As a young adult, before I married and had a child, before I moved to the South, I read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. If you haven’t had a chance to read this short story, may I suggest you check it out this year. http://capoteweb.com/a-christmas-memory/.
It’s an autobiographical account of Mr. Capote’s early Christmases in rural Alabama and the beautifully sweet relationship he shares with an elderly cousin. The story details the Christmas traditions the two carry out every year, like cutting down their own tree, making homemade gifts for each other (it is the Depression, and they have no money for store-bought gifts), making ornaments for their tree (again, the Depression) and baking fruitcakes for friends.
The fruitcake baking struck me the most, and I wasn’t even much of a cook back then. The story of how they earned money for ingredients, how they got the whiskey (their town was dry) and especially the description of the kitchen on baking day gave me a sense of warmth and Christmas spirit that few other books have been able to do. Check this out:
“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on window sills and shelves.”
That’s good stuff. After reading it, I knew I had to create that kind of memory for my own family when the time came. With a little planning and a lot of trial and error, I’m proud to say I’ve made it happen. Christmas baking is an annual rite in our home, and we look forward to it every year.
Gigi and I start talking about it weeks before the actual day. The list of cookies is hotly debated. Should we add something new? Should a certain type be retired? (On the chopping block this year was the molasses cookies. Somehow, I’m the only one that likes them, and my daughter thought another option should take its place. I nearly agreed, but then made them anyway. They make my house smell divine, and I love their crispy chewiness. Here’s to you, molasses cookies! You made it another year!) This year’s list is below along with the approximate year each cookie joined our family.
Fudgy Bon Bons (1991)
Linzer Squares (1991)
Chocolate Dipped Sugar Cookies with Almonds (1991)
Peanut Butter Blossoms (1991)
Eggnog Thumbprints (2002)
Molasses Cookies (2009)
Rocky Road Fudge (2009)
Chocolate Krinkle Cookies (2011 – Gigi makes these by herself)
Carmel Chocolitas (New in 2013)
There are some cookies I make because people I love love them. I would have retired the linzer squares years ago, but my brother-in-law Fred once told me they were his favorites. Same goes for the chocolate dipped sugar cookies, the ones my sister Pam told me she looks forward to dunking in her coffee every year. It struck me that receiving our cookies had become part of their Christmas tradition, which makes me happier than they could possibly imagine. So Gigi and I soldier on, knowing our work is appreciated. (My sister Jen jokingly tells me that Fred waits on the porch for our delivery the day I tell her the cookies have shipped. Thanks, Fred!)
Baking weekend is a huge deal. Making dough begins on Friday night and events carry on through Sunday evening. It takes a lot of mental and physical fortitude. We liken it to playing in the Super Bowl. We suit up with aprons, we follow the game plan (there is a particular order of operations we’ve figured out over the years that we stick to like glue), and we cheer each other on when we get tired (Dig deep! We can do it! Only Fudgy Bon Bons left!). We revel in the merriment of it all – the Christmas smells (vanilla, nutmeg and cookies right out of the oven), the carols playing in the background, kissing the eggs for good luck before we crack them and singing our ode to Fudgy Bon Bons that we made up to the tune of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’ll have to sing it for you some time.
When we’re done, our dining room table looks like a Jersey bakery counter. Every surface has some sort of cookie on it. Gigi and I begin packaging up the goods. Tins are made for relatives in distant states, sent off with a funny message from Gigi on the lid. The rest we put in bags and deliver to our neighbors.
Like Buddy and Miss Sook in Truman Capote’s story, we like to share with our friends. So, every year, on a cold December night (and often in total darkness), we ring the doorbells of the people who have watched my daughter grow up; people who have cheered her successes and taken her on vacations; who have helped me out with day care in a jam; who offered loads of support after my car accident; who’ve cooked amazing dinners for me; and who have kept me in stitches at our neighborhood get togethers. We thank them for being our neighbors and wish them a Merry Christmas.
Perusing facebook recently, I noticed lots of friends have baking traditions of their own. I’ve included as many pictures of their Christmas delights as possible. I even got to go to my neighbor Deb’s house on her baking day and take some pictures of her and her daughter Mia baking up a storm. My hat’s off to Deb – not only does she work full time, but she has three active kids in elementary school, and still finds time to bake! And her recipes are all old family ones that have been passed down over many years. It’s very sweet.
Gigi and I finished reading A Christmas Memory right on schedule. And we cried at the end, as we do every year, right on schedule. We often question aloud why we continue to read a story with such a heart wrenching ending this time of year. And we decide that it’s a beautiful tribute to the spirit of Christmas and the bonds we create by carrying out family traditions. It’s lovely. I hope you get a chance to read it too!
I hope you enjoyed your holidays! Merry Christmas, a little late!
Here is the recipe that started the Christmas baking phenomenon in my house: the Fudgy Bon Bon. I found this recipe in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 90s after it won the million dollar Pillsbury Bake Off, so I’m not sure who the author is, but she’s a million dollars richer!
1 12 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 tbsp (half a stick) butter
1 14oz. can sweetened condensed milk (the greatest invention in the history of sweetness)
2 cups flour
1 tsp vanilla
60 Hershey kisses
4 oz. white chocolage
2 tsp shortening
Sprinkles of your choosing
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine the chocolate chips and butter. Stir over very low heat until melted and smooth. Add sweetened condensed milk and mix well. Remove from heat.
In a bowl, combine flour, chocolate mixture and vanilla. Mix well. Shape 1 tbsp of dough around each candy kiss, covering completely. Place 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes. Cookies will be soft and appear shiny, but become firm as they cool. Do not overbake. Remove from sheets and cool completely.
In a small pan, melt white chocolate along with the shortening, stirring until smooth. Dip the top of each Fudgy Bon Bon into white chocolate, then press into sprinkles. Place each bon bon on a cooling rack until icing firms up.