Saturday, December 10, 2005

Peppermint Patties

Bar Bark. This is what I was imagining when I was hungrily lying in bed last night: a candy bark that would be the usual layer of chocolate, but then covered with every conceivable kind of salty bar snack--peanuts and corn nuts, wasabi peas, pretzels and goldfish crackers and Chex mix, even Fritos and barbeque potato chips. How fantastic would that be? I actually think I'm going to try making some with just barbeque potato chips. And maybe also corn nuts. And Fritos.
But, somehow, that just doesn't seem like the right thing to give the teachers at the kids' school: here's this superfreaky chocolate weirdness that goes really well with a nice big pint of beer! 

Anyways: peppermint patties, which have been our go-to holiday treat on and off for years. I love making them because they have that nearly magical "we made these?" quality of being the most excellent version of a thing that is already so beloved even in its store-bought state. Plus, if I can speak plainly, they're really inexpensive to make--especially if you already have the peppermint extract. If you don't already have the extract, it's worth buying because sometimes you might want to put a few drops in your hot chocolate or your hot fudge. Or maybe you want to make candy canes! Not that I've ever made candy canes, given that it looks like it takes forever and results in a not-as-good-as-storebought version of something I don't like to begin with. (But feel free to prove me wrong! Send me your homemade candy canes in the mail, and I will post here about the debunking of my foolish beliefs.)

Once you've made your peppermint patties, there's the issue of presentation. A lot of the dramatic oomph of homemade treats comes, and I'm sorry to sound so shallow, in the way they're packaged. In an old shoebox with wads of used tissue paper, they're just not going to delight the same way they will if you splurge on the take-out containers from Michael's (or, if you're smart and plan ahead, from the take-out supply company, where it's $5 for fifty of them) and decorate them with nice labels or stickers and string or ribbons. I've also had good luck packaging them in clear candy bags with decorated cardstock tags stapled across the top. I bet you could even stack up a row of them and wrap them in colorful tissue paper to look like a Christmas cracker--the kind that pops open to reveal a toy, not, like, a red and green Saltine--and that would be festive and inexpensive. Silver-paper wrappers would be nice too, of course, and could evoke that whole York "get the sensation" sensation you had when the commercials game on in the middle of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special you were watching.

Let me know if you have other thoughts on these. When I was working on this recipe for FamilyFun (it's in the November issue, along with a bunch of other awesome gifts you can make), it was July, and honestly--the thought of Christmas was almost nauseating. I had to have a fan blowing in the kitchen so they wouldn't melt while I was making them, and then I had to go to the Christmas Tree Shop to brainstorm various holiday wrapping ideas. Who goes to the Christmas Tree Shop in July? Well, lots of people, it turns out, not just people on funky off-season magazine deadlines. Who knew?

Peppermint Patties
Makes about 3 dozen
Active time: 45 minutes; total time: 1 1/2 hours
These are the addictive classics with a snappy, minted middle dunked in deep chocolate. Packaged by the dozen in Chinese take-out boxes, they make perfect no-cook gifts--but first you should whip up a test batch for yourself just to make sure they're really, really good.

1 1-pound box confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon shortening
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
10 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
6 Starlight mints, unwrapped and crushed in a Ziploc with a rolling pin (optional)

Sift the confectioners' sugar into the bowl of a standing electric mixer and beat in the shortening on medium speed. In a small bowl stir together the water, corn syrup, lemon juice, and extract, then beat it into the sugar mixture until combined.

Knead the mixture into a ball (it will be very stiff), then use the bottom of a glass pie plate and firm, even pressure to flatten the ball between sheets of wax paper into a 9-inch disk that's about 1/4 inch thick (if you try doing this with a rolling pin, you will be much more frustrated, I assure you). Place the disk (with the wax paper) on a cookie sheet and freeze until firm, around 15 minutes.

Place the frozen disk on a cutting surface, remove and reserve the wax paper, and cover the cookie sheet with parchment. Use a 1-inch round cutter to cut out patties, moving them to the parchment as they're cut. Gather the scraps into a ball, use the pie plate and wax paper to flatten it again, and cut more rounds until all of the filling is used. Freeze the rounds for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. Coat the patties one at a time, balancing each on a fork and dipping (use another fork as needed to flip the patty in the chocolate), then shaking excess chocolate and scraping the bottom of the fork against the edge of the bowl before returning the coated patty to the parchment. Make a ridged pattern one each patty by pressing a fork into the chocolate and lifting it straight up. Reheat the chocolate as necessary until all the patties are coated, then allow them to sit until set, about 1 hour. Optional: sprinkle patties, as they're coated, with the crushed mints.

Peppermint patties keep, layered between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container and chilled, 1 month.

Grapefruit Marmalade

Thank goodness for easy, homemade holiday gift recipes! You’ve got some, right? Because this isn’t actually one of them. In fact, this is almost bizarrely time-consuming and fiddly. So why would you make it? Well. I’ll tell you. If you get in the right mood, it will actually be one of the loveliest couple of hours you’ve ever spent. You’ll get your kids in on the zesting of the fruit, for one thing, and your home will fill with the unutterably delightful fragrance of citrus. (It’s grapefruits, for heaven’s sake! It’s not like I’ve got you shucking clams or stuffing cabbage.) Plus, you’ll put some holiday music on (Try the Christmas station on Pandora!) and you’ll feel relaxed and happy knowing that, at the end of this afternoon of peeling and cutting and measuring and boiling, you will have jars and jars of gorgeous, glowing marmalade. And if it’s not on the top of everyone’s wish list this year—well, next year it will be, so I hope you enjoy making it. Because you’ll be making it again, I guarantee it. (When I threatened not to make it this year, my father sighed and said, “But what will we eat with our New Year’s Eve paté?” Okay, okay.)

Note: If you have never canned anything before, don’t feel pressured to start now. Do this instead: make sure your jars and lids are scrupulously clean by running them through the dishwasher and filling them while they’re still hot. And then you can simply refrigerate the marmalade until you’re ready to give it. It’s not crazy-perishable or anything: it would definitely do fine in the car on the way to, say, Buffalo.

Grapefruit Marmalade
Yield: 8 (or so) half-pint jars

2 large grapefruits (about 2 pounds total) organic ideally, and scrubbed well and dried
4 large lemons, organic ideally, and scrubbed well and dried
7 ½ cups water
5 cups sugar
¾ cup honey

Special Gear
A cutting board that doesn’t smell like onions
Clean cheesecloth and kitchen twine
8 half-pint canning jars with lids

1.     Start by laying a large square of cheesecloth on your work surface. Everything you would typically toss in the trash or compost is going to go on the cheesecloth. Make sure your jars are clean; get them boiling if you’re doing the full-on canning. Put a clean saucer in the freezer. Put a pompom in the cat’s water bowl. (You can skip the last step: he’s already done it himself!)

2.     Supreme the grapefruit. Do you know what that means? It means slice off the top and bottom, then lay it on a now-flat end, and cut down all around the outside of the grapefruit to remove the peel and expose the flesh. Deal with the flesh first: cut the segments free from the membranes, chop them roughly, and put them in a large, non-reactive pot. Squeeze the juice from the membranes over the pot, then add the membranes to the cheese cloth, along with any seeds you may have come upon. Now deal with the peel (along with the top and bottom you cut off): cut and scrape as much of the pith (the white part) from the rind (the colored part) as you can. Add the pith—you guessed it!—to the cheesecloth and use a sharp knife to shred the peel finely (I stack it up and cut across it to make super-skinny shreds). Add the peel to the pot.

3.     Onto the lemons. Use a very sharp peeler to removed the rind (a great job for a child who won’t peel his fingers in the process!) then stack and sliver the rind with a sharp knife. Add it to the pot. Now supreme the lemon like you did the grapefruits, adding the roughly chopped flesh to the pot and adding the pith, seeds, and membranes to the cheesecloth.

4.     Pour yourself a glass of wine, because the hardest part is behind you now.

5.     Pull the corners of the cheesecloth together, and tie this bag up with a length of twine. Add the bag to the pot, along with the water, bring it to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to low, and simmer for an hour to an hour and a half, stirring occasionally just to check in on it, until the peel is tender and there’s about half of what you started with left in the pot. Remove the cheesecloth bag to a strainer, and use a wooden spoon to press and mash it and extract all the juice you can back into the pot. Discard the bag, or compost its contents. If you need to, you can cover the pot and stop now for a couple of hours, then resume a bit later.

6.     Over low heat, stir the sugar and the honey into the marmalade until it’s dissolved, then turn the heat to high and bring the marmalade to a boil. Boil hard for 10-20 minutes until the setting point is reached. This means that when you pour a spoonful of it on the frozen plate and return it to the freezer for a moment, it will seem a little gelled and wrinkly when you push it with your finger, rather than running right off the tilted plate in a liquidy way. If it’s not done when you first check it, check it every five minutes until it is. But don’t wait for it to seem completely set, or it will set up too thick when it cools. A little loose is fine.

7.     Turn the heat off and use a large metal spoon to skim any scum that’s formed. (“Throw away” the scum, by which I mean eat it when nobody’s looking.) Let the marmalade stand, off the heat, for 15 minutes, then ladle it into the prepared jars and seal them. If you are actually canning it, and are new to canning, consult a site like the Ball one:

8.     Allow the marmalade to cool overnight. Then prepare to be adored.

Monday, November 21, 2005


And then there's Hanukkah: Michael's grandmother's menorah, lit with great sentiment and ceremony--and only slight fumbling over the prayers and their difficult tune--every night. I just looked it up on Wikipedia to read that "the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE." Oh! I always explain it to the kids as a kind of loaves-and-fishes situation: a day's worth of oil burns for eight; through faith and gratitude, something expands to become enough. That so perfectly describes how I want to live that it takes my breath away. An attitude of abundance. The miracle of gratitude.

And yes, I'm perfectly happy to sit in the candle-lit house of our friends, who've recently become pig farmers, and eat latkes fried in lard. Because this is part of our belief too: not just pig fat (which could be a religion unto itself), but the spirit of resourcefulness, an absence of waste, food shared in happy community with ceremony and warmth and absurdity and laughter.

But that's not the recipe I'm giving you. Not just because the treyf quotient is detonatingly high (even my late atheist grandmother had to be cringing a little over the "lardkes," as we called them), but also because, well, canola oil is really a more practical option. I also make a mess-free and greaseless oven-baked potato-pancake recipe, but it's wrong to make them that way when what we're celebrating is oil--it feels too much like fretting about the carbs in your Eucharist wafer.
Make these, even if you're not Jewish, and eat them in quiet appreciation of their deliciousness or accompanied by the Hanukkah story of magic oil, of spiritual illumination, of the light of human kindness shining through these dark and holy nights.
serves 4 as a meal, 8 as appetizers
Total time: 45 minutes

These are crispy and tender and salty and delicious. A pinch of baking soda keeps the potatoes from turning their creepy blue-grey color; whirring the batter in the blender makes it smooth enough to spread thin and cook through quickly; small pancakes maximize crisp edges.

3 fist-size baking potatoes or Yukon golds, peeled (enough to make 3 cups grated)
1/2 a small onion
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup (or so) vegetable oil
Sour cream and applesauce for serving

Grate the potatoes and onion: I do this with the grating disk of my food processor, but it's fine to do it on the large holes of a hand-held grater. Stir in the eggs, flour, baking soda, and salt, then pulse the mixture briefly in the food processor, now fitted with the steel blade. If you didn't use the food processor to begin with, then your potatoes were probably more mushily grated (in a good way), and you can skip this step--or else whir the mixture briefly in a blender.

Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat, then drop in heaping teaspoons of the batter and flatten them a bit with the back of the spoon. Fry the latkes until they're nicely browned, then flip them and fry another 2 minutes until the undersides are browned too. Drain them on a paper-towel-covered wire rack and, if absolutely necessary, keep them warm (sans paper towel) in a 250 oven until they're all fried. But it's really better just to take turns frying and eat them while they're fresh and hot. Sprinkle with salt, and serve with sour cream and applesauce.

Bonus Applesauce Recipe
I make applesauce two different ways: if I'm lazy, I just chop up the apples, cores skins and all, and cook them until their tender, then put them through a food mill to fish out the skins and seeds and make a smooth sauce; if I peel and core them first, then I leave the sauce chunky.

Apples (I used 6)
Maple Syrup (I used around 3 tablespoons)

Chop the apples and add them to a medium-sized pot with a splash of water. Simmer them on low heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until they are tender (from 15-30 minutes), then stir in maple syrup to taste, and put the sauce through a food mill (or don't).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Holiday Crudités with the best-ever Green Dip

This is my gift to you this Thanksgiving—the gift of your not cramming your pie hole with baked brie and grape-jelly meatballs right before you sit down eat the biggest meal of the year complete with a bucket of gravy, a basket of Aunt Willetta’s dinner rolls, and so many variations on the theme of glucose-in-a-crust that you have a sudden epiphany about pi, and how it goes on and on, forever and ever, or at least until you fall asleep on the couch with a small plate still balanced on your knees. As our friend Megan used to say after the turkey and stuffing every year, “I’m doing a juice fast until the pies come out.”
So, here’s this: a way to start the meal on a lovely, light note; a way to be sure that you won’t be stuffed before you even begin; a way to give your kids lots of pleasant little jobs while they’re milling around; a way to get a few veggies into your kids nice and early, while they’re hungrily milling around; and a way to forget about serving salad with dinner because you’re going to forget about serving it anyways. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgivings we wobbled late to the fridge to look for another bottle of wine—only to see in there the poor, forgotten salad still covered in a damp dish towel. Nobody wants salad after pie. Not even Michael’s brother Keith, who is famous in our house for once hiding an entire quart of gravy during the meal so there would be plenty for his leftovers the next morning. “I could have sworn there was more gravy,” I said, while our guests ate nude seconds of mashed potatoes, and Keith shrugged and said cheerfully, “Oh well!”
Now if you’re a friend or family member, well, you’ve already passed out with boredom because yes, you know, you have been served this exact platter of vegetables at every holiday meal you’ve ever eaten in our company, whether or not I was actually hosting it myself, and I’m sorry. This is what I make at home; it’s what I bring whenever we’ve been invited anywhere. And it’s always more or less like this. Though, that said, there have been many variations over the years, and you should feel free to experiment. Here, the dip is kind of like an Italian green sauce with mayo mixed in—a little pungent, a little spunky—but I’ve made a milder version using lemon juice, lemon zest, and dill instead of the vinegar and parsley, and I’ve added other herbs (marjoram, say, or chives) or lightened it with a bit of sour cream. It’s not mandatory that you trouble yourself with the whole high-concept shades-of-green thing I’ve got going on with the veggies here; you could do lots of one single vegetable (I’ve done all green beans), which makes this very quick and easy to put together, or you could do a fancy rainbow of veggies (radishes, cherry tomatoes, carrots, yellow peppers, broccoli), or you could do raw carrots, roasted cauliflower, boiled new potatoes, or steamed asparagus. Yum.
I am partial to the white backdrop of dishes here, though when I complain about the fact that the platter wobbles, Michael says, “I can’t believe that! The quality has really gone downhill, over at the town dump’s free table.” Good point.
Crudités with the best-ever Green Dip
preparation time: 1 hour; all the prep can be done the day before.
Two things. One, even though the “cru” in crudités means raw, in France, where they pronounce it croo-dights (okay, they don’t, they pronounce it croo-di-tay), many dip vegetables benefit from a bit of cooking. And two, yes, there’s fish sauce in the dip, and yes you can leave it out, though then you will be missing what our friend Pengyew calls “a little something funky.” Nobody will notice it, I swear, not even the people who always have a heart attack about anchovies, even though they love Caesar salad, which has anchovies in it, I’m just saying.

Vegetables for dipping (shown here: radishes, broccoli, green beans, celery, Brussels sprouts, fennel, cucumbers, endive)
1 bunch fresh parsley (I use flat leaf) to make something like 1-2 packed cups of leaves
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or red or white wine vinegar, or distilled vinegar)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 glove garlic, smashed and peeled
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
1 teaspoon capers (optional)
½ teaspoon fish sauce or an anchovy or two (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Hellman’s or Best Foods Mayonnaise (not low-fat)

Begin by preparing the vegetables (below). Now make the dip: wash the parsley in a large sink of water, spin it dry, then pull the leaves from their stems, without deranging yourself over the smaller stems, which are fine to include; this is a wonderful job for a seated child or an adult with a glass of wine. In a food processor, whir together the parsley, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, capers, fish sauce, black pepper, and ¼ cup of the mayo. Stop the motor to scrape down the sides every now and then, and when it’s quite finely ground together, add the rest of the mayo and process until smooth and green. Can you do this in a blender? I’m not sure. I once—once—made pesto in a blender, and after I tried to cram the basil while the machine was still running, we ended up calling it “wooden spoon pesto,” so I’m the wrong person to ask. Taste the dip for seasoning—it should be quite tangy and salty, so add more salt or vinegar as you need to—then scrape it into a small bowl, cover, and chill until you’re ready to eat it.

Veggie Prep School:
All veggies can be prepped, then wrapped with their own kind in paper towels or clean dishtowels and stored all together in a big Ziploc in the fridge until you’re ready to arrange them on a platter.
Green beans: Snap off the stem ends, then drop them in a large pot of boiling water (steam them if you prefer), scoop them out after a few minutes, when they’re tender and bright green, and rinse them well in cold water before wrapping them up in a dishtowel to dry.
Broccoli: Cut off the big stem, peel it, and slice it into narrow sticks. Cut the rest into elegant florets. Blanch it all in the boiling bean water for 2-3 minutes until just crisp-tender and bright green, then drain, chill, and wrap as for the beans.
Fennel: Trim off the feathery top, any damaged looking outer leaves, and the very bottom, then cut the bulb into vertical slices and cut each of these in half. The core will keep them largely intact. Toss the slices with a bit of olive oil and salt, then roast these on a foil-lined baking sheet at 450 for around 10 minutes until they’re browning and tender.
Do the Brussels sprouts the same way: trim them, cut them in half, toss with oil and salt, and roast alongside the fennel, on the same sheet even (cauliflower is also good this way too).
Celery is simply cut into sticks; radishes are washed and trimmed; cukes are cut into wedges or slices; endive is separated into leaves that only I will eat.

DIY Vanilla Extract

This is a great DIY gift that's fairly inexpensive and also really easy, and it’s something the kids can make all on their own for lucky teachers and grandparents. (If you happen to be a teacher or grandparent of anyone in my house, please practice feigning surprise thus: “Ooh, vanilla! How lovely!”) Plus, homemade vanilla extract is significantly more festive than the equally thrifty idea I had of handing everyone a bag of grubby turnips with a red velvet bow tied around it. Merry Christmas!
So easy, your kid can make it in his bathrobe!
If you already have vodka and a computer, you can make the extract a week from now without ever leaving your home! That’s right—the supplies can be ordered online, and then you will need to wait a few days for them to arrive, sitting around in your bathrobe and tasting the vodka every now and then to make sure it hasn’t gone off. And later the vanilla can be put up to steep in the dark somewhere while you kick back with the remainder of the vodka—or, and I’m not actually recommending this, while you pour a little splash of vanilla-scented vodka out of the extract bottles and into your eggnog; if you pour a teaspoon or two equally from each of the bottles, your children will never even miss it.
Would it have been cheating to start with vanilla vodka? Because I considered it.  But then Michael said, "I know! Why not just start with vanilla extract?" Oh.
However, if you’re in a rush, then the supplies can likely be found at stores nearby (plus, it’s the winter, so you can shop happily braless beneath your down jacket and nobody will even know, unless you run into a friend who invites you back to her house for cocoa, which you’ll sip awkwardly with your arms crossed in front of your chest). The problem with buying ingredients locally is that the vanilla may become prohibitively expensive to make, since a single pair of vanilla beans goes for something like $10 at Whole Foods. Buy them in bulk online. I bought mine from the ebay seller “organic-vanilla,” who sells 21 beans for $9.75 (free shipping), here. And I got my bottles from the ebay seller “candlechem,” who sells 12 4-ounce glass bottles for $12.95 ($12.52 shipping), here.

This is the moment when I must confess that I have always heard the expression “Bourbon Vanilla,” and so used to make vanilla extract with Jack Daniels. Don’t get me wrong—it’s delicious. But it turns out that “bourbon” all along referred to a particular kind of vanilla, and not to my favorite sour mash whiskey! Aha! And so now I make it with vodka.
The vanilla will, ideally, steep for a month—it gets stronger the longer it sits—but don’t be put off at all by the timing: you could simply put a little tag on each bottle with a date of first use; or you could do what the kids and I are doing, which is to use paint chips for labels, and tell the recipients to wait until the vanilla is the darkest shade on the chip before using it. Plus, paint chips may just be the world’s greatest freebies.

And if this whole vanilla thing isn’t your cup of tea, you could always make Salted Caramel Popcorn. Make it anyways, in fact, because it is so insanely good and your kids will love you for ever and ever, and if they can ever stop joking about how the ballet should really be called “The Buttcracker,” they might even tell you this themselves. I  packaged the popcorn in plastic bags inside new, empty gallon-sized paint cans (I got mine for $3 each at the hardware store). I was thinking of sticking a mailing label right on the can and shipping it that way. Does anybody know if that will work?

Vanilla Extract
active time: 10 minutes; steeping time: 1 month

For each 4-ounce bottle of vanilla extract, you will need 2 or 3 vanilla beans (we used 2 ½ beans per bottle) and ½ cup of vodka. Give your kids a clean pair of scissors, and have them cut each vanilla bean in half lengthwise and then again crosswise, and stuff all the pieces into the bottle. Now they can use a funnel to pour the vodka in. This is easiest to do if you have first measured it into a small, spouted measuring cup, which is why I like to have Ben pour it straight from the ginormous vodka jug so that every single bottle fills up and spills over because it’s like filling a thimble with a hose. Oh well.

If your children are very particular about which bottles they personally filled, then you can mark the lids with tape, like I had to. Otherwise, just be nice and regular and communal about the whole thing. Settle your vanilla in a nice darkish spot, and leave it for as long as you can, shaking it when you think to. When you’re ready to give it, attach labeled paint chips with clear packing tape, and tie on a festive ribbon. And wouldn’t it be nice to give with it your favorite vanilla-flavored recipe? Oooh, that’s a good idea.

Parmesan-Rosemary Butternut Gratin

I want you to know that I only run a recipe here if it's excellent enough to actually buy the ingredients for. And I'm mentioning that because I'm self-conscious about our winter farm share. We have a basement full of the guilty evidence of our crime--the crime of not using enough root vegetables--with grubby parsnips and rutabagas stashed everywhere like dead bodies. But just because I have 50 pounds of turnips to use by Tuesday doesn't mean that you need to be making turnip stew this week. I understand that, I do. Nor do you need to be making Special Mixed Root Vegetable Soup or Special Mixed Root Vegetable Puree. You may, actually, need to make Special Roasted Mixed Root Vegetables, so stay tuned, but I really do try to spare you the worst of it.

The squash, though, is a different thing. It's true that I am cramming them everywhere--"Mama, what's this orange thing in my tamale pie?"--but it's also true that I can still get excited about a fantastic squash recipe, one that shows off their sweetness and substance. A designation recipe. And this is just that kind of recipe: it's creamy and cheesy, simple and rich, like the mac and cheese of the squash world. While it's baking, your house will fill with the aroma of rosemary and toasting parmesan--a smell that is somehow enticingly green and brown, despite the obvious orangeness of the actual dish--and then the squash will taste exactly the way you thought it was going to, and a chorus of tiny angels will fly in a halo around your head, singing about Vitamin A and what a great cook you are and good for you to use the squash before it rotted.

It's also such an easy dish that it's kind of ridiculous: you spend about 1 second assembling it (after you've wrestled the squash into cubes), and then it just manages itself in the oven with spectacular results. I made it for a potluck, and everybody loved it. I forgot about it in the oven for an hour, and all the cream cooked completely away and the squash melted and the top got deeply browned, and everybody loved it. We joked about how, with Anni gone (her sister's having her own baby!), we would never finish it. And then we finished it. I served the gratin with a simple, sharply dressed spinach salad and bacon that we'd just gotten from our pig-farming friends, and it was such an exquisite, balanced, honest meal that we sat at the table afterwards patting our bellies and sighing. You'll see

Parmesan-Rosemary Butternut Gratin
Serves 4-6
Active time: 15 minutes; total time: 1 hour

If you're squash is a little bigger or smaller, don't fret--just adjust the cream and salt accordingly.

1 butternut squash (2 1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary (or dried, if that's what you've got)
Black pepper
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan

Heat the oven to 400 and grease a casserole dish.

Arrange the squash in the casserole. Combine the cream, salt, rosemary, and black pepper, whisk it with a fork, then pour it over the squash. Toss the squash a bit to coat each piece with the cream mixture (I use my hands for this), then cover tightly with foil and bake in the middle of the oven for half an hour.

Uncover the squash, gently stir in half the cheese (I use a rubber spatula for this), sprinkle on the remaining cheese, and bake, uncovered, another 15 minutes or so, until the top is browned and the squash is tender when you pierce it with a knife. Allow the casserole to stand for 5 minutes before serving so that the cream can thicken up.

Cranberry Upside-Down cake

Now this particular cake, as you have noticed by its title and appearance, is made with cranberries, but I have baked it with many other fruits ranging from the classic pineapple to the bracingly delicious rhubarb; come spring, I am even somewhat famous for the latter version. But cranberries are just so gorgeous in their ruby way, and they’re so delightfully seasonal in the bright cold of November. Although, please note that I am not recommending that you make this for Thanksgiving, because to tamper with anybody’s pie tradition is like erecting a wailing wall around your grateful table, and believe me—it’s just not worth it. But it’s a nice little cake to make this week, when you’ve picked up an extra bag of cranberries and are feeling festive.
A few notes on children. A sinkful of water, with a bag of cranberries dumped in? Oh, it’s good. Do this, even if you’re not making the cake. It’s worth the cost of the berries just to watch your kids’ ecstatic relationship to those tiny bobbing orbs. Give them a small sieve, spoons, funnels, whatever—and then ask them to please do you a big favor and wash the berries for you, and fish them out into a colander when they’re done. Then run yourself a bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read the Boden catalogue cover to cover, because the kids will be happy for an hour. Then put the Boden catalogue straight into the recycling, because why torture yourself, and go bake a cake.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

For topping
1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)
3/4 cup plus packed light brown sugar
1 12-ounce bag cranberries (if using frozen, don’t thaw them first)

For cake
1 1/2 cups flour (I use half spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon grated orange zest (1 large orange)
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup milk

Heat the oven to 350. Now begin with the topping. I prepare and bake this cake in a very well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet; if you’re going to be using a cake pan, then you will need to do the butter and brown sugar part in the oven, and you may want to line the pan with parchment first, but I’m not entirely sure. For skillet-users: melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Spread the mixture out as best you can, and leave it to cool while you prepare the cake batter.
Sift (or, hello lazy friend, whisk) together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Meanwhile, in an electric mixer, you are beating together the butter and sugar until they are very fluffy—stopping to scrape down the bowl if there’s a dead spot down there, below the beater, like there is with mine. Add the vanilla, the orange zest, and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. With the mixer on low speed add the flour alternately with the buttermilk and milk, which you’ve sensibly mixed together in the measuring cup. Do you know how to do this alternating thing? A third of the flour goes in, you mix it until it just disappears, then add half the milk and mix briefly, then more flour, etc, ending with flour (three lots of flour, two lots of milk, alternate side of the street parking Wednesdays and Fridays). Beat until just combined, or risk overbeating and baking something with the delicate texture of an anvil. 
Now pour your clean berries (I rub them dry in a clean dish towel) into the prepared pan, shake to even them out, and spoon the batter over them in large blobs which you will smooth and spread together very gently with a spatula so as not to disturb the berries which are, shhhh, sleeping at the bottom of the pan. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven until golden, about 40-45 minutes (you can use the clean-tester method here, though I always just eyeball it). Now—this is important—cool the cake in its skillet on a rack for exactly 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake, then place a large plate over the pan with one hand while your other hand is busy having an oven mitt on it and holding the skillet’s handle, and then use the toes of one foot to light a few votive candles prayingly while you invert the cake, holding skillet and plate tightly together and then removing the skillet with an optimistic flourish. Serve warm with—what else?—whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

Cranberry-Orange Bread

Cranberry-Orange Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Active time: 20 minutes; total time 1 1/2 hours

Cranberry sauce is one of the leftovers we can count on in our house (even if there's not a single drop of gravy left)--maybe because I make such a huge batch every year. But the nice thing about this delicious, cakey quick-bread is that you can use any kind of cranberry sauce: jellied or whole berry, canned or home-made. You can even cheat and buy cranberry sauce just to make this--and you won't regret it.

2 cups flour (I use half spelt)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (from 1 large orange)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted at 350 for 7 minutes and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups cranberry sauce (or 1 14-ounce can)

Heat the oven to 350. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, sugar, and baking soda until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, orange zest, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture alternately with the orange juice, beating between each addition and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat in the nuts and cranberry sauce until just combined.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, tk minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then invert onto rack to cool completely. 

Sparkling Cranberry Centerpiece

Birdy sat at the kitchen island this morning, munching these gorgeous sugared cranberries while I packed up school lunches. I wouldn't typically make them in mid-November, for no reason, but I wanted you to have this recipe before the holidays, so you could plan accordingly: they make the most perfectly beautiful holiday centerpiece--especially if there are candles burning nearby to glint off of their sparkling rubyness--and then they have the added advantage of being yummy, which is just not something you could say about those pinecones and fur boughs, or about the candles themselves. Invite people to try one between courses, as a "palate cleanser," and you will seem very fancy indeed, even without the muscat sorbet served in silver bowls between the pate course and the chestnut foam course. Some people will find them punishingly tart, prohibitively so--and others will find them punishingly tart, but then they still won't be able to stop eating them.

Sparkling Cranberry Centerpiece
Active time: 30 minutes
Total time: overnight, plus 30 minutes, plus 3 hours

This is based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks, a recipe blog I love, but I added the orange peel and the cloves for flavor. (I will have you know that only upon a second reading did I realize I had typed "gloves." But that's really not the flavor you're going for. In the ingredients list too: "ground gloves." I lost my head for a minute there.) She recommends serving these with a cheese course, which would be lovely, if I ever served a cheese course. As it is, I always swear I'm going to use the leftovers in cake or muffins--but there are never any leftovers. Start these the night before. Also, give yourself some extra time to clean up the sugar when it's all over.

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
The peel from half a scrubbed orange, in large strips (use a vegetable peeler)
1 12-ounce bag cranberries, washed, picked through, and drained
More sugar: a mix of larger-grain (I use Trader Joe's organic sugar) and regular

Bring the 2 cups of sugar, the water, cloves, and orange peel just to a simmer in a small pot, stirring, then cool it for a minute before pouring it over the cranberries, which you've put into a bowl. Cool briefly, then cover the bowl and refrigerate the cranberries overnight.

Now it's the morning, and you're assembling what you'll need to sugar the berries: a sieve, another bowl, a rimmed baking sheet, and the coarse sugar. Drain the berries (I saved the syrup because I have plans to make either rock candy or a gelatin dessert with it--not that I have done anything yet but feel vaguely guilty when I see it in the fridge. We did stir some into seltzer, which was delicious). Now dump the berries back into the bowl, and wash and dry the sieve.

What you're going to do is scoop some of the berries (I probably do this in 6 batches--you can't do them all at once or the sugar gets to wet) into the empty bowl with a large spoonful of sugar and toss them together, either by flipping the bowl a little, or with your hands. Add more sugar, if there's not some still loose in the bowl, and flip them some more, then scoop them into the sieve and shake the loose sugar back in the bowl and spread the berries out on the baking sheet. Repeat until you've done all the berries. Note: you'll have some leftover sugar, and also there will still be loose sugar on the sheet with the berries, ad this is all fine. Leave the berries to dry for 2 hours or longer.

Now sprinkle regular granulated sugar over the berries, and roll them around on the sheet so that all the sticky spots get well coated, then pour them back into the sieve and gently shake off the extra sugar before putting the berries back on the tray to dry for another hour. Now pour them into your serving vehicle, ideally a clear glass one that can show them off in all their sparkling prettiness. (I use an old fish-bowl type vase.)

My Mom's Cranberry Sauce

Is it weird to serve it from a cheap florist's vase? So?

I am a great admirer of gelled and gelatinous things--gummy worms, Jello salad, even yucky aspic--so believe me, I love the sight of that can-shaped jiggle of ridged ruby tartness unmolded onto a plate. I like the way it slices up into firm, cloudy-red disks; I like the way the flavor is always exactly how you remembered it; I like its absolute lack of pretension and its generous offer of ease: "Get the can opener!" it beckons. "There. Cross one thing off your list."

However, I come from a family whose sole religious practice seems to involve Thanksgiving recipes. All of a sudden, my secular people go all orthodox, and everything has to be exactly the same as it always has been, since perhaps the time that the Jews were staggering across the desert in flight, schlepping sacks not of Ocean Spray cans, no no, but of this exact recipe for this exact homemade cranberry sauce. It's the same with the stuffing. The mashed potatoes. The pecan pie. The mandatory absence of pumpkin pie (which is sad, since I love it). In fact, a friend just called to ask what she could bring to dinner, and I said, "Oh great! Well not the turkey, of course. Or the cranberry sauce. Or the mashed potatoes. Or the pecan pie. Or the stuffing. Or the crudites. But really, anything you like!" "A salad?" she said, and I said, "Perfect!" My family has no especial opinions about salad.

But this sauce is truly easy to make, and it's absolutely gorgeous and delicious, and it fills the house with the most tantalizing aroma of tart berries and warm spices and sweetness. Unless you let it boil over, like I just did, and then it fills the house with a burning-sugar odor that smells not unlike getting your teeth drilled. Ack. It's a recipe my mum read to me over the phone when Michael and I were first making Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves and our friends in California nearly 20 years ago. Written out at the same time, on the same 3-ring notebook paper, are the recipes for the rest of the meal. (We must have been on the phone for hours! My poor mum.) The pages are dotted with grease and gravy and batter, like topographical maps of feasting and celebration, and there are dozens of my notes from various years. The ambiguously enthusiastic "Pan drippings!" for instance (pan drippings indeed!), or the more straightforward "1995: 20 pounds done in 4 hours." But this sauce recipe is so straightforward that all I did was change the measurements slightly, since the original recipe called for a pound of cranberries. Maybe back in biblical times cranberries didn't come in 12-ounce bags. Ah, modernity.

I hope you are feeling all you have to be thankful for this week. I am, I am, I am.

My Mom's Cranberry Sauce

2 (12-ounce) bags of cranberries, washed and picked over
3 cups sugar
3 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
scant 1/4 teaspoon allspice
scant 1/4 teaspoon cloves

  1. Place the cranberries, sugar, and apples in a large pot, covered, over medium heat. Stir occasionally until it comes to a full simmer, then turn the heat down to low and cook, covered, for ten minutes.
  2. Turn off the heat, stir in the spices, and cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
Didn't plan your photo shoot well? Just cut stuff out of magazines!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Herby Summer Pasta with Zukes, Corn, and Lime

When Michael and I were graduate students in Santa Cruz, our best friends were living in Oakland and many weekends we drove the hour and a half up to visit with them. They were broke and we were broke, but still sometimes we would take ourselves out for a meal at a restaurant near them called Spettro, where we would split some small number of salads and pastas and bowls of mussels from their exciting menu. This is my version of one of their dishes which, given that I haven't actually eaten their version since Ben was a baby, is only loosely interpreted here and has changed somewhat over the years. But holy moly it is so good--packed with a profound flavorfulness that simply cannot be captured photographically: bright with lime zest, sweet with corn, richly creamy, super herbally green-tasting, and with just a bit of mouth-warming heat from the jalapenos. In short: insanity. But you know what? I just looked at their menu and see that it is shrimp, not zucchini, that they use. Aha! If I had shrimp languishing in my vegetable drawer, believe me, I'd use them instead. But I don't. So I always make this as a way to thrill everybody with zukes. And believe me--it does. I want to mention the obvious, too: with less herbage and no jalapenos, this could be a more approachable dish for little ones, and one that you can tinker with as they grow into it. Call it "Creamy Corn Pasta" so they're sure to recognize their three favorite food groups.

And I was just going to write a short little introduction here. I thought: this time, I'll just get right to the recipe and not waffle on and on about my feelings and memories and feelings. But guess what? I have to waffle a little. Because looking at the Spettro menu? It was like a sledgehammer of nostalgia to my poor self. Our friends live in Providence now which is, comically, almost an identical-lengthed drive from Amherst as Oakland was from Santa Cruz. They are no longer together, and the children are no longer babies (in fact, they just joined us on our camping trip and I couldn't help noticing their leggy tween-ness), but oh I have my memories. It's not that I want it back. I don't. I am so happy to sit and eat a meal without nursing somebody under the table or walking somebody up the stairs and down the stairs and up the stairs and down the stairs or jiggling them around the block hoping they'll nod off before my half-order of Booberry Salad arrives. I love these people who read menus and sit happily in their seats and make fascinating conversation about capitalism or deserted islands. But in retrospect, it all feels so sweetly fleeting. And I look at Anni, this burstingly ripe young almost-mama who is living here under our roof, whose baby is due in September, and yes, her eyes fill constantly with tears, and yes, while she's talking about something beautiful or sad she puts a protective hand on her belly, but-- But. I look at her, and I think, as kindly as possible: "You have no idea."

Herby Summer Pasta with Zukes, Corn, and Lime
Serves 4-6
Total time: 30 minutes

You could use all of one of the herbs here--cilantro or mint or basil--but the combination is truly intoxicating. And while the dish works better with heavy cream, you can swap in half and half need be: just be sure to reduce it a bit in the pan before adding the lime juice, or it will be inclined to curdle slightly (which is not a big deal, but still, it's nicer to look at if it doesn't). Final notes: whole wheat pasta makes this a more wholesome dish, and if you want to boost it's main-dish status, you could certainly add some shrimp (really? did the Spettro dish always have shrimp?) or some sliced grilled chicken.

Olive oil
1 1/2 pounds zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 large clove of garlic, pressed or finely chopped
3 ears of corn, sliced off the cob (or 1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels)
1 cup of heavy cream (or half and half)
1 cup of chicken or vegetable broth (I like Rapunzel Vegan Vegetable Bouillon with Sea Salt)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon pickled jalapenos, finely chopped (optional)
The zest and juice of 1/2 a lime
12 ounces egg noodles or whole wheat pasta
1/2 cup (combined) mint, basil, and cilantro, finely chopped

In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, heat a large bloop of the olive oil (1-2 tablespoons) then add the zucchini and salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until it is starting to brown, around 3 minutes.

Add the garlic and corn and sauté for another 3 minutes, until the veggies are just starting to get tender, then stir in the cream, broth, sugar, jalapenos, and lime zest, and simmer until thickened, around (say it with me) 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in heavily salted water until just tender, then drain.

Add the lime juice to the skillet and taste for salt, then stir in the pasta and herbs and bring it all to a gentle simmer. Taste for seasoning (add more lime zest or juice or more salt if the pasta needs a lift) and serve.