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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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A farm turned my weekend around. Really. I was in the far western reaches of the Chicago suburbs last weekend for a wedding and thought I’d visit a nearby orchard bright and early Saturday morning. I’d pick some apples, maybe grab a few cider donuts and head home to make a pie or two. Instead, what I found was my personal vision of hell. The signs in caps and excess exclamation points should have tipped me off that this would not be one of the bucolic orchard experiences I’ve had in the past. PUMPKIN PATCH!!! APPLE PICKING!!! CORN MAZE!!! God help me.

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Until this weekend, I had been morel foraging exactly once and planned to keep it that way.  I was visiting family in Southern Indiana around Easter time and my rather eccentric uncle decided it would be a great idea to trapsaise around the woods looking for elusive fungi.  For 5 hours we tromped up and down hills and ravines, half bent over looking for things that closely resembled the forest floor.  It was cold, damp and generally miserable and my uncle pushed us on and on, long past the time I was ready to call it quits and head in for a beer. When all was said and done, the lot of us had found exactly 6 mushrooms, one of which I discovered the moment before I stepped on it.  This was supposed to be fun?

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My family, particularly my father and uncle, is a bunch of garlic heads.  No matter what we make, there is never enough garlic.  Growing up in Phoenix, my Chicago-raised Polish father was never happy with the quality of polish sausage we could find so we started making our own.   Every Easter, he’d lug out the heavy hand grinder, cranking away as I would add head upon head of garlic cloves, a shocking amount really.  He’d pan fry up a little taste and declare “No, not enough.  More garlic!”  The rest of us would groan but we kept cranking.  At some point, as the garlic-to-pork ratio increased, I think it ceased being Polish sausage and became something else entirely.  Whatever it was, it was certainly delicious.  And pungent.

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Over the last few years, I’ve become a big lard fan.  All hail pig fat!  It makes a fantastic pie crust, a delectable biscuit and a surprisingly tender cake.   I was at a pig butchery demo not long ago with Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman and the subject of lard arose.  In the middle his demo, Chef Polcyn held up a large piece of pure white fat, the leaf lard surrounding the kidneys, and said something to the effect of “if only pastry chefs understood the power of lard.”  Ahem.  I, of course, spoke up in my brethern’s defense.  Oh buddy, we are well aware.  Little did he know at the time that I had 7+ pounds of unrendered leaf lard back home in my freezer.

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The email was sitting in my inbox last week, “October Unprocessed 2012!”  Excellent.  I’d given the challenge to avoid processed food for a full month a whirl last year and was up for it again.  But wait a minute.  It’s October already?  When did that happen?  Admittedly, I’ve been a little preoccupied, having only returned from France a few weeks ago and diving immediately back into work, picking up double shifts whenever I could.  Hey, someone has to pay the piper and that someone is me.  Though I may have had to transition right back into the here-and-now work mode, my mind has most definitely not accepted that it’s no longer summer.

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I’ve taken quite a fancy to making cheese lately. Some dairy, a little acid, a touch of heat and you have something spectacular. I’m baffled by how easy it is and why I didn’t realize this sooner. Of course I’m not talking aged specimens, carefully tended in specially humidified caves. My recent fascination is more with the quick, fresh cheeses easily made at home without any particularly special equipment or ingredients.  It’s so simple and the results far outpace anything you’ll find on a grocery shelf.  I’m not kidding.  So why don’t we do it more?  Because we’re dumb.

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I’ve made butter exactly twice in my life and only once intentionally.  The first time, my 3rd grade teacher poured some cream into baby food jars and told us to shake them.  After what seems like hours and much whining about tired arms, we took off the lids and found solid yellow clumps floating in a milky liquid.  How’d that happen?  We combined all our clumps and spread them onto saltines.  We quietly crunched away, our eyes wide in disbelief.  We made butter.  It was mind-blowing and I was absolutely delighted.  The second time I made butter, I was in culinary school doing what I continue to do even to this day – too much at once.  In the time it took me to walk to the cooler and back, the cream meant for a cake was beyond overwhipped.  I was not delighted in the least.

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Once in a while, I get to do some very cool things.  I’m very fortunate in that way.  Last week an email came over the wire from Gale Gand with an invitation to join her at the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy for a demonstration.  That our friend Pastry Chef Meg Galus was giving the demo was an added bonus.  You don’t have to ask me twice.

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We covered cookbook suggestions earlier in the week so today, let’s discuss homemade gifts.  Now I know we all slave over these things but let’s be aware that the giving part can go one of two ways.  What you hope for is that the item you’ve stressed over and carefully packaged is warmly greeted with a big smile of appreciation.  Or it can go the other way, where the recipient looks at you blankly and puts the jar on a side counter where you know it will be forgotten.  The later is heartbreaking because you think that thing you put so much time, thought and energy into is fabulous and want everyone to feel the same.  This is not always the case.  The first thing to understand fully during this holiday season:  know your audience.  Not everyone appreciates or understands or even wants a homemade gift.  And that’s OK.  It’s not a judgement against your skills, your kindness or even your worth as a human being.  Those are simply the people who get that $8 bottle of prosecco from Trader Joe’s.  Don’t sweat it.  You’ll both be much happier for it.  Save your special treats for those that will appreciate them.

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