sweets

The Only Thing to Do

11 December 2009

It’s been cold here the past week or so. Not East-Coast cold by any stretch of the imagination (I find myself walking to the bus with my hands stuffed in my pockets and my shoulders perpetually hovering somewhere near my ears — don’t tell my yoga instructor! — thinking Did I really live in Washington, DC, for six years? And waited for the bus in the pre-7 a.m. darkness of January, when temperatures often dipped below 20 degrees? This is nothing. You wimp!), but pretty cold for San Francisco. We might not get a wisp of snow but we do get frost, and brisk air to turn cheeks pink, and nights when it’s chilly enough that the only thing to do is turn on the oven and bake something to add an extra shot of warmth to our apartments.

It’s also well into December which means baking has become the norm, at least for people like me who can’t help but trying out new recipes for gingerbread (and gingerbread-apple upside-down cakes), revisiting old recipes for lemon tea cake, and digging out a long-neglected recipe for garlicky dog biscuits. It’s a time to wear fingerless gloves and make roasted vegetable soup and fire up the stove to make some seasonal preserves.

Oh — you, too?

I’m currently going about my annual business of making some holiday treats for loved ones near and far, though to be honest the flurry of packaging-up has not yet reached its zenith (must … get … cracking …). This week I baked a batch of little lemon tea cakes to send to New Jersey and Maine — along with a few other choice non-handmade items — although last night when I looked in my flour jar it was nearly scraped clean, thus thwarting the next round. (Oops.) At the store I’m piling pounds of butter in my basket and stockpiling fresh ginger and coming home to sift through recipes to find the perfect cookie. Fortunately my preserved goods are all taken care of.

Usually I receive a windfall of apples in the fall and turn most of them into sauce I’ll can and later distribute as part of my wee holiday offerings. But this year I didn’t (and I think people will probably soon get sick of the same old same old year after year), though I still wanted to give a few jars of preserves (as a pretty much non-related aside, the apples I have eaten from my farmer’s market this year have been absolutely amazing, the best ever. Too good to anything else with except to eat and savor.). I thought about collecting local pears and saucing them up à la the apples … or maybe something with quince … or figs? I didn’t do much about this, though, and suddenly it was December and fruits were rapidly disappearing and why-ever did I wait so long??

Then I remembered cranberries. Of course! I love baking with cranberries this time of year — I have an upside-down cranberry cake I’ve kept in heavy rotation for years — , happily spoon up my mom’s homemade cranberry sauce every time it appears on the table at Thanksgiving and otherwise, and will never say no to a cranberry-champagne cocktail. Cranberries are winter, in every sense of the word: sharp, sweet-tart, and richly hued. They are just right for right now.

So I made a batch of cranberry chutney and a batch of cranberry jam. Both were a bit experimental as I’d never made either before, but as I stirred and tasted and added a bit more sugar and zipped up my cozy new hoodie I hardly felt the cool air coming in through the cracks in the window (the gingerbread baking probably helped to mediate, too). And those jars looked so pretty, festive and sparkling red with good fruit.

I ate my bit of leftover jam spread on toasted whole wheat bread with a piece of sharp cheddar and oh, I did truly wish I’d had more. I may start skipping the applesauce altogether and only going with this stuff it was that good.

December feels like childhood: the cold, the crisp, the occasional fire-in-the-fireplace, the gifts secreted away to be later be wrapped neatly and presented with held breath, the early dark, an undercurrent of excitement and things afoot, the good smells of spices and butter browning in the oven. It’s a wish, no matter how futile, for snow and mountain hideaways. It’s old friends and home and wine with lunch and planning the Christmas dinner and old carols on the radio. It’s the last bit of the year, a final chance to end it on a sweet note.

December is magic, any way you look at it.

Cranberry Chutney

, via epicurious.com

This would go well with sharp cheese or roasted meat.

1/3 cup finely chopped shallot
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 oz. fresh or frozen cranberries (not thawed; 2 cups)
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water

3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cook shallot in butter in a 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until berries have burst and chutney is thickened, about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Cranberry Jam, via 101cookbooks.com

Taste while cooking; if the berries are very tart you might want to add more sugar.

1 lb. frozen or fresh cranberries
3/4 cup sugar (plus more if needed)
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 small apple, peeled and cored

Rinse the berries, if necessary, then drain well and put them in a non-metallic bowl with the sugar and lemon juice. Leave overnight, turning once or twice.

Coarsely grate the apple and put it into a heavy based saucepan with the grated lemon rind. Strain in all the juice from the berries and add about 2/3 of the berries. Add 1/2 cup water and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the apple is very soft and the whole lot has thickened. Add the rest of the berries and heat through for 5-8 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal tightly.

Makes about 2 cups.

  • molly 15 December 2009 at 3:07 pm

    oh, what cranberry goodness! i love them so, but somehow missed heidi’s jam. thanks for trying, and tweaking, and re-issuing, at just the right moment. something for the cold months ahead… *Molly

  • denise (chez danisse) 11 December 2009 at 6:24 pm

    I’m so with you! Brrrrrrrrr. I’m about to start baking cookies right now.

  • justrun 11 December 2009 at 5:59 pm

    I love when things just occur to you like that. Like, oh, cranberries! OF COURSE.

    I made split pea soup earlier. When I was younger I didn’t think I liked split pea soup, but I was so wrong. And now I am kicking myself for not trying/making it before now. DUH.

  • Jill P 11 December 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Ooohh I love hearing about your holiday packages! The lemon tea cake sounds like a winner; might have to try it this weekend.