Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Down on the Farm (Again)

Happy day after Boxing Day! Now that you're back from foxhunting, it's time to hunker down with a cup of tea and a plate of whatever Christmas leftovers are still lying around--cornmeal-almond biscotti and banana bread, if you're here in PQ castle, plus many, many oranges and lemons. And cold turkey from Christmas Eve....the best thing to happen to rye bread since peanut butter and cream cheese.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about....being a hippie farmer in Santa Cruz next year! Yep, I'm ditching Brooklyn to live in a tent on the top of a hill at UC Santa Cruz for 6 months, surrounded by organic vegetables, persimmon trees and kiwi vines-- what K. is calling my farm deployment, from April to October '07. More about the program here, which will be celebrating its 40th birthday next year. So come on down to the farm and say hello...

And the quote of the day, from the man behind Wisconsin's wonderful Penzey's Spices, “A real cook wants to make soup for anyone who needs a bowl of soup, not just for the people they happen to agree with.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We Represent the Latke League

If Susie Bright hasn't already changed your life, her blog post from December 23rd will now. Headlined The League of Amazing Latkes, Susie's recipe should have anyone with the slightest inclination toward fried foods longing for latkes, even five days after the lighting of the last Hanukkah candles of the year. But it's always a good time for latkes, and now that I have Susie's magic technique to go with my own recipe*, I...MuST...FRY....

Except that I'm not going to use my Cuisinart to shred the potatoes. Back when I used to cram 25 people in my Valencia Street studio for the Anuual Latke Party, well-meaning friends would periodically chase me away from the stove and insist that I take a break from frying to socialize. They would then start grating the next batch in the Cuisinart, and the potato shreds always, always came out too skinny. Anyway, people make too much of a deal about hand grating. Three cups or so of grated potato is what, 3 big Idahos? It just doesn't take that much time or muscle to put the tater through the shredder. Grating the onion the same way is less fun, because of the sting, but as Bob Crachitt says, it's only once a year, sir.

And, well, I probably won't go out and buy a potato ricer when I can do the same job with my own two hands. (Perhaps the same reason why I don't own a vibrator...) But I will spread Susie's gospel, and if you make latkes her way, you owe your mouth's pleasure to her and you should throw some money at her always smart, impassioned, and informative blog.

*Now, I'd hate to think of myself as one of those fussy writers who loathes for any editor to lay a glove on her golden prose, and normally, I'm not-- it's just journalism, not the Great American Novel or the Great Poem of My Soul, and eternal gratitude is due to the many editors who have labored selflessly over the years, improving my wandering prose when it needed it most (thanks, Miriam!). But in this case I'd be very embarrassed if you thought I actually wrote--for money!-- such a limp opening line as was posted under my name with that recipe. The following is how I'd rather it read:

A religious celebration that mandates fried food? Now that's our kind of holiday! During Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights, eating foods fried in oil is a happy way of commemorating the holiday's central miracle, in which a single vial of consecrated oil burned for eight days.

And in communities with roots in Eastern Europe, no treat is more typical than the potato pancakes known as latkes. If you're putting together a full holiday feast, latkes make a great match for Pot Roast with Porcini and Beer or Cabbage Borscht with Caraway. Unlike the heavy beige disks you'll find in the freezer section of a Jewish deli, these latkes are mostly all delectable brown crunch, with just enough oniony-potato goodness inside.

So what does it take to make a crisp, light latke? Squeezing the excess water out of your potatoes is one very useful trick; so is whisking the egg whites to a stiff froth and folding them in just before frying. Speed, however, is the true friend of the latke maker. For best results, your potato mixture should go from the bowl to the frying pan to your plate without any hanging around. The latkes will be at their crunchiest straight out of the oil, but if necessary, you can keep a well-blotted batch or two warm on a baking sheet in a 250 F oven for up to 20 minutes.

Sour cream and applesauce are the traditional accompaniments. You might think you could serve them with mango chutney or hot salsa instead, but you'd be wrong. At least try them with the applesauce and sour cream first—odd as it may sound to the uninitiated, the combination really does work.

And just to digress--because what is a blog but a safe haven for digression?--just as Hanukkah is greatly overwhelmed by the socio-religious juggernaut of Christmas, so the real miracle of Hanukkah wasn't so much the 8 days' oil but the triumph of the scrappy Macabees over the much better armed and equipped Persian soldiers, who were intent on destroying the temple and driving out the Jews. After the battle, the Jewish fighters went back into their nearly-trampled temple to clean up and reconsecrate it. The first order of business was the rekindling of the Eternal Light, the flame that burns in front of the ark where the Torah is kept in every temple. According to legend, there was only one tiny vial of sacred oil left--enough for perhaps one day of light, but instead, that single vial burned for 8 days, enough to fetch a new supply to the temple. So Hanukkah is a festival of lights, where candles are lit for 8 days and eating fried foods is a must.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Aunt Flossie's Black Cake

Musing about fruitcake--as who doesn't this time of year?--I realized that I do, in fact, have a tried-and-true recipe for Black Cake, aka West Indian fruitcake, in my files. The recipe was originally posted on Chowhound, as part of the annual Laurie Colwin Black Cake discussion, and the poster swore she made it every year, following the method of her husband's grandmother, the inimitable Aunt Flossie. Have I made it myself? Well, at the risk of adding to the pantheon of mythical Black Cakes, no. But Aunt Flossie's granddaughter-in-law has, and that's good enough for me to pass her rule along to you. I've still never, ever seen burnt sugar essence in a grocery store, but many New Yorkers swear they have, all over the city. So, a belated Christmas gift from Aunt Flossie to you, posted exactly as it was written.

Note that the fruits have soak for at least a month before using, which pretty much blows the idea of making this in 2006 out of the water. Get started now anyway, and before you know it, it will be a miserable sleety day in February and nothing will sound better than a slice of fruitcake and a hot cup of rum-spiked tea.

Aunt Flossie's Fruitcake

This is an authentic West Indian fruitcake. The recipe was brought to the USA by my husband's grandmother, better known as "Aunt Flossie" at the turn of the last century. It is fairly labor intensive and you need a full day and must follow the recipe exactly or it won't taste the way it should. Note that you can cut this recipe in half.


1 lb dried pitted prunes
1 lb. raisins
1/2 lb dried cherries
1 lb currants
1/2 lb candied citron
1/4 lb candied lemon peel
1/4 lb candied orange

In a large ceramic jar (or you can use glass but never metal!) add all the fruits and pour over these:
1 quart medium (not cream) sherry
1 quart ruby (gallo) port
1 quart stout
1 quart dark rum

Cover and soak for at least a month before using. These fruits can keep forever -not a surprise considering the amount of alcohol- and I always have fruits soaking in a big ceramic jar that I keep in a cool pantry. If you do this just check on the fruit every few months to make sure all the liquid hasn't evaporated.

When ready to bake the fruits have to be ground. I use a Cuisinart and grind them using the pulse button. You want the fruit ground but not turned to paste or mush, so do it a little as a time, and don't strain the liquid.

To bake the cake:

1 lb. sweet butter (use a good brand - I like the imports from France)
1 lb. all purpose bleached white flour
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 TBL cinnamon
1 tsp. mace
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 TBL vanilla extract
1 TBL almond extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 pint heavy cream
1 lb. light brown sugar
1 dozen eggs
burnt sugar
Soaked fruits, above

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
2. Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy - about 10-12 minutes
3. In a separate bowl sift the flour and spices
4. Put vanilla, almond extracts and heavy cream in a bowl and set aside
5. Beat the butter mixture once more to make sure its still fluffy and add 1/2 tsp salt
6. Separate the eggs, setting the whites aside. Beat the yolks into the butter mixture ONE AT A TIME
7. Using a wooden spoon beat in 1/4 of the flour mixture to butter. Then alternate adding cream and flour to butter until all is incorporated
8. Add in burnt sugar for coloring the batter - you can make this by literally burning sugar and then adding a little water to give it a more liquid as opposed to sticky texture- or look in the west Indian/import section of your grocery store and you'll see bottles of burnt sugar- so add until get the color you like
9. Add mixing with the wooden spoon 8 large cooking TBL (by this I mean the large metal cooking spoons used to stir large pots) of soaked ground fruits. Now here's the part which calls for your own judgement. Taste the batter after you have added those first 8 cooking TBL of fruits and see how you like it - If you like it "darker" meaning more of a taste of fruits keep adding fruits - the more fruits you add the denser it will be.My family likes it pretty dark (dense).
10. With an electric mixer beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry - like for a meringue
11. Fold egg whites into mixture
12. Grease with Crisco two deep cake pans - 8-10 inch diameter and 4-5 inches deep. Add batter
13. Bake at 300 degrees for 35 minutes and then lower to 200 degrees and bake 4 hours. Check after 2 hours to see how its doing. When done inserted toothpick should emerge relatively clean. When taken out of the oven sprinkle with more rum (this is optional)

Aunt Flossie always made one or two tester cakes to see if she needed to add more fruits to batter.In a very tiny pan - I use small ramekins- I bake a tester cake - I actually do it at 350 degrees and it takes less than an hour - then I taste and add more fruits to the batter if I need it. Or sometimes I bake a dark and light cake. I bake half of it as is and then add more fruit to the other half.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sparkle Plenty

So, the PQ Mother and I have been going back and forth about the all-important question of Christmas Day Dessert. As it happens, PQM will be hosting Christmas dinner this year, with her sister, brother, sister-in-law, and myself in attendance. At first, I was thinking plum pudding, then PQM suggested a buche de Noel--otherwise known as a Yule log cake, made of a spongy genoise spread with ganache, rolled into the shape of a log, and frosted with chocolate buttercream rippled to look like bark. Yippee! Elaborate and extravagant, just the thing I actually love to make for the holidays, right down to the decorative meringue mushrooms and sawed-off log ends.

Except that, as it happens, everyone's boringly on diets these days, and after watching some French guy beating pounds of butter into ganache and buttercream on the Food Network yesterday, PQM called me and nixed the buche. Her idea: her own mother's no-fail holiday dessert, a refrigerator cake made from those chocolate Nabisco wafers sandwiched with whipped cream. (Have you gathered that I do indeed have Southern Protestant antecedents, at least on my mother's side?)

Being a nice kid at heart, I agreed, but only to buy time, and in an hour, I had it: my Parisian pal David Lebovitz's citrus-champagne gelee. Made with Prosecco, unflavored gelatin, and glistening slices of kumquat, blood orange, and pink grapefruit, it's light, gorgeous-looking, and actually good for you (Vitamin C!). I'm going to throw in some pomegranate seeds for holiday color (antioxidants!) and candy up some Meyer lemon peel.

And then I'll make a plum pudding when I get home.

Champagne Citrus Gelee
Adapted from Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz

This would also be a perfect and glamorous dessert for New Year's Eve.

2 envelopes powdered unflavored gelatin (such as Knox)
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 bottle (750 ml) sparkling wine, Prosecco, or Champagne (not Andre, but not Tattinger, either--something in the $10-$15 range should be just fine)
Juice of 1 lime or lemon (use a real lime, not one of those nasty plastic jobs full of bitter battery acid)

12 kumquats, ends and seeds removed, sliced thinly
3 pink grapefruits
4 navel or blood oranges
seeds of 1 pomegranate
a little good-quality orange liqueur (not the stuff that tastes like those powdery baby aspirin)
candied citrus peel in syrup (see below)

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water in a large bowl. Let soften for 5 minutes. Heat 1/2 cup water with sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour sugar syrup over gelatin and stir until gelatin is thoroughly dissolved. Pop the cork (whoo hooo!) and pour in the whole bottle of Champagne (watch out for the froth!) and lime or lemon juice. Taste and add more lime or lemon as needed. Cover and refrigerate until it begins to thicken and set.

Make the candied peel in syrup (recipe below), or take it out of the fridge if you made it earlier. Warm gently until syrup is liquid again. Toss in sliced kumquats. Take off heat and set aside.

Now, prep the fruit:Cut off the top and bottom of the grapefruit so it sits flat, then slice off peel and white membrane from top to bottom in vertical strips, moving around the circumference. Trim off all the white pith. Now, steadying the fruit with one hand, free the fruit segments from between the "fans" of tough membrane, using a small sharp paring knife. Slice or wiggle the fruit out, so you get a glistening arc of membrane-free fruit. Drop fruit slices into a bowl. Repeat with remaining grapefruits and oranges. Sprinkle with orange liqueur, if desired. Refrigerate, tightly covered, if not using right away.

Now, get out 8 stemmed parfait or wine glasses. Drain the kumquats/candied peel. (Save the orange syrup if you can think of something to do with it later). Get out the gelee, the pomegranate seeds, and the bowl of fruit slices. To assemble, spoon some of the Champagne gelee into each glass. Add some pomegranate seeds, a few pieces of citrus, a few slices of kumquat, and a few strands of candied peel. Continue layering gelee and fruit until glass is full. Chill until serving time.

Serves 8

Soft candied citrus peel

5 lemons, limes, or oranges, washed
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 TB corn syrup

Remove zest (the colored part of the peel) with a vegetable peeler. Cut lengthwise into threadlike strips. Cover peel with water, bring to a boil, and cook until soft and translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Drain peel and discard water. In the same pot, bring water , sugar, and syrup to a boil. Add peel, reduce heat, and simmer until peel is translucent and candied, about 20 minutes. Cool in syrup and refrigerate.

NOTE: Please don't even think about making this with Jell-O or any other gelatin dessert mix. No, no, no! Search around in the Jell-O section til you find the little orange Knox box. It's there, I promise you, if only for the freaky people who drink it for their nails. If you live in a place where the gelatin comes in sheets, do tell me how you use those, since even 8 months in Italy wasn't long enough for me to get the hang of them.

ANOTHER NOTE: If you don't drink, I bet you could use some swanky carbonated juice--like the pomegranate fizz I just found at Trader Joe's--in lieu of the Prosecco. Straight apple would be too bland, but any nicely tart blend should do.

POST-XMAS POST MORTEM: What a hit! This looked gorgeous (esp. the pomegranate seeds, my own addition) and everyone loved it. Making it again, I would sacrifice the sparkling clearness of the gelee for more flavor; instead of softening the gelatin in water, I'd use the ravishing pink orange-grapefruit-tangerine juice left in the bowl of fruit slices (which would mean prepping the fruit before starting the gelee) and I might make the sugar syup out of juice rather than water, too. Definitely use blood oranges if you can find them; they look gorgeous and add a subtle raspberry flavor that's very pleasing.

Happy Solstice!

The sun is sluggish at this time of year, crawling above the horizon and then subsiding by mid-afternoon, ready to be overtaken by a flaming five o'clock sunset, the evening stars flickering in the indigo-stained heavens before you've even left the office. High mackerel clouds furrow the sky, a winter field lying stripped and fallow for the season.

This is the time to fill the days with light, to celebrate the moment when the slow-waning sun will finally turn and begin its ponderous, fiery journey back towards Earth, just as the world outside is still bracketed by long hours of chilly darkness.

By rights, a solstice party should go on all night, starting in darkness and ending at dawn with a purifying dunk in the ocean. Forget the cufflinks and the little black dress; a solstice party is a night for red velvet, for getting in touch with your inner Stevie Nicks and draping yourself in at least one item suitable for dramatic mid-dance swooping. This is the party where someone will suddenly decide to paint a mural on the kitchen wall, and where someone else will arrive and decide to fill up the tub in the one bathroom and take an exhibitionist bath among the bubbles and floating candles and gardenias.

Unexpected couples and threesomes and moresomes will pile up in the most unlikely places: in the tub, on the roof, up and down the stairs, on your upstairs neighbors' fire escape. Cluster candles on every surface, get a giant wood fire going in the fireplace if you're lucky enough to have one, and put a massive pot of vin chaud to steam on the stove.

Vin chaud, the French version of mulled wine, will make all your guests want to curl up in cozy little heaps and hibernate for the rest of the winter, but it's too delicious to miss, and you can always make coffee later if people get too sleepy. It's the best thing about winter in Paris, which is otherwise a bitterly cold and unremittingly gray place at this time of year. Served in narrow-stemmed glasses with slices of orange floating like little reminders of tropical climes, vin chaud brings a sweet, wintry warmth to every steamy café. To make it, add a cup of sugar to three cups of water in a big pot, then drop in long curls of orange and lemon peel, a few cinnamon sticks, and a scatter of whole allspice berries and cloves. (Whole spices impart a clearer, more intense flavor to the drink and won't muddy the liquid the way powdered spices would). Simmer it gently for 15 minutes. Add some brandy, if you have some lying around, then pour in red wine to taste – at least one bottle, maybe two. Heat to the point of steaming, without letting it boil. Taste and add more sugar or wine as needed. Float orange slices on top. Alternate with spiced tea, hot spiked coffee or chai, or a potent pour of caffeine-jolted yerba maté, if you really want to wake people up.

And while all this revelry is going on, you can be baking a solstice bread to greet the reappearance of the sun and nourish her weary acolytes. Start the process as the party begins. Get the first few guests – who would otherwise stand around fiddling with the crudités – to pitch in with the mixing and kneading. Most people are pleasantly surprised at bread dough's happy squishiness, like that of a soft stomach or a yielding inner thigh, and the buoyant way it springs back under their hands. As it swells and subsides in its rests and risings, the bread will mark the passing of this longest, darkest night of the year.

After the first kneading and rising, throw in handfuls of seeds ripe with the promise of the next year's harvest. Poppy seeds like specks of blue-black night, deep green pumpkin seeds, tiny round golden balls of crunchy millet, sunflower seeds harvested from the deep rich heart of October's lanky, sun-following flower – they all go into a rough-grained dough, golden with cornmeal and semolina, sweetened with honey and a grate of orange rind. A few hours before dawn, pull out a large sheet pan and pull your dough into the shape of a beautiful sun. Let it rise one more time, then bake until golden. Bundle into a clean towel, and round up the hardiest (or most pagan-minded) remaining guests. Make a bonfire, brace yourself on the cold sand, strip down, and fling yourself into the sea as the sun rises. Then run back screaming, dry off, and share a breakfast of warm-from-the-oven solstice bread.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fresh Air Beats the Demons

More to follow, on the subject of making your Christmas gifts (biscotti! chocolate-mint stars! candied orange peel!) and staying out of the mall, but first, a quote for the day, from an review of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman in Wednesday's New York Times. Bergman, who now lives on a remote Baltic island, "follows a rigorous daily routine that includes a brisk morning walk because, as he puts it:

'The demons don’t like fresh air. What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet.' "

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The PQ Holiday Gift Guide

Useful with a bit of luxury, that's what you want in a holiday present. Scout out things that taste good, smell good, or (make you) feel good, and you can't go wrong. So, in this mode, the PQ holiday gift list, for starters:

Now, wait a moment. This isn't MY gift list, although I'd make a happy home for any and all of these things (hence the glaring absence of coconut, foie gras, blue cheese, Godiva chocolate, and overly scented candles in the shape of little jars of blueberry jam). Back in the day, I spent a LOT of time doing gifty round-ups for various newspapers and guidebooks, and I still love to sing the praises of very good things you might not have heard of. Nearly all of these are produced by small local businesses that are a boon to their neighborhoods--the next best thing to making all your gifts yourself.

Christmas cake from June Taylor Jams. This was discussed exhaustively in the previous post, but suffice it to say, an absolutely delicious treat, and miles better than any candied-cherry monk-baked monstrosity. Not to be wasted on anyone who is not already a true fruitcake believer. In fact, you may not be able to bear to give it away. In that case, either buy two, or invite a few dear friends over, cut your own loaf in very thin slices and serve with:

Spiced Christmas Tea. Also available in tea bags and loose in a box, but the festive red-and-black tin makes an especially nice gift. Can be found at many specialty food shops and tea-and-coffee emporia. Black tea festooned with bits of lemon and orange peel and cinnamon bark. Add a little tot of dark rum and you'll be toasting the Empire in style.

Later that night, fill up the tub, pour a glass of something cold and bubbly, and lather up your sweetheart with a bar of soap from Juniper Ridge. So what if you couldn't spring for a weekend snuggled in a massive four-poster at Manka's Inverness Lodge? Not only does Juniper Ridge make all their soaps by hand, they also go out and pick the plants themselves, scenting each bar with real wildgathered Western juniper, California bay laurel, desert pinon, Port Orford cedar, or coastal sage. Each one captures a real scent of the West, and they'll make even the most boring little shower stall smell like a beautiful redwood sauna under the stars in Yosemite. The charming and useful 4-bar gift pack is tied together with ribbon and adorned with a little sprig of pine. I stock up on these every time I'm out in SF, and use them every day until only the saddest little olive-green slivers remain. A particularly nice gift for the butch girl or guy in your life, as the scent is subtly fresh and woodsy. Like camping!

But for those of you of the girly persuasion, what you and/or your lovely girlinas need is a gift certificate for a cucumber, pumpkin pie, or honey-walnut pedicure at Sweet Lily Spa in Tribeca. Cozy chintz-covered chairs, cute enameled basins for soaking your tootsies, manicurists who don't pummel your calves or skewer your cuticles: this place will pamper your feet like they're a pair of very rich, very fluffy little dogs in a pink cashmere puppy tote. They use the real stuff here: freshly sliced cukes, a slather of honey, lotsa pumpkin--you could eat your feet! Or someone else could, if you both like that sort of thing. The last time I walked out of Sweet Lily, my feet were so baby-smooth that they kept slipping around in my socks.

You don't have to limit your holiday giving to people you know. New York Cares, a great organization that makes volunteering all around NYC as easy as the click of a mouse, is running their annual coat drive through Dec. 31st. Any gently used coat (adult, teen, or child-sized) can be donated, and will be distributed throughout the winter directly to those in need. You can also organize a coat drive at your workplace, through a community group, or at your church, synagogue, or other house of worship/gathering place.

Fruitcake, I like it

Unlike last month's turkey (or tofurkey) fest, the December holidays are more about the larder than the dinner table. This is the season of the cocktail party, the buffet, of late-afternoon teatimes and hot toddies, steamy mugs of something sweet to take the chill off. And best of all, fruitcake.

Oh, you laugh. But not when you take a bite of June Taylor's handmade Christmas cake, made for this time of year and wrapped in thick letterpress-printed paper. Taylor, who is English and thus has a good-fruitcake gene that most Americans lack, is best known for her stupendous jams, but at this time of year her elegant, moist little cakes are reason enough to track her down at the Saturday morning Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco. (They're also available for ordering online, and wouldn't I just love anyone who handed over the $33, plus shipping, to send me one.)

Back when I lived in Bay Area, I always paid with the virtuous feeling that I was buying a gift for someone else. Then I would get home and remember how almost everyone I knew recoiled in green-cherry horror from the very idea of fruitcake. And then one day in mid-December, on a chilly late afternoon after a long walk, when there were presents to wrap and cards to address, the cinnamon-and-orange spiked tea would be scooped from its tin and the brandy-soaked cheesecloth around the fruitcake peeled off. And steaming cup in hand, the nostalgic flavors of the holidays would waft over me like the paper snowflakes wafting down through the blue light at the end of the first act of The Nutcracker ballet. Fruitcake should be English, I believe, or at least made by someone with some familiarity with tea strainers and Evelyn Waugh.

One thing I haven't done, at least not successfully, is to make my own. Every cook and reader I know views the Jamaican black cake, described with such single-minded verve by Laurie Colwin at the end of More Home Cooking, her last book of food essays, as a personal grail. Colwin published the recipe, attributed of her daughter's Jamaican nanny, while cheerfully admitting that she'd never actually made it. Since, sadly, Colwin died in 1992, the question of whether the recipe works, and what Colwin's nanny's version actually tasted like, will never be fully answered. In the piece, Colwin makes the black cake sound so indescribly delicious that most food people would trade a week in Tuscany with Mario Batali to taste it, even if it takes a month to make and calls for a whole bottle of sweet kosher wine and another one of rum.

The stumbling block, for me, isn't the issue of keeping the ants out of the five pounds of Manischevitz-soaking raisins. It's the step when you have to cook a pound of brown sugar with a little water until, as Colwin says, it "begins to turn black. You do not want to overboil. It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely burnt." This is a direction that only makes sense when someone whose family has been doing this for generations is hanging over your shoulder telling you what to do. How burnt is a little burnt? How much black is good, and how much more black means throw it out and start over? The alternative is burnt sugar essence, a magical West Indian ingredient that I have never, ever been able to find. Long annual threads on this very topic trail through food bulletin boards like Chowhound at this time of year; you can hear the longing in the begging questions.

But why this recipe? Plenty of food writers make extravagant claims for this brownie recipe or this mac-and-cheese technique. During a recent Q&A about truth in food writing, Vogue writer Jeffery Steingarten freely admitted that exaggeration is part of his repertoire. A whole magazine, Cooks Illustrated, is predicated on the fact that science trumps tradition, and that if you treat the kitchen like a lab and keep making the same recipe, adjusting for one varient ingredient or technique each time, you will eventually come up with the SINGLE BEST WAY to make pancakes or chicken caccittore. Not that it isn't fun to read Cooks Illustrated; it's fun the way reading about polar exploration in the days before Vitamin C pills and Gor-Tex is fun: because someone else (not you) is doing all the hard work. But actually, for all of Cooks Illustrated's self-righteousness, this dogged American belief in perfectability falls apart in the kitchen. Even if you do find the perfect pancake recipe, will you always wake up happy to eat them? What if everyone else in the house wants cereal instead? What Colwin's piece speaks to is a more universal wish: safe home, warm hearth, extended families full of love, cross-cultural gifts that are generously given and generously received.

But black cake, or fruit cake, isn't the only food to carry the promise of holiday cheer. A bowl of brilliant orange clementines is a harbinger of the snappy winter season, the little spray of sharp-scented oil that pops off the skin capturing the smell of December in California or Spain. At this time of year, shopping, rather than cooking, is the fun part. It's the time to buy skinny, crunchy Swedish ginger cookies and and their fat, round spicy German cousins. And for slow sipping from a small glass, egg nog from Straus Creamery, lush and creamy as a woman's back in an Ingres painting.

Like, alas, most fruitcake, most eggnog is revolting, a simpering mess of thickeners and gums and fake rum flavorings. Straus's version is pale and subtle, lovely on its own or bolstered with a shot of rum or brandy. Dusted with a little nutmeg, the very taste of it is like the promise of snow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Santa Wants Some Loving

Hang up your pretty stockings,
Turn out the light
Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight…

The weather is finally catching up with the calendar—I have to say, I was no fan of last week's bizarrely warm days. Guys in T-shirts putting up Christmas tree lots: what is this, LA?

But now it's perfect late-autumn/early winter out there: mid-40s, sunny, with a few late russet and golden leaves clinging to the branches, and the tacky decorations of Carroll Gardens out in full force. E. was in town from D.C. yesterday, and we did what we always do: drink coffee and eat eggs and toast in diners (in this case, the Donut House on Court and Degraw, which is not a doughnut place at all but a classic Formica-table joint, right down to the hand-written signs for fruit salad and rice pudding taped up over the counter and the display of individual-sized boxes of Apple Jacks and Raisin Bran behind the register) and walk to Dumbo so I can make disparaging remarks about the chocolate-covered cornflakes and Cheerios at the Jacques Torres chocolate shop/factory while slurping down their insanely thick hot chocolate, aka Chocolate Pudding in a To-Go Cup.

Then, into to the city to stroll through the West Village. Every single shop and restaurant we ducked into was tiny and crowded; D.C. was Wyoming in comparison. There was the usual insane round-the-block line for Magnolia's pastel cupcakes; we browsed through the stock at Biography Bookshop instead, and got great falafel and hummus sandwiches on puffy, handmade pita at Taïm (222 Waverly Pl., nr. Seventh Ave. S.,212-691-1287) a Village-studio-apt-sized Israeli smoothie-and-falafel joint. The day wound up with prosecco and Stella at Minibar, yet another teensy NYC space, right across from Frankie's 457 Court Spuntino….

….where B. and I went for brunch and the crossword the next morning. Goddamn, their BLT is amazing. I generally hate mayo and claim an indifference to bacon, but not in this case. As Susan W. writes about her Caesar salad in Cooking as Courtship, "Mom tells all her friends that of all the salads in the world she prefers this one. Forgetting how much she hates everything about it." A spicy (virgin) Bloody Mary and a sip of B's vanilla-cognac-spiked cappuccino didn't hurt, either.

It was perfect weather to go driving, except neither of us had a car, so I ended up back home making Christmas-cookie dough for K. and Monday's Dirty Sugar Cookie Swap, using a chocolate cookie recipe from the new Food Made Fast: Baking book from Williams Sonoma (for which, by the way, I wrote the back-of-the-book text, along with a bunch of others in the same series). What I'm hoping for is a roll-out version of Mollie Katzen's killer Double Chocolate Mint cookies; I'm going to add lots of peppermint extract and hope for the best. If they're good, I'll post the recipe. Also on the list: an old Martha Stewart mag recipe for crunchy gingerbread cookies, so I can amuse myself and the troops with all my strange cookie cutters—a squirrel, a cowboy hat, a dreidel, a cowboy boot—along with the usual boy-and-girl (or butch and femme), stars, and hearts.

And what else to listen to than Christmas soul music? No, not baby Jesus gospel, but the best kind of raunchy R&B holiday tunes. Call me irreverent (hey, give me a break, I'm a Hanukkah girl) but I love a good bump-and-grind carol, like Elvis Presley's Santa's Back in Town

Got no sleigh with reindeer
No sack on my back
You won't see me coming in a big black Cadillac

or Rufus Thomas's awesomely slutty I'll be Your Santa Baby

I'll slide down your chimney
And bring you lots of joy
What I got for you mama
It ain't just a toy

And let's not forget Santa Claus Wants Some Loving

Christmas is for the childrens
And I sure want them to be pleased
Right now, mama, on Christmas Eve
Make their pappy happy

or this Pee-Wee-worthy Texas mashup of Tequila and Frosty the Snowman. And, of course, another immortal Rufus Thomas classic, Do the Funky Penguin.

As I open the door someone starts to blow a trumpet and hot jazz smacks me in the chest. I walk into it like a drowning man, which is what I have come here to be.

-Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife