Friday, December 28, 2012

The Gift of Gingies

Every holiday season, I make gingerbread people, aka "gingies."  It started out with our family baking cookies for a holiday ski club fundraiser several years in a row.  Then once I stopped skiing, I started making them to give away as gifts.  For the past several years, that is all anyone gets for Christmas from this broke college, and now grad, student.

Those of you that have never made gingerbread cookies, you might think, oh, what a lame gift.  However, those of you that have put the hours of intense labor into making dozens of these little ginger ninjas know that this is one of the most time-consuming and love-filled gifts you can give someone.  I'm serious, they take FOREVER.  Every year I get excited to make them, and then halfway through I vow to make more money the next year so I can buy people real presents.

This year I didn't come home in time to make them for everyone, so I sent out some Christmas cards and decided to just make the gingies for people in Boston.  I gave them to my boyfriend's family, my housemate's family, and some guys at my gym.

The trick to not getting sick of them is to use lots of different shaped cookie cutters so that you don't start drawing angry eyebrows on the ginger people when your hand gets tired from icing so many smiling faces.

Old Fashioned Gingerbread People (Gingies)
Recipe adapted from Betty Crocker
Yield: 3-4 dozen cookies, depending on the size of the cookie cutters

Celebrating Life

December 16th marks the birth of two of the most wonderful and important men I will ever have known: my best friend, Kurt, and my grandfather, "Grampie."  And much to the heartache of everyone that ever knew them, both are no longer alive.  Most people try to use euphemisms to say that, like no longer here, no longer with us, or passed on, so I know my phrasing may sound blunt.

For those of you that know me, you will know that my beliefs about life and death and what happens to us are pretty cloudy.  I don't know what I believe, but I know what I feel.  And I can't say that Kurt and Grampie are "no longer with us," because I feel their presence all the time.  Whenever I'm upset, a song Kurt loved will come on the radio.  Or when I'm feeling like I'm not strong enough, sometimes I get a little tingle in my knees, which Grampie had so much trouble with.  I don't really know what this means, and I'm highly aware it could all be coincidence or just very much in my own head.  But I don't really care.  At the end of the day, the point of believing in anything is to have something to get you through the day.  Hanging on to the memories of two of the most influential men in my life and celebrating them does that for me.

To make the day a little less sad, I decided to bake them a birthday cake.  It was not to be morbid or a function of my own grieving process.  It was just that I wanted to remember them in a special way to celebrate their life.  And that's what birthdays are all about- celebrating the accomplishments of life.

Since it was the holidays, I made a gingerbread cake.  I think they both would have loved it.

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Cake w/ Vanilla Glaze and Peppermint Candy Pieces
Recipe adapted from Kitchen Trials
Yield: 1 8" cake and a little extra (I made 2 little bundt cakes) or one 9" square cake

Getting Competitive

I'm not a competitive person.  I never liked organized sports and stopped loving dance when I joined a competitive team.  I don't like games where there is a winner or a loser.  I never enter cooking competitions because I thought it would make me hate baking.

Then grad school happened.  I have become extremely competitive with myself.  I did the Diva Dash in September, pushing my body to its limits in a 5k with 11 obstacles.  I am pushing my mental capacities by writing paper after paper after paper.  And lastly, I am challenging my emotional stamina.  Can I handle this insane amount of stress for four years straight?

All this pushing made me think maybe I could push my limits and try something outside my comfort zone- a cookie competition.  My internship decided to have a staff cookie contest for the holidays, and I signed up to bake.  For a tiny little office, we made it pretty legit.  There were official judges with official score sheets and separate judges' eating rooms and a secret tallying.  For one of the first times in my life, I said "bring it on" to the competition.

I am constantly being evaluated at my internship.  In a professional capacity, in a clinical capacity, and a personal one.  Obviously I want these people to like me.  Normally I achieve this by baking things and winning people over with my sugary skills.  I felt an immense amount of pressure to come up with the best cookie possible.  I researched recipes for weeks and enlisted the help of my friends and family to send me their ideas.

The winning recipe was found by my sister.  I chose these because they were creative and really different from anything I'd made before.  Also, they were freaking adorable, and I'm a sucker for holiday cuteness.

Of course, I always think I know better than the recipe, and had to change it up.  Nutella is ALWAYS better than peanut butter, and shortening should never be used instead of butter instead you want weird textured cookies.  And I doubled it and changed a bunch of other things too.  This is what I came up with:

Nutella Melting Snowmen Cookies
Recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Yield: 4 dozen adorable cookies.  Feel free to halve the recipe if you don't need as many

Thursday, December 27, 2012

More Macaroons

Holidays are an especially wonderful time for macaroons.  First of all, they give you something different to eat beside gingerbread and peppermint.  Second, they look like little snowballs.  And third: they are dairy-free and easily made gluten-free as well, so they make a great gift or party-snack for your food-allergy friends.  Finally, and most importantly- they are incredibly easy to make.

I've made them twice now.  Once with almonds and once with dried blueberries.  This holiday, I made them twice in one week, for two separate holiday parties.  They are extremely versatile and you can put whatever you want in them.  For my old roommates' Dapper/Burlesque Chanukah party, I used dried cranberries (and they ended up looking a little like boobs, but that was slightly fitting for the occasion).  For the Latin-American Health Institute's staff holiday party (aka my internship), I used colored fruitcake cherries.

So without further ado...

Vanilla Coconut Macaroons w/ Colored Cherries

Holiday Coconut Macaroons
Recipe adapted from here
Yield: 4 dozen macaroons

Friday, December 21, 2012

Squashing Tradition

My grandmother was a farm-wife during the 50s and 60s.  She fell for all of the new store-bought things to make her life in the kitchen easier.  Don't get me wrong, she still believed in making things from scratch, but if there was an area or two where she could cheat, she did.  One of these areas was using canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie.  Mind you, she only used the best, (Gram loved her Libbys), but she cheated none-the-less.  Since I learned from her, I always made it the same way.

This year, my mom decided that since we were reclaiming our Thanksgiving holiday, we would try something different.  She had the bold idea of not only making a squash pie instead of pumpkin, we would use cooked squash instead of canned.  She spent her whole summer and fall canning and freezing vegetables, so she wanted to use her squash.

I always welcome a challenge in the kitchen, so we made our very first squash pie.

Squash Pie
Recipe adapted from Betty Crocker
Yield: 1 9" pie (and a little extra)

Old Fashioned Thanksgiving

I haven't had a very normal Thanksgiving the past few years.  In fact, I can't even remember our last "real" Thanksgiving.  Three years ago my grandfather was really sick, two years ago I was in Spain, and last year my grandfather died the week before, so my mom and I spent the day eating pie in our pjs on the couch.

Losing both my grandparents last year definitely changed our holidays.  We didn't want to do "normal" anymore.  We even escaped Christmas by running away to Florida for a two week vacation.  This year, my mom decided we'd try to redefine our holidays.

We cooked a big, traditional Thanksgiving dinner for just the three of us.  We tried to recreate all our old dishes from Thanksgiving with our grandparents, and change the holiday to fit our new, sadly smaller version of our family.  I also needed some sense of normalcy to relax from the horrible semester I was having.

Of course, I was placed in charge of the desserts.  Every year my grandma made banana cream pie, pumpkin pie, cheesecake, and occasionally a cake of some sort.  We didn't need all that for the three of us, so I just went with the banana cream and the pumpkin.

Old-Fashioned Banana Cream Pie
Recipe from Betty Crocker
Yield: 1 9" pie