Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

If you are like me, you may need some help with the pronunciation of that title. One of several ways to say "Merry Christmas" in Dutch, it sounds something like "VROH-layk KEHRST-fayst." Today, I am operating in that wee portion of my brain that knows a handful of Dutch words and expressions. This is because today I am thinking about Julie.

In late February, Julie came into our home as a special gift and remained here through mid-June. On the surface she was an American Field Service (AFS) college student from Voorburg, The Netherlands, which is a suburb of The Hague. More importantly, she became the daughter of our later years, the little sister my kids always wanted, and a fun, loving aunt (tante) to all six grandkids.

So you can imagine my delight yesterday when we received Julie's Kerstfeest note along with a new container of speculaas spices for making, among other delectable specimens of her native cuisine, Dutch peppernuts (pepernoten). These are quarter-sized cookies, staples of  Dutch Kerstfeest celebrations, that combine 2/3 c. each butter and dark brown sugar, 2 c. self-rising flour, 4 tbsp. of milk with a tablespoon and a half of the magical speculaas spices. Baked on parchment paper at 320 F. for about twenty minutes, they offer Julie a taste of home and me an interesting cultural variation on the traditional Christmas cookie.

Of the many enlightening experiences of Julie's stay with us, I would have to say I enjoyed our joint cooking adventures the most. Among those, she learned the art of preparing American "comfort" foods like meat loaf and potato cakes. In addition to pepernoten, I learned the secret ingredients behind a real Dutch apple pie. Raisins--really? Orange juice--who would have thought?

Together, we took on the challenges of converting grams, kilograms, and milliliters to ounces, cups, and tablespoons. We invented an impromptu glaze for some donuts she wanted to take to school for Koningsdag, or King's Day, a national holiday The Netherlands celebrates on April 27 to honor William of Orange.

We strove to figure out acceptable substitutes for ingredients called for by Dutch recipes but not readily available locally, like caster sugar and custard powder (enter Jell-O instant vanilla pudding mix). No creme fraiche at Walmart? No problem. We looked online and made our own from cream and buttermilk.

And now, a SPOILER ALERT  for you, Julie, if you are reading this before Christmas. (I know your present has arrived, but you are waiting until Christmas to open it.) So you'd better Ga Weg! until Dec. 26 unless you want a sneak peek at what it contains.

Come Christmas morning, Julie will find among her gifts a wooden cutting board in the shape of the state of Missouri. In my way of thinking, it is a perfect gift for her, symbolizing both the geographical specifics of her U.S. stay and the antics of the kitchen we shared for a time.

Vrolijk Kerstfeest, sweet girl, from your American family, including six adoring nieces and nephews. Hopefully, there will be pepernoten on our Christmas table this weekend.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"When We Were a Couple o' Kids"

That title line comes from an old song titled, "School Days." (A quick Google check tells me that it was written by Gus Edwards and Will Cobb in 1907.) When I was little, I learned it from one of those little yellow 78-rpm records that I played until the scratches eventually made the needle arm skip and miss.

I think of that song every time a kid or grandkid of mine starts school. So it has come to mind often in recent months as I have watched Beenie join the rank and file of four-year-old preschoolers.

For him, preschool means new playmates, a gentle introduction to academic routine, a little nudge toward increased personal responsibility, and fun outings to places like the fire station, the library, and the pumpkin patch. For Pa-pa and me, it means we get to see him more, since we deliver him to school three mornings a week and then bring him home to spend the afternoon with us until his mama and daddy get off work.

Beenie's classroom is in the basement of the same church where, twenty-five years ago, I took my own kids to monthly 4-H meetings. It has changed very little since then; thus, every trip down that familiar hallway brings a comforting sense of deja vu. Here I go again, I think to myself, delivering a child I love to a doorway where something new and enriching waits on the other side.

It is a good feeling, and I love every part of the experience: holding that little hand, unzipping the coat, signing my name on the list, and delighting in whatever treasure has been left in the hallway folder to be brought home. Maybe it is a sheet of G's traced with a shaky orange crayon. Maybe it is a pair of butterfly wings artfully attached to a clothespin. Maybe it is a feathered card stock headband in honor of Thanksgiving. Maybe one day it will have Beenie's name printed on it with all the letters facing in the right direction.

Waiting to pick him up at the end of the morning is an opportunity to stand outside the classroom and study bulletin boards reflecting collaborative projects. For instance, during Thanksgiving season each child put a feather on a large poster board turkey proclaiming what he or she was most thankful for. There, among all the "moms," "dads," "families," and other more predictable answers, Beenie seized the opportunity to express gratitude for his "teddy elephant."

Now if Beenie indeed has such a thing, none of us knows about it. What is a teddy elephant, anyway? It is apparently not a subject Beenie wishes to elaborate on upon questioning.

On the last class day before Thanksgiving, a marker board outside the classroom door displayed the children's numbered list of steps for "How to Cook a Turkey." "Pull the feathers off," one child advised, while others reminded us to "Turn the oven to 168" and then "Cook for 5 minutes." Number 7 on the list (of which Beenie was very proud) showed his more practical side: "Put in in a pan." Well, yes. Even when you are four, you know the process is a lot less messy that way.

Our afternoons together are steeped in cookie dough and free play. Beenie's favorite all autumn long has been a role-playing game he calls "On the Way to School." This requires him, me, and any three action figures he decides to pull out of the crate.

Of the three, one is a bad guy, one is a hero, and one is a "kid" on the way to school. Beenie always assigns me the kid and the villain, leaving the hero for himself. As the kid's journey commences, he greets the hero, who points out that a villain has spotted him and is up to no good. Although the villain often threatens, the hero, aided by the very resourceful kid, always thwarts impending evil (with huge, finger-mashing clashes of plastic, I might add). Invariably, the villain ends up either "in jail" (the toddler bed) or on the floor ("hot laba").

Occasionally, for variety, they will all become friends and go trick-or-treating, at which time I also assume the part of the person giving out the candy. Thankfully, I am nothing if not versatile, and, apparently, learned quite a lot from the movie Sybil.

Here, Beenie puts his snack bag in his "cubby" on his first day of preschool back in September. It is hard to believe that was nearly four months ago.

At this writing, Christmas break is about to put our school-day routine on hiatus. I'm not sure exactly when or how things will have changed when we resume at some point in the new year. But here is what I do know: If Beenie has loved this autumn routine even a fraction as much as I have, then both of us are happy.

Meanwhile, rolls of cookie dough wait in the freezer, and a crate of villains, heroes, and kids may be pondering sequels. Or, they may return in 2017 to play the same familiar roles. Whatever the case, the last half of Beenie's preschool year is something to anticipate and cherish.

And who knows? Maybe the villains will all reform in time to get off Santa's "Naughty" list. We'll just have to wait and see.