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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.”

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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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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.

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This is going to be a story of extended, earnest, culinary efforts that were totally unsuccessful. They were not entirely without consolations, but they fell far short of the goal. It all started last December, when De Robertis, a family-owned Italian pastry shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed after 110 years in business.

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To downtown New Yorkers, its demise was as devastating as if the Statue of Liberty had stepped off its pedestal and walked away. I was one of the chief mourners, mainly because for decades I’d been addicted to De Robertis’s almond-studded biscotti. Light, crunchy, nutty, gently anise flavored, these were my Platonic ideal of biscotti. Nowhere else, in this city rich in biscotti and their kin, had I found any to equal them.

My very last De Robertis biscotto

My very last De Robertis biscotto

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After a futile round of re-trying the biscotti from other local Italian bakeries, it occurred to me that, having enjoyed many hundreds of the De Robertis ones over the years, I should be able to find or adapt a recipe that would allow me to approximate them at home. So I set forth on my quest, filled with innocent (but unmerited) confidence and eager (but soon to be dashed) hopes.

There are tons of different biscotti recipes in cookbooks and on the Web, using all manner of ingredients and flavorings, but I needed to focus on almonds and anise, which narrowed the options for me. The procedure itself is simple enough: Mix up a dough, shape it into rolls, bake them not quite to doneness; slice them, lay out the slices, and bake them again until browned, crisp, and dry. Stored in a tin, they keep almost forever.

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My first attempt was based on a recipe from my friend Joan, which I had made and enjoyed in the days before I fell in love with De Robertis. It calls for butter, eggs, anise extract, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt, and grated walnuts. I switched almonds for walnuts, reduced the sugar somewhat, and doubled the amount of anise.

That didn’t work. I must have gotten the proportions wrong, because they came out rough, fat, and extremely crumbly – almost fell apart in the slicing, which they’d never done when I followed the recipe exactly.

Joan's biscotti

They even refused to get very brown. As cookies they were reasonably tasty, but nothing like what I was aiming for.

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sopranos family bookA few weeks later I was ready to try again. For my second attempt I turned to the recipe for Biscotti d’Anice in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. The De Robertis biscotti were Italian-American, right? What’s more Italian-American than the Sopranos? (The book’s recipes are actually by Michele Scicolone, also a friend.) The recipe had no butter – which I’d realized was what made my first batch so cookie-like – but used an extensively creamed base of eggs, sugar, anise extract and vanilla. Into that were to be folded flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and aniseed to make a thick batter. I substituted a lot of slivered almonds for the aniseed.

The batter had to be baked in a square pan, turning it into a cake, which was then to be cut into strips for the second baking. Unusual.

soprano biscotti

Though unconventionally shaped for biscotti, these crisped and browned well, but they were more delicate in texture and much sweeter than De Robertis’s. The almonds were barely noticeable. Again, not what I wanted.

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LTIWhen I was ready to enter the fray again I decided to try working with a purely Italian-Italian recipe: my own Biscotti di Prato from La Tavola Italiana. These have plenty of almond flavor, though no anise. Other ingredients are the usual flour, sugar, salt, and egg, but no butter and no vanilla; baking soda, not baking powder; and toasted almonds. I made a small batch, adding a good dose of anise extract.

my biscotti

These came closer to what I wanted, in look as well as flavor. But they’d utterly refused to brown this time, even though I’d given them a very long second baking (looks as if I overfloured the outsides), and there was no taste of the anise at all. Sigh.

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Baking with JuliaAfter that I essentially gave up. But I still longed for good biscotti, even if they weren’t just like my late lamented ones. The other day, browsing through Baking with Julia, I came upon a recipe for Hazelnut Biscotti, which started out by saying “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives these biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.” Aha – maybe that was why my own recipe had come closer than the others! So I tried it.

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Julia hazelnuts

Again, the result was nothing like the original goal, but these were very good indeed. The texture was as promised, and the hazelnut flavor was lovely. They were still sweeter than I like, but I can cut back the sugar next time. Guess I’ll just have to train myself to be content with these and with my own un-adapted recipe, above. De Robertis, ave atque vale!

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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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It all started with a bunch of cilantro.

I needed some for guacamole, and stores hereabouts sell it only in large ($2) amounts. Cilantro doesn’t keep well, so I’m always looking for ways to finish the herb while it’s still fresh. This time I tried a recipe from the Web for Warm Potato Salad with Cilantro and Toasted Cumin.

The recipe as written annoyed me a little, because it called for “1 bunch cilantro,” as if that were an absolute quantity. This happens often: a recipe will say “one onion,” as if onions didn’t come in a broad range of sizes. I wish recipe writers would give at least approximate measurements – here, something like “¾ cup chopped cilantro leaves.” It’s not that I can’t choose what I think is a good amount for any dish, but as a starting point I like to know what the writer thinks is good. Maybe the dish is supposed to be awash with cilantro, but simply indicating “a bunch” doesn’t tell me that.

Undeterred by imprecision, I chunked up a pound of red potatoes and put them on to boil, meanwhile thinly slicing a shallot and chopping a defiantly unmeasured heap of cilantro that looked right to my eye. When the potatoes were done I drained them, returned them to the pot, and mixed in the cilantro and shallot. In a little skillet I heated olive oil, toasted cumin seeds in it, and added that to the potatoes, along with a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

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The recipe said the dish could be served warm, room temperature, or cold. We ate it warm. The cumin flavor was very strong – which was okay if you like cumin, and we do – but there was hardly any taste of the cilantro. I have a feeling it should have been held back and sprinkled fresh over the dish at serving time. Or maybe the contriver of this recipe really wanted much more cilantro than I used – in which case, s/he should have said so clearly, thus averting my dudgeon.

What we didn’t finish I tasted cold the next day. Still very cuminy, and now also showing a harsh shallot presence, but still barely a ghost of cilantro. Oh, well; not a big winner. You’ll find the recipe here if you’d care to try it.

Coincidentally, a few days later my friend Aileen emailed me a link to a Web article about salads without lettuce, noting that she thought we’d like it since Tom can’t abide lettuce. (Only a tiny exaggeration: He likes it on sandwiches, and wrapped around minced squab in Chinese restaurants.)

I was struck by a recipe for Celery, Blue Cheese, Date, and Hazelnut Salad. Not only do we like all those things, but I happened to have on hand crunchy fresh celery, a good farmhouse Stilton, dried cherries (a permitted substitute for dates), roasted Italian hazelnuts, and a Meyer lemon. I immediately decided to make it.

But it wasn’t long before I was arguing with this recipe too. First, it was billed as serving 4-8. That’s a mighty big range! Second, it called for 2-3 “bunches” of celery. In my grocery stores, a head of celery contains eight or nine big stalks, plus heart, and weighs around two pounds. I don’t know any eight people who would consume six pounds of celery at a sitting, let along any four who could!

Some of the other ingredient proportions looked iffy to me too, but I was sure there was a good concept there, so I just gathered my components and put them together in a size to suit myself. Here’s what I did for two portions:

  • Spread 1 cup of sliced celery (1½ stalks) on a plate
  • Strewed on ¼ cup of dried cherries
  • Topped with 1½ ounces of crumbled Stilton
  • Then ⅓ cup of the hazelnuts, which I’d lightly toasted in butter with a speck of cayenne
  • Finally, drizzled on a vinaigrette made with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons of Meyer lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of zest.

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This salad was a standout – quite delicious! I must admit I’d gone a bit too heavy on the hazelnuts; ¼ cup would have been fine. But they were very tasty, especially since I’d saved them from a dreadful fate: After toasting, the recipe wanted them also glazed with maple syrup. Ugh! If you like that idea, you’ll find the technique in the original recipe, here.

One last little quibble. The recipe writer says this salad goes well with roast beef or steak. That didn’t appeal to us – especially not with the maple syrup sweetness. We had my version as an appetizer, and the mélange of flavors was completely satisfying on its own. Indeed, that seems to me the rightful place for elaborate non-leafy salads like this, where they work very well as palate cleansers and appetite sharpeners.

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I don’t often make (or eat) desserts. It’s partly because I know from experience I have no talent for making them, partly because it’s the easiest part of a meal for me to forgo. For my dinner parties, I usually rely on a few tried-and-true recipes like simple fruit tarts. But once in a while I feel adventurous, and this time I went exploring in Baking with Julia. Published in 1996, it was based on Child’s Master Chefs television series.

It’s a big handsome book, and many of its recipes are too ambitious for me. However, I’d had one solid success with it in the past – beautiful buttermilk scones – so I took courage and looked for a not-too-elaborate dessert. (An additional incentive was that, in writing up my results, I’d be able to tell my very own Julia Child story; see the end of this post.)

Hazelnut Baby Loaves looked like something in my league. I hasten to say these are not made from, with, or for actual babies. I’d describe them as the world’s lushest hazelnut-flavored pound cake, baked in individual loaves and served with the world’s richest cream topping.

Pound cake is something I’m comfortable with. No separating of eggs, no elaborate fillings or frostings. You just cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) alternately with liquid (milk, other flavorings), transfer the batter to a loaf pan and bake it. That was the technique for these little loaves, all right, but they had some special twists.

The dry ingredients for this recipe included ground hazelnuts. I happened to have some excellent ones from Italy, which was an attraction in the first place. Rather than milk, the recipe called for a cup of crème fraiche and a little almond extract. You had to gently fold the dry and wet ingredients into the butter-sugar-egg base, rather than beating them in. The baby loaves were supposed to be baked in 8 tiny pans, 4 by 2 by 2 inches. The smallest pans I had were twice that size, so I suppose my 4 should be called toddler loaves.

Being larger, they took longer to bake than the small ones would have, so I had to watch them carefully. They came out with a slight depression in the center, rather than being nicely rounded. Maybe the batter was too delicate to hold itself up in the bigger pans, or maybe I folded too vigorously and deflated the batter somewhat. The texture and flavor of the finished loaves were wonderful, though.

And oh, the cream that’s also part of the recipe! Sweetened whipped cream is certainly a good thing. Sweetened whipped cream mixed with mascarpone and a dash of grappa is a whole nother thing – to die for. This is a cream that makes you think about smearing it all over a lover’s body and licking it off. Or at least, buying some strawberries to have with the leftover cream the next day. Which is what we did, and I’m looking forward to it for tonight.

By the way, all the recipes in the book are credited to professional chefs who worked with Julia on the television series. This recipe is from Johanne Killeen, a chef-owner of El Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.

My Julia Child Story

In 1992, I was invited on a food writers’ trip to Sicily. To everyone’s excitement, Julia Child was also among the participants. When I was introduced to her, the first thing Julia said to me, looking down from her 6-foot-plus height to my 5-foot-10 inches, was “Where do you buy your shoes?” The perennial challenge for big women!

Julia was a joy on that trip. Already 80 years old, she never missed a meal, she never missed a drink, and she was interested in everything that we saw and did. On the bus that took our group from one extravagant culinary event to the next, when most of us wanted only to nap off the latest indulgence, if you were sitting near Julia she’d poke you awake and start a conversation.

I took this photo of Julia examining a 6½ pound astice (lobster) that the chef of Ristorante Porto Bello, on the island of Lipari, off the Sicilian coast, was about to prepare for our group.

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