He’s made lots of friends living in Ocala for the past 15 years, and this home cook loves showering them with gifts of goodies.
The dishes Max Russell enjoys preparing, eating and sharing with friends are diverse, reflecting his many varied influences: two Kentucky grandmothers who prepared the perfect Southern recipes such as fried chicken and biscuits; an Italian mother-in-law who went all out to serve traditional feasts; and the exotic locations he has visited across Europe and Asia.
However, his go-to source for recipes for more than four decades has been Julia Child.
“I love her,” he says simply of the star of the 1960s and ’70s hit cooking show The French Chef and author of the well-worn, now-yellowed The French Chef Cookbook that started Russell on his culinary journey.
“She doesn’t just give you the recipes; she gives you all the little tips and techniques that make it turn out right. They’re complicated recipes sometimes, but if you follow everything she says, it’s going to taste good.”
Even if you’re forced to substitute some ingredients, he adds with a laugh, relaying the story of the very first recipe he attempted with his college roommate.
“We made coq au vin,” he remembers. “We saw her do it on TV and I said, I’ve got the book! We went to our local grocery store. We lived in Murray, Kentucky, a town that was dry; they didn’t have any wine. So we had to buy that awful cooking wine. They didn’t have mushrooms so we had to buy canned mushrooms—ingredients that Julia Child would never use. But we made that recipe anyway, and it was the best thing either of us had ever eaten to that point in our lives. And that’s still one of my favorite things to make.”
Russell, a freelance writer, has kept a journal of the parties he’s given for more than 20 years. He and his spouse, artist David D’Alessandris, love entertaining at their home and creating menus themed to the occasion.
For Derby Day, Russell always makes fried chicken and he created a mocktail he calls a Mint Tulip, which uses fresh mint he grows in his herb garden. Though their Oscar parties were on pause during the pandemic, past standout dishes have included Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Pie, Catherine Ziti Jones and Pigs in a Blanchett.
“I didn’t realize a lot of our lives revolve around food,” Russell shares. “We plan our vacations to make sure we have authentic food experiences in the places we go. I have a lot of food memories.”
One of his favorite traditions is baking biscotti and gifting them to friends and family at the holidays.
“We always find some unique way to package them and send to friends,” he says.
Though he makes several varieties of the crunchy Italian almond cookies, one of the most special is his orange pecan, which includes his homemade candied orange peel, Georgia pecans, Vietnamese cinnamon and Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract. Russell perfected this recipe after trying to re-create the “tiny, very crispy, incredibly flavored cookies” he ate in Florence, Italy. It’s no surprise that his twice-baked cookie recipe originated with a certain chef who—just like Russell—believed “careful cooking is love.”
“It was inspired by Julia Child; it’s based on her recipe that I’ve adapted over the years. When I make anything, I always go first to see if she has a recipe for it.”
Orange Pecan Biscotti
Makes about 80
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for kneading and rolling)
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 3/4 cups whole pecans
- 1/2 cup chopped candied orange peel*
- 4 large eggs, well beaten
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 teaspoons demerara or raw sugar (optional)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon orange extract
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. › Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside. › In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt on low speed. › Stir in the pecans and candied orange peel. › Whisk the eggs and extracts together in a small bowl and, with the mixer running, stir into the dry ingredients to form a cohesive, slightly sticky dough. Add a tablespoon more of flour or a tablespoon of milk or cream if needed to get the right consistency. (You can do all the mixing by hand in a large bowl using a wooden spoon, but it takes some effort.) › Gently turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand a few times to make sure everything is thoroughly combined. (Add a tiny bit more flour if the dough is too sticky to handle.) › Divide the dough into three equal parts and form each part into a log about 12 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1 inch high. (Optional: sprinkle the logs with coarse demerara or raw sugar for added crunch.) › Transfer the logs to the prepared baking sheet at least three inches apart and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until lightly brown. › Place baked logs on a rack to cool. › Once completely cool, using a serrated knife, cut the logs at an angle into 1/4-inch slices. › Arrange the slices cut side down in rows on the baking sheet and return to a 350 degree oven. › Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until the biscotti are crispy and golden. › Let the biscotti cool completely on racks, then store in an airtight container for a week or so. They also freeze well for several months. (Tip: If cookies lose their crispness, 4 or 5 minutes in a 350-degree oven will bring them back to life.)
*Available at grocery stores or online. I make my own using Alton Brown’s easy online recipe.