Oh, home. I’ve taken so many car rides home at Christmas—home when it was New Jersey, in college, and home now in North Carolina. Home, when my mom drove me there, and home, when my husband does now. It doesn’t seem to matter, really, whether I’m 18 or 26: these rides have about the same effect on me each time: I get very, very excited for them, and about five minutes after the car revs up, I fall asleep.
My mother and sister still laugh about the time during my sophomore year in college, when they picked me up after my last final exam. I’d stayed up the better part of the past 72 hours—I was, er, a little on the intense side then—and was jittery with caffeine and the pure relief of it all being done. I climbed into the backseat of our red Ford Escape as they chatted and pulled onto the road. As they tell it, my mom asked me a question approximately two seconds later and was met with a loud, un-lady-like snore. I snored all the way to Flemington, New Jersey, where I think I got out of the car, went up to my old bedroom and kept going.
To this day, going home just draws the sleepiness out of me. It must be some internal, biological cue that someone else is temporarily responsible for keeping me alive, and I can relax. It's the same reason, I suppose, that even as an adult, I sometimes forget to buckle my seatbelt when I'm the passenger and one of my parents is driving.
Now, butter, flour, and sugar may not be good substitutes for a husband, but I’ll tell you what is: coaxing them into cookies while listening to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air. Although we’ve never met, Terry and I have spent a lot of time together, the bulk of it between June 2007 and August 2008. Jeff was taking classes towards his second Master’s degree nearly every weeknight then, and turning on the radio and turning out something from the oven became my own nightly ritual. What do we have to show for it? Well, Jeff can speak expertly on International Financial Regulatory Standards, and… I can recognize Terry Gross’s voice anywhere.
There’s no particular “catch” or schtick to Fresh Air; it’s one woman interviewing people. I find it compelling, though, for two reasons: first, I think we all ought to ask each other more questions; and second, I love not being able to see the person speaking. This, I think, is the charm of radio programs, and what makes them gratifying in a way that watching television or reading the paper or surfing the internet just isn’t. There’s something oddly intimate about getting to know people through their voices alone. I think it strips them down to their real parts, whatever those may be. Terry’s practiced interview techniques don’t hurt, either; after all of our time together, I can tell by her inflection when she’s ultra-prepared and feisty for a toughie, like this guy; or when she’s just kicking back and enjoying the ride with a smooth-sailer, like Will Ferrell.
But whether the guest is a poet, a bioethicist, or a banana historian, I always feel a tad more edified afterward. Last week, a well-known journalist was on the program, and she said something that should be obvious but somehow seemed prescient in this age of media overload: that we oughtn’t confuse information with understanding. Maybe it’s just me, but listening—without a barrage of images—commands a different, sometimes deeper thought process than looking.
Of course, lest you think I’m getting a little too self-congratulatory here, allow me to admit that I generally lose at least 5-10 minutes of the program to cursing over spills and injuries resulting from our kitchen’s modest square footage, and that I am sometimes a rather “active listener” who calls out encouraging/antagonizing comments during some of Terry’s interviews (“Whoa, she’s pulling out the big guns after only five minutes!” or “He knows what you’re trying to do, Terry, and he already said he wasn’t going to talk about his childhood!”). But when all is said and done, the best reason for listening to the radio in the evening is that you can bake while doing it. And if you are going to bake, which really, you should, since it’s December 17th and there’s no better excuse, these are the cookies to make.
I know that by this point, you’re probably a little suspicious of Chef Sue Sous’s palate. I mean, I’ve given you curry, gin cookies, and pruney meatballs. If they’ve got anything in common, it’s that they’ve probably made you make a face. I don’t blame you a bit. But listen up, people: there’s nothing funky about these cookies, and that’s what makes them brilliant, buttery keepers. You only need six ingredients--I bet you’ve already got them on hand—and you’ll get 70-100 rounds with jeweled, jammy centers.
They’re called “Aunt Sis’s Strawberry Tart Cookies,” and they were originally published in a 1993 Gourmet (and are now listed as the favorite cookie recipe for that year in Gourmet’s Favorite Cookies 1941-2008). I have no idea who Aunt Sis is or if she’s still with us, but the woman knows, or knew, her cookies. These tarts are the only recipe that I’ve made every year since I started baking Christmas cookies in a serious (ha!) way in 2001. They’ve been around the block, so to speak. And honey, they’re just as good as they ever were.
So, 8 days until Christmas, here’s my wish for you: a big old hunk of butter, a sturdy mixer, and the sound of a familiar voice during it all.
Aunt Sis’s Strawberry Tart Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 large egg yolks, beaten lightly
1 cup strained strawberry jam*
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, the sugar, and the salt, add the butter, and blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal.** Stir in the egg yolks, blend the mixture until it forms a dough, and chill the dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the dough soften slightly, roll level teaspoons of it into balls, and arrange the balls about 2 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheets. Using your thumb, make an indentation in the center of each ball, being careful not to crack the dough around the edges. (If the dough cracks, reroll it and try again.) Fill each indentation with about 1/4 teaspoon of the jam and bake the cookies in batches in the middle of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the edges are pale golden. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 2 minutes, transfer them to racks, and let them cool completely. The cookies may be made 1 month in advance and kept frozen in airtight containers.
Makes 70-100, depending on whether you use teaspoons or tablespoons.
*You can use any flavor of jam you like; I use raspberry for half and strawberry for half. Also, I don't strain my jam and just glop it in. For cleaner presentation, you can strain.
**I use my food processor for this part, by putting the flour/sugar/salt mixture into the bowl of the processor and then distributing the butter bits on top. I pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand. I’ve made the recipe both ways and haven’t noticed a difference in the results.
But even when you have a whirlwind courtship, I think that there's a time--a split-second, a few minutes in conversation, maybe even an entire weekend--that most people can look back on and say "that was when I knew it was something special." All gagging aside, for Jeff and me, it was our first date. For me, it was when we were walking in Chicago's River North neighborhood and Jeff kept flitting around me whenever we crossed the street. Exasperated--I was wearing too-high heels in an attempt to mitigate our vast height difference--I finally asked why he kept trying to get to one side of me. He replied, completely earnestly, that he was trying to be the one closer to the street traffic.
And if I had to answer for Jeff, I'd say that he knew it was something special when, during our dinner at a pizza restaurant, between professing my love for Aristotle and Paris, I said the words, "I like to cook."
Friends, I think you'd agree with me that our generation isn't one wholly given to the kitchen. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's pretty darn tough to find people in their mid-to-late twenties who'd ooh and aah over copper pans and saffron. That's not to say they don't exist--hello, friendly food-blogging community--but in my humble opinion, I think young professionals who double as cooking enthusiasts are in the minority. If, as children, we were cooked for, and if, as young adults, we swiped a card to load up on prepared food in college cafeterias, we're not likely to don aprons and take up braising a couple of years later.
So if, like Jeff was, you're 24 and dating at a big research university where everyone has lockers in the library because sometimes they sleep there and are so engrossed in the life of the mind that sometimes they forget to eat* and you find a girl and and think she might be it and...she really likes to cook, well, you'd probably be a little surprised. And a little giddy.
During our five months of dating and six of being engaged, there was pork saltimbocca, baked brie, and chocolate souffle. Pumpkin pancakes, chicken fajitas, and pesto-ed fettucini. Wine and roasted nuts. A lot of cookies. We had some good times. Unfortunately, however, I think all the time I spent in the kitchen may have steamed up Jeff's glasses so thoroughly that he didn't notice that my prowess with bread dough lacked a counterpart in the other realms of domesticity. He knew my friends called me "DW**", but I think he assumed it was a nickname based little on truth and more on affection, like calling a skinny guy in a Mafia movie Fat Pete.
It was probably a bit confusing and frustrating, then, when I'd make the man a dinner of lamb chops with roasted garlic potatoes and he'd still be finding garlic skins under the coffeemaker a week later. Or when I'd let 5 water glasses congregate on my bedside table and opt to just wear socks rather than address the mystery stickiness on the kitchen floor. It may have appeared impossible for me to fully screw on the lid to the peanut butter jar, but I could make a serious bread pudding.
Our own division of labor, then, evolved over our first year of marriage to look something like this: Sue-kitchen; Jeff-everything else. That's not quite the way it remains today--Jeff is an excellent breakfast-maker and I usually hang up all of my wet towels. And it's true that over the years, I've gotten better about throwing my gum in the trash can rather than on my dresser. I know, I know. But I think we both understand now, all too well, that I just don't scrub as well as I julienne. You make certain sacrifices in marriage, I suppose, to hold on to the most important things. Like a man who'll stay between you and the side of the road. Like meatballs.
I'm making these for Jeff's company's Christmas party that's being held at the home of one of his superiors. As soon as I was asked to bring an appetizer, I knew it had to be meatballs. Save your latest hummus recipe for an all-girls book club meeting. No matter what people say around this time of year ("I couldn't eat another cookie! Oh, I'm positively exhausted by all this rich food!"); a crudite platter at a Christmas party is just disappointing.
These feature a beef, pork, and prune mixture. I developed them after tasting lamb and prune meatballs a couple of years ago and deciding to try them out with less complex meats for the sake of not having to go to the store for lamb. With parsley, parmesan, and a bit of orange peel, they've got a great meatiness, slight saltiness, and subtle, festive sweetness. Meatballs' less divisive take on fruitcake, if you will. They're not eye-catching, but they go fast, especially at parties with men in suits you've never met and don't want to try to speak to while navigating an oozing hor d'oeuvre.
As an added bonus, they can really counter the effect of any libations you might indulge in. A very good thing, if, like a certain girl of short stature and low tolerance, you had too much Pinot Grigio at last year's Christmas party and wound up making eyes at the band in the hopes they'd invite you on stage to sing. Yep, more meatballs can definitely help with that.
I plan to plop them on a platter, put some sparkly earrings on, and accompany a very handsome man who happens to know a good meatball when he sees one.
*I've thought a lot about this, and I'm sorry to say I just can't comprehend it.
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from French baguette)
12 prunes (I used Sunsweet brand)
4 large eggs, beaten slightly
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup finely grated parmagiano reggiano
1 tbsp grated orange peel
1/4 cup packed, chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
1.5 lb ground beef (I used lean (90/10))
1 lb ground pork (I used lean)
1-3 tbsp of olive oil (if needed to help meatballs stick together)
Additional olive oil for frying
Place prunes in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until they've broken down and clump together in a pureed mash.
Stir together prune mash, beaten eggs, garlic, cheese, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. I used a whisk. It may be difficult at first to get the prune mash to break apart; just keep at it, breaking it apart with the wire of the whisk and incorporating it into the rest of the mixture.
When all of the above ingredients are mixed together, add the ground beef and pork. I used my hands for this part, but I suppose you could use a sturdy spoon. Mix thoroughly, until the egg/prune mixture is evenly distributed throughout the meat.
Form mixture into 1 1/2 inch diameter meatballs. I made about 50.
Pour olive oil into heavy large skillet to cover the bottom, heat over medium high heat. Work in batches to cook the meatballs.
For this next step: you can opt to 1) fry the meatballs until they are thoroughly cooked, about 15 mins per batch, or 2) sear the meatballs in the oil about 5-7 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon, and place on cookie sheets to bake in the oven at 350 degrees for another 10-12 minutes. I use the latter method, which helps to remove some of the grease (but thankfully, not all of it!) from the meatballs.
Transfer to plate. Serve immediately, or let cool and then refrigerate for 2-3 days. I froze mine and will reheat them in a 300 degree oven before packing them up for the party.
On Saturday, I’ll be taking a nonstop to the east coast, where two very lively brunettes will collect me and then drive me all the way up to Brooklyn, baby, where a very lively redhead will join us. We’ll then rush the man of the hour, Kevin, who is serving as our gracious host for a short weekend of ice-skating, Christmas-lights-gazing, and (oh, I hope) real-pizza eating.
I met Kev when we were 18 and newly-arrived freshmen at our undergraduate alma mater. There are a few important things you should know about him:
1. He brings a lot of life and a whole lot of dancing to a party.
2. He is one of those rare people who make a great companion for just about any activity.
3. He really listens.
4. He has children’s-clothing-magazine-adorable nieces and nephews.
5. He managed banks for a time.
6. He is kind.
In short, he’s a lot of fun, a great friend, and a very good person. Due to distance and daily life, we’ve had our share of long stretches without seeing and/or speaking to each other. A couple of months ago, when we saw each other for the first time in 2 (!) years, I developed a new appreciation for the fact that Kev is one for picking up where we left off, no matter what. And for all of that, I’m bringing the man some cookies.
I actually snickered at this and thought, I’ll show them! before I recalled that, well, I’m a grown-up. And so are my friends. Our college days are eeking their way into the Long Time Ago category. By the end of this decade, we’ll have several Master’s degrees, a doctorate, an attorney, 401Ks, an original play, and weddings between us. I hope that we never get too old for bringing 1.5liter bottles of Gallo wine to BYOB Thai restaurants, but homeownership and offspring can’t be that far down the line.
Although I tend to groan whenever I see sifting in a recipe, I decided Kev was worth it. Good thing, because I think that my favorite thing about these cookies is their texture. They’ve got a meringue-meets-brownie thing going on. That kind of craziness has got to bode well for this weekend.
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup gin
3 cups sifted confectioners sugar (sift before measuring)
2/3 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process (sift before measuring)
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (unsifted)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
8 oz pecans (2 1/4 cups), toasted, cooled, and coarsely chopped
Combine raisins and gin in a cup and let stand at least 8 hours to macerate. I gave them 16.
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and butter the parchment paper.
Mix confectioners sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, flour, and salt with an electric mixer at low speed. Add egg whites, vanilla, Grand Marnier and orange peel (if desired) and continue mixing until smooth.
Drain raisins in a sieve, without pressing, then add raisins to dough with pecans. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Dough will be very thick and sticky.
The original recipe, which will make 12 very large cookies, instructs you to drop 1/4 cup dough for each cookie onto a baking sheet, spacing cookies at least 3 inches apart, and gently pat down each mound to about 1/2 inch thick. I decided I’d prefer more and smaller cookies, so I used a heaping tablespoon and fit 16 on each cookie sheet.
Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, in middle of oven, rotating sheet halfway through baking, 15 to 17 minutes total for 12 big ones, or 9-12 minutes for 32 small ones. They are done when cookies appear cracked and the centers are just set. Cool cookies on sheet 1 minute, then transfer carefully to a rack to cool completely.
When my husband, Jeff, took me to his hometown in Kentucky for the first time, I was a bit disappointed. I wasn't quite certain what to expect, but I think I had vaguely imagined a good deal of undeveloped farmland, roadside general stores selling hams and fireworks, and some great twanged accents. You'll have to forgive me, here; I'd been living on my own in Chicago for fourteen months at that point, doing oh-so-sophisticated things like paying my bills, riding public transportation, and spraying my apartment for cockroaches, and I'd begun to think myself the epitome of a city mouse. All I'd ever associated with Kentucky was horse-racing and chicken. Oh, sure, I'd lived in Texas for some time, but that didn't really count as The South, did it? This would be entirely new territory-- a real getaway weekend to the real country. I was thinking biscuits and bourbon.
So it was with a little surprise that we took mostly highways to a good-sized suburban area in the South-Central region of the state, which looked a lot like the good-sized suburban areas I'd grown up in across the country. A lovely downtown area, the main drag of strip-malls with red and yellow fast food outposts, some treed residential developments. I saw one picket fence, two horses, and nary a general store.
And as for the food, well, I don't know what I'd pictured beyond biscuits, but Jeff's mother served a wonderful vegetarian lasagna. We drank a red wine. The city mouse slept quite soundly in a pale pink bedroom and awoke the next morning feeling rather at home.
Of course, I returned to my very drafty apartment in Chicago on Monday feeling pretty silly about whatever it was I had expected the previous Friday. A few months, later, however, what I'd been murkily envisioning materialized, and it happened through a pretty spectacular holiday called Thanksgiving.
Before that year, Thanksgiving had never been a favorite of mine. It wasn't really its fault; as the kick-off event to about six weeks of very immoderate amounts of cookies, toffees, truffles, cheese balls, egg nog, hot cocoa with whipped cream, and champagne, poor Thanksgiving, with its creamy--often homely--casseroles and cranberry sauce plopped out of a can, was relegated to an exercise in pacing myself. When it comes to personal tastes, poultry, potatoes, and stuffing are not typically the stuff my dreams are made of. I'd go for a stir-fry or a curry any day over a gravy-laden plate. Growing up, we certainly observed Turkey Day, but in a fairly quiet way. My extended family is scattered throughout the country, so my parents, siblings, and an uncle or aunt here and there comprised our day of Macy's Parade watching and general slothfulness.
Needless to say, then, I was thinking more about the significance of meeting Jeff's extended family for the first time than about any holiday trappings when we returned to Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving. What would they be like? Would I be too quiet or too loud compared to them? Would I remind them how much they really liked Jeff's previous girlfriend? ("oh, Susannah is nice, but remember how Fifi* always did all of the Thanksgiving dishes and captained our touch-football games and beat us all in Scrabble?")
When we arrived, my heart beat a little faster. Oh, there were a lot of them. They were strewn on the living room floor and couches watching football, they were piled two to a chair around the kitchen table. I'd leave one room that seemed so full it just had to contain all of them, only to find that half were actually in the next.
But after an hour or so, I knew this: this family did it up for Thanksgiving. For them, this was no light jog around the block to warm up for the holiday marathon. This was a crowd 'em all in, cackle over memories dating back to the 70s, bring out Taboo, and chat for hours event. They even had a traditional drink--chilled and bubbly Asti. Before I knew it, I was holding a glass and sitting in the midst of them, hearing Jeff get teased for only eating a certain brand of plain spaghetti for several years of his life.
And the food? Well, it was a bonified feast, straight from the cover of Southern Living. There was a turkey and a ham, but my word, they were the understudies to the side dishes, which filled the entire surface area of a fairly expansive kitchen island and breakfast nook. Cornbread dressing. Sausage-Sage dressing. Oyster dressing. Chicken and thick noodles. Sweet potato casserole with a candied pecan-brown sugar topping. Roasted asparagus. A creamy, cheesy green bean casserole. Cranberry salad. Corn. Waldorf salad. Mashed potatoes. Warm rolls, wrapped up in a basket.
No, there was nothing particularly "Southern" about the meal, and there must be families in Manhattan who ate more biscuits than we did, but at some point during the afternoon, maybe after I was the subject of some light teasing, it occurred to me that this was more what I'd been looking for on my first trip to Kentucky months before. A big, big family; comfort food; a handful of accents. Because when it comes down to it, the "getting to know you" period is thrilling when you're getting to know your future husband, but when it comes to families, I think it's better to skip over all of that politeness and nervousness and just be taken in, without question, as one of them.
After that dinner, I think I took a nap. It was a somewhat heady day, after all, between the introductions, the Asti, and consuming enough carbohydrates for all of 2005. It didn't really change the way I feel about Thanksgiving meats--I'm still fairly ambivalent when it comes to turkey and ham--but it changed my Thanksgivings forever. Now we spend each one in Kentucky, which, if you must know, is known for horse-racing, something called a Hot Brown, and my second family.
*No, Jeff never actually had a girlfriend named Fifi.
Turkey and Squash Curry
For me, curry is a natural chaser to a weekend of overindulgence. The perky spices and ginger are refreshing after serious gravy intake, and the vegetables do a lot of good for the pie-guilty psyche.
I'm afraid this recipe might be too late for using up your bird, but no matter--it is equally good with leftover chicken. When it comes to modifications, feel free to substitute acorn squash or even sweet potato for the butternut. I threw in a small bag of broccoli crowns rather than spinach.
A note on spices--I have given measures that result in a mildly-spiced dish. If you're like me and your palate prefers more to less when it comes to spice, increase each spice by about half or even double.
1 lb butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 onion, coursely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2-4 cups cooked turkey or chicken
3 tbsp curry powder
2 tbsp dried marjoram
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 10-ounce bag of baby spinach (optional)
3/4 cup plain yogurt (full fat or nonfat, your choice)
3 tbsp flour
Preheat oven to 375. Line a cookie sheet with foil.
Toss cubed squash with 2 tbsp olive oil. Spread in a single layer on lined cookie sheet. Bake in oven for 25-30 mins, or until tender.
While squash is baking, put a large, 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium high heat. Add 2 tbsp olive oil. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in garlic and ginger. Cook another 3-5 minutes.
Stir in chicken or turkey and drained tomatoes, then stir in curry powder and marjoram. Add chicken broth, and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add spinach if so desired, and stir until wilted. Stir in cooked squash. Let entire mixture simmer for another 10 minutes.
Stir flour into yogurt in a small bowl with a whisk.
Remove curry from heat, and stir in yogurt mixture. Serve over rice or couscous.
P.S. If you're in need of someone to finish off your bird, this guy is available:
A decent amount of this:
And a necessary amount of this:
Welcome to Chef Sue Sous. Here's to plenty of meatballs and muffins.