Monday, December 23, 2013

Carolina Christmas

Well, here's what Christmas looks like around here, at least much of the time. That is a giant bucket of worms. Last night was perfect worm weather: well above 70 degrees and raining lightly. When I went out for my walk the sidewalks were covered with huge night crawlers, some almost a foot long.  I went back and recruited some help and we gathered worms for an hour or so. This morning our teen and his friends went fishing without success and tonight we took the younger kids out after supper, but still didn't catch anything. So I guess I'll set the worms free in the garden.

I'm in a pretty un-Christmasy mood. I already wrote this blog once today but while I was trying to add a new photo our worthless computer (a Sony Vaio: don't ever buy it. Ours has been a lemon since day one) erased the entire thing so I'm re-writing it.

Plus, although many of my friends are rejoicing, 70 degree weather for Christmas does not delight me. I miss Ohio. I get so homesick this time of year. Just as summer always means Michigan to me, Christmas always means Ohio, and it's never right when I'm not there. I miss my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins and our holiday customs. Other than one Christmas spent visiting my European boyfriend, I never celebrated Christmas anywhere else until I was in my mid-30s.

Potato starts

I did take advantage of the North Carolina weather to set out some potato starts I've been growing. We have kale doing very well in the winter garden, along with cabbage, cauliflower, onions, garlic, and lettuce. I hope the potatoes don't rot. The soil is so saturated from three days of constant rain, when I dug down more than four inches water spurted out of the ground!

I've spent the day trying to make myself feel better, pinning pictures of Amish Country on my Pinterest board. I grew up on the edge of Ohio, near Berne, Indiana, the Amish town whose buildings still display signs in a dialect of German so old it's disappeared from Germany, and whose stores still have hitching posts for horses outside. We had an Amish maid named Katherina who used to come clean for us a few days a week and who also babysat for us at her parents' farm sometimes. It was fascinating to visit Katherina and her parents and 14 siblings and watch how they did everything without electricity.

Stovetop Simmering Potpourri

 I've also been trying to make the house smell like Christmas. I made a stovetop simmering potpourri and I've had it going all day. Mix 6 sliced clementines, a couple teaspoons of cinnamon or a few cinnamon sticks, a whole nutmeg, some bay leaves, a teaspoon or two of cloves, and a teaspoon of ginger with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer as long as you want. When you're finished the whole mix can go in the compost. The house really does smell divine.

We're just about ready for Christmas here. My parents went up to help my sister so she decided to host Christmas after all. I'm glad, because that's less pressure on me, so I don't have to prepare for guests. On Friday Jerry and I stayed up wrapping presents until 1 AM. Then we got up yesterday and went to the fire house to organize and label presents for Toys for Tots. Today everyone helped pitch in to get the house cleaned, and we've been baking cookies all afternoon for ourselves and to give as gifts to the neighbors and our family. All I have left are a couple more presents to wrap, the dusting, and the laundry and packing for our trip.

Holiday cookie assortment

 For the cookie assortments I am giving the Peanut Chocolate Clusters I shared in my last post, Pillsbury's Fruit and Oatmeal Bars, and Molasses Crinkles. The Fruit and Oatmeal Bars are basically jam thumbprint cookies in bar form; so much easier to make! You press half the dough into the pan, top with fruit preserves in your favorite flavor (I like raspberry), and top with the rest of the dough. The Molasses Crinkles are a family tradition for me. My mom's Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1960s had the recipe and we always made them at Christmas. I've never see the recipe in another edition of the Betty Crocker cookbook, only my mom's. Imagine gingerbread cookies, but thick and puffy, with gooey, chewy centers and a crispy melted-sugar crust. I know your mouth is watering, but don't worry; I'll give you the recipe!

For years I couldn't make these cookies. The original recipe calls for shortening, which we now know is terrible for your health. I tried substituting butter but the texture was all wrong. Finally, I discovered coconut oil. This non-hydrogenated vegetable oil provides the texture imparted by shortening without any trans fats and grants anti-inflammatory and metabolism-boosting power to your baking. What's not to love? I prefer VitaCost's Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, but in a pinch you can find Louana Coconut Oil in most supermarket baking aisles with the shortening.

Molasses Crinkles
3/4 cup coconut oil
1 packed cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
white or raw sugar for dipping
Mix coconut oil, brown sugar, molasses, and egg in a mixing bowl until smooth. Add remaining ingredients except dipping sugar and beat until a smooth, thick, clay-like dough forms. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours. Roll into 1 to 2 inch balls. Dip in water and then in dipping sugar. Place sugar side up on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes until cookies are set. If you are using white sugar it will melt and form a crackly glaze over the top of each cookie. Makes about 3 dozen.

I used raw sugar for dipping because I replaced all our white sugar with coconut sugar, as it's supposed to cause less impact to your blood sugar and is harvested in a more sustainable manner. I also love the caramel flavor. The raw sugar doesn't melt into a white glaze like the white sugar, but it does make a very pretty crystalline decorative topping and it adds great crunch. I will probably pick some white sugar up tomorrow though, because I already need to go to the store. I noticed we are out of white flour for our traditional Christmas Eve rømmegrøt.

Rømmegrøt, which translates as "cream porridge", is the Norwegian Christmas Eve supper, just as lutefisk is the Christmas Day meal. It is pronounced "remma greht. Some people spell it with two ts at the end, but others use just one. If I put my phone in Norwegian it autocorrects to "grøt", so that is how I'm spelling it for this post, but my grandfather's original recipe has it as "rømmegrøtt". I don't know why these foods came to be the standard Christmas meals. It may have had something to do with the fact that, by the end of December, staples like milk or cream and flour and preserved fish were all that was left to eat in Norway!

Through our family rømmegrøt tales I learned of long-ago ancestors and came to know cousins I've never even met. My grandmother never liked rømmegrøt because she grew up on a "cherry/dairy" farm and her mother could always use cream, which Grandma felt was too rich. Grandpa, on the other hand, grew up very poor. His father came from Norway at only 17, speaking no English and having no money, to be a sailor on the Great Lakes. He worked his way up to First Mate of his ship (just a step away from Captain) when he was stricken by polio and paralyzed. He became a shoe salesman after that, a, job he could do from his wheelchair, but it didn't pay enough and he struggled to feed his eight children. His wife, my great-grandmother, couldn't afford cream so she made her rømmegrøt with skim milk. Grandpa used to tell a story of his brother, Frederick, who died at age 13. Grandpa was trying to memorize his lines for the Christmas play at school. He was supposed to say "And now there is an S between" while wearing a letter S on his shirt to help spell out Merry Christmas. When he was practicing, though, Frederick kept saying, "And now there is some grøt between" and messing Grandpa up! I think in the end it went okay, and I'm so happy to know Frederick a bit, even though he died so long ago.

My grandfather's cousin, Gerd, sends a photo of her family eating their rømmegrøt every year. You can see she completely re-decorates the house for Christmas. She hangs special Christmas curtains and uses Christmas table linens and plates and centerpieces. I thought this must be particular to Gerd until I read an interview with a Norwegian interior designer who said he loves to decorate for Christmas because his mother always went all out, even changing the curtains. So, perhaps it's a Norwegian thing! I do know my cousin, Larsteiner, travels three hours to Trondheim to pick up his family's lutefisk for Christmas dinner each year, so he is into Christmas traditions for sure! Here is my family's recipe for rømmegrøt:

Christmas Eve Supper

(Norwegian Cream Porridge)
1 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups whipping cream, milk, or half and half (traditionally, all cream is used)
melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon to serve
In a 3-quart, heavy saucepan, melt butter. Whisk in flour, stirring until smooth. Add whipping cream and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is thickened and bubbly. You are basically making a giant roux. Blend in sugar and salt. Serve immediately or place in a covered bowl in a warm place until ready to serve. To serve, top each portion with melted butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

Super healthy, as you can see! It's a good thing we only eat this once a year! I fill my gravy boat with melted butter and pass that around the table, as well as a shaker of cinnamon and a sugar bowl so everyone can top their own porridge. If we are going to the early Christmas Eve church service I often serve this as a light meal before, with snacks after if people are hungry. If we are going to the late service I fill this meal out with fruit and Norwegian Christmas Bread if I have any.

I hope you might add this to your family's traditions if you wish. Now that I have to work so hard to make a happy Christmas for my children, I appreciate the memories my parents and grandparents made for me even more. I do get homesick and I miss the loved ones who are absent from me. I keep reminding myself, the people and places we love are always with us. Even if we can't see them in person we can conjure them in our minds and hearts, especially when we honor their traditions. I wish you a beautiful holiday full of your most cherished rituals and a new year in which you achieve every goal you've set for yourself.

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