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If You Want It Delicious,
Make It Yourself

By Amanda Hesser

It's that time of year again. Time for eggnog poured from cartons. Cheese balls that seem transported straight out of a Cheever story. Gifts of fruitcake that are welcomed like the flu.

Between moments of holiday cheer, you may notice that none of these delights taste quite the way they did when you were young. There's a reason for that. It's because people now buy their holiday treats instead of making them, and what's out there to buy is far from delectable. Why else would there be a Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake?

No need to get gloomy. There's recourse. You can in fact make treats, as your parents or grandmother probably did, with your very own hands.

Except for bread, turducken and perhaps molded chocolates, a good argument can always be made for making holiday food from scratch. With these recipes, the argument is irrefutable. These are special dishes and a drink that you make just once a year. They are for gifts, parties and family gatherings many of them tonight, tomorrow and over the weekend. Buying them only sends a message that you probably don't want to be sending.

This is especially true with eggnog, whose store-bought versions tend to be loaded with fake vanilla and guar gum, which gives it a less than desirable unctuousness. A healthy dose of bourbon can do a lot to anesthetize the taste buds, making the store-bought versions palatable. This strategy, however, doesn't bode well for pleasure. In the Middle Ages, people used heavy spices in a similar fashion, and none of the dishes from that period have lasted all that well.

Homemade eggnog is simple, a recipe for novices, as long as they can whisk. Where many eggnogs go wrong is that they rely more on cream than on alcohol. It's not a liquid dessert. It's a drink, whose coarse edges are muted with cream and eggs. "The Joy of Cooking" has a recipe that hits all the right points, some of them in excess. Made as is, the drinker is apt to experience a brief moment of jolly followed by blacking out. If this is desirable, turn to the book. If not, turn to my adaptation. I cut some of the cream with milk and cut back on the alcohol just a touch so one could finish a glass while still holding onto it.

Egg yolks are whisked with sugar until thick and pale. The first round of spirits whiskey, bourbon, whatever you choose are added, and then it is left to rest and mellow, the spirit imbibed by the egg yolks like an oil into a vinaigrette. After resting, more spirits are whisked in, followed by cream and milk. The last step, which makes it the treat that it is, is to whip the egg whites and fold them into the nog. When you drink the result (which you don't actually do; you sip), the spirit hovers over the drink like tingling mist. Flakes of nutmeg are suspended in a white puff of foam on top. Beneath is a soothing, definitive brew.

Eggnog is but one of a collection of drinks that relies on milk, cream or egg. Milk punches were a popular holiday drink in the 19th century. A bourbon milk punch is essentially eggnog minus the egg. Bourbon is mixed with milk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. A Tom and Jerry is similar to eggnog except that it contains only milk, and both rum and brandy. A brandy alexander combines cream with brandy and crme de cacao. There's also the Ramos Fizz, a blend of lemon juice, lime juice, gin, orange flower water, club soda, cream and egg white.

Cheese balls lack such an illustrious and definitive past. Nut-crusted and filled with mysterious cheeses and bits of vegetable, cheese balls tend to be associated with shag rugs and tinsel, symbols of the middle-class middlebrow. Maybe they came before their time. Cream cheese and industrial Cheddar made for likable filler before a meal. But now, with so many interesting cheeses available, it's easy to see that a cheese ball doesn't have to be stodgy. If crme brle may be made with star anise, a cheese ball may be flavored with turmeric.

All a cheese ball is is cream cheese seasoned with spices, other soft cheeses, aromatics and herbs. In order to make it easy to serve, this mixture gets rolled into a baseball-size ball and coated with ground nuts or herbs. The coating adds flavor and texture and makes the hefty orb easier on the eyes. There is no cooking involved and there are no real rules, other than that the result must taste good. You might want a cheese square rather than a cheese ball, which, if you can figure out how to make it, is fine. You might want to serve it with celery sticks rather than crackers, and that is fine, too.

Set out your cream cheese to soften, put it in a bowl, beat it with a wooden spoon and then work in whatever ingredients you wish. I like cheese balls that have less cheese and more aroma. Recently, I made one with hints of the Eastern Mediterranean. The cream cheese was mashed with goat cheese, then seasoned with cumin, coriander, lemon zest, celery hearts, mint and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. The ball was rolled in ground pistachios. A Spanish (and I use this word loosely) one had grated Manchego worked into the cream cheese, along with pimenton (Spanish red pepper), olives, scallion and Worcestershire sauce. It was rolled in ground almonds and smoked paprika.

The only thing you can't do is rename it. It's not spiced cheese. It's a cheese ball, an original American specialty, simply updated.

The fruitcake, by contrast, does not need updating. All you need is a good recipe, of which there are apparently few. The reputation of ridicule that fruitcake has gained has everything to do with the bad recipes, which skimp on fruit and load on the batter. In a good fruitcake the batter should barely be perceptible, acting merely as adhesive to bind the tasty bits, namely fruit and nuts. Broken down into its parts, a good fruitcake contains ingredients that most people love: plump dates, candied cherries, almond extract, pecans, walnuts, sugar and whiskey. And rather than eating them plain, they are cooked to condense their flavor, toast the nuts and soak up the sugar and whiskey. Pure bliss, in my view.

Many people also think that the difficulty of making fruitcake is proportionate to its density. Untrue. It's no harder than making apple cake. I would love to give proper credit for my recipe, given to me by my mother: it comes from Page 131 of the November 1965 issue of Woman's Day magazine, with no author listed with it. Dates and candied pineapples are chopped and combined with candied cherries. Over those, flour and baking soda are sifted and a batter of eggs and sugar is poured. The fruit and batter are mixed and the nuts are folded in. It is pressed into a cake pan (or loaf pan) and baked. And when it comes out you shower it with whiskey.

One advantage of making fruitcake now, in this new century, is the availability of better quality dates (Medjools, for instance) and cheaper nuts. My mother's clipped recipe called for all pecans, which were surely a splurge in 1965. In mine, I swapped out some of the pecans for walnuts, almonds and salted pistachios. I added orange peel, as well. It is by no means a cheap cake, and that is largely why it became a traditional gift. It was a cake that you wouldn't make for yourself. It was a treat.

You may think that I've missed a few other holiday bombs, like mulled cider and bche de Nol. I did. Mulled cider is too easy for a recipe. Scent it with star anise and orange peel. And bche de Nol? There, you are on your own. I will simply ask: have you ever had one that you actually liked?

Recipe: Good Fruitcake
Recipe: Eggnog
Recipe: Cheeseball With Red Pepper, Olives and Smoked Paprika

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