A couple days before Christmas, my sister and I were having our annual bitch-in about all the kitchen time we were putting in that week, when Lindsay mentioned she was making a Clementine Cake. I assumed this was something akin to a Key Lime Pie. “Sounds great,” I said, mentally dismissing it as way too Florida for a proper holiday dessert, and likely way too complicated for a week with cooking chores so numerous I was already as irritable as Scrooge.
As I am perversely interested in exploring ill-advised recipes, I Googled Clementine Cake: only five ingredients. Right up my crabby alley!
I made the cake and it changed my life. (Okay, well maybe not like say, childbirth did, but, you know.)
‘This cake (from Nigella Lawson) is easy to make and it tastes like Christmas—not Christmas in South Palm Beach, more like in Dickens. Delicious. Plus it has no gluten or dairy, which appeals to my picky daughter, so it’s pretty much a miracle food.
When I worked in a gourmet retail store as a teenager, I got a chance to try many delectable things. I sampled high quality chocolates imported from Europe, pistachios from Iran, Alice Medrich's mammoth truffles, and panforte made by Margaret Fox of Cafe Beaujolais. I'll never forget those heavy round thick loaves, wrapped in dark red or green cellophane. Thin chewy slices served with or tea or alongside cheese seemed so sophisticated. It was definitely the best fruitcake I ever tasted.
My parents made panforte too and last year I realized it would be the perfect thing to make with a surplus of candied lemon peel. My recipe uses rice flour instead of wheat flour, which means it is gluten free! If you have nuts in your freezer, and they weren't bought this season, they are probably from last season and now is a good time to finish them off.
There’s lots of good news about these spicy nuts:
1. You can bring them to a party as a hostess gift and they will love them and not really compute how little effort went into making them.
2. You can make them way in advance, as much as two weeks. Just don’t do what I have been known to do and forget that you made them two weeks ago and go tearing around on the day of the party making them all over again.
3. Everybody likes them.
4. You can put them on a salad with dried cranberries and feta and everyone will think you are a genius. (Or break them up and put them on top of ginger ice cream—yum.)
I honestly love this time of year. It’s a time to share, give, and do what I love – creating tasty treats for others. Each year I pull out many of my favorite, archived recipes and always manage to add a few new ones that have quickly become family favorites.
Bark is an essential “holiday must have” mainly because it is quick and easy, while being versatile at the same time. The key to good bark is tempering your chocolate. I am fortunate to have this tempering machine, but if you don’t have one, follow these instructions for full proof tempering.
Different combos make a good bark. Lately, I like toasted, raw almonds, cocoa nibs, and Celtic sea salt. Another great combo (especially for this time of year) is dried apricots, pistachio nuts, white chocolate chunks. Crushed candy canes are another household favorite. The best way to make bark is on a silpat pad. If you don’t have one, use parchment.
Like the perfume of freshly squeezed orange juice or the whisps of flavor that float on the air when chicken soup is simmering, the smell of melting chocolate and almonds softens my resolve not to eat just one of what I am planning to make: chocolate rocks.
They couldn't be easier. Or more forgiving. Or more interesting to experiment with. Caramelize some whole almonds, and hide one inside. Chocolate rocks are prefect for hiding things. A raisin. A hazelnut. Dried cherries or cranberries. Minced orange peel. Before you put them in the refrigerator, sprinkle them with fleur de sel. Or roll them in grated coconut. Cinnamon dust. Star dust. Whatever you have. And the best of all is that they take just minutes to make.
The other day my mother asked me, “Of all the things you cook, which one do you love the best?” I replied, “Dessert! All kinds. English trifles. French tarts. Cakes, cupcakes, and cookies.” It was a set up. She smiled and asked with a tilted head, “Cookies?! What kind?!”
So I made her some cookies. She sat and watched me as I played with a recipe, offering suggestions and licking the bowl. Her dog, Maggie, sat on her lap hoping for something to drop.
I made a cookie with an overdose of espresso powder and a subtle amount of finely chopped pecans and I learned so much from it.
First of all, that I absolutely love this recipe and how it turned out.
I first tried this exotic guacamole a couple of years ago at my good friend Robert’s Christmas party. His mother was in town that year and helped prepare some most of the incredible food on the buffet table.
His mother Anita is the kindest woman and has had an extraordinary life -- a true treasure and absolute delight. We bonded at that party by sharing recipe secrets and continue to correspond to this day about favorite foods and cooking techniques. When I asked if she would tell me how to prepare her famous pomegranate guacamole, she graciously emailed me the instructions, explaining that it was a recipe from her mom´s hometown, Guanajuato.
I’ve taken the liberty to list some precise measurements, but in full disclosure, Anita sent the list of ingredients and just put “to taste” after each item (she wrote, “No real amounts, but you are an excellent cook and I am sure you can eyeball it perfectly”.)
My house has been exploding with cookies lately. It’s not a bad thing and I’m certainly not complaining. I love this time of year when baking takes priority over dinner. “Here kids, have a few cookies and a glass of milk, we’ll call it good for a meal.” Just kidding…sort of.
Anyway, dark chocolate and peppermint is a combination that can’t be denied. I love putting it together during the holidays, mostly just to torture myself. I can barely say no to this melding of flavors and it kills me having it around. But this combo is refreshing in a sweet kind of way. You know what I mean.
However, in all truth, I love these cookies. They have hunks of melty chocolate inside, with crunchy sugar on the outside. They are insanely good and I hope you try them. They do not disappoint.
What did we do before Hershey’s came out with all these totally cute looking kisses? Not every flavor is my favorite, but I do really like the candy cane rendition. And they are so pretty.
Is everyone familiar with panettone, a sweet, Italian bread loaf, full of candied orange peel and raisins? It comes in a very tall, lofty box we only see at holiday time.
I am always excited to get my first one of the season. It's the perfect accompaniment to my afternoon coffee. The texture is reminiscent of my mom's babka recipe, another taste I love. I wish it was so easily accessible all year round. But then I guess it wouldn't be special.
Anyway, it is always nice to have Christmas morning or New Year's Day brunch prepped the night before. It makes life so much easier, especially if you have a house full of guests.
When you slice into the panettone, you will see it is very light-colored and airy. Once cooked, the top is very crunchy while the bottom remains soft and custard-like. Serve with warm maple syrup and something salty like bacon or sausage.
Back in Rhode Island, there was never much to look forward to after Christmas. The holiday decorations came down, it was depressingly dark by 4:30 pm, and that once-fluffy-perfect-for-sledding-snow had turned into treacherous black ice. But there was always panettone.
Panettone is an Italian sweetbread made with candied orange, zest, citron, and raisins that is closely associated with Christmas and New Year's Day. Growing up in Rhode Island, my family received a lot of panettone for Christmas because it was a go-to gift among Italians. Need a gift for your lawyer? A loaf of panettone is perfect. Invited to someone's house for coffee around the holidays? Bring panettone. Have an exceptionally good mailman? Give him a loaf of panettone, plus a shot of anisette when no one's looking. That always warms him up a bone-chillingly cold route.
by Alex Rader
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