Laurie Neely’s Holiday Cookies

December 21st, 2016
Laurie Neely in Her Kitchen (Courtesy of Laurie's husband Ray)

Laurie Neely in Her Kitchen (Courtesy of Laurie’s husband Ray)

Laurie Neely of Orange, Massachusetts, has been baking holiday cookies since the day after Thanksgiving. By Christmas Day, she will have turned out hundreds. “There will generally be in excess of a dozen kinds [of cookies] and many dozens of each,” she told me in a recent interview.

An artist, writer, and animal lover, Laurie started baking seriously in the 1960s as a stay-at-home mother. The Christmas-cookie tradition began with a family recipe from her first husband, who is still a good friend.

Laurie has added recipes from friends, relatives, newspapers, and the internet to her repertoire over the years, adapting them to her taste.

Many of these holiday treats—including her pfeffernüsse cookies and the German molded cookies called springerle—need to age in order to achieve optimal flavor and consistency. Her gingersnaps take about three weeks to mature.

Laurie carved her own springerle molds years ago and sees cookie baking as deeply creative. “I was a potter for some time,” she explained, “and for me baking and pottery are just parts of the same…. I think the idea of creating art with your hands that people then eat is perfect.”

I asked where all the cookies go. Laurie replied that she mails batches to relatives around the country. After that, the cookies go to “family and friends and neighbors and anybody who leaves their car window down.”

“And my husband Ray is, like, ‘Don’t give them all away!’” she added.

Her family celebrates the season on Christmas Eve with a festive brunch that includes many, many cookies, she said. Her adult son is Jewish so this year the feast will include latkes for Hanukkah; that holiday begins on Christmas Eve.

When we spoke Laurie was baking a new-to-her recipe, wine cookies flavored with anise. The recipe came from her friend Gail and before that from Gail’s mother Mary and grandmother Emilia.

“Mary was an outstanding cook, and I am honored to use not only many of her recipes, but her KitchenAid mixer and quite a few other kitchen items as well,” said Laurie.

“This recipe is one I photographed from a well used card after Mary passed and we were sorting out and sharing her recipe file among family members.”

The photograph of the recipe resides in a special plastic bag Laurie treasures. Each year after Thanksgiving she reaches into the bag for the tattered, food-stained recipes that constitute her evolving Christmas-cookie tradition.

“I really do need to sit down—not at this time of year—and put [the recipes] in a database so when these scraps of paper finally die I have them,” she confessed. “But….”

Her advice to novice bakers is to buy quality ingredients; to use good pans (she relies on silicone mats for her cookie baking and favors insulated cookie sheets); and above all to relax, have fun, and be flexible with recipes.

“You need to stay with the basics. Your ratios of flour, shortening, and liquid are going to be crucial. But then you sort of play. The creativity makes for some pretty good cookies,” she suggested.

Laurie Neely loves the Christmas season and doesn’t plan to stop baking anytime soon.

“Advent has many associations for people,” she mused. “In some homes there are calendars with little paper doors to open heralding the coming Christmas, and in our churches there are wreaths to mark the Sundays as they pass. But in my house Advent has a scent: it smells like cookies.”

Here are two cookie recipes from Laurie’s kitchen. I don’t have anise seeds in the house (and I’d have to order them specially) so I’m holding off on the wine cookies until next Christmas. The gingersnaps are aging in a tin as I write, however.

I got a late start on my baking so they won’t be ready to eat in time for Christmas—but a cookie might taste pretty good in the new year!

Happy/merry to all….

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Mama’s Cookies with White Wine

Laurie Neely decided, “I may add a drop of anise oil or extract in the next batch [of these cookies]….They are light, mildly anise flavored, sweet, and just a little biscuity, leading me to think they will age well.

“So many of the Italian cookies improve when they age and harden and become great coffee accompaniments.”

Ingredients:

3/4 cup sugar
1 heaping tablespoon shortening (Laurie used Earth Balance brand)
1 teaspoon anise seeds
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup semi-sweet white wine (Laurie used a Riesling)
3-1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
equal portions of cinnamon and sugar as needed, combined

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl combine the sugar and the shortening. Stir in the anise seeds, the oil, and the wine. In a separate bowl combine the flour, the baking powder, and the salt. Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture a little at a time until the combination achieves the consistency of not-too-firm pie-crust dough.

Shape the cookies by forming heaping tablespoons of the dough into logs in the palm of your (mostly closed) hand. Dip the tops of the cookies in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and place the logs on greased cookie sheets.

Bake the cookies until they are a deep golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Makes about 3-1/2 dozen cookies.

Laurie took this photo of some wine cookies cooling.

Laurie took this photo of some wine cookies cooling.

Laurie Neely’s Gingersnaps

Laurie has adapted this recipe over the years, adding more and more ginger to achieve just the right flavor.

Ingredients:

2-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 heaping tablespoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon white pepper (generous)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup molasses

Instructions:

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. In a large saucepan, melt the butter in the molasses. Bring this mixture to a boil; then let it cool. Stir in the dry ingredients.

Chill the resulting dough for a couple of hours; then preheat the oven to 375 degrees and roll the dough out on a floured board until it is 1/8-inch thick. Cut out shapes with a floured biscuit cutter or floured seasonal cookie cutters.

Bake the cookies for 8 minutes. The yield depends on the shapes you use to cut them out; Laurie Neely usually gets 3 to 4 dozen cookies from this recipe. Store the cookies in a tin for at least three weeks before serving them.

Gingersnaps at our house, waiting to mature. Can you tell that I'm not the world's greatest cookie cutter?

Gingersnaps at our house, waiting to mature. Can you tell that I’m not the world’s greatest cookie cutter?

Fruitcake for Those Who Don’t Like It

December 1st, 2016

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Earlier this week my sister-in-law Leigh and I made fruitcake. We weren’t precisely enjoying the fruitcake weather of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” (I wrote at length about that story when I shared the recipe for my late mother’s signature fruitcake.) The air was warm and humid rather than cool and crisp.

Nevertheless, we wanted to get a head start on our holiday baking. Fruitcake requires advance preparation so if one wants to have it for Christmas one should start working on it in late November.

Of course we made my mother’s fruitcake—and talked about her. The image at the top of this blog (and the top of this post) shows Taffy and me several years back working on fruitcake. She loved the annual tradition of preparing it, and continuing that tradition lets Leigh and me honor her and remember her in a fun, constructive way.

We also made the fruitcake recipe below. This wasn’t Taffy’s favorite fruitcake, but it is most definitely mine. Long ago Taffy copied it from a newspaper. It was originally NOT aged with additional Grand Marnier; that was our family’s addition. The cake can be eaten right after baking, but like many of us it gets better with age and booze.

This is fruitcake for non-fruitcake lovers. It has no sticky weird fruits, just golden raisins and pecans. And it emerges from the oven with a lovely golden color. The cake is VERY rich, as you’ll see in the recipe. Our family calls it “Delicious Death” in tribute to a cake made in Agatha Christie’s novel A Murder Is Announced.

In this mystery, set shortly after World War II, Delicious Death is a household favorite, prepared by the strange but talented cook who works at the scene of the first murder. Its abundance of butter and eggs are particularly welcome after the rationing the English have endured during and after the war.

If you find this cake too big and too rich, break it up. As you can see from the picture below (taken while the cakes were cooling), Leigh and I made half a recipe. This yielded four small cakes and one small loaf—perfect for gift giving. They took about 1-3/4 hours to bake.

Happy holiday baking from our home to yours!

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Delicious Death

Ingredients:

1 pound golden raisins
1 pound pecans, chopped
3 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound butter (4 sticks) at room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon warm water
1/4 cup Grand Marnier or Cointreau, plus additional liqueur as needed

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Butter and flour the inside of a 10-inch, 12-cup tube pan or bundt pan (or butter and flour a number of smaller pans, and adjust your cooking time accordingly).

In a large bowl, combine the raisins and the pecans. Sprinkle the flour and salt over them, and toss the mixture with your hands until blended. Set aside.

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the sugar. Cream the mixture well; then add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating constantly. Blend the baking soda and the warm water, and beat them into the batter. Beat in the Grand Marnier. Pour this batter over the nut mixture, and blend it in with your hands (which will smell WONDERFUL from the Grand Marnier!).

After thoroughly washing your beater and bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff, and fold them into the rest of the batter with your hands. Continue folding until you can no longer see the whites.

Spoon and scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake for 2 to 2-1/4 hours, or until the cake is puffed above the pan and nicely browned on top. (If the cake starts to brown on top too soon, cover it with aluminum foil.) Remove the cake from the pan after about 15 minutes. Tapping the bottom of the cake pan with a heavy knife will help loosen it.

When the cake has cooled, wrap it in cheesecloth, and sprinkle Grand Marnier on it to moisten it. Wrap it in foil, place it in a plastic storage bag, and hide it until you wish to use it—ideally for about 10 days. (It will keep longer, but you may have to re-douse it and refrigerate it after a month or so.) Makes 1 10-inch cake.

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Cranberry Shrub

November 7th, 2016

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November greetings! Naturally, I’m already thinking about Thanksgiving.

Years ago I made what I called cranberry vinegar—basically, my usual strawberry vinegar with cranberries (I had to heat the vinegar a bit in order to get the cranberries to start blending with it). It was fabulous in salad dressings, and a friend loved mixing it with soda water as a drink.

Unfortunately, it gelled within a day or two; the pectin in the cranberries just couldn’t restrain itself.

So—here’s another version, from the book Colonial Spirits by Steven Grasse (2016, Abrams Books, recipe used with permission).

I have to admit that mine was a LITTLE tastier; both the cranberry and the sugar flavors came across more strongly.

But this one won’t gel up on you! It will beautify your Thanksgiving table and give your guests a refreshing beverage. I made it on my final fall appearance on Mass Appeal last week, along with my favorite key-lime pie, adding a little cranberry sauce to make the pie more seasonal.more-of-zee-pieweb

The Shrub

Ingredients:

3 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups water

Instructions:

Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan, and bring them to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until the berries pop and become tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and cool slightly. Working in batches, puree the cranberry mixture in a food processor. Don’t over-process the mixture.

Transfer the mixture to a cheesecloth-lined sieve and strain, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids.

Store the shrub in a airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Makes about 1 quart.

To make a refreshing beverage, pour 2 ounces of shrub into a tall glass with ice. Top with 1 cup soda water, and stir to combine.

And now the videos:

Key-Lime Pie

Cranberry Shrub

Apple-Cranberry Crumble

October 31st, 2016

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Regular readers may have noticed that I LOVE crumbles. I also love the fall combination of apples and cranberries. The textures of these fruits are complementary, and together in dishes like this one they perk up a dreary season (we have ALREADY had snow in western Massachusetts!) with color and flavor.

I highly recommend this dish for Thanksgiving—easier than pie, and definitely thanks-inducing.

But you can even eat it for Halloween! Happy Trick or Treating to all….

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The Crumble

Ingredients:

3 cups apple slices
2 cups cranberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup oats
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the fruit in a 9-inch pie pan. (Make sure you have a cookie sheet under the pan; the fruit can get juicy in the oven!) Add the 4 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon. Toss if you can.

Combine the flour, oats, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingers. Add the brown sugar and mix again until crumbly.

Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the fruit, pressing down lightly. Bake until the crumble is golden brown and crisp (about 30 minutes more or less, depending on your oven). Serves 6 to 8. The crumble may be served warm or cold.

Here I make the crumble on Mass Appeal.

Soup Weather

October 24th, 2016
Trish Crapo, a fellow freelance writer, took this photo of me prepping the soup on "Mass Appeal" last week.

Trish Crapo, a fellow freelance writer, took this photo of me prepping the soup on “Mass Appeal” last week.

We are enjoying a roller-coaster of a fall here in New England. At first we thought there might be NO color, thanks to the very dry weather of the past few months. A couple of weeks ago the trees apparently got tired of being drab and started turning gorgeous shades of orange and yellow, along with just a little red.

The temperature has also vacillated. A couple of weeks ago we were routinely very cold. Last week suddenly Indian summer arrived. Over the weekend just as suddenly things turned raw and cold. I hope it doesn’t snow too soon—but I’m not sure that it won’t.

It’s now officially soup weather. I love soup in any weather, but somehow it seems most fitting when temperatures are plummeting. This simple blended soup is warm, hearty, spicy, and even healthy. All the vegetables are in season—at least here in New England.

Seeing cauliflower at a farm stand made me think of the wonderful spicy Indian cauliflower dish aloo gobi. My soup is loosely inspired by it. I’ve never seen aloo gobi that included carrots, but I had a ton of carrots from my farm share so in they went!

Thanks to my cousin Kate Corwin for coming up with the idea of using chopped cashews (following the Indian theme) as a garnish. The gang loved that addition when I made the soup on Mass Appeal last week.

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Curried Cauliflower Soup

Ingredients:

1 small to medium (or 1/2 large) cauliflower
2 large carrots
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
olive oil as needed for roasting
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
curry powder to taste (if it is hot, use 1/2 teaspoon; if mild, at least 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon cumin seed
salt to taste
1 tablespoon honey
the juice of 1/2 lemon, plus more juice to taste
Greek yogurt for garnish (optional; even better if you put some chopped chives and parsley in it)
chopped roasted cashews for an additional garnish

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roughly chop the cauliflower, carrots, and onion. Toss those vegetables in a small amount of oil, and place them on a rimmed cookie sheet. Place the garlic cloves on a small sheet of aluminum foil, drizzle a little olive oil on top, and close the foil around the garlic. Place the covered garlic on the cookie sheet as well, and roast the vegetables for 1/2 hour, stirring and turning them after 15 minutes.

After removing the vegetables from the oven open the pouch of garlic and smash the cloves. Place all the vegetables in a 5-quart Dutch oven. Stir in the broth, curry powder, cumin, salt, and honey.

Bring the soup to a boil; then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer the soup for 1/2 hour. When it has finished cooking, blend it with an immersion blender. (You may also use a regular blender, but in that case blend it in very small batches and watch out for burning.) Just before serving stir in the lemon juice. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a few cashew pieces if you like. Serves 4 to 6.

Here is the video. For some reason there is a gap in the recording beginning 42 seconds in and lasting for almost 50 seconds. Feel free to fast forward during that section!

Tinky’s Curried Cauliflower Soup