Articles in Holidays

Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley

A Valentine’s Day menu needs to include oysters. First, just because it is tradition. Also, our hero of love, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), the famous Venetian adventurer whose reputation as a seducer of women was so great his name became synonymous with the art of seduction, says so.

Casanova wrote in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was his main preoccupation. “Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità” (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity), he remarked.

Casanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. Several studies show that the amorous benefits of this might not just be an old wives’ tale. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for hormone production related to sexual activity. It is important to eat the oysters raw, though, as cooking reduces this aphrodisiacal effect. Casanova also suggested how to serve them: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Here is a delightful little recipe that will tingle both the senses and the expectation. The recipe is for two, of course, because three’s a crowd on Valentine’s Day.

Oysters in Champagne Cream Sauce With Thai Chile

Serves 2 as an appetizer

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1 red Thai chile, thinly slivered

4 shucked Pacific oysters with their juice

3 tablespoons Champagne

¼ cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small nonstick skillet, melt the butter over high heat and then add the onion and chile and cook, shaking the pan, until translucent, about 1 minute.

2. Add the oysters and their juice, pour in the Champagne and let it evaporate for 30 seconds.

3. Pour in the cream and cook over high heat, shaking the pan and turning the oysters until their edges curl up, about 4 minutes.

4. Remove the oysters to a plate or place back in their shell and continue cooking the liquid until denser and saucy, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the oysters and serve.

Top photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley

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Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.

The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.

As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.

The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition

What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.

The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.

This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997,  reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.

A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence

Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.

We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.

After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.

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Crepes celebrate the sun as the winter days finally begin to get a little longer. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.

If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe,  thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.

Mastering crêpe-making technique

Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.

When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.

We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.

Crêpes

Makes about 12 crêpes

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ tsp salt

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)

1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)

1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)

Oil  and paper towel to oil pan

Directions

1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.

2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.

3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.

4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!

Tips and variations:

  • To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
  • For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
  • To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
  • Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
  • You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
  • Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.

Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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Poetry and stories that will make you crave food and romance. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.

Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.

However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.

In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.

Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.

A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”

Food and sex inspire writers

Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.

The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.

But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:

“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes

Pour forth tears,

I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī

Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”

Western aphrodisiacs

The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.

Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.

There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.

* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.

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Purple sweet potato gnocchi with hazelnut butter, adapted from “Pasta Classica” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Anyone who grew up like I did, making gnocchi at her mother’s knee, knows that the sight of dehydrated potatoes sets off a reflex to take out the pasta board. Old potatoes that have lost some of their moisture are best for making gnocchi (pronounced nee-AWK-key) because the dough formed with them absorbs less flour than dewy fresh potatoes do. Whether using Yukon Golds, Russets or sweet potatoes, the same principle applies for any variety of potato gnocchi: the less flour, the lighter the dumpling.

So one fine December day in my New York kitchen, faced with a basket filled with sweet potatoes that had never made it to the Thanksgiving table the month before, I set to work making gnocchi using the “sweets.” The recipe — a trail blazer, as far as I can tell — appeared in my first cookbook, “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking.”

Despite my intention to faithfully represent the pasta cuisine of Italy in that early volume, it was, in effect, an original. Sweet potatoes are not a traditional ingredient in the Italian culinary repertoire. Pumpkin dumplings, a staple of the Veneto and other regions of the Italian north, are reminiscent in flavor, but the sweet potato gnocchi recipe is a perfect example of Old and New World fusion.

I liked the newly invented dish so much that I decided to include it in my cookbook. Every Italian recipe, after all, started with someone just like me, inspired by what was at hand and guided by that particular Italian sensibility lodged in my genes that craves harmonies.

The sweet potato gnocchi, anointed with almond and butter pesto, became a Christmas and New Year ritual in my family. Following the Italian tradition, the dumplings were served after the appetizer but preceding the roast – usually duck, pork or ham. It is one of those recipes that always elicits raves and that everyone asks for once they have tasted it.

Over the years, I have tweaked my original recipe, inventing different butters and experimenting with various varieties of sweet potatoes. It is gratifying to see more and more vegetables not only in the farmers markets but also, on grocers’ shelves today. The sweetest of all the tubers by far is the deeply hued Stokes Purple, developed by North Carolina grower, Mike Sizemore, and introduced to me by Frieda’s, an innovative California specialty produce grocer. It has the driest flesh of them all, perfectly suited for gnocchi.

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Pass the potatoes through a ricer. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The proportions for the dough are classic — about a cup of flour to a pound of potatoes, depending on the potatoes’ moisture content. I spiked the puréed “sweets” with orange zest and nutmeg before working in the flour, and formed the dough into ridged curls on a butter paddle.

Into the boiling water they went, floating effortlessly to the surface after a mere minute or two, little indigo puffs ready for a warm butter bath. The brilliant purple flesh delivers not only the lightest and most sugary, but also the most spectacularly colored gnocchi. Although slightly exotic, the indigo dumplings are a most beguiling first course, with the charm of the unfamiliar. A touch of melted butter, a scattering of true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and if you like, a shower of almonds or hazelnuts, makes a festive dish for a New Year celebration.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Hazelnut Butter

Adapted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking” Makes about 40 purple or orange gnocchi, first course portion for 2 to 3 people

I’ve written separate formulas for purple and orange sweet potato gnocchi to account for slightly different proportions of flour-to-potatoes, depending on the varieties. The orange types will absorb more flour, but they, too, will be delicate and fluffy as long as the potatoes are not freshly harvested and have had a few weeks to age. When making sweet potato gnocchi for the first time, prepare a small batch as described here, and practice forming the dough and rolling out the dumplings once before making a larger batch. No doubt it will occur to you to make both types for a dramatic two-colored effect, certainly a lovely  presentation.

For purple sweet potato gnocchi dough:

¾ pound purple-fleshed sweet potato

¼ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For orange sweet potato dough:

½ pound orange-fleshed sweet potato, such as Covingtons

½ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For cooking:

kosher salt

For serving:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, chopped finely

2 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Place the sweet potatoes on a rack positioned over a baking pan to allow circulation of heat, and roast until they are collapsed in appearance and soft inside when pierced with a knife.

2. While the sweet potatoes cook, set up your work surface with the necessary ingredients and have extra flour on hand should you need it. Line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel.

3. Allow the sweet potatoes to cool only enough to be able to handle them comfortably. They must be warm to form a successful dough. The flesh of the purple variety doesn’t peel off easily, so best to scoop out the pulp with a spoon; discard the skin. If cooking the orange variety, peel off and discard the skin using a paring knife.

4. Pass the sweet potato pulp through a ricer onto a floured work surface, forming a mound, or mash it finely using a potato masher or fork. Never put cooked potatoes in a food processor or blender.

5. Scatter the orange zest, nutmeg, and sea salt over the potatoes. Sprinkle the mound with some flour and gradually work it in. Working quickly, keep adding the flour until you form a fairly smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands. If necessary, add more flour to prevent stickiness. Scrape the work surface frequently as you work to keep it smooth and free of dried bits of dough as you work. You can sift any dried out bits of dough and flour back onto the board to keep the surface powdery and ease kneading. Once you have formed the dough, stop working it and cut it in half. Cover the remainder with an inverted bowl to keep it from drying out.

6. Form the dough into ropes about ¾ inch thick and as long as you like for ease of rolling. Use the dough scraper or a knife to cut it into cylinders as wide as they are thick. Use a butter paddle, the side of a box grater, or a fork, take each little piece, dip it in flour on the cut ends to prevent sticking, and roll it against the paddle, grater, or tines of a fork, pushing your thumb into it as you do so to form a hollow, concave dumpling with a pretty ridged surface. Place the gnocchi onto the prepared towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process with the remaining dough to form the remaining gnocchi, lining them up on the towel without touching.

7. Have ready a spider strainer or a slotted spoon with which to scoop the cooked gnocchi out of the cooking water. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water. Select a shallow serving platter and spread the butter in it. Bring the water to a rapid boil and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt.

8. Lift the towel with two corners in the grasp of each hand, and position it over the boiling pot. Release your hold of the bottom two corners of the towel and drop the gnocchi at once into the water. Cook over high heat until the dumplings float to the top, allowing them to bob on the surface no longer than 1 minute before you retrieve them with the spider strainer or slotted spoon.

9. Transfer the gnocchi to the warm, buttered serving platter, shaking the dish to toss and coat them all over. Scatter with the hazelnuts and grated cheese and serve at once.

Note: Once formed, the gnocchi can be left out at room temperature, uncovered, for up to two hours, or frozen in place in an ample deep-freeze. Once frozen solid, slide the gnocchi into freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. To cook, drop them, frozen into boiling salted water and proceed as described in the recipe.

Top photo: Purple sweet potato gnocchi with hazelnut butter, adapted from “Pasta Classica” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Breakfast casserole with eggs, bacon, French bread and cheese. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

I no longer drink and therefore no longer need to deal with hangovers, but plenty of revelers do have to manage that problem on New Year’s Day. A dish you’ve made ahead will be a welcome sight.

If you were like me you could barely make the coffee, let alone a breakfast that your fat-seeking taste buds believed was your hangover salvation. There always was a solution lurking in the back of your mind, but unfortunately you needed to have prepared it before New Year’s Eve.

I’m referring to the modern American miracle known as the breakfast casserole. It’s simple enough: You basically get everything compiled the day before and then bake it in the morning. It’s as easy as pie or as casserole.

Egg and Bacon Breakfast Casserole

This strata casserole is a delight for a Sunday brunch with a few friends or a New Year’s Day breakfast. The first time you make it you will immediately start dreaming up alternative fillings. No problem, it’s a versatile casserole.

After you make this version with bacon you can start replacing the bacon with, let’s say, a cup of diced ham and a half cup of sautéed sliced mushrooms. Or you could use Swiss cheese and diced cooked chicken, or cooked broccoli and Gruyère cheese, tomatoes and cooked pork sausage, or, well, you get the idea.

Serves 6

Ingredients

Butter for greasing dish

4 cups ½ -inch cubes hearty white bread or French bread, with or without crust

2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded mild or sharp cheddar cheese

½ cup finely chopped onion

8 large eggs

¾ cup half and half

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked and crumbled

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking casserole.

2. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes, cheese and onion together, then arrange this mixture evenly over the casserole.

3. In the same bowl, beat the eggs, half and half, mustard, salt and black pepper to blend. Pour this egg mixture over the bread cubes.

4. Sprinkle the bacon over.

5. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the strata comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.

Top photo: Breakfast casserole with eggs, bacon, French bread and cheese. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fried dough from Grandma's recipe. Credit; Terra Brockman

“Knead until it’s smooth and shiny,” my mother told me, just as her mother had told her, as we made the egg pasta dough for the traditional fried dough dipped in honey treats my grandmother brought as a spoken recipe when she emigrated from southern Italy to the south side of Chicago as a teenager.

“Smooth and shiny” echoes in my head as I make these Christmas treats with my teenage nieces. They never heard the voice of their Italian great-grandmother, Saveria Castiglia, never saw her twinkling blue eyes or felt her heavy tread on the steep stairs to her apartment. But they know exactly what she made for Christmas every year, and how she made it. Their hands roll out the dough just as she did, forming the circles and braids of cosi boni and the little pillows of cassateddi filled with nuts and raisins.

As I watch my nieces shape the dough, I see myself and all my brothers and sisters gathered around another kitchen table many years ago, rolling the dough, making the shapes, watching as Mom carefully slipped them into the bubbling oil, then later dipped each one in hot honey, before we ate one after another and licked our fingers.

And every Christmas we gather to make cosi boni and cassateddi again, and make new memories, which will become old memories, that will in time be passed down and become new again. And it occurs to me that traditional family recipes live forever as if inside an infinite set of matryoshka dolls.

Fried dough recipe makes it to paper

I’ve heard people say that if God had intended us to follow recipes, he wouldn’t have given us grandmothers. I would add that God gave us grandmothers to give recipes eternal life.

The recipes below were spoken recipes for many centuries before my mother had her mother write them down. As I searched for similar recipes online, I found infinite variations of fried dough dipped in honey or sugar, and various cassateddi or cassatelle recipes filled with chickpeas and cocoa, or ricotta and chocolate, but none using as simple a dough or a filling as my grandmother’s.

This is undoubtedly because my grandmother came from a very poor family in a very poor village. Once she left, she never went back. But the dialect (cosi boni, not the proper cose buone) and the recipe survived the hard life of an immigrant, and has now survived another three generations. Poor as she was, she created a rich tradition, a living family heirloom.

So whatever your family holiday recipes are, gather round the kitchen table and pass them on!

Cosi Boni (in Grandma’s dialect) or Cose Buone (in standard Italian)

Makes about 2 dozen pieces

Ingredients

Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least 1 inch deep

6 eggs

2 to 3 cups flour, enough so the dough won’t be too sticky

Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about an inch deep

Directions

1. Heat the oil to 370 F.

2. Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat lightly with a fork.

3. Slowly add the flour until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

4. Knead the dough lightly until it’s smooth and shiny.

5. Pinch off small pieces and roll into ¼-inch thick ropes. Form into simple circles, braids, crosses, pretzel shapes, etc.

6. Gently drop the dough pieces, one at a time, into the oil. Fry in batches, and don’t crowd the pan. The dough will drop to the bottom, and then float to the surface. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.

7. When all the cosi boni have been fried, heat the honey just to a simmer in a wide, low-sided pan. Turn off the heat, and use a fork or tongs to coat each piece. Place in a mound on a serving platter.

Cassateddi

Makes about 2 dozen pieces

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 pound raisins

½ pound walnuts

1 or 2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 to 2 teaspoons allspice, or to taste

½ to 1 cup honey, warmed (use enough to have the filling just barely stick together)

For the dough:

3 or 4 eggs

3-4 teaspoons of water

3-4 teaspoons of oil

About 3 cups flour

Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about 1 inch

Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least one inch deep

Directions

1. To make the filling, put the raisins and walnuts into a food processor, or chop roughly with a knife.

2. Add the orange peel, allspice and ½ cup honey to the raisin and nut mixture and stir to blend. The filling should barely hold together when you pick up a small ball of it. If it doesn’t, add a little more honey, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want the filling oozing out of the little pillows when you fry them.

3. To make the dough, beat the eggs lightly with a fork in a large bowl. Add the water and oil and beat lightly to combine.

4. Slowly add the flour, about ½ cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. If it’s sticky, add more flour.

5. Roll the dough into a thin sheet. If it shrinks back as you roll it, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then roll out again.

6. Heat the oil to 370 F.

7. Cut into circles or squares, put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of each, and fold the dough over the filling, using fork tines to seal the two edges of dough.

8. Gently drop the pillows, one at a time, into very hot oil being careful not to crowd the pan. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.

9. After they cool, or the next day, heat a pan full of honey and use a fork to dip the fried dough in the hot honey. Pile high on a serving platter.

Top photo: Fried dough from Grandma’s recipe. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate might be the most unusual holiday drink recipe you try this season. It is polarizing, to be certain. Most people will run in the opposite direction from the very idea of mushroom hot chocolate. But for those who dare to taste it, porcini hot chocolate is a unique and decadent treat.

I developed this recipe one night when my friend furnished a lovely rich meal of Mangalitsa pork and roasted vegetables, and I was asked to supply dessert. With such a filling meal, I knew that my dessert needed to be light. Immediately, my mind went to sorbets. But it was a cold and snowy night. It finally occurred to me that hot chocolate might be the perfect way to end the meal. The only question was how to make it special.

I’m known for my pantry full of wild Boletus edulis, aka porcini, mushrooms. It seemed that hot chocolate might be rounded out with mushrooms. It was certainly worth the experiment. I ran a quick test batch, knowing it would either be brilliant or horrible.

That first batch was so delicious that, with mug still in hand, I raced to the computer to tell all of my foraging buddies. Most of the foragers were excited. But one friend confessed, “that sounds really gross, but I’ll trust you.”

I served it that evening with the roasted pork to great success, and it has since become the staple item that I bring to all holiday parties. Each time, porcini hot chocolate gets a decidedly mixed reaction. Some politely decline, and others race to fill their cup. The people who try it are unanimously pleased with the way chocolate combines with mushrooms. Both are rich and earthy, and each seems to complement and make the other fuller. The powdered mushrooms also thicken the porcini hot chocolate, as if it were made with cream. When topped with a hit of whipped cream, and some extra cocoa for a bitter contrast, I can hardly think of a dessert I’d rather cozy up to during the holidays.

Porcini Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

4 tablespoons porcini powder, from sliced dried porcini

4 teaspoons packed brown sugar

32 ounces whole milk

whipped cream

extra cocoa powder, for dusting

Directions

1. Begin by making the porcini powder. This is best done by placing sliced dried porcini mushrooms in an electric spice grinder. Buzz them until the porcini are as fine as cocoa powder.

2. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder, porcini powder and brown sugar. Use a spoon or fork to stir the ingredients together until they are evenly combined.

3. Add the milk to a medium saucepan. Over low heat, whisk in the powdered ingredients until no visible powder remains on the top. Bring the heat up to medium-low, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until the porcini hot chocolate is hot.

4. Ladle the porcini hot chocolate into mugs, and top them with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa.

Top photo: Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The craziness of the holidays often overwhelms the cook. We are worrying and wondering about so much that sometimes we just need to force ourselves to take it easy. A wonderful way to take it easy is to make a simple dessert that can last for days. In our family that go-to dessert is crisps.

This all began when I moved to New England in 1982 and we ate apple crisp, which I loved. Then I bought a house in Arlington, Mass., that had a pear tree and for years it was pear crisp.

For the holidays, though, just a few more ingredients beckoned and an apple, walnut and maple syrup crisp resulted. I think it might be worth your while to double the recipe as one takes portions bigger than one should.

For the apples, Granny Smiths work best, but really you can use any type. You could also replace the apples with pears and even persimmons. But apples are my favorite.

Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp

Serves 6

Ingredients

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

4 apples, cored, unpeeled, cut into wedges

⅓ cup chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons peach schnapps

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup sugar

½ cup light brown sugar

¾ cup all-purpose flour

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350  F.

2. Lightly butter a 10-by-12-by-2-inch or similarly sized baking dish. Place the apples on the bottom, all the wedges facing the same way, then sprinkle the walnuts over the apples. Drizzle with the maple syrup and schnapps, and sprinkle the cinnamon and salt.

3. Blend the remaining butter, sugars and flour together with a pastry cutter until the mixture looks like dry oatmeal. Spoon the flour mixture over the apples, covering them entirely.

4. Bake until the top is brown and the sides bubbling, about 40 minutes. Serve once it’s very warm but not bubbling hot. It’s all excellent at room temperature and even cold.

Top photo: Apple, Walnut and Maple Crisp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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