We are a family of adventurous cooks. I ate calamari at home long before the battered rings appeared in bistros and bars. I also suffered the trauma of squid sandwiches in high school, but that’s another story. As a group, we will try out almost any recipe, but there are three that you don’t mess with. All three make an appearance at Christmas. Christmas morning is heralded by “Cheesy Egg Bake.” This is the sort of dish that draws screams of anguish from arteries; we don’t tell Dad’s cardiologist. Slices of crusty French bread line a baking pan, edible standing stones guarding a mess of Swiss cheese sauce into which eggs have been broken. The pan bakes until the eggs are poached and then the only question is “one, two, or three?” Even Caitlin, who claims to hate both eggs and cheese, openly rebelled the year Cheesy Egg Bake failed to manifest on Christmas morning.
The Christmas desserts are also non-negotiable. “Carrot Pudding” (a steamed Christmas pudding, served flambé), and “Pink and White Cake” (Properly called Gateau Noel) come to us from my maternal grandmother, and, I think, from her mother before. Certainly, the mould for the pudding earned antique status decades ago. The recipes, carefully copied onto 3x5” cards, show the quirks of their era.
Once upon a time, people knew how to cook. They possessed the intrinsic knowledge and common language that has been lost in this era of celebrity chefs and televised gourmet smack-downs. Once upon a time, people knew that life was something you got through by following a general framework, and not fretting the details. The capriciousness of life was once considered normal. Meals anchored the day, and were prepared using techniques that were passed from one generation to the next by the osmosis of constant exposure. There was no need to write instructions for a buttercream icing beyond “add lemon zest.”
This vague instruction with its blithe assumption of a shared knowledge causes my mother and I to grind our teeth annually. Every year, the same questions arise. “Is it powdered sugar or granulated for the hard sauce?” “What’s the butter to sugar ration for the icing?” “Do I add anything besides the lemon zest?” “If I’m just using marzipan to decorate, I don’t have to do all this stuff that it says for the almond paste, do I?” “How long do we steam the pudding?”
Last year was the only year in my memory that we did not have a Christmas pudding. Grandma Doris passed away on Christmas day, and the collective association between her gnarled hands with their giant ring and impossible, adamantium fingernails and the preparation of the pudding was too strong. I first began to make the pudding about 15 years ago, as Grandma’s strength waned, sapped, I think, less by the demands of age than by worries over my grandfather. Grandma was a worrier. The minutia of daily life could chip away at her nerves like a caffeinated woodpecker. Yet, under two sets of circumstances, Grandma was a rock. Given a major life crisis, heart attacks, car accidents, birth, death, Grandma would remain unfazed, keeping her head with British stoicism while those about her were losing theirs. The second condition that called for calm was the preparation of Christmas dessert. “Grandma! The recipe doesn’t say anything about the hard sauce. I know it’s butter and sugar, but what else? What kind of sugar?”
Grandma’s response to the panic in my voice was to saunter to the kitchen island. “Let me see…Oh, I don’t know. It’s been so long since I’ve made it. I can’t remember anything anymore. I think I used to…” The hands would move among the boxes, spoons and bowls, pausing here, scooping there, mixing, and patting as the diamonds flashed. Before I knew it, the hard sauce would be in the mould, the pink-and-white cake would be assembled, and I would be left standing with a crumb-speckled spatula dangling from my fingers.
Over the years, we’ve learned lessons from our Christmas desserts. Neither mom nor I has ever added more specific instructions to the recipe cards. There is an unspoken, unconscious agreement that this would be heresy. Once we move beyond the moment of “oh, now what do I do?” our hands remember the task, and the desserts always taste the same, flavored with tradition and trust.
We hear it all the time on the news – calls for “more specific guidelines, and protocols.” We live lives derived from flow charts, and we lose the ability to improvise. If we trust our hands, they can remember how to make a buttercream icing. If we trust our hearts, they can guide us through the complex forests of life and love. Life can’t be scripted or outlined; there’s no manual, and the recipe is pretty general. Add some lemon zest, throw in a little brandy, and move on – it’ll taste fine.