... If Only In My Dreams... (and Tastebuds)
'Twas the night before Christmas! Actually, growing up, our immediate family's holiday celebration took place on Christmas Eve, whereas, Christmas day would be spent with the extended family. So, for me, today is the day and tonight is the night. Any kid filled with anticipation will tell you that Christmas Eve is when the magic takes place; of course, there's Santa Claus making his rounds, and it's even rumored that animals can talk tonight.
As I remember it now -- especially this year, as we're distanced from the ones we love and missing them so -- Christmas Eve was magical because our house was filled with so many people we loved. From early morning, the house was abuzz with activity: my Great Uncle, Don Howard making his daily visit at 7:30 AM for a brief half cup of coffee before he'd go off to the next family member's house to get another 1/2 cup of coffee; my Grandpa Daniel coming by with a gift basket from Hickory Farms and a bottle of Jean Nate for my mom; my mom fluttering about the kitchen preparing the feast; brothers mowing lawns, or sometimes selling mistletoe; my dad running to the grocery store to pick up forgotten ingredients; a parade of different Tíos delivering gifts, or Costa Rican tamales, or arroz con pollo; me helping my mom in the kitchen, or tidying the house, or wrapping gifts. By late afternoon, it was time to change clothes and dress for the celebration. In the evening, the house filled up again with relatives and friends and neighbors, who often brought holiday treats. This was because when asked what they could bring to the gathering, my mom would usually say dessert. Fortunately, our next-door neighbor loved baking and made the most delicious Christmas treats, which were always beautifully presented on a plate with a paper doily, or a festive holiday napkin.
Is baking a part of your family's holiday tradition? We were not big bakers in my family. Growing up, my childhood home had an old teeny-tiny 20" x 20" gas stove with a small 25" deep oven. (In fact, the family stove wasn't much bigger than the toy kitchen range I got from Santa, as pictured in that Christmas morning photo! I wish I had a photo of the actual stove. It's funny the kitchen was always the heart of our home and yet, there are only a couple of photos of it and none of the stove. This photo of my mom in the kitchen is the best that I could find). The oven also had a huge problem with temperature regulation, which meant my mom had to make a concerted effort to get dinner cooked properly and served on time. Watching her was amazing -- how she'd have to make constant adjustments to the oven dials otherwise the meal would either burn, or be undercooked. And to top things off, the oven door wouldn't stay closed unless a folded matchbook was jammed in the corner to hold it shut. It's amazing how year after year, she was able to create so many delicious meals for her large family in that tiny, dysfunctional oven! This meant that for a feast, my mom's focus was on the Christmas turkey, or the holiday ham, because there was precious little room for anything else in the oven, and there was very little margin for error in speculating cooking times and temperatures.
I do remember one particular Christmas, however, when we made something called Magic Window cookies! For me, a child who loved making art, these were a truly wondrous, edible craft! The panes were made from melted Lifesaver candies and all together, they were delicious and whimsical, and felt like a bit of alchemy and science and Christmas magic in a cookie! I didn't mind that the edges were overly browned due to the malfunctioning oven, but for my mom, it marked her last attempt to bake holiday treats. She'd had it with less than perfect results! I can still see her frantically swinging the oven door open and closed to get rid of the smoke, while rattling off a litany of complaints about the oven to my father, as he simultaneously swung the front door open and closed to chase the smoke outside. It may sound unusual, but in actuality, this happened quite frequently, often accompanied by a screaming fire alarm. I'll always remember this sort of typical cooking chaos as amongst my most cherished childhood memories, though I frankly don't remember ever baking treats in the oven again.
I didn't mind because from then on, we'd buy a fancy dessert from a bakery. Or for a real treat, we'd head to the "frozen novelties" section of the grocery store, and buy individual snowball-shaped ice cream balls rolled in coconut with a candle and a candy holly leaf on top. (For a kid from California, the thought of snowballs made of ice cream was pretty magical, too!) And that tradition of buying dessert or asking others to bring it continued beyond the replacement of the stove and the kitchen remodeling. So, I assumed the Magic Window cookie recipe had been thrown out, but after my mom passed away, I was going through her old worn recipe box and I came across it once again.
🎶 I'll be home for Christmas...if only in my dreams. 🎶 My parents are gone and my childhood home was sold, so they may only live in my dreams. But, I have many of my parent's Christmas decorations in our home, and I think they not only generate beautiful memories of Christmas past, but also carry the energy of a lifetime of celebrations with loved ones. The most magical way to bring back memories is through the senses and for me that means preparing family recipes like tamales and empanadas and roast turkey with all of the side dishes, just like my mom made them. Maybe even menudo, or albondigas. Truly, baking still isn't a significant part of my own family's holiday traditions, but seeing as how we're not spending Christmas Day with our extended family, we'll round out the day by doing some holiday baking. We might even bake Magic Window Cookies to try to conjure that alchemy again. Here's the recipe for you to try, too. Let me know how it turns out.
And as I sign off to delve into Christmas cooking, I send you good tidings of comfort and joy. I'm so grateful to have your kind support, friendship and patronage. I think 2020 has taught us all the value of relationships and how much it means to be there for each other during these challenging times. I value our connection here so much and I am honored and happy to know that my music has brought you some measure of delight, comfort and happiness during this extraordinary year. Having you to connect with has brought me purpose and joy. Please know that every song I sing, and every video, or email I send, is carefully considered with you in mind and infused with love and light to lift your spirits and touch your heart.
Wishing you all a Happy, Healthy and Hope-filled Holiday Season!
And a Very Merry Christmas to those who celebrate the day!
Love & Light to you,