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Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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Christmas stollen.

On a bit of a Dickens kick right now, especially with that marginally famous Christmas book he wrote about the clashing of spirits and humans, light and dark, and plenty and impoverished.

To compare, I’m thinking of last Christmas, when Hurricane Sandy had just taken away possessions, houses, electric, gas, water and a sense of security and left behind a lot of numb. We learned what was a luxury and what wasn’t, and we learned it pretty quick. Since no gas stations had power either, all of us were worried about driving and running out of gas. Instead, those of us who still had homes stayed in them, froze, mourned, and climbed the walls a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to get gas, finally. I remember driving away feeling like someone had handed me a million dollars. For filling up my gas tank!

It’s not always the big, or cliche, or obvious things that foster a sense of abundance. Here are the Cadillacs in my own dreams.

1) Special foods. You knew I was going here, and I can’t think of a worthier co-pilot than Dickens. His descriptions of holiday foods in Stave Three, mugged up by the Ghost of Christmas Present, are nothing short of glorious. And poignant: his father was jailed for unpaid debts, and he himself was deep into debt, and hungry, when he wrote the book. Those who know hunger describe food in mesmerizing detail, and those who used to be hungry never forget what it feels like. This was Dickens; and here he chooses words that, when spoken aloud, give the reader’s mouth a workout and make it water.* Try it:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

It’s also striking, and essential, to note that when Dickens later illustrates the Cratchits’ Christmas meal, he gives just as much heart to writing it as he does the above. They had very little—their pudding was the size of a musket ball and had to feed seven. Do they complain? No—they’re thrilled. And they feel genuinely full, and genuinely grateful, after the meal. His point: Appreciating abundance is about perspective.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done.

As for me, I have crystallized ginger standing by for gingerbread, Saigon cinnamon for my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, and nearly a dozen Meyer lemons in the fridge about to become lemon curd, a religious conversion if there ever was one. I also bought organic chicken legs for a song this week at Trader Joe’s. Americans have never gone for dark meat the way the rest of the world has, and I’m grateful to get the spoils.

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Meyers.

Since I’m on a happy roll, right now my freezer contains four kinds of flour, my own tomato sauce, my mom’s cranberry bread, my sister’s cuccidati, the remnants of my fruitcake, and three bottles of my homemade Limoncello. I am very wealthy squirrel.

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Cinnamon-chocolate sour cream cake.

2) Quiet. Today my fire alarm started chirping, loudly, indicating it had a low battery. Very no big deal, except for the fact that my ceilings are 9′ high, and even with my stepladder trying to reach it was a bad joke. No ladders in the basement. Plan B had me moving my mid-century dining room table into the hallway, stacking the Chicago Manual of Style, Home Comforts, and Little Women on it, and standing on them. I pulled it down, then became horrified when it kept chirping. Messages to my building manager came to nothing, and by afternoon I was wondering whether sleeping in the car would really be as uncomfortable as it sounded. Then it occurred to me that the chirping might be coming from my CO detector. It was. I yanked out the batteries and promptly took a nap. Wrapped myself in swaddling clothes—okay, a throw blanket from Target—and drank in the abundance of quiet like a hot buttered rum.

3) The beauty in everywhere. This Navajo blessing will sink in, whether you’re inhaling the salt air at the beach or if you’re alone in a park that’s all stark winter gorgeousness. But the crazy thing is it will sink in no matter where you are. It just takes a clear eye and an open heart.

Really—give it a whirl right now, no matter where you’re reading this. Take in the details, the stuff you didn’t notice before, and let yourself fill up.

With beauty before me I walk/With beauty behind me I walk/With beauty above me I walk/With beauty around me I walk.

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I took the below shot awhile back, in a nearby park. The air was very still and cold, and although I was in the middle of such vastness, it wasn’t intimidating; it was comfortable, and filling.

I love this ancient sycamore against the miles beyond it.

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And then there’s another kind of tree, and view. It’s a lot smaller, but it does the job of filling me up pretty well, too.

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*This is a literary device that has a name, and since I’m a couple of decades out of college I can’t remember what it’s called. Please tell me if you know. Yes, I tried Google. It can be overrated.

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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.

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