December 4, 2015

Dear friends,

This is the hardest season of the year for me in the kitchen. Making Christmas cookies has been a holiday tradition for as long as I can remember, but lately I have sworn off sugar. Usually I find an excuse to make cookies for someone else – my sister, my brother or friends. Last year it was my in-laws in Japan, who are in failing health. The year before it was my brother, whose wife was in the hospital. The year before that it was my sister, who is a teacher and was too busy to bake.

Although I’ve racked my brains, I can’t come up with an excuse this year. That’s OK. I’ll start baking and an excuse will materialize. If not, I’ll have to eat a whole batch of chocolate-fig biscotti and that would be a shame.

I’ve already eaten about a quarter of a batch thanks to my friend, Nancy, who toted them along when she brought her dog, Bosco, for a play date. (I must mention that a friend of hers calls Bosco “Young Ovaltine.” I love that.)

Anyway, not only does “chocolate-fig biscotti” sound ritzy, the cookies taste wonderful. The chocolate and dried fig play off each other, amplifying the flavor of each.

CHOCOLATE-FIG BISCOTTI

JANE FOOD

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup diced dried figs

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugar until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat to combine. Add dry ingredients and beat until dough comes together (it will be dry) then mix in figs.

Divide dough into two equal pieces. Form each piece into a 12- by 2- inch log and place on baking sheets.

Bake until cooked through but still soft, about 30 minutes.

When cool enough to handle, use a serrated knife to cut biscotti into 3/4-inch thick pieces. Place back on baking sheet and bake until dry and toasted, about another 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. From Serious Eats.

HELP U COOK

Northeast Ohio is a hotbed of fudge-making at Christmas time, and almost everyone has not only a favorite flavor but a favorite texture. Do you like your fudge soft and creamy or shiny and firm? Ingredients have little to do with the texture. The way you beat the cooked sugar mixture causes the sugar crystals to align in certain ways, producing different textures. If you want soft, creamy fudge, let the mixture cool to 122 degrees (from the 240-degree soft ball stage) before beating. If you like it firm and shiny, beat it while hot.

THE MAILBAG

From Dorothy G.:
Jane, not to be funny, maybe I am the only one, but pumpkin is only for pumpkin pies (Note: and I think they feed it to pigs, too!). My mother made pumpkin soup (probably from her younger days in Europe). I never would eat it. But enjoy your holiday and your pumpkin cheesecake.

Dear Dorothy: I enjoyed my pumpkin cheesecake to the max, thank you, but I can understand your reticence. When I took the cheesecake to a Halloween party once, a friend from France wouldn’t touch it. She explained that pumpkin was considered a vegetable where she grew up, and to her, “it would be like eating a broccoli cheesecake.”

I’m more broadminded in my tastes. I eat pumpkin every which way, from roasted cubes with butter to pumpkin polenta to pumpkin cakes, custards and pies. Bring it on.

From Robin, Creston:
My daughter is working on a project for her senior Spanish class. She has been assigned the country of Nicaragua and will be giving a presentation on the culture, tradition and food of that country. Do you know of any restaurants that serve or specialize in Nicaraguan food in the area? While she can easily go online and get recipes, etc., she thought it would be especially fun to go to a restaurant that specializes in that food. While we are short on time, I thought you might be an excellent source to determine if there are any area restaurants. It sure sounds like a fun field trip if the option exists! Thanks so much!

Dear Robin: As close as I can get you is an El Salvadoran and Columbian restaurant, El Arepazo Y Pupuseria, in Fairview Park. Does anyone else know of a Nicaraguan restaurant in Northeast Ohio?

From Suzanne Allen:
Reading See Jane Cook makes my day. And it would make my week, perhaps month, if you could remember a recipe for an appetizer (dip) you served years ago. It was a pomegranate, olive, bread crumb tapenade-like dip that used a pomegranate-infused balsamic vinegar (perhaps?). I just remember it was fabulous and now in pomegranate season, it’s all I can think of. So now my question is, can you think of it, too?

Dear Suzanne: I’m happy to say my memory has not totally deserted me. The recipe you crave is from Kitty Crider of the Austin American-Statesman, who found it in “New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan. Kitty published it as one of her favorite recipes before her retirement in 2008. The dip is Middle Eastern – perhaps Syrian, she says. The pomegranate “vinegar” you recall is actually pomegranate syrup, a staple of Arab cooking.

PEPPER, POMEGRANATE AND WALNUT DIP (MAHAMMAR)
2 red bell peppers, piths and seeds removed, quartered
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Dash of cayenne
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. pomegranate syrup (See note.)
1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries
2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup chopped black Greek-style olives, optional
Toasted pita bread

Put the peppers and garlic in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until the peppers are in little pieces.

Add the walnuts, bread crumbs, cayenne pepper and salt and pulse a few times until the walnuts are processed but still have some crunch to them.

Stir in the olive oil and pomegranate syrup. Adjust the seasonings and gently fold in the fresh pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries), mint and olives.

Place in a serving bowl with a small spoon, accompanied by toasted pita bread or chips for dippers. Makes 2 cups.

Note: Pomegranate syrup is available in Middle Eastern stores.
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