We Were That House: Christmas and Cookbooks

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I got a text from mom.

"Wait until you get home! Brian - on his own!!! - is outside hanging lights around the house! He's finally in the spirit. One of us. One of us." 

As I sat in the polar cave of my office at work cursing the persnickety heating system and wishing I, like every other one of my coworkers, could be home swaddled in blankets and eating sandwiches packed with turkey leftovers, it was a text I simply hadn't - nor ever - expected. My husband, a grinch in nearly all but color when it came to celebrating the holidays in any way outside Christmas morning or Christmas Eve dinner, was stringing lights. Unasked!

Satan, break out the snow cone machines because all this just froze over.
Maybe he strung the lights and hung the wreath because he knew it would make me and my mom - visiting for Thanksgiving - happy. I would like to think he did it because as a first time home owner he saw the joy of decorating his own house. Perhaps it was a Christmas miracle and his holiday heart grew three sizes that morning. Probably a bit of all the above, but I was dumbfounded to say the least.

We've always been one of those families when it comes to Christmas. Having recovered from a night of thanking the turkey for dying for our noms we would recuperate by loading out the kitsch. Boxes and boxes of it. The entire family would throw on some sweat pants, ratty t-shirts soon to be covered by truly awful sweaters horrid enough to turn medusa to stone (and light up, too!), chug some caffeine and start turning the house into Noel-extravaganza that would put a Hallmark store to shame. Stuffed Santa pillows, stockings, red candle sticks, coffee mugs, pillows, blankets, banners, glass angels, the most beautiful nativity set, a stuffed teddy bear advent calendar… just imagine it all.

After Christmas had exploded on the interior of the house, as well as the exterior with a few carefully placed strings of lights around the trim (we lived in a delightfully WASPy neighborhood of Orange County and anything outside a tasteful string of white lights would have been gauche) off we went for a tree that would be decorated well before the pizzas arrived.

Then the presents went under the tree. Or the ones either mom or I had shopped for did. We were early shoppers to say the least, and would even brave Black Friday, which only a few years ago wasn't so much of a thing. Certainly there were no reports of people dying during a Best Buy siege that would make Carthage go, "Whoa, guys, calm the fuck down."

This tradition continues today, and after years of grinding him down with a mix of gingerbread cake and Mariah Carey holiday music my husband, Bah Humbug Brian, is putting up lights on his own volition. 

Conversion takes time. You can't force it. You have to make sure the convert feels like the change was their own idea. Mom and I could teach Scientologists a few things and then have them start whipping up large batches of eggnog in their own equally offensive Christmas sweaters.

And yes, there are already gifts under this year's tree. We're crazy like that. All of them carefully picked out because mom and I am awesome at shopping for other people. 

Now, of course, if you're still looking for gifts for people you know I would highly recommend getting them a copy of Melt: The art of Macaroni and Cheese because it is epic, filled with cheese, and I read one review where the book cured their nephew's cleft lip and taught their Labradoodle to roll over. Really.

However, if you've already gotten copies for yourself and everyone you know you may possibly need some recommendations. Luckily, the season has seen a bevy of amazing books that not only must you get one, you should get two because you will destroy the first from overuse.

A note, all of these books I have personally purchased (except for I Scream Sandwich! which was a promo copy from the publisher). These are my own thoughts on these books. 

A few Christmases ago I was down in Southern California and Todd and Diane invited me to their home for curry, spring rolls, potatoes au gratin (a recipe of theirs I still make religiously for the holidays) and so much amazing food. They were wonderful hosts, inspiring gardeners, and people to look to if you wanted to see what a perfect marriage could be.

Describing the ethos, thought, beauty, and artistic simplicity (which is, truly, a complex thing to achieve) within this book is almost too difficult for any writer to do. Carmine-hued tomatoes laced in galettes, generous pitchers of melon sangria, taut spring rolls bursting from their translucent rice paper bodices. All of it stunning. A halcyon collection of recipes and images of friends, food, and two adorable dogs. This cookbook isn't just a cookbook, but a lovely lifestyle guide to those who want to eat better, live better, and become a more efficient and sustainable gardener.

The book is divided into sections based of vegetable/fruit type such as Herbs & Leafy Greens, Roots & Bulbs, and Stone Fruits. It makes it an easy book to navigate for whatever the season is. For me, I love this sort of compendium that rings of Nigel Slater's most recent work. Clear, concise, and in no way fussy. In addition, recipes aren't abstract or filled with hard to find ingredients. Recipes work, are clear, and affordable (especially if you're an avid gardener). The recipes find inspiration from Southern California, Western ranches, Vietnam and more to create a unique collection of stories. For those who need pictures, the book is packed with them; all striking and evocative. All and all, a winning cookbook and a must have.

Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home, Tammy Donroe Inman

Seasonal baking is how I generally flow in the kitchen. Come the colder months we keep sweet potatoes, pomegranates, persimmons, apples and the like in the house. Baking becomes a welcome way to warm the house and the body. Apple cider doughnuts become a morning thing that the husband and I can enjoy over coffee.

Inman has created a wonderful, comforting book that take winter produce (plus dried fruit, chocolate, and nuts) and creates an inviting selection of recipes. The photography is top notch and dreamy with winter wonderland tones. A fantastic selection for the baker in your life.

Winter Cocktails: Mulled Ciders, Hot Toddies, Punches, Pitchers, and Cocktail Party Snacks, by Maria del Mar Secasa

Butterscotch eggnog. Mulled white wine. Spiked hot cocoa.

If you're more the type to look towards brandy than brownies to warm yourself up when it gets nippier than a poorly trained chow-chow then this book will get plenty of use as you joyfully stain pages with tangerine juice. A number of additional support recipes are provided such as various infusions, snacks, and how to make marshmallows for your cocoa. Basic bar techniques are also covered in photographic detail.

I spent about four minutes in the store with this book before I decided to take it home (not without a quick stop at the store for the ingredients so my night would be filled with hot buttered rum laced with mace and vanilla bean).

I Scream Sandwich!, by Jennie Schact

Here's the thing about ice cream sandwiches: I find them to be too much work. Too many pans and shaping, cutting, baking, freezing, etcetera and so on. Honestly, I find them to be tiresome so I never make them.

Jennie Schact has - through clever, gourmet recipes and dreamy photography reminiscent of classic Donna Hay - made me want to put together a bevy of ice cream sandwiches like berry pavlovas (blackberry-buttermilk ice cream on crispy-chewy meringue) and plum goods (plum frozen yogurt on lavender-walnut shortbread). Clever combinations such as these combined with clear instruction make this a book that will make you the hit at any party ever for the rest of time, the end, take a fucking bow.


And, yes, I did make ice cream sandwiches. So there we go. Mission accomplished, Ms. Schact.

Duck, Duck, Goose, by Hank Shaw

My buddy Hank does all the shit I don't want to do when it comes to food. Shooting things, waking up at three in the morning to sit in a rainy swamp, schlepping himself over a mountain for crowberries and mushrooms, standing in a stream being reeeeaaallly quiet for hours, making sausage and so on and so forth. I'm fine breaking down and killing chickens but that's about it because it makes me feel super manly and considering I still use the word "icky" that feeling is somewhat foreign to me.

Lucky for me this book is more about how to cook ducks and geese and not so much about how to bring them down. I helped test a few recipes in this book and have had many of the others cooked by the man himself. It's a fantastic tome about the subject. I only know a few ways to prepare duck, but Hank's screw-this-roasting-only noise attitude brings up pastas and curries and makes duck more familiar. I likely will never prepare a goose, but should the occasion arise one Christmas I will now be so on it. If you're the type who needs good reference books I can't recommend it enough.

The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook, by Kathy Strahs

Single subject cookbooks are dubious at best, they're either paper thin pushouts generated for a quick dollar by the publisher, or they're epic tomes that shut down the subject for the next few decades based on the fact that they're co complete, so informative, and so replete with innovative recipes that are as convivial as they are engaging that there is no need for another book to be written about the subject.

This is the latter (obviously).

No matter what you have in your pantry, Strahs prepares and educates you on the art of the panini. More than that, she teaches food pairings, balancing flavor, and introduces new methods and techniques. She pushes the boundaries of a simple panini press and brings new life to a what was once thought a single-use device.

A must have for the cookbook library.

A special note, for the next while I will not be publishing every Tuesday. Work has me massively backlogged due to the book tour and with the holidays I just need time to recover. The blog will be updating as I can get to it through winter. 


Garrett out. 


  1. Garrett! Thanks so much for including me in your roundup. I'm just absolutely delighted that you ventured to make your own ice cream sandwiches. NB that each and every recipe comes with a "Take it Easy" note to sub store-bought ingredients for some (or sometimes even all) of the parts, leaving you with a relatively easy construction project. Power to the winter ice cream sandwich, and wishing holiday cheer to you, the hubs, and mom. (Being the reluctant Christmas decorator -- who now hand-makes the door wreath -- my wife hears your pain.)

  2. This post made me laugh out loud. I'm going to have to show it to the bf.
    He goes Clark Griswald crazy every holiday (his family is the same way) & I think he would say I'm a wee bit "Grinchy." Since it means so much to him, I'm going to try a bit harder this year to get a little more hyped up over St. Nick for his sake. But if he busts out that damn Andy Gibb Xmas album again, there'll be hell to pay in Who-ville. ;)

  3. Garrett, I am so jealous of your tree, and the fact that you seem to have it all together for Christmas!So far, my Honey put a light-up pig from Target in my front window and we're changing the words to every Christmas song to include "Christmas Pig". My current goal is to get the tree put up on Sunday...can't do it on Saturday because I'm taking a baking class at the CIA (OMG OMG). Thanks so much for the recommendations. I already asked for your book! I'm confident that in addition to some awesome recipes, it will cure my Honey's snoring and teach my brother's dog to stop drooling. I believe in the power and the magic of CHEESE! I know that I pretty much never comment, but I am a huge fan, you make my Tuesdays SO MUCH BETTER and I will miss you when you don't post. Have a wonderful, restful break and the happiest, merriest Christmas to you, Brian, your furries, and your families!

  4. Hi Garett, thank you for sharing! I really need help looking for a better book. Now I do know what to bake and can't wait to prepare some for my family for this coming xmas eve!

  5. I ordered and received the Duck, Duck, Goose volume. It has to be THE authority on cooking these two fowl. The pictures are beautifully done. The recipes are awesome. And there are countless tips and sidebars throughout the book that tell everything you would ever want or need to know about selecting and cooking duck and geese.

  6. I tell my children all the time- if you like Christmas lights you had better choose a partner who likes Christmas lights or you will be on a ladder by yourself! Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

  7. Garrett, you have excellent taste in cookbooks! Thanks for including my book Wintersweet--it's much appreciated. Keep up the great writing!

  8. When bf and I celebrated our first Christmas together 6 yrs ago, he was very stubborn claiming "no ornaments in the house before my birthday (dec 1st) - this year he was the one getting all the Christmas boxes on november 25th : ) just giv'em some time, and they will see you are right, right?


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