Monday, December 21, 2009

Sticky Pudding and a cup of good cheer!

"Because I've odd ideas about Christmas. Because I have all that money can buy. I want more people, but no more things."
Howards End

I've got to agree with Margaret Schlegel on this one. As I get older and acquire more stuff, I find that providing Christmas gift lists gets harder and harder. I don't need any more things, just more people. Or rather, more time with the people I like.

Yesterday was the Annual Holiday Lunch* with the girls -- oh, and husbands and children and even a dog, but really it's the girls that matter here. This particular group of girlfriends all centres around the lovely S. who married an adorable Englishman in 2005 and went to live in London for a few years. In her absence, and missing her dreadfully, us bridesmaids would get together for lunch or dinner every so often and boom! a group friendship was cemented. I adore these women. They're so funny and so bright, they sparkle. They eat everything I put on their plates. They're wonderful. And now that S. is back in Canada with husband and daughter, the group is complete and all's right with the world.

You would think. But not quite. The fly in the ointment is that, despite the fact we're all in the same general geographic area, we still can't seem to get together more than once a month, and that's if we're lucky. What has happened to the world that we're all so busy? Children, jobs, family commitments, I know, I know, it all adds together to eat up every moment of free time, but suddenly the year is over and you realize that all your communication with your friends is electronic and you can't remember what they look like. It's kind of sad, when you think about it. Your friends are the family that you get to choose (what a luxury!) and here we are, squandering it because we're all so busy that in some cases 2 years may go by before you can actually pull together a casual dinner.


Ah, well. What can you do?

Resolve, I guess, to make the most of the time you do spend together. Try to ensure that there's at least one high-quality weekend away a year together. Keep dreaming of renting a house in Sonoma together. And seal the deal with food, of course, as N. did yesterday with her superb roast beef for lunch and I did with this heart-stopping dessert made specially for S. who counts herself as something of an Sticky Toffee Pudding expert. It passed the test.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Toffee Sauce**
1 1/2 cups pitted dates, chopped
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp.baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of allspice

For Toffee Sauce:
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter

Combine the dates and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes, or until most of the liquid had been absorbed by the dates or evaporated. Puree the dates in a food processor, blender or stick mixer.

With an electric mixer, beat the butter with the brown sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix flour with baking powder and baking soda. Add to the wet batter and then stir in pureed dates.

Spoon the batter into a buttered & floured 9" x 13" baking dish. Bake in a 350° over for 35 to 45 minutes or until the top feels firm when gently pressed in the center.

While pudding is cooking, make the toffee sauce by combining cream sugar and butter in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Bring to a boil then cook, boiling and stirring for about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly.

When cake is done and cooled slightly, prick with a skewer to make lots of tiny holes. Spoon half of the toffee sauce over the cake.

When ready to serve, heat remaining toffee sauce (stirring all the while) and spoon over individual portions. If you really want to kill them with kindness, add a scoop or two of highest quality vanilla ice cream.


* this event does not, in fact, happen annually because of scheduling conflicts. Go figure. However, I am determined to make it so and start by labelling it, quite firmly, as the Annual Holiday Lunch.

**adapted from Food & Whine:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And so this is Christmas

Okay, so Christmas.

It's been intimated around the office and on Facebook lately that I'm a Grinch or a Scrooge, that I lack Christmas Spirit and all that. And the thing is, it's absolutely not true. I love Christmas. I love the last wheezing gasps of the old year and the promise of the new. I love that there's all this lovely time off, that there's days and days of feasting ahead, the whole giving and receiving of gifts and good wishes. I love all the lights and the shopping (bah! humbug! on this online shopping thing – I need to see and feel the gifts I’m choosing for you) and the whole suspension of reality. It’s lovely and from mid-December onwards I’m capable of tearing up at the tiniest thing, sentimental fool that I am.

But the thing is, it can’t be forced. You can surround me with all your tinselly shit and good cheer at the office all you want, but until that mid-December moment comes, I just won’t feel Christmas. I have to wait, every year, until something triggers it for itself.

Last year it was the night my husband and I decorated our first Christmas tree together (we’d been married for 5 years but had never had a tree before because we feared what our border collie/lab mix dog would do to it in our absence) with all these wonderful old glass ornaments from his grandfather’s house. It was such a nice moment, and the house smelled so good, and the ornaments were such little nostalgia-globes, and I think we watched A Christmas Story afterwards and laughed, and maybe it snowed, and maybe I’d had a few too many glasses of cabernet, but whatever it was, that was the night I felt Christmas for 2008.

Well, tonight was the night I felt Christmas for the first time in 2009. And it’s all my sister’s fault.

My elder sister is mentally handicapped, which, for anyone reading this who has a handicapped relative or friend knows, is a situation that’s incredibly layered with emotion and meaning and good stuff and bad stuff and, just, stuff. Anyway, about once a month the two of us go out for dinner. Sometimes when I pick her up she’s had a bad day and is grumpy, but lately she’s been in fine form almost every time we have dinner. Tonight was no exception.

We sat in the crowded restaurant, chatting as we do on these evenings out about how busy or not busy the restaurant is, how things are in the house where she lives, about what she’s going to order (complete with the dessert that she promises to never tell our mother about, yet invariably does, so thrilled is she to have snookered me into buying her dessert when my parents never give in on that) until the waitress came to take our order. Looking up at the 20-year old server with bright eyes and a smile, my sister stuck her hand out and introduced herself to the girl, saying “Me, Andrea.”

(I always have this teeeensy moment of fear when my sister makes any sort of gesture to the outside world, when she breaks her focus away from me and reaches out to someone else. Because I never know what sort of reaction Andrea’s going to get and there’s nothing worse than to see someone recoil from her, as though she’s a monster of some sort. It’s a reaction that hurts, that ruffles all those layers of emotional stuff -- she’s as familiar to me as my own skin, how can she be a monster to others – that’s just so damned rude and yet what can you do. You can’t blame people for their instinctive reactions, that’s just who they are, just as my sister is just who she is.)

So, yes, I held my breath as my sister trustingly introduced herself to the young waitress. And I was richly rewarded as the girl, without missing a beat, laughed and put down her tray, shook hands with my sister and said “well, hello, I’m Michelle!”

And that was it. That was the moment when the whole Christmas spirit or whatever you want to call it started to trickle in. For Andrea, simple contact with non-handicapped people means a lot. I think it makes her feel like she belongs, like she’s less different. And, because of the way she is (in the sense that she’s not always in such a great mood that she’ll reach out to the outside world) and because of the way people are and the way they handle difference, it’s something she doesn’t get to experience on a regular basis. So Michelle the waitress’ kindness in treating my sister like anyone else, a tiny event she likely forgot minutes after it happened, meant the world to Andrea right at that moment.

And then, about an hour later, as Andrea and I finished some Christmas shopping and she loudly and happily wished the cashier a Merry Christmas with great, innocent enthusiasm, well, that pretty much sealed the deal. Put out some cookies, crack open that box of tissues, prepare for floods at the first sentimental t.v. commercial, Christmas 2009 is officially open for business.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The problem with blogging (Part Deux)

The problem with blogging is that sometimes the only things you want to write about are the things you absolutely should not write about in the public domain. Your dysfunctional relationship with your family or your employer, for example. Or about your observations on Christmas, which is a time of year that you adore, but that has a dark side that you'd like to explore in print, but you don't want to scare your mother (who is the only person reading your blog, of course), again. Or about how some of your most meaningful conversations these days are happening on Twitter with strangers you'll never meet and though you tell yourself that Twitter is like a big ol' virtual cocktail party, there's a part of you that thinks it's all so weird. Or about how too much vitamin water will give you a case of the electric scoots. You know, stuff like that.


PS The photo is the cover of Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland, by Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins (Harper Paperbacks, $10)Read more: . 'Nuf said.