Friday, November 5, 2010

Home for the Holidays

Halloween is over and that means we're starting to think about holiday baking. Rachel and I are planning a virtual holiday recipe swap with you all and will be kicking that off soon. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are some of my remembrances of my dad.

I did not grow up in a household with a strong Christmas baking tradition. My dad made legendary pumpkin and apple pies for Thanksgiving, but come Christmas, he was much more focused on the ham and side dishes. My mother, probably in part due to my father’s pie-making prowess, mostly didn’t even try to compete in the baking arena. Sure, she made tasty chocolate chip cookies and various other dessert dishes in general — her sour cream cheese pie is still one of my go-to desserts when I need a cheesecake fix but don’t want to put in all that time — but she didn’t go out of her way to make anything special at Christmas.

But then my father retired, and he became fixated with making holiday candy. He called the recipe Bristol Road Kitchens Toffee, a reference to the road in Maine he and my mother lived in at the time, and added this little subhead on the recipe card: expensive but worth it.

The expense part undoubtedly stemmed from his days of scrimping as a young man during the Depression. Today, I regularly use butter and the darkest — read more expensive — chocolate bits in all of my recipes. I wouldn’t think twice of substituting anything else.

But the real worth, if you will, of this toffee was that my father made it. My dad was a tall man, broad of chest, with hands the size of kitchen mitts. While gregarious in social situations, he was reticent with his emotions at home. His hugs, while solid when they occurred, were not daily occurrences, and he preferred to show his love rather than say, “I love you” out loud.

And so he cooked. Not all the time but on the weekends and holidays, sometimes for the cocktail parties he and my mother would throw. It was his way of saying he cared.

His holiday candy became an annual tradition, eagerly anticipated at our house each December. He would mail the candy from Maine or, later, California, and then call to make sure it had arrived in the proper condition. One year the box included the recipe card, a moment that made me both happy and sad, because while I was pleased to receive the secret, I knew it also meant that his days of making it were nearing an end.

Like my father, I have made creating certain foods as much a part of Christmas as Advent calendars and candlelight Christmas Eve services. Come the day after Thanksgiving, you can find me making the first of many loaves of Swedish gingerbread. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I’m busy making rolling out dough for Swedish pepparkakor, a kind of ginger snap.

And, of course, I make a batch of the toffee. Pulling out the recipe card filled with my father’s chicken scratch (seriously, if unreadable handwriting is a criteria, my dad should have been a doctor). By now, the red ink a little smeared from having been picked up with wet hands, and the card is dirtied with bits of chocolate and sugar from toffee-making sessions over the years.

As our children have aged — the last one is in college — I’ve cut back on the quantity of these goods. Where I once made two batches of pepparkakor, I now make one; loaves of Swedish gingerbread are down to about 6 now, depending on who is receiving one as a housewarming holiday gift.

And the toffee is now just one batch. About two years ago, I asked our youngest, who was still at home and is the main consumer of this toffee, if maybe I should forgo making it. After all, plenty of other holiday edibles were in the house. “Are you kidding me?” he said in the inflection only a teenager can muster. “Not an option.”

I was secretly pleased, of course. I want to keep making the toffee and other special items. Making these annual recipes is a way of connecting with my father, who is gone, and with my children and our happy memories of the holidays when we were all together under one roof. Some day I’ll be ready to pass the wooden spoon. But not just yet.

(Illustration is available for free at Dreamstime.)

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