Every year, I bake a collection of holiday cookies, and I love the entire process. If there is one time when I am glad that I got the baking gene (and its inherent organization skills), its at Christmas time. I thought that I would share some of the tips I've learned over the years to apply to your own baking marathon. The cookies above, from top: Gingerbread People (with cinnamon candy buttons); Chocolate Wafers with Candy Cane Crunch; Rainbow Cookies; Pfefferneusse; Sugar Cookies (stars); Peanut Butter Blossoms; Sugar Cookies (trees); Diane's Walnut Thumbprints (Sonia Henies); center, Ginger Molasses Cookies. I will be posting the recipes that aren't linked.
In my career, I have worked with some of the very best bakers in the world, starting in Chocolatier (now Pastry Professional) Magazine, and up through such cookbooks as THE BAKER'S DOZEN COOKBOOK, Rose Levy Beranbaum's CHRISTMAS COOKIES, FROM MY HANDS TO YOURS (with Sarabeth Levine), and THE MODEL BAKERY COOKBOOK. I know cookies. So, when I come across a recipe that makes my mouth water, you can be sure it is a winner. I've just finished baking my Christmas cookies, and I'd like to post some of my favorites. Actually, I have so many special recipes to make them all, so I have had to put them in rotation. One that always makes the list is Italian Rainbow Cookies, one that I learned a long time ago. Outside of its sensational almond flavor and moist texture, these bars keep for a week or so. I usually get about 54 cookies, because they are rich and you don't want them to be too big.
For many years, I said that I didn't like sweet potatoes. It turned out that I didn't like candied yams with marshmallows, which is NOT the same thing. This is some what of a sacrilege, as Dad worked for Kraft for over 30 years, and we had a lifetime supply of mini-marshmallows on hand. I have since developed scores of sweet potato (call them yams, if you like) recipes, and this one is one of my faves. It pushes a lot of buttons with the autumn flavors of sweet potatoes and apples, glazed with a Four Roses Bourbon and maple syrup sauce, and topped with crisp and crunchy bacon and pecans. Did I leave anything out? This luscious recipe was featured last night (or was it this very early morning?) on "Insomniac Kitchen" on ABC World News.Here's the clip, and the recipe follows. Move over, canned yams.
I belong to a Facebook group of cookbook lovers. Recently, someone there started a post about making green bean casserole--the familiar one made with cream of mushroom soup. There were over a hundred comments in the thread, proving how this dish has become part of the American cook's vernacular. For my part, I am a fan, but not a devotee, of the original version, which has graced (or defiled, depending on your opinion) tables since its invention in the Campbell's test kitchens in 1955, by who could be the most famous home economist in history, Dorcas Reilly. This dish is the perfect example of how the Thanksgiving menu is often influenced by super-simple recipes that are more about food advertising in the early to mid-20th century than what the Pilgrims served. I am not saying that I don't like it. I am saying that if a dish only requires a handful of convenience frozen and canned foods, and if I can make it in five minutes on a weeknight, it is not special enough for my holiday parties. But this version--with fresh green beans, a from-scratch mushroom sauce, and crisply fried shallots--is. It's from my book WILLIAMS-SONOMA COMFORT FOODS, and there is also a slightly different edition in THE BIG BOOK OF SIDES. Keep going for what many people have told me is one their favorites of all my recipes. (Photo by Ray Kachatorian.)
Thanksgiving is all about indulgence and even over-indulgence. Last holiday, I made a big batch of bacon, onion, and bourbon 'marmalade" to enjoy over the holiday weekend. This luscious savory spread combines caramelized onions, bacon, and a bracing splash of Four Roses Bourbon. It was slathered on dinner rolls at the Thanksgiving table, added to Friday's leftover turkey sandwiches, and used as a cracker topping for easy appetizers on Saturday night. I'm surprised that no one put it on their breakfast cereal! Four Roses Bourbon has made a video of me making this irresistible stuff.
I have shared my recipe for making perfect gravy many times, all over the world. There is more than one way to make this holiday essential, but my version comes from years of experimentation with different methods. I've settled on the "make it in the roasting pan technique with degreased drippings" method. The beauty of this version is that the ingredients are measured to ensure that perfection that can be elusive. So, set yourself up with a fat separator (the kind with the spout coming up from the bottom), a flat roux whisk, and some turkey stock...and get ready to make the best gravy you've ever had. My not-so-secret ingredient is Four Roses bourbon, which I prefer for many reasons--flavor, value, choice of three great varieties (Yellow Label, Single Barrel, and Small Batch), and the fact that they are the only bourbon distillery to confirm that the corn in their mash is non-GMO. And here is a video with step-by-step instructions. (Recipe from THE BIG BOOK OF SIDES; photo by Ben Fink.)
What is it about autumn that makes people think of pie? Apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat are the Thanksgiving triumvirate. (Although Mom makes a great chocolate cream pie to add to the list.) That's all well and good. But here is my favorite fall pie, made with Concord grapes. These East coast beauties are at their best when they've been "kissed" by frost. The dark purple filling tastes just like grape jelly, but in a more condensed, less sweet way. I made it over the weekend, and I was reminded that it is not the easiest filling on the block: slip the skin off each grape, cook and strain the flesh to remove the seeds, then recombine the two components. It doesn't matter--this is a pie for the gods. For the perfect combination, serve it with peanut butter ice cream. There are no superlatives for this pairing, which is right up there with Roquefort and Sauternes, or...peanut butter and grape jelly! Check out the recipe on the next page...
For many families, mine included, it simply isn't a holiday meal unless there is a relish tray on the table. For some people, this is an opportunity to open up jars of store-bought goodies, and there are some wonderful savories out there. But for me, it is a chance to hand-craft some of my favorite appetizers, such as the trio you see here: Celery Hearts with Liptauer Cheese, Deviled Eggs with Bacon and Horseradish, and Homemade Bread and Butter Pickles. The recipes, from THE BIG BOOK OF SIDES, follow. (Photo by Ben Fink.)
Every year about this time, I hear heated arguments about the role of sweet potatoes on the holiday table. Some people love the classic candied yams with marshmallows, others hate (revile, despise, and abhor) them. The way most families make them is very simple: canned yams in syrup spread in a baking dish, heated, and topped with marshmallows. This is perfect evidence of Grandma Rodgers' statement: "Thanksgiving is the easiest meal of the year!" Well, the way she made it, with lots of canned and frozen ingredients, it was! I like sweet potatoes (or call them yams, if you wish), but I make them this way. It is inspired by the marshmallow topping, but marshmallows actually do not contain egg whites, even if they have a pillowy texture. I encourage you to give this rendition, not-too-sweet with hints of lemon and nutmeg, a try this year...and every Thanksgiving, for that matter. (Recipe from The Big Book of Sides, published by Ballantine Books. Photo by Ben Fink.)
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, artichokes were everywhere--we even had them growing in my grandparents' garden. There was a truck farm across the street from my high school, and I remember purchasing them for a nickel each. On meatless Fridays (remember them?), Mom would often serve artichokes with lots of mayonnaise, cracked crab, and sourdough bread, which is still probably my favorite meal in the world. As artichokes are now entering their fall season, here is a sneak preview from my new book, THE BIG BOOK OF SIDES. These are meant to be a side dish, so they don't have any meat in them, but I provide a prosciutto variation.