Saturday, January 9, 2010

Our Favorite Holiday Things

The holidays flew by this year. One day seemed to bleed into the next, and before we knew it, we were celebrating the Epiphany with a Hot Toddy of Hudson Single Barrel whiskey, pretending to not notice that our white Christmas tree needed to be taken down and stored away until Yuletide 2010. But even though the days whizzed pass us like an Acela train to Boston, we managed to hold onto the memories of our favorite things, moments, and comestibles. Let us take you on a fast ride through Christmas in Connecticut with Paul’s family, then back to Brooklyn to celebrate Paul’s birthday, and then a quiet New Years Eve, which everyone seemed to have this year in New York City.

1. Spice Cookies
Paul works with Sarah, and Sarah’s mom gave her a recipe for spice cookies that are so easy and, more important, delicious. Out of all the cookies and small confections we made this season, these were the first to fly off the plate. A slight crispy exterior cloaks a chewy center filled with cinnamon, clove, and ginger. Perfection.

Spice Cookies
(from a 1971 collection of recipes from parents and alumnae of the National Cathedral School for Girls)

In a bowl mix together the following:

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup molasses

In a separate bowl, sift together the following:
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 tsp. ginger

Add flour mixture to wet mixture and mix until fully incorporated. Using a teaspoon, drop dollops onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet at least an inch apart. Bake for 8–10 minutes at 375° F (8 minutes was perfect for our oven). Remove from oven while still puffy (you don’t want to overbake these cookies) and let cool for a few minutes. Remove from cookie sheet and place on cooling rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

2. Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Parsnips
We made our beloved Thanksgiving mash of sweet potatoes and parsnips for the gang in Connecticut for our Wigilia, or Christmas Eve celebration for Poles. Even though we don’t follow the fish-only rules of Wigilia anymore (we had fruit-and-spice-drenched pork tenderloin), we did bring a lot of veggies to the table. And for those in Paul’s family who were afraid of parsnips, they were quickly won over by the fluffy mild sweetness of the deliciousness before them.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Parsnips
(created by Cocktail Buzz)
(Ranges suggest using your judgment; this is not an exact science)
6 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2–3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1–2 T light or dark brown sugar
2–4 T unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup heavy cream
ground cinnamon or cassia, to taste
ground nutmeg, to taste
salt and ground white pepper, to taste

Add sweet potatoes and parsnips to a pot of boiling water. Cook until very tender. Drain add add back to the pot. Add the brown sugar, butter, and cream. Mash everything together until desired smoothness or chunkiness, depending on how you look at it. Incorporate seasonings, to taste.

Dad and Paul fight for kitchen domination; Amanda making a butternut squash and blue cheese salad; Steve and Paul love cookies, especially the Pistachio–Orange Crescents from Gourmet December 2008.

3. Celebrity
Celebrity is the perfect party game, and after a full night of eating and drinking, it’s a perfect antidote to falling asleep while the company is still over. A bunch of us played on Christmas Eve and we’re sure the neighbors must have been curious as to why everyone was shouting “Beyoncé,” “Lady Gaga,” and “Tiger Woods.” Here’s how you play: (1) divide your group into teams; (2) hand out the same number of slips of paper to each player (when we played with 2 teams of five each, we handed out 6 slips of paper to each player); (3) have each player write down the names of famous people, either living or deceased, real or fictional; (4) fold the slip of paper in half (only one fold) and toss them all into a big bowl.

Now you’re ready to get crazy. Here’s how you play: (1) choose a player on the first team to go first (someone from another team becomes the timekeeper and someone else becomes the scorekeeper); (2) when the timekeeper shouts “Go!” Round One begins, and the first player picks a slip of paper from the bowl and describes the person written down to his or her teammates ( you cannot use any part of the name or any word written down on the piece of paper or you have to throw the slip back into the mix and pick a new slip; you also can never pass if no one on your team cannot guess . . . that’s just tough luck); (3) when someone from the first player’s team correctly guesses the name of the celebrity (it must be exactly as written), he or she chooses another slip of paper; (4) play continues in this manner until the timekeeper calls “Time” after one minute; (5) you then count up the number of slips of paper the players guessed correctly, put the slips of paper aside for the moment, then pass the bowl to the next team; (6) The next team starts play in the same fashion.

After all the slips of paper have been guessed, (1) the timekeeper stops the clock and figures out how many seconds are left over from the round’s minute; (2) all the slips of paper are added back to the bowl, and (3) the team that ended the last round continues with the remaining number of seconds for Round Two: One Word. In this round, you can only use one word to describe the name on the slip of paper. Let’s hope you were paying attention in Round One to all the names that were guessed, because this will make Round Two much easier. Try to be as specific as you can when choosing your one word. It can be triggered from something someone said in the first round, or, like the old TV game Password, use a definitive word that will make your team guess correctly. You can repeat the word as often as you want, use an accent, dialect, falsetto, hell, you can even sing the word over and over to the tune of a jingle that might trigger a correct response. Just do your best and try not to look like a deer caught in the headlights.

Then when all the slips of paper have been guessed again, you move on to Round Three: Charades. That’s right, Round Three is all about acting out. You play the same way you did in Rounds One and Two, except you can use no words or utterances. Anything else is allowable. When all the slips are used up, the game is over. The scorekeeper announces the winner. Now it’s time for bed.

4. Birthday Cake × 2
Steve outdid himself this year by making two exquisite birthday cakes. The Devil’s Food Cake with Brown Sugar Buttercream was a sight to behold on Mom’s birthday: smooth and creamy, with a hint of burnt-sugar layers of buttercream swathing rich dark layers of velvety chocolate cake. With all the guests at Christmas Eve, there was little cake left over for the morning. But what a cake! Thank you, Gourmet, for the recipe.

The second birthday cake, for Paul, a Peppermint Meringue Cake with Chocolate Buttercream, graced the cover of December’s Bon Appétit, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous. Paul loves peppermint and chocolate (Steve made a multilayered extravaganza for Paul’s birthday last year). This year’s cake resembled a yule log, and was tiered with meringue, peppermint syrup, rich chocolate cake, and ganachy buttercream. Topped with fresh raspberries and chocolate–mint wafers, the jury quickly delivered a verdict of guilty with the intent to induce decadence. With a glass of milk to accompany it, this cake rocked our worlds.

5. Manhattans, 4 Ways
Paul, his dad, brother Michael, and Steve took Mom out for her birthday (Mom’s birthday is Christmas, but we cheated and took her out a few days later) to a fantastic, mostly steak restaurant in West Hartford called Fleming’s. The food and service were exceptional, but what was really remarkable were the generous Manhattans poured by the man behind the stick. Each of us ordered a Manhattan using a different whiskey, and, of course, we all went around sipping each other’s drinks and taking mental notes. Don’t ever think that all Manhattans are created equally. Even with a 2 to 1 ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth and two dashes of Angostura bitters, each one of our Manhattans tasted distinct. Next time you throw a little Manhattan cocktail party, make sure to buy an array of ryes and bourbons, and have your guests choose their poison. Demand they share a sip or two so that way everyone can get in on the fun. You may discover a new whiskey that will make you love this perfect cocktail.

Mom was radiant on Christmas Eve after opening her birthday presents—“Indulgence” seemed to sum up the whole day, and every bite was worth it; Michael and Amanda exchange gifts.

6. Clementines
These darling little oranges grace us with their sweet juice and aroma during early winter, so run down to your local market and pick up a little bag or crate of them. We’ve been using them all the time in cocktails and also just to sip or eat. They’re seedless and easy to peel, but, because they can be small, they yield about a half ounce of juice per Clementine, if you’re lucky. Prepare to be juicing them for a while if you want to make an entire pitcher. That said, we recommend turning on some music that makes your hips shake while you’re standing at the kitchen counter, fruit in hand.

As promised over a month ago, we came up with a cocktail using cranberry sauce–infused Midnight Moon moonshine as its base. Adding some freshly squeezed Clementine juice, plus some bourbon and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram (think cloves) to the candy-red hooch makes for a seasonally spicy, almost punch-like quaff, we decided to call it Pomander Punch, after those clove-festooned oranges Queen Elizabeth used to walk around with and put to her nose when she made her famous countryside tours meeting the ablutions-challenged people of her land.

Pomander Punch
(created by Cocktail Buzz)
1 1/2 oz. cranberry sauce–infused Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine*
1 oz. bourbon (we used Bulleit)
1/2 oz. Clementine juice
1/4 oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram

Shake in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into chilled glasses. Garnish with a half-moon slice of clementine or a whole pericarp of star anise. Serves 1.

If making a bowl of punch, increase the amount of Clementine juice to 3/4 oz. and then multiply all the ingredients by eight. Refrigerate until chilled. Pour into a bowl with a big chunk of ice in its center. Garnish with Clementine orange wheels and star anise pericarps. Ladle into punch cups or glasses.

* In an airtight container, add 1/3 cup homemade cranberry sauce (follow directions on package of cranberries) for every 2 cups moonshine (you can substitute vodka if moonshine is not available). Let infuse for at least five days and up to two weeks (the longer you wait, the better), shaking the container at least once a day. Strain into another airtight container and label.

7. The Hangover
Shamelessly hilarious and dirty, The Hangover is the perfect movie antidote to all the serious shit in the world. You will laugh so hard you may just pee or do a spit take. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis make the perfect unholy trio. These guys are the new Three Stooges. Do not watch this movie with someone who does not like watching grown men running around naked, are offended by drunken disregard for nondrinkers, or have no sense of humor. We warned you.

A group of hungry Christmas Eve revelers break out the glug and grub.

8. Anthos
We had read about and seen on television wunder-chef Michael Psilakis countless times, but had never eaten at one of his restaurants. Psilakis takes traditional Greek dishes and adds his own personal sense of taste and identity. He is self-taught and, let us tell you, when it comes to flavor, who cares about the pedigree of the cook. It was Paul’s birthday the day we returned from our Connecticut jubilations, and he’d been pining to go to Anthos, Psilakis’s posh Midtown joint, for quite a while. (Paul is a big fan of all Mediterranean fare.) We started our meal with, what else, a cocktail–the Anthos Cocktail, to be exact—and it was a balanced blend of Metaxa (a brandy–wine blend), Grand Marnier, honey, lemon, and champagne, a lovely introduction to the flavors to come. So when the waiter presented the menu, we had a difficult time narrowing our selection down to the standard appetizer/entree two-stop visit. So we opted for the seven-course dinner (which actually added up to be ten by the time we were finished—chefs who see that you’ve cleaned your plates love adding extra nibblies, especially desserts, to the roster). After we told the waiter of our plan to pig out (he had already brought us a meze trio of classic Greek dishes (like keftedes), hors d’oeuvre style, the chef of the evening popped his head out of the kitchen to see who ordered the seven-courser on a gelid Monday evening at 8:30PM. We guess he liked what he saw (and used powers of mental telepathy) because he made for us everything on the menu we wanted to try. Our favorites were the smoked octopus, small but surprisingly meaty arms, laced with baby fennel, lemon confit, and marinated mushrooms; rabbit manti, succulent ravioli flavored with vlahotiri cheese and dill, bathed in a mild rabbit consommé; and juicy, rare slices of lamb saddle accompanied with brussels sprouts, white beans, lamb pastrami, potato, and egg. We were full after eating the lamb, but then were treated to three dessert courses whipped up by the amazing pastry chef, one including tiny bites of butternut squash confections done four ways, and a flossy raspberry cotton candy puff sprinkled with tart blackberry powder. The sour cherry–seed ice cream was unfathomably sumptuous, akin to the way maraschino liquor dances on your palate in a cocktail. The bonus Ouzo left us giddy, full, and smiling. We urge you to give Anthos a try, and, if you can, get the seven-courser. Try to go on an off-night. That way you can feel like we felt: relaxed, not rushed, and taken care of.

9. Seelbach Cocktail
The Seelbach is a marriage made in heaven for those imbibers who like to tipple champagne and bourbon. Two types of bitters add lots of great spicy flavors, like clove and anise. We decided to whip some of these up at our friend Tony’s place when Tony invited us to a home-cooked dinner of old-fashioned pot roast. Here’s one of our favorite ways to make a Seelbach. You can adjust ratios as you see fit.

Seelbach Cocktail
(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)
1 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. orange liqueur
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir in mixing glass half-filled with ice for 30 seconds and strain into flute.

Top with:
4 oz. champagne or prosecco
Garnish with:
extra long orange twist

10. New Cookbooks
Steve got two inspired and inspiring cookbooks from his mom this Christmas, both by the gorgeous TV healthful-cooking guru Ellie Krieger: The Food You Crave and So Easy. Steve immediately zeroed in on two recipes and made them posthaste. The Cherry Vanilla Oatmeal shined as did the mildly sweetened-with-honey Mango Lassi we sipped just the other day. Steve promises Pumpkin Pie Muffins next.

His mom also got Paul a few cookbooks for Xmas/Birthday and he’s had fun pouring through the pages of Forking Fantastic by two ladies in Queens who throw supper club–style dinners for guests once a week. The book is an often hilarious (and dirty) account of their no-thrills philosophy (guests set the table), plus a host of menus to keep diners happy. Another book he has been drooling to while perusing is Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano. Steve took Paul out to Babbo for one of his birthdays and they’ve been in love with Batali’s cuisine and smattering of restaurants ever since.

11. Jamie Oliver’s Flavour Shaker
The Naked Chef has made making salad dressing a joy. Steve always makes the salad dressing, and sometimes it would take him quite a bit of time, he being a meticulous mincer. But with Jamie’s new Flavour Shaker (it’s shaped like a Russian matryoshka doll), all you do is add your ingredients, seal the shaker, and a polymer ball breaks everything about as you give it a good jostle. Steve took Jamie’s salad dressing recipe and riffed a little. Here are the tangy results:

Creamy Garlic Salad Dressing
(adapted by Steve Schul from Jamie Oliver)
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
1/2 tsp. rock salt
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 T white balsamic vinegar
1 T sour cream
5 T canola oil

Put the peppercorns, salt, and garlic in the bottom half of the Flavour Shaker. Drop the ball in and screw the top on tightly. Shake for 20 seconds, then hold upright and unscrew the top. Add the rest of the ingredients, screw the top back on and shake again for 10 seconds. Your creamy garlic dressing is now ready. If you don’t have the Flavour Shaker you can use a mortar and pestle to grind the garlic with the salt and peppercorns. Mix in the vinegar and sour cream and whisk in the oil in a steady stream. This dressing is best fresh but will keep for several days if chilled. Bring to room temperature and shake before using.

12. Stretching Meals
We must take a moment and talk about the economy. Geez. How much longer can we stay in this slump? Enough said. So with that in mind, we decided to s t r e t c h our meals this holiday season by making big pots of stews (like the lentil and hot sausage stew in the photo) and soups, and large cuts of roasts and such. Not only are you going to save a butt-load of money, you will be forced to be creative and come up with variations on a theme. One night we cooked a boneless leg of lamb marinated in red wine, then encrusted with some cardamom, cumin, and coriander seeds, accompanyed by some roasted Cape Cod turnips. The next night we made some lamb sandwiches on crusty sourdough. But the next time we have lamb (Steve ground the rest and froze it), we’ll be making some lovely lamb-filled ravioli in broth. Can’t wait.

13. Spice Jars and Racks
While cooking and baking during the holidays, we grew beyond weary of searching for herbs and spices in our cupboards, so we decided to do something about it: We rented a Zipcar and zipped on down to Ikea in Red Hook. Our goal: spice jars for all our herbs, rubs, seeds, and blends, and racks that would fit above our cupboard in a neat long line. We found some picture rail that fit with the rounded (and inexpensive) spice jars, and, after standing in Ikea with our iPhone calculators, did the math, and came home with a bunch. We also bought little tag-sale stickers from the local stationers, stuck those to the lids, and came up with Periodic Table-style abbreviations to help us identify the contents of each jar. What geeks. We hope you like the results. We certainly do.

Reflections from the lids give these spice jars an angelic feel.

14. Hot Toddies
Hot Toddies are to us in the winter what highballs are to us in the summer. We love them, and on a bone-chilling night in Brooklyn, you will see one of us firing up the kettle on the stove in prepartion for this warm and smooth drink. It’s so simple, and you can change the ratios as you see fit. Some people like them sweeter, others more diluted. We believe each spirit dictates how much sugar and water need to accompany it. Mostly, we make ours with some type of whiskey, but any dark spirit will do. One revelation was using Cruzan Black Strap Rum. This rum looks like and tastes of molasses.

Black Strap Toddy
(created by Cocktail Buzz)
1 1/2 oz. Cruzan Black Strap rum
1/2 tsp. sugar (use demerara sugar for more richness)
3 oz. just-boiled water

In a heat-proof glass, or mug, add the sugar. Add a little water to dissolve it. Then add the rum, followed by the water. Blow on it before you sip. You can add a Clementine twist, if you so desire.

15. Tree-Trimming
Now that it’s time to take down the white Christmas tree and the once proudly preening poinsettia swathed in red tree lights, we take a moment to reflect on the Tannenbaum party we shared with Matt and Monica, their kids Francis and Cole, and our dear friend Curt. After Sipping frothy Ramos Gin Fizzes (another favorite of the season) and watching the glee-inducing Wizard of Oz with the kids enraptured, we all knew that this festive occasion was a precursor to more holiday joy to come.

photos by Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz; final photo courtesy of Monica Thurnauer

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