Saturday, December 25, 2010

It's a good thing she can cook

Dear Elise,
I know you are a fan of Nigella Lawson. As far as I'm concerned, she is the Devil's Spawn. But she can cook, so I still occasionally consort with her.
I was trying to decide what to make for Christmas Eve dinner dessert. The traditional Buche de Noel seemed too show off-y and the Nantucket cranberry pie seemed not show off-y enough. I have had some of Nigella's cakes with you, a really amazing chocolate orange one stands out. And I have been circling around the plum pudding/fruit cake class of desserts for a few years now.
When I was little, hard sauce was my favorite food.
Nigella has a recipe for chocolate fruit cake. It is all prunes, raisins and currants with a little bit of candied orange peel. No glaceed cherries or brandied dates. No brandy whatsoever. Sounded like a possibility.
At first I thought I'd make a practice one, just to be sure. Well, Nigella, helpful as always, says of the recipe, "The hardest thing you have to do for this recipe is wrap the pan with brown paper." She goes on to admit that, "it is the sort of task that makes a klutz like me hyperventilate." But then reassures you that, "I find that there is nearly always someone around who can deal with that part with magnificent ease." Nigella cooks in a TV studio so I'm sure for her there is always someone around. The only thing around me are dogs and they don't have opposable thumbs and other than moral support, are no help whatsoever.
Forty-five minutes, a roll of parchment and 3 paper bags later, I had wrapped the shit out of the fucker, but there was no way this was going to be a practice cake.

Then I need some candied peel. Well, it being Dec. 23rd, there is about as much chance of buying candied peel as there is of finding some cranberries. So I have to make my own.
This is the point in the process when I start wondering what's wrong with a nice pound cake.
But I make the candied peel and I mix up the cake, which compared to what's come before, really is pretty easy. I'm not sure why the pan needed to be wrapped in eighteen layers of different sorts of heat proof paper. The batter doesn't even reach the top of the pan.
I pop it in the oven and it bakes and bakes and bakes. The Devil's Spawn, Nigella, says that the cake should be firm on top, with the center still gooey. Well, how gooey? It's not uncommon for my cakes to fall apart completely and this when I believe they are really cooked through. So "a little bit gooey" is quicksand territory for me. Eventually I have to go to bed and the center of the cake is still gooey so I take it out of the oven and leave it to cool overnight.
It actually unmolds and it doesn't fall apart. Still not sure why I needed all that wrapping, cake didn't rise above the sides of the pan.
Now I want to spiff it up a little, some top dress. The Devil's Spawn suggests marmalade, marzipan and fondant. Of course she does. She also shows it plain with just a sprig of highly poisonous holly on top. I opt for some of the home made candied peel, affixed in place with the remains of some caramel sauce I made a month ago.

It was delicious.
Love, Margaret

Christmas cookies


I baked

and baked

and baked.

Yet somehow, on Dec. 23rd there wasn't a cookie in the house.

Thank God for Maison du and the best mother in the world.

love, Margaret

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I knit Christmas presents

Dear Margaret,

I am reminded again that you are the one who bakes Christmas cookies. Every few years I succumb to the fantasy of delivering plates of cookies, heaped high with fudge, delicate gingerbread snowflakes, rich buttery rugelach, dense nutty caramel bars, wrapped in tastefully decorated cellophane and topped with a bow and a card with a picture of a dog in a Santa hat on it.

This year I admit that I was more than a little swayed by your enthusiasm and stream of photos and texts about the process. The final blow to my resistance was dealt by the wonderful staff at the vet's office, all of whom know Stella by name and give her hugs and treats. Yes, I thought, these are people worth baking for!

So I threw myself into the weekend bake-a-thon.

Wednesday and Thursday - obsess about what to make, comb through cookbooks, wonder if the molasses cookies I used to make are still a good recipe and did I really like a cookie made with Crisco? Consult with you. Make lists of contenders and strike cookies off it. Make master shopping list.

Friday - shop

Friday evening - make molasses cookie dough

Saturday - make chocolate chunker cookie dough. Congratulate myself on how well it is going, and the care I am taking with measuring and following directions, knowing that the cookies are destined to bring happiness to others. Think smug thoughts about my own worth and how the people at the vet's office will really love me now.

Sunday morning - Make Linzer dough. Decide that it really doesn't take all day to bake up 3 enormous batches of cookies including one that has to be rolled out and cut and a batch of turtle bars. Really going skiing is the best thing I could do. Better to start the bake-a-thon with a good dose of fresh air. Congratulate self on being so organized and skilled that I can go skiing in the midst of a bake-a-thon.

Sunday afternoon - Begin baking molasses cookies. Feel tired after skiing. Have a cookie. Still tired. Have another cookie. Realize that chocolate chunker dough is very hard and not coming to room temperature. Get chisel out of basement and chisel chocolate dough into cookie forms and bake. Still tired. Have another cookie, or two.

Sunday evening - roll out linzer dough, cut out shapes, mutilate shapes, rechill dough, repeat.Eat some dough. Not bad, considering that it has 1 cup of cornstarch in it. I think this is why you test drive the recipes.

Sunday night - make a batch of Turtle Bars. Wonder why honestly I didn't just give the vet's office a batch of Turtle Bars in the first place and call it done?

Late Sunday night/early Monday morning - sift powdered sugar over linzer cookies and floor. Cut the Turtles into bars. Eat crumbs. Arrange all on plates, top with aforementioned cellophane. Have a cookie.

Monday morning - start to wonder if anyone even likes cookies. I mean, don't we all get too many sweets over the holidays, and just end up putting most of them in the compost? And isn't half the Seattle population gluten free nowadays? Maybe some one at the vet's will poke Stella extra hard with a big needle because they feel slighted that I didn't include any gluten free ones.

 Monday afternoon - deliver cookies to the vet's office with a urine sample (pee and cookies, anyone?) and go have a mammogram for respite. Then come home and do dishes.

Hope your bake-a-thon solidified your role as The One Who Bakes Christmas Cookies, love, Elise

P. S. Look what I got from my neighbor - cookies!

Friday, December 17, 2010

How to Feel Like you Have Two Heads

Ask a Whole Foods "team member" where the crisco is.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Hi Elise,
It's cookie season. Really all of November and December are one long bake-a-thon, but as Christmas gets closer, the baking field narrows down to cookies. I like to give cookies as presents. I don't have to shop for them, and they don't create that reciprocity pressure. My friends understand that I have a baking disorder and that their gift to me is to just pretend not to notice and accept whatever I force on them. Some might call it enabling, I think of it as the holiday spirit.
Last year I just made Rugelach. I was coming off a few years of disappointing Christmas Cookie Melanges and I decided to do one thing and try to do it reasonably well. You may remember, they taste good, but they are unsightly.
But this year I have been reading cook books and cooking magazines, and even though the magazines don't devote anywhere near the energy and print space to Christmas that they lavish on that damn Turkey, there are still some recipes that catch my eye and seem worth a go. I've spent the last week experimenting with some of these.
One of my new favorite cookbooks is The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman. This is a book I actually got for you, but then it wouldn't fit in the box with your other presents so I had to keep it for myself. Don't worry though, there is always St. Patrick's day. KZ has a recipe for Double Chocolate and Dried Cherry cookies. She says that it is originally from Rick Katz and appears in the Baking with Julia cookbook. Baking with Julia is edited by Dorie Greenspan. And Dorie Greenspan invented the beloved Chocolate Chunkers. I tried the KZ recipe. And it was good, but difficult to work with. The dough is extremely sticky and the baked cookies are also impossibly sticky. They stick to the parchment paper, they are gummed onto the pan even when sprayed with Pam. They cling to the spatula. And they aren't as good as Chunkers. I compared the recipes and DG's has a slightly higher dry to wet ration, but other than that, pretty similar. But, Mine is not to reason Why, Mine is just to go with what is Easiest.

I have always been attracted to a sandwich cookie. I used to spread canned frosting on Milano's so the combination of frosting and cookie is a compelling one. I tried some chocolate mocha sandwich cookies. Good, but too sweet, (I know, cookies with frosting and I'm complaining about too sweet?) and the filling was too soft.
I then made some sleigh bells. This is an old favorite, a real go-to. Originally a Gourmet recipe, back before Ruth Reichle ruined that magazine. It is a walnut short bread baked into little half moons with a chocolate ganache sandwiched between the 2 half moons and the whole thing is then rolled in more ground walnuts that adhere to the ganache where is has oozed out the sides. It looks pretty, small yet bountiful. A really stellar addition to a Christmas cookie melange. They are a tad time consuming, many steps, but not hard and I was reminded just how good they are, so they will be part of my weekend baking extravaganza.

Back to Kate Zuckerman. She has a recipe for Rugelach that I wanted to try. You asked why I would want to try a different recipe when I already have one that is great. I wanted to try this one partially because Kate raves about it, though really I've never read an introduction to a recipe that said, "Just OK, but you can probably something better." This one also seemed easier; the dough is rolled around the filling, chilled and then the log is sliced. What could be simpler? None of that fussiness with the pizza cutter and the individual little rolls. You pointed out that it wouldn't really be Rugelach, and while I admit you have a point, you do see this sort of shape more and more. You said, yes, well, mass produced in China perhaps.
As usual, you were right. Rugelach can't be bad, but Kate uses an egg wash instead of jam and currants instead of raisins and that adds up to less delicious. Also, really not that easy because the original roll up of the dough around the filling is challenging. So I'll stick with Lora Brody.

Then (still experimenting) I made some Hazelnut Cardamom Raspberry jam sandwich cookies. Also from Kate Zuckerman. (You really wish you had this cookbook) and also time consuming. But they turned out really well. They look pretty, they look festive, they look impressive. They made the cut.
I have one more sandwich cookie to try and then I'll make final determinations, but for now the melange will be Rugelach, Sleigh Bells, Chocolate Chunkers and the Raspberry Jam sandwiches.
This weekend I'll put on the Three Tenor's Christmas, I'll sing along with Pavarotti to O Holy Night, and I'll mix and roll and chill and bake and repeat. My weekend is perfectly laid out. I just wish you were here to do it all with me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Isn't it time for baking?

Hi marg,

just a quick note to tell you that work is an extremely unsatisfying substitute for baking. The holiday (I was tempted to write Christmas but resisted out of consideration for all my friends who resist religious holidays) season is upon us, harassed looking UPS drivers deliver cardboard boxes and carols bombard from every street corner and store ceiling speaker. Tangent - ever notice how every musician from Peter Cetera to Run DMC has a Christmas album? ASCAP and BMI income for evah.

Anyway, I'm in the mood for baking and instead have to go to a lunch meeting at a Mexican Restaruant. Searching for irony or humor in it, but not finding it.

Love Elise

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

my shopping list

This is what was on my shopping list yesterday.

heavy cream
confectioners sugar
bath oil

That suggests something wonderful or deeply disturbing about my life.
Or I could just chalk it up to the holidays.

Love, M

Saturday, December 4, 2010

From Ham to Eternity

Hey Elise,
You know the definition of eternity? A man, a woman and a ham.
I brought the leftover ham home after Thanksgiving and two days later commenced the ham campaign. The first strike was mac and cheese with ham. Instead if a white sauce, mix equal parts milk and cream and simmer until reduced by about 1/3 to 1/2. Add cheese, I used meduim cheddar, and fold in the ham and cooked pasta. Now this is where it gets good. You make a topping from 2 parts fresh whole wheat bread crumbs and one part walnuts chopped small but not fine. Mix this with some melted butter and a few TB of parm. Sprinkle it over, cover and cook at 350. For the last 15 minutes, take the cover off so the topping can brown. This was amazing.
The next strike was a squash pasta bake. This is a recipe that calls for pancetta and I substituted a few cups of chopped ham. It was OK, but not extraordinary. Pancetta is betta. Which goes to show that you can't substitute ham for bacon, at least not with impunity.
I made a grilled cheese with ham and I made some scrambled eggs with ham and I finally got to the point where all the good parts of the meat were gone. Phew!
For the final assault, I started reading bean soup recipes, but I was really not feeling it. I almost threw up my hands and went with the pea soup, just because I like saying pea soup. It has all those great connotations and is so often used to describe weather. Even if I didn't like it, I would still have fun announcing that I'd made it.
But then I had the happy memory of a wild rice soup that calls for a stock made with a ham bone. I HAVE A HAM BONE! So I made that. Simmer ham bone and a chicken carcass, which I also had, and some onion, carrot and parsnip, (called for celery, but I didn't have celery). Once you have this stock which is rich and glossy, you sweat some more onion, carrot and celery (by now I had some celery) and add your wild rice and then the broth and simmer it for 2+ hours.
The bf has the Shingles and he was feeling poorly so I took it over to him and we ate it all. One chicken carcass, one ham bone, two dinners. Now that is where the home made stock really lifts your dinner right up to the stars.
It took a week and a day and didn't feel at all eternal. I'm thinking we might have another ham for Christmas.
love, Margaret

product product product

OK, Elise,
I'll try to address your concerns about the vegetable cobbler. I have some empathy bc the second time I made it, it wasn't as blissful as the first, although we both still really liked it and I ate it 3 days in a row. The first time I made it I used a chicken stock that I had really cooked down so by the time it had simmered a bit in the vegetables it was almost syrupy. The second time I made it, I used a thinner stock and it wasn't as good so I'd add the note to use a double strength, syrupy stock.
The other crucial ingredients are obviously the vegetables and quality vegetables will make a much more quality cobbler. Mine was spicy and complex from the parsnips and the celery root. I'm not sure how you ended up with an anorexic sweetness.
So, I'd say, condense your broth, make sure you have a good balance of quality vegetables and see what happens.
Although I imagine you will never be making it again.
Not to be harsh, but if you use canned broth, then your dinner will be gross and you'll have only yourself to blame.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Land O'Bland

Dear Marg,

I think there must be some mistake. You sent me this recipe and you wrote on it, "awesome!". See?
In the note you sent with it you wrote that it made you happy for TWO days - the day you made it and the leftovers the next day. Even though the recipe seemed a little lacking in flavor, I thought, well, Margaret knows what she's doing, Margaret's a great cook, Margaret and I have genetically linked taste buds.

Boy, was I wrong. If you could make oatmeal out of root vegetables, but without the nutty texture of oatmeal, and with sort of an anorexic sweetness, that's what this would taste like. Boring and bland, and not even healthy.

In the spirit of all those reviewers on Epicurious who say the recipe sucked and then list the 14 things they changed, I did substitute dried marjoram for fresh. But should that take it from awesome to beyond bland? 

The one redeeming part was the cheddar biscuit crust, but since I took your suggestion to double the vegetables, the ratio of crust to vegetable was strongly skewed in the wrong direction.

To cap it off we had eons of leftovers to get through before I finally composted the last 2/3rds.
So what gives? Did you really like this dish? Had you badly burned your mouth on hot chocolate the day you made this? Were you taking some fancy pain meds? Tipping back the Armagnac bottle?

Love, Elise