Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Amalfi's Card

In preparation for the holidays, I just couldn't deal with blogging. Playing the Amalfi's card in the form of holiday dinners at my Dad's house. Promise to overeat, Jeanne-style.

Merry Christmas to all. More in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

EGG NOG, THE CURE FOR CHRISTMAS CRAZIES

It must be mid-December; I can feel the crazy pulsing through my veins. During the day, I wrestle with 12-foot garlands of pine, carols jangling in my mind like forgotten change in a purse. At night, I wrap presents with crisp hospital-bed corners, signing “Love Santa” with my mouth so the kids can’t ID my handwriting. (Take that, CSI!)

Watching from his perch on the couch, my husband, Jeff, has been known to ask: “Honey, why are you doing all of this?” I glare at him, red Santa pen clenched between my teeth, and shoot back: “Because I LOVE Christmas!! I am happy! Can’t you tell?” (In reality, Jeff gave up this line of questioning long ago, but his bemused observation continues.)

Surely Jeff is not alone in wondering about my psycho pre-holiday behavior. For one thing, we are raising our children to be Jewish. I schlep them to Hebrew school, cook Shabbat dinners, and have even adapted an awesome collection of Yiddish phrases. So why do I expend all this energy on a Christian holiday? Quite simply, it’s in my genes.

Though she complained a lot, Mom actually adored Christmas. A die-hard believer, Jeanne never –not once!—acknowledged that Santa Claus did not exist. Confront her on this topic, and she would break out in an eerie grin. “What do you mean?” she’d ask eyes wide open like a soap opera schizophrenic. “You never know…you never know.”

At age fifteen, this behavior was infuriating and insulting. But once I hit 30, I kind of got it. Why take the magic out of the season? Besides, every year she put up the tree, baked Christmas cookies, scrounged together money for presents, and wrapped every damned one of them. If such effort isn’t willed by a supernatural force of nature, I don’t know what is.

Mom defined her year by two events —Block Island and Christmas--- both of which she had woven intricately with family traditions. At the heart of these moments lay Mom’s knowledge that she would be surrounded by those she loved best. In tougher times, she depended on those precious days like oxygen.

Selfishly, I celebrate Christmas because I would feel untethered without its familiar, comforting rituals. For my children, it’s the least I can do. They were robbed of knowing their grandmother, how can I deny them the simple joy of her favorite holiday too? And when my son enumerated each Christmas tree he had hung from the tree, I knew that he too was learning why this season matters to me.

Perhaps one of Mom’s favorite Christmas traditions was when we would gather at her friends Richard and Laura’s house for Christmas Eve, While the kids watched yet another “very special holiday episode” of Diff’rent Strokes, the parents enjoyed Richard’s famous egg nog. In my mind, I can see her, feet up on the couch, sipping her obscenely rich drink, and marveling that she had made it through yet another year. Well done, Jeanne, well done.

Richard’s Famous Egg Nog

Courtesy of the New York Times Cookbook

Known to us as Richard’s Egg Nog, the recipe was actually discovered by his wife, Laura, in the New York Times Cookbook. Craig Claibourne originally introduced the recipe in the Times in 1958, and Amanda Hesser reintroduced it in 2007. As she accurately wrote: “If you already have a favorite eggnog recipe, throw it out, because the one that Craig Claiborne ran in 1958 sweeps the field.” She also correctly explained that this frothy drink must be consumed with a spoon. It’s more dessert than cocktail. I have listed the recipe below, but would also recommend checking out Hesser’s article and instructions before getting started.

NOTE: Halve the recipe for a smaller gathering

12 eggs, separated

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup bourbon

1 cup Cognac

½ teaspoon salt

3 pints heavy cream

Grated nutmeg

1 to 2 cups milk (optional)

1. In an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick.

2. Slowly add the bourbon and Cognac while beating at slow speed. Chill for several hours.

3. Add the salt to the egg whites. Beat until almost stiff.

4. Whip the cream until stiff.

5. Fold the whipped cream into the yolk mixture, then fold in the beaten egg whites. Chill 1 hour.

6. When ready to serve, sprinkle the top with freshly grated nutmeg. Serve in punch cups with a spoon.

7. If desired, add 1 to 2 cups of milk to the yolk mixture for a thinner eggnog. Makes about 40 punch-cup servings.

Friday, December 10, 2010

BAKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Baking and Christmas went hand in hand in Mom’s mind, a rather unfortunate mindset considering she couldn’t bake. I grew up believing chocolate chip cookies were supposed to be black on the bottom. Nevertheless, every December, Mom dusted off her baking pans and soldiered forth.

Perhaps her most ambitious –and legendary—attempt was the Buche de Noel she made for the first Christmas with Dad. You know Buche de Noel? They’re those Yule Logs made of whipped cream and chocolate cake that grace the cover of Better Homes and Gardens every December. A hallmark of the perfect homemaker.

According to the vivid recollections of both parents, Mom baked a beautiful chocolate cake and whipped mountains of frothy cream. However when she tried to roll them together into the correct log shape, it fell apart. And so did Mom. “My BOOOCHE de Noel!!! My BOOCHE de Noel!!!” she shrieked as Dad tried to console her. (Did I mention that Mom notoriously butchered the French language? A remedial French student, she over-enunciated all words and her voice took on a pretentious soprano tone. Try traveling through Paris with her and that accent.) Apparently, Dad figured out a way to transform the broken “Buche” into a lovely parfait. Christmas was saved.

By the time Ezra and I came along, Jeanne had given up her lofty baking dreams and settled for gingerbread cookies. The process was super fun, despite somewhat disappointing results. Luckily, Mom joined baking forces with her friend Laura, the master of all things baked.

In many ways, Laura is the anti-Jeanne. Effortlessly organized and fiercely intelligent, she can figure out how to perfect any task. Laura would move through our kitchen with precision –as Mom bumbled about— marveling at the lameness of our baking equipment. “How can you measure without measuring cups?” Laura would ask. Mom would smirk at Laura like she had just been busted for chewing gum in class, and the two of them wound up laughing. Mismatched as they seemed, Mom and Laura were a killer team.

Considering they had five kids in tow, I doubt that Mom and Laura produced much more than flamboyantly decorated gingerbread men. The same confections that flow from my house every holiday season –covered in melted colored sugar and often missing limbs. I give them as gifts to our doormen, who pretend to look pleased.

However, Laura’s repertoire extends far beyond gingerbread men. Each Christmas, she hands out a basket of spectacular cookies that include chocolate balls rolled in powdered sugar, almond cookies, and –my personal favorite—peppermint sticks.

A few years ago, I asked Laura how to bake her famous peppermint sticks, and she sent me this beautifully crafted recipe posted below. Unfortunately, I tried to do this with my kids last year. Big mistake. Their eager, hot little hands screwed up the temperature of the dough, and I had to abort the mission entirely.

I’ve gotten a bit smarter in my old age. This year, the kids and I will dress a few gingerbread men like Joseph in his Technicolor Dreamcoat. Then, after I put them to bed, I will attempt the peppermint cookies alone. If I bomb –who cares?— I’ll throw the botched ingredients in a parfait cup and call it a night.


Candy Cane Cookies

1 cup shortening (half butter or margarine if you want)

1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 egg

1 ½ tsp almond extract

1 tsp vanilla

2 ½ cups flour

1 tsp salt

½ tsp red food coloring

½ cup crushed peppermint candy

½ cup granulated sugar


Heat oven to 375

Mix shortening, sugar, egg, and flavoring thoroughly.

Measure flour by dipping method or sifting.

Mix flour and salt; stir into shortening mixture.

Divide dough in half. Blend food coloring into one half.

Roll a 4” strip using 1 tsp. dough from each color. For smooth, even strips, roll them back and forth on lightly floured board. Place strips in side by side, press lightly together, and twist like a rope. For best results, complete cookies one at a time –if all the dough of one color is shaped first, strips become too dry to twist. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Curve top down to form handle of cane.

Bake about 9 min. until lightly browned. While still warm, remove from baking sheet with spatula and sprinkle with mixture of candy and sugar.

NOTE FROM LAURA: I have learned over the years that it is much better to double the recipe and color one batch than to try to divide the dough in half and color one half –I couldn’t get the color even, it was just a mess. Another thing is I roll the strips on wax paper and, when I have an assistant, I masking tape the wax paper to the counter to keep the paper from moving around. The floured surface dries out this and the strips fall apart.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmakah As We Know It: Latkes

December 1st inevitably hit Jeanne like a 300-pound linebacker. “Stupid holidays,” she would mutter watching the litany of Christmas ads in a daze. “I hate Christmas, Chanukah and New Year's; they’re just a Hallmark ploy. I can’t deal!”

I never quite got it. After all, Mom loved the holidays. She transformed into Mrs. Claus personified come December 20th; all jolly and generous and round. Why did she insist upon this stupid monologue every year?

Then two months after my daughter was born, I broke into a cold sweat in the middle of Elf. Under the cover of theater darkness, my heart pounded out a panicky rhythm to the lyrics in my head: "How am I going to make the holidays meaningful for my baby? I just feel tired and overwhelmed; how can I make magic too?" Never mind that she was six-weeks old and couldn't lift her damn head.

This year packs a particularly anxiety-ridden punch with Chanukah arriving tonight, December 1st. Adding to the complication, my daughter has decided that Chanukah trumps her birthday, Christmas and Festivus combined. So today, I sit pondering the wisdom of what a multi-holiday friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It's hard to make sure both holidays are equally good, and make sure that good-ness isn't defined by stuff.”

I take comfort in the fact that The Jeanne usually hit her holiday stride when she fused both sets of traditions into a perfect Glee mash-up: Christmas tree decorating followed by latkes. Trimming the tree was always my favorite holiday activity. I adored unpacking the ornaments and telling the same related stories every year. (I’m big on repetitive narrative.) Equally enjoyable was when we dined on latkes and sour cream that same night. We woke with our bellies full and the house smelling of oil and pine.

One year, we even chopped down our own trees before the latke nosh. Only now that I have kids do I appreciate how ambitious this outing was. Who in their right mind willingly shreds potatoes and deep fries them on the same day she takes small children into the cold to perform manual labor? Only Ma Ingalls.

Sadly, my parents were no axe-welding pioneers, a fact that grew painfully clear as we drove through a blizzard in search of the do-it-yourself tree farm. We finally ended up in a field at dusk –trespassing on someone’s 10 acre backyard for all I know—searching for the perfect tree. This was no easy task. Despite the setting sun and horizontal snow, Mom was not satisfied with the selection. “There’s a gaping hole!” she protested. “Those are the kind of needles that shed everywhere.” Eventually, my father stopped at an enormous tree and started sawing. The thing was large enough to house a population of woodland creatures, all of whom were surely displaced as Dad hacked away at the tree. The tree listed in the direction of my brother, missing him by inches. Happy holidays!

I’m not sure how we got that tree out of the woods nor how we made it home, but I do remember fantastic latkes. When it came to Jewish food, latkes were Mom’s specialty –perhaps the potatoes spoke to her Celtic soul. Or maybe she was just really good at frying stuff in lots of oil. Either way, they were super oniony and flavorful. How she pulled it off, I’ll never know since she did not write down her method.

Luckily, Jeff’s Aunt Mimi makes an equally worthy latke –light but not shredded like shoe-string french fries. Mimi owns Chanukah in our family. Each year, we gather at her place to eat the divine latkes paired with brisket and exchange gifts. Her tiny apartment fills with warmth as my kids argue over who gets to potentially burn their face off by lighting the menorah. No wonder they love Chanukah.

And, as the month progresses, we will revisit –and invent— other holiday traditions, ones that will remain tatooed in my kids’ minds as Christmakah. Perhaps the holidays are really just another family outing where you make up your own rules for "special" in a quest for perfection.

Next year, we’re down for Festivus. I’ve got my pole and my gripes on hand.

LATKES

This recipe combines Mimi’s recipe with some techniques I have found to work well.

Ingredients:

· 4-5 cups potatoes –grated, soaked in cold water (5 potatoes)

· 2 small onions shredded

· 3 Tbsp flour

· 2-3 Tbsp salt (little less)

· 3 eggs

· Parsley to taste

· 1 cup canola oil

Directions:

1. Mix ingredients together. Let sit for 30 minutes.

2. If mixture looks soupy, scoop out excess liquid.

3. Blend ½ the mixture in Cuisinart and add back to mixture.

4. Heat oil in frying pan on medium high heat until sputtering.

5. Scoop large spoonfuls of mixture into frying pan.

6. Cook until golden brown and let cool on plate lined with paper towel.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CHILI COOKOFF, PART II: Meatless Football Night

For the second installation of the Official Chili Cook-Off 2010, I envisioned serving a smoky vegetarian chili to a discerning group of non-meat eaters as they cheered on the Giants with zeal. How tough could that be?

I started by clicking on the NFL schedule. Just as farmers have their almanac, I rely on major NFC rivalries to plot our chili dinners, and selecting this Sunday was a no-brainer. The Giants were slated to play the Eagles, whose quarterback Michael Vick recently left prison to tear up the football field. A big game for sure, but I wasn’t too worried about our prospect. Giants' defense took out five quarterbacks this season – a stat serious enough to frighten even a convict like Vicks.

I just needed a few vegetarian guinea pigs, another relatively easy task given that my brother hasn't eaten meat in over 15 years and I have several friends and neighbors who don't either. Unfortunately, the game started rather late and my vegetarian base had other plans, like visiting parents, working and putting kids to bed. So I readjusted the schedule for my brother –aka Guinea Pig #1—and focused on the chili itself.

Along with lasagna, vegetarian chili has long served as a go-to option when entertaining herbivores. After all, beans and vegetables are hardy and full of protein. Love the concept, but don't care for most veggie chili recipes, which often are too lazy –tasting like glorified tomato sauce and beans— or try too hard, jammed with incongruous meat-simulators like Bulgar.

My dream chili would convey the same smoky flavor and rich texture as the beans at Hill Country, an excellent Texan BBQ joint not far from Madison Square Garden. Trouble is that Hill Country drenches those beans in bacon grease, something Baby Bro would not appreciate.

Rather than pig fat, I added sweet paprika, ancho chili powder, and dried whole chili pepper to Cooking Light’s Chunky Vegetarian Chili. Then I bulked up the texture by playing around with the bean ratio (not a huge fan of black beans which taste like squid ink to) and adding dried porcini mushrooms. Next time, I will do fresh porcinis with a handful of shitake, well rinsed and diced. The dried ones are difficult to clean, and come unevenly cut. My husband was not pleased to find an oversized porcini in his bowl, asking, “Did I win some sort of prize?”

Sort of like the dried porcinis, the game around which I framed Chili Cook Off #2 was disappointing. Giants suffered a devastating loss to Philadelphia, due in part to an embarrassing fumble by our QB Eli Manning –diminishing my hopes for Chili Play Off: The Giants Version.

The Jeanne always said, “The key to happiness is to leave room for serendipity.” And, our evening was full of unanticipated delight. We were joined by my brother’s family and –a special treat— our beloved cousin from Vancouver for an early Sunday supper. Though 100% of the under 7-year old crowd refused chili in favor of boxed mac ‘n cheese, we enjoyed watching them gallivant around the apartment nonetheless. And Ezra, my token vegetarian, gave the chili a hearty stamp of approval.

Finally, I inadvertently postponed writing this post until today, what would have been the 105th birthday of Gert, my dainty football-loving grandmother. Serendipity indeed.

Smoky Vegetarian Chili

Ingredients:

1 tbsp canola oil

2 cups chopped onion

½ cup chopped red bell pepper

½ cup chopped green bell pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 ½ Tbsp chili powder

1 tsp Ancho chile

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 – 2 whole dried chilis, crumbled

¼ bottle beer

½ cup of porcini mushrooms, rinsed well and diced evenly

¼ cup shitake mushroom, rinsed well and diced evenly.

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

2 cans of stewed tomatoes, undrained

1 can (15 oz) black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (15 oz) garbanzo beans, reinsed and drained

2 cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained

2 cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, and dried chilis, sautee for 5 minutes or until tender. Add beer and let cook down. Add sugar and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.

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