holidays, seasons, winter
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The smell of cardamom

Happy New Year everyone.

Today – or sometime in the next week, depending on which Christian tradition you might come from – is the day when the Christmas season is traditionally put aside.  I got home to Cambridge last night from two weeks of celebration with friends and family, in Oakland and Berkeley, Austin and Dallas.  There were new babies and puppies to meet, old mementos to look through, and even a trip to San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, a new production that I have grown to love as much as the one I grew up with.

But, like many of you are, I’m ready for the joy of the holiday season to make way for the quiet work of resolutions and planning, new projects simmering with my weekly pot of beans.  My social media is filled with “I love this time of year” confessions, moments of solitude in the middle of white-dusted sidewalks or, in my case, the stacks of the library.  Weekend afternoons under blankets with an endless mug of something hot.  So, in keeping with tradition, for me tonight’s the night for the last lingering bit of Christmas richness, and a look ahead to a winter of nourishment instead of indulgence, silence instead of conversation, intimacy instead of celebration.

On the first night of Hanukkah I had a group of friends over, like I do to mark every seasonal transition.  I made a variation of this latke recipe.  I asked each friend to bring a branch.  After dinner we stood by the firepit on our back porch, and I asked everyone to reflect on the Hanukkah story, and think about what warmth in their lives they had been able to sustain for longer than they had expected. It could be a resolution, I said, or a reflection about the past year.  When they finished, they tossed their branches in the fire, which sizzled and smoked and smelled like pine.

What I’ve been thinking about this season is that Christmas and Hanukkah aren’t just about light in dark times — they’re about richness and luxury, as much indulgence as you can afford, and sustaining that, for as long as you can.  I like the idea of finding this richness in heavily perfumed foods that surround the senses, or with special treats laced with butter or fried in oil.  One of my favorite gifts I received this holiday season was a Ziploc bag of homemade snickerdoodles.  Its about those perfumes lingering, like the smell of latke cooking oil on our clothes, or the cardamom that hovers just out of reach, long after the baking is done.  Cardamom smells like India and Sweden to me all at once – sultry and exotic, and warming against the cold. Baking recipes were my poems this season. I felt like I was searching for smells as I slept.

I made a version of Alice Medrich’s shortbread twice – instead of aniseed, I included about 1/4-1/2 tsp coarsely crushed cardamom seeds, smashed with raw, soaked almonds into a kind of paste.  I also reduced the amount of sugar by about a tablespoon and used salted, roasted almonds on top.  It was a perfect snack with cheese, or with tea and coffee.  I’ve made the aniseed version many times – the recipe yields a nutty, caramelized tasting shortbread that is totally unique.

My other constant this season has been the herbal root chai from Steph Zabel of Flowerfolk Apothecary.  It simmers for 20 minutes on the stovetop, and makes my whole house smell of spices.  I can’t drink much alcohol these days, so it’s a welcome substitute for the mulled wine/gluhwein/glogg/wassail I usually enjoy at this time of year.  My husband smells it the moment he walks in the door.

There were lots of other recipes I didn’t get to try this winter – notably, a bunch with saffron.  They’re posted to Pinterest, along with other richly spiced treats I’ve enjoyed in previous years, like the lebkuchen from Lecklerlee (my Christmas party hostess gift one year).  Some year I will make mince pies, since I loved them so much during one Christmas in London, when the Columbia Road shops served miniature ones, mounded with powdered sugar, on little platters alongside styrofoam cups of mulled wine.

The richness of the season also came to me this year in the crafts and decorations I was drawn to – himmeli and wheat weavings, which transform harvest waste into intricate representations of brightness.  They’re displayed indoors for the winter as a promise of abundance for the coming growing season.  As with spices, the more elaborate, the better.  My little brother, who is 10, made the most elaborate Spirograph designs for me to use as ornaments and gift tags, which I hung on garlands in my doorway, with sprigs of pine.  He is also an origami master, and all of the complex paper stars, folds upon folds, of the season reminded me of him.  I, however, tried to make a simple five-point, and failed.

But all of that is gone now.  Tonight I burned some frankincense and took down the himmeli (the wheat weaving will stay on my mantel until Spring), the Santa ornaments, and the little Christmas tree that was on our dining room table.  I simmered some root chai, made compote with the remaining sweet dried fruits, settled in with the Bachelor, and awaited the quiet part of winter.

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