Posts Tagged ‘Weisblat’

Year’s End (or Year’s Beginning) Peanut Soup

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

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I don’t see New Year’s Eve as a time for complicated cuisine. (Of course, I don’t actually see ANY holiday as a time for complicated cuisine. I’m a pretty basic cook!) I like to make something simple and spend the evening with friends and family.
 
It often snows on New Year’s Eve in Hawley, Massachusetts. In fact, it did today! Very small groups gather on my quiet street, grateful for congenial company and a wood stove. And no, we don’t always stay up until midnight. As my mother is wont to say, it’s always nearly midnight SOMEWHERE.
 
My simple new dish this New Year’s Eve is creamy peanut soup. Peanut soup is a classic dish for Kwanzaa, which ends on New Year’s Day. Like many Kwanzaa dishes and traditions, this soup is part African and part American: although peanuts are native to South America, early Spanish traders took them to Africa, and they returned to the Americas with slaves.
 
My version of peanut soup is adapted from a recipe from Colonial Williamsburg. It offers just a little spice and makes a cozy supper when served with cornbread near a warm fire.
 
Happy New Year–and Joyous Kwanzaa!
 

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Creamy Peanut Soup
 
Ingredients:
 
2 tablespoons sweet butter (plus a bit more if needed)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken stock, warmed in a saucepan
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 /2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
3 splashes half and half (about 1/4 cup)
chopped peanuts or crumbled bacon to taste for garnish
  
Instructions:
 
In a 4-quart pot, melt the butter. Sauté the onion and celery pieces over medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft (3 to 5 minutes).
 
Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes more. If the flour begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a bit more butter.
 
Pour in the chicken stock. Turn up the flame, and bring the stock to a boil, stirring. Reduce the heat to medium, and boil gently, partly covered, until the soup reduces and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid from time to time during this process, and stir frequently.
 
The next step depends on how you feel about the consistency of your soup. Several peanut soup recipes I saw (including the one from Colonial Williamsburg) asked the cook to strain the soup at this point, being careful to extract as much flavorful liquid as possible. If you are set on serving a smooth soup, you can also pulverize the soup carefully in a blender or food processor.
 
Personally, I rather like having little pieces of food in my soup so I bypassed this step altogether. My friend Raymond tells me that he has tried the soup both ways (he works hard in the kitchen!) and much prefers the blended version so I will probably try that next time, but I enjoyed the soup the way I made it.
 
Whisk in the peanut butter and the pepper flakes. I found that 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper added a lovely tang to the soup. If you love spice, add more; if you are not a spice person, leave it out. Continue whisking until the peanut butter is mixed into the liquid and the mixture comes just to a boil.
 
Whisk in half and half to taste, and continue to heat the soup just until it is warm; do not bring it to a boil.
 
Ladle the soup into bowls, and top with peanuts or bacon. Serves 4.

 

Our Apple Tree

Hawley on New Year's Eve: Our Apple Tree

Truffle in the Snow
Truffle in the Snow

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Cheese Blobs

Friday, December 19th, 2008

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          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!

Ingredients:

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

Instructions:

          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.

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Illumination Cookies

Friday, December 19th, 2008

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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!
 
Ingredients:
 
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
 
Instructions:
 
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.
 

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Fruitcake Weather

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

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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

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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 http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Archive.aspx?year=2003, 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
http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wfcr/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=1015029.

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!

Eggnog Scones

Friday, December 5th, 2008

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Now that December has arrived I’m starting to think about holiday baking. Fruitcake is on the horizon, but since I love scones I’m starting with them.

These buttery treats taste like Christmas—delicious and full of nutmeg. I suggest using either homemade eggnog or a good commercial grade. If you’re trying the latter, take a good look at the ingredients.

They should be things you recognize—milk, cream, eggs, nutmeg, sugar—rather than powdered substances, corn syrup, or things that end in the phrase “ose.” Spiking the eggnog is fun but not essential.

Ingredients:

for the scones:

1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) sweet butter
2/3 cup dried cranberries (optional for flavor and color)
1 egg
2/3 cup eggnog
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

for the optional glaze:

2 tablespoons orange juice
confectioner’s sugar as needed (I used at least a cup!)

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Liberally grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment or a silicone mat. Combine the sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. With knives or a pastry blender cut in the butter, but be careful not to overmix. Stir the cranberries into this mixture if you want to use them.

In a separate bowl, combine the egg, eggnog, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and blend until the dry ingredients are moistened. You may cut the scones in your bowl by forming the mixture into a round disk and cutting it into 6 to 8 pieces and then placing them on the baking sheet—or you may simply drop 6 to 8 lumps onto your baking sheet. Bake for 18 to 25 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown.

If you wish to use the glaze (which is sweet but delicious), place the juice in a small container, and add confectioner’s sugar until you have a slightly wet paste. Drizzle the glaze over slightly cooled scones. If you want to go wild, place sprinkles on top.

Makes 6 to 8 scones.