Our Best Christmas Present

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by Brenda Athanus

ImageWhen our Mother was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, once we regained our balance, my sister and I plotted and planned how we would make that Christmas, her last, be the best Christmas of her life. That being such a bold plan where else could we spend that bittersweet holiday but in the countryside of France and where else but in the festive Champagne region? This was our present to our Mother and we wanted it to be grand. The night before we were to leave Maine we opened up a bottle of her favorite Champagne and handed her a glass with an envelope. Tears poured down her cheeks as she viewed the tickets to Paris, her favorite destination in the whole world with her two daughters. We promised her that she would drink Champagne everyday, but that is all we revealed of our surprise dream Christmas together.

The next day we headed to Boston in a thick snow storm leaving behind our hopelessness and entering into a happy, magical fantasy for the next 10 days. No doctors, no treatments, no stress or sadness gnawing at our bones – just great food, champagne, and love in copious amounts. Having made the reservations so close to our departure the four of us were forced to sit in pairs. My mother and sister were seated ten rows ahead of me and my boyfriend. The noise level on the plane grew louder with laughter in the rows ahead of us. I mentioned to the flight attendant that she sure had a wild crowd to tend to that night. She laughed briefly and rolled her eyes. After an hour I headed up the aisle to check on my mother and sister, to my delight and horror they were the source of all the loud laughter fueled by too many glasses of Champagne. The plan for her to relax and enjoy herself again was working already.

Xmas on Your Doorstep

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by The Editors

We asked some of our contributors to tell us their favorite things that come in the mail at Xmas. We always think that one of the nicest things to do, if you can’t be with someone at the holidays, is to send something that can be part of their holiday meal, Xmas dinner, Xmas breakfast. A favorite jam, a basket of muffins, crab cakes, caviar (although this may not be the year for that), an apple pie, candleholders, a smoked ham or turkey, or even barbecued brisket!

panettone01.jpgEvery Christmas, we receive a large Italian Panettone Cake from Dino and Martha De Laurentiis. It looks good in its elaborate wrapping, and tastes good, too, especially as French toast. But the reason we love it so much has more to do with its power to remind us - like a photograph - of the many evenings we’ve spent with this remarkable family - here in LA, in Florence, and, on the eve of the Millennium in, of all places, the South Pacific.
Steven Zaillian

grater.jpgMy sister in law gave me a Microplane Grater as a Christmas present a few years ago, and I use it constantly. It's wand shaped, which makes it really fun to use. Sometimes I like to pretend it's a violin bow while I zest lemons and such. It also has a scabbard, and that's cool. The best thing about it is that your arm doesn't get tired, but your parmesan turns into fluffy, salty snow. It would fit nicely in a stocking, and you should seriously get one if you haven't already.
Agatha French

Besides wine, the best gift we get every year is a 6-pk of petite filets from Omaha Steaks. They are the perfect size for relatively guilt-free meat consumption and are always tender and delicious regardless of how rare or well-done you like yours cooked. They turn a regular steak dinner into something special. 
Lisa Dinsmore

pistachio_nuts.jpgI have a friend who sends me a bag of California Pistachios each year and it has become one of the highlights of the holiday season for me. While others herald the arrival of mail at this time of year, bringing cards and letters from family and friends, I anxiously await the postman's delivery of a package filled with these delicious nuts. I don't know what it is about them (they're a pain in the neck to open and I don't eat them at any other time during the year), but to me the arrival of the pistachios (like the lighting of the tree at Rock Center or the first of a gazillion broadcasts of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) lets me know that the holidays have truly begun.
Seale Ballenger

macaroons.jpgA beautiful box of Ladurée Macaroons to share with your sweetheart over a pot of Darjeeling tea and great conversation... That is what I would like my FedEx driver to deliver. (Just the Macaroons.)
Brenda Athanus

apron.jpgPretty much every Christmas since the start of the Bush administration, (though I still haven’t figured out the connection), someone gave me a fabulous apron. The blue one with the white polka dots, for example, is from Amy; the sheer, short vintage one with the letter “M” embroidered on the right breast – a gift from my stepdaughter Sal; the white-on-white striped one with the pink rickrack and the yellow, green, purple and rose circles – courtesy of my niece Jennifer. The point is not that I don’t have any; the issue with me and aprons is that I don't put one on til after the barn door is closed. When de Kooning dots of marinara dribble from my tasting spoon onto my best white blouse (the one with the trumpet sleeves, and I still don’t know how that happened because I swear I was holding that spoon right over the pot), after Rorschach blots of dark brown gravy appear on my favorite navy crepe dress, as a constellation of hot caramel from the Tarte Tatin splatters from my cast iron skillet onto my red cashmere cardigan – only then do I decide to tie on an apron. This is not good. This is not why God invented them. If only someone would call and remind me that in a battle between Minestrone and me, the Minestrone will always win – now that would be a perfect Christmas present.
Katherine Reback

loaf_peach_big.jpgThe best peach bread you will ever put in your mouth is from the shop Breadwinner. It is the gift I give all my friends who have everything. It has been featured on the "Today Show," among others. I am lucky I live down the street from the store. Trust me, order it and and you will become addicted. Everything they have is one of a kind but I truly adore their peach bread.
Laura Johnson

trovel.jpgWhat I like to receive during the holiday season is a small shovel that I can use to dig a hole in my backyard and bury all the holiday cakes, candy and long interminable accounts of what the year was like for everyone in their family that are sent our way. 
  Alan Zweibel

mexicancookies.jpgMy college roommate's mother bakes the most delicious Mexican wedding cookies in the world and every Christmas sent us a care package full of cookie tins all carefully labelled in her elegant handwriting. We weren't exactly good little girls in college, but we still managed to earn Mrs. Hinojosa's cookies. I would like to repeat college for a variety of reasons; receiving these cookies every year would be chief among them.
Emily Fox

My husband and I love the Chesapeake Crab package...when it arrives I call my doctor/friend who comes over and both our families drink wine and dine on the crabs.
Susan Dolgen

laburdick.jpgI am like a child when I get food in the mail (to the extent that I have been known to fight with my son over who gets to open the package), and I have to admit that I'm always disappointed when it isn't chocolate. The best food gift I've received was a one-pound box of assorted chocolates from L.A. Burdick's, a superb chocolatier based in New Hampshire. Their handmade bonbons are beautiful to look at and delicious. I savored that box for a long time – and I even shared.
Andrea Pyenson

I love getting bar-yochi, those carob bars because they're the sweetest, most delic treats on earth, bar-none!
David Israel

fairytalebrownies.jpgThe best food thing I've ever gotten in the mail: a delectable assortment of gourmet brownies from Fairytale Brownies, which Random House Films sent me once the contracts were signed. They were rich and decadent, individually packaged little brownies in flavors like toffee crunch, peanut butter, pecan, and caramel, and the lovely sparkling fairytale packaging just added to the magical feel of it. Really, imagine opening a box and being confronted with chocolate and fairies. There is nothing better!!!
Carolyn Turgeon

I think everyone could use cute heart shaped Alessi Coffee & Tea Spoons!
Maia Harari

lecreuset.jpgAlthough it is always a nice surprise to get something edible in the mail during the holiday season I love to give and receive kitchen utensils, equipment, and gadgets as gifts. One year a box from my sister arrived with an Italian espresso maker and to this day every time I make a piping hot cappuccino or espresso shot I am reminded of her generosity. Cookware and electronic or technical equipment are a welcome addition to any home and make a lasting impression in their utility. In my experience, kitchens could always use an upgrade or expansion and the holiday season is a perfect excuse to shop for yourself and others, especially if it means new Le Creuset cookware!
Jackson Malle

zabarsbabka.jpgOne year my best pal in NY sent me a large hunk of Barney Greengrass' whitefish and several chocolate babka muffins to appease my eternal, if lowgrade, homesickness for NY (yes, I am the living cliche after almost thirty years in LA). Then, just when I thought such a gift could not be out done, I received three huge pieces of Zabar's herring with cream and onions, a half-pound of nova, a few H&H bagels and cream cheese, and a Zabar's entire chocolate babka from my step-mother. I was supposed to share with my husband. Not a chance!
Pamela Felcher

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>For other ideas check out our
Holiday Gift Guide.

Italian Pizzelle Cookies

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by Susan Russo

pizzelle1.jpgMy grandmother, Nan, loved to receive shirt boxes at Christmas every year. Not shirts, just the boxes. After Christmas, my mom and I would bring them over her house, where she would stack them in a closet, then insist we sit down at the kitchen table and have something to eat.

Wondering what she did with all those boxes? She used them store her pizzelle cookies. She needed a lot of boxes because she made a lot of pizzelles – for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. It's not just my grandmother, all Italians enjoy them for celebrations.

Pizzelles are round Italian waffle-like cookies made from flour, sugar, eggs, and butter and are typically flavored with anise or vanilla. The name pizzelle comes from the Italian pizze, meaning "flat" or "round."

Sweet Memories of Mom's Christmas Cookies

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by Mary MacVean

From the L.A. Times

xmascookies.jpgBy Thanksgiving weekend, the prep work was well underway. All year long she'd been saving the boxes from stationery and from her nylon stockings, stashed with the Christmas ornaments. She'd made lists in her perfectly inscrutable handwriting. In our basement refrigerator, she had squirreled away some of the raspberry jam she made during the summer.

So every fall, when my mom told us that she'd grown tired of the whole idea of Christmas cookies and was giving them up, she didn't mean it. We were never sure, though. And we'd whine on cue, begging her to please at least make the kind we just couldn't live without -- for me, the Russian tea cakes, for my brother, the spice cookies called pepparkakor.

But most of her work went on in secret, while we were at school or after we'd gone to bed.

And by Christmas Eve, we'd have maybe 100 dozen cookies, as many as 20 varieties of exquisite, painstakingly formed cookies, stored in our freezer.

As a small child, bringing out box after box of cookies that morning was kind of a miracle. Not quite as wonderful as Santa, who would get a plate of them that night, but part of the blur of a holiday full of magic and surprise.

Read article...

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Salad

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by Laraine Newman

christmaspudding.jpgIf you have any Canadian friends who are good cooks, they can sometimes go to the effort to recreate dishes often referred to in Christmas Carols. Its that whole British thing and  “Hey, I’m a Royal Subject, eh?” But after Pfeffernusse, Sugar Cookies, Flaming Plum and Figgy Pudding, parties with lavish cheese plates and the holiday Honeybaked Ham, I get a little toxic.

I start to crave more than your every day palate cleanser. It’s more like a yen for a culinary high colonic. A clean fresh salad is what my body calls for and I’m always amazed when this happens.

When my kids were young and I’d fret about not being able to get them to eat enough vegetables and fruit, or protein, the ‘experts’ would invariably assure me in that annoyingly supercilious New Age Parenting tone that “They’ll just naturally take the nutrition their bodies need.” Yeah, that was some bullshit. Like they’d just select the carrots and celery from a table with the big bowl of Cheetos.

Christmas Tourtiere Pie

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by Brenda Athanus

mainesnow.jpgHere in Maine we await a "super storm" that is huge and rushing across the United States, or so they say. Six to twelve inches of snow, turning to freezing rain with high winds.  Sounds  like Winter weather in Maine, not too unusual. It isn't the size of the storm it's what you find to make it fun that counts and I have a plan to enjoy it!  In between plowing I will be making our Mother's tortiere pies and perhaps having a slice for lunch and another with a pot of hot tea in the afternoon to warm up.

What is tortiere pie? To my family it is a ground pork and beef pie flavored with chopped onions, spices and thickened with mashed Maine potatoes then put into a double butter crust. I said my family, the Gagne family, my Mother's recipe, made the same way for at least 5 generations. It isn't like the Belanger's who add no beef just pork, a totally different spice mixture and a Crisco crust or the Bourassa family that adds small chunks of pork instead of ground pork, they add no potatoes, quatre spice and a lard pastry crust.

Christmas: Am I Doing it Wrong?

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by Ann Nichols

charliebrowntree11.jpgChristmas is only three days away, and I’m beginning to think I did it wrong. I am not panicked, abject, or guilty; I am simply enjoying a relatively light workweek with the promise of family and a great dinner on Friday. Outside of my mellow sphere, however, there are signs that we are waiting not for a holiday, but for the end of the world, as we know it. The guy in the Sherlock Holmes hat at the Post Office talking loudly to himself about how he “didn’t need this aggravation,” the parents searching frantically for the last few gifts, the women with jobs and children beating themselves up because they haven’t gotten their cards out yet…it’s out there. Are they crazy or am I a flake?

I have had Annie’s Very Hysterical Christmas (followed by Annie’s Very Bad Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but this year I decided to let the red & green chips fall where they may. We got a tree and a wreath, but when the day came to get the tree and Sam was busy at a friend’s house I chose not to have a fit and gnash my teeth because it was not our tradition and it was all RUINED. Rob and I went and had a lovely time, and we now have a lit and decorated tree and a wreath on the front door. The process of bringing the Christmas decorations was marred by the fact that approximately 700 squirrels have taken up residence in our attic, and at least one of the boxes didn’t make it down the ladder, as a result of which we are missing the nativity scene, several angels and some snowmen, all of which are probably far above my head providing bedding and snacks for the bushy-tailed enemy. I declined offers from Sam to shoot the offenders with his airsoft guns, and from Rob to set the cats on them; why shouldn’t the squirrels enjoy Christmas, too?

Holiday Traditions: Flourless Buche de Noel

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by Joseph Erdos

I've always wanted to make a yule log or Bûche de Noël for Christmas. This year I vowed I would. Here is my updated version of the traditional holiday cake. Instead of the more common génoise made with eggs and sugar beaten over a bain marie, flour, and melted butter, I decided to make a flourless cake. Simply made with sugar, eggs, and ground walnuts, this recipe results in a light and nutty sponge cake. The filling of chestnut purée and a little bit of rum is my favorite kind. And the frosting is a traditional chocolate buttercream.

Hungarian in nature, this recipe is loosely inspired by the logs my great aunt used to make whenever we visited her in Hungary. I think you will find this cake to be highly irresistible. One thing to note: Since the cake is flourless, it does shrink after baking.

buchedunoel.jpgWalnut Yule Log with Chestnut Filling and Chocolate Buttercream

6 large eggs, separated
6 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted
1-1/4 cups ground walnuts
1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a rimmed baking sheet, line with parchment paper, and butter again.

In a small bowl, beat egg yolks by hand. In another small bowl, stir together dry ingredients: ground walnuts and baking powder.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites, adding sugar a little at a time, until soft peaks form. On low speed, drizzle in egg yolks. Fold in dry ingredients by hand until just combined.

Spread mixture evenly into prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes or until edges are lightly golden. Immediately turn cake out of baking sheet onto a linen towel. Remove parchment paper and flip cake so that bottom is in contact with towel, and roll cake with towel. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, so that cake takes on rolled shape.

A Homemade Christmas? I'd Think Twice About That

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by Seale Ballenger

cranberry_wreath.jpgEveryone I know espouses the virtue of a homemade Christmas, and I have to admit that when someone takes the time to make me something I am genuinely touched by the act and the sentiment that goes along with it. That said, have you ever decided to take on a project that grew so far beyond its original scale and intent that you regretted it? As my family and friends can attest to, I am famous for that kind of thing. But something about the holidays seems to blindly motivate me toward this type of endeavor year after year.

Like the time I decided to make “simple” cranberry wreaths just like the ones I had seen Martha Stewart make on her TV show. I bought the requisite Styrofoam forms from a craft store and what seemed like a bazillion toothpicks that would have lasted a family of four a lifetime, as well as several bags of the dark red berries and a few feet of nice green ribbon to make bows with. After going through the first two bags of berries, and Lord knows how many toothpicks, I took my permanently stained hands back to the grocery store to load up on more supplies. The check out girl just laughed at me when I handed her a fist full of pink bills and wished me good luck with whatever I was doing.

Twenty four hours later I was a mad man, half blinded from trying to push the toothpicks evenly into the form and wearing thimbles (or anything else I could find) to cover my sore fingers, vowing to complete the task that was now driving me crazy. I was possessed and in the process ruined a favorite shirt and an equally beloved pair of pants. After what seemed to me an eternity, I eventually finished. Proudly hanging the wreath on my front door, I stood back to admire my handy work.

Mail Order Food

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by David Latt

lattdad.jpgI associate mail order food with my father.  When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections.  He took me to only one professional football game.  He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies.  I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving.  I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around. 

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy.  He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea.  Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family.  Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was taken literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev.  He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair.  When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

My Dilemma, Presently

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by Joey Power

christmas_tree2.jpgEvery Christmas morning, my sisters and I tumble downstairs, pause to survey the adorned Douglas Fir and its outlying territory, then continue to the kitchen.  It’s a family tradition that before fingertips ever meet wrapping paper, we sit down to a big breakfast of bagels and lox and scrambled eggs with onions.  In my less ripe years, I considered this practice illogical frivolous excruciating; however—predictably—as the son of God’s1 birthdays have accrued, I’ve discovered pleasure in the affair. The frequency of fully populated family breakfasts has shrunk since two of three children have moved out from under our parents’ roof and I think we all appreciate that this Christmas meal not only guarantees full family attendance but also promises that each party is going to be upbeat, which I’m not sure how other families work, but let’s admit that the wear of most days isn’t conducive to an atmosphere where all the faces at a table are invariably smiling.

On the Origins of a Crab Christmas Dinner

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by Louis Gropman

placesetting.jpgEver since reading Rousseau’s On the Origin of Language, the idea of the origin myth has compelled me to wonder at the root of things. I treasure the O.E.D., find it fascinating that Hammer Pants were born out of misread lyrics during development of the U Can’t Touch This video, and relish in the ongoing debate over how the Caesar salad came to be.

As with the Caesar salad, I’m intrigued by things with no definite origin – thereby inviting invention – like how Rousseau posits that language originated with a boy wanting to talk to a girl while collecting water for their respective families.

In this fashion, I’m incited to uncover, or create the origin of one side of my family’s Dungeness Crab Christmas Eve tradition. But first it’ll help if I briefly explain my family, and my relationship to Christmas.

Suffice to say my family fits well into the postmodern framework: fractured, multiple centers, consider any single member and you’ll discover a constellation of relationships. So I’ll leave it at this: a name means as much as a title. I have parents and siblings.


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