Friday, Dec. 21, 2007
I never expected that our home would become Christmas central for the spousal unit's family. I mean, I knew that his parents wouldn't live forever, but I always thought that it would be one of his two older brothers who would assume the mantle when the time came.
But then marriages dissolved, his widowed mom died last Christmas, and here we are, with fifteen people planning to descend upon our tiny log cabin on Tuesday. Fifteen trusting souls coming to the home of a woman who isn't a very good cook, to celebrate a holiday that's all about food.
Ah, but the universe has a dark sense of humour.
Over the years I've acquired most of my mom-in-law's Christmas cookie recipes. For the last two weeks I've been up to my elbows in butter, sugar, flour and assorted candied fruits recreating those little disks of holiday cheer.
One of the little 3 x 5 cards, though, holds a lot more than a simple list of ingredients. One of them is as potent for our family as madeleines were for Proust.
My mom-in-law was a legendary baker. Over the years she bought herself two cars through the proceeds of local restaurants buying her home made pies. Whenever there was a bake sale at the local church, people would specifically ask to buy whatever she had donated. The woman had a gift.
She always encouraged creativity in her grandchildren. She also understood how hard it is for a tiny child to give a gift to their parents, and just how much it meant for a child to be able to give.
And so the tradition of Christmas shortbreads was born. From the moment her grandchildren were old enough to press a candied cherry into a cookie, they "made" shortbread cookies for their parents. That little grinning kid in the picture is my daughter at 3 ½ or so.
That grin is all about the happiness and independence of making something "all by herself" for her parents. Those somewhat mis-shapen cookies in the foreground are her shortbreads. They were delicious.
My mom-in-law kept up the tradition with each and every grandchild right up until they left home. Here she is 20 years ago, with my daughter in the foreground beavering away at her bowl, with my two nieces equally absorbed in their cookies.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without homemade shortbread cookies. This year they are the very definition of bitter sweet because every sugary mouthful comes with a memory of a time that is gone forever.
Now, tentatively, we begin new traditions.
Each family is going to bring a dish or two to Christmas, just as we did when my mom-in-law was alive. My nieces volunteered the usual suspects.
My nephew is here for medical reasons and won't get back to his wife and child in Costa Rica until after Christmas. He's a tall, brusque young man with a shaved head and a kind of macho swagger. Out of the blue he said he wanted to contribute something to the Christmas meal. When I asked him what, he replied, "Nanny's shortbreads."
I couldn't be more delighted. I love the fact that one of her grandchildren will be carrying on her tradition on the anniversary of her death.
A few weeks ago I borrowed my mom-in-law's recipes from down at the home farm to see if I could find anything Christmas-y I'd missed over the years. Mixed in her cards are recipes from her friends, some of whom were elderly women when she knew them through church groups in the 1950's.
This one was originally for a pie filling:
Mona's Mock Cherry Pie
2 cups cranberries, coarsely chopped
You're supposed to stir it in a bowl, put it in a pie crust, dot the top with 1 tbsp. Crisco, bake 10 minutes at 425 and 25 minutes at 375.
I decided to forget the Crisco, add a splash of water and cook the filling in a pot on the stove until it took on the consistency of a thick pudding. Lots of stirring so it didn't burn. The cranberries got soft, but didn't dissolve. While it was cooling, I made an oatmeal crumble type crust (like you'd make for date square or apple crisp), patted half of it on the bottom of an 8" cake pan, spread the cooled cranberry on top of it, then crumbled the rest of the oatmeal crust on top.
Baked it at 350 F until it was golden. It made a fabulous square, both tangy and sweet, Christmas-y looking because of the red filling. If I wanted to be a bit more tight-fisted with the filling, I probably could have made it stretch to fill a 9 x 13 pan, but in the smaller pan you get a real blast of the tangy flavour.
I can only barely remember Mona. She was a somewhat prim gossipy spinster lady, deeply involved in her church, who died over 20 years ago when she was well into her 80's.
I wonder what she would think of her recipe drifting off over the internets, like a tiny paper boat on a river?
Want to delve into my sordid past?
She's mellllllllllllllting - Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 - Back off, Buble - Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 - Dispersed - Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 - Nothing comes for free - Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 - None of her business - Friday, Nov. 04, 2011 -
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