Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Cookies, Cookie Nostalgia, It’s a Small World After All, and In a Patisserie Long, Long Ago and Far, Far Away

Grab a glass of wine (or a cup of coffee, okay, or a cup of tea), sit back, put your feet up, relax. This is going to take a while.

It never fails. It is a rule of nature. As soon as you throw away something, or put it in the garage sale pile, or in the Goodwill box, you are going to want or need it. For years – for decades – I had a pile of little slips of paper with the beginnings of what I thought would make someday for brilliant (okay, clever) “social essays,” observations about everyday things we all experience – you know, like Jerry Seinfeld’s old stand-up routines. Finally, a few months ago I decided that surely, all the subjects are now obsolete. So I tossed them. And, of course, last night I tore the house apart looking for them. Well, for one in particular. The one about Madeline Lanciani and her mocha truffle pyramids or her chocolate mocha triangles or whatever the hell they were called. See, I can’t even remember without that little slip of paper. Never mind. Let’s move on.

Cookies seemed to loom larger this holiday season than years past. I think when times are difficult, small things – like comfort food, like cookies – take on additional significance. I baked a lot of cookies this year, including five new varieties. My friend Jane, who has spent many hours during the past year converting old family slides to digital format, piled on the nostalgia by reminiscing with her sister Susan, and then Susan on her blog, about the royal icing-decorated gingerbread cookies that a neighbor named Mrs. Schweer used to make for them when they were children back in the Midwest. Without the recipe, which Mrs. Schweer has apparently taken with her to her grave, Jane searched on the internet for recipes she thought would approximate the original and attempted to recreate both the cookies and the icing. That is a daunting task, believe me, and I have a great deal of respect for the fact that she would even give it a shot. I got caught up in it all and searched through all my cookbooks for what looked to me like the most traditional gingerbread recipes. I’m hoping “when things calm down,” Jane will try at least a couple of the recipes she’s garnered so I can taste them. I don’t particularly love gingerbread but now it’s the principle.

I have a small, cozy gathering of friends at my house each Christmas Eve and Jane’s partner, Gill, always mixes up a big batch of Nanny’s Nog, a good, old-fashioned, liquor-laden concoction that is very delicious and lasts long into the new year. This year, he also made his famous artichoke and cheese dip and something yummy called Opulent Chicken that was loaded with sherry and thus, the opulence. He came up in the afternoon of Christmas Eve day (oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned my trip to the Kula San emergency room – long story short, I had a horrid allergic reaction to shrimp – first time in 30 YEARS! – endured the night, was taken up to the ER by friend Geri, got a shot, bought some Benadryl, made it through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Christmas Night, was forced to rest on Saturday and Sunday, saw my own doc on Monday, got another, much more powerful shot, took a few prescribed antihistamines and a.o.k.) to use the Kitchen Aid to whip the egg whites for the nog. I suggested that he take the bowl home with him instead of transferring the perfectly peaked whites to another bowl. No use tempting fallen egg white fate. Of course, he forgot to bring the bowl when he came for the party and, at the end of the night, he left a bunch of tea towels, pot holders, like that. Good thing we live only a gulch apart. Well, the weekend came and went (swollen and itchy). Monday there was no time to make the exchange. I knew I wouldn’t get home ‘til late in the evening Tuesday so I went over there Tuesday morning, figuring I’d also get a cappuccino out of the deal. Gill did realize “the onus was on him” to get the Kitchen Aid bowl back to me but what the heck, it’s the holidays. Jane had a tin of cookies Susan had sent her and, believing that I am something of a cookie expert, removed the top to reveal, truly, some of the most gorgeous Christmas cookies I have ever seen.

Believe me, the photos do the cookies no justice whatsoever. Jane confessed she’d already finished all the gingerbread. I ate a Christmas tree (cookie) – it was an absolutely delicious, classic sugar cookie. “Is it good?” Jane asked. “I don’t know, I read on their website they use all good ingredients, nothing artificial.” Definitely good, better than good. We discussed the pros and cons of different consistencies of royal icing – the one that decorated these cookies seemed pretty perfect to me. I looked at the top of the tin – Duane Park Patisserie on Duane St. in lower Manhattan. I’d never heard of it but made a mental note to go there – definitely – the next time I’m in town.

By the time it gets to the week in between Christmas and New Year’s, I’m anxious for all the hoopla to be over. I spent a couple of days cleaning out the old, getting ready for the new in the office, enjoyed a couple of quiet, reflective dinners with friends, a movie. On Wednesday morning, I noticed a post-it note near the office computer that had the words “Duane Park Patisserie” written on it. I went to the website, looked at the luscious photo galleries, read a couple of press clips and then I saw it. Madeline Lanciani. Madeline Lanciani is the owner of Duane Park Patisserie. Yes, the same Madeline Lanciani.

Back in the early ‘80s I worked for Madeline Lanciani – and for her then-husband, Joe – when they owned Patisserie Lanciani around the corner from my West 12th St. apartment. It was a difficult time in my life. My mother had died not too long before, my financial situation was precarious, and…you get the idea. I loved walking over to that bakery in the wee hours of the cold morning, smelling the espresso the bakers were drinking and feeling the warmth of the ovens. And then, when the sun had been up for a couple of hours, Madeline would come swirling in and the most vivid recollection I have of her is waving around a ruler and screaming about how the mocha truffle pyramids (or whatever the hell they were called) had to be EXACTLY the same height “EVERY SINGLE TIME, EVERY SINGLE ONE. I INVENTED THEM,” she screamed. “THESE ARE MY MOCHA TRUFFLE PYRAMIDS (or whatever the hell they were called) AND I SAY HOW TALL THEY’RE GOING TO BE, EVERY SINGLE ONE, EVERY SINGLE TIME!” (Or something very much like that.)

In fairness, her then-husband had a not dissimilar demeanor. I remember him once flinging a sheet pan – filled with pastries – across the bakery. It was absolutely stunning! And in fairness, too, Ms. Lanciani has had an extremely successful culinary career – she was the first woman to work in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in NYC – and I’m absolutely sure she’s mellowed since those days way back more than two decades ago. She is an amazingly accomplished pastry chef/baker/businesswoman and, frankly, I wouldn’t mind running into her at Duane Park Patisserie when I go there next spring. As a matter of fact, I’m going to ask for her.

Okay, that’s it. That’s the end of the story.

You have, undoubtedly, had enough of end-of-the-year/end-of-the-decade lists and predictions – god knows I have – so I’m just going to send happy, healthy, prosperous, peaceful new year wishes across the waves (or across the gulch, as the case may be). And I predict it’s going to be a very, very good year for cookies.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

and finally...

...another perennial favorite, Gilded Chocolate Shortbread - full moons, crescent moons and stars. A little edible bling on each plate. Now, all that's left is the packing the tins that need to be mailing and plating the cookies for recipients here on Maui.

It's been fun...and, as my friend D.E. would say, tasty, too.

A nod to my own heritage

Interestingly enough, these Chocolate Rugelach are the most requested baked good in the assortment every year. The recipe comes from the December 1990 issue of Food & Wine magazine. I always double the recipe so I bake 96 rugelach in all. The dough is made with butter, cream cheese AND sour cream and the filling is chunks of chocolate - from JoMart, of course - currants, walnuts, cinammon and sugar. The recipe calls for apricot glaze both on the dough before the rugelach are rolled and also to be brushed on them before baking. I changed that up this year and used peach preserves. I wonder if anyone will notice.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I fear I baked far too few

These Pecan Shortbread Cookies look pretty gorgeous, don't they? Yield was less than recipe indicated and I baked one-and-a-half recipes. If I have all the ingredients, I may bake another batch-and-a-half. From a brand new book, by the way, The Craft of Baking by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. A good choice if you're looking for a gift for the bakers on your list.

Gilded Chocolate Shortbread dough is in the fridge. Still have Chocolate Rugelach dough to make. But that's it - tomorrow should be easy.

You can never bake too many Truffle Cookies

This is another new addition to the holiday cookie repertoire - Truffle Cookies from The Gourmet Cookbook. I think I may have made them once before. If I did, I don't remember them being as delicious as they are. The recipe says it makes six dozen which is certainly plenty but at the very last second, I decided to make one-and-a-half recipes instead. I'm glad I did. If I do say so myself, they're outrageously good.

Okay, I'm battin' far. Onward...


So, the Truffle Cookie dough went into the fridge at 9:00 a.m. where it needs to stay for at least two hours and the Pecan Shortbread Cookie dough went into the fridge at 10:00 a.m. where it needs to stay for at least one hour. You do the math. I've got a bit of time on my hands and I was ALMOST talked into going to the one of the first three showings here of Avatar. Until I remembered that all the kids are out of school and it's going to be a TEENAGE MOB SCENE. So, I'm going to pay a couple of bills, preheat the oven, bake off the two in the fridge, make the other two doughs - that also need to be chilled - and I'm right on track to have the Holiday Baking '09 completed by tomorrow afternoon. Which means I can deliver downtown on Monday and Tuesday and enjoy the week. There's a lot to be said for organization.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A new favorite

I'm always on the lookout for new recipes that incorporate lemon - juice, zest, even extract works. I think it's a flavor that just about everyone likes. Crisp, cool. These Lemon Thyme Olive Oil Cookies - courtesy George Duran of The Food Network - are amazing. So many layers of flavor - lemon, freshly chopped thyme leaves (I grew the thyme myself!), extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper. Crunchy at the edges and chewy in the center. I am SO glad I doubled this recipe!

That's it for today. Three down, four to go. Will get on it again early tomorrow morning.

Cookies - Take 2

Did I say Pecan Shortbread was up next? Silly me! I meant to say Toffee Pecan Drop Cookies. This recipe is in More from Magnolia (yes, that Magnolia, the one in the West Village NYC with the cupcakes...) Instead of using toffee pieces, I chopped up Heath Bars. These are making their debut this year and they are yummy. Well, of course I tasted one. Do you think I'd give them as gifts without tasting them?! And anyway, you how there's always one (at least one) misshapen cookie on every pan? Well, that's the one I et.

There WILL be cookies

Baking cookies, as my friends know, are a big deal for me all year long, most especially at holiday time. For the last dozen years or more, I have given gifts from my kitchen. We are all fortunate folks in my little circle and have no need for more "stuff." I buy pretty/funky/kitschy plates throughout the year from garage sales and thrift stores - some friends are on the lookout, as well - and the plate on which the cookies are arranged is part of each gift.

There have been years when I've gone nuts and baked more than 1000 cookies in nine or ten or eleven varieties, years when I thought I just didn't have it in me go do it all again and then enjoyed it when I got into the kitchen. This year, I've been looking forward for weeks to these next few days I'll spend in my kitchen.

Four or five varieties have become "must-bake" over the year - friends demand them. This year, all but two of them are gone. The Gilded Chocolate Shortbread and the Chocolate Rugelach are all that remain from holidays past. Five brand new cookies will make their debut this year. I think - I hope - they're going to be delicious. Most important, we'll enjoy them gathered together.

I'm going to "blog" the Baking Days this year. First up (see above) sugar cookies. I use the wonderfully easy recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook. I've tried at least half a dozen different sugar cookie recipes and to me, this one is by far the best.

Time for coffee while the butter softens for Pecan Shortbread Cookies.