Articles in Gifts

New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

There’s something inescapably tacky about the thought of Cheddar cheese blended with  pickled onion or smoked ham and mustard, like a Ploughman’s lunch without the hard work. Nonetheless, blended cheese or cheese with extra “bits” (technically known as cheese with additives, although the industry is sensitive to the term), erupts over British cheese counters like lava down Krakatoa.

Such cheese with bits look like a larder gone hideously mad or a product of the sorcerer’s apprentice on acid. Over the years, I have had the misfortune to encounter cheese with piccalilli, garlic and mushroom, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, asparagus and leek, Guinness, Worcestershire sauce and pecan nuts, not to mention clashing varieties cemented together in weird layers. Colby jack or Cojack (as I like to call it) is an all-American combination of Colby and Monterey jack blended together before pressing that makes a “fun” snack. Right.

Phew, it’s all as cheesy as a Barry White song — and sells equally as well.

Ilchester has been a leader in the U.K. specialty cheese scene ever since they launched their Beer Cheese in 1962. Today, their selection also includes Mexicana™ chili cheese, Cheddar with Pickled Onion & Chives, and Marmite™ Cheddar. Yes, you either love it or hate it.

Booze as a ‘bit’ in your cheese

And, what is it with cheese with booze – on either side of the Atlantic? Red Windsor, marbled with red wine or Port (and coloring), may be of ancient lineage but frankly is an insult to Bordeaux and looks like it has leprosy. And don’t get me started on Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar: once tasted, never forgotten … but not in a good way. And there’s also Cheddar and Whisky, Chile Lime & Tequila Cheddar, Caramelized Onion and Rioja Cheddar.

In the U.S., you can find a Chocolate Stout Cheddar from Oregon or a nice Merlot BellaVitano from Wisconsin. Are we all so desperate for a drink?

Dessert cheeses also have a following: Lemon Crumble, Cheddar with Fruitcake, Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger. At least it makes life easier for those who never know whether to serve the cheese before or after the pudding.

There are combinations that are meant to go together but such inventions as White Stilton with Apricots or Blueberries and Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger have no natural, logical affinity. Wensleydale with Cranberries, for example, marries sharp-tasting fruit with rich-flavored cheese in a disturbing combination that is inexplicably popular. Personally, I’d demand a divorce.

Cheese with date and walnut, apple and celery, or Thai spices feeds an obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake, a mass flavor-of-the-month mentality in a pick ‘n’ mix culture. Block-produced Cheshire with pear and almonds is as different from Appleby’s legendary hand-crafted production as, well, chalk from cheese.

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury's supermarket in Manchester, United Kingdom. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s supermarket in Manchester, England. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Thankfully, peanut butter hard cheese has never made it past the dairy door — as far as I know. But it is probably just a matter of time.

Good cheese as a base is key

On the other hand, where there is a good cheesemaker you’re more likely to find a good cheese with bits: the delicate network of soft green veins that distinguishes Fowlers Traditional and Original Green Derby comes from natural sage, not lurid artificial coloring. Dutch Gouda with cumin seeds is a centuries-old, tried-and-tested combination. An artisan Cornish Gouda with Honey and Clover is now being made by a Dutch family in Cornwall (my jury-of-one is still out on this).

Dartmoor Chilli, Meldon (with English mustard and Ale) and Chipple (with spring onions) are all made on the base of the well-esteemed, sweet, mild Curworthy cheese. The Sharpham Estate’s Rustic is flavored with chives and garlic; and Wedmore, made by scattering chives through the center of each round of aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy in Somerset captures the flavors of the lush Somerset meadows.

There can be a fine line between those cheeses that contain bits and those infused with an extra dimension of flavor, such as Cornish Yarg, wrapped with nettle or wild garlic leaves, or the coating of fresh herbs that add interest and contrast to soft cheese such as award-winning Rosary Garlic and Herb Goats Cheese. And the best smoked and washed rind cheeses, which are brushed with wine or cider, are about discretion not domination.

One problem with cheese with bits is the suspicion that it is a way of adding “extra value” to inferior, poorly textured, mass-produced cheese without adding extra care. No manufacturer will ever plead guilty, but the fact is: If the quality of the base cheese is poor, whatever you add won’t make it any better.

Cheese as an entrée point

But as fast as flavors come, they also seem to go.

These additives are fashion products. Maybe this sort of fun cheese can give younger folks, for many of whom cheese is just something that drips off a burger, an entrée into the cheese world and will lead them to better products — much as has happened in wine. Indeed, it may be that opening up the market, adding range and variety, may even save some standard cheeses from decline.

Maybe. But I still think the person who put Jamaican jerk sauce into cheese should be forced to eat it every day.

Main photo: New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

I am planning to compile a personal cookbook — not for publication, but rather as a private collection of favorite recipes to give to family and friends. The idea has been brewing ever since I got a phone call from a son at college who wanted to know how to make “skinny fries,” a potato recipe he’d grown up with. At other times I get requests from friends for how to make a particular dish they had at my house. Although some of the recipes I will be compiling are for family dishes that were passed down to me, many come from cookbooks or magazines, recipes I probably tweaked before deciding they were perfect. What makes my cookbook personal, of course, is that it will reflect my particular tastes in food, leaving out ingredients I do not like, and going heavy on the types of dishes I love.

We all know that the world has become flooded with recipes so that selecting the best of them is challenging and time consuming. I have spent years accumulating thick files of favorites I culled after having tried so many other recipes that were similar but not as good. So I see my collection as a worthwhile service to loved ones by offering them what I consider to be the best of the best. It took years, for instance, to find the perfect chocolate cake, a dessert I now bring to potluck gatherings where I am always besieged for the recipe. I also have a biscotti recipe that experienced biscotti eaters tell me is the best they have tasted. I have recipes that were handed down by the women in my family, and passing these along gives me a sense of continuity and order. These include recipes for a winter soup made with beans and meat, and a meatloaf made light and fluffy because of its secret ingredient — a grated raw potato.

I routinely hear tales from friends who regret not getting their grandmother’s recipe for a dish they continually think about, but don’t know how to make because no one in the family thought to jot it down. It would have required trailing after grandma in her kitchen, and managing to measure and write down what she instinctively threw into a pot. I have even heard stories about grandmothers who will not give out their recipes, or if they do, will deliberately leave out key ingredients. Their motivation seems to be the hope that family members will continue to visit and eat what they cook. My expectation for myself is to have it both ways — to continue to please my visiting family members with the dishes they love and then to hand them all copies of the recipes.

It’s ‘CSI: The Kitchen’

I have seen compilations of family recipes assembled by other people, and they tell me a lot about the person who put the collection together. They add up to what I think of as a food profile. Just as FBI profilers can speculate about perpetrators of crimes by analyzing clues left behind, I feel I can gain insights into a person by examining the foods they choose to eat. But the work of a food profiler is far more pleasant — investigating noodle puddings and fruit pies rather than bullet holes and blood spatters. I have noticed, for instance, that books filled with dishes for grilled meats strike me as man pleasers or may even have been created by men. Ethnic backgrounds are also easy to spot — loads of pasta recipes with tomato sauce suggest Southern Italy, while yeast breads and coffeecakes using cardamom say Scandinavia.

Regional recipes are striking when, for instance, books recommending sweet tea and directions for such desserts as triple-layer coconut cake and sweet potato pie announce old-time Southern cooking. Recipes using such stylish grains as farro and quinoa and a wide variety of herbs and spices suggest an adventurous eater, while those relying mainly on salt and pepper for seasoning strongly hint that the eater has conservative tastes. And there are subtle clues. If many of the recipes yield eight or more servings, I deduce that the person either has a large family or entertained frequently, and the reverse is true. Recipes serving just two indicate a more private lifestyle.

My personal food profile

If I were to be food-profiled, the absence of cilantro, the herb people seem to either love or hate, would herald my aversion to the thing. Also noticeable would be my preference for cooking with olive oil rather than butter, and that an indifference to butter and cream carries over to desserts that omit whipped cream. Recipes for candy and cookies will lord it over puddings and tarts. My book will contain anecdotes, tributes to my sources for recipes, and nostalgic comments about the people whose recipes I am reproducing. I would hope to be seen as someone with a generous spirit, but most of all I would like to be seen as someone with a respect for history. I long ago learned that history is not just about the actions of presidents and kings but about the aspirations of regular people, and personal cookbooks can be a key to understanding how these people really lived.

Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti

(Adapted from “Cooking With Les Dames D’Escoffier” cookbook)

Prep time: 30 minutes (this includes the slicing before the second baking)
Chilling time for dough: 3 hours
First baking: 45 minutes
Resting time between bakings: 1 hour
Second baking: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 hours 40 minutes

Yield: 48 biscotti

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk
1½ cups miniature chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until blended. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and milk, then the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. With lightly floured hands, form each portion into an 8-inch long log and flatten it to 2½ inches wide; place each log on a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the dough. Wrap in the plastic and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
  3. Position oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs of dough, leaving them sitting on the plastic. Beat the remaining egg well to make a glaze. Brush the tops of the logs with the glaze and place them on the parchment-lined sheet. Space them 2 to 3 inches apart since they will spread. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and just firm to the touch. Let logs cool completely for at least an hour.
  4. For the second baking, heat oven to 300 F. Line one or two sheets with parchment paper. With a long serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into ½ to ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti on the sheets, putting the ends cut side down. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool and store.

Notes

Variation for cranberry-pecan biscotti: Omit chocolate chips, vanilla and milk. Add 1½ cups dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1½ tablespoons lemon zest. The rest of the directions are the same.

Main photo: Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

Why save all of your good deeds for the holiday season? Giving back is all about love, so this Valentine’s Day, put together a meal that helps benefit some great causes.

Set the mood with a pretty table: When you purchase these beautiful block-printed placemats by Dolma Fair Trade made in Dharamsala, India, Given Goods Company gives 15% of profits to help support education for women and children in the area. Dolma’s efforts assist women and school-aged girls by funding education and providing steady work opportunities.

Dolma Fair Trade Placemats, $12.

Start the love flowing with a splash of bubbly:  Égalité, is a new sparkling wine that donates a portion of its proceeds to LGBT nonprofit organizations across the country.  Égalité is a smart blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 20% Gamay and 5% Aligote, so cheers to all of that.

Égalité, $23.99, is available nationwide at restaurants, fine retail stores and via wine.com.

Comfort food is loving food: Cozy up with a bean soup from the Women’s Bean Project. The organization, which also sells other mixes and spices (as well as handcrafted jewelry), has been dedicated to helping women break the cycle of poverty by giving them transitional jobs in gourmet food preparation and jewelry making. Choose from a selection that includes Toni’s 10 Bean, Sarah’s Spicy Split Pea and Giada De Laurentiis’ Lentil Soup. And let’s not forget, beans are good for the heart.

Women’s Bean Project Soup, $5.75.

Make your drizzle count: Oliovera Olive Oils come in amazing flavors like Piquant Jalapeno and Sweet Orange. Drizzle a little olive oil on your bean soup. And their vinegars, such as Ripe Peach Balsamic, make any salad happy. Best of all? For each bottle ordered, Oliovera donates five meals to a hungry child through its initiative with Feeding America. Delicious.

Oliovera olive oils and vinegars, $15.50-$34.

Chocolate, of course: By now we know that the antioxidants in chocolate are good for us, but when you buy L.A. chocolatier Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, the deed is extra sweet. Proceeds from sales benefit Relief International’s efforts in the nation to help fund a women’s health center and feed malnourished children. This beautiful gift set comes with a colorful bracelet.

Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, $20.

Finish with a cuppa: Whether you prefer tea or coffee, Laughing Man Tea and Coffee’s offerings are a charitable and delicious choice. All proceeds go to causes focusing on community development and education, and their Home Blend 184 and Dukale’s Dream are fair trade, organic and shade grown. (Actor Hugh Jackman is one of the founders of Laughing Man.)

Laughing Man Teas and Coffees, $10 and up.

Top photo: Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

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Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hilgado

I was lying in bed, thinking about the family tree hanging in my closet, when I hit on the concept of The Cookbook Tree of Life. Just four cookbooks are the ancestors of all the cookbooks that are on our shelves today. Would it work? Were there clear links between each generation of cookbooks just like people? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could connect the dots and slept on the idea feeling dubious.

The following morning I found that it did indeed fly. I stuck more than 120 cookbook titles all together on a great big sheet of paper and took it from there.

In my own way, I have tracked the development of cookbooks across four centuries and six languages. It is fascinating to see how all genres lead back down to just four original cookbooks, one in Latin, one in French, one in German and one in English.

  • “De honesta voluptate et valetudine,” by Platina, written in Italian around 1474.
  • “Le viandier,” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel), written in French in 1486.
  • “Kűchenmeisterei” written in German in 1485 by an unknown author.
  • “Boke of Cokery” written in English in 1500 by an unknown author.

These were cookbooks, meaning they have clear recipes with ingredients and instructions. A cookbook is a collection of recipes, or blueprints that allow a cook to recreate a dish. Cookbook bibliographer Henry Notaker has said that to be defined as a cookbook, a book should be about two-thirds cookery instruction and that roughly half of the volume should be written in recipe form.

The earliest cookbooks

Surprisingly early, right from the start of the age of printing, a number of published books fit this description. The recipes in them may be embryonic, expressed in just a few lines, but their purpose of instruction is clear.

Early books with recipes covered wide topics as well. Some sought to preserve the wisdom of the ancients, others offered advice on how to live a healthy life, and still others were preoccupied with glorifying the banquets and feasts of a wealthy patron.

In later centuries, the voices of the authors come through more clearly, and indeed, a few such books seem designed to showcase personality rather than to instruct their readers.

Before 1501 there were only about 700 books in existence, of those 700 the above four titles could be considered cookbooks.

When deciding which books belonged to which branch I gravitated to the first books that seemed to clearly break through or create a genre. Some books focused on stewardship and the early books on gardening were clearly about an original idea. Books of secrets would be household secrets and it is clear to see how those evolved into books by women and books for women, a genre that we see in full force today. The same can be said about regional cooking books, books about ingredients and even books about molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs.

Finding a printer

It was two years before I found the right printer for “The Cookbook Library” and even then a long six months from agreement to actually printing on the press. I knew that I wanted the tree to be more than lines on a sheet of paper. I wanted it to be beautiful and handcrafted much like the books it describes.

When the artist asked me what kind of tree I would like, I said it has to be an English oak. Many of the books mentioned are English, and after all I am English, too. And now, after so much planning, you can finally see the results.

The tree is a beautiful artisan print featuring seven colors on heavy 100% cotton paper. It boasts original watercolor art and the craft of centuries in its letterpress type. I have so enjoyed making this tree come to life, a project that has been more absorbing than I could possibly have thought.

The limited print run of only 200 copies is available now exclusively at lavarenne.com. For more details on how to order yours, check here.

Top photo: Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hildago

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The New California Wine, Adventures on the Wine Route and The World Atlas of Wine.

The clock is ticking for Christmas gift-buyers. But don’t fear, a great new book on shifting tides among California’s winemakers and updated versions of two classics are the perfect presents for the wine lover on your list.

“The New California Wine,” by Jon Bonné

New-California-Wine_small

Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

There’s a new breed of winemakers cropping up in California, and they’re aiming to overthrow the old guard, says Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in his book, “The New California Wine.”

Sometime in the mid-1980s, California’s wine style shifted from mirroring the Old World to the more ripe, full bodied and extracted wines that are popular today. Some believe this shift was California defining its own style. Others, however, attribute the shift to the preferences of certain influential wine writers and magazines.

Whatever the reasoning, a new change is now taking shape. Traveling all over California and visiting niche vignerons and grape growers, Bonné describes what he calls a “revolution of taste.” By taking dead aim at the style he refers to as “big flavor,” Bonné introduces producers who are more focused on subtlety and sense of place than huge flavor and ripeness.

The artisan producers discussed are just as comfortable kicking the dirt between the vines as they are drinking some of Europe’s most sought-after wine. They are not only making exceptional wine, but doing so with a deep understanding of what their brethren create across the pond. These women and men are just as much wine geeks as they are creators of a style.

 Bonné divides the book into three sections: “Searching for the New California” describes his exploration of this transformation whilst finding winemakers involved, from the coastal vineyards of Santa Barbara to industrial estates outside the suburbs of San Francisco’s East Bay. “The New Terroir” discusses a lot of these vineyards, new and old, but more importantly, what makes them unique and special. “Wines of the New California” individually discusses the myriad personalities making these wines and describes how they are breaking from recent tradition. Wineries are listed by grape style, with brief notes on Bonné’s favorite wineries, highlighting particular wines from each of these producers.

Much like the wines he discusses, Bonné’s writing gives you a great sense of place. Through his descriptions, you can almost feel the chilly Pacific wind hurtling through the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, or smell the eucalyptus and bay laurel that scent the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.

The book is subtitled “A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste,” but that doesn’t truly define it. This is more than a guide — it’s a manifesto, drawing a line in the sand between the wines that have for a long time been the mainstay of California’s “style” and these emerging rebels.

The producers mentioned in “New California Wine” are just the avant-garde of a trend that will divide California into two camps of wine types: the big versus the refined. It can be argued that both have their place, but 10 years from now we’ll look at “New California Wine” as the first book that documented the shift.

“Adventures on the Wine Route,” 25th anniversary edition, by Kermit Lynch

"Adventures on the Wine Route" Credit: Courtesy of North Point Press

Courtesy of North Point Press

When I moved back to a California a couple of years ago, one of the first “to do’s” on my list was to visit Kermit Lynch’s wine shop in Berkeley. Lynch is the wine merchant respected for his uncanny ability to discover some of what are now considered to be the greatest wines coming out of France and Italy. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his award-winning wine travel book, “Adventures on the Wine Route.”

This is a book for anyone who loves the French way of life — you do not have to be into wine to enjoy it. This is mostly in part to Lynch’s easygoing, yet humorous style of writing. More than any other wine book, Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route” will get you going to the shop shelf to seek out the producers and regions mentioned.

It’s also a travel journal, where you’re seated in the car next to the author as he zigzags his way through the byroads of France’s countryside while explaining the nuances of its wines and the families making them.

“The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition,” by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson

"The World Atlas of Wine" Courtesy of Mitchell Beazley

Courtesy of Mitchell Beazley

If there only two books in your wine book collection, one should be the Oxford Companion to Wine, while the other should be the recently published 7th edition of “The World Atlas of Wine.” British wine experts Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson have again teamed up to produce what may be the most thorough collection of wine-related cartography.

Whether your exploration of wine has only just begun or you are a fully fledged oenophile, this assortment of wine maps will prove indispensable in bringing any level of knowledge to the next stage.

Wine, more than any other beverage, is all about its origin — producers from the French sub-region of Maury in the Roussillon to Walker Bay in South Africa’s Southern Coast of the Cape all love to talk about their vineyard sites. With this book, you are able to delve further into what’s in your glass, pinpointing the exact location of the source.

The new edition boasts revamped maps of Australia and South Africa as well as new American viticultural areas (AVAs) in many of the United States’ major grape-growing regions. There is also a new section highlighting Asia’s wine regions, not to mention the hundreds of winery recommendations and specific regional descriptions. Consider this tome indispensable in furthering your understanding of wine.

Top photo: Top wine books for the gift-giving season. Credit: Louis Villard

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Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Everyone loves reading and drinking, right? Or maybe it’s drinking and reading. So these great books about cocktails would be perfect presents for just about anyone. You might even want to snag a few for yourself, and snuggle up to read them with a drink in hand.

“Cocktails for a Crowd”

This book by Wine Enthusiast Magazine spirits editor Kara Newman is a must-have resource for making punches, pitcher drinks and party-size batches of tiki and tropical beverages. Newman also spells out the way to go on ice, garnishes and other equipment to keep the drinks flowing at your next gathering. Additionally included are classics along the lines of the Bobby Burns (see recipe below), a strong, burly drink invented for Robert Burns Night, celebrating the Scottish poet, on Jan. 25. Newman even explains how to make a bottled version, ideal for serving to a large group. $18.95, Chronicle Books

“Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body”

Alex Ott, an organic chemist and mixologist, has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world. Ott was inspired by his own brush with death in an airplane crash to write this book, which centers on the power of spirited concoctions to combat stress, boost energy, stay young, improve memory, cure hangovers, relax one’s nerves and, of course, act as aphrodisiacs and magic tinctures. Many of the drinks call for fresh fruits, vegetables, botanicals and herbs as well as chamomile, garlic, lemongrass and cinnamon to work their power. $17, Running Press

“The Drunken Botanist”

Written by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart, this is the book to get for the gardeners and cocktail historians in your life. A detailed exploration of the garnishes and flavorings that can naturally accent a good drink, from herbs and spices to berries, flowers and other botanicals, Stewart helps guide both how to grow all these accoutrements as well as how to use them in a range of flavorful cocktails, from The Aviation, made with violet liqueur, to a Negroni with fresh orange peel. $19.95, Algonquin Books

“Savory Cocktails”

Written by Greg Henry, author of “Savory Pies,” this is for those who prefer their drinks herbaceous, smoky and strong — his chapters are broken down by Sour, Spicy, Herbal, Umami, Bitter, Smoky, Rich and Strong categories. Within the inspiring recipes are notes on techniques and primers on how to make your own syrups, bitters, shrubs and infusions. $16.95, Ulysses Press

“Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails”

Katie Loeb, a Philadelphia-based sommelier, restaurant consultant and bartender, believes that anyone who can shop, boil water, measure ingredients and operate basic kitchen equipment can make homegrown cocktails. But just in case, her book includes step-by-step photos of some of the more complicated procedures for those shaky around a shaker. Expect tips on how to make infusions of base spirits, bitters and your own limoncello. $24.99, Quarry Books

“Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender”

Northern California-based bartender Jeff Burkhart likens bartending to both marathon running and psychology. In this book, he takes a look at life from both sides of the bar, providing anecdotes on encounters with George Lucas, Robert Redford and Andre Agassi, as well as useful tips on drinking and making drinks. $15, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

“Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails”

Renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s book is part history, part philosophy, with plenty of recipes for the world’s most widespread — if sometimes maligned — spirit, vodka. Abou-Ganim defends vodka’s complexity and versatility with detailed ideas for cocktails, a primer on pairing with such delicacies as caviar and a list of 58 vodkas with tasting notes and character scores for each. $22.95, Surrey Books

Bobby Burns

Courtesy Kara Newman, “Cocktails for a Crowd”

Serves 8 (about 4 cups)

Ingredients

12 ounces Scotch

12 ounces sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica

5 ounces water

2 ounces Benedictine

8 lemon twists, for garnish

Directions

1. In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine Scotch, vermouth, water and Benedictine and stir well.

2. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-milliliter bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours, until chilled.

3. To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice.

4. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled.

5. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each drink with a lemon twist.

Top photo: Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

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Danish Kringle pastries. Credit: Barbara Haber

Coming up with Christmas presents that people really want is a challenge that confronted me every year until I wised-up and limited my gift-buying to delectable edibles.

In the old days this meant telephoning food companies and placing orders to be delivered to recipients, but I had to know what companies to call. These days, the Internet has become a veritable shopping assistant or scout. I only have to name a food and sources pop up, and I can purchase many gifts with the flick of a finger. No pushing through crowded stores for me. And on Black Friday, that infamous post-Thanksgiving Christmas-shopping day for bargain hunters, I stay at home nibbling on leftovers.

In thinking about what to buy, I seek out novel products, that is, items not likely to be found in the usual stores. Inevitably, I am led back to my Wisconsin roots where certain local specialties hold great appeal.

Cheese castle goodies

A favorite store with online shopping services is Mars Cheese Castle, located in Kenosha, Wis., midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. This place has local cheeses, phenomenal hams and sausages, and wonderful bakery products, all available online. My favorites are their Baby Swiss cheese, Usinger’s bratwurst and summer sausages, and an applewood smoked ham I often crave.

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

As for baked products, Mars is famous for cheese bread the company says is baked with a quarter-pound of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar in every loaf. And I always order Kringles, a Danish pastry I find only in Wisconsin that has various fillings of apples, cherries or blueberries, and also pecans or cheese. My only problem in ordering a supply of Christmas gifts from this place is that I must fight the urge to keep and eat everything myself.

On a visit to Mars Cheese Castle last summer, I was browsing along aisles of knickknacks when I stumbled across a shelf with plain boxes labeled “cheese storage bags.” Manufactured in France, the boxes contain 15 bags that simulate the environment of a cheese cave, thus preventing cheese from suffocating and molding, which is its fate when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I bought a box and, sure enough, these bags do what they promise. I have become a zealot on their behalf. They are a perfect gift for cheese lovers, and I was thrilled to find sources online. I now have a stack of them I hand out as hostess gifts, and will give them at Christmas when I need the perfect small gift for a worthy recipient.

Custom candy Christmas gifts

But items that relate to Wisconsin are not the only desirable gifts I find online. I have a friend who collects hot sauces with funny, often rude, names and I am always on a mission to find new ones. The best one so far is called Scorned Woman, which arrived in a slinky black velvet sheath. Others are Slap Ya Mama, Mad Dog, Bee Sting, and one called Pain Is Good with a label showing a man screaming in agony. My friend lines up her collection in her kitchen as a conversation piece, and I will be sorry when she runs out of space.

See's Candies. Credit: Barbara Haber

See’s Candies. Credit: Barbara Haber

Another standby gift for the sweet lovers on my gift list is candy from See’s, a luscious West Coast chain of shops that do not exist east of the Mississippi except for pop-up stores that show up just before Christmas. But these places only have ready-packed assortments, not offering the luxury of handpicked pieces available in the stores or online.

People have their favorites, and these vary as widely as the scores of different chocolates created by See’s. To receive a gift of hand-selected chocolates from a friend who knows what you like, it seems to me, is quite wonderful. I would add that See’s candy is owned by Warren Buffet, who always knows a good thing when he sees it, and if this candy is good enough for him, well, say no more.

And on the subject of candy I cannot help but refer back to Wisconsin where I can buy a product known locally as Fairy Food, but also goes under the more prosaic name of Molasses Sponge candy. Fragile, melt-in-the mouth squares of delicately flavored molasses crunch are enrobed in exquisite and thick coatings of milk or dark chocolate.

My source for this is a shop called Buddy Squirrel that has been in the vicinity of Milwaukee for almost 100 years. I suppose it got its name because the store is famous for its roasted nuts, but it’s the Fairy Food that sends me there. I should hasten to add that knock-offs of this candy made with cheap ingredients are around and to be avoided. Go for the real thing or nothing at all.

A season for indulgence

The fun of buying food gifts for friends and family is that you can offer cheerful indulgences that people generally do not buy for themselves. This is why I don’t order those boxes of apples or pears that are popular and routine Christmas gifts. To me, that would be the equivalent of handing out socks or neckties, gifts that seldom bring joy to the faces of their recipients.

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

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