And the robin flew
Into the air, the air,
The white mist through;
And small and rare
The night-frost fell
Into the calm and misty dell.
And the dusk gathered low,
And the silver moon and stars
On the frozen snow
Drew taper bars,
Kindled winking fires
In the hooded briers.
And the sprawling Bear
Growled deep in the sky;
And Orion’s hair
Streamed sparkling by:
But the North sighed low,
“Snow, snow, more snow!”
The Year’s Awakening
by Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)
How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clamy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling; . .O vespering bird, how do you know, . …How do you know?
How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb; . . O crocus root, how do you know, . . .How do you know?
While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.
There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, – constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.
Why, O starving bird, when I
One day’s joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!
Thankfulness is my theme for Christmas every year. Fortunately I don’t have to find it in dregs of food, rather in indulgence with family and friends. Christmas for me has become about traditions. One of those traditions is the magic of making peanut brittle with my Dad. My Dad is a great cook and a chemical engineer, which comes in handy in the art and science of making the best peanut brittle in the world. Commercial peanut brittle that you buy in a store is a monstrous thing invented by dentists to suck filings out of teeth and break old molars in half. The peanut brittle tradition in my family is an aromatic caramel peanutty confection, wonderfully crunchy and filled with a million air bubbles to make it brittle but light.
There’s three keys to making the world’s best peanut brittle.
1). Buy a good heavy duty candy thermometer that can clip on the side of your sauce pan.
2). If at all possible, don’t make it alone – four hands come in handy at several key steps in the process and besides its more fun to share in this with someone else.
3). Don’t stop stirring, its how you stir in all the love that makes it taste good.
Here’s the ingredients to make one batch:
(You will make more than one batch when you realize how fantastic this stuff tastes so have extra of everything on hand. By the way Trader Joe’s peanuts come in 1 lb bags and are a good deal).
1 1/2 cups of white sugar
1 cup of corn syrup
3/4 cup of water
1 lb of roasted peanuts – salted or unsalted is your preference. I like salted. Don’t scrimp a little over a lb works even better.
3 – 4 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of baking soda
1 tablespoon of vanilla
1 teaspoon of water
1). Prepare a typical full size cookie sheet with edges by spraying it with PAM, covering it with confectionery paper or covering it in non-stick aluminum foil. (We actually have sheets of silicon rubber that we line the cookie sheet with for the pour, but not many of you probably have access to salvage rolls of silicon sheeting.)
2). Lay out all your ingredients and proportions or have your helper do it while you start the first step. Be sure to have a good hot pad glove to cover your stirring hand to prevent getting burned, particularly on the last step. Be safe – this is going to be 300 degrees of burning hot brittle at the end, be careful.
3). In a typical 4 quart sauce pan with a sturdy handle add the 1 1/2 cups of sugar, the 1 cup of corn syrup and the 3/4 cup of water. On high heat, stir a bit. Fix your candy thermometer on the side of your sauce pan. It will start out milky and turn clear as the water evaporates off. Stir slowly to stay engaged at this point, but don’t be trying to do two things at once while making brittle or you will screw it up.
4). Let this clear mixture rise to 240 degrees F. It will go slowly up to about 220 and then fairly quickly the last 20 degrees so pay attention. At 240 degrees add your butter, stirring for 30 seconds and then your peanuts. The temperature is going to go back down, that’s normal. Keep stirring slowly but mixing all the time so that peanuts don’t burn on the bottom or behind your thermometer. This is when the rich caramel flavors are going to form with the butter. Inhale deeply. Throw a party, fill up your kitchen, let your friends in on these smells, have them bring a bottle of wine, set out some crackers and cheese. Make it an event. This is what your kitchen is supposed to be like during the holidays, smelling great and filled with people.
5). Either measure out ahead of time or have your helper in a small dish or measuring cup measure out the vanilla, the baking soda and the teaspoon of water. Don’t skimp on the baking soda a heaping tablespoon. Stir this mixture together and have a little spoon or rubber spatula handy for your helper to mix it up again right at the end and be ready to add it to your sauce pan for you.
6). Now is when you are going to be glad you bought a good candy thermometer. You want one that is sturdy enough to stay engaged with this thick peanut sugar mess you are heating up to 300 degrees. Cooking it to only 290 is going to make the final result soft and gooey and not a pleasing texture. Cooking it to 305 degrees is going to begin to introduce off flavors and make the end result darker. Cook it to exactly 300 degrees. This is chemistry. It will go very slowly from about 220 to 270 and that’s where you can get a little tired of this, but then it goes pretty quick the last 30 degrees. Like real fast, so pay attention.
7). As soon as it hits 300 degrees, turn off your burner. Remove your thermometer using your hot pad. Wearing your gloved hot pad in the hand that is going to stir, have your helper quickly stir up the baking soda/vanilla concoction with a few whips of the spoon and spoon it all into your pan. Stir it into the brittle mixture vigorously. It is going to shoot up steam and if you aren’t wearing your hot pad glove you are going to burn your hand. Mix for about 20 seconds and then stop mixing or slow down mixing. The baking soda and water/vanilla is going to react in the heat to create millions of tiny air bubbles. Begin walking over to where your cookie sheet is waiting with your spoon. Let the mixture rise right up to the top of the sauce pan, it will only take a few seconds. Using your spoon to suspend the peanuts more evenly begin pouring it out on the cookie sheet. Start on one edge and poor back and forth moving down the sheet coaxing out peanuts uniformly. Spoon out all the peanuts that are at the bottom, going back to where you started with this last bit, because it is probably a little light on peanuts where you first poured.
8). This next step is the hardest. Over come your urge to take your spoon and spread the mixture out on the cookie sheet. LEAVE IT ALONE Spreading it pops the air bubbles that are the key to making this the world’s best peanut brittle. Let gravity do its thing. It will spread out all on its own to a relatively uniform level as it cools. Do not leave this cookie sheet on a surface that can be damaged by heat. Either have it on a wood cutting board or a cooling rack. Remember it’s still close to 300 degrees as you do the pour. We take ours outside after about 5 minutes and put it on our metal patio table to cool in the 20 degree December air.
9). It is going to need to cool for 30 to 40 minutes. It’s ready to break apart when its cool to the point that it will fracture easily in chunks by just breaking it apart with your hands. Take a bite and enjoy the magic. Be careful who you give this stuff to. They will be asking for more next year.
I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier’s, from the front—
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. It’s cancelled now, he wrote.
My luck is at the bottom of the sea.
Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun,
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men,
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.
My Grandfather’s luck was better. He served in both World War I and World War II. But because he was a civil engineer, he was never assigned to combat duty, his skills in building bridges and roads more highly prized behind the front lines. He was also fortuitous in the timing of his enlistment in WWI, finishing boot camp and embarking for France only months before the end of the war. I am glad my Grandfather’s was not only unfamous history but also unremarkable, coming home physically and mentally intact with only a finer appreciation of european beer.
But luck and War have always been connected. Maybe it’s why I have an aversion to the omnipotent presence of technology in our lives. Technology that seems so benign in peace time will be the scourge of luck in war-time. The next world war will be fought with such inhuman precision that luck won’t stand a chance.
Let’s honor the brave and the fallen in World War I on this 100 year anniversary of the end of the war, but let’s not glorify it. The battle field poets certainly didn’t on both sides of the conflict. Let’s save some of our patriotic fervor to hold accountable our current leadership. Hold them accountable to value diplomacy and reasoned avoidance of conflict as just as critical to a strong national defense, as the bloated budget for the Department of Defense. Let us hope that the lessons of the past informs our leadership of tomorrow and that pride and ego do not plunge us into war that could have been avoided with a touch more humility and a lot less bombastic lunacy.
The Man He Killed
by Thomas Hardy
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
When you shall see me in the toils of Time,
My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;
When, in your being, heart concedes to mind,
And judgment, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they have withered so;
Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same
One who would die to spare you touch of ill!
Will you not grant to old affection’s claim
The hand of friendship down Life’s sunless hill?