Sunday, January 19, 2014

Crunchy Fruit Drops (Spice Cookies)

This has not been the best of weeks.  A week ago on Saturday my aunt died.  My mother called early in the morning to tell me, and such an announcement was not a surprise; my mother's oldest sister had been diagnosed with cancer a while back, and this past summer, I said my goodbyes.  That July, my thin aunt declared that she hoped to make it to August, when her granddaughter got married, and once she made it to that late-summer wedding, we all dared to hope that she would make it through Thanksgiving.  Once early December came and she turned 81, we all pulled for her to make it through Christmas and New Year's.  My aunt had determination.

About a year ago, my aunt discovered that I loved to cook--something that probably startled her, given my mother's own anti-cooking stance.  She asked my mom to give me her recipe box, which my mother mailed to me.   The box is full of cake and cookie recipes (peanut brittle, pumpkin cookies, coffee cake, powdered doughnuts)--at least 2/3 of this little box is a testament to my aunt's (or perhaps her five children's) sweet tooth.  However, let it be noted that the following can also be found: Fruit Cocktail Pudding, Tomato Tuna Treat, and Stuffed Hot Dog Wonders. I don't remember these seventies dishes on my aunt's table, but they were ones she felt the need to tuck away in hopes of remaking.

The recipe cards are typed, stained, and sometimes a little hard to follow.  She knew these recipes well, so she just needed reminders, not instructions.  Others are handwritten (sometimes there is a different, more modern handwriting) or clipped from ladies' magazines.  Some come without names or have "grandma" written in the corner.  Was that her grandmother (my great-grandmother)?  Or her children's grandmother, my own grandmother?  How far do these recipes go back?  I am not sure. 

On the day of her death, I tried to think of every memory I had of her from when I was growing up.  Given that she lived three doors down from us, I had quite a few.  Indeed, my sister was far closer to my aunt (once we found our dog (J.J., short for Jesse James) camped out in my aunt's garage because he didn't realize that my sleeping sister had been carried from aunt's living room to a waiting car and driven back home.  Ever loyal to my sister, J.J. refused to budge until my sister walked back to my aunt's to retrieve him the next morning), and she spent most of the summer under my aunt's and one of my cousin's watchful eyes.  If we couldn't find her or the dog at home, we need only call my aunt; she would be there.  However, my aunt, as well as her rambling ranch home down Susan Drive, was instrumental in my childhood as well, and I am sad to know that she is gone. 

It was in her basement from a pocket-sized collected works of Shakespeare, I read Macbeth for the first time--or at least I started it multiple times.  I never really made it past act three (come on, I was like ten), but I loved the witches and tried to memorize act 1, scene 1.   Indeed:  "When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won."  And in her basement, I remember my brother and I fought our own battle:  there I learned of the birth of my sister.  That May night back in 1981, my father dropped my brother and me off at my aunt's house, and my brother and I argued as to what  that alien lump would prove to be--a brother or a sister.  Oh, how I wanted a little sister.  The phone rang, and I remember getting the good news while I sat on my aunt and uncle's free weight bench.  I may have even done some bicep curls with the five-pound weight in celebratory glee. I then may have gloated.

My aunt was an artist, and in the back of her basement, behind the ever-so-alluring pool table, she had a painting studio.  My uncle, an avid woodworker, would make bookshelves and cradles, and my aunt would stain them and then paint flowers and designs along them.  Very eighties--very central Illinois.  But I loved watching her dip her brush into paint to make petals and stems.  She would let us watch Bob Ross and then try our own hand on blank paper.  But beyond painting, she made quilts, one of which I was gifted, and she played the organ.  She could sew and make clothing, and she altered my first fancy dress for senior-year Homecoming (up until then I had gotten through high school by borrowing friends' dresses).  This purple and green floral dress was the first I bought with my own money (oh, how many nights of babysitting that took!), and while it had straps, I wanted to wear it strapless.  She put boning in, tightened up the bodice, and added a new zipper.  Just to be safe, she kept the straps intact (although tightened), and made it so I could tuck them into the bodice.  I still have that dress hanging in the back of my closet.  (For the record, I wore the straps.)

But more than anything, I remember my aunt making cookies.  Whenever she had some extended time when we visited (and out visits were frequent, if her extended time was not), she would whip up a batch of cookies:  thumbprint, chocolate chip, oatmeal, sugar, it didn't matter.  She would bring out her silver kitchen-aid mixer, and we would be allowed to help her.  She had a big butcher block island, and my brother or my sister or I, or sometimes all three of us, would pull up a chair to stand on, and we would mix and make a mess and "help."  She would let us lick the beaters, and she allowed us to use the spatula to lift the still steaming cookies from the sheet.  Thus, when it came time to remember my aunt, I made a batch of her spice cookies, straight from that little yellow recipe box.

The last time I saw my aunt, my mother and three of her other sisters, my own sister, my niece, my nephew, and three of my cousins gathered around her kitchen table.  We all brought our own lunches so as to not tax my aunt with the duties of entertaining.  Because the table was overflowing and there was hardly any elbow room, my sister, her children, and myself were all relegated to the living room table (to be fair, we were the four youngest in the room, thus our perennial banishment to the kids' table).  After lunch, we nosed our way back to the kitchen table, where the talk began in earnest.  Whenever the sisters got together (and for this event there were five of the six daughters), there was a lot of nodding, some sharing of and taking of photos, a lot of family catch-up and gossip, and a few moments of biting one's tongue.  My sister and I had to leave early, so I came around to the head of the table, where my aunt sat hooked to her oxygen tank.  I knelt down to hold my aunt's hand as she remained in her chair.  We hugged.  I said goodbye.

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Brine-cured Pork Chops with Warm Red Cabbage
Four Years Ago: Four-Cheese Pizza

Crunchy Fruit Drops
Adapted from my aunt

Makes 40 cookies

1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
1 egg, well beaten
1-3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup nuts (chopped)--I used almonds and pecans, but walnuts would be good, too
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup buttermilk

1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.  In a medium mixing bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter until it is smooth.  Add sugar slowly and beat until light.  Beat in egg.

3.  In another mixing bowl, sift flour, salt, cinnamon, cloves and baking soda. 

4.  Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk to the sugar mixture (add 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour) and mix to form a stiff batter.

5.  Add the nuts and raisins to the batter and blend well.

6.  Drop by teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet.  Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chocolate Pots de Crème

At the end of 2013, the husband and I packed our bags and headed north.  The husband’s family acquired in August a vacation-cum-pre-retirement home about four hours north of our humble Oakland abode.  Said home is nestled, and yes the verb must be nestled, in the redwoods, tucked in on all four sides.  There, the husband and I have been appointed a room wherein we have begun to nest with big, furry blankets and a quilt from my aunt.  The house is in no uncertain disarray with the kitchen having recently been torn out and reinstalled and boasts not a lick of solid furniture on the main floor save that of the white-plastic-lawn-chair kind and a dining table.  However, when we come up, we do so with his parents, who in their generosity have made us feel as if this place has become our own as well.  

On the 28th of December, the in-laws invited over some friends from the area, and the husband and I prepared the first official dinner in the new kitchen.  In a sweet, overheard phone call to those friends, the father-in-law declared that the “kids” had safely arrived at the house and informed the friends of the expected prandial time.  The husband and I are forty or nearly forty, so it was delightful and dear to hear ourselves referred to as the “kids.” I suspect that the husband will always be the “kid.”

We “kids” had spent the morning on the haul road (the former train tracks turned asphalt road which was once the redwood haul route from the forests to the lumber yards) that runs along 10-mile beach—the husband walked and I ran (read: shuffled for 2.5 miles).  The view was incredible, and it provided the backdrop for an inspiring end of the year.  After such a gentle start of the day, we had to launch into high gear, and we “kids” took on the dinner-making responsibilities.  The husband whipped up a supplementary batch of chile verde to augment the remains of one we had cooked for Boxing Day, and I zeroed in on the pots de crème from the Zuni Café Cookbook.  Given that one of the guests was gluten sensitive, I knew I needed to avoid all of the fabulous and certainly tasty tarts that called with their sweet siren song from this favorite of favorite cookbooks.  Avoid them I must.  Usually, I would have steered clear of this recipe, as it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and when serving guests, I admit to liking a bell or whistle or two.

However, don’t let the seeming simplicity of the recipe or even the presentation throw you off.  These pots de crème are quite lovely.  I used Ghirardelli chocolate, as that was the only bittersweet offering in the local grocery store.  Ghirardelli is a solid choice of chocolates—neither too high end nor too pedestrian—and it produced a sweet yet slightly acidic pudding that was divine.  Judy Rogers (another of the celebrated chefs who died in 2013) also recommends (although because I didn’t use it, I didn’t list it below) a “splash of Cointreau or Frangelico” to be added after straining the milk mixture into the chocolate; had I felt so inclined to purchase the $15 Frangelico for a one-time use, I think it would have been a fantastic addition to the glorified pudding.  If you have either on hand, I recommend its addition; however, without it, the pudding is still quite wonderful.

It’s nice to think back over this past year and where it has meandered in its serpentine course.  A year ago, my dear friend had only been recently diagnosed with lymphoma; come late summer she was in remission, but she spent a trying year in chemotherapy and radiation (in addition to having her house robbed).   Ever inspiring, she has signed up for her next half marathon, and I am doing my best to join her at the end of March.  This November, my best friend forever and ever (as in we’ve known each other since I was four and she was five) experienced the loss of her father (a man who could not imagine what two fourteen-year-old girls who had spent the last 48 hours together could possibly have to say to one another on the phone a mere fifteen minutes after their parting yet nonetheless tolerated their incessant chatter); I at least had the ability to fly back to Illinois to spend some time with her, going though his clothes, looking at old pictures—a memory I do not count as one of the pleasurable ones but I do count it among the good ones.  I was lucky enough to spend the summer and then again just before Thanksgiving among the nieces and nephews, who never fail to delight and amuse--what with their giant squirrel head masks and their One Direction full body cut outs, their surprisingly good clarinet playing, their declarations that I am indeed a good tickler, and their sweet insistence that I should not live in California given that there are no children out here.  I have been on the phone bi-weekly with both parents, I have eaten sushi with dear friends who have returned from Guam, I have brunched with yoga friends, had coffee and trips to CVS for holiday cards with dear friends from work, and have bemoaned the writing of Hesse and celebrated that of Barnes with my book group (of course, their ill-begotten opinions may differ from mine).  The good and the bad, we’ve put 2013 to bed. 

And these lucky “kids” did so with pots of fancy chocolate pudding among the redwoods of Northern California. 

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Mushroom Soup with Kale and Potatoes
Four Years Ago: Chicken Legs with Wine and Yams

Chocolate Pots de Crème
Adapted from The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking

Serves 4

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
¾ cup heavy cream (separated into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
¾ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks

1.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

2.  Melt the chocolate with ½ cup of the cream in a small pan or bowl poised over simmering water (a double boiler), stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat.

3.  Warm the remaining ¼ cup cream, the milk, and sugar in a small saucepan, stirring just to dissolve the sugar.

4.  In a medium howl, whisk the yolks, and then slowly sit in the warm milk mixture.  Pour the mixture through a strainer into the melted chocolate and stir to combine.

5.  Pour the mixture into four 4- to 5-ounce ramekins and place at least an inch apart in a baking dish.  Add hot water to come to barely ½ inch beneath this lip of the cups.  Bake until the custard is just set at the end edges but still soft in the center, about 45 minutes.  To check, life a pot and tilt; the center should bulge.  The eggs will continue to cook after you pull the custards from the oven and the chocolate will harden as it cools.  Cool, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.