Reflections on Christmases past

Holidays mean different things to different people.

You may be a part of the camp that cannot wait to have every relative you know (and a few you never knew you had) under your roof to take part in food and conversation for days on end. Your home is decorated from top to bottom before December starts and you may have eggnog pulsing through your veins.

You may be in the camp that these festive times cause you great stress and feelings of inadequacy because you aren’t decorated like Martha Stewart and goodness knows your family situation is nothing Norman Rockwellesque at all and you would prefer to just be left alone until December 26th, pleaseandthankyouverymuch.

Is either one right? Is either one wrong? Can you belong to both camps?

Growing up, I recall putting our tree up on Christmas Eve while listening to either Nana Mouskouri or Elvis Presley. We would watch Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol and head to bed not long after that movie ended. As the old handmade ornaments came out of storage and found a spot on the tree, the stories filled the room. I always wondered why my parents never threw away the styrofoam ball covered in green glitter and stabbed  mercilessly with toothpicks. It resembled a crude sputnik.

My grandmother would be in baking mode for weeks, maybe even months, before Christmas, making sausage rolls, meat pies, nuts n bolts snack mixes, rum balls and so on. All these baked goods were off limits until all the relatives were under our roof. Truthfully, I was not a fan of the meat pies or the sausage rolls, but because they were a limited run, they were somehow more desirable and I would stuff them in like they were providing me with life itself.

My parents gave us a beautiful tree the year we were married. It was 7′ tall and so full, I could not wrap my arms around it’s circumference. I used to decorate our tree in different styles every year when my kids were young. One year, it was wrapped in wide ribbons. One year, it was done up with only lights. There was probably close to 1500 lights on it. Yes, it gave off warmth because this was pre-LED bulb days. One year, I made chocolate chip cookies and hung them on the tree. As guests came over, they were to remove a cooky on their way home, thus helping me undecorate. No lights were turned on that year, as they melted the chocolate chips (lesson learned the hard way).

Many cats later, my tree has seen better days. No, they did not pee on it or the skirt, but they did find themselves up inside the tree, bending the support branches. My majestic 7′ tree, which used to fill a room, now resembles a Dr. Suess tree, as almost all the branches are in a downward sweep with visible bald spots.

As the ornaments get hauled out, we too share the memories of the toddler fashioned decorations. The first year we had a child-made decoration for our tree, I got it. I understood why my folks did not chuck out the green glittered sputnik or any of the other things my brother and I had made. These signified milestones in our lives. Looking at the toilet roll Christmas cracker that is covered in scrap pieces of foiled paper and fruit-smelly markers, I recall the teacher they had and the friends that were a part of our lives that year. These associations are not unlike the ones an archeologist makes when unearthing  traces of civilizations. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have at least one glitter macaroni ornament or a paper Santa on their tree.

In my gluten-filled days, I baked like a fiend. I was often up until the wee hours of the morning, washing dishes, making dough, decorating snowmen and all kinds of other stuff. It was common for me to make 10-12 different types of cookies and gift them to friends, everyone getting a variety of each type. I made sugar cookies, gingerbread dudes, candy cane twists, fudge, pfeffernuise, rum balls, snowballs, lumps of coal and on and on. I would buy New Year’s Eve party hats, line them with parchment paper and fill them, cone-style, with treats for the kids who lived on our street. Each kid got their own cone of cookies, so no one had to share their goodies with their mom or dad.

I would spend hours and days shopping at the malls finding lots of things for everyone on my list. I was there on Boxing Day, getting a jumpstart on the next year’s shopping requirements. I never dared tally my spending as I knew it was ridiculous. Wrapping the presents took me days. Each wrapped gift was a work of art. I didn’t like to use the same paper on any two gifts. Everything was wrapped in a box. Sometimes, a box within a box. I used to made custom bows for each package, a lesson from one of my many awesome aunts. I was supporting our economy almost single-handedly.

My gifts have shifted to ways to share time and memories instead of something from a store. My baking template has also changed. I no longer do these things in excess because it is expected of me. I’d rather spend that time reminiscing with family over a coffee, wine or kombucha. Wrappings are trappings and we are better off without them.

Perhaps that ol’ Grinch knew something after all.

 

 

 

 

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MMM, potatoes

Who doesn’t love a spud?

We attended a wedding a few years ago, and late into the evening, as the dancing and obligatory drinking were well underway, a midnight Poutine Buffet was rolled out. Yeah, you read that correctly, a Poutine Bar. There were the basics of hand-cut fries, gravy and cheese curds, but it DID NOT end there. The choices included several types of potatoes, at least 3 types of gravy, mushrooms, pulled pork, bacon crumbles, jalapeño peppers, onions, brie, mozzarella, roasted broccoli and many other items that escape my memory. I think I inhaled 3 large bowls in under 15 minutes. I was scarfing my bowlful of decadence so fast, my esophagus couldn’t keep up to the speed I was shovelling the food in. Utter gluttony. That was a brilliant feature for a wedding reception. The food helped those who were perhaps in danger of over-consuming the open bar, by acting as a distraction. I shall always fondly remember that evening.

But I digress from the humble potato.

There are sweet, white, yellow, red, purple, creamer, new, fingerling, yam and the list goes on. You can prep these magic flavour sponges in so many ways. Boiled, mashed, roasted, fried and baked are the most common methods to prepare the humble tuber.

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These Greekified (is that a word?) spuds were a perfect side to some grass-fed, grass-finished lamb shoulder chops I found at a local grocery store. They are so good, you may want to make extra so you have some leftovers for another meal (or bedtime snack). This is super easy and so tasty, you may find yourself keeping them in your regular meal rotation.

Greekified spuds:

Preheat oven to 375

  • 2 pounds potatoes (I used red, peeled and quartered. Yukon Gold or any other yellow potato will be great too)
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock (homemade is best)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter or ghee
  • 3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste

Scrub, peel, quarter the potatoes and place in a 9×13 roasting pan.

Whisk all remaining ingredients together and pour over the potatoes.

Roast in 375 degree oven for approximately 75 minutes, or until fork tender. The trick to these spuds being amazing is to baste them in the stock mixture several times during the roasting time.

Breaking dishes is optional.

 

 

 

Let’s reflect on choices (and banana muffins)

If we are lucky, in our lifetime, we meet folks who leave a good mark on us.

I’m going to take you back a few years, ok, a lot of years, to acquaint you with a teacher from Grade 8. Part of our high school curriculum included Home Economics, which was two units each of cooking and sewing and Industrial Education with one unit of electronics, drafting, woodwork and metalwork. Boys and girls had to complete each class. My Home Ec skills were such that I would offer to complete another students IE assignment if they would make a sewing project for me. (I have been known to hem with a stapler.) The cooking portion, well, I’m here to say I passed, but certainly not with any sort of flying colours. Good thing my homework assignments made up for some of my cooking lab outcomes. My blancmange was just scrambled eggs in a custardy-watery soup like base. Seriously though, why make a kid make that for a cooking assignment? I have never since, nor will I ever, make it in my lifetime.

Back to this particular teacher and day 1 of Industrial Education 8. In walks a large man in a plaid flannel shirt. A big human. He stood probably 6’6″. His plaid flannel shirt was tucked in his belted dark denim pants. His slightly oily hair was parted on the side and was starting to show signs of receding at said part. His hair continued downward in an uninterrupted line merging into his beard. Rather a mountain man looking fellow.

He stood at the front of a room of close to 30 13 year old students on this first day of the semester. He introduced himself and asked us to name one thing we had to do. We looked at each other. Hands began to go up.

“Homework?” No, he shook his head. Cheers erupted in the room. We didn’t have to do any homework? Hooray! This plaid guy rocked!

“Feed and walk my dog?” No, he shook his head again. Wait a second.

“Get a job?” No, once more the bearded man shook his head. Hold on here. What did he mean, we didn’t have to get a job? Everyone has to get a job, don’t they?

He replied no to every offering we had. This went on for several minutes. After we exhausted all our thoughts, we watched him turn and write three letters on the chalk board.

D I E

That,” he said, “is the only thing you have to do.” The room fell silent. “Everything else, you do by choice because you don’t like the alternative. You feed and walk your dog because you don’t want him to get sick, starve or die. You do your homework because you don’t want to fall behind in class. You get a job because you don’t want to live on the streets or in your parent’s basement when you are 50. Get it?” Heavy thoughts to lay on a pack of pre-pubescent teens.

That has stuck with me ever since. I do what I do by choice, because I don’t like the alternative.

Ooooh, back to those banana muffins.

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Doesn’t that look good? I mean, look at the texture of that thing.

Paleo banana muffins:

Preheat oven to 375, makes 12 muffins

  • 4 really ripe bananas
  • 1/2 cup coconut sugar
  • 2 eggs (room temperature, otherwise the coconut oil will harden)
  • 3/4 cup full fat coconut milk
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup banana flour
  • 1/2 cup coconut flour
  • 1/2 cup packed almond flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • handful of chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (optional)

In a large bowl, or stand mixer, beat the bananas with the coconut sugar until well mashed. Add eggs, coconut milk and vanilla, mix well. Add the liquid coconut oil while the mixer is running.

Sift coconut flour and baking powder and baking soda over the wet ingredients. (I like to save a bowl doing it this way. My Home Ec teacher would be cringing at this lack of second bowl and not following the ‘muffin method’ of stirring until just moist. Oh well.) Add the almond flour and banana flour, salt and mix until well incorporated. Stir the chocolate in last.

img_2305My favourite kitchen hack is to use a 1/4 cup scoop to load the muffin batter? dough? which is it? into my silicone muffin pans. Nothing sticks to these things. The pans I have are slightly smaller in size compared to a standard 12-well muffin pan. I sit the two 6-well silicone pans on a pizza pan to give them stability in the oven. Trying to handle flexible silicone muffin pans filled with uncooked stuff is a nightmare, trust me on that one. You have better things to do than clean your oven of some slopped glop.

 

Bake these bad boys for approximately 20 minutes. Test with a toothpick for doneness. Let them cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before unmolding them. Let them cool a little more before you start scarfing ’em back. Not sure how well these freeze, as they usually only last a couple of days around here.

Don’t be afraid of the banana flour making these too banana-y. As far as the chocolate chips go, use whatever makes you happy. Dairy free, cacao nibs, you get the idea. You could skip the chocolate altogether if you want, but why would you?