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Gail Simmons' Holiday Desserts

"Top Chef" judge and "Just Desserts" host whips up these delicious creations:

• Pear and Walnut Tarte Tatin

Yield: 8 servings

Thaw: 30-40 minutes

Prep: 40 minutes

Bake: 40 minutes

Cool: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

8 tablespoons sugar

6 firm, ripe medium D'Anjou pears, peeled, cut in half and cored

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 of a 17.3-ounce package Puff Pastry Sheets (1 sheet), thawed

2 tablespoons water

Dash salt

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, cut up

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Method:

Heat the oven to 375 F. Stir the cinnamon and 2 tablespoons sugar in a small bowl.

Place the pear halves into a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss to coat. Add the cinnamon-sugar and toss to coat.

Unfold the pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface. Invert a 10-inch heavy, oven safe skillet over the pastry sheet. Using the skillet as a template, trim the excess pastry to make a rough circle. Prick the pastry circle thoroughly with a fork. Place the pastry circle onto a plate and refrigerate.

Heat the 10-inch heavy, oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Pour the water in the center of the skillet. Pour the remaining sugar over the water. Cook for 7 minutes or until the sugar is a deep, amber color. Do not stir. Remove the skillet from the heat. Add the salt and butter. Carefully tilt the skillet so that the sugar mixture and butter swirl together until well blended. Let the mixture cool for 2 minutes.

Sprinkle the walnuts in the skillet. Drain the pear halves. Arrange 11 pear halves around the inside edge of the skillet, cut-side up, overlapping slightly, with the tops pointing toward the center. Place the remaining pear half, cut-side up, in the gap in the center of the skillet, trimming to fit, if needed.

Cook the pears over medium heat for 10 minutes or until tender. Do not stir. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Place the pastry circle over the pear halves, pressing down slightly and tucking the edge in around the inside of the skillet.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. Let the tarte tatin cool in the skillet on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Carefully invert the tarte tatin onto a serving plate. Serve immediately with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream.

• Chocolate Espresso Cupcakes With Cocoa Whipped Cream

Yield: makes 18 cupcakes

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Ingredients:

2 large eggs

1 cup hot water plus 2 teaspoons of instant coffee stirred in (i.e. 1 cup of coffee)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup sour cream

Cocoa Whipped Cream:

1 pint heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

18 dark chocolate covered espresso beans, for garnish

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl combine eggs, coffee, oil and vanilla with a whisk. Then add sugar. Sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda. Gradually add in dry ingredients to wet mixture then stir in sour cream.

Line two standard muffin tins with cupcake liners. Divide batter evenly amongst liners then bake in oven until a cake tester comes out clean - about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set on racks to cool.

Make cocoa whipped cream: Whip cream with a whisk until it forms soft peaks. Sift in confectioners' sugar and cocoa powder then gently whisk together to combine until firm peaks form - the color will be a grainy cocoa color as the cocoa doesn't dissolve straight away.

When cupcakes are cool, drop a dollop of cocoa whipped cream on top of each cupcake. Garnish each with a dark chocolate covered espresso bean.

• Maple Apple Bread Pudding

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients:

1 pound brioche, cut into 1-inch pieces (12 cups)

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large ripe Granny Smith apples-peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup Calvados or other brandy (optional)

4 large eggs, beaten

3 cups milk

1/2 cup Grade A maple syrup, plus more for serving

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

Method:

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the brioche on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes, stirring once or twice, until lightly golden and dry.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt the butter; reserve 3 tablespoons of the melted butter in a small bowl. Add the apples and 1/4 cup of the sugar to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are golden and softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the Calvados if desired. Return the skillet to the heat and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened and syrupy, about 1 minute. Stir in 1/4 cup of maple syrup.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk and the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar. Add the brioche, apples and sauce and toss until evenly coated. Let stand for 5-10 minutes to allow the brioche to absorb the mixture.

Brush an 8-by-11-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the reserved melted butter. Add the bread pudding and drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter and maple syrup on top. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the pudding is set and the top is golden. Let the bread pudding cool slightly, and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

The bread pudding can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

• Sugared Doughnut Holes with Cranberry-Orange Compote

Yield: 4 servings (about 16 doughnuts)

Total time: 1 hour

Doughnut Holes

Ingredients:

1 stick unsalted butter

1/4 cup superfine sugar

1/2 cup cold water

Pinch of kosher salt

1 cup flour

4 medium eggs

3/4 vegetable oil, for deep-frying

1 cup superfine sugar for coating

Ingredients:

Pour the cup of superfine sugar in a flat, rimmed dish for coating and set aside.

Prepare dough by combining butter, sugar, salt and water in a medium saucepan and set over high heat. Bring to a boil then remove from heat and dump in the flour all at once. Using a wooden spoon stir well until the mixture comes together as a ball. Add eggs, 1 at a time, ensuring each is fully incorporated before adding the next - the dough should be nice and glossy when finished.

To fry, heat oil in a heavy based pot (like a Dutch oven) to 365 degrees F. Using a 2-inch ice cream scoop, carefully drop a few balls at a time into the oil. Work in batches so as to not overcrowd the pot. Cook until golden and puffy - about 6 minutes. Use a mesh strainer or slotted metal spoon to remove from oil and place directly onto dish of sugar. Roll around to coat evenly all over. Serve doughnut holes warm with compote.

Cranberry-Orange Compote

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries, washed and halved or 1 cup dried cranberries

1/3 cup water

1 whole orange

1/3 cup superfine sugar

Method:

Quarter the orange. Cut one quarter of the orange into very thin slices, including rind and flesh. Juice the remaining 3/4 of the orange.

Set a large sauté pan over high heat, add cranberries, water, juice and slices from the orange, and sugar. Cook for 10-12 minutes until berries are very tender and mixture is thickened. If compote gets too thick or starts to burned add a little water and adjust heat. Remove from heat and allow compote to cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature with beignets. Compote can be refrigerated for up to a week if not used immediately.

Note: doughnut holes can also be served with chocolate sauce, caramel or your favorite fruit preserve (try strawberry or peach!)