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Archive for December, 2010

2010

To be completely honest, I’ve been too exhausted this week to be particularly introspective about the past year. Hosting Christmas is draining!

Naming the top memorable moments of the year is actually pretty easy: running my first half marathon (which was immediately followed by the first time I ever had to accompany J to the hospital), getting engaged, and having an amazing birthday (spending the actual day in Las Vegas and having a party with family and close friends a few days later).

In terms of food and blogging, I have to say that I’m impressed with all the things I baked successfully for the first time this year– Irish soda bread, scones, naan (must make that again!), pie crust, biscotti. My confidence to try new things will definitely carry over into the next year, and hopefully I’ll have just as much success!

I haven’t thought very much about my goals for next year, blog-related or otherwise. I’ll get back to that next week. For now, here’s wishing you a happy New Year’s Eve from snowy, snowy Tallinn!!

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The end of an era– Estonian kroons

Today I want to talk about money. Don’t worry, not in a tacky way, like talking about how much money I make or something. I want to talk about Estonia’s money, the kroon, which as of January 1 will no longer be in use. On the first day of 2011 Estonia is joining the euro zone, also known as the European Monetary Union, and after a 2-week period in which both kroons and euros will be accepted, these beautiful bills will be gone forever.

Photo credit Tairo Lutter / Virumaa Teataja

This is sort of an odd thing to get sentimental about. If you had told me a few years ago that I would practically be in tears over what my country’s cash looks like, I would’ve thought that sounds incredibly strange. But that’s how it is right now, because seriously, I love Estonia’s money. I know that joining the euro zone is important to Estonia for economic reasons, and I also obviously know that there’s no turning back now– this transition is happening regardless of how anybody feels. Estonians are bidding farewell to the monetary unit they’ve used for nearly 20 years.

Let’s face it, American bills are relatively boring– all the same size, all the same color, all graced with images of male politicians. Estonian bills, however, are varied, colorful, and display an interesting selection of notable people. The faces on the bills include those of poets, scientists, and even a chess player, and they also include images of birds, trees, and a fortress with threatening clouds looming overhead. Of all the bills, my favorite is this one:

That woman is Lydia Koidula, a poet and cultural figure during the cultural awakening of Estonia in the late 1800’s. Isn’t she beautiful? A young woman, thick hair cascading down her shoulders, who wrote plays and poems and helped Estonian culture become what it is today. I love not just the fact that there’s a woman on the printed money here, but the fact that it’s this particular woman. She’s not a queen, no royal bloodlines, no crown. She was an artist (and to make the whole thing even more romantic, the back of the bill features an excerpt from one of her poems in her handwriting. It’s so lovely!). How many other nations have a woman like that on their currency?

I wasn’t here when Estonia regained its independence in 1991 and re-adopted the kroon after years and years of using Soviet rubles (and I’m sure that for the people who were here this transition must be even more poignant). But I am somebody who has grown up living and breathing Estonian culture and, as an adult, chose to come here and immerse myself in this world I heard about throughout my childhood but saw for the first time only after I’d hit my teen years. To me these bills are a part of a culture that I love, and a few years ago they also became a part of everyday life. Strange as it may sound, it’s heartbreaking to see them go.

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Christmas 2010

Christmas this year was a lovely success! Even though it was the first Christmas J’s family members and his brother’s girlfriend had ever spent away from home (it was #5 for me), there was enough joy, fun, and delicious food that everyone was as happy and comfortable as they would have been at home. While I had a little bit of stress as hostess, overall everything was casual and relaxed. We did some improvising to make everything work– we placed the kitchen table in the middle of the living room and extended it with a desk so there would be enough space for six people around it, plus we used disposal plates placed over actual dinner plates (a brilliant move in a place that doesn’t have a dishwasher).

On Christmas Eve we ate a traditional Finnish Christmas dinner prepared by J’s mother and father, starting with the fish course, which I think I may enjoy more than the traditional Finnish Christmas kinkku (ham). Of course there was ham too, accompanied by all the traditional puree casseroles– carrot, potato, and rutabaga (the rutabaga is my favorite– it’s slightly sweetened with dark syrup).

Dinner on Christmas Eve was followed by some clean-up, which I didn’t mind because when were at J’s house for Christmas his parents insisted on doing almost everything. This time cleaning up and washing the dishes was much more of a group effort, and I was happy that his parents were relieved of that burden this year. After-dinner clean-up was followed by an apple crisp with vanilla ice cream (I forgot to take a picture), opening gifts, plenty of wine, and even singing some Christmas songs (as her two sons refuse to join in any singing, I think J’s mother was thrilled that me and her other son’s girlfriend were more than happy to participate :-)).

Can’t forget about Christmas candy!

Christmas Day was definitely the most stressful day for me, as I was serving my first-ever Christmas dinner to a group of people who weren’t familiar with all the dishes being served, as it was supposed to be a traditional American holiday dinner. I remained mostly confident, but it was hard to silence some worries– what if the food doesn’t taste good? We all ate so much yesterday– what if nobody is hungry enough to eat my food?

Biscuits baking and turkey in its serving dish.

I made as many things in advance as possible. The buttermilk biscuits and pumpkin pie were waiting in the freezer, and I baked the mushroom stuffing in the morning before heading over to the apartment where J’s family was staying. While the stuffing baked I ran to the store in my pajamas to buy whipped cream– I couldn’t serve my pumpkin pie without whipped cream!

Overall the plan I’d made worked out wonderfully (timing is one of the hardest things for me when it comes to making a meal, so I was pretty proud of myself!). J helped me with some of the trickier things– making sure the turkey was done, carving the meat, skimming the fat off the drippings, and making gravy. We were both so busy in the kitchen that there aren’t many pictures of our prep.

Yummy mushroom stuffing!

I forgot to mention that I added something to the menu that I published the other day, or actually J added something. I mentioned that maybe the meal needed some kind of salad and he said, “How about cole slaw?” I loved the idea! Although cole slaw is kind of a summery salad, I felt it was a crispy, refreshing addition to the holiday meal (plus it’s so easy to make!).

This post is getting really long, so I should just get to the point– my Finnish audience LOVED the American meal. I had made printed menus that included the name of each dish in English and in Finnish, which everyone seemed to like. J and I had made up some of the names, since the dishes don’t actually exist in Finnish (for example, stuffing was leipälaatikko). Everyone tried everything that was on the table, which is of course polite, but it was only when people started taking seconds that I was really convinced that they liked it ;-). The biggest hits were probably the stuffing and the cole slaw (I think those were my favorites too!). I was so pleased that my first holiday dinner attempt went so well, and I couldn’t have prepared it for a warmer and more receptive crowd :-).

Plates have been emptied, glasses have been filled.

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It’s Christmas Eve…

… and we are just starting our three days of Christmas feasts, featuring Finnish, American and Estonian Christmas specialties. I hope everyone has a safe, peaceful and enjoyable holiday. Eat, drink, and enjoy the company of those around you while also thinking about those who aren’t near you this Christmas. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

Merry Christmas! Häid jõulupühi! Hyvää joulua!

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Christmas has begun

J’s family arrived in Tallinn on Tuesday, so for us Christmas pretty much started then (even though I still had to work Wednesday and Thursday this week).  J’s mother had bought me a little gift on the ferry they took from Helsinki to Tallinn:

They’re freeze-dried strawberries covered in yogurt and chocolate. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but I think they’re going to be amazing! I love that she saw the strawberries and thought of me :-). Later on that same evening she asked me where my whole strawberry obsession came from (she knows about the blog). I blushed a little, as I do when I’m put on the spot, and said I don’t really know. She asked if it’s a long-running thing and I said yes, that one of my grandfathers (who passed when I was very young) had called me “Marika Maasikas” and maybe it started from that. I’m still shy when talking about the blog, but at the same time it’s awesome that my future mother-in-law (feels so funny to type that!) knows about my blog, understands why I take lots of pictures of food, and tries to understand why I like the things I like. Even though we can’t converse on the level that I would like to (my spoken Finnish is very elementary), I feel that she “gets” me. She’s always asking me questions about myself, not just related to the blog or to food (although she knows that asking me any question about food will get me talking, regardless of my awkward Finnish!), but about work, family, life in general. I can safely say that the mothers of some of my ex-boyfriends (with whom I was able to speak easily, in English) did not ask me as much about myself as J’s mother does. And that’s nice, those questions that let you know that somebody is interested and truly wants to know more about you. While it can get frustrating not being able to talk and express myself in the exact way I’d like to, sensing that J’s mother knows who I am (and likes me!) in spite of that feels really great.

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A family specialty

J and I started our holiday baking last weekend when we undertook making pukki. Pukki means “goat” in Finnish and it’s also a special cardamom-scented, goat-shaped bread that J’s family makes at Christmastime. We ate several of them when we were in Finland last year for Christmas and somehow I never photographed one, so they didn’t make it into my Christmas recaps. Usually J’s father makes them, but since we’re hosting this year we thought we should do it. J also has his own pukki cutter, which his family has specially made.

Pukki are made with a sweet yeast dough flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron. I don’t think J had any idea how much saffron costs until we went to the shop to get our ingredients (the 1/2 gram pack cost 88 Estonian kroons, or over 5 euros!).

After rising for an hour, the dough was rolled out, cut into the appropriate shape, and then basted with egg yolk. Unfortunately we weren’t baking in our home kitchen so I didn’t have a pastry brush and had to spread the egg yolk on with a fork, which ultimately led to rather patchy browning. Then some raisins are pressed into each “goat”– one for the eye, and three along the body.

The ideal pukki — like the ones we had last year, made by J’s dad — is still soft and very nearly doughy on the inside (and you know I love doughiness!). We watched them closely while baking, so I’m praying we didn’t overbake them and that ours still have that lovely soft center. We won’t really know for sure until we pull a few out of the freezer and reheat them for breakfast or dessert with J’s family (who arrive tomorrow!!). Here’s hoping!

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