Thursday, December 24, 2020

Merry Christmas!!

Happy Holidays, everyone.
Wishing you all the blessings of the season:
a Christmas filled with all you hold dear
and a New Year filled with all the best!

Thank you for visiting ~
hope to see you again in the new year!

~ Margaret

This was a holiday piece I wrote a few years ago for the CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’ when we decided to chat about family holiday dinners. 
Being politically correct - and politically sensitive - was just starting around the turn of the century.
It was and is still a part of menu planning.
The family that eats a holiday dinner together… can still be in for a whole lot of trouble.

My friend Muriel still hasn't recovered from last Christmas.

The poor dear had tried to please everybody. Solomon couldn't have pulled that off. Muriel was willing to go with the flow, but she was caught in a tsunami. Her husband Tom is a simple man with simple tastes. He just wanted a roasted bird with stuffing and cranberry sauce.

He should never have had children.

Their eldest daughter, Donna, keeps up with trends. Muriel had asked Donna to bring the appetizers. Muriel expected their traditional celery sticks with cream cheese, crackers and cheese cubes. Donna waltzed in with an oriental party pack and assorted seafood and chicken wing platters. Something for everyone. Uh, huh.
Tom backed off when he saw the egg rolls. "I don't like Chinese."
Donna said, "I got you BBQ chicken wings."
Ignoring her, Tom said, "They don't serve bread." He went to the kitchen for bread.

Then Betty arrived. Betty lives in a commune and supports the rights of everything and everybody… except those of the hostess. Betty always carried tofu because she never ate dairy products or anything with eyes or eggs. Muriel had prepared a nice salad for Betty. Not good enough.
"Were the pickers paid a decent wage?"
"The lettuce had a union label."
"I only eat organically grown food. Did they use manure."
"We had to scrub the carrots with bleach to get the E coli off."
"Oh... okay."
Tom heard E coli and reached for another slice of bread.

Finally their son Bill arrived with his wife Carol and their children, Krystal and Jason. Bill and Carol had every allergy in the book. Bill also had high cholesterol and Carol had her waistline. They avoided the platters of appetizers and drank the water that they had brought.

Krystal, a tender-hearted child, burst into tears when she saw the chicken wings.
"Oh, those poor birdies. Do you know how they treat chickens, Grandma?"

Muriel figured the birds were better off than she was. They never had to make a holiday dinner for the family. But this was her granddaughter.
"Krystal, dear, these birdies lived in a happy place where they laughed and played and sang songs for a long, long time. Then one day they just went to sleep and, just like butterflies, they turned into chicken wings."
"Oh... okay."
Who says the next generation knows it all?
Tom heard Muriel's tale of the laughing, singing chickens, figured she'd finally lost it, and ate more bread.

Ignored by his elders, Jason gobbled a fistful of seafood appetizers and started wheezing. Muriel packed away the appetizers before her children could start a food fight and led them to the main event.

The table looked like a sailboat regatta that had been designed by Martha Stewart. Every dish had a tiny flag listing all of the ingredients. Muriel did not want to have to call the paramedics again. Krystal cried when she saw the turkey.

When Betty reached for the potatoes, Bill said, "But they have eyes". Betty meant to kick her brother, but got her sister-in-law, Carol, who screamed and kicked back. Muriel yelled at her kids. The holiday dinner was just like always. Damn.

After everyone had eaten what they could, Muriel brought out a carafe of hot cranberry apple cider. This was her gift to herself. Seeing all the different coffees at the supermarket had made her go all whoozie. Whatever happened to plain old coffee, black or with cream? Muriel’s children didn't say a word while visions of cappuccinos, espressos and lattes danced in their heads.

Betty was in charge of the dessert. She had created something that was just what the doctor ordered. No eggs, no cream, no butter, and no taste.
Tom just saw a pumpkin pie and it looked fine. He helped himself to a slice, smiled and thought that Betty was returning to the food of her mother.

But, something tasted... off. Maybe a new spice?
"Betty, what's in this pie," he asked.
"Geez." Tom reached for the bread.

Jason had wheezed throughout the whole meal.
All in all, it had been just another family holiday get together.

God help Muriel. The holidays are back.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Anna Sultana’s Chicken Marsala / Christmas Traditions & Baking / The Great Conjunction

It’s less than a week before we’ll be celebrating a very unique Christmas.
It’s been a hard year, but here we are. 

We’ve made it! So celebrate. Safely.

The week is off to a unique beginning.
The Winter Solstice on December 21 marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and is the day with the fewest hours of daylight in the entire year.
If you’re getting tired of T. V. shows - yes, one can only take so much streaming - Mother Nature will be giving us a special show on Monday night: Jupiter and Saturn will be forming a Great Conjunction.
These planets come together every 20 or so years (the last conjunction was in 2020), but this will be the closest they've been together since 1623, just 14 years after Galileo made his own telescope.
In 1614 the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, suggested that a similar conjunction - involving different planets - occurring in the year 7 B.C. may be what the Three Wise Men in the Christmas Story called the Star of Bethlehem.

On Monday night, about 30 minutes minutes after sunset, try to have a clear view of the southwestern horizon.
The planets will be pretty low in the sky and will remain visible for about an hour.
This is the only time you’ll be able to see the conjunction. Really. On Tuesday the planets will be further apart.
Astronomers say there won't be another Great Conjunction this close until 2080.
Hope it will be a cloudless night for everyone.

Now about a Christmas dinner…
Most families will be celebrating apart, so a traditional turkey dinner might be a bit too much.
Why not try something a little different to finish off a year that has been very different.
In February, 2013 I posted this recipe for Carmela Soprano's Veal Scaloppine Marsala with Risotto, a recipe for two.
Of course, Ma’s recipe is a little different.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas!


If you’d like a thicker sauce place the flour left over from dredging the breasts into a small bowl, stir in some of the wine mixture, then stir it into the sauce in the skillet.

The parsley and a squeeze of lemon tones down sweet Marsala’s sweetness.

Don’t usually buy Marsala and not sure what it is?
Marsala is a combination of wine and a distilled spirit, such as brandy, and is similar to Madeira or sherry in flavour.
Marsala comes in both sweet and dry varieties, and either will be fine for this recipe.
For future purchases, to use sweet Marsala for sweet dishes, such as tiramisu or Zabaglione, and dry Marsala for savoury dishes.
Whichever you buy, the Marsala won’t go to waste.
Zabaglione would be a delicious dessert on New Year’s Eve.
Just buy a good quality bottle of Marsala and toast the New Year!

If you’re just cooking for two don’t worry about making four servings.
You can store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.

                       Chicken Marsala

Serves 4

Place the rack in the middle of the oven.
Heat to 200° F

Trim and quarter
8 ounces cremini mushrooms

2 cloves garlic

One at a time, place between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or in a heavy zip-top bag
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Using the flat side of a meat mallet or a heavy plate or rolling pin, pound each breast gently into even pieces, about 1/4-inch thick.
Set aside and repeat with the remaining breasts.

On a plate-sized piece of waxed paper spread
1/2 Cup flour
Sprinkle over the flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dredge the breasts in the flour mixture (add more flour if needed).
Set aside.

In a large skillet melt together over medium-high heat
3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Add 2 of the chicken breasts.
Fry until golden-brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Remove the browned chicken to a baking dish or rimmed baking sheet.
Repeat with the remaining 2 chicken breasts. 
Cover the chicken with aluminum foil and place in the oven to keep warm.

In the same large skillet melt over medium-high heat
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Add the quartered mushrooms and cook about 3 minutes.
Add the minced garlic and cook about 1 minute.
3/4 Cup dry Marsala wine 
Scrape the bottom of the pan to remove the browned pieces.
3/4 Cup low-sodium chicken broth
Simmer until reduced by half and starting to thicken, about 15 minutes.
1/4 cup heavy cream
Return the chicken to the sauce.
Cook until the sauce thickens about 3 to 5 minutes.
Serve hot over cooked pasta. Angel hair pasta is nice.
Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.
A nice salad completes the meal.

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…

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, threw 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.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Anna Sultana’s Rice Pudding and Bread and Custard Pudding / St. Lucia Customs / The Geminid Meteor Shower

Tomorrow is Saint Lucia Day.
It’s a very popular holiday in Sweden and, even if you’re not Swedish, a perfect time to do a bit of celebrating.
Of course it has its own traditions, as mentioned in the story below.
Yes, they require a bit of work… buns in the middle of the night, candles, poetry.
Rice pudding is an easier traditional Scandinavian winter dessert.
If you want to make some instead of the Lucia Buns I’m sure St. Lucy wouldn’t mind.

This has been a stressful holiday season, calling for comfort food, like puddings.
If rice isn’t your favourite then Bread and Custard could make you feel warm and cozy.
It’s also a great way to use up a stale loaf of bread.

Back to Santa Lucia… here are some traditional recipes:

Cardamom / Sugar & Spice Christmas Blend

Swedish Cardamom Wreath for Saint Lucia Day

Anna Sultana's Santa Lucia Cookies

Anna Sultana's Cinnamon Buns

Anna Sultana’s Almond Cookies

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks tomorrow night and will continue until dawn.
The actual new moon is on Monday night, so the sky is very dark.
It will be perfect for enjoying 50 to 100 shooting stars per hour.
Make a pot of Apple Cider Hot Toddy and enjoy the heavenly show!


If you don’t like raisins in your rice pudding you can leave them out.

If you would like a thicker pudding make the following changes:
Increase the rice to 1 cup
Decrease sugar to 1/4 cup
Reduce milk to 3 cups

Be sure to use a baking dish that’s deep and large enough for the recipe you’ve chosen.

About the bread pudding…
If your bread is too stale to cut easily, wrap it in a damp kitchen towel, set it on a pan and heat it in a 350º F oven for 5 to 7 minutes.
Worried about cholesterol? Use 4 eggs instead of 5 egg yolks and 1 whole egg.

                       Rice Pudding

Heat oven to 350º F
Butter well a deep baking dish.
Set the buttered baking dish in a large pan that will comfortably hold it.
Place in the buttered baking dish
1 Quart milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Stir well to blend, then stir in
1/4 Cup rice, uncooked
1/2 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Fill the large pan with boiling water to the half-way point.
Bake uncovered for 2-3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours.
Bake until the rice is soft.
Serve the pudding hot or cold.

                       Bread and Custard Pudding

Heat oven to 350º F 
Butter well a 2 to 2 1/2 quart casserole                     
Cut baguette-size French or Italian bread into 1 inch slices.
You’ll need about 8 pieces.
Place the slices in a bowl.

Place in a small pot and heat to the boil
1 Cup milk
Pour the milk over the bread.
Set aside.
After 5 minutes drain the excess milk and reserve.

Place in saucepan
3 Cups milk
Heat but do not allow to boil.

Place in a large mixing bowl
5 egg yolks
1 whole egg
Whisk until lemony yellow.
1/4 Cup sugar
Continue beating until the mixture falls in smooth ribbons from the whisk.
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Gradually beat in the heated and reserved milk.

Set the buttered casserole in a large pan that will comfortably hold it.
Pour the mixture into the casserole.
Do not fill casserole more than 3/4 full.
Float bread on top of the custard and sprinkle on top
2 Tablespoons sugar
Fill pan with boiling water to the half-way point.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.
Before serving dust top lightly with confectioners sugar.

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. 
Back in 2000 I wrote this for our show. 
No, I don’t do any of these seasonal feast celebrations anymore.
At my age I have to conserve my energy for Christmas!

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.