Eat 1, Freeze 1, Gift 1

Rachel’s Bread, pre-decorations.

I am pretty loose-y goose-y when it comes to holiday traditions.Very few things recur from year to year: I may or may not have a Christmas tree (even though I love a good tree); I may or may not send out cards; I may or may not make a Christmas dinner.
It’s not that I’m a Scrooge, but because there are no kids around, the man and I tend to lean toward the side of doing whatever we feel like doing. (Last year, we made homemade pizza on Christmas Eve and binged on cookies on Christmas Day, before and after a big breakfast starring French toast.)

There is one thing, though, that I have managed to do most every year since I was 15 years old, thanks to a recipe shared with me by my best friend growing up, Rachel.

When I say best friend, I mean best friend. Rachel knew me inside and out and loved me anyway. She was the one person who “got me.”

Years ago, I tucked away our many notes from high school, passed during biology lab and complete with illustrations, in a greeting card box — to be whipped out whenever I needed a good laugh or even a good cry. This box of notes is one of my prized possessions. It’s moved with me from Connecticut to Maine to Maryland to Florida to Connecticut (again) and finally here, to Vermont.

In these notes, we referred to each other as “Fat Ass” and “Jelly Belly.” We drew pictures of where we’d rather be. We talked about the boys we liked — actually, usually men — really attainable chaps like those who starred opposite Julia Ormond in period films like “Young Catherine” and the 25-year-old substitute teacher. We trusted each other with our deepest, sometimes dark, secrets.

We cried in each other’s arms, and I have never laughed as much as I did while hanging out with Rachel.

When Rachel became a vegetarian, I decided I would still love her. And when I moved out of state and left all my friends behind, Rachel decided she’d still love me.

Not long after we graduated college, Rachel died.

It’s still somewhat unbelievable to me that my young, beautiful, intelligent, compassionate best friend is gone — I miss her every day — and for a long time I couldn’t forgive myself that I wasn’t there with her at the end. Maybe I haven’t yet.

I was far away, in the throes of my early 20s, out of touch with the people in the small town we had grown up in, and I had no idea she was sick.

It happened that fast.

Making Rachel’s Bread, a braided breakfast or coffee bread, is the one tradition I manage to continue from year to year. Rachel taught me how to make it in her mother’s kitchen. She showed me how to fake a braid and turned me on to dried apricots. She also showed me that a little Christmas kitsch with maraschino cherries and white icing is a good thing.

Braided “candy cane” bread filled with dried apricots and maraschino cherries is perfect for breakfast or coffee talk. Each recipe makes 3 loaves, so you’ll have a couple to gift if you tire of the ubiquitous cookie tray.

Rachel’s Bread
(makes 3 loaves)
Note: Rachel’s original recipe uses active dry yeast (2 packages), mixed with water. I use instant dry yeast, so I mix it with the flour first before adding to the rest of the ingredients.

2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup warm water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs

6 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups drained maraschino cherries, finely chopped
melted butter, for brushing on baked bread
icing (2 cups confectioners’ sugar mixed with 1-2 tablespoons water)
In a bowl, combine instant dry yeast with flour. Set aside.

Over low heat, melt 1/4 cup butter with sour cream, stirring until combined. Remove from heat.
Transfer sour cream mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add water, eggs, sugar, salt and a bit of the flour mixture. Beat until smooth.
Add the rest of the flour, kneading until smooth, about 10 minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly greased bowl, flipping so that it’s grease side up, cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Punch down dough. Divide into 3 equal parts.
Roll each part into a 15×6-inch rectangle.
With a sharp knife, make 2-inch cuts at 1/2-inch intervals up each long side of the rectangle.
Place fruit in the middle and criss-cross the dough strips over top.
Stretch loaf to 22 inches and twist into candy cane shape.
Place breads on greased baking sheets and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
Transfer to wire racks.
Brush with melted butter. Once mostly cool, drizzle breads with icing and decorate with extra cherry slices.
Eat one. Gift one. Freeze one for Christmas morning.

Mom's Ginger Cookies in a Snap

This is my mother’s recipe, simple and economical. Not really a snappy cookie but chewy, spicy and delectable. I’m a butter girl, but my mom sometimes substituted vegetable shortening. No one ever complained.

1 1/4 cups butter, softened, OR vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets (I use nonstick cooking spray).
Combine flour, soda and spices; set aside. Cream butter (or shortening) and sugar until fluffy; add egg and molasses to combine. Add dry ingredients to wet. Mix until fully incorporated.
Using your fingers or a small (say, 1-inch) scoop, form dough into balls and roll in sugar. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes. The cookies will flatten and crinkle as they bake, and fill your house with the scent of holiday spices. Remove from sheets to cool on wire racks.

The Tree

Complete with its homemade tin-foil star.

I inherited my love for the Christmas tree from my mother, who would spend at least two full days perfecting its glory. This involved fully decorating it in one corner of our living room only to take everything down and start from scratch in another corner. Because she thought it would look better.

She was a lovable maniac.

It wasn’t only the tree which garnered her enthusiasm. She loved all things Christmas and always came out with the big guns, despite the fact that it had to be tough as a single mother of five who worked the third shift as a nurse’s aide. She made dozens of Christmas cookies not only for us but for our classmates, her co-workers, our neighbors, and just about anyone else willing to be stuffed with butter and sugar.

And I, brat that I was, oh ye of little faith, doubted her ability one year. I remember lying in my bed, about 2 a.m., worrying that my mom wouldn’t be able to whip out her famous gingerbread cookies in time for me to take them to school to share with my fourth-grade class. You see, she was still at work, in the middle of her shift, and I couldn’t fathom how she would get home, make cookie dough from scratch, chill the dough, roll and cut out cookies, let them cool, decorate and package them (not that I really comprehended all the steps involved) in time for my school party.

But she did. And threw in some finger sandwiches for my classmates as well.

This is the fifth Christmas since she died. I miss her every day, but even more so at Christmas. The cookies I bake —gingerbread and sugar cookie cut-outs, snowballs, black-eyed susans, rugelach, pecan tassies, bittersweet brownies — I bake for her. It doesn’t matter that our household of two couldn’t possibly down all these cookies without going into cardiac arrest. My mother taught me that everyone loves a cookie, so we share.

My Second Vermont Christmas

It’s been nearly two years since my somewhat spur-of-the-moment move to Vermont.

I called many places home during my 20s, from Florida to Connecticut. But I didn’t really mean it. Like many 20-somethings, I was searching for myself, my dream job, on occasion my dream man, but never really getting it together.

Until now.

Only now do I feel at home. Even when the temperature has plummeted well below zero and the pipes freeze. Even when it takes endless hours to shovel the driveway. And, yes, even when I quit the job that originally brought me here because I realize it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.

It’s been non-stop nesting since January 2009. When work doesn’t get in the way, I bake. Then bake some more. Then maybe make dinner. And bake again. I will talk about all of this earth-shattering stuff here, on my blog, a diary of sorts giving voice to my Vermont life, scraps and all. If you like to bake, if you like to cook, if you like to eat, if you like snow, if you like tales of folks blindly starting over in life in their 30s, I hope you will stick around and let me know what you think, what you bake, what you cook for those you love, what model shovel you have. I really want to know.