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The longest night
December 18, 2007

December—my word, what a month!

Holiday hassles, gifts and galas, tinsel and taxes, sequins and secrets, Kris Kringle and credit, friends and frenzies!

Stop!

Enough!

It's a month full of memories and love and togetherness, as well. Families gather, friends reminisce.

Sometimes, we even find time for some quiet and reflection.

Friday night will be a good time to do exactly that. It will be the longest night of the year, the night when, because of the earth's angle, the sun is its greatest distance from the equator.

The night when autumn turns to winter; it's the winter solstice—always around Dec. 21. This year, here in the Eastern Time Zone, it will be at 1:08 a.m. on Dec. 22. We'll start our winter early in the morning.

For eons people around the world have celebrated on this long night. Today, we associate the Yule log with Christmas festivities, but long, long ago, before the Christian religion made its way to England, a log burning in the darkness commemorated the return of the sun and the longer days to come.

When I was young, my family didn't have a Yule log, but we did take note of the longest night. At our house, we didn't decorate or wrap gifts until almost Christmas, so often this long night found us tying up packages and stringing glowing lights. Along about bedtime, Mother brewed cocoa, bundled us up and headed us out to the big front porch.

As a kid, I was afraid of the dark. I didn't want to go out. It was cold and scary—exactly what my mother wanted.

"Look," she'd tell us. "No matter how dark it is, there are still stars; besides, tomorrow night will be shorter, and the night after that, and the night after that." When times are dark, I still take comfort in her words.

Since we've lived in Bainbridge, I've helped celebrate the season change at Birdsong Nature Center over in Grady County where we've observed the changing season with bowls of hot soup or chili, a massive bonfire and then a long, and often chilly, look at the night full of stars. All of us gather 'round the fire singing and dancing; then we throw sticks of bamboo into the blaze. Each stick represents a trouble or woe. As the sticks hit the fire, they explode with a bang. Good-bye troubles!

Birdsong held this annual observance last Saturday; now we'll have to wait until next year. Still, in the midst of all the holiday busyness, you might consider taking a short break to think about the long nights and anticipate the coming sunny days.

If you are not into blazing bonfires, how about pretending your troubles are grains of popcorn? You can see where I'm going with this. Pop up a bowlful and share it with your family. You may even get fancy and sweeten or spice it up.

It's time to look forward to holidays of happiness and days of dazzle.

Sweet and crunchy corn
½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
3 quarts unsalted popped popcorn
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans, peanuts or walnuts)

Cream together butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, toss popcorn and nuts. Add creamed mixture to popcorn and nuts. Combine until coated. Spread on a large baking sheet in a single layer. Bake at 350° oven for 10 minutes or until crisp.

This next recipe is a bit of trouble and has to be done ahead, but it's worth the trouble. It will be the hit of the party.

Popcorn Chipwiches
2½ quarts popped popcorn
1½ cup light brown sugar
¾ cup dark corn syrup
½ cup butter
1 tablespoon vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
1 6-ounce package chocolate pieces
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 pints (or 1 quart) brick-style vanilla ice cream.

Keep popcorn warm. In a three-quart saucepan, combine brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, vinegar and salt. Cook and stir until sugar dissolves. Continue to cook until hard ball stage (250 degrees Fahrenheit on candy thermometer). Pour syrup over popped popcorn; stir to coat.

Add chocolate pieces and nuts; stir just to mix. Pour into two 13" by 9" by 2" pans, spreading and packing firmly. Cool. In each pan, cut 12 rectangles. Cut each pint of ice cream into six slices. Sandwich the ice cream between two popcorn rectangles.

Now, here's the spicy treat. This will open your eyes!

Curried Popcorn
4 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons curry powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon fresh ginger pulp (grated or put through a garlic press)
pinch of cayenne
pinch of sugar
1 quart freshly popped corn (about 1 cup unpopped popcorn)
sea salt or kosher salt

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat; add the curry powder, cumin and ginger and sauté for 1½ to 2 minutes, just until the spices are fragrant. Stir in the cayenne and sugar and remove from the heat.

Put the popcorn in a wide bowl, drizzle the butter on top, toss gently with your hands, season with salt and pepper, and toss again.

I never thought I'd find a use for leftover popcorn—not that we ever have much, but it could happen. Here's a tasty solution. I've made many a pan of cornbread but never, until now, with popcorn. If you don't care for spicy chilies or for cheese, it won't hurt a thing to leave them out.

Popcorn bread
4 cups popped popcorn
1 cup yellow corn meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup shredded jack or pepper jack cheese, optional
1 (4 ounce) can mild, diced green chilies, drained, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 8" square baking pan with cooking spray; set aside.

Process the popcorn in a blender or food processor until finely ground. Pour ground popcorn into a large bowl and stir in corn meal, baking powder and salt until blended.

Beat egg, milk and vegetable oil together in a small bowl and stir into popcorn mixture just until blended. Scatter cheese and chilies, if desired, over batter and stir just until evenly distributed. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes or until lightly browned at edges and tester comes out clean. Cut into squares to serve.

If you like sweeter bread add two tablespoons of sugar with the cornmeal. If you want it with more zing, then use jalapeños instead of the mild chilies.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network