Guest Post at The Kitchn!

christmas cherry cream cheese

This post was featured as a guest post at The Kitchn today, and I figured I’d repost it here for those of you who didn’t already see it.

It’s funny that when I look back on life, from the cupcakes I’d bring into school for birthdays to the ice cream my family ate on that summer vacation to the time where my parents and my brother ate lobster while wearing giant plastic bibs, I often seen things in terms of food. Like Christmas. When I was growing up, the month of December meant tins of all kinds of cookies and fudge lined up along my grandma’s creaky staircase, gifts she planned to take to every friend and relative, with at least one container of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies planned especially for me.

I baked cookies covered with red and green sprinkles, eaten while I was watching It’s a Wonderful Life or a made-for-TV movie about a girl who wants a mom for Christmas. My mom baked cookies rolled in powdered sugar or kolachkys with apricot and raspberry jelly in the centers. We sipped hot chocolate. We gave away panettones. We even had presents that related to food: I’ll never forget taking my new doll up to my room, her hands holding a tray of muffins that actually smelled like chocolate, thinking that life couldn’t get any better than this.

Then there were the parties. Christmas parties at our house were the sound of many voices and the smell of coffee brewing and tables covered in meatballs and sandwiches and chips and dip and enormous trays of cookies and fudge. I’d gravitate towards the sweet rather than savory (I still do), filling my plate with the Jell-O mold and some fruit and desserts, a glass of homemade punch on the side. I liked the meatballs and the cheese and crackers, and you know I loved the cookies, but one item on the buffet I never missed was this: my mom’s cherry cream cheese spread, pink and whipped, slathered on top of mini bagels and studded with dates, walnuts and chopped cherries. I don’t even like the texture of cherries (the flavor, yes; the texture, no), but this spread is so good, I got past it, scooping the glossy, red bits to the side as I piled more cream cheese on another piece of bagel.

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nice to come home to

homemade chocolate pudding

Well, it’s official: snow has come to Chicagoland. We haven’t been hit the hardest (not like Madison or Southern Utah or, gosh, poor Minneapolis), and we’re starting much later than usual (remember last year’s October snowfall?), but we have begun what will probably be a months-long relationship with icy roads and longer commutes, one every Chicagoan is familiar with, one I am sorry to say you will probably hear about here again.

Yesterday, in a fit of there-must-be-a-new-way-of-seeing-stuff-like-snowstorms, I Googled “reasons to like snow” and this is what I found: activities—things like sledding, making snowmen, making snowangels, skiing, tubing, getting days off school. However, this only compounded the problem, particularly that bit about getting snow days, because, when you no longer get weather-provoked time off and when the only daylight that you can claim as your own lies in your morning commute and Saturdays and Sundays, snow angels and sledding don’t seem to find their way into your winter routine.

pudding with spoon

But maybe there are other things. My friend Jacqui said there’s something beautiful about the silence snow creates, the way it insulates the buildings and roads and cars and makes the world a little more magical, quiet and serene. I guess that’s true. And someone wrote here that winter in general gives us the gift of pushing us inside, towards people we love, the heat in the house, the warmth of the stove. That’s true, too.

I need these reminders because let me tell you, when you’re gripping the steering wheel and crawling along the highway, spending what feels like much more time on the road than doing anything else, it’s good to have something warm and comforting to drive home to. Like homemade chocolate pudding, for example.

pudding

Chocolate pudding is one of my earliest comfort foods. In a pinch, my mom and I love the packaged Jell-O Cook N’ Serve that is a simple as combining with milk and heating on the stove: hot and smooth and chocolatey. But when you have a little more time—and, let’s be honest, you’ll be stuck at home at least once this winter, at least if you’re from around here—this recipe is the one to try. It is perfection.

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3 Reasons I Love Brunch

Almond Croissant at Milk + Honey

I don’t know whom to thank for the weekend phenomenon we call brunch—a simple Google search points at different times to the French Quarter of New Orleans (or really, the “Fench” quarter, which doesn’t engender confidence); Britain in 1896 thanks to some publication called Hunter’s Weekly; reporter Frank Ward O’Malley, who looked for a new term to define his journalist-on-the-go eating habits; and Britain in the 19th/20th century, when the convention demonstrated the leisured privilege of the rich.

What I do know is this: there is nothing quite as nice as late-morning meals, especially at new places and especially with people you love. To prove my point, here are three reasons I love brunch (i.e., three Chicago-area restaurants that make nice ones):

1. HARNER’S 10 W State Street, North Aurora, IL
harners in aurora

A few Saturdays ago, my mom and my brother and I tried this new-to-me restaurant/bakery that I’d read rave reviews about online, where the menu is reasonably priced, the bakery is packed with made-from-scratch coffee cakes (and doughnuts and bread and cookies) and, at least if the wait is any indication of popularity, everyone loves to go.

corn beef hash
ham
denver omelette

Between the three of us, we ordered omelettes, ham, sausage, toast, breakfast potatoes and slices of the famous coffee cake to go, and amidst the leisured hour or so we spent there, we discovered a marvelous surprise: that the suburbs can do brunch well (and cheap!) and, best of all, I managed to take the first photo of my mom approved for posting here.

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Banana Bread + Waffles

banana bread waffles

The first time I used a waffle iron, I was a freshman in college. The dorm dining hall at my school had a designated table with an iron and a bowl of batter with a ladle in it, and one night when the tacos or chicken surprise on the menu didn’t particularly appeal to me, I walked over to it and, using that adult independence I had newly acquired, made myself buttermilk breakfast for dinner.

In the years between then and now, I’ve eaten homemade waffles in my friend Sue’s kitchen at a different college in a different state, telling her what a good mom she’d make someday as she handed me a plate (by the way, turns out I was right); I’ve had blueberry waffles and pecan waffles and waffles covered with berries and whipped cream and chocolate syrup; in October, my brother and I split a waffle at Sola that was topped with goat cheese and strawberry-rhubarb compote; but it wasn’t until recently that I had the kind of waffle I bring you today, one that defied any preconceptions or previous taste experiences, which works to combine what we know as the waffle with something else entirely, the moist, dense sweetness of a banana bread.

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our thanksgiving

plates

More holidays should be like Thanksgiving (and I don’t just mean because of the food). In my family, this day means the four of us gathered around the table in the middle of a Thursday, eating comfort food, with Bailey somewhere nearby. We don’t exchange presents and we don’t spend hundreds of dollars. There aren’t any Thanksgiving songs to sing or Thanksgiving movies to put on. There’s the meal, and the random television shows after, but there’s little else. It is filled with everything that matters and none of what doesn’t. And this year, on a day when the hot water went out and the weather got much colder and two fire trucks rushed to our neighbor’s for some kind of emergency, we were blessed to look around and see not what we lack but what we have. You know, this little family I have been given are the three people I have fought most with in this life, the ones who know exactly what drives me crazy and who have seen me at my most selfish and ugly, and we disagree on many things, but, I know I don’t say this enough: I am so thankful for them.

Here’s a look, via photos, at our Thanksgiving:

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good enough for grazing

granola bars

This may seem a strange thing to say, the day before the nation’s biggest food holiday, especially one in which I’ll be doing the cooking, but here it is: I’m not really one for huge meals.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving. It’s right up there with Easter as my favorite holiday. Every end of November, I love that we have a specific, routine reminder to stop and be grateful for all we’ve been given, and of course part of that is the table spread with turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and green been casserole and rolls and Jell-O molds and pies. But, if I were to offer one small complaint with this holiday, it is this: the indulgence of eating all those good things—and so much of them—at one, long, stuffing-yourself-until-your-pants-don’t-fit sitting. I’d much prefer to graze all day, and in fact, that’s what I do.

In my family, at Thanksgiving, we make more turkey than we need, so we can have sandwiches for a week after. We save all the sides and have entire meals, days later, of exactly the same thing. And a few years ago, when my then-boyfriend came to meet my family the day after The Big Thursday, we re-created the entire spread, as fully as if it had been the real deal.

One day of feasting becomes a week or more of quality grazing, and that’s exactly how I like it.

So anyway, this year, you could blame my lack of worry on last year’s relative success, as now I plan to pull everything together as the day unfolds, without a single to-do list or written strategy at my side. Or you could thank my parents, who paid for all the groceries and my mom who simply asked for a list and went and bought everything. You could say it’s because we’re staying in Illinois instead of transporting all kitchen tools and food up to the family cabin in Wisconsin like we did last year. But the truth is probably even simpler: I’m not worried about Thanksgiving because I’ve had my mind fixed on other things, things like trying new Brussels sprouts, making faux trail mixes of hazelnuts and chocolate, eating bowls of scalloped tomatoes for dinner, before snacks of clementines and then cookies with apple cider. You could see the pattern in my eating and rightly conclude: this girl’s got her mind on grazing, even at Thanksgiving, so when everyone’s talking turkey, she’s eating granola bars.

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A Thanksgiving Giveaway!

Update 11/30/09: (Congratulations to Carmen and Leslie, random winners of our Thanksgiving giveaway, whose packages will be arriving soon. Thanks to all of you who participated!)

Red Gold Tomatoes

It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m thankful for you—every one of you.

And I’m also thankful for the kind people at Red Gold Tomatoes, who are sponsoring a very cool giveaway for us this week! Simply subscribe to Food Loves Writing (and e-mail me the secret word), and you’re eligible to win one of two giveaway packages: a large tin filled with three cans of their diced tomatoes, two cookbooks, a red canvas tote, a magnetic chip clip, other magnets and a toy truck.

Red Gold Giveaway

Red Gold sent me one of these care packages a few days ago, and I couldn’t believe how cool it was! The tomatoes were even high enough quality to use in the scalloped tomatoes recipe you may remember from a few months ago, with the results being just as delicious as when I’d hand-chopped fresh tomatoes from the garden, no kidding. And that giant tin? The perfect container for my kitchen recyclables before I take them outside. You’re going to love this.

    So here’s what you need to know:
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