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Mountain Home Magazine

The Chef's Table

by Cornelius O'Donnell

Remember that old saying about the shoemaker’s shoes (or the carpenter’s house, or the plumber’s pipes)?

Along these same lines, how about the fascination with what professional chefs, cooks, and cookbook writers actually cook at home for their friends and families? I’m certainly fascinated with that idea, especially as the Christmas holidays roar toward me.

I’ve been trying to organize my cookbook collection (a Herculean job) for the past few months (actually, many months) and recently came across a book I’ve had since it was published in 1988 by Wings Books (the “used cookbook” section of Amazon still has lots of copies in stock). It’s called Christmas Memories with Recipes. In their preface, editors Maron Waxman and Delores Simons describe the book as “a mosaic of holiday recollections by twenty-five cooks and writers from all parts of the Americas and Europe. They share with us memories of their varied holidays.” Some of the names will still be familiar to readers: Jacques Pepin, Martha Stewart, Julia Child, and Marcella Hazan. Most of the others I know because I’ve been a foodie a long time.

I must have grabbed this book back in ’88, feeling with that list of contributors I’d be sure to find something to cook for my gang, as well as enjoy the nosy sensation of poking into others’ rituals. I know I made several recipes from these pages because I found some penciled comments aside many of the dishes—well, at least ten—and, if I added asterisks to the check mark, that meant the dish went over with the revelers. I thought you’d enjoy reading about—and cooking—these tried and true holiday favorites.

Lace Curtain Cookies

Bert Greene was a dear friend—and Jewish. That didn’t matter in his growing-up years, as his family celebrated Christmas. I found this recipe of his and used it to celebrate the final bauble to go on the tree and the finial’s placement on top. And the name he gave these struck a chord with me. Well, “lace curtain” describes my family better than “shanty.” (Wikipedia explains it all for you, by the way.) Mom made similar cookies. These are always good to have on hand for holiday drop-ins and, depending on age, youngsters can help with the making. (Lord knows they’ll excel in the eating.)

  • 1 egg
  • 1⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla extract (not that fake stuff)
  • 1⁄2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 c. light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 c. uncooked rolled oats
  • 1⁄2 c. walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat the egg with the vanilla in the medium bowl of an electric mixer. Slowly beat in the butter and sugar. On low speed, beat in the rolled oats. Stir in the chopped walnuts.

Lightly butter a foil-lined baking sheet. Drop the batter by generous teaspoonfuls onto the foil; place far apart. There should be only six cookies on each baking sheet. Pat the batter flat and bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Cool completely before peeling off the foil. Repeat procedure until all batter is used up. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Marion Cunningham’s Cranberry Relish

I knew Marion well and she was responsible for the ’60s rewrite of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Like Fannie, her recipes are straightforward. Here’s a good example—no fuss, no added alcohol, you’ll love it. Here’s what Mrs. Cunningham had to say about this relish: “Tart and sweet...Pure and simple, home-cooked cranberry relish, with no other distracting flavors, is the best of all.” (James Beard’s relish, not in this book, had a slug of Grand Marnier added, and that’s not a bad idea. Just a little, mind you.)

  • 12 ounces fresh cranberries
  • 3⁄4 to 1 c. sugar

Place the cranberries and 3⁄4 cup sugar in a frying pan. Cook over moderate heat, stirring often to avoid scorching, until the sugar has melted, and the cranberries are cooked, about 6 minutes. Taste for sweetness and add the remaining 1⁄4 cup of sugar, if too tart, stirring in sugar until completely dissolved. Remove from heat and cool. Makes about two cups.

More from Marion: “By December 15 our Christmas tree is in the living room. (Aside: Marion’s house was midcentury modern, located in Walnut Creek, California.) For a fleeting minute I always entertain the idea that I will defy tradition and leave the tree totally natural, but I never do. We fuss, trying to balance the lights on the tree...we also get caught up in rediscovering the favorite old ornaments and the stories they represent.”

Note: In the O’Donnell house, my favorite ornament was a pale lilac color glass with some tinsel poked into the interior. And, when I worked in a “Mad Men” sort of ad agency in Albany, I was put in charge of the Ben-Mont Papers account—one of their products included something called Saran Icicles. These wispy little super-light devils looked great on the tree but tended to flee to other branches when one walked by, thus losing the vertical aspect that icicles demand.

For what it’s worth, my tip for even electric lights placement is: get away from the tree so you can see the entire thing. And then, in a word, squint! And have a helper adjust the lights to get the overall, even, light placement you want. My brother Arthur will get a charge out of that memory.

Now back to food.

Julee Rosso’s Date-Nut Pudding

I trust you cooks reading this will remember Julee’s best-selling Silver Palate cookbooks. This recipe is one I’ve made several times. It has my two favorite holiday ingredients—walnuts and dates—and it’s versatile. I like it for breakfast, a snack, or dessert. Wrapping presents or trimming the tree can be so exhausting.

  • 1⁄2 c. (1 stick) butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 11⁄2 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
  • 11⁄2 tsps. baking powder
  • 1 c. coarse-chopped pitted dates
  • 1 c. coarse-chopped shelled walnuts
  • 1 c. heavy cream, chilled

Preheat oven to 325-degrees. Grease well a 9x13x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. In an electric mixer using the whisk attachment, cream the butter, gradually adding the sugar and beating until light. Add the eggs, milk, flour, and baking powder; mix well. Fold in the dates and walnuts. Turn into the prepared baking dish and place on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until set. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with a hefty teaspoon of the cream, whipped to soft peaks, on the side.

And Joyeaux Noel.

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