For the Sake of Auld Lang Syne

Today is Auld Year’s Night or Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve and I am in Lake Louise with Dad, Tom and George.  We first came here in December 1997 and every year in between until April 2002.  I was initially thrilled when Dad suggested that we come back here, but then I felt slightly worried that it couldn’t live up to my memories.  Canada in general has always been one of my favourite places to visit.  The countryside is stunning; the people are lovely – some would say universally nice; and the food is great.  I have sometimes thought that it is probably the best country in the world to live in with great education, healthcare, and quality of life.  It isn’t too remote and again there is that spectacular countryside.  Lake Louise itself is stunning but one day I would like to come here when the lake isn’t frozen and see the greenery that I know is hiding underneath this fluffy white stuff that brought us here in the first place.  Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that nothing so far has spoilt our memories of this wonderful place.  The hotel is still lovely – fresher in decor but just as welcoming.  This is the view from our bedroom window

ImageYou can almost see the Victoria Glacier at the end of the lake.  You can definitely see the people skating in the fore front, on the lake.

The recipe for French Onion Soup has been changed – it is now described as Stout Beer Onion Soup and is much darker and richer than their previous recipe.  Just as delicious though.  We couldn’t find bear claws on the menu, but were told that it is still on the children’s menu, which of course Tom and George no longer qualify for.

Yesterday I went for a guided snowshoe walk.  We climbed part of the way up Mount Fairview (to the left of the photograph) and then played in some powder.  I had been concerned about falling down and whether I would hurt my hips.  I shouldn’t have worried.  I fell down in the powder, slid along on my bum for a few yards before I got enough grip to stand up and really rather enjoyed myself.  So much so that I didn’t concentrate as much as before and fell down a second and a third time, after which I remembered that I really don’t like snow going up my back and remembered to concentrate.

ImageSuch elegance!

ImageThe view from the powder.  The silence was palpable.

Inevitably on the last day of the year, my thoughts have turned to the year that’s about to end and its high and low points.  This year, because of the return to Lake Louise, I’ve also been thinking about our previous visits here.  As I was snowshoeing yesterday, I was thinking about my only previous attempt, with Helen, alongside the lake.  Naively we had thought that we’d walk to the glacier, but we then found out that it was further away than it seemed.  We were then slightly concerned that we might bump into a bear, abruptly awoken from hibernation and so decided to make as much noise as we could and scare away any putative bear attacks.  And then because Helen and Mum died within six weeks of each other, I’ve also been thinking about Grandma, and of course Papa.

Hogmanay in Northallerton was always celebrated thoroughly and I have really happy memories of going to the Wellington Heifer pub in Ainderby Steeple, and then going back to No. 11 to see in the New Year and for my brother to first foot.  First footing is a Scottish tradition and belief that the first person to cross your threshold in the New Year determines the kind of luck the household will have in the new year.  Alastair would have to leave the house before the stroke of midnight and then be the first to enter in the new year.   As a tall, dark man, he was much in demand for first-footing since blonds and women are considered unlucky!  Traditionally the first-foot brought gifts of coal or wood so that there would always be a fire burning (Lang may yer lum reek), and something to eat so that your pantry would never be empty.  This food was generally shortbread, that wonderful, often adulterated, Scottish delicacy and today’s recipe.  But before I give you the recipe, I would just give you some more memories that have been bouncing around in my head – Grandma doing the sword dance with crossed carving knives in the early hours of one 1st January; Alastair and my cousin Alan having a snowball fight in their shirt sleeves in Mowbray Road in the early hours of one 1st January; playing Mouse Trap in the early hours of January 1st; being the last car to drive down Sutton Bank before it was closed because of snow; and Scotch broth at no. 11 to sober you up and warm you up in the early hours of lots of 1st January/s.  So Happy New Year to you all – I hope that 2014 brings you health and contentment, that some of your wishes come true, and those of you who are related to me know how much I love and miss you all.  I will raise a toast to you at midnight and wish you

Slàinte mhath!

I asked Auntie Aileen a couple of weeks ago for her recipe for shortbread which is the same recipe that Nana used.  I have read that some people disagree with the use of rice flour since rice was never grown in Scotland.  I have checked the bible of Scottish recipes, F Marian McNeill’s, The Scots Kitchen, and her recipes also use rice flour (though in different proportions to those given to me by Auntie Aileen) and she regards it as essential for good shortbread.

Shortbread – Ingredients

  • 8 oz / 250 g rice flour
  • 8 oz / 250 g flour
  • 8 oz/ 250 g butter
  • 4 oz / 125 g castor sugar

Method

Heat oven to 325 F / 170 C / gas mark 3.

Mix butter and sugar together.  Sift the two flours together and add gradually to the butter and sugar.  Make sure that you don’t overwork or that it becomes oily.  The less kneading the better.  Shape the mixture into two rounds of about 8″ diameter, and press into a thickness of about 3/4″.  Bake for 45-60 mins until golden.  The shortbread will still be soft when taken out of the oven – leave to cool and it’ll crisp up.  When cold, wrap in greaseproof paper and put in an airtight tin.

Enjoy!

It’s Better Than The Alternative

I cannot count the number of times I heard Grandma say ‘It’s better than the alternative’ when someone complained about getting older.  And, you know what, she’s right – getting older is better than the alternative!  Today is my birthday and I can’t believe that I am most definitely in my mid-50s.  Where did the years go?  Have I really been with Dad for almost 31 years?  And don’t get me started with the fact that all of my sons are adults, and have been for a while now.  The thing that most concerns me though is, when will I feel grown up?  I know I’m grown up because of the way other people treat me, but I got an email today from Gill, someone I have known since we were 6.  Gill wished me happy birthday and brought me up to date on her news, telling me that she is thinking of retiring in a couple of years.  That one sentence made me stop – how can one of my direct contemporaries be retiring, even if it is a few years before standard retirement age?  I don’t feel any different.  I probably think differently – experience and more money have to change your thought process.  I certainly look different.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe that’s all that growing up is?  A wee bit of experience and an aged and ageing body?

It has taken me a long time to think of the recipe I’d like to share.  After all, it’s my day and therefore my favourite recipe!  As you all know and as I’ve written often enough, I really enjoy soup.  Soup with warm bread and butter; soup with croutons; soup with a sandwich; soup.  All are good.  My favourite soup is probably Scotch Broth but today’s recipe comes a close second.  I made it a lot and I probably never made it exactly the same way twice.  Grandma used to make it a lot too and again I doubt if it she ever followed a recipe.  Today’s recipe is Leek and Potato Soup.  I did once follow a recipe for Vichysoissoise (French leek and potato soup which is traditionally served chilled), but I was immediately put off by the fact that you are only supposed to use the white part of the leek, which meant that a lot of the leek was going to be wasted.  Grandma once served vichyssoise chilled during the summer, and my brother’s comment on sitting down to eat it was ‘I’ve come all the way from Aberdeen and you can’t even heat up the soup?’.  Anyway, here is a recipe that is very close to what I usually do when I make Leek and Potato Soup.

Leek and Potato Soup – Ingredients

  • 450 g / 1 lb leeks, trimmed, washed carefully (they harbour mud) and sliced
  • 1 large onion, peeled and sliced
  • 50 g / 2 oz butter
  • Pinch of mace, probably one blade
  • 450 g / 1 lb potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 liter / 2.2 pints / 44 fl oz vegetable or chicken stock
  • 250 ml / 1/2 pt creme fraiche
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter.  Cook the leek and onion until soft.  Add the mace and potatoes and cook gently for about five minutes.  Add the stock.  Bring to the boil.  Simmer until all the vegetables are soft.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool.  Liquidise or blend.  If you like, you don’t have to blend – Papa liked his soup unblended.   Return to pan.  Add creme fraiche and reheat – do not boil.  Season to taste.

This is best served with a few drops of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.

Enjoy!

Twice Cooked?

In the UK, we use the word ‘biscuit’ to mean something small (usually), crispy (often) that is made from flour, sugar and fat and has been baked in the oven.  The name however means ‘twice cooked’ and derives from the days when the mixture was cooked first as a log; then removed from the oven, sliced and baked again.  This is how biscotti (twice cooked) are baked even now, but the name has stuck even when the method has changed.  In the US, biscuit means something that is very similar to our plain scone.  Biscuits are served with all meals, particularly breakfast, and are often a part of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  As I mentioned last week, the biscuits baked by Jimmy’s mum, Agnes, were the nicest I have ever tasted.  She says this is because she makes them with buttermilk, which was literally the milk leftover when making butter.  Buttermilk is acidic and acts as a raising agent.

I am up to my oxters in preparation for my final Spanish lesson tonight.  I have written my speech but need to make sure that I can say it clearly and show that I know how to use a subjunctive.  So today’s post is short but very sweet.  Agnes has sent me her recipe and I am giving it to you in her words.  Cups are imperial cups.

Agnes’ Biscuits – Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Stir butter into dry ingredients until coarse crumbs form.  Add milk all at once.  Stir until dough follows fork around bowl.  Knead ½ minute.  Roll into 3/8 inch rounds.  Brush with melted butter.  Bake at 450 degrees for about twelve minutes.
  • I usually don’t use salt if the butter is salted. 
  • Enjoy!

Mulling Things Over

Christmas is coming and I’m so excited!  A week today, Andrew and Hallie will be with us and we will have the weekend together before I go back to London on the Monday, and they go to Chicago to visit family.   I have been a mother for 32 Christmases and there have only been three where I haven’t had all four of you with me – 2006 (when we went to Australia for a wedding but Andrew didn’t want to go); 2009 (when Tom was in Rajasthan); and this year.  I feel very lucky.

Once Thanksgiving was over, it was officially Christmas here and even though Black Friday and Cosmic Monday are over, there are still many offers to tempt the shopper.   I no longer read the emails from my favourite stores – deleting them immediately removes temptation.  Shops are playing Christmas songs non-stop and I am very grateful that I don’t have to work in one of them.  I would be climbing the walls by the second day.  There are several Christmas markets around Manhattan and Dad and I visited the one in Union Square last Sunday.  These are based on the German markets and are similar to those which have started to appear in London too.   The choice of things on offer is great, but expensive, I think.  We bought our last Christmas present (for Minnie) and I’m feeling rather smug about that.  There are also food stalls with delicious offerings and hot cider and hot wine (neither contain any alcohol) and whilst they looked and smelled lovely, we didn’t partake.

My friend, Anne, works for the Danish Seamen’s Mission in Brooklyn, a converted brownstone which is used as a church and community centre for the Danes in this area.  A couple of weekends ago, they had their annual Christmas fair.  I was surprised to learn that this is their main fundraiser because in Denmark there are no collections taken during the service.  ‘It’s not a very Danish thing’ I was told.  The pastor’s salary is paid by the Danish government but all other expenses have to be covered from essentially this two day fair.  Danish companies in the States donate goods which are sold at way under the market rate, and other companies donate traditional sweets and Christmas decorations, calendars and cards which would otherwise be impossible to find.  We bought a Bodum tea pot in anticipation of Ellie’s and then Suzy’s visit next year, and a Bodum bread knife.   I also bought a tin of those Danish Butter Biscuits for Matt and Marc.  I hadn’t realised that Bodum is a Danish company and was very pleased with my purchases.  Unlike last weekend’s fair, the gløgg (hot wine) was alcoholic and very good it was too.  It’s much less sweet than the mulled wine I’ve had in the UK, and Suzy told me that this is the kind of hot wine served in Finland too, so we’re assuming it’s a pan-Scandinavian thing.

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This Christmas tree is in Fulton Market, which used to be a fish market and is very near to our apartment block.  The fish market used to be open 24 hours a day and, towards the end of the 19th century, people went there to eat oysters after an evening out giving rise to the statement that New York is the city that never sleeps.  This area was very badly damaged during Sandy and the recovery is slow.  The tree is next to a small skating rink but whilst I like to support local businesses, I won’t be going on the rink.  I was useless at skating before the hip replacements and there’s no reason to think that that will have changed!

So today’s recipe is courtesy of Anne and is Gløgg.  This will serve 10-15 people.

Gløgg – Ingredients

  • 5 sticks cinnamon
  • 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut in thin slices
  • 20 whole cloves
  • 25 cardamom pods
  • 2 tsp dried coriander
  • 30 peppercorns
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 lbs raisins
  • 2 1/2 cups rum
  • 1 bottle port
  • 3 bottles red wine (no need to spend a fortune on it but it should be on the fuller side)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 1/2 to 1 lb of almond splinters
  • 2 cups of vodka
  • Sugar to taste

One week before the party, create an extract by combining the cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom pods, coriander, peppercorns and water.  Bring to the boil, then let it cool down and sit covered for 4 to 5 days.

Mix the rum and port together in another container, add the raisins and soak for 5 days. (Note: don’t use aluminum containers for storing this.)

Day of the party, strain the extract through a sieve and put it in a large pot along with the zest of one orange and the zest of one lemon. Simmer for 2 minutes.

Pour in the three bottles of red wine and heat it without boiling.

Add the vodka, the raisins with liquid and the almonds.  Add sugar to taste (not too sweet but not too sour).  Serve hot with spice cookies (I will have to ask Anne for this recipe!).

Enjoy!

Philadelphia Freedom

Philly is to my mind a much-maligned city.  Last week I was told by my friend that it was obvious I wasn’t American because I had said ‘I’m very much looking forward to spending Thanksgiving in Philly’.   I would like it on record that I did defend Philly quite vigorously.  There are some unsafe parts of Philly, just as there are in most large cities (metropolitan Philly has a population of over 4 million), and like many western cities it has declined in recent years.  However, from an historical and architectural point of view it is incredibly interesting.  This is the city where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, and Independence Hall (the former Philadelphia State House where both documents were signed) is well worth a visit.

We have watched the political situation in this country over the past couple of years with increasing incredulity.  We were both well aware of the system of checks and balances put in place by the Founding Fathers, but it seemed unbelievable to us that a handful of people could bring government to a total halt.  Having visited the National Constitution Center and read the history of how the Constitution was discussed and drafted, after it became clear that the then prevailing Articles of Confederation were not working, I now have a much better appreciation of the hope in which the Constitution was drafted, and how the Founding Fathers believed that it wasn’t a perfect document, but that it was one which could be amended over time to suit the needs of this new country.  I’m sure that current claims that the words they wrote are ‘God given’ would have surprised them, particularly since many of the Founding Fathers were very critical of Christian dogma.

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The room where both documents were signed, and where the Constitution was discussed and drafted.

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George Washington’s chair – Benjamin Franklin was unsure during the discussions whether the United States would survive, and at the end he said had watched the sun on this chair, unsure whether the sun was setting or rising on the new country.

Philadelphia has many other claims to fame.  At one time it had the only Catholic church in the British Empire where people could attend Mass openly.  It has the oldest Methodist church in the world, and the Jewish community was trading in Pennsylvania before William Penn was granted the land.  All in all we had a wonderful time.  Apart from the superb Thanksgiving spread, we ate in two marvellous restaurants, Kanella, a Greek Cypriot BYO, and Han Dynasty, a Szechuan restaurant which has just opened a branch in New York (and very excited I am too).

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Dad doesn’t like this photo but it’s the only one I have of the Thanksgiving table

Anyway, as promised, here are Jimmy’s two recipes.  The measurements are in Imperial cups.  The first, I think, will particularly appeal to Andrew!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding – Ingredients

(serves 8)

  • 8 oz French bread, torn into small pieces, about 5 cups
  • 2 cups half-and-half, or half milk and half cream
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup dried raisins (or cranberries or combo of both)
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • cinnamon sugar

Method

Butter an 11×7-inch baking dish.  Heat oven to 350° F / 180 C.

In a bowl, cover the torn bread with the half-and-half; set aside.

In another bowl, combine eggs, sugars, pumpkin, cranberries, melted butter, spices, and vanilla; blend well.  Pour pumpkin mixture over soaked bread and stir to blend.

Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle top with cinnamon-sugar, if desired. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until set.

Serve with a vanilla dessert sauce or brown sugar sauce, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream.

Remoulade Sauce

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Creole whole-grain mustard
3 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
3 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process for 30 seconds.  Use immediately or store.  Will keep for several days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Enjoy!

Get Stuffed

Last week as pretty much everyone knows was Thanksgiving, probably the only holiday which is celebrated by Americans of all beliefs, ages and hues.  The original Thanksgiving was essentially a harvest festival where early settlers shared their bounty with the local natives, who did likewise with the settlers.  The enjoyment of the holiday has undoubtedly been aided by the fact that it’s held on a Thursday and many people take the Friday off and so have a four-day weekend.   Traditionally turkey is served but the accompaniments seem to vary according to region and/or heritage.

Dad and I went to Philadelphia on Thursday morning and stayed there until early evening on Saturday.  We had an absolutely splendid time.  We joined Jimmy and his extended family for the Thanksgiving meal, and I can say that I have never seen so much food on a table.  So much food that I wasn’t able to see or taste every dish!  Before the turkey, we had two types of prawns – griddled Cajun prawns with Jimmy’s home-made remoulade sauce, and steamed prawns with a tomato sauce.  All was excellent.  For my Thanksgiving meal, I had roast turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy and two (yup I had a second one because they were fantastically light) biscuits, the American biscuit which is closer to a plain scone.  For pudding, there was pumpkin pie, blueberry pie, cherry pie and pumpkin bread pudding – I had a slice of cherry pie and some pumpkin bread pudding.

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The cherry pie before I took my slice – Jimmy’s mum, Agnes, made the pastry and it was beautifully light and crispy.

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My slice of cherry pie – you may well wonder how I ate all this after everything I ate before.  I have no idea either!

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Here is the proof I cleared my plate.

Jimmy has already sent me the recipes for his remoulade sauce and the pumpkin bread pudding and I will upload these soon.  I am waiting for Agnes’ recipe for biscuits.  Agnes told me that her mother arrived in Philly from Ireland at the age of 20, and became a cook for one of the wealthy families.  Her mother never used a recipe book and knew her recipes by heart.  The biscuit recipe is her mother’s recipe which Agnes learned from watching her.  Again, when I have that recipe I will upload it.

It was lovely to be part of this family celebration and I started thinking about our traditional meals.  Obviously it is now December and Christmas is much on my mind.  We have goose rather than turkey now in our family, but eat the accompaniments which are more often served with turkey.  I know that mashed potato is the traditional stuffing for goose, but it is far too heavy for me on Christmas Day, and also doesn’t seem special enough for this celebration.  Dad and I have also been trying to cut down the number of extras so that we don’t have too many leftovers.  This started when we went away one Boxing Day and also I suppose as we got more health conscious. I used to make two different stuffings, sausage meat and today’s recipe, Grandma’s Sweetcorn and Lemon Stuffing.  Grandma told me that she made up this stuffing because she found sausage meat stuffing quite fatty and she wanted something to counter the richness of the meal.  The stuffing can be put inside the cavity of the turkey or a chicken, but I prefer it either as stuffing balls or cooked in a dish.  Quantities are approximate because, like Agnes with the biscuits, I learned to make it by watching Grandma.

Grandma’s Sweetcorn and Lemon Stuffing – Ingredients

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, de-stringed and finely chopped
  • a knob of butter
  • Small tin of sweetcorn
  • Half a loaf of stale brown bread made into breadcrumbs
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh parsley, washed and chopped

Method

Melt the butter gently in a pan, and add the onion and celery.  Cook over low heat until translucent.  Take off the heat.

Add the strained sweetcorn, breadcrumbs and chopped parsley.  Stir.  Add 2 tbsp of lemon juice.  Taste.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  You may want to add more lemon juice or even more butter if the balls aren’t sticking together, but resist unless it’s absolutely necessary.  I find that squeezing the mixture makes it stick together well enough!

Make the mixture into balls, about the size of a golfball, and put onto a baking sheet.  Cover with foil.  These will take about 15 mins to cook in the same oven as the turkey or chicken.  Remove the foil about 5 mins from the end of the cooking time so that the stuffing balls don’t look anaemic!

Enjoy!