Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A decked-out door

A decked-out door
Originally uploaded by norvegal

It's December 22nd and I'm all baked, boiled, and wrapped out. While the chickadees take turns swooping on and off the bird feeder, snow is falling - giant puffs as if someone's been emptying a down pillow from above the clouds.

The cat gave up on trying to get my attention and has resumed his post on the living room floor. I don't know what he appreciates more, the fact that his bowl is always full or that the house has radiant floor heating.

And in the background, after a weeklong Christmas music bender on Pandora, Johnny Cash sings "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Somehow it all fits together.

I adore this time of year - the colors and lights and smells and decorations everywhere, the moody weather, and the nesting and introspection it inspires. Every year, I go into December feeling grateful for the opportunity to express my love and appreciation for those near and dear to me. I vow to do things differently, to give only things that are genuine to me, to resist the industrial shopping complex.

And then somehow I start to slip. I look at my tins of homemade cookies and bags of brightly wrapped caramels, all made with sincere love and goodwill, and I think..."This person wants an iPad and I'm sending honey bars?!" Usually by the second week I give in and start clicking away. Random crap starts to replace the sincere and heartfelt, I feel somehow cheapened by the whole experience, and then I spend the rest of the year paying off my Visa bill.

This year I didn't do it - I couldn't do it. With the exception of nieces and nephews for whom years of therapy would be necessary to treat the trauma of not getting one of the 20 items they meticulously detailed on their wish lists, everybody else got something from the heart. I'm sure disappointment abounds, but that's just the way it is. And I feel just a little bit better about the whole thing.

It's getting crazy. And you want to know what drives me the most nuts? Those car ads on TV. You know, the one where the husband surprises his beautiful and perfectly clad wife on Christmas day by leading her to the door, where she discovers a brand new Lexus with a big red bow parked out front?

My question: Who buys someone a CAR as a Christmas present? (And how can I become that person's friend?) Yet from the abundance of ads on TV, you'd think it was the most common thing in the world. What message does that send to the 99.9% of the populace that does not wake up and discover a new BMW 5-series wagon in the garage?

One of my favorite holiday movies is Mixed Nuts. It's a sweet little Nora Ephron film featuring a blonde Steve Martin, a gorgeous Madeline Kahn, a knitting Rita Wilson, a crossdressing Liev Schreiber, and a yet-unknown Jon Stewart on rollerblades - plus many cameos from other fine people. The plot itself is predictably goofy but welcome at this time of year.

Near the end, Steve Martin's character is trying to lure a gun-wielding Santa costume-wearing Anthony LaPaglia off the roof of a building (as I said, goofy plot) and he says something to the effect that Christmas is that time of year when we view our lives under a microscope, and everything we don't have feels that much bigger. I find that to be extremely true, and those car ads sure don't help the situation.

So I shut off the TV, preheat my oven, pull out the butter to soften, and bring the focus back home.

But in case you were wondering, there's plenty of room in the driveway for that BMW. And could I have the one with the heated steering wheel?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Channeling Grandma

Originally uploaded by norvegal

I've been busy baking and stirring and wrapping endless sweet concoctions in preparation for Christmas. Some of the recipes are welcome new arrivals, such as these Salted Chocolate Caramels and Luisa's version of Benne Wafers, two recipes upon which there is very little improvement (yet I shall still try).

But some recipes came from my grandma's kitchen, and her mother's kitchen before that, and one can hope, many more mothers' kitchens before that.

My grandparents lived during the Great Depression, which meant that Christmas was more about baked goods and handknit gifts than it was about plastic garbage for the landfill. Every year, they'd send us a huge box with countless tins - the same tins, year after year, taped shut with masking tape - packed with all of her best concoctions. One tin held the infamous Joe Froggers, hard molasses cookies the size of a human head. Another tin held her Honey Cakes. I can still feel the tin under my little fingers as I tried to pry it open and devour its contents.

At the bottom of the Christmas box was the real gold: Several foil-wrapped bricks the size of a short loaf of bread. Grandma's English Christmas cake.

You know how we each have one or two foods that we simply love to the point of distraction? Our version of Proust's Madeleine, that one thing that brings back so many vivid memories that you want to cry? For me, it's my grandma's Christmas cake.

This is NOT to be confused with gooey, alcohol-laden, oft-maligned fruicake. It is more of a dundee cake, or an English Christmas cake without the frosting. My grandma's cake was packed with raisins and currants and candied orange and lemon peel, all held within a minimal suspension of flour, eggs, milk, a hint of butter, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.

She would pack as many raisins and currants as she could stir, stopping when her wooden spoon stood up in the bowl and refused to move any further. The dough would be scooped into bread pans and baked for hours and hours at a very low temperature, causing the raisins and currants and orange and lemon peel to caramelize into a deep, moody, sugary perfection.

My grandma knew I adored her Christmas cake and would always pack the box with as many cakes as it would hold. As she began to lose her memory, the cake became a source of stress. She knew something wasn't quite right. She was forgetting things, really basic things she knew she should know. So she started taking notes and labeling everything - and when we packed up their house after both my grandparents died, I found card after card after card containing the Christmas cake recipe with "SAVE" marked across the top in big letters. I hope she knows, from whichever cloud she's sitting, that the recipe is, indeed, safe and sound for another generation.

Every December, I bake this cake. It fills my kitchen with a smell I associate with my grandma, with those ancient childhood visions of love and comfort and security. Lots of things remind me of my grandma - she was, after all, the one who taught me how to knit - but this cake brings her back the most vividly.

Do you have such a thing in your own food repertoire?