Articles in Gifts

An herbed salt. Credit: Sue Style

Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself. The only snag about edible gifts is that once you’ve conceived and created them, put them up in clever containers and wrapped and labeled them with a holiday flourish, it can be a bit of a wrench to part with them. Steel yourself — or better still, make enough to keep some for yourself.

Winter chutneys go beautifully with a holiday ham, meat or game pie, or pâté en croûte. This super-simple date chutney (see recipe below) — a recipe from my mother, who used to make it every Christmas — is a double pleasure because it’s just a leisurely chopping and mixing job. There’s no cooking at all, so the apartment is not invaded with penetrating vinegary fumes. It benefits from keeping for a few weeks, so the flavors ripen nicely and will last for several months.

If you have herbs growing in your garden or terrace, the more robust perennial ones like rosemary, thyme and winter savory will still be good to go. Throw some in a food processor with sea salt and grind till fine for a wonderfully aromatic herby salt (see recipe below). The color when freshly ground is a delicate herbaceous green. This will fade after a few weeks, but the flavor lingers on. Add a note to the gift label with serving suggestions: It’s wonderful scattered over roast vegetables either before they go into the oven or as they come out (for even more flavor) or sprinkled onto focaccia or other bread before baking.

The softer, more delicate herbs work best in a moist mix like pesto. Instead of the usual basil-pine nut combo, try one with pumpkin seeds, loads of flat-leaf parsley and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, whizzed together to a verdant paste. A bright green blob floated on top of deep orange pumpkin soup is a thing of beauty, or you can stir it into pasta or risotto or serve with cold turkey, duck breasts or grilled fish.

Around Christmas here in Alsace, France, on the border with Switzerland and Germany, baking reaches fever pitch at this time of year. Whether you visit friends at home, buy bread at the baker’s or attend the local hunt, you will be plied with Guetzli (Switzerland), bredele (Alsace) or Weihnachtsbrödle (southern Germany) at every turn. And here I have to own up to my sad little secret: I really, really don’t care for them and find that, at a time of major carb-overload, most are just not worth the calories (for me). However, I do make an honorable exception for Brunsli (see recipe below), moist, dark chocolate, almond-laden cookies laced with Kirsch brandy from Basel, Switzerland.

Finally, if life gives you lemons, make citrons confits, or salted lemons (see recipe below), which will bring a golden Mediterranean glow to your kitchen and make an especially welcome midwinter gift. In this recipe, from chef Thierry Voisin, former chef at Les Crayères in Reims, France, the lemons are first blanched, then packed into jars and covered with a sweet-salty syrup. They are a bit softer and less briny than the kinds packed in a jar with kosher salt, and they’re ready to use sooner than the salt-packed quarters. The finely diced peel (discard the pith) gives a bright, zesty lift to meat stews, tagines, couscous and all manner of vegetable dishes.

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney. Credit: Sue Style

Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes (15, if you don’t use a food processor)

Total time: 10 to 15 minutes plus 2 to 3 weeks of maturing

Yield: Makes 4 1-pound (450-gram) jars

Ingredients

1 pound (450 grams) pitted dates

1 pound (450 grams) raisins or sultanas

1 pound (450 grams) apples

1 pound (450 grams) onions

1 pound (450 grams) brown or raw sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Plenty of freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

2 cups (1/2 liter) cider vinegar or wine vinegar

Directions

1. Put the pitted dates and raisins or sultanas in a food processor.

2. Quarter and core the apples (don’t peel) and chop them roughly.

3. Add the apples to the food processor along with the peeled and chopped onions.

4. Add brown or raw sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar and process thoroughly till quite finely chopped and well mixed. (Alternatively, chop dates, raisins/sultanas, apples and onions finely together, then tip them into a bowl and stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar.)

5. Spoon into clean, dry jars and label.

Note: The chutney is best when matured for a couple of weeks, and it will keep for several months.

Herby Salt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 2 4-ounce (100-gram) jars

Ingredients

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off stalks

1 tablespoon winter savory leaves, stripped off stalks

10 sage leaves, torn

7 ounces (200 grams) sea salt (sel de Guérande or similar) or kosher salt

Directions

Put the thyme, savory and sage leaves in a food processor, add the salt and process till fine. It will turn a beautiful jade green color. This will fade after a week or two, but the flavor will remain hauntingly herby.

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto. Credit: Sue Style

Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: about 1 cup pesto

Ingredients

1 good bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (about 1 ounce, or 30 grams)

2 tablespoons hulled green pumpkin seeds

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Grana Padano

Pinch of salt

1 small clove garlic, mashed

6 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Put parsley leaves, pumpkin seeds, cheese, salt and garlic in a blender.

2. Blend until well-chopped, stopping to scrape down every now and then — add a little water if necessary to make the blades turn.

3. Pour in the olive oil in a steady stream and continue blending till very smooth, scraping down if necessary.

4. Tip into a dish or jar and cover tightly.

5. The pesto will keep in the fridge, unopened, for up to a month. Once broached, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to exclude air.

Basler Brunsli

Basler Brunsli. Credit: Sue Style

Basler Brunsli. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 1 hour to refrigerate the dough and 1 hour to allow the Brunsli to dry out before baking).

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 20 to 30, depending on size

Ingredients

4 ounces (100 grams) dark chocolate, (Lindt Excellence, for example)

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar, plus extra for rolling out dough

8 ounces (250 grams) ground almonds

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 egg whites

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons Kirsch

Directions

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or microwave for 1 to 2 minutes). Stir till smooth, then set aside till cooled but still melted.

2. Mix together in a large bowl the sugar, ground almonds, flour, cocoa powder and cinnamon.

3. Beat the egg whites in a bowl with a pinch of salt till snowy but still creamy — don’t overbeat or they will be hard to incorporate smoothly.

4. Fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients.

5. Stir in the cooled, melted chocolate and Kirsch and press the mixture together to form a firm dough. (It’s a good idea to use latex gloves because the dough is very sticky.)

6. Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.

7. Sprinkle a working surface with sugar (do not use flour) and roll or pat out the dough to about half an inch (1 centimeter) thick.

8. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters (hearts, Christmas trees, half-moons etc.) and lay them on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment. Recycle any trimmings and cut out more shapes.

9. Leave the unbaked Brunsli at room temperature for 1 hour to dry out a little, otherwise they fall apart when baked.

10. Heat the oven to 475 degrees F (240 degrees C) and bake Brunsli for 5 minutes — they will turn a shade paler and start to dry out a bit around the edges, but should remain moist in the middle.

11. Remove Brunsli from the oven and let cool on a rack.

12. Once cool, pack in cellophane bags and tie with pretty ribbons, or store in an airtight tin.

Salt-Preserved Lemons

Salt-preserved Lemons. Credit: Sue Style

Salt-preserved Lemons. Credit: Sue Style

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 to 3 weeks’ maturing

Yield: Makes 4 preserved lemons.

Ingredients

4 lemons, untreated

4 ounces (100 grams) salt

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar

2 cups (1/2 liter) water

3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

Directions

1. Put the lemons in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring the water to a boil.

2. When the water boils, tip it away; repeat the process twice more.

3. Press the drained lemons firmly into a Mason or Kilner glass jar.

4. In the same pan, dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 cups of water and pour it (hot) over the lemons.

5. Push the thyme down into the liquid.

6. Snap the lid shut while the lemons are still hot.

7. Cool, refrigerate for 2 to 4 weeks before using (or bestowing on favored friends). The lemons will keep for several months.

Main image: An herbed salt. Credit: Sue Style

Read More
Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

You can’t go wrong with edible gifts at the holidays. Edibles send strong messages of sharing, goodwill, pride-of-place and uniqueness, while not cluttering up the recipient’s house for the rest of their lives. And for family and friends who cannot travel to you, a place-based edible always fits the bill.

Every state (and the nation’s capital) has a product just waiting to be discovered, sent and devoured.

Alabama: Goat cheese plays nicely with so many foods, especially the South’s pimento peppers. For a place-based kick and exciting centerpiece for a holiday cheese plate, try Bella Chevre‘s award-winning goat-cheese based pimento spread, more than a few steps up from the usual pimento cheese.

Alaska: Every holiday feast calls for a smoked salmon spread. But most seafood’s quality gets lost in the supply chain. Not so with 2 Sisters Seafood, located right on the wharf in Kenai. If sending a whole salmon filet feels too imposing, try a gift basket with shelf-stable smoked salmon products.

Arizona: The scions of Barry Goldwater have been slicing and dicing Arizona’s best fresh tomatoes, fruits, peppers and spices since 1989 to make Goldwater salsas. At the holidays, get a great gift package with four original sauces and the award-winning Bisbee barbecue sauce.

Arkansas: You could go for an entire gift basket from Kilwin’s sweets store, or you could opt for the classic Saltwater Taffy, with holiday packages featuring peppermint, eggnog, gingerbread and sugarplum flavors.

California: For a real surprise for your foodie friends, send them one of the infused products from Sonoma Syrup Co. Karin Campion crafts her infused syrups in small batches, creating perfection in syrups such as vanilla bean extract, Meyer lemon, mint, lavender, lime and salt caramel.

Colorado: The state’s distilling revolution is in full swing and is getting a kick with Cocktail Punk bitters, with flavors such as anise and fennel-layered orange, sage and mint in an Alpine-themed bitter, a cherry cocktail bitter that will make you forget syrupy grenadine forever.

Connecticut: For 20 years, Westport-based Biscotti Bites has been baking tasty little almond cookies perfect for serving with an afternoon coffee. Made using only good-for-you ingredients, they now come in almond, lemon and cocoa.

Delaware: Dolle’s saltwater taffy is the classic best and made for noshing even if you’re not beachside. The holidays bring all kinds of stocking stuffers, such as pumpkin spice taffy, deluxe Christmas misty mints and gummy Christmas trees and snowmen.

District of Columbia: The nation’s capital is indeed a state — of bliss — with the holiday package from Karen Mary Confectionary, which produces artisanal marshmallows in a five-flavor gift package: Classic Vanilla, Pumpkin Pie, Peppermint, Egg Nog, and Butterscotch, and Caramel Classic.

Florida: You could win hearts with any of the homemade cookies from 5th Avenue Confectionary, in Naples, but for a quintessentially Florida feel, send the key lime macadamia nut cookies. These are some well-traveled cookies, rich, buttery, with a zesty lime twinge and smooth white chocolate.

Georgia: The gold standard by which other honeys are measured, The Savannah Bee Company’s  Tupelo Honey is great in all of its forms —  raw, honeycombed, or even in body care products — but nothing beats a slow river of gold fresh from a bottle.

Hawaii: Lots of chocolatiers in the United States source directly from cocoa plantations. Waimeia Chocolate Company, on the Big Island, is its own. Try its 70 percent estate cacao truffles with macadamia nuts, with fruit undertones and a velvet finish.

Idaho: From sturgeon nurtured in the waters of Hagerman comes America’s contribution to the world caviar market, Tsar Nicoulai. The James Beard-award-winning company’s masterful harvesting techniques capture the distinctive, palate-cleansing, refined pop with a buttery aftertaste.

Illinois: When you’re Rare Bird, a jam is not just a jam but a work of art. Elizabeth Madden makes preserves in the French tradition with flavors  such as cranberry Clementine, Meyer lemon rosemary and passion fruit curd. Her Black Label exclusive flavors come in tiny batches and sell fast.

Indiana: With a pedigree hailed in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, Chris and Mollie Eley brought some four-star experience to their meatery in Indianapolis, The Smoking Goose. The company doesn’t send everything, but its salumi gift box brings together the best of its craft.

Iowa: Chefs around the country call on La Quercia, in tiny Norwalk, for the best American prosciutto around. But recent years has seen the pork artisans add a whole array of other products that would surprise: spicy salami, rolled pancetta and a silky lardo made from back fat.

Kansas: PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. is truly a rags-to-richly-roasted story, going from a tiny espresso shop in 1993 to a purveyor of single origin roasts from around the globe today. Try the PT’s Sample Box of the Holiday Blend for an introduction to what this industry exemplar can do.

‘Cadillac of pecans’ for edible holiday gifts

Kentucky: The Kentucky Nut Corporation has been producing the “Cadillac of pecans” since 1940, and puts together a stellar array of holiday-themed nuts such as cinnamon glazed and pralines. Perfect for noshing at holiday cocktail parties.

Louisiana: With so much to choose from New Orleans, pick something that makes holiday breakfast easier with Café du Monde’s beignet mix, the secret to pre-mixed fluffy Louisiana-style doughnuts. Pair it with any of the coffees for a breakfast-themed gift basket.

Maine: The last remaining traditional stone-ground American Mustard mill, Rayes, of Eastport, grinds out yellow and brown mustards according to traditional techniques. Try its Hot Five gift pack of five spicy mustards for heat-seeking loved ones.

Maryland: For holidays, sometimes easy and pre-made is best. That goes for nothing more than for breakfast, for which we recommend Michele’s Granola, made fresh in small batches in Timonium. Seasonal varieties such as cranberry pecan carry a festive flair.

Massachusetts: The season demands a sprinkling of red, and Willows Cranberries, of Wareham, delivers. Gift boxes include a mix of cranberry sweets, spices, teas, chutneys and syrups featuring the face-puckering berries from the bogs.

Michigan: When in Michigan, why pick just one? Especially when you can order a Mitten Crate, from two young entrepreneurs who ship everything from bourbon and cherry products, Slow Jams, hop soda, single origin coffees and saltwater taffy, all made in the wolverine state.

Minnesota: Perfect for college-aged kids or young adults heading back after the holidays, Native Harvest’s Wild Rice blends are harvested directly from the Minnesota Lakes by tribal members, nuttier and healthier than grocery store alternatives.

Mississippi: Mississippi does condiments like no other. Get your classics such as Carolina chow chow and low-country style pumpkin preserves or go for the Muscadine chutney from Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves.

Missouri: Christopher Elbow’s Artisanal Chocolates look like gift packages unto themselves. For the holidays, turn to the gift collections featuring gingerbread, champagne, winter-spiced caramel, egg nog, peppermint and rum raisin.

Montana: If you’ve never tried a huckleberry, Huckleberry Haven is a great place to start. The berries, similar in taste and nature to blueberries, only grow at elevations above 2,000 feet and have long been used in traditional medicine by native peoples of the Northwester United States.

Nebraska: Orders top out a week before Christmas for Nebraska Bison, high protein, lower in fat and raised responsibly on a ranch by Randy and Jane Miller without the use of steroids, antibiotics or growth hormones. Try the gift guide or, if you’ve got your main meal covered, get the jerky.

Nevada: The state may not be known for its artisanal foods (many joke that the state food is the buffet), but it is home to one of the best one-stop artisanal online food sites, selling everything artisanal under the sun: caviar, coffee, tea, chocolates, preserves, cheeses and more.

Much-needed herbal teas

New Hampshire: When all is said and done, you’re really just going to need a cup of tea from Portsmouth’s White Heron Tea and Coffee Community, which ships organic teas, including 15 varieties of much-needed herbal teas around the country.

New Jersey: Take a load off the holiday baking — and really blow away the cookie-lovers in your family — with Fat Boy’s Cookie Dough. Cranberry nut is the seasonal choice, but most everyone would really just rather have good old chocolate chip.

New Mexico: For a gift that can sit on a shelf, and beautifully, try balsamic vinegar from Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. Grown from organic estate grapes in New Mexico, it’s made using old-world methods and aged in seven fragrant woods.

New York: Brooklyn abounds with artisanal food producers, but few have elevated their craft quite so exceptionally as Mast Brothers chocolate makers, whose gorgeously packaged chocolate bars, many of them single-origin, including a new line made with goat’s and sheep’s milk.

North Carolina: Mark Oberbay turned his passion for discovering new flavor combinations into Big Spoon Roasters, makers of nut butters using fresh runner variety peanuts from the Carolinas, wildflower honeys from the the Piedmont, local pecans, California Mission-variety almonds and pristine sea salt.

North Dakota: Choke cherries, native to the prairies of North Dakota, add a festive punch with pride of place. High in antioxidants and mouth twistingly tart, Dakota Seasoning’s chokecherry jam will give any North Dakotan a Proustian moment.

Ohio: Askinosie dark milk. Bangkok peanut. Brambleberry crisp. Ndali Estate vanilla bean. Triumph (that’s absinthe ice cream with hand-piped meringue kisses and crushed bitter orange candy). Or just refuse to choose entirely from Jeni’s Ice Cream and join the pint club.

Oklahoma: Here’s an idea whose time has come: slathering a Christmas bird in Head Country  barbecue sauce. Try the mix-and-match case of 12 and you’ll be giving the gift of barbecue expertise this holiday season.

Oregon: If you think a salt can’t change you, you’ve never tried Portland-based Jacobsen Sea Salt, harvested from Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast. A favorite of chefs around the country, the salts come in flavors such as Oregon pinot noir, vanilla, white truffle, and good old flaked, a must for every ambitious home cook.

Pennsylvania: Bacon. Yes, not because it was trendy in 2007, but because it’s the best when cured perfectly and sliced thin. Or take any of the other traditional Pennsylvania German products from S. Clyde Weaver, which has been smoking meats and creating farmstead cheeses since 1920.

Rhode Island: The state is home to a Humble Pie you’d be proud to eat. The company makes classic pies with a twist (think pumpkin hazelnut) using exceptional local ingredients such as Aquidneck Honey and maple sugar from the Bats of Bedlam Maple Farm.

South Carolina: In between meals, reach for the sweet stuff known as Carolina Crack, one of the state’s best peanut brittles, a fluffy brittle made in small batches by Jake Lyerly.

South Dakota: For a gift of meat that does some good, South Dakota’s Wild Idea Buffalo-meat gift boxes offer an excellent variety of products from grass-fed buffalo that roams the region’s prairie. It is tender, juicy, and grassy, as befits its pedigree.

Tennessee: The market keeps at Marché Artisan Foods in Nashville puts together an excellent basket featuring regional specialties such as Olive and Sinclair chocolate bars and brittles, Nashville Jam Company jellies, Williams Honey Farm honeys, Falls Mills flour, grits and Sunday Morning pancake mixes. Call to order a basket.

Texas: In lieu of BBQ sauce, try Dallas’s Mozzarella Company. Renowned cheese maker Paula Lambert puts together an exceptional cheese selection inspired by the region, and for the DIYers in the family, she will ship a make-your-own mozzarella kit.

Utah: In a state where other vices are often verboten, share the love at the holidays from Amano Artisan Chocolate with a 70 percent Dos Rios bar (or a sampler set). Sourced from the Dominican Republic, it’s one of the most unique on the planet, with chocolate evoking cinnamon and orange.

Vermont: Dragonfly Sugarworks is the epitome of what many Vermont syrup companies do best: work year-round to craft a range of graded syrup. For something extra special, try the Vermont Fancy, a light amber syrup with a delicate flavor perfect for pancakes, crepes or ice creams.

Virginia: Route 11 does a distinct American potato chip — made in small batches, perfect crispiness, real seasonings such as barbecue and classic salt and vinegar and a sweet potato chip like none other make the company one whose chips get sent around the world.

Edible and drinkable

Washington: If your only experience of Washington-roasted beans is that mermaid-clad Venti, try Caffe Vitta, which is gaining  national cred as a roaster of farm-direct single origin coffees from around the globe. The roaster also has a sweet collaboration pairing its coffees with local Theo Chocolates.

West Virginia: West Virginia Fruit and Berry uses fruit fresh from the mountain to fulfill any possible jam needs: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, cherry, all made using no corn syrup. No-dairy apple and peach butters are a fresh change for those who eschew milk.

Wisconsin: To choose one Wisconsin cheese maker is an impossible task, but Roelli’s Cheese Haus, with a 100-year-history of making European-styled cheeses in Wisconsin, has upped its game in recent years with national awards for its Dumbarton Blue and Little Mountain alpine cheese.

Wyoming: Life in the West demands a certain level of heartiness. Enter Jackson Hole’s Bunnery Natural Foods, with a range of four granolas, sunflower-seeded oatmeal, coconut-vanilla pancake and waflle mix and a number of other choices for time-strapped holiday hosts.

What about you? Do you have a favorite artisanal food item from your state?

Main photo: Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

Read More
Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.

The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.

These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.

The anatomy of a beloved candy

Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.

Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.

For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.

It’s not as hard as you think

Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.

In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)

Maple-Nut Fudge

Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)

Yield: 25 to 36 pieces

Ingredients

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened

3 cups sugar

¾ cup maple syrup

1½ cups half-and-half

3 tablespoons corn syrup

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F

Directions
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.

2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.

3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burnsWear an apron and use oven mitts.

4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.

5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.

6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.

7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.

Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More