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CHRISTMAS MANIA

Originally posted November, 2012.

For Biff and Bill, two of my younger brothers

Christmas has always been, throughout my life, the most special holiday of all. I was one of seven children and we were encouraged at a very young age to give presents to one another, our parents and our grandparents. Consequently, as Christmas approached, there would be much giggling and whispering, along with outraged threats when one became annoyed with a sibling. “Just for THAT, you aren’t going to get a Christmas present from ME!”

Of course, those threats were never carried out and as Christmas approached, we all fell pell-mell into a frenzy of shopping, making and wrapping up presents. I remember Santa ornaments made out of walnut shells, a lot of Woolworth’s hair nets and cards of bobby pins, and a bottle of nail polish that had a cap resembling a fingernail. There were dozens of bottles of Midnight in Paris cologne on my mother’s vanity and odd little gifts like miniature German-American dictionaries.

For we didn’t, of course, have much money–this was in the early 1940s after the end of World War II. The gifts we children made or bought were devised out of our own ingenuity or resources. We didn’t have any such thing as an allowance, and it was difficult to earn money. We did, though. We mowed lawns and shoveled snow; I sold greeting cards from Cardinal Craftsman for my mother, to the neighbors; we picked apples from my grandmother’s back yard trees and cherries from our own back yard. We ran errands for all the neighbor ladies (usually good for a nickel—but sometimes all you got was a cookie…it was considered bad etiquette to ask in advance how much you might get for running an errand. You ran the errand, and then crossed your fingers.
We collected soda pop bottles which were worth two cents each, and cashed them in. When we got a little older, there were babysitting jobs and paper routes and for my older brother, Jim, setting bowling pins at St Bonnie’s bowling alley (before automatic pinsetters were invented). He also had a parttime job working for Durkee Foods, where our Uncle George worked and occasionally brought home items that had expired dates on them. sometimes the expired cans of biscuits would explode when you began to open them.

We saved old gift wrap and ribbons from one year to the next and ironed out the paper and ribbons. We made tags out of old Christmas cards, construction paper and those little stickers that didn’t stick to anything else.

Throughout all of this, as Christmas approached, we memorized Christmas songs—hymns and tunes like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. I happen to belong to the generation that remembers when Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman were first released. We had the sheet music for piano and learned all the words. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my grandmother’s club that year.

We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet and we practiced these melodies ad nauseam, until everyone around us was thoroughly tired of hearing them. When we got tired of hearing each other, my mother would sit down at the piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think, the only Christmas song she knew how to play. She never had lessons and played entirely by ear. Incredible, when I think of it. She was actually pretty good. And because she never could read music, it was probably also why she pushed so hard for us to have music lessons. **

My younger brothers and I went downtown, in Cincinnati, once a year – sometime just before Christmas and a few times right on Christmas Eve day. We’d have our hard-earned pennies and nickels and dimes tightly guarded against potential pickpockets—sometimes as much as a dollar—to shop for Christmas presents. We took the bus from Fairmount to the downtown area, do our shopping, visit all the department store Santas (we knew they weren’t the real Santa but each one was good for a peppermint stick) and have lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter as well. You could get a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle, and a coke, for fifteen cents. We three shared one sandwich, one coke. Bus fare each way was a nickel, leaving us at least seventy five cents to shop with.

Not too many years ago, my childhood girlfriend Carol confessed that she was always jealous of me on those shopping trips.

“ME!” I exclaimed, “Whatever FOR?”
“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than
anybody else.”

My brothers and I have fond memories of those shopping excursions.

Late in the afternoon, we’d board the bus, elated with our purchases and go home to wrap them up in ironed-out previously used gift wrap. I think we ironed out the ribbons too (this was long before pre-made bows became available).

“The funny thing is,” I told my friend, Carol – “I was no more than ten years old when I began taking my brothers downtown. Can you imagine letting one of your own children do that at the age of ten?”
Times have changed, we agreed. **

We listened, from Thanksgiving on, to Santa Claus reading children’s letters on the radio –all the way from the North Pole! That, we knew, was the real honest to goodness Santa. The Santas in Department stores were just helpers.

And throughout all of this planning and preparing, none of us lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. It was there for us to see in the crèche made up of almost-life-size statues in our church. There was a living nativity downtown at Garfield Park that we visited every year too. Real animals. Real Mary and Joseph. Not a real Baby Jesus though. We had advent calendars and we sang Christmas hymns in church and school. We went shopping with our mother and got new shoes at Schiff’s, and a new hat and outfit to wear to church on Christmas morning. I think some of the new clothing was ordered by mail.

Christmas was celebrated, officially, at our house on Christmas Eve. We children were usually sent to my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue, for the afternoon. If my brothers and I had gone shopping that day, we went to grandma’s house afterwards. There wasn’t a hint of Christmas in our own home prior to Christmas Eve. Then my father would come with the car to pick us up. His cousin, Barb, who was my godmother, was often with him. Everyone piled into the car to go home. As we pulled up in front of the house, we would see the lights on the Christmas tree through the living room window. Sometimes snowflakes would begin to fall.

“He’s been here! He’s been here!” all of us children would shriek, tumbling out of the car and up the steps to the house. My mother would meet us at the door. “He’s just leaving!” she’d cry. “If you hurry you might catch a glimpse of him from the back door—“

The pageant never changed. We all shouted the same words every year. My mother’s responses were always the same. We’d fall all over one another trying to catch a glimpse – too late! He was gone – but oh, boy, see what he’s left behind!

The tree would be in a corner of the living room—surrounded, it seemed to our childish eyes, with a tremendous wealth of toys and presents. My mother would call out the names on the packages, one by one. One year she was in the hospital right up until Christmas. She came home to be with the family and had to return to the hospital shortly thereafter. (In retrospect, I think this was a year when she had a miscarriage, followed by a blood transfusion, which led to a bout with Hepatitis—she was in the hospital for most of one winter).

I realize now that there weren’t so many presents under our tree—and much of it consisted of what we gave to one another and the bulk of gifts from our parents were practical –generally socks and underwear –but the delight was always there. My two younger brothers always asked for (and seems like they always received) gun-and-holster sets, like Roy Rogers wore, and wind-up trains that never seemed to last from one year to the next, although my older brother Jim had a Lionel train set that survived a lot of childish abuse.

At a very young age, I developed a great love for books—one of my favorite Christmas memories is the one when my brother Jim gave me five – FIVE! brand new Nancy Drew books. It was heaven.

Is it any wonder that the joy of Christmas spilled over into my adult life? At our house, we began “thinking Christmas” as early as May, when the first raspberries ripened to make raspberry jam. Later, we made pomegranate jelly and pomegranate cordial, and I would begin stocking up on nuts, chocolate chips, sugar and flour, to make fruitcake and cookies. I collected a huge assortment of Christmas books and magazines and the pages often became dog-eared from so much handling as Christmas approached. Every member of the family had their particular favorite cookie and no matter how often I resolved “not to let everything get out of hand this year” by the time I’ve baked everyone’s favorite, every container in the house is filled to the brim with cookies.

When my sons were really little, I’d buy gifts all year long and wrap them as soon as possible, to hide in a closet far out of the reach of inquiring eyes and poking fingers—but no matter how secretive I thought I was, my son Chris’ packages always had a finger hole punched through each one of the packages that had his name on it. (One year, I overlooked an entire box of wrapped gifts and didn’t find it until after Christmas – but we were celebrating Hanukkah with my girlfriend Rosalia and her family, so I took the gifts to her house to give to my sons as Hanukkah presents. They thought celebrating Hanukkah was just fine).

Christmas catalogs started arriving in the mail around in September—happily, I was not alone in my mania and a number of friends shared my enthusiasm; we’d swap catalogs and go through them until they were almost in shreds from handling. The children would go through the catalogs too.

“I want this,” they’d say. “and this…and this…and this…”

We saved fruitcake tins and collected baskets of all sizes. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if each of our friends didn’t receive a goody basket when they came to visit. One year, the boys decorated “gingerbread houses” made out of graham crackers. Another time we made gingerbread boys and girls for all of the children. We have, on different Christmases, baked dozens of different kinds of cookies and confections…not so difficult to do, really. I would make up batches of cookie dough to freeze or refrigerate—this could be done months in advance—then spent a week (evenings only since I worked full time) baking up one batch after another.

When I was a newlywed, our first Christmas tree ornaments were some old glass blown ornaments from Germany that had belonged to my husband’s mother. The original hooks had been lost and my husband, when he was a teenager, had twisted bits of flexible black wire on them instead. We still have those glass ornaments with the black bits of twisted wire. Way back when, I started collecting ornaments – originally with the thought in mind that as each of my sons got married, they would have a collection of their own ornaments. My collection grew so much that it became impossible to get them all on one tree. So we added a second tree. Then a third. Our last Christmas in Arleta in 2007, we had eight Christmas trees throughout the house.
Whenever I went on vacation somewhere, I’d look for a Christmas store—amazing how many cities have one! (Favorite Christmas stores? One near Carmel, California that my sister Becky and I discovered one year, and one in Atlanta, Georgia where we had flown for a niece’s wedding).

Ornaments make great gifts too and over the years my many nieces and nephews have received an assortment of homemade ornaments from Aunt Sandy. One year they received clothespin soldiers, another year a friend’s mother made up crocheted snowflakes for me. Still another Christmas the children received ceramic gingerbread boys and girls that a penpal of mine in Maryland made up for me. And another Christmas, a penpal in New Jersey made up tiny clothespin gnomes for me. Christmas ornaments, I always felt, were the ideal gift – they’re put up on a tree for a short time during the holidays, no one ever tires of seeing hem and remembering where they came from—and every Christmas, and those ornaments bring back memories to the recipients.
The plaster of Paris crèche in our home was purchased piece by piece in dime stores back in the late 1950s; many of the pieces are chipped from being handled repeatedly by my sons when they were little. They liked to re-arrange the figures. One year we somehow misplaced St Joseph and had to have one of the Wisemen stand in for him.

One year, I fulfilled a lifelong desire to make an entire gingerbread house (it was a lot of WORK and I don’t think I will ever attempt it again–Bob did a great deal of the work putting all the parts of the house together) – and another year when we were in northern California for Thanksgiving weekend, we found a Lionel train, fulfilling another lifelong dream. (Then I didn’t want the younger children handling the Lionel train, so we began buying battery-operated oversized train sets).

When I was living in Florida, I acquired two penpals who loved Christmas as much as I, and we forged a special friendship, sharing memories and exchanging (what else?) homemade ornaments.

Christmas is too commercialized, you say? I don’t think so. There are still many of us around who love Christmas, who have never lost sight of the fact that Christmas is our celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.

Christmases, from the time you begin to create a family until your children are grown and bringing their children to Grammy and Grandpa for Christmas—are a collection of memories and maybe that’s what much of Christmas is all about – all those memories, spanning decades, going back to your own earliest childhood.
**
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.

Sandra Lee Smith

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CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it on my blog around 2011 or 2012. Bear with me as I go back in time once again to reflect on my favorite hobby and pastime for all of my adult life: Christmas.

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY
It’s July and I have begun thinking about Christmas. Well, to tell the truth, I really start thinking about Christmas in January. This goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when I was raising four little boys and would search for clearance sale items right AFTER Christmas.
There is so much to plan and do for the holidays, but mainly my thoughts center around Christmas presents which are now stored, such as they are, in a spare bedroom. Throughout all the years we lived in Arleta, Christmas presents were stored in a very large built-in hall cupboard that I called (obviously) “The Christmas cupboard”.

Back in the day, I would send a box of books to my pen-pal, Eileen, in Australia. You had to get your overseas packages to the post office by September, so they would reach their destination by December (this was for surface rates. Airmail will get there a lot faster but costs quite a bit more). I used to send at least one box of books to Eileen each year. We loved the same authors, Eileen and I.

But our lives have changed quite a lot; we are now retired as are most of my penpals For years I sent Christmas parcels to all of them, little things picked up here and there along the way—or books. Now, no one can afford to exchange gifts although I still do exchanges with several of my penpals. My penpal Bev and I stopped exchanging Christmas presents but still do gifts for our birthdays which are on the same day.

I save up recipe booklets and inserts from cooking magazines to send to penpal Eve, who also lives in Australia—but there’s no timeframe for that. I just seal the envelope when it’s full. Indeed, all of our lives have changed and hardly anyone can afford to send gifts—not just the gifts but the cost of postage. Isn’t that sad?

I like to send some magazines and maybe a couple of jars of jam to my brother Bill every so often, not necessarily for Christmas. Ditto my brother, Jim. My sister Becky and I exchanged boxes of things throughout the year—often books—not for any particular reason – just because.

And speaking of my brother, Jim, I will always remember that he gave me my first books – five Nancy Drew mysteries – when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was an unforgettable moment in my life. What I discovered, then, was that it was not enough just to read the books: I had to own them, too).

However, all of this being what it is, I still continue to make up batches of jellies and jams, pickles and relishes—and start around in May when fresh strawberries become available in our supermarkets. My friend Bev often brings me some pureed blackberries when she and her husband visit me before heading for Arizona in January, to meet up with other Oregonian snowbirds for the winter. Blackberry is my favorite; not a lot gets given away.
I will still make little loaves of banana bread (and save up ripe bananas, mashed and measured in one cup increments, in the freezer) and I love to make fruitcake—but who is there to give fruitcake to any longer?

I like to make cookies and candy in the fall, to give as Christmas gifts—and last year my grandson, Ethan, became my sous chef in the kitchen as we made some Christmas cookies. He wanted to give Buckeye Balls (a kind of peanut butter candy that is dipped in melted chocolate to look like a buckeye) – those are very popular and well known in Ohio, my hometown, but not so much here. We bought pretty little boxes with plastic openings on the lids, at Michael’s and while I directed in the kitchen, Ethan actually made the buckeye balls and packaged them to give to some of his favorite people. He and his sister, Savannah (who is now 17 and not as preoccupied with cookies anymore) have been making cookies with me since they were very young children, maybe starting out around the age of eight.

I send cookies and candy to the claims department at the office where I worked for 27 years, with the help of an employee who lives in the Antelope Valley and does a delivery for me ever since I moved up here. I also send a jar of jam to friends who are still working there.
A word about cookies – some, like lebkuchen and gingerbread cookies can be made well in advance and allowed to mellow in a tightly closed container. A lot of cookies can be wrapped tight and stored in the freezer until the holiday draws near. Some are too fragile (such as meringue cookies) and shouldn’t be made until right before Christmas.

And I can’t recommend making them at all if you live in a humid State such as Florida. (This is the voice of experience talking—I lived in Florida for 3 years). Meringue cookies do keep pretty well in a dry climate such as the high desert, where I now live. If I am going to glaze or frost cookies, I don’t do that until I take cutout cookies out of the freezer just before Christmas, and then add my finishing touches. Gifts of cookies can be given to the girls at my post office, to my mail carrier, to my mechanic, or other service people who are in my life. Who doesn’t enjoy a box of freshly baked cookies? Last year, Ethan helped me take two large trays of cookies to the nurses at the chemo center where Bob underwent treatment throughout the year.

I have written in the past about the Christmas cookbooks in my collection – but this year, I would like to tell you about just one Christmas cookbook although there are dozens in my cookbook collection. And, since I have also written in the past about my own childhood Christmas memories, I thought it would be nice to share those of other (somewhat more prominent) writers.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” is a collection of Christmas memoirs and recipes offered by famous chefs and cookbook authors. It was published by Kitchen Arts & Letters/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. It is available on both Amazon and Alibris, some copies for as little as 25 cents, others – such as Alibris – has copies for 99c. But a word of caution—I found copies of the same book with the author being listed as Evan Jones or Martha Stewart – they are just contributors to the book itself. I will attempt to include a photograph of the book I am referring to. Amazon.com does have some other cookbooks with the very same title but judging from the covers, they’re not the same book.

And goodness knows—there are hundreds of Christmas-themed cookbooks and memoirs as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of cookbooks about cookie making. Before we moved to the desert, a friend came and created a spreadsheet for me on my computer—I logged on all of the Christmas/cookie titles and found I now have over 500 (yikes!) – a far cry from the days when my sons were children and most of my cookie recipes came from Farm Journal cookbooks or recipes I found in December magazines and cut out to put into a 3-ring binder, or cookie recipes exchanged with penpals. When one binder of recipes became too full to hold another sheet of paper I started another cookie binder – and when that was full….well you get the picture. I now have 7 binders for cookies. The oldest one was started in 1958 when I got married.

Included in CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES are contributions from Bert Greene, Marion Cunningham, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Helen Witty, Irena Chalmers, Julee Rosso, Beatrice Ojakangas, Evan Jones, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Betty Fussell – and others! And, although there are recipes included with each memoir, the recipes are really secondary to the thoughts and recollections of the various writers.

‘IT’S a lot like getting married,” Irena Chalmers offers. “There has to be a beautiful solemn bride in a long white dress and everyone gasping a she comes down the aisle. And all of us, craning to catch a glimpse of her as thought we had never seen her before. And then a heart-stopping moment when for a terrible second we all fear that he really has forgotten the ring. And then, of course, the best man finds it in his other pocket and the tension makes the relief all the sweeter. And in moments they are safely across the high wire and the vows are all completed and the organ is crashing out the Wedding March and the couple is dancing down the aisle and all the guests break out from orderly rows to greet the bride and groom, and each other, and the party is ready to begin….It’s like that,” she notes, “with Christmas dinner. Once you’ve embarked on it you’ve got to go the whole way: do it up properly with the plumpest turkey that ever there was and the sage and onion dressing and the chipolata sausages and the lumpy mashed potatoes and the gravy and the Brussels sprouts and the gooseberry sauce. And then, when there is not an inch of room left, the lights are turned out and in comes Father carrying the plum pudding borne on the silver platter….”

“Maybe the way to say it,” suggests Evan Jones, “is that Christmases make a mosaic of nostalgia. My memories begin with the year the first ice skates were the parental gifts for my siblings and me, and there is an odd bit of sentiment for the friend whose handmade cradle, much later, was his celebration of my own first child’s inaugural Christmas….”

Edna Lewis recalls Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….”

Craig Claiborne, writing of distant Christmases, states, “The Christmases that pass most often through my mind are from my early childhood, the most dramatic being when I was about four years old, and in a moment of innocence, set my family’s home ablaze…”

Betty Fussell recalls in brilliant clarity, a Depression Christmas on her grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, while Jane Grigson writes that one of her earliest memories is of her father singing at Christmas. She says he had a “lovely tenor voice, clear, unaffected, warm, and joyful”. *(Grigson’s memory of her father singing made me think of my mother playing “Silver Bells” on our upright piano—she couldn’t read music and played entirely by ear).

Bert Greene remembers that while he is a Christmas lover, his mother was not. “Her yuletide animus,” writes Greene, “was undoubtedly affected by a traumatic childhood experience. She had been chosen to play Scrooge in a school production of Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL when she was about ten or twelve, and spent the better part of her lifetime, and my own, sneering, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ whenever the first snows fell. She was also a woman who, for one thing, hated shopping and, for another, hated cooking…”. Bert goes on to explain how the Christmases of his childhood were celebrated – during the Depression, when his family lost their house, silver serving dishes and wedding crystal—and the story he tells is heart-warming. When Bert’s mother complained that she didn’t have the Christmas spirit and “it will cost a fortune”, Bert took over. He volunteered to do all of the work and shopping—but he ran out of money and had to ask his mother for more.

His mother said “Just how much do you think it will cost to finance this damn foolishness?”

Bert recalls, “I dreaded to tell her. Ten Dollars”.
“TEN DOLLARS?”

“Even as I write this,” says Bert, “almost fifty years later, it is hard to believe how much that amount of money actually represented. My mother and I stared at each other a long while, weighing the momentous sum before she carefully unbuttoned her coat. There, on the street, without glancing up or down, she quickly remove a bill from her boodle, a small bag that she always wore tucked into the top of her brassier.

‘Make it last,” she said wryly. “Try not to come home too late. And for God’s sake, don’t tell your father!”

“The party was a great success” remembers Bert. “All of the relatives ate well, demolished the desserts, and played games, and those who drank sang dirty songs afterward. All the cookies we made were carried off like Tiffany bibelots….” ***

(Bert’s story reminds me of the annual trips I made downtown (Cincinnati) when I was a child along with two younger brothers, sometime in December for a number of years. We might have no more than two dollars to buy presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings. My brother Bill’s money was mostly pennies, in a little change purse, that he held tightly in his fist to present any pickpockets from taking his money. It begs the question—how DID we manage bus fare, gifts for so many people—and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter? I can only compare it with the loaves and fishes in the bible story.) And we wrapped all of our presents with old gift wrap paper that was ironed to get the wrinkles out.

Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks are familiar to all of us (including her “Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies”), tells the story of World War II, when she was a young mother with a one-year-old daughter. Her husband was in the army and her brother in the navy. Maida was living at home with her parents. Professionally, she says, she was a fashion illustrator—but her hobby was cooking. She tells the story of baking and mailing cookies to everyone she knew in the service. When the New York City USO wanted cookies for a big Christmas party, Maida began baking. “I baked those cookies,” she recalls, “from early until late every day for weeks. My only problem was getting enough boxes to pack them in. Food shortages and rationing (butter and sugar were strictly rationed) didn’t bother me, as there were always friends and neighbors who wanted to help. They gave me their ration coupons, they shopped for me and they helped pack the cookies. The filled boxes lined the entrance hall and the dining room flowed over into the living room. The day before Christmas a neighbor piled the boxes into his truck and my mother and I went along to deliver the cookies to the USO at Times Square. Gasoline was rationed but this was a priority delivery….”

“If I counted the cookies,” she writes, “or the number of recipes, that special Christmas, I don’t remember it now. One thing I do remember is that none of those cookies was dainty. They were all he-man cookies. The ones that had raisins or nuts had lots of them. The chocolate cookies were very chocolate. The spice cookies were very spicy. In a way, that one baking experience influenced everything I have baked since….”

(Maida provides the recipe for her mother’s gingersnaps, which I think I will have to try when I start baking Christmas cookies this year. Another cookie that has entered our lives—I was making batch after batch for a few months this year—is a molasses cookie that I found in the L.A. Times SOS column. My youngest son says they are like “a crack cookie” – you can’t stop eating them).

Helen Witty, whose “Fancy Pantry” cookbook is a favorite of mine, starts her memoir off with “Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of a family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been established on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East, and my father, from the West, met in the Pugent Sound country, married, moved to Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where snow and sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that came from somewhere was firmly maintained: the celebrations of Christmas Day began after breakfast, not before…” Helen goes on to relate her family Christmases, and sums up, “As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a not-for-everyday breakfast…”

Her Christmas breakfasts reminded me of the many special Christmas breakfasts I prepared when my four sons were children, I’d bake a variety of sweet breads and stollen, but the piece de resistance in our household was always pork chops and gravy, a big pan of homemade biscuits, home fries and eggs, or occasionally, what I called a Mexican breakfast casserole. My husband’s mother was from Bluefield, West Virginia, and I learned the art of making what we called “white gravy” from her. If not pork chops, I’d fry cube steaks and then put them back into the white gravy after it was made.

There are heartwarming stories from twenty-five chefs and cookbook authors in “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES”. I’ve just given you a sampling—a small taste.

As the holidays draw near, we become busier and busier with shopping and addressing Christmas cards. During the years that Bob and I went to Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving weekend, I would take my cards and address book with me to start working on my cards and letters.

Last year (2011) was the most difficult Christmas. It was the first without Bob, who had shared my life for 26 years. I would have liked to go off and ignore the holiday, but was coaxed into putting up one of my trees—and my grandson, Ethan, was determined to put up the Snow Village, because it was one of those things his grandpa put up every year. I realized that so much of what we did—all the decorating inside and out—was accomplished only because Bob was such a willing spirit. He loved doing it. He loved the compliments.

Then a few angels made their way to the fireplace mantel and I found myself baking cookies and showing my grandson how to do some things. He and his sister also made gingerbread houses, from a kit we bought at Michael’s. After Christmas, I thought it was a good time to go through all of the ornaments and tree decorations; most had been packed in boxes and stored in a shed. I had some water damage to some of the boxes. Kelly took me to Walmart where I bought 20 large red and green plastic containers, and methodically went through all of the boxes, repacking everything in plastic containers that are now stored in Grandpa’s workshop. As I worked, I set aside all bear decorations/tree ornaments to send to my penpal, Betsy, who collects bears—with a suggestion that she put up a small bear tree. She liked the idea. I know I have to downsize but it’s a mammoth project that will take a lot of time to accomplish.
I hope we all will take a little time to reflect on Christmas, and what it means to each of us. These twenty five food writers have done just that. They have reflected on the Christmases of their pasts and have shared those memories with us. And much of what they have written reminds me so much of my own Christmas memories.

Author Julie Rosso sums up Christmas memories with words that all of us might appreciate: “Those years are long gone,” she writes, “and since that time there have been many Christmases in faraway places—some just like those of having as a child. We’ve found ourselves in Paris, New York, Vienna, Rome, Monte Carlo, and the Caribbean at Christmas time, and while it is ever so nice to visit other countries at Christmas, I’d give almost anything for one of those Christmases in Michigan, just once more”.
I haven’t spent any Christmases in other countries – but I would like to spend one, just once more – in Ohio, where it always seemed to start snowing on Christmas eve before we went to midnight mass.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” was published by Kitchen Arts & Letter/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1988. It is available on both Amazon.com and Alibris.com; prices start as low as 4 cents on Amazon. Alibris has copies for 99c.

FANCY PANTRY BY HELEN WITTY is available on Amazon.com starting at $2.40 for a soft cover copy. It also has some ridiculous prices, such as $129.99 for a hardbound copy. Alibris also has the book for $2.40 – and copies priced at $251.99 and $241.74. I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for a cookbook you can get for far less.

Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies is available on Alibris.com for 99c. I couldn’t find the EXACT same title on Amazon.com so am not listing it. She does have a number of cookie cookbooks listed.

Well, I have rambled on long enough with you. Cookie recipes are available on my blog along with some photographs of previous cookie baking marathons. I woke up one morning recently and realized that Christmas will never again be as sumptuous as it was for Bob and myself, for several decades, especially in Arleta where we put up 8 Christmas trees. That idea of spending Christmas in Ohio is becoming more appealing. I hope your holidays are cheery and bright.

Sandy@sandychatter

CHRISTMAS WON’T BE CHRISTMAS

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was. – From Little Women.

It was the first book I ever owned, a copy of “Little Women” given to me by my mother when I was about ten or eleven. I read it over and over again, often enough to be able to recite entire paragraphs from memory. Owning a copy of “Little Women” caused something to explode within my heart. It was never enough, after that, just to read a book although I read library books voraciously. I wanted to OWN those favorite books as well. Perhaps a year or two later, my brother Jim gave me FIVE Nancy Drew books for Christmas. FIVE! What riches! What wealth!

Not surprisingly, you will have to agree, my house today is wall to wall bookcases filled with books throughout most of the house (ok, none in the kitchen or bathrooms) although you can often find a little stack of magazines or catalogues on the back of the toilet. And last year, Bob built a library that takes up half of the garage. I was unpacking books to go onto the shelves as fast as he finished a section. Finally, after two years, the rest of our books were unpacked and placed on shelves.(We moved into this house in November of 2008).  The garage library is primarily for fiction although I have a respectable collection of books – biographies and auto biographies about our first ladies and one entire section is devoted to American presidents. (I think I have more about John Fitzgerald and Jackie Kennedy than any other president. I think this is because he was the first American president – and she the first “First Lady” who really captured my attention. Next high on my list are books about President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.  We have made many trips to the Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley. But I also collect biographies and auto biographies about movie stars and this probably started when I began working at the SAG Health Plan in 1977.

I’ve also collected books – stories, biographies and—yes, even cookbooks—about African Americans (or Black Americans if you want to be more politically correct. I have found so many really wonderful stories written by African Americans. I believe this is an untapped resource of Americana fiction.

And yes, it started with an inexpensive copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. (I love Little Women so much that I have every film edition of this wonderful civil war era story. But, I have never figured out what pickled limes were; you may recall that Amy got in trouble at school for having a bag of pickled limes in her desk. The teacher confiscated the bag of pickled limes and threw them all out the school house window. I do a lot of canning  (and yes, I collect  cookbooks about canning, preserving, making jams, jellies and chutneys – but have never come across a recipe for making pickled limes!)

“Little Women” is one of those ageless stories that I enjoy watching during the holiday season – along with “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Elf”, “The Santa Clause” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

I have loved Christmas my entire life; when I was about ten years old I began taking my two younger brothers downtown – in Cincinnati – to do our Christmas shopping at the 5 & 10 cent stores. We did all our shopping in one day, along with visiting the department store Santas to get a peppermint stick – and then happily returned home on the trolley (or buses if they had replaced street cars by then) to surreptitiously slip upstairs to my bedroom and wrap our gifts – with wrapping paper my mother had saved from the year before. We ironed out gift wrap paper and ribbons to look “like new” again.  My two brothers and I have the most precious memories of those trips downtown. If we were able, we’d make another trip downtown to see the life-size nativity on display in Garfield Park.

And I think opening the presents, as wonderful as it was, might have been anti climatic to the trip downtown with my little brothers to buy Christmas presents for everyone in the family, with pennies and nickels we had saved or earned. We didn’t have an allowance and earning a bit of cash was always a challenge. My girlfriend Carol went downtown with us one year and in later years confessed that she was always jealous of us Schmidts, buying all our Christmas presents for about a dollar—total!  Well, there was also the five cent bus fare each way to take into consideration. And sometimes we even shared a grill cheese sandwich at the soda fountain counter in Woolworths.

How did we do it? I have no idea. Our little change purses were something like the loaves and fishes in the bible – there was always JUST enough to get something for everyone in the family – five of us children, our parents and our grandparents.

My love for Christmas rubbed off on Bob, my partner for the past 25 years. He became as enthusiastic as I, putting up trees (yes, plural – one year we had 8 trees up in the house in Arleta) and decorating everything in sight inside and outside of the house, while I baked cookies. One year we made a fantastic gingerbread house.  He was always as excited and pleased as I, when guests would arrive at our house and begin to ooh and ahh over the two trees standing on either side of our fireplace, the lighthouse tree in the dining room and the little kitchen-theme trees in the kitchen.   This will be my first Christmas without Bob to share it with.  Christmas won’t be Christmas without him.

I originally wrote this in November of 2011, two months after Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus. This year will mark the third Christmas without him.

Sandra Lee Smith

September 7, 2014

 

 

 

“WHAT’S CHRISTMAS WITHOUT COOKIES?” ASKS THE COOKIE LADY

What’s Christmas without cookies ? Christmas cookies to share with family, friends, and coworkers—perhaps some cookies for the mailman (or the mail lady). I also give cookies to my manicurist. Each of my sons receives a tin of his very own cookies—chocolate chip, no “ingredients” (ingredients are nuts, raisins, coconut or any of those other yucky things that I love so much. When my sons were children, they took containers of cookies to their teachers.

A few years ago, I bought Disney-theme cookie jars and filled them with different kinds of cookies. Along with my sons and their families, one of the cookie jars went to my younger sister and her family, who also live in California. Other cookies are wrapped in baskets or tins—or whatever suitable containers I find (I search for cookie containers throughout the year. Some of our best bargains have been containers bought at Target, after the holidays, for 90% off).

When I got married in 1958, I had one Betty Crocker cookbook and a boxful of recipe pamphlets. That Christmas, General Mills published a small booklet called “Betty Crocker’s Holiday Almanac” – I kept it, and began saving the Christmas recipe sections in my December magazines; Woman’s Day always published a tear-out cookie/candy recipe section—the earliest I have was published in1962. These are in 3-ring binders that have somehow grown to 8 thick binders, just with cookie recipes.

What I had, in 1958, was a start – enough recipes to bake some cookies and a few batches of fudge. When we moved to California in 1961 we had little more than a car-trunk full of clothing and the baby’s bed—but I somehow managed to do some holiday baking.

In 1963 – after moving back to Ohio in March, returning to California in December-
We didn’t even have furniture (much less a tree)…but I baked cookies; we invited friends over and everyone sat on the floor drinking coffee and eating Christmas cookies.

From these austere beginnings, my holiday cookie baking grew until it began to reach mammoth proportions. In the mid 60s, a girlfriend and I began making cookie dough in September, and freezing the batches. When we thought we had a goodly amount of cookie dough (I think about ten or twelve batches each) we’d embark on a cookie-baking-marathon. We did our baking late at night at her house, around the corner from me, because her husband worked nights and it was the only time I could get out of the house—when all four of my children were asleep. When we finished, we had filled all of our Tupperware containers and anything else we could find to use for storage. We’d divvy up the cookies, giving burnt ones to our husbands and children to eat and were ready to pack our own cookies into smaller containers for gift-giving.

We were purists, in those days—everything was made from scratch, with real butter and only the best of all ingredients—no imitation vanilla for us! I think there was one frightful year (1975?) when sugar was $5.00 for a 5-lb bag and we had to search for cookie recipes using honey or molasses.

In the 80s, along came cookie exchanges—frankly, these don’t always work out the way you’d like; someone always shows up with store-bought cookies (“I didn’t have time to bake”) or cookies with burned bottoms that no one wants. In theory or in the women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always fantastic. Take it from me; it doesn’t always happen. You can tell people repeatedly that it’s a Christmas cookie exchange and you want them to make Christmas cookies and you can bet that over half of the contributions will be ordinary (non-Christmas) cookies. In my women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always so extraordinary – maybe the secret would be to tell everyone that a magazine journalist and photographer will be at the exchange, in order to assure everyone bringing Christmas cookies.

In the 90s, along came grandchildren and my niece and two nephews, children of my younger sister who herself is young enough to be one of my children (I was 21 when she was born). The arrival of these children opened new vistas for cookie baking. We have baked cookies (children love to make cut-out cookies) which are wildly decorated with sprinkles (children believe that more is better). We also began a new family tradition of having a cookie-and-craft day sometime before Christmas, but also for Valentine’s Day and Easter. I make large (holiday appropriate) cookies for them to decorate and we do some kind of craft project that “goes with” the cookie—for instance, when they decorated big tree-shaped cookies, they also decorated small artificial Christmas trees to take home). This has turned into a big event not only for my grandchildren and my sister’s children, but also for my godson, and some of my friends’ children. (The big cookie idea actually has its roots back when my two younger sons were in first and second grades, and I would make enough large cookies—and plenty of frosting—for all the children in their classes to decorate a cookie to take home).

Nowadays, I admit—I’ve learned a lot of short-cuts, such as making cookies from cake mixes. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to teaching you how to bake wonderful tasty cookies from a cake mix! And in recent years (I am confessing this publicly) I have been stocking up on refrigerated sugar cookie dough and using it for our cut-out cookies.

What you have to do, though, is let the cookie dough come to room temperature, mix in as much flour as possible (usually about half a cup or more to one package of refrigerated cookie dough) – mix in it until it’s blended, then shape into several balls and re-refrigerate the dough until its very firm. I usually work with 2-3 packages of refrigerated cookie dough at a time, Adding flour and sometimes something like a little nutmeg, then reshaping it into balls and putting it back into the refrigerator to firm up. Normally, those refrigerated cookie dough cookies spread too much and lose their shape–the added flour will prevent that from happening. Last year my grandson’s school was selling Masterpiece cookie dough for a fundraiser – my goodness! That sugar cookie dough of theirs was excellent.

There was a time I would have turned my nose up at pre-made cookie dough but if you work with it enough, you can still make really good cut out cookies.

And here’s a tip: You can take sugar cookie dough and turn out dozens of different cookies with it–all you need is some imagination and a lot of sprinkles, jimmies, chopped walnuts or pecans and melted chocolate.

I still search all year long for sales on tins and other containers, for sprinkles and jimmies when they are on sale after a holiday, or for cookie cutters on sale half price after Christmas.

And even though I have retired, former coworkers know they can expect to receive a tin of cookies from me. I also take large containers of cookies to the Claims Department, where I worked. My friend Tina used to say that whenever she took some cookies home, her husband asked, “Are these from the cookie lady?” It’s a good title. I think I’ll keep it.

You can mix and freeze most batches of cookie dough so it’s never too early to get a head start, but before I begin mixing, I always have to go through my cookie files and decide what I’ll make this year. Some recipes are a given; two of my sons want only chocolate chip cookies, no nuts, no other “weird” ingredients (their description, not mine. “Weird” would be something like chocolate-covered raisins). Close friends put in their favorite requests, such as Crispy Little Lemon Wafers or Mexican Wedding Cakes. Bob liked Springerle; it reminded him of his childhood. A few years ago, I found a beautiful large Springerle board at store in Santa Barbara—and it was on sale! A lot of people don’t like Springerle, which has Anise seeds and extract in it. The finished product is a hard dry cookie, good for dunking. I, on the other hand, am very partial to those paper-thin Monrovian spice cookies that I can never get thin enough with my rolling pin.

I make a lot of sugar cut-out cookies and this is a good project to do with grandchildren. One year in the 1960s, I left butter cutout cookies, all freshly decorated, drying on every available surface in the kitchen and dining room. When we got up the next morning, we found our 5 year old son had eaten the icing off every single cookie. (He didn’t like to be reminded of this).

I have to make a batch of diamond-shaped butter cookies encrusted with finely chopped walnuts and sugar; my paternal grandmother always made these and the cookie cutter I use to make them was hers.

We make lots of cookies throughout the year and you can generally find the cookie jar in the kitchen filled to the top, but Christmas is the time to make special cookies, the ones you don’t make any old time…like Spritz, and chocolate pinwheels, candy canes and gingerbread boys.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. In the 1940s and 50s, when I was growing up, there was very little money. We recycled gift wrap and ribbon, ironing out the wrinkles. We made our own gift tags with stickers that didn’t stick on anything else. Once a year, I took my two younger brothers shopping in downtown Cincinnati. We rode the bus there, and visited all the department store Santas to get free candy canes, then did all of our shopping at the 5&10 cent stores. Somehow we managed to buy presents for everyone in the family with our meager savings.

My mother didn’t shop for a tree until Christmas Eve day, when she could get it half-price. We never saw the tree until it was decorated, with presents piled all around. We were generally kept out of the house, visiting my grandmother, until my father came to pick us up. Somehow we always got there just after Santa Claus left – “Hurry, if you look out in the back you might catch a glimpse!”

Christmas was celebrated Christmas Eve and we have carried on the tradition. I tell the grandkids when they arrive, “You just missed Santa! If you look out the back door, maybe you can catch a glimpse of him!”

For those of you who want to start creating your own holiday traditions, cookies are a good way to start. You don’t have to buy a lot of cookbooks (although I do have a lot of cookie cookbooks) – nor do you have to go and buy all the November/December women’s magazines featuring cookie recipes (although these are inspiring and great to collect in a 3-ring binder) – you can find all the recipes anyone could possibly ever dream about right on the internet. One of my favorite websites is http://www.allrecipes.com but I promise you, there are many others.

But if you can’t stand the thought of using refrigerated cookie dough, here is an old tried-and-true favorite cookie dough that I have been making for decades (before the refrigerated stuff came along):

WHITE CHRISTMAS COOKIES

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, well beaten
4 cups all purpose flour-sifted
1/8 tsp each nutmeg & cinnamon

Cream butter, gradually add sugar; beat with electric mixer until light and
Fluffy. Beat in eggs. Sift together dry ingredients and stir into creamed
Mixture. Store overnight in covered container. Roll dough very thin (I
Roll it out between 2 sheets of wax paper that have been dusted with flour). Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 Degrees 1-13 minutes. Makes 16 dozen small cookies.

*I always use parchment paper on the baking sheets; this eliminates ever
needing to butter the cookie sheets. Always cool cookies on wire racks.
When completely cool, they can be stacked in plastic storage containers.

EASY TOFFEE CRACKER BARS

Easy bars with graham crackers, pecans, and other ingredients. Technically speaking, I wouldn’t call this a cookie – it’s more of a confection. But these are wildly popular with everyone.
Ingredients:
• 20 graham crackers (individual squares), regular or chocolate
• 1 1/2 sticks butter (6 ounces)
• 3/4 cup brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Preparation:
Line a jelly roll pan (10×15-inch) with foil; arrange graham crackers in the pan in a single layer. Combine butter and sugar in a heavy medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Boil for 2 minutes; stir in vanilla and chopped pecans. Pour the hot mixture over crackers and spread evenly. Bake 10 minutes at 350°. Remove at once from pan to flat surface to cool. When cool, break into smaller pieces.

CLUB CRACKER BARS

1 box club crackers
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cream or condensed milk
1 cup crushed graham crackers
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup nuts, chopped
1/4 tsp salt

Line a 13×9 inch pan with whole club crackers. Mix remaining ingredients together. Bring to a boil stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until thick. Pour over club crackers. Top with more whole crackers.

Icing:
5 tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk or cream
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
cocoa (optional)

Mix ingredients together. Beat well. Frost the crackers. Cut into squares.

**

ORANGE SLICE SQUARES

4 eggs
¼ cup milk
1 pound light brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups candied orange slices, chopped
1 cup chopped pecans

Beat eggs, add milk and brown sugar and beat well. Sift flour and add to mixture reserving enough flour to mix with chopped orange slices and pecans. Fold into mixture. Pour batter onto a 15x10x1” well greased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool. Spread icing evening on top. Cut into squares.

Icing

1 tbsp butter, softened
3 tbsp evaporated milk
1 tbsp orange rind
2 cups powdered sugar

Combine all ingredients thoroughly.

LEMON BISCOTTI

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
3 TBSP water
2 TBSP canola oil
4 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp lemon extract
½ cup confectioners sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
yellow sugar (optional)

Preheat oven 375 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a bowl. With an electric mixer on high speed, beat the granulated sugar, egg, water, oil, lemon zest and lemon extract until blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture, beating just until combined.

Place dough in 2 (12”) logs, 3” apart on the sheet. Bake until golden, 20 minutes. Cool the logs on the sheet for 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut each log crosswise into ½” slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on the sheet and bake until lightly browned, 15-18 minutes. Cool on a rack.

For the icing, whisk confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle on the biscotti; sprinkle at once with yellow sugar (if using). Let stand until icing hardens, about 2 hours.

This last recipe is for the Christmas tree cookies I baked and Savannah decorated for my sister’s cookie exchange one year:

Savannah’s Christmas Tree Cookies

4 1-lb packages of refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 to 1 ½ cups of flour
Butter cream frosting
Various sprinkles

Let refrigerated cookie dough come to room temperature in a large bowl. When soft enough to handle, mix in flour to make a stiff dough. Shape into four balls of dough and re-refrigerate until firm. Roll out and cut with tree shaped cutters. Bake at 350 8 to 10 minutes (until just brown around the edges). Cool on racks. Spread with butter cream frosting that has been tinted green with food coloring. Decorate as desired. Makes about 6 dozen (more if you have a smaller tree cutter than what we were using).
**

One final suggestion about baking and decorating cookies–if you have children or grandchildren or even neighborhood children – to decorate cookies with, by all means do. These are precious memories they will always cherish. And so will you!

Happy Cookie baking!

Sandy (The Cookie Lady)

REDISCOVERING BREAD PUDDING

Bread pudding was one of the few desserts that we grew up on, Although we might have that or rice pudding just as easily for breakfast as we did for dessert.  Dessert just wasn’t a part of my mother’s repertoire, except for special occasions like Christmas.

 It’s easy to understand how the bread pudding (or rice pudding) managed to make it to the table. We always had bread; my mother baked homemade bread twice a week in large roasting pans. We rarely had “store bought bread” in the house until much later, after my mother began working at Crosley’s over in Camp Washington.  (My sister Barbara recalled that we had the only mother in the neighborhood who worked full time—mind you, this was a time, in the 1940s and 1950s, when most mothers stayed at home).  It doesn’t surprise me that we might have left over rice from any meal; my mother’s rice was like library paste.  The most you could hope for was to break down the pasty consistency by spooning on a lot of chicken broth.  We always had mom’s library paste rice with stewed chicken for Sunday dinner. I was an adult living in California before I discovered that I really do like rice. (and my brother Bill has confessed to liking mom’s  library paste rice.)

I don’t think my mother had a recipe for making bread pudding although it’s entirely possible that she may have followed the recipe for Bread Puff Pudding that I found in her Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook.  The recipe is a simple combination of milk, bread crumbs, a bit of butter, small amount of sugar, vanilla, and a couple of eggs.  These would have been all ingredients on hand in my mother’s kitchen. Mom’s bread pudding sometimes contained some raisins, too.

What got me thinking about bread pudding was a surgery my daughter-in-law had one year.  Keara was recuperating from a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy, and was able to eat only soft foods.  I sent home to her a double batch of creamy tapioca pudding. She requested another comfort food; bread pudding.  Then, while searching through my box of newspaper clippings, I came across an article that appeared in the December 10, 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times – and the subject was – you guessed it – bread puddings.

One of the recipes sounded so good that I decided it was the one to make; I just had to go out and buy a loaf of white bread, which we seldom have on hand, and then “make it stale” by letting the slices set out on the kitchen counter for half a day.

Well, I want you to know, this was a great bread pudding recipe—I did have to sample it, of course, to make sure I wasn’t sending Keara something she wouldn’t be able to eat!

Betty Balsley, the author of this particular article in the Los Angeles Times, explains her love for leftovers (something I can really relate to) and says that she’s always fascinated by the way home cooks as well as professional chefs adeptly handle flavors and texture to produce unforgettable culinary creations.

“Thus it was,” she writes, “that when attending the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Assn. Conference in New Orleans in October, I gained an unmentionable number of pounds sampling an almost amazing variety of these classic American sweets (i.e., bread puddings). “None,” she claims, “were bad. A few were so-so but the majority were worth every calorie they added to my frame…”

What followed was an assortment of bread pudding recipes, ranging from Omni Royal Orleans Bread Pudding to Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding souffle with Whiskey Sauce.  I chose to make “Allie And Etell’s Bread Pudding. The Allie, I presume, is Paul Prudhomme’s sister Allie.  I added raisins to my batch of bread pudding, because what is bread pudding without raisins?

By now, as you might suspect, my curiosity was piqued. Do only the chefs of Louisiana know how to make bread pudding? Sylvia Lovegren, in “FASHIONABLE FOOD” writes of it “Bread pudding was another one of those old-fashioned all-American dishes that were de rigueur for trendy chefs. Although bread puddings were made around the country with every sort of ‘regional accent’, one of the most popular was one with a Southern, especially southern Louisiana, twang….”

Lovegren then offers a recipe for Bread Pudding with Pecan Bourbon Sauce.

Since the topic of bread pudding appears in Lovegren’s chapter for the 1980s, possibly this also explains how an article devoted to bread puddings ended up in a 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Most food historians whose works I consulted don’t mention bread pudding at all.  So, what’s the story?

Even my tried-and-true “WISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY” has disappointingly little to say about bread pudding, other than suggesting they are an excellent way of using slightly dry bread and offering two recipes. Numerous “Americana” cookbooks fail to mention bread pudding at all, whereas, – at least – in “THE BEST OF SHAKER COOKING”, authors provide ten recipes for the dessert, ranging from Shaker Mountain Blueberry Pudding to Maple Bread Pudding. All sound delicious.

A Good Housekeeping cookbook published in 1942-43 offers ten bread pudding recipes as well, including one for the Queen of Puddings which is mentioned in “PIONEER POTLUCK”, stories an recipes of Early Colorado, collected by the State Historical Society of Colorado. “THE PIONEER COOK BOOK” published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers provides one recipe for Grandma Taylor’s Milton Pudding or Bread Pudding.  Queens Pudding is also mentioned in the “LINCOLN HERITAGE TRAIL COOKBOOK” by Marian French. (It seems that bread pudding was elevated to Queen’ Pudding by spreading the top with a layer of jelly or preserves after it was baked. Then you made a meringue with the whites of a couple of eggs and two tablespoons of sugar, and spread that over the top. Finally, you baked it again until the meringue was a light brown.

“THE PRACTICAL RECEIPT BOOK” published in 1897 by the Young Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Sewickley, Pennsylvania offers no less than sixty-five pudding recipes, two of which are for the Queen Pudding.

However, finding recipes for Bread Pudding doesn’t answer my original question—nor does it explain to me why or how this delicious dessert disappeared from the American culinary landscape.  Have we all become so busy that the only kind of puddings we have anymore are of the instant packaged variety that require only the addition of milk—or, equally tasteless — a pre-made item that you pick up in the dairy section of the supermarket, which only requires peeling off a foil cover? Ew, ew!

Perhaps we have to search into the much more distant past for the answer to the origin of bread pudding, or desserts in general as we know them.

Not much is known about desserts in the middle ages.  Patricia Bunning Stevens writes about desserts in “RARE BITS” subtitled “Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes”.

Describing the middle ages, she states, “…at the end of the meal, the table was cleared and spiced wine served, with sweet wafers, raisins, nuts, and ‘comfits,’ as sugared caraway seeds and anise seeds were called. It is from these simple beginnings that our modern ‘dessert’ stems, for the word comes from the French desservir and, ultimately, from the Latin dis servir, to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).

As time went by, the idea of true desserts spread and various countries developed their own preferences. “To Englishmen” writes Ms. Stevens, “the only dessert that ever really counted was the pudding….”  She continues with a rather detailed explanation of the English Pudding which contains dried fruit and spices; however, Ms. Stevens has nothing to add on the subject of bread pudding.

Until around 1800, the word pudding nearly always signified a sausage of some kind—i.e., a meat-filled casing. In “FRUITCAKES & COUCH POTATOES,” author Christine Ammer also notes that, “In Britain, the word ‘pudding’ alone often signifies the dessert course of a meal, whether or not it consists of the thick, soft, sweet mixture so called by Americans”.

Writing about plum puddings, Betty Wason, in “COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS,” notes that it was during the reign of Henry VIII that the Christmas feast came about.  “Plum Pudding,” says Wason, “originated as ‘plum soup’ made of mutton stock, currants, prunes, raisins and sherry; then bread was added to thicken it, and it was called ‘plum porridge’.  Eventually it became mostly meat with suet, wheat, raisins, currants, and spices added. Even the stews of England in those days were sweet and gooey, so spiced no one knew quite what the meat tasted like. (I think the main reason for that may have been that the meat was bad or tainted—the heavy spices would have masked the actual taste of the meat. It was for the same reason that the French concocted so many sauces to put over meats. But I digress).

“Plum Puddings,” Wason explains, “were made by the dozens—literally—because according to superstition, it was good luck to eat a plum pudding on each of the days between Christmas and Epiphany, ‘making a wish on the first mouthful each day.’  But woe to anyone who nibbled at a holiday pudding before the Christmas feast began—he would be in trouble for twelve months to come…”  (Sounds like something someone’s mother would have come up with to make sure no one was getting into the feast day food too soon!)

While doing a search on Google.com, I found a short but illuminating clue to the history of bread pudding. To make bread pudding, an oven is necessary; you can’t make it very well in a pot on top of the stove.  In early pioneer times, as we know, food was cooked over an open fire. The English version of foods like plum pudding were cooked on top of a stove but the whole mess was put into a pudding cloth that was suspended into a pot of water. The English pudding came into its own only with the invention of the cloth pudding bag at the end of the sixteenth century (before that, animal organs were used to encase the pudding process).

Another clue—centuries ago, women might mix up their own loaves of bread but they usually had to take it to something like a communal oven or to a professional baker–to have it baked. The lady of the house might mark her bread with the letter of their name or her own special design (from which we have the Patty Cake nursery rhyme line, “roll it and shape it, mark it with a “b” and put it in the oven for baby and me”.

To make something like bread pudding, as we know it, stoves—with ovens—had to be invented and make their way into ordinary households.

Having found no definitive answer to my initial question—who created or invented the first bread pudding—I feel compelled to make an assumption or two.

Bread pudding as we know it is most likely a creation of the mid-or-late 1800s, devised during frugal periods, to make use of stale bread. And there were, indeed, many austere periods in American history. It was one of the primary reasons so many men and women headed west in the mid 1800s, searching for a better life.

**

Louisiana chefs have, unquestionably, elevated the status of bread pudding to new heights while modern day cooks have come up with new and delicious creations using croissants, dried cranberries, day old cinnamon rolls or cinnamon bread. (type in bread pudding on Google.Com and you will come up with literally thousands of websites and bread pudding recipes galore.

Here for you to try is one of the recipes that appeared in the Los Angeles Times article. I’ve made a few minor changes to the original recipe because, as most people who know me are aware, I can’t leave a recipe alone.

¼ lb (1 stick)  unsalted butter (should be softened, room temperature)

1 cup sugar

2 (12 oz) cans evaporated milk (undiluted)

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

7 slices stale white sandwich bread, toasted

½ cup seedless raisins or dried cranberries

Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer and beat on medium speed until mix is well creamed, about 5 minutes. Add milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cream of tartar and ginger. Beat on low speed until well-blended, about 3 minutes.

Break toasted bread into small pieces and arrange in even layer in bottom of ungreased 8×8” baking pan. Sprinkle on raisins. Pour milk mixture over the bread and let it stand for about 1 hour, occasionally patting down any bread that floats to the top.

Bake 450 degrees 20-25 minutes or until top is very well browned and mixture shakes like a bowl of jelly when pan is shaken. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes before serving.   Makes 8-10 servings

Note: raisins, roasted pecans or other nuts or coconut can be added to recipe if desired.  I’ve discovered that dried blueberries also makes a nice addition.

I’ll leave you with this quotation, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, in which he writes, “Hallo!  A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day!  That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other…”

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

THE GREAT AMERICAN CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP

As closely as I can remember, the December issue of Redbook magazine once featured a cookie exchange, festive with photographs and—if I am not mistaken—this particular cookie exchange took place in Ohio in the 1970s. I have collected the December issues of many women’s magazines for about fifty years and most are packed in boxes in the garage—I hate to part with any of them.

What I do remember best is that a group of us—coworkers in the office where I worked—held a few cookie exchanges. I hosted one in my home. A friend named Lyn also hosted one. Another year we had the cookie exchange at work . The first cookie exchange was really a flop. We spread the cookies out on platters and let everyone just help themselves to whatever they wanted. As hostess I ended up with all the burnt, crumbling cookies no one else wanted. First lesson learned: Everybody brings 5 or 6 dozen of ONE cookie. It must be a Christmas cookie and it can’t be store bought. Yes, people brought store bought cookies and made no attempt to conceal it. Then each guest receives two or three of each cookie, depending on how many people are there.

Last year I bought a Good Housekeeping cookbook titled THE GREAT CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP COOKBOOK.  Theoretically, cookie exchanges should work out to everybody’s satisfaction.  The problem is getting six or more women to put some real effort into making six dozen of one Christmas cookie and putting some thought and consideration into the project.  At one of the cookie exchanges my younger sister hosted, she compiled all the recipes into booklets for each of the guests. And no matter how much the hostess emphasizes that the cookies shouldn’t be ordinary run-of-the-mill cookies—they should be Christmas cookies.  Despite our emphasis on this rule, several people will still bring an ordinary chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie.  Inevitably, they will say they really don’t know how to bake Christmas cookies or they didn’t have time. there are more excuses than there are cookies.

One Christmas, my granddaughter and I made large Christmas tree cookies, frosted and decorated to look like a Christmas tree.  I baked; she decorated.  It baffles me that, years later – so many people don’t understand the concept of a cookie exchange.

I read on Google that cookie exchanges go back seventy years or more. I never heard of them at all until people I worked with started talking about cookie exchanges.

So, what to do if you are invited to attend a cookie exchange?  Put some thought into one cookie that would look festive and yummy. It doesn’t need to be very elaborate or expensive. If your resources are limited, buy a couple bags of a cookie mix; beg or borrow a few Christmas cookie cutters from a friend or neighbor. You will need two nice cookie sheets; if you line them with parchment paper, you can reuse the paper many times. If you make little star cookies, a small star will yield a lot of cookies.  You can make dozens of little stars in a very short time. Cool them on a rack and when the stars are cool, glaze them with a thin white frosting, If you have a young helper in the kitchen let your sous chef helper drizzle some colored sprinkles on the glaze before it has time to set.    Before you can sing all the verses to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, your cookies will be baked, decorated, and ready to pack in little plastic baggies. And stores like Michaels and JoAnn’s have loads of different kinds of bags in which to pack your cookies. Or spread them out on a large Christmassy platter.

Take a copy of your recipe along to give to the hostess or if you are ambitious enough. make enough copies so that each guest (and the hostess) receives a copy.

Guests are sometimes asked to bring a few extra cookies for sampling; the hostess may offer coffee or tea to go with the cookie tasting.

It isn’t rocket science, girlfriends – a cookie exchange is easy.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

 

“The Rules of the Cookie Exchange”
by Robin Olson ©1997

  1. All cookies should be homemade, baked and main ingredient must be flour.
  2. No plain chocolate chip cookies, cookie mixes, no-bakes, meringues or bars.
  3. Please bring 6 dozen total cookies.
  4. The theme is “Christmas Cookies” (You can make any theme you like.)
  5. Arrange cookies in a basket or platter and be creative! Bring a large container to carry away your cookie, (or the hostess can provide a take away container.)
  6. Email a copy of your recipe before the party (or bring recipe to the party)
  7. Christmas (or party theme) attire is encouraged!
  8. RSVP as soon as you can and let me know what type of cookies you are planning on baking – no duplicate recipes are allowed.
  9. There’s a prize for the best Christmas outfit. (Give prizes!)
  10. If you don’t have time to bake, or have burnt your cookies, but still want to attend, you must go to a real bakery and buy 6 dozen yummy cookies.

Go here for a simple text version of the rules to copy and paste. Modify to suit your needs and include on a separate sheet, with your invitation.

THE RULES OF THE COOKIE EXCHANGE
(aka Cookie Exchange Rules, Cookie Swap Rules)

Robin L. Olson, Copyright 1997

Copyrights notice: “The “Rules of the Cookie Exchange” are for your personal *offline* use, feel free to change items to suit your needs and no acknowledgments are needed.

If you’re a writer, journalist, blogger or posting to message boards (ie; anything online or in print publication) using the CE rules, (in part or whole) please give credit where credit is due, and create an active link on the bottom of the same page that says:
“Some content courtesy of Robin Olson, Cookie-Exchange.com.”

 

SOME MORE FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE COOKBOOKS

My collection of Christmas-themed cookbooks actually fills one entire large bookcase; even so, there are a few favorite cookbooks that I turn to year after year. Ditto some of the recipes typed or written on 3×5” recipe cards—the cookie recipe cards fill have a dozen recipe boxes but there are some that are more worn and frequently used than others. I imagine most of us have favorites like these.

One of my favorite cookbooks is Mimi Sheraton’s VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS.  Even the title is captivating. VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS was first published in 1968. Mine is a revision published in 1981 by Harper & Row.

VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS is subtitled “A cookbook of cakes, cookies, candies & confections from all the Countries that celebrate Christmas” Sheraton had me captivated in the first paragraph of the Preface, where she writes, “When this book was first published thirteen years ago, it represented the results of what might be considered a hobby—a joint interest in Christmas and in food that had led me to collect recipes for traditional Christmas confections over many years…”  (Are we soul sisters? Long lost twins?)

Later, she comments, “No holiday has a wider variety of special symbolic foods than Christmas and anyone who prepares the cakes, cookies, candies and drinks related to that holiday can feel a long connection with the past, for many of the foods maintain traditions that began centuries ago—some even before Christianity itself…”

Following is the Introduction featuring the Six Weeks of Christmas, From Advent to Twelfth night in which Sheraton writes, “No Christmas memory would seem to be complete without recollections of the holiday foods, most especially the sweets: the yeasty coffee breads golden with saffron and mace; the aged and ripened fruit cakes spiked with whiskey or brandy and jeweled with bits of candied fruits; crisp butter cookies peppery with ginger or aromatic with anise; darkly rich mince pies, plum cakes and puddings; the flaming wine punches and soul-warming wassails; the sensuously sweet taffies and marzipan candies; and the pervasive comfortable scents of vanilla, peppermint, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves…”  This is followed with all the Six weeks of special holiday observances, including December  6th and 7th, St Nicholas Eve and Day, which was celebrated religiously in my childhood home. We hung long white socks of my father’s (because they were bigger) and would find a tangerine, some walnuts, hard candies and maybe a small toy in our stockings. I don’t recall ever having a tangerine at any other time of the year and it still amazes me to think we had a prolific tangerine tree in our front yard in Arleta.

January 6th is known alternatively as Three Kings’ Day or Night, the Feast of the Magi, Twelfth Night – to us, as children, it was the Feast of the Three Kings and my grandmother made doughnuts for us – each doughnut would have a coin in it, usually a nickel or a dime, I think.

Because I want to remain focused on cookies, I’ll save a more detailed description of VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS for another time – Chapter Three, Cookies & Small Cakes, starts with Drop and Bar Cookies from various countries – Brandy Snaps from England, Anise Drops from Germany, Canadian Fruit squares and Elise Lebkuchen from the ancient Bavarian city, Nuremberg. I think the Honey Lebkuchen is the recipe I have been making for several decades.

There are recipes for Hazelnut Macaroons, Pine Nut Macaroons, Chocolate Macaroons—take your pick!  Pepper Nuts is called Pfeffernusse in Germany or Pepparnotter  in Sweden—in any language they last a long time if stored in an airtight container and the recipe makes about nine dozen cookies!  Sheraton comments that in Pennsylvania Dutch country, this dough (Pefferniss) is allowed to ripen at room temperature for one to  two weeks, after which it is shaped into rolls, chilled and cut  to bake –they can be rolled in powdered sugar while still warm or allowed to cool and iced.

My daughter in law’s favorite Snickerdoodles are in VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS with the comment that the recipe is Pennsylvania Dutch and New England—I wonder if she knows that?

There are molded and shaped cookies, such as Hazelnut Crescents from Northern and Central Europe and Finnish Chestnut Fingers that I am thinking would be fun to make (and why didn’t I collect more chestnuts from the grounds of a place my friend Bev & I visited in Oregon? The ground was littered with fallen Chestnuts; I took about a dozen to bring home with me because they look just like Buckeyes from the Buckeye Tree in Ohio. In Ohio, women keep a buckeye in their handbags for good luck).

There are recipes for Swedish cinnamon Sand cookies which I think I would like to make this year, Baseler Leckerli from Switzerland, the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickles (which used to be given to masked revelers—Belsnickles—who went bell ringing from one house to another on Christmas Eve) and Bellylaps, another Pennsylvania Dutch cookies similar to Moravian Brown Sugar Cookies but are a little less brittle and can be used for tree ornaments. But I think I would like to try making Swedish Gingersnaps which should be rolled to paper thinness—or perhaps Moravian Brown Sugar cookies, which also must be rolled paper-thin.  This is just a sampling of the cookie recipes to be found in VISIONS OF SUGAR PLUMS.

It is listed in Amazon.com for $19.00 (hardcover, new) or 95c for a pre-owned copy. I could not find a listing on Alibris.com

One of my older (1971) cookbooks is HOMEMADE COOKIES by the Food Editors of Farm Journal.  Years ago – in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I think – a penpal began introducing me to Farm Journal cookbooks. These became my tried-and-true recipes of the time. (Every so often I find a copy of this cookbook at the Lancaster Friends library sale – I snap them up to give to friends; the cookbooks are good.) There are hundreds of recipes and they’re all good.  My copy is almost falling apart, it’s been used that much. This one is featured on Amazon.com starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy.

Another favorite cookbook from 1963 is THE ART OF MAKING GOOD COOKIES PLAIN AND FANCY by Annette Laslett Ross and Jean Adams Disney—another one of those can’t-be-beat cookie cookbooks. (This one is featured on Alibris.com for 99c. Amazon.com has pre-owned copies starting at one cent).

A third favorite is COOKIE COOKERY by John Zenker and Hazel G. Zenker, published in 1969. I found COOKIE COOKERY on Amazon.com, pre-owned copies starting at one cent.

A little treasure of a cookbook that was given to me by a friend is THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE BOOK by Virginia Pasley, published in 1949 (I wasn’t collecting cookbooks back then but this is one of those timeless cookbooks written in a friendly chatty style).  Alibris.com doesn’t have this one in stock, but Amazon.com does, starting at $1.32 for a pre-owned copy.

FAVORITE BRAND NAME 100 BEST HOLIDAY COOKIES is nicely designed with hidden wire binding and a lot of color photographs of the cookies. I found this one on Amazon.com new for $2.97 and pre-owned starting at one cent. I have half a dozen post-its sticking out of its pages- the recipes I thought I might like to try this Christmas. (Reminds me of the saying “so many books, so little time” – only I would call it, SO MANY COOKIES, SO LITTLE TIME).

These are a few of my favorite cookbooks – as time permits, I will try to share some of my other favorites with you.  Happy Cookie Baking!!

–Sandra Lee Smith (portions previously posted on sandychatter in 2011)