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Finding the Spirit

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.

Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread
Adapted from: Cook This Now

Ingredients:
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (1/2 pound)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup golden syrup (or honey, as I used)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated

Directions:
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.

Serves: 8

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.

  1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:33 am

    “Rude, sticky and wet” – just my kind of gingerbread! I can sort of relate to feeling like Christmas is just another day..I honestly feel like I barely have time to notice it. But it’s true that it really is what you make of it, and it would be a shame to let it slip away unappreciated.. :)

  2. Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:35 am

    There’s some similarity in our posts (mine written this AM by my tiny 3 foot tree). To the holidays and embracing them!

  3. Mary Kate
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Love this, Meg. I, too, came to the same realization about Christmas as an adult. It doesn’t just come to us; no, the best option is for us to make of it what we love best. Thus I try to fill the weeks before Christmas with all the joyful holiday things that bring warmth to my heart. And mostly that is spending time with those I love with the wonderful setting of Christmas as a backdrop: parties, holiday windows, music, lights, trees, cocktails, sharing amazing food, ice-skating, The Nutcracker. For many of us, it is a reminder to pause to enjoy and love. Happy Holidays! xo mk

  4. Mary Kate
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:38 am

    And I must try this perfect-sounding recipe!

  5. megang
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Hi Mary! So true, and you certainly live in one of the better cities to have as a Christmas backdrop. Although I think you could really be anywhere if you’re with those you love… Happy holidays to you, too, my friend. And yes, you must try this recipe. Simple & wonderful. xox.

  6. Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:57 am

    I love this post Megan. Happy holidays to you and yours. Here’s to making the best of it!

  7. Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Ooo, I’m just now reading Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now and can’t wait to try several of her recipes already — love that woman! This gingerbread looks sticky sweet and perfect alongside a hot mug of tea.

  8. Y
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Wish I was experiencing a glut of cranberries! That gingerbread looks wonderful. I love Christmas too, but have to agree – it’s slightly more magical when there are kids (eg my nieces) around.

  9. Posted December 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    It’s something great! I love how it looks, cant’s wait to make it

  10. Posted December 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I love your little tree! As soon as we put our tree up, I suddenly felt the urge to address our Christmas cards. And now 3 weeks later I have still not sent them out–I better get them in the mail or Christmas will pass me by!

  11. momgordon
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    The first Christmas you walked down the stairs by yourself in your little nightgown I had finished just in the nick of time, you looked at the presents under the tree and whispered, “He came!” with wonder and joy on your face. You’re right, “he” still comes, it’s just that the wonder and joy isn’t under the tree. It’s sitting around the tree, coffee mugs in hand, safe and happy for another year.

  12. Posted December 14, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Interesting how we come to appreciate the “new” feelings of Christmas the older we get, isn’t it? This recipe looks awesome by the way!

  13. Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:51 am

    What a lovely thought provoking post – memories from my past long ago as a single gal on my own… I didn’t know you were in Oakland! Was just there a couple of weeks ago. My daughter got married there – she lives in Palo Alto!
    :)
    V

  14. Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    oy that looks delicious! Like your market neighbors, earlier this season I got kind of grumpy over the materialism and gifts and shopping that this season is ALL about. I then realized that attitude is only making it worse, not better, and it is up to me to make it to be, what I believe it should be about. You are going to have such a fabulous day with your family. Hope the season is full of joy and festivities!!

  15. Suzanne
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    I raise my coffee cup and my glass of cheer to you and “momgordon”; how right you are. The wonder & spirit of Christmas changes, but it never disappears.

  16. megang
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks, Suzanne! Yes I’m lucky I have a “momgordon” that reads the blog :) We both have fond memories of times at your home. Hope you guys are having a wonderful holiday season. xox.

  17. megang
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you, Sara. The season has been full of much joy and the prefect balance of festivities (only so many a gal can handle, you know?) I hope you and Hugh are having a wonderful holiday, too, and that you’re basking in a little free time (isn’t it time for free time in the land of books yet?!?!?). xoxo.

  18. megang
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Oh Val! I didn’t know your daughter was here, and how exciting. I’m sure the wedding was lovely (we’ve had amazing weather lately). Hope you had a nice visit and that you’re having a restful, happy holiday season.

  19. megang
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    O.k., I did send mine out BUT I’m all for New Years cards. Why not? In a way, they’re even more of a surprise because folks aren’t expecting them. So I say…do it when you get to it. Happy holidays, Jen!

  20. Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    This is going to come off strong, in the best possible way I hope… I think you’re my absolute favorite voice on the web. I love everything about this post. “You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out..” I think this applies to so many aspects of the year, of our ordinary days too. We have to look for the magic. Sometimes it drops in our laps, but most often we have to open our eyes to see that it’s right there in front of us. And for the record, “momgordon” who I assume is your mom, sounds amazing. Reminds me of my Mom. Whom I adore.

  21. Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Your mom’s comment made me tear up. I grew up in a Jewish family and I ACHED for a tree and stockings hung on the mantle. My parents hardly remembered to light the Menorah, but they drew the line at a tree or other Christmas decorations. Once in my 20′s, and married to a non-Jew, I got to to start collecting ornaments, navigate the choosing of a tree, pick the perfect stocking, and all the other lovely things I had been missing out on for 20+ years. To this day, I love Christmas. I love just about everything about it (except those pesky crowds). And watching my boys open each window of the Advent calendar, check the stockings each morning, ask me repeatedly not to build a fire on Christmas eve night so Santa doesn’t get hurt, makes me love it even more.

  22. megang
    Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Well, Kelsey, you sure do know how to make a gal’s day. And my day needing a little making today, so I can’t tell you how much your comment meant to me. Thank you. It’s always really, really nice to hear that folks are enjoying the blog . And yes, I lucked out in the mom department. Big time. I hope you have a great weekend! ~m

  23. megang
    Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Dana, I didn’t realize you grew up Jewish. Did I know this? My dad’s Jewish and so we always had both Hannukah and Christmas and now, even though my parents are divorced, Christmas stuck with him, too. There’s just something about this time of year. I love that the boys have advent calendars … I used to have one as a little girl and would love to find a special one to pull out year after year. Too cute about the fire, too. Smart boys! Hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend, my friend. Thinking of you.

  24. Posted December 17, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Christmas seems to evoke such strong reactions in people- myself included. My attitude at this point is similar to yours and I think it’s easier to take this approach when you’re somewhat content with your life. It seems the holiday is more difficult, romanticized and amplified for people who are alone or struggling in some way. This is why we’ve decided to forego gifts this year and give what we would have spent on presents to the local food bank and toy drive. We will of course give baked goods as gifts and your gingerbread recipe is very tempting. I may have to put it on the list. Merry Christmas to you!

  25. megang
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I love this idea, El. And I think you’re right about folks romanticizing Christmas when they’re having a difficult time. Very true. I hope we see some of the cookies on that beautiful blog of yours. Happy holidays to you, too! The merriest. ~m

  26. Posted December 19, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more about being in the “in between” phase with holidays. Somehow, resorting back to the activities I loved as a child helps bring the holiday spirit out to play. Ice skating in Union Square with a very hot chocolate, for instance, makes everything in the world seem perfect and magical … once again. I’m sure this gorgeous, sweet, sticky cake helps quite a bit, too.

  27. Posted February 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Stumbled upon this jewel of a recipe when I was searching for cranspiration, yes, that is inspiration for what to bake when faced with countless cartons of cranberries bought in an impulsive (yet gleeful) moment at a local market (I believe you might have an idea what that feels like…) Thank you for this – turned out great, despite getting distracted at crucial moments like the one where it says “do not let boil” – totally let it boil. Ah well. It still tasted amazingly afternoony and delicious.

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