Danger: holiday baking–Part 1

What are those light-brown dessert squares with the coloured marshmallows in them? I see those a lot during the holidays nestled among the mini brownies, rumballs, and coconut squares that have emerged from someone’s kitchen—proudly and lovingly displayed on a festive plate.

Maybe it’s a combination of cynicism and metabolism but I proceed with caution when approaching a tray of homemade baking.

Name that dessert.

People make all kinds of wonderful things at this time of year but I think for many there’s also a need to bake out of sentimentality and to carry on tradition. As lovely as that inclination is, some traditions don’t belong on a plate, or in a recipe book, or in the mouths of co-workers.

My grandmother was a fan of the Jell-O mold. She had several varieties and many a diced pear hung suspended in a ring of red or green Jell-O like some cryogenics experiment. It had a special place in the middle of the dining room table. When my grandmother sliced through the Jell-O with a spoon it would make a sucking sound and then it would shiver silently after she plopped it into a bowl. For that extra fancy touch there was always whipped cream in a spray can. This is a Christmas tradition that should remain a memory. Times and tastes change.

When I was a kid my grandmother also made loads of mincemeat tarts. My parents’ generation loved them. I was having none of it. Nothing good can come of something described with the words “minced” and “meat.” I hold onto that belief.

My grandmother made trifle too which was a highlight for the older generation.  She put it in a raised glass bowl—the one our cat wanted to sleep in when it was empty. It stood like a multi-tiered statue of sponge, custard and cream above everything else on the table. I still don’t understand the appeal.

ubiquitous Jell-O

When friends or co-workers share their family bakes it’s usually chockablock full of mystery concoctions, like the light-brown things with the fruity marshmallows.

At my last job I would wait until I was alone with the day’s tray of baking before plucking something from it that I hoped didn’t contain coconut or molasses or have a weird sandy texture. By taste testing when no one was around, I could slip over to the garbage can and discreetly tuck it under a napkin. Perhaps it makes me a horrible person but if the baker doesn’t know, where is the harm?

When you hit middle age you have to be selective about the indulgences you partake in. Butter and sugar stick to my thighs like S’mores stick to my chin. There are no free calories so I can’t afford  to eat something I wish I hadn’t and have it take up permanent residency on my upper arms. When I was younger sneezing was enough exercise but now a lemon square means an hour at the gym.

It’s not just home bakes, chocolates can be fraught with danger too. My grandmother always got a box of Pot of Gold when I was growing up. Are they still around?

They all looked tempting but inevitably I’d bite into some coffee-flavoured nightmare and almost have a seizure. I swear the coffee chocolates accounted for half the box while another third was made up of those rock-hard caramels.

I’d chew those caramels like a dog eating peanut butter, drool dripping down the front of my dress, until it was bedtime and the caramel had to be extracted from my teeth and discarded. I don’t know if I actually ever managed to ingest one.

The only chocolates I really liked were the ones with the pink goo, I think it was “strawberry.” I had to bite into a lot of coffee before finding one of those.

In the meantime, my grandmother spent part of each day collecting the chocolates I had ditched with a bite missing or spit out and reassembled. They were subtly left under the lip of a plate, next to a plant, or behind the TV. My grandmother would confront me waving a saliva-covered candy, the chocolate partially melted from the heat of my tongue. I would briefly consider blaming one of the dogs, but I knew she wouldn’t buy it, our black lab would have eaten the whole thing. Instead I would say I was full and that I was saving it for later.

Then I’d hope and pray Santa Claus didn’t have time to unload my presents from his sleigh after I lied and made my grandmother “cross” again.

I would hope to confirm my place on the nice list when I went to bed on Christmas Eve. I was adamant Santa would get only the best: Chips Ahoy. Timeless.

If you’re a fan of vintage recipes, give these a look:



Coffee, what is it good for?


As a tea drinker, I have always been baffled by the idea of drinking coffee.

A cup of coffee is a cup of math teacher breath. I was not good at math, and I’m not sentimental about math teachers. Come to think of it maybe I would have been better at algebra if I hadn’t been distracted by the aroma of digested java.

I’m not convinced anyone actually likes coffee. Coffee drinkers think they do, but they don’t. Not really.

If they did they wouldn’t add other flavours to make it palatable—chocolate, vanilla, caramel, pumpkin spice, and the list goes on. If you drink those coffees you don’t like coffee you like chocolate, vanilla, caramel, or pumpkin spice.

There are so many different kinds of coffee and those fancy ones—frappes and lattes and cappuccinos—are taking over coffee shop menus. Coffee is all about trends, just look at a Starbucks menu.  Even humble Tim Horton’s has jumped on the elaborate coffee bandwagon; it’s not just about double-doubles anymore.

It all seems like an endless experiment of trying to come up with something worth drinking.

Tea drinkers don’t ask for their orange pekoe with a hint of cinnamon or light foam. We’re lucky to get milk. And rarely are there so many varieties of tea as there are coffee.

I was in Wales and asked for an Earl Grey and the guy behind the counter looked at me like I had asked for the key to the Queen’s bedroom.

I thought it would be easy enough to get. Wales is part of the UK after all, the place where citizens are supposed to love tea as much as they drink beer.

I asked why they didn’t have it and the guy behind the counter said it’s “too posh.” Too posh? I can get it at any McDonalds in New Brunswick.

There are countless coffees that include alcohol too: Irish Coffee (Irish whiskey), English Coffee (gin), Russian Coffee (vodka), Jamaican Coffee (Tia Maria and rum), Kula (espresso with Amarula), Karsk (moonshine), and dozens more.

I’m pretty sure all the boozy coffee is an indication you need some kind of payoff to drink it—like a good buzz.

A few years ago civet cat coffee was the hottest trend. It’s been dubbed the most expensive coffee in the world at $35 to $80 a cup—this is when you don’t say to your co-workers “I’ll buy”—and a one-pound bag of beans runs between $100 to $600. The price alone is insane but the origin of the beans, and I’m not talking about Indonesia, is off-putting. The beans are eaten by civet cats, pooped out, collected by humans and turned into expensive coffee humans with too much money are willing to buy. I bet it tastes like poop. Have some self- respect rich people!

Some hopeful entrepreneur came up with elephant dung coffee after civet coffee became a thing. That makes poking around in elephant waste a job. This is just a guess but I bet it pays like crap.

In essence, coffee sucks. But what sucks worse than coffee is being a tea drinker.

Show up at a convention or some other event and you’ll see what I mean. You walk over to the big steel urns lined up like space ships at NASA and they’re all coffee. If there happens to be an urn devoted to hot water, typically there’s a sad little basket nearby with fruity teas, especially the obscure ones like jasmine or ginger-orange. I want caffeine, just like the coffee drinkers, not “sleepy time” brew.

There have been times when I’ve been at an event and there is simply no tea. When I’ve asked staff about it they look shocked and then say they’ll see if they can find some. Eventually they return with a single tea bag in a crinkled wrapper that looks like it was hauled out from the depths of a staff member’s purse, a staff member who is also carrying around paper clips, a tube of toothpaste, and a vegetable peeler because she was hoping to go to a taping of Let’s Make a Deal in 1982.

And, not surprisingly, it’s pomegranate lemon. Forget it.

It’s not as if I haven’t given coffee a chance. I was about seven when I first tried it. I was at the Royal Ontario Museum with my dad and we stopped for a break. He ordered a coffee, which arrived in one of those non-descript white diner cups and told me to try it. I trusted my father so I took a gulp and then asked to have my tongue amputated. Since that wasn’t an option I had to settle for vigorously wiping my tongue with a napkin.

Perhaps I was introduced to coffee a little bit early but everyone I know who first starts drinking coffee adds 18 sugars and a gallon of milk to choke it down. If a beverage requires such massive adjustments, why drink it?

It’s not as if coffee has no practical purpose. Apparently the grounds repel bugs so it’s good for gardeners. It can also be used for scrubbing dishes and as an exfoliant.

My grandmother introduced me to tea when I was about four years old. Tea with a bit of milk, that’s all and that’s how I still drink it today. So while I ponder the usefulness of coffee, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea with milk, no foam, no chocolate sauce, no sprinkles and certainly no pumpkin spice.

Baby it’s cold outside so here’s a little recipe coffee drinkers should love: hot chocolate.

You will need (or not need depending on your taste)

4 cups whole milk

¼ cup sugar

2-inch piece fresh ginger root grated

2 cinnamon sticks

3 whole cloves

orange peel removed with vegetable peeler to keep it large

8 ounces dark semi-sweet chocolate (70%) broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons orange or ginger liqueur (optional)

This recipe can also be adapted to include hot chilies


Optional toppings

1 cup cream

2 tablespoons sugar

cocoa powder or ground cinnamon


Place the milk, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and orange peel in a medium saucepan over medium heat. As soon as the milk reaches the boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the flavours infuse for at least 20 minutes.

Gently warm the spiced milk. While the milk reheats, whip the cream with sugar in a small bowl until peaks form, if using as a topping.

Place the chocolate pieces in a medium bowl with the liqueur, if suing. Pour the warm milk over the chocolate through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the captured spices and orange peel. Whisk the warm milk into the chocolate, blending until smooth. Ladle the hot chocolate into mugs, top with a dollop of whipped cream, and a dusting of cocoa powder or cinnamon. Serve immediately.

Any left over hot chocolate will keep in a covered container in the fridge for up to three days. It can be reheated on the stove or at half-power in a microwave.

Serves six to eight.

This recipe comes from Charmian Christie as part of the What’s for Dinner cooking series.