NOG and SCHLAG
My banishment to Christmas Island has blissfully drawn to a close. I do hope that everyone was tickled with their holiday merry-making and didn’t overdo on the eggnog. Personally, I emptied dozens of glass bottles of the highly caloric nog into cavernous mixing bowls. Dozens of eggs later, huge splashes of Bacardi Gold and enough gratings of fresh nutmeg to insure ten knuckles sans skin, there were eggnog pies for the masses.
At the stroke of 2:00pm on Christmas Eve, my holiday began. Secure in the knowledge that I would not have to endure one more Christmas carol, I headed home to blast non-denominational tunes in my kitchen. I was seeking an appropriate dessert recipe that would be both celebratory and expedient. Page 142 of the Macrina Bakery and Café cookbook offered exactly that in the Chocolate and Brandied Cherry Tart.
A holiday dessert is incomplete without freshly whipped cream and a bit of bubbly. Check and check. Next on the agenda, packing my fleeciest winter gear and an extensive list of the best cafes to explore in Vienna. Researching strudels and schlag is a challenge, but somebody has to do it.
Happy, Healthy New Year.
Fa La La La Rugelach
Oh by gosh, by golly, it is officially one week prior to Christmas and my head is spinning like a dreidel. I’ve been rockin’ around the Christmas tree with Suzy Snowflake and the little drummer boy for the better part of the last three weeks. You could say I am stuck in the midst of a marshmallow world.
Hanukkah and Christmas cookies are co-mingling on the Bakers racks rather peacefully. The only time we must reconfigure the cookie baskets is when folks request non-denominational seasonal cookies. My solution? Snowmen and snowflakes teamed with presents, the color palate appropriately Boris Karloff green. I then turn my attention to trays of Hanukkah cookies in blues and whites followed by boozy eggnog pies and Guinness chocolate cakes. Is it any wonder my co-workers refer to me as Grinchy?
There is one thing I do bemoan about the holidays, Hanukkah in particular. How I wish I had paid better attention to the letters on the Dreidel when it was taught in Hebrew school. Maybe I was distracted by the thought of milk chocolate gelt wrapped in gold foil. Or maybe I wasn’t much of a gambler and lost interest in the specifics of the Dreidel spinning game. Most likely, I was fixated on what I might be receiving on the first night when we unwrapped our gifts. I do remember quite vividly having to write a short essay in Hebrew school about what we wished for at Hanukkah. In hindsight, I suspect we were supposed to write about our wish for world peace or the importance of family. My wish was for a Honey West action figure complete with accessories, and an Etch-a-Sketch.
A few decades later, I can’t for the life of me remember the slight difference between the Gimel and the Nun, which look completely identical when written in royal icing. I do remember with utmost clarity the way the Shin really looks like a “W,” and that the Hey looks somewhat like a number seven, but not really. My true talent lies in outlining the Stars of David, but there I am, piping letters on Dreidels like a Talmudic scribe. Until I step away and start on another round of eggnog pies. The whole thing seems slightly sacrilegious to me. As Charlie Brown eloquently stated, “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”
Just today at work, I was trying to come to terms with a small Island of Misfit Cookies. (In case you have forgotten the animated program that features an Island of Misfit Toys, step inside the bakery and wait a few minutes. The songs from that television special will make their way through the Sonos shuffle soon enough.) When the parchment paper doesn’t lie quite straight and you don’t realize it until halfway through the baking process, you end up with Misfit Cookies. The cookies are misshapen, and it is important to me that they are embraced by the other cookies in the holiday basket. So I fudge it; I add a bit more sanding sugar or a bit more icing, or in extreme cases, I perform an intricate surgical procedure using a small paring knife. Holiday cookie-ing is an extreme sport and should not be tried at home. (Unless you are me and you retreat to the solitude of your kitchen when you return home from work to bake Hanukkah treats.)
In the quiet of my kitchen, there are no Christmas carols, no Americolor gel paste in Red-Red or Forest Green, not a sparkle of crystal sugar. What is front and center on the counter is a rolling pin, several pounds of rugelach dough and a jewel-toned filling of fresh raspberries and jam. Toasted walnuts with a splash of olive oil cozy up to cinnamon, brown sugar and dark chocolate. Yes, I know, technically rugelach falls under the heading of cookies. To my way of thinking, once you wrap a little dough around a little bit of fruit, that can be considered pie. The little twists of buttery dough, tangy with cream cheese and bursting with raspberries is an integral part of my Hanukkah. Maybe more cookie than pie, but delicious nonetheless.
Baking rugelach is a labor of love and patience. You need cool hands and chilled dough and a substantial amount of comfort and joy. I can’t find the joy with Suzy, or Santa, or the little boy with the drum. Lest you think I am a total Scrooge, I know exactly where to look for the meaning of my holiday season. I find it in the music of Vince Guaraldi and Stephen Sondheim and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Musicians worthy of having their pictures on bubblegum cards.
Happy Hanukkah to all.
A Touch of Spanish influenza
Last Saturday proved challenging in so many ways. The 20 qt. mixer at work fell ill, giving new meaning to the term ‘small batch baking.’ Holiday cookies were spinning out of control, fellow bakers were coughing and sputtering and most alarming was my sudden aversion to caffeine. When I returned home a little after 5 o’clock, it was clear to me that I was moments away from succumbing to my own version of The Plague. The last thing I saw as I headed up the stairs was a perfectly blind-baked pie shell sitting on the kitchen counter. It would be days before it would receive my attention.
I am quite certain I am battling a touch of the dreaded Spanish Influenza. Maybe not the exact same strain that wreaked havoc in Season 2 of Downton Abbey, but sufficient cause for me to take to my bed. I know I am gravely ill because not a single shot of caffeine has passed my lips in over five days. Not even a thimble-full. My head throbs too loudly for reading or Netflix and it is a huge effort to pluck a tissue from the box of Kleenex on my bedside table. Everything seems so terribly Carole King-y, So Far Away. "What I really need, " I complain between coughing fits to Blondilocks on the other end of the phone, "is a frozen beverage, like a Slushee or a Slurpee, but not as sweet. And not as cold. And maybe some softer tissues. Aren’t there softer tissues? And what about Colorforms? Does anybody make Colorforms, anymore?”
Blondilocks is sympathetic, but unconvinced that my malaise is truly Spanish Influenza. She has heard this before, the last time I had the flu; despite getting a flu shot. As predictable as a fine Swiss timepiece, there is a very small window between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when I succumb to my classic holiday plague. "You work too much. You work in a small space. You also happen to be a germ magnet. Just sleep for a few days." I remind her that poor Lavinia fought her influenza, sadly in vain. “Lavinia slept for quite a few days, and then some.”
"Spanish Influenza is no longer something you can catch," Blondilocks assures me from her safe distance at the corner of 41st Street and 6th Avenue. I'm not so sure. If I need to affix blame, I choose the woman at REI who cough/sneezed on me as I was looking at winter parkas. It was a vivid yet horrifying moment, when the sneeze landed directly on my shoulder. I knew it would be just a matter of days and it was. There is a nano-second at the very beginning of The Plague when you swallow, and there’s something unmistakably wrong with your throat. There is no turning back at that point, despite the Vitamin C and the Echinacea and the Zinc. It’s too late, baby.
On Day 4 of my rebound tour, I directed my slippered feet down the stairs. The world seemed strangely colorized, the way the I Love Lucy Holiday Special had looked on Sunday evening. I knew what I wanted and since there was no one to make it for me, I was goin' in- to the kitchen. Bolstered by two cold and sinus tablets, and armed with a freshly opened box of Kleenex, I felt fairly capable. On the savory side of things, I desperately wanted warming soup and delicate dumplings from Judy Fu's. Unfortunately, Judy's Dumpling emporium is situated in Seattle, eliminating that option. Something that wouldn't bump into a terribly sore throat seemed appealing. Something along the lines of butterscotch pudding. No, no, not the kind that comes in a box. The real thing.
Draping myself in a blanket and a quilt, I gathered together my favorite pie books for consultation. Maida and Fannie and the Farm Journal were practically identical. Patty Pinner's take on Butterscotch pie was equally straightforward. The fellow in the bow tie and glasses had a few pointers, but he was getting a little too wordy. I took pudding matters into my own ice cold hands.
For a moment the thought of donning a mask of some sort to cover my crimson nose seemed considerate. Until it dawned on my throbbing head that I was going to consume this spoonful by spoonful until it was gone. Solo. Abandoning the blanket (fire hazard) and streamlining the quilt beneath an Ithaca sweatshirt, I began browning some butter, added brown sugar and a good dose of salt, then some cream. Whisking milk and cornstarch, then yolks, the mixture landed in the top of a double boiler. I sat down and let the pudding cook itself thick. Every once in a while, I gave it a stir but from the chair to the stove seemed So Far Away. Straining the whole kit and caboodle at the end would have to suffice. For medicinal purposes, a healthy tablespoon of bourbon found its way into the mix. As I prepared to divvy up the goods into individual dishes, it was clear I had little left to devote to this project. It was too much effort at this point to cross the room and dig through the cabinet for Jessie's Pyrex custard cups. I was fading fast. The filling found a home in Saturday's abandoned, but well wrapped, pie shell. Satisfying my need for butterscotch by scraping the top of the double boiler clean with a teaspoon, I tucked the pie into the fridge, and myself back into bed.
Master/Master checked in from a snow squall in Boston to get an update. "I'm midwable,” I told him. “I'm so duffy and my dose is red and whatever I took to help my dymptoms and let me sleep is not working."
Pause on the Boston end of the line. "Is it expired?"
"Yes, I'm tired but I can't sleep."
"No. Is it expired, the night-time stuff you took?"
"I think it's fairly current. I don't know. "
"Last spring you were sick, and you took cold medicine that had expired in 2010."
"I don't like taking any of that stuff. But the Echinacea and the C and the Zinc didn’t do any good."
"Check the date."
“Fine. It says, November. Two-thousand-thirteen."
"Right.” And then some parting words to consider- "Mom, you really have to stop taking expired medicine.”
“Stay hydrated. Rest. Feel better. And remember, a lot of thought goes into that expiration date.”
Duly noted, Master/Master. My immediate plan is to feel better. Which leads to my secondary plan of summoning enough energy to wobble down the stairs and retrieve my butterscotch pie. And a spoon.
‘Tis the month of December
We're still in the kitchen
But now ‘stead of 40s
To carols we listen.
Eight hours non-stop of Bing, Nat and Burl
After a while, it wears on a girl.
Last week was Thanksgiving,
We're still a bit achy
Personally speaking, I'm still not awake-y.
I'll cease with the whining-
It's time now for cookies
In case you are wondr'ing
Come take a look, see?
There's gingerbread dolls and gingerbread guys
And snow globes and Santas but wait, a surprise!
We've added menorahs because luck would have it
Hanukkah falls on the 16th, dag nabbit.
Tray upon tray of the cookies need icing
My carpal and tunnel I'll be sacrificing
Until someone orders a pie, then I'll pause
And turn my attention elsewhere, Santa Claus.
This week, canned pumpkin is about as popular as a box of conversation hearts on February 15th. Blissfully, folks have enjoyed more than their share of Thanksgiving eats, pie included. I welcome this temporary pie-atus, because last week’s blur of towering pie shells and blistering ovens still haunts my dreams. As a post-mortem to Thanksgiving, we gathered around Friday night’s dinner table to consume a savory pie featuring a buttermilk biscuit crust. Then we played a rousing game of Scrabble. While I struggled with six vowels and the letter “X,” I kept thinking about that biscuit crust. The original recipe is from the Slice of Heaven days and worth every calorie.
At work, December turns our attention to literally thousands of cookies. Between sanding sugar, edible pearls and gold dragées, there is enough sweet going on in the kitchen to set your teeth on edge and your dentist on high alert. With a tidal wave of royal icing nipping at my heels, citrus is my desperately needed life preserver.
We are in the thick of rolling out the jolly which naturally leads me down the opposite path. Sugar cookies may be my vocation, but they are not really my carb of choice. This is a sad state of affairs for Mr. Sweet As Pie. Undoubtedly, he will be forced to smuggle in a box of holiday cookies from Trader Joe’s which he will hide behind the packages of whole wheat linguini. To me this is blasphemous, and yet I understand. The absence of cookies in the house forces people to do the unspeakable. I suppose that makes me an enabler.
As we waded through the poinsettas and paper whites, my co-hort headed for a container of milk (by way of the cookie aisle). Strolling over to produce, I was amazed to see Meyer lemons lounging next to mesh bags of oranges. Not-so-gently nudging the woman in front of me while she pondered organic vs. non, I plucked three bags from the display. Their fragrance was infinitely better than anything holiday permeating the store.
The Meyer lemons called out for Shaker Lemon Pie. I paused for just a moment to embrace the Shaker Lemon but bypass the typical pie crust. What I really wanted was something lemony I could smuggle into work and nibble on with a few cups of joe. I quickly found a partner in crime. I returned to the biscuit.
I know what you must be thinking. Biscuits are to be handled with the utmost tenderness, and I agree. But that hasn't stopped me from carefully rolling out biscuit dough to a thinness appropriate to pigs in blankets or thin enough to embrace galette fillings. One recipe of buttermilk biscuits lends itself as the ideal crust for Shaker Meyer lemon. This is dash-out-of-the-house breakfast pie, a biscuit filled with jam.
This is probably not what Santa has in mind when he tumbles down the chimney on the 24th. It will be a far more bracing choice, and teamed with espresso, ideal for a man on a mission. The flavor states in one bite, bright.
Fine; because ‘tis the season, I’ll toss in merry.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm