"Pine Cones and Holly Berries"

Holiday baking, for me, often conjures up thoughts of visiting my college boyfriend's house for Thanksgiving. His family lived in a colonial Saltbox overlooking a lake outside a picturesque village in Upstate New York. There was always snow; proper deep drifts of the stuff thanks to "lake effect." Inside, the furnishings from centuries ago made the experience of winter itself seem like it too had come from another time. But what really made the visits memorable was the way my boyfriend's mom, knowing how much I loved to cook, made me feel at home by encouraging me to take over the kitchen, which I did rather happily.

This gesture was especially kind since she hardly needed help with the cooking. Although she was full of self-depreciating commentary on her culinary skills, she was actually a rather fantastic cook. Most visits resulted in at least one or two great recipe discoveries.

The Cranberry Turtle Bars pictured above is one such treasure. She made them after spotting them in Gourmet one year. Consider yourself warned, they are deceptively good.

They're the sort of sweet you pick up offhandedly, not expecting much; likely giving them a go in the name of the season, since that token holiday berry was thrown into mix. But half-way into your first bite you find your tongue melting into a decadent sweet-tart-salty-fruity-nutty-buttery confection you already want more of; it hits every mark. Holiday season or not, you make these bars because they are mouthwateringly-addictive; the fact that they feature the iconic berry is just a plus.

It's been years since I've been to that cozy house on the lake. But most of my fondest cooking memories are still those that took place in that tiny, borrowed kitchen. Fortunately, with the right recipe, I'm able to revisit it.

My recipe changes and alterations: You're supposed to garnish this with melted chocolate drizzle, but goodness, they're already so incredibly rich and complex, I hardly think they need it. So I leave it out. Also, instead of just pecans, I used a combination of pecans, walnuts, and salted almonds to give the bars more variety and texture.

Cranberry Turtle Bars

For base
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
For topping
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (not thawed; 63/4 oz), coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups pecans (12 oz), toasted and cooled, then coarsely chopped

For decoration
2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), very finely chopped

Special equipment: a candy thermometer

Make base:
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Line a 15- by 10-inch shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the 2 short sides. Butter all 4 sides (but not bottom).

Blend flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor, then add butter and pulse until mixture begins to form small (roughly pea-size) lumps. Sprinkle into baking pan, then press down firmly all over with a metal spatula to form an even layer. Bake in middle of oven until golden and firm to the touch, 15 to 17 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack.

Make topping:
Melt butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel registers 245°F on thermometer, about 8 minutes. Carefully stir in cranberries, then boil until caramel returns to 245°F. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, then stir in pecans until well coated. Working quickly, spread caramel topping over base, using a fork to distribute nuts and berries evenly. Cool completely.

Cut and decorate bars:
Lift bars in foil from pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 6 crosswise strips, then 6 lengthwise strips to form 36 bars.

Melt half of chocolate in top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and add remaining chocolate, stirring until smooth. Transfer chocolate to a small heavy-duty sealable plastic bag. Seal bag and snip off a tiny piece of 1 corner to form a small hole, then pipe chocolate decoratively over bars. Let stand at room temperature until chocolate sets, about 1 hour.

Makes 3 dozen bars.

A Funeral in Winter

I felt like such a voyeur taking this picture. But it hit me so hard, I felt compelled to do so.

There I was, driving my car, awash in happy holiday cheer, when I glanced to my left and this scene slapped me across the face. A cemetery with a newly constructed altar and a small group standing before it.

You can understand why I went cold. It was so horribly out of place. People gathered around a grave, paying their last respects, don't belong in a world that's singing Christmas carols and bustling about buying gifts. January is the time for dying. All the statistical evidence backs this up. There's a rash of deaths after Christmas and New Year's; people are supposed to hold out. One last Christmas Eve savoring a lit tree, one last Christmas morning watching gleeful faces unwrap presents, one final countdown to midnight. You're supposed to make it to the new year. You don't go dying in the midst of all the merriment when the rest of the world can't share in your loved ones' grief.

And maybe that's why I took the picture. As a reminder that it doesn't matter what's supposed to happen or what the statistics say, death doesn't play by the rules. People do die before Christmas.

The Light Underbelly of Gingerbread

And what, may I ask, is so wrong with "light" recipes? Some people seem to have such an aversion to them. Like they're are all destined to be ghastly and taste like cardboard. I happen not to be one of those people. Granted, I tend to eat on the healthier side, but this doesn't mean I'm without a discerning palate. I generally believe one should eat well or not at all. On more than one occasion I have turned up my nose to some gas-station-procured-snack in favor of starvation.

So with that bit of background as your backdrop, I give you light gingerbread from Cooking Light's Gingerbread People Recipe. (Ha! Gingerbread "People" - how PC of them. But how awkward it seems it would be to offer someone a gingerbread "person.") No matter, I whipped the dough into cute little blue-frosted angels. Tasty! And the recipe worked well enough that a week later I made another batch into Gingerbread House Fronts for a cookie decorating party. I assure you, the palates at this party ran the gamut, and not a one asked if they were "light."

My recipe changes and alterations: I almost always sneak wheat flour into a recipe and this was no exception. I used about 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup wheat. I can never be bothered to chill something in the refrigerator for the proper length of time, so I popped the dough into the freezer for about 15 minutes. And because I like my gingerbread (people and otherwise) slightly soft, I reduced the cooking time to about 7.5 to 8 minutes. Perfecto!

Gingerbread People Recipe

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (about 10 ounces)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup molasses
1 large egg

To prepare cookies, lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 7 ingredients (through cloves) in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk.
Place granulated sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth and well blended. Add molasses and egg; beat until well blended. Stir flour mixture into sugar mixture until well blended. Divide dough in half; shape each dough portion into a flat disk. Wrap dough portions separately in plastic wrap; chill 1 hour or until firm.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Remove 1 dough portion from refrigerator; remove plastic wrap. Roll dough to a 1/8-inch thickness on a floured surface. Cut with a 3-inch boy or girl cookie cutter. Place cookies 1/2 inch apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Repeat procedure with remaining dough portion. Bake at 350° for 11 minutes or until edges of cookies are lightly browned. Remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks.

Yield: About 5 dozen cookies (serving size: 1 cookie)

CALORIES 56(14% from fat); FAT 0.9g (sat 0.5g,mono 0.2g,poly 0.1g); PROTEIN 0.6g; CHOLESTEROL 6mg; CALCIUM 10mg; SODIUM 27mg; FIBER 0.2g; IRON 0.4mg; CARBOHYDRATE 11.5g


Oh, there's nothing like a steaming cup of coffee hitting winter air. Such a complementary pair! And to me, it's not Christmas till Silk Nog joins organic skim milk in my mug. Ahhhhh . . . can't you just taste it? It's Christmas in a cup!

Where Is Bohemia Anyway?

The best thing about Bohemia, I think, is that unlike so many other great and romanticized places that have enchanted idealists and captured imaginations (think Camelot, think Narnia), is that Bohemia is a physical place you can venture to as much as it is a state of mind. "Bohemia" is actually the western region of what is currently the Czech Republic - the locals in the area still refer to their homeland as Bohemia - which I know since that's where much of my father's side of the family still resides.

For centuries Bohemia's capital Praha (Prague) was Europe's intellectual center and the world's most promising artists and scholars found their calling and place in the city. Bohemia was also was notorious for spawning the sort of ideas and movements that fueled political dissent - (part of) the reason "Bohemian" has become synonymous with those who live on the fringes of society living according to a more romantic and less-acceptable code than what you'll find among the mainstream.

For those of us who are predisposed, genetically or otherwise, to live a little off-the-grid in accordance with romantic notions and wandering ways that sometimes make the crowds raise eyebrows... well, I frankly find it lovely to know there's a land to which I can pilgrimage - a few acres of earth where castles still stand and gargoyles blink, where gypsies in caravans laugh at the sunflowers and high waters and those people who merely dip their toes into travel while lugging around their fearful need for solid things; a preserved boulevard of medieval cities where I can sojourn and be penetrated by the air steeped in hauntings - clammy with the residue of dead people, especially those with strong characters, and absolutely reeking of all things ether-worldy; a once-upon-a-time country, a Brigadoon where the balls of my feet can meet cobblestones and fields of wildflowers as I take deep breaths and think "yes, this bewitching world is where a part me came from, where certain chambers in my soul long to be and - when the moon is just right - where I sometimes belong."

First Post

To Do List:

1. Start a blog.
2. Figure out my life.