It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but I’ve been concentrating on Christmas for over a week.
It isn’t that I’m particularly enamored of Christmas, in fact I prefer T’day, but even as a cook and a writer and a food writer I have to plan for holidays. I had to create, test, and write up Thanksgiving recipes for my CookingforTwo site back in early October and I’m finishing off Christmas now. I also have to consider my blog, Seriously Good, and how it relates to the holidays. Then there’s my work as a consultant with ChefsLine, and this column.
Even as a kid Thanksgiving was the beginning of Christmas for me, as it is for so many families. For us it wasn’t a mad battle with traffic and shoppers on the day after, but rather preparing the first three items in our Christmas feast: Eggnog, Fruitcake, and Bourbon Cake.
One of my earliest memories is of standing beside my father in the kitchen as he made his eggnog base of eggs, whiskey, and sugar. I must have been six or seven at the time, because I remember the silvery bowl was almost as big as I was. The bowl shrank over the years, as I grew, but in the beginning it was huge. I also clearly remember the tintinnabulation of the metal beaters against the metal bowl.
The base, once made, was poured into a small, antique, terracotta butter churn, covered with cheesecloth, and placed at the back of the pantry to age and mellow. On Christmas Eve my father would mix a portion of the base with whipped cream and we would have a toast – even we kids were permitted a small punch glass of ‘nog although, of course, these days my parents would likely end up in jail if anyone found out.
Dad also made the fruitcake on Thanksgiving weekend. It was actually a pretty good fruitcake as such things go. But when it came down to it everyone, except possibly my father, preferred the Bourbon Cake my mother made that same weekend.
The Bourbon Cake was passed down from her mother and my guess is the recipe is at least 100 years old. It could well be older. It’s a dense butter cake with raisins, nuts, and spices and like Dad’s eggnog and fruitcake it ages for a month and gets a weekly dose of bourbon. As children we were permitted a small slice, as adults we limit ourselves to a small slice: It’s that rich and that alcoholic.
The Bourbon Cake has become too much work for my mother. The batter is thick and heavy and she no longer has the strength, suppleness, or stamina to make it: I’ve inherited that task (made much easier with a stand mixer) and this coming weekend I’ll be making the cake using my mother stained note card. Between now and Christmas, I’ll carefully tend the cake, providing weekly does of bourbon, before finally cutting it into sixths and mailing the huge slices to my family and, if she’s lucky, my editor.
I’ve made Dad’s eggnog on occasion, but he also continues to make it sometimes so eggnog at Christmas is less predictable but always welcome. As for Dad’s fruitcake… well it’s gone if not forgotten.
Our traditions link us to each other and the past we share with our family, our friends, our ancestors, our culture. Whether those traditions are religious or sectarian, familial or cultural, they provide context for our lives and a framework for defining our selves. The acquisition of new traditions , the modification of those we know and love connects us to our current reality.