Now that it is officially “holiday season”, I am putting on pounds I worked incredibly hard to take off during the rest of the year via indulging in comfort foods. Since I was raised in a German/Irish/Scotch family, these include foods rich in fats (butter), sugar, flour, chocolate, and the perhaps the most important ingredient, memories.
Let’s start with Thanksgiving. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this required black olives, cashews, and sweet gherkins for starters, followed by (in order of importance and preference) gravy, mashed potatoes (cream and butter!), cranberry jelly, and last, turkey. Dessert included pie with either whipping cream or ice cream.
Each year included the emergence of the never-lit but carefully wrapped small candles in the shapes of pilgrim hats, turkeys, and pumpkins. I was also tasked with polishing the silver, a job I actually really enjoyed since it resulted in such shiny and beautiful objects. What is comforting about all this is the memory of being assigned the task of mashing the potatoes, and being given the responsibility for insuring that the table was set and the good plates arranged artfully around the center piece.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were filled with baking stöllen, cookies, fudge, and wrapping these goodies into packages to be sent to various relatives and friends. In return, the postman (in those days that is what we called him) brought gift packages from Harry & David (pears), dried fruit and nuts, fruit cake, and cheese and summer sausage. As food went out, other food came in!
Memories of making these delightful eats continue to sustain me now, even as I remain the last one living. For example, my grandmother would make a wonderful rich bread called stöllen (pronounced with the umlaut as “Stchullen” not “stolen”).
This is a yeast bread, requiring knowledge of how yeast works. As I child, I would help my grandmother make this bread, but never really understood the process of it. After she died, my mother took up the mantel and would bake the stöllen every year. By the time it was my turn, you would have thought I would have got a handle on how this bread works! But no! Instead of the egg and sugar-engorged raised dough that was my grandmother’s stöllen, my first attempt resulted in brick-sized door stops heavy enough to keep a burglar from getting in the house.
In the years since I have learned the art of starting the yeast, incorporating it into room temperature dough, letting it rise in a low oven, and then engaging in one of the most sensual of all cooking activities, kneading the dough into submission and letting it rise once more. I might be able to turn one out for Paul Hollywood that would result in a handshake, if I do say so myself.
My grandmother’s recipe was on an ancient 3 X 5 card spattered and stained, and filled with her distinctive writing. Short-hand instructions included “use cake yeast not dried” and “second rise under wet tea towel”. Instead of raisins and almonds, her recipe used peanuts and dates to accommodate the special preferences of her family. The top was covered in sugar icing instead of just sprinkled with powdered sugar and was decorated by hand with candied fruit. This was the stöllen I grew up with.
As a child, I was given the job of being the quality taster. I got to lick the bowl with the frosting as well as the dough. This undoubtedly explains my sophisticated palette when it comes to yeast breads.
My mother reigned in the kitchen when it came to making Christmas cookies. Sugar cookies, stuffed dates, short-bread rolled in chopped pecans oatmeal cookies, all magically came out of a huge (to me) brown clay bowl. Basic sugar cookie dough would be transformed into oatmeal cookies, molasses cookies, and foundations for architecturally demanding fruit and nut bars. Since there was only one large mixing bowl, it needed to be cleaned in between each iteration of cookie. Once again, my unfailing ability to lick clean a bowl came in handy. Every flat surface in the kitchen would be covered with brown paper where the cookies would be cooling. Depending on which version was being decorated, I would press nuts into the center of some, gently tap a sieve filled with powdered sugar over others, or carefully pipe frosting in various colors and shapes to make the geometric designs resemble snowmen, stars, snowflakes, and Santas.
My father, on the other hand, took over the kitchen when it came to making fudge. Chocolate melting in the double boiler, sugar at the ready, then beating the warm and remarkably intoxicating mixture until it could be poured out onto wax paper where it was formed into a rectangle awaiting only the scoring by a knife once it was set. Quality control here was often a shared responsibility, as there were spoons as well as bowls that needed licking.
My father was also was in charge of the Scottish Shortbread. This surprisingly simple recipe resulted in a gift that kept on giving as it aged over the days and weeks until Christmas. Just out of the oven, it is a melt-in-your-mouth delight; two or three weeks down the road, it is a rich amalgam of salty, almond-y, sugary, buttery indulgence. Great with hot cocoa after a day of skating.
I wasn’t always able to get home for Christmas when I grew older and moved away. Making these treats eased the heartache of missing family. Sharing the foods that I grew up with, along with the stories of making them, connected me to my mother and grandmother in a way that sharing pictures or phone calls couldn’t. As my mother aged I would send her care packages that she would give away to her friends. At first I was hurt by this, thinking that she didn’t like my baking. But I came to realize that she used the food as a means of keeping herself connected to others, and since she wasn’t able to do all the baking any more, this was her way of participating.
Now it is just as much fun for me to write about making all this food as it is to actually produce it. I no longer need to lick the bowls. I politely refuse the cookies when offered because I know that it will take me weeks to get the weight off. I do miss my Dad’s fudge, but don’t miss washing the dishes. I take out the tattered recipe cards and use them as memory triggers, now appreciating the love and joy that went into each and every morsel, and remembering the love and joy shared with me.