Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reject's Top Five: Holiday-siacs

Some of us love the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's and are ready for shopping, caroling, cookie-baking, dreidel-ing, candle-lighting and whatever other traditions we observe. Others hate the holidays with an abiding passion. And still others could go either way but require a bit of activation energy to get over the hump of dread or disinterest and into the holiday spirit.

I alternate between the first and third groups, depending on the year. So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite holiday-siacs in case you are similarly inclined and need a little boost to get in the mood. Not that I fancy myself a shlump-ier Gwyneth Paltrow (although you may choose to see my recommendations as "poop" to her "gloop") but I always love to hear about other people's holiday obsessions or buzzkills and figured I may as well share my own.

5.) Pine boughs and/or scented candles - nothing says "wintertime" to me like the smell of pine. If you are allergic to pine, or do not live in a geographic region that supports its existence, scented candles are a nice alternative. A good holiday candle must walk the fine line between evoking a midnight stroll through a forest lit by luminarias as snow gently falls and stumbling into Pine-sol territory. Not all "pine" or "winter" candles are created equal. This year we are burning two by NEST: the regular holiday version (think fresh and trendy day spa) and Elton John's holiday version (the darker, hipper W hotel lobby of holiday candles). Both are pricey, but worth it because they last and last, look pretty, and smell delicious. A slightly cheaper and year-round option is Trapp's Sexy Cinnamon (heady, and powdery, and perhaps a bit overpowering to some noses). Or, for the pine purist, The Thymes, Ltd.'s Frasier Fir is the next best thing to planting a tree in your living room. Votive versions of the Sexy Cinnamon and Frasier Fir candles are one way to test the scent without a $30-40 commitment.

4.) Books - my favorite all-time holiday book is "Christmastime" by Sandra Boynton. I think it is now out of print, so a close second is "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Holidays." Whoops. It appears that is out of print, too. Well, they are still worth reading if you can score a copy somehow.

3.) Cookies - my mother's family pepparkakor (that's Swedish for gingerbread) recipe is a closely guarded secret. It is also a lot of work, if memory serves. Instead, I indulge my love of corn-flake wreath cookies which are cheap, easy, and do not require baking. They also provide a rare opportunity to rub my hands with butter, which is just so very "Handmaid's Tale," but oddly pleasing nonetheless. I like to garnish the cookies with red hots or cut up candied cherries. High fiber cereal can be substituted for regular corn flakes if you desire a healthier treat - or the opportunity to gift your friends in the cookie exchange with a surprise colon blow. If these don't grease your cookie sheet, a gingerbread biscotti from Starbucks is a sweet alternative.

2.) Music - I have over 500 holiday songs in my iTunes, so it is tough to narrow down. But any holiday album by Elvis or Dean Martin's is classic. I am currently coveting the "Christmas with the Rat Pack Album" that I assume will capture the holiday's boozy sensibility. Raul Malo's "Marshmallow World" nicely updates that genre. I can't get enough of Placido Domingo's "Christmas with Placido Domingo" and my secret pleasure is Enya's "And Winter Came." Most quirky - or annoying, depending on your taste - is "Music Box Christmas." And in the relatively empty menorah of Hannukah albums, "Erran Baron Cohen Presents: Songs in the Key of Hannukah" is a bright light.

1.) Drinks - my family's Glogg recipe (pronounced more like "gleg" - that's "greg" with an l - not "grog" rhyming with "frog"), a Swedish spiced and fortified wine, is like the velvet hammer of holiday drinking (recipe follows). However, it isn't for everyone. For one thing, it is served with raisins and blanched almonds in the bottom of the cup. After five or six glasses, the raisins can take on the appearance of rat droppings, which can be off-putting. Also, even when the glasses are small, the fortification packs a punch, so use with caution if you typically spend the holidays with mean drunks. Hot chocolate with or without amaretto or peppermint schnapps may be a safer - not to mention simpler - option. Then again, it does provide you with a sanctioned opportunity to light things on fire...even it is only sugar cubes. Enjoy!

Uncle Carl Lundquist's Glogg Recipe
2 quarts port wine
2 quarts claret
1 pint good brandy
15 whole cardamom seeds, peeled and crushed
25 whole cloves
1 pound white raisins
1-2 sticks cinnamon
peel of one whole orange
12 whole allspice
1/2 pound whole blanched almonds
1 1/2 pounds lump sugar

First pour all the wine into a fair sized enamel or stainless pan and bring to a simmer. DO NOT BOIL. Then wrap all the spices and raisins and nuts in cheesecloth bag and drop in the pot to simmer for 30 minutes.

When the wine is simmering, put all the lump sugar in a pie tin or heavy pan and pour the brandy over and light with a match. Leave burn until flame dies out. Then dump the whole thing into the simmering wine and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Then let it cool, squeeze out the spice bag until as dry as possible, bottle, and you got it. It gets better with age. Heat to serve and add 2 raisins and 1 almond to each glass.

Note: my mother, who provided this recipe and is fundamentally incapable of following a recipe without tweaking it, shared the following advice for those of you who like to tinker or substitute. "Instead of the claret, which Uncle Carl always insisted upon, I use a bottle of merlot, a bottle of cabernet , a large bottle of port and a pint of brandy. Soaking the sugar cubes in the brandy and burning the brandy off really makes a difference. Let the cubes soak until partially melted, then light and watch the whole thing flame until a mushy mass. Then just scrape the whole mess into the pot and stir to dissolve the sugar. If you need to sweeten the mixture later, just add a little regular sugar to taste."

Okay. So go make up a batch, have a glass or three and then let me know...what are your favorite holiday traditions?


  1. Ellen, you will be pleased to know that Dale and I scored a traditional German Feuerzangenbowle--which is the contraption used to make Gluehwein (aka Glogg). It has an apparatus designed to hold a large cone of sugar over the warm wine/booze/spice combo. So the sugar cone melts as the rum or brandy burns it off and it slowly drips into the concotion. The whole shebang is kept warm over a burner or tea light thingy, also part of the set. We are certainly looking forward to the New Year!

  2. We should trade Christmas iTunes lists. You may be the only person I know who loves the music as much as I do.