Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home Alone With Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house, the stockings hung, the trees festooned, the halls bedecked, the greeting cards...well, the greeting cards will get done sooner or later.  'Twas the week before Christmas and it was time to make the doughnuts--er--the Christmas cookies and suddenly all those who eat them here at Blooming Hill became as extinct as a Yule Tomte (Swedish Christmas Elv) vacationing in the Caribbean.  They dashed away, dashed away, dashed away all.  Except for the one who was hoping  to get his fair share of the cookie dough.

Me in my Christmas apron that the prodigal son made when he was 4-years old.
Anyway, I had been putting off this annual Christmas joy long enough--for these particular cookies, known as "Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes", a Rinek family favorite as well as a secret family recipe handed down through my mother-in law, Lynn's Scottish side the the family, the Mitchell's, makes 12 dozen cookies from one recipe alone.  They were calling my name as they do every year about this time. I had to give in to the strong pull of this family tradition and resigned myself to the two-day (at least for me) chore of Christmas Cake cookies baking. (Honestly, to me, this Christmas cookie making business rivals harvesting lavender under the sweltering late June sun with 75% humidity, all the while gnats and other bugs are stinging my eyes!)

My trusty Kitchen Aid Mixer--a gift from my mother-in-law, long ago.
I first tasted these very chewy Christmas Cake cookies long ago, when I was but a young lass in the late 1970's while dating Peter.  It was Christmastime and I was at his house watching Lynn and one of my future sisters-in-law at that time, Linda, all happy and flitting around the kitchen as if baking these things were easy...ohhh, how they had me fooled all aproned up and smiling as if they were in an episode of "Bewtiched."  You get the picture, right? I was told then that this was a secret family recipe and I was only dating Peter so, sorry, I couldn't help. Our engagement would not be for another few years, but I was drawn into the romance of it all, hook, line and sinker! 

When the engagement and then the marriage came in 1980, I was finally enlightened in the ways of Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes and for the first 10 years or so of my marriage, I dutifully made these things that took hours and hours of grinding and mixing of ingredients then combining this mixture with even more ingredients that still shall remain nameless to the general public before spending hours baking 12 dozen of these babies.  If my sisters-in-law and nieces on the Rinek side of the family are reading this, I hope they are nodding their heads in agreement as to the intensive labor that goes into these things.  Yes, I know for our childrens' sakes, who all seem to have been born with the same specific Rinek/Mitchell gene that programs them to come out of the womb begging for these things to be made at Christmas, I know the effort is entirely worth it.

However, here I am, thirty-one years into the marriage with the lingering memory of Lynn and Linda, looking pretty and happy with cookies filling every available space of my mother-in-law's kitchen those thirty-five years ago and I'm all alone making these blasted things in my own kitchen...sigh.  Peter, off to his monthly poker game, as if that takes precedence over family tradition, and the prodigal son deciding to stay at college to "just hang out for another day after grueling finals"--his words, not mine--I'll show him grueling alright!  Still it could be worse, the dog could be out carousing with the devil deer, yet he chose to stay for his own reasons.  Again it has something to do with licking one of the batter bowls...hope springs eternal!

Back to Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cake cookies that I have made at least every other year for the last twenty or so years, sometimes with help from Peter and the prodigal son and sometimes all on my own with an audience of at least one trusty dog or cat close by, not missing a trick.  I will admit to playing "hookie" from these cookies now and then, but not very often. They are a much loved cookie here at Blooming Hill so, I persevere in honor of Lynn and all of the Mitchell women who came before her that made these cookies for their beloved families.

As I stand here thanking God that I have the blessings of a Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid Mixer to get me through this arduous task, I try to imagine how Lynn's mother, the Nana Mitchell that Peter and his siblings always refer to, was able to make these things without the benefit of modern appliances to do the heavy work of these meaty, chewy, cakey cookies?   Oh yea...that's right...Nana Mitchell had two little Irish maids that cooked as well!  And now, back to the cookies...where was I?

So, this year, I'm home alone on day two, determined to accomplish this Christmas Cake cookie-making crusade and wondering why this recipe is so special as to be secret?  I pull the recipe out carefully and look it over for the hundredth time and then pull another recipe out from Peter's other grandmother, Gammy Rinek.  It's an old Quaker recipe.  I must say...these vintage recipes call for only the hardiest of Christmas cookie baking souls to attempt, much less survive making them altogether.  This one called Orange Bread, involves candied orange peel, and currant jelly along with six cups of flour and lots and lots of butter!  I remember these as being just delicious, as well as even harder to make and almost like a hard candy of sorts--can be a bit rough on the teeth and gums!  I carefully fold the paper back up and stash that one away in my recipe files under the category of  "Don't Even Think About It!"

I reach for the glass of wine accompanying me through this lonely Christmas chore of rolling and cutting and sprinkling of cookie cake shapes and decide to add a Swedish spin to this Scottish recipe and dunk a star shaped morsel into the wine, let it soak up a good bit of it and then bite off that portion to savor.  Ahhhh, now this is where the secret begins!  Delicious--maybe not part of the recipe, but definitely worth adding to the instructions.  I'm not so home alone anymore but enjoying the fruits of my labor and many happy memories of Christmas's past.

A little lavender mulled wine makes everything taste good!
'Twas the week before Christmas and I'm finally done with the cookies, all the dough is finally rolled, baked and stored away and the kitchen is back in order. "Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes" will probably be polished off in almost the same time it took me to prepare them.  But, isn't that what makes Christmas cookies, no matter if they are old family recipes or not, worth the work?  I think so.  Next up...Christmas cards!...Hey, where did everybody go?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Wreathmaking 101 = Deck The Halls = What a Week!

And what a week it was!  As if getting organized after Thanksgiving and preparing for yet another craft fair this past weekend wasn't enough, I also worked with about 30 children and youth at my church, Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church, in Purcellville, Virginia to celebrate the beginning of Advent, per request from our Associate Pastor, Jessica McClure-Archer. She can be very persuasive!  It was also a night to help decorate the church with festive greens throughout the sanctuary and adorn the Christmas trees there, too.  So, the church was filled with lot's of excitement and people.

 Claudia Kirk, assisting one of our middle school youth with her wreath.
Of course, when I signed up for this particular gig, I imagined about 10 youth showing up, no problem. But. oh no--it actually was 30+ high school students on down to primary grade kids with a few parents sprinkled in who enthusiastically showed up, Wednesday night, to make their own versions of a beautiful holiday wreath to take home and share with their families.  Someone should have warned me so that I would not have gone and gotten a flu shot that very afternoon and I would not have shown up half exhausted already. 

Good thing for adrenaline. It kicked in at first sight of the first set of kids--the high schoolers-- for their half hour session.  We launched into wreath making 101 complete with several of them texting on their phones at the same time they created their Advent Wreaths.  Believe it or not, by the looks of their wreaths, I think they were actually listening to me explain how to bundle and attach assorted evergreens to the frames--with at least one ear.  Their holiday creations were splendid!  I was also very glad that I stopped to cut some rosemary, lavender, curry plant and eucalyptus from my gardens to bring for the kids to garnish their evergreen wreaths with.  The aroma and silvery appearance of the herbs went over really well and Fellowship Hall at the church smelled wonderful, especially mixed in with the spicy chili dinner being prepared and served for all of us that night.

Carrie Crossfield, me and Katherine making wreaths.
As the night went on, I  worked my way through, did I mention 30 youth from high school age to primary grade age, from 5pm until 7:30pm.  I hardly had time to breath much less think about how my arm and back seemed to be aching just a bit from the flu shot.  I finished up with my new found friend, Katherine, who selected, sized and cut the greens and fashioned a lovely wreath for her mother and father. It was a fun, if not truly eventful and action-packed evening at Saint Andrew Church that night and I'm glad I have twelve months to recuperate.

The Night Bloomers in Christmas-time action at Thursday night's garden club meeting.
Then Thursday was garden club night with "The Night Bloomers," and our annual wreath making event at my friend Kim's house.  After 30 wreaths the night before, and then a glass of wine followed by a glass of spiked eggnog at garden club,  I thought it best to sit this one out and just document the whole affair while this group of talented and knowledgeable gardening women made their wreaths.  Many of the ladies also made beautiful holiday arrangements for their table centerpieces and fireplace mantles. And, they didn't stop there.  Some crafted on and made orange and cinnamon pomanders to take home, as well, for a lovely citrusy fragrance in their homes to mingle with the scents of the rich and mellow winter-time greens of Christmas.  I am so fortunate to be a part of this wonderful group of gardeners who refer to themselves as "The Night Bloomers."

My booth at the 21st Holiday Fine Arts and Crafts Show this past weekend.
Finally, I finished up with the 21st Annual Fine Arts and Crafts Show at Ida Lee Recreation Center in Leesburg, Virginia over the weekend.  My booth was packed to the hilt, as usual, and I am definitely ready for Christmas.  Phew!  What a week, indeed!  All of this holiday hub-bub brings to mind a little song I know...'Tis the season to be jolly...pass the pine and glue and holly...a little tweak here and more green there...falalalalalaaaalalalalaaaaa!  I think I'll sit down now, and can somebody pour me another cup of  that rum eggnog, please?!