Frozen Grand Marnier Torte
For many years, right after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would ask me to help her get her three foot tall, artificial Christmas tree out of storage and set it up in the front window of her apartment. She also had a few boxes of colorful glass bulbs stored away that were about an inch in diameter, which she would carefully hang at the tips of the branches after first adorning the tree with a single strand of colored lights. Next to the tree she would then set up a small wooden nativity scene consisting of a wooden stable, three wooden wise men, two wooden animals, and of course a wooden Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. The stable even had a light that you inserted into the back to illuminate the entire scene. I don’t remember too many other Christmas decorations at my grandmother’s apartment. Where she lived was fairly small so there wasn’t a lot of room for a bunch of stuff. She did tape up every holiday card she received onto the cabinet that held the television and she set out a knick-knack or two on the table near the chair, but for her, that little tree and the nativity set were all she needed for Christmas. My mother has the exact same nativity scene but when she puts hers up she surrounds the entire thing with wax candles shaped like choirboys in mid song… I am not sure if the choir boys are supposed to represent angels singing in heaven as they look down upon the manger, or perhaps they are a gaggle of nomadic singing boys (that nobody ever talks about) that just happened to be passing by that stable, on that night, singing Christmas carols that they thought up right there on the spot – (wouldn’t that be weird). I can say one thing for sure: the choirboys and the nativity scene characters are at two completely different scales and that has always bothered me. If just one of these choirboys toppled over he would take out all three of the wise men without a doubt.
While my grandmother’s apartment was sparsely decorated, my mother’s house is the opposite. There are “ice rinks” made of mirrors with little miniature benches, brick walls, streetlamps and even miniature ice skaters that are placed in position as if enjoying a leisurely skate on the frozen, oddly reflective, pond. The mirror itself will be surrounded by cotton batting to simulate snow, underneath which lights have been placed to brighten the whole scene or perhaps just to cast a luster of mid-day to the objects. On the tables, the counters, the sideboards, even the side tables next to the couch and chairs will be Santa’s of various types. Some of these decorations play music; many light up; a few do nothing at all except sit there looking festive. The spoon rest next to the stove will be Christmas themed, as will be the kitchen towels, potholders and the towels in the bathrooms. There are Christmas nightlights, placemats, napkin holders and even the soap dispenser that sits on the sink is shaped like Santa. Small battery operated boxes shift colors as they sit on the bookshelf; the doormat outside the front door has a big Santa on it. Of course the tree (I think a seven footer), is prominent in the front window and will be decorated with nearly every Santa ornament Hallmark has ever sold.
The thing is, both decorating styles convey a similar message. In my grandmother’s apartment you definitely got the feeling of peace and of goodwill, when she would place gifts she received from her friends and neighbors under that small tree, waiting until Christmas day to open them. You got a sweet sense of warmth and belonging when she lit that little tree and turned on that little manger light in the evening and dimmed the house lights. In a way that tree, perched precariously on her table stood proudly commanding your attention, seemingly to proclaim “Hey, look at me, I am Christmas and you are part of me”. In my mother’s house you are welcomed (or maybe a better word is beckoned) by the décor, each piece sending your eye to the next, each tableaux leading you on to discover something else, completely immersing you into the holiday. The village decorations, including shops and houses (which light up from the inside) sitting on the mantle give you a sense of community and belonging, almost as if you could imagine yourself living in that quaint, quiet, little village and of course the tree crammed with presents underneath gives you a sense of family.
On these long winter nights of December, after the workday is done and the streets have grown quiet and Riley and I are taking our last walk of the day, I often like to stop and look at the decorated houses in the neighborhood. Strands of lights, some steady and some flashing randomly, brightly light a good number of the houses. Others dance in a preprogrammed synchronized type of light show. There are houses that are decorated with just a single row of lights along the eves, some shaped like snowflakes or icicles. Others houses have lights in almost every possible location casting a warm glow over the front lawns and nearby bushes. The curtains in the windows are generally parted just enough to show off the Christmas trees; brightly lit and decorated with personalized ornaments, garlands and tinsel. I look at these houses and imagine the families gathered inside are enjoying one another’s company while they sit, perhaps near the fireplace, sipping mulled wine and talking about all things past and present, occasionally glancing under the tree trying to figure out who that big box is for and what it may contain. I imagine that there are warm cookies, which have only recently been brought out of the oven, cooling on a wire rack in the kitchen. I imagine there are families eagerly anticipating the arrival of someone they have not seen in a very long time while they wrap gifts in colorful papers, ribbons and bows. I can come up with a unique story for each house based on their outdoor decorations but I will admit that a good many of them end up with the cat climbing up into the tree and knocking ornaments to the ground. The thing all my stories have in common though is dinner. Whether it’s just the elderly couple that celebrates by themselves or the family on the corner that has thirty people gathered each year, I always imagine that at some point they will sit down to a meal. Sometimes it’s fancy with crystal and linens and sometimes it’s just take-out, but no matter, for they are all abundantly comforting. Then afterwards they will dim the lamps, turn on the lights on their Christmas tree (and maybe the little manger that sits beneath it) and for just a bit, they’ll feel joy, peace, and the holiday spirit.
This recipe was in Bon Appetit magazine back in December 2006 and I think it makes for a perfect dessert for Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner with family or friends. Like most of the things that caught my eye in that magazine over the years, this one stood out because of the picture. With its chocolate crust, white filling, loads of bright red cranberries, and some white chocolate shavings on top, I knew I had to cut it out of the magazine and put it one of those clear plastic sleeves to save for eternity… or at least until I am no longer able to eat. You can see the original recipe here. The orange flavored filling, spiked with a little Grand Marnier, is whipped up light and frozen into a chocolate crust then topped with a robustly flavored, spiced cranberry mixture. It looks a little fancy, but it’s not over the top and it’s actually pretty easy to put together. The hardest part is the whisking of the egg yolks for 8 to 10 minutes while they come up to temperature!
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a showstopper dessert, it does present extremely well at the dinner table. I especially like it because it’s not just another holiday pie. You already know that I am partial to ice cream and this is basically an adult, light, ice cream pie. My advice when making this dessert is be sure to make it well ahead of when you want to serve it so that it has plenty of time to freeze. I usually make the crust and the filling at least two days before I want to serve it. Read through the recipe and figure out your schedule before starting. Also, when serving, it’s best to not leave this out on the table too long before eating, otherwise it will begin to melt… In fact I will be as honest as I can here and say that this torte will start to soften before you even get it to the table in all likelihood, so leave it in the freezer until the last possible second. Special things you’ll need to make this are a food processor, a 9-inch diameter springform pan with at least 2¾-inch high sides, an electric mixer, and a candy or instant read thermometer. So with that in mind…
Here is how to make it –
For the Crust
1 9-ounce package chocolate wafer cookies
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the Filling
8 large egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
½ cup chilled sour cream
5 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
3 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
For the Topping
½ cup ruby Port
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 cups fresh cranberries or frozen, partially thawed, divided
White chocolate curls (optional)
For the crust:
Put the cookies, the chocolate chips, and the sugar into a food processor and process them until you have a fine crumb. Add the melted butter to the processor and blend until wet crumbs form. Measure out and set aside ½ cup of the crumb mixture, then press the remaining crumb mixture onto the bottom and about 2-inches up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan with 2¾-inch high sides. Set the crust aside for now.
For the filling
In a medium sized metal bowl (or in the top of a double boiler), whisk the egg yolks, the sugar and the water together until combined. Set the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and whisk the mixture vigorously until an instant read or candy thermometer registers between 160°F and 175°F which can take about 8 minutes. The egg mixture will have become very thick, will have grown in size and will be a very pale color at this point.
Remove the bowl from over the water and whisk in the nutmeg and the allspice then using an electric mixer, beat the mixture on medium to medium high speed until it is thick and cool, about 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the whipping cream, the sour cream, the Grand Marnier, the orange juice concentrate, and the grated orange peel until peaks form.
Add the egg yolk mixture to the whipped cream mixture and use a rubber spatula to gently fold the two together.
Pour ⅔ of the filling into the crust then sprinkle it evenly with the reserved ½ cup of chocolate crumb mixture.
Finally, gently and carefully spoon in the remaining filling, smoothing the top as needed so that it is fairly level.
Cover and freeze the torte overnight or for up to 3 days. I usually try to freeze it for at least two nights.
For the topping
Whisk the Port and the cornstarch in a large skillet to combine.
Add the sugar, the honey, the nutmeg, the allspice and the cinnamon.
Place the pan over high heat and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring it often, to keep it from burning.
Add in 3 cups of the cranberries and continue cooking until mixture boils again and the cranberries begin to pop but are still holding their shape, about 4 to 5 minutes is all it should take.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining 2 cups of cranberries.
Transfer the cranberries to a clean bowl and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you’re ready to serve
Release the pan sides from the torte and place the torte onto your serving dish or plate.
Spoon the topping over the filling and decorate with white chocolate curls if you wish.
Serve immediately, returning leftovers to the freezer promptly.
I hope you’ll take a little time to make this torte and share it with everyone. After all this is the season for giving to others… and maybe the best thing about food is how, like holiday decorations, it brings people together to share in an experience… even if that experience is just to finish off the ice cream before it melts.