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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

package

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

Breakfast Brioches

Around here, everyday breakfast is usually two cups of espresso and something in the bread family: an English muffin, a bagel, a homemade muffin or scone; if nothing else, white toast. Very occasionally, we have croissants or brioches. I buy the croissants, because I’m not good at making them, but I can make good brioches.

When the urge to do so overcame me recently, I dug out my individual brioche tins and started looking through cookbooks. There are some big differences in technique claytonbetween brioche recipes, though none of them is simple. Julia Child’s in Mastering is – predictably – the most complicated, with a six-page master recipe and five pages of shaping variations. Even Irma Rombauer, always a model of conciseness, devotes a whole densely written page of Joy to brioche making. This time I chose to use Bernard Clayton’s basic French Brioche recipe in The Complete Book of Breads, which runs to only four pages.
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Brioche dough – really more like a very thick batter – never gets kneaded, only beaten. To start, I dissolved yeast in water; added a small amount of flour, plus nonfat dry milk, sugar, and salt; and beat that in the heavy-duty mixer for two minutes. Next I added a lot of soft butter and beat that in for one minute. Finally, I beat in eggs and the rest of the flour. Here are those three stages of the batter.
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three-batters

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Then came the tricky part. I quote you the recipe’s instructions:

Grab the dough in one hand . . . pull a large handful of it out of the bowl, about 14 inches aloft, and throw it back – with considerable force! Continue pulling out and slapping back the dough for about 18 to 20 minutes. Don’t despair. It is sticky. It is a mess but it will slowly begin to stretch and pull away as you work it.
                                                                      — or —
A heavy-duty mixer, at medium speed, can do this in about 10 minutes.

This time I thought I’d give the hand system a try.
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slapping-dough

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It was kind of fun at the beginning – good for working out aggressions – but very soon I gratefully turned the job over to the mixer. After 10 minutes of powerful slapping around, the dough had smoothed out nicely and showed a distinct preference to stick to itself rather than anything else it touched.

The dough then had to rise in a warm place (80-85° recommended) until doubled in bulk. My kithen is nowhere near that temperature, so I put the bowl in a slightly warmed oven. When I checked on it after two hours it had risen tremendously and looked energetic enough to go even higher.
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unrisen-and-risen

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I didn’t let it, though. I gently coaxed it down, covered its bowl tightly, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning it hadn’t risen nearly as much as the first time, which worried me a little, but it had to be shaped while it was still very cold, so I went ahead. It behaved beautifully. This was a completely different animal from yesterday’s sticky mess. I was able to shape it into balls and topknots without using a speck of flour.

shaped

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Then they had to rise again, covered, but in such a way that the covering wouldn’t touch the rising dough. Using a lot of glasses and plastic wrap, I built them a sort of greenhouse:

greenhouse

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This time I didn’t let them rise in as warm a place as for the dough’s initial rise, because I’d read somewhere that too high a temperature could cause the butter to start seeping out. As a result, my shaped rolls took 3½ hours to barely double in bulk. Several of the topknots had slipped sideways as they rose (they always do, for me), but as I applied egg glaze to them just before baking, I was able with a careful brush to nudge them back toward the middle.
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final-rise

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My brioches were a little bigger than the recipe anticipates (I have only 8 tins, not 10), so they took more than the indicated 20 minutes to bake. They seemed almost done at 30 minutes, but I kept them in for 10 more, for better browning. In the final oven rising, the topknots slipped sideways again, but not too badly.
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baked

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And so on to the next day’s breakfast – where the brioches were excellent. They had the proper fine, dense crumb and a luscious butter-and-egg richness.

served-2

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Are they worth all the trouble? To us, yes: Fresh brioche spread with homemade strawberry jam, alongside a good espresso – that’s a great way to start your day.

The soufflés I make always start sinking before they even reach the dinner table. It’s irritating, but I’ve gotten used to it. Deflating doesn’t hurt the taste any, only the appearance. I never make them for guests, though – both for the aesthetics and because it’s hard to fit the timing of a soufflé into a dinner-party menu. It’s easier for an everyday dinner for two: the eating can wait for the dish, not vice versa.

Cheese soufflés are what I mostly make, far more often than dessert soufflés. I usually make them with whatever cheeses I have on hand, not just the statutory gruyère. And since I know my soufflés will never sustain a dramatic puff, I never try to extend the height of the mold with a strip of buttered foil. In fact, I often use a larger mold than indicated, to prevent any possible spillovers. Rough and ready, they’re still always good.

mastering-iThe soufflé recipe I use for a guide is the basic one from the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering. After years of consulting it, I just recently I noticed in that section a recipe for an unmolded one: soufflé démoulé mousseline. Julia says it’s light and delicious, and while it doesn’t rise as high as the standard soufflé, it sinks only a little bit. Well, that sounded good for a change!

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For the past few days we’d been enjoying an interesting cheese called Alex – a Bavarian mountain cow’s milk cheese, related to that region’s emmenthaler, gruyère, and appenzeller. It seemed just the thing for a soufflé, so I coarsely grated a suitable amount of it and sprinkled a little of that all around the inside of a heavily buttered charlotte mold.

souffle-2

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The cooking technique starts in the usual soufflé way: Melt butter, stir in flour, foam together for two minutes. Beat in boiling milk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg; boil for one minute. Off heat, beat in egg yolks.

souffle-1

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A difference here was slightly smaller quantities of butter, milk, and egg yolk than in the usual soufflé of its size. Also, a larger proportion of egg whites: twice as many whites as yolks. My ever-reliable Kitchen Aid mixer whipped them easily, as always.

souffle-3

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I folded the whites into the base mixture, stirred in the grated cheese, and scooped it all into the mold. I set the mold in a large pot and poured in boiling water all around the mold. That’s like the way you treat a baked custard – not at all what you do to a standard soufflé.
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souffle-4

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Everything then went into a 350° oven for 1¼ hours – again, very different from the 30+ minutes at 400° that a standard soufflé takes.

While it was baking, I prepared the sauce that was to be served with it. Julia called for a fairly elaborate tomato sauce, which I approximated by gussying up a jar of my plain homemade sauce. I sauteed a little chopped onion, carrot, and celery; added my sauce and a dollop of strong homemade broth; simmered it until it thickened a bit.

The soufflé rose beautifully in the oven, but then came the anxious part. Would it unmold cleanly? Or would it fall to pieces? Julia gives directions for dislodging it onto a plate, with reassurance that it should unmold perfectly. But in case of blemishes, she calmly advises, just pour the tomato sauce over instead of around it, “and decorate with parsley.”

I’m happy to say that my soufflé did unmold properly but – inevitably, because it was mine – it immediately sank to about half its original height. Curses, foiled again!
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souffle-5

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Nevertheless: If you didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to look like that, you’d think it was just fine. And so it was: light and spongy, with an enticing smell and a rich, savory taste – a little tangy from the Alex cheese. It liked the tomato sauce very much. Despite deflation, a very successful soufflé.

And it has one more virtue: Before unmolding, this soufflé can sit in its little bathtub, in the turned-off oven with door ajar, for up to half an hour without harm. It’s true: I tried it. So one of these days now I can serve a soufflé to guests.

A few days ago, Beloved Spouse and I went shopping for fish for that night’s dinner. With two excellent fish markets nearby, we have many good choices. This day, his eye fell on a display of fresh smelts. He loves them, knows that I don’t, and heroically offered to bypass them. But smelts only appear here occasionally in winter, and this was He Who Must Be Indulged (at least, sometimes). I insisted that we buy them.

smelt-school

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He was content to have the little fishes simply batter-fried, and perfectly willing to do the slightly messy work of heading and gutting them. For my part I dug out the recipe for fish-and-chips batter in the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. This is a fairly elaborate batter, which I chose because it makes a thick but light, stick-to-it-ive coating.

We needed only half a recipe’s worth for our small school of swimmers, so the first thing I had to do was separate out half an egg yolk and half an egg white. The half yolk got mixed into half a cup of flour, along with a tablespoon of milk (it should’ve been beer, but we didn’t have any in the house) and a pinch of salt.

That produced a dense globular mass. Next I was to “stir” into it 1½ tablespoons of milk and the same amount of water and keep stirring until the batter was smooth. No way: I had to whomp it with a whisk and loosen it with additional milk and water, but it finally smoothed. Then I beat my half egg white into stiff peaks and folded it into the batter. It rested on the kitchen counter for a couple of hours.
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three-batters

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At dinnertime the two of us worked together. I dunked the smelts in the batter

dipping

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and he managed the frying, in small batches.

frying

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The batter clung nicely. It made a thin crunchy crust with a gently cushioned interior.
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served

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Even I, the non-smelt-fancier, enjoyed picking up the little beasts by the tail and biting my way into them. You truly can’t notice the bones! Beloved Spouse, who ate 8 to my 5, was in a state of bliss. Here’s what he has to say about the meal:
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I plain and simple loved it. Here in New York, smelts are a strictly seasonal treat, usually coming onto the market in late December and hanging around until early February at the latest, so we have to grab ‘em whenever they appear. Most of them, I gather, are caught in fresh water as they come in from the oceans to spawn, and I’m told that in California smeltophiles can take them from the beaches with hand nets during their run. Californians have all the luck! Smelts are always tasty little devils, with a slightly fishy flavor that falls on the scale as strong for a freshwater fish and mild for a saltwater species. Frying, whether deep or shallow, seems to be the fate they’re born for. Many people insist on drinking beer with smelts, but ours were very happy – as were we – with a Paumanok Vineyards Minimalist Chenin Blanc, which turned a simple fish fry into an elegant dinner.
                                                                            – TM, a.k.a. BS, a.k.a. HWMBI

I like the Italian tradition of eating lentils on the first day of the new year. It’s supposed to bring good luck – and as the world seems to be heading, luck is going to be in great demand in 2017. Moreover, because they look a little like coins, lentils also signify prosperity. We can hope for that too.

lentils

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Most often, the centerpiece of our New Year’s Day dinner is a cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils, a classic dish that I’ve written about before here. We like to use an imported, fully cooked cotechino from Levoni, which has great depth of flavor and a wonderfully gelatinous character. And when we can get them, we use Castelluccio lentils – a special, small, golden brown variety from Umbria.

This year I decided to unbundle the traditional combination, using the cotechino in a small bollito misto for two and the lentils in a soup. I found a soup recipe that I liked in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It’s simple; it’s made with reliably flavorful ingredients, and there wasn’t a single one of them that I didn’t already have in pantry or refrigerator. Here they all are (half a recipe’s worth):

ingredients

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To begin, you lightly brown chopped onion in olive oil and butter; add chopped carrots, celery, and pancetta; and sauté those for a few minutes. Next, stir in chopped canned Italian-style tomatoes with their juices.

soup-base

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That mixture simmers, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then you add the lentils, stirring them around a bit to coat with the soup base. Then salt, pepper, and broth – in our case, Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. About 45 more minutes’ cooking, covered, and the soup is done.

A dab of butter and some grated parmigiano garnish each bowl.

lentil-soup

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It was a simple, satisfying soup. The lentils, so tasty in their own right, were gently enriched by the flavors of the other ingredients. A very pleasant prelude to our little new year’s bollito.

bollito

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Incidentally, this post marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing this blog. I’ve very much enjoyed doing it, and I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking. I hope my readers will continue to find my culinary adventures and excursions interesting. Buon Capodanno e buon appetito!

No, I don’t mean the goose from last year’s Christmas – only the one from three days ago. But cooking it so traumatized me that I swear it’s the last goose I’m ever going to make. Let me tell you about it.

There are many opinions on how to roast a goose, all meant to confront the problem of the truly enormous amount of fat a goose has under its skin. This is a plus in one sense, because the fat makes a splendid cooking medium for many other foods (not least potatoes). But separating that fat from its native bird is a serious undertaking.

Some recipes say to start with a very hot oven for a while, then turn it down to low heat. Others say use only the high heat, while still others say only the low heat. How to choose? I’d only ever roasted one goose before in my life, some way to cookyears ago, and I can’t remember how I did it or how it turned out. This time I decided to rely on the ever-trustworthy Julia Child. In The Way to Cook, she has a recipe called Steam-Roasted Goose, which she says renders out the most fat and gives the most succulent flesh of any technique she’s tried. I can’t say she’s wrong, but what a production number it was!

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Beloved Spouse and I started working on our 11-pound goose a whole day in advance, since there was a lot of other cooking to be done for our 5-course Christmas Day dinner. I cut off the wing tips and added them to the giblets and neck to make stock for the eventual gravy. I pulled all the loose fat out of the bird’s cavity and rubbed it all over with lemon juice. I pushed two long skewers through the body, one to secure the wings and the other the legs. I tied the drumstick ends together against the tail. And I made shallow, angled stabs all over the fatty parts of the skin.

trussed-bird

Thus trussed, the goose went onto a rack in my biggest roasting pan, into which it just barely (whew!) fit.

close-fit

I poured in two inches of water, covered the pan tightly, and steamed the goose for an hour, checking several times on the water level. The goose rendered quite a lot of liquid, much of which was fat. It also stiffened and tried to stretch, but the skewers and string held fairly well. After the pot had cooled I lifted out the goose on its rack, poured off the liquid, rinsed the pan, and returned the goose to it. That was all the cooking it got that day.

steamed

There was no room for that big roasting pan in my refrigerator, so I turned off the heat in my study, opened both windows wide, closed the door, and left the covered pan there, hoping for a good cold night.

The next day the goose was fine. In the late afternoon I unskewered its legs to access its cavity and put in a stuffing. Rather than Julia’s suggested stuffings I made my own, softening onions and mushrooms in a lot of melted butter and squeezing them into a bowl of shredded bread, along with salt, pepper, and chopped pecans. Then I sewed up the vent and neck cavities and re-skewered the legs.

Back into the roasting pan the goose went, breast down, its rack lined with a double layer of foil. I strewed chopped carrots, onions, and celery around the pan, and poured in a few cups of the goose’s steaming liquid.

ready-to-braise

I covered the pan again, brought its liquid to a boil on top of the stove, and put the pan in a 325° oven for 1½ hours, basting every 20 minutes. By this time the dinner party was under way, with other cooking and serving tasks interleaving in the usual hectic manner. And there was still one more cooking stage for the goose: 30 minutes in the oven, uncovered and breast up, after which it had to be kept warm while its gravy was made.

Turning the goose breast-up was the fiendish step. How do you turn over 11 pounds of hot, wet, slippery, legs-jutting-out bird that’s lying in a deep roasting pan? I don’t know how Julia did it, but we could think of only one way: I gave Beloved Spouse my two heavy oven mitts and held down the foil and the rack while he heroically lifted the goose out and turned it over, without causing either of us third-degree burns or precipitating the bird onto the kitchen floor.

I can’t show you a photo of that action because we were both too fully occupied to take one, but here’s the finished bird ready to be carved. It’s quite ungainly looking. I could only get a quick snapshot, because the dinner guests and the scalloped potatoes, red cabbage, applesauce, rolls, and gravy were waiting.

done

It was indeed a very tasty goose, though the skin hadn’t really crisped. But, in our somewhat rattled state by then, both Beloved Spouse and I completely forgot about the stuffing. We never took it out of the goose, so nobody ate it. Too bad, because it was probably pretty good. We’ll find out when we can work up our courage to tackle the leftovers.

Despite all the Sturm und Drang, I call the evening a success, but I never want to have another like it! Cooking a goose that way almost cooked my goose: It just takes too much time and energy in the context of all the other components of a major holiday meal. Next Christmas maybe just a simple standing rib roast of beef. Beloved Spouse says “Yes, please!”

Christmas is the only time of year I ever bake cookies. And then, in keeping with the spirit of holiday abundance, I bake a lot of them! This year I did four kinds of nut cookies: one each with almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and walnuts. Two are old favorites I make almost every year. One is a recent addition to my repertoire. And one is totally new to me.

Peanut Butter Cookies

peanut-butter

For me, these are the Ur Christmas cookie, going back to my earliest childhood. I don’t recall what recipe my mother used, but I love one that I clipped from an issue of Saveur magazine in 2000. With chunky peanut butter and dark brown sugar, it makes rich, luscious cookies that we look forward to every year.
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Toll House Cookies

toll-house

Another “wouldn’t be Christmas without” kind of cookie at our house – always from the recipe printed on the Nestle’s Toll House Morsels bag. This year I boldly tried one of its suggested variations, which is to add grated orange rind. A mere 1½ teaspoons of clementine rind made a surprisingly strong presence in 50 two-inch cookies. I found it a pleasant change, but Beloved Spouse – even more of a traditionalist than I – still prefers the classic version.
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Hazelnut-Brown Sugar Cookies

hazelnut

Two Christmases ago I tried this recipe from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. It was very good, so I did it again this year. It’s a typical nut cookie procedure: You cream butter and brown sugar, beat in egg and vanilla, stir in flour, baking soda, and chopped nuts. Drop onto greased pans and bake in a moderate oven. This time they came out even better than last year’s – crisper and more delicate – possibly because I used light brown sugar instead of dark. Something to remember for next year.
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Granadinas

spanish

This was my new Christmas experiment. They’re almond cookies, a specialty of the Andalusian city of Granada. The recipe is from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, and it’s the oddest cookie I’ve ever made. It starts with heating a cup of flour in a skillet for several minutes, not letting it brown. Cooled, the flour is mixed with ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¾ cup ground almonds. Add an egg and ½ cup of lard, and work the whole mixture into a dough. Shape it into one-inch balls, lay them on a baking sheet, and flatten the center of each one “with your index finger.”

three-stages

I did all that, baked them as directed, and they came out very well. You can’t actually taste the lard, but it provides a hint of savoriness underneath the almond nuttiness. Granadinas are supposed to be dusted with powdered sugar, but for us they’re sweet enough just plain.

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christmasdivider7

tins

So here are this season’s cookies in their tins, ready to make a sweet contribution to the year-end festivities for Beloved Spouse, our holiday guests, and – let us not forget – me.