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Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

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I don’t drink much Guinness these days, which is a shame, but I have a deep, fond love for the stuff. It goes back to my college days when, tired of watered down $2 pitchers of Coors Light, my friends and I would save our pennies and splurge once in a while on Guinness pints or Black & Tan’s at our local Irish Pub. We’d eat bowls and bowls of free pretzels, play really bad games of darts and coerce Colin the bartender to do handstand push-ups on the bar. I loved that place far more than the cheaper pitcher joint packed with the pretty people. Quirky neighborhood joints with interesting clientele have always been more my thing.

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I’ve often wondered about Brown Bread Ice Cream. What was it? Who puts bread in ice cream? In my mind, it was a major disconnect. Bread + Ice Cream = Huh? During my research into Irish recipes, this one came up several times yet I’ve never tasted, much less made it. Why would you do such a thing? Cookies yes, but bread? Brown wheat bread? But you know I was intrigued. My friend Meg once made an amazing ice cream with popcorn so how different could this be? I recalled a post David Lebovitz, the ice cream king, did a few years ago so I thought I’d start there. And you know what? It was really good and what better time than around St. Patrick’s Day to try this one out?

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Around this time every year, I try to come up with a creative spin on Irish food for St. Patrick’s Day beyond the standard corned beef and cabbage or things tinted green or soaked with Bailey’s. I think the food of the Emerald Isle, like much of the UK, gets a bad rap. It’s the same situation everywhere: you get the good and you get the bad and I’ve had some phenomenal meals in Ireland. I’ve also had a few wretched ones. Whatever. In researching traditional Irish food, a few things come up repeatedly:  boxty, colcannon, soda bread. I had heard of someplace – in Southern California maybe? – that was doing boxty as a sort of potato pancake-crepe hybrid with various hearty fillings, and the thought stuck with me. Since I’ve had boxty exactly zero times, it’s been on my list to try for some time. But things are funny.  Sometimes what starts out as one thing, turns into something else as wonderful discoveries are made along the way.  And while this started out as an experiment in boxty, it was the filling that took me by surprise. Go figure.

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Linzertorte was one of those things that made me immensely happy in culinary school. I was tickled to finally be making all those old-school European pastries I’d pined for as a kid pouring over my mother’s cookbooks: Dobos Torte, Marjolaine, Opera Torte, Sacher Torte and yes, the linzer. Making my own, following the exacting instructions of a classically inclined chef, made me feel good about my seemingly off-the-cuff career change, from marketing to pastry. It also cemented a particular mindset I’d started to develop regarding classic pastries. Riffs and adaptations are welcome but one must know the classic, the original, first.  You have to know history before you can rewrite it.  With many things of this nature, I am a traditionalist and when it comes to linzer, I have a very defined set of parameters.

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Oh Valentine’s Day.  So much pressure, so many expectations, often so many disappointments. Falling on a Friday this year, I think it’s heightened even more. Good luck getting a reservation and with the weather lately, who knows what will happen. Slipping through icy streets to pack into a crowded restaurant with others working hard to enjoy themselves? Doesn’t sound too appealing to me. Here’s a thought:  stay in, watch a good movie, drink champagne and eat a lot of chocolate. Preferably in liquid form. Sounds good doesn’t it?

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Early in our adult life, a former boyfriend and I couldn’t always afford to buy plane tickets home to Arizona for the holidays.  This made me a little sad, as Christmas is quite the thing in my family.  Being poor was depressing enough but missing our traditional holiday meals only compounded the situation.  No Christmas Eve oysters?  No pierogies?  No crazy cooking marathon with my mom or opening stockings on Christmas morning like when we were kids?  Exchanging gifts isn’t nearly as fun when you’re not there to see the recipients face.  Luckily we had some family nearby and many friends who were happy to invite us to their celebrations, and this helped.  One year, we were invited to the family home of a good friends girlfriend for what became a rather memorable Christmas.

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This weekend was my friend Meme’s annual Holiday Cookie Exchange and it was as lovely as ever.  This is always quite the to-do, with more than a few pastry chefs in attendance so you know the offerings will be pretty good, but it’s also important to show well.  I mean, these are my peers.  I can’t show up with a crap cookie.  The horror.  In years past, I’ve made ridiculous cookies.  Last year I carefully candied thin kumquat slices to top buttery sable cookies.  It took a million hours and was beyond ridiculous but they were beautiful and rather delicious.  This year, I knew my cookies were good, very good in fact, (I made these) and holiday appropriate with a really great ginger bite, but they were rather plain looking.  Even I was underwhelmed.  So that morning, I decided to up the ante and get crafty.  I would make the platter upon which these cookies would rest.  Yep.  I made a platter.

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Like most, I grew up on the pumpkin pie from the back of the Libby’s label.  The crust may have been homemade or may have been a Pillsbury crust, I don’t really recall, but the pumpkin came from a can.  Mixed with fresh eggs, various seasonal spices and a can of evaporated milk it was the holiday standard.  When I was old enough to assume pie responsibilities, I follwed the recipe religiously and produced two beautiful pies. There was never deviation from this plan. Don’t mess with tradition; there are dire consequences.  The pie was always, always, served with Reddi-Whip right out of the can.  In fact, squirting copious amounts of Reddi-Whip directly into our mouths while hiding behind the refrigerator door was an important part of my sisters’ and my holiday tradition.  Our mother was on watch as soon as the groceries were unpacked and would listen for that telltale sound.  With ears like a hawk, we never quite pulled it off.

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Last year, coincidentally, Cinco de Mayo fell on the same day as the Kentucky Derby making for a very fine fiesta. My friend Chris threw a “Cinco de Derby” party and I spent a great deal of time at the dollar store conceptualizing the perfect party hat. Onto a big straw chapeau that looked a little too Huck Finn to start, went red, white and green ribbons, a bouquets worth of fake red and white flowers and to really make it special, I glued on a big plastic horse because nothing says “derby” like a large equine sculpture on the side of your head. It was heavy and lopsided due to that horse but I looked rather fantastic. Since the 2013 Kentucky Derby is Saturday May 4th and Cinco de Mayo is Sunday May 5th I think my hat may come out of retirement. It will perfectly compliment a big melted mass of cheese.

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My mother and I spend a great deal of time planning our holiday meals.  Christmas Eve is always a big seafood extravaganza, our own version of the Italian “Feast of the Seven Fishes” and though much of the menu stays the same, we’re open to new ideas.  Throughout the year we keep an eye out for something that might work into the menu.  If something piques our interest, we’ll make a little mental note and have lengthy discussions.  Oysters on the half shell, steamed clams and king crab legs with lots of lemon and garlic butter are fixed, no question.  But we’ve also tried shrimp cocktail, steamed mussels, BBQ shrimp, a horrendously failed attempt at grilled calamari, stuffed mussels and a cold seafood salad at one time or another.  While all were good, except that calamari which I refused to serve, neither of us was in love with any of them.  So I was on the lookout.

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