He could see red, berries on holly and cotoneaster. He could smell lavender and thyme. All that could not be taken from him. And it didn’t matter if, overnight, the colour had worn off the kitchen knobs. It didn’t matter if the china light-shade in the kitchen had a crack he hadn’t heard about before. What mattered was damage done to something as fragile as a dream.
-William Trevor (“The Piano Tuner’s Wives”)
It’s hard to find time to blog around the holidays. There are so many things to do, people to see, places to go, new toys to play with (I never thought I’d say this, but I find myself quite enamored of the Amazon Kindle! I have since named mine Penelope, in honor of the first book I purchased, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which, for some reason, was the book that just popped into my head), new books to read…and, oh my, the eating that accompanies all of it! Even if there’s a lot of unnecessary and stressful hoopla, ultimately, what’s not to love about the holidays? 🙂
So, here are the final 6 shades of (my) Christmas, both random highlights and several recipes included.
7) Much like with Thanksgiving, I find one of my favorite things about Christmas to be the simple act of sitting in a room with family (obviously including the dogs), friends and the all-important Christmas tree. While I’ve always somewhat disliked the fact that we’ve never had a real pine tree, what has always made up for this in my mind was the beautiful hand-painted village my grandma made in her ceramics class when I was little. These houses are magical and intricate (as you can see in the first photo of this post); I used to love not only watching her paint glittery snow on top of them, but also helping to set up the village under the tree, arranging the cotton, putting the lights through them and watching the whole set-up come to life.
8) Since my grandma’s side of the family is Italian, our annual feast has always included things like baccala, smelts, pasta with garlic and oil and the oh so necessary tray of olives…All in all, it’s both a scrumptious and photogenic meal. 🙂
9) Despite my love of our traditions, I’m usually the one who says, “This year we’re going to try x or y…” Case in point: a few years ago I got it into my head, courtesy of my subscription to Saveur (I do love that magazine), that we absolutely had to try an herb-stuffed pork loin …Needless to say, it was delicious and a nice break from the usual ham. Not that I have anything against ham, but, cliche though it is, I do generally believe that “spice is the variety of life.” And, so, since my mom wasn’t making either her shrimp dip or her spinach dip (two Christmas Eve staples), one of my contributions to this year’s meal was tzatziki, which, fortunately, doesn’t take a whole lot of time to prepare (the day was quite busy) and is both flavorful and healthy. Though I’m not sure it was quite right, it was pretty good. Three family members asked for the recipe, which, in my mind, translates to a job well done.
10) My other big contribution was the aforementioned Quince Tart that I had sampled at the annual department holiday party (thanks again, M!). What can I say? Not only was it a fantasy project of mine, but also, in the midst of such decadence, it does make me feel better (even if only a little) to know that there is at least one dessert on our table with fruit in it! The only problem, however, was that the quince that the local Giant Eagle had to offer was not necessarily the same caliber of quince that one would find at Berkeley Bowl (whenever I return to the east coast, I’m reminded of the differences that exist between the coasts–largely, the difficulty of finding quality produce in the winter months on this cold, cold half of the United States). So, given the similarity between the quince and the apple, I added a Fuji to the mix and, really, once both were sauteed in honey and butter, nobody could tell the difference anyway. I further doctored the recipe by using phyllo instead of puff pastry for a crunchier texture and definitely used more than the suggested 1/4 cup of of almond paste (it was somewhere in the area of 1/2 cup). All in all, it seemed to work. Perhaps a new tradition is even in the making….?
11) Then, on Christmas day (and, at that, a proper white Christmas), I was excited to receive, at long last, two long-held dreams: 1) a Cuisinart ice cream maker!!!! (it would seem that many blog readers are attentive; really, this is proof that I’m extremely easy to please) :); and 2) for inspiration, David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop.
Needless to say, January is going to be a month of experimentation. Some people work in real labs; I’ve just got a kitchen. Personally, I think I win. =p
12) Last but not least, cookies, cookies and more cookies! I know I also talked about cookies in my last post, but, frankly, since Christmas is the cookie holiday, I thought I’d talk about them some more. Cookies never go out of style, especially in southwestern PA. And, as per usual, we had quite the spread. My grandma is a chronic baker (clearly, I inherited it from her since all my mother likes to bake is the occasional cake) and so everything was basically ready when I got off the plane: pumpkin cookies, raisin cookies, peanut butter cookies, almond biscotti; you name it, we probably had it. Don’t believe me? Look below.
It’s those cream wafers at the bottom of the second photo that I’d like to focus on. Why? Because they melt in your mouth. They’re sweet but not too sweet. And also because, quite frankly, they’re the Cookie Champion of the century. So, even though 5+ dozen of these were already made, I had to go to my grandma’s and make more. Obviously we were going to need another batch to last us into the new year. 🙂 And for additional holiday cheer, I added some red food coloring to the icing.
Yields 6-7 dozen
For the wafers:
1 lb. softened butter
4 cups flour
2/3 cup whipping cream
White sugar to coat cookies
-Mix butter and flour in a standing mixer
-Gradually add cream and mix well
-Chill dough for at least 1 hour
-Heat oven to 350 degrees.
-Roll dough out on lightly floured surface
Cut into 1 inch rounds (we use a ravioli maker to size them, but cookie cutters can also be used, although the dough is delicate)
-Coat with sugar on both sides
-Place on ungreased cookie sheet
-Poke holes into the cookies with a fork
-Bake 7 to 9 minutes
-Cool and fill with icing
For the icing:
1 stick softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg white
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
-Blend 1 stick butter with 1/2 cup crisco
-Add 1 cup sugar
– Mix well
-Add 1 egg white.
-Whip until fluffy
-1/2 cup milk , heated to a scald
-Pour slowly over sugar mixture while beating