Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Sure Thing

Remember when we were young, and winter nestled in around us with all the promise of the holidays, and home seemed extra homey, and family seemed extra family-ly, and more than any other time of the year, the world seemed full of magic? And for those of us who did the Christmas tree thing, the tree was chosen with much fanfare and affection, and decorated with inspiration accompanied by carols and egg nog, and every night I'd fall asleep with the lights twinkling, and an extra warm glow in my belly, and it was like the holidays tucked me in with a blanket of happiness. It all truly felt so effortless, and magical, and just kind of... miraculous.

It turns out, it wasn't that effortless, or magical, and the miracle was actually my mom, who was, unbeknownst to me, sewing and baking and planning and sweating and cursing and toiling through the night with the relentless pressure to make sure every friggin' moment was HAPPY and FESTIVE, and PERFECT. And I know this now, because I am now on the other side of the holiday,  stressing and toiling and cursing so that it can all feel effortless and magical and miraculous to my own sweet 5-year-old daughter, who deserves to feel the magic of my own childhood that I am trying so desperately to replicate.

And all that effort is fine. The hard work is rewarding. With every smile and reaction and excitement over each decoration and activity and cookie, it's WORTH it. The effort and toil is not the problem.

The problem is that I can't let go of my childhood expectation of it. I want to have it both ways: to be the one making the magic, but for it to somehow still feel magical to me.

I have grand home movies in my head projecting how it should be: tonight was to be our Perfect Tree Decorating Night. The official beginning of the Christmas spectacular that will be our home for the next month. And in the movie in my head, I would pick up Bay from school, and head home to the perfect Christmas tree that was delivered to our front door from its sustainable Oregon farm, as scheduled, planned efficiently and mindfully by me more than a month ago. I had lugged out all the giant boxes of decorations late last night in preparation for this. My enthusiastic boyfriend was to meet us at the door with mistletoe, and the evening would begin with us setting up our perfectly straight tree in its place by the window, would crescendo with the three of us placing the star gloriously on the top, and would end with the three of us snuggled by the fire with hot cocoa, bellies full of love and the twinkle lights dancing in our merry eyes.

The problem is, that's the magic version. Instead, of course, it went like this:

Come home, no tree waiting for us. Call tree delivery. Am given excuses and promises to be there in an hour. Which means I'll have only one hour after the tree arrives before Bailey needs to be in bed.  I re-strategize. We'll be efficient and she'll go to bed half an hour late. Fine, I can handle that.

Make nutritious, delicious dinner for Bay, which she rejects, crying and complaining that she doesn't like it. Make much less nutritious dinner for Bay of fish sticks and ketchup, which she gobbles up. Sigh. Fine.

Receive text from boyfriend saying he's stuck at work, won't make it home in time, we'll have to decorate without him.  Stomach drops. Fine...

7.5-foot tree arrives at front door. YAY!!! It's on me to get it inside. BOO!!! I try to hoist the tree awkwardly to my hip, my hair getting stuck in the sap, fumble until I am somehow using my groin to support the tree, which I'm sure is not proper form, and knock over basically everything in my living room while creating a carpet of pine needles (how can it have so many needles??? How???), and somehow get it to the stand by the window and realize I now have to stand it up - straight - in the stand by myself. I do it. It takes 15 tries. It's crooked. I'm sweating. But it's fine. So... fine.

I turn on Christmas carols. Bay "helps" me with the lights, which is slowing down my perfect plan for efficiency in our race against the bedtime clock, so I re-direct her to start choosing her favorite decorations. She squeals as she recognizes favorite ornaments from last year. She holds up her favorite, a beautiful, delicate, all-glass "B" and immediately drops it, shattering it all over the floor. She sobs. I console. We find a new ornament to be excited about. She is fine. I am fine. Everything is fine.

I try desperately not to let her absorb any of my angst as I slap ornaments on the tree at a frenzied pace, haphazardly throwing them at the branches and letting them hang where they land, pine needles now sticking sharply to the sap in my hair. No matter how many ornaments I hang, the tree still looks naked. The tree is eating my ornaments. Decorating a giant Christmas Tree mostly by yourself is not any fun! Why does anyone do this? I contemplate fake trees. I contemplate no trees ever again. I contemplate ways to get the sap out of my hair. I'm NOT fine.

But, then, magic.

Bailey has (understandably) lost all interest in this tedious process and has changed into a fancy dress and is performing a pas de deux with a life-size nutcracker. Willie Nelson's voice twangs out an old-fashioned carol from the speakers, as if he is in our living room with his guitar, singing only to us, reminding us how simple it is to find joy. Bailey spins and twirls and curtseys and declares with earnest delight that this is the Best Christmas Party Ever. We stand back and look at our crooked, maniacally-decorated tree, and it is beautiful. And it is magic. And it feels like a miracle. And I forget the sap and effort as I tuck her into bed, only half-an-hour past her bedtime, and I read her three favorite Christmas stories and watch her fall asleep in the glow of the twinkle lights we put up in her room.

And for a moment, all that exists is the magic. None of the stress mattered, because Bay was tucked in with a blanket of happiness tonight, and will wake up in the morning to a twinkling tree. And I am really and truly fine.

Until I walk back out into the living room and face the pine needles on every square inch of surface, the dishes from making two dinners, the boxes that need to get stored back in the garage, the sap still stuck in my hair. I have miles to go before I sleep.

And I know I could have done better. Maybe if I didn't expect so much. Maybe if I had more time, or more help. Maybe if I didn't pressure myself for it to be magical.

More and more these days, I feel let down. It's as though at my age I have the audacity to presume to have things figured out by now, and am daily reminded that I, in fact, do not. On any given day, I guess I'm lucky if a few things go according to plan.

So when I find a sure thing, I cling to it like it's magic.

And when that magic comes in the form of a pumpkin stuffed with bread, cheese, bacon, apples and cream, and is fairly effortless, it's a miracle.

This recipe is not a well-kept secret. It's got a nearly cult following at this point. I have been making it for the last four years, multiple times throughout the holidays. It comes from Dorie Greenspan, who is as reliable a recipe-writer as there is. Even the title of it is perfect:

Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good.

Isn't that magic?

This is not so much a recipe as a method. Really, the idea is simple - hollow out a pumpkin (or, as I prefer, a kabocha), use the squash as an edible vessel for cooking anything you think is delicious, pop it all in the oven for a couple hours, and then eat the miracle you created.

I've done too many versions to count - rice and chorizo with greens, cornbread and sausage, anything you can dream up would probably be delicious. But I find that the original concept is the best, with a few important tweaks.

I overwhelmingly prefer kabocha squash to pumpkin. It is so much more flavorful, and has such a creamy, silky consistency, that Pumpkin seems like it's stringy, watery cousin. (Kabochas are sometimes labeled as "Japanese Pumpkins" and where I live can be found in every market, including Trader Joe's and major chains.)

I have also added apples to the recipe, have upped the bacon a bit, and prefer sourdough bread and smoked melty cheeses - I think the sweetness of the squash goes so well with any smokiness you can add. I pair this with a green salad with persimmons and pomegranate seeds and a light vinaigrette, since the stuffing itself is a bit decadent.

This is a very simple recipe. It requires little effort, offers tons of reward, and tastes magical. It's a sure thing, and during this time of year, I'll take as many sure things as I can get.

May we all get through this season together, and remember that making things magical is actually pretty simple when you let go of expectations.

Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

  • 1 3-4 lb. Kabocha Squash 
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 lb. stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I like sourdough or La Brea Roasted Garlic. Slice it and leave it out overnight, or chunk it up and put it in 200 degree oven for about 30 minutes to make it stale.)
  • 1/4 lb. cheese, such as Gruy√®re, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I love doing smoked cheddar if you can find it, and gruyere)
  • 2 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2-inch chunks 
  • 5 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
  • About 1/3 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
  • 1 Tbs. minced fresh thyme
  • About 1/3 - 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet or casserole dish with a silicone baking mat or parchment, or find a Dutch oven with a diameter that's just a tiny bit larger than your pumpkin. 
Using a very sturdy knife - and caution - cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween Jack-o-Lantern). It's easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin GENEROUSLY with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot (this is your chance to season the actual squash itself, so be diligent).
Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, apples and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper - you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure - and pack the mix into the pumpkin. I pack it in pretty good and tight. The pumpkin should be well filled - you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little - you don't want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (It's hard to go wrong here - if it feels like it’s pooling at the top, it will eventually make its way down. You don't want your stuffing to be dry, so don't be shy.)
Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 - 2.5 hours, depending on size of squsah - check after 90 minutes - or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little.
When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully - it's heavy, hot, and wobbly - bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.
To serve, you have a choice - you can either slice the pumpkin and serve pieces like a pie, you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful, or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I'm a fan of the slice option, so that each person at your table can eat it as they please. 


  1. Can't wait to try this Sara, I'm a lover of pumpkin, actually all squashes. This sounds delicious and homey. I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels the stress of making everything perfect for my little Finnian. Merry Christmas to you all!!

  2. Can't wait to try this Sara, I'm a lover of pumpkin, actually all squashes. This sounds delicious and homey. I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels the stress of making everything perfect for my little Finnian. Merry Christmas to you all!!