Can a piece of music transport you to a specific place or send you back to a particular memory? Music has that magical quality for me, especially around the Holidays. When I was younger, as Christmas approached, my mother used to enjoy listening to the famous Choir of King’s College of Cambridge, England. Today, as my iPod Holiday mix shuffles at random, I can be instantly taken back to my childhood home and vividly see the Christmas tree, smell the warm sweet scents of baked goodies and my heart fills with peace and joy.
I have a cherished memory of coming home after an ordinarily dull day in grade school. I was chilled from the walk home and a little damp from the Washington drizzle. Upon opening our front door, my senses were overwhelmed with the sights, sounds and smells of the season. My eyes instantly fell upon our beautifully lit tree. A decorated Christmas tree has a certain remarkable glow about it. One doesn’t need to be looking directly at it to know the room has somehow changed. It’s warmer and almost soothing, inviting you to sit and stay a while. My ears took in the lovely high rolling voices of King’s College Choir singing their carols. Wonderful old world English songs such as I Saw Three Ships, The Holy and the Ivy, and Christmas is Coming. Besides The Nutcracker, this was the only Holiday music in the house. Stepping into our home, I smelled a days worth of baking. The warm, unmistakable scent of vanilla, brown sugar, warm walnuts, and the promise of amazing things to come. I promptly set my school bag down and B-lined it into the kitchen. There I saw baking sheets and cooling racks filled with several different kinds of cookies and sweets. My mother welcomed me home and invited me to try each of the wondrous goodies. That is a dear memory I shall never forget.
In later years, my mother and I would bake together on our designated Holiday baking day. One year after receiving her monthly issue of Gourmet magazine, she informed me we’d be branching out from our normal chocolate chips and Russian Tea Cakes, to include Biscotti. This issue of her favorite cooking publication had many different Biscotti recipes. We chose two, Orange Almond Biscotti and Black Pepper Biscotti – as biscotti means twice baked, they truly take all day, so two recipes were really enough to fill our day. The orange almond quickly became our favorite. They are made with no butter, thus making the end product quite crisp and very crunchy.
Last year (the first Holiday season after my mother’s passing) I added the famous Behnen caramels to my Holiday treat repertoire. Each Holiday my husband’s sister Terri toils endlessly making several batches of these creamy nubs of caramely goodness. Working with sugar is quite tricky, and one false move can quickly end your hours of stirring. One degree too high, and all your hard work is now burnt or too hard to eat. Or say you passed the caramel test, and the caramel made it to the baking sheet to set, your work is not done. You now have millions of caramels to hand cut and individually wrap. Once you know the method and have been indoctrinated into the secret caramel society, you greatly appreciate the process and are happy to be gifted even one, because that’s one you didn’t make. Here’s to hoping the caramel Gods smile down on me. Perhaps I’ll need to sacrifice a Christmas tree ornament as offering.
Another goodie I ventured to try last year was French Almond Nougat. This is a favorite treat in Europe and one that Michael and I ate fondly when we were in Venice, Italy two years ago. It made this years Holiday treat list as well.
I’m unsure why all the items on my list: caramels, Biscotti and French Almond Nougat are all labor intensive and time consuming treats. I seem to choose things that are not quick to whip up or easy to make. However, I have come to enjoy my time in the kitchen; measuring, sifting, stirring, zesting, chopping, roasting nuts, cutting, wrapping, and baking. The more a cook or baker enjoys what they are doing in the kitchen, the better the goodies will taste. It all boils down (no pun) to one very special ingredient that is never mentioned in the recipe, but one always hopes makes it into the final product – Love.