Let the baking begin!

DSC01382Christmas is not my favorite time of year.  Don’t worry.  I’m not going to launch into a tirade about how commercially motivated our society has become, or goad anyone into a theology debate.  No, I made a promise to myself that I would leave my cynicism at the door.  I vowed to make an extra effort to avoid allowing my negativity to overshadow the holidays or bleed into my blog entries.

Not an easy promise to keep, especially after dipping my toes into the pool of Christmas shoppers down at the mall.  I barely escaped with my life.  I will refrain from recounting the whole grim tale.  Doing so would only set me down a path of no return and then I will have broken my vow to be, if not cheery, at least, civil.

Finding Christmas related activities or events that don’t leave me wanting to chug the nearest carton of laced eggnog is a pretty tall order, but not an impossibility.  After all, I have discovered that I like Christmas music.  Granted, the playlist is minimal, but I’m a firm believer that all good things should be moderated.

There is another thing that I like about Christmas.  It’s the perfect excuse to bake an exuberant amount of goodies.  Of course, I don’t want them in the house because sweets are counterproductive in the whole healthy living lifestyle thing I’ve got going on, but I’ve come up with a solution.  I’ve devised a way to make them essentially guilt-free.  I bake them, pack them in cute bags adorned with curly ribbon and a festive candy cane, and give them to all my friends, family, and coworkers. They seem to like the gesture and it always leaves me with the warm, gooey satisfaction of having put a smile on their faces.  If I were a humane person, I might feel a twinge of remorse for having sabotaged their holiday diet plan, but I’m not, and I don’t.

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I usually try to make a variety of treats including some old favorites, such as chocolate chip and peanut butter.  I also try to incorporate cookies with a little spice.  Some of my favorite cookies aren’t sweet at all.  This is the fault of my little Italian grandmother who used to let me help her make batch after batch of pizzelle cookies.  For those who have never experienced these anise-flavored Italian cookies, I’m truly sorry for they are wonderfully yummy.   My grandmother made the best – my mother runs a close second  – and she used to let me lick the bowl until my tongue went numb.  My mother never let me do that.  You know, that whole Salmonella thing and all.  I miss my grandma.

This year, I have brought back my chocolate ginger spice cookies that are rolled in raw sugar, giving them a nice crunchy texture on the outside which contrasts nicely to the soft, moist middle.  To complement this offering, I have added a Chai flavor inspired cookie.  This one is definitely one to be enjoyed with a tall glass of milk, and while the dense cookie itself is more spicy than sweet, the white chocolate coating drizzled with melted milk chocolate gives it a nice balance.  They are considerably more work than just the basic chocolate chip, but I think they are worth it.  If for no other reason than they are a nice change of pace.

DSC01351While I am a pretty decent baker, a confectioner I am not.  Over the years, I have tried my hand at a lot of different candies: peanut brittle, almond bark, peppermint almond bark.  None of them resulted in anything edible.  In spite of this, I do try to add a bit of fudge to every bag.  Of course, fudge can be as frustrating to make as peanut brittle, especially when one has no idea the difference between those very technical candy making terms: hard-crack stage and soft-crack stage.  However, I’ve found a no fuss recipe that takes all of 20 minutes from the second the sugar hits the sauce pan until I pop the finished product into the fridge to set up.  Everyone seems to like it, and I wouldn’t dream of leaving it out.

The past two years, due to circumstances beyond my control, life has made this task overwhelming.  I just didn’t have the time to bake enough goodies for everyone on my list.  This year is different.  My school semester is finished, there are no obligatory family functions looming that require an ounce of my attention, and I have a couple of days off a week until mid-January.  More importantly, because there are no outside pressures, I feel that I am going to enjoy this year’s baking marathon much more than I have in a good long while.  That makes me happy.  Perhaps even instills a smidgen of holiday cheer into my Scrooge-filled heart.  Anything is possible, right?  I mean, I voluntarily put up the Christmas tree on the 10th of the month.  Much sooner than usual, and with minimal grumbling.  Perhaps Christmas miracles do happen.

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Things I learned in the last two weeks

Yes, yet again, I am running behind with my weekly blog entries.  I always have the greatest of intentions.  I really do want to get them finished and posted in a timely manner, but sometimes that nagging little thing called responsibility screws up everything.  However, I think I have myself back on track – at least until classes start again in mid-January.  Then I will try to think up new, more creative excuses for my tardiness.

In the last two weeks, I’ve learned…

…that there is some unknown force that seems to have invaded the brains of the parents at my daughter’s middle school and sucked out all of their common sense.  Or perhaps, they are just booger eating morons.  I don’t know.  Of course, if I had to choose, while the former is more visually pleasing to the writer in me, the latter is likely the most obvious conclusion.  I can tell you, though, that it does not require a doctorate in civil engineering to know that there is only one way in and one way out when navigating the carpool lane.  School administrators have even been kind enough to paint brightly colored directional arrows on the concrete for those among us who are visual learners.  Even so, day after day, these parents just don’t understand that parking in the out lane is counterintuitive to the overall spirit of the intended process.

John Calvin - Unknown source…that studying for my Western Civilization final too close to bedtime will result in dreams of John Calvin and Martin Luther with a side of Petrarch and Machiavelli.  Needless to say, the resulting Renaissance/Reformation mash-up did not leave me feeling well rested at all.

…that the office manager in my former dentist’s office is evil.  I’ve never liked her, or the dentist for that matter, but I tend to suffer through such things out of convenience.  However, I do enjoy getting back at her in my own passive/aggressive way.  She’s a stalker.  By this I mean, she will run you down to confirm an appointment or make you that appointment for the 6 month check up you don’t need but they want you to think you need.  I like to dodge her calls.  It’s become a sport to me.  You know, to see how many times she really will call before she gives up.  Mature, huh?  Well, it backfired on me this week.  I dodged all of her “please confirm your appointment” calls and when I showed up for my appointment, she informed me that she had given the slot to someone else.  What?  Oh, the agony of defeat…

…that the little elf thing parents have resorted to using, in an effort to incite good behavior in their unruly children, is creepy. Really, really creepy.  If my parents had done that to me as a child, I would have ended up in therapy, at the very least.  With my overactive imagination, I might have even ended up locked in a padded room for insisting that the elf was hiding a big butcher’s knife beneath his pointy hat and had been sent by Santa to murder me in my bed.  After all, I did think that there were cobras living under my bed for the better part of a year after seeing a certain Disney movie when I was six.  I’m still traumatized by that experience.

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…that Asian tacos are pretty tasty even though they look strange with all that pickled cabbage stuff.  Thai coconut soup, on the other hand, not to so tasty.

…that it’s just weird to have the FedEx guy ring your doorbell and hand you Styrofoam cooler with a ham in it.  For a minute, I thought I’d received someone’s transplant organ by mistake.

…that Rick Perry is a…um…well…hmmm…I find that I have no words to adequately describe my feelings toward the governor of my fair state.  Until now, I have remained largely indifferent to him.  Well, I say that, but I still hate his guts for that whole HPV mandate debacle.  Aside from that, by and large, and though I do like to ridicule his backwater way, I’ve not allowed myself to be bothered by him too much.  Most of the nonsense he spews does not amount to much, in the grand scheme of things.  Now, I am mortified that he has been unleashed on the nation.  It’s kind of like when your crazy cousin Larry shows up uninvited to your wedding and spends the entire night reminding you why he has been permanently banned from all family functions.

…that conquering the elliptical has become an obsession for me now.  Let’s face it.  Working out can be boring.  To stave off the boredom,  I set goals for myself.  Like:  I am going to do X amount of miles today in X amount of time; or I will go until the indicator tells me I’ve burned X amount of calories.  One of the biggest challenges with the elliptical is resistance.  It’s easy to truck along at a low setting, but I don’t want easy.  Up until now, I’ve played it safe and stayed within the level 8 range.  This week, I kicked it up a few notches.  I started out at level 10.  I did a good steady pace for 5 minutes, then raised the level by 2 to 12 and did that for 4 minutes.  For the final one minute, I raised the level even further, to 14.  Then I started over.  I did this for 6 repetitions for a total of an hour.  It was awesome.  Of course, the next day my body bitch slapped me and reminded me that I am staring down the business end of 40.  But it’s nothing a little over-the-counter pain reliever can’t fix.

…that there are 22 days left until the end of the holiday season.  Just sayin’.

…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by this amazing photograph of two baby chameleons.  It is, of course, altered but still…

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Source:   http://takacica.deviantart.com/art/A-Tree-Branch-Separates-Us-189658504

A hippo? For Christmas?

Lucky mesmerized by the lights

When I was contemplating this blog entry, I initially thought about writing something scathing about the commerciality of Christmas in modern society; how Americans overspend and over-indulge year after year with no thought spared to the consequences.  I thought about asking where all the good cheer and goodwill have gone.  I certainly see no evidence of it. Just take a trip down to your local mall or, for that matter, your favorite big box store.  No good cheer or goodwill there.  Maybe they’ve gone to the Caribbean. That’s where I would go.

Instead, I decided that writing about my negative feelings toward the sad state of Christmas would only make me look like a jerk.  Or more adequately – a Scrooge.  I don’t need a special season, or month to do that.  I can do it anytime – and rest assured, I will.  No, I thought that I should give you all a break from my bah humbug attitude.   Call it my little gift to you this holiday season.

Of course, after I decided on the above-referenced attitude adjustment, I was faced with the monumental task of finding something that I actually do like, to write about.  It was tough, and I was just about to throw in the towel when a Christmas song began to play.

Ding!  (Cue animated light bulb)

I like Christmas music.  Well, okay. That’s stretching it a bit.  But, for argument’s sake, and in the spirit of the season, I will contend that there are a few Christmas songs that I find enjoyable.  I might even go so far as to say that they entertain me and evoke feelings of something I can’t quite put my finger on.

These are my top twelve:

12.      Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC:  Don’t judge.  I was a teenager in the ‘80s.  This song reminds me of a time when I was surrounded by my favorite gang of fellow miscreants.  Okay, so we never got into trouble while wandering the streets of a heavily patrolled AFB housing development, but that’s not to say that we didn’t think about it.  Still, this song brings back fond memories.

11.      All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey:    I love this little ditty even though I’m not a huge fan of Mariah Carey, in general.  Perhaps it is because this song embodies the sixties, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”, and go-go dancers.  Three things I absolutely love.  Again, don’t judge.  I happen to think that the 60s brought forth some of the best music ever recorded.

10.       Winter Wonderland by The Eurythmics:  I first heard this song on the 1987 Christmas compilation album called A Very Special Christmas.  It isn’t usually a song that I care for, but Annie Lennox could sell ice to an Inuit with that voice.

9.        Step into Christmas by Elton John:  I’m not sure there is a real explanation for my love of this song.  It’s not particularly memorable, but whenever it comes on the radio, I crank up the volume and sing along.

8.        Let it Snow by Dean Martin:  I have a secret place in my heart for Dean Martin.  I love his voice and hearing his songs make me think of my grandmother.  I don’t know why.  I have no concrete memory to pin that on, just that it reminds me of her.

7.       Chipmunk Christmas by David Seville:  I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.  Who doesn’t love Simon, Alvin and Theodore?

6.        It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Andy Williams:  My mother had this Andy Williams Christmas album she would play to death at the very hint of Christmas, when I was a kid.  It grew on me.

5.        Do they know it’s Christmas by Band Aid:  Again, I spent my influential years in the ‘80’s.  It was the decade of Live Aid, Farm Aid, We are the World.  Band Aid was a group put together by the music industry’s royalty of the time, in an effort to raise awareness and money for the Ethiopian famine.  To be completely honest, in the midst of my most narcissistic phase, I’m not real sure I paid much attention to the message they were sending; however, I did love that my favorite artists sang on this records.   Plus, the accompanying video came out during the rise of MTV – when MTV played videos – which made it all the more tangible for me.

4.         Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee:  Yeah, I know.  Pretty cliché.  But it was a staple around my house growing up, so this one is part of my childhood soundtrack.

3.         Carol of the Bells:  Am I the only one who hears this song and is instantly transformed into an orchestra conductor?  I don’t think I’ve ever heard an arrangement I didn’t like.   *** I have hyperlinked to a live rendition by the group Celtic Woman.  I must give credit to my friend Jill who posted the link on her Facebook wall a week or so ago.  I’d never heard this version.

2.         I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas by Gayla Peevey:   A hippo.  For Christmas?  Dude!  What’s not to love?  I even have a little Hallmark ornament that plays this song.  It makes me smile.

1.         Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Darlene Love:   Say what you will about Phil Spector, but in 1963 he gave us 2 minutes and 46 seconds of soul warming Christmas joy. Every year, when I am grumbling about putting up the Christmas tree and cluttering the house with useless trinkets, this song – and this song alone – lifts my spirits and puts me in a festive mood.  It just isn’t Christmas without some Darlene Love.

Merry Christmas.