Monday, December 26, 2011


It's that time of year when some people bring trees inside the house.  We are no exception, though it has been several years since we had a holiday tree.  Last year we were traveling to surprise my brother Jonny for his 60th birthday.  The year before I was in Oaxaca, Mexico for the entire month of December.  So it was high time for us to tromp around the woods in search of just the right cedar tree to drag home and erect in the living room.
Over the years we have had all kinds of strange trees, one year so large it reached the peak of our 16 foot ceiling, that was really too much, you could barely get into the room with the thing.  Another year we had one with a big hole on one side so you could more or less walk into the tree, that was unique.  I think this years tree is one of our best but it is really hard to do it justice in a single photo, it just seems impossible to capture the grandure of the thing. In this picture it looks kind of scrawny, it's really anything but.

The beauty of a cedar is the airiness of the branches and needles.  You can hang ornaments deep within the branches and see into the center and out the other side. 
To me this makes a cedar tree more special than a fir tree which tends to be thick and all the ornaments sort of perch on the outside of the tree.  At night the tips cast a filigree shadow against the ceiling around the bevy of hand made angels.

We have some very large ornaments and many handmade ones as well.  I consider this guy, Sterling Frog, to be the master of ceremonies.
Unpacking the boxes and rediscovering the many treasures prompts us to say "it's just like Christmas! Oh right, it is Christmas!"  As we pull out items that were given to us by friends, tin ornaments from Mexico, painted ceramic birds from Guatemala, remembering the many seasons, and trips and times with friends and family as we unwrap and hang the various treasures.
This little elf was one of my parents ornaments, a favorite from my girlhood, I hung him so he's looking down on me as I sit admiring the tree.  It's so nice to be home this time of year, not traveling for a change and just able to enjoy the tree.  We turn on its lights first thing when we get out of bed in the morning, watching it twinkle as we drink our morning coffee, nibbling on cookies or some other holiday treat.  And again at the end of the day, we spend some time soaking in the beauty and basking in the strangeness of having a tree inside the house, decked out as my father used to say "like and old whore".

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Stollen

Yesterday I mentioned the stollen. My friend Claudia asked for the recipe so I thought I would put that up here.  Stollen isn't one of our family traditions, although we do have some German ancestry.  I baked it for the first time a few years ago and it was so yummy I thought I would try again this year. It is expensive to make, loaded with dried fruits, nuts, eggs and butter, but it's even more expensive to buy, so worth the effort. 

I did a little research, looking at some other recipes, and learned all sorts of interesting facts about Stollen along the way.  Stollen is a traditional bread from Dresden, Germany.  Stories vary on when it was first baked, 1300's or 1400's, but most accounts agree that the original stollen was a bland affair made of flour, oats and water because of the ban by the Catholic Church on the use of butter during advent.  At some point-again records vary- some say 1400's others 1700's- a plea was sent to the Pope asking for butter to be used to bake the traditional Christmas bread. At some point, one of the Popes finally agreed and sent what is now known as "the butter letter" allowing the use of butter, but only by the family that made the request.  All others were required to pay a tribute to the church if they would use butter during advent, oh those wily Catholics.

Over the years the stollens were made larger and larger and special giant stollens were baked for the church and political dignitaries, some weighing over a ton.  Since 1994 Dresden has held a Stollen Festival that features a giant stollen baked by multiple bakers in many pieces and patched together to create a stollen weighing several tons.  The largest on record was baked for the 2000 stollen festival and weighed 4,200 kilos!  That's one big loaf of bread.  They construct it on a special cart, bring it to the town square and cut it with a special stollen knife, then sell the pieces to the crowd. They also have a stollen maiden.  It's a big tourism and publicity affair for Dresden.  You can read all about it here.

I wondered why the loaves were supposed to be so big and now I understand.  The recipe I use says to  make 3 or 4 loaves, I made 6 and even then I had trouble fitting them all into my oven at once.  I had to split the dough into 2 parts at kneading just to manage it all and then let it rise in two separate bowls, so if you're going to try making it, you might want to split the recipe in half unless you are having a party or want to give loaves to friends.  They do make a very pretty gift.  So with out further ado- here's the recipe from A World of Breads by Dolores Casella.  This is an excellent book that I use often, it has many variations and recipes for every kind of bread including biscuits, scones, quick breads, pancakes, yeast breads and more.

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled
1 teaspoon of sugar
2 teaspoons of salt
11 cups of flour or more
2 cakes or packages of yeast (2 T active dried) dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
1 pound butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1/4 cup rum or brandy
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 pound slivered, blanched almonds
1 pound assorted candied fruits (I candied my own orange peel- I don't like the commercial candied fruit)
1 pound golden raisins or currants (I combined the candied orange with dried cherries, cranberries, golden and dark raisins and currants to total 2 pounds)
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t mace

Combine the scalded and cooled milk, 1 t of sugar, 2 t of salt, 1 cup of flour and the dissolved yeast.  Blend, cover and let stand until the sponge is bubbly.  Cream the butter and 1 1/2 cups of sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs and the rum or brandy and beat thoroughly.  Stir in 5 cups of the flour and the yeast mixture. Blend 1 cup of the flour into the nuts and fruits. (This was about all my kitchen aid mixer could hold, so from here I transferred to a very large bowl and mixed by hand). Add the rest of the flour and the other ingredients to the dough, using enough flour to make a firm dough.  Turn out onto a floured breadboard and knead quite thoroughly.  ( I split the dough in half here to work it - need until its silky and the dried fruits begin to pop out as you turn it, roughly 5-10 minutes). Place in two large bowls, brush with butter, cover and let rise until doubled (this took almost 2 hours of rising time).  Then punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured board again.  Divide the dough into 3 or 4 parts and shape each part into a thick oval shape (I made 6 oval loaves).  Some recipes have you fold the dough here, or put a layer of marzipan or other things in the center. Place on buttered cookie sheets and let the loaves rise until doubled. Brush with melted butter or cream.  Bake at 350  for about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes, depending on the size of the loaves (mine were done in under an hour because they were smaller and got a little too dark on the bottom because the oven was so crowded.).  If the tops brown too fast, lay a piece of foil over them.  While the loaves are still hot, brush them liberally with melted butter, allow to soak in, then if you like, spoon rum or brandy over the tops of the loaves and let that soak in and then sprinkle thickly with powdered sugar.

Total time was about 5 hours- mostly rising and baking- work time was about an hour I guess- not including the candied orange peel which was another couple of hours.   This isn't a quick or easy bread, but its well worth it.  It keeps well, Casella recommends storing it a couple of days to mellow before cutting it.  I have quartered 2 of the loaves and wrapped them tightly for the freezer, a perfect size for us for breakfast.  It's also very good toasted with more butter- swoon.
Five out of six loaves, they look like they've been snowed on.  The tradition of powdered sugar is supposed to represent Christ in diapers!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Eat Your Butter

The Groaning Board

We moved four pounds of butter and five pounds of sugar through our kitchen last week in the form of 8 kinds of cookies, 6 loaves of stollen, and a pint of chicken liver pate.  Why you might ask were we baking so much?  No, we have not opened our own catering business, though we felt like that's what had hit us as we baked batch after batch, day after day. Well yes, its Christmas time, and we decided to host a winter open house for 40 friends.  Hence the baking commenced.  In addition to the cookies and the bread, we also made a batch of peanut brittle and candied fresh ginger, orange rind and lemon rind, then dipped it in dark chocolate.  The candied fruit was the top hit of the day, especially since the ginger was grown one county over by my brother and sister-in-law, super fresh, super delish.

We had a mighty fine time as we gorged on cookies, drank a gallon of hot cider, two gallons of eggnog and several bottles of wine.   Nothing says winter holidays like eggnog and our local Maple View Dairy makes a very fine version, rich and thick with a nice level of nutmeg.  In a review of the liquor cabinet which we don't frequent that often, I discovered we possessed 7 bottles of different kinds of rum!  Barbados, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Virgin Islands, that was what I was pushing to spike the eggnog to those who were partaking. The house was packed with folks and it was great to have so many friends around us enjoying good food and friendship.
Stollen with homemade orange-flavored butter, the next most popular item on the table.  

We did have a good time getting everything ready, and our house is now super clean. The only problem is all the leftover cookies, I might as well be spreading that butter directly on my hips.  David was worried we wouldn't have enough so got up and baked two more batches Sunday morning, needless to say, we had plenty.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eat Your Veggies

In an effort to combat the onslaught of calories that have already begun to creep into my diet and thereafter inevitably onto my waistline, I'm making a vow to take a long walk every single day and eat more veggies.

It's hard to go wrong with carrots like these at the ready.  These were sweet, tender, crisp and thin skinned.  I gave them a good scrub and down they went with lunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.  Bugs would have been jealous.  I could dig another 20 bunches like this before we eat all that are in the garden.  In addition, I added a few large handfuls of fresh spinach and some side shoots of broccoli  to leftover pasta at lunch time and felt like my halo was tight.

Tonight we'll be having roasted peppers and shrimp over pasta and a green salad with radishes.  It's amazing that we are still eating fresh peppers though we are getting down to the dregs.  The plants finally took it on the chin before Thanksgiving, when the temperature dropped into the 20's, that was the death knoll.  We picked all that were of size and put them in a paper bag closed at the top.  Over the past 2 weeks they've slowly been ripening up.  We've lost a few, and some have gotten a little dried out and shriveled,  but overall they turn red and are still sweet and good to eat.  When we finally run out of those we'll have lots in the freezer, both fresh chopped and roasted and peeled, to get us through the cold months.  Today I cut down the plants and put them in the compost pile, pulled out their cages and put those away, raked up all the dead leaves and piled those in the bin to rot down and become more food for the garden next summer.

As long as I've been gardening in this climate it still floors me that on December 11th we can still be harvesting lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, collards, beets, carrots, kale, chard, bok choy and cilantro.  Very little has needed protection.  There is one gorgeous head of cauliflower growing out there, always a challenge for me, only a few of the plants survived and only one has a decent sized head at this point.  We've covered those plants for the 20 degree nights of this week and hope they will put on a bit more growth.

I've joined the 10% Campaign sponsored by the NC Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS).  Each Sunday I try to remember/estimate, how much money we spent on local food in the past week and how much money I saved by eating homegrown.  This is a bit of a challenge but also rather eye opening as to how much we are actually saving, or what it might cost us to buy all the stuff we grow if we were purchasing organic from the store or market.  For the 2 of us, it's working out to between $30-$40 a week and I think I actually tend to low ball.  I don't count all the fresh herbs for example.  So the goal is to eat/buy at least 10% locally each week, I think we are at about 40-50% because of the garden.

I feel sure that if we didn't have the garden, we would not be eating nearly as well as we are.  And on that note- I'm off to prepare another in a long line of excellent meals featuring loads of local food, including the shrimp.