Thursday, 18 December 2008

Happy Christmas . . .

Door 24

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.

xx, Bee

Black Cake Redux

If you are just now tuning in to the Black Cake saga,
you might want to visit my first Black Cake post.
(I'm sure that just exiting never crossed your mind!)
Just getting started: Burning my sugar
"Betty suggests putting a pound of brown sugar
in a heavy skillet with a little water
and boiling it gently until it begins to turn black.
You do not want to overboil.
It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely burnt.
(Home Cooking, p. 179)

The fire alarm is now going off,
and the kitchen is filled with smoke

It might be burnt sugar, but it sure isn't the "essence"
It hardens into something akin to pahoehoe lava

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.

A piece of the "first" Black Cake
The crowd's reaction: Despite my many disclaimers, which made the guests a bit nervous, the cake was fairly well-received. My daughter and sister-in-law, who don't like chunks of dried fruit, preferred it to the normal sort of Christmas Cake. Everyone else liked it well enough to have a slice -- and we all agreed that it tasted delicious with a large dab of brandy butter.

But here is the strange, deja vu moment: upon tasting the Black Cake, Sigmund and I realized that we had eaten some of the stuff when we lived in Trinidad. After all of these years of mythologizing Laurie Colwin's Black Cake, I realized that I had eaten it at least a decade ago! And it made no impression on me! Well, I was left with some impression -- and this Sigmund verified. I remember Trinidad Black Cake as being sort of damp, gummy and gelatinous -- and extremely rummy. I remember not liking it much.

After the month of marinating my fruit and dreaming about my Black Cake to come, it was a sobering moment. Rather than discovering the lost chord of Colwin's cake, I felt like I had lost it even more completely. It turned out to be nothing but an over-stimulated dream -- some Xanadu or Camelot or equally lost magical kingdom! On the positive side, Sigmund - who does not lavish praise - said he actually preferred my cake to the one he tasted so long ago.

Not to be deterred, and since I still had half of "my fruits," I wrote my friend Debski -- who is an expert on things culinary and Trini. She sent back the following advice:

Never, never use molasses. The flavour is too strong.
The cake needs to "rest" three days minimum.
Traditionally, Trinis do not ice their cakes.
Feed the cake with a couple of tablespoons of rum/cherry brandy while it is warm, and then another tablespoon after it cools.
The cake MUST stay in the tin while it is being fed and rested.

Oops. I didn't do ANY of these things. Perhaps this is why my cake was merely nice as opposed to epic?

Not long ago, I finally put a stat counter on my blog and I was AMAZED to see how many people had found me through a Googled Black Cake search. I'm assuming that most of these people have been beguiled by Colwin's recipe, but confused by her lack of specificity on certain points, because they asked exactly the sort of questions which Debski answered for me. Without a true Trini to refer to, we having been baking in the dark.

Debski also shared another interesting tidbit with me. Apparently, instead of messing about with burnt sugar, many modern Trinis use browning (yes, for gravy) to achieve the proper shade of blackness in their cake. WHAT?! I could only think, "ew, gross."

Second round of burning sugar: I was determined to cook it slowly.
I had my pound of sugar and I added a bit of water. I stirred and stirred. It became grainy; it turned into sugar again. I added some more water. It became grainy again; it blackened only slightly. And on and on like this for 45 minutes -- at which point I gave up again. I salvaged a bit of this sort of burnt grit for my cake and I moved on. Next year, I'm going to ask for a burnt sugar tutorial. (There must be a secret to it!)

This time, I followed Laurie's recipe and Debski's instructions. My second cake is now resting, having being fed with the prescribed rum. I will leave it to sit until New Year's, and then I will present it to my old Trinidad crowd for a test taste.

The Black Cake saga continues . . .
but still a question remains in my mind. Could it be that Trini Black Cake is different from the recipe that Laurie Colwin got from St. Vincentian babysitter? Can this lost cake EVER be recovered?

The Best-Laid Plans . . .

of mice and man often go awry!

Exhibit A: Bee is not a domestic goddess after all!
"Keeping it Real"

Last weekend, as I was cleaning the house for our pre-Christmas bash with the in-laws, I finally motivated to remove the dead poinsettia from my windowsill. A friend had given it to me on Halloween -- I'm sure that was its problem! It was probably cursed! -- and I had somehow managed to kill it. Even though I watered it faithfully, (do you think I watered it too much?), this sad old symbol of Christmas had a failure-to-thrive from the start. It dropped leaves; it shrivelled up; it looked sickly. Rather than removing this eyesore, it was as if I had made a pact to honor its passing by giving witness to each stage of decay. Go figure: Here I am, decorating the rest of my house like some mad Christmas fairy, but I've got a dead plant in the hub of the house. Finally, finally, I dealt with the situation and dumped it on the compost heap.

I'm thinking of the dead poinsettia as a sort of metaphor for Christmas.

Here are three possible readings:
  • You can plan too far in advance.
  • No matter how much you plan, something is going to get away from you and make you feel like a harassed basketcase.
  • Most of it is going to end up in the trash anyway.

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.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Mince Pies for Haters

Mince pies ready for the oven
Mouth-ready in less than 30 minutes

I don't know if this recipe can actually cure other sorts of hate in the world, (Christmas wishes aside), but I believe in its power to reverse prejudice of the mince pie kind.

Tonight, after my oldest daughter's carol concert, we had some friends over for mulled wine and mince pies. One of the guests - a notoriously picky eater - identified herself as a confirmed mince pie hater. She politely declined my offer of a pie - oh, several times at least - but then I wore her down and she reluctantly agreed to try a bite. Well, of course there can only be one conclusion to the story! The mince pie hater became a mince pie lover . . . and long after the adults had moved on to Stilton and biscuits, she kept appearing in the kitchen to ask, "May I please have another one?"

Since I've had a little fluttering of interest in mince pies from the American contingent, and at least one solid request, I thought that I'd share my own eccentric version. The mincemeat is flexible; but don't mess with the pastry! It is perfect as it is.

Pear Mincemeat

(adapted from a Waitrose Food Illustrated recipe from December 2006)

This mincemeat has many advantages: it doesn’t have to be made ahead of time; it doesn’t contain suet, and is therefore healthier and suitable for vegetarians; and most importantly, it tastes light, fresh and delicious! I could happily eat it with a spoon – or mixed into vanilla ice cream. My family loves the flavors of pear, ginger and pecans – all fairly unusual ingredients for the traditional mincemeat.

3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and chopped into small (1 cm) cubes
50g crystallized ginger, chopped fairly small
75g pecans, chopped fairly small
400g dried fruit (I’ve used raisins, sultanas, dates, apricots and cranberries in various combinations. Mix it up according to your preferences and – as always in my kitchen – with what you have available.)
50g dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground mixed spice
Grated zest from an unwaxed lemon
3 tablespoons of brandy (although you can substitute apple juice if you are teetotal)

Mix up all of the above ingredients in a bowl. Give them a good stir. Let sit for at least an hour – and that’s it! (If you put the mixture in a sterilized jar it will keep for awhile . . . although I’ve never discovered just how long that “awhile” lasts. Weeks, definitely. Months, maybe. For months, you should probably up the brandy!)

Tip: You can sterilize a jar by running it through a dishwasher cycle OR by washing it in soapy water, pouring boiling water in it, letting it stand for a few minutes, and then drying it out in a moderately cool (140 C/280 F or so) oven.

Nigella Lawson’s Perfect Mince Pie Pastry
(with measurements taken from Nigella Christmas and method taken from How To Be A Domestic Goddess. The wording is sometimes/often my own.)

240g plain flour
60g cold vegetable shortening (Crisco in U.S., Trex in UK)
60g cold butter
Juice of 1 orange (or 3 clementines, if you happen to have those on hand)
Pinch of salt

Necessary embellishment: Icing (confectioner’s) sugar for dusting.
Unnecessary embellishment: Egg wash (egg yolk watered down) for brushing over the top – if you think you need it, and I rarely do.

Pulse the flour and the COLD fats in a food processor until fine and crumbly. Mix the salt into the orange juice and add it gradually into the flour mixture – just until the dough starts to come together. Remove from the processor, and bring the dough together into a ball with your hands. Make sure all ingredients are well-incorporated. Then divide into three sections, pat down, wrap in clingfilm (Saran wrap) and put in the refrigerator to “rest” for 20 minutes or so.

(If you don’t have a food processor, you can do this the old-fashioned way. Just “cut in” the fats with a pastry cutter or fingertips and thumbs.)

Working with one section of dough at a time, roll out fairly thinly – but it should still be sturdy enough to make a pastry case. Lightly flour the surface you are working on – and also your rolling pin – but it is not a sticky or temperamental pastry.

I use a fluted round cookie/biscuit cutter to make the discs which will line miniature muffin/tart pans. Then I make some little stars to put on the top. You might need to go with a glass (or whatever you have), as long as it makes a circle which will fit into the tart pan you are using. The dough should come all the way up to the top, but not overhang.

This pastry is really easy to work with – and really flaky and delicious to eat. You can roll it out, and patch it, and mess with it, and it will still be tender. The orange juice is the master stroke – both for a hint of sweetness, and also for its tenderizing properties.

Place a teaspoon or so of mincemeat into the pastry case. It should come almost up to the top. Put your little pastry star on top, and brush with eggwash if you want that golden, shiny look.

Bake for 10-15 minutes in a very hot (220 C/ 440 F) oven.
Ease out of the pans onto a wire rack after a minute or so of cooling. When the pies are cool, or even almost cool, sprinkle some powdered sugar over them. I use my flour sifter for this delicate job!

For extra delicious decadence, spread brandy butter or rum butter on top of your mince pie.

According to Nigella, these freeze well. I can't speak to that - as I never have any left over.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Mince Pies . . . and other English things which have grown on me


I would have never dreamed of making chutney
when I lived in Texas.
There is just something so British Empire
and WI about it.
I made these for teacher and friend gifts
this year - along with tins of M & S biscuits.
It seemed like an appropriate gift
for an economic crisis.
It feels thrifty.
It lasts a long time,
as does the vinegary smell
which hangs about the kitchen
after you simmer all of the ingredients
together for hours.


Mix one part Advocaat with one part lemonade/Sprite
and lots of ice. Stir.
A cross between eggnog
and an ice cream soda.
Perfect for teenagers, mother-in-laws,
and people who order Pina Coladas.
I first learned of this quintessential
70s drink while watching
many years ago.
That reference alone revealed what
a cheesy, retro drink it is.
I love it, though.

Bovril beef broth

In a recent interview,
Julie Walters
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.

Brussels Sprouts

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.

Mulled wine

Sweet and warming,
so delicious!
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!

Mince pies

I can remember very clearly
the first time I loved a mince pie.
It was the week before Christmas
In 1999.
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
so cavalierly.
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
is perfect.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Oh, Sugar! A virtual candy exchange

Dedication: For dearest friend Lucy, of Box Elder, on her birthday.

Lucy was one of my first blogging friends, and the first person who “found me” rather than the other way around. (I left a comment on Jan’s Writing Journal – oh lucky day! - and Lucy followed it to Bee Drunken.) Lucy is the person who I would like to be when I grow up; unfortunately, though, Lucy is only a few years older than I am . . . and I just don’t think you can get that much seasoning in three or four years. She is a talented writer (prose and poetry), teacher, photographer and artist, and she knows all sorts of things about birds and plants – not to mention her practical knowledge about hedgerow fruits and pointing. I am always educated, charmed or emotionally moved by her postings . . . and usually all three at once.

I’ve been planning my virtual candy exchange for a while now – saving it until Friday with the hopes that busy Anne could join us – so when I read Lucy’s ghazal about sugar yesterday, the timing was just too delicious. Please do read Lucy’s poem . . . it adds some depth to my own tribute to sweet stuff.

Not long ago, Alyson and I were nattering in the comments and we realized that we both make toffee as part of our Christmas tradition. Of course, I immediately wanted to compare recipes. If someone says they have a good recipe of anything, I’m instantly desirous – one part curiosity, and one part greed. Who knows why, but domestic details intrigue me. I always like to know what other people are eating, and if they say it is good, then I want to eat it, too. So in that spirit of sharing and sugar-lust, I am calling for a virtual candy exchange! If you would like to participate, I will link you in.

Do Americans have more of a taste for sugar? Or are they just more industrious? When I was a child, the tins of homemade cookies and candies would line the sideboard. There would be toffee, peanut brittle, divinity, pecan tassies, sugar cookies, gingerbread, spritz butter cookies, and Oklahoma Brown candy – and that was just the standard assortment. We always tried new recipes, too. If you wanted something salty, there was Texas Trash (basically a nuttier, spicier version of Chex Mix), but Christmas was mostly about indulging your sweet tooth.

In England, you’ve got your holy trinity of dried fruit: Christmas pudding, cake and mince pies. I don’t recall ever being offered homemade candy. At best, (depending on how you look at it), a tin of Quality Street or Turkish Delight will get passed around. But let’s be frank: that “treat” will probably be reserved for family. I think that you have to grow up with these delicacies (in other words, never experience anything better) in order to really appreciate them.

Ironically, my family’s favorite Christmas candy is called English Toffee. Goodness knows why, as I have never tasted anything like it in England. But, then, Americans often get England wrong – erring on the side of thinking that everything about is postcard-esque. Anyway, the toffee may not be English in origin – but English people have been known to love it. Everyone else who tries it tends to love it, too.

English Toffee


8 oz butter
8 oz brown sugar
4 oz finely chopped pecans
4 oz chocolate chips (or dark chocolate, finely chopped)


You will need a nonstick pan of some sort. My mom always used a pizza pan, while I use a heavy nonstick cookie sheet. Sprinkle about half of the nuts evenly over the pan’s surface.

Melt the butter and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until the temperature reaches 295F/146C. You will need a candy thermometer for this bit – (and I like to have something to read as well) – as it will take awhile. Just like childbirth, time will seem to move really slowly and nothing will seem to be happening . . . but be careful and attentive at the end, because it will suddenly shoot up to the required temperature.

Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts. Be extra careful – you do NOT want to get burned. You can smooth it out with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon, but do that straight away as it hardens up quickly.

Let cool for a few minutes, and then sprinkle the chocolate evenly over the candy’s surface. The heat of the candy will melt the chocolate, and then you can spread it evenly. Finally, sprinkle the rest of the nuts over the chocolate.

When the candy is completely cool, you can break it into small pieces. It will cool on its own, but it you are in a hurry (and sometimes I am) you can speed it up by putting it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

Store in an air-tight can . . . and don’t make it on a humid day!

The only tricky thing about this candy is that a few degrees of temperature can change the consistency/texture. If you get it right, the toffee will be crisp, but have a giving bite to it. If you don’t cook it long enough, or if it’s really humid, it will be chewy. If you cook it too long, it will be glassy. All of the versions are highly edible, though – we are just talking about degrees of perfection.

Americans have always had a culture of recipe-sharing: whether recipe cards (From the kitchen of . . .), church or Junior League cookbooks, newspaper columns, or just word of mouth. In fact, at the bottom of my recipe for toffee there is a little note from my mom – “from Kathy Daniel Kimes.” Probably 35 or so years ago my mom ate this toffee at a Christmas lunch at Kathy’s house. She asked for the recipe; we started making it every year; and now I’m spreading it around the blogosphere.

Please join me for a virtual Christmas candy exchange! You know never know when or where you will find that recipe that becomes your family’s traditional, must-have, favorite.

It would be nice to add a dedication, too . . . when Southerners say “give me some sugar,” they are actually talking about love and kisses – not candy.

Virtual Candy Exchange:

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Another long winter's nap

Minstrel and little daughter: Waiting for Santa to come?

I went downstairs to make sure that the children had gone to bed, and this sweet scene had me running for my camera. That Minstrel: What an opportunist. Create a cozy nest and he will be there.

Tomorrow is little daughter's first day of Christmas vacation. Remember how wonderful that felt? Unlike me and big daughter, little is looking forward to a lie-in . . .

Do you need a good (gingerbread) man?

For Audrey

I've said it before: I am a person who loves to bake cookies.

There is something really satisfying to me about making home-baked treats, and my annual round of Christmas baking is pretty much double the pleasure.

However! Although there are many bakerinas who share this obsession, I realize that there at least an equal number of people who regard baking to be somewhere on the spectrum between torture and a complete waste of time. My good friend Audrey is such a person.

In a recent (and most humorous) post, Audrey vowed -- with only slightly gritted teeth -- that she was going to bake cookies with her children this Christmas. As I read it, I vowed that I would share my family's most excellent gingerbread man cookie recipe with her. It is easy, no-fail, delicious and spectacularly Christmassy. I have made these cookies every year for 30+ years, and frankly, could not contemplate Christmas without them. Yes, I was going to wax and whitter endlessly about gingerbread cookies -- throwing in a variety of related anecdotes -- but the post Not a Bree stopped me in my tracks.

For those of you who aren't au fait with American pop culture references, Bree is the uptight desperate housewife who is devoted to good housekeeping. Bree/Bee . . . it's all too close for comfort. (Come to think of it, my hair does look a bit like Betty Draper's . . .)

Although Audrey has kept mostly silent through a variety of posts devoted to fruitcakes and the like, my recent experiments in wreath-making finally broke her. She felt compelled, by her inner smirk, to pose the question as to whether these rites of domesticity were, post-Betty Friedan, just a little too retro. Are we somehow diminished, as modern women, if we do actually like to arrange flowers and bake cakes?

Ever since a defensive Hillary Clinton uttered those waspish, immortal words: "Well, I guess that I could have stayed home and baked cookies," cookie-baking has had a 50s housewife taint to it. A political career or cookie-baking? Like there's no middle ground.

But why do we feel that we have to choose? Admittedly, it's probably not possible to do it all . . . but can't we be lawyers who bake cookies and engineers who knit and business women who like a bit of decoupage? Well, I'm being a bit disingenuous here. When Julia Roberts knits, it is a cool form of down-to-earth self-expression; but when a stay-at-home mom knits there is tendency to think, "Hey, get a real job!" I've been a stay-at-home mom for more than two years now, and there isn't a week that goes by that I don't revisit that decision. Indeed, attending a flower-arranging class last spring prompted me to have a mini existential crisis.

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.

Gingerbread Men (or Women)

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
1 egg
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!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

A long winter's nap

Cats sleep anywhere,
any table, any chair.
Top of piano, window-ledge,
In the middle, on the edge.
Open draw, empty shoe,
Anybody's lap will do.
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard with your frocks.
Anywhere! They don't care!
Cats sleep anywhere.
By Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)

Thanks to A Woman of Heart & Mind for the poem and the inspiration

Sigmund and I are both night-owls, which would be fine if he didn't have to get up at 6 am. Every morning is the same: I have to be dragged into consciousness most unwillingly. This morning I was particularly loath to greet the day. My bed was so warm and cozy! It was so dark and cold outside!

Even after the hurry-scurry of the school runs and a bracing walk in near-freezing temperatures, I just want to make out like Minstrel . . . and snuggle up betwixt radiator and Christmas tree. If I get peckish, I can nibble on the popcorn garlands that little daughter patiently strung together the other night.

A bout of baking also sounds rather nice. If you think I'm rushing the Christmas preparations a bit, I assure you I'm not. Little daughter finishes up school tomorrow night, and Sigmund's family arrive on Saturday for a Christmas warm-up. We will be having presents, crackers, games -- and, of course, some roast beast.

I'm thinking gingerbread men. Sugar cookies. Peanut Brittle. Homemade toffee.
Maybe the sugar rush will keep me awake . . .

Monday, 8 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Gerald Monroe!

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
My father's birthday cake of choice

My father was born on December 8, 1941 -- the day after Pearl Harbor.

Ten things which remind me of my father:
  1. Steak and onion pie and pineapple upside-down cake (because that is always his birthday dinner)
  2. Diana Krall (because he loves a good crooner)
  3. Aggie Football (because he is an alumnus and loyal fan)
  4. Popcorn (his favorite snack, and mine, too! the smell of popcorn is my childhood)
  5. Games - especially three-handed bridge and chickenfoot dominoes (because he is a fierce, fun and fair competitor)
  6. Handel's Messiah (because he sings in the Church Choir)
  7. A well-grilled steak (because nobody does it better)
  8. Fishing (because he takes all four of his grandchildren, and patiently deals with the fallout)
  9. Dancing (because he is a real smoothie on the dance floor)
  10. Atticus Finch (because he is a lawyer, and now judge, of honorable character. He is scrupulously honest and I've never heard him say a bad word about anyone.)

I love you, Daddy! xx

Blogger Book Boost

Blogger Book Boost

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?"

Last week, I gave this lovely book of nonsense rhyme to a little boy that I tutor. He is an enthusiastic listener, but a reluctant reader of books. He handled the package a bit, and then said: "This is a book, right?"

Then he asked me if I could get him a toy instead. Sigh.
Unlike most toys, though, books will be enjoyed over and over again. They don't break, and they don't need batteries.

Unlike my little friend, I am always happy to be given a book. Since I am pretty sure that Sigmund hasn't started his Christmas shopping yet, I have taken the time to make up a little list.

A Book that I really, really want: Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri

Big Important Books of the Year:

Foodie Books:

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:

The Entire Contents of the Bookstore: I would also be happy to have absolutely ANYTHING from the Persephone catalog. Many thanks to Elizabeth for telling me about this treasure-trove.

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.

Any ideas?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Welcome, Christmas . . .

A wreath made by my very own hands

I always welcome Christmas with a glad heart, but I know that the season is greeted with weariness, guilt, cynicism, worry, disenchantment and plain old bah-humbuggery in certain quarters.

Last Saturday night, we were at a dinner party where the hostess was holding forth on why she just couldn't get excited about the season's traditional rites: "I don't believe in either Jesus or Santa Claus, so why should I bother?" At the time I just laughed, but on the dark drive home I did ponder her mental predicament. If you lack the dedication to Christianity and commercialism both, is there still a point to Christmas? Yes, I would argue; yes.

Most of the December ritual is pagan in origin, anyway.
The tree, the candles, the presents, the feast: it's all an attempt to cheer ourselves during the darkest days of the year. And if you live in England, or any other northern clime, you will know exactly what I mean. Now that it gets dark at 4:30 pm, the girls and I can't wait to get home, turn on the Christmas lights and drink hot chocolate. My little girl came home with frozen hair the other night -- from a swimming gala! -- and when she was tucked up on the sofa with a bowl of hot buttery popcorn, pink footy pajamas and red blanket happily clashing, her entire body seemed to ooze comfort and contentment.

I know that winter has its charms, but I'm just not naturally inclined to wintriness. I blame my Texas roots for a tendency towards SADness and an overeagerness for spring. When I read that the Scandinavians decorated evergreen trees at the winter solstice as a sort of promise and reminder that spring would come again, it made perfect sense to me. In fact, I like to think that this is why I insist on putting up my Christmas tree the minute the Thanksgiving left-overs are finished.

One of the ongoing and built-in pleasures of life is the cyclical nature of the seasons and their accompanying festivals. I always marvel how the same old traditions need only the passage of time to regain their freshness. Although I may be tired of green and gold and red by January, those colors look just right at the beginning of December. For me, Christmas is a time to reconnect with beloved rituals, but always adding an elaborative twist -- the old and the new twined together.

This year, for a bit of something new, I tried making my own wreath for the first time. Like many things in life, once the process was demystified I realized that it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had thought it would be. Although I made my wreath at the lovely Treetops, anyone with access to a circular green oasis (look for it in a garden centre or a florist's shop) and some greenery could give it a whirl. Our floral guru even assured us that you can just make it up with bits and pieces from the garden! And yes, if you are fortunate enough to have fir and pine, eucalyptus, myrtle, mimosa and skimmia, plus some knobbly things and pine cones and waxed crimson pears, your wreath can look just like the one hanging on my front door!

Wreath-making did put me in touch with my inner Scandinavian, though. We worked in a cold room, to keep the flowers from drooping, and the smell of the pine and other fresh green things was completely intoxicating. There was also something deliciously relaxing about cutting off bits of greenery and placing them (artfully, one hopes) in the giving green foam. In fact, I think that a person should make one wreath for every day spent shopping in a crowded city center! Holiday emotional offsetting, I like to think of it.

I know that some people aren't in the least tradition-bound, but the only Christmas tree for me is one that is strewn with memories. I listen politely when friends tell me of their Christmas themes -- "pearl," or "lime and green" -- but in my heart, color-coordinated trees are just all wrong. A hodge-podge of ornaments is what I like, set off by the simplest white lights. When I was a little girl, my mother started the tradition of buying us a special ornament every year, and as we grew so did our tree. When my brother and I established our own homes, my mother gave us a "starter box" each of our childhood ornaments. (She told me once that it was one of the hardest things she ever did!) One day, I suppose that I will do the same for my own children.

Just as children love looking at pictures of themselves, so do they enjoy revisiting the memories of Christmas (and vacations) past. My children dig through the tissue paper and alternately coo and squeal as each old favorite is rediscovered. Those boxes of ornaments are the best, most comprehensive, scrapbook I keep.

wrote so charmingly this week of Christmas carols: all of those musical associations and family jokes which are recycled every year. For some reason, it seemed that Johnny Mathis's Merry Christmas album was always playing during my family's tree-decorating sessions. I only have to hear Johnny launch into his exuberant versions of "Winter Wonderland" or "Sleigh Ride" to be filled with childish excitement.

As will sometimes happen in family life, this year's designated tree-trimming day was on the emotionally fraught side of the spectrum. Everyone felt tired and strained, the weather was horrid, there was teenage drama over a broken cell phone, and Sigmund felt buried by his workload. Although we had "promised" to decorate the tree that day, I was concerned that the experience would be ruined by bad tempers. Yet, add the music . . . bring down the boxes . . . and the Christmas magic filled the room.

When we finished decorating the tree, we turned off all the lights and snuggled up on the couch to admire our efforts. The tiny white lights were like candle flames in the darkness. We ate pumpkin pie -- the last from my hoard of Libby's cans. Food, warmth and light: we may define those ingredients slightly differently, but that's what Christmas is all about.

There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When we pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a pictureprint from Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things we'll remember all through our lives
(Sleigh Ride lyrics)

New ornaments for Christmas 2008

Danish felt/cloth ornaments
from the BMS Christmas Fayre, Nov. 2008

An Oxford don
found in Oxford, Nov. 2008

Kitsch Flamingo in "biker" gear, drinking a margarita
from a gift store in Chrystal Beach, Texas in April, 2008
(battered, but not broken by Hurricane Ike)

We can't keep naughty Minstrel out of the Christmas tree!
He is keeping a beady green eye on a Russian icon that my parents
brought back from St. Petersburg a few years ago
and a traditional painted egg that Sigmund
and I bought in Prague in 2001

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Chronophage (time-eater)

Has anyone else noticed that there isn't quite as much "time" in December as there is in, say, January? Why is it that I have as much free time as anyone, and probably more than most, but I always seem to be busy?

Back in the October half-term, which was either a while ago or merely the blink of an eye, I visited Cambridge. Thanks to a combination of fortunate circumstances, I was given a private tour of the College of Corpus Christi. Although I saw many treasures that day, including the rare and ancient manuscipts housed in the Parker Library, it is the image of the Chronophage which sticks in my mind.

The Chronophage is a massive golden time-piece -- a clock of sorts, but one unlike any other. It attempts to represent the true nature of time. A menacing grasshopper sits atop a large disc and relentlessly eats up the seconds. In a motion both smooth and jerky, the grasshopper seems to claw itself, round and round, the circle. (I know it is one of the paradoxes of the blogosphere that we waste endless hours on it, whilst simultaneously trying to spare ourselves the minutes, but it is truly worth taking the time to follow this link and observe the clock for yourself.)

The Chronophage is mechanical and philosophical. It doesn't aim merely to track the seconds, minutes and hours, or act as a warning for the loitering students of Cambridge. What really fascinates is its attempt to capture the "relative" nature of time. Tiny blue lights flash, and then freeze. Time slows, and then speeds up.

The timepiece is completely accurate only every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum pauses then corrects itself as if by magic. The blue lights play optical illusions on the eye, whirring around the disc one second, then appearing to freeze the next. The effect is hypnotic. (Time Online, 19.9.2008)

A couple of weeks ago, as we were hurtling down the dark forested road between school and home, my youngest daughter said: "This moment will never, ever, come again." I have no idea what musings prompted this reflection -- as my youngest daughter is often given to deep thoughts -- but I couldn't help but think "well, yes -- but no." On one hand, she is right -- of course -- and so often lately I have wished to cling tightly to these precious moments of her ten-year-oldness before they vanish forever into the maw of adolescence. But on the other hand, I am so aware of the repetitious quality of my middle-aged life. There are still hundreds, maybe even thousands, of school runs to go before my life reaches the next fork in the road. It won't be the same moment, but it will feel it.

The Saturday night before last, the youngest daughter and I were wrapping the Christmas spoils from a day's shopping in Oxford while watching Einstein and Eddington. Although we were distracted by wrapping paper, tags and bows, I did manage to learn a few things. (There was a marvellous visual metaphor -- involving a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple -- which really helped explain Einstein's theory of relativity.) Towards the end, David Tennant as Cambridge scientist Arthur Eddington, notes that time is experienced differently by everyone -- yes, that word "relativity" again. It must be so, because my youngest daughter groaned to think of Christmas being so far away . . . while I groaned to think of it closing in on us so quickly.

I can't help but noticing how differently my children and I experience winter Sundays. They find them slow and deadly boring, while I race from the preparation of one meal to the next, trying to cram in as many chores as possible and rarely finding the time to even look at email. My progress through space is impeded by apples and breadrolls, while theirs resembles the wide, smooth cushions of our sofa.

One of the truest clichés about time is that the older you get, the faster the days and years go round and round . . . and yet the past from long ago can seem more present than the past of yesterday.

We have been making plans for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday, which takes place later this month, and I keep thinking about a picture that she recently showed me. My mother-in-law and her older sister are dressed up as miniature poacher and bookie for the Fancy Dress Class at a Championship Dog Show. (Their parents "showed" whippets.) A photograph was taken and featured in The Daily Mirror of May 12, 1933. Everything about this historical scrap interests me. Here's one choice detail: Inside the jacket of the poacher's costume, and fastened to the waistcoat, is the dead body of a real rabbit. Such authenticity! Can you imagine the five-year-old of today wagging around a dead rabbit? Also, how typical of the English sense of humour to dress up small children as such disreputable sorts! The fact that it takes place during the Depression adds another resonant layer of meaning. (On the other side of the picture is a caption describing the burning of 20,000 books at Berlin University at the behest of Dr. Goebbels. History that is just lying in wait for the five-year-old that is my Londoner mother-in-law.)

But this is the thing: I look at that picture and see a historical document, but my mother-in-law looks at it and feels the itch (still so real!) of the thick wool of her poacher suit of clothes. Although my daughter's "moment in time" does get swallowed, isn't it funny how certain moments play over and over in our memories . . . while other moments, and so many more of them, are lost forever? As we decorated the tree on Sunday, I couldn't help but notice this same phenomenon. I can remember the story behind ornaments from my childhood, or the ones that I acquired early in my marriage, but my mind is full of gaps when it comes to recent years. I can still remember lying under the tree, only five years old myself, and gazing at my favorite ornament -- a sweet-faced angel. The real experience, lost in time, has become reified through the repetition of memory. My children know the story as well as I do now, and ask me to trot it out -- if I don't automatically do so. Time moves on . . . but how we cling to it!

(I meant to write about the Chronophage ages ago, but I just couldn't find the time!)

Addendum: Elizabeth made a comment about How we are in history and not in it too, and it immediately made me think about the wonderful memoir and poem that Dick wrote recently. Please take a bit of time to read Stille Nacht.