Buttercrunch. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Have you ever looked at a Twitter stream for more than a few seconds? Just this morning, I called up my Tweet Deck with all those columns of people I know and don’t know and was about to click on a story that interested me. By the time I hit the link, 10 new stories were flashing above it, and the piece I wanted to read was buried by more current, “relevant” news.

Life goes fast. News is fleeting. All those articles, all those links, all those photographs, all those blog posts coming at you like waves on a stormy day. One after another, and just when you catch your breath, there’s another, bigger one ready to take you and twist you around and. …

It’s depressing. It makes me feel as if I can never keep up, never really know what’s happening.

The holidays feel a lot like the Internet these days. With Thanksgiving at the end of November and Hanukkah early and Christmas coming when it always does, it’s hard to catch a breath.

Buttercrunch a recipe that requires your full attention

All this has me thinking about tradition — what it is and why it’s important. The part of the holidays that always makes me feel warm and loved are the traditions my family has established — the ones I grew up with, the ones my husband’s family has taught me and, perhaps most important of all, the ones we established with our daughters when they were young.

About 30 years ago, my sister-in-law brought us a batch of her family’s recipe for homemade buttercrunch. It’s a gloriously sweet concoction of caramel coated in chocolate and chopped nuts. My children would fight over it, and it was always devoured well before the actual holiday. We began eating it for dessert on the first night of Hanukkah.

Then one year it occurred to me to ask her for the recipe, and I started to make buttercrunch myself. The kitchen gets all warm and steamy with the cooking of the caramel — watching the butter and corn syrup cook down and bubble and transform from pale yellow to a gorgeous butterscotch color.

Then there is the part at the end, just before it reaches the desired 290 F temperature, when you can’t answer the phone or leave the room or check your email or Twitter feed. You have to stir and stir and stir because a few extra seconds causes the whole mixture to seize up and become a sugary glop.

Finally, there’s that wonderful moment when you spread the thickened candy on a cookie sheet and watch it begin to instantly harden.

Buttercrunch is a candy that requires patience and several steps, although none of them is too difficult. But you also need to slow down just enough to watch — to make sure that something sweet and good doesn’t go bad.

Cooking in my kitchen, making that candy year after year, focused on not letting it burn, feels like the exact opposite of watching a Twitter stream. The news is flashing by. There goes another photo, another blog post. And suddenly, I no longer care.

Andrea’s Buttercrunch

Start a tradition in your kitchen. Invite your children to help paint on the chocolate and press the chopped nuts into the chocolate. Make a double batch. Youll be glad you did.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: About 20 minutes for the buttercrunch and 5 minutes for the chocolate

Setting (cooling) time: About 30 to 45 minutes

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings. (But once you taste it, it’s hard to stop.)

Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

2 large (about 7- or 8-ounce) chocolate bars (see note)

About 1 cup very finely chopped walnuts or your favorite nut (see note)

Directions

1. Line a cookie sheet with a piece of well-greased aluminum foil.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, corn syrup and water over low heat, stirring frequently. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290 F on a candy thermometer. It will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach 290 F on low heat. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low and stir constantly if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.

3. When the candy hits 290 F, remove from the heat and carefully spread it out in an even layer on the sheet of greased foil. Spread with a spatula to make a fairly thin layer. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient, you can place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator or outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)

4. While the buttercrunch is hardening, melt the chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth. If you choose to let the buttercrunch harden outside or in a very cold spot, you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the buttercrunch is too cold, the chocolate won’t adhere properly.

5. When the buttercrunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn’t feel any soft spots) and is at room temperature, use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing.

6. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry — no wet spots to the touch.

7. Carefully remove the foil from the cookie sheet; place the cookie sheet on top of the foil and candy. Gently flip the candy over onto the cookie sheet and peel away the foil.

8. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch.

9. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.

10. When the buttercrunch is dry and hard, break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry tin or tightly sealed plastic bag for two or three weeks.

Note: Buttercrunch can be made successfully with regular grocery store milk chocolate or chocolate chips, but you can also splurge and use fabulous bittersweet or semisweet 60% cocoa chocolate. The choice is yours.

You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios or any type of nut, but it must be finely chopped to adhere properly to the chocolate.

Main photo: Buttercrunch. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

Then, success. After several stanzas of rejection, someone lets them in. With the joyous chorus of “Entren, santos peregrinos” — come in, holy pilgrims — it’s time to break a piñata and eat. And steaming bowls of pozole are often there to feed the crowd.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

I had my first taste of the pork-and-hominy-based soup in Mexico City. For most anyone, that first taste can never be the last, and it wasn’t mine. Aided by a stack of Mexican-government-published recipe books I’d bought at a market near my home in the Colonia Narvarte neighborhood, I’ve made the dish repeatedly, both in Mexico and after I’d returned to the States.

It’s the perfect party food. You can make it for yourself, but it’s a recipe that’s easy to make for a crowd. And, inevitably, it’s a hit.

The draw of pozole is not just in its rich, smoky broth laced with puréed guajillo chilies. It’s the buffet line of cold raw veggies that your guests add to it that make it uniquely special for them as well.

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

That crunch of sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and diced onions create a perfect complementary texture for the hot stew. Squeeze in some lime juice for an added zing of flavor, and there’s nothing like it.

I’ve adapted the pozole recipe over the years from the one that was published by the Mexican Government Workers’ Social Security and Services Institute in the 1980s.

The cookbook series  “… y la Comida se Hizo” (… and the Meal was Made) is a wonderful Spanish-language collection that provides hundreds of traditional recipes celebrating Mexico’s widely varying cuisine. The recipe for pozole — which most often is brought out for parties such as posadas or the Independence Day festivities in mid-September — fittingly was found in the book entitled “… and the Meal was Made for Celebrating.”

Written simply for an audience that varies as widely as its cuisine — including those who cook on stoves without temperature controls or timers — the recipes rarely provide temperature settings and sometimes omits suggested cooking times. Instead, it often relies on directions, such as “cook until the meat is tender.”

The recipe I’ve adapted below provides quite a few more guidelines, as well as adjustments on the ingredients. The one in the Mexican cookbook called for slices of “pig’s head, pig knuckles and pig’s feet.”

The adapted recipe suggests country spareribs instead — both for the ease of shredding the meat and to simplify the explanation of the dish to guests who may be wary of trying something new. Canned white hominy is also the way to go here.

For parties held on chilly winter nights like Mexico’s posadas — celebrated from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve — it’s a colorful way to celebrate. The red, white and green garnishes will add festive color to the holiday table.

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

1. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, peel and slice.

2. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, onion and pork ribs to a stockpot and bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down to allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender — about 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the meat is simmering, place the guajillo chilies in a bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to allow them to be fully submerged (about 1 1/2 cups). Soak the chilies for a half-hour.

5. Using disposable kitchen gloves, remove the chilies from the water. (Reserve the water.) Remove the stems and slice open to devein the chilies. Place the chilies, the reserved water and some of the seeds in a food processor and blend until smooth. For a spicier soup, include more of the seeds.

6. When the pork is tender, remove it from the stockpot and shred the meat off the bone. Discard fat and bone.

7. Return shredded meat to the stockpot, and add the guajillo purée, bay leaves, oregano, hominy and salt to taste.

8. Cook for another 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

9. While the pozole is still cooking, prepare the garnish ingredients and place them in small serving bowls. Keep the raw vegetables refrigerated until time to serve to provide for maximum crunch.

10. Serve the soup hot, with plenty of room in the bowl to allow for the garnishes.

Main photo: Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

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Vin d'Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels - orange, lemon and lime - brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

As I watch the sun, feeble in the morning skies at this time of the year, I think of the sunshine-yellow oranges my parents always brought to me from their little citrus grove in central Florida. Even though I live in the American South, cold weather and thick quilts lull me to sleep many nights. What on earth could I do to preserve a bit of sunshine as the shadows close in, foretelling the shortest day and longest night of the year?

Why, I could make vin d’orange, a French apéritif, perfect for the holiday season.

Vin d’orange is easy to make, requiring just a few minutes and some basic ingredients from the grocery store. Essentially, it just requires adding orange peel and sugar to dry white wine. It is especially delightful when combined with the 13 Desserts of Provence that are traditionally served at the end of Christmas Eve dinner.

Vin d’orange is also an example of interconnecting links so rampant in the world of food.

First, let’s look at a bit of the history that comes along with this aperitif.

Flavoring wines a centuries-old practice

The practice of infusing wine with herbs, fruits, and nuts is an old one, dating back for centuries. Most infused wine began as medicine, either to prevent or to cure illness. For example, the Egyptians flavored their wines with celery, juniper, or frankincense. The Romans added herbs to their wine, also for medical reasons. And the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, created ”hippocras,” a bitter digestive, useful (he thought) for settling stomach upsets. And medieval monks are well known for the aperitifs they created, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Georgeanne Brennan’s book, ”Apéritif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style,” (1997), hints at the wide variety of flavorings that cooks used to pep up their wine: yellow-flowered gentian, cherries, green walnuts, peach leaves.

So vin d’orange is likely the result of this long history. Seville oranges (bigarades) define the wine’s basic character, since originally people used these bitter oranges brought to Spain by the Arabs. Variations of vin d’orange appeared in southern Italy, France, and Spain, where citrus fruits flourished. And as Europeans left their homelands and settled the New World, they brought these ancient techniques, most of which reflected the seasons of the year. There, as in Europe, cordials resulted from that age-old meeting between herbs, fruits, nuts and wine.

Vintage cookbooks offer hints of these ancient practices, as do modern ones.

Consider M. F. K. Fisher’s ”A Cordiall Water” (1961). She touts the virtues of something called Arquebuse, made in a remote area of France with 33 different herbs. The best part about this concoction, it seems to me, is Fisher’s comment that it soothes nervous travelers “before embarking, especially for a plane trip.”

Southern chef Bill Neal writes of cordials in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (1985), pointing out that oranges grew in Louisiana and South Carolina long before Florida became the hot spot for citrus. He includes a recipe for orange cordial very similar in construction to the recipe that follows here, except that bourbon takes the place of wine. Very likely, Sarah Rutledge inspired him with her recipe for orange cordial in “The Carolina Housewife (1847).

French influence on Southern cordials

Considering that many French Huguenots settled in South Carolina, the existence of such cordials is not at all surprising. In fact, at one point, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana supplied the Memphis-based Robilio liquor brokerage company with orange wine. Robilio’s son figures some homesick Frenchmen rustled up batches of this sunny wine and bottled it.

The following simple recipe requires a clean glass quart-size bottle. Note you can use the same wine bottle, preferably one with a screw-on lid. If you find Seville oranges in your market, by all means use them. The addition of lemon and lime zest attempts to mimic the flavor of those sour oranges. If you want to get fancy, add some coriander seeds or maybe a stick of cinnamon or a vanilla bean.

But remember one thing: Just be sure that you drink about a half cup of the wine before proceeding, so as to fit all the ingredients into the wine bottle.

Vin d’Orange (Orange-Flavored Wine)

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d'orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d’orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus one week for wine to macerate in the refrigerator, so plan ahead.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

Peel/zest of 1 large sweet orange (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lime (preferably organic), in strips

1 (750 millileters) bottle of dry rosé or dry white wine

1/3 cup cognac

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/3 cup sparkling water (sodium-free)

Directions

1. Use only the skins of the fruits, making sure to exclude the pith (white part), as it will make your vin d’orange exceedingly bitter if you don’t.

2. Mix all ingredients together. Push the citrus peels into a quart-size glass jar or bottle, and then use a funnel to add the wine, cognac, sugar and sparkling water. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for one week or longer.

3. When ready to serve, strain wine through a sieve and serve with some (or all!) of the 13 Desserts of Provence. Or just serve the wine with any other sweets. Try vin d’orange with sharp cheeses and different dried sausages for something different.

Main photo: Vin d’Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels — orange, lemon and lime — brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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The Bachelor cocktail from Bachelors Lounge in Beaver Creek, Colo. Credit: Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge

Take it from this staunchly indoorsy Coloradan: You don’t have to ski here to drink as though you do. The following cocktails, all featuring local products, come straight from the bars of some of this state’s most beloved wintertime destinations. Just whip them up, serve them before a crackling fireplace and — voilà — your living room may as well be a resort lodge overlooking the snow-capped Rockies.

The Bachelor

Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge, The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, Beaver Creek, Colo.

The bartenders use bourbon made exclusively for the Ritz by Breckenridge Distillery, but any label will do.

Prep time: 3 minutes

Total time: 3 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce blood-orange liqueur (for example, the Solerno brand)

3 to 4 dashes aromatic bitters

1 sprig rosemary for garnish

2 blackberries for garnish

Directions

Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Stir and strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with rosemary and blackberries.

Feisty Winter Warmer

Feisty Winter Warmer. Credit: Courtesy of The BARLey

Feisty Winter Warmer. Credit: Courtesy of The BARLey

Courtesy of The BARLey, Steamboat Springs, Colo.

This one’s for the serious home bartender, as it requires a 3-liter mini-barrel for small-batch aging. You can purchase one online, but be sure to cure it according to the manufacturer’s instructions first. Feisty Rye, made in Fort Collins, may be hard to come by outside of Colorado, so feel free to experiment with brands you like. You can purchase the DRAM bitters used in this recipe on the Silver Plume company’s website.

Prep time: 3 to 4 minutes, plus 3 to 4 weeks for aging

Total time: Less than 5 minutes, once aging is complete

Yield: About 26 servings

Ingredients

2 bottles rye

1 bottle spiced-apple liqueur

2 ounces honey chamomile bitters

1 ounce sage bitters

Cinnamon sticks for garnish

Directions

1. Add all the liquid ingredients to your aging barrel and let sit for at least three weeks, sampling the rye mixture daily thereafter to taste. (Kara Kahn, assistant manager at The BARLey, finds that “it’s like dessert” after about four weeks.)

2. Once it has mellowed to your liking, store in a Mason jar. When ready to use, add a large ice cube to a toddy glass, measure in 3 ounces of the cocktail and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Snow on the Fruits of Fall

Courtesy of Frost at The Sebastian, Vail, Colo. The CapRock Organic Pear Eau-de-Vie used here comes from Peak Spirits in Hotchkiss, Colo., which has some out-of-state distribution. If you can’t find it, though, many substitutes exist.

Prep time: 5 to 6 minutes

Total time: 5 to 6 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

4 1/2 ounces apple cider

1 1/4 ounces whipped cream-flavored vodka

1 1/4 ounces spiced rum

1/3 ounce pear eau-de-vie

1/3 ounce butterscotch schnapps

Pinch of ground cinnamon

Whipped cream for garnish

1 thin slice of pear for garnish

1 cinnamon stick for garnish

Directions

1. Combine the cider, vodka, rum, eau-de-vie, schnapps and cinnamon in a small saucepan; set it over low heat until warm.

2. Use a small dab of whipped cream to adhere the pear slice to the cinnamon stick. Pour the cider mixture into an Irish coffee glass and carefully place the stick inside the drink so the cream does not touch the liquid (the garnish is more for visual and aromatic effect than flavor). Serve.

Ullr’s Nightcap

Ullr’s Nightcap. Credit: Jessie Unruh/GoBreck

Ullr’s Nightcap. Credit: Jessie Unruh/GoBreck

Courtesy of Modis, Breckenridge, Colo., which showcases Spring 44 vodka.

Prep time: 3 minutes

Total time: 3 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

1 ounce vodka

1/2 ounce Branca Menta

1/2 ounce coffee liqueur

2 dashes chocolate bitters (for example, Fee Brothers, Scrappy’s or The Bitter Truth)

Heavy cream

Candy cane for garnish

Directions

Combine the first four ingredients in a mixing tin over ice and shake. Pour over ice into a double rocks glass, add a splash of cream and serve with a candy cane for stirring.

Glühwein

Glühwein. Credit: Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo.

Glühwein. Credit: Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo.

Courtesy of St. Regis, Aspen, Colo. The resort has featured wine from Paonia’s Azura Cellars, but your favorite Cabernet will work just as well.    

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 to 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 cup orange juice

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

8 whole allspice berries

1 star anise pod

2 oranges

10 cloves, whole

8 juniper berries

1 lemon

1 1/2 bottles Cabernet Sauvignon

Orange twists for garnish

Directions

1. Combine orange juice, sugar, cinnamon sticks, allspice and star anise in a pot with 2 cups water over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower to a mild simmer.

2. Cut the oranges in half and squeeze juice into simmering liquid. Stud the squeezed halves with the cloves and gently place into the pot. Add juniper berries. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the simmering liquid, then place the halves in the pot.

3. Reduce mixture to half of its original volume. Add the wine and heat until just below simmering. Ladle into glass mugs and garnish each with an orange twist.

Main photo: The Bachelor from Bachelors Lounge in Beaver Creek, Colo. Credit: Courtesy of Bachelors Lounge

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A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you. It never occurred to me that real people made fruitcakes and consumed them in real time.

My mother had a stack of untouched fruitcakes in tins from long-gone retailers like S.S. Pierce. I found a few in the cupboard last month as I was cleaning out her house. Still virginal, and probably still safe to eat in the case of a nuclear attack.

Then I married into my husband’s Irish family.

Family’s fruitcake recipe holds dear memories

Michael comes from a long line of professional bakers who make fruitcakes for holiday giving with their own little floury hands. (Family lore is that his grandfather actually was the inventor of Marshmallow Fluff and was robbed of the glory.)

Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcake recipe for 40 loaves was part of the bounty of our marriage. We had our friend the pastry chef adapt the recipe for our wedding cake, doing the math to make it come out as three-tiered edible greatness. Everyone went home with a healthy chunk. My mother kept one whole layer of the cake for herself in her fridge, and for the next 10 years she had a slice of it for dinner with a healthy shot of Maker’s Mark.

Weddings were just fine, I learned, but the real fruitcake moment was Christmas. According to my sister-in-law Maryellen, making Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcakes was the most special and sacred childhood holiday ritual in their Worcester, Mass., household.

Every year, the children and their father would grate, mix and steep the fruit, then bake and wrap dozens of cakes to give to family and friends and other fruitcake-poor households. And the weekend to do it was the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving. Fruitcakes, Maryellen explained to me, “need time for the fruitcake to mature.”

So she came up to our house for Thanksgiving with a plan to use the rest of the weekend to re-create the treasured memory of fruitcakes past with her brother. She had it all planned. (She is a very organized person). The two would bond over their reminiscences and perhaps a healthy shot or two of Jamesons.

She went to the store and bought 48 small stainless loaf pans along with several bottles of spirits, sacks of aromatic spices, flour, and sugar, bags and bags of dried fruit and nuts, and two enormous cans of Crisco. I was surprised Crisco was even still available – and shocked to see that the label proclaimed it both “Transfats Free” and Kosher. Who knew? She needed to buy a lot since this was going to be an annual tradition in my house, I was informed. I vetoed the Crisco and opted for butter.

I had some problems with this idea. Specifically, that weekend we were doing a big neighborhood Sunday brunch to celebrate my daughter’s recent engagement. Industrial-scale fruitcake making tends to take over the kitchen for a number of days and makes putting together an elegant brunch for 30 a bit of a challenge. Secondly, her brother (my husband, remember) had absolutely no interest in the project. He’d long ago moved on from baking to tinkering with robots and software. And my daughters just thought it was plain weird. That left me as the designated helper, and a tad grumpy about the whole enterprise.

We got out my bathtub-scaled mixing bowls and began to mix the batter. We began with our spatulas and spoons, but by the end we were up to our elbows in the batter. Fruitcake batter is a turgid proposition and as a result a very good upper-arm workout.

By early Sunday morning, the batter was ready. The kitchen began to smell like a pub. We were a little woozy just from the waft of the alcohol, but I assumed that was a bonus. Maybe we’d been just a little overgenerous with the Jameson’s?

Once all the tins were filled to perfection, we loaded them in neat rows in my heavy duty, professional-quality Viking range. The kind with the door that closes so firmly it takes two hands to open. I cleaned up the kitchen and went in to glare at my husband sitting in front of his computer.

Suddenly, a huge boom! Kids rolling out of bed. Windows rattling. A terrorist attack? A plane falling out of the sky? Should we call 911? I ran into the kitchen — the direction of the bomb. What I saw was the doors blown open on my two ovens and the kitchen window with a spider web of cracks and a sweet mist of spirits. The fruitcakes were still innocently baking in their tiny tins. The Jameson’s and port had evaporated with a bang. I closed the oven doors, took an extra nip of Jameson’s for my nerves and decided never again.

But the fruitcakes were delicious. And every single person who received one raved about it as the first and only fruitcake they’d ever eaten and enjoyed. And we still have the tins, right? And so here we are again, making the fruitcakes, and I share Grandfather Hynes’ special Irish fruitcake recipe with you all.

Grandfather Hynes’ Fruitcake

You can use this recipe to make 40 loaves by scaling up the ingredients by 10. You’ll need a lot more whiskey!

Yield: Makes 1 (4-pound) cake or four loaves

Ingredients

2 pounds dried fruit (currants, some dark raisins and some candied citron)

1 bottle or more of good quality port, Irish whiskey etc. You’ll need enough to cover the currants and raisins as they soak overnight

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) white sugar

Approximately 8 eggs (1/2 pound by weight)

1/2 pound butter (If Crisco speaks to you, go with it!)

2 tablespoons grated nutmeg (It’s best if grated fresh.)

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 tablespoon ground mace

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 pound candied cherries

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Let the dried currants, raisin and citron steep overnight in the port or whiskey.

3. Cream the sugar, eggs and butter (or shortening).

4. Add the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and mix well.

5. Add the flour and baking soda and mix well.

6. Add the steeped dry fruits and mix until well incorporated.

7. Pour the batter into greased pans.

8. Place the cherries in the loaf pans by hand. Bury a row of cherries, evenly spaced, in the batter so each slice has a cherry for color and flavor.

9. Bake for 2 hours, checking for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center.

10. Cool the fruitcakes in pans placed on a rack.

Note: Tipple on any remaining whiskey — especially if its Jameson’s. It will make the fruitcake much more delicious.

Main photo: A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

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Holiday Pork Tenderloin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu that will honor my guests. I have been giving this party a lot of thought and decided to limit my scope to foods that represent Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the main holidays celebrated this time of year. Otherwise, if I try to include dishes representing the backgrounds of each of my guests, I will get into a tizzy trying to bring in dishes that reflect everyone’s nationality and/or religious belief. Besides, I have no idea what Ethical Culturists eat.

For Christmas

First, I will be thinking through Christmas dishes because that celebration dominates American culture this time of year, so much so that it is hard to believe that the holiday as we now know it has evolved only since the 19th century. Before that, our Puritan forefathers frowned upon its observance because they saw it as pagan. When Christmas finally came into its own, it became a holiday associated with children — gifts, good food and good cheer heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Those influences make clear why the holiday is so child-centered, what with hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and singing about reindeer.

As for the food I will serve, I want to avoid menu clichés such as the usual Christmas turkey or ham and will aim for other dishes gussied up to look festive. If I am feeling flush, I may go for beef tenderloins and will be extra cautious to not overcook this expensive meat. But if my guest list is large, I may cook the less costly pork tenderloins and will surround the platter with roasted apples and red potatoes and a sprinkling of sage leaves that may still be available from my garden. And this reminds me of a blunder I almost made. I recently bought a Jerusalem cherry plant because I was attracted to its shapely leaves and big red berries. I had just about decided I would decorate my holiday platters with cuttings from the plant when I discovered that the berries are poisonous, a member of the deadly nightshade family. So let us not get carried away by putting unfamiliar vegetation on food platters.

For Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that generally coincides with Christmas, is a less important observance than Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But Hanukkah’s proximity to the Christian holiday has led to its growing prominence, and it too has become a child-centered event with the daily lighting of candles and the distribution of gifts. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple of Jerusalem when its menorah miraculously burned for eight days and nights despite only a bit of oil being available. This explains why food fried in oil symbolizes the event, with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts the best known of the dishes. I have learned that I can make trays of latkes in advance, so I will prepare an assortment that will include not just those made with potatoes, but some with salmon and zucchini, and a dessert one with apples, all fried in advance, then heated in the oven just before serving.

For Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, based on several African harvest festivals, is a seven-day holiday that was established in the United States in 1966 as a tribute to African-American culture. Fruits, nuts and vegetables play a major role in this celebration so they should be featured in dishes served. My appetizers will include toasted almonds, and I will serve a roasted chicken surrounded by such vegetables as carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. For dessert, I will have sautéed bananas with a rum raisin sauce served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Not for Festivus

Thinking about the origins of these holidays has put me in mind of Festivus, dubbed “the holiday for the rest of us,” an invented celebration made famous in an episode of “Seinfeld.” The preferred dishes are some kind of meatloaf and spaghetti with red sauce, created I suspect because they include low-budget ingredients. This spoof involves the ritual “Airing of Grievances” that takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner when each of the assembled guests lashes out at the others to complain about affronts they have experienced all year. Festivus makes fun of consumerism and the often-manufactured good cheer that dominates the culture for all of December.

The music and mood

While it is amusing to think about such a grouchy holiday, I have decided not to include it in my party since I prefer a more positive approach to my celebration. I will, however, insist that gifts are not exchanged and the music I play will be limited to classical guitar, a bit of Bach, some Gershwin and the rapturous trumpet-playing of Miles Davis.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 pork tenderloins with a combined weight of 3 to 4 pounds

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In small dish combine thyme, garlic, oil, salt and pepper to form a paste.

3. Tie the two tenderloins together, place on rack in roasting pan and rub with the garlic and thyme paste. Roast 30 minutes.

4. Reduce oven to 350 F and surround pork with potatoes and apples. Roast for about 35 minutes longer or until meat thermometer registers 145 F. Remove potatoes and apples to a plate. Let pork stand for 15 minutes, and temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees.

5. Meanwhile, take away rack from roasting pan. Stir flour into drippings and cook at medium heat for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine, heat to boiling and keep on loosening brown bits from pan. Add broth and water and boil 1 minute. Pour into gravy boat.

6. Place pork on serving platter with potatoes and apples arranged around it. Garnish with sprigs of sage or whatever other fresh herbs are available.

Main photo: Roasted pork tenderloin with red potatoes, apples and sage. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Chenin Blanc is like the name of a woman you met at a club a couple of years ago: It rings a bell, but you can’t remember much else. That’s been a problem for wine producers around the world for most of the past century. The white grape delivers a big crop but usually makes for a pretty average wine, be it from California’s Central Valley or South Africa.

Chenin Blanc is native to France’s Loire Valley, where vintners in Anjou and Touraine still regard it with the glowing eye of a proud parent, probably because they understand its heart of gold and true potential. When you raise it in the disciplinary schist and limestone soils of the Loire, you get a respectable wine, something with breeding and class. It can even age extraordinarily well.

What’s more, Chenin Blanc is a remarkably flexible grape that knows how to party. It becomes a great dry or off-dry white in Vouvray, a long-lived dry white in the tough schist soils of Savennières and a dessert wine in Coteaux du Layon. Pick it early, as they do in Saumur as well as Vouvray, and it can make a great sparkling wine, especially when blended with some Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay. Look, for instance, to the superb Domaine Langlois-Château (owned by Champagne house Bollinger) or Bouvet Ladubay, both in Saumur, or Château Montcontour in Vouvray. Priced between $10 and $20 per bottle, Crémant de Loire is an affordable alternative to Champagne for holiday get-togethers.

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Saumur

Langlois-Château’s wines aren’t the cheapest from this region, but the estate controls the production process from beginning to end. The grapes are crushed at the winery and the pressed juice separated to be vinified and later blended, just as is done in Champagne. Frankly, the quality as compared to that of other Loire bubbly is evident. “It is slightly higher priced, but in the end we propose something different. We try to intend quality from the beginning,” general manager François Regis de Fougeroux said.

Bouvet Ladubay makes some terrific sparkling Chenin Blanc from vineyards situated on top of vast, old limestone quarries. This central part of the Loire Valley is popular with cyclists, and Bouvet offers a 2.5-kilometer (about a mile) bicycle tour of its wine caves. “Chenin Blanc has a very good expression here for sparkling wine,” deputy managing director Juliette Monmousseau said. “It is very minerally and has good acidity, which encapsulates what we need to make good sparkling wine.”

“Historically, the Loire was the highway to transport goods in a fast way from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean,” she said. “We really have no major industries other than tourism, wine, cheese and great food.” If you’re looking for some evidence of that great food, you’ll want to check out Juliette’s sister’s restaurant, La Route du Sel in Thoureil, a tiny town overlooking the river. You can’t beat the waterside tables for an outstanding outdoor lunch of local cuisine with wine.

Vouvray

A bikeable distance to the east is Vouvray, where estates such as Château Montcontour make sparkling and still whites from Chenin Blanc. “In France, when people think of Vouvray, they think of sparkling wine,” export manager Thibaud Poisson said. “In the U.S., they think of off-dry wines. But now dry, still white wines from Vouvray are becoming more popular.”

To the west of Saumur is Anjou, where Chenin Blanc remains the lead white grape. Here, however, the soils change to a rocky mix of granite schist and quartz, which naturally limits the productivity of the vines to net concentrated, very minerally and, in some cases, long-lived wines with exotic tropical fruit and citrus flavors.

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Anjou

Anjou/Savennières winemaker Patrick Baudoin said that while the Loire Valley east of Saumur features white, limestone-based soils, the parts to the west are known for “Anjou noir” soils, named for their darker schist makeup. That soil difference resonates in the character of the wines. Baudoin’s are more concentrated and taut than those grown in limestone soils, with profound stone-fruit, pear, lemongrass and green-tea notes. And they’re built to last, with vibrant acidity, good body and just enough white grape-skin tannin to give them some longevity.

There are some great examples from California, such as Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dry Chenin Blanc, which displays a certain amount of class. But it’s not the ideal place to raise the grape. If you’re looking for more terroir-driven wines and greater variety, look to the  Loire Valley.

Main photo: The beauty of the Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

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