Remember when we were kids, and we had endless wish lists of holiday gifts? Barbie Styling Head, Easy Bake Oven, Snoopy Sno Cone Machine, that sort of thing. I probably shouldn’t say any more, because I’m starting to sound like quite the retrograde feminine traditionalist, but you get the idea. Kids love stuff, and the winter holiday is primo stuff-buying season for kids. Adults too, as it turns out. When I first met my husband, I discovered that every holiday season, he and his mother engaged in the wholly pragmatic ritual of exchanging dog-eared catalogues with the desired merchandise circled within. I scoffed at this practice, of course, tarring it as an unromantic concession to the materialism of Christmas. We’re adults, I protested, and if you’re still buying holiday gifts for other adults, you should make an effort to know their tastes and interests. Really try to understand them as people, and buy them carefully chosen, meaningful gifts, not just turtlenecks from L.L. Bean and Borders gift cards.
I’m just going to tell this story about what a total load of bullshit my whole position on gifts turned out to be. Our protagonist doesn’t read this blog, so just let me have this, ok? Here’s what happened. Ever since my “thoughtful gifts” putsch of 2001, my mother in law and I exchanged gifts without any sort of holiday wish lists as a guide, with varying degrees of success or failure. Over the years, she bought me a series of mysteries – never registering that I hate mysteries and almost never read fiction. In 2005, I bought her a first edition of The World is Flat based on my knowledge that she reads the Times assiduously and admires everyone who writes in their pages (regardless of viewpoint, apparently), but totally ignorant of the fact that she already owned two copies. It kind of went like this every year. And then it was 2006. Right around Thanksgiving that year, my husband and I were sitting in his mother’s living room in suburban Philadelphia when my eye wandered over to a pair of two-dimensional copper cats in the window. The idea with these unbearably awful cats was that you could pose them in different ways so they could be attacking each other, frolicking, or just hanging out together. It’s possible she saw me looking at them. Does this seem like a nonsequitur? It’s not.
For a few years I had become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that my mother in law was spending so much money on the holidays since, as an adult, it’s not as though I really need any of this stuff, and she was headed toward retirement. Anything I really need (a new slate roof, second floor bathroom refurbishment) or want (rotovap, chamber sealer, lyophilizer) is way out of the range of reasonable gift expectations, and nearly everything else I can buy myself. So that Christmas, when I opened the square white box and unfolded several layers of tissue paper to find a pair of two-dimensional copper cats – expensive, two-dimensional copper cats – you can imagine how excited I felt. “Oh,” I said. “Just like yours.”
I since have conceded to my husband that the wish list method is superior to my idealized conception of gift-giving. Sometimes coups-d’états end with the restoration of the establishment, after all. As a matter of fact, I have adopted the wish list with the zealotry of the convert, making Amazon wishlists, evangelizing to my husband about their use, and publicly humiliating myself (as now) by repeating the story of my conversion at every available holiday opportunity. Actually, it doesn’t come up all that often. The moral of the story, though, is that you should make lists and exchange them to avoid being given unaesthetic “works of art” for the holidays, which you may have to trot out on future family visits to avoid uncomfortable questioning. But when list-exchanging would be awkward or socially inappropriate, the gift of food is never wrong.
Most people love either sugar or fat (admit it or not). Things have become more complicated over the years, as meat eatership is down, and so is sugar consumption. But your odds of making one or the other of these items work as a gift are pretty good. And to know which one to give your intended target, or whether to go back to the drawing board, you really have to make an effort to know their tastes and interests. See? You really can have it all. Happy holidays.
Figs with brandied ganache
Full disclosure: I did not conceptualize these figs in the first instance. Nat and I were killing time at a farmer’s market in Swarthmore (where my mother in law lives) when we encountered a vendor selling figs stuffed with ganache in boxes from Williams-Sonoma. We bought a small wooden box holding six figs and they were gone almost immediately. I thought, how hard could these be to make at home? Not hard. I mean, I’m not a pastry chef or confiseur by any means, and I worked it out on my first try.
The most difficult part of this exercise is dipping in the chocolate coating If you don’t already know, chocolate must be tempered to achieve that glossy snap at room temperature. This means that, once you melt the chocolate, you need to bring the temperature back down to 88F/31C and keep it there while you use it to coat your bonbons or whatever. There exist a couple of methods to temper chocolate, but in my opinion, the easiest is to melt chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches roughly 110F/43C, and then stir in cold chocolate (couverture chocolate works best because it has been pre-tempered) until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine) and work as quickly as you can. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it won’t lose heat immediately.
You can substitute another liquor for the brandy, but I chose a Spanish brandy (a Torres Jaime I solera) because it was a great pairing with the figs and the Spanish chocolate. Bourbon and some types of scotch whisky (particularly those aged in solera casks) would make excellent choices. Rum is a little cloying with the figs, in my opinion, unless you use something like Gosling’s Old or Santa Teresa 1792.
One thing: if choosing the second (injection) method below to fill the figs, you will need a syringe to fill the figs with ganache. This is not as deviant as it sounds. You can order an appropriately large syringe from L’Epicerie for about $4 or you can try to hit up your friendly neighborhood pharmacy. When I had my wisdom teeth out, years ago, I was told to keep my mouth clean with a syringe of warm water (there’s no needle). If you go the pharmacy route, the only difference is that you’ll have to refill the syringe more often, as it doesn’t hold as much.
One to two dozen dried figs, depending on size (I believe I used calimyrna, but see what you can find)
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart 80%), chopped
8 ounces (1 cup) heavy cream
1 tbsp corn syrup
2 tbsp brandy
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart dark), divided
Make the ganache:
Bring the cream to a boil. Allow to cool to about 120F; bring to a second boil and cool again. Bring to a third boil and add the corn syrup. Immediately pour through a fine sieve over the chopped chocolate. Stir well with a silicone spatula; do not overwork or beat in air. When cool (at room temperature), stir in the brandy and incorporate completely. You must wait to room temperature or the addition of cool liquid to warm chocolate may cause the mixture to seize.
Lay a sheet of wax paper in a sheet pan. Fill the figs. Full disclosure: I only ever have used the second method to fill the figs; the first one is a guess but I know it will work.
First method: place plastic wrap on the surface of the ganache to prevent a skin from forming, and allow the ganache to solidify somewhat. Slice the bottom off each fig and, using a small spoon, hollow out some of the flesh. Fill with ganache (using a spoon or butter knife) and place, bottom side down, on the wax paper to solidify further.
Second method: Fit an iSi ProfiWhip canister with an injector needle. Charge with nitrous. Blow out each fig with just a puff (not too hard!) until each one just puffs up. This pushes the fig flesh toward the walls and makes it easier to fill each one with ganache while leaving the fig intact. See before/after shots below.
Fill the syringe with ganache while still warm. It helps to use the smallest possible spoon. Working quickly (because once you push the plunger, the ganache will come out quickly), fill each fig from the center of the flat, plump bottom. Inject from the blowout point and push until the fig is full. Set injection-side down on the wax paper.
Prepare the dipping chocolate:
Melt 5 ounces of the dark chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches 110F/43C, and then turn off the heat. Remove the top pot from the boiler but do not take the water off the stove. Stir in cold chocolate small piece by small piece until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Set the double boiler back on top of the water and keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine). Working as quickly as you can, dip the bottom of each fig into the couverture. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it will not lose heat immediately. If it begins to set up, return to the double boiler and bring back to 88F. Place the dipped figs on the wax paper after dipping. Leave about an inch between figs.
Looking for something for the meat glutton in your life? Duck rillettes ought to do it.
Here’s the thing. Rillettes are the easiest of the pâté-like meat preparations to make, and yet anyone who receives a little jar of duck rillettes from you will act as though you flew to the Loire River valley and picked it up specially. They should – as easy as rillettes are to make, they taste like a million bucks. Traditionally, in the Loire départements, the rillettes were made from pork belly and shoulder. You can and should do that as well, but all I had handy was duck confit, so that’s what you’re getting this time. I do have a nine pound belly in the reach in, though, and if I get around to it this weekend, I’ll make some pork rillettes.
Pack your product in these lidded jars, complete with rubber gaskets. Not only do they look incredible, but they really keep the air out (in combination with the layer of fat on the rillettes). If you’re really motivated, you even can make labels. Once packed, they will keep, unopened, for a couple of months in the refrigerator, longer in the freezer. Once opened, consume within ten days. Best with toast points, excellent with pickled onions and cornichons.
One recipe (six legs) duck confit, from this recipe, fat and all, chilled solid
½ cup Dijon mustard (I like to use a green peppercorn Dijon by Maille or Edmund Fallot but you don’t have to do that)
About 1 tsp freshly ground black peppercorn
Lift the duck from the fat and measure out about 1 ½ c fat. Keep cold. Remove the duck meat from the bones and skin. In a bowl, combine all the duck meat, 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about ¼ c cold duck fat. Stir using a fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c duck fat. Continue stirring. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither lean-meaty nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c duck fat (or more) and 2 tbsp mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper.
Allow the remaining duck fat to melt until just liquid.
Pack into sterilized lidded jars and top with ¼ inch liquid duck fat. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve.