Sunday, December 5, 2010

Home Sweet Home


I really can't resist posing shiny peppers for photos.

I'd like to take time out from my England-trip posts to say how happy I was to be home this weekend. I got to do all my favorite things: play with the cats, garden, and bake cookies!

Yesterday we were outside the whole day, planting plants in our pond garden--a thing I'd been dreaming about doing for months. We planted three Florida anises, three piedmont azaleas, an ashe magnolia, five coonties, two beautyberries, and a southern arrow-wood (all natives). The yard was so warm and golden, and there were cats about. I kept teasing Greg about how handsome he is, calling him Handsome Dan and saying, "Oh Greg, with your gorgeous long legs and your gorgeous yellow eyes. You are such a fine specimen!" He was mortified. He's a very shy cat. Whenever he wants me to pet him, he has to turn his face away--he has to turn backwards--because being petted is just too embarrassing.

I really relished being outside, at home, sheltered by live oaks and pecans and surrounded by cats. I planted three more Shi-Shi Gashira sasanquas under our big banana shrub (Michelia figo), next to the stone path we reset a few months ago. Then I mulched the whole bed with leaves stolen off our neighbors' trash piles. I am the biggest trash picker, and lately I've gotten Rob into it too.

"How can people throw away leaves?" he'll say, getting all up in arms. "They might as well be throwing out bags of gold!"

Or at least bags of fertilizer.

Spreading mulch sure beats being stuck on an airplane over the Atlantic. But then I'm a fan of just about any domestic chore. Even fixing our usual enormous, pain-in-the-ass Sunday lunch was fun today because I got to make cranberry sauce, the berries popping merrily, making a mess all over the stove. I like to eat cranberry sauce piping hot, but I've never met anybody else who does.

Rob made vegan sweet potato casserole with our own homegrown sweet potatoes. It took him forever to get through all the steps. And meanwhile, I was adding hot peppers to everything because we picked three and a half pounds of them yesterday and I didn't want a single one to go to waste. We had kale and hot peppers, and collards and hot peppers, and tofu scramble with hot peppers. . . . The fumes from the sizzling habaneros had us coughing and wheezing and running for Kleenex.

"I wonder if these hot-pepper fumes will do any longterm damage," Rob said hoarsely, and then he went into another coughing fit.

As we coughed and cooked (such a sanitary combination!), the cats were underfoot, keeping us company. (Wouldn't you like to come to dinner?) Elroy was rolling an apple around on the floor. I had some soy sausage thawing in a pan of warm water. I was busy cutting up some more peppers when Rob reported, "Carl of course is drinking the water out of the sausage defroster."

"Of course," I said. Carl loves to drink water out of interesting receptacles. We often catch him licking dirty sponges.

I made some of Mom's famous Christmas pecan balls this afternoon. They turned out perfect! Pecan balls were always my favorite of Mom's many Christmas creations. When I was a kid, "Christmas baking" was such a big, beloved ritual for our family. We were pretty poor back then and Dad wouldn't let Mom spend money on sweets (or anything really), so she'd sneak the ingredients home and hide them (for weeks) in anticipation of the big day when he'd be gone somewhere and we'd all come out of our hiding places and bake for hours. Every year we made cut-out cookies and date balls and pecan balls and sausage balls and icebox fruitcake and toffee and fudge and seven-layer bars and Chex party mix and gingerbread boys. One year we even made "stained glass" cookies with melted Life Savers in their centers. And all the while we were baking, Kris and I would be laughing and joking and driving Mom crazy with our amateur comedy. (We always got overexcited.)

"Now I am going to run away!" Mom might cry at the end of the day.

Christmas was such a special time for us kids. Our ugly house would be temporarily beautified by the sparkling Christmas tree, and the usually bare pantry would be full of secret stashes of cookies. I adored the entire month of December. My brother and sisters and I went to a Catholic school, and we'd spend the weeks of Advent preparing ourselves spiritually for Christmas the way students at other schools might prepare themselves mentally for final exams. I guess that would never fly now--"wasting time" on the spirit to such a degree. Childhood is much more fast-paced and competitive these days.

A pecan ball. That's my fabulous 1920s punchbowl glittering in the background.

Mom's Christmas Pecan Balls

Ingredients:

1 cup vegan "butter," softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup finely chopped pecans (use the blender)

Powdered sugar

Directions:

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Sift in flour. Stir in pecans. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for about an hour. Shape the dough into small balls. Place 1 inch apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake at 325 degrees F for 20 minutes or until the bottoms are lightly browned. Roll in powdered sugar right after you take them out of the oven.

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