Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Eve

 I always used to call New Year's Eve, "Amateur Night".  I couldn't stand waiting in line in the frigid cold to get into an overcrowded  bar after paying an inflated cover charge.  Battling twenty somethings who couldn't hold their liquor spilling their cosmos down my back and crying in the bathroom mirror.  After all, they weren't used to going out and having a few drinks.  And I never thought that standing in the cold with my fingers and nose freezing off waiting for a ball to drop or lights to light up to celebrate "First Night" in a crowd full of strangers would ever be any fun.  I always much preferred a house party with friends. Someplace where there were others like me who wanted to dress up in something fancy rather than a hooded parka and heavy boots and drink a toast to the New Year.  Good music, delectable treats, fancy cocktails and great fun.  I have some fantastic friends: hosts and  hostesses who know how to throw a bash. They always provide the best of times.
  There have been New Year's Eves when I had no plans, working late and getting home to a night of movie watching, junk food and pj's.  A spur of the moment invite to a tiny apartment in the top floor of a triple decker where a spirited quarter's game took over the entire room and a few guys sat on a large red cooler in the corner while their girlfriends danced to the top 100 countdown of 1997 on a boom box cranked up to ten.  And other years when we made elaborate plans such as the "Pimps and Ho's" party Rob and I threw with our upstairs neighbors in a joint double apartment house party.  Music thumping so loud, the upstairs floor shook over our heads, ridiculous costumes with feathers and leather and way too much booze to ring in the millenium.  Everyone thought all the computers would crash, there was a certain unknowing in the air and I was dressed as dominatix.  Rob getting pneumonia after too many trips outdoors to the keg for a refill in gold lame boxers and my light blue silky robe put an end to any future wintertime costume parties.  After moving back to Falmouth and realizing there was nothing much in the way of preplanned New Year's celebrations, I began to have my New Year's Day party, a solution to the anticlimactic holiday season.  Friends came over and watched bowl games all day.  They nursed their hangovers with some hair of the dog and naughty snacks such as buffalo fingers with blue cheese dip and spicy bowls of chili loaded with cheddar, sour cream and pickled jalapenos.  I cooked a lot of food and drank margaritas.  Then everyone left by the early evening.  Perfect in everyway except that the cleanup and personal recovery required that I have a full day off on January 2nd.
  This has all evolved into my current plans to ring in the New Year which involves warm slippers, some gourmet food, lots of bubbly and possibly a Scrabble game or two.  I invite my crew and now their kids, too,who run up and down the stairs shooting Nerf guns and stealing cookies.  We pour the glasses full and nibble on trays of snacks.  You can wear what you want: high heels and lipstick or pj's under your parka.  There may even be dancing during Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve as we wait for the ball to drop.  We keep the beer and proseco cold out on the deck and dunk baguette crusts into hot cheese fondue.  Guests gather around plates of sweets and gooey chocolate for dipping, a last indulgence before the resolutions kick in or lounge on the couch having just arrived home from a ski trip in negative double digit weather.  I am so glad to have them all here.  Saying, "Good bye!" to the old and ringing in the new seems so much more ceremonious when everyone is gathered together. 

Uncle Dana tries to steal a bite of Declan's chocolate fondue

Chocolate Fondue*
(Serves 6-8)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
24 oz. semi sweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla

for dipping:
pretzel rods
dried apricots
donut holes
kettle cooked potato chips

  In a medium sized saucepan, combine cocoa powder with 1/2 cup water and cook over low heat, stirring constantly for one minute.  Stir in the milk and sugar and bring to a simmer.  Add the chocolate chips and cook, stirring until the mixture is smooth, about 5 minutes.  Add vanilla and stir to combine.  Serve the fondue warm in a fondue pot along with items for dipping.

*Adapted from Rachael Ray Magazine 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Best Holiday Cookie

  It should come as no surprise that all I really want to do right now instead of all of the multiple items on  my list: shopping, wrapping, decorating, cajoling, nagging and making dinner is to just bake cookies.  I have been waiting all month for today.  Finally enough time to mix up and bake the traditional holiday cookies that I learned to make in Val's kitchen.  Mrs. Riley's Jam Thumbprints, pecan balls and my favorite, sugar cut out cookies with frosting and sprinkles from the recipe in Val's Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.  Of course there are other sweet treats such as Cape Cod Cranberry Bark and a new toffee recipe that I tried out this year to round out the gift bags. I change it up a little each year.  But I swear, if I ever thought of not making the sugar cut out cookies, I don't think anyone would forgive me.  Except, maybe the dog, since she doesn't eat them.
  These cookies have appeared before on this blog.  Last year they were featured for Valentine's Day.  That is the beauty of this recipe.  It can be adapted for any occasion, really.  Traditionally, though, in Val's house, we only make them for Christmas and in February for the 14th.  This allows us to really miss them.  So, it's worth it to go to all the effort.  No one ever gets sick of these frosted confections.
  I hope you have time to make some cookies of your own and maybe package up a few to give to friends.  But be warned: should you bestow a gift of these treats to anyone, they will be sure to expect more next year, and the next and the next get the picture.  Yes, these cookies are that good.
  Happy Holidays!  May you be blessed with warm hugs, laughter and lots of cookies!

Sugar Cut Out Cookies and Frosting
(makes 5-6 dozen)
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 3/4 cup flour, plus extra for rolling

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5-7 tablespoons milk
red food coloring, red hots, sprinkles, etc

To make cookies:
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar.  Add eggs and vanilla, mix well.  In another bowl, combine baking powder and flour.  Add dry ingredients to the butter mixture and combine until smooth.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or freeze until ready to use.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line baking sheets with parchment or grease pans.
Roll out a small portion  of dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/8-1/4 inch thickness.  (Leave the rest of the dough in the refrigerator until ready to use.)  Cut out dough using floured cookie cutters.  Place cookies on prepared cookie sheets and bake 8-10 minutes until cookies are just golden on edges.  Remove from baking sheet and cool cookies on wire racks.  Once cookies are completely cooled (about 45 minutes), frost and decorate as desired.

To make frosting:
In a mixing bowl, cream butter until smooth.  Add 1 cup of sugar, and blend together.  Add vanilla and remaining sugar alternating with a tablespoon at a time of milk until desired consistency is met.  (The frosting should not be runny, but also not quite as thick as cake frosting.) Stir in 2-3 drops red food coloring for pink frosting.  Combine until all food coloring is incorporated.  Frost cookies and add red hots and/or sprinkles while frosting is still wet.  Let frosted cookies air dry for at least 4 hours before storing them in an airtight container.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tiny Christmas Tree

  "No space for a fresh Christmas Tree?  No problem!"  Mahoney's holiday Inspirations book just arrived in my mailbox.  It seems our local garden center is on to something "new".  Their fresh, tabletop trees are sure to be a hit this holiday season.
  Who knew that Val was ahead of her time back in 1976?  We had a tiny tree that year.  That is, the top of a Christmas tree.  That was all that would fit.
  Just months before, my family had moved in to our very unfinished home.  That was the summer we had just a faucet of running water in the bathroom tub, no toilet for at least a week and my mother did her best to sterilize bottles on the charcoal grill, for my infant brother.  We had been staying in a camper down the street at a campground filled with tourists and teenagers.  Posh digs in comparison, but the night I fell out of the bed tucked into the pop-up while sleeping, out onto the leaves and branches without my mother knowing, put an end to our campground adventure.  I managed to find my way to the door and gently knock on it, frightening my mother.  For all she knew, my sister and I were tucked in safely.  Who could be knocking at the camper door in the dark night?  She was even more terrified by the realization that her five year old could have easily walked in the opposite direction, getting lost in the deep woods behind the campsite.  That was it.  Anything was better as long as it had four walls and doors that locked.
  Five months later, with the luxuries of heat and flushing toilets we were now getting ready for Christmas and living through the building from scratch process.  Partially finished rooms with bare plywood floors, woodwork needing to be sanded and painted, splinters were the norm.  But thinking back, I have to try really hard -a five year old doesn't care much about an unfinished bedroom.  I'm sure it made my mother crazy but she plugged away at it day after day while my father worked three jobs to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.  Val painted walls and trim while my brother learned to pull himself up in the playpen by her side.
  That fall, twenty foot long floor boards stacked in our living room needed to be air dried in the house as they were cut on site from a sawmill in Dennysville, ME and hauled down to Cape Cod by Val's dad, Grampie and his brother, Uncle Bob . The boards had to get acclimated to the house so that they would not shrink after being cut and nailed into place.  They were stacked close to four feet high, filling most of the room. With each board spanning eighteen inches wide, this did not leave much space except for an old rocking chair, the ugly green "comfortable" chair and a small, rickety table with a lamp attached that barely balanced on three legs and always threatened to fall over when the dog ran under it scouring for some errant crumbs or chasing our old adopted, stray cat, Sheba.  It was a cozy spot especially when the fireplace was lit.  One just had to be careful not to let an errant spark from the fresh logs burn a hole in their holiday sweater.
  So where would we put the tree?  Not having one was definitely not an option.  My sister Karyn was only nine, I mentioned already that I was the tender age of five and my brother, Ethan, well he was still enough of a toothless blob to barely notice anything, at all except to crawl around and wreak his own havoc.  A tree, was a must .  There was likely a wreath already on our front door made from greens gathered in our yard and a red ribbon perfectly tied by Val's deft hands.  But aside from that and some construction paper and glitter projects made at school, there was little else in the way of Christmas decoration.  Besides, there had to be a Christmas Tree!
  It was likely Christmas Eve by the time my parents were able to scrape up enough cash.  That evening, we all crammed into the powder blue Volkswagen Bug to go pick our tree out.  My dad and the man selling Christmas Trees sawed the top off right there in the parking lot.  I'm sure the measurements were correct right down to the last centimeter, with Val overseeing the project.  At home, my father mounted the tiny tree into an over sized metal stand made for a seven foot fir.  After Karyn and I adorned the branches with glass balls, candy canes and homemade gingerbread men, Dad hoisted our tabletop tree onto its wooden perch in the living room.  I was so happy about that little tree, deliriously happy about Santa Claus' eventual arrival and all the presents that I would find under our diminutive holiday evergreen.

  If you want to scent your home with ginger and molasses this holiday season, here is the recipe from Val's Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery that we make every year.  If you look closely at the photo in the top of the post, you will see one hanging on the tree.

gingerbread men cookies with frosting

Gingerbread Men
(makes about 36)

1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
2 3/4 cups flour, plus extra for rolling
2 teaspoons dried, ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk (regular milk will do)

frosting, sprinkles, candy decorations

  Mix first 3 ingredients well.  In another bowl, mix flour through baking soda.  Add dry ingredients to butter mixture alternately with milk and mix until smooth.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for four hours or overnight.  (Do not try to roll out dough that is not thoroughly chilled.  It will make you weep!)
  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  Remove about 1/2 cup of dough from refrigerator.  Keep remaining dough chilled until ready to use.  Roll out on floured board to 1/4"-1/8" thick.  Cut with floured cutters and place on ungreased cookie sheets.  ( I use Silpat liners but parchment paper would also work well.)  Bake for 10-15 minutes until just before cookies brown on edges.  Remove from oven and allow cookies to rest for 5 minutes.  Transfer to wire racks and cool completely before decorating with frosting, sprinkles, etc.

  *If you want to hang these on your tree, make a hole twice as large as you want the finished product in the top of each cookie BEFORE baking.