Friday, August 13, 2010

North Country Christmas

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s time to start thinking about holiday baking. Then again, it may be time to start procrastinating about holiday baking. Anything that requires aging, like fruitcake and lebkuchen, can be made far ahead of time and forgotten until Christmas Eve. There’s no reason not to set summer kids loose on edible play dough. They can test one cookie a week until Santa turns up. Traditional recipes make huge amounts.

I spent the coldest recorded winter in the history of the Northwest snowbound at the foot of a north-facing bluff on the edge of the Straits of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles. The cabin was so open to the weather that squirrels regularly romped on the peeled pole rafters over the living room. There was no heat, just a fireplace and a shed full of wet hemlock that boiled for half an hour before it caught fire. Canadian television broadcast three channels of fuzzy reruns of "I Love Lucy", six if you counted the grainy ghosts. That winter satisfied my 1968 urge to live in wilderness.

The blizzard hit December 26, in the day before weather satellites turned forecasting into just another facet of TV Guide. I had driven home with half a huge turkey, a fifth of Christmas whiskey, and my grandmother’s virtuoso parcel of traditional sweets.

As I slowly realized that it would not be necessary to refrigerate a turkey in a kitchen where there was frost on the sink itself, it dawned on me that the old recipes for fruit cake, pepperkaaker, and lebkuchen were first, wonderful emergency field rations for long, horse-drawn journeys in snowy terrain, and second, clever ways of preserving summer’s abundant butter and honey. Cinnamon contains the very unpronouncables that are listed on cardboard food packaging.

As is often the case with old recipes, procedures that seem inconvenient in a high-tech kitchen make a world of sense when the environment is unplugged. One wonders, why candy orange peel only to embalm it in the biochemical equivalent of terrazzo? That fruit cake kept me alive, the whiskey kept me moving, and the turkey, well, it was turkey. Not quite jerked, not quite edible, but entirely on the premises when the cupboard was nearly bare, the phone was out, the snow waist high, the road steep, and even a VW sedan not equal to conditions.

Everyone has an ancestral recipe for fruit cake that claims to be the best ever, and lebkuchen are standard Joy of Cooking fare. Use aged honey if you have it. Safeway now carries a Swedish ginger snap that’s good competition for my matriarchs’ work, so you can pick some up on December 20, but nobody’s got Great-aunt Beth’s cookie cutters. Convenience food, old country baking was served to drop-in visitors over the Twelve Days of Christmas. A fresh cup of coffee with a cookie on the side displayed the pride of the house against a background of china, silver, beautifully embroidered and finished linen, and the Christmas tree.

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