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Tokens of Christmas Warmth

Spoon Cookies

The night is waning; dawn has not yet arrived. Pats of unsalted butter melt in the saucepan. With a silicone scraper, I stir back and forth across the bottom, watching the butter carefully. First the surface bubbles, and then a thick foam forms. Finally, I smell it, the nutty aroma of beurre noisette or brown butter. I quickly transfer the pan to a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. I am in the kitchen making my favorite and most time-consuming Christmas cookie, spoon cookies. 

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Beurre noisette or brown butter

Spoon cookies are so named for the spoon that forms their shape. It must be an old silver spoon. These ancient beauties have deep bowls, so they work perfectly for filling with cookie dough. This morning, the favored teaspoon came from my Aunt Ada. Its smooth surface aids in helping the pressed cookie easily slide onto the cookie sheet. As I fill, press, and slide the cookie dough, my mind drifts back to memories of the generation that went before mine. They were children of immigrants, their lives steeped in traditions from the old country. These are traditions I have come to cherish, traditions I try to teach to those in my life.

After placing the tray into the oven to bake, I warm raspberry jam on the stove. Once strained, a smear of this jam will serve as a delicious glue between two baked cookies, forming what in the end looks a bit like a little egg. Each Christmas season, I look forward to the complex taste of the nutty beurre noisette against the sweet jam.

Caramels

Next on the agenda are caramels. Creamy and sweet, these are another labor intensive favorite. Between you, me, and the fence post, they have proved a challenge for me to perfect. Each time I make them, I seem to discover another idiosyncrasy of these delicious candies. This year’s batch, while a delicious and rich confection of sugar, butter, and cream, is a touch on the chewy side, which I of course blame on my ancient candy thermometer. 

Yulekage: Christmas Bread

Next up, Yulekage. A favorite Scandinavian spice, cardamom, enlivens this tender sweet Christmas bread. To amp up the flavor, I always freshly grind my cardamom for this recipe. This distinctive spice together with the mix of golden and red raisins and topped with a crest of luscious frosting makes for a festive bread indeed. Thanks to the magnitude of the recipe, eighteen loaves have already left my kitchen to date, and this bread is my go-to baked Christmas gift. 

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Lefse

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ubiquitous Norwegian delicacy, lefse. This potato-based flatbread defines December menus in the north country. It has to be paper thin, soft with light brown spots scattered across its surface, and with tiny dots of Russet potatoes. Lefse-making is a two-day affair that should be embarked on just before your kitchen needs a deep cleaning. Trust me, I know whereof I speak…  

Cookies Et Alia

Other gems that might make their appearance in my comestible gifting include my Aunt Joyce’s thin sugary ginger snaps, my brother-in-law Bill’s butter balls, nutmeg-laden Kranse Kake, and crisp, frosted sugar cookies. The list could go on, but the variety and supply of goodies depends on how much the schedule expands in early December.

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A Modicum of Our Christmas Joy

Why do we go through these tasks in the holiday season? What is the reason we shop and wrap, cook and bake, and assemble trays and tins to pass out to family, friends, and neighbors? Why do we put in the additional effort to make things extra special? The Christmas season is already a busy time of year, yet we add to it by making such effortful goodies to give to others.

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There are many people in my life who hold a special place. Some are family, some are friends. It just seems that in this unlikeliest of seasons, the coldest, darkest days of winter, when we grace others with an act of kindness, a small array of culinary delights, we offer them a modicum of our joy. We are saying the world is better because of their presence in it. We are saying you are important to me. In giving something of ourselves to others, whether it’s our time, our talents, created gifts, or purchased items, we are telling them they are significant and special. 

I will always get up before dawn or stay up into the wee hours to create tokens of my affection for those I hold dear.  

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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.

 

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Sweet Mangoes – A Fruit of My Youth

Malagasy Mangoes

When I was a girl, my family lived on the island of Madagascar. Often my mom would ask me to fetch something from the yard. “Cami, would you go get me some mangoes?” I would take my wagon out to the cluster of mango trees down by the river. It was pure heaven to have the grove of mango, avocado, leches, banana, and citrus trees so close at hand. I would soon return with a wagon-full of sweet mangoes. This it when my love of this fruit first began.

When they were in season, we could never get too many mangoes. We peeled them and ate them plain, biting the juicy meat off the center seed. It was a messy business with all that sweet elixir running down our arms and dripping off our elbows. My mom would remind me, “Don’t get that juice on your clothes. Mango stains!”

The Fruit’s History

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Hailing originally from South Asia about 5,000 years ago, mangoes are now one of the most popular fruits worldwide. Nutritionally speaking, they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, making them very healthy to eat.

Mangoes play a central role in the cuisines of many tropical cultures. They are cultivated all over the world: Asia, Africa, southern Spain, South and Central America, the southern United States, Hawaii, and Australia, thus completing the global circuit.

The sweet meat is used in as many ways as the cuisines it inhabits. It can become aam panna or mango lassi, both popular beverages throughout Asia. In India it becomes a part of the main entrée as an ingredient in dahl, a sauce served over rice. Furthermore, mangoes can be pickled, dried, juiced, grilled, added to salads, and mashed. Or even eaten plain.

Mangoes in Your Kitchen

With modern agricultural advancements, different varieties of mangoes are now available almost year round. I think of them, however, as a late winter/early spring fruit. Currently there are two varieties available in our grocery stores, the creamy, sweet, golden Alphonso or “honey” mango and the more prevalent green/ruby-colored Tommy Atkins cultivar. Both types are delicious. They do, however, have slightly different flavors from each other.

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A delightful curry quinoa salad with mangoes, green onions, cilantro, and almonds.

I tend to use Alphonsos in a way that lets their sweet, smooth nature shine. I cut them into large slices and serve them in a way that they can stand alone. The Tommy Atkins mangoes hold up very well in grain salads or are used green in more of a Thai or Vietnamese-type dish. Strips of under-ripe mango simply tossed with lime juice, green or red onions, diced jalapeños, and a sprinkling of sea salt is a perfect example of a dish that rises above the sum of its parts.

The versatile, delicious mango is in season right now. Let us help you discover this wonderful fruit. Together we can explore mangoes in our myriad of classes that include them. In the meantime, when you are in the produce section, pick up some mangoes. Peel them, bite into the sweet meat, and discover the many ways you can add this gem into your meals. They are, oh, so worth it!

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My Grandmother’s Spoon

Heritage and History

A parallel exists between beauty, heritage, and function. I received this cherished spoon from my grandmother. It was carved in Norway with the Norwegian art form called Rosemaling. This spoon encompasses the mission and goals of Ripe and Roasted. It works to make cooking and gardening into crafts that pass from one generation to the next.

This spoon remains preserved and treasured three generations after its creation. In the same way, the culture of great food does not easily die out over time.

When families raise their children with an appreciation for freshly canned peach jam, pasta sauces simmering on the stove, meat falling off the bone from being tended at the grill all day, scratch whipped cream atop a handmade pie, these delicacies become a part of what makes each day whole. Each child will carry the light of their heritage of cooking to their children. Thus a family creates a continuum of food across the span of time.

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The Traditions of Our Lives

Rich traditions help to define us culturally, whether they pass down from parents or grandparents or they are something we simply turn into a custom. In our family we prepare foods and dishes that come from the different cultures that compose the patina of our lives. We also hold to traditions that we created many years ago. For example, when my kids were young, we decided that the combination of Chicken Chili and Cinnamon Rolls were a “thing.” So today, if we make Chicken Chili, we are probably going to make Cinnamon Rolls as well.

My grandmother’s beautiful spoon is a symbol of this multi-faceted nature of life. In its great simplicity yet masterfully carved splendor,  it represents the way food, lovingly and skillfully made, can unite family or friends in one moment as well as in all the moments to the end of time.