Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who says Christmas is over? Announcing a giveaway!

My front porch Christmas tree features this timely sign.
There was such a tremendous response from readers to the fall giveaway, CSN stores has offered to sponsor another one! With a new year come travel plans and you may be in the market for luggage or maybe shoes. If you're staying close to home, check out CSN's dinnerware and cookware shops.

To enter, just check out CSN stores.com and then leave a comment to this post with your email or a way to get in touch with you. I will choose a winner at random on Friday, January 7. The winner will receive a $50 gift code valid at any of CSN's online stores. Did I hear a woo-hoo out there?

The fine print: There may be international shipping charges in the case of Canadian addresses (CSN only ships to the US and Canada). Please be sure to leave your email address or a way for me to get in touch with you - I want everyone to have a chance at this fabulous prize!

This giveaway has ended. Thanks everyone for participating. The winner will be notified of their gift code. Look for more giveaways soon!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Not my mama's black eyed peas & greens

Black eyed peas with Indian spices. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Visit my mom’s house on New Year’s Day and you will be treated to simple, humble fare – a black-as-midnight cast iron skillet sizzling with buttermilk cornbread, a pot of black-eyed peas and a bowl of greens, usually collards. The peas and greens are usually cooked with pork, such as the leftover bone from the Thanksgiving ham. And if you’re lucky, there will be a jar of  chow-chow from a friend’s summer canning frenzy; the relish makes a fine garnish for the black-eyed peas.

It’s kind of endemic to the Southern experience that the Way Mom (or Grandma) Cooks is the best and only way to cook. My mother is an excellent cook and I’ve learned much in her kitchen. At my mother’s apron strings, I learned dishes such as country fried steak and chicken & dumplings. I learned to make layer cakes, pound cakes and cookies. My mom taught me how to put together a meal, cooking the meat and vegetables in order so that everything is ready at the same time. She taught me her way, but she also taught me something else: to try new things. This is the most valuable lesson of all. Even in my suburban Georgia neighborhood, I have an incredible amount of ingredients and technology available to me, plus a world of information at my fingertips. I can choose to cook from my own little world or I can bring the world into my kitchen.

Which is why on New Year’s Day 2011, you will find the traditional black eyed peas flavored with garam masala, turmeric and cumin at my table. This recipe is adapted from Gene Lee, who writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and blogs at Eat, Drink, Man: a Food Journal. Instead of cooking the peas entirely on the stovetop, I start them off in a Dutch oven and place it in the oven on convection for an hour or more, for the peas to slowly soak up the spicy goodness.

Oven-Braised Black Eyed Peas with Indian Spices

A note on the chilies: the original recipe specifies three to six chilies. In the summer, I take the chilies and peppers from the CSA box, roast them together, seed them and freeze in a container. Whenever I need peppers or chilies, I break off a portion and use in the recipe. When making this recipe, I used about 1/2 cup of chopped, frozen chilies. 

8 ounces dried black-eyed peas
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2 chilies, chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into ¼ inch dice
 1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon garam masala
2 cups water

1.      Pour peas onto a rimmed half sheet baking pan and pick out stones, debris and off-looking peas. Pour peas into a bowl and cover with water. Swish the peas, then pour off most of the water. Refill with water to cover peas by one inch and leave to soak for a few hours or overnight. Add water, if needed.
2.      When ready to cook, put a Dutch oven on the cooktop over medium heat and pour in oil. Add cumin seeds, garlic and ginger and stir for a minute. Add dry seasonings – salt, cayenne, turmeric and garam masala. Cook over medium heat for five minutes. If mixture is too dry, add a spoonful of water. Turn up the heat and add onions and chilies.
3.      Add peas and water and bring to a boil. Heat oven to 350. Place Dutch oven in real oven at 300 for at least one hour. Check liquid level occasionally. Peas should be done after an hour, but can continue to cook at low heat for several hours - be sure to check the liquid level and replenish with water as needed.

Beets and beet greens. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

  I’ve also tried a new method for cooking greens. I happen to think collards are great and consider the work involved – washing, trimming and chopping – a labor of love. But my family? Not so much. My  friend Susan’s recipe for Kale with Raisins and Pine Nuts has turned my husband and girls into greens eaters. Susan writes about produce on her blog, Thoughtful Consumption. Here is my adaptation of her recipe.

Kale and Beet Greens with raisins and pine nuts

There are many possible variations of this dish – any kind of green except for collards would work. (As much as I love collards, they’re just too tough for this quick treatment.). I used a bunch of kale plus some beet greens and it was terrific. Slivered almonds or roughly chopped walnuts could sub for the pine nuts.

2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup raisins
1 bunch of greens such as kale or beet greens, or a combination of greens, washed and trimmed into 2-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a skillet over medium heat, pour in olive oil. Add pine nuts and raisins, stirring and cooking until pine nuts are golden and raisins are plump and soft.
2. Add greens, stirring until softened, at least five minutes, or as much as 10. If they dry out, add a bit of water a spoonful at a time. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Greens with pine nuts and raisins. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm not saying that these two dishes should be served together, but either one would make a fine addition to a New Year's feast. Just be sure to add the cornbread, a dish so perfect that there's no point messing with it.

Cornbread. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I submitted this story for a Twitter party called Let's Lunch. Here are a few other stories on the theme Holiday Sides by some awesome writers. Be sure to check them out! (and if you'd like to be a part of Let's Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch!

Cheryl Tan's Auntie Jane's Potato Gratin at Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Charissa‘s Coconut Date Balls at Zest Bakery
Eleanor‘s Easy Festive Stir-Fry at Wok Star
Ellise‘s Lime-Chipotle Carrots at Cowgirl Chef
Felicia‘s Chinese Butterfly Cookies at Burnt-Out Baker
Grace‘s Fruitcake at HapaMama
Joe‘s Maine Homestead Holiday Dishes at Joe Yonan
Linda‘s Baked Salad at Free Range Cookies
Linda‘s Trinidadian Baked Pastelles at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Potato Latkes at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Lucy‘s “Not My Mama’s” Black-Eyed Peas & Greens at A Cook And Her Books
Maria‘s Grandma Dorothy’s Deviled Eggs at Maria’s Good Things
Patrick‘s Baby Pecan Pies at Patrick G. Lee
Rebecca‘s Grandmother Martha’s Potato Kugel at Grongar Blog
Steff‘s Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Crumble at The Kitchen Trials
Victor‘s Roasted Parsnips, Carrots & Delicata Squash Tossed With Sauteed Mustard Greens at The Taste of Oregon

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Crispy, sweet date candies

Crispy date balls. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Anyone else remember these sweet treats from their childhood? I'm revisiting the Christmas treats of my youth this year, making orange-pecan-coconut balls, and this no-bake treat. It's a smooth date filling combined with crunchy Rice Krispies and rolled in confectioner's sugar. There's a lot of variations out there, but I'm a purist, sticking to the recipe on the back of the Amport Dates package. Be sure to buy two packages for this recipe.

Date Balls 

2 (8 oz.) packages pitted dates (Amport brand)

1 stick unsalted butter (1/2 cup)

1 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups Rice Krispies

Confectioner's sugar or coconut for rolling

1. In a saucepan, mix together butter, water, dates and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat until dates disintegrate and form a paste.

2. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 2 cups Rice Krispies. Let mixture cool until it can be comfortably rolled into balls. I used a 1-inch scoop and rolled the balls in confectioner's sugar or coconut. Store in an airtight container.

Look for more ideas for gifts from the kitchen like orange pecan coconut balls , roasted almonds and my never-the-same-way-twice snack mix on A Cook and Her Books. Looking for Christmas cookies? Try Scottish Shortbread and Macadamia Tassies.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas cut-out cookies

This is the Christmas cookie of my childhood. Somewhere in my mom's kitchen is a mimeographed (if you don't what this is, ask a teacher nearing retirement-on-years) copy of this recipe. It was given to her at a Tupperware party sometime in the 70s and has been baked by either her or me every year since. These cookies have a distinctive aroma and taste that I assume comes from the cream of tartar, an unusual ingredient for cookies, but readily available in most supermarkets. These cookies are buttery and sweet, and the dough, while a bit stiff when cold, rolls and cuts beautifully, without a lot of spread in the oven.

You have to sacrifice your kitchen when you decorate these cookies, but to minimize the damage, be organized before inviting the kids in the room. Wax paper on the counters (cheaper than parchment), lots of bowls of icing and shakers of sprinkles. Let the cookies dry for about an hour before putting them in containers and be sure to layer with wax paper.

Christmas Cut-Out Cookies

3 cups confectioner's sugar

2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

5 cups flour

2 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1. In a mixer, cream sugar and butter, add eggs and flavorings. Mix in dry ingredients until dough forms. Pack in an airtight container and refrigerate two hours or overnight. I use a rectangular container and "slice" dough when I'm ready to bake.

2. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375. Cut off a 2-cup portion of dough and roll out on floured countertop. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and place on cookie sheets lined with either a Silpat or parchment paper. Bake each sheet of cookies at 375 for 7 minutes. They will be just brown and delicious. Let cool on wire racks until ready to decorate.

Tips for Success

1. Remember to dip cookie cutters in flour to prevent dough from sticking.

2. Re-roll scraps with scraps, not fresh dough.

3. To quickly cool a baking sheet in order to fill it up with the next batch, remove liner and run pan under cold water. Dry, replace liner, and place cookies on it.


This is one of those times when you don't really need a recipe: Get a bowl, carefully pour a pound of confectioner's sugar in it. Using a whisk, stir in milk a tablespoon or two at a time until mixture reaches the desired spreadability. I use food coloring to tint small bowls of the icing. Gels will give purer, more intense color. Use a toothpick to swirl little globs of the coloring gel (look for Wilton brand) into the bowls of icing. 

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Bake a pound cake for friends, family & teachers

Cream cheese pound cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 True confession: I was the kind of kid who went off to college and baked. That's right, the only graduate of the University of Georgia who spent her Friday and Saturday nights creaming butter and sugar together and preheating the oven. I'm still not too sure why I didn't channel this enthusiasm for the never-ending possibilities of the butter-sugar-flour matrix into a food-related career, but the truth is, I spent my extra hours at college baking cakes. I tried all manner of pound cakes and baked them in loaves so that I could distribute them to friends and co-workers. I tried lemon-glazed pound cakes, sour cream pound cakes, and eventually found this recipe for a cream cheese pound cake that has been my best baking friend for two decades. It makes a lovely Bundt cake, but really shines as a loaf cake, with the typical San Andreas Fault line running through the middle. The crust is crispy and shattery, the interior is buttery and tender. 

This recipe will yield two loaves or one Bundt cake. I've made four batches of this cake in the past week, to distribute to teachers, friends and family at Christmas.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake

3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened

3 cups granulated sugar

6 eggs

1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese (neufchatel acceptable), room temperature and divided into three equal pieces

pinch salt

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. Use baking spray to coat inside of Bundt pan or tube pan or 2 loaf pans.

2. In mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for several minutes. When fully incorporated and no longer grainy, add eggs and cream cheese alternately. This means two eggs, fully mixed in, piece of cream cheese, fully mixed in, followed by eggs and cream cheese two more times. When batter is creamy and smooth, add, on low speed, flour and pinch salt. Stir in vanilla extract.

3. Pour batter into prepared pans and smooth the top with a spatula. Cake bakes in 325 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.The cake is ready when a narrow bamboo skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cake cool on rack for at least an hour before giving in to the luscious vanilla and butter smell and slicing generous portions for your starving family.

Look for more ideas for gifts from the kitchen like orange pecan coconut balls , roasted almonds and my never-the-same-way-twice snack mix on A Cook and Her Books. Looking for Christmas cookies? Try Scottish Shortbread and Macadamia Tassies.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

An old-fashioned favorite: Orange-Pecan-Coconut Candies

Orange pecan coconut balls. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Here's another goody from last week's kitchen marathon. I wrapped these up to give to friends and family and tuck into the teachers' goody bags, too. This is an oldie-but-goody that I remember from my childhood Christmases - vanilla wafers and pecans pulverized in the food processor and combined with orange juice concentrate and butter and confectioner's sugar. The mixture is shaped into balls and rolled in coconut, or crushed pecans. I boosted the citrus flavor with a bit of orange extract from the spice shelf. Did I mention that no baking is required? Call the kids and let them help in the kitchen. Give these treats a try - I'm sure they'll become a family favorite in your house, too.

Orange-Pecan-Coconut Candies

1 (12 oz.) package vanilla wafers

1 cup pecan pieces

1 cup confectioner's sugar (10 X)

1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed

1/4 teaspoon orange extract

2 cups flaked coconut

1. In food processor, add vanilla wafers, pecans and sugar to food processor bowl and blitz into fine crumbs. Add room temperature butter and pulse until combined. Add orange juice concentrate and orange extract (if using) and pulse until combined. Scoop mixture into 1-inch balls and roll in coconut. Store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to one week.

For more teacher gifts from the kitchen, see here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The teacher's gift

I ran into a friend this week, another mommy getting ready for Christmas, and I asked her how her week was going. "Oh, it's going great. I guess I'm all ready for Christmas!" she replied.

Knowing that Friday was the last day of school before the holidays, I asked about teacher gifts, not to make her panic, but because I'm always looking for ideas. She panicked. Her pretty blue eyes opened wide and she said, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe I forgot! I've got to get teacher gifts!" We talked through a few options, from candles and hand lotion to gift cards and baked goods. I've done them all, to recognize the hard work of my daughters' teachers.

This year, I baked. The teachers' bags were loaded with an assortment from my table of baked goodies: sweet stuff like pound cakes, espresso chocolate chip cookies, chocolate dipped marshmallows and mint Oreos, peppermint white chocolate bark, and shortbread. All that sugar requires a balancing element. I like to add something salty to the assortment, so I make a double batch of my special snack mix and add a bag to each package.

This is one version of the snack mix. It's different each time I make it because snack crackers seem to come and go. The backbone of the mix is oyster crackers, embellished with a pretzel type like Hanover's Buttery Waffles - these are the best. A cheesy cracker works well, and a sesame one, if you can find it.  Peanuts, mixed nuts, cashews, are all excellent choices to round out the mix.

Snack Mix

1  (10 oz.) package oyster crackers

1 (9 oz.) package Snyder's of Hanover Butter Snaps Pretzels

1 (12 oz.) package cheese crackers or sticks

1 (12 oz.) can mixed nuts

1 (1 oz.) envelope Hidden Valley Ranch Original Ranch Salad Dressing

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Heat oven to 300. In a large, shallow pan, mix together all snack ingredients. Stir together the salad dressing and oil and pour over the snacks. Evenly distribute the seasoning throughout the mixture. Bake in oven, stirring frequently, for about a half hour. This is absolutely irrestisible warm from the oven. You can store it at room temp in sealed containers, but it won't last long. Actually, the untouched mix could probably last for a week or more, but my point is, it won't be around your house for very long if the munch monsters know where to find it.

Do you make teacher's gifts? What were your favorites to give or, if you're a teacher, to receive? I'd love to know.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

God bless Robert Shaw

I truly love Christmas and Christmas songs, both sacred and secular. Some of my dearest childhood memories are of turning out the lamps in the living room, plugging in the lights on the Christmas tree, and singing along with Mitch Miller or Robert Shaw, the discs spinning on my parents' stereo. Mitch, with his goatee and Santa hat, was quite handy to have around because the album sleeve came with copies of the lyrics - knowing that the day would come when I would need to know all of the words to "Must be Santa," I diligently studied the words.

Here in Atlanta, the go-to radio station for Christmas music was the old Peach 94.9. Their highest ratings were from Thanksgiving to Christmas, when they played a divine and diverse selection of sacred and silly songs. From der Bingle's "White Christmas" to an enchanting version of "Toy Trains" by Nana Mouskouri, to the Centurymen's "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," the selections were soothing and inspiring and responsible for neverending wells of Christmas cheer. The ratings boost didn't help the station, however, the station is now "The Bull," dispensing country music 24/7.

If I had to pick one song that just makes my holiday, it would have to be "Betelehemu," a Nigerian choral work arranged by Wendell Whalum, long-time director of the Morehouse Glee Club. (Morehouse is the historically black college in Atlanta, whose famous alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee). You may be familiar with the Morehouse Glee Club - they perform throughout the country. (If perhaps you're not, then you're in for a treat.)

I first heard "Betelehemu" at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' annual Christmas concert, the signature work and Christmas gift from the legendary Robert Shaw. That was a stage filled with as much musical talent as you'll ever find - the ASO, the chorus, the Morehouse men, and Robert Shaw, looking for all the world like a conductor should. Barrel-chested, dashing in his white tie and tails, turning toward the audience after the traditional opener, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," his face flushed from the lights and energy, shock of white hair falling over his brow, and quoting from the Gospels. The son of a preacher, with a preacher's stentorian tones, Shaw had his own pulpit and ministry, the pursuit of perfection in choral singing. The Atlanta Symphony chorus and the Morehouse men exemplified Shaw's ideals.

Midway through the Christmas program, the musicians and singers looked to stage left with expectation as the Morehouse Glee Club delivered its rendition of "Betelehemu." It starts out with traditional African percussion and near the end, a solo. Watching people experience Betelehemu for the first time is fascinating. Here you are in Symphony Hall, soaking up the sacred, expected songs from the Anglo-American catalog - First Noel's  and Fum Fum Fum and some a-wassailing and then the Morehouse men start up with drums and singing words in an unfamiliar language. It doesn't matter that I don't know the Nigerian language, I understand this song.
    "We are glad that we have a Father to trust.
    We are glad that we have a Father to rely upon
    Where was Jesus born?
    Where was He born?
    Bethlehem, the city of wonder.
    That is where the Father was born for sure.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Him.
    We thank thee, we thank Thee, we thank Thee for this day,
    Gracious Father.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Thee,
    Merciful Father."

( "Betelehemu"  (Olatunji, Via) - arr. Wendall Whalum)

It's not too difficult to put into words what I like about this song. It's joy. From-the-tips-of-my-toes to the top of my head joy. Hearing "Betelehemu" seals my faith - the worldwide community of believers, past and present, who know the saving power of the love of God. The longing for a Savior and the thankfulness for answered prayers. It's significant that it's a choral work, performed by a group, not individuals, who have to work together to sing it right. It's not about the diva who can knock your socks off when she hits the high note.
I hope you like this clip on Youtube - it's the Morehouse Glee Club performing "Betelehemu" at 1991's Kennedy Center Honors for Robert Shaw. It's nice to see Shaw's reaction to the performance. (Mr. Shaw died in January 1999, but the ASO Christmas program that he created is an Atlanta tradition, still performed each Christmas season.)

Please tell me your favorite Christmas songs, sacred or silly, I'd love to know. And may God bless you with inspiring music this Christmas.

A longer version of this story appears on my Open Salon blog.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chronicle Books giveaway: Too bad, so sad

My little ol' blog isn't the big winner in the Chronicle Books giveaway. The winning blog is Cakespy. This was a fun promotion and I hope to do more of these in the future. Thanks to everyone who entered and look for more giveaways soon.

Chronicle is offering a sweet deal for Christmas orders through December 16 - 35% off + free shipping. Just enter promo code HAULIDAYS at chroniclebooks.com.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A grapefruit drink from Chef David Tanis

Grapefruit. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I’ve come to believe that home food is best, but it’s not often an opinion that you will hear expressed by a world-class chef, in this case David Tanis, chef of Chez Panisse.

Tanis is living a foodie dream – working six months of the year at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and living and cooking and writing in Paris the remainder of the year. That's France, friends, not Texas. Tanis' first cookbook, “A Platter of Figs” was a selection of the Gourmet Cookbook Club and focused on entertaining at home. In his newest cookbook, “Heart of the Artichoke and Other Culinary Journeys,” Tanis writes about cooking for small gatherings at home. The menus are for small groups of  2 or 3 people, medium-size groups of 3 to 6, and seasonal feasts for large crowds.

One of the most charming aspects of “Heart of the Artichoke” is the first section, “Kitchen Rituals,” short essays about food in his everyday life – chopped jalapenos in pancakes, a foodie travel kit with chilies and a tube of harissa, easy apricot jam, a quintessentially French sandwich – baguette, butter, ham. His essay on eating oatmeal will make every mother of a quirky eater smile. 

Chef Tanis talked about his new book and his culinary life over lunch this week at Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House. Chef Linton Hopkins prepared the meal with recipes from the book – a crab-stuffed deviled egg to start, followed by a terrine of pork and duck liver, vegetables a la Grecque, a flat-roasted chicken with lemon and rosemary, cabbage with potatoes, Sea Island red peas cooked with bacon,. And for dessert, molasses pecan squares. 

photo of David Tanis by Joe Vaughn
David Tanis is a low-key guy with gray, wavy hair and cream-colored glasses who looks very much like the artist he says he intended to be. He didn't learn to cook at home. Growing up in Ohio, he was only allowed to set the table each night. He learned to cook in college and taught himself to bake. Eventually, he found his way to Berkeley and Chez Panisse. After working as a dishwasher and baker, he rose through the ranks to chef. At first, he and fellow Chez Panisse chef Jean-Pierre Moulle split the work week. When Tanis decided to take a Paris apartment, Alice Waters offered to let he and Moulle split the year, a genius moment in job-sharing. (Moulle spends his half-year in France, aussi).

Unlike many in the restaurant trade, Tanis cooks at home every night after work, eating pasta at midnight. “Eating at home cements the culture,” he said. He laments that children who know only restaurants are missing out, both in the preparation of food and conversation at the family dinner table.
The recipes in “Heart of the Artichoke” cover the culinary globe, but the American and European influences are prevalent. “I’m a cultural chameleon,” Tanis said, “Everywhere I travel to becomes something else in my culinary bag of tricks.” When traveling, Tanis doesn't visit many restaurants, instead, he books accommodations with a small kitchen and seeks out local markets. 

Tanis claims no direct Southern connection to his cooking. “Any Southern influence comes from Southerners I’ve known or Southerners I’ve imagined,” he said. With ingredients like pecans and pork and field peas in his book, I think he's a Southerner at heart.

I especially like his use of grapefruit in the winter menu. Go into any local market this time of year and you will find the fruit, mellow yellow on the outside, ruby red on the inside. The taste is tart and refreshing, a counterpoint to heavy and creamy winter meals. Tanis employs grapefruit juice in his winter feast titled “Auspicious and Delicious” - a menu that includes black-eyed peas and ham, those crab-stuffed deviled eggs, bread and butter pickles, a relish plate and corn sticks. 

Champagne Mimosa. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Hair of the Dog, Salty Dog, and Other Grapefruit Drinks

There you are in the middle of winter, in a cold, harsh season, and a little sunshine is only too welcome. Citrus is the true gift of winter and there’s something wonderful about freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, mixed with Champagne for a Grapefruit Mimosa, or mixed with vodka for a Salty Dog.

Count on 1 grapefruit per serving; 1 large grapefruit will yield about a cup of juice. There is a world of difference between fresh juice and flash-pasteurized store-bought juice. This is a drink that’s all about the freshness, and no, you can’t squeeze the fruit the day before. And if your New Year’s resolution is a month without alcohol, enjoy a delicious glass of fresh grapefruit juice. You’ll feel virtuous and satisfied.

The proportions for a Grapefruit Mimosa are 1/3 grapefruit juice to 2/3 Champagne. Pour the juice into a Champagne glass, then slowly add the Champagne.

To make a Salty Dog, pour 5 ounces grapefruit juice and 1and 1/2 ounces vodka, both well chilled, into a glass with a salted rim. Without the salt, the drink is called a Greyhound. To make a Pamplemousse, add the same amount of Pernod to the juice instead of vodka and don't salt the rim.

(Excerpted from HEART OF THE ARTICHOKE by DAVID TANIS (Artisan Books)
Copyright 2010.)

I will add that while you’re serving grapefruit mimosas to your grown-up friends, pour grapefruit juice with lemon-lime soda for the children, they will love it.

Corn madeleines. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

To accompany: In what I consider a forehead-slapping, bloody brilliant idea, Chef Tanis suggests baking corn stick batter in a Madeleine pan. I just happened to have Madeleine tins and made these beautiful little cakes. And I have to call them cakes because they have sugar in them – true Southerners do not put sugar in their cornbread. They will sugar everything else, including the greens beans (a practice I find unpalatable), but never cornbread.

Corn madeleines and grapefruit mimosa. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Just a note on the china in the pictures: this is my wedding china, Orleans Blue by Lenox, and crystal, Classic Laurel, also by Lenox. My 20th wedding anniversary is this month, so I’ve had this china for two decades. It’s true what I was told – I really don’t use it very often. But it makes my heart happy to pull out the bone china and the gold-rimmed crystal for company and special occasions, such as an Auspicious and Delicious holiday feast for family.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer, with the exception of the recipe, excerpted with permission from Artisan Books. The jacket cover and author photo by Joe Vaughan were also provided by Artisan Books.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sweet potato gingerbread with cream cheese frosting

If you're like me, you may have some extra sweet potatoes lurking in the vegetable drawer. They didn't make it into the Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole or maybe you regularly bake sweet potatoes and have some leftover baked sweet potato on hand. This cake is a great way to use them up. Just like banana bread takes care of surplus bananas, yielding a tender, spicy cake, this gingerbread uses sweet potato mash to add moisture and flavor to a tasty autumn treat. This makes a nice afterschool snack with a glass of milk or a mug of hot tea.

Sweet Potato Gingerbread with Cream Cheese Frosting

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato, at room temperature

1 tablespoon Grandma's molasses (or equivalent mild molasses, don't use blackstrap)

1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 350. Place rack in center of oven. Lightly grease a 9-inch square baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, oil, and eggs and using a mixer, whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add sweet potato, molasses, grated ginger, salt, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Add the flour and baking powder and soda to the batter and combine just until blended.

3. Pour batter into pan, using a spatula to evenly spread the batter. Bake until about 45 minutes (I use convection and it was spot on, 45 minutes.) A toothpick inserted in the center will come out quite nearly clean.

4. Let cake cool while you make:

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 (8 oz.) package1/3 less fat cream cheese
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups confectioner's sugar (10X)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a mixer, combine the butter and cream cheese and whip until smooth. Gradually, on low speed, add the powdered sugar until the frosting reaches the desired consistency. I like this frosting soft and melty.

2. Spread the frosting on the cool cake. Can sit out for a few hours, but put leftovers in the fridge. Subsequent servings from the fridge can be zapped for 10 seconds or so to remove the refrigerator chill.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Favorite Southern Christmas cookies

“Oh Buddy, I think it’s fruitcake weather,” goes the opening line to one of the best short stories ever written (and certainly a sentimental Southern favorite), “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Capote based the story on his own memories with his elderly cousin Sook, his eccentric best friend, who baked fruitcakes each Christmas and sent them to acquaintances and people they admired, including Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House.

These days, the idea of fruitcake is as stale a joke as some of the cakes that remain on the bottom shelf of the Frigidaire from last Christmas. The main appeal of fruitcake for me is the candied cherries, the red and green chewy bits of sugary former fruit. Although a candied cherry is as similar to a real cherry as plastic-encased American cheese is to aged Manchego, they still hold a visual and sentimental appeal.

Fruitcake is not a tradition in my home, although my mom makes stellar "fruitcake cookies." (That recipe is hers and I hope to share it soon). I buy the candied cherries, however, to top Mom’s sandy, crispy, buttery shortbread. Shortbread is the easiest, most elemental cookie – butter, confectioner’s sugar, flour, salt and vanilla. When I wake up in early December and say “it’s cookie baking time,” I always start with a tray of shortbread. Like Sook and Buddy's fruitcake, it’s a tradition, and it’s simple – I already have butter, sugar and flour out and the oven’s pre-heating.

Scottish Shortbread

1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened

½ cup powder sugar (10X)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Candied cherries or pecan halves for garnish, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 325. In a mixer, cream butter and sugar, then add flour gradually. Add salt and vanilla.

2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, gently roll out the dough to 1/4 –inch thick, in a rough rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut into 1-inch square pieces. Press cherry or pecan halves onto each square.

3. Bake at 325 for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool. The cuts will have melded back together, but quick work with a sharp knife will take care of that. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

There are traditions to keep and traditions to make your own, like pecan tassies. This is a Southern sweet - tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup of pecan pie filling, a tasty two-biter, rich and sweet. I make tassies each December with Georgia pecans, and they occupy a coveted corner on my cookie plates, but this year, I decided to part with tradition and use macadamias. You know the part of “Christmas Memory” where the fruitcakes are done and Sook gives Buddy and Queenie (the dog) some of Mr. Haha Jones’ whiskey and they dance in the kitchen and feel the Christmas spirit? Well, if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s to take the recipe as a suggestion, drink the whiskey and dance in the kitchen.

Macadamia-Rum Tassies

If you can’t get past the idea of messing with traditional Pecan Tassies, just sub pecans for the macadamias and vanilla for the rum (and tell your friends the recipe came from your cousin Sook.)


1 3-oz package cream cheese

½ cup unsalted butter

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour


1 egg

¾ cup packed dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon rum

2/3 cup chopped macadamia nuts

1. Combine cream cheese, butter and flour in mixing bowl. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for one hour. After one hour, remove from refrigerator and shape into 22 balls. As much as I want this recipe to make 24, I’ve never managed to get the dough to stretch that far. Press each ball into a cup of a mini-muffin pan.

2. Preheat oven to 325. For filling, beat egg with brown sugar, add melted butter, rum and macadamias. Pour into shells, just a spoonful in each because they puff when they bake. Bake at 325 for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Store in a covered container at room temperature.

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.
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Did someone say free books? A giveaway

When I was a young girl in tri-colored Keds, living in small-town South Carolina, Christmas meant the Sears Wishbook and hours upon hours spent poring over the pages and writing lists of what Santa could bring me.

I'm going back to those list-making days with Chronicle Books' Happy Haul-idays promotion. Chronicle Books is one of my favorite publishers going back to Beth Hensperger's first Bread Book. (I love that book - my 20 year old copy is now stained and the binding is kind of iffy, but those are signs of love in my kitchen.) Chronicle continues to publish first-rate cookbooks, especially in the baking genre, including this season's must-have book - Flour by Joanne Chang.

For this contest, I created a list of $500 worth of Chronicle titles. If you leave a comment on this article, and A Cook and Her Books is the winner, one commenter on this post will receive the same list. How cool is that?

1. Flour by Joanne Chang, $35.

2. Cake Pops by Bakerella. $19.95. So cute!

3. I love Macarons. $14.95. And who doesn't? It's time to get addicted.

4. Whoopie Pies. $16.95.

5. Tartine Bread $40.00

6. Southern Pies by Nancie McDermott, $22.95

7. Cupcake Kit $19.95

8. Michael Chiarella's Bottega $40.00

9. Tea & crumpets $19.95

10. Fairy Parties $19.95 Because I'm the mom to girls.

11. Fast Fresh Green by Susie Middleton, $24.95.

12. Luscious coconut desserts by Lori Longbotham $19.95.

13. Lobel's Meat Bible $40.

14. Noodles Every Day $19.95

15. The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger, $19.95

16. The Pleasure of Whole Grain Breads by Hensperger, $24.95

17. By my count, that's approximately $380 in Chronicle books. I say let's make up the difference with Moleskine notebooks, (the notebooks of Hemingway, Picasso and Chatwin) so if they could toss in a few Ruled Notebook 3 packs plus some large reporter's notebooks, that would bump it up to $500.

What a haul!

Read more about Chronicle Books' Haul-idays promotion here and Chronicle's titles here.

Just comment on this post by Dec. 10 to have a chance to win the list of books (& cross your fingers that A Cook and Her Books wins!).

Commenting for this giveaway is now closed. The winner of the Chronicle contest will be announced Monday, December 13. Thanks so much for the response to this giveaway & look for another giveaway very soon!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hurry up with the tree already, it's time to bake!

I fly through the holiday decorating, just so that I can get in my kitchen and turn out cookies and cakes and candies and pies to give as Christmas gifts. If you're of the same mind, you may want to check out some recipes that are already posted. I'm writing just as fast as I'm baking so expect more cookie recipes very soon!
  • The best cookies in all the world: ginger cookies with strawberry jam.
  • 100 cookies, reminds me of a Ranger cookie - sandy and crispy.
  • Classic pound cake.
  • Roasted almonds, for a savory and sweet snack fix.
  • Gingery pineapple scones - bring these to the office for a holiday brunch.
  • Fudgy brownies- rich chocolate goodness to get you through holiday stresses.
  • Buttermilk chess pie - need an easy dish for the holiday potluck? Just pick up a pie crust at the store (it's ok, I will never tell) and a carton of buttermilk and make the perfect old-fashioned pie.
  • And if you have time, make up a batch of my blue ribbon Morning Glory Muffins for a glorious Christmas breakfast - they freeze beautifully!