Archive for December, 2005

All Wrapped Up

Or almost, anyway… The Hanukkah and Kwanzaa teams are not yet completely out of the woods, so for their sakes – and while I’m thinking about it – here are a few rules to wrap by if you’re keen to save a tree without having the presents look frumpy:

1. We are still waiting for the day when earth-friendly inclinations in this department are universally understood and admired. When in doubt, either go the safe route with new (recycled-content) paper; wrap the present in something else that is itself a present – a pretty new dish towel is the classic – or else don’t wrap it at all. The arts and crafts approach – using the funny papers, for instance – is as useful for saving money as it is for saving resources, so if you’re not careful it can just make you look cheap instead of green.

2. Homemade wrappings are only a good choice if you are good at these things and have plenty of time on your hands. My stepdaughter Celia makes such lovely collages out of bits of bark, twigs and old magazines we hate to open her presents, but if you’re not craftily inclined you end up with yet one more thing to do, and one more thing to feel inadequate about if you’re older than 10.

3. Reusing is more resource-protective than recycling, but it works best if you think of it before you’re sitting there surrounded by billowing waves of torn wrapping. Some tips:

* Tape is the enemy of paper, so before you start cutting and folding, stick a whole row of small tape pieces to the edge of a plate. If it’s easy to use less, you will.

* Consider reuse when buying paper. Mylar is difficult to crease, so if you don’t work at creasing it, it will come off the package looking as smooth as it did when it went on. Tissue paper wrinkles at the mere thought of being used, but tissue paper looks good wrinkled — if the wrinkling is thorough enough. Crush slightly-used paper into balls so it’s well and truly crinkly, like shirred fabric, then use multiple layers and multiple colors to give a festive effect.

* If you are, as I am, a sucker for gorgeous paper that has no redeeming social value outside of being beautiful, you can still amass plenty of green points by reusing as much of it as possible. The trick is to have a cardboard wrapper tube ( or tubes) handy at present-opening time, so you can roll up the used paper before some helpful relative folds it tightly into neat, deeply creased piles. Most of the smooth paper it takes to wrap a large box will remain completely new-looking if you rescue it in time. We keep this going until the smooth pieces are so small all you can wrap is a candy bar – an excellent present, by the way, if it’s something from Michel Cluizel.

Happy Holiday (with shortbread)

As a gardener whose life is nurtured by, centered in , moored to the earth and the passing upon it of the seasons, I have to say all this flapdoodle over the name of the evergreen in the living room really rankles my curd. Here’s what: it’s a holiday tree; the holiday is the winter solstice; and people have been celebrating it with these trees for more millennia than Christianity can claim.

The decorated holiday tree is a symbol of life in the midst of darkness that belongs to everybody, atheists included. The only people who might reasonably claim it has been hijacked are Druids – and at least so far most of them have had the good sense to just keep quiet and eat cookies ( another aspect of the celebration that is WAY older than certain religions).

‘nough said. And since by now you probably have your tree if you’re planning to have one, I will say only don’t forget to keep it watered, to minimize the risk of fire and to make sure it smells good for as long as possible.


Shortbread is “cookie” reduced to the absolute basics, you can’t get any closer to eating sweetened butter unless you do it with a spoon. And recipes don’t get much easier, either. This one spends a lot of words on the fine points , but the bottom line is a short ingredient list and about 5 minutes of work.

Because the ideal texture is extremely tender and crumbly, recipes typically call for mixing all purpose flour with something like cornstarch or rice flour to lower the overall gluten content. It’s easier to just use cake flour, which every baker should keep a supply of for just these occasions. (The good side of its being devoid of any meaningful nutrient content is that it keeps forever).

For about 40 cookies, depending on how you shape them:

½ pound butter – freshness is more important than either salt or fat-content
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
¼ teaspoon salt or a pinch more for unsalted butter
2 ½ – 3 cups cake flour ( amount needed will vary with the moisture content of the butter, the way you measure, and how rigid you want the finished cookies to be. The less you can get away with, the better – within reason, of course. )

1. Take the butter out of the fridge and let it soften until it is claylike, neither slump-squishy nor hard.

2. Put the sugars, salt and a few tablespoons of the flour in a processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until you don’t hear any brown sugar lumps. Add enough more flour bring the total up to 2 ½ cups. Give it another whirl or two.

3. Cut the butter into 8 or 10 pieces, scatter them over the flour, then pulse until the dough forms large clots and is just about to make a ball. This is lots of pulses.

4. Let the dough sit in a cool but not cold place for at least half an hour, up to half a day ( remove from processor and wrap in plastic if opting for the latter).

5. When ready to bake, heat the oven to 325. Roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball, then lightly flatten it into a cookie. Put it on a piece of foil; put the foil in the center of a small, flat pan ( bottom of a pie tin works fine) and put it in to bake. Check after 6 or 7 minutes. It won’t be done yet, but it will have done enough of what it’s going to do so you will know whether to knead in more flour. Do so if necessary – freestanding shapes often need a bit more to avoid puddlehood.

6. Shape the dough (see below) on an ungreased cookie sheet, preferably the double kind with the air-layer in the middle. Bake until the shortbread is pale gold clear through , 15 minutes for pressed cookies, 20 to 30 minutes for classic wedges or little molds. Do not underbake; if it looks like the edges are browning too fast, just turn down the heat.


Classic: Gently roll into balls the size of tennis balls. Flatten into circles a bit more than ¼ inch thick in the center, slightly thicker at the edges ( they get more heat). Circles should be about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. Use floured fork tines to punch into 8 wedges, then punch the center of each wedge. Leave everything attached. After baking, repunch wedges while the cookies are still hot, then separate when cold.

Molded: This is a good dough to use in the tiny fluted metal cups – about 1 inch across the top – intended for candies and Swedish sandbakkelsen. Roll teaspoon size pinches of dough into balls, put ’em in the ungreased cups, then go back and press down in the center with your thumb. Dough should come about ¾ of the way up the sides. ( It will smooth out in the baking but still be a bit dimpled.) Be sure to let them cool completely before trying to unmold. Serve as is or put a dollop of tart jam or chocolate ganache in the dimples.

Pressed: Standard advice for pressed cookies is to use a cold sheet and warm dough. With these, it works better to have both items at room temperature. If you can’t get the pressed shapes to stick, use the star opening and make rings.

(Shortbread-Molded: fancy cookware stores sell clay shortbread molds with elaborate patterns. For best results, use the recipes that come with them. )

Apple Season Ending Soon

Now that the dominant Northeastern color scheme is evergreen with red and white accents , instead of orange and gold and brown; now that there is Christmas music in the supermarket (gaaak), and the scent of holiday baking has replaced the scent of autumn leaves, it’s tough to stay focused on making sure you’re ok in the apple department. But this is the about the last chance to do it. Any minute now, specialty orchards will close; the last of the local oddcrops will be gone and although there will be apples galore; there will not be many – if any – northern spies, winesaps, Jonathans, Greenings…
Stock up if you have a cool spot to store them: it’s best to keep apples in a humid place that hovers around 34 degrees and does not have any onions, potatoes (or flowerbulbs being forced) in it. If for some reason you don’t have such a place, make and freeze a large batch of Chunky Roasted Applesauce. It isn’t just that homemade tastes better than boughten, it’s also that homemade from new crop, local apples tastes better than homemade based on supermarket fruit.


Cheesecloth/ aluminum foil/ plastic freezer bags

Enough apples to fill a 3 inch deep , non-reactive roasting pan that’s at least 12 x 14 inches. Choose an assortment for best flavor and texture: Spies, Winesaps and Cameos, for instance, or Rome Beauty, Baldwin, Jonagold and Macs.

A glug of cider, a little salt, (maybe sugar, but probably not)

1. Heat the oven to 325 . Peel and core the apples, reserving about a fourth of the debris.

2. Cover the bottom of the roasting pan with a generous ¼ inch of cider. Cut the apples into rough chunks about ½ inch square. Tie the reserved debris in a square of the cheesecloth. Put the apples in the pan and bury the cheesecloth bag in the middle.

3. Cover tightly with the foil and start baking. Check and stir at 15 minute intervals until you have a mixture of very tender apple chunks and fallen apart apple mush ( proportions of each will depend on the varieties of apples, their relative age, and the year’s growing conditions). You may need to add more cider if all the apples are dry-fleshed bakers, but don’t add any more than necessary to prevent burning. If the apples are swimming after a half hour, remove the foil and roast uncovered until things thicken up.

4. When the applesauce is done, in anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half or more, take out about a half cup of it and leave the rest to keep warm in the turned-off oven. Stir a tiny pinch of salt into the half-cup and chill rapidly (outdoors or in the freezer) until it’s at room temperature. Taste. If it absolutely screams out for sugar, now is the time to add some to the warm applesauce. Otherwise, just stir in a bit of salt. ( Salt is optional, of course, but it does a lot to bring out the fruit flavor.)

5. Let the applesauce cool, then fish out the bag of peels and pack the sauce in the freezer bags, allowing plenty of headroom. Put the bags on their sides on cookie sheets and smooth the sauce so it makes flat packages of even thickness. Freeze. The flat packages mean quick freezing, which is better for flavor and texture, and they thaw quickly too, which is handy. But they are also vulnerable to breakage (and getting lost). Once they’re frozen, pack them in a larger bag.