It’s December and that means short days and long, dark nights, so I’ve temporarily abandoned the garden. There’s plenty I can do out there — mulching, weeding, sharpening tools and pruning, but I’ve retreated to the kitchen where I can enjoy the bounty of my garden, as well as copious amounts of cultured butter and sugar.
Beginning on Stir-up Sunday (this year, Nov. 24, the fifth Sunday before Christmas), I make fruitcakes and steamed puddings and put them away to age. I use Delia Smith’s traditional English recipes, but substitute mostly dried fruit for the glow-in-the-dark red and green candied stuff. I follow the Victorian tradition that says 13 ingredients, one for each of the disciples plus Jesus, should be used in the steamed puddings. After baking and steaming, both the cakes and puddings are liberally basted with lots of good bourbon and put away for later. In theory, that is. I regularly find family members munching on fruitcake for breakfast the day after they’re made. No one claims to like fruitcake, but once they taste the homemade, very boozy version, they almost always ask for at least one cake. One neighbor often eats three before Christmas.
Cookies are a central part of my holiday preparations too. I always make 12 varieties, one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. All year, I collect recipes that I might want to use and then over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I mull each one and make a final list of recipes to use. There are always some favorites that are repeated every year – chocolate whoopie pies, cheese crackers with crunchy pretzels and Old Bay, and some version of chocolate chip cookies. I also make spiced pecans. They’re not cookies, but get included in the general baking mayhem.
Part of the cookie baking tradition is that two friends come from Richmond to help with everything. We make a great team. Someone mixes ingredients, someone does dishes, and someone does the tedious decorating and icing. We almost never eat any of what we’re baking, and we never, ever leave a mess in the kitchen. After three days of baking, we divvy up the goodies and give them to friends. What’s left we serve with eggnog on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
And then there is the fancy bread. Tradition requires some very specific kinds – buttery stolen, challah made with honey and olive oil, walnut poteca, and chocolate babka. They’re all very different and all good. I stash them in the freezer so that I’m ready for whatever impromptu entertaining occasion arises and also use them for our regular weekend breakfasts when we are more self-indulgent than during the week.
For about six weeks, the kitchen is filled with a haze of butter and sugar. Friends know to stop by to help with the “market research” of new recipes. Sometimes even strangers get involved. Is all of this healthy? No, but it’s a once a year period of glorious excess anticipated by most people who know about it.
What am I having for dinner tonight? A bowl of gumbo and a salad. Something simple and savory. Happy holidays, everyone.
CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener. She can be reached at email@example.com.