Saturday, December 29, 2007

Merry Christmas!

It started with champagne, of course. Because Christmas Eve is always celebratory: the flocking of family members from around the country to one modest New Jersey dining room, the excitement of it being the night before Christmas, the happiness that comes from delicious eating foods you consume only once a year. Reasons enough to break open the bubbly!

This year, 23 of us sat down to three tables Aunt Mimi had lined up, stretching from the dining room bay window through the hall and well into the living room (God forbid we split up and eat in small groups). And we ate. Six fishes, with a bowl of Goldfish crackers on the table as our seventh. It sure was grand. The approximate order of events follows:

1. Antipasto: roasted red peppers, Italian tuna in olive oil, olives, marinated eggplant and artichoke hearts, Provolone.
2. Fresh mozzarella with tomatoes.
3. Fried calamari.
4. Pop's smelts, with vinegar and mint.
5. Baked stuffed clams in the beautiful clam shells.
6. Fork announces the scratch-off Lotto ticket my aunt left on his plate is a winner; once he has everyone's attention he admits he didn't win the lottery, but that he hit the jackpot: Spoon and Fork are getting married!
7. More champagne, kisses, hugs, tears.
8. Pasta with clam sauce.
9. Shrimp francese, affectionately referred to as "The Shrimbola," accompanied by Pop's retelling of Uncle Louie Barese's mispronunciation of the word "shrimp."
10. Mom's stuffed escarole, this year featuring Gaeta olives (instead of pimento-stuffed), capers (as usual), golden raisins, pignoli nuts, less breadcrumbs and no Parmesan cheese. A new classic.
11. More champagne. Pop tells jokes we've heard a thousand times, we all die laughing, for the thousandth time.
12. Family assembles around the piano for the worst-ever (musically speaking) but perhaps funniest-ever (performance-wise) rendition of A Partridge in a Pear Tree. Spoon can barely keep up with the mayhem, but the glittering diamond on her finger inspires her to keep playing because it sparkles nicely as she plays. Merry Christmas!--S

Saturday, December 22, 2007


At a party once when I was a kid, my grandparents got up and lip-synched to a 1950s Rosemary Clooney song called Botch-a-Mi, a cute little Italian ditty about a kiss making "everything go crazy." Ba-ba-baciami piccina! I still remember it, Pop looking every bit the classy Neopolitan, Mina grinning and blowing kisses out to us.

I thought of that today as I made Chocolate Kisses (Baci di Cioccolato), from Dolce Italiano, which has muscled its way onto my "frequent use" cookbook shelf. This stellar recipe was one of the first ones Gina de Palma created for Babbo, so they carry fond memories for her. Baci means "kisses" in Italian, and here two chocolate cookies are sandwiched with a kiss of chocolate ganache. They're pretty superb. The cookies have chopped almonds and amaretto (my addition, in lieu of dark rum). I made a batch for Fork's family, and after tasting one, I knew I had to make more. The second batch are cooling now. Pucker up!--S

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

For Good Crack, You Must Have Patience

So about that brittle. It didn't work out so well. I let it sit for a half hour, but it wasn't quite hard... so I let it sit another half hour. And then an hour. And another hour. And the brittle remained, well, not brittle at all. I slid a small metal spatula underneath the nuts and sugar, and was able to flick up bits of it, bits that were quite tasty--after all, what's not to like about nuts, sugar and butter? But it was kind of soft, and a far cry from that break-your-teeth confection known as nut brittle.

I gave it a second go last night, and am happy to report: success! It was a mere case of impatience that kept me from cracking the brittle. When you're making nut brittle, you need to heat the caramel (made of sugar, corn syrup and butter) to 300 degrees. On my first go-round, the temperature hovered around 230 degrees (according to my thermometer, the correct temp for a "soft ball"), and after 10 or so minutes, I figured my thermometer was broken and mixed in the nuts. Soft ball is what I wound up with. So last night, I took the advice of The Wednesday Chef and resigned myself to sit tight, and what do you know? The thermometer hovered at 230 for awhile, but then it began inching up, and up, and up--until it reached 300 ("hard crack," says my thermometer).

Fork stepped in to help, and we quickly mixed in baking soda and nuts, and then poured it onto a baking sheet. They should call this stage of caramel "fast hard crack," because within 30 seconds the stuff was solid. I snapped a wooden spoon in half trying to spread it around the baking sheet. But no matter, we spread it enough--and, ta da! Real, snappy brittle! Give me patience, indeed.--S

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Biscotti

Christmas cookies of the cookie-cutter variety are cute and all, but to me, the best sweet bites of the season are biscotti. I grew up eating my family's version, which have walnuts, anise seed, anisette or sambucco, and a hint of almond extract. They're a little soft and crumbly, not too sweet and shaped a bit like rounded rectangles. A far cry from the long, skinny and rock hard versions they serve at Starbucks. I once gave some to my building's doorman and he told me they were "Delicious! They taste like something imported!"

While the family's biscotti are still my favorite, I have branched out to try many other varieties over the years, with varying degrees of success. This year I went to one of my new favorite cookbooks, Dolce Italiano, by Gina De Palma, and tested out the Mosaic Biscotti, and the Polenta and Sesame Biscotti. I'm pleased with both, though I'm partial to the polenta/sesame ones. The Mosaic Biscotti are a riot of nuts and chocolate, containing semisweet chocolate bits, and chopped hazelnuts and pistachios. They're a substantial cookie. Next time, I'd chop the chocolate into smaller pieces; the chunks I used melted into blobs that lend more of a homemade than dainty look to the biscotti. But they do taste pretty yummy. The Polenta and Sesame Biscotti, on the other hand, are, to me, the perfect biscotti. As De Palma says, sesame seeds and cornmeal are a fantastic combination. The cookies are light and lovely, with a tender-crisp texture and bright interior. A definite keeper.

I also made a batch of nut brittle to give my grandparents--they love this stuff. It's Best-Ever Nut Brittle from December's Food & Wine, and it looks pretty sweet.--S

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hold the Special Toppings, Please

Totonno's, we're through. Two months ago, we had the traumatic experience of digging in to our Totonno's house salad and finding a fully intact rubber glove balled up like a piece of lettuce. Gag reflex, anyone? Horrified, we called the restaurant, who sent a delivery boy over to retrieve the evidence.

After a period of culinary therapy, we decided to give our favorite pizza another shot this week. The manager got on the phone and sounded curt and annoyed but agreed we were owed salad. Which, this time, was free of detritus. Halfway into fork's first slice of pizza, however, a bite yielded a loud snap, and out with small piece of tooth, came a hard piece of plastic. We're not sure what it is, but it isn't food. And one thing for sure, Totonno's on Second Avenue in Manhattan has problems in the kitchen. Too bad, too. We loved the place and ordered regularly. But we're in the market for a new pizza. Totonno's it was grand, but you suck.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Only 13 More Baking Days

While other girls were roaming the streets of Soho Friday evening looking for perfect gifts for friends and family, my friend Kate and I had a much better plan. Holed up in my apartment with a bottle of wine and Vietnamese takeout, we churned out some 20 dozen cookies. We soldiered on long after the last downtown boutique had closed, 'till the last cookie was cooled and nestled amid parchment paper in a freezer-safe tupperware box. Kate hopped into a cab around 1AM, laden with two big bags of homemade goodies that will go to some very lucky gift recipients.

I'm going to take the liberty of rating the contenders:

1. Trios
Thumbprint cookies times three: you form each cookie into a tiny threesome that showcases three different jams: raspberry, apricot and strawberry. These babies were work, but they were worth it; our faves for looks alone (never mind that Fork thinks they look like zygotes).

2. Monster Cookies
Leave it to Paula Deen: this recipe involved a half-dozen eggs, 2 cups of sugar, a pound and a half of peanut butter, 2 sticks of butter, 9 cups of oatmeal, and vast quantities of mini M&M's, chocolate chips and raisins. No flour (they ARE low-carb, after all). Kate made the dough in an 8-quart pasta pot since I didn't have a bowl big enough, and got quite a workout stirring it. The result: totally over-the-top and delicious.

3. Peppermint Patties
A cookie, not a candy, essentially a homemade version of the classic foil-wrapped York Peppermint Patty. These were labor-intensive and not entirely worth it, though they taste pretty good.

4. Gingerbread People
The jury's still out, since this dough is still in my freezer awaiting its formation into gingerbread moms, dads and kids. But our use of blackstrap molasses resulted in some very dark cookie dough that may or may not be reminsicent of something you don't want to eat. More to come on that.--S

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Care for Some Meat with Your Potatoes?

After spending Thanksgiving in China, I returned to New York with a suitcase full of tea and cashmere scarves, while Fork returned from a visit to his family lugging winter vegetables and meats courtesy of the wilds of upstate New York. Stocked with cashmere, chrysanthemum tea, butternut squash, potatoes and venison, my apartment is ready to battle winter.

About the vegetables. I have a feeling Fork's mom may have genetically engingeered these things. The butternut squash probably weigh a hefty four pounds each. Suffering from jet lag one morning, I chopped one up and roasted half of it for Roasted Butternut Squash Muffins. The recipe was labor-intensive, although at 3:30 AM, I was in no rush. Steps included roasting the squash, making applesauce, simmering apple cider down from two cups to a quarter-cup, and whipping the egg whites separately from the yolks. But the muffins were delicious: they had a nice crusty top and weren't overly sweet. They were even a little healthy, thanks to the sprouted flour I used. The rest of the squash found its way into Butternut Squash Soup, which we enjoyed with a dollop of sour cream and spicy toasted pumpkin seeds.

If the squash are on the big side, the potatoes are positively freakish. One is about as big as the butternut squash. Fork took on the mammoth task of twice-baking one of them, and the result was enough to serve six. And since we needed just a little meat with our potatoes, jerk-seasoned venison stood in as a commendable side. Fork will expound on his experiences with the potatoes and venison momentarily.

Fortified and ready for winter!--S