Posts Tagged ‘gift’

cooking up letters

I don’t know what Miss Manners or Ann Landers would say about this, but my thank yous to recommendation-penning professors have fallen into a pattern: a letter and some biscotti. I’m not quite sure how it happened. A compulsive gifter and, perhaps more to the point, an over-enthusiastic baker, I like to chase my cards with token gifts of thanks. And biscotti? Well, gift certificates feel a little too impersonal (not to mention more like money, which stumbles upon the awkward idea of paying off your professor), and cookies a little too juvenile. But biscotti? I mean, those are Italian. They are very grown up, not to mention they travel well and last a while.

I only have one (and a half! I saved a half!) biscotti left. But if I had an infinite stash, here’s who they’d go to: Dear Forever21, thank you for setting up an outpost in Iowa City. I’m informed I’ll be needing a maxi skirt this summer, and I’m betting you can do the trick for a couple pennies. Dear Anthropologie, the truth is, more than any particular designer line or dress shape or love of lace, I can’t quit your unabashed embrace of constant whimsy. It’s the sort of effortless, high-low, undone loveliness that I try to cultivate on a daily basis. It’s silly, but it’s inspiring. Dear Bank Account, is practicality really the most important consideration?

Dear Weather, I’m not digging your peak-a-boo sun routine, but these temperatures are pretty close to a home run, and I’m taking a vow of abstinence from complaining. Just … please hold out for our barbecue tomorrow night? Dear Katy Perry, When I’m driving with the girls I babysit and one of your songs comes on, odds are I change the station. What the hell is that “Peacock” song? Besides “INNUENDO DO YOU GET IT?” It is simply unendurable. But “Teenage Dream“? I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I love it. It’s infectious and nostalgic and has this sweet, retro/new sound. And I definitely did not spend an hour youtubing Glee and Idol covers, thank you very much. Dear Boyfriend, I think your new retro Star Wars lunchbox shoe shine kit is perfect.

Sigh. Biscotti. They’re just the ticket.

Lemon-Walnut Biscotti
(Gently adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts)

Makes around 30 biscotti, depending on how you shape and slice them

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 5 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 tbsp finely grated lemon peel
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg, beaten to blend
  • sugar for sprinkling

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar, and lemon peel in a bowl until fluffy. Add the egg and beat thoroughly. Add lemon juice, then flour mixture. Stir in walnuts.

Divide dough in half. Place each on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Form dough into an 8-inch logs and flatten to 2 1/2 inch-wide logs. Wrap plastic around logs and chill until firm, at least three hours and at most two days.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheet with parchment paper. Unroll logs from plastic wrap and set atop baking sheet. Brush with egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and just firm to the touch, about 50 minutes. Cool logs completely and reduce oven to 300 degrees.

Using a long, serrated knife, carefully cut logs on the diagonal into 1/3-inch thick slices. Arrange biscotti, cut side down, on the same baking sheet. Bake until golden around the edges, around 10 minutes. They’ll crisp as they cool.


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…

my precious



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.

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

holiday gift idea: a bottle o’ spiced rum

Before I begin, I would like to say: I hope I am not accidentally giving away another family secret.

I don’t think I am.

Let’s tread cautiously, though.

When Boyfriend and I were in France last May (oh, summer! being too hot! what is that like?), we spent a couple days at my family’s in Bretagne. (Scenes above.) I think the food took him slightly by surprise: langoustines with fresh mayonnaise, a tagine, cheese, fruit salad the first night; nutella, homemade jam, baguette, and brioche for breakfast; an outdoor garden lunch spread of melon and tomato spears, savory cake, pate, a tower of tea sandwiches, a giant tabbouleh, cheese, a fraiser, chocolate mousse, apple tarte; and that very night, two courses of dinner and dessert crepes.

And you wonder where why I can never stop talking about food. ‘Tis the genes.

One thing that cut through these delicious, decadent meals: my aunt and uncle’s spiced rum. So easy to make, and even easier to drink. Even if your friends aren’t big rum drinkers (and normalement, I am not), it’s a great base for making mulled wine, hot toddies, hot buttered rum, spiked cider, and other winter brews. And since we have a bottle just hanging around the bar, I sometimes splash a small tablespoon into banana breads, coffee cakes, and even, yes!, chocolate mousse. For grown-up parties. After sitting in spices for several months, the harsh zing of alcohol disappears, leaving just a spiced cinnamon-vanilla taste that warms you through and through.

And you can always just drink it.

Spiced Rum

  • A 1-litre bottle of dark rum
  • 25 allspice berries
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 tsp honey (optional, because I forgot this part back in October and it didn’t matter)

Add the spices to the bottle of rum and let sit at least one month, or until the allspice falls to the bottom.

holiday gift/dinner idea

I love the idea of giving food as holiday gifts. I mean, I love gifts. I love food. Putting them together = pure genius. Sure, sweet things like sugar cookies and candied nuts are always welcome treats, but a smidge expected, no? Let us not exclude savory tastes! Also, and you in sunnier climes are spared this consideration, but is is twelve degrees outside. I can think of nothing worse than leaving the house (stop there; that, too, is true) for a mall overcrowded with shoppers definitively not in the holiday spirit. But drinking hot cocoa in my own home, with carols playing in the background and a pot of onion jam simmering along on the stove? That also happens to warm the entire downstairs? Now that I can get behind.

This is an old family recipe, and by “old family recipe,” I mean “my mom got the recipe card out of French Elle magazine in the 80’s and makes it every Thanksgiving.” So there you have it. Generation to generation. True to form, we brought a bowl of these onions for last Thursday’s feast, along with mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, apple pie, pecan pie, cranberry sauce, and creamy baked oysters. (Feast, ahoy!) In case you’re wondering, I like to load up my turkey with cranberry sauce, AND the onions, AND gravy, so what now?

It’s called “Onion Jam,” actually “Onion Jam from Harika,” but I don’t know what Harika is, so let’s leave that part out. It sounds North African? which makes sense? But let’s leave that aside. French Elle advises that this perfectly accompanies duck, as well as grilled or roasted meats, but as I have been known to eat it by the spoonful, I find great fault with this limited application. Don’t box yourself in! Pair this with absolutely any kind of meat, spoon it over little toasts with creamed mushrooms or pâté, top off your latkes, heap some into a pot pie or casserole — I’m sure you’ll find dozens of uses. It tastes just like French onion soup, only richer and a teensy bit tart. I know you and, more importantly, your lucky recipient, will love it.

But do save some for yourself, mmkay?

Onion Jam
(With thanks to Mom and French Elle)


  • 1 stick of butter
  • around 3 pounds of onions
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup creme de cassis
  • salt and pepper

Peel the onions, cut them in half, and slice them into little half-rings. If you have a food processor, thank your lucky stars and get out that slicing attachment.

Melt butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed pot (a Staub or Le Creuset if you have it). Add the onions, salt, and pepper and cook over a low flame for 20 minutes, until they soften without changing color. When transparent, add the sugar. Let cook 8 to 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, wine, and creme de cassis. Cook over a moderate flame for an hour, until brown, sweet, and delicious.

To preserve for gifts, follow directions here (but basically, boil the jars, and for heaven’s sake don’t touch the insides afterwards): Canning How To