The best gift I ever gave was a dinner for two.
This was a charity donation. A community group was looking for auction-able gifts to raise money. I volunteered to make dinner for two. I think I was auctioned off for about $50. The cost of the food was extra. Of course, having a “chef” make dinner at your home is a celebratory event, so dinner for two morphed into four and then maybe doubled again. As this was for charity, I couldn’t say no, although I was now going for cheap.
The meal changed too. I remember making a superb Chicken Kiev: a complicated dish that involves stuffing chicken breasts with flavoured butter, sealing the breasts closed, coating these in breadcrumbs, quickly pan frying them, and then keeping everything warm and ready for plating. The trick with Chicken Kiev is to make sure that the butter doesn’t melt completely but oozes nicely as you cut into the breast. This is painfully ungepatchket, a Yiddish word for overly ornate, which I think nicely describes excessively labour-intensive activity in the kitchen. I have not made Chicken Kiev since.
I also tried my hand at baking and, at the end of the meal, served delicious but fragile chocolate dipped Florentine cookies. Lots of work, lots of flavour but, again, making it once was enough. There was likely a soup, a Caesar salad and seasonal vegetables on the menu. I remember phyllo dough stuffed appetizers and maybe cheese towards the end.
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The dinner went well and I was exhausted. I had put in a day getting ingredients, another of prep, and several hours of cooking in a kitchen unfamiliar to me. My hosts tipped judiciously with a bottle of champagne, a nice pourboire indeed.
What made it the best gift I ever gave was that, later that evening, I met my friends for a bit of late night mellowing out and my future intended was there. We drank the champagne that night and have been making dinner together ever since.
Holiday gifts: want yes, need no. Scarves work well; they are useful and get stashed in drawers. Over-sized coffee table art books, not so much. Food, however, is always welcome. Celina makes an annual treat, lighter-than-air cookies called chruściki in Polish.
Mix 1½ cups flour, a pinch each of baking powder and salt. Make a well and add 4 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of sour cream, a tablespoon of vodka. (The alcohol makes the crust flakier.) Mix well. Knead until the ball is smooth. Wrap and put this in the freezer for an hour.
Remove and cut into four pieces. The dough should be very stiff. Roll out a section till it is thin and smooth. The thinner the better. Cut into strips and fry in Crisco or vegetable oil at 375F. Remove when golden and crisp. Drain, cool and dust with powdered sugar. Before you fry them, cut a slit lengthwise and pass one end of the strip through the slit and give it a twist.