Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Wrap-Up, Brought to You by Christmas Smack-Down

The Christmas Smack-Down is called walking pneumonia (or, as they like to call it these days, "atypical pneumonia" which, as my dad helpfully pointed out, is only appropriate). The good news is that I feel pretty well, as long as I don't do anything helpful or productive. Stairs, more than a few minutes of brisk walking, and a little feeble snow-sweeping have all sent me to my bed in the last few days.

The even better news is that I get enough down time to write a blog post! Oh boy! And so I'm going to commit to the immortal brain that is the internet all the things I want to remember for next year's holidays. So, Christmas Wrap-Up:

1) Singing and candlelight are a magical combination. We lit the advent wreath every Sunday evening, and sang O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The lyrics can be found here. This lovely practice has led to a certain two-year-old wandering around, mutter-singing "an' ranson cappive I-i-isra-rew" in a husky alto. Here's a sweet, if not strictly traditional, rendition by Sufjan Stevens (who is blessed among singer-songwriters for producing Christmas music that everyone in our house likes to listen to).

2) I have discovered The Easiest Recipe in the World (That Can Still Be Served to Guests). It's a delicious roasted sausage/bean/tomato concoction, and it's even easier if you use canned tomatoes, frozen chopped onions and dried garlic bits (heretical? I don't care. A good dinner in four minutes worth of work trumps that kind of heresy). The next day, if you have leftovers, chop up the sausage and dump everything in a pot with a bag of frozen chopped kale and some chicken broth, and you get a super hearty and tasty soup.

3) Silver glitter-glue on brown paper makes elegant giftwrap. It takes a while to dry, so make big sheets of it right before you go to bed so you can monopolize the whole dinner table and maybe some of the kitchen counters. Just draw swirly lines and patterns with the glue bottle, and it'll leave a lovely raised glittery line.

4) Salt dough is a great kid activity, and if you're all crafty and fairly anal, you can make some surprisingly refined ornaments to keep or give away. Here are a couple beautiful examples of what's possible. For the little kids, of course, it's all about squishing and rolling and mashing and poking and just enough tiny little licks to establish that it tastes pretty bad, just like Mama said.

5) I can't cook whole poultry to save my life. Somehow, every single time, I manage to turn out a bird that's overcooked on top and still bloody on the bottom. Between those unappealing strata, there's always a thin band of perfectly cooked meat, but it's awfully hard to carve around. So, that will be my next kitchen challenge to master. And until I've done it, I'm not cooking another whole bird on a holiday. Next year, I'll make a hearty beef stew sometime in November and stash it in the freezer. On Christmas day, I'll heat it up, add some fresh vegetables, and we'll eat it with hot rolls, extra-good butter, and a pie for dessert. Rhubarb, if we see some in the store. 

6) Kids and icing are a classic combination. If you're decorating cookies with people less than a yard tall, Cheerios are a nice option along with (or instead of) sprinkles, colored sugars, and candies. The dry, savory crunch is actually a tasty combination with all that sugar. Other dry cereal would work too, of course. We might tackle gingerbread houses next year, and I can just see a roof thatched with Corn Chex. Royal icing is my adhesive of choice, although I noticed this recipe the other day, that looks like it might be a little tastier, what with the presence of actual butter.

7) Gingerbread makes extra-pretty decorated cookies. I used a recipe from my Great-Aunt Issy, which is spicy and easy. I made a double batch, which made enough for a cookie swap, an open studio party, four Christmas packages, and a good stash left over for the household. There are still two left, and they get better with a little age on them, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to bake them in late November next year.

(from Church Recipe Book, Lennoxville, Quebec)

1 cup shortening, butter or clear bacon fat
1 cup molasses
3 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. [baking] soda
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon

Boil together molasses, brown sugar, and shortening.  Cool and add beaten egg and dry ingredients.  CHILL OVERNIGHT.  Roll out 1/4 inch thick on generously floured board.  Use small amounts of dough, keeping remainder of dough in fridge.  Cut in desired shapes, place on ungreased pan and bake in moderate oven (325-350) for 10 minutes. 

[I learned that when "chill overnight" is in all caps, it means that it looks like cake batter when you first make it, and you'll be sure you've screwed it up. Fear not. As long as it's cold, it's nice and easy to handle, and is very hard to overwork since there's so little liquid in the dough to toughen the gluten (thanks to Joe Pastry for that geeky tip), so it's another good parent/kid project.]

8) Don't worry about finding a parking place for church on Christmas Eve. The church is packed, but the rest of downtown is deserted. Do remember quarters for the meter and some care packages with sandwiches and warm socks, because the only people still downtown are Parking Enforcement and the homeless.

9) I have a wonderful family and delightful friends. Cheers, all. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The days these days: two and a half years old

Cleo wakes up at 5:30, sometimes even six. This is much better than 4:30, and it's all thanks to one of those ridiculous gadgets that Parents These Days rely on, and without which generations of children grew and thrived. It is this silly thing, and it has saved us. Saved Cleo from being a tired, out-of-sortsy kid, and saved her parents from being grouchy about experiencing hours of pre-dawn darkness (mostly experienced by her dad, it must be said, but if Dada ain't happy, ain't nobody happy).

So now, the first thing we hear most days is, "The green light is green! Mama! Dada! The green  light is green! It's morning!" And so we begin. The morning routine is what it's been for a while: oatmeal, milk, waking Mama at seven o'clock, and sending Dada off to work in the attic at 7:30.

Once the urgent items (clothing, food, etc) have been taken care of, the first question is, "What day to is?" Which means, in toddler-ese, "What day is it and how shall we amuse ourselves?" Monday is Mama and Cleo Day, Tuesday and Thursday are school days, Wednesday is Dada and Cleo go to the library, and Friday is usually Have Someone Over Day.

Her friends and their parents are an endless source of fascination. She declares several times a day. "I'm named [some friend], you're named [that friend's mother]." Or she'll pick up a rock and declare that it is named Layla (always, always Layla). And she and her dad make up collaborative stories, usually featuring people we know in some kind of conflict or peril. The themes of these stories ebb and flow, persist and change, until they're nearly incomprehensible to people who haven't seen the whole evolution.

"Once upon a time, there was a..."
"A little girl named Hazel, and she was crying!"
"Why was she crying?"
"Because monkeys stole her mama!"
"And what did Hazel do?"
"Pauline was there!"
"Did Pauline help her find her mama?"
"Yes! And they had pacifiers!"

And so on. Some other recurring themes this month are bears who live in caves, the macaroni monster, brushing one's teeth, eating one's clothes, the monkey-catching kit, robot mechanics who fix garbage trucks, frogs who are experts in animal sounds, going to the doctor's office, and a honeybee who can't buzz.

She has an insatiable appetite for this, and as soon as one story is all wrapped up, she says, "Tell me anonner 'tory!" This can get tedious sometimes, but the power of a story to immediately captivate and distract her is a useful tool.

Another thing she loves is going for walks. At any hour of the day-- dark, light, or raining, she'll ask to go for "a yiddle walk" Sometimes she walks happily, but other times we'll get ten feet down the sidewalk, and she'll stop, turn, throw her arms in the air, and say dramatically, "Carry me!" I think her perfect day would be to be carried around the neighborhood, being told story after story after story, with stops at the bakery, the toy store, and the library just to break things up a bit. One new attraction of the library is the bathroom, which is a thrilling destination for a recently potty-trained girl. Part of the appeal there is the automatic flush, which is the height of excitement. Every time we use an unfamiliar public bathroom, it gets the question, "Does it fush automatit-yee?" and there's a moment of disappointment if the answer is no.

Meals are always good for some entertainment, too. Luckily, she still likes sitting in her high chair and watching me cook. There are a few things she can do to help, like stir, grind pepper, dump measuring cups into mixing bowls, and poke the egg yolks with a fork before the serious scrambling begins (sometimes I think she requests eggs for breakfast just because she looks forward to the yolk-poking). She's a good eater, and has recently been parroting our food policy back to us

"I don't want it!"
"Well, you don't have to eat anything you don't want to eat, but..."
"...but dat's what's for dinner"
"Exactly right"

And three minutes later, if I carefully don't pay too much attention to what she's doing, she'll usually be munching happily. The only consistent refusals tend to be texture-related: big pieces of cooked onion, cooked mushrooms, fresh chopped herbs, and any kind of greens, cooked or raw. She has enjoyed lemon slices, raw onions, spicy Indian lime pickle, stinky goat cheese, and kim chee. I know this is the age that many kids start resisting foods, so I'm trying to stay grateful and happy for each good meal, and hope I won't despair if she takes a turn for the pickier. The result of all this cheerful eating (or maybe the cause) is that she's grown like a weed. I was so used to having a baby who was slight and small, hovering around the tenth percentile for height and weight. But now, she's beautifully average! I was so surprised the first time I realized that she was bigger than some of her peers. And she's so sturdy, with strong, fast arms and legs (that get a lot of exercise doing laps around the kitchen island).

In the last few months, I've noticed that the baby that used to live with us is now really, really gone. Cleo is a kid with a developed personality, preferences, habits, and interests. Sometimes I miss my cuddly little baby, but I'm loving this kid who I can hold hands and have a chat with as we walk down the street. In some ways it's harder now, in more ways it's easier, but mostly it's impossible to completely realize that this is a short, fleeting stage too, and before long we'll be on to a whole new kid yet again.