Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Cookbooks are not just for cooking…Cookbooks are for inspiration, for lifting the spirit and freeing the mind, for brightening the outlook as well as your parties and table conversation…for understanding people and places, for revelation of the past and for the interpretation of the present…for culture, education, for inviting the soul, reviving memories, reliving experiences. Cookbooks, like poetry, are for the intensification of precious moments. Where, except in cookbooks and in lyrics, does one find so much emotion distilled, charted and recollected in tranquility? ---
(Anonymous, quoted in House Beautiful.)

‘Tis the season for cooking and baking. Actually I don’t know any season that isn’t for my family. But you know what I am talking about. The winter holiday season is upon us. And it is time to leave the computer and turn on the oven.

Each November I make a dozen fruitcakes from a recipe handed down by my paternal English grandmother. This one is a light, melt in your mouth, lemony, almondy, fruity, raisiny, shortbready, yummy cake. It keeps for months in the refrigerator and had been declared “better than fudge.” Now, if you are a purist and prefer your fruitcake rum-soaked and heavy with currents and fruit peal, then my cake may not interest you.

Perhaps I could offer you some of my shortbread. I make several batches with finely chopped pecans, shaped into small log shapes, baked and rolled in white sugar. On the other hand, if you prefer the traditional Scottish shortbread, (butter, sugar, flour and nothing else, for heaven’s sake), made in large circles that are then cut into individual serving pieces, you might not reach for my "pecan logs."

Instead of plum pudding for Christmas dinner, I like to serve lemon meringue pie or cheesecake or a lovely concoction of meringue, fresh berries and whipped cream. All are deceptively light and luscious after the capon. Oh, did I say capon? Yes, after too many winters of eating leftover turkey and broccoli casseroles I finally began cooking a capon as the alternative option for our family Christmas gatherings. While a plump, twelve pound capon, with wild rice and almond stuffing and a maple syrup glaze, may seem like something of a sacrilige, it suits us just fine.

Most of the time I cook without a recipe. Having spent enough years learning the rules, I can now modify then at will. It is just more fun that way. But when it comes to Christmas fare, I follow my old recipes carefully. Each year, I drag them out of their folders, spattered, yellowed, mutilated scraps of paper. And each year I think, I really must rewrite these recipes, better still put them on a computer file. But there is something precious about seeing my mother’s handwritten notes for the pecan logs, and my grandmother’s barely legible scratching of her fruitcake recipe. And the capon recipe is one I clipped out of a newspaper at least a decade ago. When I pull it out of the file, all crinkled and stained, I am reminded of all the past Christmases to which this little recipe has contributed, and has never failed to delight.

Sometimes, ritual is repetition; other times it is a variation on a theme. I subscribe to both. But when it comes to my favourite Christmas recipes, there is no substitute for the original. Once the seasonal baking is past I will carefully return each little piece of paper to its appropriate cardboard folder. I know I should transfer them to a document in my computer. I just don’t know how to archive memories.


persephone said...

'Cookbooks are for inspiration....'
What a delicious experience reading about your special family recipes and traditions Marylou. I had to look up 'capon'!

I agree that the best cookbooks are well used with spatters indicating the yummiest recipes. And I treasure some fragile , hand written recipes as well, preferably with cryptic instructions such as 'use s. basin'!

It is so interesting finding out what people cook for Christmas dinner. Ours has to be the same every year with turkey, my husband's 'killer' dressing and same veggies always! One year I tinkered with the cranberry sauce by adding orange zest and it was panned .

My mother made the authentic heavy, steamed Christmas pudding like her British born mother before her. It involved suet and all manner of dried fruit and hidden coins and lengthy steaming. Best of all it was sprinkled liberally with brandy just before serving. Wonderful memories of mum proudly making her entrance with flaming pudding, paper Christmas hat a little askew from the effort.

My job since a small girl was to make the 'hard sauce' to go with the pudding. Rich buttery little balls that melted on the dark pudding. I went throught a period of colouring the balls and the pastel ones were tolerated by family just fine. I did get carried away one year by making the balls bright purple and it is brought up to me to this day when
Christmas family memories are traded.

Two days before reading your Blog I had baked a friend some real Scottish shortbread (the kind with only 3 ingredients) as a birthday treat. I cut the shortbread into little dominoes before baking. My husband received his own little tin and he squirrelled it away. I bake so seldom now with family grown.

Thank you Marylou for the sharing and the memories! Claire

Marylou said...

Thank you Persephone (aka Claire) for sharing some of your Christmas moments as well...Like you (and most of us, I think) I have also tinkered with the tried and true...and like the present meltdown in the economy...disasterous results send us scuttling back to the traditional approach to many things.
I am most interested in your husband's "killer" dressing. I'll show you mine, if you show me yours...!!!

persephone said...

Dick's dressing (adapted from his mother's stuffing recipe) has evolved over the years to perfection. Sometimes he changes the type or cut of the nut. One year he added chestnuts.

Brown sausage meat and finely chopped onion. Pour off and discard drippings. In a large bowl combine above with sliced celery, grated carrots, sliced almonds, Italian bread cubes, poultry spice (lots) and salt and pepper. Pour melted butter over all and combine. Don't skimp on the butter!

Like you Marylou he does not use measurements, just goes by 'feel' and taste . His secret is to buy
the best Italian bread at our local bakery and to let it sit about for a couple of days before 'hand cubing'. (I need italics for that! ) It's the most labour intensive part but he swears it is the secret. Amounts and types of sliced or grated veggies can be adapted depending on preference.

Now what's yours Marylou? *grin*

And yes, tradition IS comforting in turbulent times. Claire

Marylou said...

Herewith, my dressing Dick's, it too has been modified over the years...I used to add sausage as well, and have not done so for awhile...but may add it this year, just for grins, to see what sort of audience rating I get.

Turkey or Capon or Chicken Stuffing
For a 12-16lb bird…adjust amounts accordingly…any extra can always be baked in a side dish…

Chopped celery, onion, mushrooms, garlic sautéed in one stick of butter in large pan
Add the following:
½ C. wild rice (precooked in 1c water for 30min)…yield 1C.
1pkg garlic croutons (or make your own from dry Italian bread)
½ small can of pineapple chucks
½ can water chestnuts
½ chopped almonds
1T. mixed poultry dressing, (thyme, oregano, sage, savoury, tarragon)
Water as needed
Mix lightly…moisture from the onion mixture, plus the pineapple should be enough…but a T. of water may be needed…As my mother said about other recipes…you make it “by guess and by God”. Pack very lightly into cavity…I don’t bother with neck cavity…just put onions in there instead…
The real secret is the glaze of Dijon mustard, brown sugar, maple syrup and sometimes a little white wine…This paste gets added in the last hour of cooking and gets basted over the bird and into the dressing every 20 minutes…Oh yummy…

persephone said...

mmmmmmmm... wild rice, pineapple and water chestnuts! Gotta be delicious. Will try this one day.
Thanks Marylou and for including amounts in your recipe.

I do not know exact amounts for Dick's dressing. He does not really measure ('by guess and by God') but it always turns out great. Claire