Friday, December 30, 2005

The New Year

Here at anapestic, we believe that new year's resolutions are for people who can think of nothing else to say at a New Year's Eve party (or, maybe, who have nothing better to say on their blogs, but who are we to judge?). We have no problem with taking a look back at the year just past, and we find it perfectly commendable to set some modest and, most importantly, achievable goals for the year ahead. (My goal, for example, is not to smoke any cigarettes this year, a goal that I have achieved no fewer than forty-four times, my perfect record having been broken only in 1979, when, as a high school senior, I went with some classmates to France for a couple of weeks and smoked during the four days we were in Paris. Hint to parents: if you don't want your kids to smoke, try to make sure that their first pack of cigarettes are unfiltered Gitanes; anyone who buys a second pack of cigarettes after that experience was clearly born so hardcore that he was unlikely to reach thirty without having perished in a fiery car crash, anyway.) But creating a list of resolutions, of things that one must always or never -- as the case may be -- do and that one knows one will eventually not do or do -- as the case may be, respectively -- in spite of one's best intentions strikes us as the sort of rank hypocrisy about which we feel compelled to maintain plausible deniability. (We also, apparently, have no trouble using the first person plural when there are only one of us, but we confess to having difficulty sustaining that usage for more than a paragraph.)

This has been a pretty good year for me and for my immediate family. As usual, there are things that I might have done better and that I hope to do better next year, but on the whole, life is pretty good and complaining about anything (except maybe that whole raw foods phenomenon: I was in Borders the other day, and I picked up a beautiful cookbook written by two beautiful people, and then I started to read the recipes, and I thought, well, I can't really write exactly what I thought because the language is inappropriate for polite company, but what's up with that?) in the life-in-general category would be ungrateful.

But, of course, the kitchen is a different matter, entirely. The culinary arena is no place for resting on one's laurels or for modest goals. Complacency, after all, is what landed me in my current sorry situation. Do you realize, reader, that I am nearly forty-five years old, and I have never (not even once) made a croquembouche? What possible reason is there for this oversight? I can make pâte à choux. I can make crème patissiere. I can make caramel. I have even gone so far as to combine these elements in a gateau St. Honore, which is what you'd have if all of the cream puffs from your croquembouche gushed their pastry cream to the inside and someone ate off all but the bottom two rows. Still, the fact remains: there are no croquembouches in my personal culinary history, and how did this come to pass? (And you may ask yourself/ Where does that highway go?/ And you may ask yourself/ Am I right? I wrong?/ And you may tell yourself/ My god!...what have I done?) Complacency.

I don't, as it happens, plan to put croquembouche on this year's list of goals. I might consider it if I do a large holiday party next year, but while it's something that I'd like to do eventually, there are other things that have a tighter hold on my soul. For instance:

Spiced beef. I want it on my table next Christmas. It sounds entirely delicious, and any main course that you have to start two weeks in advance is my kind of main course, especially since it will have the amusing side benefit of causing V. to whinge about me taking up so much space in the refrigerator for two whole weeks. Woohoo.

A real, honest-to-goodness Pithiviers (the pedantic-Frenchmen-masquerading-as-Scottish-solicitors among my readership will kindly note the correct spelling) made with the traditional almond filling and, naturally, my own puff pastry.

Cannoli. Oh, how I love them. The last time I was in New York, V. and I tromped all over Greenwich Village at two in the morning (I was wearing a pair of fabulous harness boots, which, alas, I had not hitherto broken in and which left my feet in blisters for the rest of the weekend) so that I could have a cannoli (we can leave aside for the moment the undisputed fact that it's not exactly difficult to find cannoli in NYC). It's high time I made my own. I'm not sure that I'm actually going to deep fry the shells, but I have a silpat, so I can make something similar to a florentine, wrap it into a cylinder, and then stuff it with the cannoli cream.

Crème brûlée. Yes, yes, I know. It's hard for you to believe that I've never made crème brûlée, but it's true. I do like it a lot, but my real reason for wanting to make it is that it'll give me a good excuse to finally buy that kitchen blowtorch I've been wanting forever. I was reading somebody's (I forget whose post it was; I apologize) post about café brûlée the other day. She (or he, perhaps) had tried to put a caramel crust on top of a cup of coffee. That sounded difficult to me, but then it occurred to me that I could just as easily use a ring cutter to lay down a circle of brown sugar on my silpat, remove the cutter, caramelize the sugar on the silpat, let it cool, and then transfer the brûlée to either the café or the crème. I know, I know: I'm a genius.

Springerle. I have a pretty good collection of springerle molds, and I've made the cookies more often than not over the past fifteen holiday seasons, but I didn't make any this year, and I don't want the omission to become a habit.

Cooking lessons for A. My little girl's all grown up, and I have always said that I would not send my children out into the world without making sure that they knew how to take care of themselves. (I still have a very vivid memory of being in the laundry room at my dormitory and staring incredulously when one of the freshmen approached me and said, "Um, how do you do laundry?") She's starting the second half of her junior year, and while she's already a fierce baker (she makes cookies and sells them at school for spending money), she has a lot to learn about basic meal preparation. Besides, A.'s already decided that she's going to go to the University of Maryland at College Park, and she can save money there by spending slightly more rent on a kitchen-equipped and skipping the meal plan. She will, of course, need groceries, and I'm sure she won't want to pass up my kind offer of stopping by every Saturday to take her to the supermarket. Ok, so I have an agenda.

I realize that the above list does not seem tremendously ambitious, but you must bear in mind that one of my objections to new year's resolutions is that it seems silly (and a bit of a cheap excuse) to not just make resolutions whenever you feel like it, so the list is always a work in process. You must also bear in mind that in addition to all the new things, there's a long list of old things that I've done for years or that I did this year and that I want to continue doing. So there'll be more clementine ratafia this year. There'll be vin de noix. There will (always) be lebkuchen. There will be strawberries and sour cherries, each gathered at the moment of perfect ripeness. There will, friends, be black cake.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hoppin' John

In a perfect world, we would all eat and read equally well. Under this system of instant karma, if you were reading, say, Middlemarch, you could expect to come down to dinner and find something complex, delicious, and nourishing, whereas if you were reading, say, John Grisham, you could expect to be eating cheese doodles until you had finished the novel.

Lacking such a just world, I sometimes try to eat something appropriate to what I'm reading, and right now I'm smack dab in the middle of Light in August, which is the William Faulkner novel that I most like reading. There is not an awful lot about food in Light in August, but there is a fairly memorable scene where Joe Christmas first sets foot in the Burden house and finds a plate of field peas cooked with molasses. I don't think that I can easily lay my hands on field peas, and if I could, I would be loath to cook them with molasses, but there are other similar legume-based dishes that are appropriate to the setting of Light in August and to the time of year.

Although I was born in the (erstwhile) capital of the Confederacy, I do not, particularly, think of myself as a Southerner. Nonetheless, my culinary, and other, heritage includes a strong Southern component. This part of my heritage stems mostly from my mother's mother, who was born in North Carolina and never lived any farther north than Norfolk, Virginia. It would be nice to think that the heritage goes back to her mother, but her mother died when she was eight, leaving her to run a large part of the household until she was fourteen. By that time, she had acquired a wicked stepmother, and she was very happy to escape to a job in the mills. Grandma learned to cook as a new bride from her mother-in-law, a woman for whom she had nothing but praise. And she learned very well, raising a family of six children, the youngest of whom was about five when her husband died, ten years or so before I was born.

It is a tradition, or so my mother tells me, in the South to eat Hoppin' John on January 1st, to help ensure good luck. From what I've heard about my ancestors' lives, their luck was never all that great, so if they got help from eating blackeye peas and rice, then they surely would have perished without it. So why take any chances?

I will be staying with friends in Rehoboth on New Year's Day, and as my host is something of an anti-carbohydrate fascist, I do not think that I will attempt to make it this year. I made it when I was staying there last year, and it was very good, but it seemed wasted on that particular crowd, so this year I decided to make a pot of Hoppin' John early and have some both before and after the arrival of 2006.

Hoppin' John

3 quarts water
1 meaty hambone or 2 hamhocks
1 t. celery seed
1 small onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 pound dried blackeye peas
1 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1.25 cups rice

Put the water, hambone, celery seed, onion, bay leaf, and read pepper flakes in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stir in the blackeye peas, salt, and pepper, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for an hour. Stir in the rice and cook for an additional half hour, or until both the peas and the rice are cooked and tender. Remove the meat from the hambone or hamhocks, dice, and return to the pot. Add more salt and pepper, to taste.

Serve with hot sauce.

Hoppin' John has been around for a long time, and there are a lot of different recipes for it. I make no claim to authenticity, but I do think that mine is very good. I am sure that my mother made it differently, but I'm equally sure that she didn't do it from a recipe. She made blackeye peas on a fairly regular basis, so they more or less blend into the background of my culinary memory. In any case, I'm pretty sure that she'd happily eat my version; Mom is not much of a purist when it comes to the kitchen. I don't remember ever having spent New Year's Day with Grandma, but I'm pretty sure she'd have liked it, too. Provided, of course, that it was accompanied by both cornbread and collard greens.

I do remember Grandma, when she was well into her eighties, telling me that when she was a child, people sometimes bathed babies in pot liquor to help keep them healthy. Pot liquor is the liquid remaining from when you cook beans. You are, of course, free to try this, but I would recommend that you just eat the Hoppin' John for good luck and take the babies to the pediatrician on a regular basis.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Breakfast

Other cultures, I posit, do a better job with Christmas than we do. Perhaps this notion is based on a complete misapprehension about other cultures, and perhaps I just believe what I want to believe, but I have it stuck in my head that in some countries at least, Christmas is the beginning of the season of giving rather than its culmination. You start with Christmas, and twelve days later you have Epiphany, or Le Jour des Rois, which is meant to coincide roughly with the arrival of the wise men, twelve days after the birth of Christ, transportation being a much slower and less reliable thing in those days. These days, one supposes, there would be a live feed from the site within a couple of hours, and the foreign dignitaries would be on their private jets as soon as the security details had been worked out. (Mary had a book deal, yes lord. Mary had a book deal, yes my lord.)

Anyway, around these parts (I speak, you understand, of the WalMart-loving world in general, not of the anapestic household, where the hustle and bustle is largely centered around my many cookie sheets), there's a pretty big build-up to Christmas, but the build-up is all about procuring and decorating and not so much about giving, or, for that matter, about the idea that a child can save the whole world. (I was trying to avoid getting into a rant about that whole war-on-Christmas nonsense that I've heard so much about of late, but I may just give in and rant. You people [the war-on-Christmas faction, not, of course, my wonderful readers] are idiots. Has anyone actually ever gotten upset with you if you wished them "Merry Christmas"? I didn't think so. Yet you're getting upset with people because they wish you "Happy Holidays," and then you're calling it a war because someone is smiling at you and wishing you joy. It's supposed to be a season of peace, and you're seeing war where none exists because someone told you to be upset about it. It's enough to make the baby Jesus cry.) I am not a theist, but I still find the idea that Christmas is based on to be very powerful, and I still go to choir practice every Thursday night during the fall so that on Christmas Eve I can sit in the choir and sing (very well, I might add; I had an itty bitty solo this year, and I was great) and so that I can watch the candlelight passing from candle to candle and can enjoy the brief period of hope and joy when the whole congregation sings "Silent Night."

But even during the service, the minister notes in her homily that Christmas Eve is the holiest moment of the season, and that Christmas Day often doesn't live up to expectations and usually results in hurt feelings and family squabbles. There were no hurt feelings here, and no family squabbles, either, and everyone had a very merry Christmas, but it's still over very quickly after a long period of anticipation, so even in the anapestic household, Christmas late afternoon (we don't really get started until noon since that's when I fetch the girls from their mother's house) and evening were long periods of very low energy, interrupted by frantic bouts of napping.

I think the cure to the inevitable anticlimax of Christmas Day is to serve a terrific breakfast on December 26th, aka Boxing Day. If it's a day that you have off, as I did, then you'll be sleeping late. The kids always have the day off, and they're generally pretty exhausted by Christmas, so they sleep late, too. And if anyone's ravenous (highly unlikely after everything we ate the day before), there are stocking leftovers to tide one over. All of that means that I can stay in bed until 9:30 and still have plenty of time to put together breakfast at a leisurely pace.

And there's no need to go to any great effort here. You just want to have foods that everyone likes but might not always have time for, and you want to have one thing that's unusual but yummy. The breakfast I made was really quite simple. The girls are especially fond of small link sausages flavored with maple syrup, so I bought a package and fried them up.

They also love grits. A., especially, is known for eating vast quantities of grits. No grit, in fact, is safe around her. She is the bogeyman that the older ears of corn tell the baby corn about to get them to behave. You do not want to get between that girl and a bowl of grits. Because it was a special occasion, and because I was going to have something in the oven for a while and had plenty of time, I went with old fashioned grits.

Cheesy Grits

5 cups water
1 t. salt
1 cup grits
1/2 cup grated cheese
2 T. butter

In a large saucepan, bring the water and the salt to a full boil.

Stirring constantly, add the grits in a slow stream. Turn the heat to low and cover the pot. Stir every few minutes for about fifteen minutes, or until the grits are tender.

Stir in the grated cheese until it is entirely melted. Add the butter and stir until it is melted and incorporated. Season to taste. Serve pronto.

This recipe should serve six people. Or two normal people and my daughter A., the grits-consuming menace.

If you don't want to wait twenty minutes for your grits, you can use quick grits, and the result will be almost as good. Instant grits are the work of the devil and are to be avoided at all costs. Really, just don't go there. If you can't find old fashioned or quick grits, then get some cornmeal and make polenta instead.

I used some grated Gruyere because that's what I had around. My general preference is to use extra sharp cheddar, but the Gruyere was awfully good. If you are dealing with a more adventurous crowd than I was then by all means add a pureed clove of garlic and/or some Tabasco to your grits towards the end of the cooking time. Ground black pepper is also a good idea. You can also use (a lot) more cheese. Hell, you can replace half the water with beer and add bratwurst if you want. Just don't use instant grits, or I might have to chastise you severely. (You can't really use beer and bratwurst. Unless you're from Milwaukee, and they don't have grits in Milwaukee. You can add as much cheese as you want, though.)

"Season to taste" is meant to indicate that you're going to need more salt but that I don't want to tell you how much because a) you can decide that for yourself, and b) if you're not a frequent maker of grits, you'd be shocked by how much I had to use. If you use the garlic and/or the Tabasco and/or a sharper cheese, you might need less.

The girls would have been entirely happy with grits and sausage, but I felt the need to add something especially festive.

Monkey Bread

2 cups flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. salt (if you're using unsalted butter)
1/3 c. sugar
1 t. cinnamon
8 T. (1 stick) butter
3/4 c. milk (approximately)

Another 4 T. butter, melted
Another 1/3 c. sugar
Another 1/2 t. cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a bundt pan. Put the 4 T. of melted butter in one bowl. Combine the second one-third cup of sugar and the additional 1/2 t. of cinnamon in another bowl.

Put the flour, baking powder, salt (if you're using it), sugar and cinnamon in the bowl of your food processor. Pulse briefly. Cut the stick of butter into eight or so pieces, add to the bowl, and process until the butter is well coated with the flour and is the size of small peas. With the processor running, add the milk. When the dough balls up, turn off the processor, move the dough to your marble, and knead briefly, adding a bit more flour if necessary. Roll or pat the dough out to about an inch thick, and cut into about 24 pieces.

Roll each piece into a ball. Dip each ball into the melted butter, then roll it in the sugar and cinnamon mixture, then put it in the bundt pan. When you're done, the balls should be distributed around the bundt pan as evenly as possible.

Bake for 25 - 30 minutes, or until it's done. Let cool for a couple of minutes, then unmold onto a cooling rack and re-invert onto a plate. Serve.

Your monkey bread will rise higher and have greater structural integrity (and unmold with less trouble -- that's why there's no picture -- but if it breaks into a few pieces coming out of the bundt pan, it's no trouble to reassemble the pieces on the plate) if you use all purpose flour. I was feeling the excesses of Christmas, so I used whole wheat flour (King Arthur's white whole wheat flour, to be precise), and it got eaten with great celerity. I cannot decide whether I prefer the all purpose or the whole wheat flour, but it's very good either way. I also used Whey Low (again, the excesses of Christmas) instead of regular sugar, but I do not think it makes any difference in taste.

You can make the monkey bread gooier by sprinkling more sugar and cinnamon on top of the dough balls before baking. The version I made was somewhat sweet and had plenty of cinnamon, but I did not want it to ooze caramel, and it did not. You can also put a fair amount of sugar and cinnamon in the bottom of the bundt pan and serve it upside down, but I think that the side that's on top while the bread is baking is the prettiest side.

This is the sort of breakfast that you really want to have under your belt when the realization hits you that giving your own children gift cards for Christmas (they got other things, too; I'm not Scrooge) doesn't spare you any of the shopping, because you still have to take them to the stores on the day after Christmas, when the lines to get into the fitting rooms at Old Navy go twice around the building and into the next county. It's also the sort of breakfast that can help you reconcile yourself to the fact that you're going to have to go back to work the very next day. If you do the holiday right, exhaustion gives over to a feeling of peace and of wistfulness. You know you're going to have to go back out into the real world and you know that you're not likely to be greeted with nearly enough goodwill towards men (let alone peace on earth), but you can generate enough goodwill inside your own family and home to get you by.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Construction Work

My very own Prancer and Vixen
The divine creatures you see in the above picture are my daughters A. and L. They are, obviously, decorating a gingerbread house. I took the picture this afternoon. I baked the pieces for the house, as well as some extra trees and small gingerbread people, last night, and we assembled and decorated the house this afternoon.

There is really not much point in me giving you recipes for the gingerbread house. You can surf on over to and put "gingerbread house" in the search box, and you'll get several recipes. I believe the recipe I used was the first one. I did double most of the spices because I generally find that most spice cookie recipes are not sufficiently spiced for my tastes. It is also possible that some of my spices have lost some of their potency, but in any case, the resulting gingerbread worked well for construction, and the girls thought that the cookies made from some of the leftover dough were terrific. (The girls are pretty easy to please in most cases. But then you could probably have figured out that they were fine people from their willingness to have their pictures taken while wearing felt antlers. I am a lucky, lucky father.) I thought the cookies were fine, but if I were setting out to make cookies, I would probably use a different recipe, one with a higher proportion of butter-to-flour.

There are also many, many sources for gingerbread house templates on the Internet, but they almost all are the same old boring pattern that everyone uses. And there's nothing at all wrong with using that pattern, but I wanted to try something different, and in my searches around cyberspace, I found that has templates for colonial, saltbox, A-frame, and side gable houses. I was tempted by the A-frame, but I went with the saltbox. (If you're tremendously ambitious, you can, of course, get Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe and templates for her gingerbread replica of Notre Dame. It's in her Rose's Christmas Cookies book. I can't imagine that anyone ever makes it; it seems like the ultimate example of food porn, but it's undeniably impressive.) The good part about the saltbox is that it's really no more difficult than the standard side gable gingerbread house, but it's still different. To my mind, there's no point in getting too complicated with your gingerbread house blueprints because the fun of the gingerbread house is almost all in the making and almost none in the having. And if you get too particular about either the construction or the decorating, then you've really missed the point. The decoration should, ideally, be turned over to children, who are almost certain to make a mess of it and who don't care if they make a mess of it. You should not care, either. Or, if you do care, you should turn a simple one over to the kids and keep the more complicated variety for yourself. Just be aware that everyone I know is sufficiently impressed by anyone who makes his own gingerbread house and is no more impressed if it looks especially great. You reach the point of diminishing returns very, very quickly.

In cutting out the pieces of your house, you have two basic choices. You can either make great sheets of gingerbread (or lebkuchen) and then cut the pieces from the baked sheets, or you can cut the dough into the shapes of the pieces of the house before baking it. The former method gives you the most precise pieces, but it seems very wasteful. The best compromise I've found is to roll your dough out, cut the pieces according to the templates, transfer the pieces to a greased baking sheet, bake, and then -- while still hot from the oven -- use the templates and a sharp knife to true the pieces up. Shaving a millimeter or two off the sides also gives you a wider edge and more surface area for your adhesive to stick to.

However you make your pieces, you really needn't be too concerned with neatness in the construction. You'll be using royal icing as your construction adhesive, and you should use plenty of it. If it seeps out between the pieces, you can cover the excess with pieces of candy. I also use dressmakers' pins to hold the pieces together, and I do so with neither shame nor remorse. If you use the ones with red spherical heads, they even look nice.

You probably know this already, but you can put candy glass in your windows by crushing up a translucent hard candy (Lifesavers will work, as will the spherical candies which are basically stickless lollipops) and by baking them into the window holes for a few minutes. You want the pieces of your gingerbread house to be fairly well baked so they'll hold their shape well, so you can bake them for about twelve minutes, remove them from the oven, trim them with a knife, put them on a baking sheet with a Silpat, spoon crushed hard candy into the window holes, and bake for an additional five minutes. This is all at 350 degrees.

I find the baking of the gingerbread fun and not really very taxing at all, but if you want to do a gingerbread house with the kids and are worried about getting the pieces cut correctly, then there is no shame in buying a kit. The kits work especially well if you have children whose levels of perfectionism diverge wildly. You can let the free spirit work on one house while the control freak works on her own. I am fortunate to not be in that position, but a few years ago when the seven-year age difference was more of a problem, I got a kit for each of them, did the basic construction, and let each child decorate her own. They had a blast. Whether you buy a kit or make the pieces yourself, make sure that you buy a large variety of candy decorations. The kits often fall short in this regard, and I did not do the greatest job myself this year: everything was round, and there was an insufficient variety of colors. It is useful to include candies such as gummi bears and licorice and/or peppermint sticks to get more interesting shapes. If you are into making at least a part of your house look like the real thing, nonpareils make excellent roof tiles. If you're not into that, they're fun to eat while you're decorating.

It's a good idea to put your gingerbread house on a fairly large platter (plastic will do) so that you can surround it with gingerbread trees and gingerbread people (they are generally small enough to be of unascertainable gender). L. insisted that we also put a couple of gingerbread people inside the house, so I had to stand them up with icing before putting the roof on, and one of them fell over, so that the inside now looks a bit like a crime scene. Fortunately, you can't really see that without looking very closely, and in any case, the little gingerbread person could just be taking a nap. That's the official story, anyway.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lime Curd

I have a great deal of sympathy for luddites of every variety, though not, perhaps, so much sympathy that I am willing to call them "traditionalists," as they would likely prefer. If you want to do things the old fashioned way, then more power to you, especially if you don't mind doing all that extra work, and even more especially if you don't mind that I won't do all that extra work when an easier way is available.

And while I don't count myself among the luddites, neither am I an early adopter. I will wait, thank you, for the pioneers to work out the problems and content myself with the second generation.

Walking this middle path seems to me especially useful when it comes to microwave cookery. I have often thought that the luddites and the pioneers were somewhat responsible for each other. The idea that the microwave is great for everything -- when it clearly isn't -- gives ammunition to the luddites to say that it's really not good for anything, which is equally inaccurate.

The simple fact is that every tool has its uses, and it is wise to stick to those uses. You should not use a microwave to make baked potatoes, but you should absolutely use it to make ganache.

And lime curd.

You can, of course, make lime curd on top of the stove. You can even make ganache on top of the stove, but in both cases you will put yourself to considerably more effort and at considerably greater risk of burning the food by using a burner and a saucepan. If you use the microwave, you will also have the advantage of being able to leave your food unattended while you do other things, and that is no small consideration.

Lime Curd

1 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
zest from two limes, grated
2 eggs

In a four-cup glass measure, put the butter, sugar, lime juice, and lime zest. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high for four minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs. Whisk about a third of the hot lime mixture into the eggs to warm then and then whisk the warmed eggs back into the hot lime mixture.

Cook on high for two minutes. Whisk until smooth and then cook on high for two more minutes and whisk until smooth again. Let cool.

You can replace all that whisking with an immersion blender if you like. When you first remove the cooked lime and egg mixture from the microwave, it will look like scrambled eggs, but it quickly becomes smooth again. Usually. For reasons that I do not pretend to understand, sometimes no amount of whisking keeps the eggs and butter from separating. If this happens to you, please do not panic. Dump the whole mess into the food processor and process for thirty seconds. It will be perfect.

I used extra large eggs because that's what I had in the refrigerator. If you're using large eggs, I think that two will still provide a lime curd that's plenty stiff, but if you want it stiffer, use three large eggs.

Lime curd is infinitely useful. I used the most recent batch I made in the cookies that are pictured at the top of this post, but it is a wonderful thing to have in the refrigerator for all sorts of things, including eating with a spoon.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Disturbance in the Force

Perhaps it's just me, but all of the typepad blogs that I normally read seem to have lost all of their entries after December 10th or so. One can only hope that this situation will be expeditiously remedied. It's kind of like being in a time warp because now the first post on those blogs is a post that I read nearly a week ago, and I'm thinking to myself that these bloggers are woefully lacking in creativity if they have to recycle their material that soon.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wild Mushroom Pithiviers

Blurry?  Well of course it's blurry.  You try snapping pictures of your food while you're in the middle of getting ready for a party.
I begin this post by noting that I don't know how long mypuff pastry would keep in your deep freezer (nor, for that matter, how it got into your deep freezer; give it back, please), but it seems to have lost nothing during its seven weeks in our refrigerator's freezer compartment. While I wasn't especially worried about its freshness, I was moved to use it for this past weekend's party in part because I like cooking with puff pastry and in part because the local Giant had a sale on veal at the same time it had a sale on sherbet, and V. had, apparently, decided to buy and freeze a whole calf at the same time I decided to buy two half-gallons of sherbet, leading to a congested freezer and some minor domestic discord.

I also found myself with a couple of pounds of mushrooms, mostly wild. And, no, despite what various roommates from my college and immediate post-college days may have said about my refrigerator hygiene, the mushrooms did not just grow there. I had bought both oyster and shiitake mushrooms (and some standard white mushrooms) for another use, and I still had plenty left. With my refrigerator and freezer overflowing like the proverbial cornucopia, I hit upon the notion of a wild mushroom Pithiviers. Someday, I really am going to make the traditional Pithiviers, with an almond filling (I still have a bunch of blanched almonds hanging around from a week or two ago when I blanched about a pound of them; blanching almonds is not difficult but takes a while, and it's a great thing to do while you're watching television: it instantly turns you from a couch potato into a multi-tasker, and you end up with blanched almonds), but I don't know when that day will be, especially since I used my last block of puff pastry this past weekend and probably won't get around to making any more until January or April (depending on how quickly and fiercely busy season hits).

Because I was serving the Pithiviers as hors d'oeuvres, I didn't want one big tart, which I reasoned would be difficult to cut into many thin wedges. Instead, I made three smaller ones, each between five and six inches in diameter. They were highly successful and much appreciated by my guests, none of whom had ever seen anything like them. (One supposes that wild mushroom Pithiviers are not yet trendy.) I think that the next time I want to wow some dinner party guests, I will go even smaller and make individual four-inch tarts for the first course. I might go so far as to pour a small amount of brown sauce into the top opening of each, but that is a decision for another day.

I am doing my best with the measurements on this recipe. Of course, I'm almost always just giving my best approximation, but I particularly didn't measure with this recipe. I don't think you'll go wrong with these amounts, though. You will have extra filling, but you can either make more Pithiviers or find another use for the filling. Or I suppose you could scale the recipe back, but where's the fun in that?

Wild Mushroom Pithiviers

2 T. butter
1/4 cup finely diced onion
24 - 32 ounces mushrooms of your choice, roughly chopped
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 T. grated parmesan or romano cheese
salt and pepper

1 pound puff pastry

Egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with a teaspoon of water)

In a skillet, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until translucent. Then add as many mushrooms as will fit in the pan and continue to cook over medium heat until you can fit more mushrooms in the pan. Continue in this manner until you have put all of your mushrooms in the skillet, and they have stopped giving off liquid.

Add the red wine, and cook until it is nearly evaporated, then add the cream, stir well, and add the grated cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn the skillet off and let the mixture cool completely.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Roll the puff pastry out thin, about 1/8 inch. The sheet should be big enough for you to cut out six circles of equal size. Cut the circles out. Move three of the circles to a baking sheet.

Mound the mushroom mixture as high as you can in the center of each of the three dough circles on your baking sheet. Leave a half-inch border around the mushroom mounds. Brush the border with egg wash.

Take the remaining three circles and roll them out a bit wider so that they can cover both the mounds and the bottom circles. Using a small decorative cutter, cut a small piece of dough out of the center of each of the top circles. Fit the dough tops over the mushroom mounds. Smooth the dough down the sides of the mounds, and press the outer rims of the tops to the egg-washed borders of the bottoms.

Brush the tops of the pastries with egg wash. If you like (and you do), take the remaining dough scraps and use your small decorative cutter to make additional cut-outs and stick them on the dough where it slopes down the sides of the mushroom mounds. Brush the tops of these shapes with more egg wash.

But the pastries in the oven and bake for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until they are puffed and very well browned. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let cool for a few minutes (or longer) before cutting and serving.

I cut each of the Pithiviers into six slices, with three full-diameter cuts through the center. I actually only cut two of mine up at the party because I knew that I wouldn't get a chance to eat any, and I also knew that at least a couple of my friends won't eat mushrooms (and yet I do not cast these lunatics out of my house because that's just the sort of inclusive and tolerant guy I am). When the third was fully cool, I wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator, and the next day I put it in the toaster oven for seven or eight minutes, and it was decidedly yummy.

You could easily add another tablespoon of butter to this recipe. You could also replace the onions with shallots, though it was perfectly delicious with the onion.

The perfect cutter for the size of tarts I wanted turned out to be the lid from a Farberware one-quart saucepan. The part of the lid that forms a tight fit with the saucepan, though it is not sharp, makes a good cutter because it is pretty thin and does not deform, as many cutters do. The lids for other one-quart saucepans would also work, but if you're using a Calphalon-type lid, you'll also need a paring knife to cut around the dough.

If you are looking for efficiency, then you can skip the Pithiviers shape all together and just roll your dough out into a long rectangle and then either cut that rectangle into two narrower rectangles or just fold it over (you'd still need egg wash to seal). You would then, obviously, form your mushroom mixture into an oblong rather than circular mound. You could either cut shapes out of the top rectangle/portion you're folding over, or you could simply cut slashes in it with your kitchen shears after you'd folded it over and brushed it with the egg wash. It would be easier to cut and serve that way. You can still call it a Pithiviers if you like; you have my permission. Purists would perhaps balk, but we left the purists standing by the side of the road with their chins on their chests when we decided that we could call a savory dish a Pithiviers in the first place, so they won't be around to whinge about it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Black Cake III

Memory, friends, is a fungible commodity. And I don't mean malleable, though it is most certainly that, too. I mean that your brain (or at least my brain; it is undoubtedly wrong to assume that your relatively sane and ordered brain works in the same manner as my brain, which, were it not kept in relative check by my skull, would at this moment be rolling around Costco, trying to sing the ingredient list for Ferrero Rocher or Almond Roca to a Johnny Cash tune) stores its memories in little units which might show up where they don't necessarily belong so that when you're remembering that time when you were twelve and washing the dog and ended up face down in the mud, your brain might have shifted part of what happened from another episode to the first episode. For your entertainment, of course.

So it's entirely possible, maybe even probable, that when I remember the original Gourmet version of Laurie Colwin's story on Black Cake as being somewhat different from the one that appears in Home Cooking that I am mistaken. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that my brain is not playing tricks on me in this one instance. I am pretty sure that in the original column, there was more and/or different discussion about decorating the black cake and that this discussion included the phrase "Black cake is elegant" as part of an explanation as to why you should use silver dragees but not sprinkles.

Regardless of just how fevered my brain may or may not be at the moment, however, I wasn't entirely satisfied with my decoration of my black cake. It looks a bit like a reject from a Weyerhauser advertising design contest. Alas. When you decorate your black cake, you will do better because you will not have my visual/artistic limitations.

Ms. Colwin, whose work I cannot help but adore, recommended using an egg white and confectioner's sugar icing for the black cake, and I would not have considered disregarding her advice in this matter. She did not give the recipe, claiming that it was available in "any cookbook," by which one assumes that she meant any reasonably comprehensive cookbook and not, say, 365 Ways To Cook Chicken. I took my recipe out of Joy of Cooking, more or less. Ms. Colwin had recommended adding some almond extract so I did. Basically, you take two egg whites, beat them until they're stiff, and then beat in half a teaspoon of almond extract, the juice of half a lemon, and most of a pound of powdered sugar. You add the powdered sugar and lemon juice alternately, until you have a spreadable consistency and a sufficient quantity for your cake.

This icing dries quickly and hard, so you'll need to work swiftly or keep it covered with a damp cloth. You would be well advised to use first a small amount of the icing for a thin crumb coat.

You might also be well advised to then discard the remaining egg white icing and instead use a nice buttercream to finish. The egg white icing was probably originally recommended because a full-sized black cake is a lot of cake, and the hard dried egg white icing will retain its character more or less indefinitely. But if you have some way to make sure that the cake is going to be eaten in a relatively short period of time, why not go for something that tastes like something besides powdered sugar, at least for the finish coat? Of course, if you use the egg white icing, it is relatively easy to remove it from your slice of cake with your fork in one or a few pieces, so you don't actually have to eat it, but one presumes that a softer icing with an almond flavoring (and that is less than 90% sugar; the black cake is already plenty sweet) would be welcome. Or maybe I just don't know how to make good egg white icing, a possibility I am more than willing to consider.

If I had it to do again (and I do, given that even after I've mailed all the ones I'm mailing, I'll still have a sizeable one left), I would have remembered to get some paste food coloring so that I could make a large quantity of red icing and a smaller quantity of green, and then I would have iced the cake in red and piped green holly leaves across the top. And then I would put on some silver dragees. After all, black cake is elegant.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Chicken Wings

The playing of the merry organ; sweet singing in the choir
Perhaps you're thinking that chicken wings are a bit plebeian, even a bit déclassé, for someone with such refined tastes as moi, but then perhaps you've never been treated to the sight of me coming downstairs in the middle of the night and grabbing a carton of ice cream and a spoon and sitting in the den and turning on Iron Chef and having to.

Now that I've given you a reason to have nightmares, let me add that messy finger food is a good thing to serve at a party. It is difficult to be dignified and aloof when you're eating a chicken wing, and dignity and aloofness have no place at a party. I will not go so far as to suggest that suggestively eating a chicken wing will get you someone's phone number but only because I believe that if you want someone's phone number, the best way to get it is to ask him. The morning after our party, V. got an email from his friend B. saying that he wanted to email my friend B. whom he'd met at the party, but that he didn't want to email B. if B. wasn't interested in B. So V. passed this on to me, and I sent an email to B. explaining the situation, and B. said that it would really have been simpler if B. had asked B. for B.'s email address or phone number at the party, and of course I had to agree with B. (but not with B.); apparently, even getting a master's degree is no guarantee that you won't find yourself back in high school.

Anyway. Everyone, except perhaps the vegetarians, should know how to make chicken wings: you never know when you might need to feed the masses at a Super Bowl party. There are a number of different methods of chicken wing preparation. Some involve deep frying. Some involve marinating. Mine involves neither, but I thought the results were pretty good. You can make almost any amount of wings with this method. I bought a ten-pound bag of wings at Costco, so that's how many I made, but you can certainly make a saner quantity. On the other hand, leftover wings do make a very interesting entree for a Monday night dinner, even if you're not watching the game.

Chicken Wings

Chicken Wings
1 cup soy sauce
2 t. grated ginger*
5 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup honey
Ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place your chicken wings in a single layer on one or more half-sheet pans. Bake them for about twenty minutes.

In a saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let cook while the wings are baking.

Take the wings out of the oven, and turn it down to 350. If there are chicken juices on the sheet pans, pour them into the sauce. Dip the wings into the sauce for a few seconds (or longer), then return them to the pan(s). Return the pan(s) to the oven for another twenty minutes.

Continue cooking the sauce until it thickens. Remove the wings from the oven, and either dip them again, or brush some of the sauce on top of them, and put them back into the oven until they're done. You can thicken the sauce further and brush them another time if you like.

If you like your wings spicy, then you might want to slice a hot pepper or two into the sauce when you're starting it. The half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes really doesn't make them anything like spicy.

The sauce in this recipe will be too salty to use as a dipping sauce. The wings are fine without additional sauce, but you can make or buy any sort of sauce you like to serve with them.

You can also, of course, use any sort of sauce you like in place of the sauce I used. And you can marinate the wings before you bake them, though in that case, you might want to use a sightly slower oven to avoid burning and bitterness. The wings I made, though they were well flavored, were very lightly coated in sauce. If you want a thicker coating of sauce and even more messiness in consumption, then marinate with a thicker sauce and cook at 350 for about an hour.

*I now keep my ginger in the freezer, which makes it last much longer and makes it a snap to grate since the little grated bits stay solid and don't cling to the grater. I got that idea from her (or possibly from her, but in the income tax field we have something called constructive ownership, which essentially means that the sins of the mother are visited upon the daughter and vice versa, so I reckon they can both take credit).

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Oh, the Fabulousness

At left, you see a picture of Black Box Shiraz (nee Syrah), which formed the basis for the terrific mulled wine that I served at a party at our house last night. I should perhaps be forbidden from throwing parties for a while because while there are areas in which I have been known to exercise something resembling self-restraint, food preparation is not among them. It is a given that I am going to make too much food, and I've come to accept this fact. (After all, I like making food, and I like making too much food too much, which, as we all know, is impossible. Don't ask me what that last sentence means: wait for the Cliff's Notes.) Still, I was probably spending time messing with food that I could have been spending messing with the guests, and I've been all in all day today, so in future I will have to trim my sails a bit.

The problem, as I see it, with a party that is not a dinner party is that there's not the usual course structure which makes it easy to figure out how much food one ought to make. When you're basically dealing with appetizers and desserts, but you still want people to be well fed (I always remind people when I'm inviting them over that it would be foolhardy to have eaten within five hours of the party), you naturally want to provide people with the largest variety of choices available. And when do you stop? This dilemma (along with the preference to have everyone seated in the same room and relaxed for an extended period of time) is probably why I so rarely have parties that are not dinner parties.

My future rule of thumb in these situations is going to be that if the table is full and there is something waiting in the refrigerator that I have totally forgotten about until an hour into the party, then I've made perhaps three dishes too many. Still, too much food is not nearly the problem that too little food is, and as far as I can tell, everyone had a very good time, even the straight guy. (I introduced him as "the token breeder" when he got there, and while he found that at least somewhat amusing, I decided I would omit that information thereafter, and since most of the people arrived after he did, I don't think that most of the guests ever figured out that he was straight, especially given that a couple of people have already asked me for his number.) Getting thirteen gay men (and one closeted heterosexual) to all have fun for nearly four hours in a setting where no one gets drunk and neither Cher nor Madonna is so much as mentioned is no small accomplishment, so I'm very pleased.

V. remarked this morning at breakfast (leftover deviled eggs and the last wild mushroom pithviers, plus some brie and wheat bread) that while there was much food left over (we were fourteen, and there was easily enough food for thirty, even though I was expecting fourteen), the guests did make a heroic effort to eat and had eaten far more than we'd had any right to expect them to eat. I swear that I was only joking when, early in the party, I walked into the dining room and proclaimed, "No one gets to leave until everything is eaten."

In addition to the things that I purchased (a humongous vegetable platter from Costco, eggnog, [V. persuaded me that I was already going overboard and that I could just buy a carton of eggnog, but never again; God only knows what was in that stuff], masses of crackers and tortilla chips) and the things that V. purchased (Italian cold cuts, various kinds of rolls) and the things that required only minimal preparation (I defrosted a few pounds of pre-cooked peeled, deveined shrimp; I cut the top off of a Brie and sprinkled chopped fresh dill and paprika in a not-so-convincing yin yang pattern), I made mulled wine, guacamole, chicken wings, salmon mousse, wild mushroom pithviers, deviled eggs, orange almond shortbreads with ganache, lime almond shortbreads with lime curd, chocolate pecan fudge, and, of course, black cakeblack cake. There were also accompanying sauces and assorted other beverages. Pretty much everything was fabulous. (I have a long history of fear and loathing of what I used to call the f-word. I would not go so far as to say that I'm prepared to embrace "fabulous," and I am certainly the last person that anyone would use the word to describe, but I have decided that it is the appropriate adjective for certain things, including especially my deviled eggs which were so good the last time I made them that I actually went to my archives and looked up the recipe and followed it. And how were they? Fabulous.)

One of the reasons that I love to entertain in the winter is that the cold weather gives you an excuse to serve many foods that some people (though probably not I) would consider too rich during the warmer months. When it's below freezing, as it was last night, and when you have people arriving for a party that's not a dinner party and thus arriving over the course of an hour or more, it's particularly nice to be able to usher each new guest into the kitchen and offer him a mug of mulled wine. It takes the chill off, it makes guests feel very welcome, and it puts everyone in a good mood. It also makes the house smell terrific, and as potent potables go, it's pretty weak, so you don't have to worry about anyone having trouble driving a few hours later.

Anapestic's Mulled Wine

One box (3 liters) Black Box Australian Shiraz
3 sticks cinnamon
4 whole star anise
4 green cardomom pods
1 lime
1 lemon
2 cups whole cranberries
3 cups sugar

Put the wine in a stockpot and place over a medium flame. Bruise the spices and add them to the pot.

Use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest from the lemon. Add the zest to the pot. Cut the lemon and lime in half. Squeeze the juice into the pot and then add the squeezed halves. Add the cranberries and half of the sugar.

Bring to a simmer and simmer for an hour. Taste the wine and add as much more of the sugar as you think you need. Serve in mugs.

I had picked up some cinnamon bark in the Hispanic section of one of the local supermarkets. The pieces were much bigger than the cinnamon sticks that you usually see. Apparently, the normal cinnamon sticks are not true cinnamon at all, and perhaps what I found in the market were, but in any case, because it was so much bigger, I just used one piece. I think that three cinnamon sticks would be the appropriate substitute.

I needed the full three cups of sugar for the batch I made last night, and no one thought that it was overly sweet. The cranberries and the citrus rind add a good deal of tartness and bitterness along with flavor, so you need a good amount of sugar.

You could strain this before serving, but I just held my ladle against the side of the pot when dipping to avoid getting whole cranberries in anyone's cup. It would be unpleasant to bite into one while you were drinking this.

This seemed like a lot of mulled wine to me, but it was almost all gone by the end of the evening. I think it should easily serve a dozen people, however.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In Which Your Intrepid Correspondent Considers the Culinary Ramifications of Acts 20:35

It will no doubt come as a shock to my regular readers (who are used to seeing me get straight to the point, never deviating by so much as a prepositional phrase from the swift completion of my appointed rounds, never taking the backroads of circumlocution or jamming the Interstates of simple, declarative sentences with the overturned tractor trailers of hyperextended metaphors) that I am beginning this post with a few provisos.

I am (eventually) going to be writing about foods that are especially appropriate for gift giving and that you can make yourself. I am, however, acutely aware that many people will have excellent reasons for not giving this sort of gift. You may actually enjoy shopping and spending for gifts or (on the other end of the capitalist spectrum), you may make charitable donations on behalf of all the people upon whom you would otherwise bestow hand-crafted, semi-automatic candle snuffers. And if you fall in either of these groups, then more power to you.(Really: I can't tell you how much I wish that I were the sort of person who could enter a mall without feeling that I had gotten trapped in an amateur production of Huis Clos; I think it goes back to the time I was in the lowest level Filene's basement in Boston and couldn't find the up escalator for twenty minutes.) At this time of year, I reckon that if you're happy, I'm happy.

I am equally aware that gifts of homemade food are not appropriate for everyone. If you are going to send your eight-year-old nephew a box of cookies, for example, you might want to slip in a ten-dollar bill or a gift card to a local toy store; otherwise, you might just as well give him socks. (By the way, I don't think that anyone who is in a position to give me a Christmas gift reads this blog, but if you are, I consider plain black socks an excellent gift. Apparently, I am not even remotely eight years old. I also like mechanical pencils.)

My main complaint about Christmas is that too many people complain a lot about Christmas. I'm not talking about people who don't like Christmas for religious reasons. I suppose that if I were at all religious and that if my notional religion were something other than Christianity, I might be annoyed about the occasional insensitivity of Christians to other faiths. But there are plenty of people who have no theological issues whatsoever and who complain that Christmas has gotten all out of hand because the local stations start playing Christmas carols at Thanksgiving or because there are candy canes on the sidewalk right after the Fourth of July. What's really bothering you is not a surplus of Christmas. Do you really think that we're getting so much more than our fair share of peace on earth and/or goodwill towards men that we should be complaining? One supposes not. One supposes that what you are really troubled by is the commercialization of Christmas. (Ok, and maybe the fact that the local stations are playing really bad Christmas music; if I hear that damned "Christmas Shoes" song one more time, I may spontaneously combust; sweetheart, if your mama says she's dying and the only thing she cares about is a pair of pumps, I'm not so sure that it's Jesus she's going to meet tonight. I'm just sayin'.)

I myself do not appreciate the oppressive attentions of the retail industrial complex at this time of year. I do, however, find that giving gifts brings me pleasure, and I can think of no better way to simultaneously say "Merry Christmas!" and "Up yours, WalMart!" (I mean that in the nicest possible way, you understand) than to give presents of my own making. This is not to say that I will not be visiting the inside of a few retail establishments this year. I do, after all, have two children, and they expect both comestibles (including a 24-pack each of Ferrero Rocher, an absolute steal at Costco) and presents of a more durable nature (though what A. mostly wants is for me to purchase for her song downloads for the iPod that her mother and stepfather are giving her; don't kids believe in copyright infringement anymore?). Almost everyone else I know, however, already suffers from a superabundance of stuff, and one of the principal advantages of sending edible gifts is that they only need to be stored for as long as it takes to eat them. (Which, I am sad to report, is less time than it takes to get them home from Costco insofar as the Ferrero Rocher is concerned. Fortunately, the clear plastic boxes have a variety of other uses.)

Some of you will no doubt be objecting that preparing food for holiday giving takes a great deal of time. In my case, it's time that I will be spending doing something that I very much enjoy, but even if you only tolerate baking, I reckon that in well under eight hours (let's say less than four hours on each of two Saturdays), you can produce a mountain of deliciousness for your friends, relatives, and neighbors. Compare that to how much time you will spend going to the mall, parking at the mall, walking to the mall, cursing at the congestion in the mall, and actually shopping at the mall, and a few hours in early December in a cozy kitchen really sounds very reasonable. (I am, of course, aware that you can now do most of your shopping and, better still, your shipping via the Internet. If you'd like to go that route, and if your intended donees have not had the good sense to update their Amazon wishlists for the holidays, the utterly fabulous bloghungry [and how jealous are you that he thought of that name before you did?] has some terrific suggestions for you.)

If you want to maximize your holiday culinary gift-giving utility (I knew that policy course in my master's program would come in handy someday) then you want to pick three or four recipes that a) you like, b) are relatively easy to make in quantity, and c) everyone else isn't already making and sending. You are not allowed to send out the same thing that your mother sends out unless your mother has actually stopped sending it out and people are actually sorry that they won't be receiving it. I say three or four recipes because one unit of three things each invariably seems like more than three units of one thing. Also, if you're sending your edibles to a family or to a person who will be sharing them with his or her family, sending a variety ensures that people will have something to fight over. This is especially critical during the holidays because if a family who gets together only once or twice a year isn't able to fight over who gets the spiced walnuts, then they're going to start fighting over what really makes the family dysfunctional, and the idea of a thirty-five year old man telling his thirty-eight year old brother how much he resents things that happened twenty-five years ago can only be unpleasant.

Speaking of spiced walnuts, the Laurie Colwin recipe (I first read it in Gourmet, and it appears in More Home Cooking, but if memory serves, she originally found it in something like someone's local Junior League cookbook) may be both the easiest and the best recipe for an edible gift that you'll ever find. People who are first presented with these nuts are not sure what to make of them, but their puzzlement quickly turns to addiction. (If they call and ask you for the recipe, make some quip about how "the first one is free," and then arrange to get disconnected.)

Rosemary Walnuts

2.5 T. butter
2 t. dried rosemary, crumbled
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. ground cayenne pepper
2 cups walnuts

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the rosemary, salt, and cayenne. Stir well. Add the walnuts, and toss well to coat. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake for ten to twelve minutes.

You can make mounds and mounds of these nuts in fifteen minutes. You'll want to get the nuts in the big bags at Costco or from a bulk supplier. You can use more or less cayenne if you like, but try the recipe as written first to get an accurate gauge of your taste. When the nuts have cooled, put them in cellophane bags, preferably with a gold or silver twist tie. Presentation matters.

You could, of course, go with an all-nut theme and caramelize some almonds to accompany the rosemary walnuts for a sweet and savory dynamic duo. I prefer to put my almonds (and/or my pistachios) into biscotti, however. The sort of biscotti that I make keep very well, and everyone loves them. Everyone also loves double chocolate walnut biscotti, too. They make an especially good hostess gift when you're invited to a holiday party. As with all biscotti, they spend a while in the oven, but they are very simple to make, and the amount of time you spend actually doing anything is limited. I don't usually make the double-chocolate variety for myself because I don't like them as much as my standard recipe, but they are a huge hit with the relatives. Sometimes I will turn them into triple chocolate biscotti by melting some semisweet chocolate and dipping one end of each cookie into the chocolate and then letting them rest on waxed paper so that the chocolate can firm up.

It wouldn't be an anapestic Christmas parcel without a fruitcake. This year, I'll be sending out the black cakes (about which I have already bored you sufficiently). But I don't make black cake every year (or at least I haven't up to now), and when I do, I don't usually make them in such large quantities. I adore dark fruitcakes, and I am perfectly willing to stand up for them against the unreasonable calumnies that they are subjected to on an annual basis. But my mom pretty much has the standard dark fruitcake covered, so I long ago began making the Joy of Cooking's white fruit cake, which, as the recipe will tell you, is really a pound cake with (a lot of) dried fruits. Surely you have a copy of the (original) Joy of Cooking, but if you don't, I'll be happy to send you the recipe if you email me. You will, of course, have to bear in mind that I change the recipe as I see fit. JoC itself says that you can use any combination that you like to make up your four cups of nuts and dried fruits. I think the pecans, dried apricots, and golden raisins that they suggest are very good, but if I can find black walnuts, I will happily use 2 cups of them and 2 cups of dried cranberries or cherries (dried, not those glaceed monstrosities that one finds in the supermarket) for my fruitcake.

People who hate fruitcake love my white fruitcake. When it's out of the oven and fully cooled, I soak a piece of cotton cloth in rum and wrap it around the fruitcake and then wrap that in aluminum foil, and I douse the cloth with more rum once or twice a week. When I'm ready to serve the fruitcake, I slice it very thin, which is easy to do because of the soaking in rum.

It's still not too late to make fruitcake. It's getting to the point where it's a bit late to make it and ship it, but you could still pull it off, provided that you soak it well and wrap it securely before you entrust it to the tender mercies of the UPS guy.

There's one more food item that I routinely send to relatives. It's one of those recipes that you usually see on the back of the label of some canned product, and I'm not proud of the fact that I make it, but it really is tasty, and the whole family loves it, though why they can't make something this simple themselves is beyond me. Perhaps it's because I've never shared the recipe with them. Anyway, I'll post it here if you promise to pretend that I didn't.


1 can sweetened condensed milk
18 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
Dash of salt
1 cup pecans or black walnuts, toasted
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Line an 8" square pan or a 9x5 loaf pan with waxed paper.

Put the condensed milk, the chocolate chips and the salt in a glass bowl and microwave until melted. Alternatively, you can melt them in a saucepan or, if you're really skittish, the top of a double boiler. Stir until smooth.

Stir in the vanilla extract and the nutmeats.

Pour into a prepared pan. Refrigerate until set. Serve with large quantities of guilt.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


(Apologies for my extended absence. L., my nine-year-old daughter, was performing in the local ballet's production of The Nutcracker this weekend, and she had a dress rehearsal Friday night, two performances on Saturday, and another performance on Sunday. I spent the entire weekend shuttling her back and forth to the theater and putting her hair up in a bun. This last activity has long been a source of trepidation for me, and her recent haircut has made it significantly worse, though I was, eventually, successful each time. There was little time for anything else, however. Further apologies for the lack of a picture, but a picture has been taken, so I will remedy that lack this evening.)

With the possible exception of barbecue, there is no food that evokes in Americans as much delight and disputation as pie. If you do not love pie, you are not an American, no matter where you were born or how proudly you may wave the flag. There is, of course, nothing wrong with not being an American, though I go so far as to suggest that being non-American is a good deal more convenient if you are a citizen of another country. It is possible, of course, to be an American and not hold very strong opinions about pie, but it is very, very wrong, and (while it hardly seems possible for anyone still reading my blog) you should really spend some time alone with your faults or in a crowd at a diner considering your crust and filling preferences.

Some of my online friends (with whom I have spent a great deal of time discussing pie) have developed the concept of the pierarchy. The pierarchy (I am not sure which of my friends invented the word, but it was not I) is a list of your favorite pies, from highest to lowest. You can tell a great deal about a person from his pierarchy, though of course, the most salient point you get from it is his favorite pie. Once you've developed your own pierarchy and shared it with your friends, you can look for trends. Some, for instance, have suggested that the nearer to the ground the fruit, the better the pie. The proponents of this theory tend to have strawberry pies at the tops of their pierarchies and, it must be said, also tend to ignore some of the available evidence when they make their (overly broad) generalizations.

When you're considering your pierarchy, you will want to consider something a shade or two short of the Platonic ideal of each pie. In other words, when I'm placing pecan pie at the top of my pierarchy, I am not considering the dreadful syrupy pecan pies that are so sweet as to be inedible. I'm considering the best pecan pie that I can make. You may not be able to convince me that Mr. Plato could actually conceive of a pecan pie better than the tangible specimens that come out of my oven, but what comes out of my oven is what I consider. Similarly, when you're placing the apple pie, you'll want to consider the pie you can make in the autumn when the new crop of good pie apples is available, and you'll want to assume that you've made a good and flaky crust.

Crust, of course (notice that I have segued into crust without giving you my personal pierarchy because, inconsistent hothead that I am, it changes all the time, though I will note that a sour cherry pie made during the far-too-brief sour cherry season is second only to pecan) is a topic that engenders a debate all its own.

It is well known (or at least frequently repeated) that the best pie crusts are made with lard. I confess that I cannot bring myself to make a pie dough with lard. I prefer an all-butter crust for flavor, but the all-butter crust requires an excessive amount of care if one is to avoid burning it during the initial high-temperature baking period. I will sometimes take that excessive care, but I will, alas, more often bow to expediency and use a half-butter, half-shortening crust. There are many, many fine pie dough recipes available in cookbooks and online. My own recipe varies from time to time. This is how I made it on Sunday.

Sunday Pie Dough

1 stick butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 T. sugar
Iced water

Let your butter come to room temperature, then mix it and the shortening together thoroughly. Refrigerate for at least two hours.

Put your flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl and stir well to combine them. Cut the refrigerated butter and shortening into about eight pieces and drop it into the flour. Cut in using a pastry blender or two knives or your fingers, until the pieces of fat are the size of small peas.

Add 8 tablespoons of iced water, and stir with a big fork. Continue adding water a tablespoon at a time until you can form the dough into a ball. Knead it very briefly to make it stick together, then cut it into three pieces. Form each piece into a disk, then wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to use.

You will want to refrigerate your dough for a minimum of an hour. This recipe makes enough for three single-crust pies or for one single-crust and one double-crust pie.

The important points to remember in making pie dough is that you want the pieces of fat to be the right size when you've finished cutting in; you want to add enough water so that the dough is soft and easy to roll but not so much that it's wet and sticks to your marble; and you don't want to handle it any more than necessary because handling the dough makes it tough.

It is wrong of me to say so, but the crust matters more on some pies than on others. If the crust on your pecan or pumpkin pie is not flaky, then it's not as big a deal as if the crust on your apple pie is not flaky. I mention this idea only as a lead in to my confession that on Thanksgiving I did not make my own pie dough. I unrolled a crust from a box that had been sitting in my freezer. This, reader, was a mistake. Even if you're dealing with a liquid filling and your dough isn't going to be as flaky as you might like, flavor matters. And that was partly why I didn't post about pie right after Thanksgiving. I needed to make another one with real dough so that I would actually feel like eating it. The pies I made on Thanksgiving were largely eaten by V. and by the kids.

Anyway. I did make another pie this Sunday, and both the crust and the filling were far superior to what I made on Thanksgiving.

When you make any sort of pecan pie, you need to start with a blind-baked crust. In other words, a crust that has been partially baked before you put the filling in. So roll out a disk of pie dough, fit it in your pan, and finish the edges as you see fit. Because it's going to be baked blind, your chances of getting a finger-crimped crust to hold its shape are practically zero, so you really need not bother, but that didn't stop me. When you have the crust rolled and formed (and well pricked with a fork, please), you should probably pop it back in the refrigerator for fifteen minutes to help it hold its shape. There was no room in my refrigerator (or freezer), alas.

Line the pie dough with aluminum foil and then fill it with whatever you use to weight your pie dough. You can purchase little pie weights which are specially designed for this purpose, but I hope you don't really have pie weights unless they were a present from someone. I use black beans, and if I'm good, I put the black beans in a jar when I'm done so that I can reuse them. Any sort of bean will do, and rice will also do.

Bake the shell for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees, then remove the foil and weights and bake for another five minutes, then remove from the oven. If your filling isn't ready, then your shell will get to cool while you get it ready. I don't think it matters whether you let it cool.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

1 9-inch partially baked pie shell

3 cups pecan halves
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup liquid sweetener (light corn syrup, dark corn syrup, golden syrup, honey, and/or molasses in any combination to equal half a cup; I used corn syrup and honey in a two-to-one ratio)
pinch of salt
1 t. vanilla extract
62.5 grams 70% bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Toast your pecan halves for ten minutes then remove and let cool. Take one cup of the halves and chop to a medium coarseness. Increase the oven heat to 350.

In a saucepan, put the butter, sugar, cream, liquid sweetener, and salt. Put over medium heat until everything is melted and dissolved, then remove from heat. Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Add the vanilla extract and stir to combine.

Add the pecans to the mixture and stir well to coat. Dump the pecan mixture into the pie shell. Put the pie shell on a baking sheet (and, preferably, a Silpat) and bake in the lower part of the oven for 20 minutes. Move to the middle of the oven for 20 to 30 minutes more, or until the pie is well glazed.

The mixture will bubble up significantly during baking, so if your crust doesn't have a nice high rim, you might want to hold a bit of the filling back during baking. I didn't, and I didn't use the baking sheet and Silpat, and I had a (small) mess in our brand spanking new oven.

I didn't have any bourbon, but if you want to use a tablespoon or two of bourbon in place of or in addition to the vanilla, who would argue with you?

The original recipe did not call for chocolate and had different proportions. I made everything 1/2 cup so I could use the same measuring cup over and over. I also increased the pecans for obvious reasons. The original tells you to coarsely chop all the pecans, but I just can't get behind that.

The 62.5 grams of chocolate is one row of a Trader Joe's 500g (Pound Plus) 70% chocolate bar. You could just use two or three ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and I'm sure your pie will be delicious.