As soon as nights get longer and colder, I find myself scouring cook books and magazines for festive recipes. The irony is that I may whip up one of two of these temptations, but always, always, I return to childhood standbys. While new flavors tease family taste buds, traditional recipes comfort and connect us to loved ones and times long gone.
A perfect example is my faded and bespeckled fudge recipe written on a tiny scrap of yellow paper. I remember as a new bride calling my mom for instructions to make my husband our family’s old-fashion fudge. Every time I place that yellow square by the stove, I recall standing at the phone that night, connecting with family that was hundreds of miles away. I had a new little house and loving husband, but talking to my mother reminded me of hearts that nurtured me and of happy childhood Christmases.
Recently, I discovered the original fudge recipe printed in my great-grandmother’s Searchlight Cookbook, which my grandmother gave to me. It made me wonder how many aunts, cousins, and other relation had mailed or called either Great Grandma or Grandma to learn to make this family favorite. How many of them felt momentarily transported to their loved one’s kitchen and then stood over their own stove afterward, feeling their mom’s or grandma’s presence.
Not only did my mother make amazing holiday fudge, she also let my brother and me help her bake red and green sugar cookies each Christmas. We would add ingredients she’d measured, and then we’d watch as she turned flour, sugar, eggs, and more into a soft, sweet dough that she’d let us roll into small balls. (I wonder if she knows how many of those pre-baked cookies we sampled . . .)
Once Kent and I laid out even lines of cookies in a 3 x 4 design on her rectangular baking sheet, Mom would carry out three little dishes—one filled with red sprinkles, one with green, and one with a drizzle of water. She gave us each a flat-bottomed glass to dip first in the water and then in one color of sprinkles. Our job was to flatten the dough ball, imbedding the colored sugar. To this day, Christmas brings those sparkling green and red cookies to mind.
Marriage means more than joining lives, it means joining traditions, so I added my husband’s favorite cookie to my baking repertoire. His family emigrated from Switzerland in the early 1900s and brought their linzer tart recipe with them to Kansas. That concoction of ground almonds, flour, cinnamon, sugar, egg whites, and strawberry jam now graces Christmas plates in Kansas and Tennessee.
Cream candy, forgotten cookies, frosted sugar cookies, fudge, linzer tarts, and more keep not only our house but our daughters’ smelling like holiday confectionery shoppes. However, it isn’t just the scent of baking that permeates the air, it’s generations of family memories tickling our noses.
I like to think that I’m not the only one who reminiscences while cooking. When my daughters use family recipes, I hope they sense their mom, mom-in-law, their grandmas, their greats, great-greats, and great-great-greats in the kitchen. No wonder it feels a little crowded during holiday baking.