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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category


Yesterday’s recipe was for pretzels. Yes, that’s what we called them–still do, for that matter. But they bear no relation to any pretzel you ever saw. I did a little googling, just to see if I could find a comparable pretzel recipe, but no soap. I use the term advisedly–a significant number of pretzel recipes require that you use “food-grade lye.” Think about that. My recipe doesn’t require lye. We don’t knot the dough, but shape it into small round loaves that we bake flat on a greased cookie sheet. The dough’s actually a little sweet, and quite dense. Some misguided souls add candied fruit, which I personally loathe; I might consider adding white raisins, but that’s far enough.

Pretzels were part of our Christmas Eve tradition. Actually, Christmas Eve was a big day at our house. We set up and decorated the tree, put out the presents, finished baking and frosting all the various cookies, and then some exhausted soul would get out the big, scratched, Tupperware bowl, start the water running to get it hotted up, and begin making the pretzels.

And supper before we opened our presents was usually some form of soup (which we skipped if we could) pretzels, and hot chocolate. And then we opened our presents. Christmas Day was nothing after Christmas Eve; we usually had to spend it cutting wood to feed the woodpile. But ah, Christmas Eve, and the smell of the pretzels hot, a little sweet, and buttered, and the hot chocolate steaming on the stove; that’s Christmas.

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So anyway, here I am back home after a refreshing day out at Marian’s snow-covered blog, cozy inside and ready to talk fudge. My dad never claimed to be much of a cook, but he always held the sorts of jobs that meant he had to live by himself most of the time. When I was little he was a logger, and either cooked for himself, or ate in the mess with the other loggers. When I got older he worked on a ranch fifty miles away from home. We spent our summers and most of our weekends there, but in the winters he had to feed himself. In short, he had certain basic skills–he could make pancakes, sandwiches, and potatoes and onions (my Grandpa swore there were none better). He could open soup cans. By and large, though, he considered cooking women’s work.

Except at Christmas. Dad had two contributions he made every year. He made potato candy, and he made fudge. Because he was always at work during the day, he made it at night. I can remember kneeling on a kitchen chair and watching his hands–scrubbed specially for the occasion–working the powdered sugar, chocolate, and butter into a smooth, creamy mass, mixing in walnuts, which he loved, and then pressing it all into a wax-paper-lined pan and sliding it into the freezer.

He cooked by the box, and by the cube. He spooned in “about enough” unsweetened chocolate, dumped in a box of powdered sugar, added a cube each of margarine and cream cheese, and then stuck his hands into the bowl and got to work. Measuring cups, candy thermometers, pans, and recipes never dared rear their heads. This was manly cooking, as done by a man more familiar with engines than mixers. Like Samson pulling the honeycomb from the corpse of a lion he had killed, dad’s fudge owed its smooth, sweet, creamy texture to brute force. It still does. I, too, mix my fudge with my hands. I recommend you do the same.

And since we’re talking Christmas, here’s another one of our traditional Christmas treats:

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I find it hard to blog about the corn chowder for chemo recipe; the name pretty much says it all. It’s my corn chowder recipe suitably modified to work well with the changing taste buds that chemotherapy often brings on. I cooked this for my dad when he was sick, and he ate it with as much pleasure as he ate anything in those days. While I was glad to have found something that worked for him, and I was happy to to cook it, I did so knowing that I was providing temporary relief, not a solution. If only cancer could be cured by my corn chowder! Still, though, the recipe is useful when the bad, dark days come, and I’ve included it because even though we don’t like to think about them, they do seem to come to all of us. So stow this away somewhere, and move on to my Dad’s fudge recipe, one of the best I’ve ever had, and a recipe about which I will blog tomorrow, with pleasure.

Also, just so you know, I’m not going to be here on Tuesday; I’ll be off blogging on Marian Allen’s website about my newest novel, Good on Paper. Please join us there!

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So have you made it yet? Have you noticed that this chili has–ahem–no chili powder in it unless you tempt fate and deviate from the recipe? It took me years to realize that “real” chili contains chili powder, and even when someone told me I didn’t believe it. For me chili was Grandma’s chili, and it was made of more than just beef, tomato in several glorious variants, onions, black pepper, and (if someone other than me was making it) kidney beans.

Chili was driving from Oregon to Wisconsin in December, feet freezing, car windows frosted inside and out. Chili was turning onto Grandma and Grandpa’s street just as the night was closing in, and seeing their lights golden in the deepening shadows. It was opening their squeaky screen door and stepping up to the little landing where you had to make up your mind if you were going down into the earthen-floored cellar for a Coke, or on up the steps into Grandma’s exuberant hug. I always went up the steps.

Grandma grabbed us, squeezed us, gave us big smacking kisses and told us how happy she was we were there. And behind her I would see her deep pan, steaming gently, and smell the chili bubbling away.

Suitcases came inside and went directly upstairs and out of Grandma’s way in our bedrooms. And then we came back down to the kitchen and there were the Melmac bowls ladled full of chili, and the sesame-topped Italian bread Grandpa favored, and Grandpa himself, in his green workpants and t-shirt, saying, “Well, well, well, look who’s here?”

And I would open my arms to hug him and he’d say, “Careful, I ain’t showered yet,” and I hugged him anyway, smelling of sweat and Christmas trees from the nursery where he sold wreaths. And then I took my bowl of chili, and my slice of bread, and walked into the TV room where my cousins already sat with their bowls, and we talked, and laughed, and watched whatever we could get on Grandma’s TV, and that was the beginning of Christmas.

Just double-click on the graphic to download your recipe.

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