Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas fig cookies



These ain't my mother's fig cookies.

If they were they would be topped with a thick, sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils. This would justify the cookies being called cuccidati, the traditional Sicilian Christmas cookie that I and many others like me grew up craving around this time of year.

But here's the thing (and with deep respect and sincerest apologies to Cousin Josephine, Aunt Anna, Aunt Laura and, of course, mom): I have grown to like my fig cookies without the frosting and the sprinkles on top.

There, I said it.

For the past several holiday seasons I have been sneaking around the very fine bakers of my family and quietly acquiring my Christmas fig cookies at a place called Ragtime, in Howard Beach, Queens. In between visits to one family member or another I will park my car in an inconspicuous location, quickly slip into the store's small bakery department, order up a couple pounds of their excellent (non-frosted) fig cookies, and retreat just as fast as I am able, so as to remain undetected.

The cookies remain hidden in the trunk of my car until after the holidays are over and I have safely arrived back home in Maine. Never—and I mean never—is their existence revealed to a single family member back home.

I'm going to Hell. I just know it.

This Christmas will be different, however. After decades in the same location, Ragtime recently closed its doors forever. Those in the tightly knit, largely Italian-American neighborhood lost a food shop of iconic stature.

Me, I lost the source for my favorite (non-frosted) fig cookies.

And so...



For starters, this recipe will make around 5 dozen cookies. Mix together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add two sticks of cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes) and work the butter into the flour mixture using your hands.



After a couple minutes the flour and butter will kind of clump together, like so.



Add 2 extra large eggs (beaten), 1/2 cup milk, and 2 tablespoons Anisette. Mix together thoroughly by hand until a dough forms.



The dough will be on the moist side, which is okay, that's what you want. Wrap it in plastic and chill in the fridge for a good couple hours or more before making the cookies. (I actually kept the dough chilling overnight and made the cookies the following day.)



For the filling we've got one ring of dried figs (pinch off the hard ends), 1/4 pound pitted dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 cup pecans, 2/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 cup candied orange peel, 1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup whiskey (I went with Jack Daniel's), 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Put them all together in a food processor and mix into a paste.



Like so.



Cut the dough ball into quarters (put the dough you aren't working with back in the fridge until ready to use, so it keeps cold). On a well-floured surface roll out one of the pieces of dough until it's roughly 4 inches wide by maybe 18 or 20 inches long. The rolled dough should be around 1/8-inch thick, give or take. Take a quarter of the filling and roll it along the center of the dough.



Brush the dough with an egg wash and then roll it from one side to the other.



Make sure to pinch along the seam when you're done rolling.



Making sure that the seam is on the bottom, brush more egg wash along the entire roll.



With a pastry cutter or sharp knife cut the roll into pieces that are around an inch and a half wide. At this point all that's left to do is put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies should bake in a 350 degree F oven for around 20 minutes, give or take. At the halfway mark rotate the baking sheet so the cookies cook evenly. Allow to cool thoroughly.



Oh, and here's the most important part: Sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving.

And please don't tell my family.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanks are owed



To me, the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without these two wonderful women.

That's my Aunt Anna on the left and Aunt Rita on the right. By the look of things I would say that they are taking a well-deserved break from feeding a whole mess of us at some family get together long ago.

Time has altered their appearance a bit. Rita will be 90 very soon and Anna isn't too far behind.

Each lost her husband at a young age. For decades now they have lived together, currently in an apartment in Queens that is just above Cousin Joan's and near to several other members of our family.

My aunts are about as close as any two people can be. I know marriages—good ones—that aren't nearly as inspiring.

Anna and Rita are in my heart always, but never moreso than around this time of year.

I am lucky to be a member of the Christmas Eve celebration they host each and every year. It is literally a feast—the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be exact, totally worth clicking on and checking out—and I would no more miss it than I would lop off my right hand, or even that other one.

For a long time I used to wonder when the holidays might finally, inevitably lose their allure. After all, the years have a way of grinding away at the starry-eyed idealism that's required to truly love this time of year.



But I haven't grown at all weary. And in a very large way I owe this to the optimism and love of these two extraordinary women.

I am over-the-moon thankful to them for that.

Happy Holidays everybody.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The best potato gnocchi recipe



I'm not the artist here, just the technician.

The man responsible for these truly awesome gnocchi is the New York chef and restaurateur Andrew Carmellini. It's his recipe that I used, and I have used it ever since first coming across it several years ago. (Here is the link to the original and complete recipe.)

There's a good reason Carmellini titled this recipe "The Best Gnocchi."

When it comes to potato gnocchi that is exactly what they are.

I have never made a lighter, more luxurious potato gnocchi than I have when using this recipe. And so if I am not making my own cheese gnocchi recipe then I am using Carmellini's potato version.

If you enjoy a fine potato gnocchi then I strongly suggest you do the same.



Start with around two pounds of Idaho potatoes. Clean them, put them on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go (425 degrees F should do it), until the flesh is nice and soft. These took a little over an hour.

While the potatoes are baking it's best to get all of your other ingredients together and ready to go. The reason is that you'll want to mix them into the potatoes while they're still warm out of the oven. This is very important. You do NOT want the potatoes to cool down before mixing the gnocchi dough.

What you'll need is 1 beaten egg, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter, 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper. In addition you'll need around 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour on hand.



When the potatoes are cooked slice them open and scoop out all the flesh while it's still warm.



Run the potato through a ricer (use the smallest die) and into a mixing bowl.



Immediately add all the other ingredients, except for the flour.



And gently incorporate, using your fingers.



Then add 1 cup of the flour and very gently mix all of the ingredients together until a dough forms. The dough should hold together but not be sticky; if it does feel sticky work in a little bit more flour. Note: Do not take the term "gently" lightly. A successful gnocchi dough requires a very light touch. Anything more forceful will make for a heavy, tough gnocchi.

Please. Trust me on this.



Form the dough into a ball and turn it onto a well-floured work surface.



With a pastry cutter (or just a knife) cut an inch-or-so-wide piece of dough from the ball.



And lightly roll it out using your fingers. (You see that I said "lightly," right?)



This is about what you'll wind up with after rolling.



Each strand you roll out then gets cut into inch-wide gnocchi, like so.



Just a note: This recipe will easily feed four people. If you don't want to cook all the gnocchi at once then lay some out on a well-floured baking sheet and put them in the freezer. Once the gnocchi are fully frozen tranfer them to a freezer bag and store.



Here, of course, we have opted for cooking the gnocchi. (In well-salted water, but you knew that.)



It will only take a couple minutes for the gnocchi to cook; as a rule of thumb figure that when they are all floating atop a rolling boil of water the gnocchi are done. Do NOT empty the gnocchi into a colander, as you might with some other pastas. Take them out of the water using a slotted spoon and transfer into a pan with whatever sauce you plan on using. Then gently stir and transfer the gnocchi to individual plates for serving.



Like so.

I promise that if you take your time and use a gentile hand you will thank me for this recipe.

Just as I thanked Chef Carmellini years ago.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Broccoli & fregula soup



Believe it or not, this otherwise vegetable-based concoction started out with a bag of marrow bones.

Between the produce aisle and the checkout, well, there they were. Apparently, I could not help but to toss the bones into the basket dangling from my hand.



There the bones are, three as you can see, browning along with a diced onion, a couple celery stalks and four or five garlic cloves (in olive oil, of course).



A hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind finds its way into many soups that I make, and I enthusiastically recommend using one here.

As for quantity, we usually make enough soup to last us a few days, and so a gallon of water ought to do the trick. Just add the water and a decent bit of salt, then let things simmer for a good 45 minutes to allow the broth to develop flavor.



Once the broth is nice and tasty remove the marrow bones and set them aside. Then add three chopped broccoli crowns and three diced carrots. This will bring down the temperature a bit so wait until it comes back to a boil.



Once it's back to a boil add at least a cup of toasted fregula and let it cook for around 10 minutes, at which point the soup is done.



Except that I'm not a guy who is about to allow perfectly good bone marrow to go to waste. Scoop it all out and add the marrow to the pot; you won't be sorry.



Oh, and don't forget to grate some cheese on top of the soup before serving.

This step, to my way of thinking, is non-negotiable.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Mom's cured green olives



One of my strongest childhood memories of autumn goes something like this.

Uncle Joe pulls up to our apartment building in Brooklyn in his red dump truck. He is greeted by his sister, my mother, who emerges from the family's fountain service store onto the concrete sidewalk outside. My uncle goes to the back of the truck and drops the tailgate, his sister following close behind, but not too close.

There are wooden crates stacked along the back edge of the truck bed, eight or ten of them I would estimate. Soon my uncle begins to unload them. He carries the crates through the store, past the two small rooms behind it, ending in the backyard where my grandparents used to keep chickens, ducks, lambs and, at one point I am told by Cousin John, even a baby calf.

One by one he places the crates on the ground, underneath the huge trellised grapevine where 30-odd family members spend many hours together every summer. Being autumn many if not all of the grapes, white ones, have already been harvested, either made into Aunt Laura's famous jellies or simply eaten straight from the vine as they have ripened.

Two or three tables are in place for the work that is ahead, sturdy ones because that is what they must be. After he unloads the last crate Uncle Joe goes back to his truck to gather the tools that will be needed once the crates have all been opened. There are several of these tools, but all are the same.

They are hammers of various shapes and weights, normally used for my uncle's work but here put to use in order to pound away at the contents of the crates.

They are filled with hundreds of pounds of fresh raw green olives. Where the olives were grown I do not know, but they were surely purchased at the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie, about a twenty minute drive away, longer in a dump truck. My mother is the designated curer of olives in the family and as her son I am expected to lend an assist.

My work is simple, if a tad tedious. Grab one of Uncle Joe's hammers and, one by one, crack open each and every olive until not a single whole one remains. It is impossible to finish the job without bruising my fingers, but this is the price of autumn's work. I don't mind paying it.

In the end I will have helped my mother produce many glass jars filled with strongly flavored cured green olives for appreciative family members and friends.

That is the memory that stays with me, not the bruises.

Anyhow, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I got my hands on some fresh olives last week when visiting my brother Joe in New York. Mixing up a batch of cured ones did not at all seem an unacceptable thing to do.

And so.



This is 4 pounds of raw green olives. They've been rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry.



Though I was tempted to use my old claw hammer, for old time's sake, I decided on a kitchen mallet instead. One by one you'll need to give each olive a little whack in order to break open the skin and expose the inner flesh.



Like so. Now, you can see that this is a nice clean cut, but don't worry if it isn't. Even if some olives come completely apart they're still okay.



Some of my olives even broke in half. Not a problem.



A fennel bulb, three carrots and a couple celery stalks.



Cut them all up, like so.



And place them in a non-reactive container along with the olives. I used a large dutch oven, as it's lined with porcelain and also has a lid for covering the olives as they cure.



Add 2 1/2 cups of white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups water and 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Then drizzle a bunch of olive oil on top and cover. Set aside where it won't be in the way because the olives will remain in the mixture for a couple days or longer. Try and stir them once in a while, too.



Knowing when the olives are ready is a little bit tricky. Just-picked olives will need to stay in the vinegar mix longer than those that have travelled a bit. I'd say start checking them after two days. The color should have darkened some by then, and the olives will have softened too. Just don't allow them to get too soft. Pick out a couple olives and give a taste. When the texture seems right then it's time to wrap things up.

These olives were ready in three days.



Pour the olives into a colander and let them drain fully.



At this point you're ready to jar the olives. I transferred them into a large bowl and added several sliced garlic cloves and a little hot pepper, but you don't need to add anything at all if you don't want to.



Either way, stuff the olives into jars and fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil.



Make sure the olives are completely covered in oil, then tighten the lids on the jars and set them aside in a cool place. Be patient because they won't be ready to eat for a good couple months.

I filled seven pint-sized jars out of this batch. My guess is that five of them will be distributed to others at Christmas.

It's always better when you share, no?

 
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