BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO

I’m so excited that the last post of 2010 is courtesy my dear, dear friend Courtney Rath.  Courtney & her husband John make killer risotto; Jill and I had the pleasure of enjoying it for the first time last year on New Year’s Eve, and I’ve been bothering her to guest-blog about it ever since.

If you, as we do, prefer to skip the maddening crowds and stay home on the last night of the year, consider adding this risotto to your dinner plan.  It’s the perfect night to make some fuss over dinner; plus, you have to stay up until midnight, anyway, so you don’t have to worry about being in a rush!  Wishing everyone a safe & happy celebration—see you in 2011!—Nishta


Risotto is one of those dishes with a bad reputation.  I’ve been known to have one too—students who haven’t had me as a teacher think I’m scary, colleagues think I’m intimidating—so I can sympathize.  I’m a total pushover, really, and so is risotto.  It requires two things: the best rice you are willing to spring for, and a menu that doesn’t require precise timing.

In our efforts to perfect risotto dishes, we ended up with many pots of sticky but still not-quite-done versions.  The culprit: arborio.  It’s the cheapest and most readily available option, but it produces dense, too chewy results.  A recipe book we found, from which the following version is adapted, recommended carnaroli, which consistently becomes creamy and yet is difficult to overcook.  It’s expensive, but totally worth it.

Our other realization was that risotto has its own notions of time.  Don’t time the rest of a meal around a risotto; choose a main dish that can rest as long as you need and will be very tasty at room temperature, or that can continue to roast or braise or whatever until your risotto is ready.  And you need to be able to give the risotto your full attention while you’re working on it—all the ingredients chopped and ready, nothing else to do for a bit except stir, add more liquid, stir, add more liquid.

Sounds like trouble, right?  But it’s the good kind of trouble, I promise.


BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO

adapted from Risotto: 30 Simply Delicious Vegetarian Recipes from an Italian Kitchen, by Ursula Ferrigno

5-6 c. vegetable stock*
¼ c. unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
8 shallots, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced or crushed
1 ½ c. carnaroli rice
½ c. dry white wine
2 c. butternut squash, cubed into ½ inch pieces
1 ½ c. freshly grated Parmesan
handful of coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste


Heat the stock in a saucepan until it is almost boiling, then reduce the heat to low to keep it simmering.  Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  It’s easiest to work on adjacent burners so that the transfer of liquids doesn’t become too messy.

Add the shallots and cook until they are softened but not brown, 2-3 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so.  Then add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated in oil.

Now for the fun part.  The general process is to add liquid a little at a time and stir until it is just absorbed, then add more liquid and stir, and so on until the rice is cooked to your preferred tenderness.  Start with the wine.  When it is completely absorbed, add a ladleful of stock, the squash, and the parsley; stir until the liquid is absorbed.

You don’t want your pan so hot that the liquid boils off; rather you want to simmer everything so that the liquid can be absorbed by the rice.  And you don’t want your pan to get so dry that things begin to stick, so don’t wait until there’s no liquid left to add the next ladleful.

But most of all, don’t worry!  Risotto forgives everything except burning, so err on the side of too much liquid and you’ll be fine (it will all get absorbed in the end, I swear).

Repeat this process until the rice and squash are done to your liking, reserving at least one more ladle of stock for the finishing touch.  Turn off the heat and add the cheese, salt and pepper, and the remaining stock.  Mix well and cover; let it rest for 2 or 3 minutes, then serve immediately.

* Most recipes call for 4 cups of stock to 1 ½ cups of rice, but I always ran out before my risotto was al dente and ended up using water to finish the risotto.  So now I just heat more than I think I will need—better to have too much than too little (in risotto as in many things)—and I usually end up using all of it.

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2010 YEAR-IN-REVIEW

Things I like to do at Christmastime: read “The Gift of the Magi,” enthusiastically sing Christmas songs, carols, & hymns, bake things I think Jill’s daddy would like (this year, pecan pie with a butter/lard crust and a sorghum/bourbon filling), and sort through the past year’s letters and journal entries reminding myself of what’s transpired, the milestones, blessings, changes, subtractions, sadnesses, and additions.

In my world, 2010 has yielded two weddings, one funeral, some incredible concerts (Robert Plant! Patty Griffin! Local Natives! The National! Iron & Wine!), play time in New York and Chicago, and Lord knows how many hours in the kitchen.

Jill and I signed fancy paperwork (nothing says “Let’s Stay Together” like Durable Powers of Attorney), took a long-overdue vacation to Mexico, adopted a sweet kitten, and welcomed some incredible new people into our lives.

And always, one constant, this virtual place and you very real people out there, reading.  Thank you for your presence, it truly is a gift.

BLOG YEAR-IN-REVIEW…

This was Blue Jean Gourmet’s first full calendar year of existence, so it was fun to comb back through and choose a favorite post for each month.  Some I chose for the recipe itself, others for the slice of life the blog post reveals.  All show off  Sonya Cuellar’s mad photography skills.

I hope you’ll enjoy combing back through these twelve, and back through your own memories of this year.  Merry Christmas, all!

JANUARY—CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

FEBRUARY—GREG’S BROWNIES

MARCH—CINNAMON ROLLS

APRIL—RADISHES, TWO WAYS

MAY—ROASTED CHICKPEAS

JUNE—PEACHES, THREE WAYS

JULY—MY LIFE IN OKRA [guest post by Jill]

AUGUST—TOMATO CORN PIE

SEPTEMBER—PANKO-CRUSTED PORTOBELLOS

OCTOBER—CARAMELIZED ONION TART

NOVEMBER—DIWALI 2010

DECEMBER—MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINTS

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MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA

It always works this way.

At the end of the year, or the end of the school year, or the beginning of vacation, I have a couple of days of pure, unadulterated elation, days full of plans: a dinner of seemingly never-ending Lebanese food, cranberry scones with lemon curd for brunch, a Christmas open house with a mariachi band, an evening full of football-watching that leaves empty bottles of wine on the counter for recycling.

But then, somewhere in there, when I’ve reached the bottom of my to-do list, I find myself feeling sad. Like really, unbelievable, out-of-nowhere, sobbing-at-the-kitchen-table sad. Because my father’s still dead. And that still really sucks.

I say this only because I know I am far from the only one for whom the holidays can be really, really hard. When you’ve lost someone—no matter how long it’s been—these days of “home for the holidays” can draw that absence up to the surface, pushing and tugging and scratching the skin. The songs, the signs, the rituals, even the cheesy Christmas commercials, all of them can trigger grief.

So check in on your friends and family, especially if they are going through the “first round” of holidays without a loved one. They may not want company, but they will, I promise, appreciate the compassion.

MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA
recipe inspired by Tom Gutting, a tall, friendly guy with a nice smile and a wine blog

You know when you eat something so good that you remember it for months afterward? And you are kind of jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself? And every once in a while you wish you had more of it to it, right then at that very moment?

And then one day you see oyster & crimini mushrooms at the Farmers’ Market and you think “TODAY IS THE DAY! I will recreate Tom’s mushroom bruschetta!”?

No? That’s never happened to you?  Curious .

I’m not sure if I did Tom’s original version justice, but what I came up with sure did taste good.

ingredients:

3 cups chopped mushrooms, mixed variety
2 thick slices of bacon, diced (use 3 or 4 if your bacon’s more thinly sliced)
¼ cup fresh thyme, on the stem, plus a bit more for garnish
a glug (maybe 1/8 cup?) of cognac (substitute red or white wine or sherry)
knob of butter (3-4 T)

for serving: a loaf of crusty bread (a baguette or Italian loaf would work nicely)
chevre or other soft goat’s milk cheese

Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on the amount of fat that’s rendered, you can pour some off (but don’t pour it out!—store that good stuff in a jar in the fridge, please). Reduce the heat to medium, then throw in the butter, mushrooms, and thyme, sautéing it all until the mushrooms brown.

Add the end, pour in the cognac and deglaze the pan, letting the mixture cook down until the liquid is reduced. Turn off the heat and remove the thyme stems from the pan. Stir in some freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

To assemble, slice and toast the bread. Spread generously with cheese, then top with mushroom mix. Sprinkle with reserved thyme leaves and serve.

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CRACKED WHEAT ROLLS

Y’all.  I have a serious case of end-of-the-semester-teacher brain.  I keep trying to write you a coherent post but unrelated thoughts keep whizzing through my mind at random and I cannot seem to stop them.

Ahem:

a)    Pretty pleased that my students pronounced today’s English midterm “challenging but not too hard.”

b)    Real excited about not having to wake up in the 5 o’clock hour for the next two weeks.

c)    Will probably miss my students during those two weeks, though.  Yep.  I will.

d)    Feeling overwhelmed (in the best way) by the number of folks I will get to see in the next two weeks that I don’t get to see often—some I haven’t seen in years!—Phil, Varsha, Anita, Courtney, McKee, Kate, Stephen, Marynelle, et al., you are my Christmas presents.

e)    Oh and my mama.  Hey mama!  I can’t wait to see you.  And eat your spaghetti sauce of goodness.  And watch movies.  And make you laugh.

f)    Rumor has it that my godsons are getting big boy bikes for Christmas.  I don’t think they read my blog (yet), so I feel I am not betraying Santa by posting this information.

g)    Another Memphis visit bonus: being fitted for my bridesmaids dress for my friend Kristen’s June wedding.  It’s black and real purty.  Squee!

h)    Today I ate my namesake hamburger.  More importantly, I have a namesake hamburger.

i)    You can donate socks to soldiers here, and the company will cover the shipping costs.  I think that’s pretty great.

j)    Currently, I got me some red fingernail polish, and lots o blessings.

k)    I can’t stop eating bread products lately.  Can’t. Get. Enough. Carbohydrates.  Hope I fit into my pants come January.

CRACKED WHEAT ROLLS
from Gourmet, February 2009

You need a half a day to get these rolls from start to finish, but they are a worthy consumer of your time, I promise.  Chewy, salty outer crust and soft, layered interior…they’d go nicely with any holiday meal.

Additionally, I can recommend no better thing for a winter breakfast than one of these babies toasted and slathered with butter and jam.  Pants be damned.

ingredients:

1 ½ cups boiling hot water
½ cup bulgur (a.k.a. cracked wheat)
table salt
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 ¼ tsp (or 1 package) active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (warm but not hot to touch, ~105 to 115˚ F)
1 T honey or sugar
1 ½ cups whole-wheat flour
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading

egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 T water)
flaky sea salt (I used Maldon)

Part One: Soak the Bulgur (40 minutes)

Pour the boiling water over the bulgur & ½ tsp. of salt in a small bowl.  Let stand until the wheat is tender, approximately 40 minutes.  Drain in a sieve & let cool a bit before mixing into the dough.

Part Two: Make the Dough (first rise = approx. 2 hours)

Heat the milk with butter in a small saucepan over low heat.  Set aside to cool.  Stir together the yeast, warm water, & honey (or sugar) in a large bowl and let stand for 5 minutes.  The mixture should foam; if it doesn’t, throw it out and start again with new yeast.

Once foamy, add the flours and 2 ½ tsp. salt to the yeast mixture.  Mix the drained bulgur & cooled milk mixture into the flour with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.  Dough will be sticky!

Flour up your counter and get to kneading—5 to 8 minutes of elbow grease should do the trick.  The dough should be smooth and spring back when pressed with a finger.  Oil the bowl you mixed the dough in, roll the dough into a ball and stash in the bowl to let rise in a warm place, covered with a kitchen towel.  Depending on the warmth of your kitchen/house, it may take closer to 2 ½ hours for the dough to fully double.

Part Three: Form the Rolls (second rise = approx. 1 hour)

Line baking sheets with parchment.  Punch down the dough and divide it in half (but leave it alone otherwise!  No more kneading!).  Cover one half of dough with plastic wrap while working with the other.

For small rolls, cut one half of the dough into 12 equal pieces.  For bigger rolls, divide into 6 pieces.  With floured hands, roll each piece into a long rope, then tie each rope into a knot, tucking one end into the bottom to form a flat surface.  Transfer the adorable! little! knots! to a baking sheet, placing them generously far apart.  Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Let the rolls rise, covered with kitchen towels, in a warm place.  Again, depending on the warmth of your kitchen/house, it may take an extra half hour for your rolls to double in size.

Part Four: Bake those Rolls (30-40 minutes total for baking & cooling)

Heat the oven to 375˚.  Brush the rolls with egg wash and then sprinkle generously with sea salt.  Bake the rolls until golden brown, approximately 20-25 minutes.  Cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes before serving.

You can also cool the rolls completely and freeze them for up to a month, reheating them in a 350˚ oven for 10-15 minutes.  But you’re probably just going to eat them all the day you bake them and the next morning for breakfast.  Or maybe that’s just us.

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SAFFRON/CAULIFLOWER SOUP

Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.

‘Twas in the moon of this particular wintertime that I just can’t seem to get enough of Christmas music.  Hymns, carols, Jingle Bell Rock, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch…you name it, I’ve been belting it out.

I know it’s become fashionable to berate the holiday season, to dread, to preemptively tense one’s shoulders, to decide ahead of time that things will go wrong and family will be dreadful, to pretty much be grumpy from Thanksgiving until New Year’s.  But not me.  Not this year.

This blogger is filled with the holiday spirit.  The magic!  The cheer!  The food!  The party dresses!  Last weekend, there were latkes.  This weekend, there will be a Christmas tree.  The list of friends and family I’ll get to see (that I don’t normally) in the next few weeks is long and lush.  How can I not feel exuberant?

It very well may be the most wonderful time of the year.  Or at least, I’m going to treat it that way.

SAFFRON/CAULIFLOWER SOUP

This recipe is incredibly simple to make but stole the show at our last “Blog Day.”  Friends kept returning for bowls of seconds and thirds, and pretty soon there was no soup left.

ingredients:

1 head cauliflower florets, broken into 1-2 inch pieces
2 carrots, peeled & chopped
2 yellow onions, peeled & diced
a knot of ginger, about 2 inches long, chopped
2 T butter
2 T olive oil, plus a bit extra
1 tsp. cumin
pinch saffron
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups water

salt, to taste

In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, sauté the onions and ginger in the butter and olive oil until fragrant.  Add the carrots and cauliflower and crank up the heat in order to get a bit of color on the vegetables.  Once the cauliflower has browned to the desired degree, pour in the stock and water and bring the mixture to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, adding cumin and some salt.

In a small saucepan, warm a bit of oil and “bloom” the saffron, releasing its flavor and color.  Add to the soup mixture.  Cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender.  Use a stick blender or transfer the soup in batches to puree the soup until smooth.  Taste and add salt, if needed.

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BISCOTTI & BLONDIES

I’m learning.

That I don’t have to plan everything down to the last detail. That no one actually cares if my kitchen floor is immaculate (it’s not, in case you were wondering). That it’s okay to skip the gym on Friday and eat fried shrimp instead. That hanging with your eighth grade students during the last “study” hall of the year, eating jelly beans and making velociraptor noises and playing hangman will cure any existential woes you may be experiencing; in fact, it will disappear them altogether.

Maybe I’m not so much learning as remembering, or being reminded. The holiday cards are rolling in and we’ve begun our tradition of decorating the mantle with them, pictures and notes from the people we love, who love us, who live near and far, who are figuring out how to do life the best way, with the most of what matters and the least of what doesn’t.

I don’t have it all figured out, but I’ve kind of given up on that anyway. Nothing to figure, really. Today to enjoy. That’s what I got. Well, that and cookies.

ALMOND BISCOTTI
adapted from Epicurious.com

2 ¼ cups flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
6 T unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. whole anise seed
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. almond extract
1 cup toasted almonds, chopped

optional: 6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, for dipping the finished biscotti

oven: 325˚
pan: baking sheets lined with parchment

Beat the butter and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in eggs one at a time, then mix in the extracts and anise. Stir together the dry ingredients, then add to the wet mixture and blend until a dough just comes together. Stir in the almonds.

Flour your counter or a cutting board generously. Carefully gather the dough—it will be sticky!—and divide it in half, shaping each half into a log about a foot long and 1 ½ inches wide. Basically, the logs of dough should be as wide as you want the length of your biscotti to be.

Transfer the logs onto one baking sheet, leaving a little room between them. Bake until firm to the touch but still pale, 25-30 minutes. Cool for about ten minutes, leaving the oven on.

Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, cut logs into thick slices. Place the slices, cut side down, on baking sheets and bake until firm and golden, flipping halfway through the baking (20 minutes total, or 10 on each side).

Once the biscotti have cooled, melt the chocolate in the microwave (carefully, in 30 second increments, stirring between each) or in a double boiler on the stove. Dip each cookie into the chocolate and return to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill the cookies in the fridge for 20-30 minutes, or until the chocolate sets.

Store the biscotti in an airtight container for up to a week.

BLONDIES
from Cook’s Illustrated

1 cup pecans, toasted & coarsely chopped
1 ½ sticks butter, melted
1 ½ cups flour
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 cup white chocolate chips or chunks*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt

pan: square baking pan (8 or 9 inches)
oven: 350˚

Line the baking pan with foil, leaving plenty of overhang on both sides. Grease the foil with cooking spray or butter.

Whisk the melted butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a spatula, fold in the dry ingredients but don’t over-mix. Fold in the chocolate and nuts, then pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.

Bake blondies until the top is shiny and cracked and the center remains firm when you give the pan a good shake. Depending on your oven, this should take somewhere between 20-30 minutes.

Cool the pan completely (don’t cheat, they’ll be too liquid inside!) on a rack before lifting the blondies out by their foil overhang and cutting into generous squares. The blondies will be gooey; don’t fret, that’s part of their charm.

*You can also use a mixture of white chocolate & semisweet chocolate

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GINGERBREAD COOKIES

Last night I dreamed that bars around the country were offering discounts to patrons who were bringing in classic books and reading at the bar.  I walked into a lovely spot, some figment of my mind’s imagination, replete with soft light, reclaimed wood counters, and a suspender-sporting bartender who made me a wonderful Manhattan and inquired as to my progress with As I Lay Dying.

On Friday, I walked into class to discover a group of eighth graders honest-to-goodness excited about the reading they had done the night before.  “The book got really good, Ms. Mehra!”  “I couldn’t stop reading!”  (As an English teacher, life really doesn’t get much better than that).

“The book” they were talking about, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the first true piece of classic literature most of them have ever encountered, and it is one of my absolute favorite books of all time, one that keeps constant on my “Desert Island” list, one that I never tire of reading, never stop learning from, never cease being moved by (see: Dill carrying Atticus’ chair, the balcony standing for Atticus after the trial, & “Thank you for my children” at the very end).

I could go on and on and on about the wonder and glory and magic books; it is, after all, my job.  But since some friends asked me to, I’ll talk instead about specific books, classics that have shaped my aesthetics, books I think are worth re-visiting, or visiting for the first time.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a short smattering of my personal favorites.  I’m also slipping in a short list of more recent books that I loved in 2010.  Please do leave your recommendations, whether classic or current, in the comments.  Happy reading!

CLASSIC AUTHORS WORTH RE-VISITING (OR READING FOR THE FIRST TIME):

Fyodor Dostoevksy: The softest of spots in my heart for this author, whom I read for the first time my senior year of high school, and whose name I then adopted as the last name for my first car.  Both of the below books were required reading that year, and they both blew me away.  Brothers is much more of a commitment that C&P, and with both it helps to use a character list “cheat sheet” to keep up with the crazy Russian names, and to read only the best translation (the husband-and-wife pair of Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky do very fine work).

Crime & Punishment (inside the mind of one man; ethics; redemption)
The Brothers Karamazov (three brothers’ family saga; belief; truth)

George Eliot: Mary Ann Evans, author behind the pen name, is one of the finest observers of human nature that I’ve ever read.  Her unique position of being a woman, posing as a male author, writing about female characters, makes for some fascinating reader-author-narrator dynamics.

The Mill on the Floss (brother & sister dynamics; duty; disappointment)
Middlemarch (large cast of characters; purpose of marriage; place of women)

Arthur Miller: One of the great American dramatists; I think our historical time is ripe for revisiting these plays now that half-a-century-plus has passed.  These are also often taught in high schools and colleges, but as with all classics, I think there is a real richness that comes when we revisit such literature as adults, with the layered perspectives of lived experience.

Death of a Salesman (father & sons; dreams & disappointment; the American way of life)
The Crucible (mob mentality; scapegoats; fear of the other)

Tennessee Williams: I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school reading everything that Tennessee Williams had ever written.  Guess I should have known then that I would end up an English teacher, eh?  It’s a bit difficult for me to choose just two of his plays, but here we have one classic and one obscure (the latter is my favorite Williams).

The Glass Menagerie (mothers; loss; broken promises)
Summer & Smoke (love v. lust; fate; transformation)

CLASSIC BOOKS WORTH RE-VISITING (OR READING FOR THE FIRST TIME):

Labryinths/stories & other writings (J.L. Borges)
Another piece of literature that never budges from my penultimate list, this collection of writings contain some of the most inventive and brilliant short-short stories I’ve ever read.  The way this man’s mind works is dazzling; the world he sees in his mind’s eye is a pleasure to visit.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Widely considered one of the “Great American Novels,” this one is particularly interesting to re-read in the midst of a recession, as its set in climate of economic excess.  Fitzgerald is, too, a master of language, and his descriptions are a joy, even when what he’s describing is not.

The Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham)
When it’s good, literature addresses our deepest questions and concerns: who are we?  what’s our purpose?  what is the proper way to live?  This book travels the world as its protagonists seeks to answer these questions for himself.

The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Young Pecola Breedlove is one of those characters you never forget; a young black girl whose white society teaches her that she’s ugly. Some of the turns of Toni Morrison’s very fine language have stuck in my mind since I first read the book, and they are always a pleasure to return to.

Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackery)
Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” I learned to love the craft and scope of this book as a graduate student, thanks to one Professor Epstein.  Though there might not be any characters to straight-out admire, there are plenty of strands of human behavior in which we can all (for better or worse) see ourselves.

Our Town (Thorton Wilder)
I love the theatre, can you tell?  The meaning of this measured drama completely transformed for me after my father died; the experience of loss brought me newly to the play, allowing me to see things in it I couldn’t have as a high school student.  Literature stays the same, but we are always fluctuating, that’s the beauty of it.



YOUNG ADULT CLASSICS (GOOD FOR ADULTS, TOO):

by Roald Dahl:

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
The classic on which the films are based tells the story of a poor young boy drawn into a magical world full of chocolate, candy, and the power of imagination.

The BFG
Young orphan Sophie (after whom one of our cats is named, thanks to the Montessori kids I was teaching when we adopted her) is befriended/kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant.

by Alexandre Dumas:

The Count of Monte Cristo
Revenge!  Mystery!  Intrigue!  Swordfights!  My students always balk at the length of this novel but get sucked in anyway.

The Three Musketeers
Then, a lot of them read this one next.  It also has mystery!  intrigue!  and swordfighting!  Plus brotherhood!  and loyalty!

by Katherine Paterson:

Bridge to Terabithia
A young boy who doesn’t fit in his family + a young girl who doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school + a teacher who takes an interest + the power of imagination = one of the best coming-of-age stories I know.

Jacob Have I Loved
I don’t have a sibling, but this book made me feel like I understood the experience of competing with one, and gave me hope that even the oddest of ducks would eventually find his/her place.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
A murder mystery that still leaves me guessing when I re-read it, plus lush writing and emotion.  A true classic.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
With a spunky, opinionated narrator and arguably the best trial scenes in all of literature, this novel captures the joys of childhood summers, the love between parent and child, and the difficult truth of the ugliness of human nature—and its potential redemption.

Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls)
This book came up the other night at a table full of grownups and we all began screaming simultaneously “I CANNOT THINK ABOUT THAT BOOK WITHOUT CRYING!”  The love between a boy and his dogs has never been better captured; read with Kleenex.

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
I read this book aloud at my father’s bedside in the hours before he died.  It is a frank, beautiful, and powerful tale of love and friendship.

BOOKS I READ & ABSOLUTELY LOVED IN 2010

*each book is linked to its Amazon listing

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
March (Geraldine Brooks)
The Ticking is the Bomb (Nick Flynn)
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)

And now, for some food (the kind we eat).

GINGERBREAD COOKIES
from Saveur.com


Gingerbread is its own classic-worth-revisiting.  As a kid, they were the cookies I passed over in favor of flashier, more sugary stuff.  But my slightly grown-up palate is now all too pleased with these little spiced cookies.

Though the cookies featured here were dusted with powdered sugar (I have learned that the use of a sieve or flour sifter will help create that pretty, even, powdery coverage), the second batch I made, and ate almost singlehandedly, I decorated with squiggles of a simple citrus glaze: a squeeze of lemon juice + enough powdered sugar to yield desired consistency.

The cookies, both glazed and sugared versions, kept in an airtight container for a week after baking, and they were delicious.

3 ¾ cups flour
3 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
3 tsp. ground cloves
2 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
11 T unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup golden syrup*
½ cup heavy cream

Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.  In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, & golden syrup until fluffy, 2 minutes.  Alternate adding the flour mixture and the heavy cream, starting and ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix until the dough just comes together.

Divide the dough in half and cover each piece with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least one hour.  (I kept one half of the dough overnight, and the resulting cookies tasted just as good).

When ready to bake, line baking sheets with parchment & preheat the oven to 350˚.  On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to desired thickness; thinner if you want crisp cookies, thicker if you want chewiness.  Go crazy with the cookie cutters!

Refrigerate the cut-out cookies on their baking sheets for 15-20 minutes before baking.  Then, bake for 12-15 minutes, watching carefully so that the bottoms don’t brown.  Cool cookies completely before dusting with powdered sugar or glazing.

* Saveur claims you can substitute dark corn syrup, but I think it messes with the texture.

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MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINTS

Moment of truth: I’m all burnt out on holiday baking.

A giant cookie-and-other-treat-extravaganza has been part of my regular December schedule since I was a girl.  Once school let out for Christmas break, my mom would take off of work and we’d dedicate two full days to baking.

That time of kitchen apprenticeship is really, I think, what started this whole train a-runnin’.  Not only did I learn from my mother (about timing, planning, coordination of baking sheets and oven space, how to fill muffin tins just so, how to substitute one sugar for another, how to gently work a cream cheese dough), but I also became committed to the spirit of that baking, done as a way of sharing with and contributing to the ones we loved, used as an excuse for my mom and me to be together in the kitchen for two whole days.

I’m still committed to that spirit, of course; I thoroughly appreciate the ritual and legacy that those days, and my subsequent continuation of them through graduate school and into my home life with Jill, have created.  But, you know what?  I’m kinda tired.  And I realized that I was dreading, instead of joyfully looking forward to, my annual holiday baking project.  So this year, I’m not doing it.

What’s hilarious is that, a few weekends ago, I did a “blog day” full of cookies in anticipation of sharing with all of you some favorite recipes for baking and sharing this time of year.  I’m still going to share them, of course, over the next two weeks, and I’ve listed below the already myriad cookie recipes contained elsewhere on this blog.  And please don’t think that my “opt-out” is a judgment on those who will bake this year—far from it.

In fact, I hope you WILL bake this year, in your tiny cramped apartment, in your beautiful, house-of-my-dreams kitchen, with your children, with your best friend, with your parent, or all alone.  I hope it makes your house smell fantastic and your heart feel full.

As for me, this is my year to sit back and watch.  Somehow I let a ritual become an obligation in my mind, something I felt I was compelled to do, that I felt others would expect me to do, that I felt I needed to do in order to please others or because it’s what I’ve always done.  Instead I’m taking a leap of faith (seems appropriate for the season, doesn’t it?) and trusting that the people in my life are in it for more than just the baked goods.

MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINT COOKIES

Winter is a glorious time for citrus down here in South Texas; I found some local Meyer lemons at the Farmers’ Market a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist their perfume.  For the filling, I made a quick blackberry jam, but you could easily use store bought and/or swap in another flavor.

for the dough:

2 ¼ cups flour
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
zest of 1 Meyer lemon
pinch of salt

oven: 350˚

Line two baking sheets with parchment.

In the stand bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest together.  Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla.  Fold in the flour & salt until the mixture forms a soft dough.  Shape into a disk, cover in plastic, and refrigerate for thirty minutes.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll into 1-inch balls.  Place each one on a cookie sheet, leaving room for the cookies to flatten a bit.  Using your thumb, press gently into the center of each dough ball, then spoon some jam into the indentations.

Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes or until the centers seem set and the surrounding dough solid.  Cool on racks before serving or storing in an airtight container.

for the jam:

1 pint blackberries, rinsed
¾-1 cup sugar, depending on your taste
juice of one lemon

In a nonstick saucepot, stir the ingredients together and bring the mixture to a bubble.  Cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mixture starts to thicken and pull together (it will continue to thicken as it cools, so you still want it to be somewhat loose  & stir-able).

Transfer to a glass jar or other heatproof container & allow the jam to come to room temperature before using it in this or another recipe.  Store any leftovers in the fridge.

BAKE AWAY, MY FRIENDS:

alfajores

almond-coconut bars

cardamom shortbread cookies

chewy amaretti cookies

molasses cookies

peanut butter/almond butter cookies

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