Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘holiday’

I’m going to talk about friendship, loss, and candy. It’s a tall and improbable order and it’s also late at night, but I’m going to try anyway. Let me know how I did.

Once upon a time there were two families whose houses were just a few yards away. The kids were pretty close. Holiday parties, birthday parties, in and out of each other’s houses, falling out of each other’s trees, playing Atari and street games until dark, waiting for the school bus.

The two boys in the two families were especially tight. When the green-haired clown at one kid’s birthday party would call him up to the stage, the other would go up in his place. Not just once, either. No one ever really figured out why, but it was pretty funny.

One time, while talking on the phone, one of the little guys was eating jelly beans and wanted to share with the other, so he put a jelly bean on the receiver. It didn’t work and he was bummed. They were pretty young.

And remember when we all had land lines, and when you called someone, there was a split second before the phone rang? Once one of the boys picked up the phone and dialed the other…who was right there on the other end in that split second, ready to call as well.

The little girls in the one family delivered, then got older and made and delivered, holiday bread to the other family. This has persisted, without fail, since the late 1960s.

Everyone grew up, as these things go. The boy in the one family married, moved across the state, and became a dad to three daughters. One of the girls in one of the families became a kitchen fiend, the kind who makes Grandma-style treats and talks about it a lot. Once she made Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows, which makes eleventy-hundred of them, and gave the boy some for his three daughters.

Suddenly the boy with the three daughters fell sick and didn’t recover. I know it looks like I just dropped that into the story out of the clear blue sky, but that’s actually how it happened. Everyone was blindsided. The families, both of them, kind of went numb, as these things go, too. At the wake the kitcheny girl spent a good amount of time wiping her eyes and hugging his dad and his sister. And she met his three daughters, now teenagers, for the first time.

In the hallway of the funeral home were cards on which visitors were asked to write a favorite memory of the boy. The kitcheny girl remembered, in writing, the time she asked him if his daughters might like some homemade marshmallows. How could she forget? His reply was, ‘…Is this a trick question?!’

His sister said goodbye with a last hug and said, “Allie, Vicki, and Stephie remembered you. They said, ‘It’s the Marshmallow Girl!'”

Life’s story, right? We’re lucky if it starts sweet and ends sweet.

RIP Johnny.

Read Full Post »

img_8563

I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

img_8532

Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

Read Full Post »

IMG_3693

Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are. 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

Read Full Post »

IMG_4274

You’d have to be a contortionist to take on all of the demands commercialism imposes upon people at Christmastime. This year, whittle away at all of the unholy crap until you’re left with what supports the most basic premise of the season: connection.

Huddling together against the cold, treating each other to gifts, bringing evergreens into the house to enjoy together, cooking special foods to share, making toasts, looking into a flickering fire and wondering what the new year will hold for all of you—these rituals predate Christianity by thousands of years. They still matter, and they always will.

Melville emphasized human interconnection in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale when he wrote, ‘A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.’ You can draw the same parallels between nineteenth-century sailors working waist-deep in whale blubber in the belly of a ship, occasionally, accidentally grabbing each other’s hands in the muck; tired, corporate-America soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the subway, singing a Christmas song and laughing; and standing fifteen deep in the checkout line at Nordstrom, a future Christmas gift draped over your arm, bloody hot in your Miss Sixty wool pea coat, wishing you’d had the sense to leave it in the car,* when the woman in front of you sees you only have one thing and lets you go ahead of her. Sometimes the frazzle of the season get distilled down in this way, to connection alone. When it does, it can stay with you, heartening you, for days.

You don’t necessarily have to seek out connection, though it’s kind of fun to do that. Just being open to it can drop you right into it. Some of my favorite and most genuine connections this year were surprises. They happened in the middle of an idle Facebook chat with a friend, or in a conversation backstage during a show as actors and stage techs swarmed past, or after eating big warming bowls of Vietnamese soup.

If, on the other hand, you’re inclined to seek out connection, give one of the below a try. I’ve road tested them all with great success; maybe you’ll have the same—or better.

1. Make a cake. An easy and yummy one. Like this. Share a warm, gooey piece with a family member, friend or obliging squirrel.

2. Serve at a soup kitchen, then cook dinner for yourself afterward. Whatever you make will taste better after you serve hungry people—I promise you.

3. Have a pal over for hot chocolate one morning and just dish. Leave your holiday stresses, work BS, ego, phone, everything, in the car. Laugh. Slurp. Goof off.

And so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

-Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

IMG_4813

*My college boyfriend always left his coat in the car when he went Christmas shopping at the mall. He’d take it off, throw it in the backseat, and dash across the parking lot into the store. Then he was comfortable the whole time shopping while I sweated to death in my coat.

Read Full Post »

IMG_3993

Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

IMG_3982

Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

IMG_3987

Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

IMG_3990

I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

IMG_3995

This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

IMG_3997

*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

Read Full Post »

IMG_0814crop

I love to make treats for the casts and crews of my shows, and to give as holiday gifts and thank-yous. 99.44%* of the time people love it. But that itty bitty percentage** left over gets all judgmental on me.

‘How can you make these things knowing there’s such an obesity problem in this country?’ they ask. I’ve even had people ask how I can live with myself, as if baking with butter and sugar is akin to mooning a Gymboree. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, a massive pile of Americans are obese. But they didn’t get that way from having a brownie at a Saturday night barbecue, or a couple of Bubbe’s latkes at Chanukah, or Cadbury eggs on Easter. And goodness knows I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. But I have mambo’ed with weight gain and loss my whole life. As my ninth grade biology teacher said, if you consistently eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. That’s how it works. So with a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure those suffering with serious weight issues got that way from consuming too much, or consuming rich foods too often—foods that are meant to be once-in-a-while treats.

Your Great Anye’s German stollen, that wonderful buttery dried-fruity holiday bread—that’s a treat. You’re not supposed to live on it. It’s a Christmastime joy, along with goodwill and empty parking places. The problem comes when the line between treats and everyday healthy foods becomes so blurred that for breakfast we grab a doughnut made with shortening and fake colored sprinkles instead of scrambled egg whites and whole wheat toast, or for lunch we choose Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a turkey sandwich. Many of us have forgotten the difference, forgotten to be discerning.

And so we get fat, and we judge ourselves and others for it. We forget that eating, like most things in life, is about balance. We’re supposed to make healthy food choices most of the time. And we’re supposed to celebrate with indulgent foods at special times. Yes, supposed to. If we can decide to live by that tenet, maybe we’ll work out this obesity epidemic (or at least come closer to doing so). And I can’t think of a better time than now, holiday time, to emphasize balance in eating.

Please, have some of your mom’s killer lasagna bolognese and your best friend’s oatmeal cookies this holiday season. Just go easy the rest of the time. Get your veggies in there. Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself.

The really good news is when we choose to live this way, choose to eat healthy foods*** most of the time and blow it out a little on the weekends and on holidays, we’ll look forward to those special treats that much more. Remember anticipation? We’ll feel like kids again.

Full disclosure:

1) Last week I overdid it: I drank hot chocolate every single day without fail. Even with 1% milk, that’s a lot. This week I have to do better with balance.

2) I’m totally in the mood to make my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, but it’s something that we kids grew up eating on Christmas morning. I am making myself wait, just like I did last year, and I know I’ll be glad I did.

I’m so excited for that cake. It’s something, like the stollen, that says yesterday is gone, tomorrow is later, and I am living for this flavor, this texture—this luxury—right now. And there’s no crime in that.

*With apologies to Ivory soap. You’re doing a fine job.

**Don’t make me do the math.

***Which doesn’t mean it should taste like a loofah sponge, by the way. Find recipes that use spices, herbs, garlic, the good stuff, and you will not deprive yourself.

Read Full Post »

Charlie Brown had a point when he said the holiday season can be kind of a letdown. Here’s a big portion of the planet spending December frantic, shooting for some magical feeling, a high, it seems to me, that will make all of this breathless marathoning worth it…and never quite finding the finish line.

Do you get that sense, too? Like we’re all reaching for something quite possibly unattainable, at least by the means we typically use (shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, schlepping)?

Parents of small children know the race, for the most part, is over by 7am on Christmas morning. And I bet they’d vote for going back to sleep until mid-January if they had the choice. Jews get eight nights, chosen as they are.  But they too might well feel that sort of wistful question mark after the last candle is lit.

It’s time for a reassessment already. As often—usually—overtaxed adults, I think it’s asking a lot of a holiday, and of ourselves, to push ourselves every year to exhaustion, reaching for a phantom high.

My posts this holiday season have emphasized cutting ourselves some slack and letting go of lunatic expectations that pummel us. I have one more point to make, and here it is: Even if that holiday high is out there, it would be over in a breath. That’s the nature of euphoria. Now ask if it’s worth it.

Contentment, now—that’s a different ballgame. Contentment doesn’t get the press that euphoria gets, but it lasts longer and is far more nourishing to the soul. So maybe that’s what we should go for.

Instead of hamster-wheeling ourselves into a frenzy from Black Friday to New Year’s Day, shooting for a high, let’s shoot for warmth. Coziness. Peace.

To wit: My mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It will not find the elusive pink suede booties your sister’s lusting after. It won’t keep your dog from chewing the little round bits of Styro left on the floor, courtesy of Best Buy. But Mom found the recipe in our local newspaper some 30 years ago and has been baking it in an ancient Bundt pan every Christmas morning for decades. It’s that good. It’s a step toward contentment…I promise you.

No chocolate chips in this puppy. Idiot-proof. (Want to know how much? When I was a teenager I started mixing up this batter, and 90% of the way through I realized I hadn’t been going by the directions, but had just been dumping the ingredients into the bowl, straight down the list. It still turned out perfect.) My mom adds walnuts to the filling; I thought, and still do, that they have no place in cake. I picked them out of every slice I ate and deposited them on the cake plate, and she’d eat them over the course of the day. It was a system that worked. But add them if you like them.

1 c butter, softened

2 c sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 c brown sugar, packed

Heat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, very well. Fold in cream and vanilla. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and add this gradually to the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine nuts (if using), cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Pour half of the batter into a well-greased and floured Bundt pan or 9″ tube pan. (You can really use any pan that’s big enough to hold the batter. If you use a rectangular Pyrex, or a springform pan, as I do, just reduce the cooking time.) Sprinkle with 3/4 of the cinnamon mixture. Pour remaining batter on top, then sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture.

Bake about 1 hour or until a tester comes out clean (check it after 45 minutes, just to be safe). Let it sit on a rack until cool. De-pan it, dust with powdered sugar and put a sprig of fresh holly on it, as my mom does, or be a heathen like me, add nothing, and cut a big greedy slice for yourself.

This cake won honorable mention in the county fair a few years ago, and the judges’ notes read, “Add more filling.” They may be right. Double the filling if you want and see if you like it better. It won for the soft, dense, tender texture—sour cream blesses every cake this way. I made the cake in the picture with plain lowfat yogurt instead of sour cream, and lessened the sugar to 3/4 c, so it’s not as high as my mom’s, but the texture is pretty much the same.

In October I broke my collarbone, moved two weeks later, then had surgery, so I couldn’t tear around like a rabid ferret the way I always do during Christmastime. Which is why I think I came up with the above shattering realization that we have the power to make the holidays a letdown or not. All I know is that I made this humble cake on Christmas Eve, and was so excited for it that I actually toyed with the idea of putting it under the tree. Contentment this year came in the shape of a springform.

Read Full Post »