I love this time of year and as I drive back into my old neighborhood to tutor students I have a sense of deja vu. I remember a time my mother and I would prepare for the holidays by cooking and baking up a storm. By the end of our labors we would have a stack of tins filled with luscious delights to share with friends and family who invariably dropped by to wish us well.
Back then we had a metal kitchen table with a formica top. It may not have been elegant but it was great as a prep area. It didn’t really matter how littered it became. It took little time or effort to clean it as good as new and ready for the next meal or project.
My mother’s specialty was Chocolate Fudge which also became a favorite of our guests. Maybe I’m embellishing my recollections but it has always seemed to me to be the best version of chocolate fudge that I have ever eaten. It was an elegant treat that Mama only created for the Christmas holidays. We waited with anticipation when Thanksgiving arrived and she gathered the ingredients together. We wanted to devour the homemade candy as soon as it was finished but Mama always made us save it for the special times that would be coming in the weeks ahead.
I made Pecan Cookies. I took pride in the fact that after a time people began to ask if I was going to make them and they smiled when I told them that I would. I was and still am a somewhat messy cook. I tended to get flour all over everything in the kitchen including myself but the resulting rounds of crisp deliciousness were so good.
I remember one year when Mama and I had worked all day long baking cookies and cooking up fudge when a group of family members arrived unexpectedly just as we were laying our wares on racks to cool. They saw the sweet treats and immediately reached for samples, all the while giving their seal of approval by coming back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. By the time that they had left we barely had enough goodies left to fill two of our many tins. I was flabbergasted and wondering what we were going to do when our other guests came calling. Mama always set aside money for the ingredients each year and I doubted that she had enough extra funds to buy a whole new set. I remember her laughing at my concerns and revealing that she had a “rat hole” stashed away in case of emergencies. She assuaged my anxiety by assuring me that we would start over again the following weekend.
Mama became notorious for being able to pull money out of thin air when the occasion required it. She used to insist that she had a magical money tree that only she had the power of seeing. I learned that year that what she actually did was to squirrel away change all year long so that she would have a source of quick cash during dire times.
I miss those baking days when our kitchen smelled of brown sugar and vanilla while we laughed and played music on our old Victrola. We felt rich in spirit and it rarely occurred to us that we might have been considered wanting by those with more resources. All we knew was how happy we were and how nice it was to be able to share what we had with the friends and relatives who seemed to congregate at our house as though it had some type of magnetic attraction.
We used a Good Housekeeping Cook Book for our prize desserts that was written during World War II. The simplicity of the ingredients demonstrates just how much luxuries were rationed during that time. The copy that I now have belonged to my mother from the time that she was a young bride. Its pages are tattered, torn and yellowed. I have had to bind it back together with tape. Some of the recipes have handwritten notations from Mama, ways in which she changed the instructions based on her own particular preferences. The instructions are timeless.
For those of you who want to do some Christmas baking/cooking here are two of our family’s favorite recipes.
2 c. granulated sugar
1c. bottled milk or 1/2 c. evaporated milk and 1/2 c. water
1/2 tsp. salt
2 sq. (2 oz.) chocolate or liquid chocolate
1 tblsp. white corn syrup
2 tblsp. butter or margarine
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Combine the sugar, milk, salt, chocolate, and corn syrup in a sauce pan over low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Cook gently stirring from the bottom occasionally, to 238 degrees F or until a little of the mixture dropped in cold water forms a soft ball. Remove from the heat, drop in the butter but do not stir it in, and set aside to cool without stirring, to 110 degrees F or until the candy is lukewarm. Then add the vanilla and beat with a spoon or an electric beater at medium speed until the mixture loses its gloss and a small amount dropped from a spoon holds its shape. Then turn the mixture into a greased or oiled pan about 9” by 5” by 3” Cool and cut into squares. Makes about 1 1/4 lbs. of fudge. Broken nuts may be added just before turning into pan.
1/2 c. shortening
2/3 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1 egg, beaten
1 c. sifted all purpose flour
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
1/3 c. chopped pecans
Work the shortening with a spoon until fluffy and creamy; then add the brown sugar, while continuing to work with a spoon until light; then add the egg and mix well. Sift the flour with the cream of tartar, and add with the nut meats to the creamed mixture. Drop by level teaspoonfuls onto greased or oiled cookie sheets, and bake in a slow oven of 300 degrees F for 12-14 min. Remove with a spatula or cake turner while hot. Cool and store in a tight container. Makes 48 cookies.