Right now

I’m too late for the holiday candy tin with this one, I know. So the way I see it, you have two choices. You could either tuck this recipe away for next year’s holiday gifting, or you could come up with a compelling excuse to make this toffee right now.

Let me rephrase that: You could come up with a compelling excuse to make this Salted Chocolate Almond Toffee Right Now. With all of those official-looking capital letters thrown in there – not to mention the italics – I’d say that we have a felicitous new name on our hands for these nutty shards of chocolate, butter, and caramelized sugar: Salted Chocolate Almond Toffee Right Now. Believe me, it fits. It’s also conveniently instructive, a recipe with marching orders included. It puts our little dilemma to bed straight away, without bowing to any of that one more drink of water? and monsters-under-the-bed nonsense that some dilemmas like to pull. You can make any old toffee later. This toffee, on the other hand, all but begs you to get into the kitchen as soon as you possibly can.

All of this is to say that you don’t really need much of a reason to stir together the few simple ingredients that, in a matter of minutes, produce a rich, four-ply blanket of nuts, chocolate, toffee, and nuts again. But if you simply must have one, a reason that is, I’m sure that we can think of something. New Year’s Eve is fast upon us, after all. I, for one, could do a lot worse than to kick off 2010 with a mouthful of this toffee. Packed in a mason jar with a hand-written note, it would make a lovely gift for your New Year’s Eve hosts. (Unless, of course, you happen to be driving up to New Hampshire, to the home of a known toffee-maker extraordinaire, in which case you might want to bring this almond tart, instead.) Or maybe you have something special to celebrate. A birthday? A graduation? The engagement, perhaps, of your amazing first cousin to an equally amazing guy?* And, I mean, it is Thursday, which happens to be a very fine day for making toffee.

If you’ve never made candy before, this toffee is an excellent place to start. I find the process to be so pretty. There’s the toasting of the almonds, the smoothing of the melty chocolate, and above all, the bubbling mass of sugar and butter that deepens in color, flavor, and aroma, and gradually thickens, until it’s pushing back against your wooden spoon as you stir and, before you know it, pouring in ribbons from the pot. It’s like magic. Up until very recently, I suffered from an irrational fear of candy thermometers. Timers, oven thermometers, scales and I do just fine, thank you, but the candy thermometer, I was convinced, was secretly out to get me. Then, I realized that the exact opposite is true. The candy thermometer is like that straight-shooting friend with flawless judgment who calls it like she sees it. Its one and only job is to eliminate any and all guesswork from your stovetop. That, my friends, is a blessing. Thanks to my new pal the candy thermometer, this toffee is as simple to prepare as it is unsettlingly addictive. Well, almost.

[Speaking of blessings, happy New Year, everyone! May it be a good one for us all.]

*Congratulations, Katie and Kit! All my love to you both. xo.

p.s. – If instead of heading into your kitchen in these final hours of 2009, you’d prefer to let me make this toffee for you, there’s still time to bid on my Sweet Amandine Trio – along with all of the other terrific items – over at Menu for Hope. All it takes is a donation of $10. The campaign ends today!

Salted Chocolate Almond Toffee
Adapted from Tartine, by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson

As Ms. Prueitt and Mr. Robertson suggest in their recipe notes, a not-so-sweet chocolate is best against the super-sweet toffee. I use 70% Scharffen-Berger. Once the sugar begins to caramelize, things happen fast, so it’s best to measure out all of your ingredients before you turn on the flame. It’s not as fussy as it sounds. You can measure the sugar, water, butter, molasses, and salt directly into the pot. Then, measure the baking soda and vanilla into separate glass bowls, and you can pretend you’re Martha Stewart when, smiling graciously, you spill them into the bubbling toffee. I made just one change to this recipe, which is to finish the toffee with a couple of extra pinches of sea salt. Oh baby. It’s good.

2 c. sliced almonds
1¾ c. granulated white sugar
3 T. water
½ c. unsalted butter
1 t. Blackstrap or other dark molasses
¼ t. sea salt, plus another 2-3 generous pinches for finishing
1 t. vanilla extract
¼ t. baking soda
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds evenly on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool completely.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick liner, and evenly spread half of the almonds on top. There should be no visible parchment paper between the almonds. Reserve the remaining almonds for topping.

Combine the sugar, water, butter, molasses, and salt in a medium, heavy saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture registers 295 degrees – no more, no less – on a candy thermometer. Depending on your heat and your pot, it will take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. Immediately remove the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla and baking soda. Stir well, until fully incorporated. The mixture will bubble up when you add the baking soda, so take care.

Pour the hot mixture evenly over the almonds. Work quickly, as it will begin setting up immediately. If necessary, use a lightly-oiled rubber spatula to spread the toffee. When the toffee is just cool enough to touch, spread the chopped chocolate over top. As the chocolate melts from the warmth, use a spatula to spread it across the toffee. Sprinkle the rest of the almonds, and then a couple of pinches of sea salt over the chocolate to finish. Let cool completely. (I’ve been known to speed things up by sliding the pan into the refrigerator.)

Break the cooled sheet into pieces. The toffee will keep in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for several weeks. Do not freeze.

Yield: About 1½ pounds.

Bonus: Once you’ve broken the toffee into pieces and packed it away, you’ll have a whole mess of chocolate, toffee, and almond crumbs left on your pan. Don’t sweep it into the garbage. Instead, save it. It’s wonderful sprinkled over vanilla ice cream or plain, tangy yogurt.


We opened our door

Eli loves his Sunday morning sleep-ins, and I try with all my might to let him have them. But it’s hard to let a man sleep when there are forty-eight carrot cake cupcakes to be frosted. My might didn’t stand a chance. I was gentle, at least. No pillow snatching or feet tickling. I even settled for the busted spatula, and let him use the new one with the tapered wooden handle. Sunday mornings bring out the best, most benevolent me, especially when they include pajamas, drifts of maple cream cheese frosting, an unspeakably moving essay in the New York Times by David Sarasohn, and The Ethicist read aloud by a sleepy co-froster.

unfrosted cupcakes

Our Chanukah party was less than twelve hours away. It was time to pull out the map.

What? Haven’t you ever seen a proper party map before? Laugh if you must. Most people do. But year after year, I am undeterred. I. Love. Party maps. It may be little more than a glorified doodle on a raggedy-edged sheet of notebook paper, but I swear by it. If list-making is my bliss, party map-doodling is my nirvana. There is just so much fun in thinking the whole thing through, getting it down on the page, and then bringing it to life. The party map is a most valuable document during those final hours before the first guests arrive. There are no shouted queries of Which bowl? Which platter? Which tablecloth?; no calling out from the kitchen, Put that here, that there. We simply check the map. And when everything is set, we return it to its home on the refrigerator door. Our guests may point and shake their heads, but I think that they secretly admire my scribbly cartography. In any case, I stand by my map. (If you want to see the party map in all its glory, click here for a larger version.)

The latkes were fried and frozen, the cookies baked, the candies boxed, the tapenades whirred and packed in their bowls. There would be no more frying, no more flour in the hair. All that remained were the finishing touches, pretty, quiet tasks. There was hubbub, to be sure, but with significantly less “bub” than earlier in the week. It’s my favorite part of the whole project, this last, luxurious bit of putting it all together for the people we love. We spent all day together. The day was full, packed even, but not hurried. We frosted. We snipped herbs. We bought ice, mulled cider, and washed the floor. We plated and chilled, plugged in and laid out, and at 7pm, we opened our door.

dessert table

I don’t want to dwell on this next part, but like it or not, I couldn’t help but think back to our party exactly one year ago, when things that are now so easy for me – moving swiftly about the room, taking coats, pouring drinks, talking and laughing and standing for more than a few minutes at a time – were terribly hard. I wasn’t the only one who felt it. Some people simply squeezed my arm, shook their heads, and smiled. Others hugged me hard. That helmet-clad elephant in the room got a few gentle pats between the eyes. Then we must have lost it somewhere in the crowd. It’s just as well. A Chanukah party is no place for an elephant.

As you can see from the party map and photograph, above, I filled our dessert table with all manner of sweets. Cookies and candies come and go, but those cupcakes, the ones that we frosted early that Sunday morning, have been with us every year since the beginning. By now, they’re signature Chanukah party fare. They felt like a kind of homecoming for me this year. Last year, we pulled a chair into our tiny kitchen, I took a seat, and directed Eli as he grated, stirred, and scooped his way through the recipe. The night before the party, our friends reported for frosting duty. Everyone was so careful, so generous in their efforts to do things exactly as I would, but nevertheless, I felt like a guest in my own kitchen. This year, I was back where I belonged, sitting at the kitchen table with a broken spatula in hand, trading frosting technique tips with Eli. (He’s a piler-pusher; I’m a glider-sweeper.) Frosting my own cupcakes never felt so good.

No matter what you celebrate, no matter when, I wish you a holiday season filled with joy and light. And maybe a few cupcakes, too.

cropped cupcakes

p.s. – Many thanks to those of you who have already donated to Menu for Hope. Together, we have raised over $60,000 for the UN World Food Programme! The campaign has been extended through December 31, so there’s still time to purchase a virtual raffle ticket for just $10. The code for my trio of toffee, tarts, and biscotti is UE19, but the most important thing is to donate, no matter which item you choose. You can see a full list of items, and make your donation, here.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appétit, September 1999

On Chanukah, it is customary to eat foods made with (okay, usually fried in) oil to commemorate the teeny, tiny bit of oil that, according to legend, miraculously lasted for eight days. Hence the latkes, and traditional Chanukah doughnuts called sufganyot. With so much hot oil sizzling and sputtering in the service of our latke extravaganza each year, I prefer to sneak in my holiday symbolism with a dessert that is made with, rather than fried in oil. Don’t let the word “carrot” fool you. Some people turn up their noses at carrot cake, as if it’s not a “real” dessert, but I’m telling you, these wonderfully moist cupcakes are decadent and delicious. They have converted more than a few carrot cake skeptics over the years. It’s always a good sign when someone says – and every year, someone does – “I don’t even like carrot cake, and this is one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten.”

For the cake:
2 c. flour
2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg

2 c. brown sugar
Scant 1 ¼ c. canola oil
4 large eggs

3 c. peeled, grated carrots
1 ¼ c. walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

For the frosting:
10 oz. cream cheese
5 T. butter
2 ½ c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
Scant ¼ c. pure maple syrup

Optional: 24 walnut halves, for garnish

Bake the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a ½-cup cupcake pan with paper or foil cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg). In a separate bowl (I use my stand mixer), blend the sugar with the oil, and then whisk in the four eggs, one at a time. Add the flour mixture to the sugar, oil, and eggs, and blend well. Stir in the carrots and the walnuts.

Divide the batter among the lined cupcake pan cups. The cake will rise as it bakes, so fill each cup no higher than ¾ of the way full. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for about ten to fifteen minutes, and then turn them out onto racks to cool completely.

Prepare the icing:
Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and the butter in a large bowl until well-blended. Add the powdered sugar and beat at a low speed. When the sugar is fully incorporated, beat in the maple syrup and vanilla. Chill the frosting until it is firm enough to spread, 30-60 minutes.

Frost the cupcakes and, if you’d like, press a walnut half into the frosting on top of each cake.

Yield: 24 cupcakes.

cupcakes with walnuts


Menu for Hope VI

Hi, all.

I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled programming today to tell you about a yearly charity raffle called Menu for Hope. The project was founded six years ago by the lovely and talented Pim, and has since grown into a worldwide annual event aimed at ending hunger. All proceeds go to the UN World Food Programme, the world’s largest food aid agency. Last year, Menu for Hope raised over $62,000. This year, with your help, we hope to raise even more.

Here’s how it works: Food bloggers the world over have donated a range of food-related items to an online raffle. Your job is to take a look at the list of offerings, and bid on the items of your choice. It’s just $10 per virtual ticket. Pretty neat, isn’t it? Your ten little dollars will help put a meal on someone’s table, and may even get you something sweet for your own.

For my part, I’m offering a trio of homemade sweet, almondy treats, packaged in a Florentine gift box from my favorite local paper shop. It’s Sweet Amandine three ways: almond butter tartlets, almond biscotti, and salted chocolate almond toffee.

If you’ve been reading Sweet Amandine since the very beginning, you may recognize these tarts from a post that I wrote waaaay back in January. They have caused even the most stoic dinner guests to go all wide-eyed, swoony, and slack-jawed (after they swallow, of course). At our Chanukah party on Sunday, I actually hung around by the tart plate for a while just for the sake of watching unsuspecting first-time tart tasters enjoy their initial bites. To the future winner of this item, be forewarned: This tart has a habit of eliciting some very intense reactions including, but not limited to, moaning, growling, stumbling backwards, table slapping, forehead smacking, eyelid fluttering, and impassioned arm grabbing, coupled with the hungry question, “WHAT IS THIS?” I named my blog after these tarts, people. You know they must be good.

biscotti baggie

These almond biscotti, which I’ve also featured on this site, offer a subtler, crunchier hit of almond. They’re perfect alongside a morning mug of coffee or, if you’re me, Earl Grey tea.

To round out the trio comes this salted chocolate almond toffee. It’s a brand new addition to my repertoire, but after three batches in so many weeks, it’s already a staple in my kitchen. I can’t wait to share them with the winner.

I hope you’ll consider bidding on this almondy threesome. When I’m reading your comments, I often have the urge to reach through the screen, grab you by the scruff of the neck, pull you back through to my side of things, and plop you down at my table, so that we can continue our conversations in person. Until technology allows for such a feat [Eli, can you and your computer-programming buddies get on this one, please?], sending a physical box of goodies out into the world and into your hands feels like the next best thing.

I will ship this package via overnight mail to anywhere within the continental United States. I would hate to be the cause of your first belly ache of 2010, so I’ve designed the selection so that you can pace yourself. The tarts are best eaten within a day or two, but the biscotti will keep for up to two weeks, and the toffee, even longer. This package would make a delightful gift, and I’ll be happy to send it off with the appropriate greetings at any point during the year to the recipient of your choice.

Okay, now write this down: UE19. That’s the code to enter if you would like to bid on my item. Now, just follow the steps below to put a dent in world hunger. The important thing, of course, is not which item you select, but that you donate. Please join us in this important campaign, which runs until December 25th, this year.

How to donate:

UPDATE 12/22: Pim has added a spiffy new donation page to her site that makes giving easier than ever. No need to worry about writing down codes and typing them into your form. Simply click here, select your desired items and number of raffle tickets, and the information will appear by internet magic in the white box at the bottom of the page. Then, click "checkout," and you will be taken to the Firstgiving site. Your items will automatically transfer to the form, and all you'll have to do is provide your contact and billing information.

Or, if you prefer, do it the old-fashioned way:

1. Choose the bid-item(s) of your choice from our Menu for Hope main bid-item list.
2. Go to the donation site at Firstgiving and make a donation.
3. When confirming your donation, please specify which bid item you'd like in the “Personal Message” section. You must write-in how many tickets per bid item, and include the bid item code. (Again, my code is UE19.) Each $10 you donate earns you one raffle ticket toward any bid-item. For example, a donation of $50 might be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. You would enter this information as "2xEU01, 3xEU02."
4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so that we can claim the corporate match.
5. Please check the box that allows us to see your email address so that we can contact you if you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.
Winners will be announced here on Monday, January 18.

If you’re interested in learning more about the details of the project, head over to Pim’s post about this year’s campaign.

Happy donating, friends, and thank you.

[p.s. – Chanukah party wrap-up post is coming soon!]


Elbow to elbow

I write to you today from beneath a thick haze of potatoes and oil. This can mean only one thing: the holiday season is upon us. You may think that I’m coming around to this fact a little late, what with the Christmas songs that have been looping on the radio for weeks, the glowing trees, and first snows. But not until the starchy scent of latkes has seeped into every last corner of my home am I ever fully on board. And I do mean every corner. There is nothing more tenacious than the smell of fried. (Anyone who has ever fried anything knows that it’s not the potatoes or the onions or the egg, but the fried that clings and won’t let go.) For a couple of weeks every December, we wear latke-scented clothing, sit on latke-scented sofas, and sleep between latke-scented sheets. This morning, I pulled out a clean towel from the very back of the linen closet. I buried my face in it after my shower only to find that even this fresh-from-the-washer specimen had not been spared. It’s no surprise, really, given that what goes on in our kitchen is no ordinary latke fry.

On Sunday night, we will be hosting our annual Chanukah party. It’s our fifth, which means that I have now lived in this city for longer than I have lived in any one place since high school. There is no shortage of wonderful people here, and every year, we manage to meet more of them. Accordingly, our guest list has grown over time, and so too has our latke output. There was a time, circa 2005, when double batches would suffice. No longer. According to the official count late Wednesday night, we made 470 latkes this year. Four-hundred and seventy!! That’s 34 times the original recipe. We grated and mixed and fried and froze a grand total of 59 pounds of potatoes. This is a first. That I can rightfully say “we made” as opposed to “Eli made” is another first for me.

Typically, Eli takes care of the latkes, stocks the bar, and mixes a signature drink for the evening. I handle all of the other edibles, most prominently, dessert. But this year, after two nights of frying solo, Eli realized that he would have to call in reinforcement to get the job done. The 254 latkes that Eli had fried up earlier in the week were packed away in the freezer of a generous neighbor. That left over 200 latkes that we still had to produce that evening. I must admit, I was terrified. There is nothing particularly settling about the thought of two cooks, a spinning food processor blade, and two pans of hissing, bubbling oil sharing a kitchen with only 35 square feet of floor space. My grandmother used to say, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” I have a feeling that this was just the kind of thing she had in mind. Since we pretty much nailed the “in sickness and in health” part of our marriage vows this year, it was time to move on to that lesser known clause, “in peanut and in olive oil.” I would have to take my chances.

To lessen the perils, we set up an iron rule: No sudden moves. (What? A rule? I love rules! Of course I’ll help you make latkes, Eli.) We did not take so much as a single step without first asserting our intentions. “Bowl on your left!” “Right behind you!“ and, my favorite, “Latke on the move!” We called out that last one 216 times, just before we lifted each finished latke from the scalding oil, and reached across the counter to place it on the cooling tray. We worked like a well-oiled machine. (Oof. Sorry.) Elbow to elbow, we made it through to the end still wearing every last layer of our skin. It was a Chanukah miracle.

Some important latke-making tips and tricks:

These two recipes, one for traditional potato latkes, the other for sweet potato curry latkes, are tried and true. I sat down with Eli last night to make sure that I would accurately capture all of the little turns and tricks that he has picked up over the years. He wanted me to tell you that to keep your potatoes from browning once they’re peeled, you should place them in a pot of water until you are ready to grate them. He also explained how to avoid ending up with strips that are too large and flat to fry up nicely with the shreds. He suggests the following technique: Quarter each potato, lengthwise, and then cut each quarter in half lengthwise, so that you end up with eight long, finger-like pieces. This slender shape, fed vertically into the food processor, will produce the most even shreds.

For both of these recipes, we rely on my grandma Louise’s freezing and reheating technique that turns latkes into a terrific make-ahead party food. Instead of placing the finished latkes onto a paper towel to absorb excess oil, allow them to cool on a tray lined with foil. Then, freeze the latkes in gallon-sized Ziploc bags. They will keep in the freezer for up to one month. When you’re ready to serve the latkes, heat them for 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven. The excess oil will spill out of the latkes onto the pan, and they will refry a little. Then you can place them on paper towels to get rid of any excess oil before serving. It works like a charm.You and your guests will enjoy the same level of crispness as when the latkes are freshly made.

Eli’s potato latkes

This recipe is the result of Eli’s trial and error over the years. It must have started out as a printed recipe from somewhere, but by now it is long forgotten, and Eli refers instead to an oil-stained page of handwritten notes. After so much tinkering, I think it’s safe to call this recipe Eli’s own. These latkes are perfect for the discerning Chanukah celebrant who seeks a cross between the thin, lacy variety, and thicker, softer pancakes. Their crisp, golden surface gives way to a dense and oniony middle. We serve them with sour cream and cranberry applesauce.

2 lbs of potatoes (Eli prefers Yukon Gold but you can use Russet if that’s what you have around.)
1 medium yellow onion
½ c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 eggs
Olive oil, for frying (not extra virgin; it will burn)
More salt and pepper, to taste, for finishing (optional)

Fit a food processor with the grating disk. Peel the potatoes, cut them into eighths as described above (see “tips and tricks”), and place the pieces into a pot filled with water to keep them from browning. Peel and cut the onion into eighths, and feed the pieces through the spinning grater.

Place a colander lined with cheesecloth into the sink, and fill with the grated onion. Pull the corners of the cheesecloth together, and twist and squeeze to get rid of excess moisture. Dump the drained onion into a large bowl, and add the eggs, flour, salt, and pepper. Vertically feed the potato pieces into the food processor, and use the cheesecloth, once again, to drain the shreds. Add the drained potato shreds to the onion and egg mixture, and stir. (Eli uses his very clean hands, but you’re welcome to use a wooden spoon, if you prefer.) As soon as the salt comes into contact with the potatoes, it will start to draw moisture from them, so the batter will become wetter over time. That’s why it’s important to squeeze as much moisture as possible from the potatoes and onions at the outset.

Pour a ¼ - ½ inch layer of olive oil into a sauté pan, and heat over a high flame until the temperature reaches 350 degrees. You can use a candy thermometer to measure. Without a thermometer, you can test to see if the oil is hot enough by sacrificing a tiny scrap of batter. If the oil furiously sizzles and bubbles upon contact with the batter, it is ready. The olive oil should never get so hot that it smokes.

Using about ¼ c. of batter per latke, squeeze the batter into balls with your hands, and drop into the oil. After about 15-20 seconds, smash the tops of the latkes with a spatula to flatten them. Depending on the temperature of your oil, cooking time will vary, but we found that 2-3 minutes on each side was perfect. Place the finished latkes on a paper towel-lined tray to cool and drain. Shower with a few extra grinds of salt and pepper, if necessary. If you wish to freeze your latkes, follow Grandma Louise’s instructions, above.

Yield: 20 small latkes
[Recipe updated 12.6.2010]

Sweet Potato Curry Latkes
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America

Sweet potatoes are lower in starch than Yukon Golds and Russets, so these latkes are generally less crisp than Eli’s regular potato latkes. Still, there are a couple of things that you can do to ensure that you get as much crispness as possible. To prevent unnecessary sog, add just enough milk – and no more! – to produce a moist but stiff batter. And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Squeeze the excess liquid from each individual latke as you form it, before dropping into the oil. We’re big wimps when it comes to spicy foods, so we’ve reduced the cayenne pepper from ½ tsp. to 1/8 tsp. If you can handle the heat (I envy you!), then by all means, turn it up.

1 pound sweet potatoes
½ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne powder
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and freshly ground pepper (about two teaspoons of each)
2 large eggs, beaten
½ c. milk (approximately)
Peanut oil for frying (olive oil will also work if it’s what you have on hand)

Fit a food processor with the grating disk. Peel, cut, and soak the sweet potatoes, as described above (see “tips and tricks”). In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Add the eggs, and just enough milk (remember, not too much) to make a stiff batter.

Vertically feed the sweet potato pieces through the grater, and add the resulting shreds to the batter. The batter should be moist, but not runny. If it’s too stiff, add more milk.

Use your hands to squeeze out the liquid from about ¼ c. of batter per latke, form the batter into a ball, and drop into the hot oil. Follow the frying, flipping, and draining procedure as explained in Eli’s potato latke recipe.

Yield: About 16 latkes.

Happy Chanukah, friends!


Getting in, and getting out

Dear readers, you are a very kind and patient bunch. Posts have been few and far between over these last few months. If you don’t mind my geeking out on you for a moment, I’d like to tell you what I’ve been up to. (Have faith, friends. This Once Upon a Geekish Time ends, happily, in my kitchen.) There comes a day in the life of every graduate student when she must pull out her crystal ball, wave her hands over top, and peer through the mist to see if that blurry, disappearing-reappearing specter in the distance might just be a DISSERTATION TOPIC. In academic circles, this soothsaying is known by another name: the writing of the prospectus.

The prospectus is, in laymen’s terms, a project proposal that must be approved by my department before I proceed with the actual writing of the dissertation. In it, I discuss previous scholarship on or related to my subject, and describe what I will argue, and how. I present my sources, and explain why my project will be new (!) and valuable (?!) to the field. This process of preliminary research and working through my ideas in writing is exhilarating. But it also gives me the shakes. Writing a prospectus, I’ve found, is a little like trying to frost a cake before you’ve baked it. You have to smooth out the lumps, pipe on a few flowers, and make it look as pretty as can be, even though you’re not yet quite sure if it’s white or chocolate cake under there. Whoever said “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” clearly never wrote a dissertation prospectus. From where I sit, it’s more like “Count them! Name them! Dress those unhatched chickens to the nines in designer chicklet apparel and trot them out onto the runway!” I’m doing my very best to envision what this project will become, but it won’t be until I’m in the thick of it that I’ll know for sure. What I do know is that I am writing a literary biography of a Polish-Yiddish writer who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m focusing on his formative years to try and get a handle on his artistic genesis, and to figure out why he wrote what he wrote in the way that he wrote it. When I think of it as a project on the life of a writer’s mind, I can’t wait to get started. When I think of it as a project that has my geeky brain scattering in a gazillion directions at once, I start to feel a little woozy.

At times like these, there are two schools of thought regarding the best use of a kitchen. The first instructs the student to treat the kitchen as a welcome distraction, a gleaming ray of light at the end of a hard day’s work. According to this school, good things come to those who bake. Go in shoulders hunched, brow furrowed, mind wrapped in prospectus-generated fog, emerge a couple of hours later a new woman, a little sticky around the fingers, but stress-free, with a cake in hand. The more intricate the recipe, the better. Anything to pry the brain from the books and the bottom from the chair for as long as possible. There is just one potential pitfall: Though time in the kitchen is typically my most trusted tension tamer, I have learned that, startlingly, it is possible simply to cook while stressing. That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. I end up doing a lot more crying into my cutting board and mild cursing than actual cooking, and if the food flops, I am inconsolable. I begin to wonder why I ever bothered to pick up a mixing bowl in the first place when I-ALWAYS-RUIN-EVERYTHING-I’M-NEVER-SETTING-FOOT-IN-THE-KITCHEN-AGAIN! It is not a pretty sight, and poor Eli is left to pick up the pieces. So, for the sake of my marriage and my temporarily delicate psyche, I’ve been subscribing to an opposing school of thought lately, one that can be summed up in five little words: Get in, and get out. The trick, of course, is to create something delicious in between. And that, patient readers, is where this tomato soup comes in.

This recipe came about thanks to an old friend of mine who moved to town a few months back. He is allergic to a shockingly vast number of foods including – in addition to eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes – most vegetables. Tomatoes and onions somehow made it onto his tiny scrap of a safe list, so when I was faced with the task of creating a soup that both my friend and our vegetarian dinner guests could tolerate, I knew what I had to do. I’m not sure if you can tell from that picture up there, but thanks to its forcibly short list of ingredients, it is perhaps the purest, most down-to-earth tomato soup ever made. There are no carrots or peppers lingering in the wings, no garlic to turn up the heat. It is as tomato-y as tomato can be. And yet, despite its simplicity, this soup is beguilingly rich, surprisingly full-bodied. I think that the extra dose of tomato paste has something to do with it, but I’m sure that the cup of whole milk – or cream, if you’re feeling decadent – doesn’t hurt. Also, while many recipes call for a few cups of meaty stock or vegetable broth, this soup relies on the puréed tomatoes and their juices for its liquid. It’s tomato to the core. Deeply, profoundly tomato.

Spooned from a bowl or sipped from a mug, this soup is a veritable tonic, a remedy for all of your shivers and shakes, prospectus-induced, or otherwise. I love the way it holds its warmth and drapes itself over the tongue. Especially now that we’ve had our first Boston snow, I like to think of this soup as summer’s tomatoes, all dressed up in nubby fleece sweaters, wool socks, and ear muffs. It buttons you up; it tucks you in. At dinnertime, it falls down the throat like a red velvet curtain, signaling the close of a dark-too-soon day. I realize that I have set up competing textile metaphors here, but frankly, you can call it a cashmere scarf for all I care. Just go with whichever fabric you find the most inviting, finish reading this paragraph, and make this soup. And when you’re through, you might consider indulging in the little-known, but undeniably brilliant third school of kitchen thought. The one that encourages you to leave the dishes in the sink, lie down on the floor by the oven, find a pair of willing hands, and enjoy a post-soup massage.

Simplest Tomato Soup

I have just a few quick notes before I send you on your way: To make sure that your tomatoes will really sing, use the best canned tomatoes that you can find. I use San Marzano tomatoes. I have made this recipe with both red and yellow onions. I prefer the red, but feel free to use what you have on hand. An immersion blender (my “magic wand,” as I like to call it) is your best bet for speedy and mess-free puréeing, but a regular blender will also do the trick. You’ll just have to work in batches, and be very careful to keep from burning yourself. I would suggest letting the soup cool a little before you get started. The soup is pretty darn smooth, but you will find the occasional seed. I like it this way; it’s fun to pop them between my teeth. But if you prefer an absolutely seed-free soup, you can pour it through a fine-mesh sieve before you add the milk, and then return it to the pot to finish. Finally, I like to drizzle a bit of basil-infused olive oil into each bowl before serving. I know it sounds fancy-pants, but it’s really just a tiny, simple move to offset the tomato. I use a brand called Olave, available at Whole Foods and some supermarkets. If oil-drizzling not your style, you’re of course welcome to skip it.

1 large red onion
2 T. butter*
2 T. red wine vinegar, divided
1 T. flour
2 T. tomato paste
2 28 oz. cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 c. water (or veggie broth or chicken stock, if you prefer)
1 bay leaf
1 c. whole milk or cream*
Salt and pepper to taste
Basil oil (optional)

Coarsely chop the onion. In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When it foams, add the onion, and sauté until it softens, appears translucent, and browns a little around the edges. Add 1 T. of the vinegar to deglaze the pot, scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon or spatula, and turn down the heat to medium-low.Add the flour and the tomato paste, and stir to incorporate. Add the remaining tablespoon of vinegar to deglaze once again, and scrape up any flour or tomato paste that may be sticking to the pot.Add the two cans of tomatoes. I find it's easiest to use my (very clean) hands to squeeze and break each tomato into the pot. Alternatively, you can break them up in the pot with a wooden spoon once they have softened. Pour the juices that are left in the cans into the pot. Season with salt and pepper, add the bay leaf, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes.Remove the bay leaf. Add the one cup of water or stock, and return to a simmer. Then, turn off the heat, and use an immersion blender to purée the soup. Taste, and add salt and pepper, if necessary.Just before serving, warm the soup and stir in the milk or cream. If you’re using the oil, drizzle a bit into each bowl.
The soup will keep for several days, at least, in the fridge. I actually like it best once it has had a night or two to ripen.

Yield: Serves 8. (The recipe can be divided to serve four.)

* I have made this soup vegan by replacing the butter with olive oil, and the milk with soy milk. The result was excellent.


all the pieces

This year, we totally cheated the system. All it took was a little tweaking of our holiday to-ing and fro-ing. We spent this Thanksgiving with my mom in Ohio. But instead of hurtling ourselves into the swarms of strung-out travelers on Wednesday and Sunday, we took off for Ohio on Monday and flew back to Boston on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Bam. Two vacations in one: we got our Thanksgiving in all its menu-planning, photo-album-flipping, Mom’s-famous-stuffing glory, and then we got a big fat juicy weekend at home in Cambridge, all to ourselves. Perfection.

We tended to a special task this visit, something I’ve taken to calling The Great Slide and Photo Sort of 2009. Eli set up headquarters at my mom’s dining room table, and for two days straight, he sorted, bagged, and labeled over six-hundred of my grandparents’ slides and photographs for scanning. He was a machine. I helped mostly by flipping through his neatly organized piles, snatching the gems, and running into the kitchen to show my mom. How on earth would he have managed without me?

photo scan project 1

photo scan project 2

On Thanksgiving Day, at the end of our meal, we watched some 8mm home movies of my mother from when she was a little girl. Have you ever seen your parents as kids moving on film? This was a first for me, and it totally blew my mind. It is one thing to see your mother as a child, sitting pretty, hands folded in her lap, smiling and still for the camera. It is another thing entirely to see your little ten-year-old mommy running across the screen, waving, diving, swimming freestyle, gulping huge, purposeful breaths of air with each stroke. My grandfather picks her up in the water and throws her across the pool. She loves it. That the skinny little girl up there would one day be MY MOTHER, well, there are just no words. During the viewing, I must have temporarily lost my mind, because I completely forgot about the pandowdy that I had slipped under the broiler to caramelize the sugar on top. By the time I smelled the smoke, it was too late. I have never seen a sadder, blacker crust. It was all very I Love Lucy, in a brunette, Midwestern way. At least the fruit beneath had been protected by the charred shell, and so we salvaged it, and ended up with something closer to compote than pandowdy. It wasn’t half-bad. No one complained, at least. But I’m beginning to think that you might, dear readers, and justifiably so, seeing as how all I’ve given you so far today is a blackened crust and a bowlful of cooked fruit from a recipe I posted last month.

And so, herewith, the menu:

Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread
Roasted turkey with mushrooms and gravy
Cranberry apple walnut relish
Mom’s famous stuffing (and when I say “famous,” I mean “I like it a lot.”)
Roasted Brussels sprouts
Roasted root vegetables
Candied, spiced sweet potatoes
Cranberry apple pandowdy (turned compote)

We woke the next morning to first Ohio snow. Which means that, in addition to two Thanksgiving vacations, we also racked up an extra first snow this season. I’m telling you, we played this holiday right. (Incidentally, as I type this, our second first snow is falling here in Massachusetts.)

cleveland first snow

We landed in Cambridge on Friday morning, built a fire, and changed into our pajamas. Then, we sunk into our cushy green sofa, and part two of our even cushier holiday. I start to feel all cozy and droopy-eyed just thinking about it. We finished the previous Sunday’s crossword puzzle, watched an episode of Mad Men, and then a romantic comedy whose title and plotline I have already forgotten. We must have been tired from all of that photo sorting and pandowdy burning, because by a little after noon we were both sound asleep, a tangle of arms, legs and blanket, right there on the sofa. Have I mentioned that I loved this day? Finally, we took a break from our high-impact lounging to tackle a little home improvement project, and landed back on the sofa just in time for a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches and carrot sticks. Lest you worry that your trusty blogger is turning into a slug (or a “bump on a log,” as my mother used to say) let me assure you that I did squeeze in a run along the Charles. It was an uncomfortably windy, sun-in-my-eyes kind of run (I turned back early), but a run nonetheless. And we did slip out to a movie on Saturday night, one that got me thinking about the stories we tell, and why we tell them; about the way reality seeps into our dreams and, if we’re lucky, our dreams spill back over into our actual lives. If Eli hadn’t come down with a fever on Sunday evening and, by 3am, a raging ear infection, I would go so far as to say that it was the perfect weekend. One version, at least. It just had all the pieces, you know?

My plan today was to share with you what is, without fail, my favorite thing on our Thanksgiving table, year after year. My plan was not, however, to furnish a recipe featuring the exact same ingredients that starred in my last two entries. Maybe, for variety’s sake, you could click around to some other posts on this site, and then meet me back here when you’re ready for more apples and cranberries. Or perhaps if, like me, you cannot get enough of the apple-cranberry combination this time of year, you could make this recipe today. With a solemn promise that nary a cranberry nor an apple will grace Sweet Amandine until at least the end of the month, I once again bring you that delectable sweet-tart pairing of late-autumn fruits, this time in a cranberry apple walnut relish.

I wish that I had a rosy, twinkling glamour shot to insert right here, but it seems that my camera and I missed it, somehow. How about some roasted Brussles sprouts instead?

brussels sprouts

They were good. But back to the relish.

This recipe is so simple, it doesn’t need much of an explanation. Especially when, by now, you’re all pros at filling a pot with fruit and sugar, turning on the heat, and stirring. The difference, here, is that the apples remain raw, for added crunch and an additional layer of tang. Rarely do I insist upon a particular kind of apple in my recipes, but here it is truly best to go green; that old tart, Granny Smith, gives this relish a welcome kick in the pants. It’s stand-up, straightforward, whip-that-tongue-into-shape stuff. I’m crazy for it. No wonder it’s called “relish.” Bite after bite, I heap it onto my fork in the ratio of two parts relish to one part bird. My ritual at the close of every Thanksgiving meal – and I’m talking post-dessert, even – is to eat a few spoonfuls plain. It’s that good. Over the years, this relish has traveled well beyond the Thanksgiving table. It has appeared atop steaming bowls of oatmeal, on toast under a wedge of Brie, and alongside scoops of vanilla ice cream. That last sentence has me seriously contemplating a second, post-Thanksgiving batch. But a promise is a promise. If I decide to go for it, I swear, you’ll never know.

Cranberry Relish
Adapted from the lovely and talented Amy

This recipe calls for peeling the apples, but frankly, I'm not sure it's necessary. I think I'm going to go skin-on next year. As I have indicated, the quantity of sugar is variable, depending on your personal take on the ideal sweet-tart balance, and the sugar content of your juice.

1 pound fresh cranberries
1 pound Granny Smith apples to yield 4 c. diced, peeled apples
1/2 c. cranberry-apple juice (Plain apple or cranberry works just as well.)
3/4 c. - 1 c. sugar, to taste
2/3 c. coarsely chopped walnuts

Combine the sugar, juice, and cranberries in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the cranberries pop and the mixture thickens. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly so as not to cook the apples. Stir in the apples and the walnuts, and spoon the relish into a bowl. Cover and chill for at least four hours. You can make this relish up to three days ahead and store it in the fridge.

Yield: 4 cups