Tag Archives: Holidays

Fried

Painted in Waterlogue

Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.

They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.

I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families,  I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)

So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.

And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.

It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.

I’m just reporting, not complaining.

But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.

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While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.

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I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil

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I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished. 

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It was a wonderful meal.

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Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight.  Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.

It was perfect.

Measure Twice, Bake Once

I looked at the shopping list app again. There was indeed a 2 in the listing for cream cheese. That’s more cream cheese than I’ve ever bought at one time, but I was sure she had a reason. I added another package to my cart and headed, at last, for the cashier.

It had been one of those complicated shopping trips, where you have to look carefully to make sure you have the specific brand and size and number—and that you get each item from the proper store. (If your spouse doesn’t load up the shared shopping-list app with such specific details because various things qualify for various rebates and compounded bonus rebates and triple money-back whatnots, you may not understand. But mine has turned shopping into a video game, practically, and by doing so has brought the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment over the past year, so I’m not complaining.)

Okay, sometimes all I want to do is run into the nearest store and get a carton of milk, and then I complain a little, but only a little.

I arrived home and gave her the goods and receipts—so that everything could be properly app-catalogued—and then asked why we’d needed all that cream cheese.

“Cheesecake,” she said. “I found a recipe for the Instant Pot.”

Well, that did sound like fun. (Also, it explained the graham crackers I’d just bought.)

She went back to project she’d been working on, and I went back to mine, and when I finished mine first I decided this hypothetical cheesecake wasn’t going to bake itself. I found the recipe she mentioned, gathered the rest of the ingredients, and assembled the hardware.

Her parents gave us the Instant Pot last Christmas, and, as accessories for our birthdays this year a set of cute little nesting steamer baskets that fit inside its stainless steel cooking pot. This seemed like a good use for one of the baskets; otherwise, how would I get the cheesecake out of the big Instant Pot…pot?

But how would I get it out of the little steamer basket, with its solid bottom? Cheesecakes are usually baked in springform pans. I found one of those that fit neatly inside the Instant Pot, and I was on my way. Graham crackers crumbled and buttered to form a crust in the springform pan. Cream cheese softened, whipped, sweetened, vanilla-ed, egged and slightly thickened with a tiny bit of flour. The whole mixture poured into the crust. Time to put the pan in the liner and get it cooking.

You see what I did there, don’t you? Or, rather, what I didn’t do?

I had checked that the springform pan would fit inside the Instant Pot, not inside the stainless steel liner. It was a half-inch too big. I was glad that I hadn’t made a New Year’s resolution to give up cussing, or that one would have been over before it started.

I calmed down and baked the cheesecake in a nice little water bath in our conventional oven. It looked perfect when it came out, and just as good when it cooled—no cracks! I smoothed a thin layer of sweetened yogurt on top and set it in the fridge to chill overnight.

EPILOGUE

Before we sat down to dinner on New Year’s Day, I covered the rest of the main course (thanks again, Instant Pot!) so the always-hungry cat wouldn’t do something naughty, and I took the cheesecake out of the fridge so it wouldn’t be frosty at dessert time.

“Aschie, NO!” she shouted.

I hadn’t covered the cheesecake. Aschenputtel had served herself a little dessert —just a few licks of the yogurt layer, but we’d never be serving this cheesecake to company.

Fortunately, we weren’t having company.

The cat got her face squirted for being bold. I scraped rest of the yogurt layer off the cheesecake, sliced some strawberries, and plated dessert for us.

Was it the best cheesecake I’ve ever baked? Well, it was the first cheesecake I’ve ever baked, so it wins by default. I’m not sure if it would have come out differently if I’d pressure-baked it as planned; I’ll try that one day, after I find an appropriately sized springform.  I will, in fact, measure twice to make sure that pan fits. And I’ll make sure that dessert is out of the cat’s reach.

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Scene of the crime.

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Well, it’s not like she skipped dinner and still wanted dessert.

SIDE NOTE

I’ll ask her to write a post about the shopping list app, and the rebate apps; they might be of more use than a cautionary tale of bad measurement and questionable cat parenting.

The Luck of the Not-Quite-Irish

Painted in Waterlogue

Aside from Thanksgiving turkey, holiday celebrations at the Country House don’t call for a specific food. Christmas is Christmas, whether there’s boeuf bourguignon or leftover spaghetti on the table. Memorial Day might be the unofficial start of summer’s grilling season, but what goes on the grill varies from year to year. There might be pork on New Year’s Day, but whether it’s smoked sausage or spare ribs doesn’t matter to us.

Then there’s St. Patrick’s Day. That’s not a big deal. Neither of us claims significant Irish heritage. The thing to celebrate, really, was the successful opening of my show that meant A Weeknight at Home—the first in ages. We certainly weren’t going to celebrate with green beer. (Ew. Whether it’s green or not.)

Fried chicken would have been appropriately festive, but I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. A slow-braised pot of corned beef and cabbage would be a nice change, but I don’t have a time machine that would have let start the braise before we left for work. If I wanted to be even remotely Irish-themed, improvisation would be required. Or, at least, a trip to the deli.

I picked up a pound of sliced corned beef. A bag of sauerkraut. Carrots were in the fridge at home. I considered letting the prepared-foods counter do the work of mashed potatoes, but a two-serving tray seemed awfully dear at $12.99, and a 5-pound bag of spuds was on sale for under a dollar.

We nibbled a little aged cheddar-flavored-with-Irish-whiskey as a starter.  That was as close to drunken debauchery as our St. Patrick’s Day would get.

I scrubbed and diced the potatoes, skin-on: the mash wouldn’t be as creamy, but it’d be healthier. Besides, I like potato skin. In the time it took the potatoes to cook, I rinsed the kraut and grated a couple of carrots into it to temper the tang, and added a little caraway seed and a grating of black pepper. This went to warm in a saucepan. (Sauerkraut is, of course, not part of an authentically Irish corned beef supper. So what? We like kraut.)  The corned beef was tossed in a hot skillet until slightly crisped.

The kraut-and-beef was piled on toasted home-baked bread. It wasn’t rye, but home-baked seemed more authentic–or at least better than store-bought. A semi-fluffy mound of mash said “Potato famine? What potato famine?”  There were green beans, just because. It was not in the least what Paddy O’Whomever’s ma would have served, but we enjoyed it.

As for luck? Well, sometimes you make your own.

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Fancy

We stayed at her sister and brother-in-law’s after the memorial, and woke to hugs from her nephews–a pair of 5-year-old twins and their year-older brother–adorable little dudes all. We helped organize pancakes for everybody’s breakfast, as well as some very important wardrobe choices. All the Kindergarteners were dressing up: it was Fancy Day. (Pajama Day had long since passed, and while every day is Crazy Hair Day in my world, I’m glad I didn’t have to demonstrate it more than usual when I was in school.) Ties were knotted, Church shoes were put in backpacks–it’s too snowy on upstate New York sidewalks for anything other than boots until you get to school–and photos were taken to send to grandparents.

We don’t make a big deal about Valentine’s Day. Still, between an unexpected funeral and visit from her mom, the scramble to make up missed work, and a day’s productivity lost to a computer that needed to spend the night in the repair shop, our plans needed revisiting. We didn’t make it to the library or the boxes of books in the storage unit to find volumes of romantic poetry, but we were not giving up on the evening.  “Take-out,” she suggested. “On good china. And we dress up.”

“It’ll be our Fancy Day!”

I collected my repaired machine on the way to work, and stopped to collect dinner on my way home. While I was out, she swept up the remaining dust from the installation of our new backsplash and set a gorgeous table.

On which we had burgers and fries.

But they were the really good burgers, and accompanied by the really good slaw. We sipped Vitamin Water from champagne flutes. We exchanged heartfelt cards and very small gifts. We looked terrific. (We even took a photo to send to her parents.) But mostly, we were together. And that’s fancy enough for me.

Fancy Day Table

Linen-White Christmas

“White Christmas” will never be my favorite carol. I love Christmas, but I’m no fan of snow. If I could find a way to have it fall only on parts of the world that are usually green, I’d be perfectly happy.  A snowy field?  Fine.  Frosted tree branches along the roadside? Beautiful. Just keep it off the pavement, power lines, and rooftops.  I don’t mean to be a Grinch about it, but there are places to go and things to do.  I’m no Scrooge, but offer me an icy windshield to scrape or a plowed-in car to shovel out, and my response is a hearty Humbug!

The same attitude doesn’t apply so strongly in the kitchen, but I think of white things there as a delivery mechanism for other foods.  Mashed potatoes carry gravy.  Rice is best with a pile of vegetables and a little protein.  Grits? Scrambled eggs.  Oatmeal? Lots of fruit and some crunchy granola. Whipped cream is a garnish for pie or cake; vanilla ice cream is best with some topping or other.

But at home? Let’s have plenty of white–on the walls, that is.  The painter worked incredibly hard this week, and finished the main floor of the house on Friday morning.  We swept and mopped and swept and mopped again, finally removing the hoarfrost of plaster dust every horizontal surface in the living room, dining room, and kitchen.  We wiped down the kitchen cabinets and removed the dust that had slipped inside them. We vacuumed the un-tarped furniture; she fitted the sofa with the new slipcover that’s been waiting patiently to begin its service.  Tables came out of hiding and lamps perched brightly upon them. A very few objects d’art were arranged on shelves.  She found the stocking hangers and hung the stockings (with care, of course) from the mantle.  Her parents arrived for a pre-holiday visit. There were comfortable places to sit, a table at which to eat, flowers arranged, and a fire crackling in the hearth. If there was to be no more Christmas than this, it would still be a beautiful celebration.

It looks a little like we’re just moving in–which, in a way, we are.  The walls are creamy, the floors are clean and shiny, and there’s nothing hung on the walls.  Some might call it bland, boring, or vanilla, but I won’t.  It’s calm and uncluttered and clean. There’s no snow in the forecast. It will be a linen-white Christmas, and that seems perfect to me.

OK, Eat

The prudent course of action would have been go straight home and to bed after her train arrived: Monday had had a very early start (for a doctor’s appointment) and a very late finish (after a theatre performance). But we were not prudent.  There were some groceries and staples we needed that hadn’t been on sale yet–because we’d made a shopping list from next week’s supermarket ads–so we headed to the supermarket. As we saw the parking lot on the night before a winter storm, we realized it was also the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The prudent course of action would have been to turn around and go home.  But we still weren’t prudent.  The place was crowded with shoppers just like us, along with those not-quite-frantically snapping up bread, milk, and eggs–because, apparently, the best thing to eat during a snowstorm is French toast.

We found most of what we needed and ignored the rest. Several items we’d come for still weren’t priced as we expected. We’d looked at the right ads, but misread the copy, and some things still weren’t on sale. It turns out that pork loin can be a Black Friday special, as easily as a big-screen TV.

It wasn’t so much later than usual when we arrived home and got everything unpacked, but it seemed that way. Despite just returning from the supermarket we hadn’t planned dinner. Emergency measures were needed: boxed mac-and-cheese to satisfy her, with extras alongside to keep me happy and use some things that might have spoiled otherwise. Even with that simple plan, I was scattered, the cats (who also wanted their dinner) were underfoot, she was working in the kitchen too, and the whole evening felt one dropped spoon from being a disaster.

Although it seemed to take hours, it was really just a few minutes before the gooey yellow goodness was on one side of our bowls with a few bits of sausage and a big pile of vegetables on the other. Our bodies would be sustained, but our spirits needed help: laughter was now in order. A band we like had released a new video, so we called it up on the big screen; one video led to another, and that one to a third, and then I realized she’d never seen my favorite TV commercial and a behind-the-scenes story about the commercial.  We giggled through dinner and the videos, and the evening ended just fine. The next morning’s snow was much less problematic than predicted–hardly worth the French toast run–and our Thanksgiving travel was smooth and uneventful.

They say to eat before going to shop, but I always thought that was to prevent buying things you didn’t intend to.  I’ll try to remember that it can also be a precaution against kitchen crankiness.

Columbus Day

It’s amazing how many things can go differently than expected in a single weekend–late office departures, pharmacy complications, detours and traffic, rain throughout a half-marathon, and much, much more. When a long-expected celebration ended up being called off at the last minute, it was the icing, so to speak, on the wedding cake.

But we are resilient creatures, we humans.  We revise.  We reconsider.  We adjust. We go on. We console our friends. We offer comfort and a place to stay. We know it isn’t enough, but we try.  And when we have done all we can, we say good night and head sadly for home.

She had brought home perfectly lovely cider donuts from an apple-picking trip with her parents.  But on a cloudy, hard-to-navigate morning, a little extra sweetness seemed appropriate: chopped Macoun and Honeycrisp apples were softened in a tablespoon of melted butter, caramelized with a little brown sugar and dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg. Halves of the donuts, gently warmed and slightly browned in the same pan, were sandwiched with the apples and drizzled with a little whipped cream.

Columbus was looking for a route to India when he found the New World.  We cannot know what world our friends will find in the coming days. The one certainty is that a workday-off due to a civic holiday–and with it a fire in the fireplace and a decadent breakfast–has never come at a more opportune time.

Sometimes donuts are lilies just waiting to be gilded.

Sometimes donuts are lilies just waiting to be gilded.