Sunday, December 5, 2010

food as gifts

Every month or so I lunch with a bunch of authors in the city. They come from all around Melbourne, countryside included, and we've been doing it for years. When I was a newbie author, and just joined the group, there were five of us. Now there are sixteen.

The only time all sixteen of us come, however, is the end of year Xmas lunch, so it's always an event, with lots of talking as we catch up on everyone's news.  We have a Kris Kringle, too, and the rule is a gift costing about $10. We used to make it something edible and home made, but now it's expanded to include something writing related or edible —home made or bought.

I like to try out different things each year, and this year decided on beautifully decorated gingerbread cookies. (Have you spotted the flaw in my plan yet? No? Read on.) This is the kind of thing I had in mind.

I searched out a recipe that looked promising, mixed it up, chilled it, rolled it out and cut out dozens of beautiful little cookies in the shapes of different kinds of stars, hearts and also gingerbread people.  The house smelled magical as they were baking and they came out perfectly.

Next step, decorating them. The first problem came when I found that my old piping bag had disappeared. All the other pieces were there, not the bag. So I tried using a plastic bag and a piping nozzle. Splat. Giant icing blobs attack gingerbread man.

No problem, I thought. I'll make my own icing bag from cut out circles of baking paper. I've seen TV chefs use them all the time. So I cut out a circle of baking paper, formed it into a cone, filled it with the icing mixture and snipped off the tip.
Splat! Dribble! Blob! Squelch!

I tried half a dozen and decided there was no way I could give this as a gift. Yes, they'd taste lovely -- if you like gingerbread and some people don't -- but they looked terrible.

So... thinking cap back on. Some years back my local organic greengrocer used to sell cocoa dusted almonds that were simply delicious. The grocer moved away and the shop is now an art gallery, but maybe I could make the almonds myself. I prowled through various recipes on the internet and found spice dusted recipes, but no cocoa. But the principle would be the same, I thought, so I tried it.

Dead easy. Whip up an egg-white, and mix in spices, some sugar  and cocoa, then coat the nuts in the mix and roast them. Again the house was redolent with the scent of roasting nuts and spices — I decided on spiced cocoa nuts. I have to say,  they turned out beautifully. They were delicious -- not too spicy, and not too cocoa-ey (mainly because I'd only had a little cocoa left in the packet and couldn't be bothered driving to the 24 hour supermarket - it was getting pretty late.)

But then the more I looked at them, the more I thought it was a pretty average KK gift -- a jar of nuts. So I fell back on my last year's KK  and made mendiants. These are so simple, yet yummy. A blob of melted chocolate, and on it a collection of nuts and dried fruit. I used spiced cocoa almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, candied ginger and dried figs, and the chocolate was Lindt dark chocolate. This is the label I made to go with them - because traditional French confections with monkish connections are so much better than a blob of chocolate with nuts and dried fruit on it, aren't they?

Mendiants are traditional French confections composed of  chocolate disks studded with nuts and died fruits. Traditionally, the nuts and dried fruits used refer to the color of monastic robes — raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnut for the Augustins, dried fig for Franciscans and almond for Carmelites. Now a Christmas tradition,  recipes for this confection have embraced other combinations of toppings.

So that was my KK — a jar of spiced nuts and a box of mendiants.  I'd make both of them again, too, in fact I'm planning on making some more of the nuts a bit closer to Christmas. I've already given the first batch away.
And on my list for Xmas? A piping bag. And maybe some lessons in how to use it. :)