23 | spice
and a Dickensian cookie sandwich.
7 | Christmas Across the Pond
Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoy The Muppets. As long as we’ve had internet avatars, Miss Piggy has been my stand-in selfie. So I’m unable to objectively decide if this version of the story continues to resonate with families today.
Michael Caine does wear the cloak of a pliable villain well. Gonzo and Rizzo keep me chuckling through a story that directly addresses my own mortality. Even though Jim Henson’s legacy is partly clouded by the vanilla stench of Disney in this rendition, wherever I find love I find The Muppets.
No conversation about British food or British villains is complete without acknowledging India. No flavor profile of India is complete without cumin.
Cumin is used widely across the globe and is more versatile than you might think when you throw it in chili or curries. It works well in chocolate, with cinnamon and paired with citrus. Here, it transforms a cooking into a great candidate for a holiday savory snack spread. Slice these cookies square and watch them make a surprising cracker for someone’s hunk of stilton or aged cheddar.
Add these on your holiday cheese board: Pepper-Cumin Cookies
Two considerations: if you have a way to crack the pepper and cumin, you won’t need a food processor. If you want them to have a more holiday cookie feel, minced candied lemon peel is a quality addition.
Who’s your favorite Muppet?
8 | Christmas at Gogol’s House
The Night Before Christmas (1961)
Although perhaps not like the one at your house. This fairy tale originates from a collection of pastoral short stories that became known as Nikolai Gogol’s most Ukrainian work, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. It was adapted for the screen by Alexander Rou, a Greek-Irishman born in tsarist Russia who became one of the Soviet Unions’ most celebrated fantasy film makers.
The story opens when the devil seeks revenge on a local blacksmith, Vakula, for his paintings in a church. Vakula cuts a deal in order to fly to St. Petersburg, get the Tsarina’s slippers and win the hand of his coquettish maiden Oksana. The story is surrounded by a lot of blue screen flights, comically manipulated pacing, a telekinetic Cossack using his power for pierogi and some traditional Christmas carols.
If you’re into the absurd antics of the 1970s Rankin-Bass stop-animation Christmas specials, then this is going to fit right in at your house.
Pryaniki (Russian Spice Cookies)
Pronounced pre-awn-icky, these belong wherever find tea. I hadn’t come across a homemade version because my sense is they provide the same cultural placeholder as Royal Dansk butter cookies. That is, inexpensive and next to every pot of free coffee at community meetings and church gatherings since the dawn of cookies.
Pairing this much cardamom with rye gives these cookies an air of Eastern Orthodoxy you won’t find in nutmeg or allspice heavy European varieties.
Adapted from Darra Goldstein’s A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality
cookies: 1/4 cup sour cream ◾ 1/2 cup honey ◾ 2 tablespoons butter ◾ 1 large egg ◾ 1/2 teaspoon baking soda ◾ 1 teaspoon ground cardamom ◾ 1 teaspoon ground ginger ◾ 1 teaspoon ground mace ◾ 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon ◾ 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt ◾ 2 cups rye flour
glaze: juice of 1 lemon, 3-4 tablespoons ◾ 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
what to do
Combine the sour cream, butter and honey with an electric or stand mixer until smooth, then beat in the egg. Stir in the baking soda and spices and mix well. Add the flour in a 1/2 a cup at a time, stirring until a soft dough forms. Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough into 1 1/2 teaspoon (#40 scoop) balls and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet 1-2” apart. These will not change shape very much while baking, so if you want a smooth round cookie, you’ll need to roll them smooth. Flatten slightly with a cup of the back of your hand.
Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and continue baking for 8 to 10 more minutes. Cool completely.
When cooled, whisk lemon juice and confectioners sugar in a small bowl until smoothed into a thick glaze. Dip cookie tops into the glaze and dry on a cooling rack for about 30 minutes.
9 | The Ghost of Christmas Reagan
A cable network executive forcing a giant cast to work through the holidays on a live production to meet his own performance targets. Belittling a friend’s career choice as a social worker. Using Mary Lou Retton as product placement. Making Alfre Woodard, Carol Kane and Karen Allen manage the emotional labor of changing your mind.
Frank Cross is peak eighties grime. He may also be peak National Lampoon co-founder and writer Michael O’ Donoghue satire. Either way, I love this movie.
“Pepper nuts” seemed like a fitting cookie for Frank Cross. This recipe was given to me by the shop owner of my favorite spice shop in Chicago during a superbly organized holiday cookie exchange. If you can find Vietnamese cinnamon it’s worth the effort, for all your baking endeavors. If you can’t, you can up the allspice and cloves to make sure you get the flavor slap that Frank deserves.
Reading - confirmation of what our house has been saying all along: pigeons are robots.
Listening - to not enough Christmas music. You heard that right. Not enough.
Watching - In Bruges by Martin McDonagh (2008) which is too dark and flat to be balanced by offbeat charm of Colin Farrell or the beauty of Bruges.
Smelling - Laudano Nero by Tiziana Terenzi (2014) and wishing this is how the woods actually smelled.