Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Cues from Critters

We had a wonderful Christmas.

I could post dozens of pictures of the gifts we gave and received and the food we cooked and ate.

We are blessed with great kids, each other, and a cozy home:

But like a lot of people my age, I do find myself thinking about how over the top Christmas can be, with young kids on overload, tight schedules, recipes that fail and food that has to be remade at the last minute.

And it occurred to me that we should take some cues from our pets about what's important at Christmas time.

1.  Boxes are free and make great gifts:

2.  Time with your "cousin" is the best present ever:

She's so awesome, you don't mind sharing your bones with her:

3. A nap under a small Christmas tree in a finished attic can be just the thing to relieve holiday stress:

4. That relative you really thought was awful isn't so bad when you relax with him in front of a fire on a rainy day:

So thank you to Doug, Alex and Ashleigh, Christine and Brian, Corey and Kristin, Jesse, and Martin and Jenn for all the great gifts, including new Fiestaware and accessories, heated gloves, a warm wool throw, a bird house (to help me think about Spring), a beautiful sweater and scarf, and gift cards for dinner, movies, and new running tights.

But the best part of Christmas for me was time with all of you.

On Christmas Eve:

Christmas morning:

Christmas afternoon and evening:

And Boxing Day (courtesy of our British friends):

And although this isn't a lesson from a pet, I have to add that sometimes the best gifts are the ones someone makes for you:

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cookie Weekend

Doug and I have been baking Christmas cookies together for seven years now, although both of us had been doing it for many years on our own before we got married and began sharing a kitchen.

Over the years, we've added a few new recipes, dropped a couple that we didn't like so much, and changed up how we decorate and package everything.

But there are some cookies that have become treasured traditions, like these chocolate drops that Doug's mother used to make.  They're a favorite of our friend Mike, who always gets a few extras in his cookie box.  Doug's mom used to drop them from a spoon and ice them with a butter knife.  Doug pipes the dough with a pastry bag and uses pastry bags to ice them as well, so they've gotten fancier, but they're still a happy memory for him:

My sugar cookie cutouts are a favorite from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, which I got as a wedding shower gift in the 1970s.  I have to say that they never looked quite this good when I made them by myself (see the blue and yellow stars--those are my handiwork; the rest are courtesy of Doug and the pastry bag):

Two of our favorite recipes came from Emeril, whose TV show was one of the first ones we watched together when we first started spending time together almost 10 years ago.  

The first one, the Guinness gingerbread, is amazing.  The recipe calls for 8 ounces of Guinness.  Hmm, that doesn't work so well, since it comes in 12-ounce bottles.  BUT, if you triple the recipe, you can use two whole bottles.  You also need nine eggs and two entire bottles of molasses. 

It makes a lot of gingerbread--two large pans, or 18 smaller loaves, which is what we did this year to make it easier for gifting. Our small pans are assorted sizes, hence the inconsistent look here:

We also got our almond roca cookie recipe from Emeril's show--it was the winner in a contest he held one year for holiday cookies.  These cookies are actually almost like candy, with all of the sugar and heath bits in them (we decided that there's just enough flour in the recipe to glue all the sugar together):

Peanut better cookies are always a hit, and the recipe we use comes from the same book as the sugar cookies.  I discovered several years ago that my vintage child's potato masher is the best tool ever for making the criss-cross pattern on top:

We had a great jam turnover recipe that we somehow lost, but in one of our junking trips, we stumbled on this cookbook, which is where the original came from:

We got a real bonus with this book--all kinds of free advice...with 1950s-style graphics.  All of the tips must be urgently important because they're punctuated with exclamation points.

One of the best tips is "Get Your Ingredients Together!" 

Well, we obviously didn't read this ahead of time, or Doug wouldn't have been running back to the store for butterscotch chips for the Special K bars, which his friend Jeb loves, and for the slivered almonds that the rocas get rolled in. Oh yeah, and how can you make Christmas cookies without red and green sanding sugar?  Another trip to the store....

But even with the extra shopping runs, we still forgot jam for the turnovers.  Not to worry--we found a jar of our friend Beth's homemade raspberry preserves on our kitchen shelf, and the jam turnovers were the best ever.

We have a lot of fancy but important cookie-making tools in our kitchen--a large Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, a Cuisinart food processor, assorted silicone spatulas, pastry tips, Sil-pat cookie sheet liners...

But sometimes the old-fashioned stuff is equally important--like this huge dough bowl that we use for the gingerbread.  A dear friend who is now gone gave it to me after she saw my yellow ware bowl collection, and I will always treasure it:

We also have a low-tech floor cleaner:

 My final task last night was to bag the toffee that Doug makes:

Over the weekend, we went through 8 pounds of butter, several dozen eggs, many pounds of sugar and flour, four batches of icing, and several bags of chips and nuts.  Not to mention the two bottles each of Guinness and molasses.

Everything was beautifully decorated, thanks to Doug.

And the kitchen was perfectly clean when we went to bed.  That's the part where my skills come into play.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Family and Friends

Last week, a childhood friend of mine posted a very discouraged status on Facebook, talking about the bitter fights between divorced people over the holidays. I felt bad for her because Doug and I are very blessed at the way things have turned out for our respective families.

As we have for the past several years, we celebrated Thanksgiving Day at the home of his older stepson, Corey, who is married with two small children.  Doug's ex-wife, who is the mother of his two adult stepsons, is usually there, along with her mother, as well as assorted members of Corey's wife's family.  (I apologize for the lack of pictures from this celebration--Doug was too busy frying turkeys to remember his camera.)

Then, some time over the long weekend, we cook at our house and have Thanksgiving number two.  It started out simply enough--when I got divorced, I let my kids, then in their teens, spend Thanksgiving with their dad because he had an extended family and I didn't.  We would then have them over a day or two later so they could celebrate with us and have some of the traditional foods I have always made.

The funny thing is that this event has grown every year--and it now includes my ex-husband and his second wife, along with some very good friends and Alex's fiancee's parents, Monica and Earl, who will someday be family in reality but already are in spirit.

This year, we seated 14 people in our tiny kitchen, which included a second table, normally stored under the guest bed.  Doug suggested putting a second small table in the living room, but I told him there was no way we were going to split up this happy group:

Ashleigh and Doug decided it was easier just to stand up:

My stepson Jesse and his girlfriend brought the total to 16, but since they arrived late, they sat in seats vacated by others who went out to stand by our outdoor fire:

After dinner, we all gathered for a group photo.  Doug put the camera on a timer so he could be in the picture:

In addition to 16 people, we had two yellow Labs, two terriers, an orange tabby cat, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Just kidding about the partridge, but we did have an amazing group of people whose lives have intersected in some improbable but wonderful ways.  Explaining the relationships to Jesse's girlfriend Katie was interesting.

Like the fact that Martin and Doug, who refer to each other as "brothers from different mothers," are the best of buddies but know each other only because Jenn and I have been best friends since the 1970s--when we met through our ex-husbands....

I call Jesse my stepson, but he's really my stepson once removed because he's actually Doug's stepson from a previous marriage. It really doesn't matter because he's a terrific young man whom I'm very happy to have in my life.

So, to everyone who bemoans the breakup of the nuclear family in America, take a closer look.  I'm not recommending divorce--I'm just saying that we should be happy for all of the people who end up being "family."

Like my son, Alex, and his "cousin" Steve, who isn't really his cousin at all but is my friend Jenn's son.  The two boys were born 11 months apart and grew up playing Ninja Turtles and Ghost Busters together.  Now, Steve's married, and Alex is engaged.

Funny thing--Lauren and Ashleigh kind of look like sisters.  In spirit, I think they are.

So, this year, I am thankful for a husband who is a great cook and brings everyone together for awesome food.  And I'm thankful for all of our family members--biological and adopted.