A Traditional Christmas Panto

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Pantomime is an eccentric British theater institution.  Usually performed at Christmastime, pantomine (slang, panto) emerged during the Restoration with roots in the commedia dell’arte of Italy.  By the beginning of the 19th century, this wonderfully strange, campy, corny, quirky mix of musical comedy and fairy tale had become a tradition.

Young Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret performed in these musical comedy stage productions around Christmas and New Year’s, as pantos were a big part of their holiday celebrations at Windsor Castle, where they lived after evacuating from Buckingham Palace during wartime.

John, Joe and I attended our first Christmas panto in England at a village theater in the north.  Pantomimes rely heavily on audience participation (that’s a main part of the fun) and when the lead character called for a TALL volunteer, we pushed John into the fray. He played a door and a Christmas tree, much to his chagrin and our glee.  Later on in the village, we passed two children in the shops who pointed at John and said, “Look mummy!  It’s the door!”

JP endures the indignity of being a prop in the 2008 panto in England.

JP endures the indignity of being a prop in the 2008 panto in England.

Back at home in Maryland, we have the beginnings of a new Christmas tradition with our friends, Chris and Adrienne Harrington.  The British Players (formerly The British Embassy Players) mount a Christmas pantomime production at the Kensington Town Hall each year.  This year was Cinderella, a traditional British panto directed by Charles Hoag.  Chris purchased a passel of tickets for several friends and their children and away we went.  After the play we adjourned back to our house for dessert and hot chocolate.

I set up an assortment of cookies and treats in various shapes, sizes, flavors beforehand on the buffet.

Christmas dessert display

 

I knew I wanted an abundance of offerings but couldn’t make it all, of course, so I baked some homemade cookies and bars and rounded it out with my favorite seasonal treats from Trader’s Joe’s.

Homemade:

Dried Cranberry and Chocolate Cookies

Dried Cranberry Chocolate Cookies

These are everyone’s absolute favorite cookie. I think I made at least 9 dozen throughout the Christmas holiday to eat and give as gifts.

Chinese Chews

I found the recipe at one of my new favorite blogs, She Wears Many Hats.  This is a vintage recipe, dating back to the 1900s, but no one seems to know why they are titled ‘Chinese.’  Some recipes call for dates and walnuts, but I followed She Wears Many Hats and made these with just pecans.  They were like a blondie without chocolate.  Chewy in a good way with lots and lots of brown sugar.

Chinese chews (pecan bars)

I made a batch of Sugar Cookies with Sprinkles for those who don’t like chocolate or nuts.  I can’t say I was blown away with them (why are sugar cookies so hard to get right?) so no recipe to recommend.

From the store:

We love Trader Joe's.

We love Trader Joe’s.

(Left: Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes with Chocolate and Hazelnut. (Top to bottom: Trader’s Joe’s English Toffee, Trader Joe’s Caramels with Fleur du Sel, Trader Joe’s Jo Jo Cookie Assortment (like chocolate-covered Oreos).

And Walker’s Shortbread (our favorite at Christmastime.)

Everyone at our house gets shortbread in their Christmas stocking.

Everyone at our house gets shortbread in their Christmas stocking.

Christmas cookies

 

Dessert buffet

We decorated the front porch with candy canes, garland and mini trees.

christmas lights and candy canes

And a lovely guest brought the cutest miniature mince pies–an English tradition!

Classic mini mince pies

Classic mini mince pies

Another lovely friend brought a big bowl of Chocolate Mousse and the children had hot cocoa with mini marshmallows and candy canes.

P1010068Santa made an appearance.

santa

We had some savory treats also (because I like salty and crunchy better than sweet.)

Keeping it English, I put out a Stilton and a 5-year aged white cheddar (both from Trader Joe’s cheese section.)

We passed around a bowl of Spiced Pecans and a bowl of smoked almonds, both excellent with the various sparkling wines we served.

Schloss Beibrich Sekt is a wonderful sparkling wine from Germany.  A great buy.  Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley in Washington State another lovely find!

Schloss Beibrich Sekt is a wonderful sparkling wine from Germany. A great buy. Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley in Washington State another lovely find!

Spiced Pecans

And let’s not forget my favorite potato chip:  Kettle Brand Salt and Pepper Chips. Because it’s not a party without a potato chip, in my opinion.

We served an assortment of beverages, including lemonade, Pellegrino, Coke and Diet Coke, Capri Suns for the kids, white and red wines and IPAs for the adults.

I had planned to offer coffee and put out the china cups and saucers beforehand, but we totally forgot to brew it or offer it.  Since the play didn’t wrap up until 9:30 pm, this was a late party and no one asked for coffee as I’m sure they wanted to go to sleep at midnight with visions of sugar plums in their heads.

Tree at the Kensington Armory

The marvelous tree at Kensington Town Hall, large and festive.

Hope everyone had a happy Christmas!  Thank you, Chris and Adrienne for the panto tickets and the lovely new Christmas tradition.

Cheers,

Rebecca

Joe’s Lunchbox: Veggie Fried Rice

 

Veggie fried brown rice with green onion and scrambled egg.

Veggie fried brown rice with green onion and scrambled egg.

 

Joe came home from his 5th-grade nutrition class saying that he’d like to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains.  I said, that’s great!  Let’s try some new recipes. I’d like to eat less meat, too!

So I’ve been making of lot of rice (brown and basmati), beans (pinto and black), and several permutations of this vegetable fried rice.  Fried rice is a good way to use up leftover steamed rice and whatever else might be languishing in your vegetable bin (green onions, shallots, carrots, celery, mushrooms, broccoli, frozen peas, corn).

 

Rice cookers come in a vast array of price ranges.

Rice cookers come in a vast array of price ranges.  I bought mine (same make and model as pictured) at a thrift store for $6 but you can pay up to $199 for a fancy one with digital display.

 

I bought a rice cooker at the thrift store and we’ve been putting it to use, making rice at least once a week.  Normally I’m not a fan of gadgets that are devoted to one single purpose.  I already have too many gadgets.  My good friend (whose husband comes from a large Filipino family and eats rice at every meal, including breakfast) swore she could not live without hers and now I am a convert.

It is so easy to cook rice this way if you are going to be cooking it once a week or more. The rice steams perfectly and the cooker turns itself off (into ‘warm’ mode) when it’s ready so it is very forgiving of your timeline.  The rice comes out just right, every single time.  (No more peeking under the lid to check if rice is done.)

Here’s the scenario:  rush home from work or whatever your activity was pre-dinner, walk in the door, get out the rice cooker, pour a cup of rice in and at least a cup and half of water, push the button, then live your life, write your blog, check your email, feed the cat and/or dog, throw a load of laundry in, get the mail, pay a bill online, pick that random sock off the floor, and in 20 minutes or so, rice is done.  Check.

 

Excellent Chinese cookbook by Nancie McDermott.

Excellent Chinese cookbook by Nancie McDermott.

 

Nancie McDermott, author of Quick and Easy Chinese: 70 Everyday Recipes (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2008) includes four recipes for fried rice.  Once you have her method, you can adapt the recipes to include what you have on hand (or exclude what you don’t.)  You’ll need some basic Asian pantry items (soy sauce, sesame oil) and if you’d like you can jazz it up with other Asian sauces, condiments, or chile pastes you might have.

I love going to our big Asian grocery store, so my exotic condiment shelves overflow.

 

Love spicy, garlicky Asian condiments.

Love spicy, garlicky Asian condiments.

 

Seriously though.  You only need soy sauce and sesame oil (plus aromatics like garlic, ginger, onion) to make an outstanding fried rice.

Vegetables for fried rice

 

 

Garlic and brown eggs still life,

Here is Nancie’s recipe for Ham-and-Egg Fried Rice which I have adapted by taking out the ham and adding more vegetables and aromatics.  The excellent cooking instructions are hers with some adaptations from me.

Basic Veggie Fried Rice

Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cooked rice, cold or at room temperature (Note from Rebecca: use up that leftover rice from your Chinese takeout order)
  • 1 T. vegetable oil
  • 1 T. sesame oil
  • 1 T. chopped garlic
  • 1 T. dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 C. shredded carrot (I peel the outer layer of a large carrot and discard the dirty peel, then keep shaving the carrot into ribbons until I have 1/2 C.  Then cut the ribbons in half to make them more bite-size.)
  • 3 T. chopped green onion
  • 3 well-beaten eggs

Directions

  • Break up the rice clumps into individual grains for easy stir-frying.
  • Heat a wok or large, deep skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the oils and swirl to coat the pan.  Add the garlic and green onions and cook, stirring often, for 15 seconds.  Do not let the garlic burn.  If you feel (see or smell it burning) turn the heat down!
  • Add the eggs and then tilt the pan to spread them out.  Stir the eggs and aromatics together and scramble the eggs into soft lumps.
  • When the eggs have barely scrambled, add the rice all at once and toss.
  • Cook the rice, tossing often, 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Add the soy sauce and stir.
  • Add the carrot ribbons and toss another 30 seconds until rice is hot and tender.

 

The key to a stir-fry is to have all your ingredients chopped up, measured, and ready to go.  The French term is mise en place.

The key to a stir-fry is to have all your ingredients chopped up, measured, and ready to go.
The French term is mise en place.

 

Consider fried rice as your emergency back-up plan when you haven’t planned dinner or had time to shop.  The most time-consuming part of it is the chopping, and if you take a tip from my (much more well-organized) sister, you will OF COURSE have little zip-lock baggies in your fridge with the dribs and drabs of chopped garlic, chopped onion or shallot, sliced cabbage, the 3 tablespoons of cooked corn too good to throw out, the one chicken breast your family didn’t eat at dinner 2 nights ago, etcetera.

Master the method and then go forth and experiment!  Buy some crazy condiments at your Asian grocery store (which makes a fun field trip for children, by the way.)

Cheers!

Rebecca

 

 

 

Joe’s Favorite Oreo Ice Cream Cake

 

Some people are natural bakers.  They like the methodical approach proper baking requires:  careful measurement, exacting technique, and strict attention to time, temperature, and humidity.

I was never like that.  I was afraid to make bread because the yeast would never proof. About 10 years ago, I purchased a Julia Child limited edition Kitchen Aid stand mixer (part of a fundraiser for AIWF Friends of Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian) and vowed to try to be a better baker.

That is a funny way to start this post, however, because this recipe has little to do with baking!  Not only is this cake frozen but there is also very little homemade about it.  So why am I sharing it, you ask?  Because it is a favorite among children and my son especially requested it for his 11th birthday.  I also made it for Allison’s little girl’s birthday.  It is a popular dessert and quite easy.

You could go out and buy an Oreo Ice Cream cake from Baskin Robbins or the grocery store but this semi-homemade one is much better than those.  The cookies and ice cream taste really fresh.

 

Oreo-cookies

Cookies and milk, anyone?
Photo credit: Allison Beuker Photography

I pulled this recipe from The Kitchn blog, an excellent resource and one I read frequently.

Here is the original recipe which I adapted just slightly.

Ingredients

  • One 14.3-ounce package Oreos (regular/original), about 36 cookies, reserve 8 for garnish
  • One 15.25-ounce chocolate cake mix (I used Betty Crocker’s Triple Chocolate Fudge, baked as directed on the box.  You will need 3 eggs, 1/2 C. vegetable oil, and 1 1/4 C. water)
  • 2 quarts vanilla ice cream, very soft
  • 1/2 cup chocolate sauce, plus 3 T. for drizzling (Hershey’s Syrup works just fine)

Prepare a 10-inch springform pan by lining it with plastic wrap (bottom and sides).

Bake the chocolate cake as directed on the box. (Or you could buy a cake if you want to keep it really simple).

 

Who wants to lick the beaters? Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich.

Who wants to lick the beaters?
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich

Roughly chop or crumble the Oreo cookies into quarters or smaller bite-sized bits. (I put the cookies in a gallon-size Ziploc bag and go over them with a rolling pin.) Crumble the cake into a large bowl, and stir in about 1/3 of the crumbled sandwich cookies.  Add  1/2 C. of chocolate syrup to the cake and cookie mixture.

Bake cakes in 9-inch rounds. Photo: Rebecca Penovich.

Bake cakes in 9-inch rounds.
Photo: Rebecca Penovich

 

Dump in about 2/3 of a quart of very soft vanilla ice cream, and stir gently but thoroughly until the cake and ice cream are well-combined. Press this mixture into the bottom of the springform pan.

Cookies and cake!  What could be better?

Cookies and cake! What could be better?

 

In a separate bowl, mix the remaining 1 1/3 quarts vanilla ice cream with the remaining 2/3 of the crumbled cookies.  Press this on top of the cake mixture in the springform pan; it will come nearly up to the top of the pan.

Cookies and ice cream mixture.

Cookies and ice cream mixture.

 

Cover the cake pan and freeze for at least 4 hours, ideally overnight.

Smooth the top then it's ready to back in the freezer.

Smooth the top then it’s ready to back in the freezer.

When ready to serve, let the cake sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, and run a knife around the inside of the cake pan. Open the springform mold gently; it should release easily from the slightly melted cake.  Pull away the plastic wrap.

Place cake on festive plate and garnish with the 8 reserved Oreos.  I stand them up on their side and place around the cake like a clock face.  Drizzle the Hershey’s syrup over the ice cream cake in a criss-cross pattern.  (Hold the syrup bottle high over the cake and move your hand back and forth quickly.  Pretend you are on Top Chef!)

 

Artful drizzle. Photo by Rebecca Penovich.

Artful drizzle.
Photo by Rebecca Penovich

 

Serve in wedges with ice cold milk.  Sing Happy Birthday!

Happy birthday to you!  Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!

 

Kiddie Crack

Free slurpee day on 7.11

Free slurpee day on 7.11

I will never forget the time I got the dirtiest look from a mom at preschool when I gave Joe his snack and it was a baggie of the new-on-the-market multi-colored Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. I guess it was the lurid prospect of purple and red food dyes near her child and in my child’s stomach that caused her alarm.

Goldfish Cracers Colors via darthbitch.tumblr.com 1

It’s been awhile since I’ve struggled with a toddler over food in the grocery store.  Joe is 10 now and I don’t take him to the store with me unless I have to!

But I painfully remember cursing those evil geniuses in food marketing behind the obvious placement ploys in the cereal and snack aisles.  STOP!  MOMMY! THERE ARE TOYS INSIDE!

Fruit Loops and Shrek candy placed right at child-in-cart eye level. Those end caps of potato chips – brightly colored, exploding with exciting graphics.  And the dreaded chocolate-infused, Skittles, Lifesavers, and M&M-fest that is the check-out lane.

(Of course you could queue up in the “No tabloids or candy line”  if your supermarket has one which undoubtedly ALWAYS has the little old lady who can’t find her coupons or checkbook in front of the mom with 3 teenagers with an overflowing cart including  3 12-packs of soda, 2 cases of bottled water and enough Tide to launder a baseball team.)

Remember him?

Remember him?

When Joe was riding in my cart, I sped by the cereal aisle like a Mom at Nascar.  It was just too much.  Joe would be pointedly shouting out that he “LOVES Fruities, Mommy” as we passed the Fruit Loops at exactly kid-eye level.  And there was just no time to try to comparison shop, looking for the box with the “1/3 less sugar than regular Fruit Loops” or  to discern if  Cocoa Puffs were really made with whole grain as they claimed and if so, so what?

Meanwhile your toddler is beside himself with the choices and the prospect of something yummy that he’s never had before and the harried mom is trying to do the math to see if the sugar content calculated by the actual serving size is really below 9 percent of the total….sheesh!

Maybe all moms should take a class on reading nutrition labels at birthing class.

Nutrition label

Help me! I have to do math in my head to figure this out and I have a toddler AND a new baby. I need food and sleep. Not nutrition labels.

I also remember a battle between my husband and I over Trader Joe veggie fries, otherwise known in our household as “kiddie crack.” I thought this was acceptable food, after all they do have vegetable matter in them and lots of air.  However, my husband considered them junk food, and given my son’s unnatural appetite for stuffing his face with these until he explodes, I think my husband was right.

But hey, give a mom a break. Who is in charge of the feeding day after day, mornings, noon, night, snacks? The mom!  (Usually.)

Ten years after Joe was born there are now way more natural, organic, fresh, local, gluten-free, sugar-free, wheat-free, nut-free, corn syrup-free choices out there (not that I make use of them all the time, or any of the time.)

Making good food choices and clashing swords over the junk food battlefield with my budding middle-schooler still happens and I do try to make sure Joe gets in his four food groups (wait, aren’t there 5 now?) over the course of the day.

And what, veggie crack fries are not in one of those food groups?  No worries.  Joe doesn’t break my back for those anymore now that he’s moved on to the barbecue potato chips that the babysitter turned him on to.

Joe with cherries from our neighbors tree.

Joe with cherries from our neighbor’s tree.