Archive for December, 2008

Liza’s Mustard

Friday, December 19th, 2008


          My friend Liza Pyle introduced me to this sweet-and-tart mustard, which I included in my Pudding Hollow Cookbook. It’s lovely as a straight mustard or as a dip for pretzels or vegetables (if you want to dilute the dip, mix the mustard with some mayonnaise). I usually order a large tin of Colman’s Mustard from Avery’s Store in Charlemont, Massachusetts, so I can make several batches to give as gifts. If you want to give the mustard away, just be sure to tell the recipient to keep it in the refrigerator.


4 ounces (about 1–1/4 cups) dry mustard

1 cup herbal vinegar (Liza uses tarragon)

1/4 pound (1 stick) sweet butter, cut into chunks

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

6 eggs


          Place the mustard in a small non-reactive mixing bowl, and pour the vinegar over it. Do not blend the two at this stage. Cover the mixture, and let it stand overnight.

The next day, have the butter cut and the sugar and salt measured so that they can be grabbed quickly when they are needed. Place the mustard mixture in the top of a double boiler, and mix it with a wire whisk over hot water. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking continuously until they are thoroughly mixed.

          Add the sugar, butter, and salt, and cook over hot water for 5 minutes, whisking. Liza warns against overcooking as the eggs may curdle. It’s better to have slightly runny mustard (it will thickens as it cools anyway) than to risk this.

          Ladle the mustard into hot, clean jars. Cool them slightly; then cover and refrigerate them. The mustard will take a couple of weeks to develop its full flavor and will keep for months thereafter in the fridge. Makes 3 to 4 cups.

Cheese Blobs

Friday, December 19th, 2008


          Not everyone on my gift list has a sweet tooth so I like to make some food gifts that aren’t sugary. This year I decided to try some cheese straws. I’m not the world’s most talented slicer, however, so my straws are actually blobs. If you’re good at food presentation, yours should look better. If not, don’t worry. They will taste so deliciously cheesy no one will mind the way they look!


1 cup flour

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

1 pinch dry mustard

2 teaspoons paprika

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold sweet butter

1-1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce


          In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, seasoning, mustard, and paprika. Set aside.

          In a food processor, pulse together the butter and cheese. Pulse in the Worcestershire sauce; then add the dry ingredients, and pulse until the mixture forms a ball (you may have to stop and push down the dough on the sides with a spatula).

          If you don’t have a food processor, cut the butter and cheese into the dry ingredients and then add the Worcestershire sauce. But you’ll work much harder.

Wrap the ball of dough in wax paper, and refrigerate it for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. On a floured surface, roll out the dough until it is quite flat (about 1/8 inch thick). Cut the flat dough into small slices, and braid them or crimp them quickly to make interesting shapes. .

          Bake the cheese straws on cookie sheets covered with parchment or a silicone mat until they are firm and a little brown, about 20 minutes. Makes 3 to 4 dozen blobs.


Illumination Cookies

Friday, December 19th, 2008


I invented these cookies for my town’s recent Illumination Party. Just be sure to use homemade or high-quality eggnog when you make them!
for the cookies:
3/4 cup sweet butter (1-1/2 sticks) at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar plus sugar as needed for rolling
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1/4 cup eggnog
2 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
for the icing:
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1/4 cup eggnog
confectioner’s sugar as needed (probably about 2 cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla
holiday sprinkles if desired
Start with the cookies. Cream together the butter, 3/4 cup sugar, and vanilla. Add the egg and eggnog, and beat until light and fluffy. Blend the dry ingredients and stir them into the creamed mixture. Wrap the dough in wax paper, and chill it for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll small balls of the chilled dough in sugar, and place them on greased (or parchment-covered) cookie sheets. Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms brown lightly. Let them cool for a minute or two on the sheets; then remove them to a wire rack to finish cooling.
Next, make the icing. Beat together the butter and eggnog. Beat in confectioner’s sugar until you have a smooth but not wet icing. Add the vanilla, and spread the icing on the cookies. If you like, throw on some sprinkles for color.
Makes 3 to 4 dozen cookies.


Fruitcake Weather

Sunday, December 14th, 2008


Belatedly, my mother and I are now getting around to making fruitcake. Fortunately, our family and friends will gladly eat it in the new year rather than at Christmas. As true fruitcake bakers and eaters know, fruitcake is most properly prepared around Thanksgiving. Ideally, it should have a few weeks to season before it is consumed.

Fruitcake is often the subject of jokes, and I myself have been known to sing “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” at this time of year. Nevertheless, in our family fruitcake baking is an almost sacred ritual that connects me to my mother Jan and her mother Clara. It’s as much about that chain of bakers as about the end product.

I’m sure I’m not the first home baker to fall in love with Truman Capote’s touching story from 1956, “A Christmas Memory.” First published in Mademoiselle magazine, of all places, this reminiscence sketches for readers the loving relationship in the 1930s between Capote as a child and his cousin, Sook Faulk. On the inside this sixty-odd-year-old woman was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”

The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who are nameless in the tale and who seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst. The highlight of the year for young “Buddy” and his friend is the time in November when the two break into their piggy banks, shop for ingredients, and bake 30 fruitcakes. The fruitcakes make their way out into the larger world, presented to people who seem interesting or significant to the bakers, from President Roosevelt to an itinerant knife grinder.

The story is brilliantly written in the present tense, giving the reader an immediate sense of being a part of the two protagonists’ world and their baking ritual. Capote repeats several times the phrase with which his cousin announces each year that the time to begin baking has come: “It’s fruitcake weather!”

“It’s always the same,” he explains.“[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces: ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”

I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to other people and our recollections of those people. The Truman Capote who is narrating is two decades and more than a thousand miles from his cousin’s memory; toward the end of the story he explains that not long after the Christmas he recalls in minute detail he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.

Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures—their marshalling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies the whiskey that preserves the cakes–he brings both his younger self and his beloved cousin back to life.

The story makes every reader pine for the wonder of childhood. I’ve participated in a fair number of local theatrical productions. The only time I ever had to wear waterproof mascara was when I played the part of the older cousin in staged readings of “A Christmas Memory.” I couldn’t make it to the story’s end without crying. I still can’t.

So let’s all bake fruitcake—for Truman Capote before he “became” Truman Capote, for lost cousins everywhere, for our mothers and our grandmothers.

Capote writes in the story that he and his cousin kept scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they received from the scattered recipients of their cakes, notes that gave them a feeling of connection “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”

Cooking gives me that feeling of connection every day, but particularly when it’s fruitcake weather.

Image Courtesy of Random House

Image Courtesy of Random House

Jan’s Killer Fruitcake


1 pound fruitcake fruits (I particularly like the not too sticky ones from King Arthur Flour)
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup raisins, cut in half
1 cup currants
1/2 cup orange juice or sweet cider
1/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons brandy, plus brandy for seasoning
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon mace
1-1/2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 eggs


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the fruit, nuts, juice, molasses, 2 tablespoons brandy, and spices in a large bowl. Mix them together well, and let them stand while preparing the batter. (If you leave them for several hours or overnight, so much the better; you may use them almost immediately, however.)

Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. In a separate large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, and beat them until they are fluffy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Stir in the flour mixture, and then fold in the fruit mixture.

Line 2 greased loaf pans with well greased parchment paper, and divide the batter between them. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This may take up to about 1-3/4 hours, but start testing at the end of 1 hour just to be sure.

Let the cakes cool completely in their pans. Remove them carefully. Wrap them in cheesecloth, and drizzle brandy over the cheesecloth. Cover the wrapped cakes in foil, and seal them in plastic bags. Stow them away to season as long as you can. Optimally, you should wait at least 3 weeks before serving them, but you may certainly try them as soon as 10 days after baking. If you want to keep them for more than 3 weeks, you may have to drizzle on more brandy from time to time.

Makes 2 loaves.

A few years ago NPR’s This American Life aired a vintage reading of “A Christmas Memory” by Capote himself. To hear it and more, visit, and look for the December 19 edition of the program.

And to hear me make fruitcake and sing a few strains of “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake,” try

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!

North Meets South Pecan Pie

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

pecan-pie-web          Pie is a grand old tradition for the holidays. There’s love in every pie crust–particularly in our home, where my 90-year-old mother Jan is the designated crust roller.

Everyone has a favorite flavor for holiday pie. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your apples and your squash. Give me a pecan pie, and I’m so happy I could sing (and frequently do)!

This recipe combines two of my favorite ingredients—Southern pecans and Northern maple syrup. It comes from the recipe files of my sister-in-law’s grandmother, Lois Bullard of Memphis, Tennessee. The delicate maple flavor makes the pie taste less sweet and syrupy than many of its molasses- or corn-syrup-based brethren.

3 tablespoons sweet butter at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons flour

1 pinch salt

1 cup maple syrup (I like to use Grade B)

2 cups pecan halves

1 9-inch unbaked pie shell


          Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, flour, salt, and syrup. Stir in the pecan halves, and mix well. Pour the mixture into the pie shell. Bake for 5 minutes; then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until the mixture just sets, 30 to 40 minutes, being careful to avoid burning. Serves 6 to 8. A little whipped cream on the side gilds this lily in decadent fashion.

Jan in the Kitchen

Rolling Pie Crust with Love: Jan in the Kitchen