Tuesday, December 28, 2010

We wish you a merry Christmas

and a happy birthday to my son.

Sorry for the short supply of recipes in the last week or so, but in addition to Christmas, today is my little boy's third birthday.

We will, surprise surprise, be having pizza.

This is him at his second birthday party last year. His name is Joseph. He loves dinosaurs.

He also loves this very simple pizza.

Take plain white bread. Cut out round pieces. Sautee in olive oil. Flip over, and top with cheese, which will melt while the bottom browns. Good as is, but Joseph likes his with sliced black olives. I like it with roasted red peppers. My husband takes his with anchovies.

Happy birthday, monkey boy.

Monday, December 13, 2010


My Christmas cookie baking is knocking pizza off the table for a few days.

I recently found anisette sugar, the kind you would use for fancy coffee drinks, at a gourmet shop. Anisette is one of my favorite holiday flavors, giving a licorice snap to my favorite holiday bread, to my husband's favorite biscotti, and to pizzelles. But this sugar gave me another way to use it.

Snickerdoodles have always been one of my favorite cookies. My grandma's snickerdoodles were so sweet and cinnamony, they were even better than chocolate chip, and that's saying something. So this licorice-flavored sugar made me wonder if I could reproduce them with an anisette punch.

I could. I did. OMG.

I started with this light recipe for snickerdoodles from Betty Crocker's website.

All I did was add 1/2 teaspoon anise extract to the dough, and swap out the cinnamon sugar mixture at the end for 1/2 cup of my anisette sugar to roll the balls of dough.

Heaven. Crackling, sweet, licorice-flavored heaven.

This actually makes me determined to try other variations. Almond, perhaps, or citrus. Yum.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome to my family tradition

For some families, Christmas smells like cinnamon, or peppermint, or cloves. Maybe your holiday is about fudge, or sugar cookies, or fruitcake. It might be German stollen, or Italian pannetone, or an English plum pudding.

In my family, Christmas smells like licorice.

To be precise, the smell of Christmas is anise cooked with dried fruit, in a dark bread, best served cold from my grandma's enclosed but uninsulated back porch, which served as a poor man's deep freeze during the Minnesota winters. Christmas, my friends, is bittebrot.

Technically, it should be birnebrot, as it is really Swiss pear bread. My great-grandmother's recipe has it spelled correctly. But I've never heard anyone say anything but "bitte" which I've always found appropriate, as bitte is kind of the German version of aloha or shalom, a word that might mean both please and thank you.

Sometime as we approached the holidays, Grandma would make up massive batches of bittebrot, and it would fill every pan she could find. Loaf pans, cake pans, pie plates, casseroles, free-form loaves on cookie sheets. You never knew what shape the bread might take.

Grandma Marie often lamented that hers didn't taste exactly like her mother-in-law's. Grandma Dehn Sr.'s would have a bread lighter in color, that rose higher. Grandma's was denser and deeper in flavor. Both were wonderful, but I always preferred Grandma Marie's.

Mine is somewhere in the middle...and something kind of different.

When I first stepped up to try my hand at our family tradition, it was the same way it had been made forever. Mixed by hand in a giant bowl with a wooden spoon. Kneaded by hand. Shaped by hand. And it was delicious. It was also hard and time consuming, and frankly, I'm a fan of quick and easy.

Enter the bread machine.

It took some trial and error. There were some failures. There were some spectacular failures. But ultimately, I succeeded in translating my grandma's big-batch bittebrot into a single loaf recipe that all but makes itself. (And Aunt Patty? I'm sorry it's taken this long to get the recipe to you.)

It starts with simmering apples, raisins, and other dried fruit into a juicy compote. Traditionally, it should be dried apples, dried pears, prunes, raisins, and maybe some apricot. I use what I've got. Today, for example, was fresh apple, raisin and dried cranberry.

Cover with apple cider and simmer for 30 minutes or more. Cool to about 100 degrees. (Don't break out a thermometer or anything. If it feels a little warmer than your skin, it's fine.) Measure out a cup and a half, and make sure the liquid, and not just the fruit, comes to the top of your measuring cup. If you don't have that much liquid, add enough warm water to make it up.

The secret, of course, is the anise. I double it up, putting a teaspoon of extract in the liquid, and adding another couple of teaspoons of ground anise (or crushed seed, but crushing anise seed is a tedious business that may also crush your soul) with the dry ingredients.

The rest is simple. Three cups of flour, a teaspoon of salt, and a package of yeast. (To be honest, I don't use a package of yeast. I buy my yeast in gigantic two-pound packages. I use about a tablespoon.)

Now, you may be asking yourself, why won't she just write this like a regular recipe? Well, I'll tell you. This recipe, since it's a tradition, isn't a formula. It's a story. You should learn it the way you would learn it from your grandmother, in explanatory steps.

And also...all bread machines are different. Some want the liquid first, like mine does. Some want the dry ingredients first. If you've got a liquids first, add the fruit and juice, with the anise extract, then top with flour, salt, ground anise, and yeast. I use my machine's sweet dough setting, like you would use for cinnamon raisin bread, with a light crust.

What you get is a loaf that is chewy but light, with the sweetness of fruit and the strength of anise. And Christmas just isn't Christmas without it.