Friday, December 05, 2008

Cooking Lesson

I'm making Christmas cookies. (We're having people over for dinner tomorrow, and although I plan to have a dessert, I think that people who pass on dessert might not mind a little Christmas cookie or two with their coffee. And besides, it's Christmas! They're cookies!)

Tomorrow night's dinner is Italian. I started baking--Bob's favorite ginger snaps, which are an old German recipe that uses ginger, cinnamon and black pepper, little sparkling lemon cookies. I was still looking at cookie recipes and came across a recipe for amaretti, the crisp little almond cookies of Italy. Last night, I realized I had forgotten an ingredient for the lemon cookies I was making, so while i was at the store I figured I'd buy the almonds and the glaceed cherries for the amaretti. I found almonds of course. But I couldn't find the glaceed cherries. Glaceed cherries are those cherries that go in fruitcakes. They come in red and green and don't bear much resemblance to anything natural, like, you know, a cherry. I don't much like them, but on top of a little almond cookie, they're probably pretty good. It's December. It's fruitcake season.

I can't find the fruitcake stuff. My first thought is that maybe people in Texas don't make fruitcakes. I don't think fruitcakes are very Latin American, and a lot of our sweets tend in that direction. But seriously, Texas is really kind of part of the south, and the south is really serious about it's fruitcake. Usually soaked in bourbon for six weeks. (I figure this is because a lot of people, me included, don't like fruitcake.) I ask in the bakery and the girl says she's sure they have them and sets off with me in tow to find them. I protest I can look but she says she works in the bakery section and people will ask her to it's good to know. It takes us three store employees to finally find the fruitcake section, but we finally do and there we find the red cherries, the green cherries, the candied pineapple. The employee who knows where to look casually mentions that it used to be a lot bigger.

I keep assuring people that I am not making fruitcake. 'Cookies' I say. 'I making cookies. Not fruitcake.' I don't know why I am worried that someone will think I am making fruitcake. It's not like fruitcake is only made by deviants. Even in Texas. But there are all those fruitcake jokes, about the fruitcake that circulates endlessly, re-gifted over and over.

This morning I get up and look at the recipe and it calls for blanched whole almonds. The store had whole almonds and blanched slivered almonds and I got whole almonds. Which are not blanched. I can tell because the almonds in the picture are almost white, and mine are brown because they still have the skin on them. I think about going back to the store. I am still wearing my pajamas and I don't really want to go to the store.

I am intrepid in the kitchen. I make weird stuff all the time. From scratch. Maybe I can blanch almonds. I check the internet and it says that if I soak my almonds in boiling water for one minute, 'the skins will slip right off.' But don't soak them for more than a minute because then they won't be crisp.

Yeah. Boiling water. I can boil water. I boil water. I soak my almonds for exactly one minute. I need two and a quarter cups of almonds. Skinned. It turns out that's a lot of almonds. It takes me an hour to skin two and quarter cups of almonds. For one thing, the skins don't 'slip right off.' They resist. I think a lot about when I was growing up and my mother got the idea that we should harvest the walnuts from our walnut tree. (We usually left them to the squirrels.) That was the year I found out that walnut husks were used by the pioneers as a dye. And that it also dyes the skin of your hands. At least almond skins don't make my hands turn brown.

The dead almond skins collect in my sink.

The cookies are really crunchy and good. They really taste of almond. I'm pretty sure they would taste just as almondy if I had bought blanched almonds. There are things that you can do, but don't really need to. Blanching almonds is one of those things. If you find yourself with two cups of whole almonds when you need blanched, go to the store. Buy the blanched.


Blogger Michelle said...

Wow. Blanching your own almonds. I'm impressed, McHugh. You will go to great lengths for pretentious food :) Now if you blanch them in a kettle of water over a wood fire in the fireplace, you'll be self-reliant enough to serve amaretti even during the global financial apocolypse. :)

December 05, 2008 7:24 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

PS - Here's my newest interest and if you don't already belong, it may interest you, too.

December 05, 2008 7:34 PM  
OpenID birdhousefrog said...

You're a person I would have thought could appreciate a fruitcake. Dry and old fruitcakes are as bad as any sweet that is dry and old. A fresh fruitcake explodes with flavor and sweetness. I'm especially fond of the ones with lots of molasses. As long as you're not morally opposed to candied fruit, what's not to like about molasses and nuts, a thick cake that is filled with crunches and chewiness and is densely sweet?

Every year we look for a Claxton, GA fruitcake that is fresh. They were best when we lived in Atlanta, I have to admit, very fresh. My husband then overdoses on a sugar high of crunchy dark goodness. I try to be more moderate in my consumption. But it's like eggnog. Hard to imagine Christmas without one and we're definitely not Southerners.


December 06, 2008 5:52 AM  
Blogger Haddayr said...

Why does everyone hate fruitcake?

My mother and I are the only two people in the Continental United States who like fruitcake.

My mother would soak hers repeatedly in brandy for months. Your mouth would get numb just with a few bites.


December 07, 2008 10:52 AM  
Blogger Haddayr said...

Oh. I should have read comments, first. Me, my mom, and Oz.

December 07, 2008 10:53 AM  
Blogger Adrienne said...

Are you anywhere near Central Market? I'm sure they'd have your cherry/almond needs more than covered.

Also, we blanch several pounds of almonds every Thanksgiving as part of my husband's family's eating traditions. It's tedious but the end result is worth it. And, no, those skins don't just "slip right off" no matter how much you want them to.

December 08, 2008 8:21 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

My sister also loves fruitcake. My aunt made fruitcake. I really like brandy. I should like fruitcake. But frankly, I don't. Also not big on date nut bread or panattone. Banana bread, on the other hand, is food of the gods.

Adrienne, I'm about twenty-five, thirty minutes from Central Market and they would be fine for blanched almonds but I looked for glaceed fruit and did not see it.

December 08, 2008 10:03 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

I miss you and I miss your cooking!

December 10, 2008 11:35 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Ditto Amy's comment above!

December 10, 2008 12:40 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

My mom used to make the bestest, brandiest, moistest, chock-full-o-citron fruitcake ever. I may be one of the few deviants who will eat those candied cherries and strange green sugary rind thingies straight from the container.

December 10, 2008 7:07 PM  
Blogger Sean Craven said...

Jeffrey Steingarten's article on fruitcake in The Man Who Ate Everything didn't send me rushing off to the kitchen -- but he did make me rethink my reflexive anti-fruitcake stance. I'd definitely be willing to try a slice of the white fruitcake he describes.

December 23, 2008 10:23 AM  

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