Saturday, December 11, 2010

Channeling Grandma

Originally uploaded by norvegal

I've been busy baking and stirring and wrapping endless sweet concoctions in preparation for Christmas. Some of the recipes are welcome new arrivals, such as these Salted Chocolate Caramels and Luisa's version of Benne Wafers, two recipes upon which there is very little improvement (yet I shall still try).

But some recipes came from my grandma's kitchen, and her mother's kitchen before that, and one can hope, many more mothers' kitchens before that.

My grandparents lived during the Great Depression, which meant that Christmas was more about baked goods and handknit gifts than it was about plastic garbage for the landfill. Every year, they'd send us a huge box with countless tins - the same tins, year after year, taped shut with masking tape - packed with all of her best concoctions. One tin held the infamous Joe Froggers, hard molasses cookies the size of a human head. Another tin held her Honey Cakes. I can still feel the tin under my little fingers as I tried to pry it open and devour its contents.

At the bottom of the Christmas box was the real gold: Several foil-wrapped bricks the size of a short loaf of bread. Grandma's English Christmas cake.

You know how we each have one or two foods that we simply love to the point of distraction? Our version of Proust's Madeleine, that one thing that brings back so many vivid memories that you want to cry? For me, it's my grandma's Christmas cake.

This is NOT to be confused with gooey, alcohol-laden, oft-maligned fruicake. It is more of a dundee cake, or an English Christmas cake without the frosting. My grandma's cake was packed with raisins and currants and candied orange and lemon peel, all held within a minimal suspension of flour, eggs, milk, a hint of butter, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.

She would pack as many raisins and currants as she could stir, stopping when her wooden spoon stood up in the bowl and refused to move any further. The dough would be scooped into bread pans and baked for hours and hours at a very low temperature, causing the raisins and currants and orange and lemon peel to caramelize into a deep, moody, sugary perfection.

My grandma knew I adored her Christmas cake and would always pack the box with as many cakes as it would hold. As she began to lose her memory, the cake became a source of stress. She knew something wasn't quite right. She was forgetting things, really basic things she knew she should know. So she started taking notes and labeling everything - and when we packed up their house after both my grandparents died, I found card after card after card containing the Christmas cake recipe with "SAVE" marked across the top in big letters. I hope she knows, from whichever cloud she's sitting, that the recipe is, indeed, safe and sound for another generation.

Every December, I bake this cake. It fills my kitchen with a smell I associate with my grandma, with those ancient childhood visions of love and comfort and security. Lots of things remind me of my grandma - she was, after all, the one who taught me how to knit - but this cake brings her back the most vividly.

Do you have such a thing in your own food repertoire?


Mary said...

Oh, Clara! That sounds and looks exactly like my mother's fruitcake! No alcohol, lots of raisins and candied orange and lemon peel. She'd be making them for weeks to send to the family -- but we weren't allowed even a taste till Christmas Day. I'm teary thinking of how wonderful they were. Would you be willing to share the recipe? Sadly, I don't have my mother's recipe--but I do have her fruitcake tins.

Mel said...

It sounds not entirely unlike "Fruitcake Cockaigne" from The Joy of Cooking. I've only made it once, but it is, indeed, an excellent departure from unnaturally-colored maraschino cherries and pineapple. And it's still good soaked in a good cognac.

judi said...

my christmas food memory is the wonderful date and walnut drop cookies my grandma made. she only made them at christmas although we often asked for them at other times during the year. she rightly explained they wouldn't be as special. i love baking them every year and i know my daughter will also keep this memory alive as she loves them too.

PghCathy said...

Oh, Clara, this is too uncanny! A group of us is getting together to read Thornton Wilder's play 'A Long Christmas Dinner' and we've asked everyone to think about what food 'makes' Christmas happen for them. Your post fits right in.

Mine would be my Mom's Kiffle cookie...a diamond-shaped dough filled with crushed nuts, sprinkled w sugar before baking. She would only make these at Christmas...because of the amount of time they take.

Natalie Servant said...

I was just checking with my husband last night to find out what food meant Christmas to him & it seems we'll be having ham at some point. For me it's mince pies, but fruit cake is wonderful too. Any chance you'd share your recipe?

Jennifer said...

Awww - you made me cry! What a wonderful story that you're channeling Grandma. I think that food is one of the most powerful ties to happy memories, family traditions, and loved ones. I inherited my Grandma's krumkake iron and I recently resurrected her holiday tradition of making them every Christmas. They take SO LONG to make that I now appreciate tenfold the love and effort she put into making them for us each year.

Thanks so much for the wonderful story. *Hugs*

besshaile said...

yes. I do. It's not a fruit cake but a version of Charlotte Russe that we called Ice Box Cake. Upright, stalwart, soft lady fingers made of sponge cake, surrounding kirsch flavored chocolate mousse and separating that from inches and inches of stiff whipped cream strongly flavored with vanilla. All was dotted with well drained maraschino cherries. In those old days before our child-centric times, grown-ups got the first slices, evilly claiming "I'll have 3 fingers" and "I'll have 4". Big eyed children stared in dismay as the cake shrank till there was nothing left. Happily, my grandmother would enter from the kitchen with the second golden, pink and white crown of deliciousness. No mother ever let a child (and there were 18 of us) have more than 2 fingers'worth but no child ever had to share, either.

ZippyZinnia said...

I grandfather's persimmon pudding. Every Thanksgiving, I would walk in the door to the smell of the pudding cooling on the counter. Warm or cold, it was and still is the most delicious food I've ever eaten. Most "puddings" are made more as a cake but Grandpa's was truly a pudding. I finally found a recipe similar to his. While it's not quite the same, the smell, color and taste almost take me back to my childhood.

Karen said...

Mom would make a yeasted sweet bread, sort of a Lutheran Challah - from a recipe she got from her mom's mom.

It would have been a real treat in WWII Germany...
With raisins rolled into the dough, and an egg wash once it had been braided and risen.

It's the only thing I can imagine eating on Christmas morning.

This year, I realized that no one else in our four separate family households would have the skills or time to bake it, so I'm making four loaves as part of our Christmas Eve gifts. The storebought gifts are minimal and practical this year - but everyone's getting a little handknit something, and a loaf of Christmas morning bread.

Amy McWeasel said...

My Meemaw's candy cane cookies mean Christmas to me. I've never been able to duplicate the dainty little twisted canes like she could make, so I've resorted to making round cookies instead. The taste is the same, but... someday, I'll have to master the twisted cane shapes to really honor my Meemaw.