Pam’s Pictorama Post: It’s a sunny Sunday after a dreadfully rainy sleety snowy Saturday here in New York City. So I sit down to write with the sense of optimism that prevails on a sunny day after a rainy one.
Meanwhile, I have had this item in my possession for months now where it has perched on my desk, waiting to see what role it will play and what it will contain. I spotted it in a background shot of items being sold by @missmollystlantiques and she was willing to sell it to me. I especially like its glass top where the 2 cent price is posted. 2 cents!
Pictorama readers know I cannot resist a good box. My post on a Krak-R-Jak Biscuit (also purchased from Miss Molly, the post can be found here, as I am one of those folks who still mails cards. The appeal of a box is like catnip to me – I’m equally bad about cabinets. (A post on one display case I bought a few years ago can be found here.) Things that can contain things seem like a win-win to me and I can always justify their purchase in my mind. For some reason I am convinced I always have space for them.
A quick look at the Nestlé history reminded me that it is a Swiss company. Shortly after college I was working in a kitchen at the Drake Swiss Hotel in midtown and little Nestlé bars with the hotel’s logo proliferated so it shouldn’t be news really. I think it was the first time I had considered Swiss chocolate as an export. The company’s history starts with the merger of two makers of condensed milk and baby food in the 1890’s. The chocolate production and a role in the birth of milk chocolate, so says their site, follows in 1904.
While always happy to consume it, as a child I nonetheless admit I found Nestlé a poor relation to my true heart’s desire Hershey; the hard working denizens of Pennsylvania would be glad to know I am sure. I liked the crunch (that model appeared in 1938) added to the Nestlé bars however, but they had a more delicate flavor than the robust explosion of a Hershey bar. I did go through a period of affection for Kit Kat bars, also made by them, while living in England. Again, it was the appeal of the crunch – great with a cup of tea for a pick me up in the afternoon.
Frankly it has been a very long time since I have eaten either, the chocolate I am more likely to encounter these is a wider variety. Bags of Lindt, both milk and dark chocolate, have come my way as gifts recently; my mother has boxes of sugar-free chocolates at her house (surprisingly good, especially if you stick to the nut filled and caramels), the occasional organic bar from Whole Foods crosses my path. In fairness it should be noted that my diet does not allow for the unabashed eating of chocolate however, having found that eating chocolate leads to ultimately eating more chocolate, leading to more of me.
Despite my childhood loyalties, this tin tickles me. Your 2 cents could buy you a plain or almond “block” of chocolate – two sizes shown on the side of the tin, nuts making the smaller (fatter?) bar. Sadly only one of the painted sides is still in relatively good shape, jolly red and yellow paint. For some reason the magic of reaching into the glass top container and pulling out a chocolate bar is still evoked when I look at it. Perhaps that is why I have had trouble filling it with any of the mundane flotsam and jetsam of my desk. I am thinking I may take it to mom’s house in New Jersey where I am still constructing a home office for the days I am there. The accumulating pens and post-its may take up residence there, but the images on the tin tickling a desire for a treat.
Pam’s Pictorama Post: On New Year’s Eve I scrubbed my fry pan which had, after a sticky encounter with two Beyond Burgers, been soaking in the sink overnight. To my deep dismay, the handle began to wobble ominously, about to come off. I knew that this ten inch stainless steel friend was, after three and a half decades of virtually daily use, breathing its last.
There are, needless to say, many loses far worse than a fry pan and even I am a bit surprised at the depth of my sadness about its departure. It came to me as a graduation gift from college, part of a set with two sauce pots, a soup pot of a kind of stainless steel pot sets that are sold by department stores like Macy’s. There were lids that the soup pot and fry pan could share and sported a lid for the larger of the two pots. (That lid mysteriously disappeared during our kitchen renovation which I wrote about in a post you can read here. Kim and I really have no idea what could have happened to it and it took us awhile to realize it was really gone.)
They were a handsome group with reinforced bottoms and they distributed heat nicely. To a large degree I learned to cook with that set of pots. The pots and pans were a gift from my friend Suzanne who I credit with launching me with some early cooking lessons. During last week’s stay with Mom in New Jersey I told Suzanne of the pan’s demise. I’m not sure she remembers giving them to me although she allowed it was possible and certainly understood my sadness at its impending demise.
As someone who was trained as a professional cook I have undeniably put my pots and pans through their paces over the years. Uncomplainingly that fry pan has sauteed endlessly with a high flame under it. Countless piles of chopped onions and garlic have been softened in it, no smell like that few minutes when you start to cook something – perhaps the tang of tomato hitting right after the onion and garlic, or mushrooms piled in, the pan later to be deglazed again and with a bit of wine, scraped with an ever darkening wooden spoon. It will always be the smell of home to me. (I always remember one of the chefs I cooked with saying that you should never deglaze or use wine in a sauce you wouldn’t drink.) The pan is blackened on the bottom from high heat and flame, although the inside remains shiny.
Pictorama readers know that Deitch Studio is resident in a glorified single room, perched high in a building in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. The small space devoted to the kitchen, an area that is by my own account generally fairly topsy turvy, but where I manage to spew out a series of soups, stews, pan roasted vegetables and even the occasional bit of baked goods daily. (Some posts complete with recipes can be found here, here and here.) These pandemic years have resulted in even more meals made and the pots have stood nobly by.
The tiny quarters of the kitchen has kept my toolkit of implements tight however and, other than a roster of sheet pans as I seem to just kill those off every few years, I have only added a small, lidded sauce pan and a much smaller skillet I acquired over the years – the small skillet was a wedding gift as I remember. (There also is a non-stick pan made of a mysterious material that arrived on our shores, black with white flecks. Works well, but I wouldn’t subject it to high temperatures.) The sauce pan was purchased after one of the two from this original set was left on a burner and damaged, although it has as it turns out, remained in rotation despite that. There is no pot storage in this kitchen and therefore the few pots and pans generally remain piled on the back of the stove, waiting their turn at use, as seen above.
The pan was designed with a handle at the front, to help heft a heavy pan full, perhaps lifting it from the oven. Oven friendly, it has done its time roasting food in the oven too – there was even a time, decades ago now, when I still ate chicken and would occasionally roast a small one or parts in it, adorned by carrots, small potatoes, maybe green beans, onions and garlic. (I believe it housed fried chicken once or twice too, my grandmother’s recipe which involved flouring it in a paper bag. I was just discussing that recipe with my now vegan mother the other day.) The front handle popped off while scrubbing it about a year ago. It seems it was a warning sign over the bow, alas.
I have known this pan longer than I have known my husband Kim and it has been a quiet companion of my entire adult life. Unstinting in its service first to single me and then to us; in it I can see my twenty-two year old self, setting up my first apartment and cooking my nascent solo meals. Still, practically speaking a skillet with a loose handle is an accident waiting to happen. I considered my options for speedy replacement as this pan is in service everyday. Remarkably similar sets appear to be available online, but fewer where an individual pan could be purchased and it is hard to trust the heft of a pan to an online purchase. (A recent purchase of a coffee pot resulted in one with metal so thin I cut myself badly on it the first time I cleaned it.)
In the end I chose an All-Clad ten incher. The two most recent additions mentioned above were both an All-Clad pot and pan and they are well made without question. It is a magnificent pan, and if treated well these few guys will probably outlive me. The New York Times Wirecutter named the 12-inch the best fry pan a week later, further cementing my certainty that was a good choice. Still, I know cooking with it will be different, sloping sides containing less and different heating time. It will take some adapting. The fry pan arrived via William Sonoma yesterday – handle poking assertively and somewhat comically out of the side of the cardboard box, itching to get out.
Meanwhile, I just thought the fry pan of my youth deserved some recognition today. It has served admirably and owes us nothing, and it will be missed.
Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Today I get to combine my love of early photos with family. While I was visiting mom in New Jersey last week, my cousin Patti took out a huge basket of photos we went through together. Some folks remained unidentified, but a core group appeared throughout. (I wrote about this side of my family back in a post around a photo of a very early family wedding celebration. It can be found here.)
These are entirely my mother’s side of the family, the Italian immigrants who settled on the Jersey shore and ran a series of restaurants and food stands in what was a popular beach community. I apologize for the reproduction quality – I was just taking pictures of these photos on my phone.
As far as I can tell the genesis of these food enterprises was my great, great grandfather – last name Cittadino, first name not known to me. He is shown below in two photos, with car and bike.
I especially like the one of him with a bike. Regretfully no one knew who the two hotsy totsy looking, well dressed young women were. They showed up in some other photos. None of these photos were marked and had largely at one point been in an album, but we realized what everyone does when looking at family photos which is there are a lot of people who were friends or folks they worked with who were like family, but sadly no one remembers now.
The Deli, shown below, seems to have been the first restaurant incarnation of the family. I only recently learned of this earlier version of the family food establishments. As per an email from my mom below, I gather it was a place to eat as well as the take out sale of food. Sorry to say, these two fellows in the photo remain unidentified.
My grandfather had a deli and related food sale place in Long Branch on the Main Street Broadway. Every morning he walked to the bank for day cash on the way passed the owner of the bar getting to the bank. They struck up a conversation the fellow told him he was tired and wanted out. My grandfather then struck a deal walked on to the bank and got the loan went back and gave him the cash and that was it. He walked back to the deli told my grandmother and the customers eating there at the time and agreed all would help move down the street and that is how he moved down to the building with friends and customers helping shortly after when they did.
Norwood was the name of a street in Long Branch, in fact the street where my grandmother and the extended family had a home. (I wrote about that house in a post that can be found here). As per my mother’s email, the deli and the bar that followed, were actually on Broadway, the long main drag of what was once the thriving downtown which I believe ends at the ocean where the Boardwalk once thrived. The family home was within walking distance of the Deli and Bar, I think probably 15 or twenty minute walk, of it.
The family also seems to have two food concessions on the Long Branch Boardwalk as well, one I had always heard about, owned by my Aunt Ro. However, another turned up in these photos and I am not sure who owned this stand, but the general consensus was that this was not Ro’s but another. Not sure who is pictured here either, although he resembles my great uncle Frankie, but is too long ago to be him. Perhaps the Al mentioned on the awning boasting a Quick Lunch.
The family’s bar is what is remembered best by my mom, run by her grandparents, her mom and aunts. Mom would go to their apartment above the bar after school as a small child. Although much of the family worked there – not Mom’s father, Frank, who was an engineer for Bendix. While it is always referred to by family as The Bar, it served a lot of food as well. In addition to the daily fare special Sunday dinners were offered to steady customers, all prepared by the women of the extended family. Mom remembers them cooking non-stop between the restaurant and family.
The photo below is the aforementioned Frankie, father of my cousin Patti who stays with my mom these days and found these photos cleaning out her house. I believe this shot was at the bar although I would have voted for it being one of the beach concessions. (I wrote about my sectioned blue Willoware plates which were the Blue Plate Special plates at the bar and are our everyday dishes. You can find that post here.) My mom and uncle were too young to work there, although my mother used her restaurant background to waitress her way through college later in life.
The establishment remains today, at 591 Broadway in Long Branch – currently Johnny Piancone’s, ironically also an Italian bar restaurant. I have never been – although once my father and I had pizza in the place next door which I gathered from him had been there as long as he has known my mother.
My uncle ate at the restaurant several years back and they allowed him to visit the apartment upstairs which he also remembered vividly from afternoons there as a child. I have shown the bar today below which I found on the FB page. The bar pictured may be the originally one, although I believe my uncle said it had been cut down. The restaurant appears to have survived the pandemic with outdoor dining in a backyard and I would think doing take out. It’s nice to know that it is still there, still going in its own way.
Pam’s Pictorama Post: I purchased this little guy a couple of weeks ago. I saw him on Instagram one afternoon and grabbed him (sold by @marsh.and.meadow antiques), and I was just delighted when he showed up. Continuing with yesterday’s jewelry theme I also purchased the lovely Czech glass necklace below from Heather @marsh.and.meadow antiques. It was new old stock and she had a fistful of them! When I wore mine, to a rare in person lunch earlier this week, it was the first it had ever been worn despite being decades old.
I first met the proprietor, Heather, under the guise of her account, @_wherethewillowsgrow_, for the purchase of vintage photos and then I realized she sells other interesting stuff from her other account. She included this nice little photo of a family, shown below, in the package with the Czech glass necklace. I consider these folks as part of my Easter celebration in their spring hats and dapper clothes. (Also to say, she recently sold a necklace made of operculum which vaguely fascinated me, but I didn’t see it in time to pull the trigger. How is a necklace made of those somewhat ephemeral things? Find a post devoted to a pile of operculum here!)
Meanwhile, this great little Easter fellow presents this enormous spotted egg, tied with a big bow – and he sports a jolly big bow around his neck as well. I like this sort of frame he is in and I love that the back continues the design, bow, egg and bunny back. I realize that if you look carefully he does have a cotton tail which extrudes from the frame. He has a sweet face and expression and this is a very big egg he has. Although the pink in his ears is mostly missing, the tiny daubs of green and blue and gold in the flowers around the edge show a level of care in his making. He’s enjoyed a place of pride on my desk since he arrived and frankly I just like to have him there, pick him up and look at him.
There is a bale and he is meant to be a necklace. I would definitely wear the little fellow, although he is somewhat season specific, perhaps a thin bit of ribbon instead of a chain. No matter, I just like having his cheerful self around.
Admittedly I come at Easter from a largely non-ecumenical perspective. Easter for me will always be the launch of spring despite what the calendar or weather has to say about it. With a Catholic grandmother and Jewish grandparents, it has a mixed smattering of Passover thrown in and my childhood memories of this time of year are filled with Easter bread, matzoh brie, matzoh ball soup and of course chocolate. Easter and Passover are about food and family.
I am one of those kids who somehow subconsciously thought that bunnies laid eggs and that’s why the Easter Bunny brings eggs. At some point I realized that wasn’t the case and I admit it has always confused me. Yes, I understand the whole eggs and Christianity thing and the prolific bunnies of spring, but it was always remained a strange marriage in my mind. How did we end up with bunnies that deliver eggs? Chocolate eggs at that? And it seems to be a male bunny on top of it. Screwy.
I think I have touched on the big family Easter gatherings of my childhood in previous posts. (I wrote about the magic of my grandmother’s kitchen back in the 2015 post Ann’s Glass which can be found here.) I can remember Easter egg hunts in her generous yard – me in an Easter suit, white tights with baggy knees; I remember one in particular that was light blue and even had a little hat. (My mother was not prone to dressing us up as kids so perhaps that is why I remember the occasion, although I believe it is also documented in a photo somewhere. I think mom felt just keeping us clean and clothed and getting us to where we were going was generally sufficient when managing three kids.)
I always liked the stuff of Easter, the celluloid grass, small silky toy chicks, sugared eggs with Easter scenes unfolding within them. I liked the smell of Easter egg dye and vividly remember the messy joys of making those. (There was the year that our German Shepard, left unattended one afternoon, ate the better part of a dozen of our finished dyed Easter eggs. She didn’t get sick; she never did. Just took it in stride. However, I was very angry at her for robbing me of this ephemeral pleasure of the season.) Fluffy baby chicks, tiny soft bunnies, strange plastic eggs filled with toys and candy – what’s not to like?
I was thinking this morning that I have no memory of how we ultimately consumed all those hard boiled eggs each year, although we must have since mom didn’t waste food. My mother was not a maker of egg salad nor deviled eggs though and I do remember that the Paas dye seeped into through the shell and colored the inner eggs in places. I have specific memories of discovering egg salad and deviled eggs in adulthood. Maybe the dog got more of them each year than I knew. I will have to ask mom on the phone later.
My father, although Jewish, faithfully supplied us kids with baskets of Russell Stover baskets of candy every year, on into young adulthood, with amazing consistency. (My father was very good with the delivery of candy and there were equally consistent Valentine’s Day, heart shaped boxes each year. Those started with Russell Stover, but in adulthood morphed into Godiva and others as we got older.) The Russell Stover company still makes very similar chocolate eggs and baskets – they remained strangely constant over the years and I see them in the drugstore in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Most years I breakdown and purchase one of the chocolate eggs, filled with either strawberry or maple cream – the taste of childhood! Of course there were always the chocolate bunnies. I was a tad sad about consuming their cute selves – always ears first, eyes of hard sugar. Mom helping when they were solid chocolate and harder to break apart. It was always a somewhat inferior chocolate, but rapidly and joyfully consumed nevertheless.
For my father, non-observant though he was, this time of the year my mother would always make matzoh brie which we called fried matzoh. She had learned this from his mother, early in their married life I gather. Matzoh ball soup was a constant throughout the year, but would always be made too. In young adulthood I mastered both – my matzoh brie is a scrambled one like my mother’s; it tends to come more like an omelet when I purchase it in diners, usually on the Lower Eastside, and I like my matzoh balls a bit firmer than some people. (There is always a discussion of fluffiness.) Lots of salt and some pepper in the fried matzoh – I know exactly how my father liked it.
In retrospect it is a bit strange to think that we would have an Easter ham with my grandmother on Sunday, when we probably had matzoh brie for breakfast the day before. My diet (which promises to be a feature of my life well into summer at the rate I am going) and Kim’s aversion to eggs (he is probably turning green just reading about all this egg consumption) means alas, we will not celebrate the advent of Easter and Passover related food this year. Perhaps next year will be a different story and I will find the recipe for the glorious fat loaves of Easter bread my grandmother used to make and treat you to the story of baking them.
I don’t know why, but the idea of a spicy version of Manhattan clam chowder started to nag at my brain recently. I enjoy the occasional cup of the stuff when out – either the red Manhattan style or even (although less frequently) the creamier New England version. I can’t say I go out of my way to get it, more like it is an acceptable option when navigating a menu at a diner with a desire to add a bit on, or alternatively maybe not indulge too much.
In general though, I find it lacking and I have never made it myself, nor thought much about it. But for some reason I recently began to think about how you could make a more substantial and spicier one, a zootier version if you will. I think it started because I had several cans of clams which I had purchased for the occasional fish pasta I make (usually with some shrimp, leftover fish bits and maybe some of the canned clams), but I am currently on a diet so pasta isn’t happening right now.
Ah yes, speaking of that diet, readers know I have opined a bit in previous posts about the comfort of cooking. I explored re-creating some family recipes during what I tend to think of as Pandemic Part 1: the First Six Months (those recipes can be found here and here), and some new comfort food (a lovely cheesy bread can be found here) which also made the first months of quarantine – TheWeight Gaining Months.
After a long period of thinking that dieting during a pandemic didn’t make sense, I have reversed course and I am now in Phase 2: the Dieting Months. However, I do not intend to abandon the comfort I take in cooking so I am now applying my skill to devising soups and stews. During these cold winter months they are wonderful and it is satisfying. I derive as much joy out of constructing them that I would from baking, and happily fill the apartment with the aroma of the newest concoction. I generally get several meals for the two of us out of each attempt which lightens the weekday burden of meal planning a bit.
Meanwhile, pandemic life has made me consider (and establish) what I euphemistically call my pantry. For the record, my pantry is one tall, narrow kitchen cabinet and a banker’s box in the entryway closet recently pressed into service. Until I remodeled our kitchen it was entirely non-existent and a few cans and whatnot were tucked in among the dishes, pots and pans, overflowing onto the limited countertop. It expanded (to the closet annex) during the initial phase of NYC lockdown when grocery shopping was most difficult. It now contains some extra pasta, beans, vegetable broth and the like. (The tale of the kitchen renovation can largely be found here and here – not a chapter I am personally willing to revisit at the moment.)
Growing up in suburban New Jersey we had an amazing pantry that was a large, sort of five foot cabinet of shelves which folded up on itself, once and then again. (Amazing!) I was fairly entertained by the engineering of it as a child (the long piano hinges to bear the weight of each heavy section of shelf), and I am now in awe of the amount it held. Still, were I to move to the suburbs I would likely opt for a walk-in space, a small room of shelves, where I could see everything and bulk buy to my heart’s content. (I come from a long line of if not quite hoarders, folks who like to buy in large quantity and to be well stocked on essentials. My mother has been buying paper towels and toilet paper in bulk for decades and never thought twice about purchasing industrial sized tin cans of olive oil which I remember having trouble hefting.) I also aspire to having a kitchen sink large enough to bathe a small child or good size dog.
It is not to be my fate and instead our tiny apartment (equipped with its bar sink, sigh), requires a certain vigilance around rotating through and using up food, buying just enough to feel well stocked, but not crowding us and the cats out of the house. (I confess that the aforementioned diet and my increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is skewing all this and you can barely open our refrigerator after a Fresh Direct delivery on Sunday morning and oranges constantly roll out when you open it as they are tucked into nooks.)
Anyway, all this to say my so-called pantry had this couple of cans of clams awaiting bouillabaisse (I made that for the holidays and the recipe and story can be found here, at the bottom of my Boxing Day post), but that was more ambitious than I was feeling. The fish pasta was too carb heavy for the zippy new diet so I went to work on this. This spicy chowder has the charm of being largely made from what can be kept in the house, an advantage in these days of not wanting to run to the store.
I read a few recipes online and constructed mine from there. It goes without saying that this is a very flexible recipe which encourages its own specifics around the general idea and framework. Most of the ones I read called for bacon, but we are a pescatarian/no meat household so I went in a different direction. However, I would think you would chop it and add it to cook in the beginning with the garlic, onion and carrots. As I say above – use it to use up whatever leftovers are languishing in the fridge, bits of veg and fish.
In the before time I was a bit of a snob about using frozen or canned vegetables, but these days, especially for soup they are handy and work just fine. Of course if you are making this in the summer you’d use fresh corn and maybe even throw the cob in for good measure and to thicken the soup, perhaps even instead of the potato, but no complaints about this pantry version.
The sort of mainstay ingredients are as follows:
Large can of clams, drained
Bottle of clam juice
Large bottle of Clamato juice (my favorite cheat for fish stock!)
Large can of diced tomatoes
One large or two small bell peppers; I used red
Garlic (lots! I think I used three or four large cloves)
New or creamer potatoes – help to thicken although I kept them to a minimum – four of the minature creamer ones, another recent discovery and I keep a bag of them in the house for various uses.
Jalapeño peppers (Pandemic pantry discovery for me – I keep a jar of them in the fridge – try them on grilled cheese sometime!) I used about 1/4 cup.
Herbs – I had a bunch of flat leaf parsley and some fresh basil so I used that chopped. I also added two bay leaves and a bit of thyme. I used Maras red pepper (a whole post could be devoted to the discovery of this gentle, but strong red pepper as a seasoning!), but you could use red pepper flakes (I’d chop them a bit), chili pepper or whatever you prefer to make things spicy. I always like a bit of ground coriander. Salt to taste. I adjusted the seasoning throughout cooking in a more rigorous way than usual and I used a fine salt rather than the rough ground salt I prefer on many other things – no idea if that made a difference.
Tomato and anchovy paste (optional but I like to add it for depth)
Wine or vermouth, about a half a cup
So I was feeling a bit lazy and I used the Cuisinart to chop the onion, the garlic and the herbs. Not sure it was a good idea, but I decided to Cuisinart the red pepper as well. Of course this meant that it was very fine and it also brought out all the liquid which I had not anticipated and really I ended up deglazing the pan when I added it. It’s soup so in the end it doesn’t really matter, but the result was a finer, less chunky soup. I think fine either way although my usual go to is to hand chop.
Anyway, I softened the garlic, onions, celery and carrots first, along with the tomato and anchovy paste (first go of salt and the Maras pepper at this point, but I added more later), then added the potatoes (sliced pretty small), then bell peppers and then you can deglaze the pot with the wine or vermouth; I keep vermouth for cooking as a wine alternative. This assumes you are using frozen or canned corn and green beans – if fresh you would want to add them before deglazing.
Add the Clamato, the diced tomato, clams, clam juice, Jalapeño peppers (rough chopped), corn, beans, etc. and the herbs. Bring to a hard boil for a bit. Adjust seasoning. Simmer for no less than an hour, but the longer the better. Keep checking the seasoning throughout – I wanted it very spicy but didn’t want to kill us so it was a fine line. This is another recipe that is definitely better after a day in the fridge. I am going to make a variation on it today with shrimp and leftover flounder, with perhaps a few cheese tortellini to keep things interesting.
If I wasn’t on a diet I would serve this with corn bread or muffins – or even some crusty buttered baguette. Nevertheless, it was so great I can’t wait to make it again.
Pam’s Pictorama Post: I know I am far from alone in being a bit bereft this holiday season. While a decision to stay home makes sense, this is the first holiday season I will not find myself with family in New Jersey on Christmas and it saddens me deeply. I am usually a fan of the holidays, but this year fail to have much ho, ho, ho. Of course, much of the world is in exactly the same place, and it is hard to rally even nominal holiday spirit and instead seems easier to try to ignore the calendar entirely.
Nevertheless, Kim and I did produce our annual holiday card and those are going out in the mail this week – look for a Deitch Studio-Pictorama card reveal post next weekend! And a bit of holiday spirit has begun to infuse me. I have been snapping pictures of holiday decorations as part of my morning outdoor workout. Winking fairy lights, faux icicles and bubbling tree lights have always attracted me and many of them are still lit from the night before when I head out in the morning. And I have looked again and again at the limited square footage of our apartment to see if maybe a small tree might fit and provide the cats with the opportunity to pretend they live in a tiny indoor forest. Those few feet of unoccupied space continue to evade me however – Pictorama readers also know, it is a very small apartment.
Therefore, as I have frequently in recent months, I reach into my bag of cooking tricks to see how I might summon a bit of holiday cheer for the coming weeks, and I have landed on Christmas cookies, specifically my grandmother’s ginger spice cookies.
As some of you have read in prior posts, I was blessed to grow up with a maternal grandmother who was an extraordinary cook and who, along with her two sisters (she was Anne and they were Ro, for Rose, and Mickey, or Margaret), turned every holiday into a table-groaning fiesta of food. (I wrote about recreating my grandmother’s Poor Man’s Cake, including the recipe, in a post that can be found here. In recent weeks I wrote about her cherry preserves and that post can be found here.)
Bread, home-made pasta, meatballs, and hams – and for dessert fried dough with confectioner’s sugar (these were also served without the sugar and instead with tomato sauce for subsequent, post-holiday meals) and homemade cannoli. And at Christmas there were Christmas cookies, the production of which would have been taking place throughout the month of December, beginning right after Thanksgiving. (The holiday LP’s would come out at the same time – Andy Williams belting out that it is The Most Wonderful Season of All and Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire.)
My grandmother would come to bake some, although certainly not all, of her holiday cookies at our house and therefore I had a front row seat, helping her and watching for many years. I deeply suspect I can no longer name all of the types of cookies she routinely made each year – as I write more come to mind. Those that stand out in my memory are: Russian tea cakes in the form of wonderful little balls of cookie and nuts covered in powdered sugar, mom’s favorite were a cream cheese variety; thumbprints which were dotted with different jams; gingerbread (which was always made at our house so we could decorate them with icing and other tidbits and smelled just heavenly cooking); chocolate and butter cookie pinwheels; regular butter cookies which were made with pounds of butter and decorated with colored sugar – there was a variation on these which spit out a similar dough with a handheld device and made a somewhat fatter star-shaped version which were decorated with sprinkles instead of sugar. (I had to pause to look this up to make sure I hadn’t imagined it and yes, there is an electric plastic version made today and it is called a cookie gun or handpress.)
I loved the sprinkles, colored sugars, icings and cookie cutters that were brought out on these occasions – the latter and the above mentioned cookie press appeared each year in a series of ancient flour-dusted plastic bags my grandmother would carry them in. Tins of mixed cookies were assembled and given out to the branches of the family and we’d have a supply that lasted into January. She would make endless tins of them for family and friends – the prodigious output was stored on her sun porch which was cool in winter, awaiting distribution.
My holiday favorite was the butter cookies and it is those I am tempted to make, however those pounds of butter are intimidating me in my efforts to pull back on the pandemic pounds I have acquired since March, and instead I have landed on the ginger spice cookies which were another favorite. Among my grandmother’s cookies, the spice cookies (they were always just the spice cookies in our family lexicon) were the only ones that were also made out of season. I do not remember my grandmother making any other cookies at another time of the year – perhaps her extraordinary holiday output precluded additional cookie baking in her mind, I never asked – some things just were and that was one.
The spice cookies were also the first cookies I learned to make on my own. I think by the time I learned to make them I had probably played around with chocolate chip cookies, made from the recipe on the back of the bag of chips. (It was years before we graduated to the sophistication of M&M’s in our cookies – yes, I am that old.) The spice cookies represented my first nascent attempts at baking and was a favorable enough one that at one time I considered it for a career, but that, as we say, is another story.
There is a slightly chewy quality to them if you don’t over bake them and they are quite addictive. They are easily thrown together and were an excellent and gratifying early lesson in baking. I remember receiving an honorable mention for them in a Girl Scout baking competition. The troop leader told my mother that I would have gotten first place on the taste of them, but they were too irregular in shape. This seemed hugely unjust to the pint-sized me as in my mind cookies were about how they tasted, not how uniform they could be. (Looking back on it, there was probably an important lesson about the world I was being given as well and likely that is why it has remained in my mind all these years.)
This year, rather than Andy Williams I have Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Big Band Holiday concerts playing on the computer – a new one will be released on December 19 with a week of available listening. (Early in my career with the band I hit the road during the Big Band Holiday tour and I wrote about that rollicking trip in a post can be found here. I believe I heard that concert a dozen times over the course of that season.) Of course I need to hawk our online Big Band Holiday concert tickets which can be purchased here and can be played on-demand through December 26.) It will be a different and memorable holiday with new traditions this year.
So, with apologies and regrets that I do not have cookie photos yet as I am planning to make them this afternoon, I offer the recipe below. I promised to post photos here and elsewhere after the fact. I have only the rudiments of my grandmother’s recipe, given to me by my non-baking uncle so I may need to tinker with the instructions as well!
Recipefor Anne’s Ginger Spice Cookies:
3/4 cup soft shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses (I’m going for the original, not dark here)
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ginger
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
confectioner’s sugar as needed
Combine ingredients: dry first together, then cream butter and sugar and add the egg and molasses. Mix all thoroughly. (A hand or standing mixer is called for if you have one, although I have a vague memory of doing it by hand. I do have an ancient hand mixer I rarely use, from a garage sale and purchased by my father for me. The tape price tag still stuck on it. My memory is that I mixed these by hand though and by hand I do mean, with your hands, not an implement.) Please note that it is shortening (margarine) not butter and it should be quite soft so it mixes easily with the sugar and other ingredients.
A recipe I checked online suggests chilling the batter for 2 hours to prevent the aforementioned spreading. She also uses parchment paper on the cookie sheet which does make it go quickly and with less mess, especially in a small kitchen like mine. My memory (which does not include refrigerating although mom remembered yes when asked) was that we lightly greased the cookie sheet with some of the shortening. Form the balls of dough – about an inch or the size of the ball that came with jax. Bake at 350 degrees for about 6-8 minutes. (Keep an eye on them not to over bake. The first batch in my gas stove overcooked at about 10 minutes.) Allow cookies to cool for the first few minutes on the baking sheet because they are soft – then transfer to a cooling rack. After the cookies are fully cooled shake powdered sugar over them. If you are stacking them in a tin, layer parchment paper between them or they will stick. Eat cookies, listen to holiday music and enjoy!
Postscript! These were like tasting my childhood again!
Pam’s Pictorama Post: The day before Thanksgiving a bag showed up with my doorman and tucked inside were two delightful little jars of jam and a mason jar of tomato water. These were sent by Liz, a colleague, friend and chef who lives in my neighborhood and has so kindly sent along such care packages periodically during the long, shutdown time. Her bag of goodies not only improved our breakfast repast, but set loose a wonderful torrent of memories shared with my mother, mostly of the yard I knew as my grandmother’s, where my mother spent most of her childhood. Today’s post is devoted to those memories.
To start, for those of you who have not experienced it, tomato water is the water you drain out of tomatoes. This is sometimes done before canning or cooking tomatoes down in recipes. The result, assuming you like tomatoes, is drink that is like a wonderful burst of summer in your mouth. Liz introduced me to this delight, made me a fan and always includes a mason jar of it. This one is yellow – and tastes of those different tomatoes. Still very yummy and a real treasured reminder of summer as we head into a darker, gloomier season.
One jam is quince. It is my introduction to it and I like it very much. The only quince trees I ever made the acquaintance of were up at The Cloister’s garden in Fort Tryon Park. There are lovely ancient looking gnarled examples in that garden and a quick read shows that some types can live, with care, longer than a human life span, and that getting them to produce an agreeable fruit isn’t easy. Back in 2012, the New York Times was inspired to devote an article to quince trees, In Praise of the Misunderstood Quince, specifically launching the discussion around those venerable examples of the trees at The Cloisters.
The other jar was plum and sour cherry jam. This one opened a Pandora’s box of taste memory because I have not had sour cherry jam or preserves since childhood. My grandmother used to make it each year – children and their spouses and the grandchildren were all tasked with a morning of picking the sour cherries off of an enormous tree in her yard. As I was a small child I assume my memory of it as being an enormous tree may be a bit exaggerated, but I do believe it was a mature and large specimen.
The cherries were yellow with a sort of red blush – more yellow than the ones I found to show here but that is the idea. We collected them in plastic buckets – strangely I remember an aqua colored one in use specifically. My grandmother had an enormous, ancient double sink and she would be in the kitchen cleaning them as we brought them in. I don’t think I was privy to the process of cooking them down, but the end result were jars of cherries that would last us the better part of a year. This ideally to be spread on her own homemade bread which we consumed in enormous slabs.
A subsequent conversation with my mom reveals that growing up, when several generations lived in the house I knew as my grandmother’s, the property next door also belonged to them. (I have written about my grandmother’s house and yard twice before. Those posts can be found here and here.)
Mom tells me that her grandmother taught her that it was planted very intentionally, almost entirely with food producing plants to feed the family. (My mother points to this as being particular to the Italian immigrant side of the family which was her mother’s.) Great grandma did not approve of the decorative plants my mother liked – wasted effort and space. To my mother’s memory, in addition to the cherry tree, there was: an apricot, a walnut, a chestnut, something called a freestone peach (which evidently failed to produce much), and two pear trees. My mom remembers her father always keeping walnuts from the tree in his pocket to share with the occasional inquisitive squirrel who would come and take it from his hands.
I remember the chestnuts on the ground there. (Of course I was very small and closer to the ground than the fruit bearing part of a tree after all.) The furry, prickly outside of the chestnuts always fascinated me, as did the surprise of the velvety smooth chestnut inside. I never developed a taste for chestnuts, my father was fond of them though and I believe we did toast them in our fireplace experimentally one winter. My dad would buy them on the street here in Manhattan where you can smell them roasting in winter even now. (Well, at least in the now before now – are there chestnuts roasting without tourists in midtown?) The chestnut tree was an odd survivor of a nationwide blight (not unlike that which destroyed so many American Elms), and mom says people from Rutgers came to study it and photograph it as a survivor.
I love walnuts so I am surprised I have no memory of those on the ground or of that tree specifically. The parcel of land to one side of the house was sold when I was still very small, although mom says the walnut tree was near the garage so not sold off as was one of the pear trees which sadly was cut down to build the house there.
Mom says she adored the pear trees and that she can remember eating pears right off of them. One tree was on the property that was sold and was cut down for the house to be built. The other of those two trees was destroyed by a lightening strike which split it down the middle, leaving only charred halves. Mom said it was like losing an old friend.
She shared other memories of climbing up into the apricot tree, which had a long, low lying branch, to read her library books in the summer. She and her friend Jackie had competitions to see how many books they could read in a summer – I did the same with my friends as a kid, must have been her idea. It was the beginning of my life-long voracious reading habit.
Despite being housebound these days my mother still enjoys the garden, in her recently acquired home on a small plot of land. Under her instruction, the yard has been planted by a patient and lovely man known only to me as Mike, with many flowering plants – however specifically and thoughtfully designed to feed the birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife she likes to attract and to watch from the windows. A garden that provides, but in a very different way.