Articles in Holidays

Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

“Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago. For non-British readers, let me explain: Mince is what you folks the other side of the pond call “ground.” Not that “Grind around the World” would be much better.

Christmas mince pies would, of course, would be a feature in such a volume, although the beef that was once an essential component of the pastry has long been jettisoned from the ingredients list. In Britain, “mince” means ground meat, and “mincemeat” refers to dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum, chopped into a mixture that is used as a filling for small, round covered pies.

The latter word did originally mean finely shredded beef — indeed they commonly “made mincemeat” of unlucky knaves back in the 17th century — and it was general practice from the Middle Ages onward to add spice and fruit to meat. In her brilliantly researched “Great British Bakes,” Mary-Anne Boermans notes that Esther Copley in 1838 included five different recipes for mincemeat in her cookbook, the main ingredients being beef, tripe, neat’s tongue, eggs and oranges.

The meat content gradually died out over the centuries, especially with the advent of refrigeration, which took away the need to preserve meat by other means. The tradition survived longest in the sheep-rearing districts of northern England, where lamb or mutton was preferred to beef. The last vestige is the use of beef suet, although today’s mincemeat is increasingly vegetarian-friendly. Not that this is entirely new either — Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for Lenten mincemeat that has neither sugar nor suet, although it does include hard-boiled eggs.

Christmas tradition of mince pies

The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is still strong in British homes from the first rendition of “White Christmas” until you break your January diet. In 1662, Samuel Pepys celebrated “Twelfth Night with a dish of 18 “mince pies” (aka “Christmas pies”).

It is still common practice to have a standby tin of pies ready to offer passing mailmen, window cleaners and garbage disposal executives. In Yorkshire, they used to say if you didn’t accept a mince pie when offered, you risked a run of bad luck. There was also an old country belief there that the original mincemeat consisted of 13 ingredients representing the 12 apostles and Christ himself. Another old Yorkshire tradition, quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” was that it is incorrect to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas — in order to bring 12 happy months.

Alas, I have to break it to you that unless you have been frightfully well-organized and have remembered to make your mincemeat far enough in advance for the flavor to mature, it is now too late for homemade. Still, there are good ready-made brands in the shops — but hurry, because you won’t be the only one who has just thought about it. Likewise with the pastry. There are various schools of thought as to whether this should be shortcrust, puff or flaky. The choice is yours, as is the decision whether to make your own or use ready-rolled.

For many families, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a plate of mince pies on hand. Even if you hate them or no one ever eats them, you’ve simply got to have them. It’s the law. Santa says so.

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Mincemeat refers to a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Classic Mince Pies

When using ready-made mincemeat, you can always perk it up with a splash of rum or brandy and/or some extra citrus zest. This recipe is based on one by Annie Bell in her triple-tested “Baking Bible.”

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: About 24 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, chilled and diced

1/2 cup lard, chilled and diced

1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

A little milk

Superfine sugar, for dusting

About 2 cups mincemeat

Directions

1. Briefly process the flour, butter and lard so it becomes crumb-like.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse again.

3. Add the egg yolk and enough milk to bring the dough together in a ball.

4. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour.

5. Preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).

6. Grease two 12-hole shallow tart tins (or use nonstick).

7. Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Use a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter to cut circles. Place in the trays and fill with a generous spoonful of mincemeat.

8. Roll out the trimmings and remaining pastry and cut circles with a 2 ½-inch fluted cutter. Brush the rim of the pies lightly with milk, lay the lids on the tops and gently press the edges together.

9. Dust with the superfine sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t go much beyond the pale gold stage or the rims will start to harden and burn.

Tip: They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. They can also be frozen.

Main photo: The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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

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

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

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

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

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

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

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holiday Pork Tenderloin. Credit: Barbara Haber

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

For Christmas

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

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

For Hanukkah

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

For Kwanzaa

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

Not for Festivus

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

The music and mood

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

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

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

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve salad

Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again for the holidays?

There is relief from this stubborn winter malady. I’m not suggesting that you toss all your family favorites, but I am proposing that you add variety to the menu and, in the processes, treat yourself and your guests to some new flavors.

To add changes to the menu without adding stress don’t take on the whole job alone — have friends and family bring side dishes or desserts. “A good old-fashioned potluck is great for the holidays, too. It is a simple way to add variety to your usual menu, share some of work and try out new recipes,” recommends Rick Bayless, winner of the James Beard outstanding restaurant award for his Chicago-based Mexican restaurant Frontera Grill. Assigning dishes, and even providing the recipe, assures that the meal will be balanced with a cohesive mix of foods, and you won’t end up with three platters of the same string bean recipe.

For a wonderfully unusual side dish with a south-of-the-border flare that goes with any menu, add Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad. This salad of jicama, beets, oranges and peanuts “provides the perfect visual accent for the holiday table, echoing the colors of holiday poinsettias,” Bayless says. The salad is topped with chopped peanuts and sprinkled with Mexican colored candies for a festive and whimsical finish. You can serve slivers of sugarcane, available in Spanish and Mexican grocery stores, along with the salad. “You and your guests will really enjoy chewing on fresh sugarcane, it has a delightfully fresh sweetness,” Bayless says.

Rick Bayless’ Christmas Eve Salad (Ensalada de Noche Buena)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 large beets, boiled and cut into small sticks

3 seedless oranges

5 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium (about 1 pound) jicama, peeled and cut into small sticks

10 romaine lettuce leaves, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices

2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts

1 3- to 4-inch section of sugar cane, peeled and cut lengthwise into slivers, for garnish, optional

1 tablespoon colored candy cake decorations (grajeas in Mexico), for garnish

Directions

1. Place the beet sticks into a large bowl.

2. Using a zester or vegetable peeler, cut the zest (colored rind) from 1 of the oranges and finely mince it. Mix the minced zest with the lime juice, orange juice, salt, sugar and olive oil in with the beets and let stand 1 hour.

3. Cut away the rind and all white pith on the oranges. Cut between each white membrane and remove the segments. Reserve.

4. To serve, add the jicama and most of the orange segments (reserving a few for garnish) to the beet mixture. Lay the lettuce on a serving platter. Scoop the beet mixture into the center, then sprinkle with the peanuts and reserved orange segments. Garnish with the sugar cane, if using, and candies. Serve.

‘Instant’ Rum Baba Panettone

Another great shortcut is to buy something ready made, but unusual. For an Italian finish to the meal, consider ready-made panettone, imported from Italy. Tall and dome-shaped, panettone is a soft, sweet yeast cake with a fruity aroma of raisins and candied oranges. It’s the quintessential Italian Christmas dessert, usually served plain, accompanied by a glass of Asti Spumante.

panettone

Panettone can quickly be dressed up with a drenching of rum syrup. Credit: Italian Confectioners Association

Or you can dress it up a little by drenching it in rum syrup, making a virtually instant baba cake. Available in standard 1- and 2-pound sizes, panettone also comes in adorable, single-sized portions, which work especially well with this recipe:

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

 Yield: 8 to 12 servings

Ingredients

3 cups granulated sugar

1/4 to 1/2 cup dark rum

8 slices of panettone, or 8 small individual-sized panettone

Confectioners’ sugar

Fresh or frozen berries, optional

Directions

1. Add the sugar to 1 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Arrange the panettone on a serving platter. An hour before serving, slowly pour the rum syrup over the panettone until all the liquid is absorbed.

3. Serve topped with confectioners’ sugar and accompanied by berries, if you like.

pandoro

In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan.

Pandoro Christmas Tree Cake

Another unusual ready-made dessert is pandoro, the tall Christmas tree shaped Italian cake that’s available in most supermarkets and Italian gourmet shops starting in late fall. Pandoro has a delicious eggy, brioche-like soft center, with a lovely vanilla-butter aroma. In Italy, pandoro is often served cut in horizontal slices that are restacked to look like a Christmas tree. It even comes boxed with a packet of confectioners sugar to sprinkle on top.

You can spread the pandoro with anything creamy like ice cream, whipped cream, icing, pastry cream or even zabaglione. And just like a gingerbread house, you can decorate it with anything festive including tiny candies, sprinkles or crushed candy canes.

In this recipe, pandoro cake is taken to yet another level: each layer is spread with mascarpone custard and decorated with mint leaves and candied cherries.

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet liqueur, such as Cointreau or rum

2 large egg yolks

14 ounces mascarpone cheese

1 cup heavy cream

1 pandoro cake, about 1 pound

Decorations, such as candied cherries, fresh mint leaves, silver confetti

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. In a saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water with 1/4 cup of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of the Cointreu or rum. Reserve.

2. In a standing mixer combine the yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for 5 minutes until light yellow and fluffy. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons Cointreau or rum, and fold in the mascarpone.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until peaks form. Fold the mascarpone cream into the whipped cream.

4. Carefully, so as not to break the points, slice the pandoro horizontally into 6 slices. Brush the outsides of the slices, the golden colored baked section, with the reserved Cointreau syrup.

5. Place the largest pandoro slice onto a serving platter and spread with some of the mascarpone mixture.

6. Cover with the next largest slice, angling it so that the points of the star tips don’t line up. Spread with some of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the remaining layers, finishing with a dollop of mascarpone on top.

7. Decorate the points with candied cherries and mint leaves or candies. Sprinkle the entire cake with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: Rick Bayless’ colorful and crunchy, Mexico-inspired Christmas Eve Salad features jicama, beets, orange and peanuts. Credit: FronteraFiesta.com.

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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

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A holiday fondue party. Credit: Michelle van Vliet

It is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food. I hope my guests talk about the dinner party well into the future, about the people they met, the topics they conversed about, and the food they ate. I try to provide a memorable experience.

Although you want to create a casual atmosphere for your guests, planning a dinner party is not at all casual. Entertaining is an art and needs to be orchestrated with as much precision as a set-piece military battle. To do otherwise invites chaos.

Entertaining takes many forms, but I prefer the small dinner party of six to eight. That number of people provides the critical mass. Eight is the maximum number of people who can sit at a table and listen to one person speak. They will in the course of the evening split into many different conversations.

Choosing the guest list

The first thing to decide when having a dinner party is whom to invite. That’s harder than it sounds because the mix of people is a form of alchemy and the wrong choices can make for a memorable dinner party you would prefer not remembering. One of the most horrible dinner parties I attended was one with 12 people, many of whom had absolutely nothing in common, where the food was a hodgepodge of unrelated dishes, and where more than half the people smoked at the table when there were non-smokers.

Think about who you are inviting. You can invite boisterous people and reticent people, but not too many of either. A boisterous person can be fun, but sometimes if you are not careful, they can dominate the table. Too many reticent people stifle the table. Dinner parties will often draw out people’s personalities. I once had a quiet chef at one of my dinner parties, and his story of how he got into the profession had us riveted. Another time, a woman not known for her humor told one of the most hysterical stories I ever heard, and we nearly fell out of our seats. This happened because they were comfortable, and it’s this comfort you must create and provide.

Second, set a definite time for people to arrive. I usually say “sharp.” Waiting for stragglers may seem polite to you, but it’s your guests who have already arrived who are being put out. They may be hungry.

Planning a conversation-piece menu

Third, what will you make? That depends on what kind of cook you are. If you’re not confident of your abilities, stick with something you’ve made before, although you should feel free to try at least one new dish. Keep the menu manageable and seasonal. Ask all guests whether they have any food allergies or dislikes; this is important and often overlooked. Also remember Julia Child’s advice and never ever apologize for your cooking.

Menu planning is an art, and a three-course dinner is typical. How organized are you? One of the big mistakes a host can make is making a too complicated menu that keeps them in the kitchen instead of with their guests. A guest should not see what happens “behind the curtain” because if they see you work too hard or if there is a huge mess, they will become anxious themselves. Many menus can be based totally on food prepared ahead of time.

Guests will offer to help, and a good host will always refuse their help, at first. There are three tasks I appreciate guests taking on: acting as bartender, helping serve plated food, and bringing used dishes to the kitchen. The exception is a dinner party where guest participation is part of the evening, such as a fondue party or a barbeque.

Keep your menu on track. Don’t make wildly different dishes and stay with a theme. For instance, if your theme is Spanish, maybe Andalusian in particular, your choice of dishes provides a built-in conversation topic. Few people know what Andalusian food is, and now you’re the expert. “Both tapas and gazpacho were born in Andalusia,” you can explain as you serve the gazpacho.

Your kitchen should be clean and equipment put away before guests arrive. Everything should be set up so you can anticipate every need. I usually lead guests to the living room where we will sit and have cocktails and light finger foods. The easiest of these are nuts, but sometimes you may serve something a bit more involved that will portend the food to follow to increase excitement and expectation.

About 45 minutes after the last guest arrives (and all guests should have arrived within 15 minutes of the designated time), you will want to start moving people to the table, which will, of course, have already been set. One could write a book on how to set a table. Suffice it to say that your table should look inviting. A tablecloth, I think, is far more inviting than place mats, which always reminds me of feeding children.

Who sits where is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. You don’t need to sit boy-girl-boy. Consider personalities when making a seating chart. I usually try to sit the prettiest woman or the guest of honor (very loosely defined) next to me. I also don’t believe in splitting up couples as a matter of course and especially not if everyone are deep strangers. This is one of the mysterious facets of entertaining — how personalities gel. There are no secrets or tips for the matchmaker. Good luck.

 Main photo: A holiday fondue party. Credit: Michelle van Vliet

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Persimmon pudding cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.

This cake has been a project.

Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.

Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.

By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.

When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.

I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.

It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.

Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.

On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!

I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.

Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).

Persimmon Pudding Cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)

1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 stick butter, soft

3 eggs

2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups cream

Directions

1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.

3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.

4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.

6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.

8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.

9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.

Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

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