Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

A Snappy Christmas (or New Year’s!) Menu

25 December 2008


A Note to Readers:
This blog has moved. For newer posts plus copies of all the old ones (even this one!), please visit me at the All-New IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS.

          A few years ago I taught a recipe-writing workshop during reunion weekend at my college, Mount Holyoke. The participants worked during the workshop on linking memories to recipes. After the workshop ended, they were all supposed to e-mail me their finished recipes so that I could share them with the whole group.

          The weekend (and life!) got busy, and hardly anyone sent in the recipes. One exception to this rule was Mary McDowell of the Class of 1971. (Mary, I hope you don’t mind my giving away your graduation year!) I fell in love with her brisket recipe, possibly the easiest dish I’ve ever made! Chop onions, pour some stuff into a pan, and you’re done.

          Of course, I tinkered with it a bit. I do have trouble making recipes without tinkering. Mary bakes her brisket, covered, in a 250-degree oven for 8 to 10 hours (or more!). My sister-in-law Leigh and I were anxious to try out the All-Clad slow cooker, and the brisket seemed an ideal recipe for that pot. It was! We also cut back on the recipe. Mary originally called for a 10-pound cut of meat, but we have a small family. We used the full amount of beer and barbecue sauce she called for, although we might cut back on those a bit in future; the brisket was strongly flavored!

Mary wrote that this dish is a Christmas Eve tradition for her family. She caps it off with brownies topped with peppermint-stick ice cream, hot fudge, and crushed peppermint. We stopped after the ice cream, but the brownies à la mode did make an ideal (and snappy) finish. Add some noodles and a little green salad or vegetable, and the meal is just the thing for busy cooks who are tired from shopping, baking, partying, wrapping presents, and trying to be extra good for Santa!

I know I’m posting this too late for readers to prepare my menu on Christmas. I recommend it for New Year’s Eve as well, however. The tangy brisket and extra chocolaty brownies will keep you warm and start your year off deliciously.

Merry Christmas!


Mary’s Cousin’s Overnight Brisket (Adapted by Tinky and Leigh)

1 3-pound slab beef brisket

2 onions, sliced into rings

12 ounces beer

12 ounces high-quality barbecue sauce

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced in half


          The evening before you wish to eat the brisket, place it in the bottom of a slow cooker. Throw the onions on top, and top with the beer and barbecue sauce. Cook on the low setting overnight.

          The next morning, stir the carrots into the stew. Continue to cook all day, still on low. Two hours before you want to eat, turn the heat up to high. Serve with noodles.

          Serves 6 to 8. 


Fabulous Fudgy Brownies (Adapted from King Arthur Flour)

1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 eggs

1 -1/2 cups flour

12 ounces (2 cups) chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil, and grease the foil.

In a good-sized saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. (The saucepan should be big enough so that it can double as your mixing bowl.) Add the sugar, and stir to combine.  Return the mixture to the heat briefly—until hot but not bubbling.  (It will become shiny looking as you stir it.)  Remove it from the heat, and let it cool briefly while you assemble the other ingredients.

Stir in the cocoa, salt, baking powder, and vanilla.  Add the eggs, beating until smooth; then add the flour and chocolate, beating well until combined.  Spoon the batter into your pan.

Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry (it may have a few crumbs). Remove them from the oven.  After 5 to 10 minutes, loosen the edges of the foil.  Cool completely before cutting and serving.

Makes about 2 dozen brownies, depending on how large you cut them.


Michael REALLY likes these brownies!
Michael REALLY likes these brownies!






19 December 2008
Serra Root illuminates the Hawley Meetinghouse (Photos on this post Courtesy of Lark Thwing)

Serra Root illuminates the Hawley Meetinghouse (Photos on this post and the next Courtesy of Lark Thwing)


A Note to Readers:
This blog has moved. For newer posts plus copies of all the old ones (even this one!), please visit me at the All-New IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS.

          Colonial Williamsburg stages a Grand Illumination early each December. This weekend-long celebration includes bonfires, fireworks, and candlelit dinners. Visitors amble along the streets of the town, sipping mulled cider and enjoying the gift of light in this season of growing darkness.

           Four years ago, the historical society in my small western-Massachusetts hamlet inaugurated its own Illumination tradition. On a Sunday evening in December, members and friends of the Sons and Daughters of Hawley gather in the Hawley Meetinghouse, the former East Hawley Church.

This Little Illumination doesn’t pack the punch of the one at Colonial Williamsburg, where the weekend draws the season’s largest crowds. This year on December 7 a whopping 12 people showed up at the old church in Hawley. The Meetinghouse has no heat so activities were necessarily brief.

Those gathered decorated an outdoor tree with bird treats. They lit the church’s elderly chandelier with lamp oil. They placed battery-operated candles in each window. They sipped a bit of warm cider, hot chocolate, or wine. They sang a few carols (a cappella since no one wanted to lay fingers on the frigid piano keys). They then swiftly departed for home.

          Nevertheless, the two Illuminations—northern and southern, Little and Grand—have a lot in common. They both warm the heart if not the body. They both give their participants the feeling of living in the past, if only fleetingly. Standing in the Meetinghouse as it grew dark outside, enjoying the glimmering lights, we Illuminators felt as though we had been transported by magic into another era.

Above all, both Illuminations celebrate light.

          Light is meaningful on a number of levels at this time of year. As we learned last week when many of us in New England lost our electricity, light is perhaps most highly valued when we don’t have it. In our complicated homes, light is synonymous with power—the literal power to talk on our electric telephones, type on our electric keyboards, cook on our increasingly (alas!) electric stoves.

          Illumination and light are also symbols. Illumination was the term used in the Middle Ages for the creation of books that were transcribed and decorated, then passed on to posterity, spreading knowledge. Illumination also means understanding, figurative light that shines on some idea.

Light can stand for thought (the hackneyed light bulb that shouts “idea” in cartoons). It can stand for deity (the burning bush of God in the Old Testament). Above all, light stands for hope.

          Christmas falls at this time of year not because Jesus was necessarily born in late December but because he is viewed as a symbol of hope, of light in the darkness. The December festivals of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa also focus on light, burning candles that celebrate a variety of positive attributes but hope above all.

          Light is a central theme of the musical Big River, which won several Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1985. Big River is an adaptation of what may be the most American of novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Young Huck’s signature song in the show, “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” sums up much of his character just as Mark Twain’s novel summed up much of the American character. It is at once cynical and hopeful, kinetic and focused, pragmatic and idealistic.

          “I have lived in the darkness for so long,” sings Huck to a country tune written by Roger Miller. “I’m waiting for the light to shine.”

          At this time of year, we are all waiting for the light to shine. We find that light whenever we celebrate a holiday, whenever we gather with neighbors to sing or talk or feed the birds, whenever we start a fire and blow on it ever so gently to encourage the flames to rise.

          I share my light by cooking; my most frequent holiday gifts are edible. In the posts immediately below this one I’m highlighting a few of the nibbles I’ll be giving out this year. I hope they bring a little light and a little fun to readers. Happy solstice!

         To hear fellow New Englander Jason Brook sing “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” visit


Hawley Illuminators work to stay warm in the old church.

Hawley Illuminators work to stay warm in the old church.



Melanie’s Super Rich Pecan Plus Bars

19 December 2008
Ray and Melanie Poudrier with Melanie's Bars

Ray and Melanie Poudrier with Melanie's Bars

         A note to readers:  This blog has moved! For newer posts plus copies of all the old ones (including this one!), please visit the new IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS.


          Melanie Poudrier of East Hawley brought these treats to our Illumination party on December 7. She told me that everyone to whom she serves them asks for the recipe, and I understood why as soon as I tasted them. They’re lovely and extremely buttery; slice them very small! I had a little trouble extracting them so next time I make them I plan to line the pan with aluminum foil.

for the crust:

2 cups flour

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter, softened

for the filling:

1 to 1-1/2 cups pecan or walnut halves

2/3 cup sweet butter

1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

for the topping:
1 cup chocolate chips (or half chocolate and half butterscotch chips)


          Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the crust ingredients, beating them at low speed until you have fine particles. Press the crust into the bottom of an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

          Sprinkle the pecans over the crust.

          Next, make the remainder of the filling. In a 1-quart saucepan, combine the butter and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil (4 to 5 minutes). Boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Pour over the pecans.

         Bake the bars for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the filling is bubbly. Remove the pan from the oven, and immediately sprinkle the chips over the bars. Allow them to melt for a minute or two; then swirl the chips a bit as they melt. Cool the bars completely; then remove them from the pan, and slice them into bars. Makes about 3 dozen, depending on how large your slices are.

Illumination Cookies

19 December 2008


A note to readers:  This blog has moved!  For new posts plus copies of the old ones (including this one!) please visit me at the new IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS. See you there………


I invented these cookies for my town’s recent illumination party. Just be sure to use homemade or high-quality eggnog when you make them! 


for the cookies:

3/4 cup sweet butter (1-1/2 sticks) at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar plus sugar as needed for rolling

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

1/4 cup eggnog

2 cups flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

for the icing:

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature

1/4 cup eggnog

confectioner’s sugar as needed (probably about 2 cups)

1 teaspoon vanilla

holiday sprinkles if desired

          Start with the cookies. Cream together the butter, 3/4 cup sugar, and vanilla. Add the egg and eggnog, and beat until light and fluffy. Blend the dry ingredients and stir them into the creamed mixture. Wrap the dough in wax paper, and chill it for at least an hour.

          Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll small balls of the chilled dough in sugar, and place them on greased (or parchment-covered) cookie sheets. Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms brown lightly. Let them cool for a minute or two on the sheets; then remove them to a wire rack to finish cooling.

          Next, make the icing. Beat together the butter and eggnog. Beat in confectioner’s sugar until you have a smooth but not wet icing. Add the vanilla, and spread the icing on the cookies. If you like, throw on some sprinkles for color.

          Makes 3 to 4 dozen cookies.


Fruitcake Weather

14 December 2008


A note to readers: This blog has moved! For new posts plus copies of the old ones (including this one!) please visit me at the new IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS. See you there………


Belatedly, my mother and I are now getting around to making fruitcake. Fortunately, our family and friends will gladly eat it in the new year rather than at Christmas. As true fruitcake bakers and eaters know, fruitcake is most properly prepared around Thanksgiving. Ideally, it should have a few weeks to season before it is consumed.

          Fruitcake is often the subject of jokes, and I myself have been known to sing “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” at this time of year. Nevertheless, in our family fruitcake baking is an almost sacred ritual that connects me to my mother Jan and her mother Clara. It’s as much about that chain of bakers as about the end product.

          I’m sure I’m not the first home baker to fall in love with Truman Capote’s touching story from 1956, “A Christmas Memory.” First published in Mademoiselle magazine, of all places, this reminiscence sketches for readers the loving relationship in the 1930s between Capote as a child and his cousin, Sook Faulk. On the inside this sixty-odd-year-old woman was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”

          The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who are nameless in the tale and who seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst. The highlight of the year for young “Buddy” and his friend is the time in November when the two break into their piggy banks, shop for ingredients, and bake 30 fruitcakes. The fruitcakes make their way out into the larger world, presented to people who seem interesting or significant to the bakers, from President Roosevelt to an itinerant knife grinder.

          The story is brilliantly written in the present tense, giving the reader an immediate sense of being a part of the two protagonists’ world and their baking ritual. Capote repeats several times the phrase with which his cousin announces each year that the time to begin baking has come: “It’s fruitcake weather!”

          “It’s always the same,” he explains.“[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces: ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”

          I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to other people and our recollections of those people. The Truman Capote who is narrating is two decades and more than a thousand miles from his cousin’s memory; toward the end of the story he explains that not long after the Christmas he recalls in minute detail he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.

         Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures—their marshalling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies the whiskey that preserves the cakes–he brings both his younger self and his beloved cousin back to life.

The story makes every reader pine for the wonder of childhood. I’ve participated in a fair number of local theatrical productions. The only time I ever had to wear waterproof mascara was when I played the part of the older cousin in staged readings of “A Christmas Memory.” I couldn’t make it to the story’s end without crying. I still can’t.

          So let’s all bake fruitcake—for Truman Capote before he “became” Truman Capote, for lost cousins everywhere, for our mothers and our grandmothers.

Capote writes in the story that he and his cousin kept scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they received from the scattered recipients of their cakes, notes that gave them a feeling of connection “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”

Cooking gives me that feeling of connection every day, but particularly when it’s fruitcake weather.



Image Courtesy of Random House

Image Courtesy of Random House

Jan’s Killer Fruitcake


1 pound fruitcake fruits (I particularly like the not too sticky ones from King Arthur Flour)

1 cup slivered almonds

1 cup raisins, cut in half

1 cup currants

1/2 cup orange juice or sweet cider

1/4 cup molasses

2 tablespoons brandy, plus brandy for seasoning

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon mace

1-1/2 cups sifted flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

3 eggs


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the fruit, nuts, juice, molasses, 2 tablespoons brandy, and spices in a large bowl. Mix them together well, and let them stand while preparing the batter. (If you leave them for several hours or overnight, so much the better; you may use them almost immediately, however.)

Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. In a separate large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, and beat them until they are fluffy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Stir in the flour mixture, and then fold in the fruit mixture.

Line 2 greased loaf pans with well greased parchment paper, and divide the batter between them. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This may take up to about 1-3/4 hours, but start testing at the end of 1 hour just to be sure.

Let the cakes cool completely in their pans. Remove them carefully. Wrap them in cheesecloth, and drizzle brandy over the cheesecloth. Cover the wrapped cakes in foil, and seal them in plastic bags. Stow them away to season as long as you can. Optimally, you should wait at least 3 weeks before serving them, but you may certainly try them as soon as 10 days after baking. If you want to keep them for more than 3 weeks, you may have to drizzle on more brandy from time to time.

Makes 2 loaves.

A few years ago NPR’s This American Life aired a vintage reading of “A Christmas Memory” by Capote himself. To hear it and more, visit, and look for the December 19 edition of the program. And to hear me make fruitcake and sing a few strains of “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake,” try

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!

Mother Jan is getting ready for Christmas!