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Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

We’re midway into April, the month when my husband and I live on verge of going meschugah because there is just too much to do, every single moment of every single day.  And this year is no different.  It’s Patriot’s Day weekend here in Lexington, the town where the first shot of the American Revolution was fired on our historic Green, which stands about a mile and half from our house.  The town’s draped in bunting and there are tons of visitors in the area — you can tell because they wander out into the middle of the road and there are tour buses everywhere.  Down the street, I heard the muskets going off an hour ago as the Battle Road re-enactments took place, showing folks what the running battle that took place from Concord to Lexington to Arlington was like, following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

Tomorrow my catering company will be serving a Colonial Lunch to all who want to sample the real deal — New England Fish Chowder, baked beans, pot pie, and more — and the afternoon parade will come marching down Massachusetts Avenue, leading to more activities and a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s Ride at  midnight on Sunday and The Battle of Lexington early on Monday.  And this year, even more:  Lexington celebrates its 300th birthday – so the events have even more hoopla attached to them.

This historic stuff all seems charming — it’s really a slice of small town New England life at its’ nicest — but along with it, we’re looking forward this spring to demonstrations in support of second amendment rights. organized by gun enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that some changes in the nation’s gun laws might be in order to prevent the next school tragedy or mass shooting.  While the parents of some of the tiny victims of the Newtown, CT massacre continue to bear witness in the nation’s capital to the need for debate and a vote on gun laws that might protect the innocent, folks will be coming to Lexington next Friday to ‘stand up and be counted.’  The local clergy association has organized a peaceful public witness event as one response, and many folks in town are left shaking their heads, wondering why, once again, the debate over the right to bear arms has landed on our town Green.

Year after year, as Middlesex County, Massachusetts, celebrates the beginnings of the Revolution, people also show up to raise the flag of fear: if we give any ground on the gun debate, the government will take over our lives and all our freedoms — those that the Patriots fought and died for — will be lost.  But I doubt that Jonas Clarke and the Sons of Liberty imagined ammo clips for their muskets and the need for assault weapons in their homes.  While we celebrate the best of America during events like this weekend’s in Lexington, some people will be looking over their shoulders, to see what freedoms the government is going to take away next.

But who is the government?  Are we part of it?  What role do we all play in determining our fate, and why would we believe that assault weapons are the way to protect our liberties?  Where does “the pursuit of happiness” come into the mix (as articulated in The Declaration of Independence, or, for that matter, the embrace of life itself as one of the freedoms we defend relentlessly?

This weekend in our little town, we celebrate the lives and sacrifices of the patriots who were inspired to fight for their independence from Great Britain, some at great personal cost.  Their struggle is worth remembering, particularly since it lifts up those who held on to the values that the founders had for America…a country affirming not only freedom, but safe harbor and protection for its citizens — even its most vulnerable.

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It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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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 have just finished today’s cook-a-thon in preparation for tomorrow’s celebration.  I’ve made stuffed garnet yams with pecan streusel, mashed potatoes that can be baked off in the oven, prepped the green beans, baked a gorgeous pumpkin roulade with ginger mascarpone buttercream.  I’ve chopped the leeks, mushrooms, and celery for dressing, made an apple crumb pie (and bought another gorgeous pecan chocolate chip one from our school’s fund raising activities), made my cranberry conserve and Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish.  My niece and daughter are bringing other things, and I have a pretty short punch list of things to do tomorrow, so I’m in pretty good shape for the holiday.

The holiday?  I know that the original holiday was one of thanks for being saved from near-starvation (thank you, native American people).  In a show Ben and I are doing with our Revels Repertory Company, Ben says, “From pestillence, fire, flood and sword, we have been spared by Thy decree.  And now with humble hearts, oh Lord, we come to pay our thanks to thee.”  That sense of gratitude is what moved this country to declare a day of thanks-giving.  And so why has it become a holiday that is all about food – much of it bought, not prepared by our hands – and shopping?

Whatever happened to gathering around a roaring fire, telling stories with members of your clan who you haven’t seen in months or more, listening to lovely music, maybe taking a walk if the weather’s good?  I can not say that all my Thanksgiving holidays were like this.  For many years we celebrated at my aunt and uncle’s home in Newburgh, NY (or at my cousin’s in Rochester, NY, or at my parents’ home in Hamden, CT).  The den in each of those homes would get blue with cigar smoke, as the men puffed away, drank bourbon, and watched college football, while the women sat in the living room, drank cocktails, noshed, and caught up on all the family news.  Many years, my cousin and I ended up making most of the dinner as the cocktailing went on a little too long.  And yet, we would gather at the table, champagne would be poured, my uncle would carve, and we — descendants of poor Russian immigrants — would indeed count our blessings.

But now it is different, and not just because my aunt and uncle and parents are gone and I am the mom-in-charge.  At the risk of being branded “Mrs. Crankypants,” I have been so bombarded with Black Friday ads that I could gag.  I don’t need a large screen TV, thank you, nor a cashmere sweater.  And they aren’t on the list of anyone else I’m buying for this year.  And when I see that lunatic woman from Target gibbering about how she hasn’t slept in days because she’s so excited about the Christmas sales, I nearly run screaming from the room.  So even though you want me to get out of bed at 4 AM, I can assure you that I’ll be sleeping in on Friday.

Where did this madness come from?  I certainly support the idea of stimulating the sluggish US economy (not to mention, the crippled world economy).  I feel, however, like the traditional Thanksgiving holiday got turned, somewhere along the way, into a gluttonous pig-out followed by a massive shopping trip.  And I’m not sure how all of that happened, really.

Some of it has evolved, I fear, from people not knowing how to cook any more.  Things get bought, pre-packaged, rather than made; I’m not kidding when I write on my catering business’s Facebook page that I’ve gotten lots of questions about how to make gravy, not to mention how to make good mashed potatoes from ‘scratch.’  I was fortunate to learn this stuff from my grandmother and my mother (and then to have perfected it through opening a catering business).  I’ve made sure my children know how to cook, and I wish more of us did – both because it’s better for us and because it would cost us less money.

And what about the zombie-like commitment to shopping and running to the mall in a state of stressed exhaustion immediately after Thanksgiving dinner is concluded?  My friends, John and Connie, will be out skiing near their home in the mountains of Montana.  I hope that our friends, Margarethe and Reinhard, will be doing the same near Reno, NV, where they have a lovely home.  While my funky knee will probably suggest that a walk isn’t in my Thanksgiving plans, I do expect a soak in the hot tub will be.  We will be spending time with our relatives and friends, and visiting Ben’s parents the next day.  I expect that none of us will watch a single football game on TV, nor, I expect, will anyone in the family have an argument with another guest at our table. We may even go see Kermit and friends over the weekend, and we’ll all be singing “The Rainbow Connection” when we do.

Sounds pretty sappy and boring, you’re saying?  Maybe so — but I’ll take it over the madness at the mall, any day.  I’m taking back my Thanksgiving — and if you want to join me, I’ve got enough leftovers to go around!

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Here it is Thanksgiving time, when everyone’s got a recipe for the perfect turkey or how to make a pumpkin pie your family will remember.  I have been cooking Thanksgiving dinners for years, and I’ve got those tricks down.  And while I’m going to try something different for one of my desserts this year (a pumpkin roulade with ginger butter cream, thank you, Ina Garten) I am a nut (no pun intended) for cranberries.

I don’t know how it started, but I dream of ways to use the garnet-colored gems, one of the chief exports of Massachusetts.  I am so crazy about them that I’ve visited Cranberry World (run by Ocean Spray) and last year, dragged Ben to a cranberry festival in Onset (just off Cape Cod) so that we could watch cranberries being harvested.  I make cranberry vinegar, I make muffins and breads and cakes and salads with cranberries, put it in stuffing if I don’t have to deal with picky eaters, and more.

Next time you drive by a cranberry bog, remember to say a silent thank you to the cranberry farmers who worked hard to get those little beauties on to your table.  They’re nature’s perfect little package of deliciousness and are packed with vitamin C, and they form a most versatile component for your holiday cooking.  I love Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish (and I’ll be making some tonight, most likely) – a real gift to those of us from Jewish heritage who think that horseradish improves everything, and merging it with cranberries is a totally cool idea.

But — just in time for the holidays — I also make my own cranberry conserve, which I developed after fiddling around with ‘typical’ holiday flavors.  So here’s my little Thanksgiving gift to you:  a recipe for knock-their-socks off cranberry conserve, sure to make your holiday table a little cheerier.  Enjoy!

Cranberry Conserve

1 large package fresh cranberries
1/2 C. dried cranberries
1/2 C. fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 C. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 peeled, diced tart apple
1 large grapefruit, peeled, seeded, diced (membranes removed)
zest of 1 orange
1/2 c. dried currants
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tsp. dried ground cloves

Cook cranberries over medium heat with orange juice and sugars, covered, until they start to pop.  Add remaining ingredients, and cook for another 20 mins. over low heat, stirring about every five minutes.  Add
1/2 c. port
Stir and continue to cook for another 20 minutes.
Adjust spices and cool.  Remove stick cinnamon.  Enjoy!

 

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