If you slit a pitted jumbo olive -- not a wonderful Italian kind, but the smooth, blander. really large California kind, and open it out gently, you can stuff it with cream cheese. That's the penguin's white front. Then you can take a large-ish carrot and cut it into rounds, and cut a little wedge out of each round. Then secure a smaller olive of the same type on top, perpendicular to the larger one, with a toothpick. That's the penguin's head. Then secure the toothpick into the notched carrot round, the notch on the same side as the white front: those are his orange feet. Insert the remaining carrot wedge into the hole in the smaller olive, pointed end facing out -- that's the beak. And there's your penguin. You can make a wholoe flock with a can of olives, and you can make them a cream cheese, white cheddar and onion igloo to live in, if you want to and your karma doesn't run out: blend grated cheddar, cream cheese and a small onion together in food processor. Line a small deep bowl with plastic wrap and pack cheese mixture in, reserving just enough to roll into a 2-inch log for your tunnel, which the penguins will need in order to go in and out of their igloo.
People who spend all year searching for quick and easy recipes to make for supper forget all about that sort of thing at the holidays, turning instead to painstaking projects like stuffed olive penguins and stollen, the dough for which they roll and stretch until they can almost see through it, it's so thin, and it completely covers the kitchen table. Next up: Eccles Cakes, puff pastry rolled out and cut into circles, which you stuff with currants and candied peel and bake into a hand pie. If you are Jewish, you grate pounds of potatoes until your fingers are raw, unless you can get someone to distract your mother long enough to run them through the Cuisinart while she's not looking. Then you make up the latkes and fry them, and at dinner she says what she says every year, which is that grating the potatoes by hand is the secret to perfect latkes, isn't it, and you say it certainly is.
The grocery store was a busy place this morning. Today is most people's first day off from work, and they haven't had time to lay in their holiday supplies until now. I struggled with the price scanner as I always do, acutely aware of the growing line of shoppers behind me patiently waiting their turn. You really might want to get into another line, I kept telling them, I'm not very good at this. This is the gospel truth: with almost every item, it takes me six or seven passes over the little red dot to get the beep that signals a successful scan.
But they all took it well, and now I am back home in the kitchen, hard at work on my penguins. You need good holiday music while doing work like this, music that reminds you how much you love this time of year. Music that reminds you of the past, of people you love but see no longer -- or, if you do see them, it is only in dreams. Music and food helps the march of time collapse a bit, brings the past closer, makes the future seem like something you can probably manage when the time comes.
I love it all, but my new favorite is Ana Hernandez' new CD, An Unexpected Christmas, which she recorded with the Virginia Girls Choir in Richmond. Ana is well-known for her use of percussion instruments from around the world, and her re-imagining of harmonies (and sometimes keys!) for familiar carols and hymns, music we all thought we knew pretty well. It takes a lot to make Little Drummer Boy intriguing, but this album does that and more. You can get it as a CD or an MP3 download (and listen to it this very night!) from Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/An-Unexpected-Christmas/dp/B004F78D1W/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1293219600&sr=8-2
or at CDBaby, http://www.cdbaby.com/Search/YW4gdW5leHBlY3RlZCBjaHJpc3RtYXM percent3d/0