Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Find what brings you joy

and go there.  ~ Jan Phillips
I hope your holiday season brings you joy...I am taking a break to relocate my mother from PA to NJ to assisted living down the road...and in the midst of all of this, I am taking a break from my research.  I will return soon!

  “What shall you do all your vacation?’, asked Amy. "I shall lie abed and do nothing", replied Meg.”
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women    

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"He stared

at his hot chocolate like it held the secret to the universe."  ~ Lilith Saintcrow

I have been writing about the past holidays and how in just a moment in time that we have lost some of the simple joys.  For those of us who live in colder climates, hot cocoa represents a simple yet decadent treat in winter.  A great little gift would be to mix up a batch of homemade instant cocoa  and package it in old mason jar or tucked into a pretty cup and saucer!
The terms Hot Cocoa and Hot Chocolate are often used interchangeably, but technically they are as different as milk chocolate and bittersweet chocolate. Hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder, which is chocolate pressed free of all its richness, meaning the fat of cocoa butter. Hot chocolate is made from chocolate bars melted into cream. It is a rich decadent drink.

Thank the Mayas for the cold chocolate drink.  They ground cocoa seeds into a paste and mixed it with water, cornmeal, wine, and chili peppers. (Cold "hot" chocolate!)  They then poured the drink back and forth from a cup to a pot until a thick foam developed.  (Are you paying attention, Starbucks?) Chocolate was available to Maya of all social classes although the wealthy drank chocolate from elaborately decorated vessels, but at least everyone could enjoy!

When the Spaniards returned with cocoa to Europe, the drink became fashionable with the Spanish upper class.  Cocoa was even given as a dowry when the Spanish Royal Family married European royalty.  Since the cocoa beans only grew in South America, it was a rare commodity.

 Sweet-tasting hot chocolate was then invented, leading hot chocolate to become a luxury item among the European nobility by the 17th century, and Paris lead the craze as the French court touted chocolate as an aphrodisiac.  In 1657, the first chocolate house opened in London.  (Again I ask...are you paying attention, Starbucks?)  In 1674, chocolate was combines with cakes and rolls for the first time.
 In the late 17th century, Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians, visited Jamaica. There, he tried chocolate and considered it "nauseous", but found it became more palatable when mixed with milk. When he returned to England, he brought the recipe with him, introducing milk chocolate to Europe.

In 1828, Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed the first cocoa powder producing machine in the Netherlands.  The press separated the greasy cocoa butter from cacao seeds, leaving a purer chocolate powder behind. This powder, much like the instant cocoa powder used today, was easier to stir into milk and water. As a result, another very important discovery was made: solid chocolate. By using cocoa powder and low amounts of cocoa butter, it was then possible to manufacture bar chocolate. The term "chocolate" then came to mean solid chocolate, rather than hot chocolate.
The Baker Chocolate Company is the oldest producer of chocolate in the United States. The company was initially established when a physician named Dr. James Baker met John Hannon in Massachusetts.  Irishman John Hannon was penniless but was a skilled chocolatier, a craft which he had learned in England and which was, until now, exclusive to Europe. With the help of Baker, Hannon was able to set up a business where he produced “Hannon’s Best Chocolate” for 15 years. In 1779, Hannon went on a trip to the West Indies and never returned. His wife sold the company in 1780 to Dr. Baker who changed the name to Baker Chocolate Company.
 So, if you are interested, here is a good recipe for homemade hot chocolate...this has a touch of white chocolate...a little added richness.

Yield: Makes about 20 servings of hot chocolate
  • 3 cups nonfat dry milk powder
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1½ cups cocoa powder, dutch-process or natural
  • 1½ cups white chocolate chips or finely chopped white chocolate
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  1. Whisk together all ingredients in a large bowl. Working in two (or more) batches, depending on the size of your food processor, pulse the ingredients in a food processor until the chocolate is finely ground. Store the dry mix in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
  2. To make hot cocoa, put 1/3 cup of the cocoa mix in a mug and stir in 1 cup of hot milk. Top with whipped cream or miniature marshmallows, if desired.
Now, if you want the "true" hot chocolate, here is a recipe that will truly warm your chocolate soul...

  • 1 quart (1l) half-and-half or whole milk
  • 8 ounces (230g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 4 ounces (115g) milk chocolate, finely chopped
  • tiny pinch of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Warm about one-third of the half-and-half or milk, with the chopped chocolates and salt, stirring until the chocolate is melted.
2. Whisk in the remaining half-and-half or milk, heating until the mixture is warmed through. Add the cinnamon.
3. Use a hand-held blender, or a whisk, and mix the hot chocolate until it’s completely smooth. Serve very warm.
 "Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine." - Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Laved├ín, Spanish army surgeon,1796 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Christmas is a bridge.

We need bridges as the river of time flows past. Today's Christmas should mean creating happy hours for tomorrow and reliving those of yesterday.” ~Gladys Taber
When I was younger, I remember this time of year fondly when it came to mail.  In the 1950s, Christmas cards were sent in such great numbers that the mailman would come 2 and 3 times a day.  I am just still attached to that event even though I never get cards out on time. Having spent my entire career in the classroom, I could never get those cards out until school was out for the holidays.

But, I do regret the demise of real mail.  Yes, it is nice to have instant communication, but somehow emails, Facebook, Instagram, etc etc etc do not have the same feel for me.

The first Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on the 1st of May 1843. The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card's recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. Allegedly the image of the family drinking wine together proved controversial, but the idea was shrewd: Cole had helped introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each.

Early English cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favoring flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approach of spring.  At Christmas 1873, the lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began creating greeting cards for the popular market in England. The firm began selling the Christmas card in America in 1874, thus becoming the first printer to offer cards in America. Its owner, Louis Prang, is sometimes called the "father of the American Christmas card." The popularity of his cards led to cheap imitations that eventually drove him from the market.

It never ceases to amaze me that time passes, but things really do not change all that much!

"Official" Christmas cards began with Queen Victoria in the 1840s. The British royal family's cards are generally portraits reflecting significant personal events of the year. Bet you know who will be on this year's card!   In 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House card.  Presidents did send cards, but now there is an official White House card.
Americans are projected to buy 1.6 billion holiday cards this Christmas season, but the card market in general has experienced a 9% decline since 2005 -- a slump projected to continue through 2015. Consumers are replacing holiday cards -- about 30% of the market -- with photo cards and digital communications.

I received my first card in today's mail even as I typed this, and, I just smiled. 
So, if you want some handcrafted cards for a change and you are in the area, stop in.  These are only $2.50...make someone smile!

What a wonderful thing is the mail, capable of conveying across continents a warm human hand-clasp.  ~Author Unknown

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"In a drear-nighted December...Too happy, happy tree...

thy branches ne'er remember...Their green felicity."  ~John Keats

But, we do revel in the green of pine trees this time of year...and out come red and green...the color uniform of Christmas. 
But, when did those colors become the standard?  Why not blue and silver? Or white and gold?  Sure, you can use those colors, but the traditionalists will raise eyebrows not drinks to your color choices.
In doing some research, I discovered the Italians were our closet Christmas color designers.  In AD 274, Roman Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 as natalis solis invicti ("birth of the invincible sun"), a festival honoring the sun god Mithras known as Saturnalia. It had been celebrated by Pagans for centuries, but the emperor moved it to this date to correspond with the winter solstice.
Holly wreaths were given to celebrate this festival which actually featured much gift-giving as well as much celebrating with drink, food, and greenery. 
Mistletoe, also in green, which dates to the Druids as well as the Romans, was hung in homes to bring good fortune peace and love.  It is actually a parasitic plant that needs a host...I know there is a joke there at this time of the year, but I will not go there!
As Christianity took over in the 4th century, the church elders selected December 25 after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ's birth and his baptism.

When Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted, the Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.

The Christian connection to red in this green world relates to a story that only the holly tree consented to be cut down and its wood made into a cross to bear Jesus. Some Christians believe that Jesus wore a crown of holly thorns whose berries were originally white. As Jesus’ blood touched the berries, they turned red. The green leaves of the holly plant have come to represent everlasting life and the berries the blood of Jesus.
But, back to the pine tree...and some more red symbols...medieval Christians celebrated Adam and Eve’s feast day with a kind of mystery play referred to as the paradise play. This folk drama retold the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It ended with the promise of the coming of a savior who would reconcile humanity with God.

Staged around a single prop called a paradise tree, actors adorned an evergreen tree with apples and sometimes also with communion wafers. Decked out in this way it served to represent the two mystical trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Although the church officially banned the performance of mystery plays in the fifteenth century, the people of France and Germany's Rhine river region kept on decorating paradise trees for Christmas, so perhaps another insight into that green Christmas tree and red accents.

So, red and green for Christmas have a myriad of historical references, but it all blends...for as John Geddes wrote in A Familiar Rain...

“...freshly cut Christmas trees smelling of stars and snow and pine resin - inhale deeply and fill your soul with wintry night...”