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Door #22: Where Eight Nights Meet Eight Arms

In a year when Hanukkah and Cephalopodmas overlap, what could be more fitting than an octopus menorah! 

And if the realistic and slightly sinister model above is not to your liking, you could try this whimsical version.

swirly glass octopus menorah

Door #21: Kosher Monsters

Since tonight’s both the second night of Hanukkah and the eve of Cephalopodmas, it seemed the perfect time to link to Nina Paley’s animations of the three monsters of Jewish mythology, which she’s working on for her upcoming film Seder Masochism.

Ziz the air monster appears above, Leviathan, the water monster, below. You can also click here to see a video of her extra-stompy land monster, Behemoth.

Paley, a comic artist and intellectual copyright activist, is best known as the creator of Sita Sings the Blues, an animated feature-length retelling of the Ramayana that she distributes under a Creative Commons license. 

Door #20: Happy Hanukkah!

What better way to kick off the Festival of Lights that with a video of the Grammy-winning klezmer band The Klezmatics playing on Conan O’Brien last night. I saw the Klezmatics live at the Knitting Factory in New York in the early 1990s , and it still ranks as one of the best live shows I’ve attended in any genre.

If your tastes run more towards a capella, you’ll also want to check out this year’s Hanukkah offering from the Yeshiva University Maccabeats, featuring a special guest appearance by Mayim Biyalik.

Door #19: Theme and Variation with Shortbread Cookies

This is my go-to recipe for holiday cookies. Cardamom is still an unusual-enough spice in American kitchens that friends and family are pleasantly surprised when it turns up in buttery shortbread cookies edged with sugar.

The recipe couldn’t be easier — a plus when you’re rushing to finish holiday shopping and decorating. Mixing up the dough goes quickly so long as you’ve let the butter soften. And if you forget to leave it out at room temperature, five seconds in the microwave should do the trick.

The original version of this recipe comes from pastry chef Fran Gage’s A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs, and Butter: A Baker’s Tour, Including 33 Recipes. I’ve tweaked and adjusted it to suit my tastes and kitchen — rolling the cookies in sugar for a festive garnish, swapping salted butter for unsalted, and rewriting the instructions for those of us without Kitchen Aid mixers.

Cardamom Shortbread Cookies

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1 pinch salt 
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) softened (not melted) salted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg white, whisked until frothy
  • Additional 1/2 cup sanding sugar (or a large-crystal natural sugar like demerara, turbinado, or muscovado) for garnish

PREPARATION:

Sift together flour, cardamom and salt.

Cream the butter and sugar until they are just combined. (If your butter is soft enough, you can use a wooden spoon, which is almost as quick as an electric mixer and saves you the hassle of cleaning off the beaters later. If using an electric mixer, be careful not to overmix. This can make the dough difficult to shape.)

Add the vanilla and mix in thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients. Once the dough starts forming small globs, you can squeeze the dough into a mass with your hands, gradually incorporating any crumbly bits into the mass of dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured cutting board or countertop. Roll it into a log 1 inch in diameter. Wrap the log in plastic wrap, and  refrigerate until firm, a few hours. (If you’re in a hurry, you can put the logs in the freezer for up to 15 minutes.)

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Brush the logs with beaten egg white and then roll in sugar until the outside of the log is well covered with crystals.

Slice the log into 1/4-inch pieces. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. (If you’re going to be baking multiple batches, you can cover the baking sheet with parchment to minimize between-batch clean-up.)

Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 10 minutes, and then let cool on a rack. 

Store cookies in an airtight container.

Yield: 3 dozen cookies.

VARIATIONS:

Note: If I’m making two or more different kinds of shortbread, I’ll roll each type in a different color sanding sugar to help tell them apart.

Anise

Toast 1 tablespoon of anise seeds lightly in a heavy-bottomed pan. Let them cool, and then add them with the dry ingredients.

The inspiration for this variation comes from Claudia Fleming’s sadly out-of-print cookbook The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern.

Fleming’s version calls for confectioners sugar in the cookie dough. I prefer the grainier texture you get with ordinary granulated sugar.

Fleming also ratchets up the anise with the addition of 1/4 teaspoon of anise extract. I like to leave out the extract if I’m making one or more of these variations as well, since, otherwise, the anise cookies tend to overpower the others.

Lemon-Pepper

Replace the cardamom with 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Add the grated zest of one lemon to the butter and sugar with the vanilla extract.

I came across a recipe for lemon-pepper shortbread on Food52.com before I made this year’s batch of shortbread. I borrowed their seasoning idea and added it to the base recipe above.

Chinese Five-Spice

Replace the cardamom with 1 teaspoon of Chinese five-spice powder (a mixture of star anise, fennel, cloves, cassia and ginger).

Door #18: A Campy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

As a public service to all friends who aren’t on Facebook, here’s a video that’s been circulating briskly there for the past week or so.

And if you’re reading this post via, Facebook syndication, why deny yourself the joy. Just watch it again already.

Door #17: Bluegrass Covers

Here’s a collection of some of my favorite bluegrass covers — versions of rock or pop songs re-arranged for fiddle and mandolin and banjo. As hard as it is to believe, given the ubiquity of some of these tunes, I only first heard the original version of each of these because I sought it out AFTER hearing the bluegrass version.

The above version of Jimi Hendrix’s, “Hey Joe” appeared on Jerry Douglas’s second solo album, Slide Rule. I love how Douglas transports some of Hendrix’s signature guitar riffs to dobro. Tim O’Brien is one of my favorite bluegrass singers, pitch perfect with breath control that doesn’t quit. He just wails on this song. With this arrangement they overcome what someone (it may have been Douglas) described as the essential challenge of bluegrass: how to have drive and grove without drums.

Probably the best-known bluegrass cover (or at least the one that sold the most records) is Alison Krauss’s version of The Foundations’ “Baby Now That I’ve Found You.”

On 1999’s grammy-winningThe Grass is Blue, Dolly Parton covered Billy Joel’s “Travellin’ Prayer,” and she won another Grammy for a cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” on her subsequent album, Little Sparrow.

Del McCoury leads one of the tightest bands in bluegrass. They’re at the top of their game in this live recording of their version of Tom Petty’s “Love is a Long Road,” ducking and weaving around a single mic like the bands used to due on the Grand Old Opry in the radio days.

And, finally, no selection of bluegrass covers would be complete without Nickel Creek’s “so wrong and yet so right” version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” 


Door #16: Queering Christmas

How have I lived in Boston for seven years without ever hearing about Jesus Has Two Mommies

Faith Soloway’s “schlock opera” stars local folk legends Jennifer Kimball as Mary and Catie Curtis as Josephine. 

[H/T to Facebook friend Greg for posting a link to this video!]

And while we’re at it, you can’t consider your Christmas queered until you’ve seen this video from Stephen Colbert.

Door #15: Close Reading Toto

For years I’ve been quoting favorite lines from Steve Almond’s bestselling Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. There’s that bit where he says that the texture of Twizzlers “lies somewhere between chitin* and rain poncho” and the part where he wonders what white jellybeans are suposed to taste like — “Pineapple? Coconut? Isopropyl?”

Now I can add my favorite line from this video where he describes Toto’s “[I Bless the Rains Down In] Africa” as “the love child of imperialism and Musak.” 

* Obligatory cephalopod connection: chitin is a key building block in the beaks of squids and octopuses.

Door #14: It’s a Cephalopodmas Miracle
I found this hanging from my office doorknob this morning. It’s a home-made holiday gift from a co-worker who knows my zoological proclivities all too well. (This is the same co-worker who installed an inflatable plastic moosehead in my office while I was away in Sweden last winter.)
Probably because it reminds me of the octopus chandeliers that my sister’s friend Adam makes, I started wondering how I could illuminate my little eight-armed friend. A birthday candle at the end of each arm? Or, for holiday spirit, I could use Hanukkah candles, except that seems wrong somehow since octopuses aren’t kosher.*
Then I remembered that my department already had our toaster oven confiscated after setting off the fire alarm twice. I can’t imagine what penalty they’d come up with if I triggered a building evacuation with a flaming octopus.
*Wait, wait! There are eight days in Hanukkah and eight arms to an octopus! Who among my crafty friends will be the first to make an octopus menorah???

Door #14: It’s a Cephalopodmas Miracle

I found this hanging from my office doorknob this morning. It’s a home-made holiday gift from a co-worker who knows my zoological proclivities all too well. (This is the same co-worker who installed an inflatable plastic moosehead in my office while I was away in Sweden last winter.)

Probably because it reminds me of the octopus chandeliers that my sister’s friend Adam makes, I started wondering how I could illuminate my little eight-armed friend. A birthday candle at the end of each arm? Or, for holiday spirit, I could use Hanukkah candles, except that seems wrong somehow since octopuses aren’t kosher.*

Then I remembered that my department already had our toaster oven confiscated after setting off the fire alarm twice. I can’t imagine what penalty they’d come up with if I triggered a building evacuation with a flaming octopus.

*Wait, wait! There are eight days in Hanukkah and eight arms to an octopus! Who among my crafty friends will be the first to make an octopus menorah???

Door #13: Have a Very Eldritch Lucia!

And a tentacular Cephalopodmas.

(Drawing by David Olgarsson, via Smaskigt Fakta's 2010 Lucia Parade.)