Winter wonderland: The call of the snowball

‘Tis the season and snow is on my mind today. Snow was part of the winter routine when I was young and living in West Virginia. Even in the cold months my friends and I regularly walked a mile to and from our elementary school (no kidding – I just looked it up on Google Maps), and we took our time despite the cold. After all, the walk was uphill both ways (you saw that coming, right?) and the snow gave us an irresistible fresh canvas. There were boot tracks and mitten prints to make in the virgin white, snowmen to roll, and drifts of snow to whisk off cold iron railings, chrome bumpers, and big blue mailboxes. We must have made a Rockwell-worthy picture as we crunched and squeaked up snow-piled sidewalks, pink-cheeked, laughing, and nibbling handfuls of clean white snowballs. It was a different time and place.

As if reading my mind – or like she was reading over my shoulder as I was writing – my daughter paused from her studies and said “Mom, do you think we’ll have snow this year? When I wake up on Christmas morning I want to look outside and see snow. Inches of snow!”Alas. Living in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina means that most of the snow we see is either “Greensboro snow” (meaning rain) or in news reports from other places. The Triad gets some ice and an occasional and short-lived flaky dusting, but rarely do we get a flat-out snow storm. White Christmas? Not here, not often.

Until this year it didn’t matter to me if I ever saw snow again. Snow up your sleeves and pantlegs, nooo thanks! This season is different. I really really really really want snow, not because I want it in the cuffs of my clothes but because a traditional winter season would be a welcome change of pace. I don’t want to be trapped in the house for months but I’d enjoy a couple of knee-deep snows interspersed with a few smaller ones. I’d like for the grass to be hidden and for the squirrel (and chicken) tracks to be visible. I’d like to be able to build a snowman that still looks like a snowman the next day rather than like an eroding white yard stalagmite. Heck, I’d like to be able to build a decent snowman in the first place. I’d like to rush out after supper and make igloos and snow forts with the kids until well after dark, engaging the neighbors in snowball fights, and make peace offerings of snow cream and hot chocolate. And as I recall, sledding is high entertainment especially at night. How much more tolerable the short days would be!

Back to reality. We probably won’t have a winter like that unless we move North or West so we’ll (ok, ok, I’ll) have to be satisfied with a typical central NC winter. Even though we’ll have to be content with our cold rain and messy ice, I’ll make snowballs. Cookies, that is, my mother’s recipe from my earliest memories. It’s one of my favorite winter treats and there’s nothing like coming into the house while they’re baking. They’re like Danish wedding cookies, except with a KEY additional ingredient. See if you can spot it in the recipe. (Eliminating it will still yield some pretty nice cookies, but including it will give your guests something to talk about.)

Snowball Cookies

1 c. butter, softened

1 tsp. almond extract

2 heaping c. flour (If you are using single cup measuring cups to do your measuring, don’t heap the flour with both scoops – heap only one time, and not a mountainous heap, or you’ll wind up with dry dough that won’t form.)

1 c. chopped nuts

½ c. powdered sugar, plus about ¾ c. for later

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees (these cookies are delicate – be careful not to overheat the oven).

2. Lightly spray a cookie sheet with oil. Set aside.

3. Mix butter, almond, flour, nuts and ½ c. powdered sugar. Blend until the mixture forms small clumps. The dough may seem dry but when you squeeze it, it should form in your hand.

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4. Roll dough into 1-1/2 inch balls and place on a cookie sheet. Make sure the balls are tight enough to not fall apart in your hands. As you are forming the cookies, make sure to mix in any dry ingredients remaining in the bowl so that the cookies you make at the end of the end are as moist as those at the beginning.

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5. Bake the cookies for 30 minutes. While hot, they should have a slight “give” to them when squeezed. They will harden as they cool. Do not overcook.

6. Place cookies on cooling rack for about 5 minutes then, while they are still warm, shake a few at a time in powdered sugar. Return to cooling rack. Let cool 20 – 30 minutes. The cookie will still be very visible through the sugar.

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7. Once the cookies are cooled completely (about a half hour), shake the cookies again in powdered sugar. The sugar will mostly coat the cookie color and will leave you with snowballs that you made in your kitchen! Store them in an airtight container, not that they’ll last long enough to go stale. They will keep well for a few days if you need to make them ahead of time.

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If you need to freeze the cookies for an advance date, freeze the formed uncooked dough balls and then allow them to thaw to room temperature when you’re ready to make them. Once thawed, bake as directed. These cookies are exceedingly rich and are ideal with a cup of coffee.

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Gifting and glitching: mishaps at the holidays

Life is full of many (and mini) gifts, like walking into a fragrant kitchen so warm from cooking that the windowpanes are opaque in the middle. Or like sipping hot Lady Grey tea while reading a good book. Like finding a lone wildflower beaming over the tops of crunchy brown leaves. How about that first bite of food that’s so good it makes you shiver?

Gifts can be – and often are – simple fine things. If you ask me, the thrill of giving others store-bought presents pales in comparison with the grace of gifting loaves of your own baked bread. Wrapping and ribboning a piece of technological gadgetry is far less satisfying than gift engineering with sticky fingers and floured hair … which brings me to the main idea of today’s post: homemade gifts for holidays (or special days, or Tuesday, or …).

Simple fine things may be less exciting for the gift receiver than, say, a new car; but I guarantee the recipient will realize, at least eventually, the treasure of your time and effort. One phrase that never gets old: “I just ate / used that item you gave me and it was incredible!” The sentiment is even better with “Will you make some more?” tacked on the end.

Presents are tricky things though. The action of the offering is rife with snares and potholes, and maybe a bear trap or two. For instance, my mother is a very generous and kind person who loves giving presents. Before my husband and I had children, we (my husband, mother, and I) planned to spend Christmas with relatives out of state. The weatherman predicted sleet the night before we were supposed to leave which put our travel plans in question. My mother, having left a couple of days before, was already there.

When I called to tell her that we might be unable to spend the holidays with the family, Mom was beside herself, truly having fits – thankfully not of the hissy variety although not far from it – insisting that we make the trip early if necessary. “If you leave right now you will be here; and you will be here.” There was more froth in her tone than in  any latte in the history of milk foam. It seemed a little overboard. Thank goodness the sleet didn’t fall. We made the trip on time and later discovered the reason for my mother’s insistence on Christmas Ho! Sleet be damned!: she bought us bicycles, and by “bicycles” I mean the awesome kind from a bike shop and not something at a mass merchandiser. Cool, huh? Except for one thing. Bike riding terrifies me and I refuse to do it. We had a crushed mama that year.

The point is that you can avoid having your gift giving feelings hurt by knowing what others prefer. Does this person cook? Is this person an adventurous eater? Will he turn to mush for the right kind of cookie? What colors of food make her want to vomit? (Using the word “vomit” on a cooking blog is edgy, no?)

My original plan for today was to give you at least one honest-to-goodness recipe. Instead – due to a malfunction and the need to tweak the ingredients or the method (or both) before posting it – here is a much simpler idea for cold-weather gifting. You don’t cook it, bake it, stir it, or coax it, but it is something you make with your own hands, it’s consumable, and it makes a very pretty gift. So! With our friends in mind, let’s go to the gift-giving workshop and try it out, chugging toward home cooking next time.

Mint Chocolate Chip Cocoa Mix

½ c. sugar

½ c. cocoa

½ c. powdered milk

¼ tsp. salt (optional, but nice!)

¼ c. chopped chocolate morsels (smaller pieces = easier melting) – I use a combination of white chocolate and semi-sweet morsels but you can use whatever you have

7 – 8 starlight mints or an equal amount of candy canes, broken into small pieces

Airtight pint container if you are not giving right away or any pint container if you are giving the gift immediately (see pic).

Directions:

1. Chop chocolate morsels by pulsing in food processor until you have nice small pieces (grinding to a powder is ok but having pieces is more exciting). If you do not have a food processor, put morsels in a plastic bag and hit with rolling pin, hammer, or other hefty object. Set chocolate aside.

2. Put starlight mints or candy canes in a bag and break apart with rolling pin (or whatever you have that will break them apart). I did not try to break these in the food processor – I do not know how well it would have worked. And whoa, it would have been REALLY NOISY! Set broken candy pieces aside.

3. In a pint jar, layer the sugar, cocoa, powdered milk, salt, chocolate, and mints. As you add each new layer, use a spoon to level off that layer and to tamp the ingredients down. If it will be some time before you give this gift, make sure the container is airtight so that the candy doesn’t go stale.

4. Make an instruction card for your recipient.

* Mix the contents of container in a large bowl

* Measure 5 – 6 Tbsp. of mix into mug; add hot water, stir, and enjoy!

* Store remainder of mix in an airtight container

You can double, triple, quadruple … err … infinituple (yeah, cool new word!) the ingredients to make larger batches. I doubled the recipe to what should have been 1 quart, so I don’t know if my container was too small (I found it at World Market for under $3 and it looked like a quart) or if the measure of ingredients was too great. Since I was giving the gift right away I improvised the “lid” and used cling wrap tied with a ribbon. As a less expensive alternative, you can also half or quarter the quantities to make smaller batches. Wouldn’t it be cute to make a single serving packed in a mug?

Hi, my name is ____, and I am ____.

Do you remember those days in school, at a new job, or at some social event which started with everyone taking turns introducing themselves? My name is Camilla (pronounced CAM-ul-uh) and I am a hopeless romantic, terminally curious, and an easily distracted thinker, creator, designer, listener, reader, student. That covers most of it anyway. I’ve spent most of my life trying to “find myself” through new careers, educational opportunities, community events, and popular hobbies, attempting to find an unequivocal fit with the things that interest me. I’ve performed on stage, washed dogs, typed memos, shown property, written articles, gone to college and to grad school for journalism, English, and psychology (not all at one time) but none of it stuck. Do you know the feeling?

How I got here is a long story. It started with a glorious case of random – just a day, just a book – but it reminded me about life. About living. About what good living is to me: savoring joyful simplicity. I hope to demonstrate that there is no need for long lists of ingredients, the best serving pieces (or even matching serving pieces), a huge grocery budget, or expensive gadgets in order to serve wonderful food to wonderful people. Work with what you have or what you can get or simply change the plan. One of the most satisfying things about cooking and entertaining is that nothing is set in stone. Strategies and recipes are malleable.

I promise to not post recipes I haven’t tried  (they are probably things I have tried, and tried, and tried), and I will include anything interesting, important, or surprising that might have happened. If I attempt the same recipe with different ingredients or methods, I will post those outcomes too. If I can think of shortcuts or ways to save money, my ideas are yours.

This is not a blog about budgets, economy, whole food, organic food, gluten-free food, vegetarian food, or diet food. There will be some recipes full of fat, some recipes full of vegetables, some with no gluten, and some recipes that call for vintage trendy items like raw milk and homegrown heirloom tomatoes. But use this little space as you will. Substitute. Change. Experiment. Lose yourself. Impress yourself. E-mail and comment with questions, challenges, and ideas.

To those who have never really cooked or entertained, or for those with rusty kitchen and hosting skills, I hope you find something useful in these simple fine things. You can eat well and feed plentifully using what you have or what you can affordably obtain (or save for without driving yourself nuts). We – you and I – have options, information resources, online marketplaces; and perhaps most happily, we have each other.

Until next time.