Dreaming of a White Christmas

It may be mid-December, but Malawi is lush and green.  When it’s 75 and sunny outside, all one CAN do is dream of a white Christmas.  I’ve been feeling decidedly un-holiday-like, however, so I decided it was time to step up the Christmas cheer.

At home, there are lots of sensory cues that Christmas is coming:  twinkling lights, those giant blow-up Santas, long lines at the mall, Christmas cards in the mail, snow on the ground (hopefully – or at least a bitter wind), carols on the radio, and cookies in the kitchen.  Malawi has few of these cues, and the paltry examples seem more to make expats feel at home than a true Malawian celebration of the season.

Okay, so the inflatable Santas do exist here.

The midwestern housewife in me decided that perhaps it would feel more like Christmas with copious quantities of sugar available for consumption.  So, on Saturday, I decided to try my hand at Christmas baking.  I would make fudge, sugar cookies, and peanut butter blossoms, I decided, because those seemed to be the best combination of feasible and festive.

You’ll remember for the last baking post that certain ingredients common in the US are nearly impossible to find in Malawi.  Baking chocolate does not exist here, nor does molasses.  I can’t find marshmallow cream or chocolate chips.  Some ingredients are more easily substituted than others; margarine stands in for butter (available, but very expensive) and treacle sugar for brown sugar, but what stands in for chocolate stars on Peanut Butter Blossoms?  What stands in for an electric mixer, a candy thermometer, and measuring cups?  Obviously, my Christmas baking involved a lot of experimentation.

First came the fudge.  Allrecipes.com assured me that “candy making is an art.”  If they meant it as an oil painting, though, I approached it more like a finger painting.  I used a liquid measuring cup to approximate the appropriate amount of sugar, counted out 8 Tablespoons of cocoa powder, added the milk, turned on the burner (though electric stoves were not advised), and let the heat do its magic.  I also (sort of) figured out how to test the temperature by dropping a bit of the boiling liquid into cold water.  When the “soft ball” seemed about right, I turned it off and let it cool for a bit, then added the butter and vanilla, and started stirring.  It turned out a little sugary, but overall, not too bad, considering my penchant for guesstimation.

The sugar cookies, too, were an adventure.  I found a recipe that suggested mixing them like pastry (that is, cutting in the butter instead of creaming it with the sugar).  This worked well, since I have no electric mixer and it’s difficult to fully incorporate the sugar and butter by hand.  Using a trick I learned when making pie crust last year, I rolled out the dough with a wine bottle.  Now, no cookie cutters, so what’s a baking AmyinMalawi to do?  Make her own pattern, of course.  I decided to go for the most identifiable and geometric of Christmas shapes, the star.  After cutting about 3 dozen star cookies by hand (and knife), I gave up on the rest and made them into circles with a wine glass.  Circles look Christmasy, right?  I mean, they could be ornaments or parts of a snowman or…something.

Having completely destroyed my kitchen at this point, I postponed the rest of the baking until Sunday afternoon, when my friend Anna came over to join in the baking frenzy.  She brought the makings of frosting and red and green food coloring.  As she began to mix, it became clear that she was a much more experienced with frosting than I.  With some makeshift pastry bags (thank you, Ziploc), she went to work.

Anna, a talented froster

Anna, a talented froster

While Anna frosted the sugar cookies, I whipped up the peanut butter blossoms.  Fortunately, peanut butter is readily available here, and most of the other ingredients were easy to find or substitute.  Except, of course, the most essential ingredient:  the chocolate on top.  (Otherwise, how would it blossom?)  Having reviewed the options – not many, it turns out – I had tentatively planned to just buy a Cadbury bar and chop it up.  When I went to the store, however, plain chocolate bars were not available: my options were either Mint Chip or Top Deck (mixed white and milk chocolate).  Since peanut butter mint hasn’t been invented for good reason, I went with the Top Deck.  I also bought an (absurdly expensive) bag of miniature Mars bars, as back up in case the Top Deck went wrong.  Fortunately, though they lacked some of the visual appeal of real peanut butter blossoms, these chocolate choices turned out just fine.

Peanut Butter Blossoms & Fudge, up close and personal

Peanut Butter Blossoms & Fudge, up close and personal

Just as we were finishing up the baking, a few other people arrived to help with the eating.  With Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo and friends in my living room, we dug in and discussed Christmas plans, which for most involved some sort of time on the beach.   I’m still dreaming of a white Christmas and the beach doesn’t seem like a sign of the season to me, but at least my kitchen is full of cookies!  Holiday spirit, indeed.


Tags: , , ,

6 Responses to “Dreaming of a White Christmas”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Your cookies look like they turned out great. I would gladly send you some of our snow and cold weather in exchange for beach time. We are at -6 right now.

  2. Nancy M Says:

    Brrrr is the word of the day. Tomorrow the forecast is from 3-5 inches of snow. Happy winter in Iowa. Saturday it was 55 in St. Joseph where we roamed around without coats.

    Enjoy your stories of creativity. Reminds in a way of an old tv show where McGiver used odd available items to solve situations.

  3. Eryn Says:

    The cookies look delicious! It reminds me of when I visited DC last January (I think that’s when it was) and we did some experimental baking – what was that again? You should try making sand angels on the beach.

    It was great to talk with you yesterday!

  4. aliza Says:

    umm…i think that’s probably a better job of baking than i would do in the U.S.! (i’ve basically never baked cookies myself.) very impressive!

  5. Kathleen Says:

    Another Arctic Blast is supposed to be heading our way today. The forecasters last night said it would struggle to get above zero here on Sunday. We had ice, sleet, snow, thunder and lightning all in about two hours Thursday night. So no school yesterday. I was reading about your cooking ventures. Is sweetened condensed milk available there? I think you could combine that with cocoa and make things like frosting and fudge. I made some cookies I found a recipe for on the Better Homes and Gardens website that is a cocoa-type cookie and then you roll them into balls and push your thumb in and put a maraschino cherry in and top with a chocolate chip-sweetened condensed milk mixture, but I really think you could use cocoa powder. They are my new favorite cookie!

  6. michelle in san antonio,tx Says:

    wow…great recipes!!! we just got back from the great state of ky,and boy did i miss my 70-80 degree texas temps!!! your doin great and i happened to stumble upon this page via google…(looking to substitute brn sug in peanutbutter blossoms…dough!!) well any how thought it would’ve been rude not to comment.lol oh ya….nice curtains by the way.
    ~ a san antonio family~

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: