Boxing Day!

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I’m not sure I remember a Pictorama post falling on Boxing Day, but here we find ourselves on a sunny if cold New York City day post-Christmas as we do our best to shove 2020 behind us. Kim and I were recently speaking of Boxing Day and I looked up its history. It started in the 1830’s in Britain and it was a day to be charitable – boxes were taken to the poor and were given to servants who got the day off as well. It spread to the British colonies and remains a holiday there whereas, as we know, traditionally the day after Christmas in this country is usually about shopping. Of course nothing is really usual about this year, and I cannot imagine stores teeming with post-Christmas folks under the current Covid circumstances.

Our own Christmas was celebrated with just us and the felines here on 86th Street, a Zoom call to New Jersey with my mom, cousin and friend Suzanne in the afternoon sadly substituting for an annual visit. In order to cheer us up I made a rather amazing bouillabaisse if I do say so myself – a sort of quick and cheaty one that has its origins with my grandmother, but I have manipulated a bit over time. (I managed six of the seven fishes – seven if you count the anchovy paste!) I served it with homemade corn muffins and a red pepper compound butter. Before I brag on myself too much I will admit that I forgot to consider dessert entirely and ran out to the store and acquired a frozen Dutch apple pie. Frankly it did the job just fine and I confess, diet be damned, I am looking forward to eating some for breakfast today. Yum.

Christmas was a cold, stormy day here with a wind whipping around – I discovered just how bad when I made that run to the store. Jazz at Lincoln Center unexpectedly announced that they were giving us all two weeks off over the holiday and I am easing into a blissful state of extra sleep and pajama wearing – house cleaning will follow I hope, as I have ignored the state of it long enough and one should go into the New Year with a clear mind and house I suspect. All this to say, I have not yet enjoyed the aforementioned improved weather but look forward to some outdoor exercise in a bit – New Year’s resolutions are lurking just around the corner to be sure.

Our newest toy, identified as French and a Krazy Kat, but I believe was meant to be Felix.
Side view.

However, the aspect of Christmas which was traditional and in no way disappointing were the toys Santa, aka Kim, brought me! Two absolutely wonderful toys, the first featured today by way of Bertoia auctions shown above. (Of course I still enjoy receiving toys on Christmas – not a surprise to Pictorama readers I am sure.)

This extraordinary wind-up toy was identified as a French Krazy Kat with no additional information. He is entirely unmarked, stands at about 8 inches, with a metal body covered in a heavy felt suit. His head and hands are composition and you can see that he probably fell on his face a lot from the chipping on his nose – his one ear is also a bit nibbled down. Despite that he is in pretty extraordinary condition, and of course it should be noted that I believe he is a Felix not a Krazy Kat. It should also be noted that his wind-up key is permanently affixed to him, not removable.

This one-footed fellow is seen a bit more than the latest acquisition.

I have never seen a toy like him and would appreciate any information folks might have about his origins. His mechanism spring is a bit shot or over-wound and I have only achieved a few bits of a hopping, splayed leg gait out of him (he fell on his face immediatley) which is too bad because I have seen enough to know it must have been comical. He is smaller and more delicate than the more typical wind-up mohair Felix, one that seems to always lose one foot. My example shown above. I assume that because of his composition parts this fellow didn’t last and few of these seem to be knocking around. I wrote about the one above and another more or less one-of-a-kind wind-up Felix toys, shown below, in a post that can be found here. While I had never seen that one before I was certainly familiar with the wind-up function he was built on.

Another admittedly unusual Felix wind-up toy.

So, we start to close out 2020 with a house full of leftovers and a moment to catch our collective breath. For those of you who still have some cooking ambition in you, or need a New Year’s meal, I lay out the basics of my fish stew below. Enjoy!

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Fish Stew or Quick Bouillabaisse Recipe:

Saute onions, garlic and chopped carrots with salt and pepper until they begin to brown, add additional veggies. I like a little potato to thicken, green beans and a bit of corn. (If you are using corn on the cob you can wait and drop the full ear into the soup to cook and cut the corn off after – that will add taste and additionally thicken soup. I used frozen corn this time.) Add in a bit of anchovy paste and a smidge of tomato paste.

Add in fresh fish of choice, about a pound of each – I used a bit of halibut (skinned) although any thicker white meat fish will do, and cut it into bite-size chunks, I added shrimp, and scallops and let cook. I like to add a lobster tail or some crab legs and it does well to add them in here too if they aren’t frozen which my lobster tail was this time. (Snow crab legs are great, but messy to eat later – this was a faux lobster tail belonging broadly to the lobster family with sharp sprine-y bits – ouch!, but I was able to take it out after it had cooked and add the fish meat back into the stew so no eating time mess.)

Deglaze the pot with a cup or so of wine or vermouth. The cheating part starts here (and I am pretty sure this is my addition to this recipe) with some canned fish options. I start with a can of clams, with their liquid included, and this time added a tin of smoked oysters. (I prefer mussels but oysters was all the market had to offer and they were just fine. This is a very forgiving recipe.)

Here’s the big cheat – add a bottle of clam juice AND a large container of Clamato juice (I have often wondered what other use Clamato juice has in life – do people drink it? Make cocktails with it?) Also add a large can of chopped tomatoes at this stage. This creates a substitute fish broth base. I added fresh chopped basil and wide leaf parsley. I like basil in it in particular, but again this is another place where you can be creative. I also added a bit of oregano and at this stage adjust your seasoning overall – I tend to have been adding a bit of salt and pepper with each addition of fish. Bring to a boil and then simmer for at least 40 minutes.

If pressed, you can happily eat this immediately, but the real trick is to cool it down and refrigerate it over night. A glorious change takes place and it is even more amazing! Great dish for company made the day before and then only needs to be heated before serving.

Christmas Cookies

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I know I am far from alone in being a bit bereft this holiday season. While a decision to stay home makes sense, this is the first holiday season I will not find myself with family in New Jersey on Christmas and it saddens me deeply. I am usually a fan of the holidays, but this year fail to have much ho, ho, ho. Of course, much of the world is in exactly the same place, and it is hard to rally even nominal holiday spirit and instead seems easier to try to ignore the calendar entirely.

Holiday cheer on 86th and York on a recent morning.

Nevertheless, Kim and I did produce our annual holiday card and those are going out in the mail this week – look for a Deitch Studio-Pictorama card reveal post next weekend! And a bit of holiday spirit has begun to infuse me. I have been snapping pictures of holiday decorations as part of my morning outdoor workout. Winking fairy lights, faux icicles and bubbling tree lights have always attracted me and many of them are still lit from the night before when I head out in the morning. And I have looked again and again at the limited square footage of our apartment to see if maybe a small tree might fit and provide the cats with the opportunity to pretend they live in a tiny indoor forest. Those few feet of unoccupied space continue to evade me however – Pictorama readers also know, it is a very small apartment.

I was deprived of bubbling lights as a child and have had a passion for them ever since!

Therefore, as I have frequently in recent months, I reach into my bag of cooking tricks to see how I might summon a bit of holiday cheer for the coming weeks, and I have landed on Christmas cookies, specifically my grandmother’s ginger spice cookies.

As some of you have read in prior posts, I was blessed to grow up with a maternal grandmother who was an extraordinary cook and who, along with her two sisters (she was Anne and they were Ro, for Rose, and Mickey, or Margaret), turned every holiday into a table-groaning fiesta of food. (I wrote about recreating my grandmother’s Poor Man’s Cake, including the recipe, in a post that can be found here. In recent weeks I wrote about her cherry preserves and that post can be found here.)

Anne’s Poor Man’s Cake as featured in a January ’19 post.

Bread, home-made pasta, meatballs, and hams – and for dessert fried dough with confectioner’s sugar (these were also served without the sugar and instead with tomato sauce for subsequent, post-holiday meals) and homemade cannoli. And at Christmas there were Christmas cookies, the production of which would have been taking place throughout the month of December, beginning right after Thanksgiving. (The holiday LP’s would come out at the same time – Andy Williams belting out that it is The Most Wonderful Season of All and Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire.)

No excuses for the family’s taste in holiday music. I think there were a few albums in rotation, but this is the one I remember.

My grandmother would come to bake some, although certainly not all, of her holiday cookies at our house and therefore I had a front row seat, helping her and watching for many years. I deeply suspect I can no longer name all of the types of cookies she routinely made each year – as I write more come to mind. Those that stand out in my memory are: Russian tea cakes in the form of wonderful little balls of cookie and nuts covered in powdered sugar, mom’s favorite were a cream cheese variety; thumbprints which were dotted with different jams; gingerbread (which was always made at our house so we could decorate them with icing and other tidbits and smelled just heavenly cooking); chocolate and butter cookie pinwheels; regular butter cookies which were made with pounds of butter and decorated with colored sugar – there was a variation on these which spit out a similar dough with a handheld device and made a somewhat fatter star-shaped version which were decorated with sprinkles instead of sugar. (I had to pause to look this up to make sure I hadn’t imagined it and yes, there is an electric plastic version made today and it is called a cookie gun or handpress.)

This is the sort of device my grandmother used. This one just sold on eBay.

I loved the sprinkles, colored sugars, icings and cookie cutters that were brought out on these occasions – the latter and the above mentioned cookie press appeared each year in a series of ancient flour-dusted plastic bags my grandmother would carry them in. Tins of mixed cookies were assembled and given out to the branches of the family and we’d have a supply that lasted into January. She would make endless tins of them for family and friends – the prodigious output was stored on her sun porch which was cool in winter, awaiting distribution.

This via Pinterest where a recipe for “simple French butter cookies” is available

My holiday favorite was the butter cookies and it is those I am tempted to make, however those pounds of butter are intimidating me in my efforts to pull back on the pandemic pounds I have acquired since March, and instead I have landed on the ginger spice cookies which were another favorite. Among my grandmother’s cookies, the spice cookies (they were always just the spice cookies in our family lexicon) were the only ones that were also made out of season. I do not remember my grandmother making any other cookies at another time of the year – perhaps her extraordinary holiday output precluded additional cookie baking in her mind, I never asked – some things just were and that was one.

The spice cookies were also the first cookies I learned to make on my own. I think by the time I learned to make them I had probably played around with chocolate chip cookies, made from the recipe on the back of the bag of chips. (It was years before we graduated to the sophistication of M&M’s in our cookies – yes, I am that old.) The spice cookies represented my first nascent attempts at baking and was a favorable enough one that at one time I considered it for a career, but that, as we say, is another story.

There is a slightly chewy quality to them if you don’t over bake them and they are quite addictive. They are easily thrown together and were an excellent and gratifying early lesson in baking. I remember receiving an honorable mention for them in a Girl Scout baking competition. The troop leader told my mother that I would have gotten first place on the taste of them, but they were too irregular in shape. This seemed hugely unjust to the pint-sized me as in my mind cookies were about how they tasted, not how uniform they could be. (Looking back on it, there was probably an important lesson about the world I was being given as well and likely that is why it has remained in my mind all these years.)

Shamelessly promoting the family product! Hope you’ll listen to the concert next week!

This year, rather than Andy Williams I have Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Big Band Holiday concerts playing on the computer – a new one will be released on December 19 with a week of available listening. (Early in my career with the band I hit the road during the Big Band Holiday tour and I wrote about that rollicking trip in a post can be found here. I believe I heard that concert a dozen times over the course of that season.) Of course I need to hawk our online Big Band Holiday concert tickets which can be purchased here and can be played on-demand through December 26.) It will be a different and memorable holiday with new traditions this year.

So, with apologies and regrets that I do not have cookie photos yet as I am planning to make them this afternoon, I offer the recipe below. I promised to post photos here and elsewhere after the fact. I have only the rudiments of my grandmother’s recipe, given to me by my non-baking uncle so I may need to tinker with the instructions as well!

Recipe for Anne’s Ginger Spice Cookies:

  • 3/4 cup soft shortening
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup molasses (I’m going for the original, not dark here)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp ginger
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • confectioner’s sugar as needed

Combine ingredients: dry first together, then cream butter and sugar and add the egg and molasses. Mix all thoroughly. (A hand or standing mixer is called for if you have one, although I have a vague memory of doing it by hand. I do have an ancient hand mixer I rarely use, from a garage sale and purchased by my father for me. The tape price tag still stuck on it. My memory is that I mixed these by hand though and by hand I do mean, with your hands, not an implement.) Please note that it is shortening (margarine) not butter and it should be quite soft so it mixes easily with the sugar and other ingredients.

A recipe I checked online suggests chilling the batter for 2 hours to prevent the aforementioned spreading. She also uses parchment paper on the cookie sheet which does make it go quickly and with less mess, especially in a small kitchen like mine. My memory (which does not include refrigerating although mom remembered yes when asked) was that we lightly greased the cookie sheet with some of the shortening. Form the balls of dough – about an inch or the size of the ball that came with jax. Bake at 350 degrees for about 6-8 minutes. (Keep an eye on them not to over bake. The first batch in my gas stove overcooked at about 10 minutes.) Allow cookies to cool for the first few minutes on the baking sheet because they are soft – then transfer to a cooling rack. After the cookies are fully cooled shake powdered sugar over them. If you are stacking them in a tin, layer parchment paper between them or they will stick. Eat cookies, listen to holiday music and enjoy!

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Postscript! These were like tasting my childhood again!