Book review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva.

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Samantha Silva – Mr. Dickens and His Carol (2017 Flatiron Books, New York)

Just in time for Christmas comes this heartwarming, exquisitely-told story from Samantha Silva.  A fictionalized account of Charles Dickens’ struggle to write A Christmas Carol under extreme pressure, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is just the sort of sweet holiday tale perfect for cuddling up with during an hour of two of quiet over the festive season.  (Don’t forget the hot chocolate and Bailey’s, the warm cat nestled at your feet, and the crackling fire in the hearth).  I think I smiled from the first sentence until I reluctantly closed the covers at its conclusion.  Holiday cheer in book form – who could ask for more?

*Project Gutenberg has archived a digital copy of a first edition of A Christmas Carol from December 1843. It includes some fabulous illustrations and a marvelous scan of the front cover – click over to enjoy it here.

 

Merry Christmas!  

Recipe: Cranberry persimmon jam (small batch).

I know, I know, you’re probably tired of cooking for the holiday season already and the thought of doing more at this very moment doesn’t exactly inspire or thrill.  But, actually…this recipe pretty much cooks itself and the combination of ingredients is rather festive.  An added bonus: while it’s on the stovetop, your kitchen will smell delightful and afterwards, you’ll have something unique and special to serve up to your guests.

This jam isn’t subtle or summery in flavour – it’s full-on winter celebration, warmly spicy and rich.

Cranberry Persimmon Jam (small batch, yield: just over 2 cups)

12 ounces fresh cranberries, washed well (this year, I was so pleased to find cranberries grown in Canada – straight out of Nova Scotia!)

3 fuyu persimmons, peeled, mashed (a potato masher should do the trick, as will a hand blender)

1 heaping teaspoon ground cardamom

1 piece star anise

juice of 1/2 lime

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Throw all the ingredients into a large saucepan and stir together.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately turn the heat to low.  You want a consistent low boil – if bits of cranberry and persimmon are festooning the frosty kitchen windows in a pulpy sort of garland and colourful hot fruit dribbles are being catapulted into your Christmas tree as it stands sedately in the living room, you’ve got it on too high.

It will take time to boil this all down – about one hour, more or less.  You don’t have be present the entire time, but you cannot forget about it for too long.  Every once in a while, in between topping up your wine glass and wiping the cranberry-persimmon spatter off the chandelier (because you accidentally had the mixture on too high when you first got started), you will have to stir it.  Just so the sugar doesn’t burn.  Trust me on that one.  Burnt sugar sets off the smoke detector.  And your neighbours really don’t like that when it’s only six in the morning.  But, that’s another recipe from another time….

When the fruit and sugar have cooked down and everything is all jammy and fragrant and you can’t resist taking a bit of a taste, then it’s time to remove it from the heat and pack it into clean mason jars.  Don’t forget to remove the star anise chunk or someone is going to get a tooth-destroying, aggressively licorice-y surprise when they bite down.

Seal and refrigerate the jars when the contents have cooled down and enjoy!  Try to use it all up within three or four days.  That won’t be difficult.

*I think you could substitute a good honey for the sugar without any problems.  I am going to try this next time, and I will update this post if I find that it works.

**I think cinnamon would be lovely with this as well.  I’m also thinking about a whole vanilla bean.  And cardamom pods, versus the ground stuff.  Hmmmm….

***You could definitely process this in a boiling water canner for longer, safe storage.  You could also increase the size of the batch.

****I took a photograph of the jam as it was cooking in the pan, but let’s just say I’m a tad better at shooting landscapes and flowers.  You know what jam looks like.  😉

What are your favourite recipes using cranberries?

 

 

 

National Poinsettia Day.

pfpnormandeau

Apparently, it is National Poinsettia Day in the United States. I don’t have a poinsettia this year, although I love them. It’s been so cold here that transporting one from the garden centre to home might completely do it in before I even had a chance to enjoy it. Arctic air masses that lounge around for days and days on end are not fun for anyone, and especially not if you’re from the tropics, as this plant is. Which is also perhaps why it is not National Poinsettia Day here in Canada – we’ve established that temperatures in the minus mid-to-high twenties (that’s Celsius!) are not ideal for such a celebration. Really, for any celebration. Except one involving hot chocolate and Irish cream and a warm fireplace.

Even if we don’t have a special day to honour poinsettias here in the frozen north, I can still share a fascinating bit of information: did you know that the dense, multi-branching habit and stunted growth of our holiday poinsettias results from infection by a type of pathogen?  This article has more information about how it works.*  And here is another for further perusal.  Enjoy the reads – I’m off to petition the government to make National Hot Chocolate and Irish Cream and Warm Fireplace Day a reality.

Are poinsettias part of your holiday celebrations?  What colour is your favourite?  And have you ever seen a poinsettia in tree form?  (I haven’t).  

*UPDATED: I managed to track down a photo of a “wild” poinsettia, as the photo in the first link isn’t accurate – take a look here.

Merry Christmas!

Hope your holiday season is magical!  Enjoy the special time spent with family and friends!

FPCANormandeau

Enya – Oiche Chiúin (Silent Night)

Nana Mouskouri – Süsser die Glocken nie Klingen

Holiday Plants: Cranberries (and a recipe for Cranberry Fudge!)

Highbush cranberry

V. trilobum – nope, not this one!

Not to be confused with the pictured cranberry, Viburnum trilobum (high bush cranberry), which makes a fantastic jelly but grows on compact shrubs, or the ornamental V. opulus and other Viburnum species and cultivars which are gorgeous but not edible, the cranberry we associate with holiday feasting in Canada and the United States is the totally unrelated Vaccinium macrocarpon.  (The viburnums are actually kin to elderberries and are not true cranberries).  V. macrocarpon is native to North America.  The vines grow in marshy areas, and commercial cranberry fields are flooded during harvest times, to make it easier for growers to gather the fruit.  (I found a good video showing the process here).

Viburnum snowball - 16 June 2012

Nor this one…V. opulus

When British colonists first came to America, the First Nations peoples educated them about the value of “craneberries” (called Sassamanash by the Algonquin and Ibimi by the Wampnanoag), which had been used for centuries for dye and fibre, and for food and medicine.  The colonists quickly recognized that the berries were good for staving off scurvy, so they became a staple on board trading vessels of the time.  The berries also became massively popular as a culinary delight in England, and commanded top dollar as an export. Apparently, cranberries could appease grumpy kings, as well:  in 1677, they were sent to Charles II when he became overly fussy about the colonists minting their own currency.  If only international politics were so manageable nowadays!

In 2007, 79,163 metric tonnes of cranberries were harvested in Canada (primarily from operations in British Columbia and Quebec), which translated to $44.3 million in exports and $17.2 million in imports.  That’s a lot of cranberry sauce!

This recipe for cranberry fudge is a holiday staple at my workplace, as one of our former managers still pops by every Christmas with a huge plate for all of us to share.  Even if you’re totally cratered by sugar at this juncture in the holiday season, bookmark this one for next year’s cookie plates…you’ll love both the taste and how easy it is to make.

Cranberry Fudge

Metric conversion table

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup corn syrup

1/2 cup icing (powdered) sugar

1/4 cup evaporated milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

6 oz dried cranberries

Prepare an 8″ square pan by lining it with plastic wrap or baking parchment.

Combine chocolate chips and syrup in a microwave-safe bowl.  Microwave on high until melted and smooth.  (Keep checking it so you don’t overheat it.  The wattage varies depending on what model of microwave you have, so I haven’t listed a specific time here).  If you don’t wish to use the microwave, you can do this step in a small saucepan over low heat on the stovetop.

Remove the chocolate and syrup mixture from the heat. Add icing sugar, evaporated milk, and vanilla.  Stir until mixture is shiny.  Add dried cranberries and combine well.  Pour into prepared pan and tap the bottom of the pan gently on the countertop to level the mixture.  Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.  Cut into small squares and serve.

What are your favourite cranberry recipes? 

Further Reading:  Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants by Linda Allen (2000, Willow Creek Press, Wisconsin)

Source: Crop Profile for Cranberry in Canada, prepared by Pesticide Risk Reduction Program, Pest Management Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, September 2007

Cactus wishes.

Zygocactus

I’ve had it a month and I haven’t yet exterminated my newly-acquired Christmas cactus!  I’m really enjoying the blooms of my newly-acquired Christmas cactus!

I don’t know why I have trouble keeping Zygocactus* alive…I keep hearing that they’re the “easiest plants in the world to grow,” accompanied by enthusiastic testimony about specimens twenty feet wide and three hundred years old, that bloom sixteen times a year with absolutely no input from the gardener. (Okay, I exaggerate, but only slightly).  I usually kill mine within two weeks of purchase, it’s like they come with a self-destruct button or something.  I wake up one morning and poof! – they’ve completely cratered on my windowsill.

I mean,  I’m extremely careful not to overwater.  Well, actually, it’s more “neglect” than “care” – I must admit that all my houseplants exist in a state of drought most of their lives because I get busy and forget to water them.  You’d think I couldn’t kill cacti of any kind, but I have a pretty good track record.  (Why, when I read that last sentence back, does it sound suspiciously like bragging?).

But this time…I think I’ve finally found The One!  Or maybe I’m getting too excited about our one-month anniversary, and shouldn’t put the cart before the horse and all that.  Wish us a happy ever after!   😉

Do you grow Zygocacti?

*The name Zygocactus is kinda sorta fascinating – well, to me, anyway – as it refers to the way that these plants are segmented, and is not the genus name (which is actually Schlumbergera).

Amaryllis flowering.

IMG_0521 trim

My ‘Red Lion’ amaryllis bloomed this week…I don’t know why I thought it would be a deeper red colour, but I’m definitely not disappointed:  the hint of orange/salmon has a wonderful tropical appeal.  I am pleased that the bulb has produced a second flower stalk which should bloom very soon – this is the first time I’ve grown amaryllis that has sent up more than a single stalk.  (You can tell I’m not particularly serious about purchasing amaryllis.  I buy them on sale at the grocery store and not from specialty growers).  This particular plant seems nice and compact, as well – I’m not fighting with tall, heavy stems and flowers that threaten to topple the container.  A nice treat for the holiday season!

Do you grow amaryllis?  Have you ever saved them over and gotten them to rebloom (and if so, what did you do to accomplish it?). 

UPDATED JANUARY 6, 2015 – as Chloris has pointed out in the comments below, it seems that my amaryllis is not actually a ‘Red Lion’ cultivar as I was led to believe by the seller. That would definitely explain my confusion as to the colour of the blooms!  But…I don’t know which coral-striped type this is, so if anyone has any ideas, please feel free to chime in!