All posts by Alicia

Double Strawberries and Cream Cheese in Puff Pastry

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When last Jim and I were in Paris we had the good fortune to meet several times with my extended family.  They entertained us as only Parisians can, in fine restaurants with lots of yummy champagne.  My cousins also rounded up the family who were in town for a Sunday afternoon reunion in the house of my father’s cousin, Marie Claire, where we spent the afternoon reminiscing  over days long past and laughing at our young foolishness, sipping champagne and nibbling on a gorgeous mirabelle plum tart made by my cousin Hubert’s wife, Anne.  Marie Claire’s apartment had been her sister, Francoise’, and that was where I began my first adventure in France oh, so many years ago.  Whenever I went to Paris I stayed with Francoise and having gone all over the city by foot I came to know her neighborhood of Neuilly-sur-Seine pretty well.  With Mama and without, I took the Metro to get around, and found the walk to the station and back to the apartment an absolute delight.  Magnificent  maple trees lined the streets leading to her house and, I have to tell you, I never felt prettier or happier than when I my feet hit those sidewalks.  I felt as though I was walking on air.  Francoise’ building was, and still is, magnificent.  The entrance hall was mahogany, the floor large black and white tiles whilst an antiquated brass elevator  waited at the right…or was it the on the left?  Regardless, it was there in all its creaky, rumbling glory.  However, if you chose not to wait, an exquisite caracol staircase was ready to take you to the second floor.  Although the elevator was majestic it was still a bit utilitarian so I always chose to take the staircase, resplendent with a dark ruby Persian runner held in place by old brass stair runners tacked into the well-worn mahogany steps,  stained obsidian and sunken in the middle by years of use.  And the apartment!  I remember some rooms being sea-green in color, enormous oils of our ancestors hung in heavy gold frames on most walls and the dining room and her generous bathroom completely beguiled me with its charming fireplace and mammoth, cast-iron claw-foot bathtub.  For me Francoise’ house was, and will always be, the height of luxury.  She introduced me to the French press for coffee, the beauty and pleasure of engraved calling cards, the importance of knowing how to read a map and the notion that a sterling porringer makes a fine ash tray.

Treasured bits from years past. Crazy about her calling card!
Treasured bits from years past. Crazy about her calling card!

Meals were small and only when necessary.  We were too busy to eat.  We left the flat early in the morning.   Most days Francoise went to her office where she wrote for various magazines while Mama and I were off to museums, shops and concerts, all possible by taking the Metro.  Towards the end of the day we met up for a glass of wine or champagne then back to the apartment to dress for dinner.  How I love that apartment and how special it was to be back in it with Hubert, Anne and their daughters and Grand-cousin, Marie Claire.  Still lovely and well-appointed with family pieces but now with bursts of life and color from the artwork of many grandchildren.  Merci encore, Marie Claire, pour un apres-midi splendide!

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This pastry is not only easy but dramatic in its presentation.  The puff pastry is store-bought and although it appears braided it is not.  Strips of dough are folded over and the end result is one good-looking dessert.  The dried and fresh berries compliment each other quite well, the dried berries mixed with cream cheese lend a creamy texture while the fresh give a juicy blast of flavor.

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Double Strawberry and Cream Cheese in Puff Pastry

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 12-14 fresh, ripe strawberries, sliced vertically 1/4″ in thickness
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, I like using vanilla sugar
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 1.2-ounce bag or 2 cups of freeze-dried strawberries, available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s
  • 1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 (that’s 1 sheet) of a 17.3 ounce box of puff pastry, thawed but kept in the refrigerator until needed
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
  1. Pre-heat oven to 400°.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper or tin foil.
  2. Toss the fresh strawberry slices with tablespoon of sugar and set aside to macerate.
  3. In a blender, mini-food processor or magic bullet process the freeze-dried strawberries until they are the texture of powder.
  4. In a small bowl mix the cream cheese until it becomes loose and easy to handle.
  5.  Add the strawberry powder and confectioners’ sugar to the cream cheese and stir until both are completely mixed together.
  6. Remove the sheet of puff pastry from the refrigerator and gently unfold on top of the baking sheet lined with parchment paper or tin foil.  Place the pastry so the fold marks run vertically.  The pastry will look like 3 equal rectangles attached together by the folds.
  7. Working as quickly as possible so the dough stays chilled, lightly roll out the dough so that it measures roughly 9 1/2″X 10 1/2″.
  8. Leaving the inside rectangle intact, make 1/2″ diagonal cuts into the two outside pastry rectangles.  Discard the 4 corners of the pastry.
  9. Spread the cream cheese mixture evenly down the center rectangle all the way to the cuts.  Mound the fresh berries on top of the cream cheese mixture evenly.
  10. Fold the top and bottom flap of dough over the berry filling.
  11. Fold the diagonal cuts over the berry mixture alternating left and right until the entire pastry is braided.  Tuck in any loose ends.
  12. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg.
  13. Bake pastry for 30-35 minutes or until golden.
  14. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

 

Apple Pie Oatmeal

I have been preparing Apple Pie Oatmeal for my son, James, for 24 years.  My 94-year old father requested some the other day so I made up a huge batch, warm and fragrant with cinnamon, apples and vanilla.  I packaged them up in individual portions and popped them in his freezer ready to be heated in the microwave and enjoyed for breakfast or a nutritious snack.  I made an even bigger batch for my niece, Meg, and her brother, Christopher, as part of their Christmas presents.  Both are students at University of Florida, living off campus in apartments and probably starving all the time.  While chopping and stirring James passed through the kitchen and asked, “What ‘cha makin’, Mama?  Sure smells good!”  “Why, apple pie oatmeal, son.  Here, have a taste.”  He had always loved it and asked if I would make some for him to take to his office.  Please!  Why would I ever stop now?  I started making this when he was a baby and he loved it from the first bite.  When he could feed himself I pulled a chair up to his high chair and read to him, often from the A. A.  Milne boxed set of “The World of Christopher Robin” and “The World of Pooh” that Mama gave me when I was just a little girl.  Never leaving our little house in Victoria Park, we traveled to London often, sometimes India and occasionally  Spain.  Enjoying his oatmeal and sneaking sips of my cafe con leche,  James loved it all!  We read poems of naughty children and grumpy kings, of traveling down the Amazon and the glory of butter.  We laughed at runaway balloons and big, red india-rubber balls.  And always, always delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red).  Here’s to you, boy!

“FORGIVEN”   by  A. A. Milne

I found a little beetle, so that Beetle was his name, And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.  I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day……………………………………………………………………………..  And Nanny let my beetle out…………………………………………………………………….  Yes, Nanny let my beetle out……………………………………………………………………..   She went and let my beetle out………………………………………………………………..   And Beetle ran away.

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This is an incredibly healthful yet mouth-watering recipe.  I use only organic apples, organic oats and almond milk instead of cow’s.  For sweetening I use stevia and a bit of honey to cut any bitterness the stevia may impart but all of these ingredients may be substituted for conventional products.  I freeze individual portions in baggies, just make certain all the air is squeezed out of the plastic bag,  then transfer the oatmeal to a microwave safe plastic bowl to defrost overnight in the refrigerator.  Sometimes I add a cap of almond milk to the defrosted oatmeal to thin it out a bit.  I don’t peel the apples but feel free if you don’t care for the peel.  I love this recipe…I even like it cold.  I mean, really…it’s apple pie!

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Apple Pie Oatmeal

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2 pounds apples, cored and chopped into 1/2″ pieces
  • 4 cups almond milk or conventional milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • stevia or sugar to taste
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  1. Add apples, milk and water to a heavy bottomed pot and bring to a boil.  Drop the temperature to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes or until apples are firm but fork tender.
  2. Add the oats and mix in well.  Simmer the oats for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3.  Add the stevia or sugar, cinnamon and vanilla stirring well.  Taste for any adjustments needed.
  4. Serve with a drizzle of milk.
  5. If freezing allow to come to room temperature.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Silky Coconut Cream Cheese Flan

One of my favorite Christmas scents is alcohol breath at midnight Mass.  It’s almost tradition for grownups to show up lit up.  Consider this.   If one sits down to Christmas Eve dinner at 7:00pm and the meal is concluded at, say, 8:30pm…well, there’s quite a bit of time to get into trouble before sliding into your pew to hear a few carols before the service begins.  We started our tradition years ago.  And when I say “we” I mean Pamela, my little sister, and me.  Mama would have a Puerto Rican Christmas Eve dinner with many of the typical dishes shipped to us in dry ice.   Remember, Mama didn’t cook.  After a rich, heavy dinner we had to move so Pamela and I took off  and met our friends at Mai Kai, a famous Polynesian restaurant and bar here in town known for their island dancers and rum drinks.  It was great when Jimmy and I started dating because then we had a driver.  The three of us would have two or three barrels of  rum, (that was the name of the drink….lethal), and at 11:30 the three of us would stumble out of the bar and Jimmy would drive to church where Mama would be waiting for us.

I love out beautiful church, Saint Anthony. We've been parishioners over 55 years. Mama so loved our church.
I love our beautiful church, Saint Anthony. We’ve been parishioners over 55 years. Mama so loved our church!

Midnight Mass was always packed, standing room only, with all dressed in their holiday finery.  If we had a cold snap a few furs would be seen.  As we maneuvered through the crowd waving at friends and the parents of friends, our eyes scanned our beautiful church searching for Mom.  And then, suddenly, there she was soaking in the exquisite music of the choir.  The moment we laid eyes on her the ruckus began.  We thought we were whispering but apparently not.  “Mama!  MAH-MUH!!  I love you, Mama.”  Her mouth set in an angry line she’d make room for us in the pew.  By the time Mass ended we’d pretty much be forgiven but then Pamela always, always had to do cartwheels on the church’s front lawn.  Boy, did we catch heck all the way home.  “Your father and I have a name in this town!  Are you trying to ruin us?  Alicia, what are you thinking?  You’re supposed to set an example for your sister, caramba!”  Pamela and I laugh about it now but only because we truly believe Mama’s enjoying celestial, angelic music in Heaven.  Though we miss Mom so much we ache, we do wish her a merry, merry Christmas!

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One of the few dishes Mama made herself for Christmas Eve was flan.  It was a traditional flan, the flavored ones had not yet begun to appear.  This flan is silky smooth, redolent with the flavor of coconut and the more subtle notes of cream cheese.  What I really enjoy about it is it never has that “eggy” taste many flans have.  And since only coconut cream and milk are used there are no little flecks of grated coconut meat floating around in your mouth.  Bleah.  Most recipes call for a 10″ cake or round pan.  I used an 8″ round cake pan with 4″ tall sides.  If you use a pan smaller than 10″ make certain the sides are 4″-5″ tall.  This dish needs to be made in advance, yay!, in order to set and chill.  I’ve made it 2 days before serving and it’s perfection.  It is like nothing you’ve ever tasted.  My friend, Andrea, said it should be made illegal.  Or at least made every Christmas Eve!

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Coconut Cream Cheese Flan

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3 cups cream of coconut
  • 1 13.66-ounce can coconut milk
  • 10 large eggs
  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. In a medium size pot pour the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium high heat.  Do not stir! When it turns caramel in color pour into waiting baking pan.  Immediately rotate the pan so the caramel completely covers the bottom of the pan.  The caramel hardens quickly so move fast.  Set pan aside.
  3. Place cream cheese in a large bowl and using a hand mixer beat until fluffy.
  4. Add the cream of coconut to the cream cheese and mix well.
  5. Add the coconut milk to the cream cheese mixture and beat well until all ingredients are well incorporated. Set aside.
  6. In a medium size bowl break the eggs and, using a hand whisk, gently beat the eggs until the yolks and whites are thoroughly mixed.  You want to minimize the air bubbles so don’t use a hand mixer or blender.
  7. Pour the eggs into the cream cheese mixture and using the hand whisk blend well.
  8. Pour the cream cheese and egg mixture into the baking dish and place the filled baking dish into a larger baking pan, for instance a casserole dish.
  9. Heat some water to the boiling point and  carefully pour the water into the larger baking pan or casserole dish.  The water should reach 3/4 of the way up the sides of the flan pan.  In other words, you’re making a bain Marie.
  10. If using a 10″ pan bake for 1 hour or until the middle of the flan is “jiggly”.  For a taller 8″ pan bake for 2 hours.
  11. Remove from oven, place on a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature.
  12. Cover with plastic wrap directly onto flan and chill overnight up to 2 days.
  13. Right before serving remove plastic wrap, run a knife around the edge of the flan, cover the flan with your serving platter and quickly invert.  The flan should slide right out onto your platter.  If not, gently tap the platter on your counter or carefully shake the inverted pan.  Once a little air gets around the flan it’ll come right out with the melted caramel syrup.
  14. Spoon a bit of syrup over every slice prior to serving.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice, Arroz con Gandules

I know I’ve written of Christmas in Puerto Rico but, truly, it is a thing to behold.  The breezes were balmy and cool especially in the mountains where we spent a considerable amount of time during the Christmas holidays.  My sinfully handsome uncle, Tio Enrique, had serious parties on his farm, the entire family coming from all corners of the island.  Often Mama’s second cousins and their families would come and make merry because, as on any island, everyone is family.  The house was big and airy, several balconies had hammocks strung up.  Set back off the main road and nestled within undulating hills, we looked forward all year to the celebrations at Villa Josefina, the farm named after one of Tio Enrique’s sisters, an aunt who died young before I was born.  My parents gave me a second middle name which I share with Josefina.  Villa Josefina was a favorite destination for all of us when on holiday whether we were little ones, during the gawky, awkward preteen years or sophisticated, cigarette smoking, makeup wearing high schoolers.  My uncle gave us free rein and let us take his horses out for a ride whenever we wanted, without even asking.  You want to chew on a stalk of sugar cane?  Go get a machete and cut it down…go on!  You know how to do it!  He didn’t care if we sneaked a smoke behind one of the massive royal poinsiana trees, its fiery flowers blanketing the ground.  On the contrary, he’d bum cigarettes off us.  No.  We were left to do what we like with the only caveat being we had to stay on the property regardless if the iron gates were locked or had been left open.  To pass unsupervised and without permission through those gates was tantamount to that of jumping off a cliff.  We knew without a doubt we were secure and protected from any harm while behind the lovely iron portal.  Well, except one time.  My little brother and sister, Tommy and Pamela, and Tio Enrique’s sons, Quico and Tommy, were careening down a hill in a wobbly wagon which happened to deposit them right in front of the open gates.  Pamela told me she was miserable and frustrated being excluded just because she was a girl.   The more she tried to be part of the fun and excitement, the more they shut her out.  None of the kid’s were aware of any commotion around them; Tio Enrique shouting and running toward them, frantically gesticulating, fell on deaf and uninterested ears.   He was the cool uncle, nothing he did surprised us.   The boys were occupied with an out of control ride as well as thoroughly enjoying a bothered, angry Pamela so all their attentions were focused on that merriment.  Two of my uncle’s workers ran behind him as fast as their legs could carry them.

Tommy and Pamela back at my grandparent's house after an exhausting day of fighting, arguing and tears. With only a little over one year between them, who would have believed that 45 years later they're still best buds?!
Tommy and Pamela back at our grandparent’s house after an exhausting day of fighting, arguing and tears. With only a little over one year between them, who would have believed that 45 years later they’re still best buds?!

When Pamela turned to look where they were excitedly pointing she turned pale at the site of a monstrous, runaway bull charging down the country road straight at them.  A posse of men followed behind the beast futilely attempting the animal’s capture.  The children froze, eyes as big as dinner plates, while the sound of the thundering hooves rained on their ears.  My uncle and his workers slammed the heavy gates shut with barely a moment to spare, the bull swerved, surprisingly agile for such an enormous creature, and continued down the road.  When relief replaced the fear in Tio Enrique he proceeded to give the young boys a blistering tongue lashing.  I watched them hang their heads with embarrassment as he verbally took them to the woodshed.  Pamela relished every moment.  “Your beautiful cousin could have been killed while you played with your wagon!!!” But she wasn’t and minutes later we were all laughing and teasing each other, some were dancing, some were eating, all were drinking.  Feliz Navidad!

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This dish of arroz con gandules is a traditional Christmas treat in Puerto Rico, rich with pigeon peas, pork, olives and capers.  It is typically served with pasteles, lechon asado or roasted pig, salads and root vegetables.  Rum and wine cut beautifully through the richness of these foods so feel free to let the alcohol flow.  Arroz con gandules can be prepared with or without pork so if you’d rather not include it just leave out the steps preparing the meat.  And last, when I prepare white rice it’s almost always medium grain.  Short grain can be too sticky or gummy and long grain is just….I don’t know….wrong.  Oh, and this recipe will feed a crowd, too.  So go tropical.  You’ll love it!

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Arroz con Gandules or Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 pounds lean pork, in 1/2″ cubes
  • 8 ounces diced ham, I use Smithfield Ham in cryovac pack
  • 2 cups onion, chopped, divided
  • 2 large bell peppers, chopped, divided
  • 1 large bunch cilantro, rough chopped, divided
  • 1 head garlic, minced, divided
  • 5 cups water, divided
  • salt and pepper to taste
  •  4 cups medium grain white rice
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2-3 tablespoons paprika
  • 1  21/4-ounce bottle green olives, drained
  • 1 heaping soup spoon of capers
  • 2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 13-ounce can green pigeon peas, rinsed and drained
  • 5-6 culantro leaves, optional (if your store carries them)

Pork mixture:

  1. Over medium heat, pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, medium size pot.
  2. Add the cubed pork and cook until lightly browned.
  3.  Add the diced ham, half of the onion, half of the bell pepper and half of half of the garlic.
  4. Stir well to coat all the vegetables with the oil, add salt and pepper to taste and 1 cup of water.
  5. Cover, lower the heat and simmer for 25 minutes or until the pork is tender but not falling apart.  Set aside.
  6.  In a large, heavy bottomed pot or caldero add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and raise heat to medium/medium high.
  7. Add the rice and stir well to coat all the grains with the oil.
  8. Add the oregano and paprika and stir until well combined.
  9. Add the olives, capers and tomato paste and mix well.
  10. Pour the entire pork mixture into the rice and stir to combine making certain the tomato paste has dissolved completely.
  11. Add the pigeon peas and culantro leaves if using, the remaining 4 cups of water and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well.  Remember, rice needs salt or it comes out bland.
  12. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 25 minutes or until all the moisture has been absorbed and the rice is tender and fluffy.
  13. Serve hot.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Peppermint Bark

It’s hard to stay away from holiday treats and Peppermint Bark is no exception.  Williams-Sonoma features a Peppermint Bark during the holidays that has to be, if not the best, one of the top two or three.  But at $29.00 per pound, well, I have to say, I can’t afford it.  Neither can my waistline so it’s probably better that way.  Between eggnog, coquitos and peppermint bark, December is usually the time of a losing battle for me.  I tried my hand at making my own bark and after quite a few attempts have come to a few conclusions.  Since most days in south Florida range from the high-70’s to the mid-80’s, chocolate is NOT going to firm up on your counter.  And if there is any humidity what so ever, and here there always is, the crushed peppermints will weep, bleed and stick all over everything.  I yearned for the “snap” of commercial chocolate when broken apart and learned that tempering chocolate is not enough.

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Tempering chocolate produces glossy, flawless chocolate that when bitten into breaks off with a snap.  Essentially, you’re raising and lowering the temperature of the dark, milk or white chocolate in order to make it behave properly…melt in your mouth not in your hand.  I tempered chocolate all day long yesterday and between the rain and heat of the day let’s just say ain’t no “snap” in MY chocolate!  That said I will move forward and skip the tempering process.  I also discovered that a decent quality white chocolate must be used, one high in cocoa butter.  White chocolate chips do not melt.  At least not for me.  Not in the microwave, over a double boiler or in the oven.   So.  Get thee good quality chocolate bars, for instance Guittard, not chips, especially when melting white chocolate.  When melting the chocolate make absolutely certain that not one drop of water comes into contact with it as it will seize up and become unworkable.  Take your time melting it.  Chocolate is delicate and can become grainy and lumpy if melted too quickly over high heat.  The water in the double boiler should be kept at a simmer and should never touch the bottom of the chocolate bowl as it can scorch easily.  As the chocolate begins to melt, stir frequently with a rubber spatula.  Take the bowl off the pot when the chocolate has almost completely melted and only a few small lumps remain.  Continue stirring off the heat until smooth.  I also found leaving the candy cane crumbles in a closed baggie will keep it from weeping and sticking to everything like all your fingers, the counter and the floor instead of the darn bark.  And last of all move fast.  Have your tray or large baking sheet well covered with parchment paper.  Pull out a wooden skewer and keep it close to the baking sheet alongside the crushed candy cane.  Merry Christmas!

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Peppermint Bark

  • Servings: 2 pounds
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 pound semi-sweet chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces
  • 1 pound white chocolate bars, chopped or broken into pieces, NOT chips
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup crushed candy canes
  1. Place 1″-2″ of water in the bottom of a  double boiler or pot and bring to a boil.  When the water comes to a boil drop the temperature and let water simmer.
  2. Place the semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl which fits snugly over the top of a pot or sauce pan.
  3. With a rubber spatula stir the chocolate until almost completely melted.  Take off of the heat, add 1/4 teaspoon of peppermint extract and continue stirring until shiny and smooth.
  4. Pour the melted chocolate onto the parchment paper and smooth to the thickness and shape you desire using an offset spatula.
  5. Melt the white chocolate in the same manner.  When the white chocolate has melted completely, add 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract, mix in well and spoon over dark chocolate leaving space in between the chocolates.
  6. Using the blunt end of a wooden skewer, make designs and curlicues in the two chocolates by dragging the skewer from the middle of the candy to the outer edges.
  7. Sprinkle the crushed candy canes evenly over the bark and chill uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or until hard.
  8. Break the bark slab into pieces and chill until serving.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

Spanish Fig and Almond Cake, the ultimate in fast and sophisticated

There’s nothing like a big box of presents coming from a foreign land to  catapult two little girl’s excitement for Christmas to a much higher level.  Well, maybe it wasn’t quite a foreign land but 55 years ago Puerto Rico was far away and exotic.  Mama’s family was old-world and traditional.  That meant sweet treats, heavy books and gifts from Spain.  And although the presents could not and would not be opened until Christmas morning, Mama always zeroed in on one particular box.  Cutting through the tape and ribbon, she would carefully smooth the festive paper, setting it aside to be reused some other time.  And as older sister, Cynthia, and I watched with huge eyes,  Mama would unwrap the thin, rectangular box deliberately but with enjoyment.  We all knew what was waiting within.  I ran to get Daddy’s one tool, a wooden handled hammer.  Slowly Mama pulled out a buff colored block of Spanish “Turron” or nougat, studded with  savory roasted almonds sweeping in shades from fawn to cafe au lait and swathed between two thin sheets of rice paper.  As if she’d been doing it all her life, Mama took that hammer and wailed on the confection until a fat, chunky corner came off.  Away Cynthia went with her little piece of paradise.  Bang, bang, bang and it was my turn to savor the Turron.  A few more whacks and Mama had her piece.  We had albums of Spanish Christmas carols playing on the record player, a magnificent, artisan made manger and massive family bible, all presents from her father and all from Spain.  Other than that our lives were understated and straightforward.  These were simple times when extravagance was frowned upon.   These were times when hours were spent in front of the Christmas tree practicing handwriting for our letters to Santa.  We always had a real tree but some years it was the size of a shrub as that was all my parents could afford.  Times when money was so tight Mama put our presents on layaway at Woolworth’s, the local five-and-dime store and we received one present apiece.  That was a wonderful Christmas, its essence captured below in that old black and white photo.  We felt an abundance of riches with our gift Mama had scrimped and saved to give her girls.

Look at the joy on Cynthia's face. We received our dollies, matching high chairs and cribs canopied with pompoms!
Look at the delight on Cynthia’s face. We received our dollies, matching high chairs and cribs canopied with pompoms!

These were times when a holiday outing was savoring the manger scene at our church after Mass.  A complete farm was displayed with donkeys, sheep and cows frozen in an Italianate style behind baby Jesus’ cradle.  Straw stuck out from every corner as the magnificently beautiful Virgin Mary gazed down with such immense love at her chubby, new-born toddler, golden curls shining in the candlelight; the angel of the Lord above the crèche announcing to all His birth.  It was heavenly to us, full of wonder and captivating our complete attention until Mama said it was time to leave.  Mama didn’t know how to cook so there was no such thing as baking Christmas cookies or cakes.   No.  We used our imaginations that Mama had so carefully cultivated to wile away the hours.  Our dollies danced ballet to the Spanish carols.  We unwrapped and wrapped the presents we had made in school for our parents…really they were for Mama.  I still have the hand print I made for her in first grade hanging in my kitchen.  I remember fretting and being worried sick that it would break after some classmate spread the vicious rumor that many pieces of pottery explode when fired in a kiln and I would be left with nothing to offer.  And we had the big box that came every year from her family in Puerto Rico making certain we knew our Spanish customs.  Making certain Mama didn’t feel alone in this town of Yankees.  And making certain that until Daddy’s business had taken off we would all have a generous, plentiful Christmas.

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This is one of those great recipes that takes two minutes and you walk away.  I initially purchased dried figs from the bulk section of my Whole Food store.  Before I began snipping off the stems, I ate one of the figs and, boy, am I glad I did.  Hard and tough was what I spat out.  I purchased another pound from my neighborhood Publix.  They were packed in 9-ounce, air-tight plastic boxes and worked out great.  These figs had been dried yet were still soft and moist.  Most recipes call for the ever pricey Marcona almonds from Spain.  Once again, glad I tasted the batch I bought.  I paid way too much to bring home this stale and salty mess.  Again Publix came to the rescue with a 7-ounce plastic box.  They had their skins on but here’s how to get those skins off lickety-split.  Place the amount of almonds you will be using in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover completely.  20 minutes to 30 minutes later, squeeze one almond at a time and the skin will slip right off.  Takes two seconds.  Here’s the most important part of this recipe.  This cake is good as is but served with cheese, preferably Manchego cheese, it will transform your taste buds.  Somehow the Manchego brings out a deep floral flavor from the figs.  The cloves and cinnamon disappear yet their earthy tones let you know they’re doing their part.  Served with hard salami, thick, crisp Cuban crackers, some nuts and a bit of fruit your guests will be amazed.  The cake does taste richer if allowed  to sit 2-3 days before serving but it’s still pretty terrific served the same day it’s prepared.  I hope you enjoy this Christmas treat!

Spanish Fig and Almond Cake or Pan de Higo

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 pound dried black Mission figs
  • 1/2 cup skinless, whole almonds
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 4 tablespoons brandy
  1. Snip the tough stem off the figs and place the figs in a food processor, processing until almost smooth.  You want a little texture.
  2. Transfer the fig paste to a medium bowl and add the almonds, mixing well.
  3. Add the sesame seeds, cinnamon and cloves evenly over the fig mixture and mix well.
  4. Add the brandy and mix until all ingredients have been thoroughly combined.
  5. Line a small pan with plastic wrap.  I used a small, fluted cake pan that holds about 2 1/3 cups.  Transfer fig mixture to the lined pan and pat firmly and evenly in place.
  6. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.  The cake may be served right away but tastes better, more mellow, after resting up to a few days.
  7. This cake will keep well-covered and not refrigerated for weeks.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com

 

Brie, Thyme and Fresh Cranberry Stuffed Bread

I wasn’t planning on serving an appetizer Thanksgiving Day.  The family dinner was at our house this year.  Everyone was in town and coming late in the day.  I couldn’t wait to have all my people gathered together again.  The house was ready, the dining room table glittered.   I wasn’t going to have a starter course because there was going to be so much food… for crying out loud, it’s Thanksgiving!  But then I thought it would be more fun to have a little something to nibble on with champagne and drinks before dinner.  Not wanting to break the bank OR break my back I decided a holiday stuffed bread was in order.  And because my motto is “more is better” I made two.  My husband, Jimmy, looked at me as though I had two heads.  “I know, I know.  It’s a lot of food but if no one eats it, well, we just wrap them up and have them tomorrow.”  He knows not to argue when it comes to food, bless his heart.  Let me just cut to the chase.  When the two loaves had been plated and my nieces began to make their way through the house serving, you have never seen so many faces light up.  My family pounced on them as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks.  Grownups were licking their fingers.  My brother followed the girls with their trays around the house tearing off chunks of warm, cheesy bread and making happy boy sounds.  My son, James,

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was not happy when he saw me tucking fresh cranberries into the cheese but after his first bite was in complete agreement  that the berries were the perfect clean foil against the gooey, richness of the cheese, olive oil and garlic.  Both loaves were gone in minutes.  Minutes!  This recipe is extremely adaptable in that you can substitute the brie for Gruyère, cheddar, mozzarella or the gooey cheese of your choice.  You can tuck in gorgonzola crumbles or shredded parmesan.  Red pepper flakes are wonderful for a little heat.  Not a fan of cranberries?  Try blackberries or raspberries.  I used whole grain boules but white bread would be fine.  Good looking on a table or passed by hand, this starter is perfect for the holidays.  It can be assembled hours ahead, only make certain to wrap it tightly so the bread doesn’t get stale.  Make certain you have plenty of napkins and enjoy!

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Brie, Thyme and Fresh Cranberry Stuffed Bread

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 1-pound boule or round loaf of bread, 6″-7″ diameter works well
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste, a healthy pinch of each will do
  • 1/4 pound brie cheese, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup  shredded Italian 5 cheese, I believe I used Kraft but any brand is fine, store brand or whatever’s on sale
  • 1/2 cup or more fresh cranberries or berry of choice
  • thyme sprigs for garnish, optional
  1. Pre-heat oven to 375°.
  2. Making certain not to cut all the way through to the bottom, slice the bread in roughly half-inch slices.  Turn the bread 90° and make 1/2″ slices, again not cutting all the way through.  I find if I hold the bread firmly it keeps it from shredding or tearing too much.  Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl combine olive oil, garlic, thyme leaves, salt and pepper.  Set aside.
  4. Gently stuff the brie vertically in the bread slices.
  5. Pour half of the olive oil mixture as evenly as you can into the open bread spaces.  Set aside remaining oil.
  6. Toss the thyme leaves with the Italian cheese blend.
  7. Gently stuff the Italian cheese horizontally down into the bread.
  8. Pour the remaining olive oil mixture evenly on the bread.
  9. Tuck the fresh cranberries onto the top of the nooks and crannies of the stuffed bread.
  10. Spray a piece of tin foil with non-stick cooking spray and wrap the bread tightly with the foil.
  11. Place on a baking sheet and bake covered for 25-30 minutes.
  12. Carefully unwrap the bread and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
  13. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs and serve immediately.

http://www.theirreverentkitchen.com