Holiday gifts from the oven

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Holiday gifts from the oven

Jeff Fortescue’s Garlic Soup

Serves 3 or 4

Ingredients:

5 or 6 (or 8 or 10) cloves of garlic

1 sprig of sage leaves (or a couple sprigs of fresh thyme, or a few fennel seeds, or a bay leaf)

4 cups of water

Three or four slices of dried, crusty bread

1 tablespoon good quality olive oil, plus extra for the bread

1/2 teaspoon of salt

Place the garlic cloves, water, sage leaves (or other seasoning) and one tablespoon of olive oil in a pot and bring to a pretty good simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat and cover; the liquid should still be simmering but not at a full boil.

Meanwhile place the slices of dry bread into soup bowls and drizzle each slice with a bit of good olive oil. Unless the garlic cloves are huge, they should be cooked through and quite soft after 15 to 20 minutes.

Place a strainer over a bowl or another pot and pour the liquid through. Remove the sage (or other seasoning) and using a wooden spoon or a spatula, press the garlic through the mesh of the strainer into the water. (You’ll probably have to scrape it off the bottom of the mesh and into the pot once or twice too.)

Taste it at this point and it may seem a bit insipid. Add one quarter teaspoon of the salt and taste it again. If it still seems a little flat, add the rest of the salt and taste. You’ll see how the salt helps the dish come alive. If you’ve been working quickly, the garlic soup will still be hot and you can pour it over the bread in the bowls and serve. If not, just reheat, stir then pour.

There are many variations on this soup to make it more substantial. Search for garlic soup on line and you’ll find soups that use egg yolks (very good), cheese, different flavorings, more garlic, less garlic and so on. But do try it this way too, it’s fine way to start a light meal.

Meredith Moss spotlights at-home cooks and professional chefs throughout Southwest Ohio and invites them to share favorite recipes, cooking tips and their family traditions. If you know of someone we should feature, please contact Meredith: MMoss@coxohio.com

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For Jeff Fortescue, the tradition of making fruitcakes for friends and family at holiday time can be traced back to the 1970s when his grandmother sent fruitcakes from a Texas bakery to his family for the holidays.

Twenty years later when the Springfield man came across a recipe in Saveur magazine for fruitcake, he remembered his grandmother’s gifts and set out to make a similar type of cake for himself.

When he ended up with extra ingredients and realized that the recipe was for several cakes, Fortescue decided to share. Others have been benefiting ever since. These days, Forescue adds “anything that catches my fancy” to his special cakes — candied and tart cherries, dates, apricots, figs, pineapple, ginger, citron, candied citrus peels, raisins, currants and nuts.

“First, I macerate all the dried fruits in a mixture of brandy and orange liqueur for a couple weeks,” he explains.” Then I mix up the batter and add in the fruit and nuts.”

The cakes bake for about five hours in a very low oven. Once they are cool, they get misted from a small spray bottle full of brandy every couple of days. Fortescue keeps the cakes wrapped in plastic wrap as they mature.

Two weeks after they’ve emerged from the oven, the cakes are ready to be delivered as gifts. Fortescue says he does try to sound people out on whether they like fruitcake or not before he offers one.

“Recently they go to people who have had a taste of my cake and ask if they can get one of their own the following year,” he says. ” A common question for me to hear in November is “have you started the fruitcakes yet?”

How did you get interested in cooking and baking?

I’ve been cooking in some way or other for as long as I can remember. I’m the oldest of four boys and my mother was always cooking meals. She grew up in Philadelphia and her grandparents were from Germany. Mom used to tell me stories of shopping at little markets that specialized in eggs or meats.

For a kid growing up in suburban Denver and shopping at supermarkets in the 60s and 70s, this was a magical idea. I remember wishing we had stores like that. My parents had pretty broad tastes and were willing to try many things and I just enjoyed participating. I baked pizzas all night long at my high school graduation party, but started baking seriously after college because I wanted better bread to eat. I branched out into other baked goods after that.

What are some favorite ingredients?

Salt is essential to good cooking and I always have several different types. I always have garlic and things that add a burst of flavor to whatever I’m making so the shelves are stocked with hot sauces. Sherry vinegar is amazing stuff, real Dijon mustard from France, and I almost always have Indian chutneys and pickles in the fridge. Every few days I make up a shaker jar of vinaigrette for our salads.

What advice would you give to a new cook or baker?

For a baker, you really should buy a scale. Baking is a very precise thing — until you get really, really good at it — and being off by just a little bit in your measurements can make a huge difference. Look for recipes that offer you weights for flour and liquids and use the scale. Invest in a decent chef’s knife, Google some videos on basic knife skills and keep your knife sharp; it’s safer for you and you’ll find prep is much easier with a sharp knife. Always taste while you are cooking and adjust if it doesn’t taste good to you.

What kind of recipe are you sharing with our readers?

I am interested in recipes that address what you might call the life cycle of bread. When good bread gets stale, there are still many things you can do with it. I’ll buy loaves at Rahn’s in the 2nd Street Market and intend for some of it to be used after it has dried out. In the summer that might be in a bread salad, but in the winter I love Richard Olney’s recipe for Aigo-bouido, which translates from Provencal as “boiled water.” In my house we call it garlic soup and it is much better than it might sound. The simmering mellows the garlic and a bowl is incredibly restorative on a cold night, especially for a soup that seems to be made of next to nothing at all.

What are your earliest memories of food and cooking?

The experience that made me want to be a better cook is pretty clear in my mind. My parents had gone out to eat at a restaurant that was highly recommended by friends, and I think fairly expensive to boot. They came home very disappointed and started to cook what they thought of as restaurant-style meals for themselves and friends. I started to see how one went about putting a meal together, how you could make efficient use of your time and ingredients, and realized I wanted to be better at this cooking thing. I think I was 12 at the time.

Who taught you to cook?

I’m pretty much self taught. I would say that I am more oriented toward technique than recipes as a cook. I loved watching the “Great Chefs of…” shows that were on PBS a long time ago because they showed professional chefs in their restaurant kitchens. I was rarely interested in the recipe, I just wanted to watch their knife skills and how they manipulated food.

Today I watch shows like Iron Chef, Top Chef and Chopped for the same reasons. If you master technique, you can make anything. Also, cookbooks were my preferred recreational reading. At one point I owned nearly 500 cookbooks.

What are some of the things you make and what are favorites?

Soups of all kinds and pizza from scratch. I love Asian food — Asian noodle soups like the Vietnamese Pho were an early obsession, and I’ve been looking at Korean food lately. I’m a huge fan of baking oatmeal cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Since moving to Springfield and gaining access to a great farm fresh eggs I’ve done a lot more with eggs than I used to.

What do you do professionally, and how you fit cooking into your life?

I’m the Business Specialist at the Dayton Metro Library where I help entrepreneurs and small business owners find information they need to start or run their business. I used to think I’d like to run a restaurant but more than 20 years as a business librarian has taught me how difficult running a successful restaurant can be.

I work in Dayton but live in Springfield which makes fitting elaborate cooking into my life a bit of a challenge. I try to have a plan for the week based on what I’ve found at the grocery or at the Springfield Farmers Market in the summer.

It’s a lot of fun to try to use up all the perishables in the refrigerator each week; it makes me think of ways to prepare meals to keep things fresh. I often spend at least part of the weekend making staples like chicken broth or a pot of beans to freeze in meal size portions, or making a big kettle of a long cooking soup or stew.

Why do you give home-baked goodies for the holidays?

Sharing food with friends and family has always been part of my life.

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