipped whites into the pumpkin batter in 3 additions.
- Transfer the cake batter to the prepared pan, leveling with an offset spatula.
- Bake the cake until tester is inserted comes out clean, about 10-12 minutes. Take care not to overbake.
- While the cake is baking, take a clean, smooth kitchen towel (not terrycloth) and generously cover with sifted powdered sugar.
- When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and cut around pan sides to loosen.
- This part gets a little tricky. Sift powdered sugar evenly on top of the cake, place the towel (sugared side down) on top of the cake and top with a cutting board or something large enough that will simplify the flip.
- Quickly flip the stack so the cake pan is now on top and gently work the cake free from the pan so the cake is now on the sugared towel.
- Remove the parchment, and sift powdered sugar on the cake surface.
- Fold towel over the edge of 1 long side of cake.
- Starting at that 1 long side, roll up cake fairly tightly in the towel.
- Arrange the cake seam side down and cool completely, at least 1 hour.
- For the caramel pieces: Line a sheet pan with a silpat mat or parchment paper and set aside until needed.
- In a medium sized, heavy bottomed saucepan (light colored or silver if possible), combine the sugar, corn syrup and water, stirring to moisten all the sugar.
- Cook the caramel over medium high heat, without stirring, to a medium to medium-dark amber color. As the caramel begins to darken, swirl the pan to combine, rather than stirring. If you have a dark colored pan, have a white plate standing by and drizzle some of the caramel on the plate to check the color as you go.
- When the caramel has reached a nice golden amber, remove the pan from the heat and work quickly with a heatproof spatula to stir in the butter, salt, baking soda and pumpkin pie spice. Careful – the baking soda will make the mixture bubble furiously.
- Pour the caramel onto the prepared lined sheet pan and tilt the pan to spread evenly – the thinner the better. Let cool completely.
- Once cool, break the caramel into pieces and place in a heavy duty Ziploc bag.
- With a rolling pin, meat mallet or whatever heavy thing is handy, break the caramel into smaller pieces. Set aside until needed. (Can be done 1 day ahead if not too humid)
- For the cream cheese filling: In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the softened cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla just until blended.
- On low speed, add the cream in a slow steady stream and beat on medium until light and fluffy.
- By hand, gently fold in ½ cup of the crushed caramel pieces.
- Gently unroll the cooled cake and spread evenly with the filling, leaving a ½” border on the far long side.
- Starting at long side nearest you and using kitchen towel as aid, tightly roll up the cake to enclose filling. (Be careful not to roll the towel back up in the cake. It can happen.)
- Place cake seam side down on platter. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.)
- Before serving, trim ends of cake on a slight diagonal. Dust cake with powdered sugar. If desired, spoon some of warm sauce over top of cake and top with extra caramel pieces. Or if you prefer, serve 1” slices of cake with the sauce and garnish with the caramel pieces.
Pumpkin Spice Caramel Sauce – Makes about 1 cup
¾ cup heavy cream
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 Tablespoons pumpkin puree
¼ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
- In a small saucepan, bring the cream and butter to a simmer and heat until the butter melts.
- Turn off the heat and whisk in the vanilla, salt, pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie spice until smooth.
- Combine sugar, water, and corn syrup in heavy – preferably silver or light colored – medium saucepan.
- With a heatproof spatula, stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves.
- Increase heat and boil without stirring until mixture turns a medium amber color, occasionally swirling pan, about 10-14 minutes. (If you’re using a dark pan, have a white plate to drizzle the caramel on for a color check and be prepared to move quickly.)
- Remove from heat and carefully add cream mixture (stand back – mixture will bubble)
- Stir sauce over low heat until any caramel bits dissolve and sauce is smooth.
- Can be prepared 2-3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium-low heat just until pourable.