Friday, January 31, 2014

Amazing Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

We're all about confusing the kids and making life more difficult for ourselves.

We celebrated Matthew's birthday as a family on his actual birth day. However, the following weekend, we hosted a little mini-party with his closest friends. Now, as Saturday approaches, I am realizing that we may have confused him as he seems to now think that every weekend until kingdom come we will be celebrating his birthday with cake, candles, presents and fun. He's in for a sore disappointment this weekend. At least he has the Super Bowl to console him - we're having pizza.

"WOW! It's my birthday every weekend!"

I wanted to throw Matthew a bigger party this year, but time just got away from me and I was unable to really plan something larger. So, I asked him to choose one friend to have over. His answer was immediate and with conviction: "Sophie-Bella!"

Actually, that's two friends not one. But if you get one, you get the other. I was not surprised that Matthew picked them. Those two little girls have been his best friends since birth and he is always so excited to see them. Plus, since their parents are Emma's Godparents, they are Matthew's Godsiblings (it's a thing - my dear friend Shannon (who is Matthew's Godmother) and I insist on it!) and share a special bond.

After consulting with the birthday boy, Paul and I decided that it would be fun to do a Ratatouille-themed party. If you've never seen the movie Ratatouille, it is essentially the story of a rat who has an exceptional palate and wants nothing more than to cook his little heart out in a fine French restaurant. It is Matthew's favorite movie to date, even though he insists that the rat is actually a mouse and that the name of the movie is in fact "Mouse Cooks" and not Ratatouille. Either way, we figured this would be quite the fitting theme for my little kitchen helper's birthday party.

Matthew was actually quite helpful in constructing ideas for his party. He absolutely insisted that the flavor of his cake be banana. No problems there. I have a banana cake in my arsenal that we all just adore. While going through Hobby Lobby, Matthew also spied some pint-sized chef hats and wouldn't you know they also happened to be on sale. He also picked out some tiny little wooden rolling pins, mini-spatulas, and cute notepads for the gift bags, all keeping with the cooking theme of the party. We also made a couple cookie mixes in a jar to add to the gift bag. They turned out pretty cute!

The blessed day soon arrived. Paul and I had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning decorating the family room and kitchen with crepe paper and balloons. Paul was a little wimp about blowing up the balloons since he has a fear of them popping in his face, so my little lungs were spent! Since he failed to help me with the balloons, Paul was in charge of the crepe paper and ended up making the room look a bit more like a giant spider web than a festively decorated area for a birthday party. No matter, Matthew was thrilled to see the decorations when he woke up in the morning.

The party began around lunchtime. Although we set out a few snack for munching, since this was supposed to be a cooking themed party we immediately put the little kiddos to work making their own lunch. The meal of choice was a baked pizza ravioli with a fruit salad. It was the perfect recipe for the kids to make on their own because it simply involved layering a few ingredients evenly in a pan and baking. Bella was especially focused on ensuring that the cheese was evenly distributed while Matthew carefully (and very, very slowly) commanded the saucing station.

While the meal baked, we held a coloring contest of a mouse picture. It was a three-way tie (naturally) although, just between you and me, Matthew's submission should have been dead last because he simply lazily colored over his mouse with a purple crayon. The other two put a lot more effort and creativity into theirs. Then we had a scavenger hunt to find the cake! Paul and I had written down 13 rhyming clues and hid them throughout the house. Each clue's rhyming riddle disclosed the location of the next clue, with the final clue leading to the missing cake! The kids LOVED this activity - they were crazily scurrying throughout the house searching for each clue and squealing with delight each time they found one! Paul and I were just relieved that they did not notice how terrible our rhyming was. As Paul pointed out, there is a very, very good reason why we do not work for Hallmark.

The kids were delighted to find the cake with small mice crawling all over it. This was Paul's brilliant idea - to pick up a set of cat mice toys from the store and use them to decorate the cake. It looked simultaneously cute and disturbing. Each child insisted on having a mouse on their individual slices of cake. We happily obliged.

After eating lunch, opening gifts, and distributing the gift bags, the kiddos settled down to quietly play and/or watch the movie Ratatouille. This gave the adults a little time to decompress and converse. Paul immediately made a pot of coffee. All the excitement was a bit rough on him.

Get the man some coffee!

I couldn't resist. The view from behind was just too adorable.

Sophie waiting patiently for her cake!

Beautiful Bella.

Emma really liked the cake. Good thing Grandma made that extra large bib for her for
Christmas or else we might have had a bigger mess on our hands!

Maddie working on her second piece of cake. She loved it!

Emma enjoyed having her best baby friend Madeline over to play with as well. Emma had not been feeling well due to some impending canines pressing on her tiny gums and Maddie really did help her cheer up a bit. Maddie is Sophie and Bella's younger sister and she is the sweetest little baby and has always loved Emma so much. The two of them were getting along really well just gently sharing toys and stroking one another's face. It was adorable. Those two will probably end up being great friends just like Matthew, Sophie, and Bella. Check out these throwback pictures from two years ago. The three musketeers, I like to call them. They really do love each other.

A little fuzzy...but you get the idea. These two used to smooch all the time.
He's a ladies man.

I wanted to share the recipe for the banana cake we made for the party. This is not a new recipe for our family, but it is so simple and not to sweet. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the cake base - it is basically a lighter, fluffier version of banana bread. And who can say no to a really good banana bread? Once you smother it with a lovely cream cheese frosting, it becomes one amazing cake. This is good stuff. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, although most of the kids ate the frosting first before attacking the actual cake part. As good as this cake was, after making two layer cakes in a week, I think I am done until our baby girl turns one in March! Matthew has already decided that she should have a strawberry cake. We shall see...

Amazing Banana Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted slightly from

For the Cake:
1 1/2 cups banana, mashed
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/8 cups white sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
1/2 cup butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Make the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Butter three 8" cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment. Butter the parchment as well.

In a small bowl, mix the mashed bananas with the lemon juice. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, waiting for each egg to be fully incorporated before adding the next. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture in three additions with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the buttermilk. Stir in the banana mixture.

Divide the cake batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Immediately place the cake pans in the freezer for 45 minutes. This might sound strange, but it ensures that the cakes become extra moist. After about an hour in the freezer, the individual cake layers may be removed from the pans, double wrapped in plastic, and frozen for up to a month before needed. Let thaw just slightly at room temperature before proceeding with decorating.

Make the Frosting:

Beat the butter and cream cheese together in a mixer until very smooth. Add the vanilla and beat to combine. Add the powdered sugar in small batches, beating well between each addition to incorporate. When all the powdered sugar has been added, beat the frosting on medium-high until very smooth, fluffy, and silky.

To assemble the cake, spread 1 cup of frosting on between each layer. Spread the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the cake. Decorate as desired and refrigerate. Take the cake out of the fridge about 1 hour before you are ready to serve so that the frosting has an opportunity to soften. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Chocolate Peanut Butter Dream Cake

My little baby boy is now a four-year-old.

It's so hard for me to believe that my tiny baby is now no longer a toddler - but a kid! The years have flown by since that moment I held my son in my arms for the first time in the wee hours of a cold January morning four years ago. It was my first moment holding a baby that was mine and I could not stop thinking what an incredible responsibility it is to be a parent - to care for, love, and worry about this precious little soul for the rest of my life.

My beautiful little Matthew, your father and I are so proud of you. You are such a sweet little person who loves to give and receive hugs and kisses all day long. You look forward to morning snuggles and quiet afternoons reading stories with Mommy. You love your sister so much and make me proud by how you try your best to look after her by keeping the bathroom doors shut and holding tightly onto her leg while screaming for me to come running should she venture too close to the stairwell. Your smile is contagious and your beautiful blue eyes always sparkle, especially when you laugh! Although you have only been with us for such a short amount of time, it is hard to imagine that there ever was a time before you.

This year, you were so excited about your birthday. When I asked you what you wanted for your birthday present, you had your answer ready: "A bubble machine!"

Your Daddy was less than happy with that response but he picked one out for you at the store while simultaneously selecting a brand new bike with training wheels and a Spider-man helmet as your other gifts. He was so excited to give you a bike and is looking forward to taking you on bike rides this summer!

For your birthday outing, we took the whole family to see Frozen at the movie theater. It was your second time at the movies and Baby Emma's first! You both were so well behaved, quietly sitting in the very front row, munching on popcorn, and completely engaged in the film. After the movie ended, we took you out to the "pizza restaurant" where you had your very first personal-pan pizza. "The chef made a small pizza for Matthew's birthday?" you asked excitedly when your meal arrived. You were also kind enough to take your time eating and coloring quietly while your Dad and I caught the end of the AFC Championship game.

When we got home, we opened your gifts and you were so grateful and excited about each and every one. You received a Buzz Lightyear flashlight, a storybook, the Monsters University DVD, the bike, and, of course, your bubble machine. You immediately insisted on taking it to the basement to test out. Both you and Emma were gleeful when that machine started pumping out thousands of little bubbles into the air. Your mother was a little nervous by how much soapy water was ending up on the floor. But it was your birthday, so she didn't say anything.

Finally, it was time to blow out the candles on your birthday cake. You requested a Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake and insisted on helping make both the cake and the frosting. You blew all the candles out on your first try - a vast improvement over last year! You have grown up so much.

In just a few short months, you will begin a new chapter in your life by starting preschool. I know you are excited to go since you love to read stories about school life, such as Curious George's First Day of School, and talk about how one day you will "go to school and learn a lot like George the monkey." While I know it is time, in my heart of hearts I am dreading losing you for even such a short time during the day. It is the end of an era for us - the last time I will ever have you at home all the time with me. However, I know that I need to let you go so you can continue to grow into the little man that God wants you to be! And I know that you will continue to make your parents proud! We love you, Matthew Patrick.

Now, onto the recipe for this fantastic cake. This is actually the second year I have made this cake for Matthew. Although he can't remember how to put his shoes on correctly most days, he did remember how much he loved this cake and adamantly requested it again this year! The chocolate cake base is our family's absolute favorite chocolate cake recipe. It is super easy, foolproof, incredibly moist, and tastes fantastic. When paired with peanut butter frosting and chocolate ganache, the result is a decadent cake perfectly fitting for a special occasion. I am not big on chocolate cakes in general, but this cake is so gosh darn good, that it is definitely one of my top five favorite cake recipes.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Dream Cake
adapted from Smitten Kitchen and The Barefoot Contessa

For the Chocolate Cake:
1 3/4 cups flour, plus more for dusting cake pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup hot, strong coffee

For the Peanut Butter Frosting:
10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

2/3 cup smooth peanut butter (do not use a "natural" peanut butter)

For the Chocolate Ganache:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream

To Make the Cake:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 8" cake pans and dust with flour. If you wish (but I didn't and it turned out just fine), you can butter each pan, line it with a circle of parchment paper, and then butter and flour the pans. Combine all dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until combined. In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and beat just until smooth. Add coffee and mix just until incorporated. Divide batter, which will be incredibly runny, evenly between the two pans. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until a toothpick stuck in the center of each cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the pans for 10-15 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To Make the Peanut Butter Frosting:
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.

To Assemble the Cake:
Place one cake layer on a cake stand. Spread 1 cup of peanut butter frosting over the top. Set another cake layer on top and spread 1 cup of the peanut butter frosting. Place the final cake layer on top and spread a thin coat of the peanut butter frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Place the partially-assembled cake in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes to allow the frosting to "firm up" on the cake. This is called a "crumb coat" - a thin layer of frosting that captures and hardens around any loose crumbs from the cake. By chilling the crumb coat, the final layer of frosting will spread smoothly and cleanly without a single crumb from the cake.

After the crumb coat has chilled, carefully spread the remainder of the frosting on the cake, smoothing the top and sides with an offset spatula. Place the cake back in the refrigerator while you make the chocolate ganache.

To Make the Chocolate Ganache:
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium-sized, heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream just until boiling. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let it sit for a little bit before taking a rubber spatula and gently folding everything together. After a couple minutes of folding, the chocolate should completely melt and the mixture should become smooth and shiny. Depending on how large you want your drips to be, you can either pour it over the chilled cake immediately or let it sit at room temperature to thicken for very large drips.

Gently pour the ganache over the top of the chilled cake and let it drip down the sides. Chill until almost ready to serve. I like to take the cake out about an hour or two before serving to bring it to room temperature. Serve with a tall glass of cold milk or a scoop of vanilla ice cream!

Monday, January 27, 2014

I Married Peyton Manning

I think Paul is a bit nervous by how much I am looking forward to the Super Bowl this year. The reason for his anxiety? Two words: Peyton Manning.

While we were in college, I had a huge, life-size poster of Peyton Manning on the wall of my dorm room. I used to joke to Paul that he and I were only a temporary couple until Peyton comes to his senses, realizing that I am his one true love, and gives me a call. Paul used to laugh along to this joke with me (and respond with similar comments about Jennifer Aniston), but really he felt a bit insecure about the whole thing. And honestly why shouldn't he? Peyton is a sports superstar who, despite being such a mega celebrity, has maintained a humble "average joe" demeanor.

But really, Paul should not feel threatened. Afterall, I only started dating him in the first place because he reminds me so much of Peyton Manning. And then I ended up marrying him (Paul...not Peyton. Obviously). But because they are so similar, in a way, I did marry Peyton Manning. To illustrate my point, here are just a few things my boys have in common:

1. The Hairline


Obviously, both guys began suffering from a migrating head of hair at a fairly early age. But who says that is a bad thing? I personally consider it an asset. Light shining off a balding forehead makes any room appear brighter! Not to mention, fewer haircuts? No anxiety over which way to part your luscious mane? Tons of money saved on shampoo? Win Win!

2. Athleticism

Peyton sure can throw a football. That is an undeniable fact. Paul isn't that great at throwing a football. You should see him play back yard flag football with my brothers. However, Paul sure can swing a racquetball racquet. So what if his opponents are normally middle aged men with gimp knees? My man is an athlete.

3. The Turned Up Lip

Isn't that cute. Who can resist that sexy look? I know I can't.

5. "The Pout"

When things don't go his way in a game, Peyton tends to pull out the pout face. Paul does the same, only he is normally pouting while scrubbing a toilet or angrily folding some laundry. Paul is the most productive busy bee when he is angry which is why sometimes our arguments are carefully timed so a lot of much-needed housework gets done. (I may or may not be kidding)

This was the best picture I could find.
It's hard to take pictures of an angry person because it
usually only makes them more angry.

6. The Love of Pizza

Peyton Manning loves Papa John's pizza. He loves it so much, that he opened his own franchise and regularly appears in commercials with Papa John himself. Paul also loves pizza. He could probably eat it every day of his life if given the choice (especially the Papa John's BBQ Chicken pizza...delicious).

A throwback picture of Matthew eating pizza is much cuter than a
picture of Paul eating pizza. Trust me.

7. All-Around Good Guys

On a slightly more serious note, both Peyton and Paul are good Christian men who love their faith and their families. Even though Peyton is always in the public eye, he continues to keep his personal life very private. However, his family regularly shows up at big games to support him and nobody was cheering louder than Peyton when his little brother Eli became a Super Bowl champion with the Giants in 2008 and 2012. Peyton has also spoken on occasion about the importance of his Christian faith. In the biography Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy co-written with his father, Manning writes: "For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. My faith has been number one since I was thirteen years old."

Paul is an amazing husband and father who has a remarkable love of God. He prays often and strives to live in the imitation of Christ in both action and word. I am so blessed to have such a faithful, loving, and tirelessly devoted husband. Did I mention he's an awesome Dad? That's why we're definitely having more kids!

The name of our next baby boy? Peyton M. Nistler. It's happening.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Chinese Chicken Salad

Before I get to the post about Matthew's birthday (and the super-indulgent recipe that will accompany it), I thought I should share something healthy to prove that we do not eat cake and treats all day every day! (Just most days)

I was watching an episode of Cook's Country on PBS and they were talking about how Wolfgang Puck was the first chef to put a Chinese Chicken Salad on his restaurant menu. His version was delicious unique, and used all fresh ingredients. Since then, however, the Chinese Chicken Salad has become a ubiquitous restaurant offering often utilizing many canned ingredients such as pineapple tidbits, mandarin oranges, water chestnuts, or chow mein noodles. The helpful folks at America's Test Kitchen then proceeded to make this recipe as an homage to the original, healthier, and fresher version of the Chinese Chicken Salad. It looked so darn good. I was particularly intrigued by the method they used to cook the chicken - essentially poaching it in a small portion of the dressing and then letting it rest while reducing the liquid down to a glaze to be tossed with the chicken following shredding. This ensures that the delicious Asian flavors of the dressing permeate every bite. I had pretty much all the ingredients necessary in my fridge, so I took a few notes while watching and resolved to make it for dinner the next night.

Like most salads, it's a bit of a pain to make just because there is a lot of chopping involved. I normally like slicing and dicing, but not while the maniacal 4-year-old is running circles in the kitchen while singing songs from Mary Poppins and the 9-month-old is pulling dish after dish out of the cupboards. Utter chaos! Persevere through it all we did and before long were able to enjoy the delicious result.

This is what trouble looks like.

We all loved this salad. Juicy oranges, crunchy bell peppers, salted peanuts, cilantro, shredded lettuce, and chicken all tossed with a sesame-orange vinaigrette. Amazing stuff. Even Matthew could not get enough of the chicken.  Do not skip the chopped peanuts on top. They really do add something special.

Chinese Chicken Salad
from Cook's Country

Note: I did not use napa cabbage because the heads at our grocery store were huge. I just used more romaine. Paul doesn't like cabbage anyway.

2 large oranges
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 (6-8 ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
2 romaine lettuce hearts, sliced thin
1/2 small head napa cabbage, cored and shredded (6 cups)
2 red bell peppers, cut into matchsticks
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup salted dry-roasted peanuts, chopped
6 scallions, sliced thin

Segment the oranges and transfer the segments to a small bowl. Set aside for garnishing the salad. Squeeze the juice from the orange membranes into a second bowl (juice should measure 1/4 cup). Or, if you're lazy like me, you can just measure out 1/4 cup of store-bought orange juice.

Combine the orange juice, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and chili-garlic sauce in a bowl. Transfer 1/2 cup of the orange juice mixture to a 12-inch skillet. Slowly whisk vegetable oil and sesame oil into the remaining orange juice mixture to make the vinaigrette. Set aside.

Bring the orange juice mixture in the skillet to a boil. Add the chicken, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the meat registers 160 degrees (about 10-15 minutes), flipping halfway through cooking. Transfer the chicken to a plate and let rest for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, boil the pan juices until reduced to 1/4 cup. This will only take about 1-3 minutes. Set aside. Shred the chicken into bite size pieces, transfer to a medium bowl, and toss with the reduced sauce, any accumulated juices, and 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Toss the romaine, cabbage, bell peppers, cilantro, peanuts, and scallions with the remaining vinaigrette in a large bowl. Transfer to a serving platter and top with the chicken and oranges.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Whiskey Pear Tart

This past weekend was the weekend of birthdays. My husband and my son have the privilege of sharing back-to-back birthdays. Matthew missed being born on Paul's 24th birthday by five hours. I was in labor with him for close to 40 hours and would have preferred if he had made his appearance a bit earlier. I still remember insisting on picking up pizza and an ice cream cake for Paul's birthday dinner that night even though I was experiencing contractions that were 5-minutes apart. I stumbled into Pizza Hut to pick up our large supreme pizza, heavily pregnant and obviously in pain, and had barely finished telling the 16-year-old girl working the cash register my name before being hit by another powerful contraction that forced me to double over, clutching onto the counter for support.

"Ma'am...are you alright? Do you need me to call someone?" the slightly frightened teenybopper asked.

After the contraction passed and I was able to speak again, I stood upright and gasped: "Oh no...everything's fine! My husband is waiting for me in the car."

I realized, in retrospect, that this probably made Paul seem like a real jerk. In reality, he was just humoring his bull-headed wife. I was trying to avoid going to the hospital.

Paul has said every year that he would not mind just merging his birthday with Matthew's, but I very much prefer celebrating them separately on their respective days. It's a bit of a headache preparing two different special dinners and desserts on back-to-back nights but it's worth it if the two men in my life enjoy their special days. 

Paul's birthday requests are always a bit unique. I appreciate having the opportunity to prepare something a bit different and challenging, although at times the requests have left me cursing into the wee hours of the morning while trying to put the finishing touches on a very complicated recipe. Last year, Paul requested the most complicated layer cake I have ever made. While the results were well worth it, I was hoping for something a bit simpler this year. Luckily, he had his heart set on a Whiskey Pear Tart that he had spied in my Baked: Explorations cookbook.

The recipe, while a bit time-consuming, is simple and can be done in steps. The tart dough and poached pears were assembled the day before and allowed to hang out in the refrigerator until needed. The dough is then rolled, fitted into a tart pan, and baked. While the tart crust cools, the filling is made from almond paste, whipped butter, and whiskey. The filling is spread into the cooled crust, topped with the poached pears, and then baked until puffy and set. Finally, the poaching liquid for the pears is boiled down to the most magnificent, whiskey-laced glaze I have ever tried. Paul was eating it out of the pan by the spoonful while proclaiming: "Oh yes...this is amazing!" That glaze would be fantastic over ice cream or on top of waffles.

This dessert was fantastic - a real show stopper. We paired it with Creme Brulee ice cream which was a perfect accompaniment. Matthew loved the "Whissy pear tart" as well - eating every last bite while thanking Paul for sharing. Matthew operates under the assumption - and this was confirmed the next day on his birthday - that the birthday boy gets the entire dessert to himself.

Whiskey Pear Tart
adapted from Baked: Explorations

For the pears and poaching liquid:
2 (15-ounce) can pear halves in heavy syrup, about 6 halves
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons whiskey
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

For the basic sweet tart dough:
¼ cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg, beaten

For the almond cream filling:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cool but not cold
8 ounces almond paste
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons whiskey

For the pear glaze:
Reserved syrup and reserved “poaching” liquid from pears
1 teaspoon whiskey
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch

Make the pears and poaching liquid:
Strain the pears and reserve the heavy syrup from one of the cans (for the glaze) in a small, covered bowl or cup in the refrigerator.

In a medium, nonreactive bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, whiskey, sugar, and vanilla. Toss the pears with the liquid, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

Make the sweet tart dough:
Put the sugar, flour, and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and pulse until sandy (about 6 to 10 quick pulses). Add the egg and pulse just until the dough begins to form a mass. Form the dough into a disk, wrap it tightly in plastic, and refrigerate it overnight (or for at least 1 hour).

Bake the crust:
Dust a work surface with a sprinkling of flour. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough about 1/4 inch thick into a round about 12 inches in diameter. Gently guide the dough into a 11-inch round tart pan, without pulling it, and lightly press it into place. Roll the rolling pin over the pan to trim off excess dough. Place the tart pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill it three-quarters full with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and bake for another 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Transfer the tart pan to a wire rack to cool. Leave the oven on.

Make the almond cream filling:
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and almond paste on medium speed until the mixture is light, fluffy, and smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the egg and beat until combined. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the filling and turn the mixer to low. Drizzle in the whiskey and beat until it is combined. Spread the almond cream filling evenly over the cooled tart shell.

Drain the pear halves, reserving the soaking liquid, and arrange them decoratively on top of the almond cream. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up and sets and the crust turns golden brown. Let the tart cool on a wire rack while you make the glaze.

Make the pear glaze:
Place the syrup and soaking liquid in a medium pan over medium heat and gently boil until the liquid is reduced to about 3/4 cup. Remove it from the heat and whisk quickly and continuously for 1 minute to speed cooling. Add the whiskey and cornstarch and whisk to combine. Set the pan over medium-high heat, bring the glaze to a boil, and cook it for 1 minute. Use a pastry brush to apply the glaze gently to the tart.

Remove the tart from the pan and serve it as soon as possible. The tart will keep at room temperature, well wrapped, for up to 3 days, but the crust will turn slightly soggy after the first day.