Christmas Time is Here . . .

December has arrived and with it has come two weeks of vacation, a ton of red and gold, a sprinkling of green, some spray painted trees, and even a bit of snow. I sit here sipping hot chocolate after a lovely breakfast of christmas brioche and watching the giant heap of presents at the foot of the little lopsided christmas tree, which has mysteriously appeared there sometime after the party last night and before the coffee this a.m. and I'm thinking how perfectly content I am. I've always loved the holiday season, but I'm mostly a thanksgiving and New Year's Eve girl rather than a christmas girl per say. Don't get me wrong, I love christmas too, as clearly displayed by instance on mangling every christmas carol I can get my hands on, and I adore christmas shopping, in fact I think christmas shopping is the tops! This is why I'm terribly excited about the upcoming week of shopping mania. Christmas shopping is condoned shopping frenzy, with an added bonus of good old fashioned, adrenaline pumping, giggle suppressing secrecy; what could be better?! This past week has been a bit of a winter wonderland, which did wonders to boost my lagging holiday spirit. Yes I admit it, my spirit was lagging a bit around the start of the month, which made me rather unhappy, but never fear, I think I've got it all caught up to speed just in time for the break. The week started out with a monday morning snow storm, well a snow sprinkling actually, but unlike New Mexico it continued all day long and then the next night, and is still here, making the whole week snow flurried, including but not limited to snow ball fights on the quad during break and dancing on the ice in the deserted park at lunch to the sound of church bells playing christmas carols. And next weekend I'll be jetting off to London, which I'm totally over the moon about, considering I've never been to England and I've always wanted to see London. Well more later, Joyeux Noel, Bons fetes, Joyeux Nouvelle Annee, a bientot,
e a la france


Thanksgiving, Emma style . . .

Thanksgiving is known here in France as 'the american holiday,' and if you think about it, it is about as american as you can get: non-religious, its a totally unbiased holiday in terms of race and religion, no politically correct schools have ceased to decorate their halls with turkey hand-prints for fear of offending some one's belief system; over-eating, the whole point of thanksgiving is to share food with friends and family and eat until you can't imagine ever putting hand to mouth again, hypocritical, this is a celebration of the aiding hand extended to us by the native population whom we slaughtered, but not until after we had extracted all the useful information they had to offer us, and now we still use that one day of false friendship as an excuse to close the banks and be merry. Don't get me wrong, while I feel it is important to recognize the ridiculousness in the pretenses of this holiday, I love thanksgiving! Much more than christmas ever can, thanksgiving excites in me a holiday spirit. I crave the warmth of the candles on the table burning low because we've been delayed by the turkey, which is never ready on time. The excitement of no school and pumpkin pie with fresh whip-cream, simmering under the babble of the children, impatient to start the feast, bored from too many rounds of hide-and-go-seek chase which is really forbidden in the house, but in the rush of holiday preparations has been overlooked, is totally unique like a rare specimen butterfly.
It was with all this background of expected feelings that I awoke on Thursday the 26th this year. I felt sure something, some feeling or event, would distinguish it from all the others in my mind, but nothing...It was like any other day in every detail; nothing changed. It was a grand disappointment. However my host family knowing about Thanksgiving had decided before I even got here I think that we ought to celebrate it somehow. At first it was just going to be maybe a pumpkin pie, then a small meal substituting chicken for turkey, which is eaten for christmas here, and is regarded as the kind of meat one needs only eat once a year as its dry and does not in general illuminate the culinary imagination. However when I planned a slightly more elaborate menu it was decided we should invite Chrystal and Olivier and their kids Marion and Martin to join us, and with this edition came the idea we might need/want the quantity a turkey offered, thus a turkey was ordered and finally Gilles, Sarah's god father, was invited as well. We were a merry party of ten.
I planned to make corn-bread, apple and sausage stuffing, cooked separately from the turkey, cranberry sauce with orange zest, mash potatoes, sesame seed green beans, gougeres au cumin (little cumin bread cheese puff things from the Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook, or the cookbook of my dreams), and of course a pumpkin pie. Lists were made, kinks were smoothed, for instance my cornbread in the stuffing had to be replaced with extra french bread instead and it was determined I should make my own breakfast sausage as the french don't eat it, a date and time were selected: Sunday at 12:30. I planned everything out. I was to get up on Saturday and make the crust then that would chill and I would start the stuffing role out the dough chill it, continue the stuffing etc. The baking sessions were perfectly timed, and never were both pie filling and stuffing on the stove at the same time. However as these things usually go, nothing went how it was supposed to. I got up on saturday and realized that in planning all the shopping for my menu, indulging every item I thought to make, my host parents had saved the specialty stores for late saturday afternoon, namely the bakery for the bread and the butcher's for the sausage pork (and the turkey) both of which go into the stuffing, which I simply had to make the day before or I would never have time enough to finish everything. This error was easily corrected but it still through off my plans considerably and I started late. As the afternoon rolled away filled with my kitchen labors, the evening and consequently Isabelle's mother's birthday dinner loomed closer. My cranberry sauce was blended up, though the food processor wasn't quite strong enough to blend the orange peel into the tiny bits of zesty flavor I had envisioned but after a lot of pulsing and a bit of picking through it with a spoon all was well. My pie on the other hand was smooth sailing. While I'll admit the crust was not nearly as easy to handle as when I made the apple pie, after a bit of excess water, and a lot of patching I got it to fit in the pan, and look some what presentable (my fluting was a sad sight though, uneven and clumsy, but you can't have it all). I made the filling as instructed while the crust was pre-baking. It started out calm and careful and then become more and more rushed as I tried to get the pumpkin from the food processor to the stove to a shiny, creamy smoothness, back to the food processor and then into the crust while both were still warm. It was not an easy task; the crust was ready too soon, and I had to enlist an unsuspecting Thomas who wandered innocently into the kitchen to drop of his laundry and instead found himself trying to measure heavy cream in a third of a cup. Still the hot syrupy filling was rich and delicious, perfectly spiced, and I was pleased with the visual effect as I watched it through the oven door like a stay at home parent on the first day of pre-school. I pulled it out of the oven after just 25 minutes and it was puffed, lightly cracked around the edges and jiggled scrumptiously: text book. Unfortunately, my stuffing was a bit more last minute with all the missing ingredients, and ended in a frenzied frying of pork sausage 7 minutes after the original departure time for the dinner, in two different pans at the same time. Of course I enjoyed every minute of it, well almost, the insane chopping of two and half cups of onions, minced, with a crooked, dull knife, on tiny chopping board was not so hot, but in general I delighted in my day in the Kitchen, warm and dry, while it drizzled on the other side of the windows. However I was afraid to make my whole family late, and thus taint my stuffing with the back weight of disaster, mistiming, and loads of dirty dishes. Luckily however I got ready so quickly that I was waiting for some of the others, and we arrived first of all the guests (though there were only two other parties to arrive so thats not really saying much). Still, the delay in the morning had left me with no time to bake the stuffing, and as it had a different baking temperature than my little cheese breads I decided to abandon them.
Sunday morning came, and I was the first up. I got the stuffing in the oven and got up from the breakfast table dutifully every five minutes or so to baste it with a little chicken stock so it didn't dry out and burn. The smell of my nicely seasoned sausage, and butter soaked apples, softened from a light cooking was very encouraging. It was finished just after we finished trimming the green beans and peeling the potatoes. Everything was ready and set out, all that was left to do was boil the potatoes and mash them and then fry the green beans. The turkey was roasting away in the oven and the table was set. I went to get ready, feeling a little restless and confused with no more preparations to make, no more spices to measure, or veggies to chop. I came back to the kitchen and started the potatoes boiling, standing by ready with a knife to test them. After the knife sunk sufficiently into their yellow, flaky flesh I pulled them out and set them to soak in some cold water on the counter to remove extra starch as I had been instructed to do by my father: mash potato Ph. D. The guests arrived; the chips, crackers, and cheese puffs were pulled out with the cocktails. Chrystal and Co. thought that we exchanged gifts as at christmas time, a very good natured and easy mistake to make, and they showed up with lovely little cadeau's for everyone.
With a glass of champagne in hand I eventually returned to the kitchen to pull together my meal with a few finishing touches. This did not go so well though. The pan was too small for the green beans and they took forever to cook, even in two batches, and then they didn't cook super well, but the real horror lay in the potatoes, my knife test was totally false, they weren't even half cooked! I had forgotten to cut them into quarters before boiling them, so they didn't cook except on the very outside. Poor Gilles, who offered to help me by mashing the potatoes in my pre-made butter, milk and cream sauce waiting on the stove, was the one who discovered this and he was also the one who pulled them out of the pot (and sauce) rinsed them off and re-boiled them, while I tried to make my green beans work and started the gravy. I hadn't thought about the gravy because when I'd planned everything I was going to be using chicken, which wouldn't provide enough juices for a gravy sauce, and I'd never made gravy before, yet after a short conversation about it with Isabelle, who'd never heard of it, and a last minute google search I found a presentably simple "old-fashioned" brown gravy sauce and was determined to try it. I flagrantly ignored the instructions I'd sought out earlier and followed my instincts with the gravy and luckily for me it was scrumptious: success! That leaves the score Emma: 3 (Pie, Stuffing, Gravy) to Murphy's Law: 3 (Green beans, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes).
After the potatoes really were cooked all the way through I set to mashing them, and they came out wonderfully, more butter than I care to confess, and the perfect amount of salt, they were eaten all once. Actually everything was good by the time it reached the table, even the cranberry sauce with its too large orange chunks was a big hit. The only thing no one liked was the green bean dish. I ate them and thought they were fine, but I think they were a bit too crunchy for everyone else, who preferred unseasoned, over salted, mush as is often the case with green beans, but veggies are not at all the point at thanksgiving so, tempis (too bad). My stuffing was the crowning jewel of the feast; soft and savory of the bread, flavorful burst of sausage and the sweet apples blended into a perfect thanksgiving classic.
Then for the pie. I had forgotten to tell Isabelle not to put it in the fridge or cover it with plastic wrap, thinking that my leaving out on the counter without plastic wrap would be enough, but she probably though I'd forgotten in my haste and took it upon herself to both wrap it in cellophane and stick with the stuffing in the unheated office, which they said was good enough to be a fridge. Luckily just before loosing consciousness that night, the possibility of this unexpected disaster crossed my mind, and I was able to pull my precious pie out from under the plastic tomb under which it had been trapped early that morning. Unluckily the cellophane had done its job and my crack-less, plumped pie of saturday had been metamorphosed into a slightly sunken sunday pie with a small but jagged cicatrice on its gleaming, umber surface. There wasn't enough whipping cream left after the pie and mash potatoes to make whipped cream, so though I knew it would end in disaster from multiple cases of personal experience, I let Isabelle convince me to mix creams. Then when that didn't work I gave into Gilles and his whipped creme fraiche, which was bizarre (picture trying to turn sour cream into whipped cream if you can't picture creme fraiche) but he seemed completely satisfied with the odd result so I went with it and set it out on the table with my pie, and a spare can of store bought whipped cream. It tasted as good as I had expected it to, well seasoned, flaky perfect crust, creamy filling. I was well satisfied until I realized that neither Isabelle, nor Gilles, nor Sarah liked the taste of spiced pumpkin. This shocked and hurt me more than if I'd made an atrocious attempt at pumpkin pie and tried to serve it to them with bad results, but to see them muttering things like interesting, special, unique taste and texture, kind of like flan, and watch the obvious displeasure in their faces as they tasted something that disagreed with them, over my perfect specimen of a thanksgiving pumpkin pie, and knowing it was in fact the pumpkin spice flavor that I so cherish, itself as the cause, that was quite disheartening. It did boost my spirits considerably when Olivier finished the slices of both Isabelle and Gilles, because he liked it so much, however. Over all I considered my thanksgiving a smashing success. Everything was generally liked and I was swamped with compliments and almost everyone ate second helpings. I had really pulled it off, almost by myself, it was: thanksgiving, Emma style.