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.