Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Cake--A Memoir of a Culinary Nature

In Memory of Jennie Neal, AKA "Mamaw" 

All of our childhood holidays usually centered around family and food, and Christmas was no exception. We usually had turkey and dressing for Thanksgiving, but for Christmas, our grandmother would make something different—maybe a glazed ham, or chicken and dumplings. No matter what, it was served with all the fixings which included mashed potatoes, candied yams, ambrosia salad and home grown and canned pickles and green beans that had come from Mamaw's huge garden. There was the relish tray with fresh green onions and radishes, olives and pickles.  There was always a relish tray.

And of course, there were desserts—usually pies—coconut cream, chocolate cream or banana pudding. And only at Christmas, we had a special dessert--Mamaw's Date Nut Cake with Boiled Caramel Icing, a sinfully sugary concoction that consisted of not much more than tons of pecans, dates and a little flour.

The original recipe, written on the back of an old cookbook page
 I can still hear my grandmother's voice complaining "The pecans sure are dear this year," but then she'd smile and tell us we were worth it. I wondered what she'd think if she saw the ancient pecan trees growing in my back yard now, and the carpet of nuts that literally cover the ground.

The main thing about that cake was that it had the most delicious carmelized brown sugar icing.  It's a complicated process starting with white sugar that you burn on purpose then mix with the other ingredients.

My grandmother has been gone for years, and now and then I try to recapture the taste of that special cake. I actually have Mamaw's hand-written recipe for it, but like a lot of recipes written by long-time cooks, sometimes key instructions are left out, or are vague.

I've tried to make the boiled caramel icing for years, and only remember it hardening like it was supposed to a few times. When made right (like, by her), the icing had the consistency of the best maple fudge and it was a kid-magnet.

I keep forgetting that classic definition of insanity (repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results every time), so, since we have a bumper-crop of fresh pecans, I decide to make the cake for Christmas. And of course, I expect the icing to turn out perfect this time.

And of course, it doesn't because the moon phase is out of whack or it's too humid or too hot in the kitchen or I didn't beat it for long enough or something.

(Warning! Even THE JOY OF COOKING says that boiled icings are tricky. NOW they tell me.)

So after fiddling with and watching the icing for hours, refrigerating it overnight then still finding it soupy this morning ("This looks like a floating island cake," I said), as it sloshed back and forth in the liquid icing.  Then I had a memory flash of the batch of peanut brittle I tried to make when I was a teenager that literally got up and dripped off the countertop onto the floor. I never learn.

So...I've made my own new holiday traditional dessert. It's called "Mamaw's Date-Nut Cake with Bobbi's Spoon-on Caramel Icing." 

At least it tastes the same, so I'm happy with that.


Copyright © Bobbi A. Chukran. All rights reserved.



Madeline said...

I recently made caramel for Millionaires Shortcake and I was very doubtful about the consistency, but it turned out fine-evaporated milk, sugar and butter.

I was curious to see you use the word 'dear' for expensive. I used to use that word frequently, but nobody here [California] understood me, so I dropped it.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Hi Madeline,

I need to work on that recipe. It's a challenge now. LOL. My grandmother was the one who used the word "dear" and I'll admit I've never heard anyone else use it. I probably asked her what it meant at one time or another.