Deck the halls

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I have practically sung myself into a frenzy of goodwill and Christmas cheer over the past week. Our Sweet Adelines group are the darlings of the retirement home set and we were booked to perform at several places last week – two homes on Monday, one on Wednesday, two on Thursday, and another this Monday night. We also sang at the Purdue Agronomy department function on Friday night and have our final performance at the Mall on the Saturday before Christmas. I missed the Thursday performances because I had to go to our final Harbor training session.

We have also had a few Christmas functions to attend – Peter’s work group and our Parish Dinner Dance (both last Friday – I sang at the Agronomy party in between). Peter’s party had its usual 5.30 pm early start and we were able to attend part of that and leave by 6.45 when we were due to head off to the Parish function. It looked as though their party may have rocked on a bit longer this time, as one of the postgrads had brought along a keyboard and a professor had brought his violin. The traditional part of the evening was the reading of Aggie’s annual Christmas wish list to Santa. Aggie is the departmental secretary and, as is the case in most organisations, is the one who runs the department and organises most of the social functions. She made her wish for each member of staff and her request for Peter was snow. We are really hopeful that we get a nice dusting of snow so we can have a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene out our front door when we rise on Christmas morning. I hope she also included in her request to Santa that he then bundle it all up and take it back to the north pole so we can get back to Chicago by Thursday to get Nick onto his plane. That’s the problem with wishing for things! Sometimes you get what you wished for! I’m wondering how long it takes for the novelty of snow to melt with me. Still, up till now, we have remained snowless, and I am like an impatient child waiting for it to arrive. Flurries have been predicted more than once, but so far they have not eventuated.

The parish Dinner Dance was a grand occasion. It was free and by invitation only. All people who have volunteered or acted as ministers during the year were invited to attend. We were honoured to have been included after such a short time here. Recognition was paid to a number of people who have provided significant service to the parish (our friend Joe was one of these) and their names were listed on a plaque displayed in the Parish Hall. I actually missed out on the main course as I was out singing when it was served, but I made it back for dessert and I had snacked at the education party. After dinner and speeches, the disc jockey cranked up the volume, tables were moved aside, and the dancing began. We danced cheek to cheek, and did all the usual nonsense dances, such as the Chicken Dance, the Hokey-Pokey and so on. We had been warned that Fr Douglas’ favourite song was the “YMCA”, with full arm actions. Now I’m sure you all know how shy I am about singing loudly and dancing with actions, but I overcame my inhibitions and got right into it. Fr Douglas and I were stars. Peter and I both had a great time and we ended up being among the last to leave. We were so late leaving, in fact, that we had to stay and help with the cleaning up.

Last night I went to another “Holiday” function, the Purdue Women’s Group Holiday Cookie Exchange. I think we could do something similar as a great family group function when we return. Each woman prepared six plates of six cookies (I made Ann’s Cheesecake Slice), and one plate was opened to share during the evening. Then we all selected five plates to take home with us. I have some delicious treats as a result. One woman kindly included copies of her recipe, so I will write it out below for anyone who would like to try it. I am making apricot balls and rum balls to take in to the staff at Hanna tomorrow. Holiday baking is a very big deal here. Everyone I talk to has been doing it for the last two weeks. They don’t make the sort of things we would be busy with though – no plum puddings, no Christmas cakes, no rum balls. Mostly it is lots of cookies and wonderful things made with nuts of all sorts, caramels, and chocolate. Chocolate is generously drizzled, chipped, coated, melted, or sprinkled onto all sorts of baked delights. I have been lucky enough to sample many of these. I have decided to go for as traditional an American Christmas dinner this year as I can manage. I am collecting recipes from my friends. I will make turkey (just a portion, not the whole bird), stuffing, home-made cranberry sauce, potato bake, asparagus with red peppers, and some other vegetables (I’m still searching for recipes). For dessert I will make pumpkin pie and caramel apple pie, and maybe a jelly pudding which Nick likes. I’ll also make hot spiced apple cider. It is wonderful! If you want to come and join us you are more than welcome. BYO chair – I’ll have plenty of food but we’re a bit light on furniture.

People keep complaining that it’s too hot to seem like Christmas. I point out that the hotter it is, the more it seems like Christmas to me. My thoughts of Christmas revolve around the smell of hot car parks, driving around in the balmy nights to see the Christmas lights, late night shopping on warm summer evenings. This chilly Christmas filled with snow scenes and jingle bells is like so many of the other experiences I have had since arriving here – it is something I have never lived through before, but which is nonetheless completely familiar to me through vicarious experiences of stories, TV, and movies.

And I’d say you haven’t really “done” Christmas until you’ve done it in America. I’m lucky it’s not summer or my mouth would be filled with flies! I’m so often left mouth-gaping in amazement at some new “holiday” touch. I commented in an earlier letter about what enthusiastic decorators Americans are. Well, I hadn’t seen anything! Of course, over the past few years, outdoor Christmas displays have become commonplace in Australia, so I am not all that amazed by the light display here. What is notable this year is that the traditional red and green festive colours have been replaced by patriotic red, white, and blue displays. Many lights form flag shapes or spell out USA. If you think of the most beautiful display in Myer and then double it, you have an idea of the shop displays here. At the cemeteries, every grave is adorned with a Christmas wreath. Supermarkets are full of Christmas treats – red and green dyed pistachios, red and green M & Ms, boxes of crackers cut into star, reindeer, and bell shapes. You can buy rolls of cookie dough that you slice and bake, with each slice having a Christmas image in the centre. I have a roll with reindeers. They even have red and green coloured cling wrap to cover your left-overs! Zip-lock bags have Christmas motifs, and there are themed decorator items and linen for every room of the house. There are Christmas sweaters, vests, dresses, hats, scarves, jewellery, you name it. They have red and green plastic tubs to store your Christmas decorations, and there are decorations!!! As I have mentioned earlier, there are shop after shop selling nothing other than Christmas tree ornaments. You can deck the halls and anything else that gets in your way!

There are also lots of special Christmas events. Genny and Murray in Texas have told me about their Christmas train special where families come dressed in their pyjamas to enjoy a book reading of “The Polar Express” while they ride the historical train in Austin. Genny has been Mrs Santa Claus for these wonderful events.

To finish this festive message, I will tell you all that yesterday was Genny and Murray’s 55th wedding anniversary. Murray has sent me photos of their wedding day but I think they must have used hired models – they looked so wonderful! Of course, I have to admit they don’t look all that bad now. I am delighted to have them as friends and hope you all share with me in wishing them many more wonderful years together. That leads me to my quiz question: It was Genny and Murray’s 55th wedding anniversary, but who or what celebrated a 185th anniversary yesterday (11th December)?

Jingle bells and White Christmas greetings to you all. Enjoy this Holiday cookie treat.

Mocha Toffee Cashew Bars

Bake on middle shelf of oven to cook through and brown evenly.
1 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsps vanilla
3 tblsps instant coffee powder dissolved in 2 tblsps boiling water
2 cups SR Flour
1/2 tsp salt
500g fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), finely chopped
3/4 cup salted roasted cashews, chopped
Preheat oven to 350F.

Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at moderately high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in yolk and vanilla, then gradually add coffee mixture, beating until combined well. Add flour and salt and mix at low speed until just combined.

Spread batter evenly in an ungreased 35cm x 25cm baking pan and bake in middle of oven until top puffs slightly and sides pull away from edge of pan, 16 – 22 minutes. Watch carefully towards end of baking, base can burn easily.

While base is baking, melt chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally, then remove top of double boiler or bowl from heat. Spread chocolate over warm base and immediately sprinkle with cashews. Cool completely in pan on a rack, then cut into 48 bars. Chill until chocolate is firm, about 15 minutes.

Cookies keep, layered between sheets of wax paper and chilled in an airtight container, 2 weeks.