Monthly Archives: December, 2016

Holiday Musings

the god Saturn under attack by the Grinch and Robot Santa

“The War on Saturnalia”, by Me

My editorial calendar gave me a “free week” before another savory Jell-O this weekend, and I happened to have some extra free time because MIT gave us a relatively generous holiday schedule, an extra day each for Christmas and New Years. Woo! (I’m a little bitter because Harvard gives Bryan the whole week off. Yes, I’m a churl. We’re both really lucky.) Anyway, I figured I might as well fire up my “Holidazed” playlist in iTunes and do a  holiday post.

To tell the truth, I’ve been procrastinating badly since I started this post. I even blew away a whole afternoon wading in the swamp at the heart of YouTube where Millennials with millions of followers create drama with each other to get more followers, which gets them money somehow. I was simultaneously appalled and baffled. It probably would have been a more productive afternoon if I had hit myself over the head repeatedly with a blunt object. The point is, I did it to avoid working on this post, because I am not into the holidays, to say the least.

short-needled pine tree, white lights, assorted ornaments

Freak Mountain Holiday Tree 2016

It’s not that I dislike the holiday season. I’m not into the widely decried (and yet widely indulged) crass commercialism, and as an atheist, Christmas has no spiritual meaning for me, but I dig all the pagan trappings, which make a lot of practical sense to me. The evergreens and lights and decorations really help in getting through the darkest part of the year here in the northern hemisphere. (Summertime Christmas in Australia must be so weird…)

But I’m from what used to be called “a broken home”, and it was broken well before my parents officially separated when I was 14, so my holiday memories are not all that merry and bright.

When you’re a little kid and you don’t know any better, whatever is happening to you at the time seems normal, but with time and perspective, some of our holiday practices don’t seem so normal. For instance, when I was maybe five years old, my father got a super-8 movie camera (perhaps because some dumb kid, probably not me, put Vaseline in the still camera) and from then on he was the Cecil B. DeMille of our family holidays. We kids couldn’t come downstairs, not even to peep through the living room doorway at the tree and whatever was under it, until Mr. DeMille had taken out the camera and the bright light, plugged in the light, and got himself situated on the landing. Then, on cue, we were allowed to pad down to the bottom of the stairs in our footie pajamas – where we had to stand waiting while Mr. DeMille moved the camera setup to the far side of the living room, from which he could film us pouncing on our presents. The camera work probably took longer than the resulting three-minute silent holiday film reels, and it’s a good thing they were silent, because there was usually a fair amount of scolding and crying during our childish orgy of greed and disappointment – but they mostly looked festive, and that was what counted.

Not long after the introduction of the movie camera, I think between the second-to-last and last children, Santa gave up on wrapping our presents. Maybe he’d needed to let some elves go during the economically-depressed 1970s and had to cut corners. Instead, he arranged the gifts in piles, and our stockings (fleecy red ones with our names written in glue-and-gold-glitter on the fleecy white cuffs, lumpy with the old-fashioned stuffing of oranges, nuts and chocolates) were placed on top to indicate which pile was meant for which child. I should note here that my mother did not work outside the home, so maybe if Santa wasn’t so proud he might have asked her to help out.

ceramic letters with elves frolicking on them, meant to spell out NOEL

LEON, an old family tradition

When I was a kid, I thought my uncles were funny, but now I suspect that they may have helped shape my sarcastic and rather dark sense of humor. They were all military veterans, and some had served overseas in the Vietnam War. The grownups did what they could to shelter us from the damage that the war had done to the extended family (in part because my family mostly supported the war) and I still get a kick out of something that my uncles did that annoyed my grandmother. She had a ceramic NOEL set similar to the one in the photo above, and my uncles would rearrange the letters when she wasn’t looking. LEON was the favorite, but sometimes it would be LONE, or ELON. I have a couple of these sets now, which I call my LEONs, that are part of the holiday decor at Freak Mountain. This year, Bryan rearranged the letters to spell “LENO”, and the tradition carries on…

After my parents separated, the holidays started to fall apart in various ways, and not only because my siblings and I were getting too old to wear footie pajamas. At the same time, cracks were showing in the façade of the extended family, and the holidays just got sadder and sadder. That might be partly why, when I went off to college, I started dating Jewish guys. That kind of let me off the hook for celebrating Christmas if I didn’t feel like it.

My first holiday season living on my own, my boyfriend A– and I had a Winter Solstice party, and we continued to do that when we moved to Fandom House. Our Solstice parties were legendary. Friends would come up from New York and DC and crash on our floors or at the homes of other local friends, and a party would last a weekend. Of course, that couldn’t last. “The Original Series” of Fandom House moved out, and we got older and more responsible and less able to spare an entire weekend to party. Bryan and I moved into an apartment on our own, and the holidays were (and still are) awkward because Bryan was raised to think of himself as a Jew. We’ve had Chanukah bushes and solstice trees and no decorations at all, but have never settled on our own holiday routine, so I don’t really feel like the holidays are mine.

decorated spritz cookies shaped like trees, wreaths and ornaments

My Christmas cookies

It sounds stupid, but what I miss most are the cookies. One of my aunts did a ton of baking at the holidays, so there were all kinds of beautiful cookies – spritz cookies, chocolate and vanilla pinwheels, linzer tarts, snowball cookies, gingerbread cookies, and more that I can’t remember, but damn, being an adult sucks when you can’t have all the cookies you want. I don’t know how my aunt did it, because she also worked outside the home as some sort of medical technician and had a child. Even if I had a way to make sure Bryan and I wouldn’t eat all those cookies ourselves, I’d never have time to do all that baking. So I compromise by baking a batch of spritz cookies (which I love because they’re simple, buttery, and not too sweet), and I bring some to the Lab, and Bryan and I eat too many, but hey, it’s only once a year, right?

And now, as I finish writing this post, it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m relieved that the holiday season is almost over. I have a weird Jell-O recipe firming up in the fridge, and stuff lined up to look forward to in 2017. I don’t think I’ll get all the way through The New Joys of Jell-O by the end of the year, but I’ll be pretty close. Meanwhile, I’ve got something very exciting planned for my 50th birthday, and then in April I’ll be doing a weekend crash course in becoming a rock star – so stay tuned!

If anyone’s reading this, I hope you had a joyous, or at least peaceful holiday season, and that you have something to look forward to in the coming year.

Oh, and 2016 – don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

Memory Lane: Winter Fruit Mold

Jell-O mold that resembles a fruitcake

This is exactly what you think it is…

Okay, this one I remember. How can you forget fruitcake in Jell-O mold form? This is the sort of thing for which we all wish someone would invent “brain bleach”.

I know that fruitcake is the butt of a lot of easy jokes, but I honestly dislike the stuff. First of all, those candied fruit bits have such unappetizing texture, color and flavor. Then, I’ve never liked fruit that’s baked into cake or bread (e.g., raisin bagels), although over the years I’ve learned to tolerate raisins in oatmeal cookies only because I don’t ever want to have to turn down cookies.

There’s probably someone out there thinking, “I have this great recipe for fruitcake that will totally change your mind about it.” No way. I might try it, and be polite about it, but I won’t like it. And I can tell you that the last time I tasted a fruitcake was on December 10, when Bryan brought home a bit of a fruitcake that a couple of his co-workers had made from a vintage recipe to celebrate Emily Dickinson’s birthday. It wasn’t bad. I appreciated the effort – but I didn’t like it.

My notes on Winter Fruit Mold are oddly scanty, occupying less than half a page in my little notebook. I remarked that it wasn’t as bad as I expected – although candied fruit is always nasty. (Too true!) The chunky ingredients in Winter Fruit Mold include “candied mixed fruit” (whatever that happens to be), light raisins (yuck), currants, maraschino cherries, and chopped walnuts – everything I’ve always hated about fruitcake, without the benefit of booze-soaked cake.

Your Humble Narrator with Winter Fruit Mold

Introducing the Lab to another Jell-O creation…

The other thing I felt was notable was the whole wine issue. The recipe calls for a cup and a half of cherry wine, although 12 ounces of ginger ale flavored with a teaspoon of rum extract may be substituted. (As the kids say – wut?) I couldn’t find cherry wine, so I used a Portuguese red (Castelo do Sulco Reserva), which turned out to be a not-bad drinking wine and probably less nasty than cherry, which I imagine in 1974 would have been a too-sweet wine made by hippies that appealed primarily to kids who’d dropped out of high school to follow the Grateful Dead.

Winter Fruit Mold is also memorable because I brought it to the Lab holiday party. It was definitely a conversation starter, and a few people gamely tried a little of it, but most of it did not get eaten.

Recipe Repost: Cranberry Jelly Candy

Originally posted November 22, 2009

I’ve said in previous blog entries – and elsewhere – that the failures are more fun to talk and write about than the successes. This one, as it happens, was an interesting success. Well, mostly a success.

Just reading through the recipe, it was obvious this wasn’t going to turn out like just another gelatin dish. Besides Jell-O (any red flavor – I used raspberry) this one called for a can of jellied cranberry sauce, a cup of sugar, chopped nuts, and pectin, and with the additional gelling agent I guessed it was going to turn out with the consistency of Turkish delight. Sadly, it was exciting to be able to look forward to this change of pace.

There were only two minor problems preparing this recipe. The first, not that much of a problem, really, was deciding what kind of nuts to use. The New Joys of Jell-O is consistently vague about nuts, as though they’re all the same, or possibly, going by my memories of the 1970s, “nuts” in this context was shorthand for walnuts. That’s a reasonable option in this recipe, but walnuts are not my favorite, so I went with pecans instead. The other problem had to do with the pectin and was another of those “this book is a little outdated” things. The recipe calls for a half of a bottle of Certo pectin and does not mention a specific amount, but Certo pectin no longer comes in bottles but in plastic pouches. Each pouch is enough to make some standard-sized amount of jelly or jam, and I guessed that back in the day the bottle had contained the same amount of pectin, so I emptied a pouch into a measuring cup and used half (a quarter-cup, in case anyone’s wondering). Judging by the result, I was probably right. Yay me!

The preparation was pretty simple and mostly involved a lot of stirring. The jellied cranberry sauce was beaten until the shape of the can was completely obliterated and it was as smooth as I could get it, then brought to a boil. The dry ingredients were added and it simmered for ten minutes with frequent stirring. It came off the heat for the addition of the pectin and nuts and then had to be stirred constantly as it cooled for ten minutes to prevent the nuts from floating to the top. This sounds tedious, but actually it was a pleasure. The mixture smelled lovely, and it was a beautiful deep garnet color that made me happy while I was working.

The mixture went into a lubed square baking pan (the recipe says “buttered” but I wasn’t sure I wanted that strong a flavor so I used the nonstick spray) and chilled overnight. I was supposed to be able to turn this out onto a piece of wax paper (which we don’t have, so I was using a baking sheet) covered with sugar (to coat the candy to prevent stickiness,) but despite the nonstick spray and immersion in a hot water bath, the candy would not come out of the pan. No matter. I used the cubed gelatin technique, cut it while it was in the pan and removed the cubes with a cookie spatula, and this was completely satisfactory.

cranberry jelly candy with a fresh coat of powdered sugar

Cranberry Jelly Candy

Because this resembled Turkish delight, I used powdered sugar to coat the candy. The recipe offered Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut as an alternative to sugar, and I like coconut so I bought a bag, but the way the coconut was clumping (not dry enough) I thought it wouldn’t stick well to the candy or serve the intended purpose. The recipe said to coat the candy with sugar, and after an hour add another coat to prevent sticking. This I dutifully did, and due to time constraints (it was bedtime) I took the photo right after I’d added the second coat. What happened overnight, and what happened to the third coat as well, was that the moisture in the candy dissolved much of the sugar, making a sort of cran-raspberry royal icing. So it didn’t look very appetizing for most of its life, but it did taste good. Bryan ate it voluntarily. Just for kicks and giggles I tried coating some of it with coconut and found I’d been right – some of it stuck, but not enough. It still tasted good.

Since this was a dish that would travel well, I brought a good-sized portion to the Lab, hoping to elicit some fresh opinions. I didn’t push it on anyone, and only a few brave souls, my bestest friends in the Lab, tried it. One found it too sweet. The person who ate the most was the person with the amazing metabolism who will eat almost anything when he’s hungry. The most valuable feedback was from our Turkish student, who confirmed that it was like Turkish delight, and also confirmed for me that Turkish delight is, in fact, Turkish. I had been in some doubt, because I had first heard of Turkish delight when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and thought maybe it was a name given to some British confection to make it sound exotic. Anyway, she seemed to like it, but not that much, and I ended up bringing a good bit of it home.

Bryan and I ate it all up. No waste this time.