There is no holiday tradition I love more than the baking and sharing of cookies. Most of the year, I do my best to keep the sweet treats at bay, but during December, all bets are off. I make at least half a dozen varieties and hand them out to my friends, neighbors, and family members.
My first cookie of the season is always a basic roll-out sugar cookie. The recipe comes from an old family friend. It’s easy to make, can stand up to repeated rolling, and holds its shape during baking. I like to decorate them with a simple shake of colored sugar or sprinkles, but the truly ambitious can employ frosting as well.
Rallying against the overabundance of “pumpkin” flavored and scented items that fill our coffee-shop menus and store shelves is like worrying about Miley Cyrus’s future or whether you left the oven on when you’re on vacation: it might feel important, but you can’t do anything about it. By now, we all know that many of the “pumpkin” treats marketed at us don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, right? Rather, “pumpkin” has become shorthand for a comforting combination of seasonal spices. I get it. Saying “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” is easier than “cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and maybe some allspice latte.”
So, if telling you that there’s no pumpkin in a lot of pumpkin-spice stuff is akin to telling you there’s no Santa Claus, is informing you that there was no actual pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving like telling you that the Easter Bunny is fake too? While the pumpkin is indigenous to North America and they likely had a pumpkin dish at the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have the wheat to make the crusts at the time.
Rather, the pumpkin and the pumpkin pie are American nostalgia foods – and they’ve been that for a long time. MORE
It wouldn’t be a true Thanksgiving without some pie after your turkey. But, at least in my house, which is probably true for many others, the Thanksgiving dessert spread hasn’t changed at all during my 20 years of existence (and probably for even longer than that). Classic desserts such as apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie are as important to Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Parade, the green bean casserole, or the yearly anticipation for Black Friday sales. But of late, I’ve grown restless with these traditional baked goods, and so I’ve decided to revamp the Thanksgiving dessert table.
My quibble with the usual turkey day desserts is their predictability – their sugary predictability, that is. Every year it’s the same assortment of pumpkin, apple, pecan, or chocolate pies. Each and every one often tastes like a single droll note of sweet. No real spice, no interesting or unexpected flavor pairings, and no plays on texture. Just the same plain crust and standard sugary fillings – the only real difference is whether your whipped topping came from a can or a tub.
I usually love apple season — stockpiles in the grocery store and at the farmers’ markets, Facebook feeds full of apple-picking adventures and apple-you-name-it recipes all over. But I must admit, this year, I’d had my fill after about a week. I fell into my usual routine, turning baskets of overflowing apples into apple pies, apple strudels, and applesauces, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I grew bored of the traditional dishes I was so used to making, becoming mechanical and thoughtless in the process. I wanted more sophisticated desserts. I wanted a challenge.
Feeling determined, I set out to find new and inspiring apple recipes. Nothing says challenge to me like classic French cuisine, so I began thumbing through my own culinary bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the late Julia Child. I checked the index for its list of apple recipes and flipped through the subsequent pages hoping to find an interesting recipe. Apple gastrique, braised apples, apple-stuffed pork — they all sounded delicious, but weren’t quite what I was looking for. Finally, I flipped to a page with a striking drawing depicting perfectly layered apple slices circling the center of a tart. I had found my inspiration: apple tarts. MORE
I’m a devoted fan of quick breads, especially traditional banana bread and zucchini bread. But just about any variation that’s sweet works. My neighbor gives us a cranberry-walnut quick bread every Christmas that’s incredible. A college friend made a pumpkin bread with extra doses of chocolate chips that I still think about to this day. I love having a fresh quick bread in the kitchen, and plan to try a new recipe this weekend with for apples and oatmeal-walnut crumble.
Quick breads are the kind of treat that’s all upside: easy to make, reliably delicious, people pleasing, and totally appropriate any time of day. They might be my favorite basic snack of all time.
But to me, quick bread means sweet bread. So when I first heard about the rising popularity of savory quick breads, I flinched. How about a nice big slice of chorizo-parmesan-parsnip bread with that afternoon coffee? I don’t think so.
The summer of 1982, when I was 12, I did not do “quite as many things as I did the last” according to the annual report my parents made me write before school started again. But “I did a lot of fun small things.” One of those fun small things, I noted, was bake a cake with my grandmother. I recall it as the first real cake I ever made — no box of mix or mom measuring the flour while I stirred.
When I heard about slice, the sweet snacks common to Australia and New Zealand, I was intrigued. Slice is, apparently, ubiquitous to life there. Children eat slice in packed lunches or after school, and adult coffee time gets supplemented with slice. It’s found in most every bakery, cafe, supermarket, and corner store, in countless variations. MORE
When I was a kid, we always had at least two or three packages of crackers in the pantry for snacks and quick lunch prep. There would be my mom’s ruggedly healthy Ak-Maks, a box of kid-friendly Wheat Thins, and a plastic sleeve of rice cakes (to this day, I like to spread a couple with hummus and call it lunch).
White flour is like a ghost: if we don’t think about it, we’re fine. But when we do start to think about it, we get a little creeped out. Oh, it might not look like we’re scared of it when we wolf our restaurant bread baskets or take forkfuls of cream cheese-frosted carrot cake, but when we start to think about that powdery wheat product on its own, some serious flourphobia rises to the surface. Together I’m hoping we can make it through this. That’s right, together: I have flour-fear issues, too.
In the many years since our revolution, we Americans have turned our backs on so many British influences—the royalty and pageantry, big hats and bows, pearls and plaids, clotted cream and smoked herring, Spice Girls and Phil Collins. Good riddance to all of it, you might say. But what about elevenses? How did we let that one get away?
Elevenses, in case you don’t know, is a casual break for tea or coffee and a small treat at, yes, 11 o’clock in the morning. And although elevenses sounds like it comes straight from nursery school, it was once standard practice for people of all ages in Great Britain.
I once worked for a place that mandated a group coffee break every Friday. When the time came, we’d file from our cubicles into the conference room and sit around a massive U-shaped table. Someone would produce the week’s snack and pass it around to go with whatever tea or coffee we’d carried in from our desks.
The gathering was a nice idea, something that should have fostered collegiality and generated some laughs. But it was, unstoppably, dreadful. MORE
Whereas fresh bagels are coveted and home-baked bread approaches a spiritual experience for many, it’s rare in America to come across a fresh-from-scratch English muffin. In fact, I’d venture that there isn’t another bread product we’re as willing to buy pre-packaged (except for maybe the pocket pita). We simply don’t have respect for the English muffin. Take the breakfast sandwich, for example. A staple everywhere from the McDonald’s drive-thru to high-end restaurants, the breakfast sandwich puts the focus on the egg, cheese, and meat that’s tucked in the middle on the sandwich, forcing the English muffin that holds it all together to play second-fiddle (or is it griddle?). Of course, a breakfast sandwich doesn’t have to be made with an English muffin. But let’s not lie to ourselves: A bagel or bread couldn’t handle the breakfast sandwich the way an English muffin does. The bagel has too much dough, and bread falls apart. Only the English muffin has the right size and sheer tenacity to properly rein in the wily breakfast sandwich. Yet we rarely give it the attention
Rose water is like that sequined, lime green blazer you have sitting in your closet. Totally impractical to wear every day yet, on certain occasions, it can take an ordinary recipe and transform it into something with extra flare and a special unique quality. But when exactly is the “certain occasion” for rose water? Frilly tea parties, with dainty pastries? Or perhaps hosting a super swanky bingo night for the ladies over at the nursing home? After all, there’s no getting around the fact that the perfume-esque liquid smells a little bit like your grandma.