Foodie Tuesday: Holidays on Ice

As lazy as I am when being an ‘everyday’ entertainer, that attitude of mine only multiplies and intensifies when it comes to special occasions. I have no interest in hosting a party if everyone is having fun except me. So it’s especially important to me when I’m thinking of any event, particularly a festive one like a holiday (and I’ll embrace any holiday that’ll have me, if it means an excuse for celebrations with friends and loved ones), that I do as much of the heavy lifting as I can ahead of the day. Being a piggy with a sweet tooth, and not opposed to alcohol in moderation, that means I am known on occasion to haul out the Fix It-Douse-It-Forget-It recipes. You know, the ones that you put booze in or pour it over, seal up like little yummy mummies, and tuck away in a safe spot to age until party time. Keep ’em on ice, so to speak.

One of my favorites for this used to be Christmas Pudding, usually using a classic recipe like the lovely one given to me by a friend in London the very first time I visited there nearly thirty-five years ago. I have since become even lazier; it’s a million-ingredient extravaganza with real fresh suet and tons of over-the-top fat and sugary delights, and requires fussy prep and long, carefully monitored steaming in (for those of us who lack a real pudding steamer) a low-tech contraption cobbled together from whatever substitutes one can find for the pudding tin, before one can even attend to the artful draping in layers of liquor-soaked cheesecloth and plastic wrap and tinfoil. Heavens! I’m salivating just thinking of the glory that emerged from those efforts when long weeks or months had passed and it was time for the great unveiling. A large spoonful of that miraculous stuff, re-warmed and blanketed in equally boozy hard sauce and washed down with a good stiff tot of port, and I was undoubtedly well enough pickled to last several months on a dark cupboard shelf myself. But it was a bit too much, not only the excess of caloric craziness and vaporous intake, but also in the immense labors it took to accomplish it all.

Nowadays I am (literally, to be honest) inclined toward greater ease. But I still enjoy some indulgences for the same special occasions, even holidays that might have little personal resonance if it weren’t for the permission they give me to indulge so. Now that we’re rumbling into the high holiday season as America immerses in it (and let’s just start with tomorrow, which according to my quick research, is Nevada Day—who but a handful of devoted Nevadans knew!), there will be no shortage of reasons for partying. Now that I think about it, my birthday is the feast day of La Guadalupana, and since I have without even having previously made that connection been decanting a homemade rose liqueur (from dried Mexican rosebuds, no less) that I think would be highly appropriate to her story, I might have to find excuses to tuck that event in as well. Guess that just confirms my longstanding belief that my own birthday is a major holiday.

But meanwhile, there are all kinds of seasonal treat regarded as something like a serious requirement in this country if one is to celebrate the holidays properly. Anything and everything pumpkin flavored, of course, with warming spices, the occasional fall fruits (apple, pear, quince) and maple syrup and various nutmeats thrown in—these are all high on the list, some of them with an emphasis on High. Oh, and eggnog. Never forget the eggnog. So I, being fairly easily led to hankering for food-and-drink-related things that are being touted and offered nearly everywhere I look, follow the resultant trail of salivation, if not salvation, right to the sources.

Today I felt moved to put together some of these seasonal treats, some to pop in the refrigerator for fairly immediate consumption (though intended to last for a few days in the chiller, at least), and a bit to wait for their starring moments. The former includes a Fall dessert combination of pumpkin, apple, and pecans, and the latter is this year’s take on eggnog. Because sipping champagne-and-roses (as I intend to do with a nice sparkling Rosé spiked with the aforementioned rose liqueur) is probably not enough.

Photo: Pumpkin-Apple Dessert Makes a Good Breakfast

Pumpkin-Apple Dessert makes a good breakfast, don’t you think?

Pumpkin-Apple Dessert

Not pie, but close…to pumpkin pie, apple pie, and pecan pie, all in one big ridiculously happy dish. Or served separately, if that’s your happy wish. See that? I made a little rhyme, too, all for the sake of my sweet tooth. The measurements in all of these are approximate and to taste, as are any cooking times and temperatures. You know me.

Pumpkin Pudding

1 large tin of pure pumpkin puree (29 oz), 3 eggs, 1/2 cup dark maple syrup, 1/4 cup coconut oil, 1 Tbsp vanilla, a hefty pinch of salt, 2 tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp allspice. Blend together thoroughly, pour into a greased covered pan, and bake or microwave (on high for about 5 minutes) until the eggs have thickened it slightly. Refrigerate.

You will probably not be shocked to know that I amped my pumpkin pudding up with the addition of a couple of scoops of vanilla whey protein powder, because I will be having some for breakfast once or twice before it’s gone.

Apple Pie Sauce

1 each Granny Smith (or other bright-flavored) and Fuji (sweet) apples, peeled and cored and diced, 2 Tbsp clarified browned butter, 3 Tbsp minced candied ginger, and a pinch of salt, all cooked down into a still-chunky bright applesauce with a quarter- to half-cup of gold rum.

Bacon-Maple Pecans

Pecan halves, bacon fat, and dark maple syrup. Melt and heat them together until the nuts grow faintly toasty and the fat and syrup caramelize, and you have candied pecans made in hog heaven. Yeah, you can use any sort of favored fat you like, so don’t cry if you’re vegan! Goodness is still within reach!

Photo: Pumpkin-Apple Dessert after Dinner

Pumpkin-Apple Dessert after dinner is good, too.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

And in honor of a couple of fabulous Puerto Rican ladies (Natalia and Fabiana) I happen to know and greatly admire, my take on the PR version of eggnog, or Coquito.

[Note: Just to be on the safe side and to take advantage of the slight thickening that heat brings out of eggs, I have made this in custard-fashion, cooking it slightly, but aside from the usual caveats regarding at-risk persons (i.e., the pregnant, the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems) and raw eggs or alcohol, the combination of the two has been scientifically proven to kill, rather than foster, salmonella. Just so’s you know. Salud!]

Coquito Loco Rico

1 cup coconut butter, 54 oz coconut milk, 6 egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 2 Tablespoon vanilla, 1 cup packed light brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, and 1 tsp ground cardamom, all blended together and cooked, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened. Pour into a container that can be tightly closed (I used a 3 quart pitcher with a tight lid), add a pint of gold rum (I used PR-produced Bacardi), stir, seal, and stash in the depths of the fridge for as long as you can stand waiting The large proportion of alcohol keeps the eggs from spoiling. Serve cold or hot, straight up (high-octane!) or mixed with additional nonalcoholic coquito, eggnog, cream, or milk of any kind, and preferably in good company.

Because you may need the comfort, since this stuff can be so good it’s scary. Happy Halloween, everybody. Even if you don’t care to dress up for it or recognize it as any kind of meaningful event for you, it can be well worth your while to gather some friends and loved ones to celebrate something with a flavor-packed dessert or a rollicking drink.

Foodie Tuesday: Meringue Merengue

Digital illustration from a photo: Egg SeparatorEgg Separation Anxiety never plagued me much, even if there’s no support group dedicated to its eradication. Mom taught me how to break open an egg delicately enough to slip the yolk from one half-shell to another over a cup or bowl while letting the albumen slide away, keeping the yolk intact and the white pristine enough for a good souffle or meringue. But do I think to do so very often? No, hardly ever. I really do love souffles and meringues, so it’s silly not to do a little egg separating and have a little bit of delicious, fluffy fun once in a while.

Heaven knows that inflated eggwhites are highly trend-friendly these days, anyway. All I have to do is have one little look at any of the menus, Pinterest boards, food blogs, or cookbooks that are current to be instantly engulfed in a vast snowbank of handmade marshmallows, mile-high mousses, and macarons. I think I can safely say that I am so far from being trendy as to have missed out on cutting any edge more exciting than my homely and unvarnished manicure.

Trends are usually overrated, anyway. Beaten eggwhites? Not.

But let’s stop dancing around this and start talking about what separating eggs can do for deliciousness. Less merengue, more meringue!

Kransekake biscuits! The famed Norwegian celebration dessert, a conical construction comprising rings of ground almond meringue that, in my family’s recipe, is made with a fantastic, simple (nuts, egg whites, sugar. Period.) dough to bake up into lovely chewy cookies when broken for eating.

Meringue crusted tarts! Cinnamon crust, apple filling with tawny port. Rose water crust, strawberries in pomegranate curd, topped with candied rose petals and finely chopped pistachios. All sorts of options that imitate but don’t supplant the lovely Pavlova in their magical variety. A lightly sweet, crisp meringue topped or filled with soft fillings of fruit, custards, mousses, and the like makes for a heavenly treat.

And, since it’s holiday time hereabouts, my own variant of île flottante, eggnog with a meringue cap. I kept both very simple this time around: the eggnog being an extremely uncomplicated thin custard made with cream, whole milk, cane sugar, a pinch of salt, a whole vanilla bean, a good grating of fresh nutmeg, and a whole bunch of egg yolks—in this case, the yolks of eight eggs for a combined quart of milk and cream. Warmed to a near-scalding temperature while being whisked continuously, it thickened slightly before going into the refrigerator for further thickening and chilling.

[For those who wish, a nice tot of bourbon, rum, or brandy (or any other liquor or combination of them that you like) can give this dessert-y treat a grownup twist, as long as you’re grownup enough to imbibe intelligently and stay away from dangerous things like cars, cliffs, and ex-spouses*.]

Meanwhile, with the eggnog chilling in the fridge, there’s plenty of time to whip up the eggwhites into sturdy enough peaks to keep their winsome little curlicue tops under the broiler while getting a quick gilding. All I added to the eggwhites while beating them into submission was a big splash of lovely dark maple syrup.

Pour some eggnog into a glass, add liquor if you like, and top with a little party hat of golden-skinned soft meringue, and toast the occasion. And the goodness of eggs, while you’re at it! Cheers!Photo: Eggnog with a Party Hat

* Note: Just in case anyone takes me too seriously, I should mention that I have the privilege of being married to a guy who has two genuinely excellent exes, and I consider them both fabulous human beings, so I only have to avoid the aforementioned cars and cliffs, myself. In fact, I’ll happily tip back some tipple with either of my predecessors anytime without fear of anything but conviviality (and possibly, hilarity) happening. It’s all about how the relationships are managed, just as it’s about how we manage our imbibing.

Be Very Afraid. If You Really Like that Sort of Thing.

I have neither the knowhow nor the tangible resources for filmmaking, but if I did, I think my concept of the perfect horror movie subject would be the infamous occasion of Black Friday. As we Americans approach the national holiday I like the most of them all, Thanksgiving, I think with a shudder that Black Friday’s grim shadow lurks just behind it.
For if I have a tender feeling for the holiday that not only marks the anniversary of my first date with my soon-thereafter life partner and makes me immensely thankful for that gift but also marks the national celebration of gratitude in general, I have an almost antithetical feeling about the retail frenzy that follows it. The former only throws the latter into higher, less flattering relief.

I love shopping, don’t get me wrong, but I hate being told how and when to do it, and what or whom for, and to what magnificent extents. I dislike being so easily manipulated by commercial ploys and plugs as it is, and the stink of desperation mixed with hyperbolic greed on Black Friday becomes overwhelmingly off-putting to me.

Digital illustration

What makes us turn into beasts when we get a whiff of the hunt? When a crazy sale is advertised, do I become predator or prey? Or should I just pray?!

There are obviously large numbers of people who are not only comfortable with the event but energized and entertained by the spectacle and Olympian scaled enthusiasm packed into the post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza. I wish them all happiness and success in it. For myself, the greatest pleasure will derive from managing as successfully as I can to not even know it’s happening and staying immersed in the afterglow of my most overtly grateful time of year. Accomplishing that will be yet another reason for me to give thanks.
If I need any diversions during my quiet hideout from Black Friday, I can always work on a script for a rollicking thriller film with plenty of retail rowdiness and gruesome greed. Coming soon to a theatre near you!

Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Pretty Thievery

You’ve heard of petty thieves; this summer I saw a pretty thief. My husband and I were visiting in Washington (state), seeing family, attending a fundraising event and spending a couple of days at the end of the trip where my partner was doing some work conducting a choir (comprising as its singers a batch of veteran choral conductors and teachers, a handful of whom are longtime friends of ours) in a workshop. It was all quite delightful, with the exception of the horrid respiratory gunk that my guy received as a gift along the way and that cut short the workshop fun. [He has fully recovered by now, thankfully.]

But another unexpected happy thing about the trip was that the fundraiser was held very near a condominium we own that, while it’s normally rented out as a residence—so we’ve not been inside it since we viewed it for purchase—our property manager informed us that we were getting a new renter and our visit sat right in the between-renters gap. So there was this handy opportunity for us to go in and renew our familiarity with the place where we might conceivably someday live ourselves as retirees, not to mention a chance to measure rooms, note the condition of things now that the home was actually clean and unfurnished, and so forth. All useful, along with the visit to that town itself, in reminding ourselves what had attracted us to the locale and the home in the first place.

Another attraction we were reminded of appeared serendipitously on this visit. As we were wandering through the neighborhood and trying to remember exactly how to find our only-once-visited place, we passed a house with beautiful dwarf fruit trees planted along its street side, and there stood a deer, placidly unruffled by either our passing car or the midday sun, casually balancing on two legs to reach up and nab some marvelous, rosy ripe apples and munch them one after another. We stopped, rolled down our windows to enjoy the sight, and listened to birds chorusing in the trees, and vowed never to turn in such a charming miscreant even if it one day dined on our own deck plants.Photo: Pretty Thievery

Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Coming in for a Landing

Travel! When the opportunity arises, it’s such a joy. And one of the pleasures is that first glimpse of Destination from the plane as it’s approaching the airport. On the recent trip, that was Hungary. Well, Frankfurt first, for the layover and change of planes, because Budapest is, inconveniently, not a direct flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International by means of any airlines that wanted to haul 100 wonderful yet mildly wacky choristers and choir groupies like us over there.Photo: Wing Watching

But then there was the arrival in Hungarian airspace, the gradual coasting down below the thirty thousand foot level, the passing through a thick padding of cloud, and the gradual appearance, between shreds of the last clouds, of lovely farmland and countryside, soon followed by equally tantalizing sightings of increasingly suburban and urban zones. As the craft eases toward the runway, there’s that little tickle at the back of the brain that says, This is Finally Real! After weeks and months of planning and imagining and arranging the possibilities, thinking the adventure infinitely far away, suddenly one is looking out a plane window at trees and roads and buildings of a place-that-is-not-home, and it feels quite lovely, even if one is groggy from a long day or night (or more) of travel to get there.Photo: Aerial Patchwork

Returning home after travel can have something of the same effect, of course, since even when it’s awful to have the holiday or away-time end and worse, there are chores and jobs and catch-up of all sorts to attend as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac, there’s still that bit of gladness welling up at the sight of familiar yet unfamiliar land below, stuff not normally seen from such an elevated angle. And it also says that the known comforts of home are not far off after a long day or night (or more) of travel to return.Photo: Signs of the City

So I’ve now had both versions of the experience anew, more than once each as it happens, in a recent journey and, rather than dulling the pleasure, it reminds me afresh of what appeals and beckons about flying off to distant places. And about winging back to home turf, too. Flying from Dallas to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Budapest, riding in massive coaches with the choir from Budapest to Vienna to Prague; flying again from Prague to Stockholm, then Stockholm to Frankfurt to Dallas—and all the while, looking out windows for signs between the buildings, the trees, and the clouds to say that some new sort of excellence lies just ahead—this is a journey worth all of the weeks and months of labor and dreaming, plotting and packing, and one that only makes me hungry for more.Photo: Over Budapest