Eight Maids a Drinking Espresso Vanilla Bean Liqueur

I really felt it this year: Christmas, as the most wonderful time of the year. There certainly have been years when Christmas seemed like the least wonderful, very worst time of the year. But not this year: it was one of the best in recent memory. I decided to relish in all things Christmas. I decided to sit back and succumb to the holiday madness.

And I also decided to show my Christmas gratitude and pass out homemade liqueur to folks I don’t usually exchange gifts with. A way to say thank you, for being you. For being a wonderful presence in my life: and for sustaining the nuttiness. I soon realized I was limited in recipe yields only, running out of liqueur long before running out of people to share it with.

I made this espresso liqueur right around the time I made the cranberry cordial. Like the cordial, there isn’t much work involved. Just a fair amount of time straining out espresso grinds, if you aren’t paying attention and/or are lured by the sound of freshly ground organic espresso beans instead of the instant kind. Then you might spend, say, 2 hrs instead of 20 minutes in the kitchen.

Though I can’t speak for the original instant espresso version, my idiot-infused version came out an unctuous celebration of coffee and vanilla bean. It’s lovely with a heavy-handed splash of cream after dinner.

It also looked quite festive bottled and decked with "12 Days of Christmas" tags. The tags were a suitable addition; the song is one of my favorite holiday numbers, probably because it combines such a perplexing collection of extravagant peculiarities. (And who can’t relate to that during the holidays?)

Somehow the "12 Days of Christmas" manages to come off gilded and high-spirited, with no one questioning what exactly a partridge in a pear tree is doing in the company of leaping lords and golden rings (five?!). Similarly, this Christmas no one questioned the extraordinarily eclectic band of occurrences: which made this year one of my favorites.

So without further ado (at this juncture perhaps you can imagine 12 drummers drumming) …

My most very favorite 12 things from Christmas 2010:

Twelve boozy rum balls

Eleven minutes spent listening to The Polar Express on YouTube, as read by William Hurt

Ten homemade ravioli (a Doucette family Christmas Eve tradition)

Nine pieces of sour cherry pie: made and pitted by my Grandma Lee (using a paper clip as a cherry pitter)

Eight mentions of Marilyn Monroe, broads, and drinking before noon, from my Uncle John

Seven minutes spent laughing, after my 87 year-old grandmother told me I'd “been around the block” (the “right way,” she clarified)

Six new ways I can make pasta using my new KitchenAid attachment

Five times I thanked my grandma for giving me her vintage golden clutch

Four main ingredients needed for my great great Aunt Marion’s meatballs*

Three hours spend watching TLC's "Next Great Baker" with my mother and brother (and realizing I need to start using the signature sendoff from Buddy “the Cake Boss”: “Get in the box truck, baby”)

Two witnesses hearing “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” sang to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven”

And a ... kind of Christmas that makes you cry from laughter

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas with family and friends to the fullest. And fully recommend starting the year of fresh, perhaps with a batch of espresso liqueur. It will be ready for you just in time to toast the last of your New Year’s resolutions away.

Espresso Vanilla Bean Liqueur
2 cups water
2.5 cups sugar
3/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 vanilla bean pods
3 cups of vodka

Bring water and sugar to a boil to dissolve sugar. Add espresso powder and reduce to a simmer. Stir to dissolve espresso powder, about 2 minutes or so. Remove liquid from heat and transfer to a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Split vanilla beans open and scrape out seeds, add seeds and pods to espresso liquid. Let cool until mixture is no longer hot. Add vodka. Cover and store in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks.

Makes ~5 cups

-I started this on November 18th, stored it in my fridge, and bottled it 4 weeks later; as promised the results were magnificent.

-To keep some sanity I posted a version of the original recipe that inspired me from Sfgirlbybay. Yes, technically, in my version I used freshly ground organic espresso beans, which sounds very alluring until you spend some quality time in the kitchen straining out the grinds using a gang of cheesecloths and strainers. Don't get me wrong, it was well worth it, but I'm not convinced you can't achieve the same result by following the recipe.

-*My Aunt Rose called Aunt Marion's meatball recipe the "2-2-6." 2 pounds of ground beef, 2 cups of bread crumbs, 6 whole eggs ... and a handful of parmesan cheese (and a partridge in a pear tree).


Cranberry Christmas Cordial To Keep You Warm

The snow is snowing. The wind is blowing. But I can weather the storm. What do I care, how much it may storm? I've got my love to keep me warm

Wait, hold that Christmassy note: I meant my vodka, not love.

I came across a recipe in early November from Diary of a Locavore, aptly named “homemade Christmas spirit.” It was right around thanksgiving time; in fact, it was the last week the farmers’ market was open here in Boston. It happened by chance, but I scored the sweetest, most inspiring New England cranberries I have ever seen.

And so I doused them in vodka with some citrus, cinnamon, and cloves and just like that, this gorgeously festive spirit walked right into my life. And much like a long-lasting romance, with the right amount of forethought and a smidgen of coddling, a beautiful, beautiful cordial was made.

It’s been “maturing” in my fridge since November 22nd (and was well worth the wait). Last night, as I sat typing this, I looked out onto the streets of Beacon Hill from my full wall of windows to see the wind whipping Boston’s first snowflakes around: big and fat, but light as they fell. Gas lampposts, dressed with bright red bows, casted light onto the fallen snow. Watching all of this (and sipping some Christmas spirit) I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more alive. Or warm—especially on the eve of a winter solstice.

This cranberry cordial may be the perfect antidote for a blustery winter night. It also reminds me of the cranberry vodka that I drank quite a bit of one cold winter at Café St. Petersburg, a Russian restaurant in Newton Center. They served little carafes of their homemade, jewel-toned—strong yet syrupy—cranberry vodka with hot cabbage pirozhok, a buttery pastry worth a commute to Russia. I typically left slightly starry-eyed from the vodka, but always in good spirits. (They might have patched up the cold war a longtime ago, if both sides had simply settled on more pirozhok and vodka and less bombs.)

This cranberry cordial is quite a match for the one they serve at Café St. Petersburg. And though I’m probably asking for it by comparing my vodka to that of a Russian’s, the Christmas notes in this recipe may be the perfect way to cap off your holiday.

The warm spices wrap around you like a blanket; allowing you to drink the cordial pleasantly, comfortably on it’s own (even if you aren’t Russian): should you care to do so. And for some holiday cheer, I passed the cordial out as gifts this year. (If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that vodka never goes to waste, especially around the holidays.) One friend inquired as to what she should drink with it. Gee, I said, it never crossed my mind to drink it any way other than straight.

It occurs to me it would probably be lovely a number of ways. You could reduce it and drizzle it over some roast duck (or Christmas goose?). Or simply pour it over cinnamon ice cream.

I have a feeling this cranberry cordial is going to be a new Christmas tradition, at least for as long as I can get fresh cranberries. After all, I live in New England. I need a way to weather the storm. Though, I really don’t care how much it may storm: I’ve got my Christmas spirit to keep me warm.

Cranberry 'Christmas Spirit' Cordial

2 cups sugar
1 orange, the juice and the rinds (pith removed)
about 1/4 cup water
2 cups of whole cranberries, divided
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cloves
2 cups vodka

Heat sugar, juice and zest of your orange, water and half of your cranberries in a saucepan until your cranberries just start to split. Add the rest of your cranberries and spices and cook about 5 minutes more. Let sit until the cranberry mixture comes to room temperature and then add the vodka.

Store it in a jar or container with a tight-fitting lid in a cool, dark place (the fridge works great if there is room). Let it sit for at least 2 weeks before drinking. Strain out the cranberries and spices and bottle the remaining cordial.

Makes about 4 cups

-I saved the vodka-soaked cranberries and moved them straight to my freezer (and then to my mouth). I've been snacking on them all week. They are strong, but delicious.

-If you are making this for the holidays be sure to start early: at least 2 weeks, preferably longer, before bottling (I waited a month).

-They have lovely food-grade bottles at The Container Store that work very well for bottling; you'll see them next week when I post about another liqueur I gifted. Tis the season!


Santa Baby, Have a Cupcake

I thought long and hard before I settled on a post about cupcakes in mid-December. In fact, I originally felt quite grinchy doing it; tisk tisk-ing myself for not posting about Christmas cookies. Christmas cookies are the quintessential holiday dessert. You wouldn’t serve Santa a cupcake on Christmas Eve. Though such a sentiment makes me worry that I sound like a 50’s housewife, which I am not.

While I do own an apron and a set of pearls, I could hardly be described as quintessential or mild-mannered, especially if I’ve had more than one or two manhattans. Last weekend, my (snow leopard print) stocking was hung by the chimney with care, but not without a good deal of cursing. And truthfully, if I were to leave Santa cookies on his most important day of the year, I’d also leave him a white Russian or a nice cold beer. (Working through time zones, where the work clock literally moves backwards, has to be trying.) And so I’m stuck in some sort of domestic purgatory, caught between June Clever and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Which worked in my favor last week when I stumbled across a cupcake recipe from Magnolia Bakery just in time for a dinner I was hosting Saturday night. It was in honor of my sister, who was in town to shop for her wedding dress. After getting teary-eyed at the sight of her in a birdcage veil, it was time to get down to business. A day of dress shopping had left me with 30 minutes to make a meringue buttercream and frost cupcakes before company arrived.

Unfortunately, I forgot I had finished the vanilla extract the day before. Fortunately, Clever and Fitzgerald joined forces, raided my liquor cabinet, and settled on some Kahlua instead. This, I’m quite sure, was an improvement and while I served homemade butternut squash ravioli and gingerbread punch, these cupcakes got all the attention.

I’ve already had a request from one of the bridesmaids for the recipe and after bringing my neighbor some of the leftovers, I literally heard her boyfriend yell into the street the following night, "Emily, we need more cupcakes!" He almost sounded angry about it. I even brought a few to a dear, typically mild-mannered friend: she sent me an “OMG” email later in the day that was written in all caps.

So I'm going to try to let my hair down about the whole cupcake v. Christmas cookie thing; after all, being able to share them is the true spirit of Christmas (there goes my Clever side again). And if they are good enough to rouse the neighbors, they have got to be good enough for Santa. I hear he is chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf; so I suspect he won’t be complaining. Especially if I leave him a little extra Kahlua.

So Santa baby, a chocolate buttermilk cupcake will do, for you. I’ll wait up for your dear, Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Chocolate Buttermilk Cupcakes with Kahlua Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Cannelle et Vanille (from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook)

6 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
2 sticks of butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt chocolate in a saucepan on low heat until most of chocolate is melted, remove from heat (the residual heat will melt remaining chocolate). Cream together butter, sugar and brown sugar; add eggs one at a time. Add melted chocolate and mix until combined. Add vanilla and half the buttermilk. Mix in flour and baking soda. Add remaining buttermilk and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Scoop into muffin tins filled with muffin liners. Bake for about 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Makes about 18 cupcakes (enough for Santa, his reindeer, and some friends)

Kahlua Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Bake! by Nick Malgieri

4 large eggwhites
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter
~2 tbsp Kahlua (to taste really)

Fill a saucepan big enough to fit a mixer bowl (of an electric mixer) about half full with water. Bring to boil and decrease heat so that water is at a slow boil. Whisk egg whites, salt and sugar by hand in the bowl of an electric mixer. Place bowl over the boiling water and continue to whisk constantly until the egg whites are hot (~140 degrees) and the sugar is dissolved about 3-6 minutes.

Place the bowl on your mixer with its whisk attachment and whip on medium speed until the meringue becomes frothy and the bowl is no longer hot to the touch. Switch to the paddle attachment and continue to beat the meringue on low speed until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. (Do not add the butter until you reach this step or it will ruin the buttercream.)

Add the butter in quarters on low speed. Scrape the bowl to fully combine all ingredients and increase your mixer's speed to medium and beat until smooth, thick and shiny (about 5 minutes or so). Add Kahlua and mix until thoroughly combined.

Makes enough to frost about 18 cupcakes

-Nick mentions that you can test to see if your sugar has fully dissolved by rubbing some frosting between your fingers (you shouldn't feel any grit). I never fully had this grit-less experience he spoke of and was worried I'd scramble my frosting if I continued, so I eventually gave up. My guests didn't notice and my skilled pastry chef bride-to-be of a sister said she liked (!) the frosting that way; that it added a pleasing texture. I really don't think she was just being nice, though if you can get your icing smooth as a baby's bottom, I applaud you. Don't fret if you can't. I loved it just the way it was and it still frosted extremely well.

-I used Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate 99% cacao and had some extra so I shaved some to top off the frosted cupcakes.

-You can mix the cupcakes a day ahead and refrigerate them until you are ready to bake. The batter may look thicker than you'd expect, but it makes for a lovely cupcake. (I tested both versions.)

-I used homemade buttermilk because I had some in my freezer and am always looking for ways to use it up. How bad could that be?


Charming Bacon Caramel Corn

How do I put this delicately, I dig on swine. It’s practically hackneyed to say because bacon is everywhere. It was in the caramel corn at a “punch party” I recently attended at Aquitaine. There was a festival devoted to bacon and beer in the South End in April that sold out in a heartbeat. I’ve even seen it start to pop up in cocktails. (If you happen to be drinking a bloody Mary I urge you to check your vodka: bacon could be lurking.)

And I haven’t heard one person complain about this. Turns out, most people tend to dig on swine—with the exception of the hit man “Jules” from the movie Pulp Fiction. In fact, Jules makes it clear to his mobster partner, Vincent, that he does not dig on swine—bacon included. Not because he is a vegetarian (though his girlfriend is) but because—in his opinion—the pig is a filthy animal. Though, he relents he’d possibly reconsider his pig philosophy if he met a very, very charming pig (and I’m paraphrasing here).

So there you have it, personality does count for something. And I absolutely can not mention personality AND caramel corn in the same post without mentioning my childhood piano teacher, Mr. Sauer. Mr. Sauer oozed personality. He had tight curlicue black hair. He was bubbly. He possessed an all-year-round mischievous elf-like quality. And he always gave me an “A+” on the music I had practiced on for the week. Charming. I was not naturally talented, but I practiced hard.

My sister also tended to get an A+ on her weekly lesson, though my sister did not always practice. You could occasionally hear a cacophony of “Fur Elise” throughout the house as she banged away on the keys. “A+ lessons!” Mr. Sauer would say effervescently to my mother each week without fail, which tended to make us all chuckle.

And each year around Christmas time, my mother would reward Mr. Sauer’s A+ merriment with a tin of homemade caramel corn. He treasured this caramel corn and opened the tin the moment my mother handed it to him; I’m not certain his caramel corn ever survived its ride home.

The same ritual happened year after year and Mr. Sauer’s love for my mother’s caramel corn became somewhat of a running family joke. So much so, that when I recently asked my mother for her recipe, she wrote it down with the final note, “Take out of oven and let cool. Give to Mr. Sauer for Christmas.”

So when I saw the caramel corn at Aquitaine I knew it was time to pay tribute to Mr. Sauer and to Christmas traditions, melding old with new. I don’t know where Mr. Sauer is today, but I can only hope he’d give this caramel corn an A+.

Personally, I can’t stop eating the delightful stuff. In fact, I’d go so far as to borrow a sentiment from another curlicue black-haired gentleman, our gangster friend Jules: this is one charming mother f-in’ caramel corn.

Bacon Caramel Corn

Adapted from Aquitaine (and my mother)

1/2 pound bacon, 4 tbsp bacon fat reserved (or can use 4 tbsp canola or grapeseed oil)
1 cup uncooked popcorn kernels
1 cup butter
1.5 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
Splash bourbon (~1 tbsp)

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cut bacon into a fine dice and pan-fry until crispy, reserve 2 tbsp bacon fat, and set the bits of bacon aside. Heat bacon fat (or alternatively oil) in a medium-sized metal pan that has a lid. When fat is hot, add popcorn kernels and toss to coat in fat. Place lid on; kernels should begin to pop within 10-20 seconds. Once popping slows to 3-4 seconds between pops remove from heat. Put popcorn on a baking sheet, discarding the unpopped kernels.

Heat butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a pan over medium-high heat until it reaches 300 degrees F (or about 5 minutes, mixture will be slowly bubbling). Remove from heat and add baking soda, bacon, vanilla and bourbon and swirl together.

Pour caramel mixture on popcorn and stir until thoroughly combined. Bake for about 1 hr, stirring every 15-20 minutes. Let cool slightly and break into pieces.

Give to Mr. Sauer for Christmas.

Makes about 8 cups

-I used an 2 quart pan to pop my kernels and had to do them in 2 batches. The first time I did this I was cursing not having a popcorn maker and lamenting my stand against speciality kitchen gadgets, as the oil smoked and popcorn kernels flew across my kitchen. It got much easier the second time around (after I road-tested 3 different pots).

-I used black jewel kernels, though any would be fine.

-Ah, to refrigerate or not to refrigerate. That is the question. I couldn't find a common consensus (or actually any guidance whatsoever on how to properly store bacon caramel corn-go figure). Because the bacon gets folded into the caramel, I've rationalized it will coat and protect against bacteria forming (I did not want to risk soggy caramel corn). Chocolate bars with bits of bacon aren't refrigerated either and I haven't died yet, but you'll have to weigh the odds for yourself.


It's A Marshmallow Misfit World

It’s official.

I saw my first snow flurry of the season when I was home in Syracuse (unofficial abominable snowmonster capital of the world) this past weekend.

I suppose this means it’s time to break out the spiked holiday drinks and relish in Burl Ives singing A Holly Jolly Christmas. (I can usually trick myself into thinking winter is fun with this kind of behavior until early January.) So, hot toddy in hand, I set out to fully embrace the season. And I’ve already had my first holiday revelation: marshmallows.

The marshmallow is a funny thing. It’s a bit of an oddity, well known and yet nearly impossible to describe in detail. Many eat them, but few can describe them.

Not that you can fault anyone for that. Marshmallows—by definition—are not meant to be pondered over. In fact, please don’t; best not to overanalyze, much like the origins of a hot dog or a man wearing a red wool reindeer sweater with blinking lights or a dentist-aspiring elf; I’d wager you don’t really need to know their back-stories.

Even though a marshmallow is nowhere near as concerning as say, a man in itchy, battery-operated holiday apparel, the initial anticipated bite of a homemade marshmallow can be a tad worrisome. I made homemade marshmallows to top twice-baked candied sweet potatoes this thanksgiving and ended up with a few extra confections to dole out to willing companions. Without fail, a serious look would fall upon the taster as the marshmallow neared the mouth.

The response was always the same: “they taste … like … marshmallow!?” A fact that was somehow oddly comforting. (It was also comforting to find that they bounced—much like Bumbles.) This being my first marshmallow-making attempt, I too was surprised at their legit marshmallow qualities.

Only a marshmallow could be described by saying it tasted like … itself. And misfit or not, pretty much everyone I know will eat a marshmallow in some form, whether it’s sandwiched between graham crackers, swirled into ice cream, paired with chocolate, caramelized on a sweet potato, or made into a rice crispy treat.

This makes the marshmallow somewhat of a magical nonconformist. And an easy one to make, at that. And a perfect way to ease into the snowy season ahead. (See lyrics below.) Hot chocolate with homemade vanilla marshmallows would be a particularly lovely holiday bribe for a shoveled sidewalk, especially if you throw in a little Baileys. They’ll keep quite well through the next month, so make a bunch to have on hand for every snowy evening (or red-nosed misfit) you meet.

Vanilla Marshmallows
Adapted from Alton Brown

3 packages gelatin, unflavored
1 cup ice cold water, divided
1.5 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp vanilla extract
Canola oil to coat pan

Place gelatin in the bowl of a mixer with 1/2 cup water. Combine the rest of the water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a medium saucepan and heat covered on medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and cook until sugar mixture reaches 240 degrees using a candy thermometer, about 7-8 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, turn the mixer on low, and slowly add the hot sugar in a small stream down the inner side of the mixing bowl. Once all the hot sugar mixture has been added, beat on high until it turns white and resembles fluff, about 10-15 minutes more.

While the sugar is mixing, combine confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Grease 9 x 13 pan with oil and lightly coat pan with sugar and cornstarch mixture, like you are flouring a cake pan (there will be extra). When marshmallow mixture is ready, pour into pan and spread evenly using an oiled spatula. Dust top with confectioners' sugar mixture (using a sifter helps) and let sit uncovered overnight (or at least a minimum 4 hrs).

Turn pan upside down and slide out marshmallow mixture, running a knife around the edges as needed. Cut into little squares and dredge in remaining confectioners' sugar mixture (may need additional confectioners' sugar).

Makes about 60 marshmallows

-I don't have a candy thermometer (are you listening Santa?!) so I winged it and used a meat thermometer until the dial could go no further and then I just cooked the mixture a few minutes longer. I don't necessarily recommend this, but it worked in a pinch.

-These marshmallows got a tad weepy and benefited from some additional time out in the open air to dry out a bit more (1-2 days). My sister, who has been schooled in pastry, mentioned that her marshmallows did not get weepy when she made them in school; her recipe used egg whites (and probably a candy thermometer). Should you want to try this route, you could check out Smitten Kitten's marshmallow posting from Gourmet magazine circa 1998.

-Remember, it's your marshmallow world. Even Bing (and Hermey the Dentist Elf) would agree.

It's a marshmallow world in the winter.
When the snow comes to cover the ground.
It's the time for play. It's a whipped cream day.
I wait for it the whole year round.

-Bing Crosby from "(It's a) Marshmallow World"


A Stuffed Pumpkin to Silence all Inner Demons

I must admit, at various times in my life I’ve encountered a number of things that have brought out an inner demon or two. Luckily, I’ve never had to put pumpkin in the “demon antagonizer” category: that is, until last Tuesday.

I am usually quite at ease experimenting in the kitchen; unfortunately, I was not confident stuffing pumpkins, as I had heard Dorie Greenspan suggest to do on the radio last week. She was interviewed about her cookbook and described this dish in a way that begged me to make it, immediately. In a way that suggested that it was comfort food filled thoughtfully, effortlessly into a pumpkin and then forgotten about in the oven.

This is usually my kind of cooking. And yet, my inner critic was relentless. I mixed the bread with the cheese. “Are you sure this is all of the ingredients,” she taunted. “No eggs?” she questioned, imaginary eyebrow raised. “Your bread isn’t stale enough,” she whispered, breathing down my neck, “you need more nutmeg, more sweetness.” At the last minute, I chopped up an apple that seemed to be eyeing me suspiciously on the counter and added it in.

I am ashamed to admit this now, as I made two gloriously stuffed pumpkins, but this recipe brought out inner demons that are usually absent in my kitchen and had me second-guessing everything that was going into the oven that night. And I have no idea why.

It’s a lovely, simple recipe that should have had me visiting a place where I could reminisce about carving jack-o-lanterns and roasting pumpkin seeds. Yet, at the time I was pretty convinced this pumpkin would be a bland, lifeless, ugly squash-corpse: and it was taking me with it.

I had cut the top lopsided so it didn’t fit back on the pumpkin. Then, when I picked it up, the stem fell clear off. It was clear: this pumpkin was going to bring me down. And how timely, given that thanksgiving was around the corner. Talk about a time for inner demons.

Juggling thanksgiving issues is like playing whack-a-mole. You prevent the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes from burning, just in time to dodge a drunk uncle, all the while basting the turkey (or fretting that you aren’t basting the turkey) and fielding questions about your love life—or lack thereof. It’s like a dysfunctional culinary opera. And yet, oddly enough, thanksgiving always turns out great. Even if the day doesn’t go perfectly (which it never does) there is usually a fair amount of laughs along the way, amid turkey gravy, pomegranate cocktails, and slices of pie.

What I suggest this year is to take the thanksgiving leftovers—definitely the day old rolls and perhaps the cranberry sauce—along with any demons you may be wrestling and shove them into a hollowed-out pumpkin and bake the hell out of them. Everything binds beautifully together (even without the eggs) and eating it you can’t help but lighten up a bit.

You’ve probably guessed by now, these stuffed pumpkins never did bring me down; in fact, they did quite the opposite. I wholeheartedly suggest you give this recipe a go. Even if you still feel a little like a stuffed pumpkin from thanksgiving dinner, at least it will be from pumpkin pie and not from your problems.

Stuffed Pumpkin

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1-2 small pumpkins, tops cut off (like you are carving a pumpkin), hollowed out with seeds removed
OR sliced in half, hollowed out with seeds removed (depending on the shape of your pumpkin)
3-4 slices of day-old bread, torn into pieces
1 cup shredded cheese, cheddar or swiss would work great
1/2 cup whole milk (heavy cream would also be lovely if you have it)
1 apple, diced (skin can be left on)
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of ginger
Pinch of allspice
Pinch of cinnamon
Kosher salt black pepper to taste
Olive or canola oil for greasing pan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease sheet pan with oil. Mix all ingredients (besides the pumpkins) together in a medium-sized bowl, until bread is slightly soggy and mixture is fairly wet throughout. (You may need to add more bread or more milk until you get the right consistency and amount). Fill pumpkins with mixture, place on sheet pan and bake covered loosely with foil for about 30-40 minutes. Remove foil and bake uncovered 20-30 minutes more, or until pumpkin flesh is soft and appears cooked throughout. (Cover the pumpkins again with foil if they are browning too much and still need time cooking.)

-If you cut the pumpkin top off with care, you can probably put it back on the pumpkin and bake everything in the oven, as
Dorie suggests. I did not execute this stage with grace.

-This recipe is open to interpretation, even Ms. Greenspan says is a "recipe-in-progress"; feel free to stuff it with whatever leftovers you think might mix in nicely. Cranberry relish and walnuts would both be lovely additions. Jello mold, perhaps not so much.

-Look for pumpkins that are about 2-3 pounds in size. As you can see, I tested two types of pumpkins. I preferred the round over the long variety. It tasted sweeter. And I enjoyed being able to cut slices of it.


Mushroom Flatbread Est Arrivé

The holiday season doesn’t start for me when I see little human pumpkins and vampires begging for snickers bars. Nor does it start at the first mention of pumpkin pie, pumpkin mousse or any other pumpkin dessert mutation.

Oh no, for me the holiday season officially kicks off each year on the third Thursday in November when the Beaujolais Nouveau bottles of wine arrive from France. I look forward to this event with such giddy consistency: few things about the holidays are as guaranteed as the arrival of this wine.

It shows up without fail in the company of festive persimmons and unshelled pecans, prepared to usher you into the holidays, like it or not. (If you’re in the latter camp, I suggest you buy a few extra bottles, because the holidays are coming.)

It’s been said that Beaujolais Nouveau is boring, but I like to think that it’s a wine that breaks all rules. It’s meant to be drunk young, as in within 6 months, and once it’s gone, it’s gone until the following fall: which—I admit—makes it a little precious.

It’s fruity, best served slightly chilled, and would be a great counterpart to something like mushroom pizza. As for the non-Beaujolais believers out there, I recently heard that mushrooms make “cheaper” red wines taste better. I’m just sayin’.

Though that is not why I’m planning on pairing this wine with some leftover mushroom flatbread come Thursday. I recently found a fabulous thin crust recipe, made even crispier through a generous donation of olive oil. I’m nuts over this dough.

What’s more is that I was able to find some local shiitake mushrooms at the Siena Farms stand at the farmers’ market. Nevermind that they were 20 dollars a pound. They served their purpose brilliantly sautéed with some herbs and sauced with cognac atop my crispy flatbread, scattered among a trio of cheese. I really can’t think of a better welcome party for the 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau.

Though, there are plenty of Beaujolais-themed parties happening in Boston this Thursday, should you feel so inclined. The South End Formaggio is offering a free tasting of an organic Beaujolais Nouveau from a tiny farm. Even more locally for me, Pierrot Bistrot Francais is hosting an all you can drink event (could spell trouble) and 75 Chestnut is tapping their first keg of the season. The Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé, as the French say.

Be forewarned: you could be entering the beginnings of a dark, downward spiral if you start using wine as a touchstone for consistency in your life. Though if this does prove to be the case, saddle up next to me at the bar. I’ll be the one drinking the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Shiitake Mushroom and Swiss Flatbread

1 tbsp butter
1-2 tbsp olive oil (depending on how much the mushrooms soak up)
About 3/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced and stems removed
2 shallots, minced
1/2 tbsp fresh oregano, minced
1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
Pinch of kosher salt
2 tbsp cognac

1 thin crust dough (recipe follows)
3 tbsp parmesan cheese
About 1/4 pound fontina cheese
About 1/4 pound swiss cheese (such as Gruyere or Emmental)

Thin Crust Dough Recipe
Adapted from Nick Malgieri's cookbook Bake!
2.5 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)
1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan

To prepare dough, stir flour and salt together. Whisk yeast into warm water and add 1 tbsp oil. Combine yeast mixture with flour and stir with rubber spatula until dough is moistened; fold dough a few times to make it smoother. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until doubled, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat saute pan on medium-high and add 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil to pan. Add mushrooms and shallots and stir until coated with oil. (Add additional olive oil as needed, if mushrooms appear dry). Add oregano and rosemary. Let mushrooms cook for about 5 minutes without stirring them, they will start to turn golden brown. Sprinkle with salt, add cognac, and let cook 2-5 minutes more until mushrooms are fully cooked. Set aside.

When dough has doubled in size, handle it with floured hands, folding it over upon itself until a smooth, seamless dough is facing towards you. At this stage, you can cover and refrigerate the dough for up to 24 hours. About 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 475 degrees. Generously oil a baking sheet pan and stretch dough to fit pan.

Toss parmesan cheese on dough (and drizzle with a little additional olive oil, if desired). Add mushrooms and shallots and cook in oven about 15 minutes. Add remaining cheeses and cook 10 minutes more or until bottom of crust is golden and cheese is melted and bubbly.

Makes one flatbread or about 8 slices.

-This crust defies all logic and remains crispy even after being refrigerated.

-The flatbread would also be great with a little arugula salad on top of it.

-Beaujolais Nouveau is made from a gamay grape and comes from the Burgundy region of France. Burgundy also produces pinot noir, which would be a great pairing for this flatbread, as well.