You wouldn’t know it from my last few posts, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and hardly ever bake, let alone make candy. Still, when I saw this recipe for Torrone on the fabulous site Food 52, I thought of our recent trip to Italy and of the $18 a 6oz. bar of it costs at the gourmet food store. The confection requires just three ingredients, nuts, honey and egg whites, but the source of the cost becomes clear as you read the directions and picture your arm falling off after an hour and fifteen minutes of increasingly tough stirring. To be honest, though, it took me a mere 45 minutes to get the mixture to a consistency that seemed right, and it was actually rather thrilling to watch it change from a honey-colored liquid to an off-white marshmallowy ball. I used all organic ingredients and spent a third of what the same amount at the store would have cost, proving as I like to point out whenever possible that you really can afford the best ingredients if you just cook it yourself.
Having spent many of my growing up years in London as an American expat, Christmas is a very British holiday for me. We celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving as if we’d never left the States, but Christmas was all about Dickens and the Queen’s Message and Plum Pudding. I’m with most people on fruitcake, but that boozy hot brown ball topped with melting brandy butter is something else altogether. I know the ingredients make it sound like the f-cake, but there’s something about it–maybe the steaming–that’s transformative. I decided to make my own this year (Plum Pudding recipe) which you need to do weeks in advance, and when I couldn’t find candied citrus peel that was just peel and sugar, I made my own, a fifteen minute project. I know not everyone shares my Anglophile Christmas nostalgia, but I’m thinking this tart sweet and very slightly bitter product would be wonderful in a regular poundcake or stirred into bread pudding or sugar cookie or scone dough. Actually, it’s kind of wonderful to just look at the excess sitting in my fridge.
Candied Citrus Peel
Take whatever citrus you wish (lime, orange, lemon, grapefruit) and remove the peel with a knife. Best to use organic fruit here since you’re obviously not going to be discarding the peel. Cut into strips (you can dice it later). Place in boiling water for a minute to remove some of the excess bitterness from the pith). Drain. Heat up some simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar) and stir in the peel. Simmer about ten minutes. Drain and discard the liquid. Chop the peel or slice in strips depending on how you intend to use it.
When I was growing up, it was customary for all of the women to rise at dawn and spend hours on Thanksgiving day making every single thing for the holiday meal. I now understand why they seemed to be enjoying the feast rather less than the rest of us. Advance prep is something you learn as a necessity in professional kitchens, but it can also return the joy of cooking to the home chef. So much can be spread out over several days: the cranberry sauce, the gravy (minus the drippings you add later), the cornbread, the piecrust, all of the vegetable chopping. And the little extras like these spicy pecans that would not be nearly so much fun to make on Thursday as they are on the lazy Sunday prior.
Cayenne Candied Pecans
1/2 cup sugar
3 T. water
1 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. salt
2 cups pecans
Combine the sugar, water, cayenne and salt in a small saucepan. Stir in the pecans and pour onto a buttered sheet pan. Bake at 350′F for about 13 minutes. Cool on a parchment lined pan.
These are delicious in a salad, particularly one with chunks of blue cheese.
There’s a passage in my book Hungry where I refer to a collection of handwritten recipes I took with me to college. It was a year before I had a kitchen to cook in, but that first year in a dorm room, I would look through this notebook; it made me feel connected, less lonely on that huge University of Michigan campus in a state where I knew no one. I still pull it out a lot, as I did today to make the dough I’ll freeze to make Thanksgiving rolls. I realized when I looked at this that parts are left out…things I just remembered from standing at my paternal grandmother’s side while she made these. ”Make rolls,” was all I needed to jot down because the memory of watching her method was enough. I use lard now in the dough, because we’ve learned that the old ways are actually much better for us than the new things that came along…the hydrogenated shortening along with the mixes and cans and condensed soup. I’m pretty sure that when she was a child, it was lard from pigs or butter from cows, Crisco having yet to reach the rural “unfortunate.”
Old Fashioned Parker House Rolls
(This makes a lot, about 36 rolls but you can divide the dough in half and freeze for later.)
2 c whole milk
1/2 c (4 oz) rendered leaf lard (available at farmers’ markets) or unsalted butter
1/2 c sugar
1 tsp. sea salt
1 pkg. yeast
1/4 c water
6 c AP flour, divided
Combine the milk, lard or butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan and heat until the fat is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to sit until barely warm. Dissolve the yeast in the water until foamy. Pour into the milk mixture and add 3 cups of flour. Stir and let sit until doubled. Add an additional 3 c of flour. At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the dough, or freeze it. If frozen, allow to thaw in the refrigerator before proceeding. When ready to make rolls, knead the dough. Form rolls by pulling pieces of dough and rolling them into an oblong shape. Spread softened butter on the dough and fold in half. Place on parchment lined baking sheets and cover with a damp towel. Allow to rise about one hour. Bake at 400′F about 15 minutes or until lightly browned.
My plan was to do one thing each day to add to the Thanksgiving dinner and for a while, I was meeting that goal, starting with this rye whiskey infusion, which I’ll strain after it’s had it’s week of soaking up the flavors of pears, vanilla beans and sage. I haven’t been able to locate the source of the recipe, although I think it was Southern Living, but I’ve made similar concoctions before without a recipe: summer blackberries steeped in vodka, blood oranges and habanero peppers in tequilla, and the best vanilla extract ever made by soaking the split beans in bourbon for a few weeks. With the pre-dinner drink out of the way, I made the crust for pumpkin pie, with crushed toasted pumpkin seeds folded into the dry ingredients, an inspired idea from Martha Stewart Living. And I made John Besh’s recipe for cornbread, the base of his Crawfish Cornbread Dressing from My New Orleans. Next up: the Cranberry Sauce with Campari & Grapefruit and the Candied Pecans.
Pear Whiskey Cocktail
for each drink:
2 T amontillado sherry
2 T infused whiskey
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
For the infused whiskey: Simmer 1 cup turbinado sugar in 1/2 cup water until the sugar dissolves. Cut 8 pears into chunks and place on a sheet pan. Toss with 16 sage leaves, roughly torn. Slice 2 vanilla beans and scoop out the seeds, placing on the pears. Cut the vanilla beans into small pieces and toss with the pears ad sage. Sprinkle 3 T of the sugar syrup on the pear mixture and toss. Roast at 300′F for about 25 minutes. Spoon into a 1/2 gallon glass jar and pour a 750ml bottle of rye over the pears. Seal and keep in a cool, dry place for one week, turning occasionally. Strain through cheesecloth into a bottle.
I meant to get a shot of these chicken pies after their 20 minutes in the oven, but we were all so enthralled with the sight and smell of them, bubbling and golden brown, that it escaped me; all anyone wanted to do was get a spoon in there. When I was a child in the Louisiana of the late 60′s, my mother would make pans of this for her bridge parties. I’m sure she made other dishes, but this is the one that stayed with me when I headed off to college and included it in a notebook of family recipes. The only vegetables in the original recipe were some celery and the bits of mushrooms from the can of cream of mushroom soup. I’ve eliminated the soup entirely and added some fresh carrots, but you could really play around with this a lot. (See note below.) Most of this can be prepped a day ahead, and then put together an hour before baking.
Chicken Pie with Cheese Biscuit Crust
For the pie filling:
1 whole chicken, roasted, meat pulled from the bones into bite-sized pieces. (see this site for a great roast chicken recipe)
6 T butter
8 oz mushrooms, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1/2 cup flour
2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 c chicken stock (you can use the bones from the whole chicken to make this if you roast it a day ahead.)
3 c milk
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the crust:
1 1/2 c flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
3 T (1 1/2 oz.) butter, cut into cubes, very cold (keep refrigerated until ready to make the biscuits).
1/2 c whole milk
1 1/2 c. (4 oz.) sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 small jar diced pimiento
Melt the butter, stir in the onion and saute until softened. Add the mushrooms and continue to saute until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the carrots and cook a few minutes longer. Stir in the thyme. Slowly stir in the chicken stock and milk. Add the salt and pepper. Simmer until the mixture has thickened. Stir in the roasted chicken. Pour into a 13×9 inch casserole dish.
Make the biscuits: Combine the flour, salt and baking powder. Mix the pieces of butter into the dry mixture until evenly distributed. You want little bits of butter all through the dry ingredients. Pour in the milk and combine just until mixed. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board to a roughly 8″X11″ rectangle. Top with the cheese and pimientos. Roll up from the short end into a spiral log. Cut into about 1/2 ” slices and lay these on top of the chicken mixture. Bake at 375′F for about 20 minutes, or until the biscuits are golden and cooked through and the chicken is bubbling.
Note: You could add any vegetables to this, even frozen mixed vegetables would be fine. The pimientos in the biscuits are optional, but are pretty combined with the yellow of the cheese; you could even add some finely diced jalapenos for more color and a little spice. The chicken filling here is very mild, but you could add fresh garlic and some additional seasonings. Try it this way, first; there’s something really comforting about the simplicity of this version.
Recent college grad Blair called me yesterday from California to ask for some cooking advice: ”I’ve got some chopped tomatoes; can I make tomato soup to go with my grilled cheese sandwich?” I told him to saute some onion and garlic in butter and make a roux with some flour, thinning it out with chicken stock and the pureed tomatoes, and to add cream if he had it, but not the 2% milk he did have because that would curdle. Slightly more effort than opening a can of soup, but ”so good!” as he texted me an hour later, with a photo of his efforts. Several of the guys I cooked for in the Alpha Sig House cook for themselves now, for the money savings, the creative challenge and the ingredient control. By chance, Blair’s call came just as I’d finished making my own version of that maligned substance, cream of mushroom soup, to go into a revamped version of the Chicken Pie my mom used to make for her bridge parties in the seventies. I’ve started cooking for a shelter for women and children, a crowd hungry for a good meal, but hardly the foodie sort, and so I’ve gone back to the simple, retro recipes of my childhood. But I draw the line at the cans of Campbell’s; my “casserole helper” has 5 real ingredients, not 17:
Homemade Mushroom Soup Base:
for a little over a cup, about the amount in one can of soup:
4 T butter
1/4 tsp salt
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, chopped
2 T flour
1/2 cup milk
Melt the butter, add the salt and then the chopped mushrooms. Saute until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the flour and cook a minute or two. Slowly add the milk.
NOTE: The mixture will be very thick and can be used in any recipe calling for condensed mushroom soup. Or you can thin this with stock, milk and/or cream, to make a simple soup, in which case, you may want to jazz it up with some fresh herbs, black pepper, and a little dry sherry. You can even go crazy and substitute assorted wild mushrooms for the plain button ones called for here.
Ingredients in the canned stuff: WATER, MUSHROOMS, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, WHEAT FLOUR, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF: VEGETABLE OIL (CORN, COTTONSEED, CANOLA, AND/OR SOYBEAN), SUGAR, SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, CREAM (MILK), SALT, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, FLAVORING, LOWER SODIUM NATURAL SEA SALT, CALCIUM CARBONATE, DISODIUM GUANYLATE, DISODIUM INOSINATE, DEHYDRATED MUSHROOMS.
I bought a spaetzle maker on sale a couple of years ago, intending to make these German dumplings, but didn’t get around to it until last night when I was preparing a meal to accompany our second wine club bottle. An Austrian Gruner Vetliner gave me the incentive I needed to walk to Uli’s Sausages in Pike Place Market for some bratwurst, and by happy chance, Rye Spaetzle Gratin with Savoy Cabbage and Caraway was Melissa Clark’s recipe of the week in the New York Times. The dumplings were fun to make, or were once I got past the dark moments when my water boiled over disabling my oven temperature controls three weeks before Thanksgiving (moments dark enough that my husband felt it best to remove himself from the kitchen). You can use a colander if you don’t have the requisite equipment, but the tool makes it easier and they’re not expensive. It’s not a meal I would naturally have thought of, but choosing a menu to accompany a wine, rather than the other way around, is a great way to shake up your thinking.
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(List copied from Seattle Times Oct. 18, 2013)
On the flight back from Rome, I read a glossy magazine devoted to a single subject: art journaling, a hobby I’d never heard of. I’ve been following some advice I read about tapping into creative thinking by exploring subjects outside your normal field, which is how I justify my new addiction to Project Runway. Reading magazines without a food-related title is also part of this experiment and the examples in Art Journaling were stunning, with mostly drawings and a few words. I thought that maybe I could do something similar, but with more words and less “art” since…well…obviously I’m not going to be showing my sketches anytime soon. I was hoping that just channeling that inner kindergartner would open up some deadened parts of my brain and help with my food writing. We all loved to paint and cut and paste (the kind with scissors and glue) when we were five and then something happened to divide us into the Artists and the Regular People.