Transformation

charlie brownLast night, I went to a concert that’s becoming a new Christmas tradition.

Halifax is lucky to be the adopted home of Jerry Granelli, the drummer in the Vince Guaraldi Trio that played the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas which first aired on CBS 50 years ago. He was paid $68 and got no royalties for the work, so he can be forgiven for turning his back on it for many years and cringing when he heard in airports and shopping malls.

In 2013, however, he had a change of heart (not unlike another grinchy holiday favourite). He pulled together a pianist and a bassist (he is the only surviving member of the original trio) as well as a children’s choir and they performed these holiday standards that you’d have to live under a rock to not know.

Now in its third season, the concert is being mounted across the country. I’ve been there every year, reveling in this music of my childhood that sparked a lifelong love of jazz. I have a LOT of Christmas music, and a LOT of it is jazz, but this album is my all-time favourite.

There was something new this year. Something that got me right there.

This year, Jerry told the audience how the story for the Charlie Brown special came about. He’d only just learned it himself. It’s based on Hans Christian Anderson stories like the Ugly Duckling, where an unlikely character becomes the hero.

Cue the iconic little tree with its single red ornament.

I think we all feel like the Ugly Duckling now and then. And we like the idea that it (we) can be transformed into something beautiful.

Last night, I didn’t just like the idea. I felt it. I embodied it.

When I went to the first edition of this concert, I’d only just sold the marital home and moved into the condo that I’m still not crazy about. I put up a tree and baked but there was no merry that year. I just couldn’t muster it. I was deep in my grief, mourning the loss of all that I’d hoped my life would be.

peanuts 1Last night, I felt full of possibility. I could see many paths and many open doors in my future. The fact that I’m not yet sure which ones to choose is ok. I’ll figure it out as I go. Because I can. There’s nothing stopping me.

Sistabuttafly is still in her cocoon but she’s transforming, getting ready to take flight.

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Bring back the merry

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Finally, a night with nothing to do.

It’s been a hell of a year. And not in a good way. My annus horribilis. The year is closing with a frantically busy, stressful fall barrelling full steam into the holiday season. I won’t be sorry to see 2013 end. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I have no merry, no comfort and cheer, no tidings of great joy.

This is very unlike me. I love Christmas. I have a ridiculously large collection of Christmas albums. I always pick the biggest, bushiest tree I can find. I bake like a mad woman and then give it all away to co-workers and my peeps at the YMCA.

The first few years I had my own Christmas tree, I also crafted like a mad woman. Almost everything on my tree was homemade. My friend Nat and I would go to Christmas at the Forum every year to scout out ideas for homemade ornaments…and to buy a pound of fudge to split between us.

IMG_00000099Inspired by the crafts and fuelled by the sugar, we set about making a veritable army of snowmen one year. The assembly line in her living room moved efficiently to a soundtrack of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas and other favourites. Did we make those stocking ornaments together, too, Nat? I think we did. And also little bells made of upside down mini terra cot pots and a whole slew of tiny grapevine wreaths simply adorned with a couple of red berries and raffia bow.

IMG_00000101In my own living room rose a regiment of toy soldiers made of old fashioned clothespins and a platoon of paintbrush Santas. I IMG_00000113could wield a glue gun like nobody’s business. One year, I drilled holes through walnuts and chestnuts with the aim to make garland of them. After quickly ruining a drill bit, I settled for a dozen nut ornaments instead.

IMG_00000100The smells of Christmas are just as wonderful to me as the sights. Row upon row of clovey gingerbread men marched out of my kitchen and onto the tree. Sadly, many met their demise when Moe and Joe came on the scene. Who’d have thought cats would like baked goods? I’d walk by the tree each morning to find yet another head dangling without a body, and a pile of crumbs on the floor.

Over the years, I’ve also collected an assortment of non-homemade ornaments. There are some like my Grinch and shiny Lee Valley tin stars that I purchased, and many given to me by kind friends and co-workers. Together, they make a collection that perfectly reflects me and my usual Christmas spirit.

I‘ve hung them all on a smaller tree than usual this year. Not small on purpose, although it’s true that I am largely just going through the motions in my less than festive IMG_00000112state. No, it’s because it was so cold when I went tree shopping that the poor firs were frozen stiff, making it hard to tell the size and shape.

So the ornaments are hung, the less voluminous baking is done and distributed, the cards with brief greetings are mailed, the uninspired gift shopping is almost finished. And I finally have a night with nothing to do.

Cup of tea, a bit of leftover biscotti, some Downton Abbey…and a little blog post where I have to say to Nat and to all those who’ve gathered around my Christmas tree over the years, thank you for the merry memories. They are helping keep me afloat right now while my heart is heavy. And I know we will create new ones in the future.

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Easter treats

Deeeelicious.
Deeeelicious.

My idea of a delicious Easter treat does not come from the bunny. It comes from the pig.

I love a nice big ham, studded with cloves, bathed in apple juice, and glazed with mustard and brown sugar. The wonderful clove smell throughout the house is half the joy of it.

And then we get to devour it. Well, not all in one sitting…there are only three of us.

Since it’s been a nice springy weekend, I had a craving to finish the meal with something fresh and lemony. I decided on a layer cake.

Loverly lemon.
Loverly lemon.

This recipe produced a fantastic cake with a nice moist crumb. In fact, I’d have been satisfied with just the plain cake. The frosting was far too sweet for my tastes, but H loved it.

Also, I wasn’t paying attention and poured heavy cream into the filling without whipping it first. Needless to say it wouldn’t thicken properly, no matter how long I left it whizzing around in the KitchenAid.

Oops.

The top layer would have been sliding all over the place if I’d tried to use the filling as intended. But it tasted fabulous, kind of like a lemon-scented creme anglaise. So I used it as a sauce instead. No harm, no foul.

Looking forward to tasty leftovers this week: grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and cake with the icing scraped off.

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Saucy Christmas

Cranberries brighten the holiday dinner table.
Cranberries brighten the holiday dinner table.

Well, here we are, Christmas Eve 2012. I have a purring cat on my lap, a little snack on my side table, and all the fixings for tomorrow night’s turkey dinner ready to go.

Yes, I’m using simple make ahead techniques to ensure I spend most of Christmas day relaxing with family rather than feverishly cooking the feast.

Wet and dry ingredients for waffles are separately mixed, ready for breakfast – so we eat something decent before the gorging on chocolate begins.

Stuffing is in a casserole dish, ready for the oven (safest to cook it outside the bird). Carrots, celery and onions are coarsely chopped for the roasting pan to add flavour to the gravy. More carrots, potatoes and broccoli are all chopped and ready to cook as sides.

This sauce has made me a fan of the cran.
This sauce has made me a fan of the cran.

The turkey is thawing in cold water, and I’m also thawing a little jar of cranberry sauce leftover from Thanksgiving.

I’d never tried making it from scratch before. I’ve never been a fan of the cran so I always just dutifully bought the canned stuff and half the time, forget to put it out.

Something possessed me to try making my own for Thanksgiving this year and boy, am I glad I did. The recipe was so easy, a monkey could do it. It tasted great and made the house smell amazing.

It’s a Cooking Light recipe, like so many of my favourites. There were seven of us for Thanksgiving dinner and since none of us piled on the sauce, there’s enough left for five of us around the Christmas dinner table.

Festive cranberries.
Festive cranberries.

From my kitchen to yours, have a very merry Christmas and an adventurous 2013 filled with good food and laughter.

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A Baker’s Dozen…Almost

Beautiful cookies.
Beautiful cookies.

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without baking. I grew up with mom’s holiday standards: gumdrop loaf, brown sugar fudge, fruitcake for dad, pork pies (that don’t contain pork), and shortbread cookies in festive shapes that we kids loaded with coloured icing and sprinkles, hanging some on the tree and gobbling down more.

I think my first foray into my own holiday baking was in university. Somebody had a simple drop cookie recipe for shortbread. They were little more than butter and air, whipped into a frenzy, that just melted in our mouths.

I’m not sure when I started reading cooking magazines, but somewhere in my mid-twenties, their delicious-looking recipes, gorgeous photos, and inventive packaging must have sparked my first holiday baking marathon. I picked at least 10 recipes and went to town in my apartment’s tiny kitchen, with my ever-growing collection of Christmas CDs playing in the background. Within hours, every surface was covered with stacks of cookies and pans of fudge and squares.

Stacks of cookies from the holiday baking marathon.
Stacks of cookies from the holiday baking marathon.

I’d be sick as a dog and as wide as a barn door if I ate all of it myself. So I assembled an assortment of goodies in tins for my co-workers and trotted off to the office. Everyone oohed and awed as they sampled, and I realized I’d found an outlet for my holiday baking madness. And so the marathon became an annual tradition.

I’ve gone through countless pounds of butter and dozens of eggs. I’ve traipsed out to buy a new hand-held mixer when one died, its beaters lodged in gingerbread dough. (Thank goodness I now have a KitchenAid – vroom vroom!) I ever-so-thankfully received a brand new oven from my parents as an early Christmas gift when mine went on the fritz just before the big baking day. And I’ve used a wide array of containers, from tins, plastic baggies, and Chinese food boxes to mason jars, coloured cardboard boxes, and lunch bags à la brown paper packages tied up with string.

Chocolate almond biscotti
A little sweet to go with tea.

Much like running a marathon, this year’s 17-hour baking day (including packaging and clean up) was a full-body experience judging by all the parts of me that were sore by the end of the day. Am I getting old? Maybe. I should try wearing sneakers next year – they ought to be more supportive than my fuzzy house slippers. But I don’t intend to slow down. Oh no. That wouldn’t be any fun.

What’s fun is sitting with a cup of tea and Charlie Brown Christmas music, clicking through websites and flipping through old and new holiday editions of Cooking Light, Canadian Living and Martha Stewart, picking out recipes, and building a grocery list. Fun is seeing a bunch of disparate ingredients come together to form something beautiful and delicious. Fun is coaxing that fudge to soft ball stage and then beating the living daylights out of it before pouring in the pan. Fun is working that dough into shapes with excited anticipation of all the pieces of the puzzle coming together in the end.

Holiday baking.
Holiday baking.

Fun is the pleasure my treats bring to family, friends and co-workers, and even beyond. More than once, I’ve been told my cookies saved the day when unexpected guests dropped by during the busy holiday season. This year, I’m all aw shucks with several suggestions that I go pro, and one disbeliever who couldn’t fathom a non-professional producing such treats. Grin.

My favourite this year – and I think the prettiest I’ve ever made – is the raspberry linzer cookie. It was nearly a flop with dough that kept falling apart and only produced half the batch, but that’s probably because I cheated. Yes, it’s true. I’m a bad, bad girl for trying to use pre-ground almonds. But I’ll try it again – properly – and hopefully with more success, and a whole batch.

The prettiest cookie I've ever made. Delicious, too.
The prettiest cookie I’ve ever made. Delicious, too.
Sweet and sticky.
Sweet and sticky.

The Dulce de Leche cookie is a close second, although I had to add a couple of tablespoons of cold water to get the dough to stick together. And everything else is a close third.

My dozen recipes for the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon are below. But first, a few tips for your own baking adventure:

  • This may seem obvious, but read ALL the instructions for ALL your recipes in advance. You don’t want to be half way through and discover you need a food processor, or that something has to chill for 24 hours.
  • Dry ingredients mixed and labelled with the recipes.
    Dry ingredients mixed and labelled with the recipes.

    Mix all your dry ingredients in plastic bags, and do any chopping chocolate or toasting nuts etc. in advance. It will save you time on baking day, so your oven won’t be sitting hot and idle. Oh, and never, ever walk away from your oven when toasting nuts – watch them like a hawk because they go from toasted to burnt in mere seconds.

  • Check all your recipes for chilling time for doughs, as well as oven temperatures, baking times, and anything else that will dictate the best order. Create a game plan based on this information. For example, while my dulce de leche was cooking for 1 ½ hours, I had time to make the doughs that needed to chill. I did everything that bakes at 350 degrees before turning the temperature up to 425 for pork pies – which flopped. Boo.
  • Clear any unnecessary clutter out of your kitchen so there’s lots of space to work and to spread out cooling racks. Investing in double decker cooling racks is a great idea for small spaces.
  • You wouldn’t run a marathon without water and food, right? So sip from your water bottle and have something ready to eat for lunch and supper. I didn’t follow my own advice this year and had to send H out for sandwiches at lunchtime. Boo.
Pretty packages to share.
Pretty packages to share.

Here are the hits from the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon:

Raspberry linzer cookies
Dulce de leche cookies
Double chocolate minties
Chocolate crackle cookies
Black and white striped cookies
Hello Dolly bars
Butter crunch toffee
Everything cookies
Dark chocolate biscotti
Wedding cookies

Drop Shortbread

Lemon-scented shortbread.
Lemon-scented shortbread.

I decided to make these lemon scented by adding about a teaspoon of lemon rind and replacing the vanilla with lemon juice. I also rolled them and gently patted them down, because I wanted a shape that’s less likely to break when packaged.

Ingredients:

2 c. butter
1 c. icing sugar
1/2 c. corn starch
3 c. flour
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
Preparation:
Mix until creamy. Drop on cookie sheet by tablespoonful. Bake at 350 for 8-10 min.
Maple Cream Fudge
A lady who used to come to my aquafit class brought me a little package of this fudge as a gift one year. I took one bite and begged for the recipe. You may want help with the beating as it takes a long time. But it’s so worth it. Don’t forget to scrape the pot.
Maple Cream Fudge.
Maple Cream Fudge.

Ingredients:
3 c. brown sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp butter
pinch of salt
1 c. evaporated milk

Preparation:
Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly (wear an oven mitt to avoid burns), until soft ball stage (7 or 8 minutes after it boils). To check for soft ball stage, put a teaspoonful of the mixture in a glass of ice water. If it’s all stringy, it’s not at soft ball stage yet. When it’s ready, it will form a soft ball.

Remove from heat and beat. Mixture will turn glossy. Keep beating. Long after your arm feels like it’s going to fall off, the mixture will thicken. Keep beating. When the glossiness fades from the surface and the spoon leaves traces through the mixture, pour into pan. Let cool for about a half hour. Cut into squares and let harden.

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