A) Spend a much-needed week away from the never-ending hoopla of the Gotham City, away from emails, phones and must dos.
B) Wear nothing but PJs and fur slippers, drink tea next to the fireplace, burn gigantic fires, and occasionally toast a marshmallow or two.
C) Do all forms of hard work, e.g. ski, sled, skate on the lake, hike, make snowmen and clean the driveway, in order to justify the obscene amounts of food and wine we brought with us.
Not a bad thought process at all, except that there was a glitch in the plan and we did not account for global warming. Yes, it appears that such thing exists and we are now faced with the reality of the unfrozen lake and mud covered slopes of the Whiteface Mountain. In the absence of snow, the blue end of the spectrum has taken over the lake, both in terms of mood, and in terms of scenery. The little town, which, once upon a time used to be the premier ski center of the North East, now resembles a quiet fishing village. This promises to be blue Christmas. In every sense of the word.
The absence of outdoor activities is leaving me with all the time in the world. Having a lot of spare time is a new feeling, and I am resolute to spend it wisely. I start by training my right hand not to touch the cell phone every two point five nanoseconds, and my office-self not to feel guilty about being away from the Inbox for what feels like a decade, but is really less than one day. But we all know that time is relative... On a positive side, I am equipped with about two dozen books, January issue of Food & Wine, eight latest New Yorkers, three notebooks with culinary notes, colored pencils, doodle pad, iPad, two cameras and a tripod. On a negative side, this would have been the perfect opportunity to savor Harold McGee, but that's the only book from our library I did not think of bringing, and now feel as if I have nothing to read and nothing else to do but bake cookies and think what to make for dinner.
Some more positive developments from the blue period:
#1 We broke the world record in cookie baking. "When in despair, bake a cookie or two," my aunt Margita used to say, and that mantra carried us to the new level of achievement, because in the first three snowless days we made about a dozen or so different cookies. I made Vanilice, to honor the Food52 win, and because in my lands it's the perfect Christmas cookie. The Greek gang respectfully let me do it, but then Grandma Ritsa, Kika's mom, rebounded and baked her legendary melomakarona, because in the Greek lands melomakarona is an alternative word for Christmas. Ritsa presumably uses a recipe by the chef Vangelis Drisas, but only in theory. In practice she does her own black magic, which includes infusing the syrup with cinnamon sticks, making two times the amount specified in the recipe and dousing the melomakarona for much longer than specified. These are only a couple of tricks I picked up from the years of snooping; the rest still eludes me. I hope that in another five Christmases together, I would get to the bottom of the issue and share the secret with you. Ritsa also threw a pan of kourabiedes into the mix. I contributed two pans of fig and rosemary cocktail cookies. The cookies are based on the outstanding Dorie Greenspan's recipe for tarragon and apricot cookies, which appeared long time ago in Food & Wine. I fell in love the moment I baked them. The cookies made me think of all other combinations of dried fruits and herbs. Date and rosemary, fig and rosemary, cranberry and rosemary, pineapple and lemon verbena, mango and lemon thyme, just to name a few possibilities -- all magnificent, due to the ingeniousness of Dorie's basic recipe. A bit sweet and a bit savory, somewhat rustic with a touch of elegance, these cookies are a great opening for a cocktail party and a perfect ending to a heavy dinner when a chocolate cake is a bit too much and one needs just a touch of sweetness and a sip of port to toast to the ending of a great meal. And they go so well with cheese! Speaking of which -- our "mountain" fridge is stocked with so many different cheeses, one gets cholesterol from just thinking about it. There is Parmesan, Asiago, Sardinian Pecorino and Gorgonzola Dolce. Then, there is the very special Formaggio di Castagna, an exquisite goat cheese aged in chestnut leaves, woodsy, pungent and weirdly aromatic. On the opposite side of the cheese spectrum is the fresh ricotta from Di Palo, sweet and almost cloudlike. And that's only the selection from the Italian side of the fridge. A couple of inches away, in the "Greek teritory", we have Graviera Kritis, Graviera Metsovou, and many types of excellent Greek fetas. Somewhere in between, there is an aged Manchego and some pretty, damn good seven-year aged cheddar from Quebec. Due to concerns that cheese supplies will trump the demand, I was forced to whip up a couple of rounds of Anna May's cheese sables from Food52. Production baking in Adirondacks is an interesting experience, because we do not have the fancy Kitchen Aid stand mixer, there is only a tiny old-fashioned hand device, just like the one my mom used back home, the one I grew up with and kept using until the day I crossed the ocean. With every turn of the whiskers I get whipped down the memory lane, and suddenly, Mom is in the kitchen, standing next to me, and we have a mighty glorious time. This, needless to say, is yet another reason to bake even more cookies, hence Alice Medrich's hazelnut and olive oil sticks (I am very passionate about cookies with olive oil), three gingerbread houses, and Vasilopita -- the Greek New Year's cake.
#2 Speaking of gingerbread houses. God bless the Nordic Ware folks, because their gingerbread house bundt pan is one big no-stick miracle. The recipe that comes with it is pretty solid too and it provided us with an excellent starting point for many exciting variations.
#3 In the Lake Placid bookstore (which by the way is the cutest little bookstore ever, a serious contender for "You've Got Mail" sequel, and a must see if you ever visit the area) I found the most illuminating postcard. "Life begins where comfort zone ends," it says. A profound observation and I will consider it for the inclusion into my list of New Year's resolutions. On the way back from the store, we took off our winter boots and bravely dipped our toes into the freezing waters of the (sadly) unfrozen Mirror Lake. See, I am already acting on my New Year's resolutions. Could this be a new beginning?
#4 Not really a positive development, but might constitute a scientific discovery: In the midst of the baking frenzy I discovered that Achilles's oven defies the laws of physics and bakes faster on the upper rack than the lower one. Anyone with the insight into this highly interesting phenomenon, can you please drop me a note?
#5 Another discovery is that, when mixed with scallion, the red rice stuffing from Kim O'Donnel's magical delicata boats, makes for a fabulous salad. We served it for our wedding anniversary (I will not tell you the number, because it is embarrassingly high), together with duck meatballs a l'orange, parsnip pure from Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, and a half bottle of a very special wine, which was our anniversary present to ourselves. I will not disclose the wine either, because it was embarrassingly expensive. Let's just say that: a) it's the only French wine with the title of Premier Cru Supérieur, b) it is seriously addictive, and c) goes like a charm with orange scented duck products.
#6 I might be experiencing obstacles in recreating Grandma Ritsa's melomakarons, but I totally nailed her sublime Greek lentil soup. Having spent an entire day peeking over her shoulder while she cooked, I am finally able to turn it into a recipe.
#7 We staged the most magnificent Christmas hunt, possibly the best in our five year old Christmas hunt tradition. It went like this. Master Achilles came into a possession of a vintage compass, and the tiny golden device ignited the spark of creativity. On the Christmas day the kids woke up to a mysterious letter written in glittery green ink. "On this glorious day of Christmas," the letter began, "I had promised to the best, a big treasure can be found if they follow my commands." The kids read with fervor. "To the sharp and thoughtful eye it will be easy to find, a golden compass for you to guide to my hidden spot on earth." (Where did Achilles come up with this stuff???) "Only smart and young and brave may touch this golden tool, cause it will lead you to ways far and dark and scary too... You will find your way by going EAST 17 only steps, to the cut tree stump." The compass and Achilles's genious took the kids all over the woods behind the house, until after about ten or so notes, and some adjustments in calculations because kids do not walk in straight lines, Miss Pain and Commander P stumbled upon a pile of rocks and "discovered the riches that hid behind."
#8 Speaking of kids... We are blessed with uncharacteristically quiet offspring this holiday. Kids have set up their teepees around the house, and like proper Indians, are spending all the time inside. They leave only when it's time to eat. I am overcome with jealousy. I would like to have a teepee too, but cannot fit. Can I be a kid again? Or Peter Pan...
#9 In the absence of snow, I resorted to my marker and doodled some. I made the drawing into a placemat for brandied caramel milk -- our hot drink du jour. Even illustrated snow is better than no snow, especially when it comes with brandy.
And then, after four days of blue holiday the snow finally came. It was not a serious Lake Placid snow, but just about enough to paint the village in its signature white and cover the slopes. But, by then, we fell in love with our blue Christmas and barely noticed the change in scenery. We continued the blue rituals and barely went skiing once. Because hiking in the mud is so much more fun.
Happy New Year!!!
Gingerbread House Cake
* 2 3/4 cup (345 g) cake flour
* 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
* 1 tsp ground cloves
* 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
* 1 tsp salt
* 2 tsp baking powder
* 1 cup (230 g) butter, softened
* 1/2 cup (100 g) dark brown sugar
* 1/4 cup (50 g) maple syrup
* 4 eggs
* zest of two oranges
* 1 tsp fresh ginger grated on a microplane
* 2 tsp vanilla
* 1 1/4 cups (300 ml) orange juice
* 9-cup bundt pan, or 9-cup gingerbread house bundt pan
Heat the oven to 325F (165C). Butter the pan and dust with flour.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and ground spices. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Stir in eggs slowly, and continue to beat. Add orange zest, ginger and vanilla, and mix until well blended. Next add the orange juice and flour, alternating with small amounts of each as you add these ingredients, starting and ending with flour. Mix gently. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
Bake in preheated oven for about 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool in pan for 10-15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let it cool completely.
* 1 cup (1/2 lb) butter, softened
* 2 cups sugar
* 6 eggs
* 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
* zest of one orange
* zest of half lemon
* 3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
* 2 tsp baking powder
* 1/2 tsp baking soda
* 1/8 tsp salt
* 1 cup orange juice
* 1 tbsp lemon juice
* one 12-inch round pan
Heat the oven to 325F convection (350F regular). Butter the pan and dust with flour.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Stir in eggs slowly, one at the time while continuing to beat. Add orange zest, lemon zest, vanilla and lemon juice, and mix until well blended. Next add the orange juice and flour, alternating with small amounts of each as you add these ingredients, starting and ending with flour. Mix gently. Pour batter into the pan.
Bake in preheated oven for about 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool in pan for 10-15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let it cool completely. Before serving dust with powder sugar.