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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.