Unforgettable. And Still Unquenchable.

On Monday evening, my culinary book group met again.  These remarkable women make my heart glad.
We’ve seen each other through heartbreak and triumph, dishes that didn’t turn out, books we did and didn’t like, and new dishes we’ll definitely keep on making.
Each month the hostess chooses a culinary-themed book, usually a cookbook.  But we’ve read memoirs, biographies, novels, and even a food issue of a magazine. We all bring a dish from the book or inspired by the book.
First, we sipped wine and told the stories of our family Thanksgiving celebrations.  One intrepid friend fixed dinner—solo—for 37 people, 8 of which were children under the age of 12. Another “rested” by only having to make the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. 
I recounted the tale of our Thanksgiving, when my sister and I deboned a 20-pound turkey using surgical scalpels—they work great, by the way.  We watched two YouTube videos first and then started on the big bird. We ended with a stuffed turkey roll wrapped in prosciutto (turkey porchetta) that kept growing and growing and growing as our Dad tied it up at intervals.  When it reached 3 feet—how could this be??—we looked at the recipe again. And saw that it only called for a 10-pound turkey.

The monster turkey roll wouldn’t fit in the oven, so we ended up cutting it. We grilled half and deep-fried half (after the other two turkeys came out of the outdoor fryer).
Now, back to book club.  For this month, we read Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard.
She had me at the first sentence: “I slept with my French husband halfway through our first date.” As an American who moved to Paris to be with her love, Bard recounts the little incremental steps by which she moves from being “that American” to being able to read in French and understand the not-so-secret disciplinary code that French women use to stay so thin (don’t eat much and drink a lot of water). 
A code my book club decided not to follow—at least for that night.
All of the recipes we tried were delicious. Right before I left the house, I snapped a quick photo of the dish I made, with a little holiday twist.

French Christmas Tree Salad
Adapted—with artistic license—from Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard.
This refreshing European vegetable salad uses few ingredients and is best made an hour or so before you serve it.  You can use a combination of fennel and fresh celery, if you like. Use a mandoline slicer or a very sharp chef’s knife to trim the root end of each fennel bulb, then trim off the shoots.  Save the feathery fronds to create a Christmas-tree effect on your serving platter. A very little bit of this salad makes a delicious contrast to heavier holiday foods.
To remove the seeds from a pomegranate, try Nigella Lawson’s method, which works great. Cut the pomegranate in half, fill a bowl with water, then whack the skin side of the pomegranate half with a wooden spoon so the seeds fall out and get trapped in the water (instead of going all over your kitchen). Once the first seeds come out, you can pry the rest with your fingers.
Serves 6
2 fennel bulbs, ends and shoots trimmed, and sliced paper thin
The juice of ½ lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds
1.  Combine the sliced fennel and lemon juice in a bowl. Toss to blend, then drizzle with olive oil and toss again. Salt and pepper to taste and toss a third time.
2. Arrange the fennel fronds on a white platter in a Christmas tree shape.  Mound the fennel at the base and scatter all with pomegranate seeds. Cover and chill until ready to serve.


I think my book club pick for 2012 is going to be Natalie Maclean’s Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.
I love the way she writes about wine in a knowledgeable, but adventurous and light-hearted style. “Behind every bottle is a person and a story,” she says.
After all, many wineries are family-run, and families, as I well know, can somehow create monster turkey rolls at Thanksgiving.
And she holds back on the winespeak. Not so much “aromatizing the esters” as “making great wines at reasonable prices.”
Even her Unquenchable book trailer is fun to watch.


This book, with a bottle or two of her affordable wine picks, would be a great holiday gift.
P.S. Like Natalie, my sister also has a goat story. . . . but that’s for another blog.

The 12 Days of Cookbooks

and Italian Fig Cookies

How do you celebrate 12 Days of Cookbooks
Let's start with Day One:
“On the first day of cookbooks, my true love gave to me—a charming prairie story—
Heartland: The Cookbook.”

For the past 12 days, we’ve also been celebrating 
Two chefs in love--Colby and Megan Garrelts of the acclaimed Bluestem, 

three French gems, four pasta chefs, five chocolate bonbons, six gamers gaming, seven foodies shopping, eight  bakers baking  (including my Artisan Bread Machine

200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads),

ten comfort classics, eleven cupcakes twirling, and twelve grillers grilling.
You can check out all the days for yourself, and put a few books (as well as Foodie Fight, Food Fight Rematch, and Wine Wars trivia games) on your gift list.

Now, it’s time for holiday baking. 
Nothing gets me more in the spirit than when my house is redolent of sugar and spice, orange and cranberry, fig and toasted pecan—all blended with the clean scent of fresh greenery.

When I think of cookies, I think of the Missouri Baking Company on “The Hill” in St. Louis, Missouri. This Italian bakery is in a little village-like district that reminds me of the movie “Moonstruck.” Mom-and-pop delis, old-style Italian restaurants, shotgun-style houses with tiny front gardens. The bakery is no-frills, family-owned, all scrumptious.
The Missouri Baking Company doesn't even have a web site.  They do business the old-fashioned way, in person or by phone. (314) 773-4122.

The last time I visited, I bought two boxes of Italian cookies.  When I put them down on a painted, peeling stoop, the photo looked just right--lots of great texture and taste.

This second box features Italian Fig Cookies—a tender dough that encloses a spiced fig filling, and is then drizzled with icing and dotted with colored sprinkles.  Just looking at them makes you smile.

You can also find Italian Fig Cookies, sometimes cut into different shapes and sometimes only during the holiday season, at other Midwestern bakeries, too:

Palermo Bakery in Chicago http://www.palermobakerychicago.com/
Rito’s Bakery in Parma, Ohio http://www.ritosbakery.com/
Bommarito Bakery in metro Detroit, Michigan. http://bommaritobakery.com/

If you make Italian Fig Cookies yourself, however, you don’t have to travel and you can have them any time!

You can make them in stages—the filling a week or two in advance, the cookie pastry a few days ahead. Then roll, fill, bake, drizzle, and sprinkle.

Italian Fig Cookies
Adapted from Heartland: The Cookbook.
The recipe for cuccidatti, or Italian fig cookies, was one Sicilian immigrants clutched tightly to their collective bosoms on the proverbial boat. No matter that fig trees struggle in the Midwestern climate—even as far south as Missouri, fig trees must be bundled up like toddlers in snowsuits to survive the seesaw extremes of winter weather—families of Sicilian origin want their fig cookies. One bite and you’ll see why. Make the filling a week or so in advance, if you wish, and keep it covered in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake. If you end up with extra filling, use it to stuff and bake apples.
Makes 4 dozen cookies
1 cup dried figs, about 4 ounces
1/3 cup dried dates, pitted
1/3 cup dark raisins
1 tangerine or Satsuma, peeled, seeded, and sectioned (most membrane removed)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
¼ teaspoon fine kosher or sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon grappa, bourbon, or cognac, optional
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine kosher or sea salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1.  To make the filling, pour boiling water over the dried fruit and let steep for 15 minutes, or until softened.  Pour off the water.  Grind the figs, dates, raisins, tangerine sections, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange zest, salt, pepper, corn syrup, and optional grappa together in a food processor or in a food grinder until you have a moist paste.  Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks before baking.
2.  To make the pastry, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together in a food processor.  Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles small peas.  In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, milk, and vanilla together.  Add this mixture to the flour mixture and pulse to form a mass.  You will see small flecks of butter in the dough.
3.  Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. 
4. Divide the dough into fourths. On a floured surface, roll each portion of dough into a 14- by 5-inch rectangle.  Spoon or pipe a fourth of the filling down the center of the pastry strip.  Turn so that the cylinder is horizontal to you. Bring the edges of the dough up and pinch them together with your fingers.  Remove any excess flour with a pastry brush. Roll the strip gently to form a cylinder, then gently squeeze and stretch the cylinder to a length of 18 inches.  Cut the cylinder into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Place on a baking sheet, seam side down, about 1 inch apart.  Repeat the process with the remaining pastry and filling.
5. Bake for 14 to 16 minutes or until lightly browned. 
6. For the glaze, whisk the milk, vanilla, and confectioners’ sugar together in a bowl. Brush the cookies with the glaze and sprinkle with colored sprinkles while still warm. Cookies will keep for up to 1 month in an airtight container.