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Archive for December, 2011

It is the crazy time of year.  The time when I wake up far too early because my brain, even while asleep, is working through all the things I have to take care of.  The time when I try to strategically plan what order I need to do things in, in order to get the maximum amount accomplished.  The time when I’m barraged with television ads that try to convince me that I really should go out and buy that Lexus for my loved one, or extra canned crescent rolls for my family so that there won’t be a fight at the dinner table.

Well, I don’t need a new car, and I’m making my own dinner rolls, so cross those things off my list.  I’ve made my chocolate bark (two kinds) and candy and dipped fruits, and mostly, the baking is done.  My husband has a project going on in Santa’s workshop for family members (I’m not blowing the surprise by saying what it is here, but if you want to know, write to me), and I’ve got enough errands to keep me going for hours.

I am, however, carving out time for the really important stuff, the stuff that reminds me what this season is supposed to be about.  One friend just lost his wife after a long and brave struggle with cancer.  Paying a call to him the other night was high on my list of important things to do, and being present to honor his spouse today is a promise I will keep.  Another friend has had hard times over the years, and needs help organizing her home and just cleaning the years of accumulated stuff  that have overwhelmed her.  I’m honored that she trusted me enough to come and help, and I’m glad to give the time to mucking out and making her house, and her life, more liveable.

And as I do these things, and look for others in the same vein to do as well, I am reminded, again and again, that it’s not the fancy stuff that you can buy in the stores that can make a difference for people.  Sometimes it’s just showing up, sitting there and listening to people as they talk, being a witness for someone’s memories and pain, that is the greatest gift.

The other day, I performed two shows with our Revels Repertory Company in a glorious old mansion in Falmouth.  The people who had lived there were wealthy and lived in the lap of luxury, with elegant rooms, maids, many servants to respond to their every whim.  The house was decorated to the nth degree for the holidays, including glittery signs that said, “Believe,” hanging from the tops of the staircases.

Last night, at a meeting at a Cambridge church where I am doing some consulting work, the people who show up on Tuesday evenings for the church’s free dinner were sitting and eating.  There were coats and hats and gloves – donations from an area charitable organization – being given out, along with packages of bread to take as these travelers journeyed into the cold night following their hot meal.  What do these people, who have fallen on such hard times, have to believe in, I wondered, in this season where so much is painted with glitter?  What do they have to “believe” in?

As I left the church last night, headed for the subway and my home, I held the faces of those I saw at the church in my head.  I hoped, most of all, that they would find a warm place to sleep that night.  That someone would be offering them a warm meal again tonight.  That someone would reach out in kindness and give them a hat or gloves when they needed it.  Small things, things that make a huge difference.

We do not need to be reminded that this is known as the season of light.  Last night, we began lighting Hannukah candles to remember the miracles experienced so many years ago in a temple that had survived battles, a temple where there was oil for only a day.  The lights burned for eight days instead, defying logic and bringing hope to a people. And tomorrow is the solstice, the shortest day, the time when, as Susan Cooper reminds us, people decked their homes with evergreens and lit fires, to drive the dark away, as they waited for the light to return.

In that spirit of hope and belief in the light that will once again return, I focus my attentions, this holiday season, on the everyday things that I can do – that we all can do – to bring the light to another person.  May we all bestow such blessings on one another.

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One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in the kitchen with my mother in Akron, Ohio and watching her make Christmas cookies.  I would push my nose up to the edge of the counter, or stand at the kitchen table, and watcher her roll out dough, pressing cookie cutters into the lightly anise-scented mixture.  She’d make little bon bons with all kinds of treasures inside.  Her favorites were maraschino cherries, baked and then dipped in cherry-flavored pink icing with sprinkles.  But there were also butterscotch-walnuts, raisin-chocolates, coconut-white chocolate, and other treats buried in the cookies.  She made nut puffs, thumbprints with jam or almond-accented frosting in the center, a cinnamon-walnut twist called a Sweet Marie, a little mini-fruitcake called Lizzies, several types of bar cookies – some with icing and some just baked with all kinds of delicious things in the middle.

Frequently there would be ten or twelve kinds of cookies.  In later years Mom made Heavenly Hash, fudge, or other chocolate delicacies to add to the cookies.  Many of them would appear at her holiday parties, and people went crazy over the cookie displays.  It was the hit of every event, and I wanted to get involved. As I got older, I was finally allowed to participate,  so I learned how to craft the cookies, and then, I started looking for others to add to the collection.  As a teen I found a meringe/mini-chocolate chip puff, a mini-tart filled with frangipane and fruit, and a chocolate-marzipan pretzel.  I disliked fruitcake, but my friend Margy had a fabulous Christmas Cake recipe that translated well into mini-cakes, baked in colorful Christmas papers, so they joined the cookie party, too.

As an adult I acquired a delectable pecan tartlet recipe, learned how to make truffles and French-style chocolate bark (thank you, Ina), and a white chocolate-peppermint bark.  I dipped dried mango, apricots, and ginger in dark chocolate.  I made little chocolate-cranberry wreaths and holly leaves.  I froze the cookies, in covered, air-tight packages, and they kept for a year, so that I could stockpile one type for a second year, and each year have to make only half the number of cookies.

And so it has gone, through the years.  I’ve tried to involve my daughters in the tradition as well, and have acquired enough of a reputation that my best friend from college, Connie, who lives in Montana, waits for my large Christmas box to arrive.  There will be other gifts in it, but Connie and John – for decades – have waited for the cookies.  They tell me that when the box arrives, it is opened and immediately devoured, down to the crumbs – mostly in one fell swoop.  It’s a lot to live up to — but I’m delighted that they enjoy my homemade gift so much.

This year, not only because money’s tight but also because I love to make homemade gifts, many of my friends and family members will be getting the fruits of my labor, made with my hands and my heart.  The cookies, the blackberry-rosemary vinegar I put up as the summer ended, the pickles and cranberry conserve, along with the wooden crafted items Ben makes during the holiday season — these are the gifts we love to give.

I hope that you’re taking some time to let your hands and your spirit bring hand-crafted items to life in this holiday season.  And in case you are looking for a new cookie recipe, here’s one of my favorites, given to me when I was working in Connecticut in professional theatre, by our production manager and his wife.  Enjoy!

Pecan Tartlets with Cream Cheese Crust
Makes 4 dozen
350 F oven
Note:  you will need mini-cupcake/muffin tins.

For the Dough:
2-3 oz. pkgs. cream cheese
2 sticks butter
2 c. flour
Mix with pastry blender or electric mixer.  Chill for 1 hour.

For the Filling:
3 eggs, beaten
2 C. brown sugar
3 T. melted butter
2 T. vanilla extract
pinch of salt

1/2 c. raisins
1/2 c. roughly-chopped pecans
Mix the eggs, butter, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla together.

To make tartlets:
Spray mini-muffin tins with non-stick cooking spray.  Roll a small ball of dough and place in tin.  Fill each tin similarly (you should get about 4 dozen).  Lightly push dough into the tin, including sides of each tin.  Drop a few raisins and a few pieces of nut in each tin.  Scoop the wet filling in (I use a Tablespoon measure to do this).  Finish with another nut piece on top.  Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.  Let the tartlets set for at least ten minutes before gently loosening the edges.  Lift out and finish cooling on a rack before you pack them or serve them.

Enjoy!

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I recently read an article in the Boston Globe about retro food.  Now, my friends know that I am a foodie, and in fact, I have held on to a number of my mother’s ‘classic’ cookbooks from the 1960’s and 70’s which are, in today’s culinary world, interesting relics.  A number of them were written by Marian Burros and Lois Levine, and they have ‘clever’ names, like “Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper,” and “Freeze with Ease.”  Some of the beauties that I found in my mother’s recipe collection from the same period are just as appealing (or icky):  “Thora’s Hamburger Casserole,” “Raisin m-m-m-Mumbles,” and “Bebe’s Dish,” for instance.

The cover of "Freeze with Ease"

"Freeze with Ease"

Although I am not a “Mad Men” or “Pan Am” TV fan, I do laughingly and lovingly remember those days when Mom would entertain, which formed the basis of my interest in food and party-giving.  She owned a copper chafing dish (which I now have) and it often was set up in the dining room of our house in Akron, Ohio, with Beef Stroganoff in it, or perhaps Seafood Maryland.  In fact, I still use these recipes and they are terrific – but very typical of the time.  Noodles or rice accompanied the main dish, perhaps a green salad, and usually, a jello salad as well.  And this is where my connection to the past kicks in.

Barely a holiday goes by that doesn’t feature Aunt Estelle’s jello salad.  It’s made with raspberry jello, frozen, thawed strawberries, pineapple, chopped nuts, sour cream, layered and molded, and it’s pretty darned delicious.  That seafood recipe I mentioned is one of the best I’ve ever prepared for large parties, and I think of Mom every time I make it.  And Mom’s Olive-stuffed Cheese Puffs are one tasty little appetizer.

The cover of "Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper"

"Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper" is another classic cookbook.

Better still are the memories I have from being a little girl on election night, when Mom and Dad held their election return parties.  I remember, most of all, the party for the 1960 election.  Although I had been sent to bed, I crept out to watch the adults with their highballs in a haze of cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke, cussing out Nixon and cheering for JFK.  Because exit polls weren’t a regular occurrance and the television stations didn’t predict winners much in advance of completed vote counts — and all the ballots had to be counted by hand — it took a long, long time for the process to unfold, and everyone who attended these parties settled in for a long night.  The major food item was Mom’s Sandwich Loaf, which was really special:  white bread, unsliced and trimmed of crusts, then sliced long-ways into a number of thin layers.  The first would be laid down and spread with ham salad.  The next held cream cheese with chopped olives and pimentos. The next was tuna salad, and the last was egg salad.  A final bread layer went on top, and the entire loaf was then ‘frosted’ with whipped cream cheese and decorated with sliced gherkins and olives.  The loaf would be hauled out around 10 PM, sliced, and served with potato chips, to be followed by brownies for dessert.

I love this retro treat (and so do some of my friends) but my husband and children think of it as a heart attack in a dish and an abomination.  I guess there’s no accounting for taste, but for me, it takes me right back to my childhood and the ‘good old days’ of  “Mad Men” food. Times have surely changed, though.  A few years ago, in a desperate and hilarious attempt to get rid of the glut of hard liquor we found in our house (the result of having cleaned out my mother’s liquor supply – twice – when we moved her) we decided to throw a New Year’s Eve “Come as Your Parents” party.  We set up an elaborate bar with recipes for highballs, a table with ribbon-festooned bottles of cordials (the rule was:  you come to the party, you leave with a bottle – no exceptions), lots of retro food and Doris Day music.

Folks showed up with narrow ties, pearls and cardigans.  They gamely mixed drinks, and then timidly asked, “Can we have some wine now?”  They begged not to take the creme de menthe and the absinthe home with them.  But they snarfed the meatballs in grape jelly/chili sauce, the pigs in a blanket, and yes, the sandwich loaf.  The next day, Ben and I greeted the new year by pouring many bottles of unclaimed cordials down the drain.

The old days weren’t necessarily better, but they did offer us an interesting perspective on entertaining – one that makes for a pretty amusing party theme today.  So next time you’re looking for some really different food and a party theme that’s off the beaten track, let me know — I’ll loan you Mom’s cookbooks and hand you a few more bottles of bright green cordial, and you’ll be all set!

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I am a Scorpio, and I share a characteristic of that zodiac sign with most other Scorpios that I know:  I quietly take a certain amount of delight from watching someone who has behaved badly land in a pile of metaphorical manure.  In German, the word is schadenfreude, and it describes the hope that many of us carry: that “what goes around, comes around.”

Schadenfreude is not a word that automatically comes to mind when one thinks of the holidays, I admit.  However, noting that Rod Balgojevich has just been sentenced to fourteen years in prison, or watching someone who has behaved with such gross disregard for moral and ethical standards finally twist and squirm a bit, I can’t help but take a little quiet pleasure from observing the scene as someone unravels.

I suspect I share this leaning with lots of other folks, who want to see what happens when some celebrity gets into a snit fight with a flight attendant, when a public figure is found to have behaved in ways that are unbecoming to his or her profession, when someone repeatedly thinks the rules of the world don’t apply to them.

At its core, I think the feeling I have relates to watching someone conduct themselves as though they were somehow above the rules that the rest of us follow — they don’t have to put up with the same standards, pay the same charges, fight the same fights.  The 99 percent argument that is driving the “Occupy” protests is, at its core, about this split between those who have privilege, and those who do not.

I have increasingly heard people like me referred to as “the little people.”  I don’t feel little, but I do sometimes feel disappeared.  I wrote on my Facebook page, the other day, about a well known former bridal store owner who I found myself in line behind at the Costco check out counter.  Having forgotten something, she tottered off in her high heels and heavy makeup and bangles, to go find another bauble to buy – leaving all of us in line, behind her, standing with our mouths open.  There, we waited for minutes, for her return.  Finally the clerk decided enough was enough, rang out her purchase, pushed it off to the side, and took the next person in line (me).  As I was leaving the line, I saw the woman re-appear, pushing through the line, wondering why things had moved forward without her.

This kind of nervy, inconsiderate behavior is what I find myself running into more and more, in stores, on the road, in public meetings.  Advent is, traditionally, a time of waiting, of anticipation.  I would prefer to not spend that time waiting for someone to beat the system again, to push ahead in line, to find that once again, “the little people” have gotten stomped on.  So yes, I admit it:  I do sometimes enjoy watching someone who has behaved carelessly find their comeuppance.  Because, at the core, in a holiday that is supposed to be about love and light, it would be nice for us all to feel like we really do matter, and that we still have a place at the table.

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