Foodie Tuesday: When Baking Gives You Lemons…

You should find it dazzlingly obvious by now, if you’ve been visiting here for more than a week, that I am not a Baker. Exactitude is a form of patience that I lack, so much so that following a recipe to the letter—an important characteristic of baking’s central processes, whereby the necessary chemical and physical elements are able to perform their required duties and make the food do the particular tricks it’s supposed to do—is impossible for me, or close enough to it. As a consequence, I have made many, many baked goods that were not entirely, well…good. So many dishes that should have been light and fluffy come out more suited to supporting a truck while a mechanic fiddles about underneath it. What could and should have been moist and dense is instead frequently crumbly and dry and better designed in texture to use as kitty litter than as dessert, despite pleasant enough flavors. [Disclaimer: if you think this is an admission that I have eaten actual kitty litter, you have either greater faith in my scientific daring or even less in my common sense than I deserve.] Disappointing, these results, but enlightening, if I pay enough attention. Sometimes even remediable. There may be hope for me yet.

Maybe that’s why I don’t stop meddling with what should be fairly straightforward recipes. I trust that, at least some of the time, what doesn’t turn out best on first effort might be rescued by a further experiment or two.

This winter I was given a gorgeous, huge, tree-ripened lemon. My friend hand-carried it from her mother’s garden a couple thousand miles from here, and it was so big and juicy and magic-laden and perfect that I wouldn’t dream of letting it go to waste as a mere additional squeeze on dinner’s salad or a piece of fish. I sliced it thinly; not very evenly, because as I have surely mentioned before, my knife skills are less than impressive, but I gave it a go, and I did slice it fairly thinly. Then I layered those slices with cane sugar in a tight-fitting jar and filled all of the remaining space with plain, high-octane white alcohol (vodka, probably) and let it sit for a couple of months, just giving it a shake or tip once in a while to get the sugar to melt in and absorb and the lemon flavor to be intensified. When I opened the jar last week: Elysium! A rush of deeply floral, lightly sweet and highly lemony perfume bursting from the jar with the reassembled fruit in it. A whiff made for fainting over, if one breathed it in long enough. A liqueur not to be spent lightly, either.

I’d had this fancy, for a while, to try my hand at making some sort of citrus-cornmeal torte. I’ve read recipes for various kinds, particularly olive oil enriched ones from Sicily that sounded uniquely tempting, and decided to give my own version a try. Oranges and/or lemons, olive oil, corn meal. Not too sweet, not too bland. Just honest and refreshing. Sigh. None of the recipes I found was precisely what I thought I was salivating for at the moment, though. I still wanted moist and slightly dense texture, almost a steamed pudding character. What to do, what to do…. Of course: experiment, again. Knowing that baking still requires some commitment to precision, I did as I always do and turned to a tried-and-true basic recipe of somewhat similar character and substituted this for that and these for those. What resulted was not precisely what I’d had in mind, but not too shabby, either.

Photo: Lemon Cornmeal Torte

When I inverted the torte out of the springform pan, I broiled it briefly to finish coloring and caramelizing the lemon slices. If you have one of those dandy little brûlée torches, have fun with it. I don’t recommend an acetylene welder, however, unless you’re baking in your foundry.

Lemon Cornmeal Torte (Take One)

Preheat oven to 450°F/232°C (or whatever approximates those temps in your oven). Mine, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, is old and unreliable, so I must needs watch it like the vultures watch I-35.

I decided to use my springform pan. I lined it, inside and out, with heavy aluminum foil because, given the experimental nature of all of this, I was a little worried about leaks and other non-ingredient surprises. Not to mention that that uppity oven of mine might explode in a fireball or something. Probably wasn’t necessary, in the event, but still. On with the recipe:

I mixed about 3-4 T melted butter with an equal amount of cane sugar and spread it in the bottom of the pan, and then laid the lemon slices out across that syrup base.

Combine dry ingredients with a fork or whisk: 3 cups cornmeal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1-1/2 tsp salt, 1-2 tsp ground cardamom, 1 T citrus zest. Since I’d macerated the Queen Lemon, her zest wasn’t fit for the task anymore, so I grated the peel from a couple of the clementines I had on hand.

In a separate bowl, beat together the wet ingredients. [These are where I think I would have done well to go a slightly different path.] I combined about 2-3 Tablespoons’-worth of flavorings from the following: liqueur from the preserved lemon, fresh lemon juice, and ginger syrup. I added enough buttermilk to the flavor mix to equal 2 cups total. [In retrospect, I would have bumped the flavorings’ amount to a full half cup and used 1-1/2 cups of the buttermilk.] Whatever the eventual “design” of the recipe, on this occasion I rounded the wet ingredient list with 1 cup orange juice, 2 large eggs, and 2/3 cup fine extra-virgin olive oil. I suspect I could well have added another egg at the time with good success, too, but I didn’t. We shall see!

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry and stir until mixed. Pour the batter in the pan over the lemon slices, set it in the oven, and bake just until set, the center not quite visibly moving anymore when you bump the pan, somewhere around 35-40 minutes.

Served with a very lightly sweetened whipped cream, it was pleasant and tasted of spring. But it wasn’t quite what I was craving, just yet. I wanted brighter, juicier lemon flavor and yes, this torte was still on the fragile, crumbly side. Onward, I say! The next day was good enough for reevaluating and rethinking. And rebuilding. That night we’d had a table-full of guests, but there was also another cake, so both desserts stretched beyond our needs. That left me, on the next day, with half a torte, or more accurately, a big quart bowl brimming with lemon-ish torte remnants. Make a trifle with the remaining whipped cream? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t fulfill my fancy, still, of that zingy, moist dessert I was imagining. Instead, I made:

Photo: My Pudding ReTorte

Even a tasty steamed pudding is often not so much to thrill the eye, so I served this little dish of mine with a puree of fresh strawberries in orange juice and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds just for the jazz of it. Less elegant looking than the original version, more zingy to eat.

Steamed Lemon Pudding (My Re-Torte)

I put the torte crumbles, sliced lemon topping and all, into my food processor with not only the almost-equal amount of leftover whipped cream but also a very hefty splash of lemon juice and three large eggs, and blended everything into a new, thicker batter. I poured it into a greased, covered casserole and steamed it until, again, it was just set. [It could easily steam in your oven or pudding steamer in the traditional way, but with my oven being so recalcitrant, I opted to steam it, covered, in the microwave instead.]

Photo: Rose Explosion

Roses *and* primroses: those pale tissue-pink sweethearts on the lower right are my first real crop of the dainty wildflowers since I seeded them two years ago in my backyard mini-meadow. Yay!

When I let it cool to room temperature, that iteration of lemon-cornmeal dessert proved to be more what I’d had in mind all along. It was just about the texture of a good Christmas pudding, but of course more seasonally fit in both color and flavor for what we did when my visiting friends returned for our afternoon coffee: we sat on the patio and spooned it up while sipping, chatting, gazing at the explosion of roses, and enjoying one of the nicest bits of outdoor-friendly weather we ever get in these parts.

Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

Foodie Tuesday: A Balanced Diet

Photo montage: Fun with Fruit & VegetablesI appreciate good health and all of the dietary elements that can determine whether I’m healthy, and if so, just how healthy I am. I know that diet includes not only the things I eat but how I combine them, when I eat, how much I eat, and many more factors that interact to create the ever-changing state of good health I seek. I realize, too, that nutritionists and scientists and other dietary mavens are always learning new things, and nearly always getting new ideas, too, some of which they can prove and others, not so much. That doesn’t stop tons of people, including me, from becoming obsessed, however temporarily, with the latest dietary trends and tweaking our diets without always considering whether those new, however ingenious seeming, ideas have anything to do with how our own bodies operate best.

Huh.

Yeah, I’m always thinking of new and better ways to make my diet more seemingly ideal for me, and I have some goofy thoughts on the subject at the best of times, and that’s the truth. What I can say in my defense is that among the relatively few things I have managed to learn in my lifetime thus far is that there is a whole lot more involved in my health and well-being than food.

I love when I can find the balance I need in any day by eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m no longer hungry, and focusing on getting not only a reasonable apportionment between protein and fat and carbs and vitamins and minerals and all of that dandy stuff. I love when it’s satisfying to my taste buds as well. Most of all, I love when that’s all fitted into a balanced diet of being with loved ones, going wonderful places, learning new fun things, and not least of all, of making art. There are always going to be theories, guides, charts, Rules and expectations about what constitutes the ideal way to eat, from the old spa cures that had people eating nothing but blandness or drinking rather large quantities of vinegary-dry white wine to the FDA-approved Food Pyramid, to the various independent dietary regimes from Scarsdale to South Beach, from Paleo to the Perfect Health Diet. I’ll outlive some of them, and many more will follow me. My budget and schedule, my taste preferences of the moment, and the company I keep, will continue to change my dietary wants and needs as well.

As long as I can keep listening to music, writing and drawing, and surrounding myself with great and interesting people, I will feel well fed.

Photo montage: Another Balanced DietI need to tell you that there’s one sure way to have just the right diet, at least if you happen to be me and visiting Vienna. You just wend your way down a couple of funny little narrow byways and find the welcome that waits for you behind the door of the Gösser Bierklinik. That’s right: a clinic dedicated to beer. If that doesn’t make you feel better, you don’t know a healthy diet at all, wink-wink. Hail, Austria! It’s really a lovely old, old restaurant—don’t miss the neatly labeled Türkenkugel, the cannonball reputed to have been shot into the place in 1683 and still enjoying the pride of place where it sticks out of, or into, the wall.Digital illustration: Bierklinik Highlights

But don’t get hung up on ancient history too much, or you will miss out on one of the best Wienerschnitzeln I’ve had anywhere, and I am a fan, so I’ve enjoyed a few. The Bierklinik’s is tender inside, lightly seasoned, crispy on the outside, and unadulterated with anything other than the requisite lemon wedge for squeezing a drop or two of extra sunshine on it. Fabulous. Combine that with some ordinary but blazing hot fries and a bracing drink of anything from water to the titular beer, to what our server assured me was the ‘ladylike’ way to have a beer, a Pfiff mit Schuss, or beer spiked with elderflower cordial—I can’t speak to the waiter’s assertion, not being so incredibly ladylike myself, but it was a light and sprightly accompaniment to the Schnitzel, and given the perfectly convivial group with whom we were dining on the evening I tried it out (my husband and I were with three delightful friends, but also joined eventually in conversation with the marvelous German couple and his parents who were sitting at the next table), it was no more, and no less, effervescent than the conversation. Schnitzel, fries, a good drink and excellent company. Sounds like a perfectly balanced diet to me!Photo: Gösser's Schnitzel

 

Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.