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Holidays at Anson Mills

December 2009

Behold. The fifth season is upon us. It’s the party season, the season that glitters gaily on December’s dark dance floor, then fades, leaving baby New Year alone under the disco ball and Winter to her drab, somber pace. The fifth season, when fruitcake jokes return like a carol’s rolling melody, or a new strain of the flu. And when you hope you’ll remember that stunning insight about the crab toast recipe—the one you didn’t write down last year.

Yes, the fifth season draws even the reluctant among us into the kitchen at some point to face down old recipe demons, and try some new ones, too. (Recipes, that is.)

Our collection of recipes described below finds holiday flavors and wintry notes in abundance, tucked under crust and crumb, bubbling up in a gratin, or baked in a subtly spiced biscuit. They’re cold weather foods, layered the way we layer ourselves, though with flavors, not with fleece.

You’ll find two- and three-pronged cooking paths within individual recipes. These will guide the demon-seeker to heightened flavor and texture in the final dish. It doesn’t make the recipes more difficult—just a bit less linear.

Our crusade for flavor and dimension also accounts for why we offer recipes for meat, fish, and vegetable stocks—and hope you will use them—and why our recipes tipple a bit during the holidays. (Be not alarmed. They’re drinking responsibly, not boozing it up like a soused fruitcake.) These are among the elements that bring dimension, nuance, and body to each dish.

Simple is good. We adore simple. But we believe simple dishes should be intrinsically simple—buttered grits, scrambled eggs, linguine with oil and garlic, grilled chops, sole meunière—not reductively so. Winter foods like braises and casseroles have a homey, comforting quality. But this does not mean they are simple dishes.

Those who subscribe to the git-’er-done school of cookery like to call thoughtful recipes “chef-y.” Well! This is no restaurant setup, let me assure you. I’m standing in a regular kitchen by a 1980s electric range, no dishwasher in sight. My sole assistant is an eight-year-old Scottie with an average palate.

But the recipes are fabulous anyway.

I do hope you’ll get into the spirit of the fifth season and take a poke at them.


Wine Biscuits

Now here’s a dead easy recipe with some real elegance. Wine biscuits, served at Madeira tastings, came of age in 18th-century Charleston society. I have no precise vision of what those biscuits were like, but the idea of a light, crisp wafer with a vinous backdrop held enormous appeal for me. Achieving a memorable texture turned out to be easy: a touch of almond meal along with our Colonial-Style Fine Cloth-bolted Pastry Flour opens the crumb and almond oil crisps it. The tiny bite of anise seed goes sweet under your teeth and makes you think of European gingerbread. But the wine varietals were more important than I would have imagined (more on that in the recipe).

The final biscuits, which come in red and white (wine), have something of an addictive personality. They also demonstrate real affinity for soft and semi-soft cheeses.

Along the way, Glenn suggested that I was trying to turn savory biscuits into holiday cookies. I reject his assumption. But suppose you did use the greater amount of sugar in the recipe. Nothing says you couldn’t sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and eat a stack of these biscuits without once wondering what had become of the cheese.

Creamed Pearl Onions and Farro with Bacon

Pearl onions have been a solid tradition at our Thanksgiving table for years, where those with the poorest kitchen skills are made to peel them. The particular cachet of pearl onions? They’re sweet, silken, and yielding, for one thing, and take exceptionally well to a sauce. So why ask pearl onions to slink back to the pickle jar after Thanksgiving when they can move straight into the next wave of holidays with a slightly darker twist? Say in the company of a tall, dark, handsome standing rib roast. I gave that notion a whirl, offering pearl onions a taste of some elevated ingredients: homemade beef stock, heavy cream, port wine, crisp bacon, and our delicate Farro Piccolo.

One lesson creamed pearl onions have taught me over the years is that a little goes a long way. You—or someone who really likes you—will spend hours peeling mountains of them, which your guests will then treat like plush little condiments. The farro provides a cushion for the onions and brings the ensemble back into side dish territory. It’s an enormously pleasing set of flavors.

World Class Chicken Pot Pie

Okay, so chicken pot pie is not, strictly speaking, a holiday dish. It is a dish, however, with the requisite thermal appeal and high personal approval ratings. If you replace the chicken with leftover turkey, pot pie begins to make huge holiday sense.

Not long ago, I ordered chicken pot pie for lunch at a local inn. I was so excited! It arrived in a handsome gratin dish, a banner of puff pastry sweeping the top like an Elvis wave. The puff pastry simply lifted off, toupee-style, and you could eat it with your fingers! Under the pastry-toupee? Pale, ragged chicken and peas and carrots listing about in thin, tepid cream. (Chef-y? Not that chef.) And in the moment I resolved to make real, old-fashioned chicken pot pie.

And so I did.

This is a Flaky Lard and Butter Pastry developed expressly for the pot pie filling with Anson Mills pastry flour. It offers unparalleled flavor, flakiness, and performance. In fact, I can recommend this recipe without reservation for pretty much any pie, sweet or savory—including the Caramel-Baked Apple Dumplings we offered last year (with an all-butter pastry). It’s that good.

The filling is velouté based (thereby availing itself of the sophistication of Anson Mills pastry flour), velvety smooth, and off-the-charts in flavor. As for the veg, sure, peas are cute in a filling, but with so many gorgeous root vegetables this time of year, who needs a bag of frozen peas? We chose carrots and parsnips, but you could replace the parsnips with celery root, salsify, or turnips. The leeks and mushrooms are mandatory, not optional.

Mulled Bartlett Pear Crisp

There is nothing inherently transcendent about a pear crisp. But when the pears are poached in a cranberry stock and red wine with subdued spices, blissful things happen. When there are crunchy round cookie balls on the top—for that is what this streusel made from our pastry flour is like—and a super-charged, super-smooth ginger, honey, and lemon ice cream melting its magic everywhere, the experience can leave two people sitting across the table from one another nearly speechless. It could probably silence an entire group.

Lighter than baked pudding, lighter than bread pudding, lighter than cake, lighter than pie, this is the dessert you want to be spooning down your throat after a big holiday meal. Low gravity, no guilt.

So Happy Holidays, y’all, and Good Food!