I did not make my King Cake until Fat Tuesday this year, and have been busy with other things since, so I apologize for posting this recipe well into Lent.  Put it on your docket for Mardi Gras ’11, I suppose.

I’ve made King Cake before, but haven’t been 100% happy with the recipes I’ve come across in the past, so this is the one I’ve pieced together from an amalgam of sources, one of them being the Junior League of Lake Charles‘s Marshes to Mansions.  While theirs is a winner, I did not feel it had quite enough butter and eggs in it for my purposes.  Also, if you’ve had King Cake before, you know it can tend towards being dry.  You will not have that problem with this recipe.

King Cake

King Cake

2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 c lukewarm water
1/2 c sugar + 2 t. sugar
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 c unsifted flour
1 t nutmeg
2 t salt
1 T fresh lemon peel
1/2 c lukewarm milk
5 egg yolks, at room temperature
8 T butter, at room temperature, + 2 T melted butter
1/4 cup sugar
2 T. cinnamon
1 egg
splash of milk
Stuff to hide in cake: a plastic baby is traditional, but a dried bean will do in a pinch

Icing:

3 c powdered sugar
1/4 c strained fresh lemon juice
3-6 T water

Sugars:

3/4 cup sugar, divided into three bowls
4-5 drops each, purple, yellow, and green food coloring

Dissolve yeast in the warm water with 2 t. of sugar. Allow to stand for 10 minutes to proof. Sift 3 1/2 cups flour with remaining sugar, nutmeg and salt. Stir in lemon peel, yeast mixture, milk, and egg yolks Beat until dough begins to pull away from edges of the bowl. Beat in 8 T. of butter cut into bits, a little bit at a time. Mix until all ingredients are well-combined. Knead 5-10 minutes on a lightly floured surface, adding more flour if dough is too sticky. Form dough into a ball, and place in a lightly greased bowl. Set in a warm, draft-free place, and allow to rise, loosely covered, for 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough doubles in bulk.

Punch down the dough and roll it out into a long rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Combine sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle over the melted butter. Roll the dough up jelly roll style, starting with the long side of the rectangle. Form the roll into a ring, sealing the ends, and place seam-side down on a buttered cookie sheet. Let rise, loosely covered with waxed paper, for about 45 minutes.

I have never been any good at sealing the ends up prettily.

Whisk egg and milk together, and brush over the King Cake. Bake at 375 until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. If you’re using a dried bean for the prize inside the cake, insert it in the bottom of the cake before baking. If you’re using a plastic baby, add it after the cake is baked.

Who's the king? This guy.

To make the icing, whisk the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water until the icing mixture is smooth. Start with 3 T., and add more if it is too stiff.

To make the sugars for topping, add 4-5 drops of food coloring to each bowl of sugar. Rub the food coloring into the sugar with the back of a spoon until there are no lumps and color is evenly distributed.

Allow the King Cake to cool for at least 20 minutes or more. While it is still slightly warm, spread the icing over the cake. Sprinkle the different colored sugars in stripes over the icing before it hardens.

I come to you off an eventful and fun, though not particularly restful holiday season; however, I am good and ready to tackle some more Junior League cookbooks, and meet some culinary goals in the New Year.

In 2009, I cooked, baked, and/or canned meals or dishes from 37 Junior League cookbooks, which leaves a scant 14 to go in my year (and change) of Junior League cookery.  During that time, I want to:

  1. Successfully roast a chicken.  I’ve attempted two this year, and both have been abject disasters, though I did at least get some decent chicken stock out of them.
  2. Make at least one or two more things that involve seafood.  Even though I’ve done it a few times, cooking with the fishies is always scary for me.
  3. Make a King Cake for Mardi Gras.
  4. Make at least one meal that is sort of healthy, or at least doesn’t involve multiple sticks of butter.
  5. Cook something that looks insanely difficult or terrifying.

I think this is doable, especially since my in-laws got me a gift certificate to the New School of Cooking for Christmas, and I plan to use it to take either a class on Roasting or Fish Basics.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the Christmas Cake from the Junior League of Dayton turned out, let me just say that it will make you change your tune about fruit cake, and leave you begging for another whiskey-marinated slice.

Christmas Cake, aged 4 weeks

Though the recipe yields 32 slices, it does kind of take the pressure off on what to bring to the party.  I brought 3 trays of it various holiday gatherings (and one to work, since I figured that my poor fellow colleagues who had to work the day after Christmas could use a little, um, holiday cheer), and they were, for the most part, picked clean.

And now, for my first cookbook of 2010, on to Wichita!

Before last week, I’d never made a biscotti in my life.  Now, I want to make them constantly in every flavor imaginable, and possibly dipped in dark chocolate or raw sugar.  They’re so much fun to bake, and elegant enough to serve with after-dinner coffee at a party, but easy enough that you wouldn’t feel too guilty if you ate the lot yourself.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Atlanta‘s True Grits (1995), from which I prepared a meal earlier this year. Though hazelnuts are named in the title, you can substitute almonds if hazelnuts and hazelnut extract are not to be found, or out of your price range.

Spiced Hazelnut (or Almond) and Chocolate Biscotti

Spiced Almond and Chocolate Biscotti

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa
1 t. baking soda
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
1/4 cup dark-roasted coffee beans, coarsely ground
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. hazelnut or almond extract

Sift the flour, sugar, baking cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves into a large bowl. Add the chocolate, hazelnuts (or almonds) and ground coffee; mix well.

Beat the eggs with the flavorings in a small bowl. Add to the chocolate mixture; mix and knead until the mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons water if necessary. Divide the dough into 2 portions. Dust each portion with flour and form into a 12-inch roll. Place on a baking sheet lined with lightly greased foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Place the rolls on a cutting board. Cut diagonally with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until crisp, turning once halfway through the baking time. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

So good the coffee is really optional.  At this very moment, I am eating one all by itself.

My cousin Tracy recently gave me a copy of the Junior League of Gaston County, North Carolina‘s Southern Elegance (1987), so I decided to leaf through it and see if I could find a good Christmas cookie or two.  Linzer Hearts, those pretty little cut-out cookies that usually have a little picture frame top with raspberry jam inside, caught my eye. However, I decided to make them with more seasonally festive star cookie cutters.

I thought it would be easy. I thought it would be fast. I was so wrong.

Linzer Hearts (or Stars or Whatever)

Must prepare ahead

Linzer Stars

3 sticks sweet butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, softened
1 egg
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup red raspberry preserves

Cream butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Sift together the flour and cornstarch; add to creamed mixture and blend well. Mix walnuts in thoroughly. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

On a well-floured surface roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter about 1 1/2 inches long, cut out cookies and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill cookies for 45 minutes.

If you're short on room in the fridge, you can chill the cookies between layers of waxed paper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are very lightly browned around the edges. While they are still warm, spread half of the cookies with raspberry preserves, using 1/4 teaspoon jam for each. Top each with one of the remaining cookies. Sift the remaining 3/4 cups powdered sugar into a bowl and press tops, bottoms, and sides of the cookies into sugar to cool.

— Jennifer Davis

While these are a delightful, yummy, pretty special occasion cookie, they are not the kind of cookies you pull out for a passing acquaintance.  In fact, they are probably not even the kind of cookies that you allow your loved ones to casually munch on around the house.  These are cookies to be cherished, rationed, and hoarded.  That’s what Christmas is about, right?  Hoarding?

It’s not that the cookies are exactly difficult.  The dough mixes up in no time, the baking is a no-brainer, and the assembly is pretty self-explanatory.  Rolling out the dough is another matter entirely.  Because it is comprised almost entirely of butter, you have a very small window of opportunity to get it rolled out, cut, and back on the plate before it turns into a sticky mess that refuses to do anything except stick to the counter.

So, after you cut out a batch of cookies, you’ll have to gather up the scraps, ball them up, wrap them back in waxed paper, and stick them back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes before you can roll them out again.  This gets… time-consuming.

Also, it just occurred to me that they are usually dipped in powdered sugar, something I completely forgot to do.  Rats!  Then again, as I started baking Christmas cookies at 2 in the afternoon, and wrapped up production around midnight, I think it’s miraculous that I didn’t accidentally fill them with ketchup.  (NOTE:  These cookies did not take 10 hours to make… I did make two other kinds that day.  However, it sort of FELT like they took 10 hours to make.)

Having dispatched with that old Christmas battle axe, the fruitcake, I decided that my next bit of holiday cooking should be an equally storied dish – the sugar plum.  However, I had absolutely no idea what a sugar plum was.  Like the children nestled snug in their beds, I, too, had certain visions of what I thought a sugar plum might be, possibly a plum version of a candied apple.  This turns out to have been completely wrong.

For the record, I also ran into this problem with Turkish Delight when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child.

Turns out that sugar plums are an assortment of finely chopped dried fruits, nuts, and sundry, mixed together and rolled in powdered sugar.  I was trying to figure out what made these particular sugar plums Byzantine in nature, and in my brief reading found that dates, figs, walnuts and pistachios were part of the average person’s diet during the Byzantine Empire. So, there you go.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Chicago‘s Soupcon (1974).

Byzantine Sugar Plums

Byzantine Sugar Plums

3 pounds combined pitted dates, peeled figs, seeded raisins, currants, apricots, prunes

1/2 pound blanched walnuts or almonds

1/2 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts

1/2 pound crystallized ginger

Grated rind of 2 oranges

3 T. lemon juice or brandy, or as needed

Confedtioners’ or granulated sugar

Put fruits, nuts, ginger and rind through the coarsest blade of the meat grinder. Add just enough lemon juice or brandy to enable mixture to stick together. Shape into balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll in sugar before wrapping. Vary assortment of fruits and nuts to suit your own taste, using any one or all of those suggested.

The mixture will look a little something like this.

— Mrs. Thomas N. Boyden (Susan Dalton)

The mixture I wound up going with was dried apricots, figs, and pitted dates with walnuts, pistachios, and orange peel, crystallized ginger (though far less of this than the recipe called for), and brandy.  And instead of a meat grinder, I put everything through my shiny new Cuisinart (a Christmas present from my parents who’d apparently grown weary of hearing me complain about my shoddy kitchen appliances), and the consistency came out right.

These sugar plums are rich, sticky, dense, and yummy.  However, if you can eat more than one of them in a sitting, I’d be very much surprised.  I took a dozen and a half of them into work, and they disappeared pretty quickly. One person made the comment that they were “nice and Christmasy,” while another who despises dried fruit deemed them “better than I expected.” Also, I’d underestimated how much southern Californians like dates and figs.

Good as they are, however, I’m not sure that visions of them would necessarily dance in your head.  Then again, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first published in the 1820s, when an orange passed for a good Christmas present, and the average life expectancy was something like 35 (16, if you were a London pauper). So, a ball of dried fruit, nuts, and brandy was probably a really big deal.

Brady says I’m really selling the sugar plums short, though, and wants it noted that “the sugar plums are like the platonic ideal of the Fig Newton. And who doesn’t love those?”

I’m back from Thanksgiving vacation with my family, and geared up to do some serious holiday cooking and baking.  As a result, I’ll be doing something a little different for the next couple of weeks.  Instead of cooking an entire meal from one Junior League cookbook, I’ll be posting individual recipes suitable for holiday entertaining from lots of different cookbooks.

This first one comes from the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio‘s Discover Dayton (1979), which my awesome Aunt Margie gave me at Thanksgiving dinner.  We were in the kitchen, and she was unloading her bag of goodies for our feast when she reached in and handed me this book, saying, “I have been reading your blog.”  Little did she know I’d been paging through a copy of this very book at the library not two days earlier, and mentally putting it on my to-do list.

In addition to many tasty-looking cookie recipes, Discover Dayton also has a recipe that’s a twist on the much-maligned Christmas fruitcake.  The main difference being that this one comes out looking like something you’d actually want to eat, devoid of all the terrifying DayGlo cherries.  And besides, it has, like, half a bottle of booze in it.

Christmas Cake

Prepare Thanksgiving week to serve Christmas Day. Like fruit cake, but we rate it better!

Christmas Cake

2 cups white sugar
1/2 pound butter
6 egg yolks
1 pound cake flour (NOTE FROM MARY:  This comes out to about 4 cups)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup whiskey or brandy
1 pound white raisins
1 pound pecans, chopped
6 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Whiskey or brandy

In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter; beat in egg yolks. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1/2 cup whiskey. Stir in raisins and nuts. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn into a well-greased and floured bundt or angel food cake pan.

The batter will be fairly thick, more like a quick bread than a cake

Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 2 hours; cool. Wrap cake in cheesecloth wet with additional whiskey or brandy. Wrap in foil, and store in can or cake tin with a tight-fitting lid. Store in refrigerator. The longer it ages, the better it is!

Mummified in Jameson Irish Whiskey

YIELD: 1 10-inch cake, 32 servings

— Mrs. James C. Medford (Carolyn Lowe)

So, we’ll see how this turns out.  I did not have a cake tin that would fit in my fridge (where space will be at a premium for the next few weeks), so I have the thing wrapped in a million layers of aluminum foil right now.  But even though it will be taking up valuable space in my lousy 3/4-size fridge until Christmas, it pleases me to know that it’s sitting there, aging gracefully and soaking up all that Jameson.  Kind of like Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.

This week’s meal comes from the Junior League of Rhode Island‘s Windows:  A Tasteful Reflection of Historic Rhode Island, which I thought would be appropriate for Thanksgiving week.  I didn’t initially set out to make a Thanksgiving-type dinner – there was a recipe for pork tenderloin with whiskey-peppercorn sauce that I had my eye on – but things eventually shook out that way.

I also hadn’t set out to make a ridiculously easy Thanksgiving-type dinner, and didn’t realize this until I was going through the recipes this morning and realized that I could have the whole thing made in less than two hours.  Later this week, I am going to have a proper, much more fussed-over Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Pennsylvania, but it was nice to have something tasty and festive at home beforehand.

This menu could also be nice if you were hosting a very small Thanksgiving dinner, if you didn’t like to cook, or if you just didn’t have the time to roast a bird and do all the traditional fixings.

Cranberried Chicken Breast

Cranberried Chicken Breast

6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
3 T. margarine
2 1/4 cups cranberry juice
3/4 cup whole cranberry sauce
1/2 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Brown in the margarine in a skillet over high heat for 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a platter and keep warm. Add the cranberry juice and cranberry sauce in the skillet. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Add the cranberries. Simmer for 2 minutes or until the berries pop. Spoon over the chicken to serve.

The chicken was tender, and butter-crisp on the outside (you know I’d rather saute my food in turpentine than margarine), and the sauce was tartly sweet and delicious.  However, I must say that I have a bone to pick with Ocean Spray, which carelessly packed JELLIED cranberry sauce into a can clearly labeled WHOLE cranberry sauce.  The fact that the label was also affixed upside-down should have tipped me off to the fact that something was amiss.  However, I made do, and though the sauce was certainly thinner than it ought to have been, the taste was not affected.

Next, I made a batch of mashed potatoes.  These take no more time than regular mashed potatoes, but the flavor is different, rich, and very nice.

Garlic and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes

Garlic and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes

3 3/4 pounds red potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
9 large cloves of garlic
Salt, to taste
2 T. butter
2 T. chopped fresh rosemary or 2 t. dried rosemary
1/2 cup (or more) chicken broth
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Pepper to taste
Fresh sprigs of rosemary

Cook the potatoes and garlic in salted boiling water in a saucepan for 30 minutes or until very tender; drain. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Beat in the butter and chopped rosemary. Bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Add to the potatoes gradually, beating constantly until smooth. Stir in the cheese, salt and pepper. Spoon into a serving bowl and garnish with rosemary sprigs. Yields 8 servings.

I was surprised how easily the cooked garlic cloves mash right into the potatoes, and also at how delicate and understated the taste was.  I would have thought that with 9 cloves in there, it would be a little overpowering, but it wasn’t.  Also, I don’t know about most people, but I’ve always used milk in my mashed potatoes, not chicken broth, but I didn’t notice that the potatoes were any less creamy.  Flavor-wise, it was also a good move.  I didn’t have gravy, but these didn’t need it.  They also didn’t even need any extra butter – shocking.

Finally, for dessert, I decided on this recipe. You might notice that, despite its fancy name, it is essentially pumpkin pie without a crust.

Spiced Pumpkin Pudding with Walnut Cream

Spiced Pumpkin Pudding with Walnut Cream

3 cups half-and-half
6 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
6 T. unsulfured (light) molasses
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. ginger
3/4 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. (or more) ground cloves
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 cans (16-ounce) solid-pack pumpkin
Walnut Cream (below)

Bring the half-and-half to a simmer in a small saucepan. Beat the eggs, sugar, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a large bowl until smooth. Stir in the pumpkin and warm half-and-half. Spoon into a buttered shallow 8-cup baking dish. Place in a larger pan and add hot water halfway up the sides. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted two inches from the center comes out clean. Cool completely. Serve chilled or at room temperature with Walnut Cream. Yields 8 servings.

Walnut Cream

1 1/2 cups whipping cream, chilled
3 T. confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 T. spiced rum
3/4 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted, finely chopped

Whip the cream in a medium mixing bowl until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners’ sugar and rum and beat until smooth. Fold in the walnuts. Yields 8 servings.

And you know what it tastes like?  Pumpkin pie without the crust.  Sure, it’s a little bit lighter, fluffier, and creamier, but it is pretty much pumpkin pie without the crust.  As far as the recipe, it took about an hour and ten minutes for mine to set up, and for the whipped cream, I’d say the rum is definitely optional.  Though there’s only a little bit in there, the flavor is strong, and some people might not care for it.  The toasted walnuts, though, are a nice touch.

Is it Thanksgiving dinner like Mom used to make?  Probably not, but in a pinch, it might be just the thing.

After I get back from my Thanksgiving with family, the holiday cooking will begin in earnest.  Last year, my sister got me a cookbook from the Junior League of Greensboro, North Carolina that is nothing but Christmas recipes.  I may have to purchase several pounds of butter and bake me some cookies.