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Today is, with one exception, the end of the Christmas season. Those who follow Eastern Orthodox traditions will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on Thursday. Other Christians recognize today as Little Christmas, Kings Day, Three Kings Day, Twelfth Night and Epiphany. It is said to be the day the magi reached the creche and bestowed upon the baby Jesus the first Christmas gifts.

A more esoteric interpretation is that it is the moment of illumination when the divinity of the Christ child was revealed to the gentiles, a meaning that has evolved over the centuries to embrace almost any moment of personal illumination or revelation. The day coincides with early pagan festivals that celebrated the lengthening of the days that began on the solstice and was, by this time, apparent to everyone. I think of Epiphany as a celebration of light itself.

There are countless traditions that mark Epiphany and all of them are quieter than the annual consumer frenzy that Christmas in America has become. In this country, most observances take place in church and here and there in homes that prefer the tradition.

In Italy, Befana rides a broom as she visits children on the eve of the holiday, leaving candy-filled stockings and presents. In France, some children enjoy a present a day from Christmas through Epiphany. Wherever the holiday is celebrated, there are versions of a Kings Cake, most of which contain a tiny hidden doll or bean. The one who finds it enjoys certain rewards and incurs certain obligations, from being made the holiday's king or queen to hosting the following year's fete.

In New Orleans, every supermarket has stacks of colorful wreath-shaped kings cakes for sale from Twelfth Night through Ash Wednesday. There are at least two Epiphany parades and the first ball of the Carnival season is held Jan. 6 by the Twelfth Night Revelers. All the local radio stations speak of the holiday and it is not uncommon for shopkeepers to wish "Happy Epiphany" to their customers. If you want to celebrate the holiday in good company, New Orleans is the place to be. I was lucky to be there last year.

This year, I am at home, starting my day at the Santa Rosa farmers market, preparing a big dinner for family and a few close friends and trying to get all the presents wrapped before everyone arrives, because even though I have 12 extra days, I still do most everything at the last possible minute. What would any holiday be without a bit of stress?

Near the conclusion of the Bracebridge Dinner pageant, a Christmas tradition at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel, a silver punchbowl of wassail, steam rising from it like fog from an icy lake, is carried along the red carpet to the stage as guests are served espresso cups full of executive chef Percy Whatley's version. The dark rich thick liquid is the best wassail I have ever tasted. It can be enjoyed by both children and those who do not drink alcohol, as the small amount of alcohol in this recipe is boiled off long before the winter punch is ready. I have adapted this recipe from chef Whatley's by adding a piece of vanilla bean because I love the layer of flavor it contributes. Feel free to leave it out, as the wassail is delicious with or without it.

To learn more, visit tbarny.com.

To learn more about The Kindness Rocks Project, visit, thekindnessrocksproject.com.

The Ahwahnee Hotel's Wassail

Makes up to 16 servings

4cups apple juice

4cups cranberry juice

5ounces port

3tablespoons dried orange rind or the rind of ? orange, sliced and dried

2tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1tablespoon dried hibiscus flowers (see Note below)

4whole cloves

1star anise

13-inch cinnamon stick

13-inch piece vanilla bean, optional

Put the apple and cranberry juices into a medium saucepan and add the port, orange rind, ginger, hibiscus, cloves, cloves, star anise, cinnamon stick and vanilla bean, if using. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Cover and keep hot until ready to serve.

To serve, strain into espresso cups or other small cups. Pour the remaining wassail into a small pitcher and set on the table or counter so that guests can help themselves to seconds.

Note: Hibiscus flowers are common in Mexican cooking; they are used to make a delicious agua fresca and can be found in any Mexican market, in the same section as dried spices and chilies. You can also find them in the bulk section of some stores.

This lovely warm drink is a Twelfth Night tradition in Great Britain, where a bit is reserved to pour onto apple trees as a blessing for the new year. It is a perfect beverage on a cold night, as comforting and cozy as a down quilt.

Lamb's Wool

Makes 6 to 8 servings


—Boiling water

2quarts of your favor ale, pale ale or apple cider (sweet or hard)

1cup sugar

13-inch piece vanilla bean

12-inch piece ginger, cut into thin rounds and crushed

12-inch piece cinnamon

—Whole nutmeg

?cup butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set the apples in a baking dish with a lid, add enough boiling water to come ?-inch up the sides of the dish, cover and bake until the apples are very tender, from 25 to 45 minutes, depending on variety.

Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, pour the ale or cider into a large saucepan set over low heat, add half the sugar, the vanilla bean, the ginger, the cinnamon and several gratings of fresh nutmeg. Slowly bring to a simmer and stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved. Cover and set aside to steep while the apples cook.

When the apples are cool, cut them in half crosswise and pass them through a potato ricer. If you do not have a ricer, peel the apples, cut them in half, remove their seed cores and pass through a food mill or potato ricer.

Remove the vanilla bean, the ginger and the cinnamon from the ale or cider and discard them or save them to make another batch of Lamb's Wool.

Stir the apple pulp into the ale, add the butter and set over medium heat. Taste, and if the mixture is not as sweet as you'd like, stir in the remaining half cup of sugar. When the mixture is heated through, remove from the heat, pour into a pitcher and serve immediately.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele @micheleannajordan.com.

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