Sunday, December 28, 2008

The New Christmas Potatoes

The thing about holiday meals, it seems to me, is that it is so easy to fall into a food rut. In the name of tradition, we decide not to venture from the dishes we're used to making for any given holiday. Case in point: my first Thanksgiving as cook. Everyone has come to expect certain foods when eating Thanksgiving dinner at my house, regardless of who's (wo)manning the kitchen. Thus I felt I could make no substitutions to previous years' menus. Additions, yes, but serious revisions, no. Does that happen to you?

The same thing seems to happen with Christmas. (Though I must admit that I can easily fit into the character of enabler of food tradition/repetition. I never make potatoes savoyard, for example, so I look forward to eating them every Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle's house.) We usually have Christmas Day at my house. We usually have a ham. We usually have the candied sweet potatoes that my grandma likes; the seemingly holiday-ubiquitous mashed potatoes; the 7-Up Jell-O salad my mom remembers from nearly every Christmas in her life; some steamed vegetable, with or without lemon butter or Hollandaise; and the egg bread that essentially serves as my cousin's entire Christmas meal, as well as his stocking stuffer the night before.

Well, most of that happened this year. When I got home following fall semester finals, my mom was planning her Christmas Day buffet, a task that should be easy when the entire menu is essentially set. But then she started thinking about the potatoes: we'd just had a ton of regular mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, let's not be too repetitive; we couldn't make potatoes savoyard because we always have them Christmas Eve; we needed to be careful not to repeat the potatoes my mom's sister would serve at her dinner on Christmas Eve; so what to do? I consulted Nigella, of course.

The end result, I must say, was fantastic. Not too much of a change from mashed potatoes to wreak holiday havoc, but different enough in execution, taste, and texture to keep things interesting. I wholeheartedly encourage little holiday tradition rebellions like this one. Although, if they all turn out as tasty as these potatoes did, you might be marking the end of one tradition with the beginning of another.

Smashed Potato Gratin
from Feast by Nigella Lawson

5 lb all-purpose potatoes, + 1 potato for insurance
6 c whole milk
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 stick celery
8 scallions
2 sticks butter
4 tbsp semolina

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two shallow roasting pans (we used a 9"x13" and a smaller casserole).
Peel and chop the potatoes and cut them into approximately 1/2"x1 1/4" chunks. Put them into a saucepan with the milk, salt, celery, whole scallions, pepper, and 1 1/2 sticks butter. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
Fish out the celery and scallions. If you cooked your potatoes in a large pot, it's easiest to lightly mash them in the pot before pouring them into the perpared roasting pans. Otherwise transfer the potatoes to the pans than then mash. You can leave the pans made up to this point to sit for a while.
When you are ready to put the potatoes into the oven, sprinkle over the semolina and dot with the remainging butter. Cook the smashed potato gratin for 30 minutes or until hot through and beginning to catch and scorch in parts on the top.
Serves at least 12.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Kiss Cookie Bonanza

In a departure from our traditional household Christmas baking menu, my mom and I opted to bake on a theme this year as opposed to making any and every Christmas cookie requested by various members of the family. The result, fresh from this evening, is what I'm calling the Kiss Cookie Bonanza. Hershey's, eat your heart out.

Our dessert trays contain seven variations on the kiss cookie:
  • Peanut butter cookie with a milk chocolate kiss
  • Butter pecan cookie with a caramel kiss and a sprinkling of sea salt
  • Chocolate cookie coated in powdered sugar with a mint truffle kiss
  • Chocolate cookie coated in granulated sugar with a candy cane kiss
  • Chocolate cookie with marshmallow fluff and a cocoa kiss
  • Cherry cookie with a dark chocolate kiss
  • Pistachio cookie with a white and milk chocolate hug

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Literary Cookie Season

Later this week I'll be whipping up a batch or two of shortbread for a tea party in celebration of Jane Austen's birthday. It may seem an unnecessary occasion to celebrate, but really, when it comes to excuses for baking cookies of all varieties, what better excuse than something literary? Books and bite-size treats seem to go hand in hand, especially when little cookies allow the reader to indulge without huge threat of pages sticking together as a result of jam hands. At least in theory.

Also in favor of a literary cookie is the fact that so many cookies exist that one can generally appropriately match a treat to the text in question. A prime example: Russian tea cakes to celebrate the final discussion of Tolstoy's War and Peace in my friend's lit class. That's what we made last Tuesday, and I heard they were a hit. There's something remarkable about having a satisfied mind and satisfied palate.

What cookie/book pairings can you think of?

Russian Tea Cakes

1 c butter
2 c powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 c flour
1 c pecans, finely ground

Beat the butter (at room temperature) until it is fluffy. Add 1/2 c of the powdered sugar and the vanilla to the butter and beat the mixture until well-blended. Beat in the flour, then beat in the nuts.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the dough into medium uniform balls and place on a parchment-papered cookie sheet. Bake each batch 18 minutes, then allow the cakes to cool 5 minutes on the baking sheet.
Toss the still-warm cookies in the remaining powdered sugar and set on a cooling rack until fully cool. Store in an air-tight container.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday in December

How does a good student spend the Sunday before the last week of college classes for the semester? I would guess not by cooking all day, like I did. But alas, the holiday season means holiday treats as gifts. And I'll be darned if the girl doing her thesis on food doesn't turn out some tasty morsels for her friends to enjoy.

I started off today with some wonderful shortbread bites, quite reminiscent of Scotland if I do say so myself. Try them. They're worth making a bit of a mess first thing Sunday morning.

Elfin Shortbread Bites
from the New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book

1 1/4 c flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 c butter
2 tbsp colored sprinkles

Whisk together the flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender (or, lacking one as I was, your hands) until the mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling. Stir in the sprinkles, and form the mixture into a ball and knead until smooth.
Roll or pat the dough onto a parchment-papered cookie sheet until about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 1/2-inch squares and separate the squares over the cookie sheet.
Bake in a 325 degree Fahrenheit oven for 15-19 minutes, or until the bottoms start to brown and/or the smell of butter starts to emanate from the oven. Transfer the cookies, on the parchment paper, to a wire rack to cool.