Archive for the ‘Holiday’ Category

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Mash Note

Look y'all! It's Spoon Bread!

Look y’all! It’s Spoon Bread!

For me, Thanksgiving is all about the sides.  It’s kind of like being taken to a concert of a huge star, and only watching the backup singers: “…the turkey is fine, but those potatoes are like a little bit of heaven.”

Every time I turn on the TV someone is talking about how to make perfect mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving.  Sadly, this is lost on me.  I was never a big mashed potato fan.  Give me my potatoes (and my cookies) with a little crunch, please.  I’m a roasted potato fan, which is a good thing, because they take much less effort.  While I agree that mashed potatoes fall well within the dowdy (a good thing), homey, Thanksgiving aesthetic, they are, in truth, very sneaky.  It can be difficult to get mashed potatoes just right.

This year Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, so I’m hoping Mr. Piddleyboo (my Pop’s version of a Hanukkah Santa Claus) drops some latkes on my Thanksgiving plate.  That’s all the potato I need.

If you need a Thanksgiving starch that is soft and supple might I recommend a grand old Southern tradition?  Spoon bread. Or is it one word: Spoonbread?

Spoon bread is a pudding made with slow-cooked corn meal.  Some recipes involve whipping egg whites before they are introduced into the batter, but I insist that if you’re going to all that trouble just go ahead and make a Corn Soufflé.  Please note that the presentation of either item on my Thanksgiving table will make me happy in equal amounts.

Don’t let the word soufflé or the concept of making one daunt you.  If you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, soufflé is well within reach, and can even be made partially or fully in advance. Yes, it will collapse if made in advance, but yes, it will taste better than if you had served it piping hot, straight from the oven.  (Use technology to crow about your achievement: take a picture of your soufflé straight from the oven in its fully puffed glory and email or tweet to your friends and family. “Wait until you taste this!”)

Shall we discuss our table manners?  As idealized as this big meal has become, we all know the potential family minefield that the usual Thanksgiving Dinner presents.  Keep in mind that however tempting, or however deserving the potential target may be, it is poor etiquette to fling spoons full of mashed potato at your table mates.

Stick with the dinner rolls.

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

I like to loaf. Makes sense. I write (as often as possible) a blog about baking.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this: indeed, the kind of loafing I’m talking about involves making a body-sized dent in my sofa, the white-noise hum of my air conditioner lulling me into a sweet, drooling afternoon nap. Ahhhh, summer.

I’d like to report that I will be spending the Fourth of July Holiday swinging in a hammock on the verandah of the amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion of my friends Bill and Judy Cantwell. I’d LIKE to report that. Alas, Bill and Judy are mere figments of my imagination…and unfortunately, so is their amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion. Ditto the hammock and verandah. (Don’t I have a rich, detailed inner life?)

Don’t be sad for me. Last year I actually did spend the Fourth of July at the beach front home of a couple of friends. Actually, water front would be more accurate: they live in Boston, right on the “hah-buh.” It was spectacular. We watched “Old Ironsides”—the famous revolutionary war frigate U.S.S. Constitution—sail by us and fire her cannons. Having grown up in Boston, I have to say that I was moved.

Many cities have their traditional Fourth of July celebrations. Here in the Big Apple we have the Macy’s Fireworks show in New York Harbor. Last year in Boston we discussed walking over the Charles River to watch the Boston Pops Orchestra play their annual outdoor concert. It turned out to be a lucky break that we stayed home as the concert was evacuated due to the threat of severe thunderstorms. (Mother Nature stole the spotlight. Again. What a ham.) This year I’ll be plopped on the aforementioned sofa, the orchestra will be on TV, and I’ll be screening “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring Jimmy Cagney. Believe me, I’m already happy just thinking of this.

Part of planning for any really good staycation is, of course, the meals. So far the menu includes crab cakes. Let’s talk crab cakes for a moment, shall we? My recipe is (pardon the pun) a mashup of many recipes, with the most notable steal being the multi-colored diced peppers from Ina Garten. You can keep your panko breadcrumbs, by the way. A few years ago pure serendipity caused me to make my crab cakes with matzo meal, and the change has been permanent. Yes, matzo meal can be dense and gluey, but you end up getting the same binding qualities by using less. (Sadly, I still err on the side of cheaper crab meat—claw, not back fin. Hey, crab meat doesn’t grow on trees.)

Also on the menu will be the “Quintessential Chocolate Chip Cookies” Martha Rose Shulman wrote about recently in the New York Times. I have my own very proud recipe, but this one make a very good, straightforward cookie.

The thought of making Peppermint Stick Ice Cream is tempting…but I’m kind of stuck on fruit pops. I waited through a long, cold winter to road test the Zoku Popsicle maker some friends gave me as a gift, and it’s a lot of fun to use.

There are a couple of tricks to keep in mind. My Zoku makes one pop at a time, so I won’t be opening up shop any time soon. But that limitation kind of ratchets down the expectations. Instead of it being a big project, it becomes more of a little treat. Also, eliminate any fantasies of sugar-free pops. Since sugar freezes solid a lower temperature it is that ingredient that keeps the frozen pops just soft enough to slip out of the mold without too much of a fight. Leave out the sugar (as I did in one of my attempts at pop making) and your pops won’t budge. My red, white, and blue “Boston Pops” seen in the photo employed a simple lemonade recipe: fresh lemon juice, superfine sugar, and water. A drop of food coloring in the Zoku mold allowed me to indulge in the patriotic theme even though the pops were all the same tangy lemon flavor.

And yes, the red ones turned my tongue red: the sure sign of a well made Popsicle.

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Questions or comments? Drop me an email Michael@butterfloureggs.com

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And look at my pretty pictures on Pinterest!

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The Afikomen

The Afikomen

Passover tends to be a little humorless, as it centers mostly on stories of living in bondage to despotic Egyptian pharaohs. So here are a couple of humorous Passover Seder anecdotes—one from showbiz, and one from my life. This is my version of a sort-of Readers Digest-style “Life in these United States’ Seders” column.

First story: My Aunt Sarah was an ardent fan of the sixties television serial “Peyton Place.” One year a very important episode happened to be scheduled to air during our Passover Seder. Yes, indeed, the Seder ground to a screeching halt (seemingly between the third and fourth questions) as Aunt Sarah got caught up on Allison Mackenzie’s latest assignation. I can still remember her staring hypnotically at the TV and then crowing afterward, “Yes, it’s only a half an hour, but they put a lot into that half hour!”

Why is this night different from other nights? Tonight I had to watch “Peyton Place” on their TV.

Second story: The late composer Jule Styne is a legend in musical theater, having written the score to scores of shows including “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”. One year he decided to throw a fancy, catered Passover Seder to which he invited, among others, the equally legendary star Ethel Merman.

(Backstory: I’ll just say it. Merman had a reputation as a tough old broad. She’d been born in Queens as Ethel Zimmerman and hated that people thought she was Jewish when she was actually of German descent.)

When Styne invited her to the seder she asked, “Will there be anything I can eat?” Styne assured her she would not go hungry. Styne greeted Ethel at the seder, and escorted her to a place of honor at the table, where she immediately reached into her handbag, pulled out a ham sandwich, and plopped it on the plate in front of her.

Indignant, Styne grabbed the sandwich, threw it on the floor, and scolded Merman by saying, “Ethel! You’re insulting the waiters!”

He then promptly turned his back on her and convulsed in laughter.

Why is this night different from other nights? On this night we don’t take (bleep) from show folk.

Ahhh, Passover humor. I could go on and on, but you’re dying to know about the chocolate and nuts in the picture above, so without further ado I’ll tell you all about it.

That’s chocolate-covered Matzo in the picture above. Chocolate-covered Matzo is sometimes called “Afikomen” in tribute to the tradition of hiding a bit of matzo for dessert, then having the kids play “Find the Afikomen”. Whoever found the Afikomen could then eat it for dessert. Yup. That was prize. Whee. I figure dropping a bit of chocolate on top gives the kids a little more incentive. The adults too.

Okay stop rolling your eyes, I know you’ve seen chocolate-covered Matzo before. Why is this different? It’s what I put on top.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. Those are Spanish-style Caramelized Almonds on top. They have a mild sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate. The tricky part is that they are made with confectioner’s sugar. Confectioner’s sugar contains corn starch which makes it strictly NOT kosher for Passover. If you are strictly kosher the work around is to pulverize granulated sugar in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add in a bit of Passover potato starch to emulate the corn starch’s powdery qualities. Or if you’re as strict as I am you just use confectioner’s sugar, and just say, “Yeah, what ever.” (After I pass into the next world I’ll drop you a note telling you how hot it is where I am…) (Unless you’re there, then I can tell you in person.)

Unlike the normal sugary coating you’d expect, these have a more frosted quality, slightly less sweet, and can be adjusted with some nice additions that will bring some complexity to this confection, which, when all is said and done, can be a bit plain.

My first addition was a bit of cinnamon. I have a friend who often adds cinnamon to his chocolate frosting. Just ask the Mexicans: it’s a great combination.

My second addition is a little bit of salt. Yes, I know that salted chocolate is quickly becoming like this year’s blackened redfish (ubiquitous), but there’s something about the salt with the nuts, chocolate, and the starch of the matzo that just works.

By the way, eagle-eyed folks will notice that I used whole wheat matzo and dark chocolate, but egg matzo and milk chocolate would make a pretty terrific combo too.

 

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Whole Foods and me: a love story (gone wrong)

Spiral Bread

Spiral Bread

The people who run Whole Foods will, no doubt, be absolutely devastated to learn that I intend to never shop at their stores again. Shhhh. That noise you hear is them scurrying to hide under their desks so that they can curl into the fetal position and have a good cry at this news.

It’s not for the reason you think.

Many folks like to nickname the chain “Whole Paychecks” due to the (I think) inaccurate perception that their prices are higher. I’ve actually had great success over the years finding bargains on what I perceive to be excellent products. So what’s the problem?

Their stores are zoos. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m not an architect. I’m not an anthropologist (well, not a professional one), and I have never worked in a grocery store, even as a bag boy (like the cool kids in my high school who all worked at the Triple A Market.) There are certainly other markets in New York that are equally crowded (that’s been the rap on Fairway for years.)

But there is something in the magic mix that is the Whole Foods shopping experience that is so anarchic, so impolite, so lacking in civility, so…unpleasant that I must conclude that life is too short to spend another moment struggling to navigate their aisles. I applaud their success. I applaud their aesthetic. I applaud their fish counter. But they are complete and utter failures at managing the traffic within their stores. Is it due to the carts that are the size of a humvee? Is it due to aisles that are perhaps too narrow? Is it due to their propensity towards placing islands of New Jersey blueberries smack dab in the middle of the most crowded part of the store? I just don’t know.

I’m the first to admit that I am a geek: I love to trawl the aisles of a supermarket. No matter what city I’m in the supermarket is one of my stops—even in Europe. It is an activity that brings me great pleasure. That’s why I resent Whole Foods so much: the experience of shopping in their stores (at least in New York City) sucks the pleasure out of the experience, making it a chore. There’s no time to discover new things: I’m too busy being in someone’s way. As I was checking out last weekend, the cashier, trying to be helpful, recommended that the best hours to shop at Whole Foods were early in the morning. I didn’t mention to her that I like to do my grocery shopping on my own terms, not when it is more convenient for Whole Foods.

I never did find what I had gone in there to buy. I wanted to make the incredible Spiral Bread you see in the photo above. This is based on a recipe from my beloved old Craig Claiborne-penned New York Times Cookbook. It is really just a hearty old-fashioned Farmhouse White loaf with a stuffing (You roll the dough into a flat rectangle, spread your filling of choice on top, roll jelly-roll style then place in the loaf pan and bake.) The cookbook gives recipes for two different kinds of fillings, one parsley and scallion, another anchovy-based (umami anyone?), both of which are yummy, but delicate.

With Super Bowl coming up, I wanted to make something with a bit more substance, ideally with some meat added to the parsley-scallion filling. On a previous trip to Whole Foods I had seen some very tempting American Speck, the herbal-infused ham. I thought that either the speck or some kind of Parma-style ham would give the bread the savory oomph I was seeking. (Hey, don’t laugh. I am trying to bring up the level of Super Bowl food. Sorry: not a Buffalo wing fan.)

Sadly the Speck was nowhere to be found at Whole Foods last weekend, so I switched to plan B: sausage. My thought was to cook some very nice sausage filling, drain it thoroughly, and use that as the filling.

I ended up experimenting with chicken sausage. Chicken sausage does not have the loose-knit consistency of pork sausage, but what it lacks in crumble it compensates with flavor and lower fat. Oh, and since it is pre-cooked I could skip that step.

You can see in the picture that I ended up dicing the chicken sausage. Looks odd, yes, tastes great, yes.

To give the bread a little heft I cooked some oats with the milk that goes into the recipe. You’d never know they are there because they dissolve as the dough kneads in the stand mixer.

Knead the dough by hand? Are you kidding? What is this 1962?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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La Silvana

Chouquettes

Chouquettes

In the world of grand opera there was no bigger star than Giulietta Silvana. At the Met—the old “Diamond Horseshoe” on 39th Street—even the sleepiest of men who’d been dragged to the opera by their culture-climbing wives woke up when “La Silvana” arrived center stage.

There was, of course, no shortage of men who swept through the stage door in their top hats and capes hoping to court “La Silvana.” The usual nightly contretemps between a Diva and her tenor? For “La Silvana”, this was just the opening salvo to a night of romance. Like a bee collecting pollen, she never settled on one flower. Reporter after reporter asked why, and to all she simply replied, “Show me a man of substance, and I will have sung my last Lucia.”

European suitors, many of them of royal lineage, also fell under her spell during visits to La Scala, the Palais Garnier, the Royal Opera House, and countless concert stages. Her great rival, Lily Pons, was green with envy at La Silvana’s independence from the grasp of one man.

At home, which was usually the best suite in the best hotel in whatever city she sang, she was tended to by a staff who doted on, and anticipated her every whim. Her private chef ensured that there would never be too much of her to squeeze into the corsets that costume designers inevitably built into her costumes; a private masseuse pounded every excess ounce of avoirdupois from her that the chef may have missed. What the chef and masseuse may have missed, her own notoriously steely discipline and focus nipped in the bud. She sailed around the world like a maharani: staff, clothes, jewels, and determination never far from her reach. If you find the theory that Great Divas are born Great Divas dubious, let La Silvana wipe away all doubts.

Still, if you were to observe closely, you’d notice some clues to the “real” La Silvana. At every meal, in any restaurant, even on the most luxurious ocean liner, she would rub the silverware with her napkin as if the cleanest was never clean enough. Then there was the locket: a large silver locket that never left her neck no matter the role or costume. She always held it when, as Tosca, she made her final plunge. No man, no maid, no costume designer could make her remove the locket. It was reported (but never confirmed) that she slept with it in her grasp.

Sadly, time—age—was unkind to La Silvana. Inevitably, her voice became heavy, her face matured, and she began to find herself shunted aside in favor of younger singers—both on stage and off.

Rather than linger on in the shadows, La Silvana did what she thought was expected of a Great Diva: she simply disappeared. Her whereabouts—even whether she was dead or alive—became one of the great mysteries of the Opera world.

However, after the recent death of Professor Carlos Bernberg—one of the world’s great scholars on twentieth century opera (and a notorious pack rat)—we are finally able to reveal what happened to La Silvana after she took her final bow. For, hidden amongst the boxes that defined the Professor’s living and working space lies the story of La Silvana’s Act II.

The story of her second act begins—by sheer coincidence—on a snowy Christmas Eve. Still awash in the rosy glow of music as he made his way from Carnegie Hall through the falling snow, Professor Bernberg, heeding the rumbles of his empty stomach, decided that a light, late supper was in order. Worried that Schrafft’s (his usual haunt) would be closed, he decided to try a small bistro he’d spied on his many trips through the neighborhood. Its warm glow always reminded him of Vienna, but its name always captured his fancy: “Lucia”. Not, “Lucia’s Place” or “Café Lucia”. Just “Lucia”.

He paused as he entered, for the restaurant was full and the boisterousness of the crowd left him with the impression that he was intruding on a private party. Through the smoky haze he could see a small staff of red-jacketed waiters clucking and bowing, and in the back, through a window cut in the wall, a cherub-cheeked man, white hair under a toque, fussing in the kitchen.

A short, slightly plump woman with silver hair grabbed both of his hands and greeted him like an old friend. She explained that while there were no individual tables available, if he didn’t mind, she could happily seat him with others. His initial reluctance was overruled by another rumble of his empty stomach, and he soon found himself seated at a large round table with seven other diners. Not so much seated as “tucked in”, as the plump, silver-haired matron who greeted him made sure his chair was pushed in and his “serviette” spread in his lap just so. While telling him about things to look for on the menu, she stood with a cloth and wiped his silverware.

Indicating the other people at the table, she allowed, “My friends will tell you that I am biased, but I think we have the best Veal Marengo in the world.” Nodding towards the kitchen she continued, “Franco is Piedmontese, so he knows just the right amount of white truffle to add.”

Well, given such salesmanship, and the agreement of his tablemates, how could the Professor not try the Veal Marengo?

After his meal—and a rather bracing glass of Cotes de Nuits – Villages—he patted his stomach in appreciation of the fine meal, and the happy conversation with the strangers at the table.

Insisting that he have something sweet with his coffee, the silver-haired matron delivered a small plate baring just a few simple, round pastries that were studded with nibs of sugar. They were hollow, and the nibs of sugar sweetened the toasted, egg-infused, pastry with little “pops” each time he took a bite.

The Professor pleaded with the silver-haired matron to know what they were.

“Ah, those? They are Chouquettes. I first had them on a Christmas Eve many moons ago in Vienna. A place much like this one. I was with my first love, my only true love. I had to plead with the baker for the recipe for I knew that I would want my love to have Chouquettes every Christmas Eve. I carried the recipe in my locket for many years. I always felt that I could conquer the world if I kept the recipe close to my heart.”

As she pointed to her large silver locket, the Professor looked her up and down while a wash of memories flooded him. “You are La Silvana!” he gasped.

“Ha!” she giggled. “La Silvana! I made her up like a child pretends to be a cowboy or an Indian. Would people have come to see Gertrude Silverman sing? I think not. So I became Giulietta Silvana. But all the fame and riches could never bring back my true love. He was lost in the Great War. After I stopped singing I opened this place so that every night I could re-live those dinners in Vienna. Some days, at my darkest, I imagine that the door will open, he’ll walk in, and we’ll be reunited forever.” Then, with a sigh, “But it is not to be.”

She smiled at the professor and said, “You’ll keep my secret, yes? Better for the world to think La Silvana just evaporated into thin air then for them to know she is now a dumpy, grey haired frau. So here I am, hiding in plain sight. Shhhh…” she teased, holding her finger over her lips if playing a game of Hide and Seek. As she made her request she offered the Professor one more Chouquette. He bit into it and as the sugar made little “pops” in his mouth, he knew almost as if he’d been placed under a spell, that he would never reveal the secret of La Silvana.

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Want to make your own Chouquettes? Follow my recipe for Gougeres, but omit the cheese. Before baking, sprinkle with nib (pearl) sugar, or any large grain sugar.

Look at this! The “I Heart Christmas” cookies seen below (inspired by noted artist Laura Loving) are in The New York Times!

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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This holiday season consider a gift to the Robin Hood Foundation.

Ginger

Gingerbread Biscotti

Gingerbread Biscotti

How the heck did ginger become the featured holiday season flavor, huh? Why, all of the sudden, I am reaching for powdered ginger, crystallized ginger, and molasses?

I’ll bet it’s because of our British friends and their propensity towards brandied, flaming, steamed puddings. Ginger comes from tropical locales all around the globe, many of these locales were British colonies at one time or another, and ginger has food preservation properties. There is some logic that can somehow be extrapolated from this regarding ginger’s Christmastime prevalence…but I haven’t figured it out. Yet.

I read that one year Martha Stewart made steamed Christmas puddings and gave them as gifts. I think if you are gift exchanging buddies with Martha Stewart and she gives you a steamed pudding for Christmas you should also get a lovely pima cotton t-shirt hand screened with the words, “I am Martha Stewart’s buddy and all I got for Christmas was a steamed pudding. And this lovely t-shirt.” I suppose you could add the words, “You should see what I gave her” but that sounds dirty. (While we’re on the subject of holiday-themed double entendres, last week someone complimented me on my Christmas globes. I replied, “No, those are all year ‘round.” Okay I’m done.)

While I prefer the charms of chocolate on any holiday, I would not like to leave you with the impression that I am immune to ginger’s charms. I am a fan: in fact I even created the Gingerdoodle cookie as a way of waking up those rather flabby, sleepy Snickerdoodles that inevitably appear at holiday cookie swaps.

The Gingerdoodle is a soft cookie, and it is that soft, slightly spicy quality that makes it an easy cookie in which you can overindulge. I am by nature a fan of crunchy cookies, including Chocolate Chip cookies, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Field’s fans when I bake my top secret, unpublished Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

This holiday season I thought it might be fun to bake a crunchy biscotti that would bring together the best of gingerbread, gingerdoodles, and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island into one crunchy treat. Two outta three aint bad. (Ginger—actress Tina Louise—did not return our phone calls, although we did receive a lovely holiday message from her attorneys with the words “cease” and “desist”.)

To keep things interesting I thought it might be fun to use the ginger flavor in a way that is slightly different than the Gingerdoodle—perhaps make it less “rich” and emphasize the gingerbread instead of the ginger. I am not too proud to admit that a stroll through the cookie aisle of my local supermarket reminded me of Carr’s Ginger Lemon creams. I love these although they veer a bit too much into the sweet lane of traffic. Indeed, they are very sweet. But the pairing of lemon and ginger? Perfect and easily emulated.

I had more or less perfected the level of crunch in my biscotti some years ago at the prompting of my late Auntie Esther. At the time she was living way out west in a dude ranch / retirement community. (Okay, not so much. I made up the dude ranch part because she was in a rather sandy suburb of Las Vegas.) I used to send her biscotti—mandel bread, actually—and she would call me and ask me to toast them a bit less next time. This went on for several batches until she finally exclaimed, “We’re old! They’re too hard! You’re gonna break our teeth!”

Good grief. Nonagenarians can be so testy!

So the hunt was on for a mild crunch that wouldn’t challenge fragile dental work—and Auntie Esther, hello, I’m now at an age where I understand completely. Just like the search for any magic cure, the answer was found as serendipitously as the discovery of penicillin. (And yes, I have a suit picked out to wear when I accept the Nobel Prize for this discovery.) You see—and stop me if this is too much information—I went through a cornmeal phase. Yes, I know: who hasn’t? Everything had to be dusted, dredged, coated, and submerged in cornmeal. But I survived because that’s what I do.

The one great thing that came out of this period was learning to substitute a bit of cornmeal for the flour in my biscotti recipes. Cornmeal gives the biscotti a slightly sandy quality that emulates crunch even if you don’t toast the slices. Once toasted—even briefly—you get the perfect level of crunch and your dentist not be making emergency repairs to your choppers.

I did add some minutely diced crystallized ginger. You can vary the amount up or down depending upon your desire for heat in the spice. I glazed a few of the biscotti with a lemon glaze, but this proved to be unnecessary: too much gilt on the lily. Feel free if you want that citrusy sweetness, but the grated lemon zest in the cookies is really all you need.

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Click here for the recipe for Gingerbread Biscotti

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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A Child’s Thanksgiving in wails

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls…boom

My sister Fran is a poopie-head. That is my honest, adult, unvarnished, truthful, insightful, well thought out appraisal of this thoroughly disappointing woman. Think George C. Scott as General Patton crossed with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Add maybe a sneeze or two of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” There ya go.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

In true American tradition I will be sitting at Frau Fran’s table this holiday eating her Turkey. She, in turn, will throw that in my and my other siblings’ faces forever. This is a delicate game of checks and balances. Yet, as dreadful as I have made the day sound, it is not without its rewards. I do love the meal. I have offered to host the meal myself many times but La Reina (another of my nicknames for Fran) insists—INSISTS—on hosting it. As with so many other things we have to do as a family, she bullies, coddles, bribes, threatens, and pouts until she gets her way. There have been years when I have been tempted to “call in sick” but my Mother won’t hear of it.

It is hard for Fran. Life hasn’t been easy. She married a man who was born without a brain, so she has had to think for two for nigh onto thirty years. (My Aunt Polly insists that Fran’s husband was also born without a spine, but that’s a whole other slice of pie.)

Clearly the parsnips won’t be the only bitter thing at the table this holiday. Yet, if you think about it, is there a better day for families to gather around their collective grievances than one on which they can drown said grievances in a big meal and a fat tanker-sized glass of moderately priced wine? I think not. You can keep your one hundred fifty dollars an hour family therapists. Bury your heartache under a pile of Ritz cracker stuffing, that’s what I say.

And speaking of football…

Over the years we lesser siblings who orbit Planet Fran like so many Moons have developed our own quiet rebellion—strictly sub-rosa but nonetheless well organized and quite virulent. The red wine stains on Fran’s favorite damask tablecloth? An accident, I assure you. The fact that every year Molly, Fran’s Cocker Spaniel, has an “accident” on the white living room rug? Chalk it up to the excitement of the day. (Hint: In those long-ago TV commercials Andy Griffin used to say, “Everything sits good on a Ritz.” Unfortunately Ritz don’t sit so good on Molly’s tummy. Good GIRL!)

No, Fran for All Seasons doesn’t stand in her kitchen for days on end cooking the big meal. She buys all of it pre-cooked, including the turkey, which she reanimates in her Magic Chef. What she fails to realize is that this reduces her martyrdom by a large factor. She doles out the money to Larry (that’s Mr. Fran) who then gets to pretend that he is the hunter / gatherer / breadwinner / head of the family by schlepping around town gathering the catered items in The Mercedes That Time Forgot.

Fran of a thousand faces has a knack for ordering good food—I’ll give her that—which is a surprise considering her sustenance is usually derived from a freezer full of Lean Cuisine. There was one disastrous year when she decided that she would start a new family tradition and serve a Honeybaked ham. This was met with howls of dissent, so equilibrium (or Librium) and roast turkey was restored the following year. But here’s my truth: as much as I love turkey, if you cut into it and found that it was made of bread I’d probably love it even more. The Thanksgiving bread basket? That’s my jam, yo.

It was my well-known love of the bread basket that sparked what has always been the most overt example of rebellion against Generalissimo Fran. It started as a dreadful act of violence directed at yours truly. I simply asked for the bread basket to be passed. Innocent as a lamb. Okay, there may have been the merest touch of an edge in my voice…and I may have labeled the bread basket with an adjective that I cannot print in a family blog. But really, just in good fun.

Anyway, before I could even slam the table with my fist and shout, “NOW!” it seemed like every roll ever baked since the beginning of time was being thrown at me. Thank goodness we’d already polished off the Parker House rolls I had baked, for their buttery goodness would surely have stained my handsome shirt.

As one good turn deserves another I was left only with the option of returning the salvo as best I could, after all it was eleven against one (my Mother had also lobbed a Pillsbury Crescent roll at me but you can’t return fire when it’s your Mother. I found out the hard way that that’s true in Paintball too.) (She’s fine.) (Now.)

When winging bread at folks it helps to first judge the distance of your target, the weight of the object being thrown, and the age and relative health of your target. Example: those hearty whole wheat raisin rolls are great for that sourpuss, bratty teenage niece with the big mouth, but for Granny stick with sliced bread thrown with a gentle Frisbee motion. However, please be advised that you should check with the bratty teenage niece’s parents prior to the meal to make sure she hasn’t already had her Sweet Sixteen Rhinoplasty. Either way it gets her out of the room.

Naturally one can game the system a bit by insisting on bringing home-baked rolls. This technique presents two advantages. The first is that you can make practice batches and sharpen your accuracy. The second is that it gives you complete control over the weight of each projectile dinner roll, therefore letting you adjust for age, height, and health of target.

I have gleaned from years of experience that the common Cloverleaf roll makes ideal cannon fodder for a Thanksgiving dinner. While they have a bit of heft, they don’t have the volume or mass of the whole grain raisin roll. They are also vaguely ball-shaped. This makes them safe for a wider range of targets: even Granny can survive being dinged by one, although it may hasten that day’s nap time.

I have been known to bake yearly commemorative varietal batches and give them as gifts. The saffron version was quite delicious, although the resulting orange splotches on the walls required that Fran-tasy Island have her dining room repainted. But these are mere trifles taken in the context of the larger picture.

This year I decided it might be fun to add a touch of sugar, pumpkin, and chocolate to them. This lightly sweetened treat was inspired by Nancy Reagan’s well publicized Monkey Bread recipe. What better model of familial dysfunction has there ever been than the White House Reagans? These will make a calming respite with a cup of morning coffee.

And the chocolate should make some lovely stains on Fran-tastic’s dining-room walls.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Scared Twixless

Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream

My Jack O’Lantern…this year

Please don’t let Kathleen Turner read this.

Ever since I saw the movie “Serial Mom” many years ago I have been apprehensive about doing things after Labor Day that she may deem inappropriate. (Savvy viewers may recall the scene from said movie where she has a rather lethal encounter with Patty Hearst regarding the wearing of white shoes after Labor Day.)

Yes, I am fully aware that the movie was a work of fiction, and that she will not be bludgeoning me if I break a seasonal rule, but this rather ghoulish movie has been on my mind because of Halloween.

I think I’ve had just about enough of Halloween already. I have a friend who starts serving Candy Corn before I’ve had a chance to finish shaking the beach sand out of my sneakers. We have noticed that a majority of Candy Corn being sold this year lists Mexico as its provenance. One can only posit a wild theory that this is somehow related to its apparent addictive qualities.

My yearly complaint? As a happy home baker I really cannot do much on Halloween. I cannot make Candy Corn. Why would I try? Yes I could frost cupcakes to look like candy corn. I could make Candy Corn-colored cocktails. Alas, I’m a failure at kitsch.

I’ve gone the cookie route in the past…happily and with excellent results. But it always comes down to the same question: On Halloween doesn’t everyone really want a KitKat bar? I cannot compete on their turf.

Here’s where breaking a rule after Labor Day comes in, albeit a rule of my own making. I don’t know why I have this rule—it may be a simple case of waist preservation—but I don’t make ice cream after Labor Day. A silly rule indeed, and like most rules, made to be broken.

This year my Jack O’Lantern will be Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream. Pumpkin Spice is on my brain of late due to some publicity about there being a shortage of the spices used. (Yes, this was news.) Every day when I make my Starbucks run I am greeted by huge window decals advertising Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Read that sentence again. Yes, I said “Every day when I make my Starbucks run…” Clearly I am a Starbucks fan. Sadly though, my brew of choice is black coffee; I simply cannot get into the big drinks they make that are topped off with swirls of whipped cream.  When I get my frequent drinker rewards and order a simple, humble black coffee, the folks behind the counter wrinkle their noses in collective disbelief and ask a unified “That’s it? And not even a venti?”

The truth is, I do love those drinks but to be even more truthful I must claim that for the same fat and calories I’d rather have a dish of ice cream.

Pumpkin Ice Cream can be tricky, as the ideal balance of flavors is really a matter of personal choice. My Mother’s guideline with anything pumpkin, including Pumpkin Pie, is that she likes it to taste like pumpkin.

I have an ice cream recipe that I really like—I used it this summer to make Peppermint Stick Ice Cream—so that’s my base. I merely substituted one cup of canned pumpkin for the peppermint candy. This recipe directs you to push the cooled, cooked custard base through a sieve before churning it in the ice cream freezer to make the ice cream silky smooth. Following that logic, I also pushed the pumpkin through a sieve. This ended up being a good idea. The ice cream was delicately smooth, and with a mere whisper of a half teaspoon of cinnamon and pinch of clove the ice cream had the perfect, unmistakable pumpkin flavor my Mom will love.

The temptation remains to fiddle with the recipe a bit. Please feel free to do so; my mind has already wandered to wondering if brown sugar would add a bit of complexity. What about a touch of coffee to make it Pumpkin Spice Latte in honor of my Barista’s seasonal treat?

And you can still have your KitKat bar…

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Happy Tweetoween

Irene

Noodle Kugel

“Her Mother’s” kugel

Irene was a woman of few vices. Unfortunately they were also her main skills.

She puffed unfiltered “Herbert Tareyton” cigarettes like an ocean liner smokestack. She played high stakes canasta, a game that kept her both hot footing it from country club to country club, and—she claimed—paid for her yearly cruise to the Bahamas on the “Oceanic”, where—she claimed—she made enough at Bingo to “…buy a few odds and ends.” (That was code for jewelry.)

Irene was many things to many people, but one thing to five gentlemen in particular—a wife. (Serially, not concurrently.)

I was too young to remember more than the last unfortunate gentleman, but rumor had it that husband number one had been a major player in the Mayer Lansky organization. In legal terms, he “pre-deceased” her. Somewhere along the line—and again I am vague on particulars—one of them performed the proverbial “going-out-for-a-pack-of-cigarettes-and-never-coming-back” exit trick. Five husbands? One can only admire her persistence.

She wafted through our lives like a smoky, Jean Natè-scented, strawberry-blonde powder puff of tobacco smoke. My Mother had “inherited” her from my Grandmother with whom Irene had been best buds in high school, a math equation that I could never quite reconcile in my head.

You have to admire people like Irene. She lived and breathed the philosophy that when you wake up Tuesday morning, Monday never happened. Don’t look back. I seem to remember her saying that, punctuating the declaration with a single, staccato, phlegmy cough.

If your memories of your life are like disjointed scraps pasted into a book, then here’s another one: one day after school I was sitting in the den watching “The Three Stooges” and furtively eating a piece of chocolate rugalach I had swiped from the “girls” dessert tray. The “girls”? My Mother was hosting a friendly, informal card game in the living room. Over the cackling I heard Irene’s voice yell, “Always play the ace, Lois!” From the girlish joy in her voice it may as well have been a gospel hymn, and this bit of advice has stuck with me all these years. I had no idea what it meant, or how to apply it, but I was positive that someday, somewhere, it would come in handy. “Always play the ace, Lois!”

Don’t look back…unless it’s cards.

Irene had no children of her own, so she doted on my Mother who served as Irene’s de facto “borrowed” daughter. However, I’m not positive she ever learned my name because I was always “Kiddo” as in “Kiddo, hand Auntie Irene her purse.” The latter was a task I didn’t particularly mind because I had an almost perverse fascination with its contents. Yet the purse itself seemed intent on keeping Irene’s secrets, as access was controlled by a substantial brass clasp that required more strength to open than my little hands could manage. I’d hand her the purse, she would withdraw whatever tobacco, lipstick, or tissue-related item was needed, and close it with a snap that sounded like the door locks on her Coupe de Ville. For all I knew, the purse could actually have been her Coupe de Ville, magically transformed into a purse when she came inside the house. I never thought to check the street outside to see if the two things co-existed. (You can tell that my other television vice at the time was “Dark Shadows.”)

On select Friday nights Irene would show up for dinner, Dorothy Muriel’s corn muffins, and a box of warm, salted cashews in hand. She would sit and eat our roasted chicken and suck the bones like she was willing them to melt. My Mother informed me that this was because Irene had grown up poor. On the rare occasions I’d been to her high-rise 60’s brocade boudoir there was no evidence that anything in the kitchen had actually been touched, save for a whistling tea kettle and a half empty jar of instant Maxwell House. Clearly her favorite spot for dinner was “out.”

Irene would inevitably tag along with us to temple on the Jewish High Holidays—a yearly ritual also known in our reform temple as Jewish Fashion Festival. On these occasions Irene would forgo the corn muffins and cashews in favor of what she referred to as “her Mother’s” Lokshen Kugel, the noodle pudding that launched a million Jewish Pyrex baking dishes.

The trick to serving Irene’s kugel was to not serve it at all. It was inedible. As implausible as it sounds, her kugel managed to be too wet yet somehow too dry, too bland, yet somehow cloyingly sweet. The only evidence of any custard was a stray curd of cottage cheese here or there. The crunchy noodle topping that many prize was a minefield of potential dental damage. My Mother served it the first year or two, then in subsequent years left it in the oven and as we finished the big holiday meal would “find” the forgotten kugel and exclaim, “Irene! We forgot your kugel! Should we serve it now? Is everyone still hungry? No? I know! We’ll wrap it and have it tomorrow—Irene, make sure I give you some to take home.”

She should have been on the stage, my Mother. But somewhere, deep down, I don’t think Irene was buying the act. I doubt she took it as a “ding” against her cooking skills, for she never claimed to have any. (Yes the other, more tragic, thought was that the kugel was exactly how her Mother had made it.) But it was Irene’s next step that, from my adult perspective, helped all questions about Irene jell into an answer.

The next year she showed up again with “her Mother’s” kugel. I found out while conducting my inspection of the kitchen (a/k/a stealing food before dinner). I saw my Mother stacking what looked like little muffins on a platter. My hungry glance asked and my Mother answered, “Irene brought little kugels.” Then, sotto voce, “I tried one. They’re good!”

Indeed they were. Irene insisted nothing had changed, that it was still “her Mother’s” kugel, just that she’d made little ones in a muffin tin “…and it made all the difference in the world.” But an outside hand had obviously been at play…she was palming cards from a deck hidden up one of the sleeves of her nubby silk suit.

For one thing, each little kugel was just the right mix of silky custard and noodle. There was just the slightest hint of sweetness. In addition to the crunchy noodles on top, there was what looked like a streusel topping, except made from broken matzo—again, just a hint of sweetness, and a toasty crunch that was no threat to your teeth. Clearly Irene was the turnaround queen, for “her Mother’s” kugel became the hotly anticipated side dish for several High Holiday seasons.

After Irene joined the great Canasta game in the sky, my Mother went to work cleaning out the brocade boudoir. Going through Irene’s desk in search of other paperwork she came across her appointment book and found an entry for early September that said simply, “Order kugel.” Hmmm.

The mystery seemed to have run to ground until the final days of cleaning out the boudoir when “Glady”, Irene’s cleaning woman, came in to do one final vacuum of the brocade. She and my Mother started reminiscing about Irene, when my Mother noted the lovely array of jewelry “Glady” wore.

“Glady” explained, “They’re all from Mrs. Irene. Every time I make the kugel she give me jewelry!”

“Always play the ace, Lois!”

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Here’s the recipe for “Her Mother’s” kugel

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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