these are a few of my favorite things

IMG_5499My gifts, some in brown paper bags, with a bit of string. The rest in zip lock bags…long story…

Somewhere in the whirl that kicked in around Thanksgiving and hasn’t let up since, I came upon an honest to goodness brown-paper package tied up with string.  It seemed like a time-traveler from another era–if you’ve ever been there, think Yum Yum Shop in Wolfeboro NH, back before they switched over to the stretchy plastic thingies to secure their boxed cookies.  The memories provoked by this classic Sound of Music lyrical prop have stuck with me, lo these many busy weeks.  And more than once, it has reminded me of the magic of simple things– the joy that comes with giving, and the happy anticipation of  a loved one’s  delight, which all by itself is a gift  given in return.

This being the season of gifts wrapped, one way or another, and favorite things all around, now seems like the perfect moment to devote a post to the verse I might someday add to Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic song.

IMG_5497First off, Harvard Square, this time of year. Magic writ in twinkly lights. Never gets old.

IMG_5422Next up, Christmas traditions at home, like paperwhites and advent calendars. And Santa.

IMG_5360A whole new source of seasonal joy, and a complete throwback to my youth: stamps from the grocery store checkout, gathered and pasted into little booklets, just like the S&H green stamps we hoarded when I was growing up. They earned me some nice new kitchenware.

IMG_5402Aha!  Look what I found! Those missing pages from my wedding gift Joy of Cooking!  They were keeping my sweetie’s grandma’s first edition of Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book company!

IMG_5383I’m loving the floors in my house these days, big time.  These rugs are the result of a bold and lucky guess, that the colors in the tiny Crate and Barrel website photo were accurate. I’m also exceedingly happy that my contractor talked us into refinishing all the wood floors, and adding radiant heat beneath the kitchen and master bath floors.  Whole new world of cozy and warm around here.

IMG_5342The annual carol service at Memorial Church, in Harvard Yard.  A complete gift of joyful sounds. Including the moment when Linus reminds Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.

IMG_5390Love this, so much.  Always have, always will.

IMG_5125Pomegranate seeds.  Where were these when I was growing up?

IMG_5500Teeny tiny micro-sundaes from Toscanini’s.  Three bites of salted caramel ice cream, topped with homemade whipped cream and chocolate sauce.  Perfection.

IMG_5188The fake boxwood wreath I bought ages ago, that keeps being a willing recipient of my seasonal gee-gaws. And yeah, that Santa gets around.

IMG_5195I’ve always loved the old-fashioned doorbell we installed two renovations ago.  People kept pressing the lit-up electric doorbell because, well, that’s what they knew to do. But the electric doorbell finally went kaput.  So I’ve added some explanatory signage, and am now enjoying the trill of a real bell whenever our mailman needs my signature.

IMG_5501Greetings in the Christmas card bowl, from near and far.  Lots of wedding photos amongst the group shots.  I know it’s horribly old school, but I do love this season of envelopes dropping through the mail slot, filled with news from friends and family, across the miles and the years. A variation on brown paper packages tied up with string.

 Happy Holidays, one and all.

a holiday tradition, almost run amuck

IMG_3346Tis the season…

I can’t remember exactly when baking gingerbread cookies became a December ritual for me. It didn’t start in my youth, since none of the cookies that came out of our family kitchen involved rolling pins or icing, that I recall. Honestly, now that I think about it, while we kids liked to make the standard Nestles tollhouse cookies from the recipe on the chocolate chip bag, my mother preferred cookies that came from the bakery in Camden: walnut shortbread with a dollop of chocolate, date-filled sandwiches, butterscotch treats. She bought those by the boxful, then hid them in the freezer on the front porch.   During my high school years, when fundraisers called for edible wares, I favored no-bake chocolate concoctions over actual baked goods. They were fudge for the faint of heart, with lots of peanut butter and oatmeal thrown in to hold the messy lumps together until they cooled off on sheets of wax paper. They sold like hotcakes at bake sales, despite not actually being baked.

 IMG_5120Why two copies you ask? Read on…

Like everyone I knew back then, I grew up in a kitchen that had a copy of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking on the cookbook shelf. My mother’s copy was just like her mother’s, including instructions on best practices for skinning rabbits and squirrels. That 25th anniversary edition was kept close at hand for the calorie lists as much as for cooking instruction, I suspect. Probably more, since my mom’s culinary repertoire consisted nearly exclusively of meals she already knew how to make.

 IMG_4976Honestly, this has nothing to do with my cookie story.  Except to point out that the Lorna Doone was born and raised in My Fair City.

* * * * *

Fast forward to sometime after my beloved and I had moved out of our little condo to a home with more counter space, and that’s approximately when my gingerbread tradition began. I have a vague memory of testing various recipes during my most adventurous cooking era, post-college and pre-kids. Martha Stewart was just getting a foothold in our creative conscience, which likely amped up my desire to produce something a little more lovely than those no-bake fudgy oatmeal drops. Again, the vague memories…somehow it seems like it might have been a less-than-stellar Martha Stewart gingerbread recipe (not the first substandard recipe of hers I encountered, just saying) that propelled me to look elsewhere for more trustworthy instructions. So I delved into my own copy of The Joy of Cooking (a wedding gift from a college friend whose mother also had a copy, I’m guessing) and found Irma Rombauer’s classic gingerbread recipe. Once found, I never looked back.

IMG_5108Perfection.  Thank you, Irma Rombauer.

Never looked back, until yesterday, that is.

 IMG_5113This is where six pages have gone missing…

Alas and alack. Because right about here is where I should be posting a photo of my well-worn gingerbread recipe page, complete with my handwritten marginalia about using white sugar, not brown, and using Grandma’s (the brand, not my mother’s mother’s) molasses, the “robust” variety with the green label, not the regular yellow label version. But somewhere over the past summer of packing and moving and construction and relocation—yep, you guessed it, that critical recipe disappeared. Not the entire of my Joy of Cooking cookbook, curiously; just the chunk of pages from the “Cookies and Bars” section that had worked itself loose from the binding. That little packet of cookery info had come to a semi-permanent resting spot in my Plexiglas cookbook holder on the kitchen counter. Now, after turning all my cookbooks and folders of clipped recipes upside down and inside out, all I can find is the gap between pages 705 to 712, and no recollection around where I might have stashed pages 706 to 711. Which is to say, I couldn’t put my hands on my go-to, tried and true, best in all categories gingerbread recipe. Help!

IMG_5112Egads!  What will I fill those tins with, if I don’t have the recipe?

Embarrassing fact: I can’t remember the recipe, even though I’ve made at least 100 batches of Joy of Cooking gingerbread cookies. By which I mean I’ve made at least 200 batches, because I always double the recipe. Always a whole stick of butter, always 7 cups of flour. That much I know by heart. But standing in my kitchen, without a reliable notion around the exact quantities required for the remaining ingredients, left me with nothing but a big blank thought bubble hanging over my head. How much molasses and sugar? How many teaspoons of baking soda? Cloves? Cinnamon, ginger, salt? I could guess, but I wouldn’t be sure.

I was lost. And in no adventurous mood to try a couple iterations and see how they might turn out. I needed my stalwart recipe, and I needed it pronto.

So I started with Google, searching on Joy of Cooking, gingerbread men. Simple enough. But I kept not quite landing on the recipe I knew by heart, if only I had it in front of me. Little quirks abounded—wrong amount of butter, calls for brown sugar, not white, and eggs, at all—my gingerbread dough requires no eggs.   Curiously, for all that the world wide web offers, I couldn’t for the life of me turn up the page I needed.

So what next? Well, I did what you do if you live where I live. I walked into Harvard Square. Surely, surely, either the venerable Harvard Book Store (a delightful independent book seller not affiliated with the university) or the Harvard Coop (an ancient cooperative turned department store with a particularly excellent book section) would have a copy of Irma’s Joy. How could they not?

IMG_5122A bookstore that doubles as a speaker venue. What’s not to love?

First stop, since it’s a tad closer to home, was the cookbook section at Harvard Book Store. I figured the Rombauer classic would be in their category of texts to always have at least one copy of in stock, and I was not disappointed. Amused, a bit, that the latest printing is the 75th anniversary iteration, fifty years beyond my mother’s edition, and confident that my search had ended successfully. But just to be sure, I sat in my favorite little HBS reading nook to peruse Joy’s Cookies and Bars section.

IMG_5082Sorry, lousy photo taken on the sly.  Trust me, there’s no good news here.

Ahem. What’s this? The diamond jubilee Joy of Cooking edition gingerbread recipe starts out thusly: “In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, melt 1 cup (two sticks! Plus my exclamation point) butter or margarine.”

Oh, hell. They’d changed the recipe! Rombauer et al. had deep-sixed their original and gone with a new version, apparently the brainchild of a cookbook author and baking teacher whose name I shall not mention. She lost me at “melt.” Then she lost me again at “or margarine.”

Seriously. What serious baker thinks butter and margarine are interchangeable?

I would have gone into a serious funk right about then, had I not remembered that the Harvard Book Store has a robust used book section in its cavernous basement. This would surely be a place where I could put my hands on the version I needed, no melting or butter substitutes allowed. So down to the lower level I headed, fingers crossed.

IMG_5119Oh happy day!  The recipe I needed, in paperback, no less, further reducing my financial outlay.  A second-hand steal in my book.  So to speak.

And so, here I am, back in business. And inclined to commit those quantities of dry goods to memory, just in case. That, and perhaps copy them down and paste them into one of my new kitchen cabinets.

IMG_5121Who knows? Maybe after I’m done making gingerbread cookies,  I’ll skin a squirrel.