Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Boston Holiday Treats

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is the quest for excellent holiday treats to share with the folks back home in Pittsburgh. So I am constantly in search of things that are really different, one of a kind.

In a previous post I mentioned how my family has fallen in love with soft torrone, both a blessing and a curse to me as I love sharing these items with them but the Modern Pastry stores are a bit out of the way for me and I am requested, nay, required to bring some home each time I visit. On my lunch break today I took a long lunch and made the shlep over to the North End to fetch the regular chocolate covered kind that is my family's favorite. When I arrived, I was not surprised to see the line almost out the door because of the holiday, which would have required about a half hour or more wait. However, by peeking at the front where the torrone was kept, I saw they were out, which is often the case over the holidays. Gasp! Does this mean Christmas just won't be Christmas? Nah. I was actually relieved I wouldn't have to wait the long wait, and I had a back-up plan.

So I sauntered over to a few other favorites. Salumeria Toscano to peek at the prosciutto and see if they had candied chestnuts (nope), Polcari's Coffee and Spices (the inside of this store smells like heaven to me) where I bought some chestnuts and found a great deal on quick polenta, and then over to Dairy Fresh Candy for Kinder Sorpresas (the Italian version of the chocolate egg with a toy inside. Supposedly the American versions have no toy as they are a choking hazard). I finished my journey at Maria's Pastry, a lovely place which is pretty much ignored by the tourists because they aren't able to find it. There I found torrone, not chocolate covered but it would have to do. As well as other treats -- a small ricotta pie, um, for me, and these lovely chocolate cookies, some with fig filling with a funny unpronounceable name. Yum!

So my North End quest was complete and I had a few new items to bring home. I'll add these to stash from Formaggio's kitchen -- chocolate covered figs, these wonderful fruit flavored sugar candies that melt instantly in your mouth, and small chocolate covered bits of pannetone. Oh and panforte from Dave's Fresh Pasta in Davis Square -- a truly Christmassy holiday dessert. I think I done good this year. The folks back home better be hungry!

A Palate for Chocolate

While my ability to discriminate between good and bad wine is still pretty weak, I am able to detect notes in chocolate with ease and confidence. Which, I suppose, reveals a bit about my vices, as the palate is much about experience and flavor memory, no?

In chocolate, the most common flavors I notice are similar to words you will hear to describe wine. In certain chocolates, like Vahlrona, I taste a lovely cherry note. In others, like Cadbury's, it is caramel. I've also noticed a burnt taste, smokiness, cinnamon, and sometimes coffee.

A few years back I hosted a wine and chocolate tasting party, asking guests to bring a bottle of their favorite red with the label hidden or their favorite chocolate. Everyone loved the party, and I thought the results were pretty interesting. However, since then I have learned I have broken a cardinal rule of chocolate OR wine tasting, which is that both have strong flavors and therefore should not be combined. Oh well. No one complained at the time. Since then, friends think of me when they think of chocolate, which of course I take as a compliment.

Yesterday, on a quest to buy shampoo for my sister for Christmas (her idea, not mine), I passed a new little corner store in the Westin Hotel near the Copley Mall. It was called something generic like "Gourmet Boutique" and I was ready to dismiss it as a standard overpriced venue for tourists, filled with Toblerone that you can buy at the grocery store and maybe some fancy crackers. But no, they did actually have some unusual items. And even, lo and behold when I was not even looking, they stocked a kind of chocolate bar I had only heard about on this lovely blog and had no hopes of finding here in Boston, the Marquise de Seveigne 70% Noir. I had to choose between one with candied orange peel and another with chocolate nibs. I went with the nibs because I wanted the chocolate flavor to be as unadulterated as possible, although once I tasted it, I have to say the nib action adds more grit than I like. And after I finished at the shop, I proceeded to pass by the new Richart Chocolates in the mall, an odd set-up that looks like some sort of drug store selling colorful jewels. I like their idea of their flavors: balsamic, floral, citrus, herbal, roasted ... As they weren't willing to sell individual chocolates and the smallest box was $20, I decided to wait for a time when I wasn't already feeling a bit overwhelmed with holiday flavors.

So now at home I have three exotic high level chocolate bars, a justly earned pleasure after all of that hunting. The Marquise, an Italian bar from Formaggio's whose name is currently escaping me, and a Green and Black Organic 70%. Personally, the Green and Back is the most pleasant of the three for eating straight.

I know I'm probably a little odd, but if it really good chocolate, I am even happy to eat it unsweetened, as King Arthur Flour sells it. Then I know I'm getting nuthin' but chocolate.

And did I mention my favorite local chocolatier, the very, very fine Burdick's in Harvard Square? The best hot chocolate AND the best truffles I've had, all in one tiny shop.

Whew. Apparently, I could talk about this subject for a long time. I'll stop now but it may have to come up again!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Happy Solstice

Today is Winter Solstice, which happened here in New England at 7:41 AM this morning. I was doing a little reading about it today at this excellent site, and it really is a fascinating marker of time and history.

First off, I was reminded of a great Dar Williams song, the Christians and the Pagans. (for lyrics, click here).

While we all pretty much know that solstice means the shortest day of the year, it is not the time when the earth is farthest from the sun. The difference is actually in the tilt of the earth being the farthest.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with Stonehenge and its probable use as an ancient site of worship. I learned that Stonehenge marks both solstices. In addition, several other ancient sites seem to be designed to mark the moment of solstice with an opening that is lit by the sun at the moment of solstice. One is in Ireland, called Newgrange, one near Scotland, called Maeshowe, and one in New Mexico. Wow. This kinda stuff is so beautiful it just blows my mind ... on an artistic, spiritual, and sociological level. The spirals used at almost all of these sites also demonstrates to me the universal awe that humans experience at the forces of nature and this beautiful planet we share.

People have celebrated solstice throughout the millenia with feast and fire, song and dance and lots and lots of light. Tonight I plan on lighting some candles and to sit and take a moment to watch them burn and think about the turning of the years.

I love Christmas and pretty much all of the holidays. But winter solstice especially has a power and energy around it that is so ancient and true and real, like a portal into the millenia of human existence and even beyond that. Happy Solstice!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

German Stollen Posted by Hello

Lebkuchen Posted by Hello

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

That Time Again: Holiday Baking

Christmas is the one time of year my family's cooking traditions emerge. Yes, we have the stuffed celery on the relish tray for Thanksgiving, but that's more a throwback to the 1950s than an actual tradition. The only recipe I knew of in our family that had been handed down was for Lebkuken, a spicy cookie with an anise flavor that my grandmother always made (and always spelled incorrectly). As kids, we instantly turned up our noses to anything remotely licoricey, so these were not our favorites. Nor did we want to touch my mother's plum pudding with a ten foot pole. As my sisters and I have grown older, the cookies have become an important part of the holiday. Whether this means our palates have become more refined or we've just lost most of our taste buds, it is hard to say. But now there is nothing more Christmasy than the scent and taste of the Lebkuken.

Lebkuchen is simply a German word that means "spice cookie." There are probably dozens of recipes for it, so my family recipe is definitely our own. And much as I'd like to claim that it is hundreds of years old, my family is not German so it was probably just adopted by my great-grandmother who liked a neighbor's recipe. But hey, that's how life in the cookbook goes.

As for the plum pudding, I still can't say I love it, even if it is more authentically of my family's British heritage than the German Lebkuken. It probably doesn't help that mom buys it from the grocery store, heats it up in the microwave and uncerimoniously dumps jarred hard sauce over it. I briefly contemplated making a homemade plum pudding this year to see if I actually like REAL plum pudding, as the home-made version is pretty much always going to be better than the store bought. However, it turns out it takes oh, about a year for plum pudding to be ready to consume. So I guess I better get started now for next year if I plan on trying it out anytime soon.

Instead of trying to make and eat prematurely ripened plum pudding, I decided to tackle stollen instead, a kind of German sweetbread. It was fun to make but a fair amount of work, namely because dicing the peels of four oranges is no small task. But it makes an enormous amount of stollen, easily enough for two families plus leftovers for gifts. And it is so much better than the stale dried out version I've had from the store. I'll try to post a photo of it tomorrow.

I also enjoy making chocolate truffles for the holiday. They are remarkably easy to make and, I believe, once again much better tasting than any truffles you can buy in the store. Yes, I'm even talking about the big fancy places. I think it has to do with the fact that they are fresh and they have no need for shelf stabilizers. And you can flavor them any way you like.

I also tried making some flavored nuts this year for a party and gifts. The Spicy Rosemary Cashews were a hit. Last night I made pralines from Joy of Cooking, which were alarmingly good and pretty simple. My first intention was just those spiced nuts, but the recipe from Joy was more like a candy. Well, I don't think anyone will complain about not getting a straightforward spiced nuts.

Anyhow, I'm having fun. I love holiday baking.

Pralines (with comparison candied cashews on the right) Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 09, 2004

I Am So Tired

When you are really tired, the world looks a lot different. Certain pleasures that we take for granted, like closing your eyes for a few moments, suddenly become overwhelmingly blissful. Ah, eye closing. Ahhhhhh. Putting your head down on your desk feels so good too. Much better than it normally does. And certain tasks, like spelling or driving or complete sentences become so ... what was I saying?

I attended my first doula birth Tuesday night. And it was all night. I was beeped at 11 PM, just after I put on my jammies, brushed my teeth, crawled into bed, and entered dreamland and was about to embark on a little trip with my husband (who doesn't know it yet), Mark Ruffalo. So rudely interrupted by this odd beeping noise. Holey moley! It was the call. So I headed on into the hospital, heart a-pounding. Twelve hours later, I packed up to go home, having seen one of the most profound and beautiful and freaky moments that humans can experience. I saw a baby emerge from his mother's womb, silent and gray, then turn his head, open his bluest of blue eyes, and start to howl. What can you say after that? Nothing at all.

So yes, the doula world just became that much more real. And yesterday I was at it again, until this morning at 11 AM, this time a baby girl. I plan on doing a little holiday celebrating with friends tonight, but mostly the agenda for the evening involves a bed and some serious z.

The Turkey Was Good

Beautiful biscuit Posted by Hello

I have been remiss about regular blog updates. Could it be the holiday season? Could it be that I've been attending births which require 12 hour shifts overnight? Yes. It could be these things.

The major successes of the day:

I found tiny little white pumpkins at the farmer's market which became the little piece de la resistance ... check out the place setting (with obliging guest's hands) in the photo below. Note the new dinnerware (gasp, I almost typed the word dishes! how gauche!) and the harvesty cloth napkins!

I do love a proper biscuit and the Cook's recipe is one of the best I've ever tried. Photo attached of one of those babies as well above.

The turkey was good! Thanksgiving was a lot of fun overall. I think being the hostess really gives you the feeling of it as an event rather than simply an overly large meal. I roasted my first ever turkey, trussing and all. I have never wrestled a turkey into place before. Let me tell you, cooking is not for wimps. Just try rotating a 12 pound bird at a temperature of around 175 degrees. The promise of crispy skin by the folks at Cooks was somewhat wasted since no one in my little group was a big skin eater. I think next time, less rotating.

This was my first year with giblet gravy. A little scary working with giblets, but let me tell you, after handling placentas you can handle a lot of scary stuff. That's all I will say about that. However, I learned something new -- I was proud to find the bag with the giblets and neck in the turkey. Then my recipe for the gravy mentioned including the heart and I thought, well, my turkey company does not seem to include that as it was not in the giblet bag. So I proceeded without and all was fine. And then guest Nick began to carve the turkey and found another little bag that got cooked with everything else, hiding in the neck cavity, with a well cooked heart inside. Hmph! Who would think to look there? Talk about having your heart in your throat. However, my guests were forgiving of the mistake, and we moved on.

The pumpkin pie was interesting. Not as firm as I would have liked, but the extra spiciness of the Cooks, yes again the Cook's recipe, was very pleasant. The jello salad simply never materialized. After you've stuffed twenty five pieces of celery with cream cheese and olives, you just start to lose your steam around preserving complicated albeit cherished traditions.

A guest brought over "Supersize Me" for us to watch while digesting after the meal. This was an amusing if not entirely appropriate choice. Watching a movie about how Americans consume enormous amounts of unhealthy food feels a little funny when you've just stuffed yourself silly. However, it was nice to revisit my previous obsession with documentaries. I can't say it was a deeply profound or insightful film, but you know, it was one of those things that people are talking about so you can connect over it.

So yes, overall a successful day. Next year I think I'd like to try the high roast turkey or the spice rubbed turkey. Wait, did I just volunteer to do this again?

The place setting with teeny pumpkin Posted by Hello