Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Got nearly all the yard stuff done, and even a bit of gift-shopping here and there and listening to the show was all about baking and relaxing in the kitchen. I’m not into holiday mode quite yet, so all I made was a batch of Chex mix and some apple cake and a small batch of dip for chips. The kids were out with friends, and Mr. S was in Massachusetts giving a talk on stress and the holidays.
So I dug a box of chocolates out of the storage closet downstairs which doubles as a repository for Christmas gifts. Got the chocolate map out, found the toffee crunch and a raspberry cream and a chocolate truffle, and they tasted pretty good. I buy good chocolates when they’re on sale near the holidays, and I always buy an extra box, just for me. I’m not one to buy frivolous things for myself, but on occasion it seems like the thing to do. It’s okay to give yourself a gift now and then. Especially when it’s on sale, and useful in some way, or if it fills a need. Like new white cotton socks, or a wooden spoon. Nutritional value is a bonus, and that clinched it for me: five box of chocolates it was. (And now there are four).
I’ve been thinking about giving gifts this year, and finding that instead of reading lists of ideas, the impulse is what appeals to me. You know, the nudge you feel when you’re shopping and see something you know a certain person would love, and you buy it. I’ve bought a number of books for my family because of that nudge, and a few clothing items, and a couple odd things. I am a list person, though, so instead of getting lists for and suggestions from people to whom I will give gifts, I wrote down all their names and made my own list. Not that I’ll disregard suggestions, but buying gifts is an exercise of the heart, and it’s much more fun when you don’t feel as if you’re filling an order. Takes creativity, sometimes, and attention, but a certain element of surprise returns, and shopping becomes more fun.
When Mr. Sundberg asked me what I want for Christmas, all I could think of was some new spatulas and more candles and some quality spices for baking and a pair of black leather pumps. Not much different from last year’s list. So instead I told him to surprise me. He knows me better than anyone, and why not have a little suspense? Not to say I won’t mention my need for a pair of black pumps, size 8½, once or twice. And I may point out that we only have two bottles of wine in a rack that holds twelve. Thing is, though, he’s already given me the gift I want most: he took a week off from work over Christmas. It’s simple, and free, and there are no receipts because returns are not an issue. Not with the best gift of all.
Here’s a fine and spicy treat bordering on elegant. Serve it as an appetizer at your next family gathering, and everyone will want to come back to your place next time. And the time after that, if you serve it again.
Baked Brie with Pepper Jelly
1 8-oz. wheel of baby Brie
½ package puff pastry, thawed for about 40 minutes on the counter
About 3-4 tablespoons pepper jelly
1 egg white mixed with about 2 teaspoons cold water
Preheat oven to 400. Gently unfold the puff pastry sheet. If it tears, gently mend it. Cut the brie in half lengthwise and place one half, rind down, on the pastry. Spread with jelly and then place the other half of the brie, rind up, on the jelly. If necessary, trim the excess pastry and then fold it over the cheese, sealing the edges. Decorate the brie with decorative shapes cut from the excess dough and brush it with the egg white and water mixture. Place the bundle, seam-down, on a lightly greased baking dish. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. Serve with crackers, bread, and strawberries, apples, pears, and grapes. A dish of dried cranberries is nice, too.
Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Spent most of the day inside, with the rain and fog and mist at the window, and I paged through a few magazines and ate a can of sauerkraut. Yep. Opened a green can of Frank’s and ate it with a fork. Seems I have had a craving lately for salt. Monday it was pickles and mustard on Tuesday. Must be the German in me, I’m thinking, or the weather.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t eat plain mustard. I dipped onion rings in it, big fat greasy onion rings, while having lunch with my friends — Helen, from Arizona, in town for a wedding, and Laurel, a dear lady one town over with whom I enjoy eating lunch now and then. She raised three sons and I think our friendship might be, in part, about her never having had a daughter, which is fine by me. We venture out on little road trips together sometimes. She loves to visit thrift shops and take short walks around her neighborhood, but her favorite place to go is a small Swedish coffee house where a person can order a burger for two dollars or some meatballs and potatoes for six, and there’s always pie.
We didn’t have pie on Tuesday, but we had pretty much everything else. We talked and laughed and mapped out a route for a Winnebago road trip next summer, during which Laurel planned to show me the places she loves — the prairies and the mountains and a few truck stops — and we’d end up with Helen in Arizona, and visit Lake Powell and Bryce Canyon. One last road trip for an 83 year-old woman, with me riding shotgun. Her eyes were shining as we talked, and I told her she looked beautiful, and she told me that eating that much mustard is a little bit odd. We all hugged each other before we parted, and I dropped Laurel off at her apartment, and she thanked me for the ride. “You’re my chauffeur. Thank you. Let’s have lunch again soon,” she said. I watched her walk away, and through the front door of her apartment building.
Her email Wednesday night, late, said she wasn’t feeling right. She’d made a steak for herself, some potatoes and carrots, and she had a quiet evening. Her plan was to visit the doctor Thursday afternoon and get some answers to her questions. She made it there, in high spirits. And there, at the clinic, surrounded by caring, loving people, she died.
I think when we lose someone we care about, our pain is in direct proportion to our love. I’m feeling it today, that pain, and it’s a rough one. I loved her. And now I wrestle with what feels like selfish thoughts. I don’t get to sit across a table from Laurel anymore, and sip coffee, and hear her stories and tell her mine. I don’t get to take her cookies without chocolate, and she’s not going to show up anymore with a fresh pie for me. I won’t get emails saying, “Now listen here”, telling me the hard truths only a good friend will risk. Sigh. But I knew her. I have that. I got to spend part of my time on the planet with a barefoot cowgirl who could drive a gravel truck and bake up a storm, and what a time it was.
Here’s a recipe Grandma made at Christmas, but it’s good in any cold weather. She stored the pastry cookies in an ice cream bucket on top of her fridge, always the first thing I saw when I walked in the door.
6 egg yolks
4 T sugar
1 T melted butter
⅛ tsp salt
3 cups flour
6 T sweet cream
⅛ tsp ground cardamom
Beat yolks. Add sugar and mix. Add rest of ingredients and mix well. Roll thin and cut into diamonds. Fry at 370 for 2-3 minutes, until golden brown. Roll in powdered sugar and serve.
Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. It’s been colder ’round here, and I like it — the frost on the ground in the mornings, the mittens and scarves spilling out of the basket up in the closet, the starkness of leafless trees in the night sky, and how you can see your breath. Cold is a good thing – it reminds you of your invincibility, and your power to survive, and cold brings people together in ways few other things can.
I was reading a book by Matthew D. Lieberman a few days back. It’s called, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, about our brains and how they work. Seems for almost all of us, the lifelong passion of our brains when they’re not taken up with another activity is to give thought to others and our relationship to them. When you’re cooking or building something or doing your taxes, you’re focused; but close your eyes for a minute and rest a bit, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about other people. To quote the author, “In essence, our brains are built to practice thinking about the social world and our place in it.”
Well, that makes sense to me. It seems behavior in favor of our survival, for how would we survive the winter without people around us? The cold kicks our need for others up a notch, and we find ourselves following impulses to make pie and take it to the neighbors, to gather together around fires and sip Irish coffee and talk long into the night, to put another blanket on a child as she sleeps, to wrap our legs around each other as we fall into dreams.
As the days grow colder, I’m seeing all ’round people finding ways to find each other. A woman paid for my coffee and sandwich at a drive-through on Monday. There’s a tree in the hallway at church covered with ornaments listing gifts one might purchase for a family in need. The bell ringers will start ringing their bells soon, and where I shop for groceries, if you buy a turkey you can donate one free. To someone who for whom a turkey would be a blessing, good warm food on a cold night. There was an offering on Sunday for the people in the Philippines, and that plate was filled on up.
I’ve been invited to an appetizer party a couple weeks from now, and I can’t wait. I’m still thinking about what I might bring — bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, sweet Vidalia dip, maybe some of those pickles rolled up in cream cheese and ham. Something savory. And I’m thinking about the people who will be there and Mr. Sundberg across the room full of people talking and laughing, sipping egg nog or wine, all warm and cozy on a December night. Give some thought then, dear friends, to ways of staying warm, and to the people in your life. Combine the two, and you’ll have yourself a merry time. No doubt in my mind. It’s cold outside, and it’s gonna get colder.
One of my favorite treats is one of the simplest, and anything resembling shortbread gets a thumbs up in my book. Here’s an old recipe that goes well with any warm mug, and would fill up a tin as a fine gift for a hostess, or as a thank you for a walk well-shoveled.
1 cup butter
½ cup sugar
2 tsp water
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup chopped pecans
Cream butter and sugar; add water and vanilla and mix well.
Stir in flour and pecans until combined. Chill 3-4 hours.
Shape into balls or fingers. Bake at 325 for 20 minutes. Cool.
Roll in powdered sugar. Makes 3 dozen.
Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Had some luxury time to do a little pokin’ around in the pile of recipes I’ve gathered up over the last few weeks. I’ve been doing some thinking about the Thanksgiving menu, and hope to cook up something new to include with our traditional meal. Something with the gravy, perhaps. Or an hors d’oeuvre. And then I got to wondering what “hors d’oeuvre” means, and looked it up, and found it means, literally, “apart from the main work” or “apart from the whole.” Well, that to me implies fun. Though the main work in itself is fun, maybe I’ll shift gears and invent something on the frivolous side to snack on while we get the meal prepared. Like some kind of fondue. Or meatballs filled with a new kind of cheese. Or a dip made with bacon, or cornbread kicked up a notch. Not all that important, but something to think about.
Been a lot of time lately to think, with all the work I’ve been doing preparing for what may, this year, be an onslaught of winter. Hours and hours of leaf raking and cleaning up the garage and washing windows has been prime time for deep thought, and what I’ve been caught up with lately is the reason for the ache I feel this time of year and what it means and does everyone feel it, and what does a person do with it? It’s a feeling of nostalgia, maybe with a little longing in there, or wistfulness, topped off with a feeling of anticipation. Mr. Sundberg chalks it up to “the Christmas Spirit”, and he very well may be right. It’s the bittersweetness all of the people and experiences and food and places of Thanksgivings and Christmases of the past echoing in my memory.
Or it’s simply the ache, perhaps, of life. Of knowing, as you rake up the leaves, that time is passing and that today will become yesterday just as tomorrow will too. And so will next Tuesday. Not a bad thing at all. Nice part is that it’s today, the sun came out awhile, and we’re all here, and there’s always the option to make fondue for dinner. And I believe I will.
Here’s a recipe a lovely church lady named “Charlotte” shared with me when Mr. Sundberg and I were first married. I make it at Christmas, but it tastes as wonderful on a Friday in November.
Old Fashioned Rice Pudding
1 qt milk
½ cup sugar
½ cup uncooked rice
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ cup cream
2 egg yolks
½ cup raisins
Put first 5 ingredients in top of double boiler. Let cook until rice is done (will take a couple hours). Beat cream and egg yolks together, add to rice mixture and cook another half hour. Add raisins and serve warm or cold, plain or with cream.