The wreck of Christmas parties past

From December 7 to December 27, we spent just 4 nights at home. The rest of the time, we were either going to a party or throwing a party or cooking something to take to a party or sleeping off a party or washing clothes to attend another party. On the 20th nearly-consecutive night of parties, we attended a “festive casual supper” of 42 people, all relatives of ours, stretching to second cousins once removed and ex-step-aunt-in-laws.

    One efficient party-giving gesture is cooking big pieces of meat. For one party, we semi-smoked a turkey (more on that below). For another, we made gumbo from the turkey. For another, we made our own homemade honey-baked ham. And finally, the beef roast, but that’s a story for another day.

Semi-smoked turkey was a huge success. We roasted a 12-pound turkey for about 3 hours, so it wasn’t yet done, but approaching it. We fired up the smoker and stoked it with mesquite, then put the turkey in a roasting pan and into the smoker for an hour. When it registered 150 degrees, we called it “done,” tented it in foil for a while, then  rushed it to the cutting board. It had  just the right amount of smoke flavor and was perfectly moist. And truly, I did not hing but oil and salt the skin, then put it in the oven, then transfer it to the smoker. People were arriving in minutes, so we didn’t shoot a photo.

    • You may be one of those people, like me, who love flavor pyrotechnics, so here’s one we conjured around the party table. A hunk of semi-smoked turkey, a swipe of wasabi mayo, a single

zinfandel-simmered cranberry

     and a chunk of pickled watermelon rind. Searing hot, sweet, firm, chewy, tender. Da-yum. Took a photo of it, but accidentally deleted it.

(Just an aside on the smoker itself: my brother bought it from a guy who sells them from the empty lot near the 12th Avenue branch library in Nashville on Saturdays in good weather. The guy is a welder from Mt. Juliet. He converts discarded water heaters into smokers just the right size for civilian use.)

    • It’s not every day that someone tosses their best easy recipe your way.  The

home-baked honey ham

     was one of these. My mother-in-law makes a refined-tasting ham for holiday breakfasts, and just rattled off the formula one afternoon. Buy a canned ham or a semi-boneless ham. It should say fully cooked, or ready to at, which you wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. Wipe off or rinse the ham, dry it a little so the honey will stick, then coat it with honey. Wrap it in two layers of foil and seal it well. Bake it in a roasting pan at about 300 degrees for 3 hours. Cool and slice. Two steps, great ham.

If I’d shot just three photos per party, that would have been 48 pictures. Besides the professionally shot photos of party number two, I only have two to offer. This is Spicy Nut Mix from recipezaar. Despite the name, it’s not especially spicy, and it’s a nice offering for the noneaters of sweets.

Festivus Cookie Discoveries

It was a good party season f0r homemade baked goods: this year I discovered some great cookies. This is our cookie tray from last night’s party.

    • Starting at the top and moving clockwise: lemon-butter wreaths from

our cookie gun

    ; Maida Heatter’s Chocolate Cracks; black walnut bars made with black walnuts from our yard; shortbread with a caramel-pecan top layer; lemon-glazed persimmon bars; jubilee wafers.

We learned a new way to “frost” the chocolate cracks, which by themselves aren’t so Christmasy, but they’re really chewy and fudgey, so you want to invite them to the party.  We add peppermint extract and frost them with Shirley Corriher’s technique: roll the dough balls in granulated sugar first, then in powdered sugar. The granulated sugar layer prevents the moisture in the cookie from wetting the powdered sugar, so the cookies stay frosty-looking.

    I only make black walnut bars every couple of years. Black walnuts, they’re a lot of work. You have to gather them in either a basket (that you never want to use again for anything else) or a paper bag. Let them sit in the basement until the hulls soften and turn dark brown (and the bottom of the bag disintegrates). Pour  them onto the driveway in the tracks of the car tires. Run over them to remove the hulls. Wear gloves to pick them up and wipe them off, or even rinse them off. Back in the basket to dry. Crack with a heavy rock. Pick meticulously. One hour of picking will give you about 1 cup of nuts. Hardly anyone sells black walnuts — they’re a pain and they don’t keep well — so if you want them, you do them yourself. Their dark, almost fermented flavor is ideal for adding to a toffee cookie bar.

Lemon-glazed persimmon bars: I’ve looked for years for something to do with the persimmons that are abundant most years in the yard. In the past, I sometimes made persimmon pudding, which is a pudding in the English sense of something baked and of a soft, spoonable texture. The bars are easier to eat, to transport and to serve. They are nicely spiced, and dates add some extra chew. The recipe is from Epicurious and I love it so much I wish I could move to a persimmon island and eat them full-time.  A photo of persimmon puree. 

    Jubilee wafers came from the 1973 Joy of Cooking. I wanted a refrigerator dough that I could make in advance, then shape and decorate later. I’ve made every roll cookie in the Joy, I thought, but somehow I overlooked Jubilee wafers.  Jubilee wafers call for a lot of honey, a lot of spice, and half a cup of bourbon. Jubilee, I’ll say. They were also supposed to have nuts and fruit, but I left those out. It’s a chewy, spicy cookie with a little touch of jubilee. A keeper.

Not on the tray were Jennifer’s little miniature gingerbreads, made from a great Williams Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook recipe. Good molasses flavor, lighter texture than most gingerbreads, with a little orange flavor. And Ashley’s layered stacks of sugar cookie alternating with jam. They looked like accordions, sort of, and I admired all the work that went into them, and how good they were.

Stupid Christmas tricks

We’ve been making Christmas cookies with our cookie gun. A gen-u-wine Ron Popeil invention, as-seen-on-TV battery-powered cookie gun. It cranks out dough in cookie shapes. For a device from the early 1970s, it’s made like a Swiss watch and performs like a dream.

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I think my mother-in-law bought it years ago at a garage sale. The back if the box actually says “As seen on TV.”

Anyway, we listen to Christmas radio while we work, and after you’ve heard a song 20 times, you notice there are some stoopid lyrics out there.

Start with Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”

    1. So here it is Merry Christmas

 

    1. Everybody’s having fun

 

    1. Look to the future now

 

    It’s only just begun

I’m pretty sure, and people will back me up on this, that the future has always just begun. You’ll have a hard time finding a moment when the future isn’t, in fact, beginning. How this time/space miracle connects to Christmas is another matter altogether.

    • And then there’s Santa Claus, the oppressor, is Coming to Town

You better watch out/You better not cry/You better not pout/ I’m tellin’ you why…

What kind of emotional blackmailer IS this guy? Crying — it’s a sign there’s something wrong, see. You’re supposed to figure out what is making kids cry, rather than brush it off. Santa? Oh, he’s the guy who makes you repress negative feelings and then rewards you with presents.

And finally, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, which begins

    1. …but do you remember

 

    the most famous reindeer of all?

Ummm. Isn’t the definition of “famous” “having a widespread reputation”? Is that how short the American attention span is? You don’t remember the renowned large flying scarlet-proboscised mammals of yesteryear?

Anyway, we had fun, the cookies looked great and we gave them to friends, which felt good.

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Let’s Hope a Picture is Worth A Thousand Words Because I’ll Have a Lump in My Throat

I live on the same street where I grew up. Different house, other end of the street, and 30 years later, but same street.

    It’s one of those epic streets: hidden in plain sight near two excellent schools, close enough to shopping but not close enough to be part of the gridlock at holidays, a great sledding hill, spectacular autumn foliage, older houses, nice but not flashy, not too distant from downtown. Some of the neighbors have been here  more than 30 years.

My three-doors-down neighbor here is … my backyard neighbor from back then. Andrew and his brothers were friends of my brothers. Our back yards adjoined and our doors were always open. They were great neighbors then, and they’re great neighbors now.

    The lady of the house, Andrew’s mother, was from the Northeast US originally, and when I was visiting one day, she was baking blueberry buckle. This was the 1970s, and I was maybe 12 years old and had never eaten a fresh blueberry, so it seemed like the most exotic food ever. I went home and asked my mom to make a blueberry buckle. She called the neighbor and got the recipe.

A lot changed after that.  My parents’ marriage ended and my mom’s life went into a slow-mo trainwreck that scattered her possessions across several states. My neighbor married someone very nice, and after 20 years, moved into the house 3 doors down from mine. His wife and I have become close enough friends that we swap gifts often.

    I recently found the original recipe card of the Blueberry Buckle recipe, written in my deceased mother’s hand. I’m giving her the card (or a really good copy of it — I can’t decide) for Christmas.

When I look at it, I think of a time when we were all happy. It isn’t just a piece of paper to me — it’s an artifact from a long, shared past. Besides the associations, there’s the intimacy of a handwritten recipe in this day of recipes printed from the Internet and torn from magazines.  And if none of that meant anythingto my friends, it’s still her mother-in-law’s recipe, and makes a really good Blueberry Buckle.

Let’s Hope a Picture is Worth A Thousand Words Because I’ll Have a Lump in My Throat

I live on the same street where I grew up. Different house, other end of the street, and 30 years later, but same street.

    It’s one of those epic streets: hidden in plain sight near two excellent schools, close enough to shopping but not close enough to be part of the gridlock at holidays, a great sledding hill, spectacular autumn foliage, older houses, nice but not flashy, not too distant from downtown. Some of the neighbors have been here  more than 30 years.

My three-doors-down neighbor here is … my backyard neighbor from back then. Andrew and his brothers were friends of my brothers. Our back yards adjoined and our doors were always open. They were great neighbors then, and they’re great neighbors now.

    The lady of the house, Andrew’s mother, was from the Northeast US originally, and when I was visiting one day, she was baking blueberry buckle. This was the 1970s, and I was maybe 12 years old and had never eaten a fresh blueberry, so it seemed like the most exotic food ever. I went home and asked my mom to make a blueberry buckle. She called the neighbor and got the recipe.

A lot changed after that.  My parents’ marriage ended and my mom’s life went into a slow-mo trainwreck that scattered her possessions across several states. My neighbor married someone very nice, and after 20 years, moved into the house 3 doors down from mine. His wife and I have become close enough friends that we swap gifts often.

    I recently found the original recipe card of the Blueberry Buckle recipe, written in my deceased mother’s hand. I’m giving her the card (or a really good copy of it — I can’t decide) for Christmas.

When I look at it, I think of a time when we were all happy. It isn’t just a piece of paper to me — it’s an artifact from a long, shared past. Besides the associations, there’s the intimacy of a handwritten recipe in this day of recipes printed from the Internet and torn from magazines.  And if none of that meant anythingto my friends, it’s still her mother-in-law’s recipe, and makes a really good Blueberry Buckle.

Flour arrangements for great bread

I’ve written before about Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Whole Grain Breads, which has been my best baking buddy for more than 15 years. We’re like an old couple that know each other well: I know that when I prepare a recipe, my dough will require about 20 percent more flour (or less liquid) than the recipe calls for. Her standard formula is between 2 and 3 cups of flour per 1 cup of  lquid. At that ratio, my dough is very sticky, almost like batter.

    Ojakangas lives somewhere in the great northern Midwest, where flour is grown and processed, so I’ve thought maybe her flour is fresher than mine and absorbs less water.  But it was this way even in England, where food is fresher and more local.

At the last IACP conferenceShirley Corriher and Harold McGee held an open question and answer session. I submitted my question about the recipes being so consistently different from my experience, and it was selected for answering. I wasn’t present at the session– a colleague of mine attended that session  while I attended another – but the answer was that it must be the age of the flour or the formulation.

    Flour formulation does make a difference in bread texture. There are  hard wheat flours (better for pasta and sturdy peasanty breads) and soft wheat flours (better for biscuits and cakes) and mixtures of the two, such as all-purpose flour. Non-wheat flours are a whole other ball game.

Even within wheat flour, there are a couple dozen grades of flour, based on color and texture, and different processes, too, like stone-grinding, which supposedly grinds the grains without  … I don’t know, exactly. Something bad. I heard a couple of years back about a process that shatters whole grains rather than grinds them and is supposed to be better.

    At every step, processing differences yield a slightly different result. White Lily flour is (or was, anyway, before the company was sold) so fluffy and velvety because chlorine bleach was used for bleaching it, and the chlorine broke down a cell wall in the starch so the contents — pure wheat starch — could spill out.

You could bake a dozen loaves of bread with a dozen different types of flour and get as many results. I find that I get consistently superior results by sticking with Harvest King flour. It has every attribute to make it the right tool for the job: the right wheat mix, extra gluten.

    Speaking less scientifically and more poetically, I love everything about Harvest King: the fresh, wholesome, wheaty smell, the serious but attractive packaging, its position on the bottom supermarket shelf, where the cognoscenti seek it out. I love having it in the cabinet, like guys love having a coping saw or other specialized tool.

 

Dough made with Harvest King is gluten-y and springy and powers upward in the oven. And it turns out the best damn bread, light and chewy, whatever recipe you use.
I get great results from it, but still with the ratio problem. I still don’t see how formulation could account for a 20 percent variation in a liquid-to-flour ratio. If you have an answer, I’d be curious to hear about it.

Celebrity Recipes Circa 1850

I have a recipe habit. They come and go on stray bits of paper, or lurk in electronic files buried in electronic folders. I try to post them either here or on Recipezaar.com so I can find them later.

    I didn’t act fast enough with this wonderful apple recipe in time, and now it’s lost. Also, I have no idea where it came from. But I do remember the name: Countess Tolstoy’s Apple Charlotte. It had a slight orange and lemon flavor, a good meringue, and as good as it was  hot, it was even better chilled.

Once I’d come across the picture, snapped in August at the beginning of apple season, the first place I looked for the recipe was Please to the Table, because it’s a comprehensive Russian cookbook, and, you know, Countess Tolstoy and all. And any excuse to open Please to the Table, which I think is the finest Russian cookbook in print. Only I don’t think it’s in print any longer — it dates from the early 1990s. It collected thousands of recipes from the old Soviet Union, from the skyscrapers of Moscow to the yurts of Mongolia. I put a link there to the book on Alibris.com.

    Countess Tolstoy is not on recipezaar.com, in my accordion file of dessert recipes, or lurking in the guts of the computer. (But I did find a fantastic buttermilk syrup recipe that I’d been hunting for ages). It’s just gone. It helps to think of recipes as fun people you meet at parties, or one-night stands: a lovely thing never to be repeated.

It may bob to the surface one day. Or if you know the recipe for Countess Tolstoy’s Apple Charlotte, chime in.

    And come to think of it, was she was really even a countess?