Four days until Christmas Eve, five days until Christmas Day. Are you all set, all ready? Are your presents purchased and wrapped and hidden away? Are you avoiding the kitchen or still churning out cookies and cakes and edible gifts like there's no tomorrow? (Not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke...)
I'm very sorry to have to add to your load at this crucial moment before the holidays, when any moment of free time you might have is probably tied up with a million other things, but I don't really have a choice. Forgive me! You see, I made this fruitcake last week and it is so good, so perfect, so un-fruitcake-y and wonderful that the year cannot, must not, end without it on your holiday table. Okay? Okay.
I read about this lovely thing in the Washington Post, my ears perking up when the journalist said that it was responsible for her "fruitcake awakening". The cake required no alcoholic soaking, was not studded with any garishly colored cherries or bitter citrus peel and could be stored for at least two weeks. Plus, I could buy all the figs, raisins and nuts from the discount store around the corner from my house. Recipe kismet always feels so good, doesn't it?
Then, when I went and actually looked at the recipe, I had to read it twice. Were my eyes betraying me or were there no eggs and no shortening of any kind in this cake? No, I could read correctly. What it did have was an enormous amount of baking soda, plus the loveliest name I could think of. I don't know about you, but Arkansas Fig Fruitcake has such simple lyricism that I probably would have been moved to try it on account of the name alone.
So, here's what you do. You chop and simmer a bunch of figs with some sugar and water until they are soft. Then you purée them and measure out most of the purée (the rest is delicious stirred into your morning yogurt - cook's treat!). You mix the fig purée with walnuts or pecans, a box of raisins, two diced apples, what seems like an absurd amount of sugar (I think you could probably cut down on this if you wanted to, but I loved the recipe as is), flour, spices and the aforementioned soda, which you need in such ample quantities to help power up the dense, heavy dough. It's so dense and heavy that you shouldn't bother mixing this with anything but your hands - it will make any electric motor smoke. This part is messy.
You push the dough evenly into your pans (I happen to have one very large loaf pan - that kiwi in the first photo was meant to show you just how epically large my fruitcake was - but I'd recommend baking the cake in smaller pans for better gifting) and bake them for two hours at the relatively low temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Slowly, slowly, the cake rises and the edges caramelize in the oven heat. When it's done, the burnished top towers over the edge of the pan.
Cooled and sliced, it's remarkably light and incredibly fragrant and moist. It's hard to believe that nothing but fruit, really, gives the cake the moisture it needs. As it ages, it gets better and better - the flavors melding further, though I frankly don't know how this cake would ever last two whole weeks. And all you fruitcake skeptics out there: I'd wager a pretty penny that this is just the thing that could help you with your own fruitcake awakening. Tell me if any of you try it and are converted!
By the way, all that sugar doesn't actually result in a tooth-achingly sweet cake. What it does is give the cake this deep caramel flavor on top of all the other things going on: the gentle crunch of the fig seeds, the warmth of the spices, the satisfying heft of the crumb. It's so good that I served it as my birthday cake last week when I turned 35 (!). Who needs a chocolate layer cake when there's Arkansas Fig Fruitcake to be had?
3 cups (14 ounces) dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups finely diced, peeled apple (about 2 apples)
15 ounces of raisins
2 cups pecans or walnuts, in halves or pieces
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking soda
1. Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
2. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, then use an immersion blender on low speed to process the figs to a coarse puree, adding water as needed. Let cool. The yield is slightly more than 2 cups.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 3/4-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, or two standard loaf pans.
4. Measure 2 cups of the fig puree and transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the apple, raisins and nuts. Reserve the remaining purée for another use (like stirred into your morning yogurt). Stir to mix well.
5. Whisk together the flour, the remaining 2 cups of sugar, the cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate large bowl until combined.
6. Combine the baking soda and the remaining 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl, stirring until the baking soda has dissolved. Stir this into the fruit mixture.
7. Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick and heavy, so at this point it's easiest to mix it with your hands. You might need to add a couple tablespoons of water to moisten all the ingredients.
8. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and use a flexible spatula or your hands dipped in water to smooth the top. Bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours or until a tester inserted near the middle of the cake comes out clean.
9. Cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the pan to cool completely. (If using a tube pan with a removable base, keep the cake on the base as it cools.) Wrap tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
One thing I did this weekend when I wasn't stress knitting, staring off into the distance replaying hideous images in my head or sticking my nose into Hugo's nape and inhaling deeply while giving thanks over and over again, was to read Jenny Rosenstrach's new book, Dinner: A Love Story. And let me tell you, on a weekend in which I despaired mightily about our society, this book steadied and soothed me. It was very good medicine.
Jenny's mission in her book (and on her wonderful blog) is to help us all put a family dinner on the table, most nights of the week. It seems simple enough, right? And yet, how many of us struggle with it? (Of course, I don't even know the half of it yet, seeing as my child still just nurses for dinner and thinks any puréed vegetable I put in his mouth at lunchtime is worthy of wonder. And how about yogurt, cold, plain yogurt! Hugo is a big fan.) Jenny puts forth the premise that family dinner is where all the magic happens, that no matter how busy and stressed a family may be, if you are gathering at the dinner table most nights of the week, you are doing something right as a parent.*
(Did you read this article, about the woman who kept a dinner diary for 14 years? That's Jenny!)
In Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny proposes not just simple meals that are easily deconstructed to suit the pickiest palates (both child and adult), but tells her own story of becoming a home cook, a commuting gourmand, an exhausted new mother and, finally, the person she is today, with two daughters and a husband, four red chairs in their kitchen and a battery of culinary treasures to keep everyone happy. These treasures include recipes for when you finally start entertaining again, recipes for commuting parents with nary a moment to spare before dinnertime and recipes to make with your children (one day!).
I earmarked things to try like Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies and Breaded Vinegary Pork Chops and Fish Cakes and Spicy Shrimp with Yogurt, among many, many others. Jenny also gives you tips on how to start the dinnertime conversation with reluctant talkers, how to cook on a family vacation, and how to make a few select drinks for when your children are finally, blessedly, in bed. (I've just started to realize how important these are.) It's a real all-around manual.
Besides the fact that I completely agree with Jenny, that family dinners are among the most important things a parent can do to connect with their children and keep the fabric of that relationship taut and intact, what really touched me about the book was the story of Jenny's marriage with her husband Andy (read their great Bon Appetit column here) - they seem to be true equals in the kitchen, which is something of a wonder to me (and I'm sure many of you out there, too). (For spouses who don't like to or "can't" cook, she says their task (besides washing the dishes) is simply to master one good meal - genius!) Plus, Jenny writes so endearingly and with such appetite that I found myself wishing I could beam myself straight to her dinner table more than a few times.
A few of my closest friends have children who have just graduated from being pleasantly omnivorous babies to very picky toddlers with Opinions and Dislikes and this book feels like it was almost tailor-made for them. How about you? Those of you with children, what's it like cooking for them and eating with them? What are your tricks to get them to eat, well, whatever they don't like to eat? What are your feelings on family dinners? When did your children graduate from the children's table to the adult one? Did you ever cook meals just for them or did you always make your kid eat what you did? I'd love to know.
*Just so no one gets stressed out, Jenny says not to even worry about family dinners until your child is around three years old. Attempt them before that and you're mostly looking at a recipe for frustration. Updated to say that this experience may, of course, differ depending on what kind of child you have!
I have started and stopped this post five times so far, because every time I try to start telling you about the fruit cake I made (and loved) last week, I am overcome with the feeling that it is nothing less than obscene of me to be writing about food and holidays and other such similar nonsense when the details of this story refuse to leave my mind's eye.
The thing is, I am so angry. I'm sad, yes, but tangibly, physically, speaking, I am filled with rage. Trembly, white-hot rage. I am so sick of these guns, these guns that pollute the United States, that threaten our schools and movie theaters, of the disgusting hypocrisy of politicians who bleat and bray about the sanctity of life when it comes to the contents of a woman's womb, but are silent - silent - when a classful of children are murdered, all shot multiple times, in a matter of minutes. The craven dishonesty, the glibness behind lines like "guns don't kill people, people kill people" revolt me. Tell that line to any of the parents who were ushered into a separate room last week once all the living children of the Sandy Hook elementary school had been reunited with their parents. Tell that to the children, the babies, really, who hid in a closet silently while their classmates were slaughtered on the other side of the door. Just the thought of children staring down big, black guns loaded with round after round of ammunition in their school and my heart races with fear and revulsion, but mostly rage.
I personally am of the persuasion that guns should not be available to the citizenry at all. That the Second Amendment has long outlived its purpose. I realize I am in the minority among my fellow citizens and that's alright. But what is not alright is that ordinary Americans are being made to live in fear because of the refusal of our politicans to deal with what should be matters of common sense. What is not alright is that once again we all are left to wonder how many more children will be killed before any meaningful change takes place. What is not alright is that the gun lobby has more money and power than any of the other players at the table, unfairly skewing the debate before it even starts.
When I sit back and take a breath, it feels futile and silly to write all this down. What on earth will my little rant do? It will not bring back the dead, it will not comfort the survivors, it will not effect any political change. It's simply more noise added to an already cacophonous exchange that flares up with each incident and then dies down again when the heat cools off. And that may be the worst thing of all.
One thing you should know about living in Berlin is that there is no good Indian food here. None. There are plenty of Indian restaurants, but for some reason they all serve a variation on the same strangely insipid, gloppy mixtures that hold barely any resemblance to the Indian food I ate in Boston and New York over the years. The menus present no hint that India is a huge country, with myriad regions and cuisines (wherefore art thou, masala dosas of my heart?). And forget about anything spicy. Just forget it right now.
Oh, it's sad, alright. Whenever I go to London to visit my friend Betsy, we order takeaway from the Indian joint down the street from her and it is so good, so hot and complex and delicious, that I very willingly forgo all other meals in the city just to have that Indian food again and again. And then I return to Berlin and I hear about some new Indian place that has opened up and I get my hopes up, against my better judgment, and I go and once again am presented with mango chicken or some such train wreck and I feel deeply dejected all over again.
Luckily, a lot of Indian food isn't so hard to make at home. (Though I leave dosas and iddlies to the experts in New York.) Thanks to my father's obsession with Indian cooking, I even have a nice little collection of Indian cookbooks, full of wonderful things to eat. And anyway, it's not like I'm getting out of the house much these days. Hugo's nap schedule takes precedence over all.
I found this recipe for black lentil soup the other day when I staring at a jar of beluga lentils in my pantry and wondering how I'd use them up without a nice piece of salmon lying around to pair them with. Here you parboil the lentils with ginger and cardamom. Then you make a soup base with onions, garlic, butter and a quartet of spices, plus some canned tomatoes and stock, before adding the lentils back to the pot to simmer into a soup. It's very easy and was easily left halfway through when Hugo starting melting down, before being picked up later after he'd gone to bed. (This is often how I cook these days, in fits and starts. Just today I started a fruitcake recipe and literally abandoned it with one bowl already full of ingredients like chopped apples and puréed figs to go outside and run errands with the cranky child. Now that he's asleep, I was able to finish the job and the fruitcake's perfuming the house from the oven. It sounds irritating, but has its own satisfactions, this stop-and-go cooking.)
I added more lentils than the original recipe called for and used less butter and next time I make it, I'd probably purée half the soup, because it looks a little messy otherwise, but these are very faint criticisms. The soup is wonderfully fragrant and spicy and tastes just the way it's "supposed" to, at least to my Indian-starved palate. When you stir in the final bit of butter at the end to melt, it separates and pools at the edges of the soup. It's very nice indeed.
Rajat Parr's Black Lentil Soup
Makes 6 servings
1.5 cups black (Beluga) lentils
3 cardamom pods
One 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, plus 2 tablespoons minced ginger
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
2 quarts vegetable stock
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
1. In a pot, cover the lentils, cardamom and sliced ginger with 1 inch of water. Bring to a boil and cook over moderately high heat until the lentils start to soften, about 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and transfer to a bowl; discard the cardamom and ginger.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in the pot. Add the onion, garlic and minced ginger and and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add the spices and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
3. Add the stock, tomatoes and lentils to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer over moderate heat until the lentils are softened and the soup has thickened, about 1 hour. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and season with salt. Ladle into bowls and serve.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with the brilliance of Food52, the community cooking site founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs that is chockful of incredible recipes, good stories, gorgeous photos and more. (My favorite thing about the site? Well, one of my favorites, anyway. Sneaking a peek into Amanda's kid's lunches! So inspiring.)
But did you know that Food52 also has a shop where they collaborate with producers, shops and artisans to produce exclusive items for the site? If you sign up for an account with Food52, you'll get an email every week telling you about the latest collaboration (or curation). The offer is usually limited, because of the discount included. I love browsing the shop - it's always stuffed with things I suddenly realize I urgently need. To wit: Tongan Vanilla, both in extract and paste form, a touch-sensitive protective screen for the iPad (such a good present for the cook in your life!) and, uh, this writing retreat and cooking class in Tepoztlàn in January (I can dream, can't I?).
If you're still frantically trying to round up presents for the cooks in your life, hie yourselves over to the shop and get going! Food52 is generously offering 10% off almost everything* in the shop for you lovelies until December 31st, 2012 - just use the code WEDNESDAY10 at checkout.
And! Because you guys are wonderful and they are generous, today I'm giving away a copy of The Food52 Cookbook, Volume II as well as a Stocking Stuffer Spice Discovery Set (it's the Unique Chiles of the World one, which I so covet and which is sold out – 1 ounce each of Marash Chile fine flakes from Turkey, ground Green New Mexican Chile and ground Aji Amarillo from Peru. The retail value is $20.)
For a chance to win, please visit the Food52 Holiday Shop and leave a comment below. A winner will be chosen at random tomorrow. Good luck!
Update: Heather is the winner and has been emailed. Thank you all for participating - comments are now closed.
*Offer ends December 31, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. PDT. Excludes past purchases. Limit ten discounts per customer. Excludes travel and copper offers. Minimum $20 purchase. Offer is subject to change without notice and is not redeemable for cash or cash equivalent. May not be combined with any other offer or promotion. Void where prohibited by law.
Oof. Readers, Hugo was up four times last night (10:15 pm, 12:50 am, 3:00 am, and then 5:30 am, at which point he started to do this adorable cooing, chattering thing that really is the sweetest thing on the planet except that it's 5:30 in the morning, child, and you have kept me up ALL NIGHT GO BACK TO SLEEP GAH), so, actually, I thought if anything, this day's overwhelming emotion would be one of mild exasperation and slight crankiness (on my part). Instead, as the day wound down and we did our little nighttime ritual, I was overcome with melancholia. It's all going so fast, you see. Too fast.
He'll be six months next week. Wasn't he just born? Wasn't it just yesterday that I saw his little face for the first time? Already, I can list little things that he no longer does, that he's grown out of: No more funny wheezing when he naps in the stroller. No more falling asleep in my arms when I carry him around. No more needing to be nursed to sleep at night. I'm already starting to forget what he felt like in my arms when he couldn't hold his head up on his own. When I realized the other day that Hugo was no longer a newborn, and hadn't been one for some time, my mouth went all dry. Slow down, baby, I heard myself thinking, echoing millions of people before me. Slow down, please. Stay my tiny love a little while longer.
Following Hugo's lead, I put him down tonight for the first time without nursing him. I sang a song, stroked his head once or twice and then said good night and left the room. I was steeling myself for his tears as I walked out, but none came. I stood in the hallway for a while, listening to him coo and then grow quiet. I should have felt so proud, I know, of my boy, not even six months old, now able to fall asleep on his own. But all I wanted to do was cry.
Silly, right? I know. And yet. The heart is a funny thing.
Hoo! It's probably apparent to everyone that someone else here needs an early bedtime tonight. But before I go, I just need to tell you quickly about these cookies. The thing is, I'm pretty picky when it comes to Christmas cookies. I really mostly just like to eat the ones that Joanie makes. Every year, to be a good sport, I try out new ones, but they're mostly just for show. You know? I'd never really consider adding them to the lineup.
Until now. Seriously.
I'm sure you've heard all about Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's new cookbook, Jerusalem. It's on practically every Best-Cookbook-of-2012 list, on every food blog in creation, heck, there was even a profile of them in the New Yorker last week. I don't have a copy of the book yet, so I can't say a thing about it, really, except that the recipe for Spice Cookies alone (that I found online) is so good it's worth the price of the book alone. As my father likes to say, you really only need one good recipe to make a cookbook worthwhile.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi say that their spice cookies, stuffed with brandy-soaked currants, grated chocolate, winter spices and iced with a sharp, lemony glaze, are meant to be kissing cousins of that old German classic, Pfeffernüsse, and an Italian spice cookie that they found in Nancy Baggett's International Cookie Cookbook. I say that these spice cookies are one of my favorite things I've baked all year. And get this: I'm going to be taking some to Joanie's later this week, when we get together for another round of baking. I can't wait to see what she thinks of them.
The recipe is a little funny. It calls for only half an egg and a whopping 1 1/2 teaspoons of cocoa powder and you "soak" currants in brandy for all of ten minutes, which doesn't really plump a thing. But none of this matters. Just follow the instructions. Whisk together all the dry ingredients, then beat the butter with sugar and citrus peels and vanilla until a heady, fresh scent drifts upwards from your beaters. The dry ingredients are mixed into the wet until a dark, moody dough forms. It looks like freshly tilled earth. It smells like Christmas.
You form the dough into largish balls. I made the mistake of questioning the size of the balls that the authors call for. Surely, no one would want to eat a 5-ounce spice cookie, I thought. I'm going to make one sheet of cookies as they call for and another in the bite-sizes that I'd like. Silly woman. Don't make my mistake. Make the cookies big.
[Freddie totally photo-bombing the cookie dough.]
When you bake the cookies, the dough balls collapse outwards and then puff up, little fissures forming on their tops. I'd err on the side of underbaking them ever-so-slightly - a few minutes too long in the oven and you'll end up with a too-dry cookie with too-browned bottoms. 15 minutes should be perfect.
While they're still warm, you make a lemon glaze and then spoon it over the cookies. I had to do this a few times (I suspect my cookies were still too hot) to get the thickness I wanted. If you're more patient than me, only once will probably do. Then you glue a few cubes of candied orange peel to the top of the cookies and you let them rest until they've cooled completely.
When you break one open, you might think they look a little dry. Maybe even a little boring. But one bite, one richly flavored bite with the faint zing of citrus and a winey pop of currant against the spiced, chocolatey dough, will cure you of that thought in an instant. The texture of these cookies is a revelation - velvety is the one word that keeps coming to mind. The thin cap of icing provides the most delicate of snaps. If you took away my beloved Lebkuchen for eternity and left these gems in their place, I'd be grateful. That's how good they are. You know how else good they are? So good I've decided not to bake a single other thing for Christmas except for them, again and again.
And with that, folks, I'm off to bed. My preshus will be up in a few hours to ruin my sleep and I must be prepared.
Ottolenghi's Spice Cookies
From Jerusalem: A Cookbook
Makes 16 large cookies
Note: I grated the chocolate by blitzing it to rubble in the food processor.
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (125 grams) currants
2 tablespoons brandy
Scant 2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons best-quality cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (150 grams) good-quality dark chocolate, coarsely grated
1/2 cup (125 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (125 grams) superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 large free-range egg
1 tablespoon diced candied citrus peel
3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup (160 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1. Soak the currants in the brandy for 10 minutes. Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, spices, salt, and dark chocolate.
2. Beat the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon and orange zest to combine but don't aerate much, about 1 minute. With the mixer or beater running, slowly add the egg and mix for about 1 minute. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the currants and brandy. Mix until everything comes together.
3. Gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it is uniform. Divide the dough into 1¾-ounce (50 gram) chunks and roll each chunk into a perfectly round ball. Place the balls on 1 or 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing them about ¾ inch (2 cm) apart, and let rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
4. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, until the top firms up but the center is still soft. Remove from the oven. Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow to cool for only 5 minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack.
5. While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin and smooth icing forms. Pour a tablespoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie with a very thin, almost transparent film. You may want to repeat this step for a thicker glaze. Top each cookie with 3 pieces of candied peel placed at the center. Leave to set and then serve, or store in an airtight container for a day or two.