THE SPICY fragrance of mince pie, mingled with the pungent pine scent of burning fatwood, meant things were stirring in the kitchen on Christmas morning. Those rich smells floating upstairs, the thump of firewood thrown on the back porch and the muffled clatter downstairs sent us scampering from the warmth of a quilt-covered bed in a cold bedroom. We hurried by the garlanded banister, across the drafty hall and into the living room. There the fatwood kindling urged along a gently hissing fire. On the hearth was a small box or basket set out by each child on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus had a choice of chimneys at our North Carolina farmhouse, but we knew he always came down the one in the living room, because that's where we had the tree. (Even when our father's preference was favored and the tree was put in the wide hall by the front windows, Santa still came down that chimney.) He filled our box or basket with hard candies, chocolate drops, gummy bears, gumdrop orange slices, peppermint sticks and ribbon candy; also walnuts, pecans, almonds, chestnuts and Brazil nuts and all kinds of fruit -- shiny red apples, rough-skinned tangerines, slick, bright oranges and kumquats and sometimes a promegranate. No more stocking could hold such largesse.
The tree was always a big one, often cut in the farm woods. It was heavily laden with ornaments, lights, festoons and tinsel. Around the tree were spread all the longed-for surprises we had put on our list to Santa. Sometimes the surprises were not what we'd bargained for, as in the war years when materials were scarce, and rubber dolls and metal carousels were not to be found. One of those years I received a note explaining the shortages and the reason for gifts I had not requested. Santa's handwriting strongly resembled that of my older sister.
After admiring our gifts we'd hurry to the kitchen where preparations had started very early. In country fashion, we feasted at midday on Christmas, or as soon thereafter as kinfolks and friends could assemble. This meant pies had to be in the oven early, to free it for the roasting of a fresh ham or beef, or both.
There was something very special about a country kitchen, especially at holiday time. Christmas morning, the bustling about of the cooks, the splendid smells and warmth and the gaiety made it magical. It was the coziest and best place on earth to be, especially if we had a rare light snowfall or, more likely, an ice storm. When that happened, the eaves were fringed with icicles, and all the trees outside glittered in coats of ice. To look out a kitchen window at a huge holly, its dark green leaves and brilliant red berries glazed with ice, and see cardinals darting in and out was the kind of vision we remember forever.
Not only did cooking begin at dawn Christmas day, but much was done days and even weeks ahead. One big project was baking fruitcakes. This was usually done with a friend or relative to share the work and fun -- and, of course, the cakes. Fruitcake batter, stiff with stickly citron, cherries, and other fruits and pecans was mixed in a big dishpan. Often both light and dark fruitcakes were made. My job each year was to pick up pecans from under the trees in the yard before the squirrels took more than their fair share. Then I had to shell the nuts. Halves were saved for salting and spicing for snacks, and for decorating candies and cakes. When the batter was mixed and forced into tube pans, it was baked, filling the kitchen and the entire house with its distinctive holiday-season aroma.
When the cakes were cool, they were set in deep cake tins with wedges of apple and a generous splash of good brandy or rum. From time to time, the tins were opened to remove withered apple wedges and replace them with fresh ones, and the fumes that arose from the tins were truly heady. After several weeks, and by Christmas, the cakes were fully aged, moist and delicious. I do not have the recipe for those rich cakes, though I wish I did. Like much country cooking, the cooks knew how to do it "by heart." Probably the cakes were never made exactly the same way twice.
Besides fruitcakes, we often had fresh coconut cake. This was made a couple of days ahead, and refrigerated. Besides shelling pecans, the dubious pleasure of cracking, peeling and shredding the coconut fell to me. My father hammered a nail or forced an ice pick into the "eyes" of each coconut, and turned each one upside down over a glass in order to collect the milk. Then it was up to me. Every time the buzz and whir of the food processor is heard in my kitchen today, the memory of the hammer, the coconut and the hand-grater springs to mind.
Along with cakes and pies, we had homemade candies. We made these well ahead, the trick was to see that some survived until Christmas. Today all of this may sound like a lot of cooking-and-doing, but the country custom was to have plenty of goodies on hand to offer all the visitors who came by with Yuletide geetings.
Christmas dinner itself was spectacular in scope, if not in sophistication. No one was obliged to eat some of everything. There was variety to please the varying tastes of the many diners. There was almost always a turkey (sometimes that rare treat, a wild turkey fattened on pine mast) and a pan of yellow-brown cornbread dressing; there might also be roast beef or a fresh roast ham. Sometimes there was oyster stew or bisque on the stove for anyone who needed an appetizer, and always there were many dishes of vegetables, fluffy rice with gravy or seasoned rice, homemade cucumber pickles and pickled peaches and cranberry sauce. Often both sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes were served, and there was a lettuce-covered tray filled with celery, olives and radishes. In the background stood the cakes, pies and candies, and at every holiday, the traditional bowl of ambrosia. It was a feast of magnitude.
Today we may not fill a smokehouse, or bake so many big fruitcakes, or "hill" potatoes, or serve such an overwhelming variety of food at one holiday feast. But the essence of a country Christmas is ours today in recipes handed down, memories and traditions shared. If there is someone in the kitchen who loves to cook, there can be a country Christmas anywhere. OYSTER BISQUE (About 8 servings) 1 quart oysters 5 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons onion, chopped fine 4 tablespoons celery, chopped fine 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup warm chicken stock 3 cups warm milk Oyster liquor 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce Parsley for garnish
Drain oysters. Reserve liquor. Heat oysters in heavy stockpot in 1 tablespoon butter for about 2 minutes or until edges curl. Remove oysters. Heat 4 tablespoons butter in stockpot. Saute onions and celery until tender. Add flour and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly stir in stock, milk and oyster liquor. Cook slowly for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add oysters and seasonings. Keep hot in top of double boiler for one hour before serving. Add parsley when serving. FRESH ROAST HAM (Basic Recipe)
Skin ham, leaving about 1/2 inch fat over entire ham. Rub all over with mixture of 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon dry mustard and 1/4 teaspoon round ginger. (For very large ham, double or triple amounts). Roast in 350 degree oven 30 to 35 minutes per pound, or until meat thermometer registers 185 degrees. Fresh pork should be thoroughly cooked. Well-done fresh pork will have a characteristic grayish-pink color, and delicate aroma. Cooked ham may be polka-dotted with ground black pepper. Serve on hot platter, garnished with crabapples. Also excellent served cold, thinly sliced. PORK SHOULDER WITH SAVORY STUFFING (6 to 8 servings) 1 fresh pork shoulder, 5 to 6 pounds Salt and pepper 1/4 cup diced celery and tops 1 tablespoon diced onions 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 2 tablespoons fat 2 cups soft bread crumbs 1/4 teaspoon savory Flour
Remove skin and bones from pork shoulder and sprinkle inside with salt and pepper. Saute the celery, onion and parsley in fat in saucepan until tender. Add the breadcrumbs, savory, salt and pepper and stir until well mixed. Place stuffing in cavity of pork shoulder and tie up pork shoulder with string. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and flour and place, fat side up, on rack in shallow baking pan. Roast at 325 degrees for about 4 hours, or until tender, turning occasionally. Remove string and serve. ORANGE RICE (4 servings) Good with poultry or pork. 1 cup uncooked, long grain rice 1/2 stick butter 2 cups chicken stock 1/2 cup sauterne or sherry Juice of 1 orange Grated rind of 1 orange Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Put first four ingredients in 1 1/2 to 2 quart casserole. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Add juice and rind. Cover and bake 10 more minutes. Stir in salt and pepper and chopped parsley. SWEET POTATO SOUFFLE WITH TOPPING (6 to 8 servings) 3 cups cooked mashed sweet potatoes 1/2 cup sugar 1/3 cup milk 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup butter, melted
Combine ingredients and mix well. Put in a buttered 12 by 12-inch overnproof casserole. Topping: 1 cup light brown sugar 1 cup chopped nuts 1/3 cup flour 1/3 cup butter, melted
Mix topping and crumble on top of sweet potato casserole. Bake in 350 degree oven 25 to 30 minutes. BOILED RUTABAGAS (4 servings) 1 large or 2 small rutabagas 1 quart boiling salted water 2 tablespoons melted butter 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Peel and cut rutabagas into 1-inch cubes. Drop into boiling salted water and cook uncovered about 30 minutes, or until tender. Drain and season with butter and pepper. (Rutabagas may be mashed and seasoned.) SAND TARTES (About 60) 2 sticks butter 1/3 cup powdered sugar 2 cups cake flour, sifted 2 teaspoons vanilla 1 1/2 to 2 cups pecans, finely chopped
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually work in the flour. Add vanilla and nuts. Shape into small balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheet at 325 for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Roll in powdered sugar while warm, and again when cool. MINCEMEAT PIE (1 9-inch pie) Pastry for double-crust 9-inch pie 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup light corn syrup 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup shortening 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup crumbled condensed mincemeat 1 cup chopped pecans 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 tablespoons orange juice 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 cup seedless raisins
Roll half of pastry to 1/8 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface; fit into a 9-inch piepan.
Combine sugar, corn syrup, salt, and shortening in a small saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove syrup from heat. Combine remaining ingredients; gradually add warm syrup, stirring constantly. Spoon mixture into pastry shell.
Roll out remaining pastry to 1/8 inch thickness; cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips, and arrange in lattice design over filling. Seal and flute edges. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool before serving. RAISIN PECAN CAKE Wrap and store at least a week. 1 pound butter 1 pound light brown sugar 6 eggs 4 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 tablespoon nutmeg 1/4 cup brandy 1 pound seedless raisins 3 cups chopped pecans
Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add gradually and beat until well blended. Stir in brandy. Fold in raisins and pecans. Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan. Bake in a 300 degree oven for about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Cool slightly in pan before removing to a rack to cool completely. Wrap in aluminum foil or heavy paper and store at least a week. (Optional: before serving, cake can be decorated with frosting made of 1 cup confectioners' sugar and enough light cream to make spreading consistency. Decorate with candied cherries and citron.) SPICED PECANS (makes 1 cup) 2 tablespoons butter 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon Dash cloves and nutmeg 1/2 cup sugar 1 cup pecan halves
Melt butter in heavy skillet; add spices and stir well. Add sugar and pecans and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Turn out on flat, buttered pan to cool, separating nuts. BROWN SUGAR PULL CANDY (Big Batch) 6 cups light brown sugar 1 cup vinegar 1 cup water 1 tablespoon butter
Put the sugar, vinegar and water into saucepan. Boil gently without stirring until a small amount dropped in cold water will form a crisp ball. Remove from heat and add butter. Pour on a well-greased marble slab. Pull with finger tips until firm. Cut in pieces 2 inches long. DIVINITY (36-40 pieces) 2 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 cup white corn syrup 1/8 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup water 2 eggs whites, stiffly beaten 1 tablespoon vanilla 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
Combine sugar, corn syrup, salt and water. Cook until small amount forms a soft ball when dropped in cold water, or candy thermometer registers 238 degrees. Take out 1/2 cup of this mixture and cook the remaining until it forms a hard ball when dropped in cold water or registers 260 degrees on candy thermometer. Pour 1/2-cup of syrup slowly over the stiffly-beaten egg whites, beating constantly. Continue beating, add remaining syrup in small amounts, beating well. Add vanilla and nuts. Continue beating until mixture holds its shape when dropped from a spoon. Drop from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet or waxed paper. Swirl each piece with a spoon to form a peak. (Pitted dates can be stuffed with a small amount of divinity.) EGGNOG (40 punch cups) 1 dozen eggs, separated 1 cup sugar 1 pint liquor 1 quart whipping cream Grated nutmeg
Beat the egg yolks and 1/2-cup sugar until thick and lemony. Add liquor very slowly beating constantly. Beat egg whites until foamy. Add remaining sugar and beat until stiff but not dry. Fold into the yolk mixture. Fold in stiffy whipped cream. Refriegerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Pour into punch bowl and sprinkle with nutmeg. Serve in punch cups with a spoon, or for thinner eggnog and 1 or 2 cups of milk to the yolk mixture. CORNBREAD DRESSING (10 servings) 2 1/2 quarts crumbled corn bread (10 cups) 1 1/2 quarts dry bread crumbs (5 cups) 2 quarts chicken or turkey stock (8 cups) 2 cups onions, chopped 2 cups celery, chopped 1/3 cup green pepper, chopped 1/2 cup butter 3 eggs slightly beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon sage
In a large bowl combine crumbled corn bread and dry breadcrumbs. Pour broth over mixture and let stand until broth is absorbed. Saute onions, celery and green pepper in butter, until vegetables are tender. Combine all ingredients; adjust seasoning. Mixture should be the consistency of thick cornbread batter. Add more stock if mixture is too dry. Pour into greased 11 by 14 (or larger) baking pan and bake in 350 degree oven until golden brown -- about 30 to 40 minutes. (Leftovers may be frozen.) FRESH COCONUT CAKE (3 layers) 3 cups sifted cake flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 cup butter 1 pound (3 1/4 cups) confectioners sugar 4 egg yolks, well beaten 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 to 3 cups fresh grated coconut 3/4 cup coconut milk 4 egg whites stiffly beaten
Measure sifted flour. Add baking powder and salt and sift three times. Cream butter and sugar well, add yolks and beat well. Add flour alternately with milk, to which vanilla has been added, beating after each addition until smooth. Fold in 1 cp coconut and egg whites. Pour into 3 lightly creased and floured round layer-cake pans. Bake at 375 degrees 25 minutes. Cool layers and sprinkle with 1/2-cup coconut milk. Frost layers and outside of cake with fluffy white frosting, sprinkling liberally with freshly grated coconut. Store in refrigerator. FLUFFY SEVEN MINUTE FROSTING (For 2 or 3 layer cake) 3 egg whites, unbeaten 1/2 cup water 2 1/4 cups sugar 2 teaspoons white corn syrup 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Combine all ingredients except vanilla and cook in a double boiler, beating constantly until frosting stands in peaks. Remove from heat.Add the vanilla beating it into the frosting. Spread on cool cake.