Best of the Season


I’ve just completed my first holiday season in the US, right from Thanksgiving through Christmas,  in 14 years.  It is a peculiar and luxurious thing to live in a foreign country much of your year.  You feel a little like you walk around wearing a cloak of invisibility.  You can observe the culture around you, but the culture is not generally targeting you for a response.  Billboards, advertisements on the radio and television, signs in the stores pass through my vision without recognition because I either don’t completely understand the language they are in, or because I am not their target audience.  I don’t have long black hair, so the shampoo commercial advertising extraordinary darkening and strength-building properties doesn’t tempt me.  I am not even likely to spend much of my clothing budget locally, so I’m not tempted by the sale banners in the stores.  The tone, the content, and the motivation for buying in another country are different and I am not who those advertisers have in mind.  But watch out.  When I get home, I AM the targeted consumer, and I really feel it.  Commercials that make me cry, like the one featured below, know exactly who they are talking to, who has the expendable income, and what pulls ,specifically, my strings.  Pop-up advertisements on Internet pages increased exponentially in the weeks following Thanksgiving and with increasing specificity.  If you have ever read the young adult novel Feed, I tell you it feels like we’re not far from a world where marketing is hardwired into our brains and shopping is as easy as completing a thought.  Without my work to keep me distracted and focused on things nonholiday, I was a sitting duck for this commercial bombardment, though I tried to keep it at arm’s length as much as I could.  From what I did peruse, however,  the following cultural sampler made my list of Christmas 2013 takeaways.

Best Cookie:  The boys and I had planned to make a quick road trip to Montana to visit my family before Allan got here.  Montana, however, just set a record for snowfall amounts in the month of December.  Given that I wasn’t in good enough shape at that time to hike 10 miles in a snowstorm to the next town if we had car trouble, and our vehicle is getting old, and we have a 5 month old puppy,  we decided not to go.  We spent that week baking cookies to send to them, instead.  Our favorite, in the end, was the least likely:  Rosemary and Toasted-Caraway Shortbread.  The balance of toasted seeds, camphory rosemary, and butter was so pleasant and went extremely well with other cookies, especially these chocolate-pistachio sables (we made ours with pecans instead of pistachios).

Best Movie:  The standard Christmas music and movies were overplayed and over-referenced all season.  It really got cloying.  When we returned home from our family Christmas party on Christmas Eve, we just couldn’t face The Christmas Story, again.  Anton made a daring suggestion from Netflix:  In Bruge.  Reading the summary, you probably wouldn’t think you would like to watch this at Christmas, but it was a real palate cleanser.  First of all, Allan and I love the city of Bruge and knew all of the cultural references in the movie.  But the hit men, who are the main characters, won our hearts with their humanity, and even though everyone dies in the end (spoiler alert), you have many authentic laughs and somehow feel happy.  If you found Fargo to be a “feel good” movie, then you will also like In Bruge.    Warning, this is a movie to be enjoyed with adult children or without children.

Best Song:  Listening to commercial-free CBC on the radio is my mental stabilizer during long island days.  When the recording of Natalie Dessay, singing Ave Maria from the film Joyeux Noel, was played, I held my breath and knew that it was a moment to remember.

Best Commercial:  The designers of this Apple TV ad hit below the belt on this one.  They got at one of the most heart achingly sensitive issues for parents at the holidays:  trying to connect with their disengaged, goofy teenager.  I never could watch this commercial without tears streaming down my cheeks.  The sweetness of the grandparents and other adults trying to pull this young man into the family, the awkwardness of the age difference between him and the younger children, his insistence on burying himself in his iPhone, all struck chords.  Then, when he proved that he was in fact deeply bonding with his family and cared very much, I cheered for all of the misunderstood adolescents I know and love.  They totally got me.

Best Christmas Pageant : I have an enormous soft spot for New Zealanders, otherwise called Kiwis.  When we renovated our Lummi Island farm, we modeled it after the metal-roofed, seaside sheep stations we had seen on the south island of NZ just the winter before.  This video additionally stole my heart because it reminded me of the plays and movies my boys made with their friends and cousins, of all ages, when they were young.  I love their out of character blushes at the references to pregnancy and sheep poop.  I played this more times than I will admit.

Best Photo:  Our boys and children of family friends went for a photo shoot with our favorite photographer, Megan Muse.  There were dozens of beautiful shots, but of course, this one was my favorite.

Best Getaway:  This is cheating a little because we’re not going here until tomorrow.  With all of my island sitting, and being quiet, and waiting for Allan to come, and then lots of cooking, we think we need a fun night to ourselves.  Tomorrow night, we will be in Vancouver eating at its number 1 rated restaurant presided over by its number 1 rated chef.  I don’t need to wait until after I eat there to tell you how it is; it will be fabulous.

Best Dessert:  This is the header photo above.  It is from Donna Hay Dec-Jan 2014, so it’s not yet available on their website.  The DH staff made their trifle with sliced strawberries, but as long as I was buying unseasonal fruit, I chose cherries to turn it into a black forest trifle.  It was not difficult to make, and it settled into a satisfying strata of red velvet cake, chocolate ganache, whipped creme fraiche, and whole, fresh cherries.  It definitely made an impressive presentation for Christmas dinner, but could just as nicely show up at Valentine’s Day or even the Fourth of July.

Black Forest Trifle

Adapted from Donna Hay, Dec-Jan 2014

  • 1 1/2 cups (pouring) cream
  • 500g dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups creme fraiche or sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups (pouring) cream, extra
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup sweet sherry
  • 750g cherries, stemmed and pitted
  • 5 whole cherries, with stems, for decoration

red velvet cake

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups self-raising flour, sifted (to make:  3/4 cup flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, and 1/4 tsp. salt)
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder, sifted
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  To make the red velvet cake, place the butter, sugar and vanilla in the owl of an electric mixer and beat for 8-10 minutes or until pale and creamy.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Add the flour, cocoa, buttermilk, and food coloring and beat on low speed until just combined.  Pour the mixture into a lightly greased 20cm round cake tin lined with non-stick baking paper and smooth the top with a palette knife.  Bake for 50-55 minutes or until cooked when tested with a skewer.  Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.  Use a serrated knife, trim the top of the cake, cut into three layers, horizontally, and trim to fit and 18cm. glass vase (4.5 liter capacity).  Set aside.

     Place the cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to the boil.  Remove from the heat and add the chocolate.  Allow to stand for 5 minutes or until the chocolate has melted.  Whisk until smooth and well combined.  Allow to cool at room temperature.

     Place the creme fraiche or sour cream, extra cream, and sugar in a large bowl and whisk until soft peaks form.  To assemble the trifle, place a layer of cake in the base of the vase.  Spoon over 2 tablespoons of the sherry and top with 1 cup of the shipped cream.  Spread evenly and top with 3/4 cup of the chocolate ganache.  Spread evenly and top with 250g of the cherries.  Top with another 1 cup of the cream and spread evenly.  Repeat the layers tow more times, finishing with a layer of cream.  Top trifle with the whole cherries and refrigerate for 1-2 hours or until cold and set.  Serves 12-14

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