Thursday, December 28, 2006

holiday baking extravaganza

I have admitted before on this blog that, unlike Lis and Tara, I usually avoid baking--I've only ever made yeast bread with a machine, my pie crusts are disastrous, my cakes come from mixes and my cookies from refrigerated tubes. But, buoyed by my success with this year's buche de Noel, and wanting to spend time with family and friends while preparing for the holiday onslaught, I managed to prepare (or at least be present at) the following:

--Six loaves of cranberry-orange-walnut bread (and this time I toasted the walnuts first, which made the flavor even richer)

--During the annual candy-making festivities with my mother- and sister-in-law, we came up with all sorts of goodies. Here's my candied orange peel (to flavor mulled wine, to put in fruitcakes, and to serve with espresso). Don't they look like glossy French fries? I also made haystacks with white chocolate bark and chow mein noodles.
--My mother-in-law's almond brittle (she also made toffee and caramels)
--Elizabeth's peanut butter chocolate bark

--Several kinds of cookies with my friend Dana and her children, nine-year-old Damien and seven-year-old Amelia, including pecan tartlettes and spritz cookies (the first time I've worked with a cookie press)
--Gingerbread cookies (with white pepper in the batter to make them spicier)
--And finally, while in Wisconsin, my mom and I decorated the cut-out sugar cookies that she had already baked.
--And this list doesn't even include what we baked for dessert on Christmas day and the four batches of apple pie cookies and s'mores bar cookies that Mr. Tart baked for a cookie exhange with friends while I was making candy!!! And you know what? I loved it everything about it. Maybe I'm not so averse to baking after all!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

say "Mewwy Chwistmas" with a wog

The children, upon seeing their first buche de Noel at the Christmas party last night:

Elizabeth, age 3: It's a wock!

Ben, age 4: No, siwwy. It's a wog.

And indeed it is.

Until this weekend, I had always felt a little fraudulent: I was a French teacher who had never made a yule log cake, the traditional French buche de Noel. Ironically, the year I spent the holidays in France, we ate an ice cream cake shaped like a log, not the real buche. But this year all that changed. We attended a Christmas party with a group of some of Mr. Tart's oldest friends, and the theme was "holidays around the world." We started out with smoked salmon appetizers and New Mexican posole served with Norwegian lefse (mashed potato pancakes). Homemade ravioli with smoked turkey and cranberries served with gravy followed (Italy, of course), plus roasted turkey and all the trimmings. There was a lovely pinot noir for the wine drinkers, lamb's wool for the beer drinkers (an English precurser to mulled wine made with pureed apples, spices, and two kinds of ale), and hot cider. Then dessert was my buche de Noel and glogg, Scandinavian spiced wine with homemade candied orange peel and almonds and raisins.

We all agreed that the buche de Noel looked and tasted gorgeous, maybe even worth the effort it took to make Cook's Illustrated's persnickety version of it (including rules like "beat eggs for exactly 40 seconds"). It starts out with a sponge cake so rich that it only includes 1/4 cup of flour for lots of bittersweet chocolate and 6 eggs. You bake this in a jelly roll pan and then spread whipped mascapone cheese (flavored with coffee and made fluffier and, well, creamier with the addition of heavy cream) over it:

Then you roll it up, cut off the ends and affix them to the top with frosting to make it look more log-like, and then cover it all copiously with a ganache made of more bittersweet chocolate and cream and cognac. If you're feeling particularly ambitous and artistic (I wasn't), make meringue or marzipan mushrooms. Here's what it looks like inside:

Gee, that description makes it sound pretty manageable, doesn't it? Well, it took all afternoon, and I won't be making another buche de Noel any time soon, but it is by far the dish I am most proud of making this year.

You've seen the "before" picture; here's 1.5-year-old Charlie with the "after."

Mewwy Chwistmas!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

celebratory pancakes

This is just to say that the semester is over. OVER, I tell you. Ok, I still have to finish some grading, but I don't have to see my students anymore (which is sometimes a very good thing) and soon, very soon I will have three luscious work-free weeks. But for now, even though I'm still technically working, I can do so in my pjs and my slippers while sipping coffee and eating a tasty breakfast. And since it is the end of the semester, I deserve a breakfast that is both tasty and fattening like the puffy pancake. You may call this pancake by some other name, but in my childhood it was always called the puffy pancake and so it will remain. Here's the recipe in case you want to join my in a celebratory breakfast.

Puffy Pancake

1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
1/c cup milk
pinch nutmeg
1/4 cup butter

Heat oven to 425. Melt butter in a 9-inch pie pan (you may be tempted to cut down on the butter, but don't. Remember, this is a celebratory pancake). While the butter is melting, whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour the batter into the butter and bake for 20 minutes. Once it comes out of the oven, sprinkle the pancake with powdered sugar. Just to fool yourself that this breakfast is healthy, serve with fruit.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

the gift of the madeleines

You know that O. Henry story "The Gift of the Magi" where the young couple has nothing but he has a gold pocket watch and she has beautifully long hair and he sells his watch to buy her a hair comb and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain? Well, this story is sort of like that, but it's a story of abundance more than sacrifice.

I've told you before how much Will and I love Les Madeleines, the perfect bakery in the bad neighborhood, the source of the decadent chocolate birthday cake. One day, while savoring our tasty breakfast pastries, Will commented on how much he liked madeleines. I agreed and mentioned that I should buy a pan. His birthday came along, so I decided to bake him madeleines.

I trekked to the kitchen store, found a pan, brought it home and set it on the kitchen table where it was quickly covered up by my usual clutter.

Will came home, we chatted about our day, and he stared at my pile of clutter. I couldn't figure out what he was interested in (it's not like he'd never seen my clutter before!); then he pulled the pan out from the pile with a crestfallen look on his face.

"This is what I got you for your birthday; it's coming in the mail."

"But I was going to make you madeleines for your birthday."

Well, I didn't bake any madeleines for Will's birthday. I waited for the new (and clearly better) pan to arrive and returned mine to the store (just in time to buy a replacement glass for my french press--cluttery and clumsy!). Finally, I got to bake my madeleines.