Friday, December 21, 2012

A Recipe for Christmas Love and Sweet Memories

Grandma's strawberry cookies

The best thing about being down with the flu for two weeks is it gives you a new perspective on all the Christmas frenzy.  In other words, I had no energy to become obsessed with having a perfectly decorated tree with ornaments distributed absolutely symmetrically top to bottom and front to back.  No energy to fill the window boxes with evergreen cuttings and pine cones.  No energy to stay up all night baking every freakin’ Christmas cookie recipe from my mother and grandmother’s recipe boxes.

Truth be told, I’ve been known to be a bit of a shrew around this time of the year because I thought the holiday would not be perfect unless EVERYTHING was exactly as my mom had done it, and Grandma, and Granny.  Trying to be three people can be exhausting.  For a couple of decades I would bake for days and days to recreate all the family’s signature cookies during the week leading up to Christmas.  Then I’d end up throwing out half of them after New Year’s because nobody needed that many.

It took a lot of years and a lot of sleepless nights during Christmas week before I realized my mania was simply a way to bring to the celebration all those people I loved and missed so much.  Their traditions had defined the holiday for me.  Making six or seven different Christmas treats meant that my loved ones were with me through the season, even if it killed me.

So this weekend I’ll be making another batch of my Grandma’s strawberry cookies.  I know that strawberries don’t exactly scream “Christmas” to most people.  But our holiday meal wasn’t complete until she walked through the door with them.

In my youth I was more about butter cookies with icing and sprinkles or fudge, turning my nose up at Grandma’s Christmas offering.  After all, why would I want a “cookie” made from chopped dates if I could have oodles of butter and frosting and chocolate and every other thing with no nutritional value?  It wasn’t until my late teens that my taste buds matured enough to slap me upside the head over what I had been missing.

After I moved back to my hometown Grandma started threatening to give up cookie baking at Christmas because she couldn’t read the recipes or get to the store to do her own shopping for the ingredients.  Being 92 will do that for you.  What was worse than Grandma giving up baking, however, was the realization that I didn’t know how to make some of her signature sweets.

That Christmas I asked her to show me how to make her strawberry cookies.  She had first tasted them about 25 years before at a church meeting and pestered the woman who had brought them for the recipe.  Grandma had been making them ever since.  And now I would finally know.

We spent the afternoon in her little apartment watching The Price Is Right as we shaped the date concoction into the shape of strawberries.  Our fingers turned red from rolling them in the colored sugar and green from the tube of green icing that formed the leaves on the top.  I repeated the event for the next three years until she passed away.  And then I continued on because passing on this small skill felt as important as passing on any family photographs, jewelry or furniture.

So now I produce Grandma’s strawberry cookies, even if I have no time for the others.  And I only make a half recipe to make this labor-intensive endeavor a little easier on me.  After all, it’s really the care and love they served up during the season that is the most important thing to recreate.

Grandma Farrar’s Strawberry Cookies

1 cup pitted, chopped dates
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
2 cups Rice Krispies, slightly crushed
1 cup coarsely copped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
red decorating sugar
1 tube green icing, with leaf tip

In a heavy saucepan, combine dates, sugar, butter, and eggs.  Mix well and bring to a boil, stirring often to prevent scorching.

Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat; simmer 6-7 minutes, stirring often.

Remove from heat and stir in Rice Krispies, nuts, and vanilla.

Let mixture cool slightly.  Then shape small amounts into the shape of a strawberry (flatten one end of chunk and pinch the other end).  Roll in red sugar.  Finish by using the icing tube and tip to add one or two leaves of green icing to the large end of the cookie.

Stick in your favorite Christmas movie and call a companion over to help you shape and decorate them.  The memories make them taste all the sweeter.

When I read French Word A Day blogger Kristin Espinasse’s story about her obsession with re-creating the Christmas of her Arizona youth in her adult home in the south of France, I felt her crazed mania and longing for the familiar.  For her, it was about finding a tree exactly like her mother had lavished such care on each year.  For me it had been about cookie-baking.  After you read Kristin’s lively piece come back and tell us what’s one holiday tradition (Christmas or other) that you insist on although it drives you and everyone around you to the brink?  Why does it mean so much to you?  Share your obsession in the comments box.

In the wake of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, 
I'm wishing peace on earth and goodwill toward all


Lee I said...

Can I come back later? In the midst of tryng to figure out what I actually have to do.

(May I mention a couple of typos in the recipe: I'm sure you mean "chopped" dates, and "red" food coloring. Blame it on automatic spell-check. :-) )

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for the heads up on the typos. And good luck with figuring out what you have to do.

Patricia said...

Good to hear you are beginning to feel better. Enjoy a relaxing holiday with half as many cookies!

Tami Clayton said...

Glad you're feeling better. I love your story about your grandmother's cookies. How wonderful that you had time with her to learn and practice making her signature treat. I hope you and your family have a lovely holiday. :)

Anonymous said...

How beautiful that you were able to spend that time learning and baking and just being with your Grandma. I enjoyed your whole story - of how we try to do so much in the Christmas season, as a way to bring loved ones close. This year, I'm also trying to simplify, with Christmas Lite.
I wish all the best to you and your family. Keep writing Julie. You tell great stories!

Julie Farrar said...

"Christmas lite" definitely describes this year. Looking at my tree in the day, it looks practically bare. However, at night with the pre-installed lights lit on the tree and the new lighted tree topper, it looks fancy. After all, company only comes at night when the tree is on.

Liv Rancourt said...

Lovely post, Julie. I love dates, and the cookies sound yummy. Hope you continue to feel better and have a happy holiday...

Muriel said...

I hope that you had a nice Christmas (from what I read, it certainly was tasty!) and that you feel better!

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