Bound by Tradition

Have I mentioned that I grew up holiday-free? It’s one of the defining aspects of my character — now, as an adult, I love holidays like a kid because they’re all new and exciting, but I’m never sure how important they are to other people or whether I’m celebrating them quite right. Half the time, I only remember after the day has passed. Both this year, in kindergarten, and last year, in preschool,  Niko had no Dr. Seuss-themed shirt on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and last year he failed to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because I forgot each time that the holidays were approaching. This year I did manage to purchase some St. Patrick’s Day green for the kids and me, and I did remember to get it out on the day, but only because I set two reminders on my phone.

I grew up as part of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, and abandoning both secular and religious holidays was a choice we embraced as part of freedom from the chains of tradition, worldly entanglement, and religious law. Of course,  non-celebration then became a religious law…but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, our abstinence from holidays was a practice that derived from a sincere desire to have lives characterized by simplicity, with our focus on God rather than getting caught up in the frivolity and materialism of celebrations.

However, Easter is a holiday that was embedded in my psyche from a young age, albeit loosely. There were no visible trappings of the celebration in our community; we had no egg hunts, no frilly pastel dresses or spring hats. We did have giant, revival-style church services in the spring near Easter time, forever connected in my mind because of the abundance of seasonal candy for the event, but they had nothing to do with the holiday in reality; they just happened to be scheduled in the spring.  Despite our church’s eschewing of holidays, though,  Easter Sunday generally did feature Resurrection-themed songs and sermons, though the word “Easter” wasn’t necessarily mentioned. After all, unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated at the historically correct time, just after Passover; and its celebration is much less gift-centered than Christmas, thus contributing less to the corruption of the soul. Occasionally someone would get unusually enthusiastic in the delivery of an Easter Sunday message, with a jubilant cry of “He is risen!” from the pulpit, echoed by a wide array of responses from the congregation — from a few sober  Amen’s, to a rousing Glory hallelujah! or two, to a few rebelliously traditional calls of He is risen indeed!

Anyway, what with the appearance of the best candy of the year, the onslaught of songs featuring imagery of rising from graves, and the occasional Easter sermon, Easter is a holiday that has remained on my radar — in the distance, anyway — from childhood on.

In past years, Aaron and I have let Easter pass with barely a nod — we often had a family dinner with his parents, but we didn’t do much ourselves. When we moved to our current home in Oregon, though, we realized that our move-in date would coincide with Easter. The first night we spent here was the Saturday before Easter. So we celebrated with Easter baskets for the kids (Sofia was just a baby, so hers just had enough in it to satisfy three-year-old Niko’s need to include her), and we had an egg hunt — Niko’s very first.

The next year, Niko discovered the joys of dyeing eggs. And decorating cookies. We did both with friends, which made it just that much more wonderful. Sofia was now big enough to tear into her own little Easter basket and even collect a few eggs, with help. We had a special Easter breakfast — Finnish pancake, a childhood favorite of mine. And Tradition was established.

Last year, we went all out in preparation — Aaron and I found Easter presents for the kids together, we bought them both clothes for the occasion, and I, wanting to continue Tradition but caving to exhaustion and a bad cold, bought a sugar cookie mix for Niko. I even made the kids silly little sock bunnies, which I stuffed with rice and barley scented with an essential oil blend of warm orange and cinnamon. DSC01213 (1)

I loved Niko’s excitement leading up to the big day. “Guess what’s happening NEXT WEEK!” he said to me for an entire week, after Aaron had whispered the surprise to him, and “Guess what’s happening THIS WEEK, Mom! Guess!” for another whole week. He kept asking about the Easter Bunny and what he might bring, and where does he get the eggs, anyway? He knows, intellectually, that the Easter Bunny isn’t real, but his heart isn’t in it. When we read Jan Brett’s new Easter Bunny story, he confided that he really did believe in the Easter Bunny.

Niko flung himself into Easter preparations with delight. He was thrilled beyond words when I showed him the shirt I’d gotten him to wear on Easter. He reveled in the anticipation of the egg hunt and Easter basket. Not in the least disappointed by making cookies from a mix instead of from scratch, he happily stirred, rolled, and cut. When I got out the little tubes of writing icing to decorate them (another shortcut that was so very helpful), he authoritatively instructed Sofia in the correct ways of decorating them. We didn’t decorate eggs, sadly — I ran out of both time and energy.

Then, on that Easter Saturday (Aaron had a business trip for which he had to leave on Sunday),  I followed our year-old tradition and made a batch of Finnish pancake, my own recipe this time, which was so well received we ate almost the entire dish within half an hour. Niko and Sofia got dressed in their new Easter finery, and then we presented the toy-filled baskets. The kids loved their aromatic bunnies and springtime treats. While they explored their baskets and played with their kaleidoscopes, Aaron disappeared outside, as per Tradition, to hide eggs in artistic locations. Niko and Sofia hunted enthusiastically, filling their  baskets with candy-loaded eggs. They ate the decorated cookies. They read Easter stories. In short, they celebrated Easter thoroughly.

And now comes the conundrum. I haven’t just established Tradition. No, it’s worse: I’ve become entrenched in Tradition. My holiday-eschewing self is now trapped in the need to make Easter perfect for the kids — but this need is at odds with the reality of my personality, my history, and my health and general energy level. The obvious solution is to tone it down, little by little, year by year, until the kids are content with a handful of chocolate eggs and a store-bought, pre-decorated sugar cookie.

So, naturally, I’m amping it up this time. This year I started early! I purchased a spring dress for Sofia months ago, and successfully convinced her that it’s a special dress to be worn only on Easter — an endeavor that took more effort than all the cookie decorating and egg coloring of previous years. Finding an appropriate shirt for Niko (one that can be re-worn for school) was harder, as he’s at an awkward in-between size, but after patiently searching for just the right one, I finally found a reasonably suitable one. I have been researching egg decorating, and made an excursion to Goodwill a few weeks ago to find silk ties to dye extra-special eggs with colorful prints. I’m trying to learn how to empty eggs before dyeing so we can decorate eggs ahead of time and enjoy them as decorations, while not getting rotten egg odor. I’ve been eyeing the seasonal toy aisles for the best Easter selections. I’m pondering the virtues of mixing up a big batch of cookie dough and freezing it for later. I’ve halfway decided to sew the kids bunny stuffies from some of their baby pajamas, using a pattern I saw online. I even bought an Easter wreath at 50% off several weeks ago.

In short, I’m finding — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m anticipating the holiday almost as much as the kids are. Instead of the preparations being an energy drain, I find that they’re a bit invigorating. While I acknowledge that I feel somewhat bound by the tradition, I’m realizing that not all bonds and not all traditions have to be negative. As I’ve discovered over the last few years with Christmas celebrations, allowing myself to succumb to these formerly forbidden (or at least discouraged) activities is strangely freeing.  This formerly holiday-free mom is embracing the Easter spirit, and it’s so much fun.

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A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

Tannenbaum Christmas Coffee Cake

At some point in my late teens, I came across a recipe for Christmas tree-shaped coffee cake. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but I fell in love with the recipe and made it anyway. It turned out to be a hit, and I’ve made it nearly every year since. 

I can’t remember now where I found the original version of this recipe.  It’s scrawled in my embarrassingly cute recipe journal, which is pink and enlivened with a photo of kittens on the cover, and I recorded it before I began my habit of referencing the sources of my recipes.

I’ve altered it somewhat from the original over the years. I use the original recipe for the dough, but since the recipe made two huge tree-shaped coffee cakes, I now cut it in half to be more reasonable for a small family rather than a large gathering — in fact, this year I’ll use this half-sized recipe to make two small ones  instead of a single large cake, and freeze one for New Year’s morning. Besides adjusting the amount of dough, I tweaked the original filling, adding spices and dried fruit and increasing the overall amount. So, while I do wish I could give credit to the original creator, the evolution over the years is enough to erase any compunction I might feel for failing to cite my sources.

This sweet treat is more like an elaborate, decorative cinnamon roll than the coffee cake I grew up with, which was a cross between a quick bread (like banana bread) and a cake, with a cinnamon streusel topping. Instead of baking soda, this coffee cake uses yeast, and it needs to be made the afternoon before you’re planning your breakfast to give it plenty of time to rise overnight. 

You may scroll all the way to the bottom to read a more concise version of this recipe, and print a PDF.

Start by collecting your ingredients:

Dough:

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups flour
  • Oil or cooking spray

Filling:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup dried fruit, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter (for brushing onto the dough)

Glaze:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • Water or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Maraschino cherries, for garnish

Royal Icing (optional)

  • White of one pasteurized egg (one ounce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup of powdered sugar

You’ll mix and knead the dough and shape the coffee cake the night before you want to eat it, so be sure to plan enough time — and enough refrigerator space to let it rise overnight!

Start by getting the dough ready. Heat the milk and butter together in the microwave. In my microwave, about a minute and a half is enough to warm the milk without scalding it. The butter won’t be completely melted — let the mixture sit on the counter a few minutes, and the butter will finish melting while the milk cools slightly. You don’t want the milk to be hot, just warm. Hot milk will curdle the egg and kill the yeast.

While the milk cools, mix your dry ingredients in a medium bowl: 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.  You’ll add the rest of the flour later.

Lightly beat your egg, and stir it into your milk and butter mixture, after testing to make sure the milk is just warm. It should be just a bit warmer than body temperature — a shade warmer than a baby’s bottle. If you drip a bit onto your wrist, you’ll feel warmth without getting burnt.

Stir the milk mixture into the dry mixture to make a sticky dough — you may need to use your hands to get all the flour incorporated into the dough.

This is a good time to point out that you can do this whole process using a stand mixture, if you want, from mixing the dry ingredients to kneading the dough. I would use the paddle attachment at first, and then change to the hook for kneading. However, I prefer to knead by hand, partly because I’m a traditionalist and partly because I think you get a better feel for the texture of the dough when you use your hands. My husband likes to use the mixer, because you can use the highest setting and get the kneading over with quickly.

Once the dry ingredients and milk are mixed, sprinkle about a quarter of a cup of flour onto a clean counter and turn the dough out onto the flour. Sprinkle another quarter cup on top, and knead the dough. To knead, use both hands to press down on the dough, fold it toward you, and give it a quarter turn before repeating the process. Continue kneading for about ten minutes (or as little as five minutes if you’re a very vigorous kneader). Add more flour as needed, sparingly — too much will make the dough feel dry when it’s baked. When the texture of the dough becomes firm and springy, it’s been kneaded enough. It’s not the addition of flour that causes the texture change so much as the kneading. Working the dough causes the wheat gluten to form, which is responsible for giving it the elastic feeling of a yeast bread.

When the dough has been kneaded to an elastic consistency so that it springs back when you press it, form it gently into a ball. Lightly oil a bowl (I just use the one I mixed the dough in), drop the ball of dough in, and then turn it over once so that it’s covered with oil. Place a cloth over the bowl and set it aside to rise for about an hour, until it’s doubled in size. The warmer the place you leave it, the faster it will rise — just don’t put it in a hot place, or the dough will start to bake and the yeast will die off.

While the dough is rising, make your filling. Start by chopping your dried fruit. What fruit you use is really your choice. Last year I used golden raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, and papaya, along with pecans. This year I’m using dried cherries, cranberries, mangoes, dark raisins, and hazelnuts. The dried fruit, combined, should come to about a cup, and the chopped nuts should be about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

 

Combine the sugar and spices. Add the melted butter and combine completely, then stir in the chopped fruit and nuts.

When the dough has risen until it’s doubled in size, the coffee cake is ready to shape. Give the dough a good punch to make it collapse. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter. Lightly flour a rolling pin, and roll the dough out into an isosceles triangle with a 12-inch base and 15-inch sides. I use the length of the rolling pin as a guide for the length of each side.

Once you have a good triangle shape, brush the dough with about a tablespoon of melted butter. Cover the dough evenly with the filling, leaving space along the edges.

Bring the sides together, pinching the filling-free edges firmly together to make a tight seam. Seal the bottom as well so filling doesn’t fall out when you transfer it to the pan. The best way I’ve come up with to get it from the counter onto the pan is to slide a rigid plastic sheet dusted with flour underneath the filled triangle (I use the plastic placemats my kids use for play dough), and then support it with a hand underneath and a hand on top as I quickly turn it over, seam downward, onto the oiled baking sheet.

Now, lightly score a guide line down the center of the triangle, from peak to base. Use sturdy kitchen scissors to cut slices into each side, ending about a quarter inch from the line. I made eight cuts in the one above. You could do more for smaller slices, but fewer cuts would make the slices too wide to easily do the next step.

Starting at the bottom, give each slice a firm downward twist, toward you (assuming you’re at the base of the triangle). Twist each one so that the filling is visible, and the ends are tilted forward slightly. Cover the tree lightly with plastic wrap, and place it into the fridge to rest and rise overnight.

In the morning, turn on the oven to 350, pull the coffee cake out of the fridge, and let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven heats. If you have enough time, give the coffee cake a good half hour to rest before putting it into the oven. (It’s not going to make a big difference, but it will be slightly lighter in texture if it has time to warm to room temperature before baking.) Bake it at 350 for 20-30 minutes, till the bread is golden-brown and the filling is sizzling.

Allow the coffee cake to cool slightly while you mix the glaze or icing. To make a basic glaze, sift the powdered sugar into a measuring cup with a pour spout, then drizzle milk or water in, whisking, until it’s a thick, smooth, pouring consistency. Add vanilla. (Another option, especially if you used cranberries in the filling, is to use orange flavoring and add some orange zest.) Drizzle the glaze over the coffee cake in a decorative pattern. This type of glaze won’t show up much — it will soak into the warm coffee cake a little. Add colorful maraschino cherries, cut into halves, or bright-colored candied fruit, to give the effect of ornaments on a tree. I’ve always used both red and green cherries until last year — I’ve been unable to find green ones for the last two years. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

If you want your coffee cake to have a bright white icing like mine, use a royal icing instead of (or on top of) the glaze. I had some left over from decorating gingerbread cookies, so I used that for the coffee cake, with a very pretty effect. The recipe I’m giving here is Alton Brown’s recipe for royal icing, reduced to a third. A quick note: I was able to do the full sized recipe in my stand mixer with the whisk attachment, but the egg whites barely met the whisk at first, until I tilted the bowl upward. Once the whites got fluffy, it was fine. The single egg white won’t fill the mixer bowl enough for the whisk to do the job. To do this smaller recipe, use a hand mixer and a bowl.

To make royal icing, use one ounce of pasteurized egg white (the equivalent of one egg white). Beat it with a hand mixer, together with the vanilla, until it’s fluffy and white. Gradually add one and a third cups of icing sugar, beating at low speed. Once all the sugar is mixed in, continue beating at high speed until the icing is glossy and stiff. Use a plastic bag with a tiny corner snipped off, or an icing bag with a piping nozzle, or even a spoon, to drizzle over the coffee cake in a pretty design. Then add the candied cherries. The icing will harden fairly quickly and will retain its bright white look.

Click here for a printable PDF of the recipe:Tannenbaum Coffee Cake

Concise recipe format:Tannenbaum Coffee CakeTannenbaum Coffee Cake2Tannenbaum Coffee Cake3

 

A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.

This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.

My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.

By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.

Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.

As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.

 

As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.

I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.

Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.

Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:

And a few images of the autumn decor:

 

My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.)  And no,  the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it…  those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do  so much.

It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it.  The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.

I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also  knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.

Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:Featured Image -- 823

(They didn’t look like that.)

I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies.  I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.

But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible.  Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.

Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.

Most Wonderful Time: Christmas Past and Present

Sparkling beaded garland stretches around a green tree, white lights are sprinkled across the green branches, while the shimmer and glitter of painted-glass ornaments catch and reflect the glow. Under the tree is a red-and-copper tree skirt I sewed several years ago when the perfect tree skirt refused to appear in shops. On the table, ornament-shaped candle holders dusted with gold and red glitter rest atop my grandmother’s hand-woven table runner next to tiny vases filled with wintry twigs and berries. A gold paper star in the window, lit from within by an electric tea light, sends out a gentle glow. Brightly-decorated nutcracker soldiers guard the fireplace, while a jolly ceramic snowman stays safe from a curious baby behind the sturdy iron screen. High on a shelf, a silver Advent calendar is ready to count down to Christmas. A tall Santa in stately robes presides over the living room’s festivities from the next shelf. Down below, a winter village has escaped from the pages of Charles Dickens’s books, the windows and street lights gleaming convincingly. Cheery colored lights embrace the front windows and the edge of the roof. Our favorite carols flow through the air. A baby’s dimpled hand stretches cautiously toward the twinkling lights, eyes wide with wonder, turning toward us for reassurance. A small boy dances around the room, pausing periodically to inspect the new finery. Talk of gifts and cards, wrapping paper and ribbon, and a chance of snow next week, all twine through the air, merging with sparkle and glow to form an unmistakable feeling: the holiday season is upon us.

I’ve only been celebrating Christmas for about twelve or thirteen years, so the candles and lights and music feel new and exciting to me, too. I don’t stare and dance like my children, but I revel in the explosion of holiday decor all the same.

I grew up in a peaceful, prayerful commune that was strictly nonobservant of all holidays — well, except for Thanksgiving. Christmas wasn’t as bad as Halloween, the devil’s day, but we still regarded Christmas celebrants with a certain amount of sorrow and pity. We pitied all those foolish people who’d never figured out that Jesus was born at harvest time, not in the middle of winter. We felt a certain scorn for those who didn’t know that the season was a continuation of Druidic and Pagan and Roman holidays, all in celebration of other gods. And hadn’t anyone pointed out to them that Santa is an anagram of Satan?

It never occurred to me that people might simply not care about all those valuable facts.

People crave light and color, especially green, in midwinter. It’s especially notable in northern climates, where winter is dull and grey. The shortness of those monochrome days does something to the psyche. And the month or so leading up to the Winter Solstice is the perfect time to push back at the darkness. People like to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but if that were really the case, we’d be celebrating in October-ish and our motifs would be straw, tiny babies, and pregnant mothers; not glittering lights and shining gold and silver. Solstice has been celebrated for millennia; Christmas is a newcomer to the scene. The darkness, my friends, is the reason for the season. Darkness, and a craving for light. And there’s no shame in admitting that.

I remember the winter my mom’s best friend got (re)married. She has been like a second mother to me, and her generous spirit makes her well loved in the trio of communes where I lived. We wanted her wedding to be perfect. A winter wedding was uncommon, so we had no season-appropriate decorations ready to be reused, no fresh flowers to brighten the rooms. Someone had the bright idea to twine green garland and white twinkle lights around the stairway banister in the main house on our farm. “But won’t that seem a little… Christmassy?” someone worried. Everyone considered the problem for a moment. As one, we all silently decided: we didn’t care. The garland and lights went up, not just on the banister, but on the front porch rail as well. The following year, those decorations quietly appeared again in November. And again the year after that. No one called them Christmas lights. No one even mentioned them. But our winter-starved eyes drank in the glow and the green, like stranded desert travelers bask in the cool of an oasis.

These days, long after my departure from the farms, everyone is a bit more relaxed about the holiday. They have a big Christmas dinner with lots of visitors from the village. Some families put up trees and even share gifts. You can occasionally hear Christmas carols, maybe even in the church service. You could look around a living room on Christmas Eve and never know you were on a highly conservative religious commune. It’s almost…normal. It doesn’t surprise me. That first garland meant that full-blown Christmas was an inevitable eventuality. Once you experience the lifting of the spirits that comes with the lights and glitter, it’s hard to go back.

As I look around my cozy living room, at my little ones awed and delighted by the new festive decorations, I feel the reassurance that back home, they’re doing the some of the same things. It’s a connection that is strangely meaningful to me — strange, that is, considering how far removed my life now is from what it was. I guess it’s a little personal sign that says: It’s okay. No matter how far you go, you’ll always be connected; this will always be home. And there it is. Connection: the second “reason for the season.” The sense that we are together, even when we’re apart. That our love doesn’t have to grow thin as the physical distance stretches between us. Family is family, and always will be.

Crokinole and Turkey

At this time of year, as holiday traditions are being hauled out and dusted off, I feel the distance from my Canadian family with an extra pang. I miss the joyful sense of celebration, the gathering of a big, noisy group, everyone talking over each other, fielding a dozen hugs in ten minutes. Our little family is building its own traditions, and they’re good ones. But still, at this time of year, I miss my childhood home and my family in Canada.

For me, “family” includes a hundred or so people distributed across three small communes within a five-mile radius in Northwestern Ontario, but especially the residents, current and former, of the West Farm. (Generally I try to keep location and name details out of my posts to protect the privacy of my loved ones on the farm. In this case, it officially goes by a different name, so you won’t find it on a map should your curiosity prompt you to look.)

Even in our secluded community which refrained from worldly celebrations, Thanksgiving was a big deal when I was growing up. It had the benefit of being neither Halloween (the Devil’s own celebration, as I mentioned in a previous post) or Christmas (a worldly holiday of pagan roots marked with prideful indulgence). It was one of the “Big Three”: Thanksgiving, convention, and graduation. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches, known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers)  and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical), would arrive in March. Visitors would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days. High school graduation was nearly as exciting: families of the graduating seniors of our little school would travel to congratulate them, the formally dressed seniors would present speeches, everyone would enjoy a big celebratory meal, and the seniors would open stacks of gifts. It was as close to prom as we ever got — pretty dresses, suits and ties, and lots of excitement, balloons, and confetti, though without dancing or limousines or clandestine make out sessions.

But Thanksgiving was the big one, the special one. It was just us — no out-of-town visitors, no preaching, no speeches. Just good food, family, and after-dinner games. Sometimes we’d invite a few families from outside the commune, or some single police officers or a nurse on assignment at the nearby nursing station, without family nearby. But just as often, it would be only familiar faces.

The women would bustle around the kitchen all day, cooking up a storm. Six or so pies would materialize by dinner time: two or three apple pies, at least one each of pumpkin and pecan, maybe a blueberry pie for good measure. Someone would usually whip up a batch of butter tarts. (For the non-Canadians reading this, butter tarts are a bit like the good part of pecan pie with all those nasty big pecans taken out. This one from Canadian Living looks like a good recipe, though I haven’t tried it.) We’d start fresh rolls in the morning so they’d come out of the oven, crusty and fragrant, before the pies had to go in.  One of the cooks would invariably make a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or marshmallows or both; someone else would comment that it looked awfully sweet, whereupon the maker would suggest that perhaps another of the many side dishes might be a better choice for the complainer. And this was certainly a good point, because there would be more than enough side dishes. Stuffing — made with bread cubes, of course, not cornmeal. Huge steaming pots of mashed potatoes, which had been peeled and diced by the younger cooks to keep them out of trouble and spare the adults the tedium of peeling dozens of potatoes. Green beans with bacon. Occasionally roasted sweet potatoes, a concession to the objections of a few to the sweetness of the marshmallow-topped casserole. There would always be cranberry jelly… the real, clear jelly, from a can, of course. Sometimes someone would make cranberry sauce from scratch, but that never replaced the jelly.

Cooking took all morning and afternoon, but for us younger girls, there might be time to enjoy the day off school. We’d race out of the kitchen, grateful for the reprieve from peeling endless piles of potatoes, and pull on heavy snow pants and coats, thick mittens, warm hats. Sleds jostled behind us from the sheds of houses as kids made a beeline for the big hill. We’d swoop down on sleds or on slick snow-pants-covered bottoms, some daredevils trying to ride the sled down standing up, others swearing that going belly-down made the ride faster. The sleds rushed down with solo riders or crammed with as many bodies as could fit, with arguments erupting at the bottom over whose job it was to pull the sled back up. Noses would turn pink, eyelashes frosted over, fingers and toes froze as the afternoon darkened to a blue twilight. Finally, we’d trudge inside, trooping into the kitchen to see if anyone had made hot chocolate. If there was enough stovetop space and anyone had had some spare time, there might be a big pot of made-from-scratch hot cocoa waiting on the range. Maybe one of the ladies had made banana or zucchini bread to snack on, or maybe we grabbed a leftover muffin from breakfast, while one of the moms poured mugs of hot cocoa for all of us. There might even be marshmallows bobbing in the mugs.

Dark came early in a Northwestern Ontario October, so it wouldn’t be dinner time yet, but people would be wandering into the main building early anyway, setting up board games on empty tables and pulling out musical instruments.  A Crokinole game would occupy the place of honor at one of the round tables — it didn’t take long for eight people to claim places around the board while others gathered to watch, and a game as competitive as any at our peaceful commune would commence to the tune of guitar strings tuning up next to the piano. (Crokinole, by the way, is another Canadian tradition. It’s usually played with two or four people, but the board can accommodate up to eight.) A few more cerebral types would gravitate to the Scrabble board, while  a game of UNO broke out in a corner.

Meanwhile, kids busily put out stacks of plates and baskets of silverware on the big island counter in the kitchen, filled water pitchers, and carried drinking glasses to the tables. Iced tea, which had been sequestered away in a back refrigerator lest teenage boys down it all before dinner, was brought out into the open and distributed to tables in pitchers, because even in the winter no celebration was complete without iced tea. An aunt bore the giant turkey triumphantly from the oven while the mouthwatering aroma swept the rooms. Rolls were tumbled into baskets while girls scooped potatoes out of the big pot into glass bowls, and two women attacked the turkey, carving it into neat slices. Finally, the food was all arranged on the counter, buffet style, and we flocked to our places at the table for a blessing before we dug in.

When we were stuffed with as much food as we could manage, a guitar would softly strum, the piano would echo the notes, and we’d sing songs together: our after-dinner daily tradition. Songs about giving thanks, about love, many of them written by people sitting there in the room.

Cleanup wasn’t too much of a chore; at the tables, dishes were stacked at top speed and quickly scraped and carried into the kitchen. Dads wiped tables and grabbed brooms to sweep the floor of the big dining room, while the kids manned the dish tubs and dried clean dishes. Moms and aunts swiftly wrapped food for the refrigerators. Then, cleanup complete, it was back to the board games and cozy visiting.

My dad would bring out a few new jokes, his sober joke-telling face carefully prepared in advance, always hopeful that the punch line would take the listener by surprise. His brothers would gently jeer — “I heard that one three months ago!” — while they competed with their own stories, others chiming in. Occasionally, a few people would present a skit: nothing serious, just a sketch designed to draw laughter, usually involving costumes we’d thrown together from our collection of old or silly clothes, wigs, and odd accessories. A piano player might wander over to the instrument and run her fingers over the keys, and teenagers would migrate to the piano corner like iron filings to a magnet. Somebody would add a guitar, then another, maybe a mandolin or banjo or hand-made fiddle or classical violin, and we’d sing one song after another while others visited or tried to best each other at the Crokinole board.

Thanksgiving was a day for family time. It wasn’t anything exciting, I suppose. No family feuds, no drunken quarrels. No Black Friday — in Canada, Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October, too far from Christmas to be dragged into the holiday shopping chaos. Besides, we didn’t celebrate Christmas (although we did love finding good deals). It was pretty simple: good food, music we made ourselves, family. And this time of year, I find myself thinking more than usually of my family.

So, to my American friends and family, let me wish you a wholehearted Happy Thanksgiving; and to my Canadian family, thank you for giving me these warm memories of simple traditions. I love you. Happy Thursday.

This year's pumpkin pie.
This year’s pumpkin pie.

Holiday Fruitcake Begins NOW

For the last several years, Aaron has made the most amazing fruitcake this world knows. Its creator is Alton Brown of the Food Network, the god of our family’s kitchen. It’s made with actual dried fruit, not that nasty stuff that’s mostly sugar and food coloring. It’s soaked in rum and brandy. So much rum. Copious amounts of brandy. So much that after Sofia was born (she came right before Christmas), after nine months of alcohol abstinence, I got a buzz from eating (way too much of) it.

Tonight I said casually to Aaron, “Maybe I’ll start chopping fruit for the fruitcake,” and he said, “Okay,” and just like that I’ve been made the Master of the Fruitcake. It’s a big responsibility. I’m taking it very seriously.

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