Forum Holitorium

If I Were a Rich Crow

If I were a rich crow, I would have more time to blog. Instead of staring at a computer screen, I would spend more time gazing out the window and identifying birds in the trees and make a dent on that stack of books. I would order fine, exotic yarn from points abroad and bring more objects of beauty into the world. And when travel becomes easier, I would start exploring again, first working my way around Italy, seeking out good trattorias and ancient sites, and then island hopping in the Mediterranean.

This morning I read that there is a woodpecker count going on in Vienna. You can participate by sending in information on where you spot woodpeckers in the city. Nine of the ten different woodpecker species found in Austria are found in Vienna. Three are ones KA and I see regularly: the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, shown above), the Eurasian green woodpecker (Picus viridis), and the black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius). The others are the middle spotted woodpecker (Leiopicus medius), the lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor), the Syrian woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus), the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos), the grey-faced woodpecker (Picus canus), and the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla). Even if you don’t understand German, the site I linked to above has descriptions with good pictures and sound files.

It is not just woodpeckers that are out and about: an unfamiliar bird conveniently landed in the bush right just as I was attempting to take a picture of a blackbird. After consulting my Austrian bird field guide, I decided it was a fieldfare (Wacholderdrossel, or Turdus pilaris). This handsome bird winters in Austria from October to April and then flies north. Once I read the entry on the fieldfare, I remembered that I had seen a flock of them outside the apartment shortly after I moved to Vienna.

Piggy backing on the brown of the fieldfare’s wings, let’s shift to the warm earth tones of the second pair of Cesena socks, the first sock of which is nearly done. For those readers who have frequently knit socks with self-striping yarn, what is with the incredibly wide pumpkin stripe? Did someone make a mistake at the yarn dying plant – maybe taking a longer coffee break and forgetting to switch to the next color? Note the garter stitch heel.

The sock has taken so long because a few weeks ago I became distracted with thoughts of spring and summer, setting aside wool and reaching for linen and cotton. A few summers ago, I knit a linen bag that I had hoped would become my primary summer tote bag. My intention was to line it with linen fabric. Since I have no experience with sewing linings (or sewing much of anything except buttons and seaming sweaters), a friend who can sew offered to show me how to make a lining. Unfortunately, she didn’t end up having enough time, and both the bag and the linen fabric were packed away out of sight, out of mind. Last spring I knit a linen bag from a different pattern to use up a skein of yarn I shouldn’t have bought. The design was very practical, but the color didn’t match most of my summer clothing. I decided that I would knit a second one in a better color. That is what you see below. I raveled the first linen bag and knit another bag following last summer’s pattern. I don’t plan on lining it. The linen is Quince and Co’s Kestrel in the color Quill, a thick ribbon yarn that should hold up well.

The other distracting project was the cotton tweed cowl, which is now finished. Once again, I knit a familiar pattern in a color that matches my wardrobe better Longer and narrower than the first one, the cowl should also fit better. Whereas this winter was devoted to socks, this spring and summer I would like to seek out different brands of linen yarn and become proficient in the ins and outs of knitting with linen. As the climate changes, garments in cooling fibers such as linen, hemp, and nettle will provide relief and should be worn more frequently in these latitudes. These fibers have different characteristics than wool and alpaca. I’m happy to have found a clear knitting focus for the next part of the year and look forward to experimenting with plant fibers.

May you find a good focus for the upcoming months and enjoy the birdsong of spring!

New Crow on the Block

There’s a new crow on the block. Not a rook. You can tell from the beak – that slight bump between the eyes and the black beak. Juvenile rooks have a black beak near their eyes that lightens as they mature. Rooks also have more of a dome shaped head and there is no bump where the beak meets it. The new crow is of mixed parentage – hooded crow (ssp.cornix) and carrion crow (ssp. corone). This is clear from the grey patches of feathers around the wing. Vienna is right along the boundary between the ranges of hooded crows (to the east) and carrion crows (to the west). In my experience, it is the exception to find a crow that is clearly one subspecies in this city. Most are a mix. That makes it easier to identify specific crows since most have individual grey markings.

Spring is on the way. Since it is warmer, I open the window more frequently for fresh air and hear plenty of birdsong. Especially active are the woodpeckers. The other day I caught this great spotted woodpecker hammering away in the tree. And there are plenty of yaffles to be heard. KA even spotted a pair of green woodpeckers the other day by the street. We have never seen more than one at a time. Wouldn’t it be great if they built a nest in a tree within sight of the living room?

Readers, I kept my word and saved the seeds from a Hokkaido squash we ate. It took me (more than) a few days, but I finally roasted them in the oven. To no avail. I was just about to check on them when I heard a noise like the sound when the first kernels of popcorn start to pop. Yes, some of the seeds had exploded in the oven. Later when the seeds had cooled down, I examined them. The Hokkaido squash seeds are thick with an outer layer that opens cleanly to reveal a greenish inner seed. KA thought they tasted OK but were too hard to warrant chewing and eating. We plan on feeding them to the birds. The seed roasting was a spontaneous action in the line of “there is no more room in the fridge and those seeds need to be dealt with now, not tomorrow after researching on the internet what to do with them.” The next time I try this, it will be with butternut or spaghetti squash, whose seeds are thinner, and I will follow the instructions here.

Over the last few days, the phrase “The perfect is the enemy of the good” has popped up in my head. I don’t remember reading or hearing this lately and have no idea where it came from. Wikipedia says this aphorism is attributed to Voltaire, who quoted an Italian who said “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene” in one of his works. During Lent, I have decided to eat vegan and avoid alcohol, chocolate, and sugar. This project was coming along fine until KA found an unopened container of yogurt that had expired on February 3 and said it should be tossed. That is when I decided avoiding food waste was more important than being consistently vegan until Easter. A fermented product, yogurt is one of those foods it’s OK to consume after the best buy date as long as it looks and smells OK. KA wrinkled his nose at the mere thought of this. I opened the container to discover yogurt that looked and smelled fine. Half went into a cardamom yogurt cake and half became part of the dough for samosas. It was good not to toss the yogurt in the trash. The container has been separated into paper, plastic, and foil and properly recycled and the food has nourished us. Now it’s back to my Lenten diet.

May you think of a clever way to reduce food waste from your kitchen!

On Fasching, Rooks, and Corsica

It is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Faschingsdienstag, the last day before Lent when the Roman Catholic countries of Europe revel and eat pancakes, doughnuts, and other fried foods before forty days of fasting in Lent. I was brought up partly Catholic, went to a Catholic elementary school where I was taught by nuns, and have spent the last 20 years of my life living in European countries where Catholicism remains the majority religion. While I don’t subscribe to its belief system, this religion is familiar and a part of the cultural tradition that has been passed down to me.

From the wide range of Carnival traditions, let’s narrow our focus to Austria. Faschingsdienstag is a day when you can’t expect to get anything done in Austria. It is not an official holiday, but it is normal that people with children duck out of work around lunchtime and no one cares. There are parades and parties, children get dressed up in costumes (Faschingsdienstag–> Austria like Halloween –> U.S.), and everyone eats Faschingskrapfen, doughnuts filled with apricot jam or vanilla cream. We don’t have kids and there is a pandemic going on, but eating Krapfen sounded nice. Of course KA and I were not the only people with this idea, and unfortunately by the time KA went to the bakery yesterday afternoon, there weren’t any left. As a replacement, he brought home Punschkrapfen, which faithful readers of this blog have seen before. The bright pink, sickeningly sweet icing shrouds layers of yellow and chocolate cake doused in rum. If you need a sugar kick, this does the trick.

Since I didn’t know whether today would bring Krapfen or not, I decided to make a Dutch baby pancake for breakfast this morning. I haven’t made this recipe in ages. It is an oven baked pancake not linked to Fat Tuesday. I was too lazy to make French-style buckwheat crepes on the stove, which are traditional in France. My late high school French teacher made crepes with us in French class for Mardi Gras. You held a coin in your left hand and attempted to flip the crepe in the pan with your right hand. If you succeeded, it was supposed to bring good luck. Back to the Dutch baby pancake: whisk together 3 eggs, add 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp mineral water, then add 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp spelt flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until combined. Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a skillet or cake pan in the oven. Remove before it browns, making sure the butter covers the bottom of the pan. Add the mixture and bake 20 minutes at 400°F/200°C. Enjoy watching it puff up towards the end of that time. I ate mine with applesauce and cinnamon.

It would be a messy day for a parade since it snowed last night. Enough to warrant shoveling, but not enough that it will still be on the ground tomorrow. The ground was covered by the tracks of rooks even before I tossed them some peanuts. Last night I watched a documentary on the intelligence of corvids. It featured interviews with researchers in Vienna who study how ravens can learn to complete tasks in cooperation with other ravens. There was also a segment on rooks in Germany that made me laugh. We have rooks over the winter, but they leave and breed somewhere else. Apparently there are places in Germany where they have their nests, and since rooks are much more social than crows and they also feel comfortable near humans, there are multiple nests in trees where people live and they have become a nuisance. I learned that rooks are actually protected in Germany. The town in focus tried out a number of strategies to dissuade them from nesting there from putting nets over the trees to removing some eggs and replacing them with fake eggs, but nothing really helped. Rooks 1, humans 0.

On the needles, the next sock is starting to take shape. It is top down in stockinette stitch and will have a garter stitch heel. In book news, I am nearing the end of Dorothy Carrington’s Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica. I first came across this book in an English language book shop in Antibes, France. I debated buying it, decided not to, and came to regret this decision. I started reading it over Christmas, one chapter at a time, slowly taking in the descriptions of a traditional Corsica on the cusp of being swept away by the modern world in Carrington’s meticulous prose. Published in 1971, the book is structured around the itinerary of her first trip to Corsica in 1948. She became fascinated by the island’s people and culture and ended up settling there for the rest of her long life. Thanks to her, archeologists became aware of the Filitosa megaliths. Corsica is high on the list of places I would like to visit when the pandemic is over. Have any readers ever visited Corsica and if so, what made the greatest impression on you?

Wishing you clear visions of what you will do when the pandemic is over!


Resplendent February

The sun is shining with an intensity that lifts spirits and makes you want to spring out of bed despite the cold snap. Nature’s way of compensating for rolling a mass of freezing cold air over the land? Perhaps. This week was a treat with three special animal sightings. While working the other morning, I heard some strange noises and thought the Hausmeisterin might be chipping at ice or something below the living room window. When I went to the window, I startled two Parus major rendezvousing on the windowsill! That was a first. The next sighting: the squirrel in the tree above. And then yesterday morning, I heard a yaffle. Looking out the window, I scanned the trees and saw the green woodpecker flying away from a tree. It has been months since one has come to visit.

KA stocked up on peanuts for the rooks this morning. Only a few more weeks to go before our rooks head east in migration. Last week was semester break for schools in Vienna. I read an article in the newspaper on what to do with children during the lockdown. I would normally skip over such an article, but the word “Krähe” (crow) caught my attention. I was pleased to see that feeding crows was one of the activities. I learned that there are no ordinances against feeding crows or rooks in public spaces in Vienna. These birds flourish in human environments and are not endangered by human contact. This is not true of all birds. After reading the article, I felt better about us feeding the crows and rooks peanuts. Perhaps increased contact with these birds during this pandemic will lead some young Viennese to embark on careers as ornithologists. The big question is: Will the hooded crow and carrion crow build a nest in the spruce tree again so we can watch the development of a new generation of crows?

The last time I wrote was during pumpkin week, which concluded with gnocchi. The recipe is simple – just squash, flour, and grated hard cheese (here Grana Padano) plus salt and nutmeg. Last time I also shared a picture of one completed sock with pumpkin stripes. In the meantime, KA has started wearing his new striped socks. This is the first time I didn’t follow a specific sock pattern and simply pieced together a sock from previous experience. I did toe up to size the socks after the toe increases and make sure the circumference fit before I knit any further. That is the trouble with top down socks – you find out way too late if they aren’t going to fit. The heel is the same Fleegle heel from the last pair of socks I made for him. Because of the striping, I didn’t bother with a pattern because it wouldn’t show up at all. The next pair of socks with the Cesena yarn will be more tricky because the person I am knitting them for is far away and can’t try them on as I knit, but I have knit socks for her before and have a rough idea of what size fits.

We are still watching lots of Arte documentaries in the evenings and have nearly completed a series on markets (only in German or French) in European cities. As I watch, I always have a knitting project in my hand. Knitting stockinette socks are what knitters refer to as “mindless knitting.” There is no need to follow a complicated pattern or count much of anything most of the time. An equally mindless project is the cotton cowl I started in September. After one set-up round, it just consists of one easy line. It has been my evening project since I completed KA’s socks. My yarn stash has gone down but is in no danger of disappearing before summer. Initially I thought I would visit the yarn store in my district when things reopened and stock up, but now I think I want to wait and remain disciplined in knitting down my stash.

Despite the spread of the South African and British COVID-19 mutations, shops reopened and schools went back to in-person learning on Monday in Austria. A fourth lockdown is sure to come before Easter since Austria has been sluggish both in responding to the South African mutation and in immunizing the population. Only medical professionals, nursing home residents and staff, and people over 80 are currently eligible for vaccines. Half of the vaccines being distributed here are from Astra Zeneca and have not been proven to work against the South African mutation. The province of Tyrol is number two worldwide in cases of the South African mutation after South Africa. Before the last lockdown started, the government said it wanted to get the seven day incidence rate (average number of cases in the past seven days per 100,000 inhabitants) down to 50 before reopening. The incidence rate has stubbornly remained above 100, and yesterday it was 105. How unfortunate the government didn’t keep its word. This real-life experiment in public health is still ongoing. That said, FFP2 masks are available and required in all indoor buildings. The government even sent out free FFP2 masks to all residents over 65. I remain very thankful that I work from home and have a nice view of trees and birds outside my windows.

Wishing you a sunny day and high spirits!

Pumpkin Week

Candlemas, Lichtmess, La Chandeleur, Groundhog’s Day, Imbolc: Whatever you call it, it’s here. It’s lighter longer and spring is on the horizon. Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate? I would like to make buckwheat crêpes and celebrate French style, but work deadlines may prevent that from happening and it might just be a quick pasta for dinner tonight, say pasta with pumpkin sauce. The pumpkin adorning the windowsill in this post has finally been cleft in two and roasted in the oven for a total yield of 2 kilos of orange vegetable. I froze 500 g in 250 g portions and started off Pumpkin Week yesterday with pumpkin risotto: red onion diced and sautéed in olive oil, risotto rice (vialone nano?), a glass of Chardonnay, water (if I had homemade broth I would use it, but water works just fine), salt, pepper, and diced roasted pumpkin.

When asked if I had roasted the pumpkin seeds, I felt guilty that my answer was no. Sometimes one only has so much energy for cooking when other work needs doing. I enjoy having my office at home because I can take breaks from the computer and get housework done in small increments, but a certain amount of work still needs to get done. I had time to stir the risotto for lunch, but roasting the seeds would have required time I didn’t have to separate them out and keep an eye on them toasting in the oven, so they ended up in the trash. I promised myself Next time.

Like many other people, I am trying to reduce my plastic consumption. Buying a large pumpkin is great because it does not come encased in plastic and it can sit around for weeks before it goes bad. If you are concerned about the environment, just as important as reducing plastic consumption is reducing food waste. Think of all the water, fuel, and chemicals  – and plastic – involved in bringing food to your table. If you throw food away, you waste all the resources and work involved in producing that food and bringing it home. Because many of us have switched to making fewer trips to buy groceries and bringing larger amounts home at one time, the potential for food waste is greater because it is easier to forget about something in the fridge and not discover it until it is inedible. Planning is essential. Two success stories of reducing food waste: I salvaged the hardening end of a loaf of bread and tore it up to make bread crumbs that will be tossed into soup. I let the bread dry out thoroughly before putting it in a glass jar. The lemon peel below was salvaged from half of a lemon whose juice had been pressed. It will be mixed into a cake batter to add a pronounced lemon flavor.

If you are interested in reducing plastic use and waste, I highly recommend this blog. According to the author, 40% of garbage in the US, UK and Australia is food waste. That is a lot of waste that could be prevented or reused to make compost. Though Austria is very good at recycling, our apartment complex does not have an organic waste bin. This is the fifth apartment I have lived in since coming to Austria and it is the first one where I can’t recycle food scraps. To the best of my knowledge, garbage in Vienna ends up being incinerated, so any food waste we toss goes up in smoke.

Meanwhile, KA has a new sock. The orange stripes are exactly the color of cooked pumpkin. This is the first time I have used self-striping sock yarn. It feels like cheating since all I do is knitting stockinette round after round yet an intricate pattern emerges. Unfortunately, this sock will not reduce the amount of plastic in the household since it is 25% nylon. I would like to eventually stop using sock yarn with nylon, but that day is not here yet. Plus I need to do something with the gifted yarn, and the only projects I knit with synthetic fibers are socks or bags. At least the socks should hold up well because of the reinforcement of the nylon. What is completely free of plastic is the navy jacket. The first sleeve is now complete. I like the subtle cuff detail. By the next post, the second sleeve should be done too.

May you find a creative use for food scraps and enjoy the longer days!

On Track in Living Color

January is the month when I finally finish up what I wanted to do in December. As soon as the futon couch became cleared of objects that needed packaging and sending, there was space to tackle the sleeve issue of the navy jacket set aside last fall. Fresh from a good night’s sleep, I sat down, analyzed the problem, frogged the sleeve, and restarted with fewer stitches. Two sleeves to fix, two socks to darn, and two letters to write and then I will have fully arrived in 2021.

In late January, pomegranate seeds provide a splash of color and vitamins C and K. It has been months since I walked to the sidewalk café that was my haunt last summer. One of the routes there passed a house with a pomegranate tree right next to the sidewalk. Pomegranates are quite unusual in these climes – and especially in a city the size of Vienna. I wondered if the owners had difficulty with people stealing the large ripe orbs. All the fruit has surely been harvested by now. The color of Michelle Obama’s outfit at the inauguration on Wednesday was close to the Pantone color Pomegranate. Majestic poet Amanda Gorman appeared wearing a coat in Illuminating, the Pantone color of 2021. Tears of relief in my eyes, I watched the ceremony while preparing Swiss chard casserole for our celebration dinner. The closing lines of Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” have been quoted extensively. A line in the middle jumped out at me: “We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” There is much work to do on that front. Good thing I’m nearly done with my to do list for 2020.

Wednesday was a good day to be a woman in America. And Friday was a good day to be a woman in Vienna. After KA came home from doing computer work for his mother, he casually pulled a package of yarn and a book out of his bag. She decided to give up on knitting socks and pass on her sock yarn and a book on knitting Jacquard socks to me. English speakers will chuckle at the name of the yarn: “Woll Butt.” Butt is apparently a northern German name for plaice, a type of fish found in the North Sea. I have no idea why the company chose this name. The colorway is Cesena, which is the name of an Italian city in the region Emilia Romagna. It will be nice to knit these warm earth tones. This is not my palette at all, so the four to six pair of socks I will make need people to wear them. Claims have already been staked for two pairs of socks. Family and friends interested in striped socks should get in touch.

May you work a minor wonder this week!

Winter, Finally

Colors morph in the lightening sky as barren branches insist on protruding darkly. The snow is traversed by rook footprints. Gigantic snowflakes occasionally float past the window.

The interior landscape has also changed. A pomegranate and bevy of blood oranges supersede the quince and bowl of apples. It was time to use the quince, so I made (vegan) quince-cardamom cake. It wasn’t intentional, but the top of the cake became marbled. The future I attempted to read in its patterns remains as inscrutable as the past in which the cave paintings were created.

Whatever happened to the Kletzennudeln, you might ask. There were two batches, both of which turned out tasty. The second batch was more aesthetic since I started to get the hang of how to close the dumplings according to the recipe. The Austrian German word for making the fancy edge on the dumpling below is krendeln. There was a time when young women weren’t considered ready for marriage until they could krendeln properly. Pre-Internet, naturally.

Searching for culinary inspiration online has proven effective in distracting me from the news. One of my cooking goals for the new year is to learn how to cook cabbage well. Nutritious and cheap, it is a mainstay of traditional Austrian food. A favorite vegetable of the ancient Romans, cabbage also features in many contemporary Italian recipes. One of the tastiest cabbage dishes I have ever eaten is the Polish pierogi z kapusta i grzybami, cabbage and mushroom pierogi. Perhaps that is the best recipe to try first since I’m on a roll with dumplings.

The eye of the partridge heeled socks are done. Something about them reminds me of Venice. Is it the delicate patterning? The 15% silk? Perhaps I will wear them while cooking Verze Sofegae, a Venetian recipe for “suffocated cabbage.” Venice in turn reminds me of the late Jan Morris, the author of The World of Venice and Triest and the Meaning of Nowhere, two books that greatly influenced how I experienced those two cities. Her words of wisdom quoted in an article last spring can help us navigate the world in 2021. “If you are not sure what you think about something, the most useful questions are these: Are you being kind? Are they being kind? That usually gives you the answer.”

Be kind to all and share your nuts and seeds with the birds!

White Epiphany

The twelve days of Christmas have gone by and we have reached the feast of the Epiphany, from the Greek word epiphainein : to manifest, to come suddenly into view. As I looked out the window this morning, a miracle was manifest: snow. The first snow of 2021, the second snow of this winter. In other parts of Austria, roofs are groaning and collapsing under the weight of snow. Not Vienna. Happily I woke up early enough to enjoy it. A few hours later, the trees were already shedding water. Now as sunset approaches, the trees are bare and the green and brown ground is visible once again.

What remains white: the head coverings of Vienna’s chimney sweeps. A calendar appeared in the mailbox from a local chimney sweep: Viel Glück 2021, good luck in 2021, a common wish expressed in German this time of year, plus chimney sweeps are thought to bring good luck. This calendar includes the phases of the moon and a list of name days. Name days are common in Catholic and Orthodox parts of Europe. Each day is associated with the feast of a particular saint. Today is dedicated to the three kings, said to have brought exotic, luxurious gifts from points far away to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No such fancy gifts were given over Christmas in this apartment. Just the commonplace gift of peanuts, which continues to satisfy the rooks.

KA and I have spent most of our evenings enjoying the abundance of programs available online for free from the French-German television channel Arte. From travel to nature, from history to science, from opera to popular music, there is something for everyone in six different languages. One of our favorite programs is “Zu Tisch” (lunch/dinner is served). Each episode focuses on a family – more often than not farmers – in a region of Europe. The show follows the family as they prepare traditional meals at home and for celebrations. The most recent one was about Christmas traditions in Weissensee, which is in the Austrian province of Carinthia, and showed how Kletzennudeln (dried pear dumplings) are prepared. I knew immediately that I needed to make some.

Dried pears are not the prettiest of foods. When I asked KA what he wanted to eat this Christmas, he said Kletzenbrot, a fruitcake starring dried pears. (That wasn’t the response I had been hoping for, which was Christstollen with marzipan filling. It turns out he doesn’t like that at all.) A long time ago, a friend gave me some homemade Kletzenbrot. I eyed the dark brown and unappealing rectangular solid suspiciously before trying it. Unfortunately I don’t recall my first impression. Since I have seldom been in Austria over the Christmas holidays, there have been few opportunities to eat Kletzenbrot.  By the time I searched for a Kletzenbrot recipe, the window of opportunity had passed since it should sit for a week or two and there was less time than that until Christmas. The Kletzennudeln fit the bill perfectly for how to use up the dried pears I had already purchased and make another traditional Austrian dumpling. My initial idea was to make Kletzennudeln for New Year’s Eve. Nearly a week later, all I have managed to do is boil the dried pears until soft (the first step), yet I’m confident that the next blog post will include a dried pear dumpling report.

Little did I expect that when I finished the third pair of Advent socks my first impulse would be to…knit more socks. This pattern has an eye of the partridge heel. As soon as I cast on, the handspun sock yarn of wool, silk, and linen came alive in my hands. It is a delight to touch. While going through a tote bag of yarn, I found a blue cotton tweed cowl started in summer and set aside once autumn arrived. What better way to honor the lengthening days than to finish up a project for the lightest time of the year? These two blue projects will keep me occupied in the rarefied month of January.

Happy New Year! Viel Glück im neuen Jahr!

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas cookies = 0. Buccellato = 1. This year my Christmas baking didn’t start until Christmas Eve. I made my grandma’s special Christmas buccellato. Not 100% faithful to her recipe, but close. Buccellato is a cake from Lucca in Tuscany (read more about its history here). My great-grandparents were born in small villages in the countryside near Lucca, and I presume my grandma learned how to make buccellato from her mother. Buccella is a Latin word meaning “a little mouthful.” When my grandma was still with us, Christmas Eve was more than just a little mouthful. It was a family gathering with an abundance of food and good cheer. There were never more than 10 of us at that table squeezed into the 10 foot by 11 foot dining room. Everyone had their assigned place at the table. My first memories are of sitting between my aunt and my grandpa, then my cousin was born and I sat between her and my grandpa. After my grandpa died, my dad took his place at the head of the table and I sat between him and my cousin. Otherwise there weren’t many rules – just mangia. Eat!

Christmas is about cooking and sharing an abundance of food. So that’s what I did yesterday, preparing a modest Christmas feast for two over the course of the day. For lunch, I made a Swiss chard casserole following Marcella Hazan’s tegliata di biete recipe (minus the cheese and plus the stalks – I toss them in with the onions after five minutes or so). Chard, pine nuts, and raisins are a winning combination. Then I baked the buccellato, which is loaded with aniseed, candied cherries and lemons, and ground almonds. I wasn’t sure I would make it through to dinner, but I channeled my grandma’s indefatigable cooking spirit and made poppyseed dumplings (Mohnnudeln) with applesauce.

The dumplings are shaped like gnocchi because by the time I got around to making them, I couldn’t remember the advice a friend had given me on how to shape them properly (i.e. as an Austrian would). When in doubt, fall back on the techniques that you know will work. My grandma normally made gnocchi with ricotta because she said it was more difficult with potatoes. Yet the potato and flour came together so nicely even before I added an egg that I feel inspired to make more potato gnocchi. I suspect the trick is to drain the potatoes well after they are boiled and let them rest long enough so that they dry out slightly and you don’t need copious amounts of flour. One recipe I consulted said to cook the potatoes a day before making the dumplings. At any rate, KA and I were pleasantly stuffed as the candles burned down and the night became silent.

My sock plans for Advent were highly ambitious. The two pairs of socks that were completed are already in use. I am nearly through the third pair, after which there will be a sock pause throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It is time to slow down, relax, and maybe even hibernate. To read leisurely, to stare out the windows at the birds in the trees. To wish for snow. To reread my journals and reflect on the past year. It doesn’t matter that the weather remains cold and damp since I have a soft and fine Jazzberry cardigan to keep me warm.

There always came a point on Christmas Eve when my grandma would sit down in her chair and finally allow my aunts to do something in the kitchen (i.e. wash the dishes). There were at least twenty different kinds of Christmas cookies to nibble on if you still had room and a nip of egg nog for those so inclined. It’s that time of the year when you should put your feet up and treat yourself to a nip of egg nog or – if you loathe egg nog like me – something else that is special and luxurious.

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it; peace and joy to everyone!

The Advent Chronicles 4: Solstice and Breakthroughs

Here we are: the shortest day of the year. Only eight hours and twenty minutes of daylight in Vienna, otherwise you are out in the dark. No matter the fog and grey, the cold and damp, Solstice whispers: Darkness, your time is up. Now it is Light’s turn to wax and thrive. The English word solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, literally “sun stands still.” The ancient Romans used this word for the summer solstice, while the winter solstice was referred to as bruma, which was derived from an old form of the word brevissima (the shortest). The shortest candle in our Advent wreath may not make it until Christmas. All four candles are now lit, and the spruce branches are shedding needles like mad. You can tell Christmas is around the corner.

This past weekend was supposed to see the first Christmas cookies coming out of the oven. Then on Friday, KA got his yearly box of Christmas cookies from a friend’s mother. That seemed a good reason to postpone baking cookies. Delicately shaped and loaded with sugar and butter, these are very different from the ones I typically make. Will I bake any cookies at all this year? I still have enough work to do this week, so probably not until the twelve days of Christmas. Walnuts, almonds, anise, and candied fruit are ready and waiting.

Instead of baking cookies, I devoted time to dusting off books and adding them to the two new shelves that magically appeared in the living room last week. After nearly two years, my language books and dictionaries are finally off the floor and easy to access. On the other shelf, my favorite books have a worthy spot to rest. There is just a stack of Polish and Russian books and a random assortment of folders left in the corner where most books had been squatting since I moved in. Two planks of wood judiciously placed can work wonders.

It was a breakthrough week not only in interiors. I finished the nearly vanilla sock I started last week. This sock has a Dutch heel (square heel). At first, I was worried that it might be a tad too snug, but it fits like a glove. I think I may have found my favorite heel. Next I have to see how the sock holds up to wear. My original plan was to knit myself another pair of socks right away with the other sock yarn in my stash, trying either an eye of partridge heel (doesn’t that sound perfect for the first day of Christmas?) or a garter stitch heel. Now I am wondering if this might be a good time to take a break from socks to cleanse the palate. KA has been promised a pair of socks in the same yarn, but they will be birthday socks instead of Christmas socks, which gives me until mid-January.

It is pleasant not to worry about a gift exchange this year. Coming up with gift ideas is always the most stressful part of Christmas for me. When I still lived in the U.S., Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday because it was like Christmas – large family gathering, good food and good cheer – without the gift stress. Most of us have much more than we need to begin with. The gifts I have given in recent years have been either something handknit or something edible. There were years I knit everyone something, but that takes a lot of time and weeks if not months of work. Last year I simply made tins of cookies for everyone. I think the overwhelming stress of the Christmas gift exchange is that you have to come up with ideas for a number of people all at the same time. Birthdays are simpler because there is just one person to focus on. KA and I exchange gifts on our birthdays but not at Christmas. I think the rooks have it good: They are satisfied with the same gift of peanuts nearly every day. They wait in the trees, watching us watching them. Sometimes they even caw when they see KA through the window: Look, it’s the Erdnussmeister!

May you celebrate and take comfort in the return of the light!