a Christmas well spent

It’s the 25th of December and I’m not in Winnipeg. I’m not even in Canada. I’m in Massachusetts, a state I’ve never visited and still need help spelling. Perched on the edge of the Berkshires, a small range of hills in New England, Mark and I are spending our first Christmas ever “just us.” Each of us had previously spent only one Christmas away, so we’re not exactly practiced in family-free holidays.

Risotto with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausage and blue cheese

As I reflect on our time so far, I must say that it has been great. We’ve stayed up and slept late, watched movies and meandered around pretty towns. We’ve visited small-town bookstores, cafes, and gourmet food shops. We’ve sipped eggnog at 2 am while stringing popcorn for our “tree” (a fake plant in the hotel room).

P.E.I. mussels with white wine, garlic and butter; salad with pecans, blue cheese and pears; Hob Nob Pinot Noir.

This Christmas will be memorable for many reasons: the quiet, the togetherness, and of course, the food. My mom’s (and mom-in-law’s) food this has not even paralleled. But it has been ours.  We’ve dined out on fancy fare and stayed in to cobble together what we can on a tiny electric range.

This smorgasbord post is not meant to provide any inspiring holiday dishes, but to help me remember what we ate on this first Christmas—gathered around a cheap pine table, happy, but yet so far from home.

George DuBoeuf 5$ Beaujolais

Above there are pictures of our first few meals in our unit: Risotto (our favorite throw-together meal) with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausages and fantastic blue cheese. We also managed to steam 2 lbs of mussels in the small saucepan that came in our kitchen—a tasty concoction with its garlic and white wine broth, pear and pecan salad, and local bread. Most of these two meals were procured at Guido’s, a helpful and welcoming gourmet grocer in nearby Pittsfield.

Our first meal out (after a chilly day spent walking and browsing) was at Fin Sushi in Lenox. Our expectations were high, as the restaurant had been featured by a prominent seafood writer in The Atlantic. Our appetizer was pleasing: three large prawns stretched out on skewers and wrapped in what seemed like thin tempura sheets. The accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce was delicious, if not particularly unique. Our Fire Dragon roll featured bbq’d eel, cucumber, and avocado, and was topped with perfectly-done torched salmon sashimi. I admired the addition of pea shoots in our Crispy Yellow Tail rolls, but overall, Fin was more “standard sushi” than life changing. Maybe the more sushi one eats, the harder one is to please.

Crispy shrimp appetizer at Fin Sushi, Lenox, M.A.

Dinner for two: Crispy Yellow Tail and Fire Dragon rolls

We saved our special meal out for Christmas Eve, and taking the advice of our mussel-monger reserved a table for two at Perigee in South Lee, M.A. The contemporary, mid-scale restaurant is only five weeks old and boasts “Berkshire cuisine.” We settled on two bowls of their French Onion Soup (made with Berkshire Brewing Co. porter beer–good, but not as good as my Mom’s!), an order of their crab cakes (delicious), and two plates of the Juniper-scented Venison Osso Buco.

I was a bit worried when the main courses arrived looking more like country beef stews than something a fine restaurant might serve. But once I dug into the first shank and the meat melted off the bone into its moat of lightly juniper-scented stew, I was changed. Once we were given our marrow spoons, I proceeded to dig into the bone, excavating every last morsel of fatty, earthy-sweet tissue. Their wine recommendation—Château Fleur Badon St. Emilion (a Bordeaux)—was juicy and bright, but a too light to keep up with the heavy texture of the venison. Service was sufficiently cordial, but a bit awkward and uneducated. (What kind of server uses a plastic rabbit-ears corkscrew anymore?)

new england crab cakes starter

venison osso bucco with root vegetables

the menu at Perigee

Never a fan of the ubiquitous dessert tray that our server proffered, we headed back to Lee to try out Chez Nous. Their offerings were much more appealing, and we settled on a Blondie sundae with sea-salted caramel, rum-soaked raisins and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Second in line was a chocolate-hazelnut Yule Log rolled in ganache and adorned with “traditional garnishes,” including a meringue-turned-toadstool and candied orange peel.

They were the perfect hits of sweetness to keep us up through the gorgeous service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Pittsfield.

After this, I could forever renounce the Brownie

the Yule Log

Today, after a luxurious night’s sleep, we feasted on eggnog-spiked apple-bread French toast and those same Vermont sausages. With apologies to my brother-in-law (whose eggnog scrambled eggs I apparently rebuffed last year), we were delighted by the leftover egg-and-nog batter we scrambled up in the pan. For dinner, we sauteed turkey livers with loads of red-wine caramelized onions. Later tonight if I’m missing home too much, at least I’ll have my Ward family nuts n’ bolts to offer solace.

And while I’m sorry that I haven’t been sharing many recipes as of late, I have been enjoying tracing this shifting life of mine, and tracking the noshes and nibbles that keep bringing me such delight.

“And they all went to bed tired and happy.” – line from my favorite childhood Christmas story

nuts n’ bolts

Turning the calendar to December brings many happy memories, tinged with the sepia hue of nostalgia. The tree usually went up during the first week, leaving its silky pine needles strewn about the living room floor. The Christmas CDs were pulled from a basement cabinet, with Johnny Mathis, Amy Grant, and the Home Alone soundtrack still looking bright under eleven months of dust.

But the highlight of the pre-Christmas season for me always took place in the kitchen, gathered around two foil roasting pans. It was the evening we put on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album and made the annual batch of nuts n’ bolts that would feed a month’s worth of guests.

Us kids would measure out boxed cereal under dad’s tutelage, while our mom would whip up the mysterious sauce that would transform it. We’d take turns stirring the fragile mixture, and then settle in to watch a Christmas movie while our favorite snack baked.

We could never wait for them to cool and crisp up properly, so our first bowls were served oven-warm. We’d pour glasses of cool eggnog spiked with coke, and sit around the tree munching on what was to us the taste of the holidays.

Over the years, despite boyfriends and girlfriends, first apartments, and busier lives, we managed to hold on to our tradition. Sure, there were years there were four of us instead of five. There were times it didn’t bring the same magic it did at five, or seven, or even fifteen. But somehow, each year the nuts n’ bolts got made.

This year the god of all things salty, fatty and delicious brought me back to Winnipeg for the festivities. I never realized how international our recipe was: Our mix always included Chex cereal, which we could only get in the U.S., and Shreddies, which you can only get in Canada. Suddenly, nuts n’ bolts had become an unlikely metaphor for my life over the past few years.

I scanned the recipe and sheepishly asked my mom if we could cut down the pound of butter. Both of us are fitness and health buffs, but her response reminded me that there are just some things you don’t mess with. As I watched a block of the stuff turn melt away in the saucepan, I made peace with my Christmas companion: Olive oil could wait. It was time to rekindle an important, buttery love.

I brought a small bag of the mix back to Syracuse with me, and after suffering through small rations decided to make my own batch. Mark turned his nose at the idea, but encouraged me nonetheless. I committed to a half batch, knowing I’d be sharing with lucky friends along the way.

Even without my beloved Canadian Shreddies and the warmth cast by 10 hands mixing and stirring away, my first crack at tradition was a success. I used raw cashews and no-oil roasted almonds to cut down on salt and fat. And yes, I even cut down on the butter by an ounce or two. (Don’t tell my mom!)

But what was really music to my ears? Hearing Mark utter these words while hovering over the cookie sheet: “I guess I do like them.” Looks like I’ll have to give up more than I bargained for. But it’s Christmas, and that’s fine with me.

Continue reading

almond roca bars

It’s bound to happen about once a year: that even me and food can grow apart. But just for a short time, and of course, the break is easily remedied.

Hosting a Christmas party, packing, a 2 day train ride, and a week with much-missed family and friends has kept me from these pages. But I’m back, and I’v got a sweet little gift to share with those of you who have still got time to check your favorite food blogs during this busy season. 

 

But first, a confession: I’m 28 years old and I have no holiday baking traditions of my own. This is the sad case for two reasons. One, we always return to our parents’ homes at Christmas, where the squares of nuts, chocolate and butter flow freely enough without my help. Two, since we leave our own little apartment in early December, there’s not much time to eat and share the goodness. 

And the last thing I want to see upon my return to Syracuse is a freezer full of New Years’ resolution killers. But what is this? you say. A tray of soda crackers hardly a Christmas cookie platter makes! I know it’s a little late, being Christmas Eve, but this favorite of mine deserves proper exposure.

 

Trust me, these candies will steal the show. Light and crisp and delicious straight out of the freezer, I guarantee they’ll be one of the easiest and most popular goodies on your plate. 

Not really a cookie or a bar, these Almond Roca Bars have been a mainstay in my family for years. Think of them as a homemade Skor bar, but so much more fun and imperfect. They come together in a snap, and once you’ve got the base mastered, can be adapted to varying tastes in chocolate and nuts. 

 

Let me warn you that if you’re a health nut like me, you’re going to have to take a moment to calm yourself. First, butter and brown sugar must be melted together in a saucepan. I know this might be difficult for you, as it was me. The key is to take frequent and deep breaths. Acknowledge each ingredient for what it is, and accept that butter and sugar too deserve to find happiness.

 

As you bring them to a bubbling boil, remember all the leafy greens and whole grains you’ve consumed over the past year. Just let their goodie-two-shoes goodness knock out all those bad thoughts about the dear sweet harmony of butter and sugar caramelizing before you. Think of all those trips to the gym, all those Omega-3’s, all those antioxidants. 

Before you start to doubt, finish up this recipe and go break yourself a chunk. Let it remind you that sometimes food can have little value other than immediate pleasure. That food sometimes is more pure indulgence than nourishment. That things can sometimes be, as my mother-in-law says, just because.

And if you’re still feeling guilty, go grab yourself a jar and some red ribbon, and go give it all away.

Continue reading

sheri’s spiced cider

It’s that time of year again when a person just can’t have too many hot beverage options. Coffee first thing. A latte later with a friend. Rooibos in the afternoon. Earl Grey after dinner. To this repertoire of refreshment I’ve recently added a mug of sweet spiced cider before bed.

There are many varieties of cider. From the mulled wine you get in the streets of Munich to the sugary instant mixes you got at a gift exchange 5 years ago—each claims to impart that cozy wintery spirit we all crave. Just don’t make the mistake I did at 16 when I downed 5 mugs of the stuff, not able to tell it was alcoholic.

But there’s another kind, neither spiked with booze nor full of artificial, crystalized who-knows-what. This one has all the best of simplicity and perfect balance of spices. And how could it not? It’s the one I grew up on. Are not our tastebuds conditioned to think that our traditions taste best? 

This “recipe,” for I hesitate to call it that, is virtually foolproof. You get to decide what brand of juice to use and how much of each spice to add. It come together in under 5 minutes, and is the perfect thing to have on hand for unexpected guests.

It’s a little hard for me to feel cozy when it looks more dreary March outside than crisp December. But with a cup of this cider in my hands, I can go almost anywhere. One sip and I’m transported home.  

And in just two weeks, a train will take me where this humble cup of cheer cannot.

Continue reading

pumpkin puddin’ pie

Nation, I know you’re stuffed. But you didn’t think all I was going to say about Thanksgiving was drunken cranberry sauce, did you? Oh no. Besides, in Canada, we eat this stuff right through Christmas.

Yet another winner from the good (ahem, OCD) folks at Cook’s Illustrated, this is pumpkin pie as if it’s gone through all the rounds of America’s Next Top Model. Only it’s pie—and so much better for the soul. 

I never really thought there was much to mess with when it came to pumpkin pie. Take a recipe off the back of the can and you’ve got yourself a winner. But in the words of one of my editors, there’s always room to make good better. 

Soft and smooth as pudding, there’s ne’er a curdled spot of pumpkin in this baby. With the perfect shade of pumpkin-orange throughout, this pie doesn’t look like it’s spent too much time in a tanning booth either.  

As I read through Cooks Illustrated’s version of the classic, I decided to heed most of their advice. Following those those test kitchen folks’ advice is like becoming a teenager and learning that some rules are made to push. Take, for example, the following:

Silly Rule #1) Straining the filling through a fine mesh strainer. Yeah, right. (My friend Aaron, my favorite Cook’s Illustrated mocker, joked that he was surprised they didn’t want you to strain them through a series of mesh strainers, graduating in fineness. Borrowing a tip from his wife, I put my hand-held blender to work where the old strainer once ruled.)

Silly Rule #2) Using 3 eggs PLUS 2 more egg yolks? Um, since when did I not need my arteries?

Other than that I followed the recipe verbatim, except for this one not-so-secret ingredient I would now like to share with you. The story goes a little something like this:

Last year I was making my first ever pumpkin pie for our first American Thanksgiving when I discovered I didn’t have any evaporated milk. Gosh! Darn it! Whatever would I do? Neither of us felt like leaving the house, and as I pawed through my fridge for a reasonable facsimilie, there it was, smiling back at me: a carton of premium, thick-as-molasses eggnog. 

With my deepest apologies to evaporated milk. As much as I loved you, something taller, darker, and more handsome came a knockin’ at my oven door. And let me tell you, things have never been so hot as this here pie. 

Continue reading

grown-up cranberry sauce

It’s kind of sad that I don’t get a full-fledged Thanksgiving this year. I know that every day is a feast with the comparative abundance I enjoy on a daily basis. When you’re living with a foot in two countries whose fall holidays don’t match up, though, planning a proper feast can slip easily by the wayside.

This year, our last-minute host in Ottawa delivered some fine impromptu stuffing and sweet potatoes. Days later, my visiting chef (mom) whipped up a pumpkin pie to help us refuel after our marathon. This Thursday, on the American holiday, we’ll likely share a smorgasbord of non-traditional dishes with other left-behind friends.

And so for this most humble of Thanksgiving posts, I had to reach way back into my photo archives for last year’s grown-up cranberry sauce, which I discovered on one of the first food blogs I started reading regularly. I have only one thing to say about this sauce: we’re still talking about it a year later.

I know what you’re thinking–why mess with perfection? But trust me on this one. It’s not so far off from the original, really. And after 20+ years of eating plain old cranberries n’ sugar, don’t you think it’s time for a change? I mean, let’s face it, life is too short for the same old. And If you hate it, I promise you someone will be happy to take it off your hands. (Express post to our place works as well.)

There’s something about an old favorite with a twist, like a reminder that old things too can be made new. What could be better accessories to tart, sweet cranberry sauce spiked with ruby red port, piney rosemary, and melt-in-your mouth figs.

My deepest apologies go out to turkey: there are some sauces that are just too good for you. This one deserves to be eaten by the spoonful. Or at least spread on crackers with a nickel of goat cheese.

But don’t despair, dearest bird. For you there’s always the recipe on the back of the cranberry bag.

Continue reading

contra-buns for a springtime feast

Yesterday I started a tradition: making hot cross buns on Good Friday. Obviously this is not an original idea, but I don’t have many annual traditions of my own. Customs, however, are so tied to kinship that in family’s absence seem even more important. The impetus for this one came from my partner in crime who, in a fit of temptation at the grocery store last week, gathered up a plastic box of hot cross buns and looked at me with an indulgent smile. A guilty glance over the ingredients was all it took to get me food blog searching for a hot cross buns recipe to call my very own.

But first, a history lesson. These innocent buns have known their share of prejudice. Back in the day, protestant English monarchs thought that since they were baked from the dough used to make communion wafers, they were a “dangerous” hold-over of Catholic belief . I call myself Anglican, but this is one of those historical tidbits that make me scoff at religiosity. Plus, can you imagine a more unlikely association: these delicate spice bundles of studded with fruit, and … cardboard communion wafers? Thankfully, in this case popular opinion won, and despite attempts to have the buns banned, Elizabeth I passed a law that allowed bakeries to sell the popular treat at Easter and Christmas only.

The buns are believe to have pre-dated Christianity, eaten by the Saxons in honour of Eostre, the goddess of Spring (the modern term Easter is derived from this word). The cross symbolized the four quarters of the moon, or the balance of light and darkness during the Equinox.

For the recipe, I had to look no further than the comments section of this very blog. In a confluence of time that only the internet has made possible, while Susan from Wild Yeast was leaving a comment about my latest soup, I was reading through her post on hot crossed buns. Looking soft, whole-wheat hued, and just complicated enough to make me feel smug, I was almost ready to baptize this new recipe into my humble congregation of baked things.

Only a few obscure ingredient to gather up and I was ready to bake: A friend relieved my currant-less state, and I managed to find candied peel (after a look of confusion from a store clerk) on the clearance rack of my grocery store. The three hours (with good company, mind you) of mixing, rising, and waiting, crossing, baking and glazing were utterly worth it. The finished buns married tender chewiness with light spice and a sweet tang.

Today is Holy Saturday, a day lodged between the two most elevated days of Holy Week, and possible of the entire Christian year. It’s a day when the sorrow of loss covered a small group of devoted followers. It is, as the Dutch call it, a Silent Saturday. As I sit in the sunshine of my living room enjoying one of these buns toasted with a fine spread of peanut butter, I keep thinking about Easter as a turning point. It is a season where the natural world slowly begins to angle itself towards the celebration of growth and the triumph of life.

Whether you celebrate this religious holiday or simply awaken your senses to the Earth cracking open its shell, I hope you find your own ways to recognize it. For me, rolling and shaping these friendly buns reminded me of the ways all of us—regardless of creed—search for rhythm and significance. I leave you the words of singer-songwriter Dar Williams who addresses this in the following song:

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.

Rather than re-typing the recipe in its entirety, I’ll simply pass along the link. Warning: all measurements are in hard-core-baker form. (ie: weights, so you’ll need a scale) The only things I might change: trying King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat flour for even more softness, and adding a bit of orange and lemon zest.