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Happy Holidays, Far and Wide

Posted by Ted on Dec 24, 2010 in Events, Memories, Travel

Exactly one week ago, we were landing at JFK after 29 hours of travel from Chiang Mai. This included a 5 hour layover in Seoul between 6a and 11a, followed by 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac waiting for the plane to leave the gate, be de-iced, and inserted into the take-off queue, before 14 hours of flight time during which we watched 5 movies. Were it not for Christmas, we would have probably spent a week and a half relaxing in a beachside bungalow on the island of Koh Mak before flying home to San Francisco. As it is, we are now in Hawthorne, NY, about 30 minutes upstate of Manhattan, where it has been hovering around freezing – a good 55 degrees colder than what we’d gotten very used to in northern Thailand.

Re-insertion into American life has been interesting. We’re cold, jetlagged, and we find ourselves converting every purchase into Thai Baht, where every $1 is a bowl of noodles and every $4 is an hour-long massage. The first time I put on jeans and closed-toe shoes (and socks, coat, hat, and gloves) felt very odd. I’ve let slip a ‘khob-kun-krup‘ more than once. On the other hand, being able to drink tap water and flush toilet paper have been a welcome change.

Despite the chill we feel, necessitating being bundled up both indoors and out, our hearts are warm this holiday season. If we close our eyes, we can almost feel the bathtub waters off Gili Air where we snorkeled among multicolored corals and fish, the oppressive heat of equatorial Malaysia, or the warm fur of a baby tiger in Chiang Mai.

However, as is always the case, the real warmth comes from the people that we are blessed to know. We met so many wonderful people in our travels, making new friends in strange places. There was Kristie & Matt, whom we met on the boat from Bali to Lombok, Penny in Penang, with whom we shared dim sum with every morning, Katie who was waiting at the gate to Kong Lor and reading a book, and Peter & Claudia who shared the hell-boat with us up the Mekong and Ou rivers. With five weeks during which we entrenched ourselves, we met dozens of people in Chiang Mai. Between students of ITM, residents of WaLai House, and members of Team Chiang Mai, we made many friends that filled our days and nights with companionship.

Holding those we met in our hearts, they are joined by those who were already there, our family and friends that have welcomed us back into their lives. As soon as we exited Korean Air flight #81 last Friday, we were met on the jetway by a family member who works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at JFK, who escorted us personally onto American soil. Liz’ mom was waiting for us in the terminal with coats. At a family holiday party the next day, everyone was excited to see us and asked about our travels. We had tea with a Boston friend passing through on her way to NJ. Christmas Day will see even more family, and next week we fly home to San Francisco, where friends and cats wait patiently to welcome us home.

Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Solstice, the reasons for celebration are the same. We illuminate the darkest nights with candles and lights, looking forward to the days getting longer. We revel in the company of family and friends, sharing in the joys of the season and a continuing presence in each others’ lives.

Happy Holidays to everyone,
and may you all be surrounded by love and laughter.

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Remembering Christmas (2/2)

Posted by Ted on Dec 13, 2009 in Food & Drinks, Memories

There are a few tastes that remind me of childhood. Two of them happen to be donuts.

The first was Morton’s frozen cinnamon donuts. I lived on these when I was a kid. They came in a brown box, and they were OMG good. Small, they could be eaten in a single bite, but I usually took two. Pop a few of them in the toaster oven for a few minutes, and they were cakey and soft on the inside, crispy and coated in cinnamon sugar on the outside. They haven’t been around in a long time, but there are those like me who remember them fondly. The closest that I’ve found have been the occasional apple cider donut from a New England farmstand in autumn, but really, these were like crack. Even more so than Krispy Kreme.

The second donuts of childhood were my grandma’s chocolate donuts. There was just something about them that was special. They didn’t taste like any other chocolate donut that I’ve ever had. When I was a kid, I remember watching her make them, eager to make sure that they were good enough for everyone else. They were often in the Christmas box along with cookies and pound cake. To be true, I never had eyes for anything but the donuts. It wouldn’t matter what else was in the box, even if it were a toy that I’d had on my wishlist compiled from the Sears catalog.

I’m sure they were made with love, but it wouldn’t be until my aunt gave me the recipe that I realized they were made with potato flakes and buttermilk. How odd! That would certainly explain the unique flavor. Even after my grandma passed away, my aunt would still send them to me at Christmas. Not having had them for a number of years now, I’ve meant to make them, but living a healthier life now I’ve shied away from their deep fat fried temptation.

Feeling inspired and unemployed, I decided this was the year to do try my hand at them, and share the calories with my family at Christmas. I bought a candy thermometer and a quart of canola oil, and tried to recreate my childhood. The recipe card that I have has ingredients, but not directions, so I looked to the net. What I found interesting was that very quickly I found similar recipes involving mashed potatoes or buttermilk. Opting to stay true to grandma, I followed the card;
Ingredients

* 1/4 cup shortening (butter)
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 cup potato flakes (Add 1/2 cup boiling water to reconstitute)
* Pinch of salt
* 1 Egg
* 1/2 cup buttermilk
* 1 1/2 cups flour
* 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
* 2 squares melted chocolate
* Vanilla (I used a teaspoon)

Preparation

* Beat the sugar and eggs together until creamy.
* Melt the butter and chocolate together in a small saucepan or double-boiler over low heat. Then beat into the sugar and egg mixture.
* Add the vanilla, buttermilk, and potatoes into the sugar mixture.
* Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Stir into the liquid mixture.
* Chill the dough for an hour to make it easier to handle.
* Roll out half the dough on a lightly floured board to a 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into doughnuts. Allow the cut doughnuts to dry for 10 minutes.
* Heat 2 inches of oil to 370 degrees F (185 degrees C) in a large skillet or pot. The dough should be at room temperature before frying.
* Transfer the doughnuts to the skillet, one every 15 seconds. Fry each doughnut about 2 minutes per side. Remove the doughnuts and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining dough.
* Roll the doughnuts in powdered sugar after they have cooled.

After the first test batch, I was eager to see how close they were to the ideal seen through the chocolate-colored glasses of my childhood. Sadly, they were not as amazing as I knew that they could be. I could detect a hint of the distinctive taste that I loved, but they were not the same. Assuming the recipe to be correct, the difference must be in the ingredients. Maybe she used shortening instead of butter. Potato flakes probably have no discernable difference, but I can imagine that there is variation in buttermilk flavor. Maybe they need more salt.

Clearly, more research needs to be done.

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Remembering Christmas (1/2)

Posted by Ted on Dec 13, 2009 in Food & Drinks, Memories

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, or Kwanzaa, one thing unites them all, and that is the gathering of family and friends to celebrate being together. Lights play prominently in the form of candles or blinking trees, in part as a counterpoint to the shortest days of the year. Another commonality that goes hand-in-hand with celebrations is the food that is painstakingly prepared for days ahead of time, and is usually consumed all too quickly. This year I decided to remember my mom and grandma, making holiday treats to share with my new family.

The first memory was of bourbon balls that my mother made a few times. I’ve wanted to make them for years, but they are best when left to “age” for a couple of weeks, and I would never remember in time. Bourbon is not only my spirit of choice, but it was my mom’s as well. Her favorite was Wild Turkey. Mine happens to be Old Rip van Winkle. However, given that it is somewhat expensive and hard to get, I settled for an old standby, Maker’s Mark. If you google for bourbon balls, you’ll find a couple of divergent recipes – made with Nilla Wafers or not (most recipes call for it), and whether there is chocolate or not, and whether it is in the mix, or simply used as a coating. After trying two variations, my third attempt is as follows;
Ingredients

* 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
* 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
* 2 1/2 cups vanilla-wafer crumbs (from about 75 cookies)
* 3/4 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, and chopped fine
* 1/3 cup bourbon
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 3 tablespoons honey

Preparation

* In a small deep bowl whisk together 2 tablespoons cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar until combined well.
* In a medium bowl stir together wafer crumbs and pecans. There are many methods one might use to crush these, I used a gallon ziplock bag and a rolling pin, which worked perfectly.
* In a small bowl whisk together bourbon, remaining 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, vanilla, and honey. Then pour into crumb mixture, stirring with a fork until combined well.
* Form mixture into balls about an inch or so in diameter and shake, 3 at a time, in cocoa mixture.
* Bourbon balls may be kept, in layers separated by wax paper or plastic wrap, in an airtight container in a cool dry place for at least 1 week. Not having a basement, I added a packet of Do Not Eat to the tupperware and put it in the fridge.

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