Welcome to the tastes of holiday postseason

  • Chocolate St. Emilion is a fine finishing treat for a Valentine’s Day dinner. CLAIRE HOPLEY

  • Making filo dough cheese pies in a muffin pan avoids the hassle of forming them in triangles. CLAIRE HOPLEY

  • Cheese pies made with feta and cottage cheese baked in filo dough are a traditional pre-Lent dish. CLAIRE HOPLEY

For the Gazette
Published: 2/8/2020 2:05:43 PM

After celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s, most of us are holidayed out, so January brings sighs of relief and an appreciation of the benefits of hibernation. Maybe vows of austerity about food, too. 

But come February, other feelings are waving their little hands for attention. They can appear as cabin fever, winter blues, or even pleasure in the lengthening days. They don’t come right out and demand another string of holidays, but that desire must underpin them because that’s just what’s coming up.  

The 15-day Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations began on Jan. 26 this year. To celebrate, red lanterns and pyramids of mandarin oranges decorate houses and restaurants, and families get together for sumptuous feasts. A whole fish lavishly sauced always appears because the Chinese word for “fish” and “surplus” sound the same.

Similarly, Chinese for “leeks” and “counting money” sound alike, as do the words for “mandarin oranges” and “good fortune,” and “turnip” and “good omen.”

Other foods are chosen for their looks. Dumplings are shaped like Chinese gold ingots, so they evoke money. Long beans and long noodles imply long life, while dates and sweet foods signify sweet hopes. 

Sweet foods, especially candy and desserts, are just as essential for Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14. As early as late December, heart-shaped red candy boxes elbow discounted Christmas candy off supermarket shelves.

Though they are now Valentine favorites, chocolate candies are a recent, 19th-century invention. But sending somebody fanciable small gifts or notes — now Valentine cards — dates to medieval England, where Valentine’s was the day for choosing sweethearts. Birds inspired this custom: Supposedly it’s the day when they begin chirruping their courting songs.

St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 is heralded by shamrocks and green leprechauns dancing among green-frosted cupcakes in supermarket bakeries. There are other iconic foods, too. Corned beef and cabbage are the must-haves. Anything else Irish is welcome: soda bread, potatoes, desserts flavored with Irish cream liqueur.

St. David’s Day on March 1 gets little note except in Wales, where it is the national day. People celebrate by wearing a daffodil or leek to recall King Cadwallader’s soldiers, who identified themselves this way in battle against the Saxons in 640 A.D.

Yet another of late winter’s saints’ day celebrations is St. Joseph’s Day, also on March 1. The carpenter foster father of Christ is patron saint of workmen and fathers. In Spain and Italy his day is Father’s Day, and everywhere Italian communities decorate family altars with bread sculptures. The iconic dish is St. Joseph’s pasta. Usually it’s topped with herbed bread crumbs, but recipes vary. Gloucester’s Sicilian community has a version with vegetable and beans. Another treat is zeppoli, ricotta-filled pastries topped with perky red cherries.

The day is also celebrated in New Orleans, often by the musicians and dancers just done with celebrating Carnival. Literally, this word means “farewell to meat,” and it precedes the 40-day Christian fast of Lent, when all animal foodstuffs are forbidden. Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday— is Feb. 25 this year. It was the last day for eating up animal fats such as butter or lard and milk, cheese, and eggs before the fast began — hence its name. In England and France, cooks make pancakes of milk, eggs and flour. Elsewhere doughnuts are the favorites: syrup-drenched loukamades in Greece; jam-filled sugar-dusted paczki in Poland.

The holidays studding the winter calendar harken spring. Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival. The lovebirds of Valentine’s imply fertility, the daffodils of Wales, already blooming in March, and all the green-hued St Patrick’s festivities presage a new growing season.

It’s pleasant to brighten winter days by sharing its festival foods, so here are some winter holiday recipes good for lifting your spirits.

Greek cheese pies

Cheese pies, favorites in Greece throughout the year, have a special place on Cheese Sunday (Feb. 23 this year), the last day before the Orthodox Lent and therefore the day for eating up animal foods. Cheese pies are a delicious way to do it. They may be flavored with herbs or include vegetables such as spinach or leeks. Here a traditional mint-flavored version is made easier by baking in muffin pans. More traditionally, you could make these in triangles.

About 1½ sticks butter, melted

8 ounces (1 roll) filo pastry

8 ounces (2 cups) crumbled feta

8 ounces (1 cup) cottage cheese

3 eggs

White or black pepper for seasoning

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons tender mint, coarsely chopped

Turn the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the cups of 2 muffin pans with a little of the butter. Packages of filo contain 2 rolls; you need just one. Open it and place the pastry on the counter covered with a damp — not soaking wet — kitchen towel.

In a small bowl, mix the feta and cottage cheese. Add the eggs one at time, stirring each in completely. Season well with pepper, ideally white pepper. Stir in the mint and sugar.

Take 2 sheets of filo and cover the remainder. Cut the sheets in half then fit the pieces into two of the muffin pan, offsetting each half so that the cup is lined and has plenty left over. Add another sheet if necessary. Brush with melted butter. Put in 2-3 teaspoons of the cheese mixture. Now brush the overlapping pastry with melted butter and fold it down on top. Take another sheet of filo, halve it, brush it with butter, and crumple to make lids. Continue like this, working with just two muffin cups at a time to avoid the risk of the filo drying. Bake for 20-23 minutes or until deep golden brown. Makes 22-24.

St. Joseph’s pasta

St. Joseph is especially venerated in Sicily because he relieved a medieval famine there. Sicilian-American communities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Louisiana celebrate with symbolic breads and a special pasta dish. Recipes vary but include a dressing of flavored bread crumbs in imitation of the sawdust of St. Joseph’s carpentry shop.

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

1 pound spaghetti or other pasta

1/4 cup olive oil

2-3 big garlic cloves, peeled and halved

1 cup coarse white breadcrumbs, freshly ground from day old bread

3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

1/2 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts

Several grinds black pepper

About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Grano Padana

Bring a gallon of water to boil in a large pan. Add the salt and then the spaghetti. Stir it around and boil for 8-10 minutes (or time suggested on the package), until al dente — slightly resistant to the bite.

Meanwhile in a large frying pan or sauté pan, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add 2 of the garlic cloves and cook them for a minute or until golden brown. Remove them then stir in the bread crumbs followed a minute later by the parsley and pine-nuts. (For a stronger garlic flavor also add the third garlic clove, finely chopped.) Finally, off the heat stir in the Parmesan, and season well with ground black pepper.

When the spaghetti is ready, drain it and add to the bread crumb mixture. Tossing thoroughly adding more Parmesan and black pepper as you see fit. Serve immediately.

Glamorgan sausages

Like St. Joseph’s pasta, this Welsh sausage recipe calls for bread crumbs as well as leeks plus cheese, a favorite in the land that gave us Welsh rarebit. No meat, so vegetarians can enjoy these sausages.

2 medium leeks, coarse green parts and outer layer removed

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups bread crumbs plus more for coating

2 cups grated Caerphilly or Cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 eggs, beaten

Grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil

Peel the coarse outer layers and green tops off the leeks and discard. Make a lengthwise slit in the top of the remainder and splay the layers open under running water to rinse out any grit that have been caught there. Now chop the leeks finely. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over moderate heat, add the leeks to the pan, cover, lower the heat and let the leeks sweat for 3-4 minutes or until tender. If they seem to catch or scorch, add a little water.

In a bowl combine the bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, thyme and the eggs. Add 3-4 gratings of nutmeg (or a pinch if using powdered nutmeg), and salt and pepper to taste.

Form the mixture into 8-10 sausage shapes, and roll each one in extra breadcrumbs. Heat the remaining tablespoon of butter with the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Fry the sausages in this, adding more oil if needed, and moderating the heat so that the sausages heat thoroughly and turn golden without burning. They need about 5 minutes of cooking time.

Chocolate St. Emilion

This easy dessert looks and tastes fabulously chocolatey. Best made several hours beforehand so it has time to set up. The following quantities are sufficient for a fitting end to a Valentine’s dinner for two. For more people, simply do the necessary multiplication.

2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

2 tablespoons butter, softened

4 tablespoons icing sugar

3 tablespoons warm milk

1 egg yolk

About 12-18 small amaretti or other macaroons or vanilla wafers

1-2 tablespoons dark rum or strong black coffee

Chocolate sprinkles

Melt the chocolate either in a microwave or in a small bowl poised over a pan of simmering water. (Don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Set aside but keep it melted.

In another bowl, thoroughly mix the softened butter with the confectioner’s sugar until you have a smooth blend. In a food processor or using a handheld mixer and a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolk and the warmed milk (or process them). Now whisk or process in the butter-sugar mixture and melted chocolate until smooth. Chill in fridge for half an hour.

Sprinkle the amaretti or other macaroons with rum or coffee then 2-3 put in each of two sherbet cups or other small dishes. No need to entirely cover the base. Add some of the chocolate mixture, then a couple more amaretti. Trickle some of the chocolate mixture over them but leave partly visible. Chill again. Just before serving, decorate with grated chocolate or sprinkles.

Almond cubeswith mandarin oranges

Chinese cuisine does not have a big array of desserts or sweet dishes. This simple but delicious combination of almond-flavored gelatin with fruit is one of the best known. You can use a mixture of diced fruits if you like. Sometimes canned fruit in syrup is used too.

1 package unflavored gelatin

1½ cup whole or evaporated milk

2/3 cup sugar

1-2 teaspoons (according to taste) pure almond extract

4-6 mandarin oranges (or other fruit if you prefer)

In a small bowl, mix the gelatin powder with half a cup of warm water. It will be stiff but in 3-4 minutes it will soften into a thick opaque paste. Put the bowl in a pan with water to come half way up the side. Simmer for 2-3 minutes or until the gelatin mixture thins and looks clear. Mix one-third of a cup of the sugar with the milk in a small saucepan and stir over moderate heat until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the gelatin mixture and the almond extract. Pour into an 8-inch square cake pan or any straight-sided pan or dish of comparable capacity. Put in the fridge to set. This can be done a day ahead if you like.

Mix the remaining one-third cup of sugar with a cup of water in a small saucepan and simmer for about 10 minutes so it forms a slightly thickened syrup. Chill. Peel the mandarins and using a small knife gently scrape of the white network of pith from the fruit. Put the segments in it a serving bowl and pour the cooled syrup on them. Cut the almond curd into diamond or cube shapes and add to the bowl. Alternately, divide the mandarin segments and the almond shapes among individual bowls and add syrup to each.

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