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Posts Tagged ‘gingerbread’

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Vintage German Advent calendar with very subtle Hansel and Gretel undertones. The angel in the upper left is about to munch on a hot pretzel.

There are lots of versions of Hansel and Gretel. This past week I read the most recent, so new that the book’s spine made a little creaking noise when I opened it. I got palpitations when I snatched it from the librarian’s hands and scurried home, one, because I’m an English nerd, specifically a folklore nerd; and two, because Neil Gaiman wrote it, and he’s no lily-livered twat who would shellac over snuggly themes like cannibalism and abandonment.

And bless his melancholic little heart, he didn’t do that. But despite the above, what struck me most was the gnawing, pervasive theme of hunger throughout his version. There’s the strictly food-hunger perspective:

-When we meet the children and their parents they are poor but not hungry. Soon, though, their country goes to war and they are always hungry. This propels the parents to leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods.

-The animals in the forest eat the bread crumbs Hansel has dropped to find the way back home.

-The children are so hungry that they eat bits from the old woman’s gingerbread house.

-The old woman is hungry for protein; her house is a trap for those who would snack on it.

But it’s also a story about how other kinds of hunger can motivate (for good and ill):

-The father doesn’t want to abandon his children, but his hunger to stay in his wife’s good graces makes him lead them into the forest.

-Hansel’s hunger to stay alive gives him wiles enough to trick the old woman into thinking he’s not getting fat enough to eat.

-Gretel’s hunger to save herself and her brother gives her wiles enough to feign stupidity and push the old woman into the oven.

-The father’s hunger to find his children and bring them home (and surely to assuage his guilt as well) sends him into the forest every day to search for them.

-The mother’s hunger (for what it is not clear, and even the author does not know) writes her early-death certificate.

It’s hunger—for food, certainly, but also for acceptance and for life and for freedom—that drives these characters.

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I’d be remiss if, in a post about hunger, I didn’t mention the hungry around us. Food shelters happily accept a single can of food or an SUV-ful. This week many supermarkets in the U.S. are asking patrons to donate a dollar or more to food banks as well. The other day the Pope spoke pretty powerfully about the dangers of greed, pinpointing it as our downfall if we keep turning a blind eye. It’s my hope that our hunger to do right will propel all of us to feed those who are food-hungry.

But in real life as in stories, there’s more to hunger than food-hunger; and no matter the variety, deprivation is all it’s cracked up to be. For those who are hungry in other ways—for attention, for a shoulder, for a laugh, for the truth, for a little peace—give a dollar’s worth if you don’t have much. Give more if your personal bank is in the black. Most of the time people, in my experience, are just hungry to be seen…really seen.

May we all be fed and be filled—bellies and hearts alike.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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Storms (both) over! Power (twice) restored! Things getting back to normal! But oh, just kidding, November had one more banana peel for me to slip on.

Last night at around 7p I went down my hallway and heard a…well…watery noise. Turns out the boiler in my building had gone kablooie and my radiators were delivering the message. And continued to do so for the next six hours, until the emergency plumber arrived.

I think it would be simplest to describe the horror event with statements from all involved.

Me: OHNOOHNOOHNOOHNOSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP

Downstairs neighbors: HOLY F***

Radiators: SPLURT SPLURT SPLURT

Landlord: …crickets.

Plumber: $215 even.

I created the below contraption in an effort to coerce the continually dripping water to do my bidding instead of its own. Low dripping valve to funnel to skillet to long metal cylinder I found in the office closet to my biggest stockpot.  I was exhausted but undaunted, figuring maybe I never took physics, but I sure watched The Goonies enough times as a kid.

I should have taken physics.

And this is what I caught out of my bathroom radiator—rusty water. I call it Gross Soup. Mmmmmmm nummy.

So.

Once I got everything more or less under control—it only took till about 12:30a—I did the only sensible, rational thing I could think of. I sat down and chipped cooled, dried bittersweet chocolate out of a Pyrex bowl with the small plastic spatula that came with my Cuisinart Mini-Mate Chopper and ate it all with very cold milk. Then I roasted hazelnuts in the oven and rubbed their skins off with a kitchen towel. It was surprisingly relaxing.

Today I learned I will not have heat until early next week.* The gas company guy offered a sweet expression of folksy wisdom: ‘Don’t try lighting the pilot light or you could blow this place sky high.’

After hearing this, I ate a wedge of my homemade gingerbread, finished a dopey novel, and shopped for supplies. Knowing the house was going to be cold, I made a point to wear my stage tech boots all day, which make me feel powerful. There are many ways to suit up for battle.

Don’t think for a minute that I am some saccharine-soaked Pollyanna, dismissing the indignity of what happened last night, which was due entirely to my landlord’s negligence**. I took out my frustration by duct taping my radiator valves. And I plan to deliver this guy his comeuppance with shameless abandon. Though not with duct tape, because it’s too good for him.

It’s just that I know people who don’t have entire houses right now, post-Sandy. Or their cars were totaled by ocean waves while sitting right in their driveways. Or their possessions, after gulping 500 gallons of seawater, were totaled as well. Plus…being cold is work enough. Bellyaching about it just makes hard work harder.

Tomorrow I am going to a party, finishing my hazelnut recipe***, tagging my Christmas tree at the farm to be cut next month, and working on my Christmas cards. Here’s the shot. That could cheer anyone up.

Truffle cookies. Way prettier than Gross Soup.

*This is not a repeat from 10/29-11/9.

**His name is Jim. I call him Jimmy Crack Corn, from the old Southern antebellum song, because he doesn’t care.

***It’s called Better Than Nutella. Hello and yes I need to make you.

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This time of year we overwhelm ourselves. An oven that’s on from morning to night, especially in the hectic last few days before Christmas. Thinking you have to make tins of cookies AND a gingerbread house AND fancy schmancy cookie ornaments with guests’ names piped on them in royal icing. Then there’s hosting too many events, or cooking too many things for those events, or worst—knowing you’re not that comfortable a cook, but you still attempt roast pheasant wrapped in bacon and a three-layer chestnut dacquoise. We think—and I’d bet it’s a misguided thought—it has to be this way or your relationships will go up in a mushroom cloud.

Today I am going to argue for doing Christmas exactly the way you want. (If just reading that sentence gave you hives, then this is really for you.) Christmas is supposed to fun and nourishing to mind, body and soul. For kids. For guests. For you, too.

Think back on your favorite Christmas memories, and try to distill them down to the ones closest to your heart. If I can bet again, I’ll bet they’re about something simple. Warm gingerbread. A candy cane. Playing with your cousins. Watching the snow fall at night.

Sink into that nice calm feeling for a little bit.

Now think about what you can to pare down your holiday. If the train you drive at holiday time is already at maximum speed and can’t be flagged down at this point, you can save what I’m saying for next year. Like a rum cake, it’ll probably taste even sweeter by letting it marinate. But I’m positive there’s at least one thing you can scale back.

As for me, I grew up in the kind of family for whom food, great food, was tantamount. We ate always well, especially at holiday time. But it came with a price, at least for me: It was required that we dress up for every holiday, and with that came an air of pretension at the table. I’m not a formal girl (as you’ve probably guessed by now), so this was exhausting.

Many years later, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for myself and my new husband. I wore sweats, spread a blanket on the rug, fixed myself a plate…and ate every bite with my fingers. Even the mashed potatoes.

Liberating doesn’t even come close to how that felt. It was fun, it was a boost to my integrity, and let me tell you…the food tasted that much better for it.

I know that’s an extreme response. But it’s a good jumping-off point for you.

How can you eat with your fingers this year? Pick just one thing—and do it.

*You’re looking at the photo and scratching your head. No, I have not become a botanist (that whoosh you just heard was the field of botany breathing a collective sigh of relief; I barely passed biology). I took that photo on a beautiful foggy day last winter, and it’s on my Christmas card this year.

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I love pumpkin pie as much as the next chick, really I do. But October has this treat written all over it.

Cider syrup does not come in a jar or a bottle (not that I know of, anyway; and even if it was, this version is probably better just because it’s homemade in your own cute little cucina). You can cook it up in about 20 minutes, your house will smell incredible, and your family will think you’ve been sneaking away for private lessons with the Barefoot Contessa.

Take out a small saucepan and put in 1/2 c sugar, 2 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg.* Mix it up.

Next add 2 c apple cider, and if you can get it with nothing added, all the better, because the flavor will be more intense.**

Add a couple of apples, peeled and sliced as thickly or as thinly as you like. Use different varieties, if you can get them. Any will do except maybe Macintosh, which tends to plotz in the pan. Hang onto those for applesauce.

Boil, stirring, for one minute. Take it off the heat and add a pat of butter for richness. Stir. Done.

The syrup should be goopy and gorgeously aromatic. It’s great hot over pancakes or waffles, which is how I grew up eating it (Dad would make pancakes with apples in the batter and then we’d spoon this stuff over it). Put a square of hot gingerbread or hot pumpkin bread in a shallow bowl and dump some of this, cold, on top, for breakfast, and you’ll feel like you have nothing to do all day but putter around the bed-and-breakfast wearing Ugg slippers and reading House Beautiful. Or do what I do: put the syrup in a Tupperware, stick it in the fridge until it gets good and cold, then take a spoon to it. Sometimes I feel guilty doing this, knowing full well how many other worthwhile ways I could be enjoying this, but it doesn’t last long.

I just bought little local, organic Bartlett pears from the farmers’ market and am going to try them in a riff off this recipe, with cardamom, my current obsession, substituted for the cinnamon, and pear brandy, steaming hot over vanilla ice cream.  Brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar would be good too. Any other riffs you can think of? I’m all eyes.

*Saigon cinnamon, available in my local supermarket and possibly in yours, makes such a difference in pungency and fragrance that I don’t bother using any other kind of cinnamon in any of my baking. Same goes for using nutmeg in its original seed form. It’s about the size of a hazelnut, and again, can be found fairly easily. Just grab a cheese grater, or better, one of those neato microplane graters, and grate some right into your bowl. Don’t fret too much about measuring. Yes, you can use ordinary cinnamon and ground nutmeg and get decent results. But only decent.

** NJ shore residents: Don’t fool around and just head straight to Delicious Orchards.

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