Sunday, December 28, 2008

Not even in effigy

The chocolate coins are all eaten but one, a golden dollar that escaped (for now), and shiny disks of chocolate-tinged foil are turning up all around the house.

The contents of the clear plastic candy-cane shaped tubes bearing Hershey's Kisses and gummy Krabby Patties (the burger Spongebob makes at his fry-cook day job) are virtually empty.

Even the hard, essentially flavorless, little Spongebob-shaped Pez-like bits have all disappeared (down the sink, in the case of the ones Ulysses gave to me, one after another, that I surreptitiously and temporarily stashed on a platter of turkey debris).

Yet the merry row of seven chocolate Santas remains intact.

On Christmas Day, when Ulysses unwrapped a long, light, rectangular package to find a box of brightly wrapped Santas, he was delighted.

"Open this box, open, open!"

He inspected the Santas and pried from the blister bedding the rightmost one, a jolly fellow in red against a green background. Carefully, eagerly, he peeled away the foil wrapper to hold the bare chocolate Santa between forefinger and thumb. He lifted it to his mouth. He stopped.

Ulysses held the chocolate figurine a litle farther from his face and regarded it for several seconds.

"I can't do it," he said, finally. "I can't eat Santa."

He looked up at us dolefully.

"Do you want me to put the wrapper back on?" said Donald.

Ulysses nodded.

A few moments of careful re-wrapping later -- the foil hadn't come off in one piece -- and Santa was back with his brethren.

And there he remains to this day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve evening 2008: Santa burnout

In the evening, I pulled out some sugar-cookie dough I'd made a month ago and defrosted today. The Cook's Country recipe using yolks only, no whites. They tout that it can be rerolled a zillion times without toughening, thanks to leaving out the tough protein of the egg whites. They're right.

"Ulysses, I'm going to make some cookies for Santa. Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"Yes!" He jumped off the couch, where he was watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, or maybe it was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by that point. He found his miniature rolling pin in his toy kitchen and ran to the kitchen. He ran to the dough on the counter and held up the pin. I invited him to pick out some cookie cutters from the pile on the kitchen table. He went to the table and looked at them.

Then I saw something in his eyes retreat, disengage.

"I gotta watch Cars," he said.

I stopped myself from saying that Cars is not a Christmas movie. I put it in the player, but by the time the menu had come up, he was playing a video game at his computer. "Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"No," he said.

He never did watch Cars that evening, but neither did he respond again, after that, when we reminded him that Santa was coming tonight. All day, he'd bounced and bounded at the mention of it. By now, it seemed, his emotions had been so thoroughly stimulated, they had just gone into overload.

He was withdrawing, for emotional safety, I thought. The obvious corollary of that, I realized later that night, was that his emotions were vulnerable and raw. They could now be readily abraded, inflamed.

* * *

I made sugar cookies in holiday shapes and colors: green wreaths and trees with little balls of many colors and with royal icing bows and garlands; red Santas with icing for the fur at his wrists, cap and ankles; reindeer with red noses; stars with turbinado sugar sparkles. I assembled a plate, including one of the trees, for Santa's visit later that night, and set it on the dining table.

Ulysses plucked a green Christmas tree from the cooling rack. "I'm eating Santa's cookie," he said, happily. How cute, I thought.

Several minutes later, he came over from his video play again and took another tree cookie.

Several minutes after that, I noticed that Ulysses had picked up the fourth and final tree. Earlier, I had asked Don if he had any requests for cookie shapes. He had told me, "I want a Christmas tree."

"Oops! Sorry," I told Ulysses. "You can't have that one. That's Tata's tree." I plucked it from his hand. "Sorry, we need to leave that one for him. Here are the other cookies. Which one would you like?"

"No! No! I want the tree!" he cried, making a grab for the cookie in my hand.


"How about this flower?"

"No! Not a blue cookie."

"A heart?"

"Not a red one!"

"All right. How about this wreath? It's green."

"No! It's broken!" It had a scalloped center cut out of it. Much like the blown glass ornaments that had offended his aesthetic sensibilities earlier that day. "I want a tree!"

"I'm sorry, this is the last one. It's for Tata. He'll be said if it's gone." I couldn't back off now. I'd established a cookie ownership and I had to follow through. The ownership of this item had to stand. The person whose cookie it was had to be respected.

"Where are the another tree cookies?"

"You ate yours. You ate mine, too," I added dryly, and only for my own amusement. "But that's OK, I let you have mine," I said, to soften the last remark, before continuing with my lesson: "This last one is for Tata and we need to leave it for him."

Don came out of the back computer room. "What's going on?" I filled him in. He said, "It's OK, Ulysses, you can have my tree cookie. I'm giving you my tree cookie." Don tried to hand it to him.

"No, no!" said Ulysses, in tears. "It's your cookie. I can't eat it, I can't. And I ate Mama's cookie!" He collapsed into sobs, falling onto the floor.

I suddenly realized that he grasped the situation far more deeply than I had imagined.

"Ulysses," I said, "Would you like me to make some more tree cookies?"

He fell silent. He looked up at me.

"Would you like me to make more tree cookies for everyone?"

"Yes!" he said, and sprang up.

"You can help me if you like," I said. "You don't have to, though."

He ran to his computer and plunged back into his game.

Fortunately, I still had some dough. Half an hour later, there were six perfect, bedecked Christmas trees on the cooling rack. "Ulysses!" I called.

Ulysses walked over, quietly, and surveyed the little green trees. He picked up three of them.

He ran to the bedroom, where Don was watching TV.

"Here, Tata, this is for you."

He ran back to me and handed me a tree. "This is for you, Mama."

With the third cookie in his hand, he sat down at his video game.

* * *

It wasn't until much later that I considered the tree cookie that had been on Santa's plate all through the conflict.

I could have let Ulysses have the tree cookie that he picked up from the cooling rack, without ever saying a word about whose cookie was whose. There would have been no issue if the trees were simply gone the next time he came grazing. Meantime, I could have taken the tree cookie off Santa's plate and put it out of sight for Don, for later.

I didn't.

I didn't even dream of disturbing the plate I'd prepared for Santa. Because ... because those were Santa's cookies. It wouldn't be right to take away his tree. I had made four trees. One for each of us.

I'd hypnotized myself into respecting the rights of a fictional character.

Christmas Eve 2008

I just reread this blog entry from last Christmas Eve – – and was struck by the magnitude of difference in Ulysses today: his comprehension, the abstraction of his thoughts, his articulation of them. Last year he was in the moment in such a way – there was no use describing to him a distant future.

This year he's been anticipating Santa's visit for weeks, announcing regularly that tonight was the night. We pointed to the day on the calendar as it approached, showing him, "We're here, this is today. Santa's coming on this day." It was hard to see his scope of comprehension, but probably a safe guess that it wasn't total. I should have told him it was a map of time, because he understands maps. (Thanks, Dora.)

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we told him that this was the big day -- that Santa was in fact coming tonight, that we had a lot to do to get ready. He was elated. We drove out to storage to pick up the tree and decorations, then to the supermarket for figgy pudding ingredients. Would you believe Copps, giant as it is, doesn't carry suet, while our neighborhood market does? It's in the same chaotically, gloriously mixed case of ethnic speciality animal parts as the chitterlings, necks, feet and other tidbits for the adventerous. Or the traditional. Depending on your point of view.

I set White Christmas to play on the DVD. Don got out the battery-powered Christmas train while I prepped the tree area. We stood the 5-foot square cedar play table (built by Don in 2006) on its side against the bookshelf to clear the living room corner. The toy bins that live under the table went into Ulysses' room. I remembered the white vinyl that been discarded at my workplace that I'd brought home for another project, and Don brought it in. We cut parts of it and made a tree skirt about 8-foot square, large enough for the train to run on its extended length track for the first time. We discovered that the other side had been printed on -- it was the color of winter sky, with a field of irregularly placed soft white dots. Snowfall! How fortuitous was that? Or maybe the dots were the printing error that caused the banner to be jettisoned. Either way, it worked for us. We draped the play table with the blue side out, a much better backdrop for the tree than bare wood.

Throughout, Ulysses played on, under and within the enormous length and width of vinyl. As soon as the snow pattern was revealed, he jumped on it with his bare feet. "Cold! It's so cold! Ouch, ouch!" he shouted, gleefully jumping from foot to foot. "Brrr, snow," he said. Next he made an "igloo" of the cavernous mounds, pulling me under with him, insisting that I also complain of the cold. It was hot under that vinyl.

There was a bit of a snag when we eventually cut up his ice fields and igloos for tree skirting and background draping, and then folding up the rest to put away. "My igloo!" he said, horrified. "You broke it!" Then I pulled out the box containing the Christmas tree. I showed him the label, with a photograph of the contents.

"Mama!" he said, excited, "We have to make the Christmas tree beautiful."

Ulysses enthusiastically pitched in to help string the lights, hang the delicate glass ornaments and unpack and set out the trees and buildings and people of the miniature village. Consider this word, "help," with circumspection. For instance, he tended to hang the ornaments not on the branches, but the needles thereon. Matching ornaments, he believed, should properly all hang on the same branch tip.

I moved into high parenting gear to prevent electrocutions, injury and excessive breakage. Don split for the far end of the house and shut the door.

An hour later, the tree was done and only one ornament, a green glass ball, had paid the price. Ulysses had been batting it around on its branch, not heeding my warnings: "Ulysses! Be gentle with that. It's fragile. This breaks very easily. It can cut you."

"No, this is not fragile," he insisted. He gripped at it, and it collapsed into shards between his fingers. A moment of shock, then howling tears. "I cut my hand! The orn'ment broke! My green orn'ment!"

His hand was not cut. Whew.

After a few moments, he was ready to be consoled with a different, identical green ornament that he hung on the same branch. He moved on, but not before he batted at it – gently – to, fro and to again, announcing, "Be careful. This breaks very easily!"

Then there were the fancy glass ornaments,the kind with the deeply indented, faceted centers. Ulysess saw one and declared it broken.

"It's not broken," I said. "It's fine. This is the design. It looks this way on purpose."

"It is broken," he insisted.

"Look, there's nothing wrong with it," I said, angling it so we could see directly into the indented pattern.

It was broken. During storage, the wire for hanging had punched through the thin wall of indented glass from within.


After I'd thrown out the broken pieces, I brought out another ornament of the same type.

"No," said Ulysses. "It's broken."

This one was not broken. But he was having no truck with any of the tray of center-dented ornaments that seemed to splinter dramatically in upon themselves. "These are broken," he insisted.

I replaced their lid and put them back in the ornament box for the season.

Ulysses regarded the half-dressed tree. "That's not beautiful," he said, and looked on the verge of tears.

"We're not done yet."

"But it's not beautiful, Mama!" He whimpered.

"Then let's keep trying. Look at this one!"

"It's a egg!" he said.

"Yes! This is a goose egg from our friend Cindy and our friend Troy. They brought it to us from ..." I couldn't remember the country they'd visited. "... Eastern Europe!"

"A egg, a egg! Two eggs!" Happy again, he set to work trying to hang the elaborately painted goose eggs on the same needle of a single branch, and didn't mind when I helped him pick out two different branches instead. Peace had been restored.

Later: "Mama! The Christmas tree is beautiful! We made it beautiful! Together!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Baka Ljubica's Vanilice crescents

This recipe of my grandmother's comes to me from my aunt, who fortunately has kept the recipe all these years. These were my Ujka (uncle) Sava's favorite cookies when he was a little boy.

Just to give an idea of the timelines involved here, my grandmother Ljubica (b. Stefanovich) Jankovic was born in 1888, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother was born in 1920, and her brother (my uncle), was born in 1923. So, want to talk about an heirloom recipe, this is it.

A few notes: my grandmother, who we called Baka, did not use an egg. However, these cookies are very fragile without one. When my aunt (my Ujna) would make these for my Ujka, she started adding an egg for strength. I made these for the first time this month, specifically to ship to my Ujka and family for Christmas, and I didn't want to take any chances with shipping a box of broken cookies, so I used the egg variant.

These hyper-vanilified cookies use a whopping two tablespoons of vanilla in a batch. Not only that, but they're dusted with vanilla sugar. Baka would place a vanilla bean in powdered sugar for a week or so in advance of making these cookies, and have a wonderfully perfumed sugar to dust with. If you don't want to incur the expense of a vanilla bean, you can pour a teaspoon or so of vanilla into a container and then place two cups of powdered sugar right on top, and wait a few days or weeks for a similar effect.

I didn't plan ahead, and I found myself making the cookies the day before I needed to ship them. Not enough time to make vanilla sugar! So I placed vanilla directly into the resealable container in which I was packing the cookies, and packed the cookies in powdered sugar. The result: I had a great insulator for my cookies that protected them from breakage, and by the time the cookies arrived by UPS ground, and then were opened a couple of days later, the powdered sugar had become vanilla sugar!

Serbian vanilla crescents

3 cups all-purpose flour
10 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter
2 cups walnuts, finely ground (use food processor or coffee grinder)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 whole egg (optional – will make cookies less fragile)
vanilla powdered sugar to garnish (directions below, you need to make this vanilla sugar in advance)

Mix together all ingredients except egg and powdered sugar.

Add egg, if using, and mix in.

When ingredients are combined, form a small ball, a tablespoon or so and then shape the ball into a crescent. I found that the prettiest crescents are made like this: Shape a tablespoon of dough into a ball. Roll the ball back and forth between your palms until it forms a rope the width of your palms. Roll the rope with a few more back-and-forth motions. The ends of the rope will extend beyond your palms, but will be tapered. Shape this into a crescent, with the points nearly touching.

Place the crescents on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 until just barely browned, about 10 min.

Remove from oven. Place on cooling racks.

Meanwhile, prep a pan, like a lasagna pan, with the powdered vanilla sugar. While still warm but no longer hot, drop several crescents at a time into the sugar and roll them around, shaking the pan, until they're well coated.

Make the vanilla sugar several days ahead of time by pounding a vanilla bean into the powdered sugar with a mortar and pestle. Or, put vanilla extract at the bottom of a container of powdered sugar several days ahead of time. The vanilla flavor and aroma will infuse the powdered sugar.

How to tell a present

Most every night we put on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and drift off to sleep with it running. A timer turns off the TV after a while. Ulysses has been hearing that theme music, with its signature transition from futuristically, whisperingly quiet to blood-stirringly horn laden (woe betide your sleep if you're only halfway into slumber by the end credits), nearly every night since before he was even born. (Some nights we play Galaxy Quest instead.)

The other night U and I were watching “Parallels,” a final-season episode featuring Lieutenant Commander Worf, the first Kingon to serve in Starfleet. The opening scenes feature a surprise birthday party for him. Mr. Worf is on the cranky side, as a matter of character. He is visibly embarrassed and annoyed as his crew mates lustily sing the rendition of “Happy Birthday” that they've laboriously translated into Klingon in his honor.

“It wasn't easy to translate,” says Counselor Troi to a still-scowling Worf. “There doesn't seem to be a Klingon word for 'jolly,'”

Ulysses was loving it. “Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he said. “It's a party!”

Then the birthday cake is brought out. In close-up, a long knife drives into an especially fudgy and moist chocolate-on-chocolate cake. The relative extreme of the visual is needed for later in the story, when the variety of cake is revealed to be a plot point.

Ulysses was delighted by all the chocolateyness. “Cake! He has a birthday cake! Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he crowed as the Klingon, still scowling, passes around plates heaped with gooey slabs.

Next come the presents. Data hands Worf a big, flat, beribboned rectangle of shiny wrapping paper. (Everything is metallic in the future.) “A present!” Ulysses said, happily.

Worf tears off the paper to reveal ... “A ... painting,” he says, trying hard to be polite, but unable to conceal his confusion at the inscrutable tangle of bright, abstract shapes. Data explains that it's his expressionist interpretation of a great Klingon battle. “I am honored,” says Worf, but the subtext is unmistakable: “This thing is awful – and I'm stuck with it!”

“That's not a present,” Ulysses said, mirroring Worf's reaction.

“Sure, it's a present from Data,” I said.

“No,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “It's a painting.”

“The present is the painting,” I said. “The painting is a present.”

“That's no present,” he said, shaking his head. He looked closely at me. How could I not see something that was so obvious to both him and Mr. Worf? Didn't I grasp Mr. Worf's reaction on tearing open the wrapping? Couldn't I feel it? Ulysses seemed to be casting about for a way to convey it to me. Finally, he found a way to get it across in terms I should understand.

“That's no present. It's not a toy.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grandaunt Naka's Vanil Grancle

In the past, I've blogged about these exquisite little jam-filled Serbian sandwich cookies that are a family heirloom. See:

Those posts told the story of my attempt to recreate, from memory, my Grandaunt Naka's Vanil Grancle (VAH-neel GRAHNT-sleh).

Today I share the exciting news that I managed to get the original recipe! My grandaunt had written down her recipe.

In Western genealogical terms, I guess she's not really a grandaunt to me, as that refers to the aunt of one's parents. But it's the only term that seems to make sense. Yulia (b. Joanovic) Pecic, whom we all called Naka, was my aunt's mother. More specifically, she was the mother of the wife of the brother of my mother. The mother of my mother's sister-in-law. Get it?

Born in 1913, Naka was from Kikinda, a municipality in what's today the Serbian Banat, part of a larger historical and geographical region known as the Banat, which happens to be extraordinarily well suited for the cultivation of apricots.

The Banat overall straddles three nations, as the borders are drawn today: Serbia, Romania and Hungary. The word can be loosely translated as "province," and whereas once there were lots of banats within the Austro-Hungarian empire and within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, this is the area that's meant when you just say "Banat" or "The Banat." It's more or less identical to a region called "The Banat of Temeswar" that was circumscribed by an 18th century treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, by which the area was within the Kingdom of Hungary but controlled by the Ottomans. Or something like that.

Kikinda is also in the Voivodina, a word that means a sort of duchy (a "voivod" would be a duke), which has historically been an autonomous region relative to the succession of empires, kingdoms and nation-states that have surrounded it. Or something like that. The Voivodina encompasses at least the Serbian part of the Banat, as near as I can figure.

But don't take my word for all this. Poke around on Wikipedia and the many other sources available on the Net and in print, and if you can figure it out better, let me know. I'm no expert. (And by the way, the experts disagree.)

At any rate, when Naka's mother was born, in 1870, Kikinda was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

These cookies represent the intersection of the horticultural tradition of apricot growing in the Banat with the sophistication of Austro-Hungarian cuisine, especially its culinary tradition of baked sweets.

* * *

Earlier this month, I tried out the recipe and sent a batch of grancle east to Baltimore, where my cousins and my uncle and aunt sampled them just this weekend. They report success! The recipe yields a cookie that's true to the original.

The only thing yet to work on, though, is the thickness of the cookie. The pictures you see show a cookie about twice as high as the original. The instructions below will yield cookies that are thinner and have a more favorable jam-to-cookie ratio than the ones in the photo. Also they'll be less of a Dagwood experience to get your teeth around.

Over the decades, I had misremembered the name of Vanil Grancle as Vanilice (vah-NEEL-eet-she). Vanilice, or vanilitse, it turns out, is a different Serbian cookie altogether. In fact, my uncle Sava's favorite cookie from his boyhood was my grandmother's Vanilice. Fortunately, I was able to get the recipe for that from my aunt, via my cousin. I'll give that in a different post

Here's my cousin in early 2008, comparing the photo and description of my 2006 cookies to Naka's grancle.

your vanilice look just like my grandmother naka's granzle (grantsle) except her top round circle cut out was smaller. they were my favorite cookies growing up and haven't had them since she passed away 5 years ago. she used to make them up until the time she died, despite the fact that her hands were almost crippled from arthitis and i used to eat each one slowly and carefully thinking of her crippled fingers making them lovingly for us.

mama never did make these herself, again the apricot jam connection to naka's recipes, wonder if they are austro-hungarian influenced because banat was occupied by austro-hungarian empire.

baka's recipe that mama recalls is the crescent. i just realized that if you remember a friend of our family saying they baked hundreds of these and froze them each year those are definitely my naka's recipe!!!!! she would make hundreds each year, they were among her specialities and i think i mentioned i really think she was a master baker among serbian women who are really mostly master bakers.

i've been to many slavas where people serve "sitni kolaci" that can't compare to these cookies.

Vanil Grancle
Yield: about 60 sandwich cookies

200 grams (1 cup minus one teaspoon) sugar
200 grams (1 stick + 6 tablespoons) butter at room temperature
1 whole egg + 3 separated eggs
1 tablespooon lemon rind, grated and minced
400 grams (2 1/3 cups) flour
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream
* * *
powdered sugar
about 2 cups walnuts, chopped into small bits
about 1/2 cup apricot jam

Forming the cookies

* Mix whole egg and three yolks with sugar.
* Mix in butter, sour cream and lemon rind.
* Add flour and mix to make a soft dough. If exceedingly soft and sticky, add a bit more flour.
* Shape dough into two logs. Wrap in parchment paper or plastic cling wrap and chill. Slice into 1/8" rounds.
* Alternately, shape dough into two or three disks that are 1/8" thick. Chill several hours on a platter, separating the layers with parchment paper or clear clingfoil so they don't get stuck together. Punch out with a cookie cutter into 1.5" rounds.
* Using a thimble, cut a hole into the center of half of the disks. If you don't have a thimble, use any cylinder into which your middle finger will just fit. I used a bit of copper piping.
* Re-roll any dough scraps left over and repeat as necessary until you've made all the dough into bottoms (solid rounds) and tops (rounds with holes).


* Bake cookie bottoms at 300 F. They should be pale when done, with just the lightest browning on the bottoms.
* Paint tops cookie tops with egg white. I did this by putting the egg white in a tray, and then placing all the tops in the tray.
* Sprinkle cookie tops with powdered sugar.
* Sprinkle cookie tops with walnuts.
* Bake cookie tops at 300 F. Like the bottoms, they'll be pale when they're done, just barely browned underneath.

Unfortunately, I didn't write down the baking times when I did this. Next time, I'll take notes and add it to this post. All I can say for now is, start checking your oven at 10 minutes. Go by sight and by the aroma of baking. When done, they will have puffed up a little. Like most baked cookies, they will feel a little underdone when they are perfectly done -- they continue to bake and dry out after you pull them from the oven -- but they'll have a light brown cast underneath, where they rest against the baking sheet.

I think the bottoms took 20 minutes and the tops 25.


Let cool. Place about 1/4 teaspoon apricot jam on each cookie bottom. Top with the cookie top. Press and twist together just enough to distribute the jam evenly to the edge of the cookies. These will be squishy and slidey at first, but the jam will set up after a few hours and the sandwich construction will be sturdy.

Here's a tip I got from Cook's Illustrated: give your jam a quick whiz in the food processor. This will break up the big chunks of apricot and distribute the fruit more evenly throughout the jam, making it much easier to sandwich the cookies.

Now here's the original text of the recipe that my cousin sent me. Note that the non-metric amounts are different from those given above. I re-translated the metric into non-metric, and used what I came up with, rather than the non-metric amounts below. Also, instead of an entire lemon's zest, I used a tablespoon, after checking with my aunt that indeed this made sense. These are not exceedingly lemony cookies.

here is the granzle recipe. the ingredients are straight from naka's recipe as are the instructions on how to assemble the cookies but the directions on mixing ingredients come from my mother and me trying to make sense from how the ingredients would go together.

apparently naka never wrote down how she makes the cookie dough and mama never witnessed it or made the granzle herself. so here goes:

20 dkg (1 cup) sugar
20 dkg (1 cup) sweet butter (unsalted) 1 1/2 sticks
1 whole egg plus 3 eggs separated (small eggs would probably be most accurate)
lemon rind to taste (mama thinks about 1 whole medium lemon)
40 dkg flour (2 cups)
1 heaping tblspoon of sour cream
powdered sugar
chopped walnuts (small pieces)
apricot jam (sorry, no info on quantity for these last 3 items, we'll have to experiment)

combine 1 whole egg and 3 egg yolks and sugar. add softened butter and add sour cream and rind, combine.

add flour and if too soft, add some more. (i'm not kidding, that's what it says)

note --naka used to roll the dough out and cut out the shapes but mama says she does know that naka changed that technique because the dough was always so sticky. i think her solution sounds brilliant.---
form the dough into a long roll like a salami, wrap in plastic wrap and chill until hard. (no info on how long) dough should be like sugar cookie dough you buy at the grocery store---slice and bake---similar shape and thickness.

then, remove wrap and slice the dough into 60 disks. cut 30 of the disks with a hole in the center (these will be the tops) using a thimble. (mama fortunately remembers naka using a thimble, i thought i remembered the hole was pretty small, i love this kind of historic detail and thanks to you, i bothered to get it from mama finally!!!!)

bake the bottom 30 disks at 300 degrees until done (again, no details sorry) and cookies should be pale, not browned.

take the 3 egg whites, whisk with a fork and then paint tops (the disks with thimble hole)with egg whites. dip the tops into powdered sugar and chopped (small pieces) walnuts. then bake at 300 until done, again pale and not browned.

when cookies have cooled, assemble as sandwich cookies using apricot (we always had only apricot but of course any jam will do) jam.

my editorial comment is that i would sprinkle the cookies with powdered sugar and walnut pieces but you might want to dip.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa Claus is coming

I never meant to raise my child to believe in Santa Claus. A fictional supernatural being who gets the credit for staging the gift-giving festivity when everyone knows perfectly well it's the parents who did the work. That it's the parents' love that makes it happen.

But it turns out my usual approach to teaching him about the world -- which might be summed up as a threefold exposing him to situations, things and opportunities, keeping him safe and staying out of the way of his process -- doesn't work the same with Santa Claus as it does with say, gravity or sharing.

The world of physics, his developing body, his energy and his inborn drive for self-preservation provided everything he needed to learn to climb the steps to the slide and come down it. It was easy to learn what leads to stumbling and a skinned knee. The world of interacting humans likewise provides plenty of feedback about what happens when two children covet a single toy. Eventually each toddler learns that snatching and running leads not to an unhampered relationship with the object of desire, but only to weeping, screeching and unhappiness all around.

Not so with Santa Claus. His image is all around all year -- you notice this when you have a young charge -- and especially as the autumn deepens into winter. He's featured on episodes of otherwise non-Christmassy TV shows. Often the plot of these episodes turns on the nullification of one character's disbelief. Or he's simply there, as real as any other fictional being in the show. He's around. He's iconic.

He's the guy who brings presents to children. And children do get presents, after all. For a four-year-old, this is not a controversial syllogism.

Anyway, I thought we shouldn't tell Ulysses that Santa Claus exists. Donald thought we should. As it turned out, it wasn't our decision to make. There was no point at which we would bestow or withhold this piece of information. (Technically, misinformation.) The world has taught Ulysses about the person of Santa Claus. The only real choice is between going with the flow and convincing him that it's all made up. That there's not really any such guy.

In other words, to be really, really mean.

So I'm going with the flow.

Santa Claus is about as real as Spongebob. But how real is Spongebob, for Ulysses? Does Ulysses realize that there is no pineapple under the sea? I want him to know that Steven Hillenberg's imagination is the true wonder of Spongebob. That Tom Kenny, Patrick Warburton, Clancy Brown -- to name just a few of that show's marvelous voice actors -- are among the legions of artists who create this pulsingly alive semblance. There's nothing to gain from trying to explain this to him now. Soon enough he'll know that these guys are made up of lots of little drawings shown in succession, synched with audio recordings made elsewhere. What does he understand now? I'm not sure. But I'm sure it would be futile, not to say hurtful, to dog him with the notion that "Spongebob is not real." Well, there he is. Interacting with a whole world of characters and things. Uttering quotable quotes that we quote in this household. Learning life lessons that we cite.

Every night for the past week or so, Ulysses has told me, in the dark of the evening and often as we're turning out the lights, "Santa Claus is coming tonight."

Each night, I say, "Santa Claus is coming soon. But not tonight."

And Ulysses answers, matching my tone in an exaggerated singsong: "Yes, tonight."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Glad we got that straight

Apropos of nothing I could identify, Ulysses spoke up with this:

"Mama. Did you know there's a tooth fairy?"

"Why, yes," I answered, after the moment it took to gather my thoughts. "I did know that."

That was the conversation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Meeting Santa

Santa was at Walgreens, meeting children and posing for photos.

"Let's go for a ride," I told Ulysses after breakfast.

"Noooo. I'm not going for a ride," he replied.

"C'mon, we're gonna go out and see Santa Claus."

"Nooo, I'm not gonna go out and see San...." he trailed off, stopped and turned toward me. "I'm gonna go out and see Santa Claus!" he crowed.

Moments later I was helping him squirm into a full set of winter clothes. But when I brought out his boots, he said, "Nooo. I don't wanna wear boots. I want to wear my Thomas shoes."

His Thomas shoes are sneakers. The ground outside was mounded with the year's first thick snowfall.

"These boots will protect your feet from the snow," I said. "They'll keep your feet warm and dry. Your Thomas shoes aren't for this weather."

"Noooo. My Thomas shoes are magic. Boots are not magic."

"You know who wears black boots?" I asked. "Santa Claus."

"Boots! I'm wearing black boots! Mama, put these black boots ... on!"

* * *

At Walgreens, we caught sight of Santa and Ulysses stopped short, fell silent. His eyes widened. There he was, the great one. In person.

"Come on, Ulysses," I said, taking his hand and gently pulling him forward. I repeated again what I'd been telling him on the way over: "Santa's here to meet the children. He wants to talk with you and find out what you like. You can tell him what kinds of toys you like. Here are the cookies we're giving him. He brings us presents, so it's only right we bring him something, too."

Ulysses dragged behind me, following with slow little steps. Santa saw him and called over to him. "Hello, little boy! Do you want to sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?"

I looked at Ulysses. His eyes shone, but at this suggestion his mouth changed from a little smile to a little "o" of astonishment. He shrank back. Santa smiled and greeted him again.

I watched as the two of them eyed one another across the stretch of glossy retail floor. Santa smiling gently; Ulysses as close to a swoon as I've ever seen him.

Then Ulysses seemed suddenly to become conscious of the zip-top sandwich bag of cookies that he was gripping with both hands. He drew himself up a little, and boldly stepped forward, all the way to Santa's chair. He held out the bag, his arms nearly straight before him.

"Here, Santa," he said in a soft voice. "I brought these cookies for you."