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I think we all love the holiday season for a different reason.  I am almost certain that I have scoured every corner of my brain thinking of all of the things that I love about winter time.  And, even after searching through the disheveled place that must be my mind; I still manage to remember even more things that I adore about this time of year as I experience and remember them. The following are my most cherished memories of the season:

  1. Snow. This has to be number one because it’s clearly the best.
  2. Cookies, candy canes, pies, sugar, endless sweets is there anything better?
  3. Family, even the crazy ones.
  4. Leaves. Someone said they’re welcoming in winter in seattle, I love them for that.
  5. Music. I’m a total sucker for anything holiday like, I love it when people sing with me
  6. Happiness, people are together, they are singing or talking of past holidays, everyone’s in a good mood.
  7. Cute winter coats, socks and pajamas.
  8. Christmas trees; the smell, picking them out, decorating them, having their lights on through the night, everything.

But I soon realized that my list was just that; it was my personal love of winter and the things that I thought it brought. Upon questioning my little brother his answer was completely different from mine.  He rattled off a list of video games that he had yet to play, and then replay, over the break, his eyes never once blinking away from our television screen.  I asked him if that was all the season’s magic was about; video-games?  The trance of the game ran through him, “it’s also about going to bed late, waking up late, good food and snow days to annoy you with.”  That was what I expected from him, he’s thirteen and his boyish tendencies are clearly present.

Daddy also replied differently, his gaze on his computer screen, never looking up at me.  Most days, I was pretty sure he wasn’t even listening to me.  So I asked him several times “what’s your favorite thing about December” my voice raising an octave and pitch with each pause between questions.  When I was finally screaming at him he paused, looked at me and glanced back at his computer.  This month for him has been stressful, we’re feeling the recession as I am sure most other families are.  He’s worried about mom and if he’s going to sell all of the cars on his lot.  Even though this years December has been hectic it will not re-define our holiday memories of joy.  In fact, I am almost certain that dad’s answer would be simple and short; snow.  His voice would get that sort of excited child-like quality as he imagined the slopes of Snoqualmie, and the back roads of Washington’s own little winter wonderland.  Years past we’ve always traveled to find our own snow.  Taking our old white Toyota who we called “baby beluga,” a smaller version of me, pudgy toddler sized brother and loving guard dog.  We’d sled down the little road ways and stop mid-day for the thermos packed hot chocolate that mom never forgot.  At the end of the day, four wet humans and an equally soggy dog would pile back into our adventure mobile and we’d head home to our tree and the warmth of a movie together.

Mom’s answer is what I expected; she’s tired of having kids home for two weeks.  My mom loves my brother and I but I think any mom who is raising a 16-year-old and 13-year-old at the same time would say the same thing.  She’s tired of my mess of a room, the messes I leave after baking, driving me everywhere on a whim, and cooking three meals a day.  But later that night I catch her alone on the couch; watching one of her favorite period pieces, I took my chance.  Cuddling up on the couch I begin my prying.  Giving way to my snuggling, the blanket wraps around the two of us and her mind’s thoughts unfold before me.  The tea kettle sounds, and her list begins.  She loves the smell of winter, the sight of lights (except of course those terrible “blue drippers”), seeing her parents more than usual, and the decorations.  Our house adorned in red and green is a tell-tale of her favorite festive colors of winter.  She also loves the holiday stories and the history behind each person’s traditions and their individual beliefs.  She loves that sort of thing; history and past memories.  So do I.

I love looking back on our scrapbooks of years past and the things that begin to classify our family’s holidays past.  Dad’s awkward beard and scratchy mustache, I vividly remember complaining about the scratchy kisses he would give.  Kisses between mom and dad, each looking at each-other in a bewilderment of love.  Baby brother stuck onto mom’s hip, his pudgy layers warm against her skin.  And me in the middle, wedging myself between any hug they would share.  I became slowly nostalgic for those holidays past.

Turning to my Kitchen Aid I intended to let it retell all that I was feeling.  Chocolate wafer thins with almond and vanilla filling.  They were mine to change and alter, into my own new holiday memory.  It was a simple recipe that I intended to change.  The chocolate dough was perfection cold, and interesting with the hint of my new caramel extract.  I could have chewed on the chilled dough all day, letting the flavors mix just enough to my liking.  But I was on an agenda, these cookies were not all mine; they were for my secret santa, M.  I’ve known her for years and we’ve shared quite a few holidays together.  There was the year of awkward braces and haircuts; when we decided to do something just the two of us.  Ice skating was our genius plan.  Not something I’ve ever been too good at due to my lack of coordination and balance but we we’re in it together falling as one and skating as one unit.  In the end, it wasn’t even our own doing that caused the great tumbles.  There were much smaller, younger kids on the rink too and these were no normal kids.  Like little scouts, each with their badges of honor they darted.  In between people, through legs and into people without warning when they just couldn’t stop themselves.  But, brushing ourselves off we went to our then favorite french restaurant, which we were sure was a secret that no one else knew of.  There we exchanged various gifts, each insignificant but spelled out our friendship towards each other.

So, M’s cookies couldn’t be just any cookie I’d ever made.  They required much more than the plain sugar cookies that I’d made earlier in the week for a school club’s holiday party.  I mulled over things she loved, rifling through the cupboard as I thought.  Almond extract.  We aren’t sure if it is completely normal but M, A and I are all obsessed with almond extract.  We love the way that it smells so good that you can almost imagine the taste in your mouth.  However, the actual taste of the plain extract is terrible.  The first time I tried it was a mistake, I was mixing it in when I thought it would be good to taste.  Wrong, but in the end the baked-in taste of the “almonds” was amazing.  I knew whatever I made now had to have that familiar taste of extract.  When I got to shaping the actual cookie base my head got the best of me.  I was imagining a sort of roll of Oreos, or wafers so the packaging looked as good as the treat inside tasted.

The final product was perfect.  The hard chocolate “wafer” layer was a casing to the sugar encased inside.  The cookies represented everything about the holidays.  On the inside, we all have different values and enjoyment that we bring from the season.  But it’s that outer shell, the all-encompassing blanket the wraps our memories into one thing; love and friendship.  Because that’s the underlying value to all these things, and as social beings we love that even once a year we get to be around the people we love the most.  The snow, video games and cookies are just things we enjoy doing with these people, I am almost certain that we wouldn’t love these things so much if it wasn’t for the people who made the memories with us.

So tonight, when many of us are preparing for Christmas and all it brings, or if you’ve already celebrated your holiday festivities ask yourself what’s it about this season that I love?  And maybe, share it with me, I’d love to hear your favorite things too!  Happy Holidays!

Adapted from:

Martha Stewart’s “Chocolate Wafer Sandwich Cookies”

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp Dutch process cocoa powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter (at room temp)

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp caramel extract

Whisk together flour, coca, baking powder & soda, and salt; set aside.  In an electric mixer, with a paddle attachment, beat butter and both sugars on medium speed; until light and fluffy.  Add the egg, vanilla and caramel; combine.  With mixer on a low-speed, add in dry mixture.

Turn out the dough into a piece of plastic wrap, and divide in half.  Form each piece into a flattened rectangle, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Flour your rolling board, and roll out each section of dough to about 1/8 of an inch.  Using a sandwich cutter, cut out your shapes.  Place your shapes onto a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating half way through until the centers are firm when lightly pressed.

Adapted from:

Martha Stewart’s “Sandwich Cookie Filling”

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups confectioners’ sugar (sifted)

1-2 tsp almond extract

With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until smooth. Add confectioners’ sugar, and beat until light and fluffy. Stir in almond extract, to taste. Use immediately.

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I guess I should explain that my love for cooking and sugar didn’t just transpire all in one day, out of the blue.  My dad is the cook of the family, he loves to try new things even if they fail.  Indian food is not his specialty.  The spice ratio and the meat they use has never been his forte.  I remember one specific instance, he began with some sort of beef, it was unrecognizable because it was rolled into a sort of cigar shape.  The taste and texture were terrible but that isn’t why he cooks.  He cooks because he loves his family, the spices and herbs only express his love in an edible form.  Which of course, I am not at all opposed to and neither is my little brother.

Then, there is my mom.  She is the go to cook of the family and loves to bake, now you see where I get it.  Her love for cooking began with her mom; they were poor and the outrageous recipes my grandma came up with made her love to be able to cook for her family, with fresh organic resources.  She loves the feeling of looking for the perfect produce at farmers markets and then bringing those little possibilities home only to craft something beautiful and full of love.

The genetics speak for themselves; so why do I love baking so much.  The sugar tooth does not fully explain anything.  I could get my fix of sugar from any sort of bought over sugary machine-made cookie.  It’s the emotion behind the food.  The way things are folded into each other, mixed on medium speed and kneaded; each step is a part of my heart.  Any stress of a hard day at school is no match to the powers of unsalted butter and organic sugar.  There is nothing unsure about the way flour, sugar and butter will treat you.  If you beat it lovingly and take the time to give it the fair amount of attention; it will mirror the affection.  And, even more than that it brings others joy.  Something in my heart feels more joy and contentment with the smile of a friend remarking over my baking and knowing that maybe that ounce of sugar changed their day.  In someway, it brightened their thoughts and filled them with the emotion that I filled my dear cakes with.

This past summer was no exception.  My mom’s friend asked me to bake her birthday cake for her.  Her only request; a fresh organic garnish and pink.  I searched through many recipes and cookbooks, with no luck.  It was the simple act of searching for a snack that would give me my muse.  They were fresh, newly bought from our local farmers market.  Each seed on the little pink fruit was beautiful, tiny but gave the sweet taste such a lovely texture.  The strawberries were beautiful and had to be place on top of something.  I then remembered I had once watched Paula Dean make a strawberry cake.  At the time, my grandmother had suggested that I make the pink cake, but I wrote it off thinking it was simply a topic of conversation.  Now, I regretted not writing down the recipe but, I called my nonnie (grandma) knowing she wrote everything down.  As she read the recipe I imagined her yellow legal pad, and her loopy dancing handwriting.  In between each curve and line was a bit of her love, spelling out a recipe.  There it was, the perfect cake.  A million strawberries and some pink dye later a masterpiece was born.

On the day of the party I knew I had a special cake.  The moment I placed the plate of my work into her hands, it was all worth it.  The exchanged paused, for the slightest moment, transferring everything I had felt for that cake, and all that I wanted it to mean to her.  She was overjoyed and, because of her smile, I grinned. It was my stupid “happy poster child” grin, but it was as genuine as ever.  The cake tasted good too!  It was moist, and was quite like enjoying a real strawberry.

Marie holding her cake, and my beloved "Nonnie"

The other birthday of summer was my grandfather’s seventy-fifth birthday.  I don’t think it hit me until this year that our lives are not infinite.  Seventy-five is fairly wise and I cannot ever imagine my life with out my POG (plain old grandpa).  I love him to bits and so his favorite carrot cake was the perfect way to take advantage of sharing my love of him through some old-fashioned sugar.  The recipe has been passed down in my family and is very dear to our hearts, and of course stomachs.So, think about it.  What do you love to do?  Does it matter who you do it with?  Find something that makes you happy and brings you joy and share it!

Paula Dean’s Strawberry Cake

Ingredients (cake)

1 (18.25-ounce) box of white cake mix (I made my own white cake)

1 (3-ounce) box strawberry flavored instant gelatin

1 (15-ounce package frozen strawberries in syrup thawed and pureed

4 large eggs

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup of water

Ingredients (frosting)

1/4 cup of butter, softened

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 (10-ounce) package frozen strawberries in syrup thawed and pureed

1/2 teaspoon strawberry extract

7 cups confectioners sugar

Freshly diced strawberries (for garnish!)

Directions (cake-wise)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 (9-inch) round cake pans.

In a large bowl, combine cake mix and gelatin.Add pureed strawberries, eggs, oil, and water; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth.

Pour into prepared pans, and bake for 20 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks.

Directions (frosting-wise)

In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Beat in 1/4 cup of the strawberry puree and the vanilla extract. (The rest of the puree is leftover but can be used in smoothies or on ice cream for a delicious treat.) Gradually add confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth.

Spread frosting in between layers and on top and sides of cake. Garnish with sliced fresh strawberries, if desired.

P.S. family’s secret carrot cake recipe to come!

I am currently sixteen and so, I make a lot of mistakes.  Watching endless hours of pointless tv instead of doing my homework, accidentally “forgetting” to study for the endless tests I seem to have… And, my mistakes don’t just end there, I cannot even count the number of times I have forgotten socks, forgotten money for lunch or said the wrong thing to a friend spoiling some sort of surprise.  But, thats really what they are right?  Mistakes.  My dictionary says a mistake is “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”  And, the only way to gain knowledge is to learn.  With each mistake I learn something new.  For me, this means I must be learning a thousand times a day, for I make a lot of awkward mistakes.

Today’s baking fiasco was no different.  It started with a birthday, for my friend T she was turning sixteen.  We all told everyone that she was eighteen though, because we love her and she doesn’t like to announce that she’s sixteen.  Anyways, I was contemplating what should I make her.  Monday night was occupied by homework and so, on her actual birthday I substituted homemade love with three store bought lotto tickets.  But, I figured I could make it up to her by baking something on a day that I had little homework.  I peered into cookbooks, searched online but could not find anything special that I felt like making in that moment.  I took a break from my stressful search to make a list of all of the things I love about the holidays.  Then I thought about it.  Fudge.  It was perfect.  Chocolaty, something like frosting (her favorite part of cakes and cupcakes) and it screamed holiday birthday.  All I had to do was find the right recipe.  So I went to my best friend; google.  There it was, traditional fudge with six cups of sugar and all.  It was the one.  The work of stirring and checking temperatures was guaranteed to be “well worth the work,” and I was sure it would be.  I got to the end and searched for a pan to hold my babies and let them cool.

This is where I believe my mistakes started.  My mom has this thing about preservatives and organics, needless to say she is against pam and cooking sprays.  Instead, we put our organic cooking oil into silver bullet like canisters, that become pressurized with some elbow grease.  I pumped that thing until I thought my arms were going to fall of and then sprayed up my pan.  No spot of that container would be untouched, I made sure of it.

It was not until after they had cooled and I decided to make sure they were alright that I realized something.  It was olive oil in the container.  The sickly sweet taste could not begin to mask the olive taste, it was as if I had poured chocolate sauce over olive oil and butter pasta.  Not good, at all.  But, this being a mistake I knew I just had to figure out what to do.  I decided to wash my fudge.  There I stood, with my sink on the coldest setting hoping that it would work.They tasted much less like the gross oily fudge of before, but not without work.  And after each bath each piece had to be refrigerated to firm back up.  Several more mistakes were made, and some fudge was lost to the melting capabilities of water and sugar.

In the end, the work put into the recipe and the learning process made the experience worth it.  It tastes good and I am almost sure that tomorrow at school it will be gone in no time.

“Old Fashioned Fudge”

1 + 1/2 cups milk
4 ounces (or 120g) unsweetened chocolate
4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 + 1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence

In a mid-sized heavy saucepan over a low heat, melt the chocolate with the milk.
Add in the sugar, corn syrup and salt.
Stir continuously until mixture is boiling.
Reduce heat and continue to cook – without stirring – until mixture reaches 230 degrees Fahrenheit (or 110 degrees Celsius) on a candy thermometer.
(If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you will know your mixture is done when a teaspoonful of the mixture forms a soft ball when dropped into cold water.)
Remove from heat as soon as mixture has reached desired temperature.
Add in the vanilla essence and the butter, but do not stir.
Allow mixture to cool in saucepan until it reaches 110 degrees F (or 43 degrees C) on your candy thermometer.
(If you don’t have a candy thermometer, cool mixture until it is lukewarm.)
Once mixture has reached desired temperature, beat it with a wooden spoon until the mixture begins to lose its gloss and starts to thicken (approximately 15 minutes).
Pour into a greased square pan (approximately 8in/ 18cm).

  • Here is where you have the option of adding some olive oil to your pan! I don’t recommend it unless you’re in the mood to bathe your fudge.

Allow mixture to stand until cool and hard.
Turn fudge out of the pan and onto a cutting board.
Cut your tasty old-fashioned fudge into squares and start eating!