An improper feeling of confidence filled me and made me decide to bake gifts of food for several people with whom I work this year. One night last week I spent an hour grocery shopping and another four in the kitchen pulling things together.
The first item I tried were Benne Bits, a recipe that James Villas included in The Glory of Southern Cooking (2007). They're a snacky sesame and cayenne thing. I didn't have a small round cookie cutter, but I pulled out a miniature holiday cookie cutter set I bought on a whim a few years ago. These Benne Bits were in the form of a tree.
Next I worked on another item from Villas' cookbook: Orange Cocktail Pecans. I've never made any spiced nuts, but they seem like an easy thing. With this recipe you melt a stick of butter in a large saucepan, add orange zest and Cointreau or Grand Marnier. I had Cointreau on hand. Once everything melts, you toss the pecans with the sauce, then transfer it to a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes at 300.
When I tasted them straight out of the oven I was disappointed. Angry, really, because pecans don't come cheap and I used up my "special" supply that I order each autumn from a lady with whom I work. Normally I parcel those out a few times over the span of the year in my pecan pies, but I went for broke on this.
But really, it was the Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade recipe that threw my cooking into a tailspin. I've always been skeptical of her products, but saw her make the white chocolate and macadamia bark on her show and liked the combination so well that I wanted to give it a try. The thing about Sandra Lee is that she takes so many shortcuts that her approach fails to lend the meditative and careful qualities to cooking that I seek. And if you've watched her show, many of her products are shoddy and haphazardly put together. They're not anything I'd want to give to anybody. However, despite her style not being for me, I think she appeals to others who don't have the amount of time, or the same feeling about the process as I do.
Microwaving the semi-sweet morsels sounded like a shortcut I didn't want to take, but I did. And it turned out horribly. My morsels overcooked and turned into something akin to fudge. Out came my double boiler, but that was after another trip to the grocery store for more semi-sweet morsels.
I discounted her instructions to use a "fine" white chocolate because c'mon, this is semi-homemade, not Barefoot Contessa. Like there's a difference between white chocolate? Oh, there is. My Nestle white chocolate chips never melted to the state where I could "drizzle" it over top of the chocolate base on my wax paper-protected cookie sheet. Said cookie sheet remains in the freezer until I find time to get better white chocolate and finish that up.
Somewhere amongst all the holiday baking articles in various cooking magazines I encountered a pistachio nougat thing that I wanted to make. Couldn't recall where, so I went to the foot network, searched, and found Mario Batali's recipe for Torroncini.
I thought this went well. I used my candy thermometer for the first time. But the nougat never set up, or hardened, so I have no clue why this failed so miserably. I tossed it into the trash the next day.
This year's food as gifts did not work well. I'm still up for making Villas' bleu cheese straws though. And even though I think the pecans weren't orange tasting enough, Ian cannot keep his mitts out of the container. He doesn't know why I don't like them, he said. He thinks they're great. I may set them out on Christmas eve for company. And I'm still working on the menu for that. Oh what fun!