27 December 2007

A Fillpot of Negus and Thou

I have been trying (rather desperately) to get myself in a more seasonal mindset by listening to Christmas-y audiobooks. I dabbled a little with folksy Lake Wobegon Christmases (A Prairie Home Christmas and Now It Is Christmas Again) then moved South (Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews) before jumping across the pond (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).

Whenever I read (or listen to) a historical novel I find myself always puzzling over trivia. While A Christmas Carol is a ripping tale and Jim Dale is a pleasure to listen to, I found myself increasingly distracted by pesky little question like "What kind of game is snap dragon?" or "What’s a smoking bishop made of?" and "What the heck is negus when it's at home?"

Smoking bishop, in particular, caught my fancy -- I imagined a group of fat old barristers (their buttoned waistcoats straining over their bellies) with hands full of smoking pipes and Toby jugs of some hot steaming toddy while they gossiped around a pub fire. The jugs, of course, would be shaped like fat little bishops. It was a pleasant image, if completely unlikely.

Thanks to the Guardian's "Booze by Boz" post, I now have a nice little recipe for smoking bishop and also know that it's pretty much mulled wine. Not particularly exciting, but there it is. There's also a decent sounding recipe for it over at Recipezaar which omits the grapefruit juice and suggestions posh additions such as cinnamon sticks and star anise.


Now, snapdragon? Gerard and Patricia Del Re’s The Christmas Almanack (Doubleday: 1979) tells me this about snapdragon:

This was once a very popular game played at Christmas in England. Raisins were placed in a bowl and covered with brandy, which was set ablaze. The object was to snatch the raising out of the fire and pop them in your mouth before the flames did too much damage. There was probably very little flavor left in the burned and shriveled raisins, but the danger and daring made a great sauce, and snapdragon was popular for many years before dying out in our own practical century [19th].

Ah, to live back in the good old days when unburnt fingers were grand entertainment!

And negus? Mysterious negus consumed with cake and cold roast? Negus is, according to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (available online at mrsbeeton.com or through Project Gutenburg), a hot mulled fortified wine like port or sherry. While this beverage sounds rather potent to an infrequent tippler like me, it was often served to Victorian children:

Mode. -- As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient -- Allow 1 pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of 9 or 10 children.


16 December 2007

Crunchy, Sweet, and Yumptious Cookies

Since I'm not doing fruitcake (poor planning), I figured I'd write about cookies this year. I baked some last year, too, but they were completely overshadowed by The Fruitcake Experience and were never written up.

I would love to know who decided Christmas is for cookies as it seems it would be much better to slap together one big pie or cake to feed a mess of people rather than fiddling around with many tiny pieces of dough. But then, I've never really been a cookie girl. Much prefer cake or pie. Mmm ... pie.

Christmas Cookie Plate

"Glazed Fruitcake Squares"
From Pillsbury: Best Cookies Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 199). The bars smell strongly of brandy, but does not really taste of it. Used really brandy in the bars and glaze, but the recipe allows for the substitution of orange juice and brandy extract if that's your thing. The bars seemed a little dry the first day, but were much better the next. I used King Arthur Flour's "Favorite Fruit Blend" (apricots, raisins, pineapple, dates, and cranberries) rather than the moister, stickier, green and red fruitcake fruits sold in those little plastic buckets. This was the same fruit blend I used in last year's fruitcake and I've used it in a bunch of fruit breads since then. Good stuff.

"Peppermint Snowballs"
From Betty Crocker's Best Christmas Cookbook (Hungry Minds, 1999). They are very light and very minty with just a hint of crunch from the crushed peppermints. My husband loves them and I will definitely be making them again -- although I may modify the instructions somewhat. It is very hard to roll hot fragile cookies in powdered sugar without experiencing significant breakage. Next time, I will put the cookies on a wire rack and sift confectionery sugar over them (the sugar is there to form a sticky layer for the crushed candies to stick to). Recipe makes 48 cookies -- I made 36 with breakage. (Of course, I ate the breakage).

"Chocolate Crinkles"
Also from Betty Crocker's Best Christmas Cookbook (Hungry Minds, 1999). I made these for the first time last year and The Husband loved them so much they are now a Christmas necessity. I love how easy they are to make and that the dough needs to be refrigerated for three hours (giving me plenty of time to un-cookie the kitchen, have a cup of tea, and generally not feel my life has been taken over by cookie making). The recipe makes 72 cookies -- I made 70.

"Holiday Eggnog Sugar Cookies"
From a mix by King Arthur Flour and came in my November Baking Club box (December's, which is supposed to be full of cookie goodness, has yet to arrive). They are supposed to be "a rich custard-flavored cookie, with a hint of nutmeg," but taste more like a ginger-y sugar cookie. Not bad, but not eggnog. A bit on the crunchy side, too, and I baked them for the least amount of time listed. Grr. I followed the instructions for hand-shaped cookies and rolled them in leftover green & red sugar. Recipe makes 36 cookies -- I made 41.

13 December 2007

Omg!! The Blue Sword!! Omg!! Squee!!!

I was browsing November’s issue of Paperclips, happily initialing off all the fantasy and romance paperbacks I think I my patrons would like to read when I came across a reprint of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley:

Harry Crewe, the Homelander, bored with her sheltered life as an orphaned girl in the remote orange-growing colony of Daria, discovers her own magical gifts when she is kidnapped by a native king with mysterious powers and is transformed into Harimad-sol, King’s Rider, the heir to Gonturan, the mystical Blue Sword once wielded by the Lady Aerin herself. A Newbery Honor book.

Oh, did the fangirl in me ever go squee! (Omg!! The Blue Sword!! Omg!! Squee!!!) Completely mortifying, but true. The Blue Sword rocked my world when I was a disenfranchised ninth grader. Harimad-sol? Total girl crush. A clever girl stifled by society and then plunged unwillingly into a foreign culture, given a magic sword and romantically entangled with someone perplexing? Oh, yes! The novel had everything that was likely to appeal to me at fourteen (or thirty-one). I must have read the book three times that year alone and when I discovered there was a companion novel (The Hero and the Crown), I was over the moon.

Seriously, I loved The Blue Sword so much that I more-or-less stole it from my English teacher’s class room. I had borrowed it from her small and neglected lending library around Easter of my freshman year and then “forgot” to bring it back before school ended. And I didn’t bring it back the following autumn, either. It lived under my bed, much dog-eared from midnight readings, until I went away to college. I have it still, but it lives on a proper bookshelf amongst all my other McKinley books and I don’t engage in midnight readings, anymore.

(It’s not really as if I have to read it -- I just need to glance at the pages to prompt my memory).


10 December 2007

Dillicious Soup

I've definitely been in the mood for soup this autumn and winter looks no better. Over the weekend I made "Vegetable Soup with Bow Ties and Dill" from Good Housekeeping's Favorite Recipes: Vegetarian Meals (Hearst Books, 2006). It's a very simple recipe which yields a surprisingly dilly soup. Very dilly. Dillicious, even!

Very  Dilly Vegetable Soup

For this recipe, I cooked chopped onion in a little oil until soft and golden. Then I added the carrots and celery and cooked until crisp-tender. When the vegetables were ready, I added vegetable broth, lemon peel, and water and simmered it all until the vegetables were tender. Then I stirred in the frozen peas, cooked pasta, dill, ground black pepper, and lemon juice. When everything was hot, I ate it. Yum!

I've been eating cupfuls of this for breakfast with a toasted mini bagel. It's a warming way to start a cold day and it wakes me up quite nicely without the help of caffeine or sugar.

Soup -- the perfect breakfast food!

02 December 2007

Christmas Is a-Comin'

I’ve been reordering or replacing many of the worn-out (or just plain missing) holiday cookbooks at my library in the hopes that we might manage to get some new books on the shelves in time for Christmas and Kwanzaa. I didn’t think about the holiday cookbooks early enough to get new books or replacements in time for Hanukkah (they are here now, however, and are all totally awesome). Really, I need to put my brain on the same seasonal cycle as the department stores (winter in summer, etc) if I’m going to get the holiday books sorted out.

I probably sound as if I am complaining, but I’m not. I love collection development. I love replacing nasty old worn-out copies of cookbooks with spangle-y reprints or shiny new editions and then watching the circulation stats going up. People reading the books I select -- it's the best compliment.

One of the new books we’re getting is Betty Crocker’s Christmas and, while you can expect to see it on the shelves in early January, I can’t wait as I need to buckle down and start planning Christmas dinner ASAP lest it be “emergency spaghetti” all-round. As it this is the first Christmas dinner I have ever hosted, it has to be pretty fantastic.

And it will be.

So, no Betty Crocker’s Christmas before Christmas, but Betty Crocker’s Best Christmas (Hungry Minds, 1999) was available when I went looking for something similar and, wow, am I ever pleased to have found it!

I’ll be making the "Rib Roast with Herb Rub" for Christmas dinner along with "Do-Ahead Mashed Potatoes" and "Red, White and Green Beans." There are also two or three cookie recipes I’m just itching to try and the "Hot Crab Dip" will be excellent for New Year’s Eve if I can’t find my artichoke dip recipe.

Yum! If everything comes out well, I will have to think about buying this book for myself. Let's hope I get some gift cards for Christmas ...