Search results for: Holiday Bark
December 7, 2010

Winter Holiday Bark


My friend Julie is always unveiling these delicious candy-like confections when she arrives at book club. To someone more than a little intimidated by candy thermometers, these artful, thin layers of chocolate, peppermint, and nuts look complicated, but Julie always recites the recipe as if it were as simple as tying our shoes and as if tomorrow, in the haze of book club wine glow, I will remember exactly what went into those peanut butter balls.

Recipes are for sharing, and I love the generosity of “oh it’s so simple, here’s how you do it.” Maybe you won’t find it simple when you are melting easy-to-burn white chocolate over a makeshift double boiler alone in the kitchen, but your friend thinks you can do it. Her vote of confidence rings in your ears even as you spill a bag of cocktail peanuts on the floor. “It’s so simple!” If she thinks I can do it, I can.

If confidence comes from competence, as my mom always said, then a kitchen triumph is as good as any to make you feel like you can conquer the world. When I remembered Friday morning that I was supposed to bring dessert to a dinner party 130 miles north that night, I thought of Julie. What’s simple, holiday, can be ready before you need to run off to catch your ride, and is a treat hardy enough to be toted in the back of a Zipcar? You guessed it.

This salty sweet chocolate bark sat on my friend’s kitchen table the entire weekend. Chunks were nabbed at breakfast, as fortification after a winter walk, and during a heated match of Uno. By Sunday afternoon, I carried a near-empty tupperware back to Brooklyn. And as usual, you can trust a real friend: it really is so simple.

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November 29, 2010

Welcoming a Quiet and Sincere Holiday Spirit


Hello blogiverse friends! How nice it feels to settle back in with you the morning after a holiday weekend.

I spent the long weekend in the country at my mom and stepdad’s farm. I drank tea in front of the fireplace, read a dropout memoir in bed, stayed up too late with a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills marathon, took a late afternoon walk through bare-limbed trees with my husband, made my way through a stack of my mom’s magazines, and ate my fill of cheese and crackers. It felt restful and quiet and restorative in some important way. I feel now like I am on a precipice. Maybe it’s the end of one chapter, beginning of another; maybe it’s simply an end-of-the year feeling. But I’m in a taking stock kind of place, trying to figure out what makes my life feel especially delightful and meaningful, and considering how to get more that it.

I’m approaching the holidays with the same sense of, “How can I make you a reflection of what’s really important to me?” I cannot resist a trip to Marshall’s, cannot pass up its indoor garage sale, what-gem-may-hide-under-this-pile-of-crap appeal. I stood in line there in the early evening on Saturday with the carols blasting away and the place already filled shoppers who seemed suspiciously ornery for so early in the shopping season. Maybe it was because of those fireside cups of tea or quiet walks, but I felt a separation between the holiday madness––the slow, snaking line, the automated voice barking that register three is now open––and me. Who knows: in two weeks time, when I’ve been looking for the perfect gifts and coming up short, I might not feel so cocooned in a shield of holiday protection. But it seems like something worth hanging on to, or trying to figure out how to hang on to. To resist the “madness” and hang on to a sense of quiet and peace.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of tradition and ritual lately. My family is in the midst of a several years-long growing pain. The kids haven’t yet had kids, so there are no little ones to fill the holidays with excitement and squeals. But marriage splits Christmas day in half between our nuclear unit and in-laws, siblings spreading out like a melting snowflake on a window pane. We haven’t figured out yet how to make the day work, how to make that midday parting not seem like a downer. We’re working on it.

It’s not yet December but I’m already thinking about ways to maximize the best parts of this season and minimize the less likable bits. I love the festive cocktails, twinkling lights, holiday crafts, Christmas cards, blooming paperwhites, big boisterous dinners, cookies, watching When Harry Met Sally and Anne of Green Gables, hauling out the Christmas records, snow. I’m less fond of big crowds in stores, eating too many rich foods, feeling like you’re spending more than you have, social obligations rather than real warmth and community, feeling frantic, disappointed people and expectations. Like many people, I enjoy the wind-up more than the Big Day. Maybe it’s worth instituting some December traditions to enjoy this all-too-brief period of light, togetherness and revelry in a natural season of darkness and solitude. I’m thinking holiday happy hours, perhaps? What are you all doing to make this season feel meaningful to you? And how are you keeping your sense of quiet and calm?

Photo credit: George Deputee

December 20, 2010

Lovely & Delicious Homemade Gifts


Here’s some evidence that I’m getting old: randomly, and without any real intention, I didn’t want any of the usual holiday nosh. I started wanting to eat lots of vegetables, hearty soups, and truckloads of tea. It may have begun with that cold of mine that lingered on, but then this desire for healthy, wholesome food just stuck around. And at the high cookie season, to boot.

Then, I started becoming a fan of moderation. Me! The woman who eats chocolate truffles in bed! I could hardly believe it. I only wanted one drink––maybe two. I eased off on seconds at dinner. None of this happened because I was trying to do something drastic, like revolutionize the way I eat. If anything, it might have simply been the result of just being a little more mindful of what this old body of mine seemed to want.

indian-spiced-chickpea-lentil-soupThe other day I had a near catastrophe: I woke up to find we were out of coffee. I bundled up and hustled off to the grocery store first thing (observation: a different breed of folks grocery shop in the morning). A scene nearly as awe-worthy as a babe in a manger awaited me there: I had never seen the pastry display so overflowing with glossy, sugar-coated delights. I treated myself to a chocolate croissant. And then, for the rest of the morning, I felt like crap.

I take this to mean I’m getting old. You know how people talk about not being able to eat the same stuff they used to? Well, it’s happening. For this moment in time, at least, I seem to be embracing the concepts of moderation and mindfulness in eating. I predict, however, that it will not last through the annual Tex-Mex Christmas Eve at my mom’s house.

This is all a long way of saying that I decided I didn’t want my gifts to be part of the make-you-feel-like-crap problem of sugar crashes this year. I feel confident there will be no shortage of decadent treats for any of us, but what we all might need are the makings for a spicy, deeply aromatic chickpea and lentil soup, or a healthier granola made with pumpkin purée.

And I say this all knowing that very soon I will tell you about my recent strike of baking genius: Nutella chocolate chip cookies. Stay tuned.

And in the meantime, if you’ve still got a few gifts to give and you’re feeling a little more festive than lentil soup, I humbly suggest some of favorite sweet treats:

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December 25, 2007

Buche de Noel

buche de noel yule log

One Christmas, too many years ago to count, something (I can only guess that it was an appeal to her imagination) possessed my mother to buy a buche de Noel from our local French bakery. Is there anything more delightful to a seven year old girl than the gleaming pastry case in a bakery? Perhaps the only thing better is when the glass case opens and a fanciful Christmas cake come home in a white box tied with twine. As a girl with a particular fascination with gnomes and cozy forest creatures, this yule log captured every ounce of my imagination. Covered with lichen and mushrooms fashioned out of meringue and carved with bark and rings revealing its age, it was like a toy you could eat, and it was pretty much the coolest thing I had ever seen. But for some reason, probably expense, there was only one year of buche de Noel at the McColl house until we fell back on the tradition of cranberry crunch.

The yule log had to come back this year, I felt. Roughly twenty years is long enough to keep a cake in hibernation that embodies such childlike fun and whimsy. Or maybe I was just hoping to bring some of the wonder back to Christmas. The kids in our family are too old to lay awake in the dark of morning debating whether or not it is yet an acceptable hour to pad downstairs in their pj’s to empty out the stockings and see what Santa has brought. And Christmas, I now think, is a holiday truly for children. The people I know have everything they need and treat themselves to the things they want. There’s not much I can imagine wrapping up and placing under the tree that would excite them the way our Hot Wheels, Casio keyboards, and Care Bears once did. Children bring a bright-eyed wonder and rosy cheeked brilliance to Christmas morning that we just don’t have in us anymore.

But if my eyes danced with bright-eyed wonder this year, it was from the deep thrill baking this cake gave me. I don’t have the patience for baked goods made to resemble people or things — but holy baby Jesus! This buche de Noel looked just like a log and really wasn’t fussy at all. A quick, deft rolling of the slim, flat cake with only one brief moment of panic. From there it was all light and dreamy, covered with a deep dark frosting, and I was hopping around the kitchen proud as a new mother.

The origin of this traditional French and Quebecois cake is debated, but some say that Napolean once ordered Parisian households to shut up their chimneys one winter due to a popular conception that cold air would cause medical problems. Unable to gather around a fire for traditional Christmas merrymaking, clever French bakers fashioned a mock log to serve as a hearth centerpiece. To this day, the fires may well be roaring in your living room, but I promise, if you make this cake, people will delightedly gather ’round it.

buche de noel yule log

Buche de Noel
adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson
Serves 8

for the cake
6 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

for the icing*
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
2 cups confectioners sugar
2 sticks butter
1 tablespoons vanilla extract
additional confectioner’s sugar for “snow”

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a jelly roll with parchment paper leaving a generous overhang at the ends.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy and thick. Then add 1/2 cup of the sugar and continue whisking until the whites hold peaks.

In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and remaining sugar until pale yellow and thick. Add the vanilla and sift in cocoa powder before gently folding to incorporate. Next, fold a few tablespoons of the egg whites into the yolks, before gently folding in the remaining whites in thirds.

Pour the cake mixture into the lined cake pan and bake for twenty minutes.

While the cake is in the oven you can make the icing. In a double boiler (or a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water), melt the chocolate and butter. Stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.

When the cake comes out of the oven, let it cool for a few minutes before trimming both long and short ends (this will make it easier to roll and give a neater look). Spread on a thin coat of icing. Then, starting at the short end, tightly roll the cake into a cylinder. Slice one or both ends at a gentle diagonal — you can use these pieces to make a craggy log. Cover the log in frosting and then drag a toothpick or fork through the icing to make bark and age rings. Sift on confectioner’s sugar for snow. Gather ’round, and after appropriate oohing and ahhing, eat!

buche de noel yule log

*I found that I had a lot of icing leftover over — about twice as much as I needed. Next time I would probably halve the icing measurements for less waste.