There's an aggressiveness to the cold temperatures of December here in Toronto, especially in contrast to the easy warmth of Chiang Mai. But at the same time the bite of cold air on my cheeks as I hurried along on foot this morning to meet some friends, the Sunday streets deserted, the campus at the University of Toronto people-less like a stage-set, was a great tonic. The world seemed to be saying 'Yes, you exist and so does the natural world and HERE, in this snap and burn of cold cheeks, this little shiver of a draught on the wrists because you've forgotten to pull your orange mittens up, is where we meet."
Winter. Tomorrow we turn the corner as we hit the shortest day and welcome the idea that the sun will return and the days will get longer. We have some months of winter cold and snow and ice, but at least we'll have longer days and eventually we'll start to feel warmer temperatures and see leaf buds forming on the trees.
This annual cycle in the northern climes is a lesson in patience and hope. The subtropical version, say in Thailand, is a three season cycle, where hot season is the killing time, when plants become dormant and the leaves have gone from many of the trees. There it is the monsoon rain that brings the world back to life; here it is the return of the sun, giving light and warmth too.
People from higher latitudes annually wait for the sun's return, and celebrate it with food and festivities, from Saturnalia to Christmas to Hanukkah. Tomorrow night in Kensington Market, a few blocks from the house, is the annual (it's been going for over 20 years now) Festival of Lights, with stilt people wearing mythic creatures' heads that sway above the crowd, children and adults carrying lanterns: light in the dark and excitement in the air.
Many of our foods of celebration at this time of year connect with the hope for a renewal of warmth and fertility, a new harvest, new life. At Ukrainian and Russian Christmas, there's kulcha, the wheat berry and poppyseed (often) and honey "soup", delicious ritual food that opens the Christmas eve feast. And there's also an egg-rich (yellow like the sun) Christmas bread, just as there is in Sweden.
I confess I've made none of the above this year. But I have been celebrating my return to Toronto and to friends and family with some winter cooking. I began, two nights ago, as a way of fighting jetlag-tiredness at eight in the evening, by making candied peel. I'd bought organic lemons and oranges and grapefruit, so it was easy, even in my dazed state, to peel them (cut off the peel at the stem end, then peel off tidy wedges) and then boil the peels in plenty of water for about an hour to remove bitterness. (I store the peeled fruit in a sealed plastic bag, ready to be eaten; all but the lemons have already gone.) I drained the peels then boiled them in more water for another twenty minutes or so. In another pot (non-reactive) I stirred three cups of sugar into one and a half cups of water and brought it to a boil, then let it simmer. Once I'd drained the peels again I added them to the syrup and simmered it for about an hour, pushing on the peels with a wooden spoon to immerse them.
The peels looked so gorgeous when I lifted them out onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets, all gleaming and rich-coloured, like stained glass. it's been two days, so they've dried out nicely and now I have most of them coated in extra sugar (put sugar in a paper bag and toss in the peels in batches so they get coated). The extra sugar stops them sticking to one another.
Freinds and visitors now have treats to snack on, and I have small beautiful presents to take to others. The leftover syrup, now beautifully citrussy, is delicious drizzled on ice cream for example, or just snuck, as a quickie spoonful, when the jar in the frig catches my eye. Of course it also makes a good glaze for fruit tarts. Hmmm - maybe I should move on to something like that next week?
The peels are also a reminder of earlier times, when precious oranges and lemons and citrons would arrive in northern Europe from the Mediterranean, just at the cold and dark time of year. What better way to make use of the whole fruit than by preserving the peel, with all its intense flavour? The English traditionally make mincemeat with the peel, and use it to flavour Christmas cakes and fruits cakes generally, and of course there's peel in many stollen, the German advent cake. Any other winter baking that you can tell me about that uses candied peel?
Perhaps made bold by the peel, and finding my Toronto kitchen reflexes again, I had slightly ambitious supper plans tonight that included a leekie pie. There's another welcome winter taste, those luscious leeks. After supper I used the leftover eggwhite to make lemon-zest macaroons then caught that cookbook bug (you turn the page and get inspired by the next recipe, and the next...). I was in HomeBaking, in the cookies section. So as I write there is the first stage (the loaf) of mandel melbas (four large eggs, a cup of toasted almonds, 3/4 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose, all stirred together, then spooned into a loaf pan and baked at 350 F) chilled and waiting to be thinly sliced and rebaked (for fifteen minutes at 300 F) , and there are sweet Cretan paximadia, made with olive oil and wine and cinnamon and cloves, slowly crisping up in the oven.
I know they'll all get eaten, and quickly. And each bite of citrus peel or aromatic paximadia will connect us to warmth, and to the hope and promise of the solstice, that life will indeed be renewed again this year...