Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Puddings - The Lighting of the American Plum Pudding

Exactly 28 days after its creation, my American Plum Pudding is ready for its fifteen minutes of fame.

In the morning, I busy myself preparing the house for the ten guests who will arrive at 3:00 for the ceremonial lighting and tasting. I have one final piece of preparation. A Christmas Pudding is traditionally served with Hard Sauce. But, I’ve neglected to answer a key question -- What in the world is Hard Sauce?

I go to my most reliable source – Lynne Olver’s “Food Timeline” – where the answers are waiting. Olver cites one resource that says the origin of plum puddings can be traced back to the 15th century. She references another that says the Victorians popularized the cold, hard sauces of unsalted butter, sugar and alcohol. The warm, fruity pudding melts the hard sauce, and the burning brandy is a symbol of the rebirth of the sun. I find one other piece of folklore. A sprig of holly with a red berry was placed on both sides of the pudding in ancient times to ward off witches. Since I grew up on a steady diet of “Bewitched” and I am generally tolerant of witches, I forgo the holly.

So, Hard Sauce is basically a cross between butter cream icing and a compound butter, with a hefty shot of brandy thrown in to liven up the festivities. It can’t be bad. I find the best butter possible – Plugra European Style Butter, which has a higher butterfat content, and I select a Brandy Butter recipe flavored with orange zest, orange juice and brandy. The fluffy mound of Hard Sauce looks like a snowball sprinkled with Grand Marnier.
The pudding, which has been reposing in my refrigerator since December 3rd, is now put back into the steamer for a quick warm-up bath.

My guests are unusually prompt and by 3:00 p.m. they are crowding into my kitchen. I pass flutes of champagne as I make the final preparations for the lighting ceremony. The steaming, coffee-colored dome of pudding is placed at the center of the table, and I warm a sauce pan of brandy on the stove.

We dial up Jill in Ottawa so she can join in the festivities, albeit virtually. After all, it is she, and her family’s antique Grimwade Quick Cooker that were the inspiration for our cross-country culinary collaboration. We do quick introductions, and I suspect that Jill wishes she had a score card to keep track of the folks standing shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen.
Cousin Frank prepares for the photo op, and Cousin Megan takes charge of the video camera. I drizzle the warm brandy over the pudding and into the center and light a long wooden match. I sense my guests taking a slight step back. I touch the match to the pudding and it is immediately wrapped in a very subtle cobalt-blue flame. In the background I hear murmurs of, “It’s gonna explode,” “I hope the fire doesn’t crack the plate,” and “Is that a paper plate?”

There is a tantalizing sizzle, and the fragrant aroma of warm fruit, cloves and brandy, with a glistening pool of amber liquid that gathers at the base of the pudding.

I cut the pudding into slices and each guest takes a spoonful of Hard Sauce. The response is enthusiastic and soon there is only less than a quarter of the pudding left on the serving platter. My brother Ken is particularly enamored of the hard sauce. There are luscious flavors of molasses, nutty brandy, citrus and cloves and chunky pieces of sweet fruit drenched in the buttery Hard Sauce. It has been worth the wait.

But more important, this plum pudding, so long in preparation, has the rich taste of centuries of historic holiday traditions, family gathered close and family far away, and new-found friendships.
In the evening, after all has been cleaned up and the guests have returned home, I write Jill one more time and provide a report on the day. I close with the question:

What should we make next?

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© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 29, 2006

Tis The Season To Bake Biscotti:

Veronica started it. There she stood in her virtual Test Kitchen, conjuring up an army of rich chocolate biscotti and musing over the number of eggs her squadron might contain.

After salivating over her results, I started thinking, and dug out the recipe for Mrs. Maio’s Christmas Biscotti. My former neighbor’s golden anisette biscotti – containing, count ‘em, six eggs – traveled far and wide this holiday season to great acclaim.

Now I’ve got biscotti on the brain, and I crave yet another batch. It didn’t help that Veronica gave a glowing endorsement to “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan. I need nothing more than a lukewarm recommendation to add another cookbook to my collection. It probably took me ten seconds to order “Baking” after reading Veronica’s blog.

So, while other folks are writing up resolutions, I’m left in the waning days of 2006 exploring my inner biscotti “twice baked” soul.

I have to be different, so I turn to page 141 in “Baking” and select Lenox Almond Biscotti. I’ve always been a fan of Dorie Greenspan, and the book is gorgeous and this recipe a winner. She was given it by Tony Fortuna, the owner of the restaurant Lenox in New York City.

A couple of interesting ingredient options make Lenox Almond Biscotti a standout. There’s a half-a-cup of cornmeal included that gives the biscotti a sunny-yellow color and a nice crunch along with a cake-like flavor. The soft, chunky dough is easy to handle and shape into logs, and the almond extract and slice almonds deliver bursts of exotic flavor through the sweetness of the corn meal.

I’m feeling creative, so I follow Dorie’s “Playing Around” guidelines on page 143 and toss in a handful of dried cherries and finely minced candied ginger. The result is a beautiful and thoroughly distinctive dessert cookie that is spicy and sweet and might not make it to the holiday party this weekend!
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© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Tale of Two Puddings - The Lighting of the Canadian Plum Pudding

When last we left the “Tale of Two Puddings,” both the Canadian and American versions of the classic Christmas plum pudding were “aging” in the refrigerator awaiting their Yule tide debut.

On December 18th, Jill provides a status report from Canada:

“Well, a week from today will be the true test. I checked my pudding one day last week and it still seemed to be intact - and still looked and smelled good. Hope all is well with you in the frenzy leading up to Christmas.”

I’ve been afraid to check my pudding, to be perfectly honest. I’m a little nervous that if I open it, I’ll unleash Marley’s Ghost. So, for over three weeks, the foil wrapped pudding has been taking up an incredible amount of space in the refrigerator, as I try to squeeze in condiments, cheese spread and egg cartons around it. I hear an announcer disparaging plum pudding on the radio, and I stick my fingers in my ears.

The days leading up to the holiday pass quickly. There are cocktails with colleagues in Manhattan and Christmas Caroling parties closer to home where most of the singers end up wearing felt reindeer antlers. Jill checks in on Christmas Eve as holiday preparations accelerate towards the Canadian lighting of the plum pudding:

“Merry Christmas! I'm finally taking a break (and sipping a kir royale) before moving to the next stage of dinner preparations. Have baked and decorated gingerbread cookies and made blueberry white chocolate clafoutis for tonight's dessert. Now the salmon, rice and salad remain. I did manage to squeeze in some skating with my niece and nephew this afternoon. In Kingston, where my parents live (and where I am now) there is an outdoor rink behind the historic city hall, so it’s a really nice spot to skate. Artificial ice, of course, given that it's unseasonably warm here too. Not a speck of snow. Tomorrow we'll have the turkey and the plum pudding (!) And then another big feast on Tuesday when my sister and her husband and kids arrive. I'm off until Jan 3rd, so I'll have some time back in Ottawa to relax after a few days with 9 adults, 4 kids, 2 dogs and a cat. It gets a little chaotic! Hope Santa is good to you tomorrow! I'll send the pudding photos as soon as I can, possibly tomorrow evening, but Tuesday morning is more likely as we usually get caught up in a cut-throat board game on Christmas night.”

Several days pass with no word, and I’m beginning to wonder if the Canadian Plum Pudding suffered a setback. But, in fact, the delay is only the result of a large Canadian family still digesting their Christmas dinner. Jill sends a full report on Thursday night:

“The pudding was a success. It actually tasted quite good, and about half was eaten on Christmas night, by seven of us. Quite a bit of hard sauce was consumed as well. I think my father has polished off most of the rest of the pudding since then. It had a very nice texture - - not as heavy as some that I've tasted, which I expected given that the recipe had a bit of baking powder in it. The reviews were good - hopefully everyone was not just being polite! All in all, a successful project... and I'm beginning to think about next year's version. Have to run, since my niece is harassing me to let her back on the computer. I'm heading back to Ottawa tomorrow, so will have a few days to relax - and try out my new copper pot for beating egg whites - before going back to work. Hope you had a good Christmas. Look forward to hearing your pudding results. I think the big day is Saturday?”

Jill is correct. I’ve decided to squeeze every moment of entertaining out of the holiday, and ten guests will descend on my house this coming Saturday for the ceremonial lighting and tasting of the American Plum Pudding. My cousins have been instructed to bring a fire extinguisher. As they say on television – Don’t touch that dial!
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© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 22, 2006

Aunt Greta's Christmas Stollen

Holiday food traditions are a miraculous mix of time, place, ideology and ingredients. Often times, a single person can be the catalyst for a family culinary tradition. They bring it to the table as a delectable gift, wrapped with their own cherished memories and life experiences. Through this act, they offer us a bit of themselves, and enrich our holiday celebrations.

In our family, there is the story of Margareta West, better known as Aunt Greta. Born in Kleinheubach, Germany in the year 1919, Greta began working as a domestic when she was 17 years old in the town of Offenbach. Greta worked for Frau Knudle for 23 years where she learned to cook and bake. At the age of 40, Greta was sponsored by her friend Sophie and came to the United States in 1959. In New York City, she worked for a doctor who resided on West End Avenue, and eventually met others who had immigrated from her hometown in Germany. She was introduced to my mother’s Uncle Karl by mutual friends and married him in 1961.

Throughout my lifetime, our family has enjoyed Aunt Greta’s homemade stollen at Christmas. Stollen is rich fruit bread made with yeast that originated in Central Germany in the town of Dresden. The characteristic oblong shape, with a ridge down the center is said to represent the Christ Child in swaddling clothes, and it is sometimes called the “Christstollen.” Greta’s stollen was enriched with butter and eggs, adorned with brilliant red, green and gold candied fruit, flavored with almonds and citrus zest and generously dusted with powdered sugar.

These days, Greta’s hair is snowy white and she moves a bit more slowly. She has essentially retired from baking. Her words are sprinkled with German phrases like “Ach du Lieber.” She is wry, usually opinionated and direct, and always incredibly generous.

I was of the impression that Greta’s recipe was an old European family heirloom, perhaps committed to memory. As I became more interested in food, I asked her to teach me how to make it and spent a Saturday at her home in Laurelton, New York learning her techniques. There, she produced a tattered, yellow clipping from a defunct Long Island newspaper, dated December 13, 1968, some nine years after she’d arrived in the United States.

At first, I was taken aback. Did this mean there was none of the history I’d typically associated with Greta’s stollen? But, when I read the recipe clipping, my perspective began to change. It showed an enticing picture of a plump stollen decorated with whole candied-cherries and flanked by two cups of black coffee. The article described the importance of home baked goods to the German “kaffeeklatsch” tradition. The phrase translates as “coffee chat” and refers to conversation or gossip enjoyed by German hausfraus who gather for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat.

I think the newspaper clipping was a tangible reminder for Greta of community and family traditions from her original home, and as she adapted the recipe and made it here, it was her way of sharing a festive custom from her homeland with her new family. I am now the keeper of that original newspaper feature that Greta clipped so many years ago when it likely inspired a fond holiday memory in her own mind that she generously passed on to us each year. Here’s the recipe:

Aunt Greta’s “Old Time Stollen"

¾ cup milk
1 pkg. active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3 ½ cups enriched flour (divided)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
6 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon grated lemon and orange peel
2 egg yolks
1 cup mixed, diced candied fruits
¾ cup golden raisins
¼ cup whole glace cherries
¼ cup slivered or sliced blanched almonds

Scald milk; cool to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add to lukewarm milk. Sift 1 ½ cups flour with salt; stir in to yeast mixture and cover. Let rise in warm place until doubled. Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, while creaming. Add lemon and orange peel. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gently combine egg mixture with raised dough. Add fruits and almonds. Roll out on a lightly floured board or canvas into circle, about 10 inches in diameter. Fold over once into traditional pocketbook shape. Place on greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown 35-40 minutes. Brush with melted butter. Cool on rack. Before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

On Christmas morning, we will be enjoying Aunt Greta’s stollen and coffee, now prepared by me, chatting about the diversity of our family and our yuletide traditions and wishing Greta a hearty Merry Christmas, or Frohe Weihnachten!

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© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mrs. Maio's Christmas Biscotti

As Christmas nears, I find am remembering Mrs. Maio once again. Our neighbor across the street during my childhood was born in Italy in 1908 in the town of Messina in Sicily and eventually immigrated to the United States, where she and her husband settled on Long Island. My parents met the Maios in 1957 when they moved into the house across the street and became lifelong friends.

Rose Maio was a small, sturdy woman with a round face and steely gray hair. She grew pears, peaches and all types of vegetables in her yard. As I played outside, I remember seeing her work for hours cultivating her expansive garden, a kerchief covering her head to protect her from the sun.

Each Christmas Mrs. Maio brought a plate to our front door, wrapped in aluminum foil and piled high with homemade golden biscotti scented with anisette. Mrs. Maio’s biscotti were one of the signature flavors of our holiday. The long, slender cookies were a delicacy, unusual in appearance, and very different from the typical chocolate and peppermint flavors of the Christmas season.

Harold McGee says in “On Food and Cooking” that biscotti is an Italian hard cookie that is leavened with baking powder. The term biscuit is derived from the French term for “twice cooked.” Biscotti are indeed, biscuits that are baked twice to develop a toasty crisp crust. Anisette liquor is a sweet, licorice-flavored drink made from the seeds of a plant in the parsley family. The anise seed is native to the Middle East and has been used as a flavoring and for medicinal purposes for centuries. Ancient Romans hung anise plants near their beds to ward off bad dreams.

Mrs. Maio’s been gone now for several years. A while back, I acquired the recipe for Anisette Biscotti from Mrs. Maio’s daughter, and began to make biscotti during the holiday in remembrance of our neighbor’s annual Christmas gesture. Here’s the recipe:

Rose Maio’s Anisette Biscotti

6 eggs
¼ lb butter
1 ½ C sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp anisette extract (or extract of anise)
2 ½ C flour
1 ½ tbsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Set eggs out about 15 minutes. Cream butter and sugar together then add eggs one at a time, mixing after each. Add extracts followed by flour and baking powder.

On greased and floured cookie sheet (12x18) spread batter as a log the length of pan. Bake 30 minutes or till golden brown. Cut biscotti down center and cut slices from each half (use sharp knife). Remove half of slices to counter. Turn remainder of slices in pan on their side, bake another 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining slices. Enjoy!

This recipe makes a smooth golden batter that is much lighter than the typical, chunky biscotti dough. It is closer to a cake batter and resembles a large vanilla wafer when it is baking in the oven. The end result is a moist, tender lemon-yellow cookie with a slight crunch, flavored with peppery licorice and ready for imminent dunking in a hot cup of espresso. The recipe makes about 30 cookies.

If you make this biscotti recipe, give some to friends or neighbors during the holidays, just as Mrs. Maio always did. I took some to Nelson and Doug’s “Blue Christmas Party” in Soho and gave some to my parents and the team at work to spread a little of Mrs. Maio’s Christmas spirit.
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© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Great Pretender – Corn Bread Tamale Pie:

It is holiday baking day and the kitchen is in an uproar. The live Handel broadcast on the radio does little to mask the chaos. Sheet pans and mixing bowls are scattered about, and the sink is full. Hallelujah!

I’ve been surrounded by food all day, but I’m already thinking about Sunday Supper. I’ve made my selection on page 102 of the Joy of Cooking, and it’s a little touch of Mexico right here in suburban Long Island – Corn Bread Tamale Pie.

While I might try to convince myself that supper will be like a sojourn South of the Border, there’s actually nothing authentic about Corn Bread Tamale Pie. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America says it is part of the group of American foods that were “invented outside the ethnic communities they refer to.”

The Food Timeline quotes the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink as saying that Captain John Smith made reference to a tamale-style dish in 1612 and that the term Tamale Pie first appeared in 1911. Perhaps this recipe is a distant cousin of the “hot tamale” which the Oxford Encyclopedia describes as a popular southern street snack of the late 19th and early 20th century, made with larded cornmeal. Mexican American women were said to make hot tamales in large quantities months before festivals such as Christmas. Heck, it’s the holiday season. That’s all the connection I need!

Certainly casseroles of this type continue to arouse appetites and inspire great interest. The December 2006 issue of Saveur has a lip-smacking feature on the history of casseroles which features a recipe for Tamale Pie (aptly described as an “American classic”) along with such chic suburban suppers as Tuna-Noodle Casserole and Chicken Divan. Joy of Cooking does its share of gushing on all aspects of savory pies, and extols the virtues of topping a mixture of meat and vegetables with a variety of crusts, including homemade biscuit dough.

Scanning the recipe, I can see its attributes immediately. The preparation takes no time, and many of the ingredients are at hand in the pantry. Browning ground beef and onion is the first step, so this is a job for the venerable Sunbeam Electric Frying Pan. No suburban cook should be without one. I brown the beef and onions and toss in black beans, corn, tomato sauce, chili powder and cumin. There’s very little fat, and the dish is packed with fiber. The topper is a thick paste of cornmeal, egg and milk. I stare into the oven and watch as the molten bean sauce creates fissures and eruptions across the rugged topography of the cornbread topping.

Finally, the moment of truth, and I dip a large spoon into the golden crust. The ragu of black beans and corn looks a ladle-full of colorful confetti and the cumin and chili powder does the rumba with the sunny yellow goodness of the cornbread. Who needs authentic Southwestern cuisine? I can get that any night in New York City. I may still have a long way to go before I get to Mexico, but Corn Bread Tamale pie spices up Sunday night supper with the flair of a fiesta! Maracas for everyone!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Culinary Celebrity of the 19th Century

The small, battered, cornflower blue book sits atop a dusty pile in an antique store in Central Pennsylvania. It is the day after Thanksgiving and we are foraging for a “find” amidst vintage postcards, Depression glass, and a frightening tableau of stuffed squirrels dressed as baseball players.

Suddenly, there it is in my hand: Mrs. Rorer’s – My Best 250 Recipes.

I flip through the brittle, yellowed pages. The publisher is Arnold and Company of Philadelphia and the copyright date is 1907. This cookbook is ninety-nine years old.

But who is Mrs. Rorer? Copyright 1907 by Sarah Tyson Rorer. The name has a ring of authority and expertise, but I don’t recognize it. Anyone with their name on a cookbook must have some notoriety. Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker come to mind. And, anyone with 250 “best recipes” must have had some reputation to speak of. There are passing references to her lectures and articles. Yet, the name is a mystery to me.

The dealer sells me the book for a fair price and I spend some time exploring the recipes. There is everything a home cook could ask for: My Best Twenty Soups, My Best Twenty Ways of Cooking Meat, and even My Best Twenty Left-Overs. The advice is practical and to the point: “As a rule left-overs are extravagances; they show thoughtless buying; but to utilize them is the stronghold of every housewife.”

The pages of the cookbook are worn and stained, and the binding is slightly cracked. Inside the back cover, a list of ingredients is scribbled in pencil: bay leaves, cream, “cutsup,” walnut, mace, bread, apples and “magic yeast.” In another spot, a hand-written menu is scribbled: pork chops, sweet potatoes, cabbage fried, sliced tomatoes. What recipe or family dinner might these notes have represented?

Back home, I start my investigation in earnest, and very quickly uncover the history of Mrs. Sarah Rorer. Some refer to her as the first American dietitian. She was, in fact a culinary sensation of the late 19th century. If the Food Network had been around, Sarah Rorer would have been a celebrity chef with a prime time slot.

The story unfolds for me in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. The parallels between Sarah Rorer, Julia Child and Martha Stewart are fascinating. Rorer was a bored suburban housewife who started attending lectures at the Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Later she took up cooking classes and eventually became an instructor and regular lecturer. She studied nutrition texts and built her expertise and reputation as a teacher and in 1883 opened the Philadelphia Cooking School. Her husband was a bit of a slacker as a provider, but eventually came to work for her at the school, making Mrs. Rorer the breadwinner in the family.

Rorer’s lectures attracted audiences of thousands and in 1886 she published her recipes and advice in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book. She authored an advice column called Table Talk in a culinary magazine, and eventually became the “domestic science editor” for The Ladies Home Journal. She held live cooking demonstrations at food expositions and eventually authored more than fifty books, booklets and promotional pamphlets.

Maybe modern day foodies have forgotten her, but Sarah Rorer and her little book of Best 250 Recipes is a slice of culinary history that now has a place of honor on my cookbook shelf. She turned culinary expertise into a vocation and amassed a huge following. As a woman in the 19th century, she was a food pioneer, and uniquely American as well for the ingenuity she showed in reaching a mass audience. I suspect that most food bloggers have a little bit of Sarah Rorer's spirit in their genetic makeup.

Perhaps this weekend, I might just try Mrs. Rorer's Best Left-Overs recipe for Prune Souffle.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Tale of Two Puddings - Stir-Up Sunday

Twas the night before Stir-up Sunday, and all through the house, T.W. Barritt was learning how ill prepared he was to organize a successful plum pudding project …

I get home from New Orleans on Saturday night, anxious to get going on the plum pudding. I chop the raisins and start them simmering with the currants in two cups of water. It looks like an awful lot of fruit. The recipe calls for a large, 3-quart container. I eye the pudding mould. Then I decide to measure it. My fancy Christmas tin only holds 1 and ½ quarts. I start to scour the house for alternatives and find a second container to hold the overflow.

Meanwhile, the fruit continues to simmer. The technique seems to plump the raisins and currants, while concentrating their flavor. This produces dark, aromatic syrup that coats the raisins and currants.

Stir-up Sunday dawns, and Jill finds that the Canadian weather is adding to the seasonal mood. She writes:

It's snowing a bit here this morning, so it seems like a particularly good day for this project. Just heading out for my morning run, so I can get that out of the way before the stirring starts. I've invited a few friends for lunch to help stir the batter....but that means I have to feed them as well. Time to get moving. More later on the results.

I measure out all of the ingredients and the final step is to prepare the suet. Mom has done her part while I was gone, and the suet is waiting for me in the refrigerator. I learn from her later that the butcher didn’t even charge her. He simply wrapped up the suet and wished her “Merry Christmas!”

Last night, I cleaned and froze the suet. That makes it easy to mince the fat into tiny pieces and dredge them in flour. The suet is suspended through the mixture and as it steams, the fat melts and gives the pudding its cake-like texture.

Stir-up Sunday is all about making wishes, according to Jill. As the master of the house, I grant myself three wishes – one for the world, one for my family, and one for me. I stir the brown sugar and spices into the flour and suet and for the world, I wish for recovery for the city of New Orleans. I stir in the eggs, brandy and sherry and wish for good health and happiness for my family. I stir in the raisins, currants, dates and citron and wish for myself a challenging new recipe to learn in 2007.

The fruits are jewel-like and remind me of gold, frankincense and myrrh as I fold them into the batter. The creamy, coffee-colored batter is thick with fruit and smells like cinnamon, cloves, fruitcake, George Bailey, Clarence the Angel and Christmas at Fezziwig’s.

I fill the moulds, place my puddings in their steamers, send off an update to Jill, and start to make a few ornaments for the tree. I’ve got at least four or five hours ahead of me, tending the puddings. By early afternoon there’s still no word from Ottawa, probably because Jill is busy feeding lunch to an army of holiday helpers. Then an update arrives:

Mine's steaming as well. Smells great, and the batter tasted good! I had some tiny assistants to help stir and make wishes. I only have a half-hour left, which is great because I really need to get some Christmas shopping done today. Think I will go outside and string up the Christmas lights on my cedar tree while I'm waiting.

Jill’s butter-based plumb pudding is done before me (top photo). She writes:

Pudding looks good. House smells like Christmas. Photos to follow....

I return to the kitchen and sniff. I can’t smell anything. When I take off the pot cover, the dish towel that has been boiling at the base of the pot for several hours to anchor the mould actually makes it smell more like laundry day. There is a subtle scent of cloves, but maybe I’m too close to it.

Just before 8:00 p.m., word comes from Ottawa that the Grimwade Quick Cooker plum pudding with butter has been successfully completed. Jill provides a full recap of the Canadian version of Stir-up Sunday:

I’m up early for a morning run before the pudding assembly starts in earnest. With lightly falling snow and the sun shining through the clouds, it seems like a perfect day for pudding-making. The mixing begins at noon, with the help of my able young stirring assistants, Lucy and Thomas. Lucy won't reveal her wish, but all Thomas wants is for the cat to come out of hiding. Fortunately she obliges. But in all the excitement, I forget to make a wish! Oh well, there's always next year's pudding.
After mixing in a final dose of rum (and sampling a few tastes of the batter), the "Quick Cooker" is greased, filled, parchment paper put on top, and the lid tied on. I never did find any charms, but I think I'll slide a coin into the pudding before it's served on Christmas Day. The pudding goes into the steaming pot at about 12:30. There's a moment of panic about whether I'll be able to put the lid on the pot, but it just fits. In the meantime, I'm trying to serve lunch to some friends, so the preparations are a little hectic. No wonder I forgot to make a wish.

I check the pot every so often and top up the water. My recipe only requires about 3 hours of steaming, so at around 3:30 I decide it's time to take the Quick Cooker out of the steamer. I manage to avoid any major burns. After the pudding sits for five minutes, it's time to un-mould. The pudding slides out easily, stays in one piece, and I breathe a sigh of relief! The pudding looks and smells lovely. We'll know in 22 days how it tastes!

My recipe requires that the pudding be at room temperature before un-moulding and shortly before 9 p.m., I slide my pudding out of the mould (bottom photo). One tap and it drops onto the plate, fully intact and with a nice scallop design around the pudding. While Jill’s pudding is a beautiful amber color, mine is darker, like black coffee, and denser, and smells much like a traditional fruitcake. I worry about whether it has enough alcohol in it, but for now, I must think about returning to work on Monday and letting the plum pudding ferment in the refrigerator. Joy of Cooking says, “…the pudding will become softer, darker, and more flavorful with age.” Don’t we all?

Jill has the last word on our cross country plum pudding collaboration, until we ignite them as part of the Christmas celebration several weeks from now. She writes:

Hmmm. I wonder if pudding can be sent over the border?
© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Coffee and Hope in the French Market

Jazz musicians in New Orleans sing of optimism, but the road back for this city appears incredibly challenging.

The big storm passed more than a year ago, but the aftermath is still evident no matter where you look. Historic buildings are boarded up and the narrow streets of the French Quarter are eerily empty. The devastated 9th Ward is a war zone, a patchwork of leveled plots and hollowed-out shells of homes that were once inhabited by families. A solitary honey-colored feline, flee-bitten and desolate, huddles on the pavement in a catatonic state.

So much about the future of New Orleans is unknown.

Still, certain institutions persevere. Restaurants in the French quarter serve distinctive Cajun fare and Creole cooking to a city that is at far less than capacity. At Café Amelie on Royal Street, Chef Jerry Mixon’s doors are open. Mixon grew up in St. Bernhard, learned to cook from his mother and trained under Paul Prudhomme. Each day at this historic carriage house, he prepares rich, lively gumbo – dense with pulled chicken and andouille sausage – that simmers in the soup pot for six hours and builds to a spicy sensual crescendo.

And, at the French Market, hot coffee and chicory and crispy beignets are offered 24-hours-a day, seven days a week at Café Du Monde.

I’ve spent much of the week with colleagues at a business meeting in New Orleans. Several of us arrive around 10 o’clock on a weeknight evening at Café Du Monde for an after-dinner treat. We have walked along historic Jackson Square, past flickering gas lights and wrought iron balconies and cross Decatur, where the beams from car lights illuminate the November night.

Quaintly referred to as “the original French coffee stand,” Café Du Monde sits on a large triangular plot near the Mississippi River and was established in New Orleans in 1862. For perspective, that’s a year after the American Civil War began. The signature offering is a coffee and chicory blend, served black or “au lait” which means the coffee is mixed half and half with hot milk. Chicory was added to coffee as an extender by the French during the French civil war when beans were scarce. Acadians from Nova Scotia brought the drink to Louisiana when they settled there.

In the evening, both the small indoor café and the outdoor café are bustling with activity. The seating area is covered by a green-striped awning. We push together two tables, and order coffee and chicory and plates of beignets stacked high and covered with drifts of powdered sugar. Warm tropical breezes dip under the awning.

Simply put, a beignet is a pillow-shaped, deep fried doughnut. Beignets are often referred to as French-style doughnuts and were also brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. Recipes call for whole milk, shortening or lard, yeast and oil for deep frying. Beignets are rich, and well worth the caloric investment.

They say a visit to Café Du Monde is like no other culinary experience in the world. The resident food maven in our party extols the virtues of dunking beignets, and it is intriguing to watch the doughy cake absorb the caramel-colored brew. The powdered sugar sweetens the coffee and adds a touch of luxury to the silkiness of the hot milk. The Boss is a first-timer to New Orleans and Café Du Monde. He attacks his beignets with gusto. The powdered sugar flies, and he looks like he just stepped out of a driving snow storm.

Two day later, I return alone, early in the morning. It has turned uncharacteristically cold for Louisiana, wind-chill tears sting my face, and the palm trees strain against frigid gusts.

Inside the cafe, I take a table amidst tourists, faithful locals, and even a few vagrants there to keep warm. There are remnants of powdered sugar on the floor. French doors line the façade and in warmer weather would open out onto Decatur. There is an old-fashioned upright rectangular paper napkin dispenser on the gray melamine table. Historic black and white photos line the wall.

The server arrives with my order precariously propped on a massive tray crowded with coffee cups and beignets. She slides onto the table a battered pink plastic tray with the name “Kim” stamped on it, where I’m supposed to leave my payment. The bill is a whopping $3.50 for what many consider the best breakfast on the planet.

The beignets come in servings of three and are more dense, flavorful and crisper than a doughnut. I have sworn that I won’t eat them all, but quickly renege on my word. I pull a chunk of the golden beignet and splash it in the hot foamy drink. There are many complex flavors – earthy, sweet, yeasty, robust, light and smooth all at once. It is like a soothing milk shake with a kick. It gives me some fortification for the long day ahead as I head for my next meeting. Others are edging their way into the crowded café.

Where there is a good cup of coffee and tradition, there is hope, and perhaps a bit of restorative power.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 01, 2006

A Tale of Two Puddings - The Recipes

We are rapidly approaching Stir-up Sunday and the preparation of our Canadian and American plum puddings. Jill in Ottawa is still debating over the best recipe for her plum pudding, while I’m already committed to my selection in the Joy of Cooking. Give me a recipe in a best-seller and I’m good to go. Jill writes:

Decision-making not being my strong point, I'm torn between recipes from the “Canadian Living Christmas Cookbook,” “Julia Child's The Way to Cook” (both using butter), and something from Epicurious titled "Superb English Plum Pudding" It's a James Beard recipe from “House and Garden” in 1963. I'm leaning toward the latter, but it is fairly similar to the Joy of Cooking version. Of course, I also have a tree's worth of others that I printed from the Internet. On the BBC website, I found a little piece written about an early vegetarian version that didn't contain suet but included a pound of mashed potatoes, a pound of boiled carrots and two pounds of dried fruit. I'm not sure I'd want to try choking that down!

I give thumbs down to the boiled carrots as well, but you sure can’t beat Julia Child and James Beard. I like the contrast of Canadian butter versus American beef suet and suggest that Jill might go that route.

Meanwhile, I’m embarking on my own investigation of plum pudding – the history, the lore and the technique of steaming. The Oxford Companion to Food (Davidson) says that pudding “may be claimed as a British invention, and is certainly a characteristic dish of British cuisine.” It also extols the virtues of steamed suet puddings and says the high melting point gives suet puddings a lightness not attained with other fats. Tins and moulds came into use when pudding cloths became unwieldy for the homemaker. Sweet suet puddings reached the height of popularity in the Victorian era and there was even a pudding named for Prince Albert. I also locate the definitive reference in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“In half a minute, Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

Jill decides to go with the Canadian Living butter-based recipe in her classic "Quick-Cooker Bowl." With fruit soaking in an 80-proof hot tub and most ingredients in hand, we are nearly ready to begin our cross-country Christmas culinary collaboration.

Next: Stir Up Sunday

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
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