28 December 2008

Rich Roll Cookies

Holiday sugar cookies seem like the simplest thing to make, yet so many versions are disappointing- too thin, too crispy, too fat, overly sugary, not enough flavor. My mom makes the best christmas cookies, the kind you start dreaming about the day after Thanksgiving. Every December she would pull down her copy of the Joy of Cooking, "Mrs Rombaeur," she called it, and open it to the butter and flour stained page marked by a red silk ribbon. Each year we'd make the "rich roll sugar cookies," stamping out stars and trees and snowmen, and frosting them with royal icing.

After I left home I spent many years making Christmas cookies that never matched those rich roll cookies. Sugar cookies are so simple that I always figured any old recipe would do, but after years of experience, I realized that this was not the case. Even my more modern edition of The Joy of Cooking didn't have the rich roll recipe I wanted. So I called my mom, and had her dictate the recipe from her chartreuse-cloth bound, butter stained, ribbon marked "Mrs. Rombauer." The cookies are exactly what I remembered, and exactly what I wanted. The ingredients are simple, but the key is in their proportions, that is, plenty of butter makes everything better. I made one batch, and then another, and another, decorating them for parties and wrapping them for gifts. I realize the time for Christmas cookies is coming to an end, but with recipe as timeless as this, it's good to have around any time of year.

Rich Roll Sugar Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1. Cream the butter until smooth. Cream in the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract until combined. Add the flour with the salt in two additions, stirring until it forms a smooth dough. Divide the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 15 minutes, and up to overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 350F. If your dough has been refrigerated for over an hour, you will want to let it soften a bit at room temperature before rolling, about 15 minutes. Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out cookie dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Do not roll too thin. Cut out shapes with a cookie cutter and transfer them to a lined/greased baking sheet, re-rolling until all the dough is used up.
3. I usually pop my cookie sheets in the fridge for about 10 minutes to chill before baking, while I roll out the second disk of dough, but you don't have to do this.
4. Bake cookies in the center of the oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies, until just barely golden on the edges. Do not let brown. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before decorating with royal icing.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites
4 cups (1 box, 1 lb) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or lemon juice
food coloring of choice

Beat together egg whites, flavoring, and sugar until smooth. Divide into batches and add food coloring as desired. Icing can be stored in the fridge with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface.

20 December 2008

Scenes from the Holiday Party Kitchen

Assorted Caviar, Creme Fraiche, Blini and Rye

Pulled Beef Barbeque, Homemade Brioche

Spinach Stuffed Artichoke Bottoms, before being topped with buttered breadcrumbs and baked (recipe in the comments section)

Persian-style jeweled rice

Red Velvet Cake Truffles dusted with edible gold

also on the menu but not pictured:
Devils on Horseback
Curry Deviled Eggs
Homemade Mango Salsa and Homemade Tortilla Chips
Endives filled with Pears and Nuts
Crudites with Pomegranate-Sour Cream Dip
Beet, Goat Cheese, and Olive Tart
Apple, Muenster, and Pecan Butter Squares
Vegetarian Sausage Biscuits
Lamb Meatballs in Prune-Apricot Sauce
Homemade Christmas Cookies
Homemade Eggnog (Craig Claiborne's recipe)
Mulled Wine

Please excuse the lack of posting, obviously I've been busy. Hope you're all having a lovely holiday season!

13 December 2008

Chess Pie

I don't know if I should even talk about this recipe . It could be dangerous. It could foment great family drama. You see, my mother and I have a disagreement about chess pie: she swears by her recipe, I prefer mine. She considers my recipe heretical. It's one of those disagreements that leads to awkward silences and uncomfortable family dinners. But chess pie is also too good not to have, so I'm taking the risk to share the recipe with you all.

First, let me back track for those of you who raised a curious eyebrow when I said "chess pie." A classic of the American South (my mom's from Tennessee), chess pie is a simple custard pie made from dairy (cream or buttermilk), butter, sugar, eggs, and cornmeal. Variations abound, from lemon to chocolate chess pie, but it remains homely, marked by a crackly dark top and a soft pudding-like interior. The first time I had the French tarte au flan, it reminded me of the European version of chess pie.

Of course, that range of recipes for chess pie are where we get into family trouble. My mother swears by "Cousin Bessie's Chess pie," one of those stained yellow index card recipes scribbled in turn of the century handwriting. I don't know who Cousin Bessie was, but she sure knew her way around pie. Her recipe calls for cream, a stick of melted butter, and a heart-attack inducing amount of sugar. To my mom's credit, Cousin Bessie's pie is goooood, but it is also rich. One year at Christmas I made the mistake of helping myself to a second sliver of pie and then proceeded to lay moaning on the coach for the rest of the evening.

My recipe for chess pie calls for buttermilk, slightly less butter, and lemon. While my mother begrudgingly accepts the buttermilk, it's the lemon she can't get over. Absolutely not, she says definitively, Personally, I think the buttermilk and lemon add a tang to the pie, something to keep it from being diabetically sweet and rich. Ironically, when I pulled out Cousin Bessie's recipe, there on the ingredient list is "lemon juice." When I confronted my mother about this seeming contradiction, she simpy said, "oh, we just never added that." Which I think says a lot about taste memory, what we think is authentic, and how we re-remember things.

Chess pie is a Christmas standard, but whose standard recipe will be on the table this year is yet to be fought out. I'll give you both recipes and maybe you can start a holiday pie feud of your own.

Chess Pie
Don't be skeptical of the cornmeal- it adds a distinctive amount of soft texture that is the hallmark of chess pie. If you don't believe in lemon, try substituting vanilla extract.

1 unbaked pie crust
1 cup buttermilk
3 eggs
4 tbl melted butter
2 tbl cornmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon and about a teaspoon of its zest

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs and sugar together until very thick. Add the buttermilk, butter, cornmeal, and lemon. Pour into ie crust. Bake until top is dark brown and jiggles slightly in the center but the edges are set, 40-50 minutes.

As soon as I finagle Cousin Bessie's Chess Pie recipe out of my mom, I'll post it here.

08 December 2008

Pulled Beef Barbeque

Is it wrong that when I got yet another holiday party invitation in the mail I wanted to book the next flight to Cancun and emerge, tanned and rested, in January? Don't get me wrong, I put up lights on the house yesterday, love the smell of pine, and I haven't even gotten sick of Christmas carols in the stores yet. But sometimes the holidays can be a little overwhelming - this party, that open house, presents to buy, cold winds to brave, family jostling and busy airports and train stations.

But if I'm a bit of a grinch about everyone else's holiday party, it's only because I'm so excited about mine. A friend and I are co-hosting a holiday open house, and I'm determined to make everything, from blini to eggnog to triffle, from scratch. Problem is, it's still two weeks away, and we already have over sixty RSVP's. Maybe you're understanding why I'm a grinch now? Luckily, I have multiple spreadsheets and calendar reminders to keep me in line.

Which is why I'm telling you about pulled beef barbeque today. No, not Christmas cookies (recipes coming), or roasts, nor those blini (which will be made the week ahead and frozen), but that most summer-sounding of recipes: beef barbeque. And here's why: it's super easy, this stuff is delicious, and it can feed a huge crowd. And as much as I love good old Carolina-style vinegar 'cue, I have enough Muslim and Jewish friends to make me shy away from serving too much pork.

For our party I've made bite-sized brioche rolls, and I'll be toasting them for slider-style beef barbeque sandwiches. Cute and dainty but rich and comforting as well. The barbeque is also great spooned over tortillas and topped with sour cream or made into big sloppy joe style sandwiches. It's only one of our elaborate menu items I hope to share with you as I work towards the party. And yes, I will be going to those other holiday parties and events, if only in the hopes that everyone will do the same for mine.

Pulled Beef Barbeque
Adapted from Simply Recipes. Makes 12 large sandwiches, can easily be doubled or trippled.

One 3-pound bone-in chuck roast, rinsed and dried
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 18-ounce bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce (or 2 1/4 cups of your favorite homemade barbecue sauce)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a large deep pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot, and slow cook for 3 hours, or until meat is completely tender.
2. Use tongs to remove meat to a cutting board. Meanwhile, use a knife and fork to pull the meat away from the bones and pull apart into small pieces.
3. Increase the heat on the pot to medium/medium-high, uncover, and reduce the liquid until thick. Stir often to prevent burning.
4. Return the meat to the liquid in the pan. Warm both thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.