I'm Hitting the Buffet Lemon Tartlets

I love a buffet. Not a smelly steam-table of gloppy looking interpretations of ethnic offerings (congealed sesame noodles? slime coated chicken vindaloo?) or limp french fries curling into the fetal position against a red and grey roast beef under the glare of a heat lamp.
No, I like a well thought out table of fresh, colorful, happy looking salads, pastas, some grilled chicken or fish, seasonal vegetables, and bread. To be able to have a little bit of the everything that you want (as opposed to compromising over a group order at a family style restaurant--and we all know how I feel about sharing) is really the perfect meal. But more than anything else, of course, I love a dessert buffet.

Twenty years ago I went to a wedding in a tired, Kosher Long Island catering hall (don't ask--I worked with the bride and don't even remember the groom's name) and was introduced to the most wonderful tradition a sweet tooth could hope for: the Viennese Table. Do you know what that is? I'd never heard of or seen one before, despite a brief trip to Austria in 1985. But, I was in Salzburg (focusing on The Sound of Music tour with my friend Michelle) so maybe their customs differ from Vienna. There is no way I would have missed a table devoted to sachertortes, linzertortes and strudels. I started to think about it again when the New York Times ran an article a few weeks ago about the tradition of cookie tables at Pittsburgh wedding receptions. That would be an invitation I would gladly accept--an Italian wedding in Pittsburgh! Can you imagine picking among 26 different types of cookies?! Then the cake wouldn't be nearly as big a disappointment as it is sure to be. Unfortunately, I know no one in Pittsburgh, but a girl can dream. Back to the Viennese Table. It is an enormous dessert buffet with everything from fancy cakes, to small pastries, cookies, fruit, mousses etc. I always assumed it was an historically Jewish wedding feature but I may be wrong. My research is coming up with nothing about its genesis. But frankly, I don't really care. Just let me at it.
The only issue with dessert buffets is the conundrum presented by the whole cake. No one wants to be the first to cut into it and, really, is making the commitment to a piece of a larger whole (cake, pie, torte or tart) what you want from a buffet? Not to mention what that larger whole will look like once an inexperienced slicer gets to sawing at it--completely hacked at and unappealing. Better to serve bite sized treats that don't take over the plate and infringe on the space you will need for the many little morsels you plan to sample.
These lemon tartlets are perfect for a dessert buffet. Maybe for your New Year's Eve party? The citrusy sour of the curd cuts through the buttery, rich sweetness of the shortbread cookie so nicely and the berry garnish adds such a pretty dot of color. They are the perfect one bite (or two if you don't want to look like you've stuffed your face and/or spit crumbs at the cute guy/girl who tries to chat you up after you've popped it in its entirety into your mouth) treat to add to your own Viennese Table. No ticket to Austria required.

I'm Hitting the Buffet Lemon Tartlets
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Lemon Curd

(thank you Martha Stewart Baking Handbook)
8 large egg yolks
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
½ cup plus 2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1/8 t salt
1 ¼ sticks butter, cold, cut into pieces

Combine yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice & sugar in heavy bottom saucepan; whisk to combine.
Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon (scrape sides of pan) until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon, 8-10 minutes, and/or registers 160 on a thermometer.
Remove sauce pan from heat.

Add salt and butter, one piece at a time, stirring until smooth.
Strain through fine sieve into a medium bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap, directly on surface and chill until firm and set, about one hour. Store in fridge until ready to use
Shortbread Tartlets
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 pint blueberries or raspberries for garnish

Preheat oven to 325

Spray 36 muffin mini muffin pan with cooking spray (if you only have 24 mini muffiin pan bake first batch, cool, wash and use again).

Using electric mixer cream butter and sugar together, @ 2 minutes.
Beat in vanilla extract.

On low speed (so you don’t have a dust cloud) add flour, cornstarch and salt and mix until incorporated.
Using a mini ice cream scoop (2 teaspoon size) or two teaspoons place ball of dough in each cup of a mini muffin pan. There will be enough for 36 tarts. Using your fingertips press dough up sides of each muffin cup creating an indent. If dough is too sticky pop it in the fridge for 10 minutes.
Once filled, place pan in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Bake for 10 minutes then using fork, prick bottom of each tartlet and put back in oven for another 10-12 minutes until lightly browned.

Remove pan from oven and place on wire rack to cool.

Once cool use small paring knife to pry each tartlet out of pan.
Spoon lemon curd onto tartlet using teaspoon. Place a berry into center of curd and serve.


Mexican Nightmare Vacation Wedding Cakes

Exactly four years ago I spent twelve days around Christmas with my parents, siblings, niece and friend at a gorgeous ranch in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Every day was beautiful—dry, mid 70’s brilliantly sunny. My hair never looked better. Sounds perfect, right? Wrong.
Now, before I come off sounding like a spoiled princess I need to be very clear that I did not grow up in one of those families that took lavish vacations every Christmas and Spring break. Not in the least. Holiday travel is a big deal to us and my outrage stemmed more from feeling my generous father had been hoodwinked by the property owner than it did from my own frustration. I know, aren’t I nice? It’s true. I felt terrible for him.

The ranch, owned by a former distant colleague of Dad’s was really more like a house of cards. On the outside it was architecturally beautiful, landscaped and lush (meaning that water which might have served the arid surroundings and its people was being pumped onto the property to keep it looking like we were in the rain forest instead of the desert.) The inside was another story.
The electrical wiring: Unbeknownst to us the nights were freezing and the house was not centrally heated. What happens when you plug in two space heaters (on opposite sides of a supposedly modern house) at once? Kaboom. You’ve blown a fuse and now you’re sitting in the dark with a crying, frozen baby, trying to grope around for a hidden power source. You then learn that the heater will have to be rationed and the baby will always win.
The plumbing: Upon finishing her evening bath my mother pulled up the stopper to empty the tub, only to find water rising out of the enormous drain planted in the middle of the bathroom and flooding the entire floor. Housekeeping’s pitiful attempt to clean it up with a tiny mop was too painful to watch. Two days later a toilet ceases to function.

The comfort: That cozy nook in the corner where you want to read? Oh no, that lamp is just for show and doesn’t turn on. And that fluffy looking couch? No, it’s stuffed with foam which collapses under your relatively light weight so that you might as well be sitting on a wooden bench. In the dark. Shivering. So, why not light a fire in that fireplace in your bedroom? Sorry, the flue is broken and now you're choking on the black, billowing smoke rapidly enveloping the room.

The issue was that during the days we were having a great time. San Miguel is incredibly charming and there is so much to see and the weather was amazing for walking around and exploring.
But just as the setting sun cast its shadow across the lovely colonial courtyards so it did to our spirits. Knowing we were about to return to a house where every night something went wrong prompted a rolling wave of depression and anxiety that started with me and made its way through the entire group. I like to be able to count on things and the house was all about the unpredictable.

How to cope? We were quickly plowing through our multiple cases of red wine. “Vino tinto? Poco Mas?” Querino, the caretaker of the rotting ranch, offered continuously. “Si! Por favor. Gracias!”
And now to the food. Lunch was always good because we ate while we were out and about. But, because of the baby we ate breakfast and dinner at the house of unreliability. After an evening of rubber chicken breasts, iceberg lettuce salad with orange French dressing and a basket of Wonder bread my mother attempted to communicate a suggestion; “Mas authentico?” she pleaded in an Italian accent (?) to Querino. “Comme (uh, Mom that’s French) quesadillas, fajitas, tacos? Merci.” (Oh dear.) Grabbing the English-Spanish dictionary from my mother’s hands, “Postres, por favor?” I begged. I had gone for two meals without dessert and was close to losing it. Where was the dulce de leche? Spicy hot chocolate? Mexican wedding cakes?
I was so hungry that night I tip-toed into the off-limits kitchen to see what I could rustle up. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling barely illuminated the open cabinet, or should I say 1970 convenience food time capsule—the Mexican versions of Wishbone salad dressings, boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Minute Rice, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and jars of Miracle Whip all elbowed each other for shelf space. I gave up and remembered I still had some pretzels in my purse from the plane.
The next night, after a dinner of iceberg lettuce salad drowning in (big change!) blue cheese dressing, baked spaghetti and tomato sauce (not bad actually) and more Wonder-y bread, Querino emerged from the kitchen bearing a wide, proud smile and with great ceremony presented a silver platter of jumbo sized spiced gum drops. "Postres!" he announced.
From that day forward we made sure to stop at a bakery in town for some trans fat cookies—who cared, just give me some sugar. But where were the Mexican Wedding Cakes? It’s Christmas for goodness sakes and I never go a holiday season without them!

The day after I got home at 3:30am (two delayed flights and a lost set of luggage—could this be more fun?!) I went to the store, re-stocked my supplies and made the cookies I’d missed so much. They are as close to Mexico at Christmas as I plan to be.

Mexican Nightmare Vacation Wedding Cakes
Adapted from Rose's Christmas Cookies, Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1990)
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1 cup pecan halves
2 ½ cups powdered sugar-divided
Pinch of salt
1 cup unsalted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper

Put pecans, 1 cup sugar and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse until nuts are finely ground.
Cut butter into tablespoon size pieces.

With processor running add butter to mixture and process until smooth.
Stop machine and add vanilla extract.
Add flour and pulse until fully incorporated.
Scrape dough into bowl, cover lightly and refrigerate one hour.

Preheat oven to 350.

Place remaining sugar in large bowl.

Scoop dough and form into 1 inch balls rolling between your palms.

Place balls on cookie sheets @ 1 ½ inches apart.
Bake 15 minutes or until cookies are barely brown.
Cool on sheets for 2-3 minutes.

Remove cookies from sheets and roll them in remaining sugar.
Yield: 4 1/2 dozen cookies


Jewish Guilt Sufganiyot

Happy Chanukah! Tonight we light the eighth candle, the last presents are exchanged and the dreidl will be taken out for its final spin. You might be surprised after my last post that I am acknowledging this Jewish Festival of Lights—which is why I am writing about it. You see, I am not ashamed of my religion. I don’t wish I were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon or anything else. It is just that I have Christmas tradition envy. I don’t look on wistfully as people flock to church on Sundays. I don’t want to wear an Easter bonnet.
My issues are strictly Christmas related and I really want to make that clear. Are we clear?

However, I am having a post-tree decorating pre-caroling (for which I will be flocking to a church on Sunday) twinge of Jewish guilt. I know Catholics claim they are the group to inspire the most guilt but frankly, from what I hear, it’s a toss-up. So, in the spirit of embracing my inner Jewess I decided to embark on a project I have resisted for years—making Sufganiyot, aka Chanukah donuts. Like latkes, these are symbolic because they are fried in oil representing the miracle of the Temple of Jerusalem; after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks they found there was only enough oil to light the eternal flame for one day. Yet, miraculously, the flame burned for 8 days. Hence the 8 Chanukah candles etc. (I really hope Wikipedia, I mean I, got all that right.)

My hair is like a sponge.
If there is an aroma anywhere you can be sure my porous locks will exude that stench long after I have left the space where the smell was produced. For this reason I avoid certain restaurants. Often, when I go out for sushi my hair will still smell like tempura hours later. And you can forget a burger joint. That heady scent of sizzling, flame broiled beef is actually coming from my head…the next day. And so it is for this reason that I have avoided Sufganiyot. As always, it’s all about the hair.
But, as I said, I was feeling guilty and despite the wise words my father has tried fruitlessly to drill into my head, “Guilt is a profitless emotion,” or “No one can make you feel guilty. You are making you feel guilty,” in this instance it was a good motivator.

The key here was 1) allowing enough time for the project, 2) mapping out my physical plan for the various steps, 3) opening the windows as wide as they could open even though it was 30 degrees outside, really, and 4) tying a greasy-smell protective bandana around my hair! Which worked by the way.
With all systems go ‘it’s time to make the donuts.’ Oh come on. You knew that was going to come in at some point!

Do not be scared to make these. I was, and not just because of smelly hair. Yeast is intimidating, as is a pot of burning hot oil. But these were surprisingly doable and truly delicious. My one comment is regarding the injection of the jelly. It wasn't easy and I think a baster might be more effective. And if you are brave, don't wait for next Chanukah. A warm donut is a warm donut no matter what time of year it is. Except for Passover of course. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. That lesson won't come for three months.

Jewish Guilt Sufganiyot
Martha Stewart Living, Dec/Jan 97-98

2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (100 degrees to 110 degrees)
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, plus more for rolling
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups vegetable oil, plus more for bowl
1 cup seedless raspberry jam

In a small bowl, combine yeast, warm water, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Place flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center; add eggs, yeast mixture, 1/4 cup sugar, butter, nutmeg, and salt.
Using a wooden spoon, stir until a sticky dough forms.
On a well-floured work surface, knead until dough is smooth, soft, and bounces back when poked with a finger, about 8 minutes (add more flour if necessary).

Place in an oiled bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Set in a warm place to rise until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2-inch-round cutter or drinking glass, cut 20 rounds.
Cover with plastic wrap; let rise 15 minutes.
In medium saucepan over medium heat, heat oil until a deep-frying thermometer registers 370 degrees. (An infrared thermometer is a great tool. Purchase one.)
Using a slotted spoon, carefully slip 4 rounds into oil. Fry until golden, about 40 seconds. Turn donuts over; fry until golden on other side, another 40 seconds.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Roll in sugar while warm. Fry all dough, and roll in sugar.

Fill a pastry bag fitted with a #4 tip with jam. Using a wooden skewer or toothpick, make a hole in the side of each donut. Fit the pastry tip into a hole, pipe about 2 teaspoons jam into donut. Repeat with remaining donuts.
Yield 20 donuts


Interfaith Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookies

In 1978 my father turned into the Grinch and it was The Year without a Santa Claus.
As was every year thereafter. Now, if you’ve noticed my last name you might wonder what I am doing having any sort of feeling about Christmas when clearly I am Jewish. Well, we’ve come to another thing we can lay at the feet of my unfairly burdened parents. Until I was twelve my family celebrated Christmas. And by celebrate I mean we decorated a huge tree, read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, opened our presents on Christmas morning, had people over for a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Christmas dinner and sang carols around the piano. And yes, we also lit a menorah.
This Jewish Christmas syndrome was not that odd in New York at the time. My other Jewish friends also had trees and presents and actually didn’t have menorahs at all. My family also went to synagogue on the High Holidays and always had a Passover Seder—although, one year my grandmother rewarded the grandchild who found the afikomen with a deluxe chocolate Easter bunny. So, you can see that I come to this split-faith personality honestly.

But there came an evening when my parents were invited to a tree trimming party at the Silverman’s (their name has been changed to protect, well, me.) Witnessing the gargantuan tree and the seemingly lovingly collected Victorian ornaments my father had an epiphany, “Who the hell do these people think they are? Do you suppose their parents were busy packing up those ornaments when the Cossacks came after them?!" And with that went Christmas.
But I loved Christmas. Among my (younger) siblings, I took the loss of this holiday the hardest since I’d celebrated it the longest. And as Smokey Robinson says, “A taste of honey is worse than none at all.” I loved the lights and the hymns we sang in the lobby of school during the week before Christmas vacation. I loved “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, watching a cynical Natalie Wood learn that Macy’s Kris Kringle was truly Santa Claus, tearing up at a treacly Hallmark card commercials, and of course every cookie.
To this day I brace myself to get through a season where I feel left out. I stay really busy with the surge of great movies, I buy theater tickets, I make a big deal out of Chanukah presents for the nieces and I bake. This year there was a little twist of fate that has helped to make December go a bit more smoothly than it has in the past. The usual trip my sister’s brood takes to visit her husband’s gentile family had to be postponed. She bought a tree to assure her eldest daughter (who tells anyone who will listen that she is Jewish) that the Santa who visits her at her other grandmother's house was not going to miss her. That’s all I needed to hear—a legitimate tree to decorate and ‘stockings to be hung by the chimney with care.’
I helped (meaning I bossed her around and told her to pop popcorn and buy cranberries for garlands) and I went out to her house armed with Chocolate-Gingerbread men, women, children and even Chocolate-Gingerbread dreidls. I mean, it is Chanukah week after all and I’m not that bad. The decorating was left to the nieces.
We were having an amazingly perfect day when my sister surprised me with something she had, unbeknownst to me, rescued from an unauthorized sidewalk sale held by my then 8 year old brother in 1980. Hearing Bobby Brady warble “The Little Drummer Boy” was almost too much—the real icing on the cake. (Or the sugar on the cookie.)
Up next? The Candlelight Carol service at the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon. You can take the Jewish girl out of Christmas but you can’t take the Christmas out of the Jewish girl.Some tips before getting started: To make the measuring of molasses (or any sticky stuff) easy, spray your measuring cup with cooking spray and it will pour right out. Also, I like to roll out my dough on floured wax or parchment paper to keep the kitchen less of a disaster area. I also used a variety of cookie cutter shapes and sizes despite the directions to keep them large. And, as always, I used Ghiradelli 60% chips for the bittersweet chocolate. As an aside, I strongly suggest you invest in a digital food scale. I use mine daily.
If you click on the Food and Wine link below you will notice that the original recipe calls for an icing and a filling. I left out both knowing that the nieces' skill set was better suited to brushing the cookies with egg white and sprinkling with pretty sugar. These cookies are so easy to roll out and the heat from the spices is just enough for adults and not too much for kids and the chocolate is perfect for everyone.

Interfaith Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies
adapted from Food & Wine, December 2009

3 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg at room temperature
1/2/ cup molasses
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the cocoa powder, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the softened butter with the shortening at medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 30 seconds.

Add the brown sugar and beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the egg to the cookie batter and beat until incorporated.

Beat in the molasses and then the melted bittersweet chocolate.
Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, beating between additions.
Divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Shape each part into a disk, then wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate the cookie dough until chilled, about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°.

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out 1 disk of dough 1/4 inch thick.
Using 4- to 5-inch cookie cutters, cut the dough into shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Reroll the dough scraps and cut out more cookies.
Bake the cookies for about 7 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking until the tops are dry.

Let the cookies cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Repeat the process with the remaining dough.

To decorate with sugars brush cookie with egg white and sprinkle with the colored sugar of your choice. Press gently to adhere.

Yield: 40 large cookies