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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Good King Wenceslas

I've always enjoyed the carol about Good King Wenceslas.  It's a nice tune with a good message.  My son has a collection of Christmas stories and the legend of GKW was one of them.

It's a powerful story--it should be something we aspire to all year, not just at the holidays.  In this country--even with the economic problems we've had recently, many of us live like kings compared to those who have no home, no job, no food. 

So I thought I'd pass on the legend of this king--maybe inspiring us to help those in need. 

King Wenceslas (we'll call him Wennie) ruled in Bohemia (part of present-day Czechoslovakia).  On St. Stephen's Day (the day after Christmas) in 928, he was holding his typical celebration--a feast for the lords and ladies of his kingdom.  The feast continued through the night.

At one point Wennie took a walk around and looked out the window at the snowy scene.  He reflected on how lucky he was to have food and warmth and wealth.  When suddenly, he noticed what he thought was some sort of animal digging in the snow for food.  Looking more carefully, he saw that it was a man gathering sticks.

He called his page, Darius, and asked him if he knew the man.  Darius told him of the hermit who wanders the forest for food.  He explained how the hermit lived quite a distance from the castle. 

Immediately the king called for meat, bread, wine and logs.  He wanted to help this poor soul.  And instead of having servants take it all out in the cold, he decided to let the servants continue to party and do it himself (with Darius close behind). 

By the time Wennie and Darry (as his friends called him) got to where they saw the hermit, he was no longer there.  The king decided to trudge on through the storm and find the poor man's dwelling.  Darius started falling behind and was close to collapse, but the king took him by the hand and encouraged him to continue.  He told Darry to walk in the king's footsteps to make the traveling easier on the tired page. 

All night they walked--the strong king in the lead, the page following loyally behind.  Finally, they found the hermit's cave.

The hermit was ashamed of his meager home, but the king assured him that there was no need to be ashamed.  The joy that the hermit got from the visit matched that of the king and page helping him.  They built a fire and enjoyed the meal together.  In the morning, the king brought the hermit (let's call him Larry) back to the palace where they continued their celebration. 

Let us, like Wennie, realize how lucky we are--and attempt to share that with others--now and all year.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me,
If though know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain.
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page!
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cheese Balls

Thanks a lot to everyone who stopped by my table on Friday night at Seylar Elementary's Tinsel Town.  I met a lot of nice people--many of whom enjoyed the two cheese balls that I made to taste.

OK, cheese balls can be a bit less than elegant.  They make you think of those port wine-flavored cheese balls, rolled in soggy nuts that your grandmother used to serve at her get-togethers. 

Well, the cheese balls I made, from Cook's Country magazine, are quite different.  They're flavorful, full of real cheese and other tasty ingredients.  Best of all, they're so simple to make, that they're perfect for any holiday gathering.

So as I promised my visitors on Friday night, here are the recipes.  Cook's Country has a number of variations, but these are the two that I made.  You really should try them!

Serves 15-20

You'll need 8 oz of block cheddar to yield 2 cups of shredded cheese.  I highly recommend you grate your own instead of using pre-shredded cheese.

2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
  1. Process cheddar, cream cheese, mayo, Worcestershire, garlic and cayenne in food processor until smooth.
  2. Transfer cheese mixture to center of large sheet of plastic wrap and tightly wrap, shaping cheese into a rough ball.  (Holding the four corners of the plastic in one hand, twist the cheese with the other hand to seal the plastic and shape into a ball.  See photo.)  Refrigerate until firm, about 3 hrs (or up to 2 days).
  3. Once the cheese ball is firm, reshape as necessary to form a smooth ball.  Unwrap and roll in the almonds to coat.  Let sit at room temperature for 15 min.  Serve.


Prepare Classic Cheddar Cheese Ball, omitting Worcestershire and cayenne.  Add 3 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley, 3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro or dill, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1/2 tsp onion powder and a pinch sugar to food processor in Stop 1.  Replace almonds with 6 slices of cooked an crumbled bacon in Step 3.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sugar Plums

What are sugar plums?

Whatever they are, we know that they have a namesake fairy in The Nutcracker who pretty much runs the show.  And we know that visions of them dance in the heads of the sleeping kids in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas").  
There is some debate as to what sugar plums are--mostly because they can be a couple of things. 

The most common belief is that they are a confection made from dried fruit.  In days gone by, "plum" was a name used for a variety of dried fruits.  So these sweet treats were made from dried fruits (prunes, figs, apricots, dates, cherries).  The fruit was minced and mixed with honey and often some sort of nut (usually almonds).  Then spices were added--things like anise seed, fennel seed, caraway seed and cardamom.  They were formed into balls and rolled in sugar or coconut.  (You can get Alton Brown's recipe here.)

But historians think that the sugar plums in these Christmas stories weren't made from fruit at all.  From the 17th-19th centuries, they were a candy called a comfit, made in a very time-consuming fashion.  Samira Kawash writes in The Atlantic:
Confectionery historian Laura Mason calls comfit-making "one of the most difficult and tedious methods in craft confectionery, requiring specialized equipment, careful heat control, and experience." Depending on the size of the finished product, a batch could take several days to complete. Not just anybody could make these candies. Until the advent of machine innovations, comfits or sugar plums were a luxury good, most likely to be found in an aristocrat's pocket or between courses at a banquet.
They were called "sugar plums" becasue of the similarity in size and shape to the fruit.  But the word "plum" came to be used in a number of other ways.  Again, Kawash writes:
...[A]s sugar plum passed into general usage in the 1600s, it came to have its own associated meanings quite apart from fruit. If your mouth was full of sugar plums, it meant that you spoke sweet (but possibly deceitful) words. If you stuffed another's mouth with sugar plums, that meant a sop or bribe that would shut someone up. In the 18th century, plum was British slang for 100 pounds, or more generally, a big pile of money. And someone who was rich could also be called a plum. By the nineteenth century, plum has come to mean an especially desirable thing, a prize, a choice job or appointment. 
Sugar plums, therefore, meant all things sweet and good at the time that Clement Moore wrote his poem and Tchaikovsky composed his ballet.  Thus sugar plum visions and the Sugar Plum Fairy continue to dance in our heads--whether we understand it or not!