Archive for December 2006

Ring out the old…

Recipe for a lovely day:

1 morning playing at home

1 trip to Target for party supplies (and bonus: new party shirts for both kids!)

1 trip to the playground, where the boys demonstrated their new sliding skills: Eli, feet first on his belly down the curly slide; Ben, head first on his belly down the double-bump.

1 dinner at the local Japanese restaurant, where good friends happened to show up just as we were finishing. We visited for a bit, and fed their two boys some of our extra yaki soba.

1 stop for gelato on the way home (it’s good to end the year with a taste of something sweet.)

1 quiet pair, stuffing peppers and filling dumplings for tomorrow’s party, sharing a half-bottle of champagne and a small box of truffles.

New Year’s Cooking

Four or five years ago, Tony and I started holding a New Year’s Day party. We can’t remember exactly when it began; we could chalk it up to Ben’s birth and a sleep-deprived reluctance to stay out late on New Year’s Eve, but in fact we’d never been big NYE revellers. It used to be a work night for Tony, back when he ran light shows at dance parties, and he’s more than had his fill of drunken party-goers. Meanwhile, my most memorable New Year’s Eves had involved arguing with my old boyfriend while we searched Manhattan fruitlessly for the kind of unrealistically glamorous party you see in When Harry Met Sally.

So Tony and I hunker down. Pre-Ben, we’d have people over for a fancy New Year’s Eve dinner. One fabulous year, we were in Williamsburg visiting friends. We drank a 1990 Dom Perignon (one of their wedding gifts) and ate homemade napoleon, then stayed up very late watching an Iron Chef marathon.

And now we host a New Year’s Day open house. We make a ton of food and invite all our friends and their increasing numbers of kids. Often we are still jet lagged from our Christmas visit east, but we still hold the party. We’ve carried on when Ben was recovering from pneumonia and also when we’d only been back in our house, post-renovation, for three days and didn’t really know where the serving dishes were. One year, New Year’s Day brought a huge rainstorm, and my Dad, proud New Englander that he is, watched admiringly as the water rushed down the street, rising high enough to float a canoe.

This year, I started some of the New Year’s cooking before we left for Christmas, putting the dough for pistachio-cranberry cookies and cheddar crackers in the freezer. I’ve baked those (the crackers aren’t worth the effort, fyi) and also made brownies, banana-coconut muffins and addictive parmesan-black pepper biscotti (to make up for the lame crackers). We’ll make strata (for which I no longer follow a recipe, sorry), and Tony’s mini stuffed peppers and shitake mushroom dumplings (two things he’s made up, but I’ll work on him to write down the recipes), and maybe some gougeres and polenta bites. There’ll be candied peel (some plain, some dipped in chocolate) and satsumas and sweet potato fries and lots of different things to drink.

One year toward the end of the party, a friend noticed me rummaging in the pantry for something else to serve. “You know, Caroline,” she said, “If you stop putting out food, we’ll all go home.” But of course, as she well knew, that’s not the idea at all! I can’t think of a finer way to ring in the new year than by gathering up as many good friends as possible and feeding them well. And to those of you who can’t be with us, may the new year bring you peace, happiness, and many good things to eat.


I was 17 in 1984. (Life was not, thankfully, like 1984.) I was a junior in high school, starting to think about college; I dreamt of going to Brown, my best friend to Duke. (Pre-calculus intervened and we wound up, both of us ultimately quite happily, at our safety schools.)

17 years ago, I was 22, living in Manhattan in a $900/month one bedroom apartment on East 13th Street. I was working for a literary agent, and starting to think about graduate school. My boyfriend and I applied for different programs in the same cities. I didn’t get into U.C. Berkeley’s English department, but he got into San Francisco State’s film program, and I figured San Francisco was a good place to live while I reapplied to grad school. Berkeley’s Comparative Literature program accepted me, my boyfriend and I broke up, I earned my Ph.D., and here I am.

I spent 17 hours in labor with my son Eli, some of it (the time I didn’t spend moaning) thinking about what kind of child was making its way to me.

Now the most significant 17 in my life belongs to my niece and goddaughter Mariah, who is 17 today. She’s thinking about a lot of things: music and writing, and where to go to college, and when to get her driver’s license. She’s quiet and interesting and funny and brought tears to my eyes at the Christmas Eve service when she sang the solo in “Once In Royal David’s City” (if I’m this sappy about my niece, what’s going to happen when my own kids start doing stuff?)

She seems a whole lot more pulled together than I was either at 17 or 17 years ago. I’m happy to be spending her birthday with her, and I’m glad to report that I just took her birthday cake out of the oven.

Happy birthday, Mariah, and many, many happy returns of the day!

Mama at the Movies

This month, I write about It’s a Wonderful Life and remember Ben’s first Christmas:

Christmas Eve, 2002

It’s my first Christmas as a mom, and I as sit rocking infant Ben to sleep in the darkened room, I realize that the ubiquitous Christmas telecast of It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is flickering on the ancient television. The sound is muted, but I remember the dialogue. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has just learned that Uncle Billy misplaced the day’s deposit, and despite sacrificing his whole life for the Building & Loan, George is ruined. He can’t listen to his wife Mary cheerfully prattle on about their daughter Zuzu’s cold. He rages about the money spent on the doctor, their money-pit of a drafty house: “I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia!”

Ben stirs in his sleep and cries out. I hold my breath as I adjust his IV, which has tangled around my arm and pulled taut. I touch my lips to his sweaty head and he relaxes back into sleep. I exhale, relieved to have avoided another cycle of the anguished cries that raise his fever and bring the nurses running with another round of invasions.

We have pneumonia.

Read more over at Literary Mama and let me know what you think!

Candied Citrus Peel

Candied citrus peel gets a bad rap; a world of mediocre fruitcakes studdied with chewy, plasticky bits will do that to an ingredient. I don’t like candied peel in things, but, fresh candied peel is a pretty and delicious addition to a Christmas cookie plate (especially if you dunk the ends in melted dark chocolate). Straight out of Joy of Cooking, this is an easy recipe that makes a lot, two excellent qualities in a recipe.

Place in a saucepan:

Peel of 3 oranges, 2 grapefruits, or 6 lemons, removed in wide strips

Add water to cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain, cover with fresh cold water, and simmer until tender. Drain, refresh under cold water, and remove any remaining pulp or pith by scraping it away with a spoon. Cut the peel into 1/4″ wide strips.

Combine in a large, heavy saucepan:
1 c sugar
3 T light corn syrup
3/4 c water

Stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the fruit peel and cook very gently over low heat until most of the syrup is absorbed. Cover and let stand overnight.

Bring to a simmer again, then let cool slightly and drain. Spread several layers of paper towels on a counter and spread on them:
1 c sugar

Roll the citrus peel in the sugar until well coated. Transfer the peel to a sheet of wax or parchment paper and let dry for at least an hour. Store between layers of wax or parchment paper in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 months.

Christmas Cookies

When I was growing up, my mom made thousands of Christmas cookies. I’m not exaggerating; my parents entertained quite a bit over the holidays, and she kept careful records of the kind she baked and how many each batch netted in the back of her Joy of Cooking. There were speculatius and pfeffernusse, wasp’s nests (a delicious chocolate-almond meringue) and hickory puffs, springerle and lebchuchen and thumbprint cookies, which are rolled in chopped walnuts and have a tiny dot of jam in the center. I don’t remember a lot of sugar cookies, and now that I have kids I understand why she didn’t make these supposedly kid-friendly cookies: they’re too much work! All that rolling and cutting and then decorating…I’ve hardly made any since I had kids.

I don’t remember helping much with the baking, though I’m sure I must have (how else would I have learned how to bake cookies?); at some point, once my mom was working full-time and I was more independent in the kitchen, I took over a lot of the baking, and produced plates full of cookies for my dad to bring to his office staff, hospital patients, and others.

Now I keep my own list in the back of Joy of Cooking, though it’s pretty skimpy so far. Christmas ’98 (when I was still in graduate school) is the first year I record, and it was a great year for cookies: 11 batches (nothing like writing and grading papers to inspire a lot of baking). Then there’s a gap until Christmas 2001, which was pretty good, too, with 10 batches. But there’s no list for Christmas ’02, which was my first Christmas as a mom; we spent it in the hospital because Ben had pneumonia (more on that in next week’s Mama at the Movies column). Christmas 2003 has a pretty sad list: “pneumonia (again!), strep throat, bronchitis, and truffles.” What was I thinking, making truffles when we were all so sick?! They’re time-consuming and frankly, no less expensive nor more delicious than the ones you can buy at Trader Joe’s. Last year, we’d just moved back into our house after a 9-month renovation, so I only made gingerbread men (with many, many dried blueberry buttons, painstakingly–dare I say tediously?– applied by Ben) and lemon-polenta cookies.

So far this year I’ve baked (and mostly given away) four kinds of cookies: gingerbread men, speculatius, chocolate crinkle cookies, and my new favorite, pistachio-cranberry cookies. These are pretty, taste great, and take about 10 minutes; I made a second batch of dough and stuck it in the freezer for our New Year’s Day party. That’s all the baking I’ll do till New Year’s, though I have, at Ben’s request, made a batch of candied orange peel, mostly because I was so delighted that he remembered I made it two years ago. Somehow peeling and boiling and scraping and sugaring the peel is a pleasurable kind of labor. You can dip the ends in a bit of melted bittersweet chocolate and then, for very little money, you do have something you can’t buy in a store. And it tastes great.


Every Monday morning, I go out in my pajamas before 8 a.m. to move the car out of the driveway so that we don’t get a ticket when the street sweeper comes.

This morning, there was a thick layer of ice on all the windows.

I was too cold to wait for it to thaw, so I got the car decently double-parked and ran back inside.

I used to live where you had to carry a lock de-icer in your bag, wear longjohns for 3 months out of the year, and keep an ice scraper in your car.

But I haven’t lived in weather like that in over ten years, and I’m not such a hardy plant any more.

I still can’t feel my toes.

How to Make Your Toddler Very Happy

1. Realize that preschooler could serve himself breakfast if the child safety latch were removed from snack cabinet door. Remove child safety latch.

2. Leave open boxes of crackers and cereal within reach.

3. Sit back and watch as toddler runs to cabinet, pauses with hand on doorknob, and then hauls back on it with full force, as usual. This time, to toddler’s great surprise, the cabinet opens. Toddler regains balance quickly and gazes at cabinet door with wonder and delight. Toddler slowly closes door. Toddler runs to watching parent and gives a big hug, then proceeds to run back and forth from cabinet (open and close door) to parent (big hug), grinning all the while, for the next ten minutes.

4. Make sure that kiwis remain out of reach.

Paging Roy G. Biv

Scene: kindergarten classroom, story time.

Players: kindergarten teacher, eager students.

Witnesses: school principal, me.

Teacher, holding up book: “Look at the bird on this page, everyone. Can anyone tell me what color this bird is?”

Several eager arms shoot straight into the air. Teacher calls on a student who proclaims confidently “Red!”

Teacher: “Hmm, no, not red. Anyone else?”

Several more arms in the air. Teacher calls on another student who announces, with equal confidence, “Orange!”

Teacher: “No, not orange. Who can tell me what color [emphasizing this, as if the kids have been answering the wrong question] the bird is?”


The principal and I exchange glances. We can’t see the book, but we’re wondering about this bird, too.

Teacher: “Anyone? Who knows what color the bird is?”


Teacher, sadly: “No ideas? Well, it’s red-orange!”

Principal (under his breath, as we leave the room): “She and I will have a little talk later…”

The Two-Year-Old’s Personal Laundress, the Writer and the Mom

Different motivations compel mothers to put pen to paper. For Jamaica Ritcher, writing sprang from a desire to avoid being just her two-year-old’s personal laundress:

Midsummer — I am wallowing in an oppressive heat and a morning sickness that lasts all day. Maia sits on the back step with her dad eating popsicles. Through the screen door, I hear Asaph say, “Maia, be careful how you eat that. You’ll get berry stains all over your shirt.”

Says Maia, “That’s okay, Papa. Mom will wash it.”

From the kitchen sink I call out, “Me? Why me?”

Says Maia, “Because you’re the mom, and mom’s do the laundry and stuff like that.”

The apprehension I often feel because I don’t have a career, because I could never decide what I wanted to be, becomes panic. I am an empty vessel appropriated by my family. I am a two-year-old’s personal laundress.

It is this moment, or the culmination of moments like this, swarming with feelings of isolation and unimportance, that moves me to pick up a pen. I have written before but never without an assignment as impetus, never independently. But now I do so on the verge of implosion, trying to keep some modicum of calm. I vent, let my stream of consciousness brim and spill onto the page in lines. Poetry? Not good poetry, but it’s something that I can read back to myself and sort out. When I get up from the table, I feel as though a window has been opened, and stale air has finally been let out.

Read more of Ritcher’s journey into writing, from procrastinatory cracker-baking to being shown up by her daughter at a poetry reading, in “The Two-Year-Old’s Personal Laundress, the Writer and the Mom.”