Monday, December 21, 2009

Chestnuts Roasting

Hello, my friends.  I have some good and some bad news.

First, the bad news.  I was not, as I hoped, able to make sufganiot today.  This is my own fault, because I neglected to realize that the dough needs time to rise, and there just wasn't time to make them.  I'm sorry.  I will write about Hanukkah Moon shortly, however, and again I will try to make them at some point, though it's already past Hanukkah for the year.  I'd promise, but my promises don't seem to make it to the end lately, and I do hate breaking promises (though I don't do it intentionally).

Now, the good news.  Guest Chef Theone, the one who helped with the potato latkes, has made us something very very special today.  I'm talking, of course, about a Christmas tradition that I've never actually taken part in - roasting chestnuts.  You can read about the joys of roasted chestnuts in Dickens' A Christmas Carol (in the scene where Tiny Tim says, "God bless us, every one!"), but I know that's not exactly children's fare, so! I'm going musical today, instead.

In 1944, Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote "The Christmas Song" during the hot hot summer months.  The story goes that Mr. Wells was trying to think cold thoughts in the hot days, and had written down "chestnuts roasting... jack frost nipping... yuletide carols... folks dress up like Eskimos" in a notebook near his piano.  When Mr. Torme saw this, he suggested they turn it into a song, which we all know and love today.  You know, the one that starts out, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire! Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."  The one that I have heard at least twice on television commercials from the other room while I'm typing this up for you.

Well, Theone may have been influenced by Dickens, or perhaps she liked the song a lot, or maybe her mother used to make them when she was a child (I'll have to ask), but in any case, she made us some awesome chestnuts!  Since I can't explain things as well as she, who does this every year, can, I'm going to quote for you.  Until you see the **below, these words (and pictures) are Theone's.

Chestnuts Roasting
Most American recipes use the boiling method & that's just foolishness. This is the British/English method.

Please stress to your readers that:
1. Sharp knives are involved, so this is not a good recipe for kids to be involved with. Ever.
2. Chestnuts have a slight anesthetic quality, so it's necessary to exercise good safety precautions (otherwise it's entirely possible to grab the corner of a hot cookie sheet & not realize it, thus resulting in painful burns while saying, "my god, i didn't feel a thing")
3. You *WILL* stab yourself, so remember to be up on your tetanus shots & practice good wound care. Also, go slowly.
4. If you do not cut an "x" into a chestnut, it will explode. Seriously. Kapow. The skins are pretty thin, so there's no excuse to be lazy.

Roasted Chestnuts
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place chestnut, flat side down on a stable cutting surface.
3. With a small, sharp knife (preferably with a blunt/broken tip), cut a large "x" into the curvy side of the chestnut. The bigger the "x", the easier it will be to peel later on.  Repeat for all chestnuts.
4. Place cut side up on a cookie sheet or cast-iron pan & roast for 10-30 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the size & age of the nuts. Nuts will be done when the nut-meat is soft and the "x" has peeled back.

5. When warm, peel.

** Thank you, Theone!!! Again, you are awesome.
And P.S.! Let's all give a huge congratulations to Theone, who has just earned her Master's Degree in Library and Information Science (the same one I'm working on, but she did it faster.)  CONGRATULATIONS, THEONE!!!!!!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Polar Express Cocoa

Have you ever read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg?  You haven't??  You need to!!

Polar Express is the story of a man, who is telling about one Christmas Eve when he was a young boy.  He lay in bed, deep in thought.  It's about Santa Claus.  See, his friend had insisted that Santa didn't really exist - but he must exist, right?  That couldn't be true.  Our hero was listening for sleigh bells.  But it wasn't sleigh bells that brought him out of the house at night.  It was a train, called the Polar Express, that he climbed aboard with other children, to take him to the north pole, where he found a "huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made."

It was our narrator who was chosen to be given the very first present that Christmas, by Santa Claus himself!  This is quite an honor, of course, as only one child a year gets to be the first child to recieve a Christmas present.  Knowing he can have anything in the whole world, he chooses a sleigh bell from Santa's sleigh.  Unfortunately, there is a hole in the pocket of his bathrobe, and by the time he gets home, the bell is gone - but! It's ok.  Santa has left the bell with the rest of his presents. The best thing about the sleigh bell is that, while the narrator and his little sister can hear it ringing, his parents can't.  Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell ring.  The book concludes by saying that, "though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe."

This is a great story (the movie was an interesting take on the book, which I think I would have liked much better if it wasn't in creepy CGI), made even better by the descriptions the author uses, and by the beautiful illustrations.  My favorite description, of course, is that of the hot cocoa that the children on the train are given to drink, which was "as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars."  Mmm.... I had to come up with something for that.

Polar Express Cocoa
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
4 cups milk
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 cup mini marshmallows
1 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the water, sugar and cocoa powder over medium heat until boiling; let it boil for two minutes.
2. Add the milk, chocolate chips, marshmallows, and pinch of salt (it brings out the other flavors), and heat until everything has melted together - don't boil it at this stage.
3. Add the vanilla and stir to combine.  Pour into mugs and enjoy!  This makes about four servings.

This recipe is (slightly) adapted from one that I found on the AllRecipes website, listed as a comment to another recipe - I'm not sure who to credit here, but the commenter whose recipe I've taken is listed as Elizra.

I really like this one - it's thick and rich and... well, tastes like melted chocolate bars.  The marshmallows melted into the cocoa as it's cooking add a nice thickness and richness of flavor that it otherwise would be lacking.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Note on Hanukkah Books

My friends - success!!! I have found a book that features Sufganiot!!  I'm excited.  However, I don't have access to a deep-fryer until Monday, so this recipe will have to wait until then.  In the meanwhile, if you'd like to pick up Hanukkah Moon by Deborah de Costa and flip through it, you'll be all prepared.

There are lots of holiday stories out there... just, most of the ones I've found either deal with the meaning behind the holidays (no food) or else feature potato latkes.  I promise, I'm not trying to ignore Hanukkah.

Some good titles I've found that I won't be writing about (with and without food involved) include:

Mrs. Greenberg's Messy Hanukkah by Linda Glaser (also, The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes, which features the same characters - so cute!)

Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Adventure by Eric A. Kimmel
Moishe's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story by Laura Krauss Melmed
Hanukkah at Valley Forge by Stephen Krensky

Runaway Dreidel! by Leslea Newman (which is set to the same cadence as The Night Before Christmas)

Also! The American Girl series has a new girl (Rebecca) - their first Jewish character.  And The All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor features a Jewish family... though, I haven't read these since I was a kid, so most of what I remember of their religion is the Purim celebration, and I thusly can't tell you which books to pick up off the top of my head for this particular holiday.

Lemony Snicket's Christmas Latke

Aaaaaaaaaaaand, we're back!  My many and varied apologies for the huge lags between posts - but finals and projects and starting to work and Christmas shopping... Well, you know how being busy can be.  Now, on with the show.

Hanukkah, oh how little I know ye.  How little a lot of us do.  And that's the point of The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket.  As the book begins, we meet a potato latke (a potato pancake usually made at Hanukkah) as he is being fried in oil - the traditional method of preparation.  As the title suggests, the latke is screaming, and he jumps out the window to escape.  Unfortunately for him, leaving the safety of the kitchen means that he has left the safety of the Hanukkah celebration, and he finds himself in a Christmas-centric world, where nobody - rather, nothing - understands him. 

AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he's not a big hash brown! AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he shouldn't be served with a Christmas ham!  AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he doesn't want to smell like peppermints like the candy canes do!  AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he doesn't want somebody to write a carol about him!  He eventully finds his way into a Hanukkah celebration and stops screaming finally - as he is being eaten.  A somewhat happy ending.

The book serves as a reminder to those who know the story (and a primer for those who don't) that Hanukkah is not "Jewish Christmas."  It has its own traditions and symbols, and gifts aren't a huge part of the celebration for most Jewish families.  Also, since the book is a Lemony Snicket, it is pretty darn awesome. 

Now, here's my story: I grew up in a town with a fairly large Jewish population, so every December in elementary school, my classmates' mothers would come to school and tell us the story of the holiday.  I loved Hanukkah day at school! Not because of the storytime, or the gelt, or that we'd spend half a class playing dreidel, though that was all fun.  No, I loved those days because the class moms would bring in potato latkes.  I'm fairly sure that none of those moms will ever read this blog, but just in case they do - thank you for the latkes!!  I tried once or twice to make them by myself, but I'd never been able to make them taste right, until I tried the recipe I'm sharing with you now.

This recipe is Steven Gold's recipe, that won the James Beard Foundation's Third Annual Latke Lover's Cook-Off in 1997.  I made these yesterday with my friend and guest-chef Theone, who not only did a bulk of the work, but let me use her kitchen AND her camera!  Theone, you are awesome.

These latkes are different from the more traditional grated potatoes because you use the food processor to make the batter, which is then more pancakey and less hashbrowny, and fully delicious.  Latkes are traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream. 

Latkes Who Can't Stop Screaming
2 large russet potatoes (about 1 lb.)
1 medium onion (about 1/2 lb.)
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
4 tbsp. self-rising cake flour OR 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour with 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. kosher salt
Vegetable oil for frying (about 3/4 a cup)
Sour cream or applesauce (optional)

1.  Thoroughly wash the potatoes and cut them into quarters.  Peel the onion and cut that into quarters, too.  Using a food processor with a coarse shredding disk, shred the potatoes and the onion (this will turn the onion to mush and the potato into long strands).  Put them into a clean bowl.
2. Put the chopping blade into the food processor, and put the potatoes and onions through the machine again, pulsing 4 or 5 times, until the potatoes are finely chopped.  Add the egg and pulse until the mixture is combined.
3. Put this entire mixture in a large mixing bowl, and add the flour and salt, mixing until the flour disappears.  Meanwhile, set a medium saute pan over medium-high heat and pour in enough oil to cover the bottom of it about 1/4 inch deep.  The oil is hot enough when a drop of batter sizzles as it enters the pan.
4. Once the oil is hot, spoon the batter into the pan to your desired latke size - I think we used about 2 tbsp. per latke.  Flatten and shape the batter quickly with the back of a spoon. 
5. When the edges of the latkes are golden brown and crisp, flip them over.  Cook until the second side is brown, then remove to paper towels to drain.  If you're making a large batch, you can keep them in a warm oven until you're ready to serve. Otherwise, eat and enjoy!

As I said earlier, latkes are traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream.  Ours, as you can see from the photo, were eaten with a very tasty sour cream, as dinner, though they are traditioanlly a side dish.

My friends, we have a slight issue.  You see, while Christmas food references in children's literature are wide and varied, the only Hanukkah books I can find with food in them feature latkes!  I know that Sufganiot (jelly donuts!) are also traditionl Hanukkah food, and I'm trying to find a good book that features them, but if anyone has any suggestions - please let me know!!