In my house, we joke about the Chanukah bunny coming to give presents to people during the festival of lights. However, Chanukah is very much a moveable feast, and sometimes when the Chanukah bunny is extremely busy he deputizes his idiot cousin, Larry, or is it his brother? to do his shopping for him. Larry is not always too swift about online ordering, checking his Amazon account, noting when the holiday actually falls, &c., and so sometimes everyone's presents are not quite ready to open on the first night of the holiday as, really, they should be. If you find that your table also is not graced with all the gifts until the night the menorah is blazing with four or five candles -- because after all we can't have some people getting presents and others, not yet -- why then, it may be that Larry was in charge of a few of the wish lists at your address too.
Eventually, however, both bunnies can be trusted to come across. The more astute one was exceptionally good to me this past Wednesday night. I unwrapped a new digital camera. I have been playing with it ever since. The only trouble is that the short, gloomy days and a busy holiday work schedule leave with me little opportunity to put the thing through its paces. How exciting is it to zoom in on green beaded curtains from across the kitchen late on a Friday night? Not very.
Now that we have a little leisure on a Sunday let us try, instead, to snap something challenging. Here is one of my newer porcelain finds, a pale ivory Lenox cup and saucer that is all understated rhythm and elegance. The gloomy winter morning light is no one's fault, least of all Larry's.
Next, what shall we do with this porcelain cup? It seems too delicate even for tea, and besides, at the antique mall it was one of a kind. If it breaks there is no replacing it.
(An aside: when I told my gentleman friend about this new addition to my collection, he bowed his head and chuckled, "poor Ben." Ben is my teenaged son.
I shot back, "What's it got to do with him? I didn't drag him with me, antiquing."
"No," he said, "but he'll be the one getting rid of all Mom's stuff years from now." Which is exactly the position my friend is in himself, having just suffered the bereavement in the natural course of things.
"Oh, piffle," I riposted brilliantly. But in truth, he's right. What else is the antique store crammed with, but truckloads of other people's Moms' stuff?)
Let us seize the day then, and put our teacup to good, but not dangerous, boiling-hot-tea use. We'll make recipe #1479 from Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861), "Rice snowballs," appropriate for winter. Also because it's "A pretty dish for Juvenile Suppers."
Mrs. Beeton's rice snowballs
6 ounces rice (about 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups)
1 quart (4 cups) milk
"flavouring of essence of almonds," or lemon peel or vanilla
sugar to taste
1 pint of custard made by recipe #1423* (below)
Boil the rice gently in the milk, with sugar and flavouring, until the rice is tender, adding more milk if necessary. This will take about 45 minutes -- you want it good and sticky. When the rice is "quite soft," put it into teacups and let it sit until cold. Turn the rice out into a deep glass dish, and pour custard over. On the top of each ball place a small bit of "bright-coloured preserve or jelly."
"Sufficient for 5 or 6 children."
* Custard #1423
This recipe is adapted and simplified, since Mrs. Beeton wrote for cooks who had no stoves, but worked tediously over an open fire, with "a jug in a saucepan of boiling water over the fire," &c. The principles of any custard recipe will be the same: you are combining and gently cooking milk, eggs, and sugar, being careful not to let the custard boil, or else the egg in it will scramble and give you curdled lumps where you want smoothness. Marion Cunningham's "English custard" in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is almost exactly the same recipe as Mrs. Beeton's, and she doesn't even bother with a double boiler, which is essentially what the jug in a saucepan of water would have been, but only uses a heavy bottomed saucepan instead.
1 pint (2 cups) milk
5 eggs (or 4 duck eggs, recommended)
3 ounces of loaf sugar (about half a cup)
3 laurel leaves or the rind of half a lemon, or a few drops vanilla
1 Tablespoon brandy
Put the milk, sugar, and flavorings (except brandy) into a heavy pot or the top of a double boiler. Simmer very gently until the flavors infuse -- "about half an hour by the side of the fire." Whisk the eggs well, and when the milk has cooled a little, stir them into the milk. To guard against them curdling in too-hot milk at this point, you can temper them: pour a little of the milk into the eggs first, and stir to warm them. Then add that mixture to the rest of the milk in the pan.
This is your custard. You will now keep it quietly simmering in your pot or double boiler, and stir -- one way, she emphasizes -- until it thickens. Then take it off the heat, stir in the brandy, let it cool, and ladle it into little custard cups to serve. Grate nutmeg over the top.
"When desired extremely rich and good, cream should be substituted for the milk, and double the quantity of eggs, omitting the whites." That's ten egg yolks to a pint -- two cups -- of cream.
And Happy Chanukah. It ended last night.