Window Cookies

The job of a food photographer is make what’s in front of their lens look like you’d want to eat it, just as the job of a porn photographer is to make their subject look like you’d want to buy it a couple of martinis and rent a room in a cheap hotel.

Confections take well to the camera because confectionery itself is an art involving brilliant colors, textures and shapes, not to mention architecture, especially when it comes to cakes, which can be monumental. Candies are easy, too, but cookies can be tricky, with the exception of window cookies, which are a combination of architecture and cookie. Window cookies are sugar cookies with a transparent candy center. You’re going to find other types called the same thing, of course. In the Midwest, they have what are called cathedral cookies, which are made by with colored mini-marshmallows rolled chocolate cookie dough, sliced and baked. Then you have what are called thumbprint cookies, dimple cookies or jelly cookies, which are made by making a depression in the middle of raw cookies, filling it with fruit preserves and baking.

The most essential ingredient for proper window cookies is a translucent hard candy like Jolly Ranchers or Life Savers. Coarsely crush the candy, and use a basic cookie dough. I use cocoa for color, chopped nuts for texture, and if I’m really froggy, sliced almonds for “tiles/bricks”. (Yeah, it’s goofy, I know.) Bring ingredients to room temperature before mixing. Roll out dough to a half inch thickness, and take care not to overfill the centers with candy. You can also bake hollow cookies and fill them with chocolate or peppermint. Both versions are best a bit large, over three inches. Cook in a low oven, 300, for the while it takes to dry the dough and melt the candy. Cool thoroughly on a secondary surface.

Sauce Florentine

Make Florentine your own. I use a Mornay for a base, and aside from the essential spinach, mild peppers or whatever good onion that’s on hand. The sauce should be creamy and savory rather than pungent, always served hot. Florentine is wonderful on chicken and seafoods–Rockefeller is a variation–and this cream version works well with most light (non-oily) fish and shellfish. Not so much on oysters, however, which are better in the minimally lighter Bienville.

Use a sharp hard cheese and do NOT add parsley, which compromises the spinach. For two, oil and line a small gratin with peeled shrimp, whole or chopped, cover with sauce and and broil until bubbling.

Candy Cane Vodka

Petty and potent, this easily-made holiday kicker makes for a nice party present. Have fun putting it in gift containers and sprucing it up with ribbons and whatnot. For a fifth of vodka, use about a dozen full-size candy canes. You can crush the canes in their wrappers with the flat of a hammer if you’re careful, or if you have a mortar and pestle, unwrap them and use that. Me, I unwrap them, break them into a bowl, then crush them with a salt shaker. Of course you can use a food processor to grind them into dust. Some people keep the canes whole and just let them dissolve over time, but that takes at least a day. However you do it, once the sugar canes are dissolves, strain the vodka then pour it into whatever containers you’re using for a gift. You can use the round peppermints, too, if you can’t find the canes anywhere.

Winter Squash

My father was a lawyer in a rural county in Mississippi during the 50s and 60s, and while we never were rich, we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of farm-slaughtered meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and around Christmas Daddy would at times go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks.

In Septembers, when it was still hot and dry, Daddy would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which really wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them and talked. Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get some of these squash every year. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–and him–than anything anybody else would give me.

The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.

Kool-Aid Pie

Here’s a great last-minute dessert for family get-togethers that’s so easy even the kids can make it. The pie takes only a couple of hours in the freezer to set well enough for slicing. Mix one can sweetened condensed milk, one container Cool Whip or a similar whipped topping and one packet of Kool-Aid drink mix–your choice of flavors; that’s strawberry in the photo below–and spread in an 8-inch graham cracker pie crust. Freeze for at least two hours before slicing and serving. (Hint: peach mango is delish!)

 

Dressing Muffins

Most people consider creativity an essential element in cooking, but I think it should be discouraged in the home kitchen. Remember your audience. You’re cooking for people you know on intimate terms, and a big mistake (like putting sweet pickles in a cheesecake) will mean you’re going to have to hear about it for a very long time, and not in complimentary language. Culinary creativity is best left to those Food Network geniuses who when given turnips as a competitive ingredient are provided with Corsican prawns, Kobe beef and Kurdistani apples to shore up their efforts. Between you and me, I’d like to see what they’d do with a few skinny pork chops, a can of green beans and a jar of crunchy peanut butter. (Okay, I’ll throw in a loaf of bread, too).

But kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar, and this one is simple: Bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily, stored easily and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these days before, freeze, and heat when needed.

Use a cooking spray to oil the muffin tin. Spoon dressing batter into the cups and fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 25 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet.

Oyster Dressing

The Gulf oyster has had a disastrous decade. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010 killed up to 6 billion of the adult population. More recently the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway on the Mississippi River decimated the saltwater ecosystem of the Mississippi Sound, including what are still among the largest remaining oyster reefs in the world. Recovery is underway. A $5 million oyster restoration plan is in the works; the oysters will be seeded this winter in over 200 square miles of artificial reefs to grow undisturbed until 2021. And oyster farming shows huge promise

While the oyster numbers are way down, if you see a generic oyster in a supermarket or a raw bar, it’s probably still a Gulf oyster, which is a strain of Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, found on the Atlantic coast. Gulf oysters tend to be large, tender, and well-suited to cooking. Rockefeller sauce overwhelms a delicate Olympia, but the meaty Gulf oyster holds its own even in dressing.

Oyster dressing is a favorite of New Englanders that dates back to the 18th century when oysters were abundant along the eastern coast of North America. Oysters had been used in the British Isles with or without bread crumbs for stuffing for over 335 years. In Britain, oysters were added to stuffing that was more traditionally used in fowl, fish, calves head, leg of mutton, hares, and pigs, and this tradition was brought over with British colonists. Oysters were once so cheap and plentiful that many early American cooks stuffed their turkeys and chicken with oysters. As the oysters declined along the Eastern seaboard, so did oyster dressing, and now the dish is most often encountered along the Gulf.

As I’ve said elsewhere (I’m sure) dressings tend to have more wheat bread the closer you get to the Gulf Coast, and oyster dressing is no exception; most Louisiana recipes call for a stale French loaf of some kind. However, inland recipes and older recipes most often call for cornbread. While the one I’m giving you here is mine, it’s typical of the upland South in that cornbread is used and green pepper is not.

Oyster Dressing

Lightly butter a large baking pan and preheat oven to 350. Sauté two cups diced white onion and two cups diced celery in a half stick butter on low heat until tender. Cook a pint of oysters with liquid in a half stick butter until oysters are just done, the edges beginning to curl. You can add a bunch of chopped green onions to this if you like. Remove from heat, add a tablespoon dried thyme, a tablespoon dried basil and a tablespoon ground sage. Combine three cups crumbled dry cornbread and three cups crumbled dry bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add vegetables and butter along with three eggs well-beaten. Mix well, adding enough congealed chicken broth (if needed) to make a thick slurry. It should be quite moist. Add to pan and bake until golden brown and center is set, about forty-five minutes to an hour.

Stewed Greens

Greens have finally begun to crop up in the markets of the lower South, and it’s about damn time, too.  Stewed greens have long been a staple of the Southerner’s winter diet, and greens remind us that our cuisine, like any other, is rooted in need. After the turn of the century, greens were often the only sustenance here that stood between a steady diet of fatback, cornmeal and beans against pellagra.

For a good mess, buy three bunches of turnip and two of mustard. Once you get these home, take a knife and cut the bunches right above the gather. Some people cut the turnip roots and cook them with the greens, but I don’t. Strip the leaves from the stems and put them into a clean, stoppered sink. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, and then cover them with cold water. Agitate to knock off sand or other debris; the salt will dislodge pests. Drain the sink, and repeat the process until your greens are absolutely clean. Trust me when I tell you that there’s nothing worse than taking a bite of gritty greens or gagging on a stewed slug. (And this, my dear brothers and sisters, is the voice of experience you hear.)

After your mess is thoroughly clean, get a big pot, set it next to the sink, lift the greens out of the water and set them off into the pot while they’re dripping wet. Put the pot on the stove on a medium heat, and then add about two cups of water. Occasionally stir the greens, reducing heat as they cook. When they have settled down to liquid level, add a chopped white onion, a trimmed ham bone, smoked hock or turkey and a fresh slit hot pepper or two. Then reduce heat and let them stew until the “likker” is good and strong, at least two hours, then adjust your salt.  Fresh cornbread, raw onion and hot sauce are necessary appurtenances.

Fettucini Alfredo

In 1914, Ines, the wife of Alfredo di Lelio, who ran a restaurant on the Via della Scrofa in Rome, was suffering from almost incessant nausea during her pregnancy with her first child. One of the few foods she was able to keep down was a dish of plain pasta, pasta in bianco, or white pasta, Alfredo made fresh and tossed with butter and grated Parmesan. Alfredo eventually added it to the restaurant’s menu, where in 1920 it was tasted by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were visiting the city on their honeymoon. That day, the pasta happened to be fettuccini. They asked for the recipe, brought it home to the States, and sent a gift of a gold fork and spoon engraved with the words, “to Alfredo the King of the noodles” and their names.

Eating “Alfredo’s fettuccine” on trips to Rome became a destination for the Hollywood elite, and other tourists followed suit. Di Lilio sold the restaurant in 1943, but the new owner kept the restaurant’s name (Alfredo alla Scrofa), the menu, and the celebrity photos on the wall. In 1950, Alfredo and his son Armando opened another restaurant, Il Vero Alfredo, “the true Alfredo,” which is now managed by Alfredo’s grandchildren. Both restaurants claim to have originated the dish. Fettuccine alfredo, which in Italy is nothing more than buttered noodles with dry cheese, didn’t take off in Italy as it did in the United States, where it was popularized by another Alfredo’s opened by di Lilio and a partner near Rockefeller Center in New York City.

An American alfredo (with cream) is at best a simple reduction with a good hard grating cheese like Parmesan or Romano, prepared for individual servings to be eaten immediately. You can use almost any pasta, but you must use whole cream and freshly grated cheese (none of that stuff in the round green container, okay?) Cook the pasta beforehand, using about six to eight ounces of uncooked pasta per serving, making two cups or so cooked until just done, coated with vegetable oil and stored in a sealed container. When ready, heat your saucepan, add about three tablespoons butter (be generous), then working quickly, add a very generous handful of pasta, toss to coat with butter, then add about a half cup cream. Toss again while adding enough grated cheese to make a thick, creamy sauce. You shouldn’t need salt, just a little pepper. Serve at once.