The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

Heifer International: Working To End World Hunger, One Llama At A Time

bolivian farmerGot an extra $20 burning a hole in your pocket and want to make a difference in the lives of others? Buy a flock of ducks. Eighty-five dollars will get you a camel share, while a mere $48 purchases a share in a “Knitter’s Gift Basket (a llama, alpaca, sheep and angora rabbit).”

Since 1944, Heifer International has provided livestock, and animal husbandry, agricultural and community development training to over 125 countries, including the U.S. The goal: to help end world hunger and poverty by improving breeding stock, providing valuable dietary supplements such as milk and eggs, and creating viable business enterprises for commodity products such as cheese, wool, honey, or crops cultivated by draft animals like horses and water buffalo.

The livestock species used to support disenfranchised communities are diverse, but traditional to their respective regions. They include goats, sheep, honeybees, beef and dairy cattle, water buffalo, yaks, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, camels, rabbits, guinea pigs and poultry.

When I was a kid growing up on a small ranch in Southern California, we used to donate our male dairy goat kids (which, if sold here, would most likely be relegated to dinner) to Heifer. Although the program no longer ships live animals overseas (it’s easier and safer/more humane to ship frozen semen), the concept remains the same: using top bloodlines to improve the quality and enhance the genetic diversity of herds or flocks in impoverished regions.

Heifer teaches the concept of the “Seven M’s: Milk, Manure, Meat, Material, Money, Motivation and Muscle.” These are the benefits livestock animals provide to people in developing nations. With the training provided by Heifer employees and volunteers, the cycle of poverty can be broken, and families and villages can thrive. During the holidays or for birthdays, I like to make animal gift donations in the name of the recipient, an especially valuable lesson for children (who, let’s face it, really don’t need another electronic piece of crap to foster their ADD and lack of global awareness).

Never doubt the power of a furry friend to change the world. To make a donation, click here.

Check out this Heifer International gallery of animals and their proud owners from around the world:

%Gallery-154256%

Five holiday cookies from around the world

holiday cookiesI love good old American iced sugar cookies as much as the next person. Yet there’s a whole world of cookiedom out there, and the holdiays are the best excuse to do a little experimenting.

Whether you prefer your cookies buttery, spiced, crisp, or iced, there’s something to suit your…ahem, taste. Check out the following holiday favorites from around the world.

Springerle
These embossed, biscuit-like German cookies–usually flavored with anise–date back to the 14th century. They’re traditionally made using a wooden or ceramic mold (human figures are a common theme) or a rolling pin decorated with carved-out depressions. Think of them as edible art, especially if you have the talent and patience to ice them.

Shortbread
For butter sluts like me, few things beat a well-made piece of shortbread. True shortbread is Scottish in origin (the recipe we’re most familiar with today–flour, sugar, and butter–is attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots). Because the ingredients were considered luxury goods, shortbread became synonymous with festive occasions, including Christmas.

Shortbread has become ubiquitous throughout the UK, and similar (but inferior, in my humble opinion) cookies are found throughout Scandinavia. What makes good shortbread so special? The quality of the butter is paramount, but also the handling of the dough. Any baked good with a fat content that high is bound to be tasty, but overworking the dough–whether it’s rolled or patted out by hand–ensures a cookie the equivalent of a hockey puck. And I’m a purist: no crystallized sugar or fancy shapes for me, please. Just give me the cookie.

[Photo credits: Flickr user JeMaSiDi]holiday cookiesMa’amoul
These rich, Lebanese semolina cookie/pastry hybrids traditionally have their top half pressed into a decorative mold, while the bottom half is stuffed with a filling of chopped fruit and nuts such as dates, figs, walnuts, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Ma’amoul may be round or dome-shaped, or slightly flattened, and are categorically a form of shortbread due to their high fat (butter or shortening) content. They also contain rose and/or orange flower water, which gives them a subtle floral essence.

Ma’amoul are popular in the Levantine cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as that of the Arab Persian Gulf states. They’re a frequent site during religious holidays an festivals, including Ramadan and Purim. In Jewish communities, date-filled ma’amoul are a favorite Hanukkah treat.

Mandelbrot
Some liken these twice-baked almond cookies to “Jewish” or “Askenazic” biscotti, and it’s a fairly accurate description. The name comes from the Yiddish for “almond bread.” Like biscotti, they’re shaped into a loaf, sliced, and baked twice to achieve a hard texture. They’re traditionally dunked in tea.

It’s believed that mandelbrot may have found it’s way to medieval Eastern Europe via the significant Jewish population residing in Northern Italy. According to food writer and Jewish cuisine expert Joan Nathan, the durability of the cookies made them a popular Sabbath dessert, because they traveled well via merchants and rabbis. Mandelbrot are also served at Hanukkah, because they’re parve (made with oil, instead of butter, aka dairy).

Melting Moments
holiday cookies
Although similar to Mexican Wedding cookies–those tender little shortbread domes dusted with powdered sugar–Melting Moments don’t contain ground nuts (the Latin versions–which have been traced back to medieval Arab culture–always contain ground almonds or other nuts, which were then a delicacy).

I first discovered Melting Moments, which rely upon the addition of cornstarch for their trademark disintegrating quality, while working for a Kiwi chef in London. Charmed by the name, I soon discovered that these Australian/Kiwi cookies are holiday favorites. They’re ridiculously easy to make, consisting primarily of butter, powdered sugar, and flour in addition to the aforementioned cornstarch (called “corn flour” in UK/Aussie recipes). They’re often made as sandwich cookies filled with icing (because you can never have too many Melting Moments).

There are literally dozens of other holiday cookies out there, ranging from the anise-fragranced wafers of the Nordic countries and soft amareti or macarons of Italy, to the spice cookies of Central Europe. An easy affordable gift idea: bake up a batch that correlate to your recipient’s ethnic heritage or favorite/dream vacation spot. Happy holidays!

[Photo credits: ma’amoul, Flickr user àlajulia;melting moment, Flicker user ohdarling]

Easy Gingerbread Men Cookie Recipe

Christmas in Spain

¡Feliz Navidad!

Spaniards are big into Christmas. The eating, the gift giving, the shopping craziness, it’s all here with a distinctly Spanish twist.

Hold off on the presents

The day for gift giving isn’t Christmas, but Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Eve isn’t a time for anticipating what’s under the tree but for sitting with the family chowing down heaps of good food while ignoring the king’s annual speech on television. Epiphany is the chance for another Big Feed. Spaniards don’t really need an excuse to have a giant dinner with all the family!
Shopping continues right into early January. After Epiphany there are Las Rebajas (“The Sales”) when stores try to get rid of their excess stock. Spaniards wanting to save money can give a notice that they’re going to buy someone something, and then buy it when the big sales come. This year many shops have started Las Rebajas early because of La Crisis. I’ll let you translate that one for yourself.

Los Reyes Magos, not Santa

Santa is known here, of course, and you see lots of inflatable Santas hanging from people’s windows, but he takes second place to the The Three Kings or Wise Men. Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltasar showed up on Epiphany to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Every year they fly into Madrid and other cities to much pomp and ceremony and go on a big parade through town.
Baltasar, the African king, is the kid’s favorite. You see him and his buddies hanging out in department stores taking requests from excited children, and kids send lists of toys to them like American kids do with Santa. Baltasar used to be played by Spaniards in blackface, something that doesn’t have the cultural baggage here that it does in the United States, although I still haven’t gotten used to seeing it! Luckily the influx of African immigrants in the past few years has provided a ready supply of real Africans to play the favorite Wise Man.
On the night of January 5 people put one of their shoes in the living room for the kings to place presents next to. It’s also nice to leave out some milk and cookies for the Kings’ camels. They have to walk all around Spain in one night and they get hungry.

%Gallery-80910%Bethlehem, not Christmas trees

Because the Wise Men are so popular there’s a long tradition of making dioramas showing them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, Belén in Spanish. They’re called Belénes and can get quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. Check out the gallery for some examples. Many private homes have a Belén and shops often put them in their windows. A pharmacy near my apartment has the best in my barrio. It fills the entire front window and takes a couple of days to set up.
Christmas trees, originally a German tradition, have never been big here. Considering the size of most Spanish apartments you couldn’t have a very impressive tree anyway! Besides, if you had a big tree there would be no room for a Belén.
Check out the gallery for some fine examples of Spanish Belénes and others from around the world, featured in an exhibition by Caja Duero on until January 10 in Madrid.

El Gordo

There’s also the big national Christmas lottery called “El Gordo”. The grand prize always runs into the millions of euros and there are lots of smaller prizes to tempt people who don’t understand statistics into playing again and again. There are so many winning numbers that the drawing takes most of the day. The numbers are sung out by schoolchildren on TV and radio and their high-pitched sing-song recitation of the numbers is one of the sounds of Christmas here.

So what about Spanish New Year? One distinct custom is that as the clock starts striking twelve you have to eat a dozen grapes before it finishes. That’s harder than you think. Other than that people hit the town, drink a lot, and make out with people they probably shouldn’t. Some traditions are universal.

Galley Gossip: 10 gifts for flight attendants (and frequent fliers)

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas is job security, being able to hold my first bid, two weeks vacation, a raise, longer layovers, more wide-body flying, faster flying times, grateful and polite passengers with a sense of humor, more ferry flights, a cockpit that appreciates who’s on the other side of the reinforced door, and a fun crew

Florence, the flight attendant

Something tells me that ain’t happening. So what can you get that special flight attendant, pilot or frequent flier in your life for Christmas this year? Glad you asked. Here’s my 2009 holiday gift list…

1. AVIATION CRAP STUFF – If there’s one thing flight attendants have in common, it’s the airline museum hiding in the guestroom closet. So if you see something with an aviation theme buy it, wrap it up, and send it to me. I’m talking things like vintage airline posters, sassy bag tags, airplane pajamas, flight attendant dolls, even an airplane Christmas ornament – anything really!

2. HAND LOTION – Flight attendants have always been addicted to fruity smelling antibacterial hand lotion. Now that the flu season is here with a nasty H1N1 scare to top it off, we’re going through germ killer like business class passengers go through wine and bottled water. Bath and Body has a wonderful selection of travel size lotion to stuff a stocking with. Also, we’re constantly washing our hands with harsh airplane soap, so hand lotion with shea butter is a must. Beth, a coworker and friend, swears by Gardners hand therapy cream by Crabtree and Evelyn.

3. CAFFEINE – Three reasons your flight attendant might not be smiling; 1. Long work days. 2. Short layovers. 3. They’ve given up their expensive Starbucks addiction in order to cut back and make ends meet. Every flight attendant deserves (and needs!) a decent cup of Joe, especially when working long hauls, early sign-ins, red eyes, or multiple legs. I’m sorry, but airplane coffee just won’t cut it. While a Starbucks gift card might be nice, a couple packets of Via Ready Brew would work well, too.4. READING MATERIAL – Flight attendants are like vultures when it comes to scavenging seat back pockets for discarded newspapers and magazines after a flight. While I love to score a copy of US, Star, People, ya know, the kind of magazine you can flip through quickly between beverage services, it’s Vanity Fair I can’t commute to work without. What flight attendant wouldn’t love a magazine subscription or a gift card to Barnes & Noble? Or take it a step further and give a Kindle. You’ll help lighten the load.

5. DESIGNER EYE WEAR – Maybe it’s because flight attendants wear polyester for a living, or perhaps it’s because there aren’t too many ways to express our personal style while wearing a uniform, I don’t know, but whatever it is, flight attendants love designer eye wear. Whether it’s a pair of chic sunglasses or trendy eyeglasses, you’ll make a flight attendant go from feeling drab to fab in a matter of seconds. REMEMBER: When you’re flight attendant is happy, passengers are happy. Come on, make flying a more enjoyable experience for all.

6. SHOES – You’ve heard of cart toe, haven’t you? When it comes to flight attendant shoes, we’re always looking for something cute and comfortable – not always an easy combination to find. Go with a gift card to DSW for the picky flight attendant who loves to shop and Zappos.com for the no nonsense gal/guy who knows what they want and wants it now! My next pair may just be one of these – Taipei or Diamond Sparkle

7. COMPUTER – Flight attendants spend half their lives on airplanes and at airport hotels. Is there a better way to stay connected, bid, do trip trades, Skype and read Galley Gossip than with a netbook? One of these tiny laptops won’t weigh a flight attendant’s tote bag down, leaving plenty of room for more important things, like snacks. I love my Acer.

8. FOOD – Really, who loves airport food, and who can even afford it on a regular basis! That’s why flight attendant Henry loves the banana saver. I can see why. No one wants a bag full of mush. As soon I saw my colleague whip together a Cobb salad, using a hard boiled egg container to protect a key ingredient, I knew I had to get one. Which is the exact same way I felt when I saw a flight attendant pull a stainless steel lunch box out of a tote bag and place it directly in the oven – twenty minutes later, VOILA! A home cooked meal.

9. VIDEO GAMES – Not every flight attendant loves doing crossword and Soduko puzzles, including Travis, a commuter with a lot of time to kill. What’s on his Christmas list? The PSP 3000.

10. A LIFE – One that doesn’t include airports, airplanes, passengers, and nonstop complaining. In other words, a day off. Just a day off with a home cooked meal prepared by someone else. That’s it. Just a day off with a home cooked meal and maybe a massage. Nothing else. Just a day off, a home cooked meal, a massage, and…oh….I don’t know…maybe an ionic travel toothbrush sanitizer because a friend just pointed it out and now I’m a bit obsessed.

Photos courtesy of Heather Poole (Me!)