Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Twelve Days Of Christmas


Many people probably think the twelve days of Christmas start before December 25th, since what was once a religious holiday has evolved into an over-the-top commercial one; but in Western Christian Churches the twelve days of Christmas actually run from December 25th until January 5th.  It is then followed by The Epiphany on January 6th.  Some Christian traditions count the evening of December 25th and the day of December 26th as the First Day of Christmas and include The Epiphany -- a day remembering that Three Wise Men, or Magi, arrived, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child.  Traditionally, there are three Magi, as the Bible names three gifts, but did you know that the narrative never mentions how many Wise Men came?  Also, many of us know the names of the Magi [Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar], but that's not mentioned in Scripture either.

Although December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in the West, some countries wait until January 6th to exchange gifts.  Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night” is January 5th, the last day of the Christmas season before the celebration of the Epiphany.  In some cultures, it is the custom to give Christmas gifts for each day of Christmas.  And out of this practice, we have a well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

The origins of the song are equally fascinating … and controversial.  Some historians suggest "The Twelve Days Of Christmas" began as a song of Christian instruction during England's Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, with hidden references to the Catholic faith.  But other historians disagree, claiming the song was simply a fun parlor game of secular origins.  Because there's no unshakable proof either way, we'll have to wait for scholars to establish the song's true origins with more certainty.

Here 's the Religious Symbolism cited in "The Twelve Days Of Christmas":
1 My True Love refers to God
2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-Laying refers to the six days of creation
7 Swans A-Swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments
8 Maids A-Milking refers to the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-Leaping refers to the Ten Commandments
11 Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles [minus Judas]
12 Drummers Drumming refers to the points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed [source: carols.org.uk]

Clearly, it's a spirited Christmas song, fun to sing in a big group, regardless of orgins.  I hope you're enjoying the holidays.  But, don't take down those decorations yet.  There are still eight more days of Christmas to go!
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stay Warm With A Goose Down Coat

When you're in the hustle and bustle of a crowned city street look around you.  Everyone seems to own a goose down coat.  Recently I bought one, and now I understand the reason for their popularity.  

Ultra warm and lightweight, it's my new go-to coat.  

Before selecting it, I shopped around and asked lots of questions.  I learned, if you want a warm down coat that needs less layering, it should be at least 70% down, with 600 fill insulation.  

Based on quality and style, I liked three companies: Moncler, North Face and Lands' End.  Each makes a super warm coat that lets you bundle up without bulking up.  Good.  Let's avoid a Michelin Man look.  After I considered a fourth element -- cost verses value, I chose the Down Chalet Coat from Lands' End.  Here's why: Designed as stylish as its competitors, it has all the bells and whistles for a fraction of the cost!  

Lands' End's Chalet Coat is 80% natural goose down with 650 fill insulation, which is comparable to the others.  It has (1) an attractive wind and water resistant polyester shell; (2) snaps and a zipper [double] closure; (3) a goose down insulated, snap-off hood; (4) micro-fleece storm cuffs; and (5) 5 pockets [3 inside and 2 fleece-lined outside].  All 5 pockets zip closed.  And what makes the coat truly warm in the coldest weather is (6) a wind blocking chin guard.  With the chin guard and insulated hood, I don't have to wear a scarf, or hat in 17 degrees F.  So far, I've avoided hat hair and wearing extra layers of clothing.  Plus, I get lots of compliments wearing it.  It's surprising how toasty warm such a lightweight coat is.   

The coat is mid-calf, longer than it photographs and machine washable too.  Extra tip from Landsend: When machine drying your coat, throw in a few tennis balls to fluff it up.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Homemade Almond Roca


Every December I become a cookie baker, but my friends Cara S. and Michelle K. are the candy makers.  When Cara visits, she brings me a care package of confectionary delights.  And Michelle, who taught Cara about candy making, rivals Willy Wanka and the Chocolate Factory.  When I stop by Michelle's house, she sends me into the candy room, with a festive paper bag in hand, to pick out whatever I want.  Deciding is a hard job, but someone has to do it.  Everything from caramel-nut turtles and peppermint bark to chocolate covered nuts and chocolate chip cookies wrapped around miniature, peanut butter cups are homemade with dark, milk or white chocolate.  Leave it to faithful friends like me to take some of Michelle's inventory off her hands.  It's a waist expanding experience, but my taste buds couldn't be happier.  Below is a recipe for old fashioned Almond Roca I hope the candy makers check in.

Almond Roca

Ingredients:

4 sticks butter
4 tablespoons water
2 cups sugar
2 cups slivered or chopped almonds
1 cup chocolate chips
½ cup finely chopped almonds for sprinkling
Makes about 36 servings.

Directions:

1) Before you start, grease an 18” x 13” pan and put it aside.
2) Combine the butter, water and sugar, one at a time, in a saucepan.  The mixture will be runny, “cheesy” and runny/smooth.  Cook on a high flame, stirring constantly through the three stages.  The runny/smooth stage will turn a caramel brown color.  It will be very hot, so be careful.
3) Remove the caramel mixture from the heat, and stir in the chopped almonds.  Combine well.
4) Next spread the caramel-almond “toffee” on the greased cookie sheet.
5) Sprinkle the toffee with chocolate chips.  After the chocolate melts, spread it across the top.
6) And finally, sprinkle the top with additional chopped almonds.

While the candy is still warm and soft, you can score the top to make it break evenly after it cools, or simply wait to break it up into rustic pieces.  Waiting for the candy to cool is the hardest part of all.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ambiance Of A Brasa Fire



If you live in a house with a fireplace, you know how inviting it is to stay warm by nestling in front of the flames on a frigid, winter day.  Now there are products on the market to safely bring a fire to any room, or tabletop without having to install a traditional fireplace.

Compact and portable, Brasa Fires are ventless and fueled by renewable green energy.  They run on denatured alcohol [bio-ethanol], a biofuel made from agricultural products like corn, sugar and potatoes.  With chic and modern designs, Brasa Fires create atmosphere and add warmth wherever you put them.  Consider placing a Brasa  fireplace in a living room, or choose a slender fire lamp as a centerpiece for a coffee table, or outdoor patio table by a pool -- Ok, I'm dreaming!  

If you already have a fireplace, the company also sells burner inserts that can be placed into a masonry hearth, or the built-in fire setting in your home.  

Brasa Fires are suitable for houses and apartments alike.  They are easy to set up.  No installation is necessary.  Costs: $165 - $625.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Let's Ease Into Christmas With Bette Midler

video

Christmas is three weeks away.  Tonight I'm attending a tree lighting.  Have you decorated, or completed your shopping?  I'm not quite ready to sing Christmas carols just yet, so I'm going to ease us all into the spirit by sharing a tune, which beautifully expresses what Christmas is all about, even though it's not really a Christmas song.  Next weekend I'll pull out the decorations and Christmas albums.  But I'm not quite there yet.

Also next week, I'll bake my first batch of Christmas cookies.  Called Russian Tea Cakes, they are very popular among my family and friends.  These holiday sweets are often sold in specialty shops, but are simple to make at home:

Russian Tea Cakes

Ingredients: 

1 cup butter
½ cup confectionary sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chopped pecans [or walnuts]

Directions: 

1) Heat the oven to 350 F
2) Thoroughly mix the butter, sugar and vanilla.
3) Work in the flour, salt and nuts until a dough forms and holds together. (You want a dry dough.)
4) Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and place on a cookie sheet brushed lightly with oil.
5) Bake 10 - 12 minutes until set, but not brown.
6) While warm, roll in confectionary sugar.  Cool and roll in sugar again to look like snowballs.

Makes about 30 cookies.  Costs: Less than $5.

Above ... Miss M is divine, as are the teacakes.  Enjoy!

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chestnuts Roasting Over An Open Fire, Or In A Toaster Oven

One of the treats I enjoy eating around the holidays is roasted chestnuts.  Like many of you, I associate them with the Christmas season.  But they remind me of a time when my father brought a bag home, and I put some in our toaster oven.  Since they take about 15 minutes to roast, I went back into my bedroom and was resting on my bed reading my homework.  

Meanwhile, my mother walked into the kitchen and sat at the table to do some bookkeeping -- when all of a sudden one of the chestnuts exploded, blowing open the toaster oven door.  It nearly frightened my poor mother to death.  She must have thought she'd been shot!  And in the heat of the moment, she was furious!  

She ran into my room with the rest of the hot chestnuts and told me to make sure to "fresse" every last one of them up!  In her native tongue, you say "essen" for "eat" when talking about a person and "fressen,” to describe the intake of food by a beast.  

I thought the whole thing was so hysterical.  All I could do was laugh, right in her face! -- which only made her madder.  She ended up giving me a REally dirty look before heading back into the kitchen.  

People get angry; animals go mad.  Was my mother angry?  Nah, she was mad!  And I was in stitches!  Accidents are funny when nobody gets hurt, but an unsuspecting person becomes unhinged.
Today ... here I sit eating chestnuts, and they are delicious.  And when I ask my mam'ma Call me, she doesn't remember the family drama.  But, I'll never forget it. 

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Secret Sisters - The One I Love Is Gone (Live)


You may not have heard of Laura and Lydia Rogers, The Secret Sisters, but you will.  Their new, self-titled album is executive produced by T Bone Burnett. Here they sing a Bill Monroe song.  The duo hail from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and are singer-songwriters. They may be a secret now, but I bet they begin winning artists-of-the-year awards and pop up on televised awards shows in the next year, or two.  Listen to the definition of gorgeous.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Decorating Your Home With Art


When I decorate a room, I choose art that makes me happy.  My only criteria is, I have to love it.  Whether or not the piece is of great monetary value isn't really a consideration.  An example: For the wall above my computer desk, I didn't look for a certain artist, era, or necessarily, an original.  I remembered a museum painting by a French artist I spotted a few years ago, and I knew I'd enjoy looking at it everyday.  The painting was the right combination of colors and size for my space.  It complemented the area.  So up on the wall it went.  But instead of ordering a poster, then framing it, I ordered an ink “print on canvas.”  It's a more vibrant and dimensional format  -- one that arrives ready to hang.  Guests are always admiring my reproduction, and I never get tired of looking at it.  You can get almost any well-known painting printed on canvas.  And no framing required.  Just pick your favorite, nail it up there and enjoy.  Costs: About $100.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Leather Up To Look Casual Chic

Leather is a hot trend and an old classic.  With the right leather jacket, you look polished and pulled together, and it's so versatile, taking you from the office to a night out and through the weekend.  Forever stylish and age appropriate, leather dresses up just about everything in your closet from blue jeans to the little black dress.

And now more than ever, leather is an affordable luxury.  Not only can you find it in the perennial, popular black; but it comes in a full array of new colors, styles and lengths.

Two retailers offering lots of adorable options at a steal are Newport News and Sears.  How do they do it?

Newport News has taken the details of its charming boyfriend blazer and given it a more fitted, feminine silhouette.  The result is beyond cute.  Wear it to either dress up or down.  You can even roll up the sleeves.  The new "girlfriend blazer" sells for $139, but with coupon codes, you can get it for under $100.

But that's not all.  Newport News has other leather wear, including ¾ length trenches, shorter jackets with scalloped necklines or ruffles, blazers with a cascade of pleats down the front, plus diamond-quilted patterns.  You will find suede, fringed and metallic blouson leather jackets also.

And if that's not enough of a selection, Sear'sLeather Connection has more than 75 new styles for men and women.  From the smoothest nappa leather jackets to the rich look of ¾ length shearling coats, get the ultimate in quality and cool design at very affordable prices.

Leather is truly a wardrobe essential that won't go out-of-style.  At these values -- whether it's edgy and modern, or feminine and classic -- everyone can find a flattering look.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What We Watch On TV

With escalating ticket prices, unemployment and bed bugs! can you blame a person for staying in to watch television in the comfort of home?  As it turns out, the shows people frequent may hold the clues to their character.  So says The New York Post, citing a new study conducted by Mindset, an ad agency, which links shows with personality traits.  The information is used to predict which products viewers of shows are likely to buy.   After analyzing 25,000 TV viewers, the ad agency only released its findings for some of the shows.  The rest of the data went to an unnamed client, who paid for the study.  Here is what was published in the Post:

Mad Men: If you like “Mad Men,” then you are creative ―meaning 'emotionally sensitive and intellectually curious types [who] tend to be dreamers rather than realists' ― and liberal.
Family Guy: If you like “Family Guy,” you are a rebel ― someone who 'doesn’t like authority, rules or structure [you] deem unfair, and usually won’t hesitate to make [your] feelings known with anger or sarcasm' ― and a rule breaker.
Glee: If you like "Glee" you are what ad people call an 'experientialist' ― meaning someone who believes that 'imagination and intellectual pursuits contribute to a good life, and goes out in search of unique and varied experiences' ― and creative (see “Mad Men”).
Dancing With the Stars: If you watch “Dancing With the Stars,” you are a traditionalist ... the opposite of the "Glee" 'experimentalist' ... preferring 'stability and the tried and true' ... someone who doesn’t rock the boat and gets along with others.
The Office: If you watch “The Office,” you are ... a lot like the show’s main character, Michael: someone who believes [he is] 'superior to others. ' You 'prefer to be in charge, directing others rather than being directed.'
Real Housewives of Orange County: If you watch “Real Housewives of Orange County,” you are 'pugnacious' ― described as 'unafraid to tell others what [you] think and value honesty over keeping the peace' ― and probably a leader.
The Biggest Loser: If you watch “The Biggest Loser,” you are a realist who lives 'in the present and works with what [you] have been given.' "

I don't take these studies too seriously, but they're fun.  Three of the shows listed are favorites of mine: Mad Men, Glee and Dancing With the Stars.  So, I'm both an experientialist and a traditionalist.  Can that be?  It sounds verrry tiring.  Oh, marketers of the world, you have your work cut out for you: I also like The Middle, Parenthood, Desperate Housewives and Modern Family. Weeds is interesting.  (Everybody Loves Raymond, I miss you!)  Explain that.

So what do your favorite shows say about you?

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chili, Mmm, Mmm, Good!

Three summers ago, I had lunch at the White Horse Tavern in Nashville, Tennessee where I ate the best bowl of chili in my life.  Ever since, I've tried to find the recipe, without success, though other chili recipes have come mighty close.  Usually chili is prepared Cincinnati-style -- with ground beef, which is certainly tasty and convenient, but what I consumed down in the Music City had succulent chunks of tender beef that had fallen off the bone.  In fact, it was a medley of all kinds of colorful, tender ingredients, including fresh peppers, onions, kidney beans, cilantro, tomatoes and other flavorful sensations.  The finished dish was hearty, spicy and so mouthwatering.  Ahhhh, the memory … I must take another trip down to Honky Tonk Land real soon.  Great city! people! and food!

The chili I made last weekend is also a keeper.  The recipe comes from Meghan M., who won first place in a chili cook off, hosted by the staff at People Magazine:

Meghan's Chili
2 pounds london broil
2 tablespoons Frank's Hot Sauce [or Louisiana Hot Sauce]
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
½ cup chopped green peppers
½ cup chopped red peppers
2 large garlic cloves, minced  [I mince 3 - 4.]
2 16 ounces, canned tomatoes, or 4 cups fresh peeled tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 cup chili powder
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 16 ounces can kidney beans
1 16 ounces can black beans

1} Preheat your oven to 250 degrees F.  Put the london broil in a dutch oven with water so that the water is ½ way up the meat.  Add 2 tablespoons hot sauce and 1 tablespoon Tabasco.  Cover and cook in the oven for about 5 hours at 250 degrees.
2} When the beef is tender, remove from the liquid and pull the meat apart with a fork.
3} In a dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil, add the onions, peppers and garlic, and stir until tender; about 10 minutes.
4} Add the tomatoes (with liquid), chili powder, salt. Heat to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
5} Stir in the beans and pulled meat. Heat and serve. Leftovers are delicious!

Alternatives:  At times, I substitute 2 pounds of lean, beef round cuts, first browning them in a pan, then simmering all the ingredients on the stovetop (low flame) for 2-3 hours.  Sometimes I add a teaspoon of brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar to enhance a BBQ flavor.  Add 1/2 teaspoons of mustard and cumin seeds for extra zest. [You can adopt the recipe for a crock pot also.]

Thanks for sharing your winning recipe, Meghan!  Chili is a real stick-to-your-ribs meal and so perfect for Autumn's nippy evenings.

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