Noe Valley Voice December-January 2001

Home for the Holidays:
Five Suggestions for Surviving Winter Break

By Janis Cooke Newman

Now that the turkey carcass is out of the fridge and the candied yams with marshmallows have been more or less scrubbed from the pot, it's only a matter of weeks before the arrival of that great annual tradition, Winter Break -- the two-week stretch of time around the holidays when schools shut, families are thrown together, and your children come looking to you for something TO DO.

In past years, many of us have coped with the entertainment demands of Winter Break by removing our children from their normal environment -- an effective personality-altering technique employed by cults and corporate training seminars. But this year, whether it's fear of flying or the shrinking economy, more Noe Valley families are going to be spending Winter Break within tinsel-throwing distance of 24th Street. And we are going to need something TO DO.

And it's got to be more than the usual suspects -- the Academy of Sciences, the Discovery Museum, the Exploratorium-- all of which will have been exhausted before the tree starts dropping needles.

So, here are a few suggestions for filling those long, and frequently rainy, days before school begins, and we can forget we ever thought candied yams with marshmallows were a good idea.

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Sea Bowl, 4625 Coast Highway, Pacifica, Calif.; 650-738-8190. Where else can you bowl with an ocean view? Sea Bowl sits right across the highway from the ocean, and when you get tired of counting spares, you can watch the waves outside the big windows. Sea Bowl features child-friendly bowling, with featherweight balls, bowling shoes in kid sizes, and bumpers to prevent any negative-self-esteem-producing gutter balls. The place even serves smoothies at the snack bar.

Games at Sea Bowl are $4 for adults, $3.25 for kids; shoe rental is $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for kids. The bowling alley is open weekdays from 10 a.m. until midnight, but most nights, the lanes are tied up after 6 p.m. with league bowling. Sea Bowl opens at 9 a.m. on weekends, but many lanes are reserved for birthday parties on Saturdays and Sundays. Call ahead for lane availability (especially if it's raining).

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Japan Center, 1737 Post Street, San Francisco's Japantown. Technically, this is a shopping mall, but you won't find a single Body Shop or Baby Gap. Instead, kids can browse Japanese antiques and kimonos, visit the Taiko shop and check out the instruments, and throw pennies in the waterfalls. A must-stop is Kinokuniya Bookstore (1581 Webster Street, in the Kinokuniya Building of Japan Center, 415-567-7625). It carries books and magazines from Japan, books in English about Japan, Japanese CDs and videos, kits to make origami dinosaurs, and original Japanese Pokémon memorabilia.

When hunger strikes, there's Mifune (1737 Post, in Japan Center, 415-922-0337), an inexpensive restaurant where kids can order the Bullet Train, noodles served on a plate made to look like a replica of Japan's superfast train.

Once you've exhausted the possibilities of Japan Center, you can drop your kids off at the Kabuki movie theater, and take yourself to Kabuki Hot Springs (1750 Geary in Japan Center, 415-922-6000) for a well-deserved soak in a hot Japanese-style tub and a shiatsu massage.

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Ice Skating at Yerba Buena Gardens, 750 Folsom Street between Third and Fourth streets; 415-777-3727. Sure, they've got that little rink at the Embarcadero, but what are you going to do if it rains? The rink at Yerba Buena is big, comes with a view of downtown San Francisco, and best of all, has a roof. Kids, and their parents, can glide around to '80s rock-and-roll and pretend to be Kristi Yamaguchi all afternoon.

Admission to the rink is $6 for adults, $5 for kids 12 years and under. Skate rental is $2.50 for everyone. Call to hear the daily schedule for public skating.

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Beach Picnic. A little-known fact is that occasionally, in the winter, the weather is better at the ocean, especially south of the city. So if there's a break in the clouds, load up the car with leftover holiday goodies, fill a thermos with hot chocolate, and head down Highway 1 for a beach picnic. Between San Francisco and Santa Cruz are a collection of some of the prettiest beaches in the world (see the photo on the front page), and at this time of year you'll practically have them all to yourself.

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Baking Gingerbread Cookies. If it's just too cold and nasty to leave the house, consider baking gingerbread cookies. (It is possible that by this time, you've had your allotment of sugar for the season, but ginger is considered to be beneficial for colds, and you never know what you might be coming down with.)

I like to use the following recipe, which comes from an old edition of The Joy of Cooking, which is politically incorrect enough to refer to these as Gingerbread Men.

And if you really want to get in touch with your inner Martha, you can make your own cookie cutters, which gives you the opportunity to bake up a batch of Gingerbread Harry Potters or Gingerbread Barbies.

Gingerbread Men and Women

To make the cookie cutters: Fold a square of stiff cardboard or light plastic lengthwise, trace half of your gingerbread person on the fold, cut out and unfold to create a symmetrical pattern.

To use: Grease or flour one side of the pattern and place it on rolled dough. Cut around the outlines with a knife. Decorate before baking with small raisins, bits of candied fruit, red-hots, marshmallows, and citron.

Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

To make gingerbread cookies (recipe makes about eight 5-inch-long fat characters, or 16 thinner ones):

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend until creamy:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup white or brown sugar

Beat in:

1/2 cup dark molasses

Sift together:

31/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture in about three parts, alternating with 1/4 cup water. You may have to work in the last of the flour mixture with your hands. Roll the dough directly onto a greased baking sheet, and cut out your characters using the cookie-cutter pattern you've made.

Bake the cookies about 8 minutes, testing for doneness by pressing the dough with your finger. If the cookies spring back after pressing, they're ready to be cooled on a rack.

If you'd like to decorate your characters, make icing by stirring in a small bowl 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar and a few drops of water. (You can also add a drop or two of vegetable coloring.) Apply the icing with a wooden pick or small knife to create hair mustaches, belts, or Harry's lightning bolt scar.

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of The Russian Word for Snow, published by St. Martin's Press.