Last week, I was driving home after completing some quick Christmas errands. It’s a good part of an hour from Augusta to my home and allows for plenty of time to think. I was thinking of all things I need to accomplish between now and December 25th. It always seems impossible at the start, but usually, my list gets whittled down and all is accomplished. To do this, however, it often takes staying up into the wee hours of Christmas morning. This thought brought to mind the Christmas poem, “The Night Before Christmas”. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many “mammas” who have ever settled down on Christmas Eve for a long winter’s nap while children are all “nestled and snuggled in their beds’. Certainly, not this momma. Then again, I also have never worn a kerchief. Maybe that’s the key.
I loved helping mom make sugar cookie dough and cut out Christmas shapes. My favorite was an angel. Before baking, I would generously adorn the cutout version with pretty colored sugar sprinkles. I heard on a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie recently, that glitter makes everything beautiful. That’s how I feel about sprinkles. It seems to me you can never have too many sprinkles. White and light blue were and still are my favorite. I wasn’t great at sprinkling the sugar evenly over the cutouts, but neither my mom nor the cutouts seemed to mind!
Besides sugar cookies, we would make molasses cookies. I find working with this dough to be a little tricky. If it’s too moist it’s sticky and unmanageable, but if it’s too dry, well, you get cookies for dipping in milk or tea until the gingerbread boy or girl’s leg falls off and you have to scoop it out with a spoon. Really, though, even at that, when you get it just right, I think a moderately soggy molasses cookie isn’t all that bad. How about you?
I seriously do not know how mom never showed panic or frustration. She would patiently stuff dates; cook up penuche or chocolate walnut fudge; and of course, the requisite pies. When I was in my youngest years, we had to share, but one year my niece was here to visit and we got into a tussle over the pineapple cream cheese pie. I was older, so I thought I should get most of it. After all, I had a history with loving this pie. She thought that because she was visiting and I was more likely to have ready access to the pie baker, she should get most of it. Oh, it was all in fun (was it?), but mom stepped in and promised us she would make us each our own pie. The next thing you know, everyone in the family was requesting their own favorite pie. This tradition continued all through my adult years, including mom’s last Christmas. Following her seventh heart attack, she signed herself out of the hospital; settled back at home; and commenced to rolling and crimping, then filling a pie shell for each of her grandchildren and for their parents to each have their own pie. Mom loved to bake up smiles and we all loved to eat. Heaven couldn’t have made a better match!
Each October, mom started making her “Traditional War Cake”, or “fruit cake”. The recipe consisted of water, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, lard, raisins, cinnamon and cloves. I’ve read World War II buffs lay claim to this recipe, but according to the New York Historical Society, it originated during the time of the American Civil War. Also, my grandmother’s same “Yankee War Cake” recipe was handwritten in the early 1900’s. What we can agree on is that historically, this cake was made during times of war, when baking ingredients were scarce.
As tradition and taste buds dictated, Mom would wrap her baked cake in a bourbon-soaked cheese cloth, place it in a round tin, and put it up in the cupboard. With its accumulated scratches and dings, even the faded, red tin seemed special. Traditionally, bourbon is used not only for taste, but for preservation, as only singular, thinly sliced portions are served; making it a cake that lasts awhile. Between October and Christmas, she would climb up on her step stool to pull out the tin, open it, and add a bit more bourbon. When it was served after Christmas dinner, the aroma of the fruit and bourbon laden cake would tantalizingly fill the air.