I have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you’re 32– an in between time when, in my case, you’re no longer a child but don’t yet have children of your own. The magic doesn’t descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.I had a conversation about the holidays with my sister Rachael about a month ago. She was saying how she sometimes ends up feeling disappointed by Christmas largely because she has such high expectations leading up to it. My initial response was that she needs to lower her expectations and get over it: Rach, when you’re an adult, Christmas is really just another day. It’s a rad day because you’re together with family that you usually don’t see and we eat really good cheese and drink champagne. But really, it’s another day. Did it used to look different when we were all little girls, slightly greedy teenagers, or under-rested college students? Sure. But you’ve got to let Christmas change and morph and do whatever it must do to fit in with how you best feel spirited.
And the days leading up to Christmas? They can be filled with so much warmth and anticipation and excitement. Filled with a foggy Sunday, for example, when you drive to your friend Holly’s Berkeley apartment clutching a poinsettia and homemade pumpkin seed sauce. You join other women, most of whom you don’t even know, and stand around like old friends making tamales, drinking spritzers and hot chocolate, and talking about everything from jobs to boyfriends and fiancés to local cheeses and Netflix movies. You leave feeling very, very full. Not of tamales. But of spirit.
The days are also filled with driving to Marin to go Christmas tree shopping with your mom and picking out a doozy of a tree that barely fits inside the living room. Waiting for the volunteers to deliver the tree (we can be lazy), you sit at the kitchen counter with the dogs wagging their tails and staring you down from the other room. Your mom takes you out to dinner in San Anselmo, sends you home with a bottle of wine, and texts you a photo of the tree all lit up in the morning.
The next day you notice a serious lack of Christmas tree in your small Oakland apartment, quickly remedied with the purchase of a little 3-footer on your way home from the gym. Your apartment tree quickly becomes the center of all activity. You plug the lights on first thing in the morning even just for an hour, and again, the second you get home at night. You find yourself sitting next to the little tree and writing cards, talking on the phone, napping, reading.
I’ve talked to a lot of people recently who say they hate Christmas. A really nice couple that sells pasta next to me at the farmers market said they can’t even look at wreaths let alone Chritmas trees, Christmas cookies, lights, ham. I assume they must be Jewish. No, we just hate everything that Christmas stands for. Hmm. A coworker said the same thing. He can’t stand obligatory gifts and feels like it kills the Christmas spirit for everyone. Fair enough. I can’t say that I disagree on that point. But what I will say is it’s easy enough to sit back and talk about how much you hate Christmas ham, strings of lights, and navigating your way through the crowds at the mall (which I do hate, actually). But since you’re a savvy, independent adult, you can also go out and make of it what you will. Find yourself a little slice of spirit. Hate poinsettias? Don’t buy one. Love marzipan jewels wrapped in pretty red foil? Stock up! Hate Christmas music but love festive shop windows? Go for a walk!
So to my sister Rachael I say this: when I told you that Christmas is just another day, I didn’t really mean it. It’s not. It’s a slow, meandering, joyful, peaceful day. It only comes once a year and that alone makes it special. It’s also a day that is brimming with spirit in as much as you allow it to be. In whatever that looks like for you. Because if we’re not open to that– forgetting about expectation, obligations, and overly salty hams for just one moment–that very special glint of magic may just not make it to our doorsteps this year.
One thing that has made it to my doorstep and the doorstep of many a friend this year is is Cranberry Gingerbread. If you do recall, we’re dealing with a glut of cranberries here, people, and I’m reaching for something interesting to do with them. Enter two critical moments/people: 1) One very sleepless Monday night and 2) Melissa Clark, who I first fell in love with after learning she often wrote recipes for “snack cakes” and thought it quite important to enjoy cake throughout the day, not just for dessert. Thank you, Melissa Clark. That contribution? It’s big.
Melissa Clark’s Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread blatantly shies away from daintiness or refinement. She says it’s rude, sticky and wet and I’d have to agree. It’s probably not a cake you’d serve at a wedding, but it’s perfect on a December day when you’ve got tart cranberries in the fridge, molasses and ginger in the cupboard, and have a craving for a hunk of something warmly spiced. Something reminiscent of the holidays, winter, or afternoons in general. Melissa Clark uses fresh ginger and ginger powder and I added some chopped candied ginger and a dusting of powdered sugar on top. It’s almost enough to turn a Christmas-non-believer around. Try it on your very own and see what happens.
Adapted from: Cook This Now
Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9 x 9 inch baking pan.
In a small saucepan, stir together the cranberries, sugar, and 1-2 tablespoons of water. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the cranberries form a thick, bubbling sauce, about 10 minutes. Half of the cranberries should be broken down with the other half relatively whole.
In a separate saucepan, stir together the butter, brown sugar, milk, honey, and molasses over medium heat. Bring it to just barely a simmer and remove it from heat. Don’t let it come to a boil.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, ginger powder, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper. Stir in the butter/molasses mixture and then whisk in the eggs, one at a time until combined well. Stir in the ginger root and candied ginger.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Drop fat dollops of cranberry sauce on top of the gingerbread, evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until the top if firm and an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Note: Cranberries may sink to the bottom–that’s perfectly o.k. Remember, this is supposed to be a messy, delicious recipe. Sinking cranberries and all.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.