Sunday, December 29

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.

Tuesday, December 17

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!

Friday, December 13

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!

Friday, December 6

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.