Wednesday, 24 December 2014

End of year thankfulness, decorations and Moorish Cinnamon Stars


It's Christmas Eve, the dogs are snoozing by the radiator in the kitchen. My Mam is having a snooze on the couch before a late dinner my Dad is working on in the kitchen. The stove is permeating heat throughout the sitting room and Daniel Craig is doing his best (and succeeding) to be broody and moody on Skyfall on the telly.

As I listen to Adele sing the theme tune, her voice ooze from the speakers in an unmistakable strength, I look back on the year that was 2014. I'm sitting in pyjama bottoms fit for an eight year old, completely relaxed now that it's Christmas Eve at the end of a long, at times interesting, at times exhilarating, confusing, painful, upsetting and just plain fun. I have recipes for decorations and cinnamon star cookies that have been slowly making their way to this blog post for the last three days but it wasn't until now, at eight o'clock on Christmas Eve, that it felt the time was right to sit down and write.




So many emotions and experiences have brought me to this blog post. I used a simple decoration recipe my German grandmother made when I was ten years old in one of the few times she was patient enough to have me in her kitchen. I still remember her papery hands, perfectly trimmed nails and the exactness with which she measured out ingredients. For years, I had imagined it was the most complicated recipe for salt dough decorations that ever existed. It turns out the recipe itself was easy but her preciseness and care that she put into making them, molding and shaping the decorations and finally changing them from dried salt dough to magical, colourful stars, hearts and various other shapes that had captivated me all along. The way she made them inspired a sense of careful, delicate creativity in me and patience that I never knew existed. The way she baked taught me that good things take time, the longer the better. Now, when I'm stressed or struggling, I bake or cook and take my time. Creating with food slows everything down, grounds me. I have Nana Dittman to thank.



The Moorish Cinnamon Stars were made out of a mixture of love and necessity. My little sis is gluten intolerant but a keen cookie monster. Since I've almost removed gluten from my diet too, I thought I would make a recipe that mixed my Mam's cinnamon star German cookie recipe with rice flour and ground almonds to make a not too sweet treat for all of us but little sis in particular. The first batch were a plainer form, taste tested on the amazing people I work with. The second was a Christmas treat for the taste testers take two. This time with dark chocolate. These Moorish Stars are take three and I'm content. I hope these are the cookies I make for friends, family and kids for a long time. I knew I was on to a winner when little sis opened the cookie tin and inhaled deeply to announce afterwards that "it smells like Christmas!", a blissed, contented smile gathering across her face.


The Cinnamon Stars were inspired by my Mam. Last Christmas, through some miracle of love, my Mam, only a year clear of breast cancer, spent weeks baking every German cookie known to man to raise money for the local cancer support centre, LARCC. She was so inspiring. After so many years of only seeing tiny hints of German in her mannerisms, accent and interests, it was as if, by some magic, I had a German speaking, cookie making, glowing, Christmas-spirited mother. Since then, I lovingly tease her as she becomes more and more German. This morning, in her colorful cardigan, Nordic dress, color-rimmed glasses and rosy cheeks, I watched as she scattered seeds for the songbirds in the back garden and momentarily mistook her for some Norwegian grandmother. I'm thankful that the German in my Mam is coming out, how she's not sick this year, how I'm around to make her tea and chat to her as I light the fire each evening, how I didn't have to fly from Perth to be here, how after years of warring with each other, we've made peace. I'm thankful that when we hug, we truly mean it.


My beautiful, talented and creative friend Eadaoin told me recently that our friend Maria is using 2014 as an adjective to describe this crazy year that anyone who is remotely aware of their existence will have noticed rocked people's lives for the better or the worse. All around me, 2014 was the year that led to people finding true love, marrying or fulfilling their dreams. 2014 was also, on the flip side of all that love and luck, the year that led to a rash of breakups, heartbreak, debt, despair and all out bad luck. There was no grey area.


For me, 2014 was an emotional challenge of epic proportions. They were high highs and low lows but it was also the turning point in my life. 2014, for me, will always be the year where I learned to love and accept myself for who I am; good, bad, ugly and everything in between. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be loved and accepted and I exhausted myself, pushed and pushed to remove the pain that comes with the absence of love from another. For the first time in my life, I loved this Winter because it was just as darkness prevailed more and more that I reached an epiphany. I no longer love or am in love with a man that was my entire world for three years. Instead of feeling rejected and unloved by one man, I've embraced the sheer awesomeness of the people that have gathered around me, friends and family, in the last few years and I realised something incredibly life-changing (a term I don't use lightly). I am loved just as I am by an amazing bunch of individuals and instead of looking at myself through the eyes of a man that doesn't care, I looked at me through their eyes. Suddenly I wasn't boring or unlovable or confusing or complicated. I was caring and strongly loving, funny and loyal.

As I look back on the differences between this Christmas and last Christmas, the differences are phenomenal. Last year, I felt alone, miserable, rejected, unloved, confused and eager to get out of this country and my job and my whole state of being as quickly as possible. This year, I feel thankful, loved, content, loving, hopeful, calm and appreciative of the beautiful year I've had, the lessons I've learnt (though they were demanding and debilitating at times) and the open-minded, freer, more optimistic way that I'm learning to view the world and my place in it.



I realize Thanksgiving is technically the time to give thanks and take a moment to stop and take note but given my 2014 and the stark contrast between the dark loneliness and confusion of last year and the loving, optimistic and appreciative view I have of things now, I can't help but express my appreciation for the changes that have happened in the last year.

I'm thankful that my family are still together, safe, healthy, warm and (though we regularly want to strangle each other) are all making an effort to be thoughtful and caring towards one another. I'm thankful for a fridge full of food and a mind full of recipes. I'm thankful for parents who learnt to let their idea of my future go and let me get on with it, while still standing on the sidelines, supportive to the full. I'm thankful for a job I love, students who constantly challenge me and co-workers who are also the best friends in the world. I'm thankful that there are other amazing friends I've met the last few years who are celebrating Christmas already in New Zealand and Australia. I'm thankful that I learnt to finally see all the good that has come into my life in the form of experiences, people, places, food, emotions and challenges. I'm thankful that I feel like a different person this year, closer to the real me than I've ever been before.

Have a beautiful Christmas and take the time to notice all around you.
See you in the New Year!

X X X

SALT DOUGH DECORATIONS:
Preheat oven to 100 C. Measure 1 cup of ordinary table salt with 1 cup of plain flour. Gradually add just short of 1 cup of water to the flour and salt mix and stir until a smooth dough is formed.
Roll out on a floured surface and use your cookie cutters to make your hearts/stars/snowflakes etc.
Place the salt dough decorations on a non stick baking tray and using a cocktail stick (or something similar) make a small hole in the top of each decoration and leave in the oven to dry out for up to 3 hours. Allow to cool completely then paint whatever colors take your fancy. Use wool/strong string and loop through the holes. Decorate to your heart's content!

MOORISH CINNAMON STARS:

Ingredients:
1 and 1/3 cup cold pressed coconut oil/butter
1 cup soft brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg

1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup rice flour/gram flour
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup flaked almonds

Method:
In a small pot, add the coconut oil and brown sugar and heat on very low heat, stirring, until melted completely. Set aside to cool and add the vanilla essence. Once almost completely cooled, stir through the egg, whisked.

In a bowl, add all the dry ingredients. Stir through the oil mixture until a dough ball is formed. Wrap in cling film and put in fridge for 2 hours to firm (you can cheat and keep it in for less time but trust me, this works better). Preheat oven to 160 C. Remove dough from fridge and let it thaw for about 30 minutes until you can roll it out easily. Roll out on a floured surface and cut into shapes with your cookie cutters. Place on non stick or grease proof paper lined tray and bake for 10-12 minutes. These babies burn if you leave them in a minute to long so keep an eye on them. They should be golden and crunchy. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight lid. If the gang at work are anything to go by, they won't last that long though!

Enjoy, share and have a great holiday folks!




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