December 10, 2014

Dear friends,

Once a month three women and I gather around a table (usually mine) to discuss the books we are writing. My friend Lin Amstutz and I started the group about five or six years ago. I wanted to hear how others were dealing with agents and self-imposed deadlines. Also, I needed a kick in the pants to get going on a second book.

Except for an editor I had worked for, Lin and I barely knew the authors we invited to join us, and in fact barely knew each other then. We didn’t know whether the personalities would mesh or whether the shared advice would be valuable; we all were writing very different types of books.

It’s safe to say our writers’ group has been a success. The women have become dear to me and are indispensable to my work. I know they feel the same way. When Lin moved to France last spring, we mourned.

We have resisted turning these hours-long meetings into social occasions, but it’s difficult. We spend more and more time catching up on personal news. The snacks have become more and more plenteous. Occasionally – when Lin left, when the holidays near – someone will break out a bottle of wine.

I have been a holdout, trying to keep the agenda focused on our writing, but this week I caved and served a little holiday lunch. Little but lovely, I think. Knowing my friends would load the table with cookies, I served soup and a cracker. The soup, described by a reader who had had a similar soup in a restaurant, was Potato-Parmesan Truffle and the cracker was a Crispy Frico, or Parmesan crisp.

The smooth, rich soup with a gentle echo of Parmesan cheese was easy to make and fits the reader’s description. I patterned the recipe on Julia Child’s potato-leek soup, swapping onions for the leeks, replacing some of the water with chicken broth, and adding grated Parmesan at the end of cooking. Just before serving, I swirled a half-teaspoon of truffle oil into each portion.

The salty-crisp frico was a crunchy counterpoint to the smooth soup. The crisps are made by spooning tablespoons of grated Parmesan onto a lightly oiled baking sheet and baking for 10 minutes. That’s it. Although they are fragile fresh from the oven, don’t wait for them to cool and firm up to remove them from baking sheet because they’ll stick like glue.

Both the soup and the crisps may be made a day in advance, although the cheese and truffle oil shouldn’t be added until just before serving. After cooling, the Parmesan crisps may be stored in an airtight container, separated by squares of waxed paper.

POTATO-PARMESAN SOUP WITH TRUFFLE OIL

  • 1 ½ to 2 lbs. peeled and diced potatoes (about 5 medium potatoes or 4 cups)
  • 2 cup diced yellow onion
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. softened butter
  • ¼ cup half and half or cream
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 tsp. truffle oil
  • Parsley leaves for garnish

Place potatoes, onion, water, chicken broth and salt in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 40 to 50 minutes, until vegetables are very tender and liquid has reduced by about one-fourth. Puree soup until smooth with a stick blender or in batches in a food processor. Taste and add more salt if needed. Return to medium heat and stir in butter and cream. Soup may be made to this point and refrigerated.

Just before serving, warm soup over medium heat. When hot, add cheese and stir until cheese has mostly melted. Ladle into bowls and swirl ½ teaspoon truffle oil into each portion. Garnish with a parsley leaf. Serve each with a Crispy Frico (recipe follows). Makes 8 servings.

CRISPY FRICO

(Parmesan crisps)

  • ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese (use the large holes of a box grater)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Very lightly oil a large baking sheet. Place heaping tablespoons of the Parmesan on the sheet about 2 inches apart. Flatten and slightly spread the cheese into rounds. Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until the Parmesan is bubbly and a light golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately transfer the fragile crisps to a wire rack with a spatula. When completely cool, store in an airtight container, separated by squares of waxed paper. Makes 8.

TIDBITS

Last week a Virginia woman won $1 million in this year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off with a cookie/candy concoction of chopped pie crust, peanut butter, white chocolate and toffee bits. It sounded awful until I saw the photo at http://www.pillsbury.com/recipes/peanutty-pie-crust-clusters/ba989003-b1dc-4b27-9e9b-c93853f91285. Now I crave it in that embarrassed-I-ate-it kind of way.

This year’s winners were decided by judges’ scores and an Online vote. The only Ohio recipe in the running was a gluten-free ginger cookie from a Columbus cook.

Here’s the winning recipe from Beth Royals of Richmond, Va.

PEANUTTY PIE CRUST CLUSTERS

  • 1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
  • 1 12-oz. bag (2 cups) white vanilla baking chips
  • 1 tbsp. butter-flavor vegetable shortening
  • 1 tbsp. Jif® Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 1 cup salted cocktail peanuts
  • 2/3 cup toffee bits

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with waxed paper or parchment.

Unroll pie crust on work surface. With pizza cutter or knife, cut into 16 rows by 16 rows to make small squares. Arrange squares in single layer on large ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove squares from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 5 minutes.

In large microwavable bowl, microwave baking chips, shortening and peanut butter uncovered on high power 1 minute to 1 minute 30 seconds, stirring once, until chips can be stirred smooth. Add pie crust squares, peanuts and toffee bits; stir gently until evenly coated. Immediately drop by heaping tablespoonfuls onto lined cookie sheets. (If mixture gets too thick, microwave 15 seconds; stir.) Refrigerate about 15 minutes or until set. Store covered.

THE MAILBAG  

From Jan Cramer, Uniontown:

I made the pear tart for Thanksgiving.  Did up the pears and the dough a day ahead and baked it next morning.  Fantastic.  Best crust ever. I did make two additions:  I toasted a cup of sliced almonds and put them in the pan before the pears so they came out on top.  Also I added about ½ teaspoon of almond extract to the pear mixture.

I am going to try it for company this weeknight using toasted walnuts and apples with a few dried cranberries and a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Re chili beef.   In San Antonio, they sell chili beef in the grocery.  It is a very coarse grind about 80/20 fat.  Bits are about ¼-inch in size.   It makes a wonderful, less soupy chili.  Don’t know if you could get it ground at one of the meat markets here or not.

Dear Jan:

Your additions to the pear tart sound excellent. When you make it with apples, add some vanilla and be sure to use apples that retain their shape during cooking. I always use yellow delicious. The apples may have to be cooked in the syrup longer than the pears. For classic tarte tatin, peeled and cored apple halves are cooked in the butter-sugar mixture for about an hour before baking.

I’m familiar with chili beef. After I wrote about it years ago, one or two local supermarkets said their butchers would grind it to order. That’s back before most beef arrived pre-cut, in cryovac packages. Few supermarkets grind their own hamburger anymore, but I bet butcher shops would do it.

From Debbie Minerich:

With the holidays quickly approaching, I’d like to remind your newsletter readers who are considering an end-of-the-year charitable donation to consider the Jane Snow Fund for Hunger at the Akron Community Foundation. Since I retired nearly two years ago, I’ve volunteered in a local food pantry. While I sincerely enjoy how I spend my time, I am humbled beyond words by this experience. We live in a community where hunger is a daily occurrence, especially in children whose only meals might be consumed during school hours. In addition to Jane’s hunger fund, contributions could be sent to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank or a multitude of organizations that feed the hungry in the greater Akron area. Thanks and happy Holidays!

Dear Debbie:

Thank you for reminding all of us of the need to help those who are hungry and hurting. Donations to the Jane Snow Fund for Hunger may be made by clicking on this link: Donate to the Jane Snow Hunger Fund. Please designate the Jane Snow Hunger Fund in the appropriate blank.

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