Personal Favorite Classic Holiday Films

This is partly a "best" list, but I can concede there are some good ones I left out, because they aren't personal favorites. If I were to make a real "best" list, I'd make it longer, to include a few more you might expect. Hover over the links to see which are video and which are text. Also, at least half of these are available complete on YouTube.

Perennial favorites I never miss:

It’s a Wonderful Life 1946: I've never not loved this movie, and I could watch it several times a year. I have it on DVD now, because I wanted to always see it without commercial breaks. We watch it every year on Christmas Eve while drinking eggnog and eating cookies.  I think it's kind of a perfect movie.

Holiday 1938: I first saw this as a teenager as part of a double feature with Bringing Up Baby, but to me, it pairs better with The Awful Truth, one of the funniest movies ever made. Holiday has more pathos and tension, and is not a perfect movie, but it is still very funny, and one to hug and adore. TCM is showing it three times in the next three months; watch or record it when you can.

The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942: has a wonderful cast and lots of funny moments. It's staged very much like a play, which is enjoyable. And it has a lot of in-jokes that are extra funny if you know the references, but are still funny if you don't. It was written by Kaufman and Hart, who also wrote the hilarious You Can't Take It With You, which was adapted for the screen in 1938.

Desk Set 1957: This movie is gorgeous. It teams Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a pairing I'm not overly fond of, but I like the offbeat nature of it, and all the supporting cast. As not a Tracy fan, this is my favorite role of his. It looks like one kind of movie, but behaves like another. I have this one on DVD as well, and watch it a couple times a year.

The Bishop’s Wife 1947: This is more of a true Christmas film than the previous entries, and I think it's one of the best, because of the cast and the nearly gross sentimentality. It's tender and meaningful, but also humorous. Monty Wooley has a sweet role, completely opposite his role in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

The Shop Around the Corner 1940: I love the setting of this film, and the real caring nature of it. It also feels like a play, and could have been too stagey if not done just right, which it was. When I was younger, I really disliked Margaret Sullavan's character, but I appreciate her more now. I always appreciate Jimmy Stewart. Deeply.
I like these next four, but need to be in the mood, because I'm terrible at watching certain kinds of tension. Honestly, though, it's mainly me. I've watched them all with other people who don't get the same sensation from them, and I do make sure to see them each year.

It Happened on 5th Avenue 1947: In this movie, people without homes for various reasons all end up in a mansion together for the winter. Don't look up too much about it; the story is really fun if you don't know how it will go. I always have this "fear of discovery," but of course, it's a comedy. You know it will eventually all come right for every one. It's got kind of a ham-handed message, but that's part of its charm.

Holiday Affair 1949: This is really good; I'm just never a fan of Robert Mitchum. It's a charming light romance in which a woman ends up choosing the man I would turn down, but that's how these things go, and everyone else is happy in the end. The mother and child scenes are really very good.

Bachelor Mother 1939: David Niven and Charles Coburn are in this film, and I love them both. Ginger Rogers plays the woman mistaken for a single mother, and finds herself going along with the narrative assigned her. I don't generally enjoy stories which go that way, but she's so good and they're so good, and if you've never seen it, you'll laugh.

Remember the Night 1940: This stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who are devastating together in Double Indemnity, which was released a few years later. This one's mostly light-hearted, and they have real chemistry between them, which is why, I suppose, they did three more films together. But it's another thing wherein someone has to pretend to be someone they aren't, and a little of that goes a long way with me (which is why I hardly ever watch Christmas in Connecticut.) There's a fairly recent remake of this story, but I don't recall the name because I didn't like it.

And that reminds me to mention sometime this week I'm going to share a "contemporary" Christmas film list, but it will be all TV movies, because I enjoy those far more than the broad comedy ones that tend to appear on the big screen these days.

Marzipan Cookie Dough: three pro-tips and a caveat

My mom made these so perfectly, but I’ve had them dull or too hard or too crumbly. They require a light hand, mainly. This v. old Betty Crocker recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp almond extract. That’s all. Mix, shape, chill half an hour, bake at 300º for about half an hour.

First I double and slightly change the recipe; increasing flavoring and decreasing flour. I use four bowls and into each one I put a stick of softened butter, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 tsp almond extract. It’s easier to do this than to divide the dough after adding the flour.
CameraZOOM-20141207144827214Then I color it before adding the flour. That’s tip #2. Tip #3 which my mom didn’t do because it would have been very pricey back then, is to use gel colors. CameraZOOM-20141207145247198
Then I add 1 1/8 cups of flour to each bowl, and stir just until it will all stick together. It does not look as weird as this photo. I don't have an explanation for this. CameraZOOM-20141207150424886
The caveat: I usually use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for most cookies. But today I bought an organic variety, and it is darker. So two of the bowls got a darker flour which changed the color considerably. I’ll have to rethink how I shape the cookies, and then I’ll probably roll them in colored sugar, which I dyed myself because it’s easy and cheap and you can do whichever colors you like.

So why am I showing you dough and no cookies? I'll be honest here. I got the cramps. The dough will keep til morning.

Christmas, cookie misnomers, feeling internal

I've decorated a bit extra for Christmas this year. I even bought a second little tree for my front room where I read and listen to music. 20141206_105601

As the kids no longer ask for piles of toys each year, money for gifts is not a big concern. I'm trying to get the boys to just collude on something they'd like to enjoy together, as two of them tend to want very little, and the other one wants everything, yet is not at all greedy or grasping.

I'm lonely; the girls aren't around, and I can't spend any time outside these days. Even getting out to do things that need doing costs me so much energy, it defines the entire day. Today I'm going to Costco, so I need to know in my head every single moment of dinner preparation ahead of time, so that I'm on top of it later on. But inside I'm doing better; I can run up and down the stairs again, and make more of each day. 20141205_140303

So I'm making odd little crafts, doing some weekend baking, working to take pleasure in my surroundings. DSC_0439

It's tough on the boys, because they still all have only learner's driving permits. (It's a long story, and not interesting.) They need more practice than they're getting. Anyway. About cookies...

This morning I was looking at an old BHG cookbook called Cooking For Two, and a recipe mentioned rusks. I looked that up to learn they are twice-baked toasts. Thicker than Melba, more like what we'd call biscotti, only plainer. Apparently, people in the UK used to put them in baby bottles, which freaked me out a little, but most people did survive what parents used to do. A baby will learn to expect what it is given, so we try to do better with that these days.

Of course, what we call biscotti are not really what they call them in Italy (I'm not looking up the name, I think it starts with c) and not what my grandma called them, either. When my grandma, mom, and aunts made biscotti, they used 5 cups of flour and 6 eggs plus a few other things to create soft, round, barely sweet and very plain cookies that were then dipped in powdered sugar icing and sometimes had sprinkles added. They made pans and pans of them. And Grandma would shape some of that same dough into braids at Easter, and bake colored eggs right into them. (You just cook the eggs before dying so they are barely hard-cooked. Mom worried over this, but I have the internet to verify things.)

When we visited their house, we usually brought Stella D'oro Anisette Toasts for Grandpa, and these you'd recognize as biscotti, though actually, they have more of a spongey texture to them when dipped in coffee. The name has changed, I suppose because they aren't like what we are used to now. Or something.


I'm sure you know by now that the singular of biscotti is biscotto, which is actually just a cookie, after all. If you say you want a biscotti, it's kinda weird.

But today or tomorrow, I am going to make marzipan cookies. How can marzipan be a cookie, you ask? Well, it can't. They are called that because they are little almond-flavored cookies which are colored and shaped to look like marzipan. My mother labored lovingly over them every year. I do not. When I do make them now and then, I tend to cut them like shortbread. But this year, little fruits will be the order of the day.

I also like to make biscotti, by the way, our way in addition to the old way now and then. There's no point now in quibbling over the name; I just call the grandma kind "Easter cookies," but in fact, if you look them up online, you'll also see them referred to as anginetti.

CookiesClick on the photo to see a recipe. Below is the ingredient list I use:

For cookies:

6 eggs
5 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups confectioners' sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons baking powder 

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla (or anise or almond)

For glaze:

1/2 cup warm milk

1 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
 (or lemon or vanilla)
1 (1-lb) box confectioners' sugar (about 4 cups, unsifted)

Colored sprinkles


The kids are just at school today, after all

I get the notion behind renaming Columbus Day Indigenous People's Day, but I don't think it's quite the right idea. Turning it into a day of mourning won't be more meaningful to most people; the ones with righteous indignation will always have that, and the rest will go on same as usual. And we all know by now that everywhere in the world was or is a group of people turned out by old time Europeans, or sometimes someone rather closer at hand. People did that to each other on a regular basis. It has shaped our world, and it is a history lesson that everyone should learn, lest it again be repeated. But turning Columbus Day into an annual acknowledgement of the people he hurt is not the way to teach that lesson.

I feel sort of bad for the people who like their Italian-American parades, as they're connected to the figure now known to have done so much harm to the regions he explored. Are any of the known world explorers worthy of national celebration anywhere? Probably not. I don't think ethics was a high priority on any of their codes of behavior. But exploration itself is still something to celebrate or acknowledge generally. So I'd rather see the day, if there must be one, be a celebration of something positive for everyone, rather than a shaming of something negative that most of us can't grasp as a part of ourselves, though we must keep telling future generations that no one culture has autonomy over the others.

I'd like to see something conjured like Melting Pot Day. Independence Day celebrates the founding of the United States, but it wasn't so many generations ago that only a certain number of various ethnicities were allowed in. Chinese men could come work, but they couldn't bring wives and make more Chinese. At one point people were worried about too many Italians, too many Irish, too many Jews, and of course, too many Mexicans. But immigrants are what most of our ancestors were, and immigrants built the foundations on which we make our way. We like to say we're a quarter this and a quarter that, because when we are honest, we like this about ourselves, that "world travel" made us who we are. That's something we could do positive arts and crafts and church dinners for. Italian-Americans and people with indigenous backgrounds could have their parades, and we'd eat each other's favorite recipes from Grandma, or just a whole lot of what they call "hotdish" in the upper midwest.

We'd celebrate the blending of it all, rather than dissect it for measurement and comparison.

I remember, I remember

Visiting cemeteries on Memorial Day when I was a child. Just whoever was dead and around, you know, but of course it didn't start out that way. Here's information I culled about Memorial Day, and how it is different from Veteran's Day (and to my mind, should remain so.) I liked our cemetery tradition, I mean, I like how that's what it became. But as I grow older, I'm more connected to more history, and I like that, as well.

Yesterday at Kroger, veterans were handing out paper poppies for Memorial Day. They are to honor the war dead, of course, and I got to thinking about how people confuse that with Veterans Day, maybe because of how Remembrance Day is honored overseas.

You see, Memorial Day began here after the Civil War, but the poppy tradition was added after World War 1, and that tradition is followed in the UK and Canada, and a few other places, specifically on November 11. The first poppy was worn by an American in 1918 as a symbol of remembrance, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Field," by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor who fought in the war. And because we already had Memorial Day, when Armistice (now Veterans) Day in the U.S. was established, it was to honor all veterans, living and dead. Of course, no one then wanted to imagine another such war could occur...

So here's some information on Memorial Day, from the VA, and from a quiz at this blog: I left out her bonus question as it was not quite correct, though mostly.

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 8.21.06 AM
Why was May 30 chosen as Memorial Day?
 —The last Monday of May was chosen to coincide with the time when flowers would be blooming all over the country.
What was the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day?
—New York
How do the soldiers of the 3rd U. S. Infantry participate in Memorial Day?
—Since the late 1950s, on the Thursday just before Memorial Day, around 1200 soldiers of the 3rd US Infantry place small American flags at each of more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.
What does the National Moment of Remembrance Resolution ask Americans to do on Memorial Day?
—Americans are asked to observe a moment of remembrance and respect by pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence, or listening to taps, at 3:00 p. m.
Who presided over the first Memorial Day?
—General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant
When was Memorial Day first celebrated?
—May 30, 1868. It was observed by placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers during the first national celebration. Gen. James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which around 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.
What is the birthplace of Memorial Day?
—Waterloo, N.Y. is considered its birthplace because the residents were the first people to proclaim a day, May 5, 1866, to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. They closed their businesses and placed flowers and flags on the graves of their soldiers.
When did Congress declare Memorial Day a national holiday?
When should the American flag be raised from half staff to full staff on Memorial Day?
—At noon.
Who was General John A. Logan?
—Maj. Logan was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union Civil War Veterans, who took charge of Memorial Day celebrations in the Northern States. He first declared Memorial Day a special day to honor Union soldiers killed in battle.


Keeping Christmas

I miss my daughters. Here are some good and bad photos for them, of decorated bits. The tree in the window and the one in the second photo are both made from tomato cages. Aaron put up the porch lights and Theron helped me decorate the tree. The ornaments on the floor were on the crabapple tree last year. I haven't decided whether to do that again. And then we have to hang the wreath. This neighborhood is Big on wreaths; it would be like the boy bouncing the ball out of rhythm to not have at least one, preferably several.


For lack of things to say, holiday dinner planning, miscellanea

Here's some stuff I wrote down just now, to organize my thoughts a bit.

Green BEAN Delivery: produce (they always have good seasonal lineups prepared)
Jungle Jim's: turkey, bread for stuffing, wine
Kroger (posh:) flowers

also to buy:
aluminum foil
cake flour
frozen bread dough
maple syrup
sour cream

to make ahead:
orange marmalade
pie crusts
chicken stock
banana or apple bread
pumpkin pie filling

to do:
organize refrigerator
clean dining room floor
check up on Christmas ornaments
call for dishwasher repair

Whenever we've had dishwasher trouble, it's been at Thanksgiving. When our freezer died, it was Christmas Eve. It's just like that in my life, so I just factor it into my whole "doing things the hard way" system.

Because like, I usually buy orange marmalade for the turkey. And then I made a couple kinds of marmalade a few weeks ago, realized how shockingly easy that is, and thought, "why on earth have I been buying it?" I'm kind of a condiment junky, anyway. It makes better sense to just make enough to use, instead of adding yet another little jar to the collection.

I glaze the turkey with orange marmalade, but it's also basted with a sherry-orange juice butter. I forget who I got the original ideas from, which I just got to combining over the years to suit my tastes.

And there's a bit of orange zest in the cranberry sauce and the mashed sweet potatoes, so I am having oranges sent with the produce delivery this week.

Certain flavors always to be expected if you eat my Thanksgiving dinner: maple, and orange and almond. The green beans (and sometimes Brussels sprouts, but not, I think, this year, as it's a tinier group than usual,) are sauteed with garlic. In this manner, I prepare traditional American holiday foods with a hint of the Mediterranean ancestral memory built into my brain. 

The boys voted on cherry pie with the pumpkin pie for this year. I have cherries in the freezer, so that's a happy thing. Probably I will do the sour cream crust recipe I got from Bon Appetit for blueberry pie around 20 years ago. SourcreamcrustCake flour is made with a softer wheat and is a good thing to add to pie crusts containing butter. This is baked at 400º for 50 minutes with a filling made from 2 lbs of fruit.

And then they prefer the flaky shortening crust for pumpkin pie, rather than the buttery tart-style ones I tend to use otherwise. The cherry pie is flavored with almond extract, in reminiscence of my mother. She bought canned cherries (not the pie filling,) and cooked them to a rich thickness with almond extract, sugar, and flour. The scent wafting through the house was magical.

So I do much the same thing, but with frozen cherries instead of canned.

I miss my faraway daughters a lot right now. However, I like to make things as great as I can for my sons. It would be crummy of me to put in only half effort for half the family. Thanksgiving dinner has always been my special gift for them, and hopefully they'll all always have good memories of that.

It's a basic menu, but all fully homemade except the dinner rolls, and the bread for the dressing.

Orange-glazed turkey with sherry cream gravy
Sage and onion dressing
Orange-spiced cranberry sauce
Sauteed green beans
Maple mashed sweet potatoes
Raised dinner rolls
Pumpkin pie
Cherry pie

Mother's Day and Me

There's something truly charming about the unpredictability of Mother's Day for me. You see, I really care about my birthday. I love to be feted and congratulated for being here. Presents are a bonus; something I kinda hope for, because who doesn't like a present? And I have a family of really terrific gift-givers. But it isn't ever required. I just really love the idea of birthdays, and of people being glad I have mine. I really like cake. Last year I made my own birthday cake and dinner, and those of us who were here really enjoyed it.  

Mother's Day is different. If there wasn't one, that'd be fine by me. I know my family loves me. And sometimes they, either in a group or a couple of them individually, splash out and do something grand for me. Other times, there might be mostly nothing or an offer to vacuum or make dinner.  I would like someone, this year, to offer to reorganize the pantry and then actually do it, but it isn't as if I couldn't point my finger and say, "You. Pantry duty. Today." to whoever is at hand when I think of it.  Or just do it myself, as usual. 

One year there was a big breakfast and an iPod waiting for me. It was pretty great, but it didn't make me expect something equally as grand and splashy the next year. Which is good because that didn't happen. Anyway. The person who came up with the idea of Mother's Day later disowned it because she was appalled that it became a marketing tool. Personally, I always tried to teach my kids as they were growing up that all these "special" days can be marked, if we choose to, without buying things. Especially Valentine's Day. I want a homemade card or no card, thank you. (That's not really true. Just if you carefully choose a card to give me, I still expect you to write something in it besides your name.) 

There are a couple things I don't own I'd like to own, like a fabulous Italian espresso machine and a violin, if anyone is actually making a birthday gift list. But really, someone else making a cake and saying, "Hey, you" would be enough. Or not even the cake part. I'm good at celebrating me, after all. As to Mother's Day, I was actually planning to spend some time in the giant fancy cemetery tomorrow, and so mostly I'd just like to ask for nice weather; slightly gloomy, perhaps, but not too cool. 

The foods and blessings of our people

As Jeff Smith wrote in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, "Italy had no tomatoes, Ireland no potatoes, and Switzerland had no vanilla or chocolate. Spain had no bell peppers or pimentos and China had no corn, peanuts or sweet potatoes. These last three edibles kept most of China alive at the beginning of this (20th, of course,) century." Whenever I read this list I always wonder what on earth people ate before Columbus bumped into Central America and ravaged the place searching for spices. 

black walnuts 
vanilla beans 
sweet potatoes 
kidney beans 
lima beans 
navy beans 
string beans 
bell peppers 
wild rice

You might know that in this very large country, people settled in different areas depending on where they came from, almost from the very beginning. Starting just after the country was officially formed, and particularly increasing in the 1850s because of German shipping innovations, the mostly English United States began filling out with Germans, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, then came the Irish, Italians, Chinese, and all the rest. People from all over the world created the United States, and nearly all the food we now think of as "American," by taking the resources available to them here and applying their ancestral creativity and frugality to them.  

I hope we all understand by now that it's too simple and too silly to say, "Your ancestors did this awful thing," "your ancestors did this other awful thing." They all did, you know. They did awful stuff, to the land, and to each other. Disputing that or calling one group worse than another is very silly. They've each had their turn. I am not directly related to any American slave owners, but I'm certain that a number of my ancestors were just as awful as anyone else in other ways. Because in all periods of history, people are truly awful in some ways and just wonderful in others. It is the way of humanity. 

This Thanksgiving, as we raise a glass of wine in honor of blessings received, we can thank the Spanish for bringing vines to California from Mexico; vines that had originally been stuck there by the murdering Cortès. We can thank the Chinese men who dug and planted and built the California vineyards of the late 1800s before being shoved out in favor of "white" labor. We can thank the French and Italian and Spanish families who continued their innovations here after a severe epidemic in Europe destroyed many crops, and we can thank the people who clung to their efforts through the long painful period of Prohibition.

We should enjoy that glass of wine with the knowledge that we can make the best of who we are with all we have, and that being able to share our best with others is the richest blessing of all. Leave the squabbling over who is worst for another day, or maybe finally give that up for good.

My Valentine Perspective

My dad used to give me a little box of candy every year on Valentine's Day, and he'd give my mom a large one. One year he gave me 6 red roses, and told me that my first dozen must come from a man who loves me. Well, that never happened, and he's gone now, but somehow it's a memory I truly cherish, because it was done with such complete love. I don't remember when the candy tradition ended, sometime around when my parents divorced, when I was 15. 

Don't get me wrong, I never asked for the dozen roses, or felt it was some sort of right! It was just somehow, well, Dad said it would happen, so I assumed it would. :-) Because I loved him completely, too, even though we ended up living so far apart, until he died two and a half years ago. 

My mom gave me a card every year, and of course I always made one for her. Sometimes we added little gifts. When I was 14, she gave me my stuffed lion, Jean-Serge. I still have him. She died when I was 24, otherwise I expect we'd have continued the tradition.

For a long time during marriage, Valentine's Day became this serendipitous thing for me. Once in awhile, there'd be some big ol' surprise, a great surprise. Most of the rest of the time, murmurings about commercialism. So, having so many kids and just wanting some fun in the middle of winter, I'd come up with little surprises for them each year, and we'd make some fun treat to eat. When they were little a couple of them would sneak a card onto my pillow, as well. It was very sweet. 

So that's what it came to mean to me; some small gesture of affection I received from my parents and then gave to my children. Now I am reflecting on this because this year it's just me and the three boys, all teenagers, nice boys, but not into hearts and flowers. It didn't matter that much until it was "suddenly" no longer relevant.

I'm not in a great hurry to become a grandparent, but it will be nice to someday have small people to share the fun parts of love. My mom died before she was able to do that with my children, but I hope to live a long time into the future.