Christmas is not complete without gingerbread, be it houses, cookies, cake, or any dessert flavored with those warm spices of ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The dense spicy cake traces its roots to 11th
century Europe. There are so many versions from eastern Europe all the
way to Scandinavia, but I'm focusing on the cookie. In Germany there is
Lebkuchen and Pfeffernüsse. In Hungary, gingerbread cookies are called
Puszedli. They look just like Lebkuchen, but are smaller. Polish
Pierniki are also quite special cookies. The town of Toruń is famous
for their heart-shaped cookies, filled with jam and covered in
chocolate. These cookies all share similar ingredients and flavors.
Puszedli and Lebkuchen are made with honey and have a lighter color than the gingerbread cookies Americans are familiar with. The traditional decoration is a whole almond pressed into each cookie. Then the cookies are brushed with a sugary glaze that gives them a wintry look. But since neither cookie has almonds in the dough, I forgo the nut decoration and keep them simple. I make the classic round cookies and heart cookies to mimic the Polish treats. But if you're so inclined to decorate the cookies with nuts, walnut halves are traditional with Puszedli. Pecan halves, for an American twist, would do the trick just as well. These cookies, as with all gingerbread, are best made ahead of the holiday. They get better and softer with age.
I love dining at bistros not just for the comforting French dishes, but also the appealing appetizers. Many times I've shared an appetizer of liver pâté with a friend over a bottle of wine and lots of bread. It's a very filling and not to mention budget-friendly meal. Different forms of pâté can be found throughout Europe, mainly in France, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. In markets, pâté can be found sold in sausage-like tubes, which is commonly known as liverwurst here in the States. I grew up eating many different types of kenőmájas, as it is known in Hungarian. I couldn't imagine not eating it, especially around the holiday time. It makes a very nice appetizer with pickled vegetables and bread, crostini, or crackers.
Pâté is one of those things that most people will only enjoy at a restaurant or buy in a meat market, but never actually attempt making at home. I've enjoyed many good chicken liver pâtés, but the ones I make myself are always just as good, if not better, than the ones I purchase.
Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday. Families gather. And as they surround the dining table they celebrate and give thanks for all blessings, including the bountiful meal before them.
When my mom was living, she prepared most of the Thanksgiving meal herself. Trying to please everyone, she’d make baseball-sized dumplings and sauerkraut for my German dad, lump-free mashed potatoes for the grandchildren, sweet potatoes with a crunchy topping of melted marshmallows for her daughter-in-law, stuffing for her son-in-law, and lentils for herself and me. My brother wasn’t hard to please. I think he ate everything. And, of course, there was always a huge turkey. I am not kidding when I say there was hardly room on the table for our dinner plates.
Not to be forgotten was the wild rice. In Minnesota, where wild rice is plentiful, most cooks have favorite ways to prepare this “gourmet grain.” It seems my mom could never come up with a recipe that lived up to her expectations. Too dry, too mushy, not enough flavor, too much sage or thyme…just never quite right. Her wild rice challenges may have been due to the fact she had been transplanted in Minnesota from Indiana, where she had never even heard of this aquatic grass seed, the only grain native to the North American continent.
The American media warns us at every turn that Christmas is a time of over-indulgence. Women’s magazines sprout articles about how to avoid the buffet table, not to mention an extra ten pounds. Readers flip quickly past that article to the one depicting how to decorate a sugar cookie.
Honestly, that cattle call to temptation has never bothered me all that much. My university’s English department parties tend to offer a lively selection of cheap wine, together with three different kinds of hummus. Besides, I shed calories wrestling a five-foot tree into submission, grading final papers for my Shakespeare students, and fighting my way to Fed Ex to mail late presents.
But this year my husband and I are on sabbatical from our respective universities, so we packed up loads of books, two children and four laptops, and moved to Paris. We have a rangy apartment in the 9th arrondissement, with floors dating to the 1760s, four patisseries within a block or two, and a covered market just over the border in the 10th.
Before moving to Paris, we sold our house in New Jersey, and I gave away most of my kitchenwares. No more unnecessary objects, I told myself, putting cookbooks detailing how to make rice in fifty-five ways in a box for Good Will. Wedding presents that never made it to the table – the egg steamer, the fish plate, an orange sugar bowl – went into the box as well. I pictured my post-Paris kitchen as holding nothing but my old, beloved Le Cruesets: friendly, large and utilitarian.
Then last week I succumbed to a wild desire for Staub Mini Round Cocotte in a shiny burnt-crimson color. There’s no end to the gorgeous food that can be made in my cocottes. For a dinner party on Friday I used the very best chocolate – after much investigation, my current favorite is Michel Cluizel’s – with generous splashes of Grand Marnier and a box of eggs, to make fierce little chocolate cakes. Under the giddy influence of a Parisian December, I gave each cake a generous dab of crème fraiche thinned with Grand Marnier and topped with a translucent star made from pure spun sugar.
For as long as I can remember, Thumbprint Cookies have been my favorite holiday cookie treat. My paternal grandmother started the Thumbprint tradition. The cookies soon became a favorite of her little son Ronny (my dad.) So, of course, my mom had to learn how to make them and carry on the Thumbprint tradition. My mom’s been gone for many years, so the Thumbprint tradition was left to me. I’m certain the tradition will be carried on for generations. My daughter-in-law makes them now, too.
Our Thumbprint cookies are made of a rich, buttery dough that is rolled into a ball, coated with coconut and poked in the middle to make a bowl to hold creamy frosting — red and green, of course. Long ago, my grandma may have used her thumb to push a shallow indentation into each little ball of cookie dough, thus the name Thumbprints. Somewhere along the line, though, my mom began using the end of a wooden spoon for the job. It may have been because the thumb-pressing process doesn’t take place until the cookies have baked for 5 minutes. It makes for a very hot, steamy thumb. Ouch! The end of a wooden spoon creates a space for frosting much too small for my taste. Over the years, I’ve started using the end of the handle on a small Swedish butter knife made of wood. It’s the only thing I ever do with that wooden tool. The rest of the year it stays tucked in a kitchen drawer. The end of that knife makes a large basin to hold lots of frosting. Perfect!
Pudgy, glossy and scarlet red. There they were, bright and fresh, in plastic bags piled one on top of the other in the produce department of the grocery store, reminding me the holiday season is quickly approaching.
Images of Thanksgivings of the past appeared in my mind. I pictured our family gathered around the dinner table, nearly finished with a big turkey meal, when suddenly my mom yelled out, “The cranberries!” The roll of jellied cranberries pushed from a can (I know, I can hardly believe it, either) into a long, narrow crystal bowl had been forgotten in the refrigerator.
Those who don’t care for cranberry sauce may be familiar with only the canned varieties. Nothing beats the flavor of firm, fresh, deep red cranberries that have been cooked with water and sugar until they pop, pop, pop.
These little red jewels are so lovable. They are easy to store, they’re versatile and they’re so good for you. Refrigerated in their original packaging, they can last as long as two months. Put the original bag inside of a freezer bag, and you can store them frozen for about nine months. This is good news for all cranberry lovers, since the season is short.
Ah, so it begins.
From my cousin:
“Well, so far, there will be about thirty of us. We should talk about the menu and see what we want everyone to bring. We’ll need two turkeys. Kevin says he wants to deep fry one.”
This, from my cousin Leland in Kansas where we will meet for
Thanksgiving. I will happily fly to Tulsa from Los Angeles, then drive
on cruise control 120 miles to the small town of Parsons for
Thanksgiving dinner at his big blue Victorian home with a host of
cousins, grandchildren, stray local teen-agers and two uncles well into
their 80s. (One will bring a cream pie and the other, green jello.)
Once we settle where the out-of-towners sleep we will find ourselves smack in this small town of 13,000 in the middle of the country, the grocery shopping dependent on a Wal Mart just outside the city limits where there is never a shortage of iceberg lettuce, year round. (A side note: I felt slapped down, yet hopeful to discover a small plastic container of basil buried among the radishes when last there.)
When I think of Halloween, I think hot dogs. People tend to find this association odd, some are even angered by it, but to me it feels perfectly natural. When I was younger, my mother used to grill hot dogs in our driveway for the trick or treaters and dole out beer in red plastic cups to the adults, providing a bit of a respite for parents whose kids were running around the neighborhood injected with copious amounts of sugar.
I was never much of a walker and I never got off on
travelling in packs (why I live in New York I don't know), but
even more importantly, I loved and still adore a good hot dog.
Essentially, this ritual made my Halloween quite perfect.
The ritual ended, sadly, when I moved to New York to go to college. There are very few driveways in Manhattan, and there is a bar or a Gray's Papaya on every street corner, so if people need a beer or a frank, they are basically set year round. Nobody shared my passion for hot dogs at Halloween, unless they were terribly after drunk taking too many orange jello shots at some themed downtown party, in which case that little beef wonder became something of a valuable commodity, a bonafide savior in fact.
Cecilia was a ‘10’ on a scale of one to two. She had unmitigated primal
passion. Her sexual appetite was unparalleled and horizontal. It was
vertical and diagonal. When I suggested to Cecilia that we spend the
Fourth of July in Hawaii, she responded by giving me a fireworks show
in the bedroom that went on till daybreak.
After Cecilia made my night, I made travel plans. We would first go to Hanalei Bay on the North Shore of Kauai. Then to Maui – Kaanapali Beach and Hana.
As I was packing for the trip, the phone rang. It was Cecilia. She stammered and fumfered and did everything audibly possible without actually forming words.
“What’re you trying to tell me?” I asked repeatedly.
“I can’t go,” she finally said.