Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A particular eater, and wine-poached fruit

Soon after I issued an invitation for dinner to my friend Melissa, I felt a pang of panic. She’s what I’d call a particular eater. To start, she a vegetarian, and she hates heavy food. She won’t eat anything too cheesy, and if she can tell you might be sneaking in a bit of fat, she starts looking very nervous. This isn’t to say Melissa doesn’t appreciate good food. She does. And she’s generous with her praise, which makes her the best kind of dinner guest.

Remembering this, and the fact that I was a vegetarian for more than a dozen years, I shifted from alarm to anticipation. I love a project. And searching for the perfect dinner and dessert recipes for Melissa was a fun challenge. For dinner: stir-fry with tofu and a mound of fresh vegetables. For dessert, I went rifling through my files. I came up with this version of poached fruit, and I switched it up a bit to fit what I had around the house. Melissa loved it, and she was kindly generous with her praise. The best part—after poaching the fruit, there was still more than half a bottle of wine to nip from during dinner.

Wine-poached fruit
(adapted from here)
1 ½ cups semi-sweet white wine (Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Liebfraumilch)
¼ cup water
1 cup sugar
Zest of one orange, peeled off in long strips
Juice of one orange
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cloves
2 crisp apples, peeled, cored and cut into thick slices
2 pears, peeled, cored and halved
¼ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup dried cherries

In a heavy saucepan, combine wine, water, sugar, orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil and stir a few times until the sugar has dissolved.

Add the fruit and cook for two minutes. Let sit on the stove for at least 30 minutes, and reheat when ready to eat. Serve warm in bowls with the wine mixture spooned around the fruit.

Notes and tips:
· This recipe is wonderful for entertaining because you can make it ahead of time and reheat it for a few moments after dinner. It smells fantastic, so have it simmering on the stove when guests arrive if you like.
· If you have a lemon or other sort of citrus, substitute it for the orange. I just love the scent of orange and cloves in the air, but anything will do.
· Dried apricots, plums, figs or dates would work in place of the cranberries or cherries, but chop them up into bits for a prettier presentation.
· Adjust the sugar in the recipe for your taste. If your wine is on the sweeter side you’ll want to decrease the amount.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A quartet of biscotti, for a far away best friend

Chocolate-Chocolate Walnut, Gingerbread and Classic Italian Biscotti

I don’t claim a long list of tasks at which I excel.

Former bosses didn’t love me for my technical prowess, although I often charmed them with my enthusiasm and reliability—or a barrage of gossipy text message. Whatever works.

I’ve earned an award or two in my life, nothing much to brag about, except maybe 1st place in my neighborhood bicycle decorating contest back in the 80s. (Pink crepe paper on a Strawberry Shortcake bike is always a winner.)

And please don’t ever ask me to speak at your wedding.

I am, however, masterful at care packages. Or maybe it’s just that I adore stuffing an empty box with objects and notes that let someone far away know I’ve been thinking a whole lot about them.

And so, few weeks ago, when my best friend Lindsey called while I was giving myself a pedicure, and lamented that as she entered her third trimester she wouldn’t be able to reach her own toes to give them the same treatment, I decided it was time for a care package. Along with the numerous silly things I tucked into the cardboard carrier, I sent some homemade biscotti, which happen to be the perfect treat for long postal trips from suburban Chicago to snowy Vail. Biscotti, Italian cookies enhanced with a quick dunk in wine or a steamy cup of coffee or tea, travel well because they’re best when dry and hard.

Besides, the best part of a care package is a homemade treat.

My favorite basic recipe to play with comes from the “King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion.” I use the Italian version, which is quite hard and dense, rather than the American variety, which uses butter and is softer and lighter. This version calls for only five basic ingredients, and can be adapted myriad ways with add-ins like nuts, dried fruit and chocolate bits, or spices and extracts. I’ve stirred together my own versions, like cinnamon-chip, pistachio-apricot, maple-pecan, and chocolate-orange, but my favorite remains the basic almond-flavored biscotti, reminiscent of my Italian grandmother’s favorite cookies.

Chocolate-Chocolate Walnut Biscotti

Biscotti with four variations
(Source: The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion)
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, baking powder, salt and vanilla until creamy looking; the mixture will be light-colored and as thick as pancake batter. Lower the mixer speed and add the flour, beating gently just until it’s incorporated.
Stir in your add-ins.
Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and shape it into a rough log about 14 inches long. It will be about 2 ½ inches wide and about ¾ inches thick. Smooth the top of the log with a wet dough scraper.
Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan for 5 to 25 minutes. Five minutes before cutting, use a spray bottle of warm, room-temperature water to lightly but thoroughly spritz the log, making sure to cover the sides and the top. Softening the crust just this little bit will make slicing the biscotti much easier.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Wait another five minutes, then cut the biscotti into ½- to ¾-inch slices.
Set the biscotti upright on the baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool.


Almond: Substitute 2 teaspoons almond extract for the vanilla. Stir in slivered almonds if desired.
Chocolate-Chocolate Walnut: Reduce the amount of flour by 2 tablespoons. Stir in ½ cup cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon espresso powder (or instant coffee granules), 1 cup chocolate chips and 2/3 cup toasted walnuts. This version, with its multiple add-ins, will be more difficult to cut, so use a gentle hand and cut wider slices.
Gingerbread: Substitute brown sugar for the granulated sugar. With the flour, stir in 2 teaspoons ground ginger, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, ½ teaspoon nutmeg and ½ teaspoon ground cloves.
Chocolate-Orange: Stir in 1 cup chocolate chips and the zest of 1 orange. If desired, substitute orange extract for vanilla, and dip in melted chocolate.

Tips and Notes:

  • The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion’s tip to spritz the biscotti with water makes a huge difference. If you don’t have a spare water bottle, just lightly wet your hands and gently wipe the dough with them.
  • Cut the biscotti on an angle for a pretty presentation.
  • If your biscotti won’t harden up completely in the oven, don’t overbake the dough and turn it brown. Simply leave the cookies out on the stovetop and they’ll crisp up overnight.
    Store biscotti in zip-top plastic bags as soon as they cool down (or crisp up). They’ll continue to harden if left out.
  • When adding nuts, it’s best to toast them beforehand, but I like to leave them in large pieces. It looks prettier when sliced.
  • But, when adding dried fruit, chop them into smaller pieces. It’ll be easier to slice and eat.
  • Don’t use fresh fruit—it’s too juicy.
  • Use inspiration from other baked goods and sweets for your own variations.

Repast Begins

I turn 27 this week.

I’m not usually one for resolutions. You won’t catch me scrawling a list on New Year’s Eve, or writing a check for a new gym membership as soon as the swimsuits hit the racks each spring. Heck, I can barely stick with a plan for dinner.

But this is different.

My 28th year takes off in a state of flux, and it’s high time to try something new.

As such: a list of goals for the coming year.

Finishing my master’s degree is a fine start; I would love to break the five-mile mark on a run; and it wouldn’t hurt to finally get those pictures from that trip to Italy in an album.

But a good place to inaugurate this set of aspirations is here. Writing, cooking and eating are all activities I’ve participated in well enough for the better half of my 27 years, and I’ve been waiting for the chance to weave them all together. This is it.

Happy Birthday, Repast.