Saturday, December 10, 2016

An Old Fashioned Christmas by Margaret Ullrich

I also wrote the following essay about Christmas traditions for our CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’.
Over the years our listeners asked for some seasonal stories to be repeated.
They seemed to like being reminded that we were all in the same holiday boat, a communal ship which made us feel like we were all sinking fast.

Ah… Christmas shopping, holiday baking and holiday customs… 
Why do we do it?

I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, there are two questions no one should ever ask a woman. 

The first is "How old are you?"
The second is "Have you done your holiday baking yet?”

Why is it that, when the thermometer falls, we're supposed to bake?  
Does the Queen whip up a fruitcake before writing her speech?
I don't think so.  

Holiday baking has been with us an awfully long time. 
Did you know that ginger was popular in Greece over 5,000 years ago? The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was just a brick and a prayer. I wonder what their gingerbread men looked like.

A few years after Egypt's building boom, an English King and his hunting party got lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.  Well, they were clever lads full of English pluck, so they threw everything they had - meat, flour, sugar, apples, ale and brandy - into a bag and cooked it. Wallah!!  Plum pudding. The Iron Chef would've been proud.  

On Christmas Day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had risen earlier than his wife Who was desirous to sleep having sat up till four this morning seeing her maids make mince pies.  
I really admire Mrs. P.  She just sat and watched her maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload. How did she get him to suffer like that?   

Some Christmas carols seem a little too focused on food.  For example:
     Now bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!
     We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here.
Those were somebody's friends?  Somebody should've called the cops.

Holiday baking has followed us into modern times. The 1970s was the decade of old time family television shows like The Waltons and memoir books. 
Have you ever browsed through a memoir book? It could make you weep. 
They reminded us of times like this...

Evenings when a cold blustery wind howled outside were perfect for sorting through recipes. They were cozy times. The children were sitting at the oak table helping Mama chop fruit and raisins. Papa was cracking and shelling nuts and crushing fresh spices in the grinder.

Isn't that sweet? Sentences like that convinced me that if we did things just like people did before television was invented, the world would be a kinder, gentler place.

We'll never know. Paul told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to grind nuts for a cake he didn't even want. 
Alright. Scratch Paul grinding his nuts. I bought ground nuts.

Step two... the batter had to be mixed. Back to that memoir...
When all the fruits were in, Grandmother called, 'Come, stir the batter!'
We all took turns giving it a stir - clockwise for good luck - and made a wish."

I made a batter, there in the fruits and called out, "Come, stir the batter!"

Carl pointed to the electric mixer sitting on the counter and said that he was staying on the eighth level of his computer game, The Temple of Ra. He also told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to stir batter for a cake he didn't even want.

I stirred the batter, clockwise.
Don't ask what I wished.

It's been downhill ever since. Do you know about the charming Swedish custom of hiding a whole almond in a serving bowl of rice pudding? The lucky person who finds the almond has to get married or do the dishes. Either my husband or my son - the fink never confessed - managed to swallow the almond every time.

I tried the German version - whoever finds the almond receives a marzipan pig. By then Paul and Carl had their own tradition: swallowing the almond. I felt so guilty looking at that poor rejected pig. 
I started my own tradition and ate him... along with the cake.

There's a Christmas carol that goes: "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."

Well, the goose isn't the only one.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Anna Sultana’s Zucchini Dip, The Geminid Meteor Showers and December’s Full Cold Moon

We live in an amazing world!
Thanks to the internet I’ve been able to meet folks from around the world, including fellow food bloggers.
A blogger from New Zealand, Carole, recently posted about getting ready for Christmas.
She mentioned that it’s almost summer there.

We’re currently having a blizzard, which isn’t unusual for Winnipeg in December.
But Carole’s post reminded me that sometimes my posts aren’t very helpful to some of my readers.
Sorry about that.
I hope this recipe for a Maltese dip is handy for the fine folks south of the equator.
Hope you enjoy it during the holidays!

This recipe dates from the time the Knights were in charge in Malta. 
Most really traditional Maltese recipes are vegetarian, not because we were ahead of our time, or trying to be politically correct.
We just had more vegetables that meat to eat.
And we sure have a lot of courgette, also known as zucchini!

In the United States, Australia and Germany, the plant is called a zucchini, while in the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Africa, France and Belgium it is called a courgette. 

In the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, a fully-grown, matured courgette is referred to as a marrow.

Mature zucchini can be as large as a baseball bat. The longest zucchini was 8 feet 3 inches long and was grown by Giovanni Batista Scozzafava in Niagara Falls, Ontario and measured on August 28, 2014.

The female flower is a golden blossom on the end of each emergent zucchini.
The male flower is borne on the end of a stalk and is longer-lived.


If the water evaporates away while cooking, add a little more. 
Don’t overdo the water. You don’t want it to be soupy.
On the other hand, if it looks like there’s too much water, scoop out some.
Set the hot water aside just in case you need it to thin the dip.

You can also serve this as a side dish with steak, chicken or fish.

You can also add raw scrambled eggs to the zucchini mixture before you remove it from the heat. Then you can serve it as a brunch or a light lunch.

                        Zucchini Dip

1 fully mature zucchini, about 2 pounds

Place in a saucepan
the chopped zucchini 
1 Cup fresh flat parsley, chopped
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1 Cup water
On medium heat bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until the squash is tender.
Remove from heat.

Drizzle over the zucchini
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
Mash the zucchini and seasonings together.
Season with
salt and pepper to taste

Serve with bread. Ma’s Hobz is best! 
A drizzle of oil is a nice touch. 

About the sky this week, thanks to the folks at The Farmers' Almanac…

December 8 – Earliest sunset of 2017 at 4ยบ0 N. latitude. This comes two weeks before the winter solstice.

December 10 – Look to the east in the evening to spot the nearly-full Moon and Aldebaran, the reddish “eye of the Bull” (in Taurus) pair up in the sky.

December 11 – 13 – Bundle up for the annual Geminid Meteor Showers! These showers will peak on December 13, but that’s also the date of the full Moon so visibility may be hindered. They’re considered the best meteor showers of the year. The radiant — that spot in the sky where the meteors will appear to emanate — lies just below and to the right of the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini (hence the name, “Geminids”).  Best viewing after midnight when the radiant point is high in the sky, until dawn, no matter where you are. You might even see an earthgrazer (meteors that last several seconds and often begin at the horizon). 

December 12 – The nearly-full waxing gibbous Moon is at perigee, its closest point to Earth in its orbit.

December 13 – December’s Full Cold Moon will be astronomically full at 7:06 p.m. It appears full for three days. Learn more how this month’s full Moon got its name in this short Farmers’ Almanac video.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Holiday Baking and The First Maltese Lucia Queen by Margaret Ullrich

Along with being a co-host for the CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’ from 1999 to 2007, I wrote stories and essays, which I then read live on air.
Last week I posted a story about Christmas shopping that I wrote back in 2002.  
I also wrote this about the joys of holiday baking….

My parents and I immigrated to New York in 1950. A few years later, when I was in school, I asked why we didn't have anything pretty to eat for Christmas. My Ma told me that in Malta, Christmas was a religious celebration. The focus was on God becoming man, not on cookies. 

Maltese desserts are simple - fresh fruit and cheese with an occasional cookie. One Maltese cookie, the biskuttini tar rahal, could be described as hardened library paste with a hint of lemon and a dash of royal icing. A variation on the biskuttini cuts the sugar by half and replaces the royal icing with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  
Both cookies are wonderful teething rings.  

Another favourite is the anise biscotti. The big thrill with a biscotti is seeing how much milk it can suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass.  
It's like eating the sinking Titanic.  
For the holidays, we borrow from the Sicilians and make kannoli tar-rikotta (ricotta in a fried pastry tube) or a qassata (vanilla custard shmeared over a sponge cake).  
How lame is that?  

I knew my German classmates ended their meals with more oomph. Our parish, St. Fidelis, was a cookie heaven. The most amazing homemade cookies were brought to every church and school function by my friends' Moms. They were rich and gorgeous - the cookies, I mean. They were loaded with spices, fruits, nuts and jams, and were covered with thick layers of frosting and all sorts of sprinkles.  

When my Ma saw the competition she admitted defeat and took over the job of bringing coffee. I was free to eat whatever caught my eye. While I gushed, my friends' Moms all beamed. My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.  

My husband is a third generation American - half Swedish and half German. Okay, I was marrying into the Cookie Big Leagues. I thought, along with the change of name, I'd return from my honeymoon a changed woman able to make cookies with a capital ‘C’. To paraphrase the biblical story of Ruth, I believed, "What thou eatest, I will eat... thy cookies shall be my cookies..."

Well, you get the picture.  Thanks to the movie The Sound of Music, I just knew we'd celebrate Christmas a la von Trapp: sitting beneath a huge, glowing tree, 
singing Edelweiss and munching beautiful cookies, my favorite things. Ethnic things.
The ethnic bit nearly ended my marriage.

There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes. 
Now, there's truth in advertising. Clear as a bell, they were warning me to not even go there. If I'd had half a brain I'd have just thrown in the mixing bowl and placed a huge order at the local German bakery for a deluxe assorted cookie platter, with some stollen on the side. 

Nope, I didn't take the hint. I studied every German and Swedish cookbook I could find. The biggest surprise was that there were other days that had to be celebrated. Okay, I thought, practice makes perfect. Maybe it's like opening a Broadway show in Boston. I learned about their holiday customs.  

The first Advent biggie was December 6. St. Nicholas' Day. That called for small presents in Paul's shoes and some hot chocolate and buns for breakfast. No problem. The morning went without a hitch.  
Huzzah!! One day I'd bake cookies that looked like jewels!  

I spent more nights baking instead of sleeping. My next goal was an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day for our first December 13. 
Maybe the lack of sleep was affecting my mind.  

According to one big fat book, a good Swedish wife got up at four a.m. to start tossing her cookies. God forbid any sunlight should shine on the dough or disaster would befall the household. Every hefty housefrau hoped a crescent moon was hovering on the horizon to bring good luck to the baking.  

No kidding. Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that. I really thought that if I followed the customs, my baking would get better. I got up at four a.m. and baked. Okay, I cheated. I used electric lights.  

Then I ran into a slight problem. According to tradition, saffron buns and coffee were served between three and four a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen. We didn't have children and I couldn't borrow a neighbour's kid for that ungodly hour. I had to make some changes in the sacred customs. I, as an eldest daughter, became the first Maltese Lucia Queen. Ever.

I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath. I memorized the traditional poem. Then, when I saw how much saffron cost, I made another teeny change. I made cinnamon buns. What harm could it do?

The days flew. Finally, it was December 13, 3:45 a.m. Show Time! 
I was clad in white, balancing an advent wreath with bouncing red balls and gleaming white candles upon my head. I was a glowing, flaming cherries jubilee, clutching a tray laden with coffee and cinnamon buns and walking ever so slowly to our bed.  

Hovering over Paul, I chanted: "Night goes with silent steps..."
Hmmph... No answer. He was snoring. No Swedish genes were making him wake up to behold his Lucia Queen.  
Well, after all that work, this Lucia Queen required an audience.
Creating my own liturgy, I ad libbed. "Wake up, Paul."
Still no answer. 
I set the tray down, gave him a push and repeated: "Night goes with silent steps... Damn it, wake up."
He snorted, turned and faced me. It took him a while to focus. 
Okay, finally, I, the Lucia Queen, was getting the respect I deserved.  

I went back to chanting, my voice building to an impressive boom.
"Night goes with silent steps round house and cottage.
O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger.      
Then on our threshold stands white clad in candlelight,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia."

He looked. He blinked. He screamed.
He said something that no one should ever say to a Lucia Queen.

I blamed the cinnamon. Maybe the Swedish mojo just doesn't work with cinnamon.
Look, if my Ma can blame religion, I can blame spices.