A Persnickety Christmas

Lobster Joy12 Screaming babies, 11 awkward pat-downs, 10 long delays, 9…okay okay, you get the idea. Traveling at the holidays isn’t exactly fun. Mechanical failures and belligerent passengers seem to be relentless fixtures of my travel experience, but I soldier on as best I can. For Christmas, it’s the white snow and frigid temperatures of Madison, WI that I return to. And although I’ve only lived in DC for two and a half years, my stalwart Midwestern endurance of cold has utterly vanished. It was COLD. Luckily, most of our activities were inside (after successfully convincing my mother to turn up the heat to…wait for it…a balmy 68 degrees), and involved a lot of baking and cooking.

There were two big meals to prepare for, and although it was only my brother, my mom and myself, we went all out! My brother, as usual, was the brave leader in our culinary endeavors. For Christmas Eve, it was to be the Feast of Seven Fishes (we only managed five, but that’s beside the point), and for Christmas Day–roast lamb. Christmas Eve went swimmingly (get it – fishes…swimmingly…ha!), but there was some major drama for the Christmas Day meal. Our brains must have been addled by the meal the night before. But, I think you’ll understand why….

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian Christmas celebration that generally consists of seven seafood dishes. Dane, in normal fashion, marched into the seafood market with my credit card and emerged with $70 worth of lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, and monkfish. I admit, I was hesitant about all this fish…give me a nice piece of salmon anyday, but this feast was a real departure from my norm. But I converted quickly. What came next was a beautiful shrimp and lobster platter with homemade cocktail sauce, and a lobster risotto topped with a hefty piece of monkfish and surrounded by a broth of clams and mussels. Delicious!

Shrimp & Lobster platterRisotto with MonkfishWe finished the evening with my mother’s profiteroles and a viewing of Scrooge. There’s a running joke about how long it takes for one of us (or all of us) to fall asleep during this movie–whether we’ll make it all the way through the Ghost of Christmas Present to see the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Future or fall asleep somewhere in the middle. Well, I failed miserably this year and barely made it out of the scene with Jacob Marley at the beginning of the movie! (Watch it, kids – great stuff!)

Christmas in WI

Christmas morning was lovely, with the snow sparkling in the dazzling sun. We had apple muffins, cookies and tea and unwrapped our gifts together. In afternoon, we commenced our preparations for the big meal: roasted lamb with brussels sprout/cauliflower gratin (a repeat from Thanksgiving because it’s so good) and a beautiful salad with pomegranate, pecans, and blue cheese. Since we were roasting the lamb, we had set it on a roasting rack in a glass dish in the oven at a temperature of 425 degrees. About 25 minutes in (and with our brussels sprouts and cauliflower roasting in their own pans), my brother decided to add some broth to the meat. Warning: do not pour cold broth into a glass baking dish in a 425 degree oven. Why, you ask? Because the dish will shatter into a million pieces, that’s why! It’s true folks, the dish verifiably exploded and we were left picking pieces of (tempered – thank goodness, no shards for us) glass out of the oven and the cauliflower for a good 30 minutes. Luckily, no one panicked too much (and we can’t just go out for Chinese, since I can’t actually eat it), and we ended up popping everything back in the oven. Surprisingly, everything was perfectly cooked!

Roast LambSalad and GratinChristmas Day always ends with Cassata cake, a Sicilian cake that we’ve made every year since…well…since I started forming memories of eating good food! It was a great spread, and we were delighted to be eating leftovers in various ways for the rest of the visit! I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and are living it it up in 2013!!

Vacation Series Part I: The North Woods

I may be back in DC, writing this post from a rooftop with a view of the National Cathedral (not too shabby, eh?), but my heart is back at the lake, basking in the serenity of the water. Presque Isle was the destination for the first part of my vacation—a tiny town nestled amidst the hundreds of lakes of Wisconsin. My mother’s best friend invited us to stay with her and a goofy, loyal Golden Doodle named Manfred.

In preparation for the 3 day stay, and the laughably understocked “supermarkets” (gas stations) of the North Woods, my mother and I went to the Madison Farmers Market to get our share of fantastic fresh produce and cheese. The Madison Market is perhaps the market of all markets, and packs the four immense blocks of Capitol Square. Suffice it to say, we loaded up on veggies of all kinds and a certain sheep’s milk cheese that’s hard for me to even talk about.

Tradition demands that after our tour of the market, we head to a bakery on Madison’s East Side, where I have never NOT gotten a scone. Lazy Jane’s is known for their baked goods, and we may or may not have picked up a morning bun in addition to a lemon cream and a cherry scone. A four-hour drive requires sustenance, you know. The scones there are criminally moist, and break apart into chunks of heaven, dribbled with a tangy lemon cream glaze. Some of my best memories from Madison are set in that funky little café—tackling a crossword with my high school boyfriend, catching up with my best friend on her acting adventures in New York, and just sitting with my mom, talking about trifles while sipping a latté and eating those scones. You go home for a reason, you know.

But this visit to Lazy Jane’s was brief, as we had to set out on our little road trip, accompanied by a stodgy British man, narrating the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery (in CD form, obviously). My expectations of jumping in the lake immediately upon arrival, however, were squashed when we finally got out of the car, only to be almost blown over by the brisk wind. No matter—if getting out of the DC heat meant bundling up in three sweaters to read 1Q84 on the dock, watching the sunset over the water, then so be it!

Despite its vast amenities, the lake house lacks a TV, a solid internet connection, and cell service. We reveled in it.

We read and talked, played tag with Manfred, and made gallons of tea and chai. And we ate. We made pizzas on the pizza-stone my mom brought along, fried up heavenly Nueske’s bacon for our BLT’s (or rather, BATs, since we used fresh arugula from the market), roasted orange beets and covered them with sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, mint and thyme, and baked a massive blueberry buckle with lemon glaze. We also made a pan of brownies, but as my mother has a strange tendency to take a perfectly delicious recipe (Smitten Kitchen’s cocoa brownies), and omit various ingredients…they came out more like a very dense fudge.

It was a glorious few days up at the lake house, albeit chilly ones. I read about700 pages of a 900 page book (Kindles only deal in percentages, but raw numbers are much more satisfying), played with a giant dog, and thoroughly enjoyed catching up with my mom.

It was a bitter goodbye, but only a 2-hour flight and 4-hour bus ride to my next destination…New York!

Stay tuned for Part II!