How quickly we get from first to last.
As I lay abed last night, contemplating the imminence of 2014 and anxious about what the New Year might bring, I thought about taking down the tree and packing away the decorations of the season. Then I fell asleep.
When I awoke I said to My Dear One—before I had the chance to forget my meditations of the evening before—“I think I will undress the tree today.” My Dear One agreed that such was a worthy plan and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, decided that newspapers obscured by shrubbery and a boulder from view from both driveway and second-floor bedroom window had simply not been delivered, and watched Sunday Morning on CBS. I would not, for anything, miss “Hail and Farewell.”
There were, to be sure, parts of Christmas that occurred between first day and last. I baked fifteen mini-loaves of cranberry-lemon bread to take to neighbors and in-town friends. It is a wonderful recipe, one that I took from the Daily Hampshire Gazette when I lived in western Massachusetts in the 1970s. Here’s the recipe:
Glazed Cranberry-Lemon Bread
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 cups flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk (I’ve used skim, whole, half-and-half and almond milk)
1 cup fresh cranberries, somewhat chopped
½ cup mixed candied fruits and peels (I never use this and just add more cranberries)
½ cup chopped walnuts (I use pecans and I toast them first)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
(Squeeze lemon as soon as you grate away peel and mix with sugar so that the two have a chance to melt together.)
Mixing the bread:
- Preheat oven to 350°. Spray loaf pan with oil (and flour it if you like).
- Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs and lemon peel and beat well.
- Sift dry ingredients together. Add to mixture, alternating with milk.
- Add chopped cranberries and nuts.
- Bake in loaf pan for 55-65 minutes.
- Let cool for 10 minutes. (Original directions say to remove from pan but I never do that.)
- Spoon lemon juice-sugar mixture over the top. Let cool. Wrap and store overnight (or at least for an hour or so.)
If you want mini-loaves to give away, quadruple quantities; you should get 15 loaves. Make sure you have a REALLY LARGE BOWL, because mixing everything together, once the butter, sugar, eggs and lemon peel have been blended, is a bit of a challenge. Fill each pan with 1 cup of dough; arrange on cookie sheets for baking. I set the oven on convection at 325° and back for 15-18 minutes, then rotate back to front and swap baking racks. Use toothpick test to make sure loaves are really done. Use the juice of the whole lemon and about 6 tablespoons of sugar when glazing.
Of course there was actual celebration of Christmas. That’s a double-barreled event.
On Christmas Eve, my Tattooed Boy and his girlfriend joined us for the traditional repast. The menu is oysters and shrimp for us, steak, baked potato and peas for them. Normally we have oyster stew but this year opted for raw oysters. They were fresh, exquisite, and darned near impossible to open. Note to self: learn the right way to open oysters BEFORE next Christmas. Dessert seems to have defaulted to Hazie’s Brownies and ice cream. Hazie was my Granny, my father’s mother. Her brownies were legendary: moist and dense. I have since “improved” the recipe, if I do say so myself. Ice cream is available in two flavors: vanilla and peppermint-stick. After last year’s debacle when no peppermint-stick could be found and I had to go without—a sad, sad state of affairs—my Tattooed Boy found me a quart of Edy’s and Lynn, my oldest, bestest friend (in every way) had Pierre’s ship three half-gallons to me from their plant in Cleveland, Ohio. Pierre’s won the taste test. Three-quarters of the last half-gallon will last me not much past New Year’s Eve.
My Dear One’s spawn all join us on Christmas Day. I insist the menu be of the easy-preparation sort. This year that meant Baba’s Beef Stew (This is the stew my mother always made for us: throw cubes of beef, chunks of carrot, potato and onion into a pot with a can or so of whole tomatoes—or whatever tomato product you have on hand—with some salt and pepper, a bay leaf and a couple of cloves. I generally add half a bottle of beer and a generous amount of dried parsley. Bake in a heavy pot at around 300° for four or five hours. It gets better if it sits over the next few days.) In addition there was a slab of poached salmon, green salad, crusty rolls, and the shrimp left over from the night before. Dessert was an apple pie. (The dough was waiting in the refrigerator; all I had to do was peel and cut apples, toss with a bit of sugar, spice, instant tapioca and butter, roll out the crusts and wrap them around the filling.) Even without the champagne (well, Cava) everyone was satisfied. Enough bubbly and everyone is always satisfied.
Christmas morning, My Tattooed Boy and his girlfriend joined us for breakfast and stockings. Breakfast is always eggs and bacon. My mother insisted that we children ingest something hearty and protein-laden that would inoculate us against the sweets we would eat for the rest of the day. It was an excellent system and one I keep in place.
The rest arrived early Christmas afternoon. A few hors d’oeuvres—stuffed mushroom caps are always a hit—then Christmas dinner, then presents. Then more dessert. After a period of somnolent quiet, eyes turn toward home before exhaustion paralyzes us all.
The four days between then and now were filled with aimless movements from desk to couch to bed to kitchen to desk—in no particular order. The books that I knew were coming—but whose titles invariably surprise me—are all I want to play with. Wonderful books on Lucian Freud the painter and Simon Garfield’s To The Letter. A few more Christmas cards trickle in; some need responses and I will get to that presently. The deer seem to know that the season calls for generosity—and they arrive as though on schedule, waiting impatiently for the rotting apples and dried corn with toss their way.
The landscape that gleamed under an early snowfall turned brown under the warmth of the sun, then sodden as the skies filled with rain.My Dear One’s ornaments were returned to his box and my Tattooed Boy’s to his. The crèche was dismantled, along with the Peaceable Kingdom that rests on the moss carpet of the Norfolk Island Pine bonsai forest. Electric candles no longer glow on the windowsills. The tree has been denuded and heaved from the deck to the patio below, from where it will be dragged to the curb. Predictably, I managed to overlook some ornaments, an apple, an angel, a gold glass ball. A little later, My Dear One found a bell still hanging in the bonsai forest. Sure that I had not seen it, I finally located the snowflake acquired to replace the snowflake my brother-in-law inadvertently tossed out with the tree back in the 1970s; it had fallen on the carpet where it was all but invisible. The scent of balsam still touches the air and clings to my hands.
It is our last day of Christmas. Happy New Year.