Christmas Baking and Gingerbread Bloodshed with Stephanie A. Cain

giftmas

Around the holidays, we’re surrounded by food. Family dinners, workplace potlucks, aisles and aisles of festive candy at grocery stores, not to mention all those friends who give you tasty treats as gifts to celebrate. When we’re so inundated with food (or anything, for that matter), we forget that others have different situations that lend to different holiday experiences for them. While I’ve never experienced a Christmas where I’ve had to go without, there are many in need, all over the world, and that’s why I wanted to participate in the Giftmas Blog Tour this year. December 6 – 12, we’re sharing holiday food anecdotes and family recipes to instill a little good cheer and support the Edmonton Food Bank.

‘Tis the season! I challenge you to provide a meal for someone in need, which is way easier than you think. $1 provides three meals for someone in need. Donate $5 to positively affect 15 lives. (This is the only time I enjoy math!)

And then…read today’s blog post by Stephanie A. Cain, fantasy writer extraordinaire whose creativity and storytelling follows her into the kitchen. Merry Giftmas!

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Stephanie…

Happy Giftmas! I’m joining this blog tour in support of the Edmonton Food Bank, so I’m here to talk to you about baking and Christmas bloodshed. Or something like that.

Let me start with a confession: I hate being in the kitchen.

I know, it’s weird for someone to write for a Christmas food blog tour when she hates cooking and baking. But here’s the thing–Christmas is the one time I don’t hate being in the kitchen.

My mom is an amazing cook and baker, and I seriously think her love language is feeding people. She taught me how to bake, and at Christmas, I love baking holiday cookies while listening to the Carpenters Christmas and Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums.

ninjabread-menMaking gingerbread boys has been a family tradition over the past decades–I have pictures of this going all the way back to when I was in middle school. Every year we try to get Mom a new cookie cutter. She mixes up the dough ahead of time (usually at least a quadruple recipe) and puts it in the fridge for a day or two.

Then my parents and I get together and bake. Dad rolls out the dough, I cut the cookies out, Mom handles the oven, and when they’re cool, I decorate.

You remember that Foxtrot cartoon where Jason does terrible things to the gingerbread men? That’s totally me. A couple of years ago, I got a set of “Ninja-bread Men” cookie cutters, which gave me plenty of excuses for head wounds and amputated limbs.

What? The Christmas story has its gruesome bits. Don’t forget about the Slaughter of the Innocents!

gingerwolves-and-victimsOne year I cast Lord of the Rings in gingerbread. One year my gingerbread men were the survivors of a zombie attack. We’ve also had gingerbread wolves, complete with red icing around their muzzles.  Then there was the year we thought it would be fun to make a gingerbread house. We quickly discovered how not fun that actually is, but the good news is, even an ugly gingerbread house tastes pretty good.

The recipe we use is from Mom’s battered, stained, well-used Betty Crocker Cookbook from 1972, the year she and Dad got married. (Picture the Book of Mazarbul from Fellowship of the Ring, but exchange recipes for dwarf records and vanilla-stains for bloodstains, and you’ll have an idea of how beat-up this cookbook is.)

Gingerbread Boys

1/2 cup shortening

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark molasses

1/4 cup water

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soda

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon allspice

Cream shortening and sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Cover; chill 2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 375. Roll dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured cloth-covered board. Cut with gingerbread boy cutter [or ninjabread boy, or gingerwolf, or…]; place on ungreased baking sheet.

[Betty recommends using raisins for the face and bits of candied cherries for other decorations. We use cinnamon red-hots for eyes and do the rest with icing after they’re baked.]

Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet. Makes about fifteen 4-inch cookies.

Like I said, we usually make at least a quadruple recipe, because a lot of dough is consumed while rolling and baking (shh, I am convinced salmonella is a conspiracy cooked up–get it, cooked up–by the oven industry). We also give gingerbread boys as a present to my uncle, because they’re his favorite cookies. There is laughter and shrieking and occasionally flour fights during the making of gingerbread boys, and it’s honestly one of my favorite traditions of Christmas.

If you decide to have fun with our recipe, make sure to take lots of pictures, and email me the results at stephanie@stephaniecainonline.com! And remember, as part of our 2016 Giftmas Blog Tour, we’re soliciting donations to the Edmonton Food Bank to help someone else have a happy holiday!

stephanie-a-cain

Stephanie A. Cain writes epic & urban fantasy. She grew up in Indiana, where much of her urban fantasy is set. She works at a museum and dreams of living somewhere without winter. A proud crazy cat lady, she is happily owned by Strider, Eowyn, and Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

Eating Christmas: A Place at the Table

Eating Christmas 1

This week, I attended Chow Bella’s Eating Christmas event at Crescent Ballroom, an annual reading during which local writers share their personal tales involving food and the holidays. And it was awesome. So awesome that I left Crescent wonderfully inspired to write my own Eating Christmas anecdote. So, here it is, all wrapped up in feels and a pretty bow for you as we get closer and closer to Christmas. (Word to the wise: This blog post will be best enjoyed if accompanied by a bowl of piping hot ramen.)

A Place at the Table

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

My boyfriend has explained repeatedly that he comes from a food family, but I don’t think that fact truly sunk in until the coolers from California arrived. When Bryan and I moved in together earlier this year, his parents scheduled a visit to Phoenix. We’d only been in the house a few days, so our lives were still tightly packed in cardboard boxes and our refrigerator contained around 50 styles of hot sauce, but very little food.

“Should we go grocery shopping?” I asked. “We don’t really have anything.”

“No, we won’t need to shop any time soon,” Bryan answered.

And he was right. Because moments after hugs and hellos were exchanged, Bryan’s mom started unloading two huge coolers of food that had traveled the nine-hour drive with them. Within minutes, our freezer and fridge were completely stocked with foods I’d never heard of before—mushroom balls, shao bing, bean curd skins, and scallion pancakes.

The next day, Bryan’s mom sat at a fold-out card table for nearly an hour hand-rolling spinach and tofu dumplings. When she’d filled two large cookie sheets, the little pockets of heaven were deposited in the freezer, but she said she still had dumpling wrappers and filling left over, so she’d continue the next day. Though we’ve eaten those dumplings liberally throughout the course of this year, I’m pretty sure we still have a few in our freezer, because her beautiful, cooking-weathered hands crafted so many of them.

When Bryan and I first started dating, a whole new world of food opened up to me. Since his father is Cantonese and his mother is Shanghainese (very important distinctions, by the way), I got a crash course in traditional Asian food and knew immediately that my days of eating Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s were over. Honestly, now that I’ve been properly educated, those chain restaurants seem like imposters. If chicken feet or traditional ramen or fish sauce aren’t on the menu, I don’t want to eat there. (And yes, I’ve eaten chicken feet; there’s photographic proof.)

Eating Christmas 2Now, when Bryan and I go to Ranch Market at the Chinese Cultural Center on the weekends to pick up jackfruit or Enoki mushroom or mochi, I’m excited, because odds are good that the lady who makes Taiwanese pancakes will be there, her cart steaming and giving off the aromas of pancake batter, coconut, vanilla custard, and red bean. I burn my mouth every single time on the hot filling, but it’s totally worth it.

On the birthdays of friends and family members, Bryan and I always make sure to eat noodles together, because noodles symbolize long life in Chinese culture. Recently, we’ve started bringing home noodles for our dogs, too, so they can partake in our birthday tradition.

And I love celebrating moon festivals, because there is always moon cake. And even more exciting than the prospect of buttery cake filled with pineapple or melon or mung bean are the ancient stories that accompany the tradition of eating moon cake.

One of my favorite stories is one that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD), a time of difficult, oppressive government and a resulting zeal for revolt. An uprising of the people was imminent, but it was difficult to pass messages between the resistance forces. Naturally, the Chinese came up with an ingenious solution…that involved food. Members of the resistance would hide messages in cakes, because what could possibly be threatening about a delivery of pastry? For added security, the rebels would read the messages by the light of the full moon, which is why full moons and new moons are celebrated in Chinese culture with—it all makes sense now!—moon cakes.

Last year, I found out that Bryan hadn’t been home to Lancaster for Christmas in about six or seven years.

“It’s time,” I told him and we packed up our suitcases and drove out to California for 10 days.

I found out that we’d be enjoying a traditional hot pot for Christmas dinner. A hot pot is kind of like eating fondue—but way better. Vegetable, beef, or chicken broth simmers in a pot in the middle of the table and everyone adds meat, veggies, seafood, wontons, dumplings, and more. As your food cooks, it absorbs all of the flavors of what has been cooked before, plus the flavor of the broth. And there’s customized dipping sauce, too. It’s a hearty, satisfying, interactive umami explosion.

Last Christmas, I went crazy over thinly-sliced Korean beef, which was both delicate and decadent. I tried pork kidney and didn’t completely hate it. I gorged myself on fresh vegetables. And my mouth was burning from the spicy dipping sauce I’d made myself.

But my favorite moment of dinner was something that Bryan’s dad said. Bryan’s parents—and Bryan, too, for that matter—are really happy that I’m an adventurous eater. They understand that I won’t necessarily like everything, but that I’m game to try it. And it goes a lot deeper than having a daring personality or an insatiable inner fat kid.

Bryan’s dad believes that if people from different cultures could share a meal together—without judgment, without sneering at cultural food differences, with an openness and respect for each other—the world would be a better place.

Yeah, I’m a girl who can recognize a moment, and that was most definitely a moment. Over the steam of the hot pot, Bryan’s dad was acknowledging that despite our different backgrounds, cultures, and views of the world, we were the same.

And I think he’s right about the global impact of sharing food. Can you imagine dignitaries and presidents and world leaders sharing a hot pot? Personally, I love that mental image. Because for me, food is love. It comforts you, fills you up, and though we all prepare it (or show it) a little differently, it nourishes both our bodies and our souls.

That Christmas, I’d been invited to the table—and it was covered not only with food, but love.

Break a World Record? Check!

World record badge

So, this past weekend, I did something pretty cool. I helped to break the Guinness World Record for the most hunger relief kits assembled simultaneously. Thanks to Valley of the Sun United Way (VSUW) and Arizona State University, I was one of nearly 2,000 people who assembled 1,993 WeekEND Hunger Backpacks in three minutes, smashing the previous record achieved by a school in Canada of 1,000 hunger relief kits packed.WeekEND Hunger Backpack materials

I’d never actually assembled a WeekEND Hunger Backpack, but I’ve heard a lot about the program through my work with VSUW. In the Valley of the Sun (fancy name for most of Arizona), there are approximately 82,000 families struggling with chronic hunger. Think about that number. 82,000 households who may not know where their next meal is coming from.

Even more alarming, within the Phoenix schools that VSUW partners with, around 80% of the kids depend on school-supplied meals.

And this is where the WeekEND Hunger Backpacks come into play. The packs help chronically hungry youth get the nutrition they need over the weekend—a time when they can’t depend on school-supplied breakfasts and lunches.

During our official welcome to the World Record to End Hunger event, VSUW reported that they distribute more than 2,000 WeekEND Hunger Backpacks each month to hungry kids at eight Valley schools.

That fact hit me hard, because it put into perspective what a pervasive issue hunger is in Arizona, especially for our youth.

Yes, this world record attempt would quickly replenish VSUW’s supply of WeekEND Hunger Backpacks, but our end result would only help keep kids healthy and satiated for a single month at best (they only had room for 2,016 volunteers to participate). And that’s only the 50-some odd kids at each of the eight schools with which VSUW partners.

To further drive the point home, audio recordings of some of the kids who receive the WeekEND Hunger Backpacks were played for us. You’d think these kids were talking about a new LEGO set or a state-of-the-art Barbie mansion because of the thankfulness and excitement in their voices. But they weren’t. They were talking about how happy they were to have food, a basic survival need.

I knew then that this was about way more than setting a new world record. This was about smashing hunger in a symbolic and community-driven way. And I was pretty damn proud to be in that crowd of volunteers.

A few moments later, Philip Robertson, Guinness World Record adjudicator, explained the official rules for the attempt, and then it was time to assemble the packs!

As each volunteer was only responsible for packing one WeekEND Hunger Backpack, my table was finished in 30 seconds flat, and I inwardly wished we had more packs to assemble. Can you imagine if we all were creating as many packs as we could in a three-minute sprint?

As soon as the shotgun sounded at the end of three minutes signaling the end of the attempt, everyone on the field cheered. We knew we’d done it!

Official stewards, who were responsible for checking the work at each table, filed up to the stage at the front of the field and reported out their tables’ numbers.

CertificateA few moments later, Philip announced that we’d packed 1,993 hunger relief kits and thus, put Arizona on the map as a Guinness World Record holder.

The World Record to End Hunger event was truly inspiring and such a worthwhile volunteer opportunity!

But if it taught me anything it’s that our work fighting hunger is far from done. There are kids out there who have no idea where their next meal is coming from. And we can help.

Learn about VSUW’s WeekEND Hunger Backpack program. Volunteer to pack WeekEND Hunger Backpacks or deliver them to Valley schools. Become an End Hunger team member to advocate and take action to end hunger in the Valley. Donate to the WeekEND Hunger Backpack program. $20 alone (maybe four morning coffees – if you like ’em fancy!) will feed a chronically hungry child over the weekend for a month; $200 will take care of a child for a school year (40 weeks).

Because how cool would it be if the Guinness World Record for the most hunger relief kits assembled simultaneously didn’t exist—because there was no need for it?

Chocolate Crickets, Wooden Shoes, and Live Lemurs

Fair.Chocolate Crickets 2

The only place those three things could exist in complete harmony is the Arizona State Fair. Now, I’ve already raved about the fair in the past (read Quite the Affair), but I feel like the experience is different every year, because the offerings change. Fair.Chocolate Crickets

For example, as part of my annual tour de food, I put on my big girl panties and tried chocolate-covered crickets. Yep, you read that right. I ate bugs—the kind that chirp and hop all over the place at night—and I have no regrets.

Maybe I did it because Bryan and I have been watching too many episodes of Bizarre Foods (I mean, crickets are a far cry from cow testicles).

Maybe it’s because chocolate covered crickets were way less expensive than the high-flying swings—and would deliver the same adrenaline rush.

Whatever the reason, I ordered the crickets…and they were pretty good! Generally, texture is what makes me shy away from certain foods; if it’s slimy, I’m not a fan. The crickets were crunchy, a little earthy, and come on, there was chocolate, so I was in!

I did apologize to a nearby grasshopper for eating his cousin…but I’d order crickets again—maybe even without the chocolate. Fair.Fried Pumpkin Pie

Of course, the tour de food also included lots of fried foods, a state fair specialty, the stamp of ‘Merica. If you can dream it up, they can batter it and fry it up for ya. One of the most decadent fried foods I spied was a fried bacon-wrapped Reese’s peanut butter cup. Yeah, that sounded like a bit too much for me, but we did indulge in fried pumpkin pie with cinnamon ice cream and a fried lemon bar.

The fried pumpkin pie was akin to a turnover or an empanada—beautiful and super delicious! My boyfriend described it perfectly; if pumpkin pie made sweet, sweet love (get it!?) to a churro, this would be the lovechild (okay, he didn’t use that euphemism…)—and then add ice cream.Fair.Lemon Bar

The lemon bar wasn’t exactly what we expected; it was more like lemon cake with lemon frosting as opposed to a traditional lemon bar dipped in batter and fried, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a flavor bomb of awesome. Because it was. The lemon was nice and bright in contrast to the heaviness of the fried dough—a pretty solid combination.

Apart from the food, I did some shopping at the fair, and that was something I didn’t expect. Sure, we walk through the hall of wares every year and take a look around, but the vendors are usually selling gimmicky items that I don’t really care about—spas and sand art and Korean boy band posters and helium-powered toys. Fair.Wooden Shoes

Well, that changed this year, because I found myself a pair of hand-carved wooden slides. They are so unique and comfortable, and I happen to be wearing them right now, which makes me feel rather posh. The vendor, Kingdome Clothing, doesn’t just make rad shoes; they make wooden sunglasses, watches, and phone cases, to name a few things. There were some cool clothing pieces, too, but the shoes simply spoke to me. Seriously. I heard them whisper, “We want to come home with you.” At first, it was creepy, but in a really endearing, fashionable way.

I found another booth that inspired me to start my Christmas shopping, because the item I found is perfect for my mom. Of course, I can’t go into detail about what that item is, because she just might read this blog post.

We didn’t get to experience a lot of entertainment this year. My boyfriend and I weren’t interested in the Fifth Harmony concert happening Sunday afternoon—although the place was packed with teeny boppers. And the community stages didn’t have the same variety as last year. I was left jonesing for a little more cultural art like Folklorico dancing and bellydancing. Fair.Lemur

However, instead of the Flying Pig Races, the fair had lemur racing this year! The racing itself was not that exciting, but the animal handlers brought out a lemur named DJ before the heats. And I kind of wanted to take him home. A member of the marsupial family, the lemur is like an exotic, beautiful monkey and I could imagine DJ traipsing about our counters and staircase—and then I remembered our dogs. Yeah, not a good idea. But a girl can dream.

In any case, we had a brilliant time at the Arizona State Fair, which is no surprise because it’s a blast every year. The fair is running until November 2. If you have the chance, GO!

I mean, where else can you eat crickets, buy wooden shoes, and watch live lemurs?

One fish, two fish, crawfish, whiskey!

Crawfish

This past weekend, I went to a crawfish boil put on by good friends from Louisiana who understand the power of community in connection with amazing food. It’s an event that I look forward to every year, because there is nothing like it on this planet! Here’s why it’s so flipping fantastic.

Beer

The annual crawfish boil has become a full-fledged holiday. It has all the ingredients for a proper yearly celebration: food so good it’s likely to make you cry; homemade beer; scores of local musicians playing impromptu sets throughout the day; backyard games; folks who are happy to share a fifth of whiskey with whoever would like to partake; friends, new and old; and palpable, positive energy in the air. It’s a party, people.

It’s become a way to mark time. At my first crawfish boil a few years ago, I was crushing hard on my boyfriend, but we weren’t technically dating. Next week, we move in together and start the next chapter of our lives under one roof. Jonny Church Band was an idea passed around at previous crawfish boils. This past weekend, we played an impromptu set in the shade of some trees, a fully-realized group that’s opened for country star Jimmy Wayne. And there were babies everywhere this year! Couples have grown into families and we celebrate it with fun, food, and friendship. I can’t wait to see what’s changed and progressed a year from now.

Parasols

I made at least six new connections this weekend. I can’t necessarily recite names back, even though we were wearing nametags. I’ll blame that on whiskey brain. But I did readily introduce myself to strangers at the boil, strangers who genuinely wanted to talk to me and build camaraderie. It was community building. I feel like life is so full of technology and missed connections anymore. It was nice to talk face-to-face, to be social, and to meet genuinely good people.

 

Sometimes, you need an event like this to slow down and realize that life is beautiful. The past few weeks have been some of the most stressful of my life. I’ve been negotiating the sale of a house. I’ve been packing and signing leases for a new place. I’ve been trying to figure out how I’m going to combine my life with someone else’s. Add my 9-to-5 onto that and financial stress…Yeah…But Saturday, I let go of everything that’s been hanging heavy over me. I sang with friends. I ate Boudin sausage and homemade beignets. I enjoyed the perfect Arizona weather. It was honestly one of the best days I’ve had in awhile, and it reminded me that, in actuality, I have it pretty good.

Wut and Mike

I got to hang with my people. Musicians are an interesting bunch. And I love them. I love being around them. Being surrounded by other artists feeds my soul creatively, spiritually, and emotionally. I mean, how can you not be happy and inspired with guitars, washboards, spoons, keyboards, and saxophones floating around all day?

 

The initial batch of crawfish was dropped into the boiler as musicians played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Our second round of food was accompanied by Wut singing the blues. Late into the night, random musicians who’d never played together before combined for an epic jam session. There was a soundtrack for the entire day and it was magical.

Beignets

Have I mentioned the food? Crawfish flown in from Louisiana, Boudin sausage, corn, potatoes, onions, garlic, French bread, cornbread muffins, mushrooms, homemade beignets, chicory coffee. I mean, seriously.

Yeah, you better believe I already have my calendar marked for next year. Wouldn’t you?

I Made Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cupcakes and No One Died!

IMAG0822

Wedding cupcakes are special. They are. Maybe it’s because weddings in and of themselves are pretty magical events – slow dancing, great wine, sweet nothings proclaimed into microphones instead of whispered. And good cakes are the cherry on top. They give weddings that little extra umph. So when I’m asked to bake cupcakes for weddings, I always get a little giddy.

Such was the case when friends of mine asked for cakes for their wedding at Granite Creek Vineyards in Chino Valley this past weekend.

However, there was a catch. I would need to make a batch of gluten-free, dairy-free cupcakes so that the bride could enjoy some cake on her big day without the impending doom of her food allergies flaring up. (No one wants to be sick on their honeymoon!)

IMAG0823

You’d think that with the influx of food allergies these days, I would have been asked before now to dabble in gluten-free/dairy-free/vegan/sugar-free/whatever kinds of cakes – but I haven’t. And I have to admit, I was a little terrified. I needed to make these cakes spectacular for my spectacular friends.

And so the experimenting began. Champagne. Strawberries. Rice flour. Guar gum. Garbanzo bean flour. Earth Balance. Extra vanilla. Daiya cream cheese. Rice paper butterflies. Sprinkles. Mixing equal parts chemistry, pride (see: Tiffany is stubborn), help from my favorite sous-chef (you know who you are), and love, the cupcakes came together.

And I have to say, I was pretty proud of them. They were elegant and (somehow) tasty, too.

This weekend, I had the best present to give to a couple about to embark on a life together: sugar to keep them sweet, guar gum to keep them together, champagne for celebration, and rice flour because..they still throw rice at weddings, right?

Good luck, my friends, and thank you for letting me be a part of your special day!!!

My (Hot)Dog is Famous!!!

Biscuit Love

That’s right! My pup, Biscuit, is officially the face of Short Leash Hotdogs for this week. She’s a star…or at least a really tasty treat! Okay that sounded weird. This isn’t China. Let’s back it up.

Brad and Kat, the owners of Short Leash Hotdogs, started serving Phoenix foodies out of a food truck with the hopes that their love for man’s best friend, local ingredients, and great food would blossom into a thriving business.

And it has. Any time I’ve been to an event where food trucks are involved, Short Leash is always there…and there’s always a line.

Because how can you say “no” to a twist on a classic American comfort food…or really anything topped with bacon, which happens frequently at this particular food truck. All of their dogs are served not in a bun, but wrapped in fresh naan, and you’ll find ingredients like Swiss cheese, pinto beans, arugala, mango chutney, and peanut butter on these dogs.

Flavor explosion – yes! Check our their amazing menu!

And on top of that, they make Short Leash a personal experience by naming each of their hotdogs after their friend’s and family’s furry better halves. Oliver and Igby, two “dogs” on the menu, are Kat and Brad’s two dogs at home.

They invite Short Leash fans to send in pictures of their dogs to inspire their “Feature Dogs of the Week”…which is how the Biscuit was born.

This week, the Biscuit is your choice of hotdog (they have regular, spicy beer hot, beef, chicken, and veggie weiners) wrapped in naan and topped with fried green tomatoes, bacon, iceburg lettuce, and bleu cheese…and for their extended menu at Sit…Stay on Friday night, they’ll be serving sliders on–what else!–biscuits in my pup’s honor!

I’m so excited that my favorite face in world inspired Brad and Kat this week. I’m so excited that this lovable, quirky, spastic love of an animal came into my life.

And you best believe I’m excited to try the Biscuit this week!