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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Proof is in the Pudding…

plum puddin'“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” Ebenezer Scrooge

  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The Ripple’s previous post brought up the subject of holiday traditions and their importance in rounding out any given holiday. Our household quests for anything that might evolve into a new tradition, especially at Christmas time. Two years ago the Christmas feast featured roast goose, a tradition that withered quickly on the vine in part because the roasting pan residue looked like the aftermath of a liposuction session. Only two family members dared tackle the goose: both concurred turkey dark meat was not only comparable to goose flesh but in fact surpassed it in quantity, if not in flavor. Christmas past highlighted a leg of lamb swimming among vegetables in a slow cooker. Once again only two stalwart family members leaped, so to speak, into the fold and partook of the lambkin. Consensus: lamb for two @$65 a leg would be worth the value only if one of the pair was a comely lass whose favor and affection you sought. Thus a second would-be tradition quickly left the rails.ready for flambe'

This Christmas, inspired by Mrs. Cratchit’s ceremonial flaming presentation in Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, I thought I would introduce the traditional English plum pudding to the household. A new tradition, perhaps? One that might stick? A little research turned up the fact that the main ingredient missing in “plum puddings” were the plums. At one time raisins, according to the research, were called plums, and all the pudding recipes called for a liberal amount of them. Yes, pudding recipes. And they were numerous, I discovered. I narrowed them down to two: the first, a tried and true recipe in England for fifty years, I discovered online; the second I found in our Joy of Cooking cookbook we’ve had since the mid-1960’s (p. 704). The J of C recipe called for twice as many eggs as the former, so I chose it (more is always better in the kitchen arena—unless it be cooks, of course). The J of C recipe follows:

1 cup flour

Prepare and dredge lightly with part of the flour:

1 lb. chopped suet (2 cups)

1 lb. seeded raisins (I used half regular raisins and the other half golden raisins)

1 lb. currants

1/2 lb. chopped citron (I added 4 oz. of glazed orange peel)

Resift the remaining flour with:

1 grated nutmeg (mind your knuckles!)

1 Tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 Tbsp. mace

1 tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. sugar or 1/2 cup brown sugar (I chose the white sugar but not without giving serious consideration to the brown). Combine the dredged and sifted ingredients.

Add:

7 egg yolks

1/4 cup cream

1/2 cup brandy or sherry (my spirit of choice was brandy)

3 cups grated (crushed) bread crumbs, white or rye (Rye? I think not.)

The latter helps make the pudding light. Place on a platter and whip until stiff:

7 egg whites

Fold them lightly into the raisin mixture. Pour the batter into a greased, covered gallon mold and steam for six hours.

A few days before I did battle with the recipe, I called Kelso’s Meats in Snohomish, had them reserve me a pound of suet. (Butter may be used as a substitute if you don’t have access to a Kelso’s.) As with any first attempts there are bound to be issues. My first: where to find a one gallon pudding mold? Maybe in the kitchens of Julia Childs or Rachel Rey. But aside from a casserole dish or two, a variety of cookie sheets, and serving bowls, I was at a loss for a plum pudding container. This dilemma led me to the kitchenware section of Freddies where I happened upon a five quart stainless steel mixing bowl ($9.99, but a bargain at 30% off). This bowl seemed destined to be a pudding mold.

In no time at all the ingredients went together (I had grated the whole nutmeg the night before). The “batter” was formidable in quantity and I had doubts the five quart bowl would hold it all. Directions specified filling the mold only two-thirds full which, to my relief, was the result after I tamped the mixture tightly. Issue number two. In my haste to see if all would fit, I forgot to grease the inside of the mold liberally and then coat the grease with sugar. (The pudding was an hour into its steaming before I remembered this step, leaving me to worry that if after all my work the pudding would not release. All that suet, I thought… surely that would be lubrication enough.)

When the vents of the canner spouted steam, I covered the bowl with a cotton cloth and bound it tightly with twine beneath the lip of the mold. I set the oven timer for one hour and into the steam bath went the pudding.ready for the steamer

Each hour I added two pints of water to the canner so it wouldn’t run dry. Seven hours later (one additional hour to insure the suet saturated the flour and bread crumbs) I removed the steamer from the heat and set it aside to cool for a half hour or so.

The unveiling had me nervous. seven hours laterWould I be able to remove the pudding  from the mold or have to enlist the help of a chisel? Would it be cooked through and through? The fatty suet did the trick for me; I ran a frosting spatula around the bowl and that was sufficient to release the payload.

I inverted the bowl and with a thud out plopped the pudding.Release the Puddin' Four days until Christmas. The pudding slumbered in the WELL-GREASED bowl (butter this time) in the cool garage.

The traditional English plum pudding included a few silver coins mixed into the batter before cooking. Those who found the coins in their serving were richer not only in calories, but also in silver. This tradition went away when silver coins, because of the rising value of silver, ceased to be minted. I decided to meet the ritual halfway by tossing in one silver coin, a 1961 Roosevelt dime, 90% silver, 10% copper. It was the best I could do. Whoever found the dime would be $1.45 richer (melt value as of 12/25/2013--barring a broken tooth).

Presentation: ah, this is the glory of the traditional plum pudding. The dessert should be brought to the feast table aflame, garnished with a sprig of holly (the latter I snipped from the neighbor’s holly tree, an eight inch twig with a festive cluster of plump, red berries…). The combustible I used was brandy, 80 proof. It is customary for the feasters to applaud the presentation of the pudding, but our guests proved to be pyrophobes, wary and poised to spring into action should the kitchen catch fire. My recipe omitted the flambe’ stage of the ritual; all I had to go by was Mrs. Cratchit’s portion of spirits: “…half of half-a-quartern of blazing brandy.”Knowing no equivalent for a “half-a-quartern,” I substituted a half cup of the 80 proof which proved insufficient fuel to make the short trip to the table ablaze but proved fire enough to broil the holly berries. But the pudding did burst forth in a momentary blaze of glory and proved sufficient entertainment for all.

Flambe

The hot pudding was served with a chilled lemon hard sauce. All present gave the dessert favorable reviews which, I boast, bodes well  for plum pudding becoming a family Christmas tradtion. I did forget to mention, however, that the recipe yields twenty-four servings which proved far too great a challenge for our company of seven. leftovers

The dime, by the way, has yet to be found.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Confectionary Architecture…

Cow jumped over the moon“We’re just a young family and want to start our own traditions,” Mike Kahler told me as my pickup jostled us along the perimeter of Dale Reiner’s tree lot-brambleberry patch. Mike is riding shotgun on a Christmas tree hunting foray. The last several weeks I have been functioning as a southpaw, following Dr.’s directives that I lift no more than ten pounds with my right arm. Doctor’s orders, then, precluded activities like cutting down the annual Christmas tree and doing the necessary manhandling required to bag  it. “I’ll cut it down for you,” Mike offered…”even set it up if you want.” Thanks to Mike the tree is now a part of our Christmas d├ęcor, trimmed and lighted, awaiting Christmas morning.

Mike’s correct about traditions. They play an important role in festive occasions whether they be secular or religious. Traditions connect to memory, are retrospectives of the past, and carry over into adulthood and beyond. A rite need only be performed more than once, I guess, to be considered a tradition; thus new traditions need only repetition to become old ones.

For the third year this December we have left the quiet of the Valley for a day and headed for the holiday glitter and crush of the big city. We do a little shopping but mostly gape in awe at the fancy trappings and window displays and let the tsunami of commercialism wash over us. But there is one spectacle in particular we look forward to: the annual display of gingerbread houses in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel.ginger bd beanstalk Each Christmas season for charity The Sheraton challenges local architectural firms to put aside the drafts and blueprints of brick and mortar edifices on their drawing boards and apply their drafting skills and imaginations to the media of gingerbread and sugar. The competitors work within the parameters of a common theme: two years ago, landmark buildings; last year Disney animated movies; this year fairytales. Our tradition is only three years old, but in that short period of time we have noticed a definite “stepping up” by the competition and some of this year’s entries Frank Lloyd Wright would have been hard pressed to beat.Hickory dickory dock

Given a little gingerbread and candy, it’s amazing what a little creativity can do. Icing and spun sugar, tootsie pops as light posts, M&Ms for tree ornaments and redhots for trim, baby marshmallows and sugar-coated pretzels, cocktail mints and gumdrops…each display equals a counter in a candy store. A candy holstein cow leaping over a sugar glaze moon…a gingerbread galleon gently rocking in a sugar icing sea….I saw a ship a'sailing...

London Bridge is falling down, Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and theThe cat and the fiddle fiddle, Jack and the bean stalk, the Old Woman in a Shoe…all rendered in gingerbread and confectionary.Gingerbread 1

If you looked carefully,you could find a candied representation of  several Mother Goose verses. As the onlookers filed by, cameras flashing, I could tell they were awestruck by the gingerbread artistry; we all left hyperglycemic, every sweet tooth aching.

Old shoe's tongueDish running with spoon

Another Christmas tradition in our household was the Advent calendar.For the days of Advent, we would engage in a Christmas-related activity: baking, decorating, writing Christmas cards, watching a Christmas movie or taking in a Christmas performance at a local theatre, hunting down that special Christmas tree, stringing the outdoor lights, reading the kiddos A Christmas Carol, photos with Santa…. If Advent is a tradition in your household, I suggest a project sure to involve the entire family: construct a gingerbread house, especially if your holiday resourcefulness falls short of a project a day for twenty-five days. In fact if your Advent ideas are stymied, why not plat out and bake an entire gingerbread village?London ginger bridge

Several years ago before the Advent calendar was passed down to the next generation, we pulled an advent activity out of one pocket and read: “Make gingerbread house.” And so we did. The blueprints came from a holiday cooking magazine. I made tag board templates for the walls, roof, and chimney. The magazine article included the gingerbread recipe plus another for the sugar icing used as mortar. After the dough was made and chilled, I rolled it out to a quarter inch thickness, overlaid the templates, cut around them and baked the walls, roof, and chimney. LB2

 

The next day of Advent we raised the house, mortared the roof to the walls, and cemented the chimney with a substantial pool of icing to the ridge peak. Then we created a frosting snowscape on a sturdy piece of foil-covered cardboard. Now the fun part began: candying up the cottage in such a way that Hansel and Gretel themselves couldn’t resist a visit. That was long ago, so I can only remember a few details of our candy adornments. I remember purchasing  assorted candies I thought appropriate to trim a gingerbread house. I know we used candy canes for the door frames and lintels. Windows we piped on the walls with icing. We draped the eaves with frosting icicles. A portion of the foil we left exposed to represent a frozen pond. Beside the pond we upended an ice cream sugar cone, covered it with frosting peppered with candy dots to create an outdoor Christmas tree. Although I can’t recall the various sweetings we used to appoint our little confectionary cottage, I do remember the confection we used to shingle the roof: Necco wafers. The roofing stage was time consuming and required two Necco cylinders: a drop of icing, slap down a Necco, making sure that no two like-colored wafers overlapped. The Necco shingles I’ll never forget and for this reason:Westin Gingerbread house

After Christmas that year we stored away all the trappings including the gingerbread house. We found a cardboard box that fit the little display perfectly and up into the attic it went with the rest of Christmas. Next year we retrieved the box and found the gingerbread house stale, but intact. Once again it complimented the other Christmas displays in the household. That Christmas passed. Post-Christmas up into the attic again with the gingerbread house. Year two. Once more we hauled Christmas down and set about to decorate. Space was cleared for the gingerbread display. To our surprise, when we opened the special box to remove our gingerbread creation, the box was empty, not a crumb of gingerbread to be found… empty that is except for Necco wafers scattered willy nilly across a stale frosting snowscape. The snow frosting was littered with chocolate sprinkles which turned out to be mouse droppings. Truth be told, Necco wafers, should I feel the urge for a candy snack, I wouldn’t give a moment’s consideration. Apparently the tastes of mice and men run pretty much the same.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Life on the Fast Corner, Lap Two…

the fast cornerAccording to Brett de Vries, the yellow caution flag has been out on The Tualco Valley Speedway recently. Brett motioned me over for a pit stop chat the other day. “Have you noticed the sheriff out in the Valley lately?” he asked. When I told him I hadn’t, Brett filled me in on the latest development  in the campaign to discourage speeding on the Tualco Loop Road (“The Tualco Valley Speedway…or Life on the Fast Corner,” 9/16). I replied that I hadn’t.

“About four o’clock every afternoon,” Brett complained, “ they’d line up in both lanes on down the road between Ed’s and Tony’s and race each other to the corner. One afternoon I saw them setting up to race and backed my rig across the right lane in front of the house.” The two drivers, both of foreign origin, pulled back in line when they saw the lane blocked. “They stared at me; I stared at them,” Brett continued. “Then they flashed me the familiar American sign language and drove off. That’s when I called the sheriff’s office and asked to talk to a sheriff. I told him the county road had become a speedway and he could empty his ticket book in just a couple of evening patrols.” Thinking back on the incident, Brett admitted his roadblock perhaps wasn’t the most prudent thing to do since he set up the blockade right in front of his residence. If the speeders’ had retaliation on their minds, I thought, at least they’d have to slow at the corner to take aim at their target.

“Farm machinery uses the road,” Brett explained to the sheriff, “and there’s a precious old man who routinely rides his bike along this stretch.” A precious old man? Riding a bicycle? Who might that be, I wondered, but only for a moment. The bicycle tipped me off. Brett was talking about me; I was the “precious old man.” For a moment I was speechless. In my thirty-one years of teaching, I’ve weathered countless terms of endearment, but I can say with certainty that “precious” was not among them. In fact I can’t recall that term ever being used in reference to myself. And just as I was basking in the glow of  preciousness, Brett hit me with “old man,” a designation that nearly poleaxed me: first time, and to my face, anyone had ever referred to me as an “old man.” The “precious” quickly sloughed off into the void and I was left feeling like I should be wearing a baseball cap with the words “Old Geezer” printed boldly on the brim. “Old man,” eh?   Jim Werkhoven remarked a year or so ago: “They say seventy is the new sixty, but don’t believe it…seventy is seventy, that’s the truth of the matter, pure and simple….” Brett had pretty much said the same thing, but in a gentler way.

So I continued on my way, just a “precious old man” taking some small consolation in the fact that while he was pedaling along the Tualco Valley Speedway, someone was looking out for him and all the other precious old men in the Valley.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From The Ripple’s Lost and Found Page…

We returned home from a trip to the big city and found this flier on our doorstep. ‘Tis never the season to lose a pet, especially around the Christmas season. When you’re out and about in the Valley, please keep an eye out for little Mary Jane. I’m sure all the Christmas Bob wants is for her to be found and returned safe and unharmed. lost pup

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mixed Signals in the Valley…

good dog, bad dog

…lends a whole new meaning to the phrase,“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:…”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Reminiscing Among Swans…

swan fieldThe swans have returned to their Valley wintering grounds. I’ve heard them and observed their twilight flyovers for a month at least. Just recently, though, they’ve been foraging in the Valley cornfields. Because of our current stretch of cold weather, I’m footing it in the Valley these days: the wind chill factor and Gladys’s blistering pace would spell frostbite for sure. The other day I was delighted to see a congregation of swans, two hundred at least, in Johnny Deck’s cornfield. As unobtrusively as possible, I strutted briskly along the road past Swiss Hall, hoping my lumbering pace wouldn’t spook them. The nearest swan contingent immediately up-periscoped and began their swan gabble (where the phrase “swan’s song” came from is a mystery to me). Some of the closest began a slow waddle toward the middle of the field; distance is safety. Soon the entire host was protesting my presence, the lot of them sounding like an ensemble of first year clarinet students. As I continued along, most shut off their klaxons and resumed grubbing up the roots of the cornstalks. On my return leg, the swans replayed their earlier scenario.swans on alert

Somewhere between the “Beware of Dog” sign and the Barrell Man’s house an unfamiliar cry overhead made me look up just in time to see three geese gliding south. Geese, not swans…and not honking bandit-faced Canadian geese either, the cry of these three more like the bark of a small dog than a honk. “Must be snow geese,” I thought, remembering a conversation with my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L the other day. She had seen a flock of snow geese down valley, a surprise to her. “I could tell by their black wingtips,” she said. The trio flyover was my first sighting of snow geese. They are plentiful in the Skagit Valley, but I had yet to see them here. Birders I’ve talked to say it’s not uncommon for trumpeter swans and snow geese to forage together. This may be so, but distinguishing between the two species from a cluster of white birds at a distance makes identification difficult without a spotting scope .

As the three geese sail down Valley, my mind wanders with them to the south-east coast of Essex, England, to the “Great Marsh, the saltings, mudflats and tidal pools,” a wild and desolate place where the fresh water estuaries mingle with the brackish waters of the cruel North Sea. A world teetering on the brink of war has yet to reach this remote outpost. Thus the setting of The Snow Goose, a poignant little story by Paul Gallico. The snow geese sighting reminds me it’s been years since I read this wonderful little book.swan commute

I pull the slim volume, not much thicker than a large pamphlet, from the shelf. It is a gem of a book, Gallico’s, noteworthy if for no other reason than it is a masterpiece of word economy…each and every word works to a purpose; to leave a word out would be a noticeable oversight; to add one more, an obvious excess. The Snow Goose is the story of Philip Rhayader, a man whose physical deformities have alienated him humankind, a recluse by circumstance and choice. Women are repelled by him; men are uncomfortable in his presence and avoid him. A lover of wildlife, especially waterfowl, Rhayader purchases an abandoned lighthouse and many surrounding acres of marsh and saltings which he turns into a refuge for numerous species of migrating waterfowl.flight of swans The lighthouse becomes his home; the sanctuary, a source of subject matter for his paintings of migrating birds. Village folk know him as that strange chap who lives alone and paints pictures of birds. Hunters detest him because he interferes with their sport. When he’s not tending his tame birds or painting, he sets sail in a tiny sixteen foot sailboat and sails the coast sometimes for days, frequently venturing into the open sea.

It is a snow goose that forms a bond between Philip and the young girl Frith who lives among the village fisherfolk. One day Rhayader answers a knock at the door and finds the girl standing on the stoop. She holds in her arms an injured snow goose and knowing his reputation as a protector of wildlife, especially waterfowl, has come seeking aid for the wounded bird. Philip readily recognizes the goose as a snow goose and shares his amazement with Frith: the snow goose is a native of Canada, he tells her, a species not found among the flocks of local migratory birds. A great storm, he continues, has driven the bird before it, across the Atlantic, east across England to the marshes of Essex where local hunters shot and wounded it. Frith stands by while Rhayader clips and binds the injured wing and splints the broken leg. “In a few days she will be feeling much better,” he tells the girl.

From time to time Frith returns to the lighthouse to check on the goose’s progress. A day comes when the bird is whole, and heeding the call of other migrating birds, takes flight with them and disappears. The snow goose is gone; the bond between Frith and Rhayader is broken but resumes anew the next fall when surprisingly the goose returns to the lighthouse with other migrating flocks. The ritual continues over the years. Frith is now a young woman with a young woman’s sentiments and has ambivalent feelings about the nature of her friendship with a man such as Philip. The snow goose, however, buffers their relationship. Meanwhile the rest of the world has erupted in war.

One day Frith visits the lighthouse and is alarmed to discover a frantic Rhayader loading his little sailboat with provisions. Hundreds of British troops, he tells her, have been pushed to the sea at Dunkirk. Every available fishing boat, freighter, barge has set sail to rescue the doomed troops. Frith pleads to go with him, but Philip gently refuses her request; her presence would mean room for one less soldier in the small boat. Frith protests she’ll never see him again and then realizes her bond with him goes beyond their common love of the snow goose. Nevertheless, Philip sets sail, heads out to open sea. But Rhayader is not alone. The snow goose, like a guardian spirit, circles the small craft as it sails off into danger.

Gallico’s story is rich in symbolic pathos--both the snow goose and Rhayader are outlanders, outsiders, outcasts, freaks of nature, so to speak. The Snow Goose is a wonderful story for readers young and old. It’s a short book. You can read it in less than an hour. I did. However, if you are a sensitive reader, you might allow yourself some extra time in case you have to round up a box of tissues.The Snow Goose

(NOTE: In 1971 Gallico’s story was adapted to film starring the late Richard Harris who plays a very credible Philip Rhayader. The film stays true to the book and the cinematography does a masterful job capturing the windswept desolation of the story’s setting and the chaos and panic among the besieged troops in the harbor and on the beaches at Dunkirk.)