Monday, December 26

The Long, Lost Holiday Panettone

This year my children discovered candied cherries, and - oh - what excitement they've brought to our house!  Eva just loves the green ones; Connor swears the red ones are the best.  I become nostalgic, remembering my mother decorating dainty wreath cookies with these spectacularly colored morsels, which seem more in place gracing the Christmas tree than on our plates.  And I try my hardest not to dwell on the artificial stuff that's in them.  It's the holiday season, after all, and everything's okay in moderation . . . Moderation.  So far I've purchased three tubs of these.

And why on earth have you bought so much of something you normally wouldn't touch? you ask.  It's simple -  this year, more than ever, I've been lamenting the fact that we can no longer enjoy our traditional Panettone, imported from Italy, because of my daughter's nut allergy.  I have yet to find an authentic Panettone that has not either been processed with nuts or contain Almond extract.  So, when I walked past that display of candied cherries, fruit cake mix, and candied citron in the market around Thanksgiving time, I impulsively grabbed a couple of tubs.  I had grand ideas about adapting a sweet bread recipe to create a Panettone in my bread machine.  That didn't happen.  Instead, the candies sat on the kitchen counter, steadily being eaten up by my children.  So, for Christmas dessert this year I decided on a rich cake, studded with fruit, that reminded me of Panettone.  I found a recipe for Citron-Cherry Cake and adapted it suit my daughter's allergies and to satisfy my Panettone craving.   My mother graciously baked it while I prepared the Christmas ham, and I cooked up a quick Rum glaze to top it off.   It successfully filled the Panettone hole, and I think we've started a new holiday tradition.

Rum-Glazed Cherry Cake (nut-free)

1/4 cup red candied cherries
1/4 cup green candied cherries
1/2 cup diced candied fruit cake mix (orange peel, lemon peel, pineapple, cherries, citron)
1 cup butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
8 eggs
4 cups flour

Preheat your oven to 300 F (150 C).  Butter and flour a bundt cake pan.  Cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla until fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time and beat well, then add the flour and fruit.  Mix until blended and pour into the prepared pan.  Bake for 2 hours and 10 minutes to 2 hours and 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool 10 minutes in the pan.

Meanwhile prepare the glaze:

1/2 cup spiced rum
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Combine rum, water, and sugar in a small sauce pan and simmer 5-6 minutes until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is slightly thickened.  Allow to cool slightly.

While the cake is still in the pan, poke several holes in it with a toothpick to allow the glaze to penetrate.  Spoon or pour a third of the glaze over the cake.  Let the cake finish cooling in the pan.  When cool enough to handle, invert the cake pan onto a serving plate and remove the cake.  Poke a few more holes on top of the cake and spoon some more glaze on.  Reserve a little glaze for the individual slices. 

shared at: allergy friendly friday, full plate thursday, mangia monday

Sunday, December 18

Holiday Cookies and Memories of My Grandmothers

Here I sit with my morning coffee, gazing out the window at a dry and frozen world.  A flock of  noisy Canadian geese serenade me as they soar effortlessly through the thin air above the bare trees.  It's less than a week before Christmas and I'm mentally checking off items from my to-do lists.  The house is simply decorated.  The shopping is done.  The presents are wrapped.  Christmas dinner is planned.  The Christmas cookies are bak--  Oh wait!  I haven't even given a thought to the cookies Santa will be enjoying at our house this year!

Given that, after a tumultuous year, my Christmas theme is SIMPLICITY, I think I'll make the simple, rich cookies of my childhood.  Cookies I learned to bake in my very first culinary school: My grandmother's kitchen.

Grandma H's warm kitchen faced west and was illuminated by the soft rays of the setting sun at dinnertime.  As a child of Irish immigrants who settled in Chicago, she was fiercely proud of her heritage.  After the sudden death of her mother, she fed and cared for her father, sister, and little brother during the Great Depression.  She then raised three hearty, hungry boys, one of whom is my father.  She could do a lot with very little and we always ate well when we visited her house.  Grandma H poured her heart and soul into the food she lovingly prepared for us.  Heavily influenced by the modest food of Ireland and the opulence of Chicago-style cuisine, I inherited my love of cooking and food from her.

I remember when I was very little she would make us Chicago-style hot dogs reminiscent of the ones she ate at Wrigley Field while watching her father play baseball.  I'm telling you, this woman deserved a world record for the amount of condiments she could fit between those two pieces of bread.  This was long before we had Food Network or foodie blogs to tell us what we can and cannot eat.  Back in the day when we ate food that was passed down through the generations, and I'm proud to say that Wrigley Field Hot Dogs are part of my culinary heritage.

At Christmastime, Grandma H would always bake Cookie Jar Ginger Snaps, though I don't believe they ever actually made it to the cookie jar.  They were quickly snatched up still hot off the cookie sheet.  Crisp, spicy, warm - these are my all-time favorite Christmas Cookies, and I personally know that they're Santa's as well.  My Grandma would always rave about the molasses in these cookies, then she'd tell us to hold onto our tongue (literally) and say "Molasses on the table."  What does that sound like?  She'd laugh infectiously, and soon everyone was laughing.

Now let me take you across the country, through the Rocky Mountains to the Land of Enchantment where my other grandmother settled and raised her three girls.  My mother and her sisters grew up in a deeply spiritual land where the peaceful souls of Native Americans drifted like crystalline snow and pinon smoke on the North wind.  It's also a hard land of clay and fire that's now haunted by the dark history of war and the sad ghosts of thousands of men, women, and children who were led into eternity by the searing hands of the Atomic bomb.

There is no where on Earth like New Mexico.  I spent many Christmases here with Grandma C, surrounded by the soft glow of the snow covered farolitos.  Grandma C's cooking is a colorful, finely woven tapestry of Native American, Mexican, and traditional American flavors.  Every Christmas we'd find Biscochitos, tucked neatly into pretty, tin Christmas boxes, waiting for us.

These are the cookies of my childhood, and they will flavor my children's Christmases for many years to come.  These are the cookies, along with this special one, that Santa will find on his plate when he arrives at our house this Christmas Eve.

Cookie Jar Ginger Snaps

2 cups flour
1 Tbsp ground ginger
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup shortening *
1 cup sugar (plus a little extra for rolling cookies in)
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (176 C).  Sift together the first five ingredients and set aside.  Cream the shortening and butter until fluffy, then beat in the egg and molasses.  Stir in the dry ingredients and mix well.  Roll a tablespoon of dough in your hands to form a ball.  Roll the ball in the extra sugar and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet or a baking stone.  Continuing rolling balls and place them 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.  Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the tops are slightly rounded, crackly, and lightly browned.

*you know I'm not a big fan of shortening, but in this case it's the only thing that works.  Believe me, I've tried every alternative and nothing came out quite right.  And I figure a little shortening at Christmas time never hurt anyone.

This recipe is for authentic Biscochitos.  They are only slightly sweet, and lightly flavored by anise seed and cinnamon.  They are soft and flaky, and should almost melt in your mouth.  If you prefer a sweeter cookie, I recommend making a white, sugar cookie with a little anise seed mixed into the dough.

3/4 cup butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar (plus 2 tsp for the cinnamon sugar)
1/2 tsp Mexican vanilla
3 cups flour
3/4 tsp anise seeds
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold water
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 360 degrees F (180 C).  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (I usually cook these on a pizza stone that has not been preheated.)

Mix together 2 tsp of sugar and 1/2 tsp of cinnamon and set aside.  Cream the butter and 1/2 cup of sugar until fluffy and beat in the vanilla.  Mix the flour, anise, baking powder, and salt.  Alternate adding the flour and the water to the butter and sugar mixture.  Flour your work surface and knead the dough a few times.  Then roll out to 3/8 inch thickness.  Cut into star shapes (traditionally Biscochitos are cut into diamonds, but we always made them stars for Christmas).  Place on cookie sheets and sprinkle liberally with the cinnamon sugar.  Bake 13-14 minutes until very slightly golden on the edges.

Thursday, December 8

Frosty December Comfort Food

When December arrived she brought with her Winter in full force.  The North wind blew away the late November warmth, which we were enjoying but was quickly becoming mundane, and left us enveloped in iridescent, crystalline snow which swirled and floated magically in the air.  We had the distinct impression that we'd somehow been transported into a pristine, Christmas snow globe, and my kids marveled over it all afternoon long.  Winter dusted the roads and rooftops in silver, and encased the tree branches in thick sheathes of glassy ice.

When I stepped out for the morning paper the neighborhood glistened like a million diamonds and the sky was a clear, cold blue.  Gone were the steely, thick clouds which had suffocated us for the past three days.  My breath froze in the crisp air, and I must say this is a welcome change for this time of year.

December truly is a magical month.  It's also the month that lends itself best to comfort food.  Slow cooked, rich, savory dishes that really don't have a place any other time of the year.  It's a month for allowing my oven to warm my kitchen and fill my home with the tantalizing aromas of sage and nutmeg, cinnamon and rosemary.  It's a month for kicking up my feet in front of a large window with a bowl of Chicken Divan and a fresh baked biscuit.  For eating slow cooked food slowly, while the snow slowly falls and the light slowly fades, and the world - with all its holiday mayhem and outrageous expectations - speeds by without a glance.

Here's one of my all time favorite comfort foods.  A simple casserole, yet so rich, creamy, and warm.  Perfect with a bit of baguette or a biscuit to sop up the sauce.  This can be made with fresh chicken, but it's also good with leftover chicken or turkey.  I frequently make this with leftovers after I've roasted a whole chicken.  I've been making this for years and years.  The original recipe is from The Joy of Cooking.  Of course it's been adapted over the years.

Chicken Divan
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

3 organic broccoli crowns
2-3 large chicken breasts OR 2-3 cups cooked, chopped, leftover chicken (or turkey)
1 tsp dried thyme
4 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup flour (white or whole wheat)
2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups organic whole milk
3 pinches of nutmeg
2 Tbsp white wine
a good squeeze of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 - 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

If you're using fresh chicken, season it well with the thyme and salt and pepper.  Cook it until done.  (I usually grill it on the indoor grill, however you could cook it on the stove or bake it.)  Let the chicken cool and then dice it.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F (205 C) and butter a large, shallow baking dish.  Cut the broccoli into florets and peel and chop the stem.  Steam the broccoli for 5 minutes.  Place the broccoli in the baking dish and sprinkle with salt.  In a large sauce pan slowly melt the butter.  Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 3-4 minutes.  Whisk in the chicken stock, milk, wine, nutmeg and a little salt and pepper, and bring to a boil whisking constantly.  Cook until thickened, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently so your milk doesn't burn.  Add the lemon juice and the chopped chicken and taste for seasoning.  Season with salt and pepper if needed.  Pour this mixture over the broccoli and top with the Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes until cheese is browned and bubbly.

shared at: family fresh meals, mangia mondays, melt in your mouth monday, monday mania, family time tuesday, tasty tuesday, hearth and soul, real food wednesdays, fight back friday, full plate thursday,