Image from the Bodleian Library Advent Calendar
I'm flying away tomorrow, but I hope that everyone finds what they want behind the last door of the Advent countdown.
I end up playing something like
the paper-scissors-rock game:
heat hardens sugar, water melts it.
It took a LOT of hot water to melt this lava.
I'm not sure if I've actually made Black Cake yet, because I never did manage to burn any sugar properly.
For my first round of cakes - half a recipe, as per Colwin's instructions in Home Cooking, makes a big cake and a smallish cake -- I finally got fed up and used molasses. I wouldn't have done this under my own steam, but Nigella Lawson recommended precisely this course of action in HER homage to Black Cake. Unfortunately, at this juncture in the Black Cake making, it was approximately midnight and I had ten people coming for dinner the next day. Black Cake was meant to be the Christmas Cake -- in other words, not only the dessert, but also the symbolic crowning of the occasion. I couldn't afford to be picky or authentic.
The next morning I put a nice thick layer of marzipan on the big cake, then laid down a smooth sheet of roll-out Royal icing over that. Some Christmas trees, cut and dyed from the Royal icing, completed the whole and gave it that Christmas Cake signature look. (I would have taken a picture, but what with decorating and mince pie making and producing a large roast dinner, my back was against the wall, rather.) I did save you a slice, though.
This year I was on top of the gift-buying, the gift-wrapping, the Christmas dinner, the house decorating and - unsurprisingly, the festive baking. Once again, it was the Christmas cards that let me down.
Every year, I start thinking about the cards in October. I start taking pictures of the girls in November. And yet! Somehow, I am always racing against the last mailing day . . . and usually losing.
Even though I was a bit behind schedule this year, I had a plan to pick up my finished cards on Monday morning and then -- no procrastinating! -- put in a full afternoon of hard handwritten labor. (Isn't there a saying about the gods laughing at the plan-makers in this life?) Unfortunately, by the time I got to the bottom of our lane, I could hear the tell-tale death rattle of a blown tire. Never mind the tire -- the afternoon was blown, too. By the time I had purchased two exorbitantly expensive Michelin tires, (thank goodness Sigmund's already bought my pressies), and been chewed out by a garage owner for driving on bare tread and a prayer, there was just enough time to get home and start dinner. The cards could wait for another day . . . and somehow they did.
Despite my best efforts to get on top of Christmas this year -- so I could actually enjoy all of the little rites, and not feel them to be a hideously stressful burden -- I ended up doing my Christmas cards in a less than desirable state-of-mind. In a fit of Christmas multi-tasking, I was writing out addresses as I got my hair cut. I was writing cheery messages as I got a pedicure. I was sticking on address labels as I tried to eat soup. Yes, even though I am due to catch a plane early tomorrow morning, I was sliding into the post office at a quarter to five today. The postmistress could only sigh at my Santa sack of letters -- to be posted all over the world. And once again, my wishes for a happy new year are going to be read after that new year has already dawned.
But that's a minor thing, really. What's much, much worse is that my husband is not going to be able to get away from work this Christmas. Our trip to the Bahamas -- the one that my mother has been planning for a year -- is going to be sans Sigmund. Poor Sigmund! Should I leave his lone stocking?
It's not much comfort, but at least the chickens will have company. The four of them (Minstrel, too) will have to scratch out a Christmas together.
In a recent interview,
Julie Walters said
that a cup of hot Bovril after swimming
was a favourite childhood memory.
It is very cosy and warming,
and my children are hooked on it, too.
The essential vegetable
for a Christmas roast dinner.
I didn’t always like
its slightly sour taste,
but with lashings of pancetta,
parsley and Marsala wine
(thanks to Nigella Lawson’s advice)
I can happily eat it.
Sweet and warming,
This year’s recipe
included the savoury touches
of a clove of garlic
and a bay leaf.
You steep the spices in apple juice
and then add an equal part
of red wine.
To be taken, as holiday tonic,
with mince pies of course!
I can remember very clearly
the first time I loved a mince pie.
It was the week before Christmas
We had walked down a dark, snowy lane
to a friend’s cottage,
where we ate mince pies and drank mulled wine
in front of a roaring fire.
They really are better home-made.
Last year I canned many jars
of mincemeat, and then gave them away
I used my last jar this weekend,
only to discover that the
recipe (from a newspaper, I think)
has been lost!
Nigella’s recipe for pastry
Remember that über-feminist slogan: A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle?
As feminism has evolved, I think that most women (and men) have become more comfortable with the idea that inclusiveness -- rather than exclusiveness -- is the feminist objective. Buy it, bake it, pay someone else and fake it -- it's all good. Just as most women can be relaxed about the idea of men as life-enhancing, if not absolutely essential -- although, admittedly, I do have some good friends who have "switched teams" in middle age -- so can we, surely, embrace the domestic arts without losing all of our feminist cred.
Goodness knows I am no domestic goddess, but I do like to think of myself as a domestic sensualist. Since we all have to make meals and provide a warm living space anyway, doesn't it make sense to do the best we can with those rites? I am going to twist William Morris's famous words on homemaking: Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. Certainly we can all feed our children (or ourselves) by buying ready-meals and handing out the forks, but isn't there something much, much nicer and soul-satisfying about a homemade chicken pie with a puff pastry crust served at a beautifully set table?
No one NEEDS a gingerbread man at Christmas . . . I will concede that point. And yet, they taste good and smell good and look cute . . . and children love them, even if their efforts go a bit wonky. Perfection isn't the goal, you know . . . just participation.
½ cup (4 oz) vegetable shortening (Crisco, Trex or similar)
2/3 cup (5 ¾ oz) sugar
2/3 cup (5 ¾ oz) molasses or treacle
3 ½ cups (28 oz) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
Using a freestanding mixer (if you have one), cream together the shortening and sugar until fluffy. Then thoroughly blend in the molasses and egg. (Tip: measure your molasses in a glass measuring cup for liquids, and swirl the egg in it first so that the molasses doesn’t stick.)
Combine the flour, soda, salt and spices in a separate bowl. Sift into the molasses mixture. (You can actually skip the sifting part if you aren’t a domestic goddess.) Mix dough until smooth. (Dough should be stiff. If it is really, really sticky then add a bit more flour.)
Put the dough in Ziploc plastic bags and chill overnight.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. (It should be about ¼ inch thick.) Cut out with floured cookie cutters of your choice, and then place on greased cookie sheets. (I always use a Silpat silicone baking mat, which eliminates the need for greasing.)
If you have access to red hot candies, it is fun to decorate the cookies with them before baking.
Bake at 350 F/175 C for approximately 10 minutes. Don’t overcook! If the cookies start browning too much or crisping at the edges, they are going to be on the “overdone” side.
I always double the recipe. These freeze beautifully, and will last quite a while unfrozen, too – if you keep them in a tin or sealed bag.
The beauty of this recipe is that the dough can be rolled out numerous times, (and can absorb quite a lot of flour), while still remaining edible. In my humble opinion, this makes gingerbread preferable to a sugar cookie recipe if you are baking with children.
Good luck, Audrey!
I love you, Daddy! xx
Yesterday I had to be bodily dragged from one of my favorite little independent bookstores, the Red Lion Bookshop in Burford. Although we were already leaving the store with a hefty bag of goodies, I spied a new Anne Fadiman on one of those irresistible tables near the door. Every book-truffling nerve in my body went on alert. I gave Sigmund the begging puppy dog eyes, but he responded with a firm NO and frogmarched me out the door. It is a truth well acknowledged by my family: I am a book lover (addict). I have a bit of a habit, and sometimes it gets out of control.
I don't buy expensive shoes or handbags, but I do buy lots and lots of books. Although I may show restraint and frugality in some areas, if I go into a bookstore then it is a certainty that I will be leaving with something. Or several somethings.
It is not unsurprising, then, that I regard Christmas as a particularly good opportunity to give and to get . . . books. We always have lots of tell-tale blocky packages under the tree. Even though my children are both avid readers, there is a particular facial expression which could be described as, "This is a book, right?"
Big Important Books of the Year:
A Book that Sigmund would like to borrow: The Rest is Noise, Max Ross
A Book that my Father would like to borrow: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
A Book for Christmas Travellers: Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles
A Memoir that interests me: Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill
A Book for the Teachers amongst us: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
A Book for those who need some alone-time: The Other, David Guterson
Books (I've already ordered) from fellow Bloggers:
Presents from Persephone!
Sarah, from the Sarah Laurence blog, had the great idea of doing a Blogger Book Boost this year. In her own boost for books, she noted that the publishing industry is suffering at the moment and that the "little people" (new authors and independent bookstores) are finding it particularly difficult.
I LOVE independent bookstores . . . and I really put my money where my mouth is, too. Here is a short list of favorites that I have visited (and in some cases, revisited) this year:
River Oaks Bookstore, Houston, Texas
Books for Cooks, London
Persephone Books, London
Daunt Books, London
Red Lion Bookshop, Burford, England
The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough, England
The Country Bookseller, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
Although I do use Amazon for convenience and BookPeople for their cheap prices, there is nothing that replaces a good browse -- and a discovery! -- in a unique bookstore.
Just a Plane Ride Away posted her book list yesterday, and I'm now wild to read A Writer's Paris -- just to name one title. Sigmund only has 12 more shopping days, because we are flying away on December 19th and I'm going to need some good beach books.
Laurie Colwin freely admits that she has never made a black cake herself. Well, I haven't either -- yet -- but I feel confident enough about cake baking in general, and the capacity of my Kitchen Aid mixer in specific, to suggest making up this cake batter in two batches. Those of you with large commercial mixers may do as you like!