If you follow my blog, you know the story. A child of few words, Chris would swap out his dinner fork for the one mismatched fork in the utensil drawer to signify a meal he especially liked. This was a quiet compliment to mom or dad – whoever happened to make the meal that night. In time, he – or we – named the utensil, “Special Fork.” Chris continued to signal his approval via Special Fork through high school, until he went away to college.
It will be good to have Chris home this Friday and to start our holiday festivities. Neither of our sons has missed coming home for Christmas when they’ve lived away, and the holidays finally seem real when we are all reunited.
Working on the launch of Special Fork, we haven’t had time to fully decorate the house or put up a tree – two of my favorite holiday activities. And certainly, we’re not hosting one of our holiday parties with casts of nearly a hundred, where we cook up a storm. This year, we’ll wait for Chris to decorate our tree and keep our celebrations simple.
I always have ambitious plans for what we will do as a family and we never do half of them. We usually manage to go to the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. Now that everyone’s grown up, we go standing room – so much cheaper, good views and we don’t have to commit to a day until the mood strikes. This casual attitude is so different from the days our boys wore their blue blazers and grey flannel slacks and we sat in the orchestra section for our annual Christmas outing.
We make Christmas Eve dinner our special meal and set a festive table. In the morning, we have Christmas bread, a yeast bread braided into a wreath that I make from an old Sunset magazine recipe. Everyone must consume some bread and hot cocoa before we get to the presents. On Christmas night, we relax – no cooking, just lots of boiled Dungeness crab, sourdough bread and scads of melted Kerrygold Butter (my client and my favorite butter).
I’m not baking much this year, but I did make Panforte, a delicious, dense and chewy candy-cookie that’s easy to make and will go well with hot spiced cider when we decorate the tree. This recipe was developed many years ago for the Almond Board of California at the public relations agency where I worked. It’s a classic.
Chocolate Almond Panforte
1 cup moist pack dried apricot halves
1 cup toasted whole almonds *
½ cup flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds **
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Chop apricots very finely with chef’s knife. In large bowl, combine apricots, toasted almonds, flour, cocoa and allspice. Mix to blend evenly. In small saucepan, combine sugar and honey. Stir over low heat to dissolve sugar, then boil gently till mixture reaches 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer, or small amount dropped in a cup of cold water forms a soft ball. Stir immediately into almond mixture to blend thoroughly.
Generously grease a 9-inch springform pan or a tart pan with removable bottom. Pack almond mixture evenly into pan. (You may need to use your fingers to spread the dough – dip fingers in water as you work – dough is very sticky.) Arrange blanched almonds on top, pressing into dough slightly. Bake in center of preheated 300 degree F oven 30 to 35 minutes, just until surface looks dull. Do not overbake.
Cool on rack; remove from pan. The panforte may stick to the bottom; slide a thin-bladed knife between pan and panforte to loosen from the bottom of the pan. Store at room temperature, wrapped securely in plastic wrap or foil. Panforte can be stored airtight in a cool place up to three weeks.
To serve, dust with powdered sugar mixed with cinnamon. Cut into small wedges with sharp knife. Makes 10 to 14 servings.
*To toast almonds, spread on ungreased baking sheet. Place in a preheated 350-degree oven 5 to 10 minutes or until almonds are a light, golden brown. Stir once or twice to ensure even browning. Note that almonds will continue to brown slightly after being removed from the heat.
** To blanch almonds, drop whole almonds into a pot of simmering water for about a minute. Take out an almond to test and if skin slips off easily, drain almonds and remove skins.
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