December 9, 2012

Two Savory Holiday Gifts

Something takes over around now, and it’s like going into labor–once it starts there’s no getting off! I feel overcome with the compelling urge  to make things–food, of course, but also wreathes out of grape vines, arrangements of magnolia and holly and berries on the mantle, centerpieces for the table. Inspired by a photo posted on pin interest by Twitter friend @katiesheadesigns, I took out an old bottle rack and made a decoration of candles and greens. If I’d had one of my larger ones in Italy, I could have made something more spectacular. As it was, everyone at dinner thought it looked sweet, until it caught on fire! That’s sand in the jars. The original used terracotta pots but my rack was too small.

 The next one I made ended up in the back hall because it looked a bit like something you’d buy for a patient at the hospital gift shop. The jack-in-the-box is a toy I had when I was three.

No other time of year, except perhaps tomato season, draws me so magnetically to the kitchen. It’s the time for huge pots of ragù simmering, and for slow-roasted quail with juniper berries, herbs, and pancetta. Both recipes are in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

At this time of year, I like to have things ON HAND.  And, always, I find–probably as many of you do–that I turn to what I loved when I was growing up.  Despite my enjoyment of Italian pannetone, biscotti, and Monte Bianco–the rich chestnut cream mountain that Tuscan love, at home in the USA I am making what my mother made–roasted pecans, cheese biscuits, and her famous Martha Washington Jetties.  Roasted pecans–the key is fall crop pecans, big, fresh, and whole. You simply empty a pound bag onto a parchment lined baking pan–single layer–and dot with a stick of butter–4 ounces.  Sprinkle with salt and roast in a 350 degree oven for about eight minutes. Half way, take a spatula and scoot the pecans around to make sure they’re all coated with butter.  Allow to cool and then place in a nice tin lined in waxed paper. Anytime someone comes around and a bottle of wine is opened, a little bowl of these nuts will be devoured with exclamations of joy. They’re also easy and welcome gifts.

The other MUST on myChristmas list : Cheese biscuits.  Grate 8 ounces of sharp cheddar. Mix with 4 ounces–one stick–of softened butter. With a mixer, work in 1  cup of flour, some salt, cayenne, and pepper. I like to add, though my mother did not, some thyme leaves and chopped rosemary  Form the mixture into logs and chlll for a couple of hours.

Slice thinly onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about eight minutes or until the edges start to brown and crisp. Or, you can just form the dough into little mounds like small cookies and bake the m the way my mother made did.  Before baking, she placed on top of each biscuit  a pecan half. When they cooled, she sprinkled on a little powdered sugar.  I don’t do that–mine are more like wafers–but it is tasty that way. I just figure the cheese and butter is enough with out the sugar hit. These are universally scoffed up, so much so that dinner can be ruined.  They are lethal to have left over because you find yourself just drawn to that cookie tin with each coffee or glass of wine or nothing at all. As a true southerner, I thought that Coca-cola was the perfect pairing. Just irresistible. If lots of entertainng is on your calendar, double the recipe, then just pull a log out of the fridge and bake as your guests ring the bell, so that a warm plate of cheese wafers is at the ready.

As soon as my daughter and I make them this year, I’ll post the recipe for  Martha Washington Jetties. Every Christmas of my life I have indulged in the making of these candies. Whether the real Martha actually made them, I don’t know. But I do know that my mother made them once a year, as do I, and as does my daughter. It simply would not be Christmas without the depression glass candy jar filled with these delectable chocolate-covered pecan fondant dreams.

I would love to hear what you are compelled to concoct as the solstice nears!

[Photo to come]