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.