I used to make a lot of Christmas cookies. A LOT of Christmas cookies. Sugar cookies with colorful sprinkles and candy cane cookies courtesy of Martha Stewart. I made gingerbread men and date nut pinwheels sans the nuts (Jack has a tree nut allergy) and pecan sandies sans the pecans. Along with cookies, I baked banana bread, brownies and two kinds of pie (pumpkin and brownie). I made fudge.
Like many of my holiday undertakings back in the day, my baking was over the top. We didn’t have holiday visitors streaming into the house in need of refreshment, or carolers at the door demanding figgy pudding. On top of that, my children were not the sugar fiends that I was at their age. They loved the sugar cookies, and the brownies were a perennial favorite. The nutless nut cookies? Not so much. The banana bread was a Christmas morning treat and always beloved; I was the only one who ate the fudge.
Finally it dawned on me: I have savory children. I have salt eaters. Clifton leans more to the savory side as well, and I was trying to get the sugar out of my life. Seven or eight years ago, I decided it was time to update the holiday smorgasbord. Nowadays, the majority of tins on the table are filled with a no-nuts Chex Party mix, which Clifton makes, sometimes on a daily basis (we are Party Mix fiends). I still make sugar cookies and brownies, I still make pie. And I still make banana bread, the same banana bread my brothers and I ate on Christmas morning lo those many, many years ago, only without nuts (of course).
My favorite Christmas food tradition is the Feast of Snacks that begins on Christmas Day and lasts until the food runs out (this takes days). The feast begins around 2:00, when I drape the kitchen table with a special, sparkly blue table cloth. Then I put out the punch bowl, which I fill with my mother’s famous Cranberry-Pineapple punch. Next come the plates of cheese and crackers and salami (which I guess if we were being fancy about it, we would call charcuterie), a big bowl of pimento cheese (popular with everyone except for Will), bowls of cheese straws, clementines and olives. I set this same table on the 26th and 27th. This tradition has gone on for years and years, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday.
A very new tradition, one started last year, is that we now have prime rib for Christmas dinner instead of turkey. All my life I’ve eaten the same meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas–turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green peas, fruit salad and Crescent rolls. After fifty-seven years, I found that I was tired of this meal (I think I’d been tired of this meal for a long time and just couldn’t admit it). Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Last year we made the switch to a Prime Rib Christmas dinner that includes green beans, scalloped potatoes and a kale salad with goat cheese and pomegranate (I am the only one who eats the salad). Everyone agreed that this would be our new Christmas dinner tradition.
Some Christmas traditions fall away over time–Santa Claus being an obvious one, getting up at the crack of dawn Christmas morning is another (thank goodness!). I suspect years from now when you ask Jack and Will what they remember most about Christmas, they’ll say banana bread and Chex Party mix. Right now I’m compiling a collection of family recipes for Jack, and I hope he’ll carry the banana bread tradition into the future. I think that for all of us the heavenly smell of those lovely loaves baking on Christmas Eve will always mean Christmas is finally here.
My Mom’s Banana Nut Bread
1/2 cup shortening or softened butter
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3 large ripe bananas (1 cup) mashed
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp vanilla
1. Cream shortening (I use butter, my mom used Crisco) and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
2.Combine dry ingredients and stir into cleaned mixture until just blended. Stir in mashed banana, nuts and vanilla. Pour into greased pan or pans.
3.Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Cool and then wrap and let stand for 24 hours before eating or freezing. Makes one large loaf or three little loaves. Recipe doubles well.
It’s funny, when I look back at the holidays of my youth, I’m not sure what our holiday food traditions were. My mom died when I was in my early 20s, and what I wouldn’t give to ask her about it. I’m sure we had them; they just didn’t register at that age. There were sugar cookies, but did we do them every year? I’m not sure. There was a fruit salad involving mandarin oranges and whipped cream, which I would beg my mom not to put coconut in (yuck!). Sometimes she would set some aside for me before she ruined the rest of it with shredded coconut. Those were the good years. The holidays were full of love and good food, but it’s really the moms that are the memory keepers.
My husband, on the other hand, came with several holiday food traditions that we have adopted. The first is having soup on Christmas Eve. For many years, I actually did two different types of soup, a Potato Cheese soup and turkey noodle soup (for the cheese hater in the family). Last year I made Potato Leek soup from Alice Waters (it was delicious!). I love this tradition because a simple meal of soup and good bread seems like such a cozy way to go into the indulgent week ahead.
Speaking of indulgences, the tradition that the kids like best is fudge! We still make a smattering of Christmas cookies (and the highly-addictive, but terribly named Christmas Crack), but over the years I’ve really scaled that back and we now make multiple batches of fudge. It’s the treat that I wrap up and give to friends and neighbors. And I’m pretty sure it’s a big reason why the older kids come home. When they were younger, we all got involved in the process, with each person having their part job, from counting out marshmallows to measuring the chocolate chips. These days it’s up to Gary and me to make it together, and we still have our specific jobs. He does the cooking, I do the mixing. I can still picture my mother-in-law cutting it up into small pieces (she called it “candy”) and setting it on a pretty plate when we visited them at Christmas. And inevitably, she would package some up for us to take home, the same way we will for our kids (if there is any left at the first of the year!).
Like you (maybe because of you?), we also switched up our Christmas dinner in the last few years. Our tradition has been, for many years, ham, twice-baked potatoes, green beans with slivered almonds and bacon, and some sort of green salad. Last year we switched to prime rib, a bacon-brussel sprout dish from Half Baked Harvest, twice-baked potatoes (these are a must), and a spinach pomegranate salad (I am probably the only person who eats that as well). Last year I tried making Yorkshire pudding, but will not do that again! We have all enjoyed this change of menu, except for Chloe, who misses the ham. That is easily solved by basically doing our old Christmas menu for New Years Dinner.
I think for us, over the years, the trajectory has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. I still want to have the special holiday meal, but I don’t want Gary and I to be in the kitchen cooking all day on Christmas–I want to enjoy a leisurely day! I continue to evaluate what matters, what makes the day special, and concentrate on that.
Esser Family Fudge
This is the fudge recipe that we make every year for ourselves, friends, and family for Christmas.
12 oz chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 lb margarine softened
6 oz evaporated milk
10 large marshmallows
2 cups sugar
- Mix chocolate chips, butter, and nuts together in a large bowl.
- In a large saucepan, mix together evaporated milk, marshmallows, and sugar. Cook over medium heat until mixture starts to bubble. Cook for 5 more minutes, stirring constantly.
- Pour liquid mixture over chocolate chip mixture and stir to blend, working quickly.
- Pour into an 8″ x 8″ glass dish. Cool at room temperature or in the refrigerator.