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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Here, for Abbe, is my recipe for Neopolitans the way that the Aunts Gail and Thelma used to make them. I write it largely as I received it, rather than as I would write it, so pardon any eccentricity. Notes and tips from my experience will follow.

  • 1 12 oz. can of Solo Almond Filling
  • 1 c. butter, softened
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 c. sifted flour
  • 4 egg whites
  • 20 drops of red food coloring
  • 12 drops of green food coloring
  • 1/4 c. raspberry seedless jam
  • 1/4 c. apricot jam
  • 6 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line your 13×9 cake pan with parchment paper. (The Aunts used wax paper, very specifically, but I have found it made too much smoke.)
  2. Mix the first four ingredients together until fluffy.
  3. Add flour and blend.
  4. Whip the whites to soft peaks.
  5. Stir the whites into the batter.
  6. Divide the batter into thirds (1 1/2 c. each) and color one batch red and one batch green.
  7. Smooth each third into the pan and bake for 10-15 minutes.
  8. Once the individual layers are cooled, stack them with the red on the bottom, then the apricot jam, then the yellow, then the raspberry jam, then the green.
  9. Put a layer of parchment paper (or wax, if you insist) over the top and lay your heaviest book on top. Let it sit in the fridge overnight, being squashed.
  10. In the morning, melt the chip and spread them in the thin layer over the top. Cut into tiny little 45 degree diamonds using a metal ruler if you want to honor the Aunts or into tiny little squares using a pizza cutter if you’re like me.

Notes:

First of all, I always double the batch and bake them in my half-sheet trays. It’s much easier and your margins of error are greater. Plus, more cookies!

This recipe drive me nuts because of the whipped egg whites. The dough is so stiff that you cannot fold the whites into the dough, no matter how you try to “lighten it with the first third of the white,” as is usual in these sorts of recipes. Aunt Gail’s recipe doesn’t even offer this bland platitude — it’s a practical and straightforwards “stir in the whites.” Which, of course, deflates the hell out of them, so why bother whipping? And even if you manage to fold them in, then you squash the whole thing under a dictionary! It bothers me every year but I have yet to muster the time and energy to experiment with something else.

When you finish separating your egg whites, move them to another room. There is little more heartbreaking than finding, at 9 o’clock on Christmas Eve, that your mixer has flung a glob of butter into the 8 egg whites and now they won’t whip and all the stores are closed.

Of course, your mixer isn’t the only thing that might fling some about some ingredients. This is an immensely messy recipe — you need to move all the batter from the mixer bowl and then wash it and then whip the whites and then divide it up into three bowls and color them. Never mind separating the eggs in the first place. As such, you should begin this recipe in a clean kitchen with all your dishes washed and the dishwasher empty. It will pretty much fill your dishwasher when you’re done.

You need multiple spatulas (or spoonulas, as I think they are called). Or you need to be willing to wash them between colors.

The pink layer will look slightly neon — pinker than Pepto, more like Bubbalicious cherry gum. Don’t panic. That’s okay.

Finally, and most vitally, Solo Almond Filling is the key to this recipe and it can be hard to find sometimes. Your best bet is the baking aisle, near the cans of pumpkin. I have yet to figure out how to approximate it myself and as far as I can tell, there is no substitute by any other brand. Do not use Solo Almond Paste — it’s not the same thing at all. The paste is essentially marzipan and very stiff, like cold Play-Doh. The Filling is gloppy-sloppy and translucent and smells like a diabetic coma.

If anyone, any where, can suggest a variation on Solo Almond Filling, please pass it along. I’d love to be able to make it from scratch, but I’ll settle for a steady source of the stuff. One year I had to mail order it from N.J.!

Let me know how yours turns out.

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Cooking with ghosts

My Christmas cooking list is lengthy and specific:  Indian cookies, Neopolitans, short bread, stollen, boeuf bourguignon. Plus assorted candies, cookies, sweet breads.

Indian Cookies are the taste of my childhood Christmasses: tooth-achingly sweet chocolate haystacks of coconut, oatmeal, and peanut butter. One of the earliest cooking memories I have was standing over my mother’s Revereware copper-bottom pot, stirring the hot fudge and judging just when it hit “rolling boil.” If you choose the wrong moment to declare it “rolling,” then your cookies won’t set up right and will be either fudgey sludge or rock-hard chunks.

My mother got the recipe from her friend’s mother when she was a kid and when we were kids we all loved them so much that she declared that they were “Just Christmas cookies,” and could only be made between Thanksgiving and New Years. In all my years of cooking, I have never violated that rule, not even by one day.

I never met my mother’s friend’s mother, but she’s just one of the ghosts I cook with each year at Christmas.

My Aunts Gail and Thelma hang out there, too. Every year they made Neopolitans — those tri-colored cakey peti-fours. I don’t eat Neopolitans — they are made with the ever-harder-to-find Solo Almond Filling and I don’t like almond flavored sweets. But it’s not Christmas in my house without a plateful. The first year after Aunt Gail died, no one said anything to me about Neopolitans. But they are my brother’s favorite cookie in the world. My brother is the nicest, most self-effacing, laid back guy — he would never impose. But I couldn’t stand the idea of Seth waking up on Christmas morning and not having a plate. So I made them.

Badly, as it turns out. Solo Almond Filling is hard to find and I used Solo Almond Paste instead. Seth gamely ate most of the cookies, but years later informed me that they were terrible. Now there’s a family-wide search every December when we scour the shelves of local shops to find those coveted two cans to make the cookies.

Mine are not the same at Gail’s. First of all, I make a double batch, because I find doing things BIG is easier than doing them small. Secondly, I cut them in squares, not fancy diamonds. I don’t have Aunt Gail’s patience. But all the same, as I stand there in the kitchen, batter caking my hair and jeans, I can almost feel Aunt Gail over my shoulder.

This year, there’s a new ghost in my kitchen. Louise, my husband’s maternal grandmother, died in the spring. I didn’t know her well — she was a quiet woman — but every year she handed out a one-pound brick of shortbread. (The Murray family is VERY Scottish and Louise went entirely native.) Christopher, every year, would nibble at it for a few days and then, about a week after Christmas, just gorge on the whole block. It came wrapped in tinfoil and a tartan ribbon.

I’ve been testing shortbread recipes for the past three weeks. Again, no one said anything to me. It’s something I’ve taken up myself.

We live in a world where traditions are fleeting and the phrase “instant classic” isn’t an oxymoron. Where the nostalgia is for something just one or maybe two generations old — those Elf on a Shelf books, for instance, or getting your photo taken with Santa at a particular mall.

As part of my drive to be sustainable, I want to create sustainable traditions, too. And no where are traditions as enduring as in a kitchen. Butter, flour, sugar, eggs… women have celebrated holidays with these things for hundreds and thousands of years. I want to be able to tell my daughter, as she helps me make shortbread, that I am making it in honor of her great-grandmother, who made it in honor of her mother-in-law. Five generations isn’t a lot when you look at some recipes, handed down since Christ was still a free-love radical, but it’s better than the plastic manger from your mother’s Baby Boomer childhood.

This time of year, I think of baking as a sacrament, a way to connect to the past and to grow roots for my daughter’s future. It sounds hopeless sentimental, but I think that there’s some real holiday alchemy that comes out of that mixing bowl I inherited from my great grandmother. My daughter never met my great-grandmother, Leona, and won’t remember her’s, Louise, but when we make Louise’s shortbread together in Leona’s bowl, I like to think that I’m standing in a kitchen full of ghosts of Christmases past. And future.

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