It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2007 Archives

How I spent my Christmas Eve

[Interior of downstairs fridge.]

Fourteen mini-loaves of Stollen chilling so that I can bake them after picking up my in-laws. They sit on the leftover beer and wine from the party: half a case hard cider, a case of beer, two cases of wine. A case plus of Yuengling is still out back. Soda is ... somewhere else.

The new Advent calendar is up

Since Thanksgiving, I've been working on what will be a big, longish project: updating the Advent calendar. It no longer links just to a recipe. Instead, each day offers a Christmas memory, a recipe, and a nifty link.

And yes, I did use Leslie Harpold's format for this.

I'm slowly realizing the insane amount of work I've set out for myself. Insane when you think I spend 5:00 to 5:30 getting my son from daycare, 5:30 to 7:00 cooking and eating dinner, then 7:00 to 8:30 getting my son ready and into bed.

If you have any cool holiday links, e-mail them to me at the address below. This will stop the panic attack that come from looking at my list of potential good links.

Well, I need to bake something, and we need to get the tangible Advent calendars out of storage.

Thanksgiving? No thanks!

More and more, Thanksgiving has become a distraction -- nay, an impediment -- to my real goal for November: preparing for Christmas.

This may be my husband's favorite holiday, but my own feeling is must I? For various reasons -- four sets of parents, the only grandchild, an unwillingness to eat the same food every year -- we've hosted Thanksgiving since before we were married.

Thanksgiving was so early this year it completely blindsided me. One weekend I'm baking fruitcake, the next I'm making a grocery list over breakfast so that I can make cranberry sauce that afternoon.

On the pro side, the house will finally get a spring cleaning, the refrigerators are cleared out and cleaned, and I know it won't be the same menu as last year and the year before and the year before (if only because I change the side dishes). Our families are great, and we don't see them enough. Everyone enjoys themselves enough to return every year. It is a four-day weekend. And I control the menu.

As the child of divorced parents, I have few holiday traditions, since each holiday changed from year to year. The allure of Thanksgiving was always the chance to throw a big dinner party -- albeit with a mandatory turkey. Unfortunately, as I've found recipes that everyone likes and are easy enough to make and would disappoint someone if they were missing, the menu is starting to fossilize. I'm fighting back with two new side dishes, but it's hard when most of my thoughts turn to Nick Malgieri's cookbooks.

(I have an extra bag of cranberries, maybe I will make the cranberry-chocolate tart from November's Bon Appetit and shake up dessert. Wait, it calls for mascarpone cheese. Maybe not. Next year, the stuffing definitely gets a makeover.)

On the minus side, I'd planned to bake pfefferkuchen and lebkuchen, but spent the weekend cleaning. The only baking was corn muffins for breakfast, and pre-making and freezing crust for the pumpkin pie.

Maybe if I just brought three or four desserts, I could relinquish control of Thanksgiving. And I wouldn't have to clean.

Time to make the fruitcake!

It's not Thanksgiving yet, but Halloween is long past and it's more than time for baking fruitcake. (I'm also half way done my holiday shopping, but no, I don't want to see any Christmas displays in the stores yet.)

The critical ingredient for fruitcake success or failure is candied citrus peel, what the British and Irish call mixed peel. This replaces the revolting mixed peel from the super market (which you can't buy now, anyhow). Real mixed peel is hard to find in America, but the good news is that home-made candied peel is easy, if time-consuming.

I don't have a set recipe yet, but the basic procedure is as follows:

Throughout the year, save and freeze intact lemon, orange, grapefruit, tangerine and clementine peels. Don't bother saving anything that's been zested.

Membrane can be easily cut away with a small, sharp knife. Cut the peels into quarters; that is, halve each half. Each quarter will have two pointy end. Holding the peel flat on a cutting board, make a quarter-inch cut into each point, keeping the knife blade parallel to the cutting board. Grab the bit of pith just cut away from the peel and pull gently; you may need to work your fingers under the pith and membrane to keep it in one piece. If only part of the membranes comes off, make a similar cut in the other point of the peel and pull off the pith. Most of the pith (the white part) will remain behind, and that's fine; this is only to remove what's left after, say, juicing a lemon.

Keep the peels in a gallon zipper bag with as much air squeezed out as possible. If the peels get freezer burnt, throw them out or compost them. When the bag is full or half full, there is enough peel to candy for yourself and any friends.

In a six-quart pot, boil the peels with enough water to cover them. When the water is boiling nicely, drain the peel. Repeat twice more. This step is supposed to eliminate the bitterness of the pith; I've not confirmed this, but it makes the kitchen smell nice. This step will take about 45 minutes.

The final step is to gently boil the peel in sugar syrup until all the syrup is absorbed. My friend who makes her own peel uses a medium syrup (3:2 ratio of sugar to water, that is 1 1/2 c. sugar to 1 c water) to cover; other recipes have a ratio of weight of the peel to weight of the sugar. Knowing I was running out of sugar, I used most of my remaining sugar, added water to make a medium syrup, boiled, then kept adding peel until it started to poke over the top of the syrup.

Gently boil the peel, stirring occasionally. The syrup should bubble, but not much. The peel requires more and more stirring and attention as the water evaporates and the sugar is absorbed.

In the end, the peel will be very translucent and most (all?) of the sugar will be absorbed. This will take three to four hours.

Allow to cool, dice if desired, and freeze.

Or, you'll be planting tulip bulbs in the garden with your son, leaving your husband to watch the peel, and he'll fall asleep. The peel will scorch and you'll spend the next day fishing peel out of very thick sugar syrup, cutting the blackened bits off, and dicing peel.

You see why I don't have a recipe yet — you have to order those tulip bulbs in May!

No longer do people avoiding eggs and dairy have to accept second-string (or third-string, or ...) cupcakes, thanks to Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I'd bought this to bake birthday cupcakes for a toddler with severe and extensive food allergies: no one realized they were egg- and dairy-free. This is a great book for anyone baking for vegans, those with food allergies, or anyone who likes cupcakes.

At first, I was hesitant to commit to a full vegan cookbook and tried the sample chocolate cupcake recipe. It wowed everyone, I bought the book, and baked over a gross (a dozen dozen) of vegan cupcakes this summer.

So far I've made the chocolate (with chocolate, mint and coconut icings), lemon-lemon, vanilla, and carrot cake (with cream cheese) cupcakes. All were yummy. The carrot cake is the leading favorite: a few bites of intense, carrot-cakey goodness, perhaps even better than Dorie Greenspan's carrot cake. I am determined to make the green tea cupcakes before winter. Additionally, there are low-fat and gluten-free versions of the basic vanilla and chocolate cupcakes.

Complaints are few: I upped the cocoa content from 1/3 to 1/2 cup in the chocolate cupcake recipe; Republicans will want to skip the sections where the authors write about "cruelty-free" baking.

Because the recipes usually use oil (rather than margarine) as the fat, each cupcake recipe is super-easy, requiring only two mixing bowls and a whisk. (Icings usually require a mixer to beat the margarine.) Soy cream cheese is the most exotic vegan ingredient I've used so far (green matcha tea the most exotic non-vegan ingredient). If you aren't baking for vegans or the dairy-averse, I see no reason not to use dairy ingredients in the recipes. Plus — import for the parents of toddlers — without raw eggs in the batter, small children can lick beaters and bowls without anyone fretting over salmonella. (I eat raw batter, but certain short household members will need to be much older.)

One important thing: if you are baking for someone who doesn't eat dairy, check your margarine: most margarine contains milk products like whey or casein. Makes sense to me too. You may need to find the vegan section or or make a special trip to the vegan grocery store.

Will I bake from it again? Yes!

Caterers — save me

This vacation, I'm planning a party for my fortieth birthday (and gardening). This means web surfing to sites for rent ($300 during the week, $1450 Friday night, $2000 Saturday or Sunday) and caterers.

Most of the caterers I've looked at have hired a professional design team. This is good in theory, but in practice it's like eating larks' tounges — novelty for novelty's sake.

So, caterers, from a professional web programmer and a potential customer, don't do this:

  • Flash intro: I could not care less how much you paid the design firm for your site; I just want to find what you serve and what you charge.
  • Flash or Java or JavaScript site: Bye-bye! There's too many other caterers for me to slog through some crappy custom interface.
  • Links to links to links: If I click "photos," most likely I want to see photos of your work, not read three paragraphs telling me to click a link that will take me to your home page. I won't.
  • Generic domain name: Searching for Ryan Rogan Catering and finding only links to "" and bridal sites means I'll think you don't have a web site, even if you shelled out a lot of money for Spring for (or .info, or .net or whatever).
  • Generic contact e-mail: is one thing, is useless.

It would be really nice if you:

  • Included sample menus: I don't care that everyone on staff has the same last name; what do you make?
  • Listed prices: I love my family, but I'm not paying as much for my birthday as I did for my wedding. Let's not waste each other's time.
  • Listed facilities you are on the allowed list of caterers (and facilities, it would be nice if you listed allowed caterers, plus links to their web sites) and their charges.

Demarchelier, New York City

It wasn't supposed to be another foodie weekend in New York, really. The plan was for the boys to see the Phillies trounce the Mets, and for Anne and I to visit the Neue Gallerie and its cafe. But we'd spent a couple hours at Dean and DeLuca, Sur la Table, and H&M, and a Steuben Day parade in Central Park had the Gallerie's Austrian cafe backed up to a 40-minute wait for a table at 2 p.m., so we turned back to Demarchelier just a block away at 50 E. 86th St.

Generally, I don't eat French because I can't afford it (I'm more the hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant kind), can't pronounce it and don't have the patience to cook it. I may need to change this policy.

We wanted to try as much as possible, and didn't want to spend $20 (each) on a lunch entree, so we each had two appetizers. Anne began with a salad of field greens, and I had the country pate. This was followed by steak tartare (Anne) and a salad of endive, apples and roquefort (myself). To drink, Anne had Bass (one of three beers on tap) and I had a glass of chablis, at our waiter's suggestion after throwing myself on his mercy. We skipped dessert but had Earl Grey (Anne) and coffee.

With tax and tip it was a whopping $75. It was a lovely, leisurely treat, and quite a wonderful find. And we had the pleasure of helping the nice Spanish couple at the next table find a hotel. It was the first time a cell phone was ever justified at the table.

Will I go back? Probably not, but mostly because I live in Philadelphia, not Manhattan.

They need me.

If only I were perky.

Also, Alton Brown has as much respect for molecular gastronomy as I do. Heh.

Baking: From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan, Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Dorie Greenpsan has written what should be the defining home baking book for the beginning of the 21st century, as important as The Joy of Cooking was in the mid-20th Century. This book is for the home baker, not the pro-wannabe or over-exacting baker targeted by Martha Stewart and Rose Levy Birnbaum. There are a few recipes from her French training and her professional career, but most are American classics (biscuits, apple pie, chocolate layer cake). It covers breakfast through dessert.

This book first entranced me as I read it on my train ride home from work. It is a readable cookbook, more than simply directions. Greenspan discusses what makes each recipe special to her, and outlines basic techniques. By the end of the ride, I was hungry.

I wanted to bake every recipe in the book. I still do.

Her directions are excellent. At critical stages, she tells you what to expect. After cutting butter into flour for biscuits, she says the butter should be size of peas down to flakes of oatmeal, and everything in between. She recommends placing a cookie sheet under most baking pans to prevent over-baking the bottom. Each recipe includes appetizing variations.

Final results have been consistently good, although some recipes have had some easily-recoverable errors in the directions, such as forgetting to include the poppy seeds in the directions for the lemon poppy seed muffins or stating that a melted-chocolate hot-water mixture would be smooth, but actually seized (and un-seized when beaten into the buttercream). With luck, a corrected second edition will be published.

If you have only one book for baking, this is the book to have.

Fasnacht, 2007

What's better than doughnuts for dinner?

Sunday "brunch," Bucks County Coffee

The plan was to meet friend Sarah for Saturday brunch at White Dog in UCity. True to form, every time we go to brunch there, we are too early. On this occasion, an entire day too early — White Dog only does brunch on Sundays.

So, we punted, and went to the Bucks County Coffee just down Sansom Street.

Their menu was limited to pre-made items — no breakfast sandwiches or soups — but then, we were the only patrons at 10 a.m., and there was no later influx of Drexel and Penn undergrads that I could see. (As a former Drexel undergrad, I know they'd just be eating Cap'n Crunch out of the box.)

Pre-made items are from LeBus, and included muffins, croissants, wraps and sandwiches. I played it safe with a croissant that was buttery and probably delivered that morning. Sarah had a toasted bagel with two packages of cream cheese. Jake had a chocolate pretzel, because he'd had yogurt and a banana before leaving the house. Jorj also had a bagel.

My cafe au lait was warm and milky. Jorj had a chai latte. Jake had an Odwalla smoothie. Much more of a coffee connoisseur, Sarah had no complaints about her regular coffee.

Service was prompt and friendly enough.

Would I go back? It's not particularly convenient or breakfast oriented, and we can get a better breakfast elsewhere. But if I wanted a cup of coffee in UCity, I wouldn't avoid it.

It's all about the marketing

Whenever I see one of those top-ten, must-have lists, I first check whether the publisher has an affiliate deal to sell those items, then I check to see who's advertising that month.

This one from is particularly irksome. The title is "Essentials for the Home Baker: Baking supplies that won't collect dust" which should be the titles of two different articles: one for what you really do need, the other unnecessary but extremely useful tools. Let's rebut, shall we?

Stand mixer: This line sums it up: "many professional chefs prefer the durable, though expensive, Hobart." Professional chefs need a stand mixer. My mother's stand mixer collected dust for decades, in preference to the quick to grab, easy to clean hand-held. Is a mixer essential for baking? Yes, unless you want or have the arms of a stevedore, but a hand-held is just as effective.

Non-stick mats: Essential? No. Useful and a better value for frequent bakers? Yes. A good value for the new baker? No; buy a roll of parchment paper instead.

Digital scale: Why? Did the country finally convert to metric? If you are baking from a professional cookbook (or like to do math in your head), sure, but if you are baking from The Joy of Cooking, stick with your measuring cups and spoons.

Grater/zester: Darn useful. So many recipes call for some sort of citrus zest, and a zester is very, very handy. A box grater will also zest, but its difficult to get all the zest out of the holes. I'll give them this one.

Pastry bag: "Handy for piping meringue, icing, and pate a choux ..." Handy is not the same as essential. I've decorated wedding cakes without a pastry bag (hello fresh flowers!), used spoons to form meringue cookies, and would rather buy an eclair than make one.

Candy thermometer: Essential only for frying or making candy. If you use an electric skillet to heat the oil for frying, not essential even then. If you don't deep-fry or make candy, well ...

French rolling pin: A rolling pin without handles, which is also my preference, but generations of woman baked just fine with American-style pins. The rolling pin is necessary, but the style just isn't.

Kitchen timer: This is a given. The digital version shown isn't necessary though.

Stick blender: "Use it for fruit sorbets, sauces, and soups." What part of that list is baking? This is just plain wrong.

Kitchen blowtorch: Are you making creme brulee? Do you have a broiler? How about a torch from Home Depot? Then you can fix that leaky pipe, too.

"We don't mean to imply that these items are all you'll ever need. In fact, we might add a pastry scraper, a set of prep bowls, and round cutters (for cookies, biscuits, and plating)." All those items are too inexpensive and plain to be on this list.

This is a list for, to be blunt, poseurs. The people in high school who told you your favorite bands aren't really punk, or hip-hop, or whatever. People too busy talking about whatever it was to actually do it. These people discovered cooking and baking, and are dead set on having the correct, professional-quality accessories.

Me? I'm going to bake the cake layers of a strawberry shortcake. Maybe I'll whisk the egg whites by hand.

Things I'm excited about

After a sickly and tiring December, I'm happy to find myself excited about a few things.

Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan. At first read, it looks like Greenspan has written a definitive tome for the home baker, from breakfast through dessert. After perusing it on the train, I had to stop at the grocery for sour cream and lemons for her lemon-poppy seed muffins. There's also a pear tart to try with leftover pears. It's a very personal book with lots of food pr0n.

What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg, Karen Page, and Michael Sofronski. This was my anniversary present to Jorj, and, as with any book gift he receives, he's had to pry it from my fingers to get a chance to read it. Orangette recommended it, and it looks like a great way to explore wine and spirits.

Lebkuchen. I successfully baked Renate's Pfefferkuchen, and am still hoping for another go at Elisenlebkuchen, now that I think I understand where my technique failed.

Peppermint white hot chocolate: The basic recipe seems solid, Penzey's supplied a big bag of dried mint (can't find a source for peppermint essence or oil), we've lot's of candy canes lying around: it's time to experiment.

Basic kitchen set up: I've written more, and might finally get this addition to Baking 101 up before the Spring.

XML, XSLT & CSS: If we ever find my copy of Jeny Tennison's Beginning XSLT 2.0 (really a reference for beginners through experts), I may be able to easily generate all manner of indexes for the site: by region or origin! Cookie-type! Dietary restriction! Meantime, I'm categorizing the recipes and tweaking the layout because I can.

    You can follow me @ChristmasBaking on Twitter.

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