Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

full of parties

I just love dinner parties. But for the table setting, the napkin ironing, the course planning, the cooking, and the general pre-company BUSTLE, I would have a dinner party every night. (That sound you hear in the background is my parents and/or boyfriend keeling over.) I love the living room crowding, the catching up conversations and several kinds of wine and the excuse to bake a cake. But you saw that one coming, didn’t you? I suffer from only living with one other person most of the time. It is a great burden, knowing that a pie or batch of cupcakes will take a week to polish off. And who wants to eat key lime pie every night for a week? Well, if you’ve gotta do it, if you’ve gotta, you know, make the sacrifice, might I suggestinsist that you make this one, because it’s fabulous, but key lime pie is frankly a rather particular flavor and all other things being equal, I would much rather have a dinner party every night and send guests home with the dessert leftovers and make a fresh cake every afternoon. Only I would need to get more friends, to cycle through their refrigerators’ cake space. New Year’s resolution: make more friends to foist cake upon.

Parents and I had one dinner party on the 26th and another, larger one on the 27th. We served the chocolate yule log on the 26th and if it is not too terribly gauche, I will confide that the time in the fridge actually improved it. The mousse and cake got a little cozier, so the cake was moister and both were more chocolatey.

On the 27th, we played host to one of my favorite families for a belated-birthday-slash-Christmas party. I made a carrot cake. (Having already Xed Birthday Girl’s totally earnest suggestion, “What about carrot and zucchini cake!?!?” I hope this was good enough!) And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but: toot, toot. Sensational carrot cake. Tip of the hat to Dorie Greenspan, Paris-based chef who, for the past couple months, has played mentor to Emily Weinstein as she learns to bake and writes about it in the New York Times. You know, if I’d known I could land Dorie Greenspan as my fairy cakemother by not knowing how to make a muffin — muffins! You don’t know how to add wet to dry, stir gently, and pour into a tin, and you get a reward!? — well, let’s just say I would have seriously reconsidered sharing the best blueberry muffins on my second-ever blog post. I know you should never play stupid to catch a man, but I think I would do it for Dorie Greenspan. And look, I’ve gotten side tracked again!

So, for the second evening in a row, we got a second Christmas. I received an incredibly beautiful, antique-looking silver bracelet with inlaid cameos, but I think the best present was the look on little senior-in-college and birthday girl Alex‘s face when she opened her last present: a waffle iron. Between our friendship history and near-obsessive reverence for a certain breakfast recipe, let me assure you: it was a very good gift. She squealed and jumped around too much for a proper photo, but here she is just moments before, pouring over a cookbook. A cookbook! How well I’ve trained her!

She is such a cute patootie. Someone get her another waffle iron.

On to the dinner table, where we had onion soup and salmon cakes and five kinds of cheese that come with quite a story (tune in later!) and then, as is the tradition goes in these here parts, lit the birthday cake aflame. This is usually when my stomach starts coiling itself into knots, because it means that cutting into the cake — actually eating this thing you have baked — is mere moments away. And the thing about cakes, about all baking, truly, is this: You Never Know. There is no crying in baseball, and there is no cutting little corners off to make sure it’s not dry in baking. So you just give it your best shot, which in my case involves erring on the side of underbaking (ambient heat keeps cooking the thing after it’s out of the oven), and pray.

In this case, the tester-inserting, icing-sampling, layer-chilling and ritual sacrifice worked. There’s a whole lotta carrots in here, but also walnuts for an interesting textural crunch, plump little golden raisins for softness and taste, a good deal of sweetened shredded coconut for added moistness. And the traditional cream cheese frosting lets a lemony kick in the pants. And it’s three layers! Who can say no to three layers?

At this juncture, I should probably point out that in my insufferably bossy life YOUTH, I never let Alex cut a cake. Because she always did some inane thing like slice it into quarters, then each quarter into thirds and come on, is that any way to cut a cake for nine people?! But this time, I held my tongue and was very mature about her origami methods.

Okay, she might have had to shriek, “I am 22, and I would just like for once in my life to cut my own birthday cake!” But then I was very supportive of her life choices.

(Seriously, it worked out great.)

Make this for your next dinner party. Have one tomorrow! The world needs more dinner parties, more lovely families like this one, and more homemade cakes never hurt anyone, either. It’s a vegetable cake; those calories burn themselves.

Recipe follows…

the final product

Some pictures from the (finally! at long last!) completed Buche de Noel/Yule Log. To recap, I used Martha Stewart’s recipe, which called for a chocolate sheet cake, fancily called a “genoise”, wrapped around an absolutely wonderful chocolate mousse, frosted with chocolate ganache and topped with exquisite meringue mushrooms soldered together with a little melted chocolate. And you can read all — really, ALL — about making it right here.

The verdict? Delicious! Would I do it again next year? Absolutely! But I would err on the side of underbaking the cake, as it was a little dry, and I would definitely brush it with simple syrup before rolling it up to keep it extra moist. I’m not totally wedded to keeping the cake (the genoise) part at all, in fact — anyone have a good recipe to swap in? — but the mousse and ganache are absolutely, delightfully sinful. I am already concocting excuses to serve the mousse, full stop, as its own dessert.

live blogging: buche de noel edition

3:14: I think the mushrooms are my favorite part. Look how cute their little tops are. Meringue domes + meringue stems, attached with a little melted chocolate. I can’t resist. They’ll go on the cake right before we eat it, along with powdered-sugar snow. And I think we’re done for now.

2:31: Mushrooms, outta that oven!

2:30: All frosted! I sneaked some tastes. The cake is wee dry. Grrrr. But hopefully the vats of mousse and ganache make up for it??? And the fact that it’s totally bark-ified?

2:15: Wedges cut off. Ganache whipped. Log transfered to platter.

2:02: Back into the kitchen, and realizing, How foolish. I actually thought I was done whipping things. I actually shelved the kitchenaid. But no, Martha tells me to “whip the ganache until it has the consistency of soft butter.” I kind of think it’s like soft butter already, but what do I know!? So away we whip.

1:37: I ate some. I think that’ll help it. With the loneliness, I mean.

1:07: Hope ganache doesn’t start getting lonely.

1:04: And it’s back in the fridge. Unrolled the cake, dolloped huge amounts of mousse upon it, spread around, re-rolled, saran-wrapped, and toweled up. No ganache yet applied. Mushrooms still cooking in the (very low heat) oven. The cake’s gotta sit with the mousse for an hour. They gotta get acquainted.

12:59: Ruh roh. Cracks discovered. Must press on. That’s what extra mousse is for. It’s like cement.

12:57: I AM UNROLLING THE CAKE.

12:55: Mousse: eaten tested and deemed worthy. Ganache: cooled. Cake: um, unexamined but prayed over. At this point, would it surprise anyone to learn that we have a platter dedicated to yule log serving? Like, that’s what it’s made for.

12:47: Kitchen is cleaned. And everything (save the decorations) is made . . . ? I think it’s time to start assembly? I think it’s time to start assembly!

12:33: Picking solidified candy off a mixer bowl = not as much fun as it sounds like.

12:26: Guys. I HAVE MADE MUSHROOMS. Now into the oven to dry out for two hours.

12:12: Vanilla, cocoa powder, in. This meringue is the consistency of mashed potatoes. I am impressed. Was it worth burning the stove? I’ll let you know.

12:09: I may or may not have set the stove on fire while removing the syrup.

12:07: It’s there!!!!

12:06: Oh! Okay! Movement! It’s also boiling away to — well, not nothing, but a very small amount.

12:03: Okay. Sugar water is boiling and not going higher than 220 degrees. Why is that? I mean, doesn’t that make sense? How can something go hotter than boiling? I do not understand candy making. What if I just added it to the whites right now? It’s not even at “soft ball” stage. Which is way below 248 degrees, aka HARD BALL STAGE. Not that I know what either is.

11:51: OMG syrup pan was too shallow, must switch.

11:45: Parenthetically: I say “riiiiiight, but I am following Martha Stewart to the letter. The letter.

11:44: “In a small saucepan, heat sugar and 1/2 cup water over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil; cook until liquid reaches 248 degrees (hard-ball stage) on a candy thermometer. Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric beater fitted with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on low speed until soft peaks form. Increase speed to high, and add hot syrup in a steady stream, beating constantly. Continue beating until cool and stiff, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Fold in cocoa powder.” Riight.

11:42: Aaand we are officially out of eggs.

11:38. Oh dear. Yolk in the egg whites. Out it goes.

11:36: Apparently we have a candy thermometer. So much for my excuse. For the mushrooms, you gotta separate the eggs, beat up the whites and add a super-concentrated syrup of sugar water. It’s weird, I’ll explain in a sec.

11:35: Oh my God these mushrooms call for a candy thermometer?? The syrup needs it needs to reach 248 degrees. WHAT.

11:33: Martha Stewart thinks it would be a really grand idea if I made mushrooms out of meringue. Because it’s a yule LOG, and there are MUSHROOMS on LOGS.

11:31: Unless you add whipped cream. Not that I’m doing that. Ganache is as good as done.

11:30. Okay, the ganache. At last, an easy one! Here is what you do: put chocolate in a bowl. Heat cream and pour it over. The end. Actually, the end is when you succeed in not eating a vat. A VAT. It is hard to imagine something better than ganache.

11:27: Martha, I am sure they sent you to jail because your mousse is criminally good.

11:24: Question. What is not improved by the addition of whipped cream? What thing, containing chocolate, eggs, vanilla, and whipped cream could not be delicious? If this log cracks on me, I am eating plain mousse for dinner.

11:13: Oh yes, this is grand. Egg whites + egg yolkandchocolateandbutter.

11:05: Back to the mousse. Now this I very much like. Separating eggs. Beating whites. Breathe!

11:01: I just went for it. It’s rolled. It’s in the fridge. We’ll deal with it later. Eek!

10:57: Time out, I am watching a video. I think I overbaked mine!??!

10:55: MOMENT OF TRUTH. WILL IT CRACK?

10:54: And I remove the parchment paper. No sticking. Encouraging.

10:53: And I flip it upside down….

10:52: Back to the now cooled cake. Dust with cocoa powder: check. Cover with a sheet of wax paper: yes. Damp dish cloth: so far so good.

10:47: So for the mousse, kids: what you do is melt the butter and chocolate together and add four egg yolks. Then you beat and beat and beat the whites until stiff, and gently spoon them together with the yolk-chococolate-butter goodness. Now we’re all on the same page.

10:44: About to start the mousse. I would like to point out that this is the second time I have used a double boiler in the last hour. A record?

10:40: People! It is baked. It is cooling. I’m going to have to roll it up soon.

10:36: Oh God, two more minutes until I have to roll the cake in a dishtowel.

10:32: A couple weeks ago, when I was “babysitting” the middle schooler and high schooler, we were cutting out Christmas cookies and I started eating the batter, and the younger one shrieked, “Salmonella!!!” and I rather cavalierly tossed off, “I”ll take my chances,” so of course they started to pop little pieces in their mouths, only when the parents came home later they said, “Now you girls remembered not to eat the batter, right, because it has raw eggs in it,” and I felt SO BAD. But I just tasted the batter which contains, count ’em, SIX raw eggs, beaten into oblivion. It’s yummy. I will still take my chances.

10:23: Crisis over. Baking.

10:18: And while we’re at it, reline the pan.

10:16: CRISIS. While pouring the batter into the pan (buttered, lined with parchment paper, re-buttered, and floured), I discover lumps! Pockets of unincorporated cocoa! Decide to dash it all back into the kitchenaid and stir more.

10:14: Sifting in the flour.

10:12: I don’t know why I didn’t think of Martha Stewart earlier. Then I looked at her recipe and realized, oh, this is why. It’s 10 o’clock in the morning and I have: clarified butter, made cake flour, sifted together said flour with cocoa powder, and my stand mixer has been beating eggs, sugar, and vanilla together for the past ten minutes. It’s working: behold the pale yellow ribbon that sugared eggs turn into after extensive abuse:

my precious

Hello,

hello,

hello. I have missed you.

You know that feeling when you’re driving to the airport and half-way there you realize you’ve forgotten something? Let’s say it’s your travel journal or contact solution. Maybe the present for the people you’re visiting. It’s nothing crucial, like your passport or wallet, nothing you can’t buy there or live without, so you just say, “Darn it! Oh, well.”

A year and a half ago, my parents drove me and a trunkful of clothes, shoes, books, and paintings to Iowa City. And around the time we crossed into Ohio, it hit me: I forgot to raid the kitchen. It mattered more for some things than others: several weeks later, my parents mailed me an enormous box containing the pie pans, rolling pin, blender, copper pans, and wooden spoons I’d left behind.

But listen. The post office isn’t always telling the truth. If it fits, it may not ship. And this is the story of how my KitchenAid mixer stayed behind.

I mean, as kitchen items go, this definitely falls into the “luxurious and unnecessary” category. I think all regular visitors here can attest that its absence has not exactly slowed down my bread kneading, egg whipping, and batter stirring. Perhaps its absence has been a blessing in disguise. Even though you can buy attachments that make ice cream AND PASTA!

But I am always soooo happy to use it when I get home. A couple nights ago, it got its first workout of the season with Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes, courtesy of the Smitten Kitchen. Because the description is even more fun than the title, I will go on to say that you bake a batch of Guinness and chocolate cupcakes, drill out some cake with an apple corer and replace it with chocolate ganache (whiskey optional), and top it all with cloud-like puffs of Bailey’s buttercream frosting. As I was visiting a British friend whose parents just finished constructing a full basement bar and called it THE GLOBE, it felt appropriate. And they were pretty delicious, if I do say so myself.


Tomorrow, though, the workout of this little Kitchenaid’s lifetime: terrifyingly enough, we’re making a buche de Noel.

the frozen ground we walk on

On Tuesday, to celebrate Boyfriend’s last exam and first afternoon free in many weeks, we drove across the plains to Amana. (Amana, the little German colony of Inspirationists, you remember that, right?) I had half-way hoped to see the Tannenbaum Forest, an old barn filled with Christmas trees decorated by local businesses, which was up in last year’s “Prelude to Christmas” Festival during the first weekend of December last year, but alas: closed! The entire village was oddly, eerily empty. Who would have thought that a rural village in eastern Iowa would be bereft of tourists and visitors on a 15 degree midweek afternoon? Shocking, I tell you.

The landscape around us was a frozen, muffled gray, like the colorless sky had draped a blanket over the corn fields, but the village of Amana was decorated quite beautifully. Bowed-up ribbons and fir branches wrapped around every fence, and wreathes in the windows. Gray sky, gray ground, but the holiday spirit had definitely set up camp here. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!”

We contained our merrymaking to the Amana Gerneral Store, which still had some incredible gingerbread houses up on display from the Prelude to Christmas competition. Lighthouse gingerbread houses. Seashore shack gingerbread houses. Covered bridge gingerbread houses. How do they make these??

And I suppose now is good a time as any to tell you that the Amana General Store, like a lot of kitshy beach town shops, has an entire room dedicated to Christmas. Oh yes, year round. It was very exciting — it felt right, yknow? — to visit that room in December. BUT you would think, wouldn’t you, that the Christmas Shop in the Amana General Store would have some Iowa-themed, Iowa-made, or otherwise Iowa-related ornaments, would you not? I’m not asking for Hawkeyes to hang, I know that wouldn’t jibe with their country-kitsch angle, but not even a cornstalk-whittled ball? This gets my goat every time we visit. But the little creches and snow-topped village scenes, they’re alright. After wading through eleven other months, they’ve finally found their way home.

Much like myself. Back in DC for the next couple weeks. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! Blogging will continue throughout the (slightly warmer) winter holidays.

decking the halls

Our Christmas tree has been up since the end of November — perhaps, strictly speaking, a little too early, but as I keep explaining to critics and their raised eyebrows: Boyfriend and I are having our Christmas on December 15. Shouldn’t ten days early on the presents means ten days early on the tree? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Our mound of presents has been growing since the first of the month, and I can’t wait to rip all that lovely, lovely paper and ribbons apart this afternoon. The best part: getting to do it all over again in just a week and a half! I think I may even get to decorate a second tree this year. My parents and I always put out the Christmas books from when I was little, and I love rereading them every year: Spot’s First Christmas, The First Christmas, The Night Before Christmas. I know the exact cadence of my mom’s voice when she reads this one aloud — but I think you’ll agree, the text stands on its own just fine, too.

little tree

little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!

oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree

we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

e.e. cummings

not just a summer thing


Some people would have you believe the word is divided into red wine drinkers and white wine drinkers.

I will tell you that this is the silliest manufactured dichotomy ever.

You can like both equally.

Some people will tell you that red wine, and red alone, is worthy of mulling. And that white wine is a summer thing. Such silly rules, friends! White wine stands up just fine to spicing, warming, and mixing with other liqueurs. Here’s the proof. A couple days ago, I pulled out one of my favorite Crate & Barrel purchases. No, it wasn’t a cherry pitter, bought at the end of summer and cherry season, and hence still unused, nor the replacements for the two fishbowl wine glasses I somehow managed to crack last year. Also not a microplane grater, though that would be a good guess because I am obsessed with it.

Obsessed.

No, this time it was a book of cocktails and appetizers, and its wonderful mulled white wine recipe did not let me down. It even put up with my substitutions since, in 100% typical fashion, I bought a pear (an Asian pear!!) for the recipe but promptly forgot about its intended use and ate it after lunch. I have zero self control.

I halved the recipe for Billy and me, and just made up the missing pear with more apple. Oh, and I used Triple Sec instead of the recommended orange liqueurs. Our bar isn’t quite that well stocked.

Make it in bulk for your next holiday get-together. Happy side-effect: the tannins won’t stain your guests’ teeth.

Warm Mulled White Wine
(via Sips and Apps)

  • 12 whole cloves
  • 5 allspice berries
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
  • 1 red apple, like Fuji, Honeycrisp, or Gala
  • 1 pear
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup Grand Marnier or Cointreau
  • 2 bottles dry white wine

Stick the cloves in your apple. Cut the apple and pear into six pieces. Add the fruits and remaining ingredients to a heavy-bottomed pot (le Creuset!). Heat over a low flame and stir to dissolve the sugar. Do not let it boil. Simmer for thirty minutes, strain if desired, and serve.

You can also take off it the heat after thirty minutes and gently rewarm later (hours later!) when needed, although I did this and found that about half the liquid had cooked away. Plan accordingly!