January 14, 2014

Befana the Witch Has Long Since Gone

Befana did not leave me any lumps of coal so I must have been good in 2013.  I have a rag-doll Befana figure that I just packed away with the Christmas ornaments. The last thing I saw as I closed the box was her snuggle-toothed grin. I like the legend and have come to prefer her over Santa Claus. Maybe I’ve just seen too many scary mall Santas. 2014 and it seems not so long since the big millennium New Year’s Eve party at Edo and Maria’s in Cortona. They had vintage sun glasses for everyone, a vast seafood feast, dancing, and fireworks. I do remember someone up on a table. It’s good when a memorable evening with friends anchors a big event. Here in North Carolina we celebrated more sedately to usher in 2014 but the many tasty dinners and gatherings of the holidays still linger. My grandmother’s silver butter dish was put to a use she, a teetotaler, would not condone:

A highlight of the season was a Dutch friend’s Rijsttafel (rice table), the feast that the Dutch who colonized Indonesia devised to showcase the cuisine of the area.  Rene said he’d cooked only for a week to prepare it.

I’ve always loved Chicken Satay. His were the best.

Best, too is that Rene knows all the history of the dishes prepared for a traditional Ristaffel and all the influences from Maylasia, China, Sumatra, Bali and many other islands.  This feast especially pleases me because I could live on rice. So, you take a big serving of rice and surround it with all these spicy, savory, complex, and tasty morsels. The textures play together: crunchy marinated cabbage, fried tiny bananas,  pickles, meats braised in coconut milk, those crunchy shrimp crisps on the right, tender beef similar to shaking beef, and lots of taste-spikes of chili peppers. I’ve had Rene’s wife Gleda’s cakes before. This night, she found a recipe for an Indonesian spice cake. Perfect last taste for a transporting dinner.

Somehow, it was an ethnic season. A friend threw a sushi buffet. We had an Indian family feast at Cholanad in Chapel Hill.   I ate quite a bit of garlic nan. And then my daughter threw a party for her husband’s birthday. He built a bonfire and we ate oysters out in the woods in front of their house. He and his twin are of Greek descent so the menu included grilled lamb chops, roasted eggplant and potatoes, mint-flavored meat balls, and big Greek salad. I volunteered for the spanakoppitas and, quite unGreek, my mother’s monumental coconut cake. Both are trouble. Worth it? Oh, yes! That is, after you get the right recipe.

I found the spanakoppita recipe on line. It’s been years since I handled phyllo pastry and somehow it seems easier now. I remember cursing or crying over dry and crumbling dough and finding it creepy like human skin.  This time it worked just fine–flaky, delicate pastry, and the spinach filling tangy with an artisan feta, green onion, and a little nutmeg. My mother’s cake, however, did not work just fine. I think I added the thirteen egg whites at the wrong time because the batter had the consistency of hour-old cement. It rose only an inch. I had to toss the whole thing and go with Ina Garten’s recipe. She calls for a seven-minute frosting but I’ve met that Waterloo before so I stuck with my mother’s cream cheese butter frosting. I know my mother’s cake recipe can work because she was famous for that cake in my home town. Now I’m blaming my convection oven. I think it bakes too fast and the cake gets set before it has a chance to rise. Anyone know if this happens? Hours later, I presented the grand cake above and it was stupendous. I don’t usually think this way but I am thinking that what I read is true—834 calories a slice.  So much cooking over the holidays that I’ve stripped down and cleaned the kitchen and declared it open only for simple meals. Ed has gone full steam into his winter soup mode.

I hate to take down the front porch lights but other than that, the day after New Year’s down comes the tree at our house, and out go the greens which are looking a little fire-hazardy by then. Then the house just looks like its plain self again, but somehow renewed and ready to go forward into a new year. As I write, the polar vortex is whirling around causing havoc. It was 3 degrees here, rather exciting for a temperate clime, but no snow. Today the sky is the color of a newborn boy’s blanket and the light seems to spark off the edges of trees. The kittens ventured out then ran back, meowing what the hell is this?  But–how amazing–bulbs are popping up, the quince is budding, and in our lane the little yellow jasmine is scattering its sparks of bloom.

Some winter books, so far: 

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam, one of those writers that you read and then marvel at how you’ve never heard of her before.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A brilliant novel on the twists of friendship.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I came to adore Alma and wished this were a true biography!

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley. Hearkens to traditional tales of the demon lover, but so well grounded that you forget that.

Starting Over by Elizabeth Spenser, and a toast to her for continuing to write fine stories as she moves into her nineties. Brava!

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr. When Fisher, Child, Beard, and Olny converged in France and lit the match under American cuisine.

A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps. This was sent to me by Jeff Minnich. Thank you. What charm and humanity in these glimpses of post-war Sicily.


As always, I’d love to hear recommendations from you for the long January nights.

How many days until spring???