Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Bittersweet Abundance

Our annual holiday open house is magical in many ways:

Thirty two pounds of raw meat are transformed into a chili that yanks people out of their cars, through the front door, past our outstretched arms of welcome, and straight to the vast simmering pots covering the stove.  Only after they have a bowl from the stack, filled to the brim with Fritos, onions, sour cream and cheese can they stop to greet the rest of the throng gathered around the artichoke dip and mulled wine.

Reunions break out, as people discover have gone to law school together, worked a first job in LA together, have kids who went to preschool together, or run the same route in the neighborhood.  Alumni of colleges, companies and elementary school classrooms relive old times and catch up on what's new. Strangers who had a great conversation at last year's party find a place to sit down and pick it back up again over guacamole*.

A gingerbread house appears**.  

A friend with sick children at home stops by to bring hot cornbread*** and wish us merry Christmas.   

Kids who first attended this event in their parents' Baby Bjorns now tower over us.  Even more incredibly, they converse directly with adults and each other without the aid of electronic devices.  They are fueled by soda and sugar.   And chili.  Clearly we will need to make more chili next year.  But no fewer corn dogs.  The adults are eating the corn dogs.   

A steady downpour means the crowd that normally spreads out across the yard is packed indoors****.  Like my waistline, the house expands to accommodate the overflow seemingly without effort.  Instead of being a disaster, it is cosy and wonderful to have everyone so close.

There is an enchanted dessert room.   With silver reindeer and Peanut Butter Bacon Brittle Cookies.  Hot coffee to go with the Kahlua Cream Cheese Chocolate Bites.   Candles glimmering among the Lemon Icebox Squares, the Mini Pecan Tarts and the Chocolate Almond Tassies.  Ginger Hermit Bars and Graham Cracker Toffee Squares nestle near Deep Dark Chocolate Cookies.  And, just out of the oven and filling the room with its irresistible perfume of vanilla, my sister's Cream Cheese Pound Cake.

In the midst of this swirl of warmth and joy and happy noise, the question comes again and again, as I knew it would.   Sometimes it comes with a puzzled face, sometimes a sympathetic squeeze of the hand or a heartfelt hug.   I am healed and I ache each time they ask. 

"Where's your mom?"   

Where indeed?*****  

She's not rolling out the sugar cookie dough or tinting the frosting for the kids' decorating table.  She's not opening the 22 cans of tomatoes and carefully measuring spices out for my husband as he cranks his chili-making playlist through the house at full volume.   She's not in the flour-covered kitchen with me and my sister as we bake for days and hours, talking and ranting and tearing up as we spread batter onto baking sheets.  She's not fretting aloud about how much I overspent on the fruit platter.  She's not carefully arranging cookies on the reindeer plates and setting them out "just so" in the dining room.   She's not sitting with her feet tucked under a blanket in an armchair in the library, chatting quietly with a steady stream of guests who find their time with her to have somehow been one of the best parts of their evening.   She's not urging me to forget the dishes and get some sleep.  She's not stashing leftovers in the laundry room for the people in her building, who apparently will be thrilled not only to get a few cookies but will just adore the extra carrot sticks and jicama.   She's not beaming and telling me I did such a job.  That we really outdid ourselves this time.

She's painfully, willfully, absent.  She's everywhere.   It's another magical gift of the open house.

A bittersweet abundance of Mom.

Michael's Famous Mulled Wine

2/3 c. sugar
1/3 c. water
peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon
2-3 Tbs. mulling spices (easily found at Trader Joe's or other places during the holidays)
1 c. fresh squeezed orange juice (or lemon juice, your call)
1 gallon inexpensive, fruity red wine (Two Buck Chuck cabernet is perfect for this)

Dissolve sugar in water in a large stock pot.  Add peels and mulling spices.  Simmer over medium heat until you have a light brown syrup, about 10-15 minutes.  Strain, and return the syrup to the pot.   Add juice and wine, and heat gently over medium-low heat until nice and warm.   You can make this ahead of time, then cool and store in bottles for a day or so.  Just reheat and serve!

Click to print this recipe!

Ginger Hermit Bars

Adapted from Martha Stewart Cookies.  These taste even better if you set them aside in an airtight container for a day or two before you eat them.  A perfect winter cookie!

For the cookies:
1 3/4 c. flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbs. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
pinch of cloves
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
1 1/4 c. dark brown sugar, packed
1 large egg, plus 1 egg yolk
1/4 c. unsulfered molasses
1 c. candied ginger, diced into 1/4 inch pieces, divided
3/4 c. raisins

For the icing:
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
4 Tbs. milk, plus more as needed
1/4 c.  (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. sifted powdered sugar, plus more as needed.

Preheat oven to 350, and butter a 10 x 15 rimmed baking sheet.

To make the bars, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper and cloves in a large bowl.    Put butter in the bowl of an electric mixer, and beat on medium speed until smooth.   Add brown sugar and mix until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.   Mix in the egg, the yolk, and the molasses.   Reduce speed to low, and gradually add the flour mixture.   Mix in 1/2 c. of the candied ginger and the raisins.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan, and bake until firm, about 18-22 minutes.   Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, prepare the icing.  Put butter, brown sugar and milk together in a saucepan over medium heat.  Cook, stirring constantly, until butter has melted and sugar has dissolved.   Remove from the heat, and stir in the salt, vanilla and powdered sugar.   The icing should be pourable, but not too thin, so add more milk or powdered sugar to get the consistency you want.

Pour over still-warm bars, and spread to cover bars completely with a thin layer of icing.  Sprinkle remaining 1/2 c. of chopped candied ginger over the icing.   Cool completely, cut into bars, and serve, preferably after they've had a little time to age.  

Click to print this recipe!

Kahlua Cream Cheese Chocolate Bites
Adapted from a recipe in the LA Times

1 c. flour
1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted

1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar, lightly packed
1/3 c. butter, softened
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. Kahlua
1 Tbs. vanilla

1/4 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 Tbs. Kahlua
1 tsp. water

Preheat oven to 325, and butter a 9 inch square baking pan.  Set aside.  

For the crust, combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well until combined.   Press mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan.   

For the filling, beat the sugar, the brown sugar, butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth.  Add flour, baking power and salt, and mix well.   Blend in Kahlua and vanilla.    Spread over the crust.   Bake until set and the edges are light golden brown, about 35 minutes.   Cool slightly.

For the glaze, melt chocolate chips with Kahlua and water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until smooth.   If needed, add additional water to get the glaze to a nice drizzling consistency.   Drizzle over filling while still warm.   Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least an hour.   Cut into bars and serve!

Click to print this recipe!

* Homemade by my friend Rosana.  Fantastic stuff to continue or start a conversation over.
** OK, I admit I kind of rigged this one.   It was just sitting there at a school charity breakfast, and I may have mentioned repeatedly to a friend of mine working the breakfast that I could really use a gingerbread house.  
*** She hated the thought of people eating chili without cornbread.
**** Except for some 7th grade boys who decided that nothing says Christmas like a good game of hide and seek tag in the dark, stormy night.   That's how this became the first ever open house where the dryer was running constantly.
***** She was propped up in bed a few miles away, waiting for her evening graham crackers and her sleeping pill.  She spent the day praying for the rain not to ruin everything (she decided against praying for the rain to stop, as that was clearly a losing battle and she didn't want to pray in vain), and picturing other people pitching in to help since she wouldn't be there.   As always, she came through with flying colors on both counts.  

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