I’m finishing off my Trader Joe’s Wintry Blend in my new favorite coffee cup, a tall, wide brim cream mug with a drawing of a monkey scratching its head on the side and one arm reaching out to create the handle, a ceramic monkey paw grasping the edge (a gift from Cathy in western SD). I can’t recall the last time I purchased canister coffee, but the flavorings of cinnamon, cloves, and red and green peppercorns sounded intriguing. The resulting flavor was surprisingly pleasant, and I think I’d like to make it myself with darker blend, perhaps Sumatra or a dark Guatemalan, and put more pepper in, along with a generous couple dashes of cardamom, one of my favorite spices.
It’s day two of the new year, and my mind’s a swirl with what a good ending I experienced to a year many in my circles found difficult economically and personally, many passings of good pets and people, relationships shifting in ways nobody predicted or expected. I myself lost my job in January but was fortunate to find another in April, and I’m freelancing there still. I remember coming home from my new job, disoriented with trying to become acquainted with what amounted to an entirely new social group, with all its quirky souls, recluses, and creative energy. The therapy and nourishment I gave myself was always cooking.
When the holidays arrive, it’s less about therapy and more about a process wrapped up in thinking of the people who will enjoy the treats I prepare. This year I made Brown Sugar Walnut Shortbread, Coconut Sables, Apple Jellies, Candied Orange Peel, and a candy bar that I’d invented about 6 months prior after reading Steve Almond’s candy-worshipping diatribe, Candyfreak. The apple jellies failed, a quivering paste of Granny Smith glop that had to be discarded. The sables were okay, but the cookie standout was definitely the shortbread, a texture a little like combining sugar stones from the brown sugar jar with a cookie. The orange peel is something I’ve made every holiday since my freshman year in college, and is not optional but expected from friends and family. This is the recipe I’ve tweaked and perfected for over a decade.
Matt’s Bittersweet Candied Orange Peel
3-4 large oranges, or 5-6 medium-sized
3/4 c. water
2 T. rice syrup
2 cups granulated white sugar
Remember that this is going to become an elegant candy, so give careful attention to selecting oranges that are as free of marks as possible. Cut each orange into quarters and scoop out the fruit; juice or eat. Place peels in a large saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to boil and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Drain.
When cool, take each peel and press flat against your cutting board. Using a paring knife, slip the edge between the peel and the white pith, and slice down the length, removing the top layer of white pith. Discard all the pith and then using a cooking shears, snip all the peels into 1/4” to 1/8” strips.
Boil water, sugar, and syrup until all is dissolved. (I removed corn syrup from the original recipe when I began meeting people with allergies to corn; I found that the rice syrup actually contributed to a more tender result. I have since removed corn syrup from all of my candy recipes). Add peels and bring to a simmer, cook for 45-55 minutes, stirring occasionally, and watching to be sure the syrup doesn’t reduce so much that the peels burn. The peels should be translucent and tender.
Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and transfer to parchment to cool for 5 minutes. Separate them as much as you can and let dry for an hour until they’re tacky.
Put superfine sugar (through all the trial makings I’ve come to like this sugar [sometimes called baker’s sugar] the best, but feel free to experiment) in a bowl and drop small handfuls of the peels in, swirling around until they become unstuck from each other and coated. Lie out on a clean sheet of parchment to dry 5-6 hours or overnight.
If your peels are still feeling wet, toss them in a bit more sugar. Store in an airtight container and nibble from it frequently and share most of it.
My most layered experiment was of course, the candy bar I’d dreamt up. Toasted almond buttercrunch beneath a silky layer of coffee-flavored marshmallow creme and dipped in Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet chocolate. This was a four day process, with a result of being heckled to market it, along with suggestion for designing a foil wrapper. My initial name for it is the Whipplescrumptious, after the candy bar that reveals the golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Whipplescrumptious Fudgemallow Bar. I remember dying at age 10 or so to know what a candy with a name like that would taste like. Does everything we do in adulthood hearken back to such early imaginings?
The holiday doesn’t become Christmas for me until I’ve begun the baking and candy-making. This is my mother’s good doing, since her ritual was always to make ten thousand cookies and candies, and overload plates for me and my sisters to distribute to neighbors. There were eccentric touches, like the fruit loop stacks dipped in almond bark, but then there were always traditionals: tiny snowball pecan sandies that powdered to delicious cookie dust upon entering the mouth, miniature peanut butter cookies with a giant chocolate kiss surrounded by granulated sugar crystals, walnut-studded fudge, microwave peanut brittle (still one of the best microwave recipes I’ve ever encountered), and on rare occasions rosettes, batter dipped on a decorative iron and fried to a paper thin crisp before being dusted with a 1/4 inch of powdered sugar. And rarer, my Grandma Gilkison’s favorite, Divinity, a white candy that always seemed to me the texture of dried up and sugar-loaded toothpaste.
But best of all were Grandma G’s filled cookies, the best cookie I’ve ever tasted. A dark brown sugary syrup filled with plump raisins and coarse bits of walnuts, nestled between two of her original recipe sugar cookies. The pale and bumpy tops are coated with a thin snow covering of sugar. When my mother’s holiday box arrived from South Dakota, I nervously pulled out packages, my eyes darting for the most hoped for…and there it was: a festive snowman on a green box containing 7 cookies, each double wrapped in paper towels. The hardest cookie in the world not to hoard. I’ve eaten 5 of them, each bite savored, and 2 are in the freezer for the near future. Someday I will make these cookies.
More culinary treats: a box from Vermillion containing the fruits of Rebecca’s growing and canning: a deliriously large jar of cherries, a jar of grape jelly, a jar of tangy chutney, dried leeks, dried red pear tomatoes, dried chilis. All the ingredients describe her perfectly.
I went to Milwaukee (just south of Portland) for Christmas with my dear friends Cody and Kent’s extended family. When we arrived we all enjoyed his mother Marijane’s french onion soup…a dark, rich broth with onions caramelized as perfectly as they should be, poured over toasts and topped with white cheese. The next day, Christmas Eve, Marcia, wife of Kent’s brother Kevin, made an incredible winter roots-based meal:
• parchment packages with leeks, sage, and red garnet yams
• turnip gratins (turnips, gruyere, cream)
• roasted parsnips and garlic
• roasted fennel and red onions
• stuffed mushrooms
• butternut squash and goat cheese gratin
• salad with romaine, anjou pears, and caramelized walnuts
• Portuguese sweet bread
A meal so tasty that it superseded Marcia’s almond apricot bars and toffee bars. And that’s saying something.
Christmas morning was homemade blueberry waffles, eggs, and good, strong coffee.
Christmas night we had grilled steelhead salmon (Kevin and his sister Shawn huddled in the cold chill and hovered over the barbecue to get it just right) along with Janey’s pork loin and a complex mole that a family friend brought to share.
The night before Cody, Kent, and I returned to Seattle, Vicki read her poems and Kevin played his guitar and sang songs, and then we all sat down together to nibble on Shawn & Vicki’s goodies: crushed candy cane studded soft chocolate cookies and brittle, along with a small dish of what remained of my orange peel (finished off by its biggest fans, Janey and Marcia) and watched a gift of a movie, Julie and Julia, with Meryl Streep delivering an astonishing performance. The holiday was a generous breaking of bread with friends who’ve become my family.
The week began again with New Year’s Eve to bookmark its end. On Monday I went to Ed and Chris’s new apartment and there was Dom, visiting from Detroit. A man who grew up a few blocks from me (but a decade earlier) whom I met in college. The first out gay man I ever knew, who became a big brother for me, someone who had the shared traits of being gay, growing up Catholic, and living in South Dakota. Dom knew Ed, and introduced us, and Ed and I had met and become friends in Seattle, after I moved here in 2001. Chris, Ed’s boyfriend served us prime rib, a fig risotto a neighbor had brought, and some amazingly tender brussels sprouts. Dom and I left the party briefly to visit my apartment so I could show him my latest resin artwork, and stop by the local QFC for a pint each of Haagen Dasz Vanilla Bean, Lemon Sorbet, Mango Sorbet, and White Chocolate Raspberry (for Ed). Dom and I talked about our families and the meanings of families, particularly since he’s met his birth mother and was visiting the area to meet his grandmother, aunts, cousins in Olympia. A couple days later he spoke of the experience over chicken pizza at Palermo’s, relating stories of his 90-something grandmother fixing him breakfast, and of several slices of pie, and an enormously positive reunion. Before he left to head back to Detroit, he gave me a couple of sweet rolls from a platter his cousin Delores had sent with him from Olympia; I warmed them in the morning and enjoyed the sugary white icing next to a cup of black coffee.
On Wednesday Pascha came into my office, a woman I brainstorm ideas and work with often, and who I’ve come to learn loves baking as much as I do. We’d exchanged Christmas tins of our holiday baking, and I’d been privy to her dense and sticky lemon bars studded with dates and her elf-shaped gingerbread, decorated with red and green sugar, a delicately soft crumb, with an intriguing tang to the aftertaste (“I brush them with lemon juice after they’re done baking. Three times.”) Yum.
She handed a well-worn and thick paperback with dark-aged but surprisingly resilient pages. “This is the book I bought in college and taught myself to bake from.” The creased yellow cover was entitled, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. It seems impossible now that I’ve read articles on her that I’ve never encountered this book. Page after page of jaw-dropping and mouth-watering later, I’ve surfaced, and eyeing two bowls in my kitchen filled with Granny Smith and Braeburn apples, I’m torn between trying something simple and basic, like her version of applesauce 415 pages in, or to whip up the Apple Kuchen at the much earlier mark of 138. Most delightful of all, right before the index, is a recipe for Candied Grapefruit Rind (the peels are blanched 4 times before encountering the sugar).
And just like that, planning for the next holiday begins.
Best wishes for a prosperous and delicious new year.