When it comes to the holiday season a lot of families have recipes that have been passed down for generations. Whether it be grandma’s famous fudge or mom’s Christmas cut-outs, the season just wouldn’t be the same without them.
What makes these special treats seem to taste better is because most of the goodies are only made around the holidays and friends and relatives can’t wait for December to roll around each year to sample the seasonal confections.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that has many wonderful cooks and am lucky to not only have many of their holiday recipes, but the many happy memories that come with them. I often think about those years when I was a little girl and traveling to the homes of grandparents and other relatives and watching my mom bustle around their kitchens as they spent many December days cranking out cookies and candies. The temptations in those kitchens were almost unbearable for a young child to resist as the treats piled up on tables and countertops throughout the day.
I can look back on many years when my mom and Aunt Janet would gather and make dozens of coconut bon bons dipped in several colors of melting chocolate that had different flavors added to each color. What I found odd then — and still do — is the base for these coconut bon bons was mashed potatoes. Yep, you read that right. Mashed potatoes.
After all the bon bons were made, my mom and aunt would divy them up. Most of the bon bons my mom got were added to Christmas goodie trays she took to work, family gatherings and served at our annual Christmas Eve party after church services that night. But my mom would alway save many bon bons she made and place them in a special gift box she always gave her father- my grandad. They were his favorite. Oh, how he loved getting those bon bons every year! The twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face lit up the living room. I don’t know if he ever shared them with my grandma, because that box would suspiciously disappear by the end of our Christmas celebration at their house.
I don’t know how many people who have ever heard of kifle cookies, but those were one of my favorite cookies as a kid. They are a traditional Hungarian cookie that is filled with a sweetened concoction of ground walnuts, sugar, almond extract and milk. Making these cookies can be a bit labor intensive, but are well worth the work.
My Uncle Joe — my dad’s brother — introduced me to these addictive cookies. I remember watching him make them and then devouring as many as I could without getting a stomach ache. My mom, dad, sister and myself would visit him often during the holidays and he always had a tray of homemade goodies out for all to enjoy. I loved these cookies so much I would often sneak into the kitchen while the adults were busying themselves in the living room with small talk. Under the pretense of getting a drink of water, I would go into the kitchen and eat a kifli several times throughout our visit. I look back now and realize I probably wasn’t fooling anyone as these cookies are also rolled in powdered sugar and I’m sure I left evidence on my face and clothes.
After several years living in Galion my Uncle Joe moved to South Carolina and I didn’t have kifli for a long time. One year I got talking to a neighbor lady and she happened to have a similar recipe for kifli but it wasn’t quite the same as my uncle’s recipe. So finally I got in touch with him and asked him for the recipe and he mailed me out a copy. I have made these cookies for a few decades now and my love of kifli even rubbed off on my oldest son who always asks for them each year.
Sifting through my special holiday recipe folder I realize Christmas as a child wouldn’t have been the same without the homemade caramels and toffee my mom made each year. She also spent many hours making peanut butter buckeyes dipped in chocolate. I’m reaching far back on this memory, but when I was in kindergarten we were learning our letters and when we got to “Mr. B” we made buckeyes in class one day. The teacher even mimeographed (yes, I’m really showing my age now) a copy of the recipe and sent it home with us.
I was so excited that day when I got home from school and told my mom we ate buckeyes in class that day. Well, I don’t know if she was trying to joke around with a five year old, but after I told her we ate buckeyes she told me buckeyes were poisonous! I thought I was going to actually die from eating candy buckeyes! I finally calmed down after I showed mom the copy of the buckeye recipe my teacher sent home and she realized it was candy and told me I was going to be fine. Jeez, thanks mom. Can kindergarten kids have heart attacks? I thought I was that day.
But ever since then, like many Ohioans, buckeyes are a staple each Christmas season. And believe it or not, I still have that old, worn out mimeographed recipe copy for buckeyes. The paper is a bit yellow these days and the words are faded, but the memories are still there.
Ok, I got a bit off subject there. I was writing about caramels and toffee candy my mom made each year, as did I when I continued on with the tradition in my early 20s.
The toffee recipe my mom handed down to me is by far the easiest recipe I have ever seen. You generously butter a small cookie sheet and sprinkle on some chopped pecans (if desired). Then you take 1/2 cup of salted butter — more on that later — and add 3/4 cup brown sugar to a cooking pan. Place that on a burner on your stove and heat over medium heat until boiling. As soon as it starts to boil, continually stir the concoction for exactly seven minutes. No candy thermometer needed. Don’t worry, but at some point during this process it looks like the mixture starts to separate, but just keep stirring and after seven minutes quickly pour the mixture onto the buttered cookie sheet. Immediately place discs of melting chocolate on top of the toffee. Wait a minute or two until the chocolate discs look shiny and then spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee. When toffee is completely cool, break into pieces.
There are a couple of things my mom and I learned the hard way over the years making toffee. One is you cannot double this recipe. You have to make individual batches. If you try to double it, the toffee does not turn out right. And back to the salted butter warning. Just a few years ago I was making toffee and for the life of me no matter how many batches I made, the toffee turned out sugary and crumbly. Not the hard, crisp pieces I usually got. I didn’t know what was going on. I followed the recipe exactly for years and never had this issue. I don’t know how I figured it out, but I realized that year when I purchased my butter supply the store was all out of salted butter so I grabbed the unsalted variety and thought nothing of it. Well, I was getting very frustrated and told myself I would try to make one more batch and if it didn’t turn out I was done trying. This time however, I used a stick of salted butter I found in my fridge and the toffee turned out perfectly.
The caramel recipe we use is also a very easy recipe with few ingredients. To make them you only need sugar, butter, heavy cream and light corn syrup. One batch can be made in a 9×9 pan or you can double the recipe in a 9×13 pan.
Anyone who has ever made caramels knows it can be hit or miss. If you don’t cook the mixture long enough you end up with soft, runny pieces of candy that can barely be wrapped in waxed paper. Cook them too long and you get hard caramels you can hardly cut and get out of the pan. The recipe says to use a candy thermometer and cook until the caramel mixture reaches 245 degrees. But that doesn’t always work. So for the most part when my mom made caramels she used the “ice water method.” When you see the caramels getting close to the recommended temperature you take a spoon and pour a small amount into a glass of ice water. After a few seconds, take the caramel out of the water and taste test it for consistency. Keep doing this until the caramels are still soft enough to chew, but not runny or hard.
I have a funny memory with my mom’s caramels one year when I was in elementary school. I often took the cookies and candies my mom made to school and shared with friends. One year while riding the bus home, I gave a friend one of my mom’s caramels. This year the candy was a little harder than normal. My friend popped the caramel in his mouth, started chewing and the next thing we knew the caramel had stuck to one of his teeth so badly it pulled out the tooth! Yes, it was a baby tooth, but still …
As I got older, married and had children of my own, I embraced the tradition my mom and other family members instilled in me and continued to make cookies and candies for years. My boys eagerly wanted to help make kifli, cut out sugar cookies and frost them as well as help dip the buckeyes in chocolate. My husband Gary even got in on the fun. I have many wonderful memories of all of us sitting at the kitchen table for hours frosting cookies and listening to Christmas music.
Yes, the holiday treats are wonderful to enjoy each year, but it’s the memories I’ve gathered over the years of making and sharing Christmas goodies with my loved ones that I will always treasure and hold near and dear to my heart.
Merry Christmas to everyone and continue to make as many good memories as you can!