Hallmark Movies, Pt. II / Tomato Soup

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This week’s recipe: Tomato Soup

Now that Christmas Eve approaches, it’s time to wrap up our first annual review of the Hallmark Channel’s 2017 Christmas movie offerings. Enjoy!

The Sweetest Christmas

Our heroine is the reigning Hallmark Channel Christmas Princess Lacey Chabert (Candace Cameron Bure being Queen), a down-on-her-luck baker who lives with her sister while she is semi-unemployed. She attended culinary school (presumably at Le Cordon Bleu, the only cooking school the Hallmark Channel has ever heard of) and has registered the domain name KyliesKakes.Kom (KKK) in an attempt to get a business off the ground. Luckily, her boyfriend Alex hired her as a temp receptionist at his company. Her sister literally calls Alex “Mr. Business,” and he indeed looks like a businessman, in that he appears to be at least in his mid-50s and makes appropriately dad-like puns such as sleigh/slay. One night, when Kylie expects him to propose, he takes her to a restaurant that turns out to be owned by Nick, Kylie’s prom date. Kylie looks like she went to prom five years ago; Alex looks like he went to prom in 1952. Seriously, dude is old. “You have filled gaps that I didn’t even know existed,” Alex says to Kylie. “I wanna give you a role I didn’t think anyone would ever be able to fill.” PSYCH despite all that filthy innuendo, that role is office manager. Sex tonight will be awkward. Kylie breaks it off with Alex, who apparently didn’t realize that a romantic dinner with champagne and rose petals on the table would not appear to be a set up for a work promotion.  Things are looking down for poor Kylie until a piece of mail informs her that she is a semi-finalist for the American Gingerbread Competition! Wow! Only wait, her sister’s dumb kids have destroyed the oven! Shoot!

Even though winning the competition means EVERYTHING to her and would CHANGE her LIFE and allow her CAKE BUSINESS to TAKE OFF, she is unwilling to ask her neighbors for the use of their ovens. Turns out the only person she can ask is Nick, who is happy to sacrifice one of his restaurant’s ovens to Kylie for a week. They get along swimmingly and it appears that there will be literally no conflict. But then she and Nick’s black friend go shopping at some sort of members-only restaurant supply store and the black friend warns her that he won’t allow her to break Nick’s heart again. Apparently they dated in college, but then Nick’s mom died…ON CHRISTMAS??? and Kylie broke up with him because that’s the supportive thing to do.

Alex stalks Kylie to a Christmas tree stand where he offers to sponsor her entry into the gingerbread competition, “since all of the other semi-finalists will have big corporate sponsors.” Sure. Anyway, Kylie declines, and at Kylie’s big company Christmas party, Alex becomes jealous when Nick saves the day by providing the food when the caterers flake out. “Why is she so into this guy?” he complains. “Is it because they both like cooking? Is it because neither of them remembers the Kennedy assassination?” But Nick and Kylie continue to grow closer, especially when she very romantically burns herself on a cookie sheet, which leads them to go outside (the medically accepted treatment for a burn) and have a classic Hallmark Spontaneous Snowball Fight. There’s trouble in paradise when they discover that a celebrity chef known as the Godmother of Gingerbread, Ina Bruckner, has entered the gingerbread competition (headline in the newspaper, page 1, above the fold: “LOCAL GINGERBREAD CONTEST ATTRACTS CELEBRITY CHEF.” I thought that this was the American Gingerbread Competition but apparently by “local” they mean “in America.”) Fortunately, Kylie makes it to the semi-finals, but it turns out that Ina is being sponsored by Alex’s company! Dick move, Alex.

Nick and Kylie fight because Nick says that Kylie is just imitating Ina’s style, and she needs to, like, be herself, man. There’s a lot of unnecessary tzuris that made Mark think that maybe Kylie was on her time of the month, and things look doomed. Fortunately, Black Friend swoops in to save the day and explain to Nick that, ACTUALLY, he loves Kylie and should go after her. Such a wise Black Friend! But Kylie comes across Alex and Ina prepping their competition entry, and it turns out that Alex hired Ina so that she could make this insanely elaborate gingerbread house-related proposal for Kylie. It’s actually really romantic and made me wonder if actually Kylie should have been with him the whole time. But then Nick shows up (I have no idea where they are, by the way) and sees Alex down on one knee proposing to Kylie, so he storms off in a classic Hallmark Misunderstanding Moment. When she tries to explain to him that she doesn’t want to be with Alex, he refuses to take yes for an answer, because you gotta have conflict. Again, Black Friend swoops in to save the day and is just like, “Dude, Kylie, just communicate for once.” Kylie interprets this as “I need to communicate with him…through gingerbread.” She decides to totally redo her entry in 12 hours, and secures some primo cocaine to get herself through the night. You can tell how hard she’s been working because she has an artfully placed smudge of icing (or is it cocaine?) on her otherwise perfectly made-up face. She WOWS the judges with a gingerbread carousel and wins the competition! Who could have seen it coming? And the icing smudge even magically disappears between shots. All is forgiven between Kylie and Nick, but no one knows what happened to Ina Bruckner, who was humiliated in the competition against an amateur baker and whose client didn’t even get his girl. I assume she threw herself in the river.

BTW here is a review of this movie from IMDB:

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I think that says it all.

Finding Santa

This film was QUALITY. It stars Jodie Sweetin, the least famous Tanner sister from Full House; the most important Full House cast member in the Hallmark Channel stable after Candace Cameron Bure and Lori Loughlin; and the Full House actress who was most addicted to meth. She plays Grace, who runs a year-round Christmas store–a sound business model if there ever was one. But it makes sense because the town of Green River’s entire economy revolves around the annual Christmas parade, which is going to be featured on THE NEWS!

A man named Tom plays Santa in the Christmas parade, and also runs a successful school to train other Santas (just go with it). But then Tom takes a nasty fall, which means he can’t be in the parade, because apparently having a cast on your arm renders you incapable of sitting on a float for an hour. Grace tries to find a substitute, but apparently Tom’s Santa School doesn’t do a very good job at training Santas, because all of the applicants are comically awful. One of them is the town mayor’s idiot son, who looks like a pervert and assumes that the job is his for the taking. Seriously, I don’t understand why being Santa is considered such a difficult job: just find a slightly overweight guy, stick him in a red suit and fake beard, and have him say, “Ho ho ho, merry Christmas.” It’s not exactly rocket science. But Grace is despairing of ever finding a substitute when Tom tells her that he has a son, Ben, who could save the day. Unfortunately, Ben lives in Boston and has no desire to be Santa, so naturally, Grace decides to drive to Boston to stalk and harass him until he gives in. Because again, there is only one man between Connecticut and Boston who is possibly capable of putting on a red suit etc., and that man is young and fit, just like Santa Claus. The lady from THE NEWS is putting pressure on Grace to find a new Santa, so she lies and says that Ben agreed even though he emphatically did not. See, Ben is working on a novel, and doesn’t have the time to drive to Green River and sit on a parade float. It seems like a pretty thin excuse for not helping out your dad and your hometown in their hour of need. Still, we know that Ben is a good guy because he gives his coffee to a homeless man. Character development!

When not working on his Very Important Novel, Ben is an Uber driver, and so Grace very cleverly requests an Uber ride to the train station (even though she took her car to Boston) and gets paired with him. But then she changes the destination to Green River, and his resistance cannot stand in the face of this genius gambit. Ben reunites with his dad, but is all like, “I DON’T WANT TO BE YOU, DAD. I DON’T WANT TO BE SANTA. IT’S TOO MUCH PRESSURE.” Sheesh, this is how he reacts to being asked to play Santa in a parade for a couple of hours? I hope this guy never gets sent to war. He decides to go back to Boston in the morning, and Grace goes with him, since she needs to pick up her car.

They get stuck in a snowstorm on the way back to Boston and have to crash at Grace’s friend’s house, where Ben unexpectedly gets into the Christmas spirit. “Who’s the lumberjack?” he asks Grace upon Googling (I mean searchenGine-ing her) and seeing a photo of her and a man in a suit with a short beard. Turns out it’s her ex, and then they start talking about their dreams. Grace was an art student until her parents died…ON CHRISTMAS??? When the kids are disappointed about not being able to go to the mall to see Santa, Ben dresses up as Santa and promises them that their parents will, uh, produce for them a new baby brother. They drive to Green River, where Tom is trying to train the mayor’s idiot son how to say “Ho ho ho.” Literally. The dude is incapable of saying “Ho ho ho.” Grace and Ben going to an ugly sweater party, where Ben once AGAIN is infected with the Christmas spirit! Is there an antidote? Anyway, Ben decides that it would be a travesty to “let [the mayor’s idiot son] on a sleigh” and finally agrees to be Santa in the parade. But then Ben overhears Grace tell someone that she’d do anything to protect her legacy (i.e. the parade) and thinks it means she is faking feelings for him. It is truly one of the dumbest Hallmark Misunderstanding Moments of all time. Ben accuses Grace of messing with him because she’s unhappy with her own life and never followed her dreams.

“I WANT YOU TO BE PROUD OF ME, DAD, EVEN IF I’M NOT SANTA CLAUS,” Ben weeps. But Tom admits that he should just let Ben do whatever allows him to “find his jolly” (the motto of Tom’s Santa school) and they hug and cry like a bunch of dumb homos. Meanwhile, Grace’s friend with the weird hair agrees with Ben that Grace doesn’t actually want to devote her life to a year-round Christmas store and should instead follow her dreamz. Moving on…will Ben show up at the parade, or will the mayor’s idiot son have to be Santa and RUIN the whole parade/the town’s whole economy? Again again, it’s so weird that the only choices in the whole town are Ben, scion of Santa, or the mayor’s idiot son, an idiot. Luckily, Ben sees one of Grace’s paintings (actually just some photograph she painted over) and is inspired to take over, saving the town’s bacon in a montage set to a truly terrible Christmas pop song. At first it seems like he’s ignoring Grace, but it turns out that he just can’t break character when he’s in the Santa suit. Duh! Ben’s presence in the parade has convinced him that he should somehow find a way to be Santa AND a writer. Can he possibly pull off being Santa one day a year and a writer the other 364? Luckily, he has found an illustrator in Grace, who is going to be a Christmas shop manager AND an artist. Truly, you can have it all if you just try!

So anyway, here’s some soup. This is the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night that is so deep. You can make the whole thing in about 20 minutes and serve it, as I did, with grilled cheese, and blam, complete meal. I found that I didn’t need to put in the baking soda but your mileage may vary.

Tomato Soup

From Killing Thyme

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 rib of celery, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 3 14 oz cans of diced to crushed tomatoes, including juice
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 2/3 cups heavy cream
  • 2-3 tsp sugar, to taste
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt, more to taste if needed
  • Cracked black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda, to cut acidity

Instructions

  1. In a stock pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, and smashed garlic. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent—about 5 minutes.

  2. Add the tomatoes as well as their juices, vegetable broth, heavy cream, sugar, oregano, salt, and pepper. Bring the soup to a rolling boil over high heat and break up the tomatoes with a spoon or spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes.

  3. Carefully transfer the soup mixture to a powerful blender or food processor (you’ll have to do this in batches), and blend until velvety smooth. Once all the soup is smooth, return it to its original stock pot. Taste and adjust seasoning. If you find the soup on the acidic side, bring it to a simmer, add the baking soda, and wait for it to foam and fizzle. Stir it, and let it simmer for about five minutes. Taste. You should have a smoother and much less acidic flavor now.

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Hallmark Movies, Pt. I / Fried Chicken

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This week’s recipe: Fried Chicken

It’s the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas–the most wonderful time of the yeeeeear! Since it starts in late October, the most wonderful ten weeks of the yeeeeear! Mark and I are connoisseurs of the Hallmark Channel, and I use that word without irony or exaggeration. We LOVE this shit, and the Christmas movies are the best of all. We created a whole website that generates plots to Hallmark Christmas movies. But every year, Hallmark churns out a new crop of wholesome, heartwarming, formulaic movies, generally starring the same five or ten people, and Mark and I watch EVERY ONE of them. You might think I’m exaggerating but I’m not. When we go through the channel listings to pick which movies to DVR, we say, “Seen that one, seen that one, seen that one.” It’s frankly a little pathetic, so thank God for Hallmark’s original content. Here are some of this year’s fine offerings:

Enchanted Christmas

This movie stars Alexa PenaVega, previously best known for starring in Spy Kids. It also stars someone named Carlos PenaVega, whom I immediately assumed was Alexa PenaVega’s brother and was VERY concerned that they were love interests. They are, in fact, love interests, but Carlos is Alexa’s husband and they have some sort of Christian lifestyle blogger racket going on, so all’s well that ends well. Anyway, Alexa PV plays Laura, a former dancer and single mom whose husband died…ON CHRISTMAS??? Alexa PV is 29 and the girl who plays her daughter is rapidly coming up on 11 so I guess Laura was a teen mom, but it’s okay because her daughter, Nikki, retains a childlike belief in Santa that makes her seem much younger mentally than she is physically. Laura is dating a coworker, Scott, who you know is a douche because he wears a suit and doesn’t know that Laura can dance. Also, he keeps bringing up her dead husband, which is a pretty douchey move, to be fair. Laura and Nikki are headed to Utah to save the old Enchanted Lodge hotel for in time for the big Christmas Eve show. Nikki spends the whole drive to Utah, and much of the movie, bitching about how it’s not snowing, even though she hails from LA. (NB: I went to the Hallmark Web site to check on a few things, because this blog is nothing if not rigorously fact-checked, and they claim that the movie is supposed to take place in New Mexico, not Utah, which would make the fixation with snow even more confusing. But IMDB and business.utah.gov claim that it takes place in Utah, as does my memory. Take that as you will.) 

At the hotel, Laura runs into Ricardo (Carlos PV), her ex-boyfriend and former dance partner. You know that they still have feelings for each other because they both have the same framed photo of the two of them in their houses. Ricardo is a dance teacher but, when Nikki expresses interest in dancing in the Christmas show, Laura intimates that something very dark happened to her when she started dancing. What could it be? Did she take to the pole? Despite Laura’s pastor-from-Footlose-esque objections, Nikki begins dancing at Ricardo’s studio, leading to the classic line, “Let’s do it with antlers!” (when the young dancers put on their reindeer headbands). You will be very surprised to hear that Laura also get mixed up in the devil’s dancing when Ricardo’s partner leaves to audition for some world tour and Laura has to take over. Luckily, even though she hasn’t danced in years, she has brought many dancer’s outfits with her to Utah. This move has basically the same plot as Dirty Dancing, only with 100 percent less social consciousness, Jews, and abortion. Spoiler: they even try and fail to recreate the magic of the famous Dirty Dancing lift. Carlos PV, you’re no Patrick Swayze.

Trouble arrives with douchey Scott; when he texts her, his face shows up beside his message because no way do you remember who he is. Turns out Laura is in trouble at work, probably 
because she literally never does her job, which is to remodel the Enchanted Lodge in time for Christmas. She is too busy dancing and going on a badly green screened ski lift. When Scott stabs her in the back, she realizes the relationship is over, but there’s more conflict yet! Turns out that Ricardo’s partner got the “lead role in a two-year world tour,” but they will only take her if Ricardo dances with her, even though he didn’t audition and they’ve never seen him dance. The conflict gets resolved in some way that I can’t remember, and Laura gets hired as the new general manager of the Enchanted Lodge, because of her extensive experience in…dancing? Construction? The last shot of the movie is amazing–Laura and Ricardo kiss in the snow and then freeze, but the snow keeps falling. Their love defies the laws of physics!

Coming Home for Christmas

This movie stars a Hallmark channel stalwart, Danica McKellar of The Wonder Years. She seems to specialize in playing some variety of household servant to a rich/royal family who eventually gets with whatever single heir is available, and Coming Home for Christmas fits the mold. Even for a Hallmark movie, this has a crapton of exposition crammed into the first 90 seconds under the guise of “Wow, what a year it’s been!” We learn that McKellar’s character Lizzie works in insurance; that her company went under; that she rejected a proposal from her boyfriend; that she studied art history; that she fears that she’s overly complacent; and that her dad died…ON CHRISTMAS??? Lizzie’s sister Meghan has been hired by the Marley family to sell their historic estate. Meghan insists that because Lizzie worked in insurance, she is fully qualified to become the house manager of a historic estate. There is a theme in Hallmark movies of people getting jobs for which they have no experience and are totally unqualified. If I were the family that hired Meghan, I’d fire and then sue her for nepotism.

Lizzie shows up at the Marley estate, and you can tell that the butler is NOT amused to be answering to this woman. She has been hired without a job interview; instead, she has a cursory meeting with Robert, the scion of the Marley family in charge of selling the estate. He says that he trusts Meghan’s word on any transaction (he shouldn’t), and Lizzie asks, “So I’m a transaction?” If this were a different kind of channel, this would be the prelude to a Fifty Shades of Grey-type relationship, but instead, it becomes a boring investigation into why Robert (Bob) Marley and his family don’t like Christmas. One possibility: Robert’s parents died in a car accident…ON CHRISTMAS??? But the true answer lies with family matriarch Miss Pippa. Black friend and Folgers product placement vehicle Anna warns Lizzie to stay away from Pippa, who is not played by Shirley Maclaine, but Lizzie’s can-do spirit and lack of professional boundaries lead her to pester the old woman with her ideas about the annual Christmas gala, which Lizzie is also in charge of planning due to her extensive experience in insurance. Maybe it’s just because I work in Development, but I find the idea of just starting to work on a Christmas gala in December to be horrifying. Anyway, Pippa is a major bitch, asking Lizzie, “Why aren’t you married? You’re in your thirties, no?”, officially making this a hostile work environment.

Robert’s playboy brother Kip arrives and immediately starts hitting on Lizzie. Robert feels possessive even though he has evinced no more than a professional interest in her, and he is upset when the two start planning the gala together. I don’t know why he is so upset when she and Kip go to a gala-related business meeting; personally, I always wear short, skintight dresses with cleavage ovals to business meetings. There is much friction between Kip and Robert; at one point, Kip says, “Robert, you may be the executor of the estate, but you’re not the executor of me.” I’m going to keep that line in my back pocket. The friction increases when their sister Sloane arrives with her kids. Sloane’s husband isn’t there because he’s unemployed and they’ve had to…gasp…dip into her trust fund. The problems of real Americans! The family starts to scheme on how to improve Sloane’s relationship. “Don’t look now, but you’re kind of acting like a typical family,” Lizzie tells the Marleys. “You’re fired,” says Pippa. Just kidding, they all laugh and act like that’s a totally normal thing for an employee to say.

There is chopping down of Christmas trees, snowball fights with blond moppets, and a gingerbread-building house activity becomes a dick-measuring competition for Robert and Kip. There is a pond on the estate that is the focus of much conversation but we never get to see it; guess it wasn’t in the budget. Pippa goes from basically ignoring Lizzie’s existence to lending her a diamond necklace and counting her as a family member in the space of a few days. She’s a tough nut to crack, indeed. Lizzie is going to attend the gala but feels torn between Kip and Robert. If she were open to threesomes it would solve a lot of her problems. At the gala, there’s a classic Hallmark Misunderstanding Moment: Robert overhears Lizzie telling Kip that she’d love to go to Athens with him…and walks away right before she says “but I can’t.” The conflict gets resolved in some way I can’t remember, Kip concedes Lizzie to Robert, and she presumably becomes a lady of leisure while dicking over her sister, who now doesn’t get the commission on the Marley estate.

With Love, Christmas

Our heroine Melanie works for an advertising agency, where she has been sacrificing her professional development because she has a crush on a coworker, Donavan, who stole the big Christmas-related account. The account is for a cellphone company that…also is a Christmas company? Whatever. Donavan doesn’t “get” them (I don’t either) and he seems to be in trouble at work.

Meanwhile, the office Secret Santa pool is going on, and Melanie gets assigned Donovan. She has to get him a gift under $50, which seems like a lot of money for an office Secret Santa gift, but whatever. She doesn’t know what to get him, so she sends him an email from an anonymous account asking him what his favorite things are. Maybe it’s just the times we’re living in but this seems like a surefire way to get sexually harassed, but instead, Donavan writes back that he’s too busy for this nonsense and she should just get him a tie. I don’t see what Melanie sees in this guy, who she has admitted she knows nothing about and who has thus far revealed himself to be quite a dick. Anyway, after Donovan bombed the big Christmas cellphone account, the boss, Mr. Farnsworth, teams him up with Melanie. They clash because she thinks Christmas ought to be about warmth and he is some sort of business robot. He is genuinely semi-autistic. Every time Melanie is like, “Christmas is all about love and family and wonder,” he is like, “No, it is about commerce.” But SURPRISE he has Melanie as his Secret Santa too! Who could have seen it coming? (Mark and I saw it coming.) And OTHER SURPRISE he didn’t have any good Christmas memories from childhood, which is why he hates Christmas. Melanie decides to teach Donovan about Christmas by feeding him cookies (he doesn’t eat sugar, because he is terrible) and forcing him to listen to carolers. Shockingly, neither of these convert him to Christmas-loving. Still, when we see Donavan at home, his bookshelf is festooned with paper snowflakes and little Santa hats. So who knows what that’s about.

Melanie convinces Donavan to come to her sister’s house for dinner, where they get to witness some truly terrible child acting from Melanie’s nephew, who presses his shitty snowman art on Donavan. The snowman art awakens a love of family and the Christmas spirit in Donavan, and he starts getting into the back-and-forth with his Secret Santa over email. “He has a sense of humor!” Melanie says of Donavan, on no evidence whatsoever. Although Donovan is notoriously distant and closed off, he opens up to his Secret Santa after 48 whole hours. Things seem to being going swimmingly until Mr. Farnsworth tells Melanie that she’ll be competing against Donovan for the Big Promotion, which will be announced at the Christmas party. Never mind discussing salary and benefits and responsibilities and anything else that might go along with a promotion; it will simply be announced like the winner of Miss America. Farnsworth tells Donovan that he ought to be more social at work in order to get the promotion, so he attends an after-hours work outing at a heavily greenscreened ice skating rink that is randomly studded with Christmas trees. (You never see his and Melanie’s faces while they skate; Mark is convinced that the actor who plays Donovan is afraid of skating and they were using a body double.)

Donavan reveals to his Secret Santa via email that his mom died…ON CHRISTMAS??? No, actually, she died on Christmas, and his dad was a violent alcoholic never much for holidays. Meanwhile, sparks begin to fly between him and Melanie when he offers her his scarf (everyone in Hallmark Channel movies wears their coats unbuttoned and their scarves untied under the coat’s lapels, even when it’s snowing out). Despite all this, Donovan’s pitches continue to lack “heart,” and when he gets a call from his dad, we learn that his dad is a grumpy New York workaholic who wants to work through Christmas and avoid the crowds by Rockefeller Center Macy’s Times Square Grand Central who has no time for his son, since Donavan is not arguing any cases before the Supreme Court this year.

Donovan asks his Secret Santa if there are any Christmas traditions she’d like to try, and she writes that she’s never taken a horse-drawn sleigh ride. “Even I’ve taken a sleigh ride,” Donovan types, as if it’s as impossible to have an American childhood without a horse-drawn sleigh ride as it is to escape middle school without reading The Catcher in the Rye. He wants to meet his Secret Santa but Melanie freaks out because…reasons. You can tell that Donavan’s changed at this point because now he’s wearing a sweater instead of a suit (even though it’s the day of the big pitch meeting and he looks totally unprofessional), and he agrees to do the pitch together with Melanie instead of steamrolling her and her ideas as he did five minutes earlier. The cellphone company loves their pitch, which involves a little boy calling Santa on a cellphone to get his dad a snowblower or something. There’s a classic Hallmark Misunderstanding Moment when Donovan asks out another coworker who he thinks is his Secret Santa, but it quickly gets resolved in some way I can’t remember; Donovan’s dad says he’s proud of him; Melanie gets the big promotion; Melanie buys Donovan basketball tickets because basketball was how he used to bond with his dad; Donovan buys(?) Melanie a horse-drawn sleigh ride; both of them spend over $50 on their Secret Santa gifts; the girl whom Donovan had asked out slow-dances with Farnsworth; and everyone discovers the true meaning of Christmas.

So anyway, here’s some chicken. Turns out that, despite my love of Hallmark Christmas movies, I am Jewish (regular readers of this blog will be shocked to discover this fact). It’s Hanukkah right now, and despite the larger culture’s attempts to convince you otherwise, Hanukkah is NOT a holiday remotely on par with Christmas, in terms of either religious significance or general awesomeness. Hanukkah is a bullshit holiday that celebrates a bunch of religious zealots fighting a civil war on their secular counterparts, and it has been turned into something important and worthwhile solely because of its proximity to Christmas. However, I do appreciate its emphasis on fried foods. I have more of a sweet tooth than a…fried tooth? but I enjoy some fried shit occasionally as much as the next person. So I decided to take advantage of this holiday season to finally make a fried chicken recipe that’s been on my To Make list for almost a year. I made thighs only, because white meat is terrible, and they came out beautifully–crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside. Even though I used canola oil, which the (rather bossy) author of the recipe FORBIDS YOU TO DO, I’d still give this recipe high marks.

Fried Chicken

From Weed ‘Em and Reap

INGREDIENTS

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. In a medium size bowl, whisk together eggs, water, & hot sauce.
  2. In another bowl, combine the flour and spices.
  3. Dip the chicken in the egg, and then coat it in the flour/spice mixture.
  4. Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a deep pot.
  5. Fry the chicken in the oil until brown and crisp.
  6. (Dark meat takes about 14 minutes, while white meat takes about 10 minutes)

The Year of Ayn Rand / Mini Chocolate Souffles

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This week’s recipe: Mini Chocolate Souffles

I read Atlas Shrugged a few years ago. I have a lot of opinions on it, which I had been known to forcefully express on first dates with anyone who indicates libertarian leanings, but one of the things that makes it so unbearable to slog through is how totally cartoonish the characters are. This applies to the heroes, all of whom are physically flawless geniuses, but even more so to the villains. In addition to having telltale signs of moral decay such as “weak chins” and “piggy eyes,” they all espouse crazy, illogical ideas with no intellectual, historical, or moral basis. They don’t bother hiding these ideas behind spin or marketing or really any form of subtlety, which makes the characters and action read as truly unbelievable. But in 2017, the unbelievable has become the quotidian, and I think that some recent events would strain credulity even in an Ayn Rand book. I don’t mean that she’d necessarily disapprove of the political implications of the below; I just mean that even she might look at, say, the Roy Moore situation and say, “Hey, that’s a little too broad, maybe you should tone it down.” Imagine you encountered any of the following scenarios in an Ayn Rand book, and tell me if you wouldn’t think that her editors really should have reined her polemical side:

-A Bible-thumping former judge who was twice removed from the bench for flouting the law runs for Senate on a platform of law-and-order, adherence to the Constitution, and family values. Despite being accused of child molestation by multiple women, he still retains the support of evangelical “values voters.”

-A coal baron who was sent to prison for conspiring to commit mine safety violations following the nation’s biggest mining disaster runs for Senate in West Virginia by accusing the government of paying insufficient attention to mine safety.

-Legislators write a tax bill that eliminates the $250 deduction for teachers who buy school supplies out of their own pockets but retains a tax break for golf course owners.

-The man nominated to lead the Census Bureau once wrote a book with the subtitle “Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”

-The President’s lawyers argue that his own public statements can’t be taken as indication of his intent when trying to determine his intent in crafting executive orders, deciding to fire the FBI director, etc.

-The country suffers regular gun massacres, and Congress responds by making access to guns easier.

In other words, 2017 is garbage and needs to be over, stat.

So anyway, here’s a mini-cake/mini-souffle/mini-whatever you want to call it. Just don’t call it late for dinner! But if you are late for dinner, this is the perfect dessert. It comes together in no time, and you can just pop it into the oven 15 minutes before you need to serve it. Oh, and did I mention that it can be made pareve? It’s one of Mark’s favorites so I made it for his birthday dinner, and as always, it came out perfectly. Plus, I got to bake them in my cheery yellow mini-cocottes from Sur La Table and I will always take any opportunity to use them!

Mini Chocolate Souffles

From Kosher By Design: Short on Time by Susie Fishbein

Ingredients
4 ounces good-quality semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine
4 large eggs
1½ cups sugar, plus a little more for coating the ramekins
¾ cup flour
1 tsp. vanilla
Instructions
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Generously coat 8 (6.8 ounce) ramekins with nonstick cooking spray and lightly cot them with granulated sugar. Hold a ramekin on its side. Tap the sides, turning the ramekin to coat the sides with sugar as well. Repeat with remaining ramekins.
Break the chocolate into small pieces; place it and the butter in a small microwave-safe dish. Microwave on medium power for 15-second intervals, stirring between, until the chocolate is completely melted.
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, beat the eggs on high speed until foamy. Slowly pour in the sugar, and continue beating until very fluffy and pale yellow. On low speed, stir in the flour and vanilla, until thoroughly combined.
Increase speed to high, and while beating, slowly drizzle in the melted chocolate mixture. Once added, beat until all the chocolate is incorporated, about 1 minute.
For ease of pouring, transfer the batter into a large measuring cup. Fill each ramekin halfway. Set the ramekins onto a baking sheet and bake for 14-15 minutes, or until the tops are brown and the centers are warm.
Alternatively, the filled ramekins can be refrigerated. Just leave at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking.
Serve immediately, being careful because the ramekins are hot!

2017 Books, Pt. 2 / Butternut Squash, Apple, and Brie Galette

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This week’s recipe: Butternut Squash, Apple, and Brie Galette

A continuation of my wildly successful post, 2017 Books, Pt. I

The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin

Like many people, I watched and loved FX’s OJ Simpson series last year. I was seven years old when the trial happened, and my understanding of it was limited to referring to orange juice as “OJ Simpson” (even back then, I had a rare facility with words). So it was especially illuminating to learn about the characters involved, the racial issues at play, and how the prosecutors’ arrogance and incompetence managed to allow an obviously guilty man to go free. I like Jeffrey Toobin’s writing and wanted to read the book behind the series, and I wasn’t disappointed. The case was so nuts that it would have made for a fascinating read even in the hands of a less gifted writer, and Toobin was given a high level of access to many of the principals early on, in addition to being the one to discover Mark Furhman’s near-cartoonish racism.

How the defense managed to make OJ, who had explicitly disassociated himself with blackness early and often and who had a cozy relationship with the starstruck LAPD, into a stand-in for every black man who had ever been mistreated by law enforcement is to my mind the most compelling (and crazy-making) part of the story. But there are many resonances with today: Marcia Clark and how she embodied the burdens faced by working mothers; Barry Scheck and the trial’s role in the rise of DNA evidence; the victim blaming of Nicole Brown Simpson that managed to turn a victim of murder and domestic violence into a trashy, promiscuous gold digger; and the never-ending press circus surrounding celebrity behavior that, in a curious postscript that no one could have imagined at the time, has reached its apotheosis in the children of OJ’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian. The facts of the case itself were obvious, and should have been a slam dunk. The Run of His Life is valuable not for shedding any new light on those facts, but for its forensic explanation of why the slam dunk wasn’t.

Stalin, Volume I by Stephen Kotkin

Another stab in my attempt to understand our new Russian overlords, but also an inherently interesting subject. Stalin was arguably the greatest monster in a century full of them. People keep writing and reading biographies of monsters because we want to know where that level of evil comes from. According to Kotkin, in this massive, heavily researched book..,well, you’ll just have to wait and find out. It covers Stalin’s early years, from his birth to the exile of Trotsky and the start of collectivization. The Stalin that Kotkin paints is a hard worker, talented administrator, and Soviet true believer with a definite ruthless streak and gift for consolidating power, but not necessarily the cruel dictator he would become. He had a typical childhood (Kotkin dismisses the theory that Stalin’s brutality arose from being beaten by his father; if that were the case, nearly every Georgian boy of the time would grow up to order the death of millions). Following a brief stint in seminary, he became an outlaw for the Communist cause and eventually rose to its highest office, dispatching rivals along the way and significantly helped along by luck and circumstance.

When looking back at evil leaders of highly ideological movements, it’s natural to wonder how much they actually bought into the ideology and how much they were just using it as a vehicle for their ambitions. According to Kotkin, Stalin was Lenin’s true heir, despite the fog placed around his succession by Lenin’s disputed testament; however, he also argues that Trotsky was far more essential to the revolution than Stalin was. Although Stalin is the title and subject of the book, Kotkin often pushes him aside for long (though necessary) contextualizations. And while the book is definitely meant for the general reader, I sometimes found it difficult to follow as someone who isn’t familiar with this period in Russian history (the fact that everyone has at least one name and one alias, sometimes more, doesn’t help). But it does help you get inside the mind of a man and a movement that sanctioned endless repression, torture, and murder in a quest to build a more just and equitable future.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

This was one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also a book about one man’s quest to reinstate slavery in the United States. That man is the book’s unnamed black narrator, who hails from a Los Angeles neighborhood called Dickens which has been “disappeared” from the map. The plot is quite dense to describe here; suffice to say that it involves the narrator’s father’s deranged sociological experiments that he performed on his son; the last black member of the Little Rascals who willingly volunteers himself for servitude; a donut shop that serves as the home of (a wicked sendup of) black intellectuals; the re-segregation of public schools and buses; and more. But mostly, it’s about the narrator’s attempts to show what a farce post-racial America is by, to use a phrase Stalin would have appreciated, heightening the contradictions to a truly absurd extent.

It’s no surprise that this hilarious satire was the first book ever by an American author to win the Man Booker Prize. Seriously, the book is worth it just for one character’s attempt to put out politically correct versions of classic books (sample titles: The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool, The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit). But it’s also about how we’re all still comfortable with black subordination, and the meaninglessness of the post-racial ideal. The Sellout was written during the Obama years, but in the Trump years, it resonates more than ever.

Quick review of other books I’ve read this year:

White Trash by Nancy Issenberg: timely study of poor white American identity, but not as groundbreaking as the author thinks

Wolf Boys by Dan Slater: thought-provoking exploration of why young people get into the drug trade, and what it means when teenagers become cartel murderers

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer: delightful portrait of a demographic not often examined by historians

Blitzed by Norman Ohler: definitely entertaining; the portion about Hitler’s drug use was more convincing than the part about that of the general German public

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman: a lot more boring than the show

Hitler: Ascent by Volker Ullrich: dude, I already wrote a whole post on this!

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken: oh Al, you’ve broken my heart

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green: I have to admit that I’m still only 2/3 of the way through this one but it’s equal parts illuminating, infuriating, and compulsively readable

So anyway, here’s a galette. This will definitely impress your guests when you bring it to the table, and impress their taste buds when they eat it. This is a visually beautiful dish that screams “fall.” Seriously, it will grab you by your lapels and scream, “FALL, MOTHERFUCKER!” Better eat it all up before it embarrasses you in public!

Butternut Squash, Brie, and Apple Galette

From Happy Yolks

For the pastry:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup ice water

In a bowl, mix the flour with the sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in half of the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Cut in the remaining butter. Pour in water then begin to mix and knead the dough until a ball forms and the mixture is no longer shaggy looking. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

  • 3-ish lb butternut squash
  • 2 apples (honeycrisp, pink lady, or fuji)
  • 2 cups brie cheese, rind removed
  • olive oil
  • fresh thyme
  • salt/pepper
  • 1 egg

Preheat oven to 400.’ Peel the squash. Cut 1/4 inch vertical wedges up to the rind. Halve discs. Place on a baking sheet and coat with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s okay if wedges overlap. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just softened and a little al dente in the thicker regions. Set aside and cool. With a mandolin or pairing knife, cut apples (with peel) into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside. Cut or tear brie into strips and chunks. Set aside.

On a floured work surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch round. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Begin layering cooled squash, apples, cheese, and a bit of salt and pepper leaving a 1 1/2 inch border for folding it all up. Repeat until you run out of ingredients and can top with more cheese. Fold the border over your squash-apple-cheese tower pleating the edge to make it fit. Finish outside exposed dough with an egg wash. Bake for 30-40 minutes in the 400′ oven. Cut into wedges and serve warm.