Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye, 2008!

And so we come to the end of another year. This year has not been an easy one for me. Sure, there were a lot of high points. We attended four weddings, and it was truly a blessing to witness our friends pledging vows and starting new lives with partners that in every case seemed like perfect matches. We also spent four beautiful days by the ocean with Dan's extended family. But these trips, though pleasant, formed but a small part of a year that was filled with challenges, including many frustrating setbacks and Dan's emergency surgery. It was a year rife with hard decisions and difficult circumstances, punctuated by brief but wonderful experiences. Today, in the snow, walking back from the video store, Dan remarked that this year had been a roller coaster, and I said that I hoped next year would be a more of an ascent; that a year from now, we would look back and say, "Look how far we've come."

One of the high points of the year for me has been starting this blog, and I thank you for joining me here. Improving Choice of Pies is high on my list of goals for 2009, and I plan to start tomorrow with a new look. I'll post a few of my cooking-related resolutions tomorrow, and I hope you'll join me throughout 2009 as I attempt to make these changes. In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I'm taking a few days off to ping-pong back and forth between the houses of Dan's parents and mine. I'll be back shortly before the new year. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Family Tradition: Grammy's Cookies

In my family, on Christmas Eve, desserts take center stage. Yes, the ham and the macaroni and cheese are important -- God forbid anyone try to change that menu -- but that spread pales in comparison to a dessert table so weighted down with homemade cookies and candy that it is shocking the table still stands. My mother and grandmother would spend the month of December crafting peanut butter fudge, chocolate fudge, needhams (aka potato candy), penuche, peanut butter cups, and out-of-this-world candies. The cookies might vary a bit from year to year but the old standbys are peanut butter blossoms, spritz, and sugar cookies.

Oh, the sugar cookies! For years, my grandmother would spend days rolling and cutting Christmas trees, stars, stockings, candy canes, reindeer, elephants (my grandmother collects elephant figurines), and Santas. Another day would be devoted to glazing the cookies and, once the glaze dried to a shiny finish, piping on the final details. The cookies are highly coded, the decorations painstakingly proscribed; the specific design patterns are as much a tradition as the Christmas Eve gathering itself.

Growing up, just about every year, I would help my grandmother decorate the cookies. It was from her that I learned how to make a vanilla glaze, how to make buttercream frosting, how to use gel colors and how to pipe intricate designs. This year, for the first time, instead of aiding Grammy, I got to take responsibility for the whole process. I had a lot of fun making these cookies, and I hope you enjoy looking at these pictures. Click here to see more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Year in Review: Autumn Afternoon Tea

Remember when we took Grammy to the tea room? While we were comparing our cups and plates and playfully arguing over who was using the prettiest ones, Grammy remarked that she had a beautiful teacup collection of her own and lamented that her lovely cups and saucers sat on a shelf and were never used. "Why not have a tea party?" asked Dan, and so a plan was hatched.

Grammy and I worked out the menu and settled on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a date, since many people (including Dan and I) would be back in Maine that weekend. I printed invitations at the letterpress studio on campus. The day after Thanksgiving, the three of us shopped for ingredients and prepared the table. The hardest part of this was choosing our ten favorite cup and saucer sets out of Grammy's collection of around three dozen.

The next morning, I made two batches of scones while Dan and Grammy made all the sandwiches. Grammy had already made some cookies and I had previously baked an applesauce spice cake with cream cheese frosting.

The full menu:
-Earl Grey scones
-cranberry-almond scones
-blueberry muffins (brought by Aunt Gail)
-lemon curd, clotted cream, and apricot jam for the pastries
-chicken salad on French bread
-cucumber sandwiches (no crusts)
-rye toasts with cream cheese and olives
-almond-raspberry cookies
-applesauce spice cake with cream cheese frosting
-cream puffs (purchased)
-Swiss rolls (also purchased)
-three kinds of tea: Earl Grey, Scottish Breakfast, and classic orange pekoe

We had a wonderful time! We sipped and nibbled and chatted the afternoon away. As the only female out of seven grandchildren, I've always been surrounded by boys. I like boys, I really do, but having a room full of women at Grammy's house was a refreshing change.

Dan was allowed to attend, despite not being a woman, because, well, the party was his idea! But he's also a wonderful man who can appreciate a nice, civilized tea. However, he did spend most of the party in the other room, having been dragged there by our niece, Leah, who, at two years old, has better things to do than sit at a table while we drink tea. Instead, she and Dan played bedtime: she ordered him to lie down on the couch, covered him with a blanket, said goodnight, and then commanded, "My turn! Switch!" This was the pattern for about an hour and a half, although at one point, Dan asked for a lullaby and was gifted with a rare live performance of Leah's hit John Denver cover, "Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Year in Review: Thanksgivings

When it comes to holidays, we are a family cemented to tradition. Change and innovation do not come lightly. Something as a simple as the suggestion of a change to the Christmas Eve menu has been known to cause actual rioting. So it's no surprise that on Thanksgiving, our table has always been filled with traditional fare: turkey, of course, plus gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, and roughly one 9" pie for every two people in attendance. Delicious, indulgent, tryptophan-triggering? Of course. But I felt something was missing: the color green. So I asked my mom, who hosted this year's get-together, if I could bring brussels sprouts.

As I mentioned in my review of The Harrison, I love brussels sprouts. This is not an enduring affection but rather a newfound passion, still young and bright and wallowing in the puppy-love stage. You see, prior to this fall, I had never tasted brussels sprouts. Never. But we got some in our CSA one week and for me, it was love at first bite.

For Thanksgiving, I sliced three pounds of loose sprouts in to halves and roasted them with a little olive oil at 400 degrees for about forty minutes. The outsides turn dark, nearly black, but the inside becomes a soft, creamy treat. I tossed the roasted sprouts with crisped pancetta, grated parmesano-reggiano, and some lemon juice. The sprout eaters at the table were very satisfied, and I got to eat the leftovers for days.

Incidentally, this year there was another green dish: Aunt Liz's spinach casserole, which is absolutely delicious. I'm going to get the recipe from her and will write about it in a separate post soon after I do.

You may have noticed the s in the title and thought it a typo. It's not; this year, we were blessed with two Thanksgiving dinners, as my in-laws decided to push their celebration up a few weeks and have a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings in late October, to coincide with a visit from Great-Aunt Rose. The menu was similar to that at my mother's, with a few variations. Lynn, my mother-in-law, makes an awesome homemade cranberry sauce (while my side of the family is married to the canned kind). Also, because Lynn is Armenian, instead of mashed potatoes, she serves pilaf. (Pilaf holds a very special place in my husband's heart, so years ago I secured his mother's/grandmother's recipe; when he asks what's for dinner and my response includes pilaf, I'm guaranteed praise for days.)

For this early Thanksgiving dinner, I made a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and busted out my piping tips to add some old-school decorations. The pattern was not planned: I just went where the frosting took me, which was apparently back to the 1970s, as the bright orange frosting, inspired by the frosting carrots that top bakery carrot cakes, reminds me of nothing more than the orange formica countertops in the chalet my family once owned.

The carrot cake (based on this recipe -- I skipped the pineapple and used whole wheat flour) was moist and delicious and I had fun making it. My decorating skills have deteriorated, though, so I might have to start using my piping tips more often.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not dead yet!

December has been absolutely insane. I've been battling a cold on and off since the month began -- just when I think I'm over the cough, congestion, and nausea, they bounce back up like whack-a-moles. On my healthy days, I've been baking up a storm, and in the midst of regular holiday madness, two work projects that had been languishing for months both suddenly needed attention. But with the month almost over and thirty things crossed off my to-do list in the last three days, I can finally turn my attention back to this poor, neglected blog.

Between being ill and being inundated, I haven't done as much cooking as I should have. Too many times this month I have resorted to takeout, frozen pizza, or pasta sauce from a jar. But I have done a little cooking and a whole lot of baking, which I'll post about over the next week or so. I'm also preparing some year in review posts, where I'll look back at some of the meals and events that somehow never made it on the blog. And I can promise a new and improved Choice of Pies for the new year: look for a relaunch early in 2009.