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If at first you don’t succeed . . . you may not do much better the second time, either! That was my fate when following a recipe for coffee panettone sent to me by my friend Jennifer with a note saying “I have made this – delicious.” With the Christmas season already thundering down on us like a runaway herd of reindeer, I thought it would be interesting to give it a try.

It was clear from the first that “panettone” was purely a courtesy title for this confection. True panettone is rich in butter and eggs; this recipe uses no eggs and only a dollop of vegetable shortening. It doesn’t even call for kneading the dough; just mixing it. It also must be quite an old recipe, because it calls for “seedless” raisins. How long has it been since that had to be specified?!  Nonetheless, I figured that, even if this was only a sweet tea bread, it could be good. I was feeling experimental, and this is the season for fruit-and-nut breads.

So I made a batch. I began by chopping walnuts and candied orange peel – proper seasonal ingredients – to accompany the raisins.
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For the dough I first had to dissolve yeast in warm water and a cup of “strong warm coffee”; add soft shortening, salt, sugar, and baking soda; and stir in enough flour to make a batter. I confess to using melted butter for the shortening and very strong instant espresso for the coffee.
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Then the remaining flour went in, along with the fruits, nuts, and vanilla extract. Even though the recipe didn’t say to, I kneaded it for a few minutes. It made a very sticky dough, which was reluctant to rise. After three hours it still wasn’t doubled in bulk, but I moved on anyway and transferred it to two bread pans. (The recipe preferred to form the traditional panettone shape in cylindrical coffee cans, but I didn’t have any.)
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After another two hours, when the loaves had grudgingly risen as much as they evidently intended to, I baked them at 350° for 40 minutes. The dratted things didn’t rise any more in the oven either – in fact, they sank somewhat. That made for heavy, dense, chewy bread.

Though it was fairly ugly, it didn’t taste too bad: sort of like a panforte or a not-very-sweet fruitcake. Lightly toasted and slathered with butter, I thought it was edible. Beloved Spouse, my personal Grinch, did not.
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Now, as it happened, Jennifer – the donator of the recipe – came for a visit a few days later. I hauled out one of my bricks of panettone and showed it to her. “Did yours come out like this?” “No, it didn’t.” I gave her a taste. She said kind things. I gnashed my teeth.

Obviously, I’d done something wrong. I thought it most likely that the coffee had been too hot, and maybe too strong, so it killed or crippled the yeast. I’d give it another try.

I went through the whole procedure again, making a half recipe. This time my espresso was freshly brewed, not unusually strong, and only just warm. I used Crisco, not butter, and did no actual kneading, only vigorous mixing. The dough looked and felt better than the first batch, and it rose much more in the bowl, even though it still took nearly three hours to get there.
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It rose better in the pan too, so I was hopeful. But wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened in the oven – it sank again! This time I have no idea why. This loaf looked more respectable than the first ones, at least: It was a whole two inches high, instead of only one inch.
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Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
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More attractive, yes, but it still isn’t what it should be, and it definitely isn’t panettone. Will I try a third time? I doubt it. If I want a panettone for Christmas, I’ll buy a good one.

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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

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

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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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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.

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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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It’s no wonder that people sometimes think cooking is a skill that’s too hard to learn how to do. There are recipes for really good dishes that are so poorly written that, if you followed the instructions exactly, you might have a disaster on your plate. So it was this week, alas, for a lovely dish I made from Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain.

This is a handsome book, and Barrenechea is an accomplished cook. My copy is a paperback, but we used two recipes from my friend Hope’s hardcover edition in the Spanish cookathon that I wrote about here last year. (The book’s recipes used there were for the coca and the hake dish.) Almost all the recipes are unusual and sound interesting. I was struck this week by the book’s Solomillo de Cerdo Mudéjar.

The recipe is for a pork tenderloin, the meat butterflied and lined with dates and walnuts, closed up, and baked in a dish with tomato, carrot, onion, celery, wine, and stock; the cooking liquid boiled down and seasoned with thyme and rosemary, plus a little cornstarch to thicken.

To give you the good news first, the dish turned out very well. But making it had a number of pitfalls.

One of them was my fault. The recipe called for two ¾ pound pork tenderloins to serve four. The ones I can get seemed much bigger than that – a packaged tenderloin from my butcher weighed 2½ pounds. I was halving the recipe for a dinner for two, but after I’d cut off a ¾-pound piece I realized it was actually two tenderloins tightly packed together. So after the butterflying I had two squarish pieces of meat rather than one long, narrow one.

That was only a cosmetic problem, however. I laid out the pieces and laid a line of halved walnuts and dates along them.

The recipe said to close the meat up “tightly,” season with salt and pepper, and brush with olive oil, preparatory to baking it in the oven. How should you tightly close a stuffed piece of meat – sew it closed? use skewers? string? I got no help from the recipe. So I swathed my pieces in string to keep the stuffing enclosed, regardless of how they’d look.

In a baking dish, they were to be “covered with” a diced tomato, some carrot cut in inch-thick slices, some diced celery, some coarsely chopped onion, and modest amounts of white wine and beef stock. The dish was then to be put in a 350-degree oven for a mere 20 minutes. Think of what an inch-thick piece of carrot will do in a moderate oven for that short amount of time – nothing, that’s what! I cut the carrots much smaller. As you can see below, the meat was hardly what anyone would call “covered” with those ingredients, and I dithered about moving everything to a deeper, smaller dish. But I didn’t.

I also knew that my plump little stuffed pork pieces weren’t going to be anywhere near done in 20 minutes, so I planned accordingly. It took 40 minutes before they became tender.

The next step was to remove the pork and keep it warm, put all the other contents of the baking dish into a saucepan along with some dissolved cornstarch and some rosemary and thyme, and boil it all over high heat 5 minutes. Now, I don’t boil anything over high heat unless I’m trying to reduce it, and there wasn’t that much liquid to be dealt with here. I allowed it a brisk simmer for that time and then passed everything through a food mill – which my carrots were just barely soft enough to be forced through.

Then it was just to slice the meat (after removing the string) and lap it with the sauce:

As I said near the beginning, the dish was excellent. Though the vegetables, herbs, and liquids were ingredients common in any number of French and Italian preparations, somehow the sweet essence of the dates had been distilled out of the tightly wrapped meat packages to give the sauce a very different – Iberian? – essence. The herbs were a definite presence despite their brief time in the sauce, the walnuts were more of a texture than a flavor, but the overall effect was quite charming.

Still, look at all the changes I made in the techniques. If I had merely closed the pork over the filling, however tight it started out, I’m sure much of it would have spilled out during the baking. If I’d baked the dish only 20 minutes, the pork would not have been tender. If I had cut the carrots as large as the recipe said, they’d have been way too hard to go through the food mill. And if I’d boiled the sauce mixture over high heat it would have dwindled down to almost nothing.

Sometimes problems like these stem from authors’ over-familiarity with the recipes or techniques: They’ve lost sight of what less-expert cooks need to be told. Sometimes the culprit may be typos missed by editorial cost-cutting: I think the days are long past in which we could count on all the recipes in cookbooks having been actually tested before publication.

If you know enough about cooking to make adjustments like those I made in preparing this dish, you can tolerate what amount to misleadingly written recipes. But some of this book’s recipes use ingredients and techniques that I’m not familiar with. I don’t think I dare trust it in those circumstances, and therefore I may never try making those dishes. A pity.

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Contrary to our characters as it may seem, Tom and I don’t cook for this holiday. Our tradition is to join a pair of good friends at their table, bringing along a few interesting edibles and drinkables to supplement the bountiful dishes awaiting us there.

I always bake breads for the feast. This year I made ciabatta to go along with the soup and turkey courses, and walnut bread for the cheese course. My ciabatta recipe comes from Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking Across America, a truly splendid book. The walnut bread is my adaptation of a recipe I found on The Hungry Tiger website, which itself was a Glezer adaptation. Thus do traditions get passed along!

Here are the ciabattas:

Now, you may think they’re kind of pitiful-looking. I wouldn’t deny it. But they’re supposed to be like that. In Italian, “ciabatta” means an old worn-out slipper.  But this is a great, rough, country bread. It starts with a 24-hour pre-ferment using four kinds of flour: all-purpose, bread, rye, and whole wheat. The very soft dough then gets long risings, gentle handling to prevent deflating, and baking on a stone in a very hot oven. The result is a rich flavor, an airy open crumb, and a good crunchy crust. Molto artigianale, as they say in Italy.

The walnut breads are more attractive little bombs of loaves. You can find their recipe here. My major alteration to it has been to include some fat in the dough – walnut oil when I have it, olive oil when I don’t – to make the bread less dense. (Though the no-oil version is good too.) This bread goes very well with any kind of cheese. Not bad toasted for breakfast, either.

And then there was a dessert. My hostess was making a pumpkin pie, so I wanted my contribution to contrast in flavor and texture. I decided to try something with pears. (Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’ve had some bad luck with pear desserts in the past, but I don’t give up.)

Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts is a book whose photos are utterly seductive. I was attracted to his recipe for a pear tart for the frivolous reason that it’s made in a long narrow pan rather than the typical round one, and I happen to have a long narrow pan that I rarely have a chance to use. The recipe was also interesting for its additional flavors: After the sliced pears are arranged on the raw pastry crust and moistened with lemon juice, you sift onto them a mixture of sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, and black pepper; and when the tart comes out of the oven you drizzle some melted raspberry jam over it. The black pepper on fruit particularly intrigued me.

The tart came out well and tasted fine. The nutmeg and black pepper gave it spiciness, and raspberry is a flavor that goes well with pears. But – to make a short story long – the making of it gave me a few bad moments, which were entirely my own fault.

As I said above, I don’t use that long narrow pan very often. On Thanksgiving morning when I went to roll out the chilled dough, I noticed for the first time that the recipe specified a 4½ by 14 inch pan. Mine is 4½ by 19 inches – about one-third larger. Eek! Would I have to make another batch of dough? Would there even be time to do that?

The size of the sheet of dough my rolling pin produced was totally inadequate. But, luckily, the recipe was for a boiling-water crust made with only vegetable shortening (Crisco), not butter or lard. That kind of dough behaves practically like putty, so I was able to press it into the pan with my hands and squeeze it out – thinly, thinly! – just enough to cover the bottom and sides. It took a lot of persuading, and I used every last speck of the dough. After that harsh treatment any other kind of crust would have baked into concrete, but to my great relief, this one stayed decently tender and flaky. Also luckily, I had bought enough pears to fill the long pan. And I wound up actually liking the proportion of crust to filling.

So my contribution to the holiday feast was successful. Tom’s was too. He brought along two bottles of grappa. Not that it was needed – the hosts also had grappa, but for a Thanksgiving meal there’s never too much of a good thing, is there?

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