While appreciating the blessings that come from having a doctor, a minister and an attorney as family members, I’m especially grateful for my uncle the chef.

D.J. Olsen, my mother’s youngest brother, lives and works in Los Angeles. When he and Auntie Susan dropped into town last month, D.J. did what comes naturally to him, stepping into his sister’s well-equipped Golden Valley kitchen and knocking out an exquisite eight-course dinner for his family that ended on a particularly stratospheric note: a moist, vigorously spicy and lavishly embellished molasses cake.

Its muscular ginger-clove-pepper flavor notes pretty much broadcast “cold-weather dessert” and sent my imagination — at least the corner that has never been a devoted pumpkin pie fan — straight into Thanksgiving dinner planning mode.

D.J. adapted the recipe from “Tartine,” by San Francisco bakers (and spouses) Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, and although that’s a fairly dog-eared title in my kitchen’s cookbook library, I’d somehow — stupidly, as it turns out — overlooked this recipe, which follows an unconventional formula.

“This is not a true steamed pudding, something that I don’t always have the patience for making,” writes Prueitt. “The batter is so wet that it essentially ‘steams’ itself, baking up so that it is almost identical to a traditional steamed pudding.”

Learning that it’s one of those better-when-you-make-it-the-day-before recipes only makes it more attractive, holiday dessert-wise.

Dressing it up

Robertson and Prueitt suggest an easy-to-prepare bourbon hard sauce as a finishing touch (see recipe). But true to form, D.J. had other delicious ideas, replacing the hard sauce with a pool of cremé anglaise and a crown of bourbon-braised apples.

Of course, D.J. made the production of these add-ons appear effortless (those three helpers on dirty dish duty may have played a role). But when I followed his example a few weeks later in my kitchen, both the cremé anglaise and the braised apples came together easily — find the recipes for both at Startribune.com/taste — and, like the cake, can be prepared well in advance of the big day.

For time-pressed cooks, the cookbook’s version suggests freshly whipped cream, and nothing else. That solution works just fine, but D.J. offered two relatively fuss-free improvements: fresh pomegranate seeds — for their autumnal color and tiny bursts of sweet-tart flavor — and a spoonful of what he calls “pistachio dust,” which are pistachios processed with a bit of sugar (see recipe).

“The purpose of using sugar when pulsing the nuts is to both sweeten the dust, and keep the nuts from turning into pistachio butter,” said D.J.

The results? Impressive. Once again, Uncle D.J. knows best. Which is why when he advises buying the best ingredients that my budget allows, you can bet that I’m listening, and shopping accordingly.

“It’s attention to these little details that turns good cooking great, and I always want things to be great,” he said. “That’s why I go the extra mile, and never settle for ‘good enough.’ ”


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