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Foodish Gifts

It’s almost time — I’m nearing the home stretch, and I’m ready. Just two more days of work (and hard work it is, darn it!) until the weekend, and then the holiday, and a few precious days off. I can hardly wait.

There is still baking to be done, of course — a tin of low-fat treats, babka, vegan cookies and maybe some other little things — but what I’ve done so far I’m pretty well pleased about: loaves of lemon tea cake, packed and sent off; chocolate butter cookies, which turned out much better than I thought they would; my favorite holiday dessert of an upside-down cranberry cake; a few other little tidbits along the way.

[Cake, before the oven.]

I love to give handmade gifts for Christmas — for years I made up bags of fun treats for my local friends and passed them around at every opportunity.

[Cranberries, for syrup, December 2007.]

One year I made limoncello, grating more lemons than I really care to remember and then cramming the zest and sugar into a big bottle of vodka. After it marinated for about a month, turning syrupy sweet and very lemony, I divided it up into small bottles (saving some for myself, of course) and made little illustrated labels for each one (when did we finally finish it up, do you remember?). I think that year I also made poppy-seed bread — a “family recipe” from my mom — and dried bean soup mix in jars, and some other stuff I can’t remember. But it was fun to do, and I think everyone liked what they got.

[Lemon sea salt, December 2007.]

This year I didn’t go quite as overboard, though I did manage to make a few things I’d never tried before, including a citrus sea salt perfect for finishing off a salmon dish, or a pan of roasted potatoes. I invested in the zester that would have made that limoncello-making process so much easier back in the day, and scraped the skins off a few organic lemons I then mashed together with a pile of sea salt. I baked the lemon-salt mixture in the oven on 200 F for about 15 minutes and poured the results into pretty jars I’ll be wrapping up for next-week gifts.

[Chocolate butter cookies, December 2007.]

The holidays crept up on me in a rush this year — the past few weeks I’ve felt like a dog who’s swimming (you know how they sort of tread water, and don’t go too fast?) in a river, paddling furiously to get to the other side, but it’s taking a long time and where is that awesome stick?? Usually I more leisurely bake cookies and sweet breads, taking my time to savor and enjoy the process. Alas, the past month has passed in a blur of deadlines and stacks of work, and here it is mere days until Christmas and I haven’t had much of a chance to catch my breath. So next year, I hope, I’ll make more time to take my time.

That’s the plan, anyway.

But, I shouldn’t complain too much, because last night my brother whisked me across the bridge to Berkeley (why do I never go there? I should, more) for dinner at Chez Panisse. It was a surprise, and I have to say I gave a very girly shout — and possibly clapped my hands together — in the truck when I realized where we were going. We ate at the ‘cafe,’ which really is a full restaurant, and we had: delicious fresh sourdough bread with butter; beet soup with creme fraiche; chicory salad with blue cheese and walnuts; green garlic ricotta pudding souffle with cauliflower (me); roasted lamb with chickpeas and fennel (him); coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce and chocolate cookies. I will have to elaborate on this further, but had to make note of it today.

I’m spoilt. He’s fantastic.

Tonight I have a hot date with a vaselopita recipe (details to come Jan. 2 if all goes well) and gift-wrap. I’ve mailed five packages and most of my cards; there’s a few more to go, and then, perhaps, I’ll have a bit of a breather.

How’re your holiday treats coming along?

[Lemon bread, crookedly.]

Lemon tea cake, adapted from gourmet.com

I’ve been making this tea bread for a few years now, because the first time I sent a loaf each to my grandmother and my uncle I got such rave reviews I just couldn’t make it a one-time thing. This has become the traditional sweet I send to them every year at the holidays.

2 large lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk

1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour two 9- x 5- x 3-inch metal loaf pans, knocking out any excess flour (or four mini loaf pans).

2. Finely grate enough zest from lemons to measure 2‚ teaspoons and squeeze enough juice to measure about 1/2 cup. Into a bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

3. In a large bowl, beat together butter, 2 cups sugar, and zest until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer on low speed add flour mixture and milk alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating just until batter is combined well. Beat in 1 tablespoon lemon juice and divide batter between loaf pans, smoothing tops. Bake loaves in middle of oven until a tester comes out clean, about 1 hour (45 minutes for the smaller loaves).

4. While loaves are baking, in a small bowl stir together remaining lemon juice and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until sugar is dissolved.

5. Cool loaves in pans on a rack 15 minutes. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert loaves onto rack. Turn loaves right side up and pierce tops all over with a thin skewer. Repeatedly brush lemon glaze over tops of loaves until all of glaze is absorbed.

Cool loaves completely before serving. Can be frozen up to one one wrapped tightly in foil.

[Cranberry upside-down cake, December 2007.]

Also, Menu for Hope: still an option! Please go check out all the wonderful stuff!


  1. Oh Chai me a river!!! Nicolina is the best at care packages. The limoncello, bellisimo! Any of you posters or readers that live in SF, please realize how lucky you are to see Nicole on a regular basis. I am jealous. (Thank goodness for the care packages.)

  2. Nicole…the lemon tea cake is fantastic! Care pacakge love is the best….Thank you.

  3. Nicole,
    Hopefully you find time to catch your breath this year! Your lemon tea cake sounds great–I love lemon. Actually all your other food gifties sound great too!

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