December 2009


We were the delighted recipients of two luxurious, liquid gifts this Christmas:  a bottle of Grand Marnier and one of Remy Martin.  When mixed together with a spash of fresh lemon juice, these fine spirits make my very favorite cocktail, the sidecar.  It’s a perfectly balanced drink, rich and warm yet crisp and light, not too sour or too sweet, and silky smooth.

There are two master recipes for the sidecar.  The English version combines two parts brandy with one part orange liquor and one part lemon juice.  The French version — cleaner and fresher to my palate — calls for the same three ingredients in equal measure.

And then there is a third version, my own improvisation, concocted from more the affordable ingredients found a few shelves below the Cognac and Cointreau.  It lacks the depth and grandeur of the sidecar, but has a nicely balanced, refreshing quality all it’s own.  A little like a margarita, but without the sour, bitter edge, it’s a sturdy, easy-drinking cocktail.  We call it a boxcar.

Whether you’re having a top-shelf or bottom-shelf evening tonight, enjoy.  And have a happy new year.

French sidecar

1 oz.  Cognac or Armagnac

1 oz. Cointreau or Grand Marnier

1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice (about half a lemon)

Combine Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice, and a handful of ice cubes in a shaker and mix until chilled.  Strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a strip of lemon peel, if desired.

Boston boxcar

1 oz. domestic brandy

1 oz. triple sec

1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice (about half a lemon)

Combine brandy, triple sec, lemon juice, and a handful of ice cubes in a shaker and mix until chilled.  Strain into a cocktail glass. (If you don’t have a shaker, serving over ice is just fine.)  Garnish with a strip of lemon peel, if desired.

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The holiday baking frenzy is well underway in our house.  Good thing, since the 18-plus inches of snow we’re expecting to fall overnight will mean more shoveling and snowman building (and less cookie making) tomorrow.

Two dozen gingerbread people are already tucked away in the freezer, as are two pans of cinnamon rolls (one for Christmas morning, the other for New Year’s Day).  A pot of clementines is simmering on the stove right now, the first step in making a candied clementine bundt cake for the grown-ups in the house.  And the kids helped out this morning with these snickerdoodles, rolling the tiny balls of dough in cinnamon sugar and sampling the finished products.  Firm on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and delicately spicy-sweet, these little cookies are lovely with a cup of hot chocolate after a busy morning out in the snow.

Snickerdoodles

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Yield:  Makes nearly 6 dozen

For dough:

1 3/4 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1/4 c. cornstarch

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. Earth Balance Buttery Sticks (or use dairy-free margarine)

3/4 c. granulated sugar

1/4 c. soy or rice milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

For cinnamon sugar:

1/4 c. granulated sugar

1 tbsp. ground cinnamon

Sift together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine buttery sticks and sugar.  Beat until very light and fluffy, scraping bowl and beater occasionally, about 5 minutes.  Add milk and vanilla and mix until well combined (mixture will look curdled — this is fine).  Scrape bowl and beater again.

With mixer running on low speed, gradually add dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Chill dough at least one hour or overnight before proceeding.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large sheet pans with parchment paper.  Roll small spoonfuls of dough into 1″ balls.  Roll balls in cinnamon sugar to coat, then place on pans.  Flatten each cookie gently with a fork, making a criss-cross pattern.   Bake 10-12 minutes, or until cookies are set, bottoms are lightly browned, and tops look dry.  Cool on wire racks, then store in an airtight container.

Chewy, nutty barley combines with colorful vegetables and a sweet-tart vinaigrette in this hearty, nutrient-rich salad.  Blanching broccoli rabe subdues its natural bitterness,  while roasting brings out the sweetness of winter squash and cauliflower.  Festive and flavorful, this salad keeps and reheats well, making it a perfect make-ahead dish for a brown-bag lunch or holiday gathering.

Warm barley salad with roasted vegetables

Yield:  Makes about 14 cups, serving about 8

1 1/3 c. pearl barley

About 1/2 c. olive oil, divided

1 head cauliflower, cored and broken into bite-sized florets

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4″ pieces

1 large bunch broccoli rabe, stems cut into 2-inch lengths, tops roughly chopped

1 small red onion, finely chopped

8 sun-dried tomatoes, plumped in boiling water, drained, then thinly sliced

1 handful fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/4 c. balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Bring one quart of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Add barley and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Return to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, until barley is tender but still chewy, about 25 minutes.  Drain well of any excess water.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Line two large baking sheets with foil.  Toss cauliflower florets with about 2 tbsp. olive oil and spread in a single layer on one baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper.  Toss squash with 2 more tbsp. oil, arrange on other baking sheet, and season.  Bake until vegetables are tender and lightly browned, about 25 minutes.  Add vegetables to barley in mixing bowl.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, season generously with salt, and add broccoli rabe stems.  Cook two minutes, then add tops and cook a minute or two longer, until tender.  Drain, then shock under cold running tap water to stop cooking and set color.   Squeeze broccoli rabe to remove excess moisture, then add to mixing bowl.

Whisk together remaining 1/4 c. olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of salt until emulsified.  Add red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, and vinaigrette to mixing bowl and toss to combine.  Season with additional salt and pepper as needed.  Serve warm.

Salad keeps well in the fridge for about four days.

When I was younger, my mom and I would hunker down at the kitchen table on Christmas Eve and churn out scores of these spicy little devils.  Her recipe, if I remember correctly, called for 7 cups of flour and yielded a dough so stiff and massive the stand mixer would whine and groan and nearly lurch off the counter with exertion.  My mixer is smaller, as is my recipe.  The dough is soft and easy to work with, and makes a tender, lightly spiced cookie.  Our kids love them, and love to help — we save this treasured activity for when Grandma comes to visit.

Gingerbread cookies

Yield:  Depends on the size of your cutters

3 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 c. Earth Balance Buttery Sticks (or other non-hydrogenated, vegan shortening)

1/2 c. dark brown sugar

1/2 c. unsulphured molasses

1/4 c. water

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Make dough:

Sift together flour, salt, soda, and spices.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine buttery sticks and brown sugar.  Beat until light and fluffy, scraping bowl and paddle occasionally, about 5 minutes.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together molasses, water, and vanilla.  Stir into buttery stick mixture (it will separate — this is fine).  Scrape bowl and paddle.  With mixer running on low speed, add dry ingredients one cup at a time until evenly encorporated.  Divide dough into two balls, flatten each into a fat disc, and wrap tightly in plastic.  Refrigerate at least one hour or up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.

Make cookies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.  On a floured counter, with a floured pin, roll one dough disc to 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut out cookies, placing cutters as close together as possible.  Using an offset spatula, transfer cookies to baking sheet.  Gather scraps, re-roll, cut more cookies.  Repeat with remaining dough disc.

Bake cookies 8-10 minutes.  Let cool briefly on pan, then remove to a wire rack.

Decorate cookies:

To make icing, sift a cup or two (depending on how many helpers you have) of confectioner’s sugar into a mixing bowl.  Add a small amount of milk (any kind — I use rice) or water, a teaspoon at a time, until icing is smooth and glossy but not runny.  If you accidentally make it too thin, just add a bit more sugar until it’s the right consistency.

If you don’t have a piping tube or pastry bag, you can make one:  Spoon about 1/2 c. icing into one corner of a zip-top freezer bag (not a sandwich bag, as I learned from experience, because the seams tend to burst when you squeeze it).  Press the icing all the way into the corner, then twist the bag a few times right above the icing (for kids, I secure the twist with a rubber band, then press out the excess air and zip the bag for good measure).  Using a scissor or sharp paring knife, snip a tiny piece off the corner of the bag.  Voila!  Leak-proof, miniature pastry bag perfect for any size hand.

Clockwise, from top left: Homemade pastry bag & piping tube; 2-year-old decorates her first gingerbread person; Mummy decorates her billionth; kids' masterpieces.