It’s my birthday week and a time of year that I always look forward to.
Here in Maine, the light is slowly returning. But it’s still a contemplative time in the North . A time to consider the New Year and our resolutions to improve, but also a time to gather and to celebrate ourselves and our friends.
So my birthday, Jan 21, comes at a great time. The holidays are over and there is a bit of a let down. Valentine’s is still a couple weeks away. So why not open some champagne and throw a party?
This year, I plan to invite a half a dozen friends, bring out vintage champagne and bake this cake. It’s built like a carrot cake with cream cheese icing. II like coconut,toasted walnuts and raisins in mine:
Makes one 9 inch layer, I double it for a layer cake.
1 1/2 cup ap flour, sifted to measure
2 tsp. Baking powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp each ginger and cinnamon, ground
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl
1 stick unsalted butter
1cup light brown sugar
3 large brown eggs at room temp.
1/2 c yoghurt
1 TB real vanilla
2 cups grated parsnip. GRATE THEM SMALL, BY HAND
1/2 cup each h rain, conceit shreds and toasted walnuts
Cream the butter and sugar, adding in the eggs , yoghurt and vanilla slowly.
Combine with dry, ingredients folding in carefully . Add the parsnip,nuts, raisins and coconut last and mix in lightly but thoroughly .
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease 9 inch pan, with amply high sides as the batter is generous.
Bake for about 50 minutes or until done, I use a toothpick as a tester.
Let the cake cool partially before turning it out on a rack .
To cover 2 layers and in between:
Soften 2 1/2 # cream cheese and one stick of butter .
Cook a medium beet, covered and on low heat in a couple inches of water, saving some of the liquid. Cool.
Use a kitchen Aid mixer and whisk, drop in the softened cream cheese and butter. Add a tsp. of vanilla, a 1/4 tsp. of lemon zest ( small grate)and a cup of sifted powdered sugar.
Start the machine slowly until all ingredients for the icing are in corporatated. Then beat on high for 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy. Be sure the icing is thick enough to spread.
If you like pink as much as I do, add a bit of beet liquid to the icing to achieve the color you want. You may need to add some additional powdered sugar to correct the thickness .
Pffeffernusse or Pepper Nuts,a traditional European Christmas cookie
Thank you Aunt Marie!
Sift together the dry ingredients:
2 c. flour plus 2 tb flour
1/4 tsp.baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
1/4 tsp. Each nutmeg, clove and cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup each butter and sugar
Add one egg, beating until light.
Add: 1/4 c finely chopped almonds
1 TB each candied orange peel and candied *citron*
Add the flour to the creamed ingredients slowly and alternate with:
1/2 generous cup or Barbados molasses
1/2 cup brandy or Cognac
1 tsp lemon rind, grated
1 TB lemon juice
Combine and beat well, allow to sit covered overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Form the dough into one inch balls.
Bake on a greased cookie sheet for 12 minutes or until lightly browned.
While warm, roll in powdered sugar Keep tightly covered and the flavor will develop nicely!
* a note on candied citron: I tried preparing my own candied citron one year. It’s a lot of work and a lot of sugar…but worth it if you’re an avid baker. And it keeps!
A citron is a special small melon like fruit,called a Buddha’s Hand (most commonly) which you dice small and cook in a thick sugar syrup, then dry on a rack and add more sugar to coat. A candy thermometer is worthwhile for this endeavor.
Now that my father has passed, I have to dig a little deeper for fans of our family fruitcake, he and I loved it the best. I suppose it’s almost time to Kick the Fruitcake!
Every year I’d make him a couple of large ones for Christmas, heavy with rum and studded with all manner of fruits and nuts
I think this family tradition all started with my Great Aunt Marie, who was Austrian and a fantastic baker. She was a sister of my Grand dad’s on my father’s side and, boy, did they love good food!
Dad used to tell us stories of living as a boy in Europe. He loved the sour cherry pies, and farm fresh food, the big vegetable garden at the house where he grew up. This house was in a village near the edge of a forest in Austria. He loved to tell of the mornings he got lucky and was able to hop on the back rail of a horse drawn sleigh, bells jingling, to get him to school on time. He was perennially late and that never changed. But he was never later to dinner.
Both his Mother and Aunt were terrific cooks and bakers. Often Aunt Marie would bake well ahead for the holidays and bury her fruitcakes in powdered sugar until the proper day arrived. They do keep very well, being well imbibed with spirits and stay surprisingly moist for a long period of time. They were savored judiciously due to their richness. She also made a special pepper cookie called Pfeffernuise, literally “pepper nuts” which us kids loved to dunk when she made them for us a generation later. Hard as rocks, but full of flavor!
My Dad’s Mom,who loved to visit me in Maine, used to describe my 1970’s lifestyle as similar to the way they lived back then. She described Christmas in Austria with a deep dark forest, hooting owls in snowy fir trees, the sound of snow sliding of their peaked metal roof and chickens to feed. The prized Christmas goose for the table was her domain. Her job was to catch and kill it and prepare it for roasting. She made her own feather beds.
The picture I still have in my mind is chalet-like, one of extreme coziness: prosperity, honest work, a full larder and a beloved dog by a roaring fire.
My father kept the memories of these women and this life alive and passed them on to me, which is why I’ll make fruitcake anyway this season…for remembrance.
Mingle the bold colors and 1980’s vibe of the past with a eco-sensibilities and the concern for sustainability so prevalent with today’s couples and you’re on trend for this season and next. Maybe GREEN is the new and predominant color?
Here at Laura Cabot Catering, we enjoy allowing the season’s bounty to drive a menu. What ingredients are “of the moment”? What feels appropriate to the time, occasion and place? Are their elements of shared experiences or travel the wedding couple would like to employ? How can we infuse a menu with terroir, or a real feel of the land and or sea?
Certainly wine is known for terroir, but how about oysters, for instance. The waters which sustain them also give them unique mineralogy and flavor and here in Maine we are blessed with so many expert growers and sea farmers. I feel the same way about seaweed and use it judiciously in my cooking and presentation.
Along the same line, the carrots grown in my gardens taste much different that those from a different farm. Supporting our boutique farms is a passion of mine personally and I love to incorporate this into my wedding menus.
Speaking of trends, I have noticed discussions on the re-emergence of bows in wedding couture, but unless we’re discussing farfalle pasta I am not including them in the menu conversation. I do see a renewed uptick of interest in grazing tables. Super sized and elaborate charcuterie boards with antipasti elements are a specialty here at Laura Cabot Catering. Also, small plates are seeing a comeback and are such a fun way to taste many things as well as mingle without getting overly full.
For my ideas on a larger scale crowd pleasing menu that checks all the boxes, I’ll use an example of a wildly popular menu we presented at a Fall island wedding event this past season. It features a raw bar with Islesboro oysters and Gulf shrimp representing the two domiciles of this particular family I was serving . We also had charcuterie as a stationed appetizer.
Passed items were varied to include some seasonal aspects (butternut, late season spinach) as well as dietary concerns such as Veganism and an allergy to tree nuts.
We offered a plated salad course, which served to upscale “the feel” of more service with an eye to budget and coupled that with rustic breads and butter, always a good way to “break the ice” with dining table companions.
The buffet, which was a two sided affair to move the crowd gracefully, offered three entrees, a bespoke heritage herbed pork loin roast with Demi glace and morels, an “airline” chicken preparation, topped with Caponata (optional) and a vegetarian, gluten free and vegan Ratatouille (Parmesan on the side). Sides were a mixed rice pilaf, local parsley potato and a medley of seasonal farm vegetables. I find that creative and hearty side dishes are one way to satisfy many different diets and tastes and preferences. We’ve also deliberately moved to the use of very good oils for cooking and finishing our foods as another way to please our very discriminating clientele.
Although this next season marks our fortieth at Laura Cabot Catering, every season brings it’s lessons, trends, challenges and triumphs. And we love every bit of it and all the wonderful families we have yet to serve.
Hoppin’ John is classic low country cooking, having originated in South Carolina and probably with roots in African cuisine. I make mine with both thick country bacon and spicy Andouille sausage, but if you just wanted a nice vegetable forward dish, these could be omitted and the seasonings elevated.
Stories abound about how the name of this dish came to be. Some tales reference children “hopping happy” to see this meal coming their way, others speak to a crippled peddler who sold this food as a street vendor. One can only guess how Hoppin’ John became the lucky New Year’s Day meal of choice. Maybe it’s good for a hangover. This could be the year to find out!
HOPPIN’ JOHN / Serves 6 Generously
1/2 lb. thick bacon, cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces
1/2 lb. Andouille sausage
1 medium white onion, chopped fine
4 celery ribs, spiced medium
1 large green pepper, seeded and chopped
Chicken stock, if desired
1 bunch green onion, trimmed, chopped and set aside for garnish
1-1/2 uncooked long grain rice white or brown
Basil, thyme, cayenne, oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 cans (15 oz) of black eyed peas, rinsed and drained. It depends on the ratio you like, it’s a personal thing. You may also cook your beans from scratch if not pressed for time.
Cook bacon and sausage in a large cast iron skillet with a tight fitting lid, set aside, slice sausage when cool.
Combine and sauté all vegetables in the bacon grease, stirring in salt and seasonings. Stir in the rice to coat with the pan drippings and spices.
Cover with chicken stock to the first knuckle on your index finger (good Grandma tip…first knuckle for rice, second for beans)
Cover and cook until rice has absorbed all liquid and appears to be done. If you need to add a bit more stock, please do.
Then add in the rinsed beans, bacon and sausage, gently folding in.
Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes on a very low flame while preparing the side dishes or salad you’d like to have to accompany the rice and peas.
Top with lots of green onion and have the hot sauce handy!
Everyone is lucky since this is a highly nutritious one pot meal that’s also economical.
“Imagine there’s no hunger. It’s easy if you try.”
John Lennon wrote those words decades ago. It’s more relevant now than ever. The gap between those who have and those who have not has never been greater. Climate change is only making it worse, the feeling is urgent. These changing times are wreaking havoc in so many fragile communities and food systems all over the world.
I’m a believer in positive thinking and envisioning our blue planet as an ecosystem that can benefit from elevated intention and, of course, deliberate and focused action. Gratitude has a place in this. Being grateful not only helps those around you to feel love, it creates abundance. Creative thinking will find the solutions for hunger and replace it with the mindset of abundance and the systems needed to support this.
Love makes a difference and can guide our actions. Raising vibration sounds scarily hokey, but I think it works. This means taking the high road mentally and spiritually and it’s not always easy. It begins at home and with ourselves in the most mundane of ways. We can get snagged and stuck in all manner of negativity…until we see it for what it is…then, and only then, can we affect change.
Once we know we’re in a neutral place, rather than a loaded one, we’re free. Free to act responsibly, creatively and to serve others. Karma Yoga. Free to feel deeply, create deeply and connect deeply with others. Which ultimately serves us and our relationships pretty well. It’s then easy to see how interconnected we all are. That feeling of connection is something I believe we all seek. It is understanding, tolerance, happiness, contentment and satisfaction over fear, illness and separation.
If everyone could do this, we’d all be making better decisions in our microcosm and in our larger world, our macrocosm . We’d realize the action, the pathway, which is uniquely ours to effect goodness. Why not seek out a charitable organization that truly works for people in need rather than it’s administration and donate? There are exhaustive lists available on the better ones to choose. Shine a light on an issue near to your heart, be it the ocean or the air, hunger in Afghanistan, or in your community. Dance with children or create a reading circle for elders, learn about hospice….or even learn to meditate!
May your winter and New Year be filled with crystalline clarity, love and grace.
Remember, a moment of stillness can be very illuminating!
Here is a classic recipe my family always made at Christmas time for gift giving, the Toll House Cookie from Nestle, modified by me with more vanilla and chips.
I prefer to roast the walnuts ahead of time for additional depth of flavor. In fact, the batter may be doubled and saved in the fridge, then scooped and bake as desired. Makes 5 dozen melty chocolate chip cookies.
2 1/4 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 TSP. Baking Soda
1 CUP Softened Butter
3/4 C White Sugar
3/4 Light Brown Sugar
1 TB Real Vanilla
2 Large Eggs
3 Cups Chocolate Chips
1 1/2 Roasted Chopped Walnuts, optional
Preheat oven to 375°
Sift / Combine all Dry Ingredients
Beat sugars, softened butter and vanilla together until well creamed
Add eggs gradually.
When well combined, begin to add dry ingredients.
Finally stir in nuts and chips.
Drop desired size onto an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake about 10 minutes or until browned around edges.
Cool on wire racks, then package for holiday cheer!
Another pandemic Christmas is upon us. No traveling to speak of this year.So I’m finding my Food Safaris at home.
Not seeing many friends is beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! I, for one, am falling out of the habit of seeing people, friends that used to be part of almost daily life. It’s even starting to feel normal. While some folks are “getting back to life” despite the Delta and other new variants of the Covid virus, I’m feeling content and yes, even blessed, to be healthy, without want, and able to help others in my community. Gratitude that my town wasn’t hit by a tornado or under flood waters.
This is not a time to be complacent but to give of ourselves and our resources to make the world a better place, starting at home. To say thank you to the people who we may sometimes take for granted. To help love, feed and shelter hungry animals. To give a gift or a toy to a child that otherwise may do without. To enrich a global village with a gift of livestock.
So again this holiday season it is a Safari inward to ask ourselves a few questions, challenge our reactions, and to travel out of our comfort zones, which is the only home many have.
May Christmas Spirit speak to you wherever it is that you worship.