I was born and raised in Kansas and learned to cook alongside my mother. Now, along with my wonderful husband, I have taken the plunge into the city life in New York. These are my food adventures: in my own tiny kitchen, and in the many restaurants of the city.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cherry Mash, and Holiday Traditions

I set out the appetizers: labnah and pita, cucumbers with creme fraiche, chili spiked mango slices, and popped the champagne. A large French press full of coffee stood at the ready. As the doorbell rang I fired up the Christmas station on Pandora.

It was time for the third annual Christmas candy making party with my girlfriends. Each year we gather together, each one bringing the recipe and ingredients for two holiday treats. We spend the day catching up, testing our sugar cooking skills, and snacking, all the while turning out rounds of sweets. By the end of the day, when we think we just can't dip another thing in chocolate, we divvy up the bounty to bring joy to countless circles of friends and hope desperately that we will be able to fall asleep that night through the sugar high.
Though the tradition is a fairly new one, it brings me joy and a sense of home each time we come together and I cross my fingers that it will be something we continue for many years to come.

Through most of the year I ache to try new things. Yet around the holidays my desire turns towards the familiar. I'm sure it stems from years of repetition centered around Christmas. My parents actually "ooing" and "awing" as we first lit up the lights on our decorated tree. Christmas Eve snacks shared with customers at my uncle's country/feed store. Then getting dressed up for candlelight service at the Lutheran Church and more snacks afterwards at my grandmother's house. Home before Santa arrives, with the chance to open JUST ONE gift before bed. My little brother and sister tiptoeing into my room sometime around 5am whispering, "Santa's been here!" to wake me up before shaking my poor parents out of bed (who probably fell asleep around 3am after a late-night wrapping frenzy). Presents unwrapped, the cousins calling to find out why we weren't at grandma's yet. A big, giant breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, piles of bacon, all to be consumed downstairs, hiding from the parents (which we still do as adults, even though some have kids of their own). Presents, naps by the fire, running to play outside. The same thing, comforting and consistent, every year.

It's been a few years since I've made it back for these holiday traditions, so the husband and I have created our own. We nibble on fondue every year as we deck out our tree, eat cinnamon rolls and Baileys spiked coffee as we peak into our stockings Christmas morning. Often we will see a movie in the afternoon, followed by a fancy dinner prepared at home (with lots of wine and cocktails along the way). These little actions, repeated each year, help it feel like we aren't quite as far away from family and friends. It's all part of what makes us feel at home here in the big city.

What are the traditions that you had in your childhood? Any that you carry through with today? What are the new traditions you've started with your family now that you are an adult? Whatever your plans, I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons.

Cherry Mash
This is another recipe from my grandmother. She always serves this up at my uncle's store for the Christmas Eve celebration for customers plus she saves some back for us to indulge in at her home on Christmas Day. They are a version of the old-fashioned candy bar and the recipe is adapted from a newspaper article my grandmother clipped back in the '70s. My girlfriends and I whipped up a batch at our candy making party this year and I can't help but feel at home every time I bite into one. This recipe makes quite a large batch of the candy.

16 oz. jar maraschino cherries
2 lbs. powdered sugar
2 cans cherry frosting (strawberry frosting will also work in a pinch)
1 stick melted margarine
2 t. vanilla extract
1 can sweetened condensed milk

2 lbs. salted peanuts
3 (12 oz.) bags chocolate chips

Drain the cherries very well and dice. Mix cherries, sugar, frosting, butter, vanilla and milk well. Chill for 1 hour (it may help to freeze the mixture for a bit of time to help it really set up).

Shape into small balls (about 1-1 1/2" in diameter) and chill again for another hour (again, depending on consistency of mixture, it may be best to freeze the filling before dipping).

Finely chop the peanuts. Melt chocolate chips and mix in the nuts. Dip the cherry filling into the chocolate to completely coat, then place on a wax paper lined sheet pan. Refrigerate to cool.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Holiday Dinner Rolls (or, The Secrets of a Family Recipe)

The dough was pliant, heeding my demands as I rolled it into small rolls on the counter top. It didn't fight back, it let me have my way, its smooth surface rising slowly telling me I'd done it right.

It was not so six years ago when I moved to New York City and prepared my very first Thanksgiving, a small affair just for the husband and I. The dough was sticky, unforgiving, unwilling to form itself into the round balls that the recipe called for. I was sure I just needed a bit more flour to get it right, so kept adding it bit by bit to make a pliable form to work from. Once out of the oven the rolls looked just right--perhaps a little more misshapen or browned than my grandmother's, yet close enough for my first timer's eyes. Yet a bite into one revealed not a soft, pliant dinner roll ready to make every leftover turkey sandwich a star, but a tough, dry, crumbly impostor of the Thanksgiving dinner rolls I'd been raised to love.

The first attempt.
Every year my grandmother turns out a multitude of these rolls: slightly sweet, tender, piled high underneath a kitchen towel. They soak up a pat of butter, begging for a drizzle of honey at one time or leftover turkey shreds drowned with gravy at another. I could not imagine a Turkey Day table without them. Yet somehow the seemingly simple recipe from my grandmother's pen never turned out quite right for me, no matter how many times I tried.

I asked my grandmother for tips. She stated that it was pretty simple, nothing to it really. Nothing overly special about the recipe. Yet my inexperienced hands would not turn them out in her style. I added less flour the next year, let them rise even longer the following, used the stand mixer instead of kneading, didn't knead, added the ingredients hot and then cold. I was convinced that the problem was my hot hands or in a kneading trick I hadn't yet learned. The years passed, each turning out a version of rolls that never quite had the elegance of my grandmother's.

Getting closer.
A recipe is written from the hands of the creator, but it never conveys the nuances that make it sing. You can pluck out those notes, but the song feels lacking and lackluster without the vibrato of the master. There's the possibility of an ingredient left out, on purpose to keep the recipe secret, or without thought because it seems second nature. There a fear that the recipe will never be made whole in your own hands, those missing notes gaping so large that they create a void of sound (or taste). Yet hope keeps one struggling through, year after year, wishing somehow, with a little luck, that the undertones of the recipe will revel themselves and lead it to sing with perfection.

Somehow this year, thankfully, this recipe transformed to the latter for me. Practice, practice, experiments and internet searches for similar recipes (and more practice) finally yielded answers to my sticky dough problems: a stint in the fridge after the first rise. So simple, yet makes all the difference.

As I laid out my Thanksgiving table this year I felt full of pride and accomplishment as I set forth the kitchen towel covered basket, filled with a bit of my family's (and my own) culinary history: warm, soft, sweet rolls of perfection.

Holiday Dinner Rolls
makes 24 rolls
1 package yeast dissolved in 1/4 c. warm water
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. salt
1/2 c. butter, melted
1 c. warm water
4 c. flour

Add all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix until well combined--dough will be very sticky. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Then place the covered bowl into the refrigerator to cool the dough about 30 minutes-1 hour.
Once cool, work quickly to form rolls so the dough does not return to its sticky state. Dump onto a lightly floured counter and cut the dough into 4 pieces, then cut each quarter into 6 pieces. Fold each piece in on itself a few times to form the round shape, then roll it with a rounded hand and slight pressure on the counter to smooth out the top. Place the rolls 3" apart on baking sheets. Cover with a towel and let rise again about 1 hour.
(Note: if you are making the rolls in advance, freeze them after forming into rolls but before the second rise. Place the baking sheets in the freezer and once frozen wrap the rolls in wax paper and place in a freezer bag. When ready to bake, place 3" apart on baking sheets, cover with a towel, and let rise for about 3 hours.)
Heat the oven to 375. Bake the rolls until lightly golden brown, 12-15 minutes.