Monday, December 31, 2012

Snow storms and French toast

It happened again. The weather forecasters called for snow, and immediately, the grocery stores filled with worried customers, all stocking their carts. Heaven help you if you really needed to buy groceries because there were no carts, the aisles were packed, and the checkout lines went on to infinity.

You would think that a snowstorm would keep us indoors for a month the way people flock to stock up. I know that we can lose power, but I also know that in less than a day, we will be again able to go to the grocery to buy the things we need. However, we are all subjected to the hype of the news forecasters, and a winter storm is news. They look worried, so the viewers become worried.

What confuses me, however, is the standard list. Milk. Eggs. Bread. When they were little, my children wondered if everyone else was having a gigantic French toast party, and their surmise sticks with me to this day. I imagine every kitchen in the storm area with parents presiding over griddles. I imagine children seated at tables, elbows planted, chanting, “French toast! French toast!” I imagine butter melting and maple syrup flowing over stacks of caramelized bread. I imagine wafts of cinnamon and vanilla rising through houses.

The fact that neither of my kids even likes French toast keeps me from participating in this weather-related party. I feel left out of the festivities, so I avoid grocery stores all together until the flakes start flying because by then, the snow-fearing population is all at home, prepping their griddles. I have the store to myself. But I know there won’t be any milk, eggs, or bread on the shelves. Sigh. I guess I’ll have to bake my own bread.

For those of you who did get the prerequisite ingredients, though, here is an easy recipe for French toast.

My Favorite French Toast

(multiply by the number of people you are serving)
2-3 slices of good white bread
1 egg
¼-½ cup milk (any type)
¼ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. vanilla
butter and maple syrup for serving
canola oil for griddle

Heat an electric griddle to 375° and grease with canola oil and a pastry brush. In a pinch, you can pour a little oil into a small bowl, dip a paper towel into the bowl, and use the paper towel to grease the griddle before you heat it.

In a glass pie pan, beat the eggs and milk with the cinnamon and vanilla. Dip the bread into the egg mixture and turn over. Don’t let it get too soggy or the toast will burn before the center sets.

Test the griddle by sprinkling a few drops of cold water. If the water drops dance, the griddle is ready. Carefully move the egg-dipped bread onto the griddle. Let cook undisturbed for two to three minutes. Flip and finish cooking.

A nice touch is to heat the dishes in a 200° to keep the French toast warm a little longer.

Serve with a pat of butter and lots of real maple syrup.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cookie Magic

Yes, Virginia, there is a Mrs. Claus. What else could explain what happened in my kitchen over the past week? Since I swore off baking more than the essential cookies (hmm, there's an interesting twist of language in itself), where did the rest of these treats come from?

I'll admit to the pizzelles, to the cherry-almond biscotti, to the chocolate chip cookies. I'll confess that I was swayed by America's Test Kitchen's "Better Biscotti" and had to test it to see if it was in fact better than our traditional "biscutts." Then there were the two batches of Penzey's gingersnaps after Gary reminded me that we purchased beet syrup when we were in Germany, and we wanted to see if they were better with good old American molasses or the German stuff (the taste off didn't work because I couldn't remember which batch was which).

But where did all the other cookies come from? Who made the snowflakes decorated with royal icing and candy pearls? Who made the chocolate-coconut-pecan macaroons? Who bought Hershey's kisses and made the peanut butter blossoms? Who made the candy-cane striped peppermint meringues? Who made the Earl Grey tea shortbread? Who made the brazil nut/toffee cookies? the chocolate chip meringues? the toffee? the homemade granola? There is no other explanation: it must have been Mrs. Claus. She must have hitched a ride with Rudolph and come in through the chimney to use the ingredients that were just hanging out in my kitchen. She must have camped out in the guest room for the past week, getting away from the chaos at the North Pole, and she baked to pay us back for our unwitting hospitality. I mean, who could stand the racket of thousands of elves hammering and yammering? I suspect that Santa must get a little testy as the big night approaches and he sees the sheer volume of toys that even magic will not complete in time. Mrs. Claus can be excused from wanting a break from his anxiety. I suspect that she arranges a mini-get away every year about this time. I just happened to be the lucky recipient of her gratitude this year.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas is in the air!

This is the exact design of my great-grandmother's pizzelle iron!
There are two weeks until Christmas, and the excitement is building. The outside lights have been up for over a week, the foyer is loaded with stuffed animals, the nativity is displayed in the living room, and the tree is decorated. While our eyes are full of the sights of Christmas, I have not started playing Christmas music, and the traditional aromas of Christmas are not in the air. Not yet.

Many experts tell us that our sense of smell is the most powerful when it comes to triggering memories. We can be transported to our childhoods in an instant with a single whiff of peppermint or pine. To me, Christmas smells like oranges and anise. 

The citrusy smell of oranges seems out of context for December in Pennsylvania, but I remember reading the Bobsey Twins books and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. In both, the children were thrilled to find an orange at the toe of their stockings. My father delivered boxes of oranges to family, friends, and clients at Christmas, and those oranges always tasted better than the run-of-the-mill fruit from the A&P. They were huge and sweet and juicy, and they left the house smelling fresh. Their aroma lingered longer than the scent of fresh pine.

But the official smell of Christmas came from pizzelles. My mother would make the dough, and my grandmother would preside over baking them, using the iron my great-grandfather ordered for his bride when they got to the new country. We made Christmas cookies in the basement kitchen with its gas stove. Mom Mom would heat the iron over the gas flame and decide when it was ready for baking. My mother and I greased our palms, and rolled the dough into tiny orbs, and placed them in concentric circles on a white Pfaltzgraff plate, waiting to be cooked. When the iron was sufficiently hot, the work began. Open the iron, place a ball of dough in the exact center of the design, close the iron, fasten the clip, say a “Hail Mary,” flip the iron, say another “Hail Mary,” unfasten the clip, open the iron, flick the cookie off the iron and into a pile, and repeat. We counted out a dozen cookies per stack, and once the cookies were completely cool, we would move them into the old potato chip can reserved exclusively for pizzelles. While the rite of passage for most teenagers was getting a driver’s license, for me it was when I was finally old enough to command the pizzelle iron.

The recipe, like many of the ones handed down from my great-grandmother, was based on the egg as a unit of measure. As in we’re baking a dozen eggs of pizzelles. Or with nine people for dinner, we should make ten eggs of homemade pasta. A dozen eggs of pizzelles was usually enough for our family, twenty dozen, more or less, depending on how large we shaped the little balls. My grandmother loved to make pizzelles tiny. Sometimes my mother and I would lose patience and scoop up huge balls of dough, but Mom Mom was right—the smaller pizzelles were prettier, and somehow tastier. With their crenelated edges, they looked like snowflakes. I loved to nibble around the cookie, nipping off each point, and I looked forward to the little crumbs that fell to the bottom of the can.

The pizzelles we made back then were crisp, and sweet, and full of anise flavor. We used real anisette in the dough, never seeds or extract, and sometimes we sipped the licorice-flavored liqueur as we worked. Soon the whole house smelled like pizzelles, and the aroma lingered throughout the Christmas season.  

Eventually, we retired the old pizzelle iron in favor of an electric machine. With two spaces for cookies, we were able to finish twice as fast. Our shoulders didn’t ache from lifting and turning the heavy iron. We said fewer “Hail Mary’s.” We could sit in comfort in front of the television instead of standing in front of the gas stove. It was no longer a family affair, bringing together three generations of women, united in a common task. It is far easier to make pizzelles today than it was when I was growing up, but I miss the old days conspiring with Mom Mom and my mother as we prepared my favorite Christmas cookie.

And that is why I wait until the week before Christmas to make my own pizzelles. I want the house to smell the way it used to on Christmas Day so that all those memories will tumble around me, and so my own children will experience a similar flood of nostalgia fifty years from now when they sniff the familiar aromas of orange and anise in late December.

Isabella Petrilla’s (aka Grandmom’s) Recipe for Pizzelles

For each egg, add one spoon* of oil and two heaping spoons of sugar. Beat well. Add anisette. Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Bake.

*Not just any spoon, this was Grandmom’s other unit of measure. I have her spoon in my kitchen, along with her pizzelle iron.

What are your smells of Christmas? What are the stories behind those smells? Please let me know!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cocoa Memories

In the winter, there are few drinks that hit the spot like cocoa. Not the little packets of powdery faux chocolate with desiccated marshmallows, mind you. I’m talking about the real deal, made from Hershey’s cocoa and whole milk and sugar and vanilla, simmered on the stovetop. While mixing a packet with water and nuking it in the microwave is fast and easy and diet-friendly, making real cocoa isn’t much more difficult, and the flavor is richer and deeper, worth every calorie. Plus, nothing that made in the microwave can create the same aroma as the homemade edition.

When my fellow baby boomers and I were little, there were no microwaves. I know that's hard to believe. If we wanted popcorn, we had to pull out a heavy pan, heat the oil until smoking, carefully deposit a kernel into the pan, wait for it to pop, then add the full measure, cover, and shake. That popcorn tasted wonderful hot or even cold, if any was left over.

The fact that both cocoa and popcorn have been adopted for microwave preparation reinforces their almost universal appeal. It is somewhat discouraging that few people seem to realize the originals are easy to make and infinitely better tasting. Of course, families were bigger when I was growing up. The six children in our family didn't raise an eyebrow back then. Even if we had microwaves, by the time my mother could have prepared nine generous cups of cocoa in the microwave, she could have just as quickly made enough to serve the family from scratch.

My mother didn’t use a recipe for many things, cocoa included. She considered how many people she was serving and put a few tablespoons of cocoa powder in the aluminum pan that I still associate with snowstorms and chilly winter nights. She added sugar by eye, about three times the measure of cocoa. She worked a little water into the dry mixture and put the pot over medium heat, waiting for it to come to a quick boil. Then she added milk, milk from glass bottles that were delivered to our door from Eachus Dairy, until the color was just right. She turned down the heat, and let the pot come to a low simmer before adding a swig of vanilla. It was ready for us when we came indoors from shoveling, our noses red, our coats and snow pants dripping from melting snow. 

That was the Milanese version of cocoa, the only one I knew until I met my future in-laws. For them, cocoa was part of a meal that they often served on Sunday night, cocoa and cheese sandwiches. They actually dip their grilled cheese sandwiches into their cocoa, a culinary experience that thirty some years later I still find peculiar. My mother-in-law, a less certain cook than my mother, measured everything with great care. She made sure I had her recipe so that my husband could enjoy the very same cocoa he grew up with. She worried, though, about my lack of fiscal responsibility because I used all milk, straight from the cow. I did not create a more frugal mix of reconstituted powdered milk and whole milk, the way she always prepared it for her family. She worried that the cocoa wouldn’t taste the same in my house, and it probably doesn’t. It isn’t because of the difference in milk product, though. It is more my nature. 

Each time I make cocoa, I use my mother’s method, eying up ingredients, certain that it will never taste exactly the same. My mother’s method allows for surprise, something I don’t mind. Sometimes my cocoa is more chocolaty. Sometimes it is more milky. No matter. When I catch a whiff of chocolate coming from the gently bubbling cocoa, I’m transported back to my childhood, sitting around the table with my five brothers, my parents, and my grandmother, listening to the wind howl and the adults tell stories about more violent storms in years gone by. I remember muscles pleasantly sore from helping clear the walks and parking lot, knowing the value of a job well done. I remember how good my fingers felt holding a warm mug, how excited we were that school might be cancelled.

Those memories don’t come from a packet, pilgrim. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Visions of Sugar Plums: Christmas Baking

It’s that time of year, my friends, the time when I start thinking about Christmas cookies. When I was little, there were certain cookies we only had at the holidays. We had pizzelles, cooked over the gas stove with the pizzelle iron that my great-grandfather had made for my great-grandmother. We had biscotti, the real biscotti, that is, flavored with anisette. We had bowties, the thinly rolled, deep-fried dough that was dusted with confectioner’s sugar. My mother added buttery spritz, my father’s favorite, and Polish nut rolls, both bite sized and logs. There were plenty of cookies to eat and to share.

When I got married, I started to expand my repertoire of cookies for Christmas. Every year, I would scan recipe books and magazines for new ideas so that my cookie trays would wow the crowd. Soon Christmas baking became an obsession.

For the past five years, however, I have sworn to myself, to my husband, to my children, to the powers that be that this year I will not go crazy. I will not try to top my personal best (200 dozen cookies, yes, 2400 individually-made treats). I will limit myself to baking the number of cookies that my immediate family, friends, and neighbors can consume. I will only bake the favorite of favorites. I will limit myself to one weekend, one weekend only, of baking cookies.

Then something happens. There is the casual comment, “What are you baking this year?” or an invitation to a party, or a glance at last year’s Christmas list, and I break into a cooking frenzy.

There is no other time of year that justifies this level of decadence. And decadence it is. I don’t just buy butter; I invest in Plugra and Kerrygold. I'm not satisfied with Nestlés chocolate chips; it has to be Merkens or Guittard or Callebaut. Don’t get me started on vanilla. If it isn't Penzey’s double vanilla, it doesn’t make the grade. I will place an emergency order by phone (my voice conveys the urgency that the internet lacks) to get it delivered on time. This year, I’ve ordered farm eggs from a couple I know through my son. He chicken sits for them, and he knows their chickens by name. Those eggs have to be better than the ones I can buy at Giant, right? The chickens will have to go into hyper drive because I typically use at least ten dozen eggs. Pizzelles alone require two dozen.

This year, though, I swear I am only going to bake enough cookies to fill a few cookie trays. I am only going to bake the necessities, the pizzelles, the biscotti (two, no three kinds), the meringues, the chocolate chips, a few gingerbread men. And oh, a macaroon or two. Oops, I almost forgot the chocolate-covered peanut butter Rice Krispy treats. And there are the absolutely adorable decorated sugar cookies on the Real Simple website. And the spritz. I can't leave out the spritz because I bought special decorations for the wreaths. And there are the to-die-for caramels. And the caramel popcorn doesn’t count because it isn't cookies. 

Yes, the insanity is only beginning. Check back for pictures. In the meantime, here is the recipe for Cherry Almond Biscotti, in case you aren't around when I'm putting together cookie trays.

Cherry Almond Biscotti
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter (one half stick), cut into small pieces
1 cup whole almonds, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup whole candied cherries
2 extra-large eggs (or two large eggs plus one egg yolk), slightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350º. Grease large baking sheet or line with parchment paper.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl and cut in butter with pastry blender until coarse crumbs form. (Alternately, chop almonds in bowl of food processor. Transfer almonds to large bowl. Add flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt to food processor. Add butter and pulse until crumbs form. Transfer to the large bowl with the chopped almonds.)
Add cherries (and almonds, if you did not use a food processor), eggs, and vanilla and stir until everything holds together in a slightly sticky dough. You will have to use your hands, so I recommend taking off your rings before starting this recipe.
Divide dough in half. On lightly floured surface, shape each half into a 10-inch log. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until log feels firm to the touch.
Let log cool on the sheet for 20-30 minutes. Move to a large cutting board (large enough to hold the entire log so it doesn’t break). With a serrated knife, cut each log diagonally into slices about ¾ inch thick. Return slices to baking sheet, cut side down. They will not spread, so you can crowd them rather than dirty a second baking sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes and remove from oven and turn over. Return to oven for another 5 minutes or until the cookies are crisp and firm to the touch.
Option: Melt ½ cup white chocolate chips according to package directions. Spoon into a re-sealable plastic bag or a decorating bag. Clip a tiny corner of the bag, and drizzle the white chocolate decoratively over cooled cookies. Let chocolate set completely before storing. It will take about an hour, depending on how warm you keep your house. Cookies keep for at least two weeks at room temperature—if you can hold onto them that long.
Serve with coffee. Relax and enjoy!

Wintry Mix

If you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, you might have heard the forecasters hype a snowstorm for today. I was a little disappointed to wake to rain, but it brought the chilly dampness that harkens winter, the kind of day when mothers think soup. I'm not talking about a can of tomato or an envelope of chicken noodle. No, a day like today calls for soup simmering on the back of the stove for hours, a rich stock, a tender stew, a bean pot. 

I can remember my grandmother making stock on a day like today. With a minimum investment of time and ingredients, she would transform a leftover carcass and a few aromatics into golden broth. The gently simmering liquid added much needed humidity to a winter house. The steam misted the windows, creating a warm cocoon. The homey aroma promised a hearty, healthy dinner. 

It’s easy to keep soup ingredients on hand. Onions, carrots, garlic, and celery are staples in most kitchens. Bay leaves are another staple that you can use in tomato soups and many other recipes. I keep a zip lock bag in the freezer with the bits of chicken most people discard (bones with a bit of meat on them, wing ends, the tendons that I cut away from breasts, necks from a whole chicken). I also freeze the carcass of chicken or turkey rather than toss it in the trash. When we have ham, I always buy it with the bone. It’s cheaper, and I have the start for split pea soup or pasta fagiole. Soup is an economical way to feed a family.

Some people believe that soup making is a kind of alchemy, beyond the reach of the average cook. I suspect that these people never witnessed a soup maker at work. Work is probably too strong a word for soup making, however. The only heavy lifting involved is moving the filled pot to and from the stove. While it does take time to make soup, the time is largely unattended. In fact, the best part of making soup is that it gives me an excuse to stay indoors on a nasty day. If I’m asked to run an errand, I can simply say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m making soup.” A fellow soup maker understands. The uninitiated are awed. And I’m left to tend my soup, usually sitting in my recliner with a book in my hands.

So today, I found a bag of beans I bought at the Grower’s Market, and tonight we’ll have pasta fagiole, a perfect meal for a perfectly nasty day.

Pasta Fagiole

1 pound small white beans*, rinsed and picked over to remove any dirt or stones
1 bay leaf
1 meaty ham bone
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 cup uncooked ditalini (or any small pasta)
Cover beans with water in a large, heavy pot with lid and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover pot, and let sit for one hour.
After the beans have softened, drain, and return to the same pot. Add bay leaf and ham bone. Cover all with water by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until beans are tender, between 2 and 3 hours. (Don’t be tempted to cook beans at a high temperature. The beans will break apart, leaving you with a pot of mush.) Add hot water as needed to keep everything covered.
When beans are tender, remove ham bone and add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and tomatoes. Continue to cook for another hour, until the vegetables are tender. If necessary, add more hot water to bring to a soup-like consistency. When the ham is cool enough to handle, remove any meat from the bone, chop, and return it to the soup pot.
About 30 minutes before serving, bring pot of salted water to a boil and cook the ditalini until al dente. Drain and add to the soup pot. Allow everything to simmer for about five minutes, then turn off the heat and let sit for another five minutes while you gather the family together, slice a loaf of crusty bread, and pour the wine. Remove bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a drizzle of full-flavored extra-virgin olive oil.


Vegetarian option: eliminate ham and add extra garlic and onions. Sauté the vegetables in olive oil over low heat until caramelized to add a depth of flavor before returning the beans to the pot and covering with water. Add a generous teaspoon of salt when cooking the beans and the vegetables because otherwise the beans will be bland.

Other options: if you don’t have a ham bone, you can substitute bacon or pancetta. Put the bacon or pancetta in the empty pot while you are draining the beans. Cook until the bacon or pancetta releases its fat and becomes crisp. Continue the recipe as written.

*Fresher beans will cook more quickly than older beans, but there is little difference in flavor.