Wednesday, December 29, 2010

David Lebovitz's Rosemary Cookies with Tomato Jam--Something New to Start the New Year

Being a cookie freak, I follow a little rule about adding at least a couple new cookie recipes to my repertoire every year. This holiday I’ve discovered one that is not only a keeper, but that has zoomed to the top of my favorites list.

It’s fragrant, eye-catching, and on the novel side to say the least. In fact, it’s a sandwich cookie that features fresh chopped rosemary leaves, cornmeal, and a tomato jam filling, so it’s about as far from the ho-hum, been-there-done-that sort of sweet treat as you can get!
 
Now if you’re thinking, “Oh, that just sounds too weird,” please read on. The finished cookies have a delectable, if faintly exotic, rosemary aroma and a pleasing butter shortbread texture that wows even timid tasters. Even the tomato jam—which my trusty-taster hubby resisted until I assured him it was really good—turns out to be a perfect, slightly subtle sweet-tart complement to the richness and crispness of the cookies. As is true in savory dishes, the tomato also pairs brilliantly with the rosemary, which has a more subdued and enticing taste than you might expect if you’ve never tried it in a baked good.

Though tomatoes are actually botanically fruits, they aren’t usually served as such, so you may find the jam quite a revelation. The tomato taste is mild and transformed to the point that it seems quite fruit-like. Plus, tomato jam has a glorious translucent color that makes the cookies look as good as they taste.  (If I still haven't convinced you, but you want to try a somewhat unusual cookie, my chamomile petticoat tails shortbread or pumpkin drop cookies with cream cheese frosting might suit you better.)
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I’d like to be able to brag that inspiration suddenly struck me and that I came up with this masterpiece myself. But, actually, I have to credit my very talented colleague, David Lebovitz for it. He’s justly famous both as a pastry chef and super-blogger; check out his always entertaining Paris-based domain here.
 
The recipe is slightly adapted from the David’s Rosemary Cookies with Tomato Jam, which appears in his big, handsome, full-color Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes cookbook. It’s made many holiday gift book lists this year, and has garnered great reviews from both pros and happy home cooks. It contains all kinds of desserts, from ice creams, sorbets, and such to cakes, pies, tarts and cobblers—some are chi-chi, others are delightfully homespun. If you were given an Amazon or other bookstore gift certificate this holiday, this title would be a truly fine way to treat yourself.

David Lebovitz’s Rosemary Cookies with Tomato Jam
David commented in the intro to this recipe in Ready for Dessert that he believes in trying dishes that are out of the ordinary. I definitely agree. I consider this cookie a great find, and if I hadn’t given it a chance, I would have really missed out. He didn’t say how he happened to come up with it, but did mention that he has made the cookies many times.
By the way, I served some of the cookies "plain" before I’d readied the jam and if you don’t have time to prepare it, they will still be outstanding and not plain at all.
Note that you need fresh rosemary for this recipe; dried rosemary is a bit too dry and coarse and will distract from the tender-crisp cookie texture.
Tip: If you have leftover jam, spread it onto buttery crackers and top with thin slices of sharp cheddar for a terrific snack or interesting hors d'oeuvres.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
1/4 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
10 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves (no stems)

In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and salt. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a bowl and using a portable mixer), beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed just until smooth. Thoroughly beat in the egg yolks, then the rosemary. Add the flour mixture and stir with a large spoon until the dough is smooth and holds together.
On a lightly oiled sheet of baking parchment, divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a log about 7 inches long and 1 3/4 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap. For very round cookies, slide the logs into discarded paper towel tubes that have been slit lengthwise. Tape the tubes shut or secure with rubber bands. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, at least 1 hour and up to several days, if preferred. (Or freeze, airtight, for up to 1 1/2 months; let thaw in the refrigerator before using.)
For baking: Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat the oven to 350°F Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Slice the logs crosswise into disks 1/4-inch thick, rotating the logs a quarter turn after each slice (to keep them round). Place the disks about 1-inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.
Bake, rotating the baking sheets and changing racks midway through baking, until the edges of the cookies are lightly browned, about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool completely; the cookies are too tender to move when warm.
For the sandwiches: Spread about 1 1/2 teaspoons jam (or as desired) on the underside of half the cookies. Top the jam with a second cookie, bottom side down, to make sandwiches.
Storage: The unfilled cookies can be stored, airtight, for up to a week. Once filled, the cookies can be stored for up to 4 days.
Tomato Jam
2 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes (about 5 large)
2 cups granulated sugar
Generous pinch of salt
Generous pinch of ground cayenne pepper
2 or 3 grinds of black pepper
2 or 3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Using a paring knife, cut out the stem end of each tomato, then slice a shallow X in the bottom. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water until their skins loosen, about 30 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and let cool.
When cool enough to handle, slip off the tomato skins. Discard the water, but save the saucepan for cooking the jam. Halve the tomatoes crosswise and gently squeeze out the seeds and juice. Chop the tomatoes into 1/3-inch pieces.

Return the tomatoes to the saucepan; stir in the sugar, salt, and peppers. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to ensure that the mixture is cooking evenly but not burning, until most of the liquid has evaporated. If foam occasionally rises to the top, skim it off with a large spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice to taste.
Ladle the jam into sterilized jars. Cover tightly, let cool, and refrigerate.

The jam will keep for at least 6 months refrigerated. 


Another summer-inspired recipe you may like--Painted Daisy Sugar Cookies. The icings are naturally colorful from fruit juice concentrates, not synthetic dyes.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows--Child's Play

I've been in a pepperminty mood this holiday season, so I made not only the chocolate-peppermint bark presented in the last blog post and some peppermint brownies, but these yummy marshmallows, which are featured, along with my fudge and truffles, in the Washington Post food section today. Modestly, I have to tell you, the marshmallows are delectable. After my grandkids and I dipped them--which they thought was great fun--we served them for dessert: The whole family swooned.

Peppermint Marshmallows

Marshmallows aren’t tricky to make, and they taste so much better than store-bought. These are light, moist and fluffy-soft, and often a hit even with those who don’t normally care for marshmallows.


These marshmallows depend on crushed peppermint candies for their mild, pleasing minty taste and pale pink color. Don’t try to boost the mint intensity by adding peppermint extract; the flavor will be harsh and unpleasant. However, if you have oil of peppermint (sometimes available in stores with cake- and candymaking supplies) and want a more pronounced menthol character, add a few drops of the oil; don’t add more, as it’s quite potent.


Plan ahead, giving the marshmallow slab at least 6 hours to set up before cutting. Otherwise, it might be sticky and hard to work with. A sturdy stand mixer makes the mixing process much faster and easier, although a very good portable mixer can be used if necessary. Crush the peppermint hard candies by putting them in a triple thickness of small plastic food storage bags; seal, then pound with a kitchen mallet into 1/8-inch or smaller pieces.

The marshmallows are wonderful dipped in chocolate
. The recipe and instructions for dipping are on the Washington Post website here.)


MAKE AHEAD: The marshmallows can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks or frozen for up to 1 month. 96 generous 1-inch marshmallows

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting the marshmallows' surface and the work surface
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water

2 1/2 tablespoons unflavored powdered gelatin (3 to 4 packages)

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1/3 cup crushed peppermint pinwheel hard candies

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 or 4 drops peppermint oil (optional)

2 or 3 drops red liquid food color (optional)


Directions:
Grease a 9-by-13-inch flat-bottomed baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray. Line it with enough parchment paper so it overhangs by 1 inch on 2 opposing sides, then grease it with nonstick cooking oil spray. Generously and evenly sift the 1/2 cup of confectioners' sugar onto the paper; the marshmallow will stick to any spots that are missed.

Place the cold water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the surface. Let it stand, stirring once or twice, until the gelatin softens, about 6 minutes.
Stir together the granulated sugar, corn syrup, crushed candy, salt and warm water in a 3-to-4-quart saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until the candy and sugar have dissolved. Increase the temperature to medium-high and bring to a full boil, stirring constantly; boil for 20 seconds, then stir in the proofed gelatin. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring as the mixture bubbles.

Remove it from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and oil of peppermint, if using. Stir to make sure the ingredients are completely dissolved.
Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the bowl of a stand mixer; discard any remaining solids. Use a balloon whip attachment to beat the mixture, first on low speed, then gradually increasing the speed to high. Beat on high for 6 to 7 minutes, until the mixture has stiffened, lightened in color and become quite fluffy. If using, add the drops of food color, separated from one another. Grease both sides of a flexible spatula with nonstick cooking oil spray; use the spatula to fold the color into the mixture just until lightly rippled and swirled.

Use the spatula to scrape the marshmallow mixture into the prepared dish, spreading it evenly to the edges. Generously sift confectioners' sugar over the marshmallow surface. Evenly coat a second sheet of parchment with nonstick cooking oil spray; pat the sprayed sheet down on the marshmallow surface. Cover the top with foil.

Let the mixture cool and firm up; this will take at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours; the mixture will become firmer and easier to handle if left the full 24 hours. After that time, refrigerate it if not using promptly.
To cut the marshmallows: Sift about 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar onto a large, clean cutting board. Remove the top sheet of parchment paper from the marshmallow slab, then invert the slab on the sugared surface. Peel off the second sheet of parchment paper and sift more confectioners' sugar over the top.

Using lightly oiled kitchen shears (preferred) or a large, sharp, lightly oiled knife, cut the slab crosswise into 12 portions and lengthwise into 8 portions to form generous 1-inch marshmallows; or cut as desired. Dust all of the cut surfaces of the marshmallows with confectioners' sugar to reduce their stickiness. As necessary, clean off the knife and re-oil. Dust the cut marshmallows all over with extra confectioners' sugar so they don’t stick together during storage.
Store, loosely packed in an airtight container, for up to 2 weeks; for longer storage, freeze for up to 1 month. Defrost before serving.
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chocolate-Peppermint Bark--Gift from the Kitchen Everybody Loves



It’s funny how some recipes just start turning up all the time, and before anybody even notices they’ve become a classic. This has happened with peppermint bark, which is wildly popular these days, especially during the Christmas holidays. I started giving it out as a Christmas gift about 10 years ago, and now, I can't stop--all the recipients insist they have to receive it again each year! Aside from the fact that it features the dynamite duo of chocolate and peppermint, I think the festive contrasting colors help account for its huge appeal. (The same festive look brightens my Chocolate-Peppermint Brownies, too.)

I haven’t been able to pinpoint when peppermint bark came on the scene, but it’s definitely a modern candy. I looked through all my chocolate and confectionary books, and Elaine Gonzolaz’s The Art of Chocolate, published in 1998, is the first I found that mentions any kind of bark. Elaine suggested that dried fruit, nuts, coconut, and even dry cereal could be folded into melted tempered chocolate to create a bark. But she said nothing about adding crushed peppermint, so it must not have been the rage yet.  It seems so much a part of American sweets repertoire now that I included this recipe in my 2005 All-American Dessert Book. I’ve decided to post that recipe on my blog because so many people have asked me for it. (Of course, my book has many other recipes I think you’d enjoy!)

Chocolate bark is easier to make than many candies, but there is one very important trick: You need to very carefully follow the melting and cooling directions in the recipe. This will ensure that the chocolate sets up quickly and has a smooth, crisp texture and sheen. Confectioners call this process tempering, and while it’s not hard to do, it can’t be skipped. Otherwise the chocolate may come out crumbly, blotchy, or streaked.

The reason chocolate must be tempered is that it's chemically complex. Basically, tempering ensures that melted chocolate cools and hardens before the natural white fat, cocoa butter can rise to the surface and look streaky. Additionally, adding some unmelted chocolate to the bowl near the end of mixing “seeds the batch.” This encourages the cocoa butter to set with the most desirable of six different crystal forms, specifically the one that makes it smooth, hard and set at room temperature. (I've just built the quick tempering process right into the recipe, so all you have to do is follow the necessary steps.)

Chocolate-Peppermint Bark

Note that chocolate melts at lower than human body temperature, and will scorch if exposed to very high heat. Also, melted chocolate doesn’t mix readily with tiny amounts of liquids. So, don’t be tempted to add peppermint extract or any other liquid to the melted chocolate, as this may cause the chocolate to suddenly harden. If you want an extra hit of peppermint flavor (it isn’t really necessary), you can add some oil of peppermint. (It’s often stocked with candy making and cake decorating supplies in discount department stores and gourmet shops.)

Broken-up candy canes, peppermint sticks, or red and white peppermint hard candies will all work well in this recipe.

To conveniently ready the candy: Place unwrapped candies or broken-up sticks or cane pieces in a triple layer of heavy plastic bags, closing the bags tightly. Using a kitchen mallet or the back of a heavy spoon, whack the candy into 1/8-inch or finer pieces (larger pieces will be too hard on the teeth).

If you like, the bark recipe may be doubled. Follow the directions at the end.

Tip: You don’t need a candy thermometer or other special equipment for this recipe. However, if a cooking or common household thermometer that registers 88 to 90 degrees F. is on hand, use it to check the chocolate temperature. If no thermometer is available, use the touch test provided in the recipe below.

About 1 pound 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, divided
1 tablespoon corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil
2 to 3 drops oil of peppermint, optional
1/2 to 2/3 cup (about 4 1/2 ounces) crushed peppermint pinwheel hard candy or candy canes

Line a 10- by 15-inch (or similar) rimmed tray or baking sheet with aluminum foil; allow the foil to overlap on the narrow ends by 11/2 inches and try not to wrinkle the foil.Break up or chop 1 pound chocolate into small chunks; leave the remaining 6 ounces whole.

In a medium microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and oil on 100-percent power for 1 minute. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. (Alternatively, heat the chopped chocolate and oil in a heavy, medium saucepan over lowest heat. Stir and watch carefully until most of the pieces are melted. Immediately remove the pan from the heat.

Transfer the chocolate to a medium bowl.) Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in the peppermint oil ( if using) and 4 ounces unchopped chocolate until it melts and the mixture is almost cool to the touch. To judge the warmth, insert a thermometer in the deepest part of the bowl. Wait 30 seconds, then check for 89 or lower degrees F. (Alternatively, touch the chocolate stirring spoon to just above your upper lip; the melted mixture should feel almost cool.) If some chunks remain unmelted when the desired temperature is reached, just push them to one side. If the added pieces have completely melted and the mixture is still too warm, stir in the remaining 2 ounces unchopped chocolate and continue cooling down the mixture by stirring.

When the chocolate is cooled enough, lift out any unmelted chunks with a fork and discard. Put the crushed peppermint in a moderately fine sieve or strainer. Hold it over the chocolate and shake back and forth until all the fine peppermint shards drop into the chocolate. Stir well. Remove any peppermint bits larger than 1/8 inch from the strainer and discard (or eat ) them. Reserve the remaining bits in the strainer. Immediately pour the chocolate-peppermint mixture into the prepared tray. Using an off-set spatula or table knife, spread the chocolate out to the edges; be sure the layer is evenly thick. Sprinkle the peppermint left in the strainer evenly over the chocolate. Shake the tray back and forth and rap it on the counter several times to embed the candy bits in the chocolate. Immediately transfer the tray to the refrigerator, resting it flat. Refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chocolate is completely set.

Break the bark into 2- to 3-inch irregular pieces. Store airtight at cool room temperature for up to 2 months. Makes about 1 1/3 pounds peppermint bark.


Doubling the Recipe: Follow the basic directions, except ready two 10-by 15- or similar rimmed trays or baking sheets. Break up or chop 2 pounds chocolate into small chunks; have 8 ounces unchopped chocolate on hand. In a large microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and 2 tablespoons corn oil on 100-percent power for 2 minutes. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts. Stir in 4 drops peppermint oil ( if using) and 5 ounces of unchopped chocolate. Proceed as for the original recipe, except if the mixture is still too warm, stir in 3 more ounces unchopped chocolate. Continue exactly as for the original recipe, except divide the recipe evenly between the two pans. Makes about 2 3/4 pounds peppermint bark.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Basel Little Brown Cookies--Swiss-Style Brownies--Great Tasting & Gluten-Free

The last cookie I posted I called “tried-and-true” because my mother-in-law made those iced, spiced fruitcake drops for decades. This recipe is a little harder for me to pigeonhole, because, while I've only been making it a few years, it’s been a tradition in a lot of Swiss families’ repertoires for at least a century.

It’s named Basler Brunsli, which roughly translates to "Basel brownies." No, this doesn’t mean these cookies in any way resemble American brownies. It just means that somebody else, who happened to be Swiss and spoke German, took exactly the same approach as the English speaker who gave American brownies their name. This person decided to call some chocolate brown cookies “little brown things,” or “brunsli.” “Bruns” means “browns,” and the ending “li” is a diminutive that serves the same function as the “ie” ending in our words brownie and cutie. (If you are interested in American brownies, check out my Chocolate-Peppermint Brownies.)

The “Basler” part of the name refers to the Swiss city of Basel. I’m sure that somebody, somewhere has an explanation for why Basel gets credit for these rolled, chocolate-and-spice goodies. It is true that Basel was once a center of the European spice trade. But spices aren’t the most important ingredient in Brunsli, and in truth, folks ready these cookies all over Switzerland, especially for the holidays.

Some years ago I traveled around Switzerland learning about and trying all sorts of confections (this was a tough research assignment for my International Chocolate Cookbook!). Since chocolate is one of the products the Swiss are rightfully proud of, I wasn’t surprised that these very tempting rolled meringue cookies feature it. Brunsli also contain almonds and egg whites but no butter and usually no flour, which means that they are a fine choice when you need a cookie suitable for those who must avoid butter or who have gluten allergies. (The good news is that they will pass the palatability test with “regular” eaters, too.)

If you’ve never tried any meringue-and-almond based cookies other than French macarons, these cut-out cookies will be a revelation. They are just slightly puffy, and when fresh, are slightly chewy; after a few days they become crisp-crunchy. The chocolate-almond-spice taste is also unusual, and, to my mind, addictive.

Basel Little Brown Cookies (Basler Brunsli)

Today, Brunsli are normally served plain, as shown in the pic, although I’ve read that some recipes from the late 19th and early 20th century called for icing them with royal frosting. I frankly think this would be guilding the lily—not only too much trouble, but yielding overly sweet cookies. If you wish to decorate, I’d suggest just adding a fine zig-zag of white icing, or perhaps a pinch of colored sugar for garnish.

Tip: Some brands of cocoa powder are much drier and more absorbent than others, so the dough may occasionally come out crumbly and dry. In this case, add a little more egg white and process until the mixture comes together smoothly.

1 1/4 cups whole blanched almonds or almond slivers (about 7 ounces)

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus more as needed

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process

2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or ground cloves

Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup (about 3 1/2 ounces) chopped semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon almond (or vanilla) extract

In a food processor, chop the almonds, 1 cup powdered sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, cardamom (or cloves) and salt until the almonds are powder fine; stop and stir to redistribute the mixture several times. Add the chocolate and remaining 1/2 cup powdered sugar and process until the chocolate is finely ground. Add the egg whites and almond extract. Process, stopping and stirring once or twice, until the mixture blends and comes together in a mass. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes until the dough firms up a bit.

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 325 degrees F. Line several large baking sheets with baking parchment. Turn out the dough onto a work surface heavily dusted with powdered sugar. Dust the dough with more powdered sugar. If the dough is too soft or sticky to roll out, gradually knead in additional powdered sugar, then roll it out 1/4 inch thick. Run a spatula underneath the dough and dust the surface with more sugar if needed to prevent the dough from sticking.

Cut out the cookies using 2 1/2-inch heart or trefoil-shaped cutters to produce cookies like those shown; or use plain or scalloped rounds or whatever shapes you like. Space the cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets.

Bake (middle rack) one pan at a time 10 to 13 minutes, or until puffy and almost firm when pressed in the center top. Transfer the pan to a wire rack. Let cool completely; the cookies are too tender to handle while warm.

Store the cookies airtight for up to 1 week, or freeze airtight for up to 1 1/2 months.

Yield: Makes about 35 2 1/2-inch cookies.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remembering My Favorite Cooking Friend


I met my favorite kitchen companion decades ago, when her only son (then, my fiance) and I arrived for my initial meet-the-folks visit. As soon as we stepped inside, I could tell that supper was cooking, and it smelled wonderful. It turned out to be a simple stir-fry with ham and lots of fresh vegetables that she’d created just by adding “this and that.”
I asked if I could help, which turned out to be exactly the right thing to do, because she was a person who always pitched in with kitchen chores. I don’t recall what we talked about, just that I tossed a salad and felt at home. That evening set the tone for a whole lifetime of enjoyable hours together. We both loved to cook and happily worked side by side on literally hundreds of family holiday and vacation meals over the years.

Looking back, I think the “lebkuchen episodes,” were probably the first signs that Alzheimer’s was laying siege to our 102-pound dynamo. Mom had been preparing her traditional German fruitcake cookies (pictured below and posted here) for as long as my husband could remember. A generous tin of those iced spice drops was the only Christmas gift that he and our son ever really wanted from her. Then one year when she was about 80 she complained that the cookies were too much work, and asked if she could possibly give the fellows CDs instead. When they loudly vetoed this, she made her “lebs,” but the recipients secretly observed that the cookies didn’t taste quite right.

The following Christmas she claimed she was just too busy to prepare her lebkuchen, which really annoyed me, because she still had enough time and energy to whip up her pound cake for the church raffles, take endless covered dishes to the bereaved, and play tennis regularly! It didn’t occur to me that because the cookies required a lot of ingredients and a series of steps, they might be too complicated for her to prepare anymore.

But after that, I became the keeper of the family recipe, which delighted her, and we made her lebs together in my kitchen each year. This touchstone kept us linked and sharing, even as Alzheimer’s started taking its toll.
Soon, we all started noticing that Mom frequently misplaced and forgot things and was often confused about family plans. She worried about the lapses too, sometimes commenting that she was “headed for the funny farm.” But she was still energetic and involved in the community and, with the help of wonderfully kind, supportive neighbors, a weekly cleaning service, and a ferocious desire for independence, lived alone as she had since she was widowed at 54.

None of us realized how drastically she’d declined until the entire family gathered for a summer vacation at a rented beach house in her 85th year. She didn’t acclimate well to the unfamiliar environment, and at every meal, when she insisted on helping by setting the table, she usually had to be pointed to the silverware drawer. It was also funny, yet heartbreaking, to see her settings—a hodgepodge of some flatware and dishes duplicated, other pieces missing, and, almost inevitably, fewer places than she was supposed to set.
She’d always been driven to do her fair share in the kitchen, but now, even though cooking chores were clearly challenging and she’d forgotten many of her recipes, she was absolutely adamant about participating in every activity with me. In fact, this helped us keep us close and functioning as a team. I did my best to accommodate by assigning her prepping tasks like peeling cucumbers, washing lettuce, and cutting up fruit. Since I could see that she struggled with verbal instructions, if I wanted particular sizes and shapes, I laid out samples she could use as guides. This worked well, although at times she recognized her limitations and would plaintively say,” I know I’m not who I used to be.” Which was both profound and painfully true.

We were all particularly shocked when Mom tried to treat us to some fresh local shrimp she’d bought three days before the rest of us arrived. The problem wasn’t that she’d forgotten them in the refrigerator. She’d forgotten what she—and everybody who grows up six miles from the Atlantic ocean—had known from about age 10: Fresh, raw shrimp must be cooked right away. The clincher—she resisted throwing the smelly package away!
The family had planned that when my mother-in-law could no longer live alone she would move into the assisted living facility my husband’s sister helped run. Even Mom realized, unhappily, that the time had come, and soon she was settled in her own apartment and doted on by an attentive staff, including her own daughter. She kept busy by working in the kitchen (often mixing up bread as shown in the pic above) and garden and folding all the napkins each day. The only problem: She’d moved from the coastal Carolina town where she’d spent her whole life to a city four hours inland. She might as well have been on the moon, and never adjusted to the change.

By the next summer, Mom often labored to find words and express thoughts, had serious short-term memory loss, and struggled with balance and coordination. When she toted serving bowls to the table they listed precariously. When she wanted to sweep the floor, she requested “the thing with a stick that you clean with.” In truth, it would have been easier to discourage her from “helping,” but with so many of our shared activities like chatting, Scrabble playing, and taking walks together diminishing or past, kitchen chores were a vital tether still connecting us. And so we carried on, as best we could. 
 
At some point I asked her to fix one of our favorite side dishes, her vinegar and oil slaw. I realized she probably wouldn’t recall the recipe, but hoped to rekindle some faint, soothing embers of memory if we readied it together. “Remember, you usually add celery and mustard seed, and some prepared mustard, and chopped fresh chives….” I prattled on cheerfully as I mixed the dressing I’d seen her make so many times. She merely stood and looked skeptical. Finally she shrugged and said with exasperation, “I never put all that stuff in there.” “Okay,” I countered, “then I guess it’s my slaw inspired by yours.” This seemed to satisfy her.

Thankfully, I can find the deep joy buried within this woeful tale. Through many pleasant kitchen hours over many gratifying years, Mom and I bonded in a way that is rare for mothers and daughters-in-law. And it lasted even as her disease was wresting her away. She was enormously proud of my culinary accomplishments (I’m sure her friends tired of her endlessly talking up my cookbooks), and she told me she loved me like a daughter. I’m certain that she did, and it helped make up for the loss of my own dear mother when I was only 25. 

It also comforts me to prepare Mom’s dishes. I made a batch of her holiday lebkuchen several days ago, and I know she was pleased and right there by my side. She’ll also be thrilled that I’m passing the recipe on to my son and grandchildren. Every time the distinctive aroma of those drops wafts from the kitchen, they'll think of her.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Mom's Lebkuchen Cookies--When Tried-&-True Trumps New

Every Christmas I struggle to find the right balance between brand new and “tried-and-true” cookies to bake. To keep current and avoid missing something, I have to try at least a few recipes with unusual flavor combinations or trendy ingredients each season. Which usually nets me a couple of “keepers” (like my Chocolate-Peppermint Brownies or Chamomile Shortbreads) to add to my permanent collection.

But I’m also torn by loyalty to the treats that have been tasty and reliable companions over many decades. Like long-time friends or lovers, they don’t deserve to be cast aside just because something sexier comes along!

Of course, my baking list always includes certain family “must-haves.” These favorites are part of our personal culinary heritage, and our clan would view omitting them as cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, I’d be the Grinch stealing away our traditional family Christmas!

The cookie at the top of the “non-negotiable” list is my mother-in-law’s old-fashioned lebkuchen—fragrant, iced spiced fruitcake drops handed down through at least three generations of her family. She baked these as far back as my husband can remember, and he and my son looked forward to a batch as long as she was able to make them.

In her later years, my mother-in-law and I readied her lebkuchen together. Since she passed away this May, I’ll now be carrying on the custom myself, perhaps baking them with my son and her great grandchildren. At six and eight, both kids are old enough to remember her, and I think that baking her cookies will be a fine way to keep her alive in their hearts. It will certainly help me keep her close—I made my first batch of the season to take these pictures, and I could almost feel her there by my side! (I have also posted a very personal story about recently losing my mother-in-law to Alzheimer's here.)

Mom’s Lebkuchen

My husband’s mother, Miriam Solomon Baggett, introduced me to her “lebs” many years ago. They were her special gift to about a dozen or so lucky relatives and friends every Christmas. They are wonderfully aromatic, full-flavored and slightly chewy, and, with the dabs of royal icing on top, look like little snow-capped mountains.

Though the recipe originated in Germany, Mom’s ancestors apparently adapted it to take advantage of American ingredients and to suit their tastes, as it is actually more reminiscent of really fine American fruitcake cookies than of the Lebkuchen Germans make. For example, it substitutes molasses and brown sugar for the original honey and granulated sugar and calls for pecans, which are New World nuts still little known in central Europe.

Fruit-Nut Mixture

1 2/3 cups (about 8 ounces) pitted, chopped dates

3/4 cup (about 4 ounces) mixed diced candied fruit

1 cup (about 6 ounces) diced candied pineapple

1 cup (about 6 ounces) chopped candied red (and/or green) cherries

1 cup (4 ounces) each, chopped pecans, chopped walnuts, and chopped almonds

2/3 cup good quality brandy or bourbon (or use orange juice, if preferred)

Dough

3 cups bleached all-purpose white flour, plus extra if needed

1 1/2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground allspice, and ground cloves

½ teaspoon each baking soda and baking powder

1 cup light molasses

1/4 cup corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk (save the white for royal icing), at room temperature

Icing

1 large egg white (reserved from making dough)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted after measuring if lumpy

1/8 teaspoon lemon extract or almond extract

2 tablespoons water, approximately

For the fruit mixture: Thoroughly stir together the dates, mixed candied fruit, pineapple, candied cherries, pecans, walnuts, almonds, brandy (or bourbon) in a large non-reactive bowl. Cover and let stand at least 8 hours and up to several days, stirring several times; if the mixture absorbs all the liquid, stir in several tablespoons of water (or additional booze, if preferred).

For the dough: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease several large baking sheets, or coat with nonstick spray. In a medium-sized bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, baking soda, and baking powder; set aside. In a large mixer bowl, beat the molasses, oil, and brown sugar together until well blended. Add the eggs and yolk, beating until well blended; it is all right if the mixture looks curdled.

Stir the dry ingredients and fruit mixture (including any unabsorbed liquid) into the molasses mixture until evenly incorporated. If the dough is too soft to drop by teaspoonfuls, stir in a tablespoon or two more flour; if too stiff and dry, stir in a little water. Drop the dough by generous measuring tablespoonfuls, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart on baking sheets.

Bake, one pan at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 10 to 14 minutes or until the cookies are just barely firm when pressed in the center and barely darker at the edges. Remove the pan from the oven; let the cook­ies stand a minute or two. Using a spatula, transfer them to racks. Let cool completely.

For the royal icing: In a mixer bowl with the mixer on medium speed, beat the egg white, lemon juice, and cream of tartar until the white becomes frothy and opaque. Gradually beat in 1 cup powdered sugar. Beat in the lemon extract, and 1 tablespoon water. Gradually beat in the remaining 3/4 cup powdered sugar. Beat on high speed until the icing is stiff and glossy. If the icing is too stiff to spread, thin with additional water until spreadable.

Swirl a small amount royal icing over the center top of the cookies using a table knife. Let stand until the icing completely sets, several hours. Pack with wax paper between the layers. For best flavor, allow the cookies to mellow 24 hours before serving.

The cookies can be kept, airtight, for up to 3 weeks, although the white icing begins to discolor after a week or so. Freeze the un-iced cookies for up to 2 months for longer storage; then ice after they are thawed.

Makes about 80 1 1/2-inch cookies.


Tip: If you like festive fruit cookies, but want something more contemporary check out my Cranberry-White Chocolate drops.

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