[Cran jam, December 2011.]
Last night I was so tired from assembling and making — the industry of which took up most of the afternoon — that I stirred a pat of butter, a smidge of cream (!), and some bits of cheddar cheese into a pot of polenta and then ate a big bowlful topped with some leftover sauteed chard (the husband had beef stew, which I made from scratch. Another story for another time). Just polenta, just chard. I propped my chin on my hand and drank the last of the orange juice and thought about just how good polenta really is, even though I always cook it far less than the instructions call for, even though I don’t make it too often. I sifted through the New York Times and felt the press of a headache looming. I ate a piece of Guinness chocolate cake for dessert and spilled tea all over the floor. ?(Sigh.)
Well — I was tired with good reason. The season is definitely upon us, yo. This year the number of holiday cards has reached astronomic proportions, and the truth is that I make each one by hand and then write them out and hand address (I do not advise this method, though it’s nice to sift through the photos I’ve taken throughout the year and choose a variety, all usually wild scenes of California. This year the selection was heavily weighted toward Yosemite in winter, but also Monterey and Point Reyes.) which, um, takes up a bit of time. And I’m sending 10 packages (actually — 11), which is slightly insane even for me. Tonight is the last night of baking for said holiday packages and the last
should must be mailed tomorrow to reach its recipients by Christmas Eve. I’ve been to the post office three times today — OH I don’t really care to get into it — and I may single-handedly be keeping it open. (Or not; it was really crowded.)
It’s been chilly mornings here the past week or so. Not East-Coast cold by any stretch of the imagination (I find myself walking to the bus with my hands stuffed in my pockets and my shoulders perpetually hovering somewhere near my ears — don’t tell my yoga instructor! — thinking Did I really live in Washington, DC, for six years? And waited for the bus in the pre-7 a.m. darkness of January, when temperatures often dipped below 20 degrees? This is nothing. You wimp!), but pretty cold for San Francisco. We might not get a wisp of snow but we do get frost, and brisk air to turn cheeks pink, and nights when it’s chilly enough that the only thing to do is turn on the oven and bake something to add an extra shot of warmth to our apartments.
It’s also well into December which means baking has become the norm, at least for people like me who can’t help trying out new recipes for gingerbread (and gingerbread-apple upside-down cakes), revisiting old recipes for lemon tea cake, and digging out a long-neglected recipe for garlicky dog biscuits. It’s a time to wear fingerless gloves while making roasted vegetable soup and firing up the stove to make some seasonal preserves.
[Second round, December 2011.]
Is it time now to talk edible holiday gifts? Oh, let’s.
Last year was the Year of Candy-Making — you may find some pretty decent recipes here, in a story I wrote for NPR (I recommend the cranberry jellies) — plus a few cookies and of course the requisite and delicious cocoa-roasted hazelnuts. A few years ago I made a lot of citrus-infused sea salts, poppyseed bread, sugar cookies cut into stars (for more on good things to make and bake that ship well, I refer you to my 2008 Kitchen Window story here.). There are always mini loaves of something or other and usually a jar of preserved fruit (applesauce, but lately other things).
This year is the Year of Gingerbread and Butter Cookies and Cranberry Jam and Gluten-Free Baked Treats. If I can be honest, and I think I can, I considered skipping the holidays this year. Those 100+ jars of blackberry jam we made and canned this summer — not to mention that whole getting married thing — sort of wiped me out. I thought I’d send maybe just a tiny box each to my grandma and uncle containing their favorite homemade sweets.
But my brother isn’t coming home this year, the first time ever since he was born we haven’t spent Christmas together (sob!). And so of course I wanted to send he and Emily a box … and then I usually send one to my aunt and uncle in Vermont … and I have been meaning to send my beloved cousin some coffee … and then there are the Greeks in upstate NY who have two adorable little boys I’ve been dying to shower with gingerbread cookies … and so I started making up little baked goods menus and acquiring more Weck jars to fill with cranberry preserves and suddenly it’s four days before Christmas, I’ve mailed 9 packages, with the final two to be sent away tomorrow. At the near-end of it this doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But yesterday I definitely was feeling it.
(In truth I wish I had time and money enough to send packages away to all my far-flung friends — and to each one of you. I wish I could do the same for all my locals, too. Maybe one day …)
I like to send mostly homemade items, with 1/2-lb. bags of Blue Bottle Coffee added in for the coffee-drinkers and a few little carefully selected personal gifts sprinkled throughout. This year I made a double batch of my standard lemon tea cake in mini loaves, and a batch of Gramercy Tavern’s gingerbread, which calls for a cup of Guinness and is thus my new favorite. I baked maple syrup-infused butter cookies, gingerbread cookies, flourless chocolate cake bites, flourless peanut butter cookies, and dried-fruit-and-nut candies. I made cranberry jam, the last of which will go, along with a jar of hazelnuts and a loaf of gingerbread, to my coffee guy.
And like I mentioned — I’m nearly there. Tonight is the final push, with just a few more things to do. Then I will start thinking about the vegan gingersnaps I’ll bake for my dad when I’m Sebastopol this weekend, what I’ll cook for Christmas Eve dinner (roast chicken, I think, with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and perhaps even some brussels sprouts, a Guinness chocolate cake), and what I’ll bake for the Christmas desserts (pear-apple pie and a deep, dark chocolate cake). Oh and my menu for a wee dinner party tomorrow night, which I’ve decided shall be: small bowls of mushroom-barley soup, spinach souffle, a lemon-laden piece of baked fish, good bread and brie, little french green beans sauteed in butter and herbs, and a cranberry tart (we will wash it all down with champagne). ’tis the season, after all. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Now if only the post office isn’t quite as crowded tomorrow …
[Maple-butter cookies, December 2011.]
December feels like childhood: the cold, the crisp, the occasional fire-in-the-fireplace, the gifts secreted away to be later be wrapped neatly and presented with held breath, the early dark, an undercurrent of excitement and things afoot, the good smells of spices and butter browning in the oven. It’s a wish, no matter how futile, for snow and mountain hideaways. It’s old friends and home and wine with lunch and planning the Christmas dinner (or desserts, this year) and old carols on the radio. It’s the last bit of the year, a final chance to end it on a sweet note.
December is magic, any way you look at it.
I am going to leave you with a photo I took whilst waiting for the bus en route to my yoga class Saturday morning; it was probably about 8:20 and absolutely clear and sunny. This winter light is amazing and I am not going to take it for granted even when I’m stewing over the U.S. Postal Service and my inability to feel organized even when I am. It could be raining. It could be pouring. Often it is. Right now the forecast for Christmas day is calling for sun, sun, SUN and oh, best beloved, I am crossing fingers it holds so we can take our traditional morning beach visit. I know we need rain, and the mountains so desperately need snow, but for this stolen stretch of December days I will appreciate every last drop of sun while it lasts. I hope I can tuck a little of that into each box I mail.
It’s all so close.
Where we live
Is no place to lose your wings
So love, love, love.
Lemon Tea Cake, adapted from gourmet.com
I’ve been making this tea bread for years now, because the first time I sent a loaf each to my grandmother and my uncle I got such rave reviews I just couldn’t make it a one-time thing. This has become the traditional sweet I send to them every year at the holidays. I used meyer lemons because they’re in season right now in California and my friend gave me an enormous bagful from her backyard tree, but you may use regular instead. And, UPDATE: USPS delivered my carefully-fashioned package to my grandma today, after I’d just sent it on Saturday. I take most of it all back!
2 large lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour two 9- x 5- x 3-inch metal loaf pans, knocking out any excess flour (or four mini loaf pans).
Finely grate enough zest from lemons to measure 2 teaspoons and squeeze enough juice to measure about 1/2 cup. Into a bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together butter, 2 cups sugar, and zest until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer on low speed add flour mixture and milk alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating just until batter is combined well. Beat in 1 tablespoon lemon juice and divide batter between loaf pans, smoothing tops. Bake loaves in middle of oven until a tester comes out clean, about 1 hour (45 minutes for the smaller loaves).
While loaves are baking, in a small bowl stir together remaining lemon juice and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until sugar is dissolved.
Cool loaves in pans on a rack 15 minutes. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert loaves onto rack. Turn loaves right side up and pierce tops all over with a thin skewer. Repeatedly brush lemon glaze over tops of loaves until all of glaze is absorbed.
Cool loaves completely before serving. Can be frozen up to one month wrapped tightly in foil.
Cranberry Jam, via 101cookbooks.com
Taste while cooking; if the berries are very tart you might want to add more sugar.
1 lb. frozen or fresh cranberries
3/4 cup sugar (plus more if needed)
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 small apple, peeled and cored
Rinse the berries, if necessary, then drain well and put them in a non-metallic bowl with the sugar and lemon juice. Leave overnight, turning once or twice.
Coarsely grate the apple and put it into a heavy based saucepan with the grated lemon rind. Strain in all the juice from the berries and add about 2/3 of the berries. Add 1/2 cup water and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the apple is very soft and the whole lot has thickened. Add the rest of the berries and heat through for 5-8 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal tightly.
Makes about 2 cups.