Saturday, December 9, 2017

Anna Sultana’s Jan Hagel Cookies, The Ursid Meteor Showers and the Winter Solstice

December is just zipping along.
I mean, in just two weeks Christmas will be here!

Oh, my…  Two weeks before Christmas!
Say that to a kid and he’ll envision a chunk of time about as long as a century.

Say it to his Mom and she’ll swear it’ll go by faster than a sneeze.
Especially if she belongs to a club or two and just found out there’s going to be a potluck, or if Sonny Boy brought home a note saying he needs a few dozen cookies for a ‘Holiday Party’ at school.

Christmas or Holiday, it means the same thing, work-wise.
Good old Mom has to add something else to her ‘To Do’ List.

Okay, this is not the time to get all fancy, unless of course you're the type who loves doing things at the last minute.
For most of us a good, simple, easy to do, cheap recipe is what is called for.
It’s time to make some Jan Hagel cookies.

Jan Hagel cookies were a regular Christmas treat in New York when I was growing up.
It was a traditional Dutch recipe that everybody knew, so, if you brought some to school or to a gathering, nobody gave your cookies the fisheye.
Everybody just grabbed a couple and said “Merry Christmas!!”
None of that politically correct ‘Holiday Party’ crap in the 1950s.

Ma might have gotten the recipe from a co-worker or a neighbour.
Of course, she made her own variations.


About the pan: use a 15 1/2″ by 10 1/2″ by 1″ or whatever you have. 
If you prefer thin cookies you might need a second pan. Some people made very thin cookies (about an 1/8th of an inch) which bake up crispy, some preferred thicker, softer ones. Suit yourself.
The thicker cookies need a bit more cooking time, about 5 to 10 more minutes.

Back in the 1950s nobody seemed to have nut allergies.
But this is now, and if you want to play it safe, leave out the nuts.
You could also sprinkle rolled oats on top of the cookies instead of using nuts.
If you’re not worried, some finely chopped walnuts or pecans would also work, especially if that’s what you have on your shelf.

Dutch kandij is the traditional sugar to use to decorate Jan Hagel cookies.
Yeah, well, if your local store doesn’t carry them (most likely it won’t), don’t panic.
If you want to go to the trouble, you can make your own:
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. 
Place in a saucepan
1/2 Cup sugar  
Melt over a high heat. Do not stir. When the sugar is a liquid, pour it as thinly as possible onto the foil or parchment. The sugar will harden. Once cooled, chop it. 
As the cookies bake the larger pieces will remain, while the smaller ones will melt. 

Ma just sprinkled regular sugar on her cookies.
Some of her friends used brown sugar.
In the 60s some used coarse sugar in the raw.
Again, suit yourself.

Here are a few other easy Christmas cookie recipes:

                        Jan Hagel Cookies 

Grease a baking pan or use parchment paper        
preheat oven to 350º           

Place in a large bowl
1 Cup butter or margarine, softened
1 Cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract (optional)
Beat untill creamy.

Gradually stir in
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 Cups flour
Mix well.

Place the dough in the greased pan.
Place plastic wrap or wax paper that a bit larger than the pan over the dough.
Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough evenly in the pan. Or you can use your fingers.
Lightly score the dough with a fork into square or strip shapes (optional). 

In a small bowl place
1 egg white 
1 Tablespoon water
Beat until frothy.
Brush the egg mixture over the dough.
Sprinkle with
1/2 Cup sliced almonds
Dutch kandij (see hints), or crystallized or regular sugar
Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until very lightly browned. 
Remove from oven and, using a sharp knife, cut immediately into squares or strips. 
Leave them on the pan(s) to cool thoroughly so they don't lose their shape.
These cookies taste better when they are thoroughly cooled.

About the sky for the rest of December, thanks to the folks at The Farmers' Almanac

December 18 - New Moon at 1:30 a.m. The Moon is completely invisible to the naked eye. Incidentally, this new moon ushers in the longest lunar month of the 21st century (2001 to 2100). A lunar month is the period of time between new Moons. The New Moon is at apogee, its farthest point from Earth in its orbit. Need an easy way to remember? (A)pogee = (A)way.

December 20-23 - Nature’s annual holiday light show, the Ursid meteor showers, are at their peak. Visible from the north all night, these meteor showers generally produce anywhere from 5 to 15 meteors per hour at their peak (usually on the first full night of winter, Dec. 22).  They are the dusty debris left behind in the orbit of Comet Tuttle. There have been a few occasions when the Ursids have surprised observers with a sudden outburst many times their normal hourly rate (over 100 per hour in 1945), but such cases are very few and far between.

December 21 - Winter officially begins at 11:28 a.m. with the Winter Solstice. The Sun reaches its farthest point south of the celestial equator so it’s the shortest day of the year in terms of sunrise to sunset. The good news is that the days will start getting longer from here!

December 29 - Before sunrise, look to the southeast sky to see Mercury (hugging the horizon), Jupiter, higher in the sky, and Mars directly above Jupiter.

December 30 - The Moon occults Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Anna Sultana’s Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake, December's Full Cold Moon and the Geminid Meteor Showers

Christmas will be here in three weeks!!
That’s right… 
We’ve got about three weeks to get EVERYTHING done.

The main thing is, don’t panic.
You’ve done it before, and you’ll do it again. I believe in you.
Take a deep breath, make a list, and do your magic.

While you’re writing that list, take a minute and enjoy a slice or two of cheesecake.
Ah, Cheesecake! 
Is there any problem that can happen to any woman, at any age, that can’t be helped by a slice of cheesecake.


If you have a pumpkin sitting in the kitchen, why not make some pumpkin purée? 
It’s easy. Really. 
Cut up the pumpkin and remove the seeds. Don’t forget to save them for roasting. 
Preheat oven to 375° F
Place the pumpkin pieces on a large baking pan, and cover them with foil or a lid. 
Bake for one hour or until very tender. 
Remove the pan from the oven, and set aside to cool. 
Scrape the cooked pumpkin’s interior off of the rind and into a food processor and purée until smooth. Just compost or toss the rind.

For a bit of variety you could make a pecan crumb crust: 
1 1/4 Cups crushed gingersnap cookies or graham wafer crumbs
1/4 Cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 Cup margarine or butter, melted

Check cheesecake doneness by gently shaking the pan. 
If the cheesecake is done, it will be set except in the centre that will be soft. 
Do not insert a knife into the centre - that could make the cheesecake crack during cooling. Still edible but not as pretty.

Want to make the cheesecake in a 9x13-inch pan to serve as small dainties?
No problem.
Line the pan with foil, with ends of foil extending over sides. 
Prepare the cheesecake batters, then spoon into the prepared pan and swirl. 
Bake in a 350° F oven 35 minutes or until centre is almost set. 
Cool completely. Refrigerate 4 hours. 
Use foil handles to lift cheesecake from pan before cutting to serve.

Have a bit of pumpkin purée left over?
Consider yourself lucky.
Pumpkin is a popular ingredient in Maltese cooking, especially in vegetable soups.
Pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie are also great any time.
As are other cheesecake recipes.

                        Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake 

Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven.
Butter a 9 inch springform pan.
Wrap the exterior of the pan in a double thickness of aluminum foil.

The Crust

Preheat the oven to 325º F

Combine in a small bowl
1 1/4 Cups graham wafer crumbs
1/4 Cup sugar
1/4 Cup margarine, melted 
Press the mixture over the bottom of the prepared pan.
Bake 10 minutes.
Remove and place on a wire rack to cool.

The Filling

Combine in a large mixer bowl
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 Cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Beat at medium speed until smooth.
Add, one at a time
3 large eggs  
Mix well at low speed after each egg is added.

Combine in a small bowl
1/4 Cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Set aside.

Bring to a boil
about 3 Cups water

Place in a small bowl
1 Cup pumpkin (canned or cooked and puréed)
Stir in the sugar / spice mixture.
Remove 3/4 Cup of the mixture and set aside.

Pour the remaining pumpkin mixture into the crumb crust in the pan.
Top with the cream cheese mixture. 
Drop by spoonfuls the reserved pumpkin filling over the top of the filling.
Cut through the filling with a knife to swirl the filling. 

Preheat the oven to 350º F

Place pan in a large baking pan, and add 1 inch of hot water to the larger pan. 
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the centre is just set. The top should appear dull. 
Remove the springform pan from the water bath. 
Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. 
Carefully run a knife around the edge of pan to loosen.
Cool 1 hour longer, then refrigerate overnight. 

Remove sides of pan. 
Serve with 
whipped cream
Sprinkle with nutmeg (optional)

About the sky this week and next, thanks to the folks at The Farmers' Almanac…

December 3 - The December Cold Moon will be astronomically full at 10:47 a.m. E.S.T. This Moon will also be considered a supermoon because it coincides the closest with perigee (December 4). 
Of the year’s 12 full moons, only December’s full Moon comes close enough to Earth (222,443 miles or 357,987 km) to be considered a true supermoon.
Learn more how this month’s full Moon got its names in this short Farmers’ Almanac video: December's Full Cold Moon    

December 4 - The nearly-full waning gibbous Moon is at perigee, its closest point to Earth in its orbit.

December 7 - Earliest sunset of 2017 at 40º N. latitude. This comes come some 2 weeks before the winter solstice, not on the solstice as you might think!

December 8 - Look eastward after midnight to see the waning gibbous Moon paired up with the star Regulus. Regulus will be sitting above the Moon.

December 11-13 - Bundle up for the annual Geminid Meteor Showers! These showers will peak on December 13th. Normally one could expect up to see up to 120 meteors hourly with this display, but the Moon’s brilliant light will likely obliterate all but the very brightest meteors. Regardless, they’re considered the best meteor showers of the year and it’s worth taking a look.
The radiant - that spot in the sky where the meteors will appear to emanate - lies just below and to the right of the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini (hence the name, “Geminids”). Best viewing after midnight when the radiant point is high in the sky, until dawn, no matter where you are. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Anna Sultana’s Meatloaf and Red Cabbage and A Christmas Story

It seems to me that the flood of Christmas-themed movies begin earlier every year.
This year they began right after our Thanksgiving, and, to be honest, I don’t know where they find these movies.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the same movie and they just changed the intro and end credits.
Oh, well, they’re a bit of mindless fluff to have playing in the background while we plow through our holiday baking.

One Christmas favourite I’m actually looking forward to seeing is the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, which was based on Jean Shepherd's stories about his childhood.
If you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the 1940s, and is about a boy who is desperate to convince his parents, his teacher, and Santa that a Red Ryder BB gun really is the perfect Christmas gift.

I know, a kid wants a gun for Christmas… well, trust me, it’s a nice movie, filled with scenes that bring back a lot of memories of how kids really are, especially as Christmas is getting closer.

The film also has quite a bit of food in it.
Ralphie tries to bribe his teacher with a huge fruit basket.
The family’s Christmas turkey is devoured by the neighbour’s dogs, and the family has to go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner.

And then there’s Randy, Ralphie’s kid brother, who is refusing to eat dinner.
Apparently he hasn’t eaten voluntarily in over three years.
There he sits, pushing his food around, muttering: 
Meatloaf, smeatloaf, double beetloaf. I hate meatloaf.

Don’t worry, his Mom has a way to make him eat his meatloaf.
No crying, no bloodshed. She’s THAT good.

In honour of this paragon of motherhood, I usually make a meatloaf dinner around this time of year. Since Ralphie’s family doesn’t look Italian, let alone Maltese, I use the German recipes Ma made when her American sister-in-law came by.
Aunt Liz never quite knew what to make of a hard boiled egg in a meatloaf.
Ma served the meatloaf with red cabbage and mashed potatoes.

And, when you’re eating like the family in A Christmas Story, the German recipes are more proper than either Mediterranean twinkie meatloaf.

Another Christmas favourite of ours is the 1989 classic, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Who can argue with Ellen Griswold: 
I don't know what to say, except it's Christmas and we're all in misery.


These recipes make enough for 8 - 10 people.
If you’re family is smaller, no problem. Meatloaf is great the second, or third, time around. The leftovers are also good in a sandwich.

Sometimes Ma made this meatloaf using half ground beef and half pork - more or less in those proportions - depending on what she had in the fridge.

If you don’t have fine dry bread crumbs you can use 2 Cups soft bread crumbs. 

If you want to be fancy, turn out the meatloaf onto a warmed platter. If you want to serve it family-style, like Mrs. Parker, serve it from the loaf pan. 

Mrs. Parker served the meatloaf and cabbage with mashed potatoes. I don’t know if she made them from scratch or from a box of instant. Ma always made homemade. Suit yourself.

                        Red Cabbage

Place in a large pot
4 Tablespoons butter
10 Cups finely chopped red cabbage
2 Cups sliced green apples
1/2 Cup sugar
Season with
4 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2/3 Cup apple cider vinegar
3 ounces water

Bring to the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the cabbage is tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.


Grease well a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan

Finely chop
1 medium onion

Place in a large bowl
2 pounds lean ground beef 
3/4 Cup fine dry bread crumbs
the chopped onion
1 Cup milk
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Mix lightly.

Preheat oven to 350º F
Place the mixture in the prepared pan.
Bake uncovered for 1 1/4 hours.
Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes before serving. 

If you’re curious, here are the other meatloaf recipes:

About the sky this week and next, thanks to the folks at The Farmers' Almanac…

November 18 - New Moon at 6:42 a.m. The Moon is completely invisible.

November 20 - Look for Saturn in the southwest after dusk, about 40 minutes after sunset. Catch it early; the ringed planet sets more than an hour after dark at the beginning of the month, but before the end of evening twilight by November 30th. This evening, look about 10° above the west-southwest horizon to sight a slender sliver of a crescent Moon. Mercury will also be hovering near the west-southwest horizon, directly below the Moon and Saturn.

November 23 - Look to the west after sunset to see Mercury right below Saturn. Mercury is usually difficult to spot but now it’s at its greatest elongation from the Sun so it’s a good time to see this “elusive” planet.