It has been said that smell is the sense that evokes memories more than any other. This morning I made waffles instead of the usual pancakes, and something about the difference in the batter filled the house with a sweet aroma that reminded me of the weeks before Christmas back in the day.
My Mom was a Christmas baker; coming from such a large family, 26 first cousins, baking was a necessity because buying presents for everyone would break the bank. So about two weeks before Christmas, she would break out the mixing bowls and baking pans. Pretty soon the house would be full of delicious odors and just coming home from school would set my stomach growling. When I was younger, there would be single serving sized breads and cakes, baked to perfection covered with a sugar topping wrapped in colored tin foil and neatly tied off with a big red ribbon. There was no need to label them. Each relative would get the same thing. They looked forward to them every year and it was a rare time indeed that the cake would survive the trip home. Instead they would spoil the appetite en route.
I would like to say that I got to enjoy many a mixing bowl of leftover cake batter, but alas, Mom mixed most of them on school mornings and baked in the afternoon. By time I arrived home, the cakes would be wrapped and the bowls and pans washed, dried and stacked aside ready for the next batch to be made the next day. It would never be the same mix though; cake one day, bread the next and so on. Each day had its own tantalizing smell beckoning me home.
Sometime in my late teens, Mom discovered candy making. All of her candies were milk chocolate covered fruits or nuts. This was much easier on her as she did not have to stir the batter like she did with the cakes and breads. Remember the old 100 stroke rule? No cake ever was poked into the oven without having been stirred at least 100 times. Even today, I apply that rule when making batter for pancakes or waffles.
But back to the candies… Mom was an experimenter; eventually pretzels replaced the nuts and fruits. Those were a hit. There is no resisting that sweet / salty combination. Next, milk chocolate was replaced with white chocolate. All this came long before you could but bags of chocolate covered pretzels in the store. Besides, home baked trumps store bought any day. Those years were gastronomical delights; eating a milk chocolate pretzel then a white chocolate one. Heaven on earth!
The best came last! One year, Mom experimented with replacing the curly q pretzels with stick pretzels mixed with peanuts. They were all clumped together in small stacks then generously covered with chocolate. They looked like something that was gathered together by squirrels but they tasted incredible. There was only one way to eat them; you would start with one “stem” of pretzel that stuck out of the clump and work your way across the clump and out the stem of another pretzel on the other side. These delights came in both milk chocolate and white chocolate and usually resulted in a bunch of adults snoring the afternoon away in front of the football game on television in sugar induced comas.
I can’t write about Christmas baking without mentioning fruit cakes. I know you either love them or hate them. I was pretty much neutral about fruit cakes until my wife’s grandmother taught me the right way to make them with just enough batter to hold the fruit and nuts together, not a drop more. When she was younger, she made only “virgin” fruitcakes, no alcohol! But the last few she made had a jigger of whiskey or rum in them. I asked her for a recipe but she said that she did not have one. Indeed she never made two cakes that were the same. I actually put together the last few of these under her supervision. She did this with me for southern potato salad. I remembered that recipe and still make her potato salad today. Unfortunately her fruit cake recipe changed so much that I don’t really remember it anymore. Maybe I’ll try to resurrect it this year. She always said that men made better potato salad and fruitcake, but I am sure that it was a ruse to get me to do all that hard work; choppin’, stirrin’ and bakin’; it was like digging ditches or whitewashing a fence. That’s ok, when it comes to fruitcake, I’m your Huck Finn. Oh MY!