The Teacup Chronicles

Month: December, 2010

Happy New Year!

I just returned home from visiting family back in the Michigan motherland – a place of sand dunes, majestic white pines and the blue expanse of lake that is so dear to my heart.  I’m still a bit tired to write much, but I had to stop by and wish you all the happiest of New Years!

And, I had to share with you this beautiful witch hazel I came across on a walk while there, just beginning to flower. It is such an inspiration to me that in the darkest and coldest time of the year, this wonderful tree chooses to flower in such an explosion of beauty (and the picture depicts just the beginning of the bloom – soon, the flowers will truly explode, their vibrant yellow blossoms standing in stark and beautiful contrast to the white of the winter forest).   It was a treasure to come upon, and seemed like an auspicious omen for the year ahead.

And so, I am hoping that for us all, the new year will be filled with all the wonder and magic of a witch hazel flowering spectacularly in the middle of a silent, white and slumbering wood.

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Dancing sugar plums and sparkling snow

Well, the count down has officially begun. I’ve been scurrying around all day to a background of Bing Crosby Christmas songs, finishing the last of my present making endeavors, wrapping gifts and pumping out batches of  holiday treats in-between like some sort of deranged Christmas elf, fueled entirely on Yuletide cheer and sugar.

I’m not this productive everyday – but it was hard not to feel giddy and festive today. The sunrise gave way to the most perfect sparkling blue winter’s day you can imagine. Absolutely perfect. The tips of the mountains had been dusted over night with a light snow fall, giving them the surreal effect of looking like powdered sugar dusted figurines in a model Christmas village. Little puffs of clouds, looking all the world like stretched out cotton balls, hovered over them in near complete stillness – and the snow was sparkling and glittering in the sunshine like millions of tiny jewels. It was so bright it almost hurt to look at it, but so beautiful you just couldn’t take your eyes away.  See what I mean?:

So with that to motivate me, I was golden. That, and I also snuck a couple of sugar plums that I was making for holiday gifts. “Sugar plums?”, you say, “aren’t they a sort of fairy from the nutcracker, or things that Victorian children have visions of?”

Yes, they are both of those things, but they are also a delectable and entirely wholesome holiday treat made from dried fruits, nuts and warming spices – an old world candy so to speak. In olden days, the word plum actually referred to any small round treat – especially a dried fruit – and not just the stone fruit we think of today. Before white sugar or sugar cane in general was known to most Europeans, these shriveled up nuggets of highly concentrated flavor and sweetness – from exotic dates and figs to raisins, apples and prunes – were the basis for most deserts and candies in the fruitless season of winter.

So, forget gum drops and candy canes –  a sugar plum is as traditional as you can get when we are talking holiday delectables, and subsequently, probably also the healthiest. Not only that, they are incredibly easy to make. Here’s how:

Dancing Sugar Plums

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1/8 cup raw honey
  • 1 to 2 tbs apple brandy
  • 1 1/2 tbs ghee
  • 2 tsp grated orange zest
  • 1.5  tsp ground allspice
  • 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1.5 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 1 cup pitted prunes
  • ½ cup dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup dried figs
  • 1/4 cup candied ginger
  • 1/8 cup candied citrus peel
  • 1 cup powdered sugar for dusting

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F. Arrange walnuts and almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast for  eight to ten minutes, or until fragrant and slightly browned. Set aside to cool and then finely chop or pulse in the food processor. Set aside.
  2. Combine the honey, ghee, brandy, and spices in a small bowl.
  3. Pulse the dried fruit, 1/2 a bath at a time, in a food processor till chopped finely (you don’t want a gummy paste, but fruit pieces no larger than a pea). 
  4. Combine the fruits, nuts and honey mixture and mix well.  
  5. Pinch off rounded teaspoon-sized pieces and roll into balls. Dust the sugar plums with powdered sugar and package in an airtight container. Refrigerate until using if possible.

And once you have finished and sampled one or two (for quality control purposes, of course) – your belly warmed with spice and your spirit high on old world sweetness – you will be suitably fueled, I think,  for a nice long stroll in the bright winter’s sunshine.

 

 

Christmas Trees, Holly and Mistletoe: The Festive Greens of Winter

Looking out my window this morning, the world is, for all purposes, white. Indeed, it looks as though I am seeing the world through a black and white lens as I scan across the landscape – the ground is white with freshly fallen snow; the mountains etched with the fine grey lines of the leafless trees;  the sky a dull silver with just the palest glimmer where the sun is climbing the horizon.

I fail to see anything of color at all, in fact,  until my eye comes upon the large spruce across the way, looking vibrantly green and quite majestic through the thin mist of falling snowflakes. While it isn’t the verdant green of a summer’s pasture or the pale virescent shimmer of spring’s first unfolding leaves – it is a refreshing sight to my color (and life) starved eyes none the less. Something alive and awake in this sleepy, snowy landscape!

To me, there is no wonder that these persevering signs of greenery became such festive associations with the darkest days of the year.  It may seem like idle tradition to decorate a tree, kiss under the mistletoe or hang a holly wreath on your door – but I think these small gestures come from a deep and ancient place within us. This is a place that is never quite certain if the cycle of life will continue, never knowing for sure if the sun will turn on its course and draw the green life out of the earth again with its warm embrace.

So we fill our homes with sprigs of whatever green life we can find, not only to bring the semblance of the outdoors and plant life into our indoor winter lives, but as signs of hope to tide us over until the days begin to lengthen again with the promise of Spring.  And of course, we still sense the awe and fascination that our ancestors felt for these plants that managed to exist outside of the rhythms and constraints of the earthly seasons; plants that managed to thrive and remain green when all the rest of earth was sleeping.  As such, they were and are symbols of immortality, and hold all the enchantment and magic of being such.

So in the spirit of the season, of moving into the darkest days of our year, why not deck the halls with boughs of holly?  Hang a mistletoe in the doorway to steal a kiss under, decorate a tree with the whole family and wrap a garland over your mantle piece. Fill your entire home with the green treasures of these ancient, magical plants.  Apart from simply being festive, they fill our spirits with a sense of magic and the promise of another plentiful year.