Monthly Archives: December 2013

christmas cake

One of my new favorite Christmas foods is an Ohio Christmas Cake.  I found the recipe a few years ago when I was transcribing my great-grandmothers hand-written recipes.  I stumbled across it again last year when I was looking for Christmas cookie recipes.  Now, my grandmother (maternal) and her mother were known for their extensive Christmas cookie baking.  They would bake at least a half dozen types of cookies.  I remember chocolate covered peanut butter logs, fruitcake cookies, sticky sweet bar cookies, what we called St. Nick cookies but were really Mexican wedding cookies, molasses cut-out cookies, nutmeg cookies, and sugar cookies among the offerings.

But, back to the cake.  I liked the sound of it because my father (both my real father and step father) were from Ohio.  My step father loved fruitcake and the recipe resembled a fruitcake–lots of nuts, candied citrus peel, dried fruit, spices.   And, my grandmother (maternal) also always made fruitcake at Christmas, usually to give away as gifts.  One of my holiday baking memories is making fruitcake with her when I was about 9 years old.  She took me shopping for the ingredients and we made the cake together as a gift for my step-father.

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I decided to make this Christmas cake last year in memory of my stepfather.  The recipe was obviously old.  It only listed ingredients (such as “one glass jelly” and “candied citron”), and then said “bake in slow oven”.  I consulted with a local professional baker about the recipe and she helped me decide how to go about making the cake.  She also suggested making a half or even quarter recipe since it was a large recipe with expensive ingredients (pounds of nuts and candied fruit).  So, I spent about a  week making the recipe.  First, I made orange-ginger marmalade for the “glass jelly”, then I candied orange and lemon peel.  I did not know what candied citron was, though I saw it on-line for $15/half pound.  Finally I mixed up half a recipe.  I made it into small loaves to give to grandparents and my father-in-law as gifts.  I kept one small loaf for myself.  William and I tried it and fell in love.  I made another half batch just for us.  It had a great flavor, was not heavy or too sweet.  The candied citrus was wonderful in the cake–fresh and bright and a little bitter.  It was not a fruitcake, though.  It was a fruity, nutty, citrus-y cake that was not as dense, sweet, moist, or rummy as a fruit cake.  That may sound like a turn-off for fruitcake lovers, but they would be missing out.

citrus an nuts

I made the cake again this year–a full recipe.  I gave some away as gifts, but kept at least half for us.  We keep the cake cool and eat thin slices a few times a week–sometimes for breakfast or afternoon snack.  I almost crave it at times.

batter

It will become a holiday tradition for me.  I plan to make it each year and enjoy the cake until it is gone, then wait until the next December to enjoy it again.

out for a walk

Last week, we had unusually warm weather, then lots of rain. Today rain has finally stopped and the temperature has dropped. But, last week, when we had that nice warm weather, I ended up with a day with my two boys and not much of an agenda. It was really nice–to not have anywhere we had to be, to not have a scheduled day–to just do what we wanted when we wanted, and as a really nice bonus, the weather was fantastic (for late December). I had been really wanting to make a Christmas cake (more to come on that), but it is complicated, so I needed some free time to make sure I got the measurements correct. This was the day to do that. Plus, I had some great sous chef help. And, with the weather so nice, after Hythe and I put the cakes in the oven, we took off on a hike (but, first a play on the swing set). Steven rode on my back and we hiked up to a small waterfall on the family property. It was so warm on our south-facing ridge that Hythe wore shorts and a t-shirt, but the north-facing cove we hiked up was pretty chilly. It was such a fun hike–Hythe chatted the whole time, pointing out fairy pools and moss and admiring the creek falls. And the scenery was beautiful. Sometimes getting out into the forest is the most refreshing thing for me. My worries fall away–they stop mattering.

This hike was one of those times that you want to freeze and remember forever, but is mundane enough that you know you won’t remember it by next year. You want to keep those feelings and your children, so small and innocent and sweet–to bring back and enjoy at another time. But, there will never be that time again. The moment passes, the children grow. My only consolation to this inevitable loss is to try and enjoy those moments and recognize them for what they are–fleeting morsels of life to be savored to the fullest. I may not remember exactly what happened in those moments later, but I think I will remember the contentment and happiness.

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nativity

Evva stole my camera for a little while and I wanted to share some of her Christmas pictures*.  Many were blurry, but some were quite good–a different perspective.  I love looking through pictures she takes. This is the creshe we had when I was a little girl, and I loved to play with it, acting out the scenes from the nativity.

*Sorry–the table had not yet been cleaned when she took the pictures.

>mary and joseph

wise menlambs

shepard

baby jesus

nativity

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learning to ride a bike

I learned to ride a bike when I was about 6 years old.  I had a nice little hand-me-down bike that I really wanted to ride, but we lived with a gravel driveway, off a gravel road.  There is not much harder (for a little kid) than learning to ride a bike on gravel.  My grandparents, however, had a flat paved driveway that was about 40 yards long.  It was perfect for learning to ride a bike (except for a few mostly avoidably broken cement cracks).  But, I was a nervous rider–I wanted to start out slow, which as anyone who rides a bike knows, does not work when you are learning.  I kept with my unsuccessful, but comfortable, strategy for a few weeks.

One day, my aunt, uncle, and cousins came for a visit.  We all gathered as normal at my grandparents house, which was also where my bike was stored at the time.  I got out the bike, and as normal pushed myself around with my feet trying to ride it.  My uncle decided that he was going to get me riding a bike that day no matter what.  Now, my uncle was a former NFL player and secret service agent.  He was large, stern, and intimidated me (though he did have a great sense of humor).  I was scared to death when he commanded me to get on the bike and pedal hard.  I knew he was going to give me a big push, let go of the bike, and I was going to fall over on that pavement.  And, that is pretty much what happened over and over until he got frustrated with me and went inside to eat lunch.  I stayed outside, determined not to let my uncle down, but relieved to be on my own again.  I got back on the bike, and started riding–discovering the key point that my strong uncle helped me realize. Pedal fast to keep your balance.  I was so proud.

Fast forward many years, and we bought a new type of kids’ bike, a balance bike (essentially a tiny bike without pedals) for Christmas our son who had just turned 2.  His older sister rode it for the first month we had it and at the end of the month when we gave her bike back to her without training wheels, she just took off on it and never looked back.  We realized this summer that Hythe (3 years old) was nearly big enough for a bike with pedals, and so this fall William fixed up Evva’s old bike as an early birthday present.  William painted the pink and purple bike, red and black.  He oiled the chain, changed the tubes, and it was ready for a little boy.  Then we took him (a helmet) and the bike to his grandparent’s driveway which, while flat, is gravel.  He took off on his little bike with no training wheels and didn’t look back.

the bike

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He practiced on the driveway, in the library parking lot, anywhere that was slightly flat.  I am so proud (and amazed!).  And, mostly glad he enjoys it so much.

He even rides it in the house (where you really do need a helmet).

christmas ham

When I was growing up, we always had a country ham for Christmas dinner in addition to the turkey and other fixings.  I would always take a few paper-thin slices and eat them with a roll or the dressing.  I did not LOVE the country ham, but I knew that the ham came from one of the hogs off our farm and my grandfather did LOVE it (plus it you could get a piece without fat–one of my biggest childhood(?) food dislikes).  So, I liked it fairly well.  Once my grandfather sold his hog farm and Smithfield implemented vertical integration, we did not have country ham at our holiday meals anymore.

Last year, we were visiting my cousin in Richmond at Thanksgiving and I saw a country ham in a Virginia agriculture products store.  It was a fairly upscale store, but the smell reminded me of those country hams from my childhood.  I have come to really like good country ham, especially on a biscuit or roll or in greens.  So, I decided to buy a ham, cook it and serve some at a Christmas party we were hosting.  I know we would have some left for Christmas dinner, too.  It was fairly expensive, but we took that ham home and I scrubbed it, cooked it, and William carved it.  It took most of a day to cook it and most of a night to carve it.  I had no experience cooking a country ham, despite some knowledge absorbed by osmosis at those long ago holiday dinners.  And, William had not experience carving a country ham.  We also realized we’d bought a very large ham.  It was really good, though, and it lasted us through the party, through Christmas dinner, through New Years celebrations (where we flavored everything we ate with ham), and through the next 4 months whenever we pulled slices from the freezer to use in meals.

Layden's Country Store

This year, I did not plan to buy a country ham, but we went to Layden’s Store in Belvidere when we were visiting my family for Thanksgiving.  When I saw his hams hanging, I decided we needed another country ham for the holidays.  These hams were smaller (and cheaper) that the one from last year, but I got them to cut it in half since I knew a smaller section it would be easier to deal with. William also had them slice a few thick slabs off to fry up for breakfasts.  I cooked this ham when we got home and William carved it.  We now have lots of sliced country ham in the refrigerator and the freezer.

carving the ham

carving the ham

I LOVE pulling out some to use to flavor a meal or to put on a roll with mustard and brown sugar.  I think of country ham as more of a condiment rather than a main part of a meal–it is so strong and salty.  But, I really like having it around.  I think we will make this something we do every year now.   Maybe I will try different methods of cooking it (I did not realize at first there were different ways to cook a country ham, but there are).  Maybe, one year, I will try to cure my own ham (I already have ideas).  But, we will have it and I hope my children will appreciate it as part of our tradition.

What about you?  Do you like country ham?  Do you have a secret to cooking it?  A favorite place to get your ham?

oh, christmas tree

on the way to get our tree

We got our Christmas tree this past weekend.  We drove to some family property where years ago, some in the family planted Frasier firs to be cut for Christmas trees.  This property is fairly remote, higher altitude than where we live, and really beautiful.  The headwaters of a river run through it, gracing it with 3 awe-inspiring waterfalls, and long stretches of peaceful pools and rapids.  We all love to come out to this property, William especially–it is a relaxing place.  We usually only come here to vacation, which is really glorified camping in a very rustic old house.

This weekend, however, we came for a very quick trip.  Our goal was to cut a couple of trees to decorate our house and a cousin’s house for Christmas.  Usually, we can drive over dirt trails and get fairly close to the tree “lot” even in a non-4WD vehicle.  But, it has been raining quite a bit lately and the trails were a bit overgrown.  We needed to walk back to the firs.

lichen on old apple tree

It is a pretty walk without much incline and not very far, but we had to consider our options when we realized we had to get 4 children and one heavy chainsaw to the lot and 4 children, one heavy chainsaw, and 2 trees back to the car.  The walking children started complaining pretty quickly about have to “walk so far”.  William thought maybe we should cut some white pines since they were so close to the car and we were not really sure how many Frasier firs were left or what condition they were in.
white pines
But, we went on–if only to get a little woodland hiking in that day and get children outside (in spite of complaints)–to check out the firs.  As soon as we got to the fir lot, complaining stopped and everyone enjoyed looking for the right trees.  We quickly found one that was right by the trail.  It was very tall, but since the lot is old, we often have to cut down a fir and cut the top out for a Christmas tree.  This one was also damaged on the bottom from bushhogs or other traffic that had nicked it and damaged the lower branches over the years.  William cut it down, cut it up, and cut off the top.  I realized then that if he cut another one of that size, it was going to be very difficult to get back to the car with two trees.  That tree was heavy–the trunk, even at the top, was larger than your normal Christmas tree trunk.  So, I picked out the next tree.  A scraggly, thin, 9 foot tall fir, bunched up next to some sapling poplars and right beside the trail.  It was not healthy.  It was yellower than the first tree and had dead needles in the center.  Most of the dead poplar leaves were decomposing in the branches.  But, it would not weigh much, it was the perfect height, was thin and tall, and I figured it would look fine when decorated.  The children liked it, too.

cutting the tree
got one tree
got two trees
carried the chain saw back

We got the two trees (I carried the chainsaw since William had the firs), headed back to the car and headed home.  Naps in the car on the way home helped everyone enjoy decorating the tree that evening.

tying on the trees

decorating

our tree

Isn’t it beautiful?  The children certainly think so.  I think we got the perfect one.

My family did not cut trees from the woods to use as Christmas trees, though I remember for a few years, my brother and I would cut down some small pine trees, put them in our room and decorate them. They took up all the spare space in our bedrooms. One day, I would like to have a red cedar as a Christmas tree–a wild and native one. What did my great-grandparents do for a Christmas tree? I never thought to ask.

visiting the flat land

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farm
pecan tree
biking
cold boat ride
sky and water

We had a great time visiting my mother and family and friends where I grew up in northeastern NC this past week.  There were lots of long and short bike rides, a few very cold boat rides, a visit to the local museum, and oysters!  Everytime I visit this “home”, I feel a deep longing.  There is something about the big sky, large bodies of water, vast fields of crops, cypress and pine trees, even the brackish smell of the rivers and sulfurous smell of the swamp–that speaks to me.  I miss the people in northeastern NC, too–they are kind and deeply Southern and tied to the land in apparent and obscure ways.  There are things we cannot have in the mountains that I miss very much:  real gardenias, yaupon, pecan trees, persimmon (Japanese) to name a few.  And, when it is oyster season, I definitely sigh at the local bountiful seafood available at a reasonable price (something we do NOT have in the mountains).  I love steamed oysters and my brother steamed a few bushels for his birthday while we were there. 

My maternal grandfather’s family was from this area as far back as the 1650s.  They were farmers there up until this last generation. There is a strong link to this landscape and the people.  Sometimes I think I might be related to 1/3 of the county by blood or marriage.  Even on this trip, my mother pointed out a house and said “our cousin lives there” and named someone I’d never heard of.  I asked her how we were related and she said his grand father was my great grandmother’s cousin (or something like that).  I love visiting.

And, I love where I live now–where William is from.  I love my home, the people here, my in-laws, the community.  And, I am always glad to get home. 

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