I don't mean to brag, but I am a baller when it comes to homemade holiday food gifts. When I was working as a pastry chef, my core repertory was baked goods and candy. They traveled well. But this year is different.
For starters, mail service is sketchy these days; I am still waiting for some advent calendars that I was going to forward on to some friends and family. Oh, well.
It also occurred to me that everyone does the same thing; lots of cookies and more cookies, candy, jars of spiced nuts. My friend Kathleen inspired me a few weeks ago when she served ice cold homemade aquavit and home-cured gravlax. Eureka! I've got the time and have saved some money these last nine months so why not give slightly more extravagant and definitely more original food gifts this jolly holly-day season?
First I played around with aquavit. As I am not a huge fan of strong caraway flavoring, I have tailored my version to be more dilly citrus with a twist of juniper. Basically, anything goes, flavor-wise. You are dealing with a blank vodka slate. When I worked for the Swedish-ish Living Room restaurant at the Maidstone hotel in East Hampton, our visiting chef Bjorn told me that a favorite version is made with salted black licorice. To which I say, "lakrits jetbransle!" (Licorice jet fuel.)
For my first batch I steeped dill sprigs, fennel seeds, cardamom pods, juniper berries, caraway seeds, and lemon and clementine peels in good vodka for three days. When tasted, it seemed sufficiently flavored. However, once I removed the herbs and other aromatics, bottled and froze the aquavit, it seemed less flavorful. Always remember that a frozen beverage or food will have a duller flavor because of being frozen. So now my second batch will marinate for a week or two before I strain and bottle.
Next, I went in search of small bottles and shot glasses. HomeGoods can be a good resource for such things at a reasonable price, but it looked like Super Spreader Saturday in there so I skedaddled out. I had better luck at the Loaves and Fishes Cookshop in Bridgehampton, finding large and small bottles, and more peace of mind in terms of safety.
For friends who do not drink, I am working on a "mock-uavit," something along the lines of a highly herbal shrub to be mixed with soda water, but I haven't quite got it right so maybe I can share a recipe next year.
Then I tackled homemade gravlax. As usual, the internet provides a plethora of dangerously, wildly varying recipes. The ratio of salt to sugar wasn't as alarming as all the recommendations regarding shelf life, how long to cure, and whether or not to freeze. Even such reputable sites as Food52 and The New York Times had very different suggestions. So I did what I often do, consulted the real pros, chef friends on Facebook: Sybille van Kempen, Jeremy Blutstein, Bryan Futterman, Adrienne Nelson, Cheryl Stair, Colin Ambrose, Deena Chafetz, Robert Durkin, and Chris Polidoro.
I felt more confident and secure after getting their advice and not like I'd be giving my loved ones ciguatera and scombroid. Those are forms of fish poisoning, not one of those creepy law firms that advertise at 3 a.m. on Fox. Like the aquavit, cured salmon's flavor profile can be tailored to your liking. I went with a cure heavier on salt than sugar, with white pepper, coriander, a wave of the unopened jar of caraway seeds over the fillets, fennel seeds, lemon zest, a sprinkle of my aquavit, and gobs of fresh dill sprigs. The most important thing, again, is freshness and using the highest quality salmon from a reputable fishmonger. You will spend close to $30 per pound and this is a very delicate, perishable food so please prepare carefully, wrap and chill well, and give very specific instructions and expiration date to your lucky recipients. Include a dense wheat bread (not rye!) and a little jar of mustard sauce to go with this gift.
Lastly, I am making bottles of Irish cream, heavy on the chocolate flavor, lighter on the fatty cream, all made with high quality booze.
We should also keep in mind all of the wonderful food gift ideas available locally. I always give big jars or Loaves and Fishes orange marmalade, local honeys, Kimchi Jews sauces, Amber Waves grains, Balsam Farms jarred tomatoes, Carissa's jams, the list goes on and on. Don't forget local restaurants. You can buy gift certificates from many of them. For instance, if you get gift certificates from Rowdy Hall, you can use them at any other of the Honest Man Restaurant Group's restaurants: Coche Comedor, La Fondita, Townline BBQ, and Nick and Toni's. Venture over to the North Fork to Briermere Farm for jams and fresh or frozen pies, 8 Hands Farm for pickled jalapeños, rillettes and pates, and all kinds of organic beans and grains.
Experimenting with recipes has always been a pleasure, and therapeutic for me, and never more so than now. Being able to turn that creative outlet into gifts has been even more rewarding. Enough with the sugary reindeer cookies, let's surprise our friends and family with some out-of-the-ordinary food and drink.
Let's begin with aquavit, a.k.a. Scandinavian jet fuel. Feel free to tailor the flavors to your liking. I found this formulation to be delicious mixed with fresh pink grapefruit juice.
Makes a lot of little bottles.
1 jumbo bottle of good vodka
8 big sprigs of fresh dill
2 Tbsp. fennel seeds
4 cardamom pods
20 juniper berries
1/2 to 1 tsp. caraway seeds
2 lemons' worth of peel (no pith, please)
2 clementines' worth of peel (ditto)
Pour vodka into large, wide-mouthed jar. Add fresh dill. Crush fennel seeds, cardamom pods, juniper berries, and caraway seeds. Add to vodka, along with the citrus peels.
Let steep for three days, one week, two weeks, up to you. Keep tasting and shaking each day. The vodka will turn a pale yellow.
When well flavored, strain into smaller bottles. If you want it perfectly clear, use cheesecloth in your strainer. Give as gifts with little shot glasses.
Homemade gravlax can also be tailored to your taste. Some like more sugar, some like more salt. Some rinse the cure off when finished, some simply wipe it off. You can rinse, pat dry, then place salmon back in fridge uncovered for a day to dry it out even more. I cured mine for four days. The usual recommendation is three to five. And, yes, gravlax can be frozen for a brief period.
This is more of a guideline than a recipe, and I have included Sybille van Kempen's recipe from Loaves and Fishes because the shop has been making beautiful gravlax for over 40 years! Please make sure your spices are fresh.
1 2-lb. piece highest quality, freshest salmon, cut into sizes you want
1/4 cup kosher salt
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. aquavit
Crushed white peppercorns (I used 1 tsp.)
Crushed coriander seeds (I used 1/2 tsp.)
Crushed caraway seeds (I used 1/2 tsp.)
Crushed fennel seeds (I used 1 tsp)
1 1/2 bunches fresh dill
Rinse and dry salmon pieces. Combine spices and sugar and salt in bowl and mix well. Coat the pieces of salmon well, rubbing the mixture into both sides. Lay some dill on bottom of ceramic or glass casserole dish. Lay fish, skin side down on dill, sprinkle with aquavit, then cover with more dill. Cover with plastic, then place plate or similar item that will cover fish.
Put weights such as jars of beans or canned goods to weigh down the fish. Refrigerate for three to five days, turning the fish each day. The salmon will release liquid each day.
When done, wipe off coating or rinse and dry salmon. Wrap in plastic and when ready to serve, slice with a very thin, sharp knife.
Here are Sybille's guidelines: Begin with two fresh boneless, skin-on sides of salmon. Place both skin-side down in a clean spacious container.
Add the cure: equal parts salt to sugar to cover both sides, fresh chopped herbs to coat, and a sprinkle of brandy or other liquor flavor preference to moisten.
Combine the two sides, seal with clear plastic wrap, and press with a heavy 10-lb. weight (use your imagination on what to use for this)
Refrigerate and turn daily for five days. Slice thinly to serve. Keep the whole portion in the cure and in the fridge for up to 10 more days. It freezes well for a few weeks.
Makes a good bit.
3-4 cups Jameson Irish Whisky
2 cups cream
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 Tbsp. good dark cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. espresso powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Begin by mixing a bit of cream into the cocoa and espresso powder. Mix until it becomes a paste, then add more cream until it is smooth. Add the rest of ingredients and taste for seasoning. This will be a boozier, less rich, more chocolatey version of Baileys Irish Cream.
Transfer to various bottles and chill. This should keep for up to a month. Shake occasionally.