Monday, December 28, 2009

The art of understatement

When I was younger, Christmas morning was unlike anything else.

A man, a big, bearded man, would actually climb smack down into my living room, and he’d bring presents, or that was the idea. It baffled me, but I loved it. I’d leave him notes to thank him for so graciously remembering our house, and he’d always neatly take a bite out of the cookies I’d put out, a scant sip from the glass of milk. Every year.

I don’t remember the moment when I realized that logically, the idea of Santa didn’t quite add up, but since then, Christmas has become an entirely different day. Instead of lists for Santa, sleepless Christmas Eves, and being followed around by video cameras, my family became experts at the art of understatement. “Now, don’t get too excited,” they always say, “things are going to be pretty lean this year.” Every year, no fail, they set out to lower our expectations, as if priming us for receiving only the clementines that were always in our stockings, and the pairs of socks that always make it under the tree.

Also every year, exactly the opposite happens. Like when we were kids, and expected a nightly visit via the chimney, the present pile still seems to magically grow, our stockings almost bursting at their knit seams. They truly outdo themselves. This year, they’ve done it again.

Among the stars under my tree this year was a fancy-pants new camera lens, which has about as much heft as the camera itself, and about as much street cred as there is, at least in the world of Canons. There were also books, copious books, and chocolate galore. Oh yeah, there was also the stand mixer.

You should see this beauty. It’s cherry red, and as sexy as a piece of kitchen equipment can be. On Christmas day, it was sitting atop the counter, all seductive-like, begging to be put to work. Naturally, I had to start mixing.

I set aside my hatred for baking, and got to work. Or rather, I threw everything in my new mixer and watched it do the work for me. Several hours, pounds of chocolate, and sticks of butter later, I had an impressive spread. But I think, for today, I’ll share just one recipe, and maybe string you along a bit, much like the days leading up to Christmas do. The recipe below is for a tricked-out version of oatmeal cookies: they’re beefed up with not one, or two, but three different kinds of chocolate, and they have cranberries thrown in for good measure. Stay tuned: I have peppermint bark, macaroons, and scones (that rose!) to tell you about.*

Triple-Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
(Adapted from

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips (The amount here, for the chocolate, is a bit flexible. Whatever you have on hand.)
1/3 cup milk chocolate chips
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried cranberries

Make sure rack is in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, preferably one that's cherry red, beat butter and both sugars in large bowl until smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour mixture and oats and stir until blended. Stir in all chocolate chips and cranberries.

Drop batter by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until edges are light brown, about 14 minutes. Transfer to cooling racks after a few minutes.

*Thank, thank, thank you so much to everyone this year; you have all sufficiently fortified my library, my kitchen, and my camera bag.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A sort of sneaky, wild card

Sometimes all anyone needs is a good contest.

That is, providing he or she is a sure-fire winner, or at least has some sort of sneaky, wild card to play at the last second. I’ve never been the type to value the experience of a loss, or learn from it, or whatever it is that they say. When it comes down to it, if there’s something to be won, it’s balls to the wall for me. Consequently, my competitive streak seems to debase my vocabulary into short phrases of mild cursing, too. Which is fine by me, because mild cursing has the tendency to intimidate an opponent into submission – and that means I win.

It just so happens that I’m as competitive as they come. I’m the girl that forces the Monopoly game to be put away early because she has gotten so angry she’s started yelling at children, trying to launder paper money, and has stormed out of the room not once, but twice, since her fourth trip past go. I also happen to be the girl who, even though I know better, is a complete and utter sucker for reverse psychology, because it sounds a little too much like a challenge, and, well, I must win. I must. Always.

Growing up, I was a total jock, if you can believe it. I was a sweat-pants wearing, soccer-playing athlete through and through; I’d walk the hallways and tuck up my sleeves in that quintessentially jock way, folding the shoulder seam in just so. (I also probably owe a hearty apology to all soccer officials that ever came within yelling distance of me during the fateful Jock Years. My deepest apologies; I’ve learned some manners since then.)

Now that I’ve taken a liking to a much more feminine discipline, my competitive streak still bares its mildly-cursing, sleeve-tucked teeth every once in a while. Luckily for me, I’ve found a wild card that makes winning that much easier. In the contest of thanksgiving desserts, pumpkin bread pudding will win, every time.

Crusty bread soaked in custard isn’t usually a hard sell, but this one, with its subtle pumpkin and warm spices, ends up tasting like a jazzed up version of cinnamon French toast. In that way, it’s almost nostalgic. It’s simple, and comforting, and it tastes familiar; this dessert feels like a passed-down heirloom from the first time you put it on the table. At this rate, though, it will be one, as long as there are contests to win, and thanksgivings to bake for.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
5 cups cubed (1-inch) day-old baguette or crusty bread
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together cream, pumpkin, milk, sugar, eggs, yolk, salt, and spices in a bowl.

Toss bread cubes with butter in another bowl, then add pumpkin mixture and toss to coat. Put all of that into an ungreased 8-inch square baking dish and bake until custard is set, about 25 minutes. Easy, peasy. Go impress some guests.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On finals, snow, and Christmas-scrambling

Well, oh my. Finals are (finally!) over.

Now that I’m prepared to discuss, in some measure, the African Diaspora, women’s conduct literature, and how our Renaissance predecessors theorized on the ending ends of earthly learning, I’m prepared to start cooking; and more importantly, I’m prepared to start telling you all about it all over again.

The end of finals means, of course, the end of a semester, the end of deep, from-the-core sighs, and last minute cramming. It brings the (exciting!) prospect of one more semester to get through until they release me, adult-style, into the real world for good. Consequently, it also means the good old Christmas scramble: five days (and counting!) until the big day, for which I am totally and utterly unprepared. But, much like studying for college finals, I work best under pressure. Others may squirm and fret and pour themselves into flashcard-making, but I’m all about it. Give me a baking sheet, some canning jars, and perhaps a few rush deliveries from, and I’m good to go.

And, in the spirit of the season, we were just given a ten-inch dusting of fluffy white powder. If that doesn’t make you want to throw on the oven for some holiday baking, string some lights, and dance around the kitchen to Mannheim Steamroller*, well, then, you should stop being Scrooge.

Although I can’t tell you what I’m making for Christmas just yet (my present list may or may not include all of my readers…), I do have some recipes stashed away that I’ve been meaning to share. So, without any better segue than - make this, it’s down-to-your-bones good, I introduce a potato gratin: made rich with mascarpone, and earthy with porcini mushrooms hidden into its layers. It made a fancy appearance on our Thanksgiving table this year, and I would be doing everyone a disservice to keep the recipe all to myself. Once you’ve made it, and I’ve sufficiently unearthed our cars from their heavy, winter blankets of snow, meet me back here: I have all sorts of tarts, and braised lambs, and pumpkin bread puddings up my sleeve.

*Oh, yeah. When I wrote that I was specifically channeling their synth-y rendition of “Deck the Halls,” but any equally cringe-worthy music would do the trick.

Potato Gratin with Mascarpone and Porcini Mushrooms

(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

I’ve made this twice now; the first time, the potato layers didn’t quite cook through, even with an extra half hour added to the baking time. This most recent time I quickly blanched the sliced potatoes before assembly, and that seemed to work. Unless you want yours with a weird kind of crunch, or you want to wait forever and a day for it to bake, that’s what I recommend doing.

4 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese
1 cup whipping cream
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (about 5 large), peeled, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices

Pour boiling water over dried mushrooms and let them soak for about 20 minutes in order to re-hydrate. Drain and roughly chop.

Melt butter with oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Whisk 1/4 cup Parmesan and next 4 ingredients in small bowl; season with salt and pepper.

With the mushrooms and the cheese mixture prepared, blanch potato slices in a deep pot of boiling water for a few minutes, or until their just slightly more yielding than before. (You don’t have to cook them completely, just get their cooking started a bit.)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter wide shallow 2-quart baking dish. Arrange 1/4 of potato slices in bottom of dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Scatter 1/4 of mushrooms over. Repeat. Spread half of cheese mixture over, shaking dish to settle. (It helps to heat the cheese mixture slightly.) Repeat this process until all ingredients are used up. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons Parmesan over. Place gratin dish on rimmed baking sheet.

Bake gratin until top is brown and sauce is bubbling at edges, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Let gratin rest for a few minutes, and serve warm.