April 18, 2014

Apple Trees and Asparagus

The apple tree is beginning to bloom and that means I'm craving asparagus.

When I was a child, my favourite story began like this: Once upon a time there was a little house way out in the country . . . There's a reason why The Little House has always fascinated me.  You see, as a girl my aunt and uncle owned an apple orchard way out in the country and I thought this story was about them.

We used to visit every Sunday when the weather was warm.  If you've ever read this story you can envision exactly how the place looked.  The house was up on a hill and out back stretched row upon row of trees fanning out from the house like the tail of a peacock.  In the springtime the trees were covered in pearly white blossoms and the orchard buzzed with a million bees.  When the weather got warmer we'd watch as the tiny green apples swelled and turned as rosy as our cheeks in the summer sun.  In the fall, when the leaves began to change and a cool breeze rustled the heavy branches, the kids would each be handed a paper sack into which we'd gather the fruit that had fallen to the ground.  The best apples were sold at the fruit stand down the road, but the ones on the ground were ours for the keeping, as long as we could wrestle them away from the wasps.  My grandmother would carefully select the apples that were salvageable and cook them down into apple jelly, and jam, and butter, and sauce to eat all winter long.

Along the back fence meandered a tiny stream.  An irrigation ditch, really, but to a city girl like me it was a wonderland, full of adventure and magic.  Bullfrogs hid in the tall, cool grass and garter snakes basked in the sunshine by the water.  Iridescent dragonflies swooped in and out of the cattails as I walked along the edge.  Here and there were placed rickety old boards to act as makeshift bridges.  A parent's nightmare; a kid's dream come true!  They would wobble, creak and crack as my brother and I raced across those boards into patches of white dandelion fluff on the other side.  More than a few times the bridges would tip us into the muddy water below.  I used to daydream under those apple trees, and I promised myself that someday I would live in the country.

But here's the best part.  The part that's not in the story book.  Along with the tall grass, the dandelions, the bullfrogs and snakes grew the most tender, sweetest, most delectable wild asparagus!  In spring, when the trees were in full bloom, the entire family would comb through the grass looking for the thick green spears.  You had to really search, like finding a needle in a haystack, they were well hidden.  But when we found one we'd cut it at the base and stash it in our bag.  We spent hours searching the orchard floor.  "I found one!"  my mother would yell from a few rows away.  "Here are three!" exclaimed my brother near the water where the grass was moist. . .  Like a treasure hunt, we'd filled up bags and bags of wild asparagus to eat throughout the week, and every Sunday there was more to be found.

April 10, 2014

A Million Flowers, Sugar Glass, and an Improvised Cake

"There are a million flowers in here!" Eve exclaimed when she woke up Saturday morning.  Her sleepy eyes began to sparkle as she took in the sea of flowers that covered the kitchen table.  She was right, maybe not a million, but that morning the table was buried in flowers.  Why?  Because in just a few short hours 8 five-year-olds would head through our door to celebrate Eve's birthday.

Last month, when asked what type of party she wanted, she looked up at me with those big brown eyes and said, in her most persuasive voice, "A Frozen party, of course....with lots of pink roses."  I know you're saying "Not another Frozen party!" because if you have children between the ages of 3 and 16 you've probably had enough of talking snowmen and that song you just can't get out of your head.  And you most certainly know that the store shelves are bare when it comes to Frozen merchandise, whether it's birthday decorations, books, or toys.  So I won't bore you with yet another Frozen birthday party post, because there are about 8,000 of them out there.  (I know, I Googled it.)

No, this post is about a party that didn't exactly happen the way I planned, and it turned out better than I could have ever imagined.  You see, when your daughter gazes up at you with a wisp of bangs in her chocolate eyes, and says "Please, Mommy, can I have a Frozen party?  Pretty please??"  Well, at least you try.  I scrolled through Pinterest and began envisioning a grand, three-tiered cake decorated like Elsa's ice castle and adorned with the Frozen characters.  I think I was more excited about that cake than Eve was.  I ordered the over-priced Frozen play set that is so popular right now (this one) at the beginning of March and congratulated myself for actually planning ahead for once.  Then I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  With the day of the party closing in and the cake decorations glaringly absent, I began to panic.

March 23, 2014

Pizza Party

Ideas are like pizza dough, made to be tossed around.
Anna Quindlen

We had company for dinner this weekend and, as I've been so consumed by various projects at work, I didn't have time to plan until Thursday.  When I finally sat down to write out the menu, I drew a blank.  My pen tapped hollowly on the table. Tap, tap, tap...  "What should we have for dinner this weekend?" I muttered more to myself than to anyone else.

"Pizza!" yelled Eve from her bedroom.  She has the ears of a bat!  Of course.  Pizza is always the answer, isn't it?  That got me thinking.  Everyone likes pizza, right?
I remembered the Ratatouille pizza I made back in January with leftovers.  Hearty chucks of eggplant and zucchini, delicate shreds of sweet basil.  I've been meaning to make it again, with a topping that's not too wet, designed specifically for pizza.   And so I began planning a causal, relaxed pizza party.  Don't get me wrong; this is not you kid's standard, classroom pizza party.  I wanted a grown-up party with intense, grown-up flavours.  A party where my guests are laid back but the pizza is anything but.  Where the laughter flows as freely as the wine; where we eat with our hands, with our elbows on the table, and the conversation stretches long into the night.  That's my kind of party!

And so I started tossing various combinations of cheese and toppings around in my mind.  It had to be something that was a bit unexpected, a bit gourmet.  Something that my guests wouldn't soon forget because, let's face it, pizza parties are a dime a dozen.  I wanted to make an impression.  It wasn't until I finally went to the market Friday morning, and strolled through my favourite section of gourmet cheeses and charcuterie, that the menu became clear in my mind.  The ratatouille pizza would have a Parmesan and black pepper crust and would be dripping in tangy Asiago cheese.  Oh course, when I'm making pizza I cannot forget the salami one that my kids just adore.  Like pepperoni only smokier, without as much heat, with a sweet, homemade sauce and chunks of tangy Feta, I know that's what Eve had in mind when she made the suggestion.

March 16, 2014


If magic exists it lives in a pot of chocolate.  Like a cauldron of witches brew, the more I stir the more it bewitches me.  The aroma, rising in rivulets like ghostly fingers, grips and pulls me in, deeper and deeper I fall under its spell.  Hypnotic.  Watching my spoon trace endless circles round and round the pot.  And the colour!  The deepest, richest, darkest brown.  The very same, intoxicating colour of my daughter's eyes.  It draws me in, beguiling, ensnaring.  She has yet to learn the power she holds in those chocolate eyes.  My daughter, in fact, has chocolate running through her veins.  She was, after all, named after chocolate.  Vianne, her middle name, after Vianne Rocher, the enchanting owner of the chocolaterie in Joanne Harris' novel, and my very favourite movie, Chocolat.  And how very appropriate.  It was for my daughter that I created this pie.

As I sat at my computer last Friday, I was inundated with tantalizing photos of pie in my twitter stream and on facebook.  They were, of course, in honour of National Pi Day (that mysterious number that defines the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of each and every pie plate, large or small.)  As I scrolled through the recipes I realized, in horror, that I hadn't yet created a peanut-free, peanut butter pie for my chocolate girl!  The tragedy!  I had to come up with something immediately!  So with all these glorious images at my fingertips, I scrolled through the peanut butter pies, picking and choosing only the very best elements from each to go into my salted double chocolate sunflower pie.  An Oreo crust - because Oreos are one of the few grocery store cookies she can eat and I wanted to indulge.  Sure they aren't the purest of ingredients, but for allergic individuals, if there's a food that's safe to eat, then it must be celebrated in all its unwholesome glory.  And celebrate we did, with 20 of them as the foundation of the pie.  The sunflower butter - it's beaten with tangy cream cheese and a good dose of vanilla.  Clouds of freshly whipped cream are carefully folded in, creating the most heavenly, pillowly texture.  If this filling was a bed, I'd sleep forever.  And the topping, the part I find most irresistible - pure, rich chocolate, gently melted into luscious cream and unapologetically smeared over the filling.  And as if three truly decadent layers were not enough,  let us not forget the sea salt.  The finest French fleur de sel, still moist, sprinkled liberally over the warm chocolate like diamonds embedded into the darkest mahogany.  Need I say more?  Or are you as spellbound as I am?

March 7, 2014

A Tale of Three Oranges

Long ago, in a palace on a hill, there lived a young prince who was very unhappy; he neither laughed nor smiled.  One day, a cunning witch set out to make him laugh.  For she was intent on marrying the stoic prince and becoming queen.  She dressed in her finest gown - a robe as colourful as the wildflowers in April.  Tiny bells, sewn into the lining of her skirt, chimed in rhythm with the sway of her hips.  In the palace courtyard, when the sun at its highest, the beautiful witch began to dance.  Upon hearing the bells and seeing the flashing colours of her dress in the sunlight, the prince came to his window to watch.  But, with each twirl, a silver thread which held one of the bells began to unravel and soon the bell came loose and fell to the ground.  The witch didn't notice and slipped on the bell, tumbling to the ground in a heap, her rainbow skirts billowing up around her like a cloud.  The prince, having never seen anything so funny in all his life, burst into laughter.  He laughed so hard that tears streamed down his face.  In amazement, the people of the palace stared out their windows and doorways at the witch.  For they had never heard their prince laugh.

The witch, quickly becoming enraged, stood and yelled in anger to the prince, who was still giggling in the most childish of ways, "Because you have laughed at me, I place a curse over you!"  Suddenly the prince felt a heavy sadness sink into the very depths of his heart.  "You will never again laugh... unless you find the three oranges,"  In a swirl of light and color she marched out of the courtyard, the bells tinkling behind her in the most melancholy way...

It's a bedtime story I heard many times as a child.  Like a pot of soup made with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, it's based on the classic French tale, Les Trois Oranges d’Amour by Alfred de Musset, with elements of various other fairy tales stirred into the pot.  My mother and grandmother each told it a little differently, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out.  I'd nearly forgotten the story; I haven't heard it in over 25 years!  And when I tell you what finally drew it from the deep recesses of my mind, you'll laugh.  You see, I bought a new bottle of hand soap for the guest bathroom several weeks ago.  Honey Citrus and Shea Butter.  Sounds innocent enough, right?  But, every time I wash my hands, a spell comes over me.  It has such a dreamy, intoxicating aroma that makes me so hungry.  "I must make something that smells this good!"  I tell myself, then quickly forget as I go about my day.

But let me get back to our tale.  My mother would tell it while I lay in bed at night, talking in a quiet voice while she swooped around the room, gathering up toys and clothes and blankets to be put away.  

Feeling so overwhelmed with sadness, the prince left immediately on a quest to find these mysterious three oranges.  He searched the countryside far and wide, under every rock and every tree.  He even climbed into the branches, searching for oranges among the leaves.  But alas, oranges didn't grow in this part of the kingdom, and his search with fruitless. (Pun intended.)  Soon he came to the seashore.  Dark clouds hung low in the sky as immense waves violently raked the sand and threatened to wash him out to sea.  Quickly he took shelter in a nearby cave.  It was so very dark that he could barely see his hand in front of his face, but in a flash of lightening he noticed something in the corner.  As he fumbled in the darkness, his hands came to rest on three small boxes.  They were cool to the touch and he quickly stashed them in his bag.

February 26, 2014

The Sunrise

 I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
"That must have been the sun!"

A Day by Emily Dickinson

I must say, we've had more than our fair share of breathtaking sunrises this winter!

I experienced my first sunrise just a few years ago when my son started school.  As a night owl by nature, I rarely, if ever, saw the sunrise.  Sure, I must have seen it.  Perhaps in my college days, stumbling home from a night-long party.  Or maybe on a long, red-eye flight to London, trying to snuggle into a stiff airline seat to catch a few moments of sleep.  But had I ever actually experienced a sunrise in all its splendor?  On that day, when Connor started kindergarten, I rose early, before the sun and, by chance, found myself standing at the kitchen door as the sun was just beginning to rise.  It was still and very dark; the moon was a fine crescent hanging low over the mountains in the west.  Across the sky I watched as ribbons of violet, magenta, orange and amber slowly pushed away the darkness.  It was then that I realized, in sudden horror, what I had been missing.   Funny, but I always imagined that the sunrise would look much like the sunset - pastel hues of pink and orange that slowly fade to grey -  but this was entirely different.  Untamed, raw and powerful.  In that moment I thought, What have I missed all these years?!  Perhaps dawn is the one time when mere humans can catch a small glimpse of the sheer radiance of God. 

These days I have a favourite morning ritual.  I rise before the break of dawn, wrap my warm robe around my shoulders and slide into my slippers.  In the kitchen I put the kettle on for coffee, being very quiet so as not to wake the kids.  This is my time, not to be interrupted.  I pour coffee into my favourite mug with just a splash of cream and stand in the kitchen doorway.  The steam rises from the mug in my hands as I let the warm, gemstone colors of dawn wash over me until, at last, the sun breaks the horizon with such brilliance I have to turn away.  Then I can start my day.

February 16, 2014

Of War and Cabbage Leaves

There once was a young man who went off to war.  At just 20 years old, with tears in his eyes, he kissed the girl he loved and left Chicago, destined for the shores of Europe and a battle so fierce it left him with wounds that cut to the bone and scars that forever changed his life.  He spoke fluent German and was made an officer, leading his troops through tangled webs of barbed wire and across the dark and desolate battlefields, sodden with the blood of fallen soldiers.  Whether from friend or foe, blood is blood.  It congeals just the same, oozing into the muddy ground only to be picked up by the boots of the living, marching steadily toward their own graves.

So is the saga of war.  Menacing, like the black storm clouds that roll in quickly over the mountains.  Suffocating, like the fog that envelopes the trees leaving only vague impressions of branches that sway in an unseen wind.  In Italy, near the shores of Lago di Bolsena, he was captured.  A prisoner for years, he was transferred from camp to camp across Europe, until, in Poland, he escaped.  He traveled through the night, and desperately sought refuge with a sympathetic Polish farmer and his wife during day.  He hid among the turnips and carrots in their root cellar as enemy soldiers searched the farm house for escaped prisoners.  One day they found him, beat him, and left him in a prison cell to die.

But, lest you think this just a tragic tale of war, let me assure you that it is so much more.  It's a story of courage and survival and of the food that connects the two.  You see, human kindness stretches far beyond political ties, and this man was strong.  Stronger than anyone imagined.  He didn't die.  And as the years stretched on, he befriended the prison guards, speaking to them in their native language and repairing their watches when they stopped working.  In return, they brought him cigarettes and covertly slipped parcels of cabbage leaves tied with string through the cell bars.  Like little presents, these cabbage leaves held a sweet surprise.  Tiny bits of dark chocolate were hidden inside!  On these he survived, and eventually the war came to an end.  He was shipped back to America where he received a hero's welcome and a purple heart for his injuries.  His wounds began to heal, but the scars ran deep, as all scars of war do.  He was deaf in one ear from a muzzle blast that killed the man next to him, and the shrapnel in his leg was encased in bone, forever sealing it in a tomb of his own flesh and blood.  He married that girl he loved.  And life went on much as it did before the war.

Like all soldiers, he carried the horrors deep within, though his gentle hands and soft voice concealed the constant pain.  I never knew his story.  He spoke of it to no one.   Instead he made jewelry.  Elaborate pieces of twisted metal and stone.  Broaches, and pendants, and rings, engraved by hand in script so beautiful that you'd swear it was etched by the hands of angels.  He liked his mashed potatoes lumpy and his coffee black.  He made his own horseradish, so spicy it burned your sinuses and made you cry in both pleasure and pain.  In the summer he'd tend his garden where, in neat rows grew cabbage, turnips, carrots, onions, and corn, so high we kids would get lost among the leafy stalks.  On rainy days he'd pretend to be a pony, and hoist me onto his strong back, galloping on all fours around the house.  He drove fast, smoked cigarettes behind the house, and was always one for a good joke.  He'd slap his knee as he laughed and his eyes crinkled almost shut.  Some called him "Hero," others called him "Sir," many called him "Lieutenant," I liked to call him "Grandpa."

February 6, 2014

Winter boots and a hat in the snow

Don't try to buy snow boots in February ... when it's snowing ... in Colorado.  Don't even go looking for rain boots.  You won't find any.  We're caught in the midst of a relentless winter, yet all anyone wants are strappy sandals and flip-flops.  At least that's what you'd think if you visited one of the many shoe stores that I did last Monday, in search of some kind (any kind) of warm boots for my kids.  Like little lumps of bread dough rising in a hot kitchen, I swear their feet have doubled in size over the weekend!

We did finally discover some cold weather boots tucked in the back clearance section of one store.  In tattered boxes with missing lids, we found exactly two pairs.

"Do these look cowgirl-ish?" Eve asked, admiring her feet in the mirror.

"Umm..." I hesitated, "are they supposed to look cowgirl-ish?"

"Yes!" she replied.  I was becoming frazzled.

"Then, yes."  I assured her.  "They look just like what a cowgirl would wear in the winter - a princess cowgirl." I added just in case.

"Then let's get them!"   She jumped up and down in excitement.  Guess she takes after me.

They're not what I would have chosen if I'd had a choice, but I was happy we found some at all. Just in time, too, as another wave of snow arrived early Tuesday morning, and it hasn't stopped since.

The schools are closed and Eve would love nothing more than to gallop through the back yard in her new boots on her hobby horse named Chocolat, but her breath freezes in the icy air and the fierce wind blows her hat into the snow, and she begins to cry.

January 31, 2014

Orange and Blue, Through and Through

My grandmother always made these wings for special occasions.  Birthdays, holidays, parties, or just because.  In our house, the Super Bowl is a pretty special occasion.  And since I live with just about the biggest Denver Broncos fan ever, Sunday's game is nothing short of monumental!  I mean, more important than my birthday, and much bigger than Christmas.  My husband is orange and blue, through and through!  There will be a lot of cheering, a whole lot of screaming, and an embarrassing amount of testosterone fueled fist-pumping and couch-punching.  Despite what my family may think, I'm not a huge football fan (but don't tell them that!).  I'd much rather don my apron and take cover in the kitchen.  Planning a Super Bowl party is always fun.  This is the one and only time that the kids are allowed to eat in front of the TV, and that makes it even more exciting.  This year, I'm turning our Super Bowl spread orange and blue, in honor of our hometown team.

My husband has taken to calling these wings, Seahawk wings . . . and then, with a threatening growl, he devours them in one bite.  They're sweet, salty and sticky.  Have plenty of napkins on hand.  I marinate them in soy sauce and brown sugar for several hours, and then bake them to sticky perfection.  With the wings, I decided to serve these adorable baby bell peppers which I found in the market a few days ago, stuffed with blue cheese.  Blue and orange peppers, how fun is that?  Of course, every Super Bowl party needs a super cool treat, so I'm making these Orange Creamsicle Sandwich Cookies.  Sprinkled with orange and blue sugar, naturally, and filled with creamy frosting to match. You could, in fact, make them any color you like (even navy and green, I won't tell).  Sweet orange and creamy vanilla, they remind me of the orange creamsicles I used to love as a child.

January 28, 2014

The Bleak Mid-Winter

There are several small ponds that connect with the river that runs behind our house.  In the winter, they're a haven for thousands of geese which fly down from Canada.  In the summertime, we like to walk there late in the afternoon when it's cool and the sun is low. The kids splash in the water at the edge of one pond and chase huge bullfrogs into its murky depths.  The fishy smell of algae and vegetation envelope us and, though it's strong, it's not a bad smell.  In flashes of turquoise, sapphire and topaz, dragonflies dart between the cattails growing tall along the shore.  Turtles sun themselves on a rotting branch caught among some stones and ducks paddle leisurely through the still water, occasionally dunking their emerald heads beneath the surface for a tasty bite of something floating by.  The whole place buzzes with energy, vitality, and life.  

In winter, when cabin fever sets in, we bundle up in our heaviest jackets, scarves, and rain boots and drive to our favourite pond; it's much too cold to walk.  Just a quick visit.  How different she looks in the winter!  The muddy ground is hard as iron, the water is still as stone.  It's as if our pond is sleeping, peaceful under her pearly blanket of snow.  I get the eerie feeling that we are eavesdropping on a friend.  She doesn't know we're there, and we feel we must tip-toe so as not to wake her.  The stillness is overwhelming, the only sound we hear is the rustle of wind through the bare tree branches and, from somewhere unseen, the haunting call of geese.  The bitter wind stings our noses as we say goodbye to our sleeping friend and trudge back through the snow to the car.  On the way home I hear the words of this song deep in the back of my mind:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
-Christina Rossetti (1830 - 1894)

Bleak is a very good word to describe this winter.  I think most of us would agree, all this snow and cold has us longing for spring.  It's a long way off, I know.  In Colorado the heaviest snow falls in March and April.  Thick, wet blankets of spring snow that break tree limbs and paralyze the city.  So I must devise ways to bring the happy, sunny flavors of spring inside.  As I write this, our boots sit in a puddle by the back door, the icicles on our coats are melting, and the bright smell of lemon and thyme permeate every corner of my kitchen.  It smells like spring!

January 20, 2014

Little Hands

My grandmother had a picture that hung in her kitchen until the day she died.  It was a framed, decoupage print of my 4 year old hands, dripping in blue finger paint.  Something my creative mother made for her as a Christmas present long, long ago.  Below the messy blue hand prints she stenciled this poem:

Sometimes you get discouraged
Because I am so small,
And always leave my fingerprints
On furniture and walls.
But everyday I'm growing,
I'll be grown up someday,
And all these tiny hand prints
Will simply fade away.
So here's a final hand print
Just so you can recall,
Exactly how my fingers looked
When I was very small.

holding little hands last summer at the river that runs near our house

Throughout my childhood years I would frequently hold my hands up to the glass covering that picture, comparing them to the little hands in the frame.  I would watch, in wonder, as my tiny hands grew, until one day my finger tips stretched to the edge of the frame and I was grown up.

January 10, 2014

A Love Letter

On our first date, my husband and I enjoyed a midnight snack of dates and red wine on a silk Persian rug stretched out beneath the April stars.  That rug, which he picked up in a market in Iran, is dusty plum with brilliant orange and blue flowers running across the surface like the fine lines of a calligrapher.  It now hangs in our living room.  On the day we got engaged, we took a trip to the mountains and celebrated with dates and champagne, which my husband served out of the bed of his pick-up truck in Waterford flutes purchased just for the occasion.  On our honeymoon in Las Vegas, we sent the hotel kitchen staff scrambling when we called room service to order a plate of dates and black coffee laced with cardamom late one evening.  On the night before my daughter's birth we ate candied dates at a smoky, Middle Eastern restaurant, while belly dancers swished between the tables in a hypnotic whirl of colour, they're coin belts and gold bangles clinking with the music. 

It's amazing, the recollections that are conjured up by food!  Just one bite will flood you with a lifetime of memories!  So, it was for my husband, that I created this cake.  A love letter, of sorts, in so much as a cake can be called a love letter.  It's an homage to a food that has laced our years together.  Something that connects our past to our present, weaving us together like the fine, purple thread that runs through that rug.  The date.

My husband fell in love with dates while living in the Middle East.  He'd bring back huge bags of them for his family at Christmastime.  It's said that in ancient times, middle eastern men would eat up to 6 pounds of dates each day!  This doesn't surprise me.  I know my husband could eat twice as many.  My kids have come to love dates just as much as their father.  Eve asks me to pack them whenever it's her turn to bring the class snack.  Consequently, she's turned her entire class into date-lovers.

January 5, 2014


Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  And so this dish was born, out of necessity, last week when we returned home from a road trip with two very hungry children and a kitchen that was nearly void of food.

I have a tendency to plan these last minute road trips and just barely squeeze them into the time when the children are off of school.  So last week, during the final days of winter break, we packed up the car and headed south to Santa Fe, New Mexico, about six hours away.  Just doable with two small children, as long as there are plenty of breaks and a good, long picnic halfway through.

In winter, New Mexico is magical.  Most people imagine that it's hot, but in the high mountains it has the feel of a ghostly winter wonderland.  The red rocks of the mesas glow brilliantly in the setting sun, as if lit from within.  The heady smell of piñon smoke settles in the valleys, and patches of untouched snow shimmer like a thousand lakes on the dessert floor.

December 29, 2013

The Last Meal

(this gorgeous cutting board was handmade by Karl Driesel)

We make a big deal of the new year's day feast.  After all, it's the first big meal of a year full of promise, opportunity, and fresh resolve.  It makes sense to start it off on the right foot, with a full belly.  But we don't often think of the last meal of the year, and since I'm not one for new year's resolutions, it only seems right to send the old year off in style, as well.  Like the last, extravagant meal of a condemned prisoner, shouldn't the last meal of the year be just as lavish, just as self-indulgent?  I can almost hear the funeral march playing in my mind as I plan the menu.  Perhaps I'm being morose?  I do tend to feel a bit somber at the passing of yet another year.  Maybe a better way to approach the last meal is in the spirit of survival.  It's a feast - hearty and rich - that's fit to keep us warm and satisfied through the parties, soirées, and celebrations that bridge the gap between old and new.  Something to satisfy and sustain us until a new sun rises on 2014.  Yes, I think that's a much better way to look at it, don't you? 

This year my new year's eve feast is Russian inspired.  After all, who better to turn to when looking to stay warm and cozy this time of year, than the Russians?

The holidays have me spinning!  Family visiting, so much good food, and four generations of cooks in the kitchen . . .  at the same time!  For Christmas Eve we had a decadent lasagna with a tender Mâche salad and cookies of all sorts - gingersnaps, sugar trees, biscochitos, rum raisin balls - meant for Santa, of course.  I was dreaming of goose for Christmas dinner, but with the hustle and bustle of the holidays I didn't get to the market until Christmas Eve, and there were none to be found.  As we strolled up and down the aisles - my mother, my grandmother, and I - the inspiration started flowing.  We decided on the traditional ham, slathered in a fresh pineapple and brown sugar glaze.  Along side, we served Ina Garten's Brussels Sprouts Lardons (my kids fight over how many servings they can eat of these!), roasted new potatoes with fresh rosemary, and a light fruit salad with honey-vanilla yogurt dressing.  For dessert, a stunning yule log - flourless chocolate cake, wrapped around a cream cheese filling, and garnished with a thick cherry sauce.  Alas, I didn't go so far as making the tiny, candy mushrooms to grow on the log.  Maybe next year.

December 17, 2013

Panettone in the air

Snow like cotton candy drifting softly through the air. 
The lights on my neighbor's trees twinkling cheerfully through my living room window at night.
Presents wrapped in vintage paper with matching bows, tucked beneath the outstretched arms of the Christmas tree. 
Red wine in bed on Christmas Eve. 
Snuggling with my little loves, watching Rudolf on TV. 
The old milk glass nativity scene, set carefully on the coffee table, because "that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." 
Fluffy socks and warm sweaters. 
A house full of family and friends.  Hugs, laughter, and games that stretch late into the night. 
And the smell of panettone in the air.

The things I treasure most this time of year!  If only I could capture them all in a bottle to bring out in February when the joy of Christmas has faded and winter seems never ending!  At least I can stash a panettone in the freezer for a bit of holiday cheer later on.

Panettone is a traditional Italian Christmas bread, studded with candied orange peel and citron.  Since I absolutely love figs, I load mine up with them instead.  They add such an appealing crunch!  Please don't be intimidated by panettone.  There are a lot of steps, yes, but they're easy and largely unattended.  Good panettone, like love, needs time and patience.  It can't be rushed, but it is well worth the wait.  Traditional panettone paper molds can be purchased on line or in specialty shops, but I simply bake mine in 5 inch oven safe bowls with straight sides.  Wrap them in pretty craft paper if you wish and serve them warm on Christmas morning.  This recipe makes two mini loaves or one large one.

Wishing you many blessings this holiday season, and a Christmas full of all the things that make you merry and bright!  Cheers!

December 13, 2013

Four and twenty blackbirds

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Legend has it that at the lavish wedding feast of Marie de'Medici and Henry IV of France, a spectacular pie was presented to the couple.  When this enormous pie was sliced by the servants, out flew twenty-four songbirds, soaring into the palace rafters to serenade the astonished guests.  That's one way to make a lasting impression!  I'd love to be invited to such a magnificent party,  though I can't say I would eat the pie after knowing it had been stuffed with live birds!

I remember being captivated (and a little horrified) by this nursery rhyme as a child.  Did they really bake the birds alive???  I'd ask myself, and then try not to think about it.  Then, one day, my mother made a blueberry pie, and there, right in the middle, sat the protruding head of a black bird.  Not a real bird, but a pretty, antique pie bird which she'd inherited from her grandmother.  I sighed with relief because at last I understood the rhyme, or at least I hoped I did.

Still today, I find the idea of a pie bird utterly charming.  So, when my mother requested cherry pie for her birthday last week, I couldn't resist adorning it with my own little pie bird.  Alas, mine is not black; it's Le Creuset red to match the cookware my husband faithfully surprises me with every Christmas.  But it's still just as much a show-stopper as the one I remember my mother using.  And the surprise in my children's eyes when I brought the pie to the table was priceless.  It was late and in the excitement I managed to snap just a few photos before the pie was gobbled up.  C'est la vie!  You must act fast if you want the take pictures of pie!

December 6, 2013

Rum Balls and Deck the Halls

I can't seem to find the holiday cheer this year.  Perhaps it's this crazy weather - spring-like last week (I passed the farm down the road to see freshly plowed fields with straight lines of tiny green plants, in December! In Colorado?!) and now we're in the heart of a blizzard.  Or maybe it's the fact that Thanksgiving seemed to sneak up so suddenly, and Christmas is too soon to follow.  Whatever the reason, I still can't believe that it's already time to decorate the house for Christmas!  But, though the cheer was absent, tradition in our house dictates that the Christmas tree arrives the weekend after Thanksgiving.  So, last weekend I put on some classic music, started shuffling furniture around and hauled in the big Christmas tree.  In childish wonder, the kids gleefully danced to the music that filled the living room, while I fought with the tree and waded through a sea of tangled lights.  Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Ella Fitzgerald all made an appearance that afternoon, bringing with them the bits and pieces of holiday cheer that were missing.  There's a reason why these songs are my favourites. 

They are the songs from my childhood.  Those old, scratchy LPs with the beautifully coloured covers, that would coax my brother and I into a dancing frenzy so many years ago.  Bouncing and jumping in spirited joy until the old record skipped and my mother would scold us and demand we calm down.  Oh to have that kind of naïve joy once again!  If there's one thing I'm certain, I will never rob my children of the joy that classic Christmas carols bring.  So I turned up the music and let them dance to their heart's content.  No risk of skipping the records on Pandora, though I love that many of the old recordings still have that grainy quality to them.  With the tree standing tall and lit with hundreds of twinkling lights, I dusted off the boxes of ornaments, all carefully pack away in tissue paper since last year.  What a treasure these ornaments are!  An ornament for each memory in the treasure chest that makes up our lives.

November 24, 2013

Winter's Lunch

In Colorado we always have our first snow around Halloween; it's like a seasonal clock on which I've come to rely.  It snows on Halloween and then the holiday season begins.  But here it is mid-November, sunny and warm with not a trace of winter in sight.  It's hard to come up with a Thanksgiving Day menu when the sun is blazing and it's 70 degrees outside.  But this past weekend the weather started to change.  The west wind blew down from the mountains, driving thousands of tumbleweed across the freeway to be pummeled into dust by passing cars.  The snow arrived early the next morning.  By the time I was shooing the kids out the door, and quickly packing their school bags in the car, Winter was in full swing, the snow blowing horizontally through the thin air like a barrage of needles that cut us to the bone.  The road was covered with a thick sheet of ice.  The drive was treacherous.

The next morning I let the kids sleep in.  The storm had raged throughout the night and schools were canceled across the city.

Of course, as soon at they awoke, out came the coats, mittens, hats, and scarves.  Then we dug out the snow pants, buried in the closet since last year.  I watched, from the kitchen window, as they threw handfuls of the fine, crystalline snow high into the air, creating their own personal blizzards.  They piled mountains of snow on the grass, the walls of a snow fort, I later discovered.  And soon a procession of snow angels marched across the back lawn.  I smiled, knowing that Winter was here and I could finally get to work on my holiday plans.

November 15, 2013

A Sea Shell for the Sea King

Now don't suppose that there are only bare white sands at the bottom of the sea. No indeed! The most marvelous trees and flowers grow down there, with such pliant stalks and leaves that the least stir in the water makes them move about as though they were alive. . . From the deepest spot in the ocean rises the palace of the sea king. Its walls are made of coral and its high pointed windows of the clearest amber, but the roof is made of mussel shells that open and shut with the tide. This is a wonderful sight to see, for every shell holds glistening pearls, any one of which would be the pride of a queen's crown.
-The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen

If the Sea King were to eat cake, I'm sure this is what he would choose.  A delicate sea shell, crisp and golden on the outside.  Inside, a fine and sweet crumbly cake, dripping with a light, lemon glaze, and showered in the finest salt of the sea.  There's something so romantic about a Madeleine.

November 12, 2013

The Season of Shadows

Have you noticed how long the shadows are in late fall?  As I walk by the pond every morning, I'm mesmerized by the way they stretch across the dying grass.  Each bare branch like a twisted, writhing finger turning what was once green and vibrant into layers of decay atop the frozen earth.  I can't help but feel just a little depressed as I gaze across the garden.  There are my sunflowers!  Just last month they lifted their bright faces to the sun; now they're dry and barren stalks, the flowers have been torn to pieces by hungry squirrels.  And the rose bush!  In summer it climbed the side of the house, an explosion of vivid green, violet and magenta; now it's nothing but a tangle of vines and angry thorns.

I'm shocked at how quickly the change came about this year!  I spent last weekend at the FAB conference in Las Vegas.  It was "FAB"ulous, to say the least!  A gathering of fellow bloggers, leaders in the allergy community, and like-minded activists.  I was so honored to be among such great company, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to FABcon 2014!  (More on the convention and the food, the glorious food, soon.)