Savoring the Christmas Season (With Rum Balls)

The Rum Ball 2013

This is the last rum ball. The last sugary bite of Christmas 2013.

We got a heavy little box of these for Christmas last year from T’s parents, who make them together as part of their Christmas tradition (you can read all about it here). We are some of the lucky people that reap the rewards of the tradition.

When the box arrived in the mail, I asked T if he got a brick of gold for Christmas. He might as well have based on the blissful smile on his face when he opened the lid to reveal perfectly packed, row upon row of rum balls. The whoosh of that sweet, cocoa-y smell filled our kitchen that day and again for months each time we dipped into the stash for dessert or late night snack. They often made us reminisce and tell stories and make plans for Christmas, even in the middle of summer.

Now here we are. Talk about taking time to savor the season. We made these precious treats last almost all year long.  Now we get to anxiously wait for the next batch to arrive.

Happy beginning of the season of expectancy, of waiting, and of warm, festive Christmas time.

Now, get to the kitchen and make some of  those famous christmas memory evoking rum balls. Thanks T-ma for sharing your recipe!

Magic Christmas Rum Balls

Dry Ingredients:

  • 1  Cup vanilla wafers crushed fine
  • 1  Cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1  Cup powdered sugar
  • 2  Tablespoons Cocoa

Wet Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons of light corn syrup
  • 1/4 Cup Rum
Instructions:
  1. In large  bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients together.
  2. Then add all of the wet ingredients
  3. Stir to combine.
  4. Refrigerate 20 to 30 min., until able to roll dough into balls in your palms.
  5. Roll each ball in sugar
  6. Pack up and mail to the people you love (after stashing a whole bunch in your own freezer).
Expert note: Sometimes we added more syrup and rum according to consistency.  A very little at a time while stirring.  Stir well.

 

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A Very Tuba Christmas!

2013-12-23 12.32.54This afternoon we got to see a little bit of Austin. We drove through the corridor of quirky shops on South Congress to our first stop: the Capitol Building. We actually rushed over once we read about a concert happening there today–a TUBA concert! 

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It was hard to tell how many tubas or people were there but is was a wonderful event. There were shiny new tubas, ones that had some stories to tell, some in the hands of kids in band jackets and others on the broad arms of men with beards and salt and pepper hair. Every tuba was bellowing out hymns and Christmas carols while people sat in the grass and kids played in the sunshine. A little research revealed that this concert happens all over the country and has for the last forty years. It might have been the first flash mob. See if there is a concert in your area here.

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We listened for a while then walked thought the lobby to see the incredible dome and pictures of all of the Texas governors through time. I had T stop to reverently tip his hat to George W. Bush.  After we picked up this year’s Texas Christmas ornament, we met my parents at Kerby Lane Cafe for some local color, cinnamon roll pancakes, and great conversation. On our way out we were caught in the middle of a disagreement between two friends. After one friend stormed out yelling, he apologized to us in the parking lot. Austin is still weird but everyone is so polite; Texas is such a mixed bag.

After that, we went back to South Congress for some treasure troving. We sifted though Peruvian pillows and Mexican trinkets, bells from India and paper stars from Texas. I held land grant documents from 1910 and old mah jong tiles. We saw ancient books and old advertisements, typewriter keys, and even a box for face cream touting it’s magic ingredient: mercury. My Dad bought me a parachute man, you remember the kind–you wrap them up and toss them in the air. We tried on crazy hats, wooden shoes and crazy glasses at Lucy in Disguise.

There is so much pressure to make everything perfect, or at least make every moment good or at least “count” in some way when you are with family you don’t get to see every day. This day started out with the unexpected and then went to the silly.  It was so hard to leave one another at the end. In short, we had a great day. I hope your family time is going the same way.

Merry day before Christmas Eve. 

Happy St. Nicholas Day!


2012-12-13 18.42.59Happy St. Nick’s Day!

When I was in elementary school I remember coming back into our warm classrooms after eating lunch and leaving our little shoes in the long, marble corridors (this only works in arctic climates, like Buffalo, NY where kids reach for boots instead of their shoes to go home) . We would walk to our desks in stocking feet and full of excitement. We giggled about being barefoot at school. The boys slid across the slick floor when they thought no one was looking.  When were ready to go home at the end of the day, all of the girls were sent to the coat closet to get their things. Then all of the boys. And as we all wiggled our feet into moon boots or plastic bags to waterproof our feet before stepping into rain boots, there was a murmur of anticipation. Did he come? Did St. Nick come to SCHOOL? It was almost more than a six year old could stand. When we were buttoned into our coats with hats on our heads and mittens on our hands we were lined up in two neat lines at the door. And Miss Pat, my intensely stern first grade teacher waited for our silence. She opened the door, and let us out to our shoes! They were filled with treasure from St. Nicholas: Jesus stickers (the kind you had to lick to make sticky), an orange, two foil wrapped chocolates and a (be still my art supply loving heart) a can of Play-doh.  That still feels like the magic of Christmas to me.

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Who wouldn’t want to find chocolate in their shoe? Well, as long as it is wrapped, of course.

At home, my Mom took on the role of  St. Nicholas, filling our whole family’s shoes every December 6th that we all lived at home. And now, I carry it on in my house.  St. Nicholas Day is is also a special day for my family another reason–it’s my Dad’s Birthday. My Dad, like St. Nick, helps everyone. If you are stranded with a flat tire, my Dad is the person you want to drive by. I won’t embarrass him here by listing his kind acts, but there are many and I am so glad for me and for the whole world that he was born.

A lot of different countries claim St. Nick as their own. I am not sure where it started, but the legend is just about always the same, a man of God who gave to those in need; and he did it in secret to preserve their dignity and to their surprise.  You can be St. Nick to someone today. It could be as simple as Jesus stickers and an orange or as huge as making dinner and emptying the dishwasher. Give of yourself in a way that makes everyone feel good. Think of the smiles you will create.

The picture above is from the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA (sorry to the artist, I couldn’t find a signature). You can look for it at the Torpedo Factory’s Holiday Open House tomorrow night. The event is free and open to the public and they are giving away thousands of dollars in prizes–including art and art supplies!

You can learn more about the history of St. Nick at the related articles below.

Adventures in Limoncello

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2013-11-22 18.16.01It all started with the black plastic bag that screams: “Hey world, I just came from the liquor store.”

Actually, it starts a mile before I got that bag. When I was in Italy a few years ago, a serendipitous turn of events landed me and Lola in the beautiful coastal town of Sorrento. Sorrento is far and away one of the most magical places I have ever been. The whole coast captured my heart, from Amalfi with the pebbly beach and strings of lemons hanging from the door frames and painted on every flat surface in homage. It is the stuff books are written about.

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Sorrento, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you could see yourself living. The winding streets and hidden alcoves of frescos and streets lined with vespas—the passages leading to hidden courtyards and the open town square complete with a bright yellow church and a glimpse of the rocky cliffs above the Mediterranean which is just a small swath of blue between Sorrento and the island of Capri. When we were there one rainy late morning the weather broke one and we took a walk. We wandered around and tried on backpacks and purses in deep greens, indigo, and jet black. We sorted through silk scarfs and fine linens, and we bought lace hankies tatted by nuns.  When we were though shopping we followed my patented method for avoiding tourist trap restaurants and getting an authentic meal—pick a street, then make the first right and the first left. Your restaurant will be right there (this method has never failed me—and you can never get lost). We walked down three stone stairs and sat at one of four tables in an empty restaurant. There were cruets of olive oil on each table. We stacked our packages to the side and we waited for whoever was rumbling behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz to come out and take our order.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a man with salt and pepper hair emerged, he had a carafe of red wine and a basket of warm bread in his hands. I am sure we squealed. We ordered in Italian and the bashful man disappeared behind the curtain again. When he came back he was all apologies…”signora, no Bolognese.” Bummer. He was out of what I wanted. I touched his hand to stop the flow of “Mi, dispiace!” and I told him to bring me whatever he wanted. The bashfulness cleared and his face erupted in a smile. When our food came, it came with a vengeance. There were so many bites to try. I don’t remember all of it but I remember the lasagna. Mmm Mmmm. Lola and I talked and ate and revived.

We started to make a move for the check when our waiter, the owner it turns out, came out with a stout carafe filled with a vibrant yellow liquid. He poured us each a sip and one for himself. We all clinked glasses, said “cin cin!” and tapped our glasses on the table before taking a drink. It was an icy burst of lemon followed by the warmth of the alcohol sliding down your throat. When we out on our coats our host walked close to me and I held out my hand (such an American). Lola said, “Aw! He was going to ciao you!” And with that we did traditional kiss on each cheek and it felt like we were leaving lunch with an old friend. Lola and I still refer to giving a good bye kiss as ciao-ing someone 🙂

When I was first dating T I told him this story. This led to a Godfather movie marathon where he would wow me with caponata and I showed off with my ancient cannoli recipe, and of course we had to have limoncello, which I promised to get. The only problem was I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched high and low and couldn’t find it. That is when I placed a forlorn call to Lola to tell her this tragic tale of woe. How? How could we possibly watch The Godfather without the limoncello?  We wouldn’t!  I got bottle in the mail a few days later  (three cheers for Lola!). It contained a tall frosted glass bottle of Limoncello and two tiny glasses with cherubic babies riding lemons with wings on them. It still makes me smile to think of sipping out of those glasses. Now we never have to have it delivered because we can make it at home!

On to the bowl of lemons…

I started with a recipe but I made some changes as I went:

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Start with ten washed lemons and a vegetable peeler. Peel the lemon skin (just the yellow, not the white). This part took a while. I actually ended up doing it in front of the TV (see my remote?). The long skinny, vertical peeler did the best job (I tried three).

2013-11-22 22.56.25When you have a bowl full of peels, cover them with 750 ml of vodka. I have read that a higher proof vodka (100+) does a better job of extracting the lemony color and flavor than a standard bottle of vodka. I don’t know if this is true, but what I chose (a triple filtered 80 proof, unflavored potato vodka) worked just fine.

Then you cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it out at room temperature for four days.

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On day four, strain the peel from the vodka. It will now smell like a lemon grove and have a pale yellow color. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan combine a cup and a half of sugar with two cups of water and melt over medium heat. The goal is to create a simple syrup here, so if you want it more or less sweet, follow your bliss.

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Pour the COOLED simple syrup over the vodka and lemon mixture. Cover and let stand overnight.

The last step is to strain out the lemon peels and pour your limoncello into a pretty bottle. It tastes best and is traditionally served ice cold.

You will notice you now have ten peeled lemons and it would be a shame to waste them. Stay tuned for my next lemony adventure in the kitchen. Until then, ciao!

T minus 8 Hours to Our Top 6 Thanksgiving Traditions!

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The last leaf! Thanksgiving walk 2012

The last few days have been busy ones and though they haven’t been hurried, they have been busy. I have had two work projects delay until they were happening simultaneously and between altered schedules, the unexpected, and the toil of everyday, we have been more of a tag team than a couple. While we’re a great tag team, I really don’t like it when that happens.

But now the leaves are raked, the fireplace is clean, and work; after tomorrow, work has been told to buzz off for the next four days. We are ready for what I have been calling the Thanksgiving Relax-o-thon. Our Thanksgiving isn’t traditional. For starters, it is just we two. Turkey is only involved as a leftover, and the main course is chow fun and spring rolls. Just saying it makes me smile. This is the most relaxed, low pressure holiday imaginable. Here is what I am most looking forward to:

6.      Being cozy at home with a fire crackling and a mug of cocoa. The pure joy of this is augmented by the weather we are having. Cold and wet and icy; perfect for being home and watching movies.

5.      Thanksgiving Dinner of Perfect Bites. Rather than an enormous thanksgiving feast we have decided to make just the perfect bites of the things we like the most. We like surprises, so I can only tell you mine–salty, green Sicilian olives and stinky cheeses. These will be an appetizer (more like evening grazing) before the dinner. The main course is Chinese food, T originated this tradition. Talk about no pressure Thanksgiving!

4.      Baking. Even though I’m not making dinner, I couldn’t get through Thanksgiving without baking. This year I am making two things: a classic pumpkin pie, so I can call my dad and have a piece over the phone and a two loaves of brioche. One loaf will be for turkey sandwiches on Friday, and the other will go home with a great teenager who is coming over tomorrow after school to sort through our surplus CDs. I am pretty excited about making both.

3.      Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Confession time—I have been watching every sickeningly sweet, late night, cable channel Christmas movie I have come across for weeks. These uncomplicated movies full of twinkling lights and happy endings have been warming me up for the real holiday movies to kick off.  Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the official movie our Thanksgiving weekend. We quote the movie all year long and it never ceases to make me laugh almost to the point of tears. The end of this scene in particular makes me lose it every time. 

2.    Talking to my Family. I am hopeful that my mom has decided not to cook. I am crossing my fingers that she is ordering a turkey from one of the terrific BBQ places near her house, and then powdering her nose with flour before she brings the pie (and Redi-Whip) to the table to the oohs and aahs of my brothers. Just when I think I have swayed her to take it easy, she will change her mind (relaxing is not her style!). I will know all the details for certain when I call them with my own piece of pumpkin pie and I can’t wait.

1.      Thanksgiving Weekend Date Night. A long walk in the crisp air with the one I love is enough to make my heart burst with gratitude for the life I get to live. A few years ago, we started taking a Thanksgiving walk (I am sure we were motivated to burn off some of the pie we planned to eat) and now it has become a tradition. When the world starts to spin almost out of control and deadlines, and chores, and responsibilities come calling, were good at reminding one another to breathe and to laugh. In the quiet moments, it feels great to say thank you for that and to just enjoy being together.

 A view of the lake from our Thanksgiving walk 2012.

Geese on the lake;
from our Thanksgiving walk 2012.

I will get back to living in the moment, but for now, I am filled with anticipation for my top six–and right on the heels of Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree lighting and caroling. Commence the Christmas season!

“Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.”

imagesAt my house, we have been talking a lot about what it means to really savor the season. The conversation keeps winding back around to one thing: being mindful about how time is spent–and how it isn’t spent. Its amazing how refreshed I feel on the nights we put Christmas music and read in front of the fire, rather than putting on the TV. Reading is one of those activities that requires all of your attention. All of your focus. I think that is one of the reasons why it is so rewarding. It also allows you to wonder and imagine in a way that the Internet doesn’t. Of course, the Internet is on my top ten list of things I am thankful for. It is great to be able to search and find the answer to any question in the blink of an eye, and it is wonderful to learn about things far an wide from the comfort of your sofa, but it takes away time from seeing things with your mind’s eye.  Its good for the soul to just imagine, without having Google there to inform every nook and cranny of your thoughts.

I hope you find sometime to wonder and imagine and read. And so you don’t have to spend your unhurried moments looking for something to read, heres is one of my Christmas favorites: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. It is complete with off-beat relatives, the sounds of jingly dimes, a dose of reality, a touch of politics and the joyful, expectant feeling of Christmas.  Without further adieu….

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. 

To keep reading, click here. 

Letting Christmas Traditions Bloom

AmaryllisI was talking to my mom about slowing down and unhurrying the season and we were trying to figure out the last time I wasn’t working around the clock for Christmas. We were on the phone and it was a long conversation, which is a new benefit of the unhurried Christmas.

My mom usually gets the brunt of my busyness. She always takes the time to call to make sure I am taking the time to sleep and eat and do something fun now and again, and she is met with “Can I call you back after…” or “I can’t talk, I was just about to…” or “I have been meaning to call you but by the time I slow down it has been too late.” She tells me the housework will wait when I am running on 5 hours of sleep. She tells me she will call me to wake me up if I decide to take a nap between work and an evening commitment.  Mama Mia, if you are reading this, thank you.

But I digress…

There was one time I slowed down a while—when I moved back to upstate New York and moved in with my grandparents. I worked part time raising donations for a television auction. I didn’t have a car or an alarm clock, I just fell into the staid, calm of their routine.

Every morning my grandfather said my name at the closed bedroom door and 30 minutes later there was a cup of coffee on the table for me between his mug and my grandmother’s tea cup. We bundled up and headed out in the icy air of a Buffalo winter, and listened to old music on an am station in the car. From January to May my grandfather drove my grandmother and me to work and picked us up at the end of the day.

There was not much quiet in my big, rambunctious, Italian family, but my grandfather was a font of calm for me. Somehow when I moved back I got this focused time with my grandparents that I hadn’t had since childhood, before all of the cousins and siblings were born. For the first time, I was an adult to my grandparents (or as much as a grandchild can ever be an adult to their grandparents) and our relationship grew.

Amaryllis12707That winter I bought an amaryllis and when I showed it to my grandfather, he adopted the whole project. We’re both gardeners in a family that is kind of annoyed by the mess dirt creates. Before too long, the plastic pot the bulb came with was abandoned in favor of a recycled ice cream tub. As the bulb sprouted, he stuck pencils in the soil to prop it up. And then the pencils were replaced with yard sticks. The whole operation was in the window next to his chair at the dinner table—the sunniest spot in the house for many reasons. And that bulb, our Christmas experiment, thrived.

By the following Christmas, I had moved out of their house. I had rented an apartment a little closer to the city, got a promotion and started working full time, finally gotten my license, and was on the verge of getting engaged. In all of that, I stopped to buy two amaryllis bulbs—one for his sunny window and one for my apartment. I loved having this thing we just did together—me and him. I remember running out of my uncle’s house as my grandparents started to pull out of the driveway after a visit. I almost forgot to give it to him. I handed the blub to him through the car window, standing on my toes to avoid the slush at the curb. He was genuinely happy about it. “I’ll go home and plant it now.”

Not long after that, after a quiet, eyes-forward conversation as we drove together, my grandfather, my papa, told me that he had lung cancer. I brought him a tiny Christmas tree in the hospital. He was home and back there over the Christmas season. I would go and sit with him and talk with him for the few minutes that he would be awake and he would smile and laugh and ask me to turn on the news. That was the last Christmas we had together.

I found those bulbs at the foot of his basement stairs in the spring when he passed away. The bags said “Christmas bulbs” and the year they were first planted written in his handwriting. When I went back for them a week later, someone had already thrown them away. I have planted an amaryllis and thought of him, no matter where I have been, every year since them.

My mom started planting them too. Somewhere in there, I started sending them to her for Thanksgiving and we would plant them—on opposite ends of the country—at the same time. We then spend the whole Christmas season sending one another pictures of their progress and then of the big, breathtaking blooms. I have gotten a lot of Christmas memories and cheer out of this unintentional tradition.

Slowly it bloomed...

Slowly it bloomed…

I am posting this a bit early because it is on my mind—and because I want you to take the time to plant one too. Last year I kept meaning to get to it and I didn’t. It wasn’t until my mom told me she gave my brother one to plant for the first time at his house that I eventually bought one at Target. It was the last of the batch, it was busting out of its torn paper package and it was already stunted and contorted. It did not have a good start and I didn’t have my grandfather’s sunny window. It took forever to get rooted. I was so behind the others. It bloomed around the New Year and it was gorgeous, but it wasn’t the same as taking the time to do it right. I said never again, so here is where I own up to that.

This bulb will hit the dirt on Thanksgiving. And with it will spring up another year of memories and the warmth of the season.