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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

Getting ready for Christmas

Finely grating the rinds of two lemons for lemon pecan pound cake.
PHOTO BY TOM WALLACE/MCT

 

“God invented Christmas as a trial for women,” a friend said to me many years ago. I laughed – it was funny – but I also felt a little sad that she was so cynical. But every year since then her words come to mind as I begin to prepare for the holiday season.

Christmas certainly can be a trial – and however far we’ve come in equalizing the roles of the sexes, in most cases the burden of holiday preparation falls more heavily on women than on men. My friend may have been cynical, but she certainly had a point.

December is especially hectic for singers. As a performance voice major in college, I was always rehearsing and performing multiple concerts between frantic studying for finals. Later, with all three of my children involved in music, the weeks leading up to Christmas were often a blur of school concerts, symphony concerts and other performances, culminating frequently in Christmas Eves with the kids in two different church choirs and me belting out “O Holy Night” at three services from 6 p.m. to midnight.

But the craziest years were when I was catering. Adding catering to the mix of music and family preparations was truly overkill. Even though I kept my promise to myself and my family to not take any bookings after Dec. 20, I was so exhausted that I was essentially a nonfunctional blob, capable of little more than hanging out on the couch while my forgiving and patient husband and children did all the work.

The thing is, I really enjoy Christmas and all its attendant preparations, and I’ve always felt a little cheated when I haven’t been able to do as much as I’d like. I love decorating and making holiday specialties, though I’m less enthusiastic about shopping.

But after many years, I’ve finally learned my lesson: The most important thing of all is to get rid of any feelings of guilt and or frustration about not doing enough. Enough for whom? That’s really where the “God inventing Christmas as a trial for women” thing kicks in.

Many of us (myself included) have a vision of putting on a “perfect” Christmas – whatever that is. Of course, there is no such thing, and driving one’s self crazy trying to get there is counterproductive. Decorate if you like to decorate. Cook if you like to cook. Shop if you like to shop. But whatever and however much you do, always keep in mind what’s really important about the holidays: that it’s a time to enjoy your family and friends – and it’s also a time for your family and friends to enjoy you, which they can’t do if you’re a stressed-out bundle of nerves. It may seem self-evident, but it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, one that has at times had to be pounded into my thick skull.

In case you do like to cook, here are some holiday recipes my family enjoys.

Lemon pecan pound cake
• 3 1/2 c. flour
• 1 tsp. baking powder, preferably Rumford
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 lb. unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 2 c. sugar
• 6 large eggs
• 2 oz. bottle lemon extract
• Finely grated rind from 2 lemons
• 4 c. broken pecan pieces, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 275 F. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt well and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time. Add the lemon extract and peel, and combine thoroughly. Mix in the dry ingredients, then fold in the pecans.

Bake in greased and floured standard bread loaf pans or mini loaf pans. Standard loaf pans should take about 2 1/2 hours. Begin checking mini loaves after 1 hour. Cake is done when a skewer comes out clean. Refrigerate before slicing. Slice in very thin slices like a fruitcake. Makes 2 standard loaves or 4 mini loaves.

Almond biscotti.
PHOTO BY METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION
Poppy seed shortbread
• 2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. almond extract or 1 T. finely grated lemon peel
• 1/4 c. white sugar
• 1/4 c. dark brown sugar
• 1/4 c. poppy seeds
 
Preheat the oven to 350 F. If using a mixer, place all ingredients in the mixer bowl and, using the paddle, mix at medium speed until the ingredients have incorporated and formed a crumbly dough. It will not form a ball. By hand, use two forks or a pastry cutter to mix.

If using a food processor, combine all the ingredients except the poppy seeds and process until combined, then sprinkle the poppy seeds over the top of the dough and mix them in using a few short pulses. Press the dough firmly and evenly into a 9-inch square pan or a 10-inch pie or cake pan. You should press firmly enough that the dough sticks together.

Cut the dough into the shapes that you want: wedges, rectangles, squares or triangles. Alternatively press the dough into a log, wrap in parchment or plastic wrap, cut 1/2-inch slices from the log and place on a baking sheet, preferably parchment lined.

Bake the shortbread just until it is beginning to brown, about 12-15 minutes for the cookies, 25-30 minutes if baked in a pan. If using a pan, immediately recut the shortbread along the same lines that you did before it was baked. Cool completely before serving. The number of shortbreads depends on how they have been cut.

Almond biscotti
• 2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 3/4 c. sugar
• 2 tsp. baking powder, preferably one without aluminum salts, such as Rumford
• 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 3 large eggs
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 c. unblanched whole almonds
 
Toast almonds in 350 F. oven just until they become fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Lining the baking sheet with parchment before coating with the cooking spray aids cleanup.

In a large mixer, combine dry ingredients together, then add remaining ingredients and mix until dough comes together and is smooth.

Turn dough onto pan and form into one 24-inch or two 12-inch logs. The dough will be very stiff and sticky. Spraying your hands with cooking spray makes it easier to work with.

Gently flatten logs until they are about 2-inches wide and 1-inch high. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until slightly risen and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely.

Using a serrated knife, cut logs into 1/2-inch slices, either straight across for small biscotti or at an angle for longer ones. Place a rack on the cooking sheet, then put the slices on the rack. Bake for 10-15 minutes until crisp and golden. Cool on the rack. The number of biscotti depends on how they are sliced.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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