Saturday, November 17, 2007

On Visions and Sugarplums

Martha, Martha, Martha.

Every year, right around this time, I am haunted by a vision.

The scene is set: A large mantle is adorned with cascading boughs of pine and holly. Hand-embroidered stockings are neatly hung beneath the snow-capped greenery. The pleasant aroma of wood smoke wafts as the fire snaps crackles and pops along with carefully chosen carols (delivered by an inconspicuous sound system). Nearby, under a lavishly decorated tree are color-coordinated gift packages embellished with handmade satin bows and monogrammed, handwritten gift tags. A table is set with fine china, silver candlesticks and hand-penned, holiday-themed place cards. Happy family members, donning their Christmas best, are patiently awaiting a showcase meal prepared by one stress-free, well coiffed hostess
(with a very narrow waistline—it’s my vision so I call the shots).
I invite you to share this vision with me. A vision not of
Christmas Past or Christmas Present, but a vision
I have come to know as my
Christmas Ain’t Never Gonna Happen.

For years I have fallen prey to the commercial ideals of holiday entertaining.
Each year as the dark days of January roll in, I am left to sort through a pile of bills and the entanglements of holiday lights, decorations and emergency gifts I never used or needed in the first place. This cycle is ridiculous, if not obscene, and last year, as the 2007
ball of lights descended upon Times Square, I promised myself
(and a glass of very sassy eggnog), that I would stop the madness.

So, here I sit, just days shy of ‘Black Friday’ wondering how I might satisfy the call to all things Christmas without being Bob-Cratchited by reckless holiday spending and an over-committed schedule.

The fact is Christmas, from its very first Christian celebration, was made famous because of modesty and not in spite of it.
Sadly, one would sooner find reindeer on the roof than one would find modesty and humility in our current holiday trends.
When I look back and consider the holiday stories and songs of my youth, I am curious to know how the sleigh got so far off course.

Surely, if the children of yesteryear could be satisfied with sugarplums, it seems only fair that my own children would find joy in such small, uncomplicated delights (and on the subject of sugarplums; my online resources agree that these are simply
small, sweet confections).
But the blame of overindulgence mustn’t be unfairly placed on those most vulnerable to the infamous Big Book whose punctual arrival signals shorter days and longer wish lists.
Surely, we adults are as much to blame.
If Mama in her kerchief was enough for Papa in his cap (and vice versa), then when, pray tell, did the need for holiday bling arise?

Instead of playing keep up with the Cratchits (a family who
really did have it
all), we choose instead to compete with
the Joneses (who likely share more bills and fewer meals).
We get a warm fuzzy feeling at the notion of modest brown paper packages tied with simple string-- just as long as they’re under
the Von Trapp’s tree and not ours.

I am fortunate that my children are now old enough to realize that Santa has bills to pay. But that only solves half of my
decadence-be-damned dilemma.
In my attempt to build new holiday traditions with less naughty and more nice, I must be willing to compromise some of the vision.
The new vision includes a me who isn’t quite so hung up on the details.
In the spirit of giving, I’m taking back some precious time;
time to spend with people who matter, whether or not the beds are made.

And speaking of unmade beds; So many moons and one bright star ago, a happy couple on a rather long journey during the pre-holiday season, found that they were short on time and in need of accommodations. They envisioned a comfortable room with a warm bed and perhaps, a fine meal. An overcrowded inn forced them to compromise that vision, thus landing them in less than adequate surroundings. There were no lavishly decorated trees or hand-embroidered stockings, nor were there silver candlesticks or fine china.
Their meal wasn't gourmet by today's standards,
and was meager at best.
They graciously accepted the modest offerings presented by their kind hosts. And although the details of their day were not as they had originally planned, they celebrated the joy of togetherness.
And gratefully reciprocated by presenting their humbled hosts
with the perfect Gift.

There's a lesson in there, somewhere.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


And in the spirit of saving time, I call upon an
old friend—The Muffin Man.
Or in this case, the Muffin Lady, also known as Esther Brody.
Her book 500 Best Muffin Recipes is my go-to book for a quick, easy treat when I feel the need for cozy food.
Muffins are one of those low-commitment/high yield indulgences that I love—especially during a busy holiday season. You can make these in under an hour from start to finish.
The recipe (as posted below) is a variation
of her Favorite Raspberry Muffins.
I have tweaked some of the ingredients to suit my own taste.
Make this one your own by substituting your favorite berry or flavoring.

Almond Oatmeal Raspberry Muffins

1 ½ Cup All Purpose Flour
½ Cup Oats ( I use Bobs Red Mill thick cut oats and I process these in my mini food processor until they resemble small flakes—not quite oat flour)

¾ Cup Packed Light Brown Sugar
½ tsp. Kosher Salt
2 tsp. Baking Powder
1 tsp. Baking Soda
1 Cup Frozen Raspberries NOT THAWED
2 Large Eggs
½ tsp. Pure Almond Extract
½ Cup Buttermilk
5 TBS Melted Butter (unsalted)
3 TBS Almond Oil (or flavorless oil like Canola if you don’t have almond oil)

For Topping:
¼ Cup Softened Unsalted Butter
¼ Cup Light Brown Sugar
¼ Cup Oats (I pulse these in the food processor just a bit to reduce size)
¼ Cup All Purpose Flour
2 oz. Almond Paste (about ¼ cup—it doesn’t have to be exact), crumbled into small pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place rack in middle of oven.
Lightly grease a 12-muffin tin or use paper liners.

In a small bowl, place topping ingredients and use a pastry blender or two forks to break up and mix until it forms a crumbly mixture (like crumbs on the top of crumb cake. Do not over mix. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add frozen raspberries and toss to coat with flour mixture.
In another bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, almond oil and almond extract. Mixture will look curdled—that’s okay.

Add egg mixture to flour mixture (not topping mixture) and combine until all of the flour is moistened, being careful not to over mix but making sure all flour is incorporated. This should take just a few turns with a large fork or spatula. It’s really important not to over mix.

Using a large ice cream scoop or ladle, scoop batter into prepared muffin tin, filling two thirds full. Sprinkle topping mixture evenly over each muffin. Use your clean hand to press down on topping slightly so it adheres to batter.
Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, checking after 10 minutes to avoid burning muffin bottoms. Move to top rack if necessary for last few minutes of baking.

Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack. Once cooled completely, wrap muffins individually in plastic wrap and store in airtight container. They may be frozen, individually wrapped and then placed in freezer safe Ziploc bags.

***My Notes:
If you are not a fan of almonds, you can omit almond paste, almond extract and substitute almond oil with Canola oil. If you do this, I recommend you add vanilla extract in place of almond extract and when you prepare topping ingredients, add one teaspoon of cinnamon to flavor topping.

You may be wondering why I bother to put the oats through my food processor. Well, this is for two reasons. For starters, I want all of the health benefits oats have to offer but I am not a fan of lumpy, “oaty” baked goods. I have found that if I grind the oats, it allows them to cook more quickly and also allows for a smoother muffin or cookie. Secondly, I don’t see the need to buy several different kinds of oats, so I buy the good stuff—Bob’s Red Mill, Organic, Thick Cut Rolled Oats—and then I grind to suit my taste and for whatever baking application is required.

Blueberries are a great substitute for raspberries.

I have made this recipe several times with great success. If I have slivered almonds on hand, I will add about ¼ cup of those to the dry mixture and then add crushed slivered almonds to topping mixture (we like our nuts around here).

For my oven, I always have to watch muffins during the last minutes of baking because the bottoms darken too quickly. While experts might not recommend this, I often drop the temp to 375 once the muffins have puffed up and seem to need only a few more minutes of baking time. If you lower the temp too early in the baking cycle, your muffins will deflate, so I caution you, should you decide to try my unorthodox method.

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