I am Jewish by faith and heritage but my dad just loved the Christmas tree, the presents and the feast so we celebrated on one day instead of eight each holiday season. I grew up with the best of both worlds. My grandparents celebrated Hanukkah with a menorah and we celebrated Hanukkah with a beautiful tree. Tradition, heritage, history and presents all in one holiday.
Christmas was just a few days ago. I celebrated the seasons with my closest friends, traveling from one house to another during the day. The first party was spent with Research-Geek and her husband at his mother's home. Christmas dinner was large with a roast and a ham and lots of side dishes. The main entree, the roast, was perfect, browned and crispy on the outside and a beautiful rare on the inside. R-G had made Yorkshire Puddings to go with, light and yummy puffs of air. It's always a treat to me to stand beside someone and watch them learn and grow more adventurous in the kitchen. When I first met R-G, she was shy in the kitchen but willing to learn, try and do anything to make a new meal. A few years back she had asked me about steak, how do you take a nice piece of meat and grill or pan sear it to perfection? The timidness I understand. Who wants to take a $12 New York strip steak and end up with shoe leather? It can be intimidating making that first one. We exchange a couple of emails and she began cooking. Since then, she and I have been exchanging recipes back and forth over email, offering each other the newest dish we tried and adored.
When she said she was making the roast and Yorkshire Puddings, I was both proud that she was taking this giant step and a little scared for her. When I arrived at the house, it already smelled of the heavenly beef. A short while later it was ready to come out of the oven and rest. As we were both looking longingly at the roast, I asked her how she had prepared it. First, she tells me, you ask the butcher for a nice roast. Then you asked the butcher the best way to prepare it. She does live near one of the best butchers in town, Valenti's. And he did give her excellent instructions. That roast was good for seconds and thirds, each time with a bit of Yorkshire Pudding. We spent the afternoon eating, drinking and opening presents.
After that tasty feast, I went on to Stavra's for dessert. There was bread pudding with a caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. Bread pudding is one of those things for which I quest. I'll try bread pudding on any menu whenever I see it. I'm always looking for the perfect batch. For me, excellent bread pudding has crunchy sides and a few peaks of crunch on the top then gives way to a smooth and creamy center, a little more than pudding, almost like the center of really good French toast. I think the best puddings have golden raisins and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. Stavra's was all those things. She served it warm and the aroma wafted from my plate. It was smooth and sweet with a little crunch around the edges where the sugar had caramelized the bread. Ah...it was lovely.
Stavra has a way with Christmas. Everything she does is beautiful to lay eyes on and delicious to eat. Each year she makes cookies for all her family and friends. I love to bake. She and I go back and forth about who's better. I say she is, she says me. After this year's basket of cookies and truffles, I think she wins hands down. When I walked in for dessert, she handed me a bamboo bowl for me to take home. It was full of bags tied with ribbon, each labeled with the name of the delectable treats inside. I almost dove in then, not wanting to waste a minute before tasting a bit or bite of each little treat. I managed to hold off for a while but later in the evening she dug through the bowl and pushed a bag my way saying to try that one first. It was a milk chocolate caramel with Fleur de Sel. It was smooth and creamy, chocolaty, with just the nicest saltiness.
After the first one I started digging through the bowl myself. There were several truffle, I think my favorite was the Dark Chocolate Orange Chipotle. That had a bang at the end...after all the other flavors faded, the chocolate, the orange....bang...smokey chipotle heating my throat. Yummy! I also found a Pistachio Cranberry Dark Chocolate. That was fun, flavors and textures popping out of the chocolate all over the place.
I love chocolate, almost more than I love breathing in and out, but it was one of the cookies that got me. Cinnamon Snow Bites.....just linger on the words....Cinnamon...Snow...Bites..... They sound like some old fashioned cookie that my grandmother would have made a long time before I was born. One just happened to jump out of the bag into my hand. It smelled lightly of cinnamon. I took a bite, then a bigger bite. It was perfect. It was moist but had a nice crumble. Cinnamon morsels dotted the cookie, not too many, not too few. There were hints of sugar and spice all melting into the buttery goodness. The first words out of my mouth, the only words I could describe this cookie with, were, "It tastes like Christmas, everything Christmas is, everything Christmas should be, in a cookie." It was amazing. There were a lot of other goodies in that basket. Not a bit of it went untasted and all of it was downright delicious, but the Cinnamon Snow Bites stand out to me. That was a flavor I will tell my family about when I get old and grayer.
This Christmas will hold a special place in my heart. It's the first one I spent on my own and exactly as I pleased. I'm seeing my family soon, after the New Year, to celebrate with them, but to spend the holiday with good and dear friends, I cannot think of a better way to end this year and a begin the next. Thank you, my friends, and Happy New Year!