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Yesterday was Epiphany – Three Kings Day, or, as it’s better known in Italy, the feast of La Befana. The Befana is the old witch who fills children’s stockings with gifts if they’ve been good and lumps of coal if not. For several years our friend Lars has given splendid dinner parties to celebrate La Befana. This past weekend Tom and I hosted the feast, with many vinous and culinary contributions from our guests.

Here’s the lineup of wines that awaited the six of us.

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And here are the many good things that we had to eat.

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Sausages with Sweet-Sour Figs

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To nibble with the aperitif of champagne (NV Brut Rosé from small grower/producer André Clouet), I made this tasty combination from Penelope Casas’ Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain. A day ahead, I steamed dried figs to soften them; simmered them in sugar, wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon; and left them in that syrup overnight. Next day I cooked Italian sweet sausages in wine and olive oil; removed them, deglazed the pan with wine, and added a little tomato; and simmered the drained figs and sausages together in the deglazing sauce. Then it was just to cut them up, spear a piece of each on toothpicks, and reheat them in the sauce at serving time. The meat and fruit flavors contrasted nicely, and the substantial, complex Champagne played delightfully with both.

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Seafood Salad

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This dish is one of Tom’s specialties. Each time he makes it he riffs on a recipe from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. For this version he briefly sauteed cut up squid, scallops, shrimp, clams, and cod, then cooled them and dressed them with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped celery and onion, and strips of roasted red peppers. We mopped up the juices with chunks of Lars’s crusty country bread and drank a charming 2011 Frascati Luna Mater, Fontana Candida’s top-of-the-line bottling, also brought by Lars.

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Lars’s Timballo

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Lars makes his magnificent timballo every year for the Befana celebration, using the recipe of his aunt Rossana. It’s a specialty of the Lazio region, a sort of lasagna on steroids. The ingredients are homemade egg pasta; a tomato sauce enriched with carrots, celery, onion, rosemary, and sage; grated pecorino romano; and a stuffing mixture of ham, hard-boiled eggs and mozzarella. He brought it to us in a huge 12”x24” pan, which just barely fit into my oven. Delicious as it was, the six of us could eat only about half of it. (Great leftovers for all to take home.) With it we drank a 2000 Torre Ercolana red wine, also from Lazio, that Charles brought especially to match with the timballo. It did, lustily, and Charles lustily proclaimed the virtues of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot grown in Lazio. No one dissented.

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Roasted Fresh Ham

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We have few enough occasions for as large and celebratory a hunk of meat as a fresh ham, so I wanted my nine-pound shank half to taste only of its own meat sweetness, not to be soaked in sugary brines and painted with cloying glazes, as too many recipes counsel. I found a simple treatment in the Pork volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Forgoing the traditional crackling, Tom carefully stripped the whole rind off the ham (not an easy job, but we have use for that rind), and I rubbed it all over with salt, thyme, oregano, and sage. I roasted it briefly at 400°, then lengthily at 325°, basting regularly.

The book said you could give it a rich mahogany sheen with a natural glaze, which looked and sounded good. So I took the pan out of the oven before the ham was entirely done, set it on a platter, deglazed the pan juices with water, transferred the resulting sauce to a bowl, returned the ham to its pan and the oven, and basted every five minutes with the sauce. Well, it didn’t work: My ham remained a light brown color. It was beautifully flavorful, though, and it matched well with a savoyard potato gratin, sauteed apples, and peas with prosciutto and green onions.

The wine with this course and with the cheeses that followed (Bleu d’Auvergne, Chabichou, Idiazabal, and Robiola) was Tuscan and also a beautiful match: a magnum of 1999 Flaccianello from Fontodi. This is a single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese masterpiece from a great estate in the Chianti Classico zone.

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Meyer Lemon Upside-down Cake

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Dessert was a variation on the clementine upside-down cake recipe in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Made and brought by the author herself, who was one of our guests. The light cake with its lemon topping made a lovely conclusion and was especially well companioned by the dessert wine, a 2007 Pieropan Recioto di Soave. Pieropan is generally acknowledged as the leading producer of the Soave zone, and this elegant bottle showed why.

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So: a brilliant finish to our holiday season. Now to face the rigors of the rest of the winter!  Happily, we’re well provided with delicious leftovers.

P.S. Charles has also written up the dinner, with much more commentary on the wines, on his blog.

 

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Hazelnut Financiers

Hazelnuts are a great favorite in my household. Whenever Tom’s Italian wine trips take him to Alba, he brings back shrink-wrapped bags of the prized local variety, already peeled and roasted.

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I can happily eat them just in the hand, but mostly I use them in dessert recipes. One that I like very much is a recipe that I clipped from the New York Times two summers ago, for Fig-Hazelnut Financiers. Regular readers of this blog know I’ve taken strong exception to some NYT recipes (here and here) but I can honestly praise this one.

The classic financier is an almond-flavored French cake, baked in small rectangular molds to look like bars of gold. Common variants come in different shapes and are often topped with fruit. For me, the switch from almonds to hazelnuts – also not uncommon – is the master stroke that transforms a good recipe into a great one.

The recipe’s first step is to melt a stick of butter and cook it into beurre noisette. (I do have one nit to pick with the Times. It says cook the butter “until it turns nut brown.” That’s misleading: It’s not the liquid butter that should do that; it’s the solids that fall to the bottom of the pan, which you leave behind. The butter itself should get only to a dark golden color.)

While the butter was cooling a little, I stirred together ground hazelnuts, all-purpose flour, and confectioners’ sugar – a lot of sugar! – and then beat in four egg whites. Some recipes say to whip the whites into peaks first, but it isn’t necessary here. Finally, I beat in the melted butter and vanilla extract.

I divided the batter over the cups of a buttered muffin pan, put a slice of ripe fig on top of each cup, and baked them for 15 minutes. After a short rest, they obligingly came out of the pan intact, looking like small flat-top muffins.

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These are truly luscious little morsels. The fig/hazelnut combination tastes just wonderful – sweet but not cloying, rich without being heavy. In short, a fine dessert. They even freeze well – useful to prevent us from gobbling down the whole batch on the day they’re made!

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A few days later, thinking about a dessert for a small dinner party, I had the idea of making a single large financier cake. I put together another batch of batter, poured it into an eight-inch springform pan, and added a circular pattern of fresh peach slices. With all that moist fruit, the cake took much longer to bake: 30 minutes at 400° and then 5-10 minutes more at 350. But it came out just fine.

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It was an excellent simple dessert, different from the fig tarts in being slightly less intense, with the hazelnut crumb coming more to the fore, but delightful all the same. And I still have more of those good hazelnuts for future financier pleasures, as the fruits of the season change. I bet they’ll be good with pears.

 

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Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in a small Dordogne village, belongs to the grand tradition of fictional detectives-cum-gastronomes, like Nero Wolfe and Salvo Montalbano. But there’s one big difference between Bruno and those others: Bruno cooks. While investigating crimes and unmasking criminals, Bruno always finds time to prepare meals featuring dishes of his region for colleagues, neighbors, and lady friends.

Author Martin Walker describes Bruno’s kitchen work so lushly and appealingly (it’s Perigord – think truffles and foie gras) that, reading along, I often feel I’d need no further recipe to make his dishes at home. So Tom and I and our friend Hope did just that for our latest cookathon, our periodic all-afternoon playings in our kitchen, followed by an evening of enjoying the fruits of our labors. Here’s the Bruno-style menu we prepared this time:

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs
Truffle Omelets
Spit-Roasted Lamb
Sarladaise Potatoes
Asparagus
Perigord Walnut Tart

Lush enough for you? This dinner turned out to be truly caloric megadeath.

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Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs

This isn’t actually one of Bruno’s own dishes, and it’s not in any of the books. The Bruno website, which has a recipe section, tells us that Bruno’s neighbor Pamela (“the mad Englishwoman”) once served them at a cocktail party, which undoubtedly Bruno would have attended.

We steamed dried Turkish figs to soften them a bit, sliced off the stems, poked a hole in each one, filled the cavities with pâté de foie gras, and chilled the figs for several hours. For serving we cut each fig in half. They were, as you’d expect, rich and luscious, though the two flavors remained independent, not combining to create any amazingly new third thing. Still, who can quarrel with figs and foie gras?

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Bruno would have drunk a glass of the local sweet Monbazillac wine with this. I couldn’t find any, so we had a 1989 Sauternes, which comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux, just southwest of the Perigord. In France, this is a time-honored companion to foie gras. It went very well indeed.

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Truffle Omelets

To date, Bruno has made truffle omelets in two of the books, Bruno Chief of Police and The Dark Vineyard. Of course, he uses eggs from his own hens and local truffles. We, alas, had to accept commercial products.

We’d intended to spring for fresh black truffles, but the Urbani company didn’t have any this week, so we had to settle for two ounces of flash-frozen. They were better than the ones that come in jars but not as fully fragrant as fresh ones. We were extravagant with them, though, steeping about half in the beaten eggs for several hours, then slicing the rest over the top of the cooked omelets – cooked in duck fat, in the true Bruno manner. Not at all shabby!

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Since our cellar doesn’t run to Perigord wines, with this course we drank another Bordeaux, a 2008 St. Emilion.

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Spit-Roasted Lamb

Bruno and his friends roast two whole spring lambs over an open fire at an outdoor feast in The Dark Vineyard. It was somewhat perverse of us to choose this recipe, since we have no access to an outdoor grill, and an entire lamb was clearly out of the question for three people. But we didn’t let logic or common sense slow us down. We had half a boned leg of lamb, which we stuffed with bay leaves and rosemary sprigs before rolling, tying, and setting up on my open-hearth electric rotisserie.

In the book, the lambs were basted repeatedly with a mixture of vin de noix, olive oil, and honey. I couldn’t get the actual French fortified walnut wine, but we approximated it closely enough with nocino, the Italian version. We used equal parts of nocino, olive oil, and chestnut honey. To our regret, we also didn’t have a branch of a bay tree to brush it on with, as Bruno did. So there were some compromises in our version of this dish.

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Happily, the lamb came out very well – tender and flavorful, delicately perfumed on the inside from the herbs and sweetly savory on the outside from the intriguing sweet/tart flavors of the baste. Continuing with Bordeaux wine, we drank a 1999 Chateau Gloria St. Julien, which accompanied the lamb beautifully: Cabernet always loves lamb.

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Sarladaise Potatoes, Asparagus

In Black Diamond, Bruno makes venison stew for a dinner in the home of his friend the Baron. Three of the other guests prepare sarladaise potatoes. There’s a complete recipe for the potatoes on the Bruno website, which we mostly followed. We parboiled waxy La Ratte heirloom potatoes, sliced and sauteed them in duck fat until they began to brown, then stirred in minced garlic and parsley for the last few minutes.

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This has not been a great winter for potatoes in our part of the world – most have been almost flavorless – but these were lush from the duck fat and zingy from the garlic. Alongside, we had fresh asparagus spears, just boiled and drizzled with melted butter. Bruno usually dresses his asparagus with hollandaise sauce, but for a meal he makes in The Devil’s Cave he doesn’t – because, he explains, there’d already been eggs in the omelet. So since we’d had our eggs too, we left the asparagus plain. We needed something on our plates that was green and not heart-stoppingly rich!

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Perigord Walnut Tart

In the books Bruno doesn’t make desserts very often, quite understandably given the satiety level of his cooking, so we cast our eyes farther afield. Knowing that walnuts are a prized specialty of the Dordogne, we looked up walnut dessert recipes from Perigord on the Web and chose one that looked not too complex. It’s a tart shell of sweet pastry dough, baked with a custardy filling of eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and lots of chopped walnuts. (One caution if you look at the recipe: I didn’t trust its pâte sucrée technique so I used a different version, one I’d made before and had more confidence in.).

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The tart was very sweet, but also very pleasant: cookielike crust, creamy center, crunchy nuts. I might well make it again – after a simpler dinner! – just cutting back a little on the sugar. With it we enjoyed another glass of the Sauternes, so ending with a liquid reminder of where we began.

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As I said at the beginning, this was a totally over-the-top meal. I don’t know how Bruno and his Perigueux friends can get through so many rich dishes at a sitting. Maybe they do it only once a year? And eat only green salads for a week after? I’m sure that we’ll never attempt to do it all even once again. But it was a heroic and fascinating experiment.

Here are the Bruno books in which the dishes appear:

Bruno books

 

 

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In our house it wouldn’t be Christmas without homemade cookies. But in a daring break from tradition this year, I made all the cookies from recipes I’ve never tried before. Happily, they all came out well, according to my chief cookie taster, Tom. (If they hadn’t, I’d certainly have found coal in my stocking on Christmas morning.)

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Molasses Cookies

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These are from Lee Bailey’s cookbook Country Desserts. They aren’t much like what I expected from the book’s picture, which shows large, flat, soft-looking cookies – which are the kind of molasses cookies I’m familiar with. These are firmer and crunchy; a little like gingersnaps. Definitely molasses in the flavor, though, with spicy undertones of allspice, cinnamon, and black pepper; also a light outer sprinkle of granulated sugar, in which each cookie was rolled before baking.

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Hazelnut-Brown Sugar Cookies

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I love anything with hazelnuts. For this recipe, also from the Bailey book, Tom bought me a shrink-wrapped pack of roasted hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont region, where the prized local variety is IGP-certified. (The acronym means “protected geographical indication” and connotes quality, much as the AOC and DOC laws do for wine.) The recipe is simple and standard – cream butter and sugar, mix in egg, vanilla, flour, baking soda, and chopped nuts. The cookies are pretty homely looking (they are in the book’s photo too), but with the excellent hazelnuts they’re rich, crisp, and delicious.

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Fruitcake Cookies

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These unusual cookies are once again from the Bailey book. Unlike the other two, they’re a refrigerator cookie, which is to say a soft dough that’s rolled into logs, chilled or frozen, and cut in slices for baking. They do taste a little like a good fruitcake, being made with figs, raisins, glacéed cherries, walnuts, cloves, and honey. The recipe was for 150 cookies – far more than I wanted, so I decided to make one-quarter of the amount. That sent me into my usual unmathematical agonies – e.g., how much is ¼ of ⅓ of 1 cup? Everything came out fine, however. And they’re attractive, as well as tasty little cookies.

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I was planning to stop my cookie making with three varieties, but the Yuletide devil got into me and sent me browsing through the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. There I found a recipe I couldn’t resist. It combined two flavors I’ve always used for my Christmas cookies but didn’t have any of in this year’s first three kinds. Therefore, I also made:

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cookies

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These are sort of a cross between Toll House and peanut butter cookies. They start with a standard peanut-butter dough mixture, but then you stir in semisweet chocolate bits and – not walnuts, but – salted cocktail peanuts. Quite a combination. To my taste they’d be better with less sugar than the recipe calls for, so the exuberant contrast of buttery, nutty, chocolaty and salty flavors would be more prominent. They’re addictive, though – in that insidious way that sugar has. Thank goodness Christmas, with its double-O designation for self-indulgence, comes only once a year.

Merry Christmas Cookies to one and all!

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