We are all so, so much better. (Thank you, for your kind notes and wishes.) Mending, mended, better-rested, depending. Much improved, in every case. Still—or, maybe, Therefore—I keep finding myself humming this tune.
In those days, and in those that followed, 'slowly' was rather more myth than reality. More a reminder to breathe, and pause, and not knock myself cold tripping over the IV stand. I would stand there, RUSH written all over everything, and hum Holy, Holy, but with speed-limit lyrics.
Slowly is so not my normal pace. Doubly so with three sick kids. (The yuck hit, right after we hit home. The other two went down, with school-cancelling coughs and scary-high fevers. The week before Christmas took on comic proportions. The house, hospital-ward-like precautions. The carols, a reality TV turn: "On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ... Four tissue boxes; Three dosage charts; Two Motrin bottles; and a new Braun thermometer!") The less our days looked like a hymn, the more I hummed.
Not all at once, of course. Not even particularly quickly. It's hard to hurry slow. (Believe me. I've tried.) But as I look back over these last ten days, I spy all these sneaky corners around which Slow bellied up, staked us out, and settled in.
Usually where I least expected it.
Take the messes. They were everywhere. Tinsel, trees, glue, red and green galore. A trail of Christmas schrapnel from two littles, mostly left to their own merry-making, amidst the tissues and walkers and water re-fills. I groaned, then. I grin, now. They kept the Making flame alive, against some pretty fierce headwinds. Glory be.
The lights strung up, in not the normal rooms, to bring Christmas to those who couldn't come to the tree. The decision, split-second, unprecedented, excellent, that a half-decorated tree was wholly enough.
The games. Inevitably, I resist. I'm not naturally the gaming sort. (So much still, so much focus, so precious little multi-tasking.) And yet, games always reward me, thrice over. (So much still, so much focus, so precious little multi-tasking.) Ingenious is an old favorite; Spectrix, a new one; Seasons, still waiting for me to say yes.
The pear chair, or rather the pear cushion, brought up from the basement for temporary kitchen residency. To accomodate one increasingly ambulatory boy, who can now join us at the breakfast table. Joy!
And the quiet afternoon, in the middle of the crazy, to sit alone in the silence of the local library. Very possibly, the season's best gift.
The solace of soft flannel PJ's. Presents were wrapped in them. Pictures colored. Meals eaten. Christmas photos snapped. Gingerbread baked. Games played. Snowmen built. Stories read. All in PJ's. Sometimes, comfort trumps all.
The story to which I said, Yes. Let's read. And sat down. And read. And listened, actually listened. We'd been reading all week, mind you, stacks of stories to pass the sniffly time. I always enjoy stories, but there's a difference, you know? A pace. A here-ness. A not-thinking-about-what-comes-next-ness. This is a nice state of mind for a story. This is a nice state of mind for a life.
The tea that soothed throats. The thyme that tamed coughs. The big double pot of snowy rice pudding, which may not aid ragged respiratory passages one whit, but which soothes ragged spirits like nobody's business.
The assembling of these funny blue Make + Do kits, late one night for my littles, for Christmas, with Mamo. Late nights are no recipe for tranquility, long-term, but sometimes? They're as soothing as tea, thyme, and pudding, together. Especially when wool is involved.
The first snow, last Friday, a few fleeting inches. Soft wet stuff, not long for this world, but enough to justify snow suits and mittens. Enough to make a small snow duck penguin man. To make the season feel finally right. To mark Winter's onset, on its first day.
The second snow, yesterday, a proper snowfall. Inches, suddenly, unexpectedly accumulating. Three, maybe four, the high octane stuff, the sweet fluff that falls on the 32° cusp. Just right for a four-foot-high snowman. And an afternoon's worth of companionable shoveling. (It's hard to hurry snow.)
The illuminated-manuscript sculpey letters lying about. Bedraggled stuffed animals, at long last repaired. Kit! Evidence, everywhere, that Mamo's arrived. Mamo always sets a new pace. So does saying goodbye to the last cookies.
Time to chop figs. There's no fast way with figs. They are sticky, and dense, and a tiny bit truculent, and frank in demanding five full minutes of time. I give it. Once, twice a year, for a batch of panforte, all the better to withstand the winter months ahead.
Panforte—strong bread—is often considered a Christmas confection. For a few years, I made it accordingly, nestling dark sticky wedges into cookie boxes. Until I finally came to my senses, and postponed my panforte until after the holidays. Publicly, I maintained it couldn't compete with its cute, colorful cookie-tray brethren. Who, after all, picks murky dark stick over sparkly sugared trees and chocolate-topped mountains?
(Well, the brilliant Rachel, perhaps. I also, this week, made the splendid discovery I'm not alone in finding panforte the perfect final resting place for candied peel. This year, I followed my old favorite formula—enough new already, this December. Next time around, I'm giving Rachel's a go.)
Privately? I couldn't bear to share.
I wasn't always so greedy. For years, I dodged panforte recipes, its name all but sounding an audible *brrring!*, like the page-turning signal in a child's book on tape. I'm no fan of dried figs. I abhor spice-spiked chocolate. (Both are lovely. Separately. But why, oh why, ruin two good things?) And then there's the whole medieval angle, which I found endlessly compelling in art history, but far less so, in the kitchen. (Stargazy pie, anyone?) Medieval baked goods tend, for lack of a better term, toward the stodgy-dense-heavy-completely-antiquated. Pre-widespread winter butter. And eggs. And chocolate. Case closed.
Or so I thought. Until Alice came along.
Several years ago, Alice Medrich published Pure Dessert, and I focused, for the first time, on panforte. Actually, I focused on the 2 1/4 teaspoons of crushed fennel, mid-way through Medrich's ingredient list. Dried figs I can take or leave. Fennel seeds I adore. I read on. And I listened, actually listened.
I heard "toasted hazlenuts" and "toasted almonds", and pretended I heard "salted pistachios". I heard, in hushed tones, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and fresh pepper, and nutmeg, and other happy sounds. I read between the lines, which with panforte, is where the most interesting parts play out.
I inferred the fennel would temper the figs' sweetness. Deduced that the small toss of cocoa powder was not chocolate, per se, but hue, tenor, mystery, backbone. Understood candied orange peel would feel right at home, even if Alice was mum on the subject.
I began to see that maybe, just maybe, I might even like this weird Gothic cacophony. I did, sort of. More accurately, I adored it.
What I met, that first time out, was one strapping brick of a cake, as intimidating in weight as in countenance. The sucker's heavy. But pour a cup of tea, and work out a narrow wedge, and settle in for a heady, harmonious nibble.
Because what you have is a stout, jewelled slice, cobbled with nuts, studded with orange, blushing a bit from the faint glow of spice. There is fig there, yes, to bind and blend, and the deep sweet of honey, faintly dark at the rim. There is serious crunch, and solemn chew, and more flavors than seem possible in anything so brown. And no quick way from narrow tip to wide edge, save to savour, slowly, slowly, slowly.
Medieval Energy Bars (a.k.a. Panforte Nero)
adapted from Alice Medrich, Pure Dessert
A few ingredient notes: I added the pistachios, for flavor and color, and a love of as many nuts as the dough could hold. Feel free to omit them, if you wish. Choose plump, dark Mission figs, available in the bulk bins of natural foods stores and well-stocked grocers. The pale, strung Turkish figs tend toward dry. Fennel seeds can be lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle, or placed in a Ziploc and banged about under a can. You're after bits, not powder. Homemade candied orange peel is excellent, here, though the grated zest of 2 (unsprayed) oranges make a fine substitute. Finally, I am endlessly devoted to Holmquist Hazelnuts. (As is Saveur, which named them #97 in their Top 100.).
1 cup whole hazelnuts, toasted
3/4 cup whole unblanched almonds, toasted
1/2 cup salted pistachios (optional)
2/3 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 generous Tablespoons cocoa powder
2 1/2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds, lightly crushed
rounded 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
rounded 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
rounded 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (20 grinds)
rounded 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
rounded 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon instant espresso (optional)
1/2 cup quality candied orange peel, diced
8 ounces dried Mission figs, tough ends trimmed, sliced to 1/4"
2/3 cup honey
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Grease well an 8" round cake tin. Cut a parchment circle to fit the bottom, and a 2" cuff to fit the sides, and tuck in place. Grease again, well, this time coating parchment. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat to 300°.
In a large bowl, combine everything, save the honey and sugar. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine honey and sugar, and set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the center hits a rolling boil, several minutes. The honey at the edges will bubble first; continue to fold in and stir until sugar is dissolved, and center of mixture boils vigorously—this is your rolling boil. Boil for 15 seconds, then remove from heat, and pour into nut mixture, working quickly with a wooden spoon to combine. The syrup cools quickly.
Scrape mixture into the prepared pan, smooth the top as best you can, and place in the preheated oven. Bake 40-45 minutes, until you see bubbles percolating at the center as well as the edges. Cool panforte in the pan, on a rack, several hours or overnight.
Invert panforte onto a plate, peel away parchment, and invert again, right side up. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired. Serve in thin wedges that look slightly of stained glass, preferably with coffee or tea. Store, well-wrapped, at room temperature, for months.