I grew up in South Florida, which is like living in eternal summer. It's lush and green and hot all year round--except in winter, when it's slightly cooler. That's when my parents call me to report that it's a "nippy" 60 degrees and they had to put on sweatshirts. Harumph, I say. Beyond picking strawberries in the spring and eating honeybells in the winter, the year in terms of food always seemed pretty constant to me in Florida. We ate ice cream and barbecued year-round. Sometimes I drank hot chocolate for fun in December, while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Living somewhere tropical is wonderful in a way, but also kind of like Groundhog Day. Nothing ever changes. And then I moved to New York and had my first real taste of spring, fall, and of course, winter.
As I write this, snow is falling softly outside, just barely accumulating on the bare branches outside of our windows. It's lovely to look at, especially from inside our toasty apartment. But I can't lie. I really don't like winter. I'd much rather be barefoot by a pool, drinking a glass of something cold. But I'll suffer wearing a puffy jacket in order to appreciate having the greater awareness of time passing that the seasons bring. And seasonal eating, of course. It's nice to enjoy certain types of food for a limited time only, and then move on to different things at their peak. I remember the blueberries and squash I bought and enjoyed last summer more than any other time I've cooked with them year-round. Food just tastes better when it's supposed to exist, and enjoying it at that specific time makes you really stop and savor what you're eating. Especially warm, comforting winter desserts. You knew I was going to get to the title of this post at some point, didn't you...
Rice pudding with cherries
Ohh, rice pudding. My mom makes such a good one, and this recipe, adapted from the Joy of Cooking, comes pretty close. I love this dessert for its homey simplicity, but it's totally worthy of a special dinner with a little gussying up. Sprinkle some cinnamon on top, or chocolate shavings, or grated orange peel. And don't forget the dried cherries--they are the perfect addition to this creamy pudding. I like serving it slightly warm in the winter--not boiling hot, but warm enough so that you can curl your fingers around the bowl and feel the heat.
(Serves about 6 people)
3/4 cup medium or long-grain rice (I like using jasmine rice)
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 tsp. salt
4 cups whole milk (don't use skim for this, but 2 percent is fine)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup chocolate shavings, optional
Apple crisp with dried cherries
Filled with juicy apples and an aromatic blend of orange zest, nutmeg, and cinnamon, this is a perfect winter dessert. The recipe is a twist on the pear crisp I made awhile back. The filling is pretty flexible; you can substitute pears, or use a combo of apples and pears. You can also omit the cherries or add dried cranberries, although I think the dried cherries add just the right amount of tart contrast to the apples. I've been putting them in everything lately, including straight in my mouth. I brought this dessert to Christmas dinner and it was devoured by everyone. Except Rose, Jennifer and Mark's four-year-old daughter. "I don't even like this," she said, handing back her bowl. Can't please everyone!
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used 1 1/2 cups gluten-free almond flour)
1/2 cup whole almonds with skin (untoasted)
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup dried cherries
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 tsp. finely grated lemon peel
1 1/2 tsp. finely grated orange peel
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 lbs. Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
To make the topping, pulse together flour, almonds, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor until the nuts are finely chopped. Add butter and pulse just until blended. Coarsely crumble in a shallow baking pan (I put it in a small bowl) and chill at least 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Combine first 7 filling ingredients in a large bowl; stir to blend. Add apples and lemon juice and toss to blend. Pour filling into an 11 by 7 by 2-inch glass baking dish (or other shallow 2-quart baking dish). Crumble the topping over the filling. Bake for about 1 hour, until the topping is golden and juices are bubbling around the sides. Cool before serving and top with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.