Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cookie Time!

It's that time of year when the house should smell of baking. I think I used to have more time for this--I know I did when I was self-employed and didn't own a horse. I'm not giving up the horse to spend more time in the kitchen, though.

When I do have the time, I like to make cookies which have been made in my family for as long as I can remember (with the exception of Mexican Wedding Cakes and the Fudge Crackles, which I added along the way.) The most of the recipes came from my Italian-American grandmother, but a notable one came from my Czech-American grandmother, and both were filtered through my mother's kitchen. My mother has this habit of leaving out key notes, so one year I went home for the holidays and watched her do things, making notes in my little blue book the whole time.

I've rarely found recipes in traditional cookbooks for these sweets. I don't know if it is because the names I've got are in a dialect rather than in formal Italian or Czech or some other reason. They all tend to be time-consuming undertakings and I don't have help in the kitchen to make them, unfortunately.

The Italian Cookies:

Tarella are hard anise cookies which we dip into a frosting and sometimes decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar. They are good dipped in coffee or hot chocolate. I remember getting the recipe to make in home ec in junior high. My mother neglected to give the correct amount of flour, which varies depending on humidity. We were scraping dough off everything, it was so sticky. I'm better at it now.

Pizzelles are made on a special waffle iron and are very much affected by humidity. They take a lot of eggs and it is slow going because you can only make two at a time. My grandfather used to eat them with wine.

Ceci are half-moon shaped fried cookies filled with a chickpea-honey-orange rind filling. The finished cookie is springled with cinnamon & sugar. I'm sure that ceci and some of the other fried dough Italian Christmas cookies (the names of which I can't recall right now) owe something to Jewish cuisine in Italy. They just seem like they'd be right at home at a Hanukkah party.

While not a cookie, I do make panetone for the holiday. It is a bread with some preserved citrus rind and pine nuts that is traditionally baked to look like a chef's hat. I tend to make it as a boule. I like it toasted with jam. It is easily purchased at Italian food emporia this time of year, but when I was growing up, the only way to get it was to make it. It isn't that difficult. Really.

The Czech Cookie:

Kolachki are Czech, with a delicate, flacky pastry enclosing a nut or fruit filling. They are probably akin to rugalah, but not as dry. They are absolutely addictive, but so labor intensive I rarely have the time to make them. The pastry is Crisco and flour, rolled in powered sugar to keep it from sticking. It is very difficult to work with under the best conditions. After filling and sealing and baking, the cookies are dusted with more powdered sugar, which I think must have the addictive power of another white powder. The other reason I don't make them more often is that I would eat all of them. It's the one recipe I've got from my namesake grandmother and making them on the Hoosier kitchen top always makes me think of her.

The Other Cookies:

I found a recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes in the Washington Post soon after I moved to Northern Virginia many years ago. It was the recipe that convinced me that margarine is no substitute for sweet butter, no matter what the cost or health risk. The small round cookie is made with pecans, lots of butter, flour and powdered sugar and after baking it gets two more coatings of powdered sugar. They melt in your mouth.

Fudge Crackles use three kinds of chocolate and get their name from the shiny cracked surface. They are best barely cooled from the oven. The recipe came from a holiday cookbook I own and was worth the price of the volume. A plate of fudge crackles and Mexican wedding cakes makes a lovely presentation.

If I'm really good, I'll get up on Christmas morning and make a batch of scones from the Ticky-Boo Tea Shoppe Cookbook. The recipe is in a post I made back in July. I don't think I've got time to make lemon curd, but that's easily purchased at Trader Joe's.

Have a Merry Christmas or whatever winter festival you celebrate. There's lots of good things to eat at most of them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Mexico Cuisine

I traveled to New Mexico back in November to work on election protection. I decided to take the train because I really like traveling by train, I don't like to fly, and it was too far to drive by myself. By taking the train, most of the trip was overnight and it took about as long as it would take me to drive. Instead of a hotel, I had a roomette. And I could eat without stopping for an hour.

Food on the Southwest Chief is not the culinary experience I remember from either the Broadway Limited (Chicago to New York) or the Southern Crescent (Washington, D.C. to New Orleans--but I got off at Atlanta.) Those trips were 20 or more years ago, and things have changed. My meals were included in the fare going to New Mexico. They were extra on the way back, when I didn't take a roomette.

While service was generally pleasant, and the company fascinating (because you are seated with strangers), the food was pretty disappointing. Microwave was the heating method of choice and the fish dishes suffered for it. They did make excellent brewed iced tea, however.

In New Mexico, there were two places on my must-eat list: Tomasita's and The Shed, both located in Santa Fe. My friend and hostess Melinda introduced me to the latter, but Parris McBride took me to Tomasitas on my very first trip to Santa Fe and she joined the two of us for dinner there the night before the election.

Tomasita's makes the best sopapillas ever, eaten with a drizzle of honey to cut the hot of the Christmas (red and green) chile I had with my entree. The only restaurant I've had them at outside of New Mexico was a New Mexico-style hole-in-the-wall in Vienna, Virginia, the name of which escapes me now (although it may have had a woman's posessive name and was located near--but on the opposite side--of Magruders on the main drag through town.) Tomasita's was the first place friends took me to when I visited New Mexico on my way to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and it's the place we all go to at least once when I visit. I only regret that I was driving the night we went this time, and had to get up before the crack of dawn to get to my assignment at the San Filipe Pueblo, so I couldn't have a margarita with dinner. Next time.

The other must-eat is in the heart of Santa Fe, The Shed. It is located about half a block off the Plaza, tucked in behind an adorable Christmas store, and usually has lines of people snaked out the door.
The restaurant is noted for its brightly colored interior and its red chile.
I had the posole, on the left, and Melinda had the corn chowder, on the right. Both were delicious.
Last year, I made posole from leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Traditionally, it is made from pork. Melinda gave me a lecture on the proper way to prepare the hominy, which I will need to review before making posole again. Here's a link to the Rachael Ray turkey version of posole I used. Posole is traditionally served on New Year's day.

One of the problems with Santa Fe in the winter is that many of the restaurants are closed on Sunday. That's rather strange to anyone coming from Los Angeles, but it meant we didn't have much of a choice for dinner the night I arrived. I took Melinda out to an Italian place she recommended, but I think we were both disappointed with dinner. Perhaps the regular chef was off that night.

I had one other must-do while in Santa Fe, and that was to visit the Nambe outlet. There are now two, one near the Plaza and one on a street with a number of art galleries. My Nambe collection started with a wedding gift from Parris and George R.R. Martin and Melinda has given me several pieces as well. I've added to it by haunting flea markets, where pieces go for a fraction of their retail prices.

I found a wonderful 5 quart single-handled bowl, asymetrical, as is often the case, at the down-town outlet and it makes a great centerpiece as well as a serving bowl which keeps things warm for a long time. I could spend a fortune in the Nambe store, so I was thrilled with this piece I found on the discontinued shelf. Packing for the return trip was a little tricky, but I got it into my checked bag and it arrived without damage. I may have Melinda pick up another piece I saw and bring it out to me when she drives out next month. I wonder if one would have difficulty getting Nambe on a plane in carry-on. You could do a lot of damage if you hit someone in the head with a piece of it.