By SUSAN H. DAWSON | Your Voice Contributor
The first significant food conversation I remember was the Great Cranberry Scare (c. 1960). My grandmother, the family matriarch, declared that she would have cranberry relish for Thanksgiving, regardless of any pesticides on the aforementioned berries. We always made fresh relish by grinding one apple and orange with each bag of berries. Sugar was added to taste, but ours was always more tart than sweet. We weren’t about to give up our family tradition. And no Thanksgiving was complete without my grandmother’s pumpkin pie spiked with bourbon.
Food was celebration, a giving of one’s time and effort to please – it was love made edible. Each fall my grandmother began her holiday baking by making a fruitcake before the Thanksgiving turkey appeared. Once baked, they were wrapped in cotton tea towels and soaked on a weekly basis with 90 proof, J.W. Dant sour mash until ready to serve. This bourbon bath treatment kept the fruitcakes moist.
Next, eight to ten different varieties of Christmas cookies were baked. The anises were dropped rather than rolled. After cooling, these licorice-flavored dainties were stored in a tin with half a cut apple to keep them soft, or they would “get as hard as brick bats,” my grandmother believed. I never did know exactly what “brick bats” were, but I knew they had to be hard enough to break a tooth. Buttery Sprtiz cookies pressed into stars and Christmas trees and sprinkled with red or green sugar were fun for me. With the leftover egg whites from the Sprtiz, Gram made meringues, some with chocolate chips and others with pecans. These airy cookies had to be handled gently or they’d crumble into nothingness.
These holiday cookies were made to be enjoyed and given away, but enough were saved for the New Year’s Day tradition of serving them with homemade eggnog. For this nectar of the gods, my grandmother made a custard base of milk, sugar and egg yolks. She whipped the whites plus some heavy cream separately, then folded each into the custard. It wasn’t complete without the “nog,” or bourbon, to taste. Fresh nutmeg was grated over each cup. The foamy layer was at least an inch thick, making a mustache when drinking. This was heady stuff; one cup was felt as soon as it was drunk!
The special family dessert for any holiday was always Charlotte Russe, which, according to my grandmother, “men always liked.” I have since found this to be true without exception. This divine dessert is also made with a custard base and whipped cream, set into a ladyfinger-lined glass bowl. It is deceptively “light,” especially good after a heavy meal. The usual serving is “two fingers,” although most men return for seconds. A bowl of Charlotte Russe will serve ten to twelve souls, and it’s just as wonderful for breakfast the next morning, if any is left.
I have since learned that life is a cycle. After the autumn rains, when the weather turns cold and grey with lowering clouds hugging the landscape, my thoughts turn to baking these family treats. I file through my copper recipe box for special dishes signaling the changing year, another holiday season to remember and to celebrate my grandmother’s just desserts.
Susan H. Dawson is a Louisville native who teaches English and English as a Second Language on the post-secondary level. She is a self-described “foodie” who delights in cooking (and eating), especially natural, gourmet and ethnic dishes. She also enjoys entertaining, antiquing and decorating, although travel and art are her passions.