Category Archives: Cooking

Just Peachy

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We’re really hitting the peak of the produce season here in New England, and finally getting ripe peaches in the markets and farm stands.  Several years ago at around this time of the year, Roy took me to Fabulous Niagara Falls. Which were, certainly, quite fabulous and worth a story in their own right.  But one day of our trip we abandoned the Glory of the Falls and hared off cross-country to Niagara-On-The-Lake, which is a very cute town smack in the middle of a very surprising wine country.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t usually associate words like “Canada” or “New England” with words like “Vineyards” and “Good Wine”.  Martha’s Vineyard notwithstanding, but that’s got very little to do, at present, with grapes.

As it turns out, however, Niagara-on-the-Lake (I am told) possesses a micro-climate very similar to the Burgundy region of France, which makes for some surprisingly tasty wines.  And the ice wines, of course, are superb.  The denizens have chosen to make maximum use of this micro-climate and the vineyards by installing Sonoma-style wineries on site, including vineyard tours, shops, gorgeous buildings, and some very, very excellent restaurants offering dining right there in the vineyard.

We dined that night at Trius and had a meal to remember for at least, oh, five years based on the dates from my pictures for that trip. I remember the entire meal as ranking right up there with any that I’ve had in France, or Italy, or Manhattan, or San Francisco, or Houston – all dining heavens of the first water.  The first course, however, seized my attention as something I had never previously encountered.  It was some sort of corn-peach-white wine soup, and I spent the months after our trip to Niagara attempting to recreate it in my own kitchen.  I came close, but I never quite hit it.  The resulting dish is nonetheless one I turn to at least once a year, when the corn is high and lying in heaps of light green ears on the tables at every farm stand in the countryside, and the peaches are growing soft, ripe, and juice.

Here it is:

6 ears corn
1 onion, chopped finely
2 good cloves garlic, pressed, or minced
3 large ripe yellow (not white) peaches
6-8 C chicken stock
1 C heavy cream

If your peaches are not ripe enough to peel with your fingers, they’re not ripe enough to make this soup. Put a bowl in the sink, and peel the skins off with your fingers, catching all of the juices in the bowl. Pull out the pits. Use your fingers to crush the peaches up nicely, and put them in the bowl too.

Strip the kernels off of the ears of corn, and put both the kernels and the cobs in a large stewpot. Put the onion, garlic, peaches, enough stock to cover everything and bring to a boil. If you are feeling adventurous, add a generous pinch of cayenne pepper or ground chipotle.  Turn down to a fast simmer and cook, uncovered, for at least a half hour, although you can go quite a bit longer, and extract more flavor from the corn cobs every minute of it. Cool, then remove the cobs. Run everything else through a blender to puree. Stir in whipping cream and serve warm.

SOOOO GOOD.

While I was working on this one, and doing research on the web for it, I ran across another wonderful thing to do with peaches. This one is more of a stew than the previous recipe, but SOOOOO GOOOOD.

1 onion, chopped
2 T butter
2 lb ripe red tomatoes
2 big fat yellow peaches
½ C cream
½ t salt
tarragon

As before, if your peaches aren’t so ripe that the skins are basically falling off, they’re not ripe enough for this dish. Put a bowl in the sink to catch the juices, pull the skins off over the bowl, remove the pits, and crush the peaches with your fingers.

Pour boiling water over the tomatoes to loosen their skins. When the skins start to split and fall off, drain them, and holding the tomato over the bowl with the peaches, pull the skin off with your fingers. Be sure to catch all the juice and seeds. Pull the tomato cores out and discard, and crush the tomatoes with your fingers.

Heat the butter in a stockpot, and saute the onions until they start to turn translucent. Empty the bowl of peaches, tomatoes, and fruit juices (because, remember kids, tomatoes are a FRUIT) into the stock pot. Sprinkle a generous amount of tarragon into this, at least a tablespoon, maybe more depending on your taste. Add the salt and bring the whole thing to a simmer. Cook, covered, until the tomatoes disintegrate.

Let it cool a bit, then puree it thoroughly in a blender. Stir in the cream. Serve hot or cold. Top with more chopped tarragon.

SOOOO GOOOOD.

The Little Back Dress of the Kitchen

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Every woman has one in her closet.  It may be a blouse, or a pair of jeans, or a skirt, or a jacket, or something else entirely.  It’s the garment that she knows that, when she’s having an I Hate My Body Day, she can put it on without making things worse, and might even wind up feeling better about things. It’s the garment that, when she’s having a I Look Good! Day, she can put it on and feel like a million bucks, and connect with that feeling like maybe she can stop traffic or kill the conversation in the room just by walking in. It’s the garment that she knows that, when she’s got a fussy situation – a job interview, a first date, an awkward conversion scheduled – she can put it on, and never worry for one second about being distracted by a poky tag, or a weird seam, or something riding up, or something slipping down. It’s the garment that has Confidence woven directly into the fabric. It’s the garment that takes whatever is going on, and makes it noticeably better.

Every woman has at least one, and if she doesn’t, she needs to get a couple of good friends and go out and get one. It doesn’t have to be expensive. I had one of these from Target, once, and I paid $17 for it. Before that, it was one I ran up myself, on the household sewing machine. Money isn’t required. Paying attention, and knowing that such things exist, is.

Which brings me to tonight’s dinner. The recipe that goes anywhere, does anything. The recipe that is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and leaps buildings in a single bound.

You know those nights when you drag in from work and you’re completely exhausted, you sure as hell are too tired to go to the grocery, and too tired even to think about ordering out, and don’t want to order out anyway, because Junk Food, and you’re too tired to cook, but you know that if you go to bed hungry, you’ll only be Extremely Sorry later? Those nights when you’re really wanting to do Right by the kids, and give them a balanced meal, but soccer, and laundry, and a clogged toilet?

Or maybe it’s those mornings when you wake up, thinking maybe you shouldn’t have had that third martini last night? Or you have a houseful of family, and not enough breakfast cereal and milk? Or maybe you’ve invited six people over for brunch, and just can’t face making a batch of crepes?

This is your recipe. I have had this recipe in my cookbook for so long that I have completely forgotten where I got it, or when, or how. I have this recipe like I have hair on my head, or the ability to read. I think sometimes I may have been born with this recipe.  And now, I am going to pass it along to you.

The version of this recipe I have in my personal cookbook is this:

1 lb. fresh tomatoes
butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 T parsley
4 eggs
2 T basil
¼ C milk

Cut an X on the bottom of each tomato, and drop into a pot of boiling water until the skin cracks and starts to peel.  Remove with slotted spoon and plunge into dish of ice water.  The skin should fall off directly.

Melt some butter in a medium skillet.  Cut tomatoes into pieces and put them into the melted butter with the garlic.  Add parsley.  Cook over medium-low heat until tomatoes melt and cover the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, beat eggs with basil and milk.  As soon as the tomatoes have melted, add egg mixture and allow to cook through, stirring occasionally.  Serve with toasted french bread.

The real recipe is this:

Take however many tomatoes you have.  Peel them using the blanching technique described above, because, really, it is the absolute best possible way to get the skins off tomatoes.  Cut them up into a couple of pieces, discarding the super-hard bit around the stem area.

Pick a fairly large pan and melt some butter in it.  Or ghee.  Or coconut oil, although that’s really not the best, or olive oil, again, not the best.  Butter here really is optimum.

If you have some garlic, peel it and chop it up, or, better yet, run it through a garlic press.  How many cloves depends on 1) how big the cloves are, and 2) how garlicky you like things.   We had a run of really crappy garlic here that had cloves the size of toenail clippings from the nail salon.  You’d need about 30 of those things to get a good garlic flavor.  Or, if you have them, use a half-cup or so of chopped-up garlic scapes.  Or if you don’t have garlic, and you do have shallots or scallions, chop 2 or 3 of those, finely, and use that.  Or, if you don’t have anything fresh at all, but you do have dried garlic flakes, use a half-teaspoon of those.  Saute any actual vegetables in the butter until they soften up. If all you have is garlic flakes, add those to the tomatoes.

Once your Seasoning Vegetable Of Choice has softened up, dump the cut-up tomatoes in the pan and turn the heat down to medium-low, and go give the kids a bath, or fold the laundry, or sit down with your feet up and drink a cold beer.  Let those tomatoes cook softly until they’re basically melted into a mush.

Then take some eggs.  How many eggs depends on how many people you need to feed.  For me, if I’m cooking this for my own dinner and not eating anything else, I use about 3 or 4 eggs.  If I’m cooking brunch for my ten closest friends, I use about 4 lbs of tomatoes, and most of a carton of eggs.  Use enough eggs to feed the number of people you need to feed.  Put the eggs in a bowl, and dump an herb into it.  Dried basil, dried thyme, oregano, fresh basil, fresh thyme, fresh oregano, all of these work really well.  Add a bit more herbs than seems sensible.  When I made this tonight, I added four tablespoons of herbes de provence, which is – in my opinion, the Best Possible Herb for this dish – to the eggs.  Beat it all together.

Take grated cheese.  If you have shredded parmesan or grated pecorino, that’s the best.  If you just have the parmesan out of the big green canister with the top that wheels back and forth between “shake” and “pour”, that will do too.  If you have grated cheddar, OK.  Dump a good quantity of that into the eggs.  How much depends on how well you like the cheese you’re adding.  Beat it all together for a half-minute.  Then pour it into your melted tomatoes.

Now let it sit.  Once in a while, as you’re unloading the dishwasher, or pouring a bath, or changing the laundry over, or mixing bellinis for your brunch guests, give it a stir.  Cook it until the eggs are as dry as you like.  Serve with whatever bread you have.  Slices from a three-day old sourdough loaf work fine.  Chunks torn off a baguette work fine.  Pita works fine.  Naan works fine.  You do, pretty much, want to serve this with some kind of absorbent bread-like substance.

Eat happily, knowing that even though you spent a minimal amount of time on this, and didn’t focus on it any more than you’d focus on Flea Market Flip, you’re eating a relatively nutritionally complete meal…and if you’re serving it for brunch, just prepare yourself for the Inevitable Question: “Is there any more of this?”  because – if you’re dining with good friends – that question will arise.

It’s A Summer Cooking Extravaganza!!

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We’re well into the Dog Days of summer here in my neck of the woods, and while I’m having to take consolation in the knowledge that – unlike my home in Texas – this ghastly wave of heat and humidity will not be lasting for the next six whole months, it is fairly miserable at the moment and putting everyone out of sorts.  Even the Wonder Horse is out of sorts.  Even the Death Kittens, Bax and Max, are out of sorts.  I keep reminding myself that this weather will break…and in the meantime, I choose to focus on the extravagant cornucopia of goods fresh from the earth that are pouring out of every farmstand on every road, major and minor, in this area.

The season was off to a sllloooooowwww start, thanks to a lingering winter cold, but once it arrived, it came in with its usual absurd bounty. We’re finally moving into Tomato Season, which is also Corn Season.  And I’m having a minor existential crisis in the knowledge that there just aren’t enough days, and enough stomachs, in the house to make it possible for me to work my way through the glorious assemblage of summer-cooking recipes I have at hand.  Roy is doing his Manly Best to wade through seemingly bottomless spreads of vegetarian delights, but there’s only so many meals that he can eat in a single day, bless his heart.

At times like this, I think that maybe I should have become a chef instead of an accounting professor, and opened my own Farm To Table restaurant.  Then I consider the stunning workload that goes into running a restaurant, and cooking professionally, and I’m a little more resigned to my current situation.  I have an extremely limited audience, consisting of Roy, and our friend Louise, who seems happy to eat anything that pours out of my kitchen, and with this, I must be satisfied.

Still, I feel the need to Share.  So this is what my kitchen has provided this week.  A note: with my academic papers, I am scrupulous about keeping track of my sources.  With my cookbook, I am not at all good about this.  I collect recipes like a magpie collects shiny things, and have about as much notion of where they came from as that bird.  So if you see a recipe and think “Hey! That’s MINE!” please let me know and I will be more than happy to credit you.

Corn Bisque with Red Bell Pepper and Rosemary

4 T (1/2 stick) butter
2 C chopped onions
1/2 C diced carrot
1/2 C diced celery
7 1/2 C corn kernels (you can make this with frozen corn, but it is OH so much better if you make with fresh. Allow approximately 3/4 C kernels per typical ear of corn.)
1 T fresh rosemary
1/4 t cayenne pepper
6 C chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth (obviously, you can make this vegetarian, but it’s way tastier with chicken stock)
1 C half and half
1 red bell pepper, chopped

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrot and celery and sauté 3 minutes. Add 5 1/2 cups corn, rosemary and cayenne and sauté 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender and liquid is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return soup to pot. Mix in half and half and remaining 2 cups corn. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and sauté until almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir bell pepper into soup. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Bring soup to simmer. Ladle into bowls and serve.

Vichyssoise

Oh, god, it’s so good I don’t have words for it.

3 large leeks
3 T butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 lb potatoes, chopped
3½ C chicken stock (as before, if you want the Anemic Version, use vegetable stock)
2 t lemon juice (DO NOT LEAVE THIS OUT, AND USE THE FRESH STUFF, NOT THE SQUEEZE LEMON)
pinch nutmeg
¼ t ground coriander
1 bay leaf
1 egg yolk
2/3 C light cream
fresh chives, snipped, for garnish

Trim leeks and slice thinly. Melt butter in soup pot and cook leek and onion for about 5 minutes. Do not let them brown. Add potatoes, stock, lemon juice, nutmeg, coriander, and bay leaf to pan. Season with salt and pepper and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes until all vegetables are very soft. This is the original recipe talking here. I bought two big fat russet potatoes from the grocery, but then Roy ate one, and was sent back to the grocery in disgrace to buy another one. I told him “russet” and maybe that’s what he came back with…maybe he came back with something different. All I know is that I had to simmer this stuff for at least 1 hour before whatever he brought back started to collapse into “softness”. Be warned. Do not use Yukon Golds for this. Cool the soup slightly, remove and discard bay leaf, and puree in blender until smooth. If you’ve done it right, you should have a super-thick, almost glutinous result from the pureeeing process. I had to smack my KitchenAid blender on the side repeatedly in order to get it to puree things properly.

Blend egg yolk into cream, add some soup to the mixture, and then whisk all back into the soup and reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning. Chill thoroughly. Serve sprinkled with chives.

Crispy Summer Flounder with Scallion Corn Ragout
aka Holy Sugar, I Can’t Believe How Good This Is!!! (that’s a direct quote)

1½ lb flounder filets
1 C milk
2 bunches scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
6 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
corn from 5 ears of corn (about 4 C)
½ C toasted wheat germ
1/3 C cornmeal
½ t sea salt
dash cayenne
½ C (packed) small fresh basil leaves
¼ C minced chives
1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges

Place fish in large dish and cover with milk, and refrigerate 30 minutes.

In large skillet over medium heat, cook scallions in 2 T oil until softened. Stir in garlic and corn. Cook 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and keep warm.

Combine wheat germ, cornmeal, salt, and cayenne, in large flat dish. Remove fish from refrigerator and drain off milk. Dredge fish in wheat germ mixture and place on baking sheet.

In large skillet on high, heat 2 T oil. Add half the fillets and cook 3 minutes per side, adjusting heat if they brown too quickly. Transfer cooked fillets to platter. Add remaining oil to skillet and cook remaining fillets.

Just before serving, stir basil and chives into scallion-corn ragout. Season with salt to taste. Spoon ragout onto each plate and top with a fish fillet and lemon wedge.

COOK ON!!

Johnny Appleseed

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Despite everything I suspected to be true about American Folk Heroes, it turns out that Johnny Appleseed was an actual person.  And not only that, but he was roughly from Around My ‘Hood.  Now, i’m not going to claim that Alice Hoffman has the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but she does spin a damned good tale and there’s usually some fact at the core. Her stories are Real, in the same way that the Skin Horse knows about “real”.

So what we have, as a result of all this, is a phenomenal plethora of Apple Orchards.   We have Apple Orchards of Vermont Life magazine, and we have Apple Orchards from Yankee Magazine.  Now, if you ask my Texan friend Nancy what Fall In New England is all about I think the answer there is going to be Pumpkins.  Pumpkins, and Winter Squash. Maybe Corn. But that’s because there are only so many things that a Person Over 25 can stuff into four days, and something’s got to give, and in her case, it was the visit to the Apple Orchard.

Apple Orchards, in New England, are a little slice of heaven.  Especially the part where you drift in to the farm stand, in the hopes of unthawing the tips of your fingers, and are greeted with the aroma of Fresh Apple Dumplings In The Oven.

I don’t have a lot of personal experience with the Direct Route to heaven, but the small experience I do  have suggests that anyone on that path has their footsteps directly supported by the smell of apple dumplings baking in the oven right now.  In fact, I’ll go as far as I can on that. Just as much as I don’t want to be frequenting no stinkin’ heavenly paradise that doesn’t accept ALL of my animals, including my 1200 pound Princess Bully, the Wonder Horse, and let me tell you, I wouldn’t be having’ any heaven that doesn’t take my critters…I expect them to be there waiting for me… I am pretty sure that what those Pearly Gates smell like is apple dumplings, baking in the oven right now.

Really, once you have experienced this, you know.  There is no better smell anywhere than apple dumplings, baking right now in the oven.  Unless, of course, it is the smell of Huey’s mane and neck.  I do not include the smell of Huey’s hindquarters on this list, because he gets lazy and doesn’t hike his tail properly to Go when he’s wearing a blanket.  Yuk.

Back to the apples.  You really cannot swing a cat here without encountering an apple orchard.  It might be the incredibly derelict orchard at Tyringham Cobble, that drops rock-hard apples of some indeterminate antique variety, upon the hiking paths.  It might be the pick-your-own orchards of the Berkshires, or the horse-draw-hayride-through-the-orchard of Outlook Farms in Westhampton.  Or the pick-a-bushel and eat-fresh-dumplings of the orchards up by the Quabbin.  Or maybe it’s the Cider Days of Franklin County, and the superb vintages of West County Cider in Colrain, who used to supply Manhattan’s Tavern on the Green before it shuttered.  You can’t go ten feet here without encountering fresh apples.

Personally, I pity those whose choices are limited to Galas, and Honeycrisps, and McIntoshes.  Nothing is wrong with those…even I, from time to time, want to watch a prime-time soap opera like Grey’s Anatomy.  But just as Grey’s Anatomy subsides into insignificance in comparison to Downton Abbey, or Breaking Bad, so does the Honeycrisp subside into insignificance in comparison to the Macoun.  Or the Jonathan, or Pippin, or the Cortland,  or the Paula Red,  or the Rome.   The Honeycrisp is fine, but sometimes the Discriminating Palate wants…more.

And more there is, and in abundance here.  And that’s the one thing I regret not being able to show my friend Nancy.  Because in Texas, mostly, an apple is an apple is an apple.

Here, the apple is the starting point.  Tonight, it was the starting point for a superb meatloaf (ground beef, ground veal, breadcrumbs, eggs, ketchup, Vermont Maple Mustard, and an egg, and for the last half-hour, a coating of fresh Macoun applesauce, mustard, brown sugar, and pepper.  And, if things go really well, a freshly baked apple dumpling for dessert.  Because who doesn’t want to ascend directly to heaven, tonight.

Santa Baby…

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Last week I saw that viral video of WestJet playing Santa Clause to a couple hundred of their travelers.  Here it is, in case you haven’t seen it:

Now, my first thought was, naturally, “What the hell?”  I don’t associate the airline industry with the Spirit of Generosity, to anyone but the 10 people traveling in First Class, anyway.  But then I considered the probable cash outlays involved here, and compared those to the cost of a major, and incredibly successful, advertising campaign with unbelievably deep market penetration, and realized that playing Santa is probably the less expensive option once all the bills are paid.  And, of course, it’s a massive investment in branding, a subject we discuss a lot in my classes.

After I settled this question, I went on to my second thought which was “So, nu, what would I have asked Santa for?”

And that is the one that is giving me all the trouble.  I can’t think of anything that I both really want and that is possible to obtain.  Here’s the stuff I really want.

I really want there to be a manufacturer of women’s athletic and technical gear that realizes that female athletes don’t come only in sizes “Tiny” and “Small”.  Being really active does not make you thin unless you have the right genes for it, and I don’t.  I was 9 lbs and 22 inches long at birth. And my mother didn’t have gestational diabetes, I just have Huge Person Genes.  I was an enormous infant, up over the 95th percentile for everything to do with size, and not much has changed since then.  I’ve written elsewhere about the absurdity of garment sizing in this industry.  All of the manufacturers run “small” and most of them run “super small”.  C’mon.  A size 12 or 14 is not an XL.  Heck, I don’t even care what it says on the label…I don’t have ego on that, I’d be willing to wear a bloody XXXXL ski jacket, if they’d make one.  But they don’t.  They just don’t.  So I get stuck wearing men’s ski gear, and to get it big enough in the butt, I get it super huge in the waist.  If I get it big enough in the shoulders, it has no waist at all.

So, Santa, what I want this year is a correctly sized and fitting shaped ski jacket, in red or black, I’m easy.  It should be a system jacket so that I can just wear it as a shell, or put the liner in.  It needs to have pit zips and a two-way zipper on the front.  I want a pair of matching ski pants, the kind with some insulation, but not so much insulation it looks like I’m wearing a diaper.  I like pants with a mid rise, and be sure there’s an elastic waist because I’m a different shape sitting down than I am standing up.  I’d love it if all this stuff had a tag with a size that didn’t make me feel like the Jolly Green Giant fallen to earth, but what’s most important is that it has to fit properly, perform, and be cute. I’m tired of the lifties calling me “sir”.

All of this goes double for boots.  Boot manufacturers think a 15″ round calf is “extra wide”.  If you’re 10 years old, maybe.  Or have genetically super-thin calves.  I want cute tall boots that aren’t made for Twiggy.  I want to be able to tuck my jeans into my boots like the women in the New York Times’ style section do.  Santa, I want a pair of tall Solstice winter boots from Smartpak that fit.  They should be a Euro size 41, and be built for a 17″ calf so that I will be able to fit my jeans in.  This will be a special order, because the regular boot is barely wide enough for me to get my leg in without even wearing a sock.

My clothes constantly get little oily spots when they go through the wash. This is because we wash all our clothes on cold, to avoid making them shrink and stuff.  I use a detergent made for washing stuff at low temperatures, but it’s not very good at it, since it leaves these detergent spots on the cottons.  I have tried all the stuff with cleaning the machine, we’ve tried a bunch of different detergents, but none of them work very well.  So, Santa, I want a lifetime supply of a real cold-water washing detergent, something that will not leave spots on my clothes.

None of this stuff is available from stores.  Here are the other things on my Christmas Wish List that you can’t buy:

Santa, I would like my horse to get sound and stay that way for a long time, until he dies.  I would really like it if would stop getting Mystery Injuries.

I would like a particle cannon mounted in the grill of my car so I can vaporize drivers who cut in front of me with 6 inches to spare at 70 miles per hour.  Might as well get one mounted on the back, so I can vaporize drivers who ride so close behind me that I can’t see the grill of their car, too.

I would like my cat to stop ambushing me with his claws out when I go up the stairs.

I would like LL Bean to bring back their “Favorite Jeans”.  The real ones, with the nice thick denim and some stretch in it, that fit exactly like the old ones they made.  The replacement product is different in ways that make me crazy.  The edge on the waistband is sharp, and they don’t fit the same.  This is the only pair of jeans I ever found that really fit perfectly and I want them back.

I’d like a self-cleaning, self-maintaining, self-property-tax-paying ocean-front property on the Maine midcoast.

Santa, please make it start snowing a lot, soon, and no sleet or rain or ice until mid-April.

Those are all the things I can think of that I really want, and none of it can be obtained at a shop.  The only thing I could think of to ask Santa for is maybe an iPad, because it might be nice to have a new techie toy, or that pair of ski goggles Greg showed me with the heads-up display of speed and direction inside the lens.  Those would be REALLY cool.  In fact, that’s what I want, Santa.  The super tweaked out techie ski goggles.  Whew, that’s a relief, to know what to ask for when a random service provider gives me a single wish.

Now, on to things that most people would say they don’t want.  Or, a specific thing:  a fruitcake.  I made Nigella Lawson’s “Easy-Action Christmas Cake” last night, and what an experience.  It was pretty easy.  I had to stick around the house to babysit it for a few hours while it was baking, but that was no hardship at all, since after about a half-hour in the oven, it started sending out An Aroma.  In my minds’ eye, I’m seeing those little wavy streaks that indicate “smell” in a cartoon, raying out from the oven, filling the house, and basically all living creatures within a quarter mile chasing their noses into my kitchen.  The house smelled like a Hallmark Special.  It smelled like Christmas Morning at Bob Cratchitt’s house, after Scrooge has his epiphany.  It smelled like every single Good Holiday Thing that Yankee Candle mixologists have ever put into a jar.  It smelled like a groaning board and a clean kitchen and sharp appetites from making snowmen in the yard and going sledding.  It smelled like sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to try to catch Santa coming.  It smelled like heaven.

Here’s my take on Nigella’s recipe.

Homemade Heavenly Fruitcake

dried mission figs, pitted dates, dried cranberries, and dried tart cherries to equal 6 cups. Do not chop the fruit.
1.5 sticks butter
1.5 cups dark brown sugar. Not light brown, but dark. You want the damp, gleaming stuff that has crystals big enough to see with the naked eye.
3/4 cup unsweetened chestnut puree. I make this every year when the chestnuts come in, and freeze it in ice-cube trays for later use.
1/2 cup dark spiced rum. I used black spiced rum from a bottle with a picture of the kraken on it. Captain Morgan’s would probably also work.
juice and zest of a huge navel orange
zest of a lemon
3 large eggs
1 2/3 C flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t cinnamon
short 1/2 t ground cloves
1/2 t nutmeg

Put the fruits in a kettle, add the sticks of butter, the sugar, the chestnut puree, the rum, the orange juice, and zests of orange and lemon. Stir it all about and put the heat on medium. Give it a stir every so often as the butter melts. Once the butter has melted totally, and the whole thing is simmering, leave it to cook like that for 10 minutes, stirring every so often. Then turn the heat off and let it sit in the pot for a half-hour. Break the bigger fruit (dates and figs) up a little bit with the back of a spoon while it’s cooling. Preheat the oven to 300.

Get a 3 quart casserole dish. I used a Le Creuset braiser, which worked great. Take a couple of sheets of parchment paper and push them down into the casserole to line it. They will pop back up, but you can get them to stay if you put a large jar in the middle to keep them down. Make sure your sheets of parchment paper are long enough that they stick up past the edge of the pot by a few inches.

Beat the eggs with a fork in a bowl. Mix the dry ingredients in a different bowl. After the fruit has been cooling for a half-hour, add the dry ingredients and eggs, and stir it all up until everything is well mixed together. Then transfer it from the kettle to the parchment-lined pot. Flatten out the top a little with a spatula, and put into your preheated oven, uncovered, and bake it for 2 hours. Kick back and enjoy the way the house smells as it’s cooking. Yankee Candle should be so lucky.

When the two hours is up, take the pot out of the oven and put it on a rack, or if you have a gas range, just put it over one of the burners. Important thing is that air circulate all around the pot. Take a skewer, or a meat thermometer, and poke some holes all over the top, and then pour another quarter-cup of the rum over to soak into the cake. Then leave it alone until it is  totally cool.  Once it’s cool, put a plate over the top of your casserole and flip the lot over.  The cake will fall right out of the pan, and you will be able to peel the paper right off it.

Theoretically, at this point, you melt some apricot jam over low heat on the stove in a small saucepan until it melts, and then you paint the fruitcake with that, stick on some of those glacee fruits or some nuts, and slick another layer of melted jam over the top.  At my house, what happened is that I started to get the jam, but I was entirely overwhelmed by the fragrance rays shooting off my cake as it sat on the plate, and I had to eat a slice right away.  It tasted every bit as good as it smelled.  I wrapped it up in some parchment paper and aluminum foil, to preserve it, but mostly to make it kind of a hassle for me to get another slice, because I’m afraid I will overcome and eat the whole thing right now.  It’s that good.

Serves: 1.  Or 100, if you are very, very generous.