The ‘ghosts of Christmases Past’

DISCLAIMER: This is long. The memories came tumbling out. I apologize in advance.

When I saw this writing challenge on WordPress so many things went through my head. Some of my fondest memories and some of my very worst, all happened at Christmas. Are they “ghosts” or are they just moments in time that helped shape me into who I am today?

I can’t really call these memories ghosts. They don’t haunt me, but they do remain in the back crevices of my mind, returning every now and then to remind me that the holidays are about remembering the things that matter, putting aside the things that don’t and finding it within myself to not confuse the two. The latter is a constant battle with me.

I can take a look within myself and attribute so much about me to some of my “ghosts of Christmases past.”

1976: Growing up, we always had presents from Santa. Some years more than others. In fact, some years almost none.   I was a product of a single-parent family for most of my childhood. Money was often scarce, but my mom always made sure Santa made a stop at our house. My children, now almost 20 and almost 11 still get Santa gifts.

I do remember one Christmas in particular that my mother had a new job and apparently a larger paycheck. I’ve heard her talk about this too in her latter years. It was the first time she was really able to go overboard with the gifts under the tree. I remember it like it was yesterday. This year there were quite a few wrapped gifts under the tree in the days leading up to Christmas. In fact, I think this is the year she chose not to put name tags on the gifts to keep us guessing. She also kept herself guessing as on Christmas morning she couldn’t remember which gift belonged to which daughter. There were so many. Our tiny living room literally looked like Santa’s bag exploded under our tree. My sister and I were so excited.

I was just young enough to still want a baby doll, but old enough to know this was probably my last year to get one. I got a “Baby Come Back.” She was beautiful. She had a hard plastic body and crawled all on her own.  That was the year I also got a Jaws game and a blue typewriter. I loved that typewriter encased in blue plastic. I’m sure my “career” began on that manual beast. I wish I still had it.

1978: Christmases weren’t all about the gifts, but this was the year of my multi-colored RABBIT coat and my new “Grease” album! (Still one of my very favorite movies of all time!) That’s all I am going to say about that. I had arrived.

I don’t have the coat, but I do still have that album in a box somewhere. It was just a few years ago some girlfriends and I took our daughters to see a live community theatre version of “Grease.” We had so much fun singing (quite loudly and I’m sure out of tune) to every song in that production. My daughter didn’t quite appreciate it as much as I did. But, I am sure that will be a memory she will someday look back on as fondly as I do that rabbit coat and that old album. (My daughter once told us she knew what an album was – “a large, old timey CD.”)

1990: Jumping ahead … I got engaged on Christmas Eve to a very big, red-headed Teddy bear. He was well-liked and loved by everyone who knew him and he wanted me to be his wife.

1993: Jumping ahead even more … I sat on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Ewriting little notes in a journal and nervously playing with a tiny, plastic nativity set designed for a child. I was trying to pass the time as I waited on the arrival of a very overdue bundle of joy. I was pregnant. I was fat. I was tired.

Once that beautiful baby girl made her appearance in January 2004 I forgot all that. She forever changed me. At that very moment I knew my purpose in life was to watch over her, protect her and help her grow up to be a beautiful young woman.

On that Christmas Day before her birth, I couldn’t wait to see her and to hold her and to watch as she clutched that tiny, plastic Baby Jesus in her own hand. She played with that nativity for years. I still have it tucked away in a box waiting for my first grandchild some day in the far away future.

1996: More than any other Christmas Eve, I will never forget this one. It tested every ounce of strength I had to survive and forced me to hold on to the belief I had always been taught that God would not give you more than you can handle. He came close. I was working that day. I was news editor of a small-town newspaper so there was no Christmas Eve off. I was young then, but had already developed my panic-driven approach to Christmas. I was busy. I wanted to be off work so that I could get to a family gathering that evening. The result was stress over lack of time. To this day I regret that. The last time I saw my husband, he was sitting in his truck staring through the newspaper office door, probably upset over my stress level that morning and a disagreement we had just had.

Later, I heard the dispatcher over the police scanner calling for Life Flight to be sent to the scene of an accident. I sent a reporter out. Just a few moments later a DPS officer walked into my office holding my beautiful daughter. God spared her. She was not hurt. He kept her here for me. The rest doesn’t need to be said. To this day, that was my worst nightmare.

1998: I am remarried. To the opinion of many it was too soon. But for me, it was what I needed. I had met another man who stepped into my life, helped me pick up the pieces and took over caring for my young daughter. He has always treated her like his own. To her, he is dad. We started our own Christmas traditions that year including a new themed tree (which has morphed into several themed trees today). To this day, he makes sure we are all home together as soon as possible on Christmas Eve.

With him, I had another child who made our family complete.  I had a wonderful boy and spent another Christmas waiting on him, as he was also born in January.

2013: I’ve skipped over many Christmas memories – lots of fun times, lots of baking, lots of gifting … but this is long enough. As I sit here finishing this, I am trying very hard to focus on what all this has taught me. My house isn’t clean. I didn’t decorate as much as I would like. There is baking yet to be done. I know I will never be Martha Stewart.

But I do promise this to myself: I will sit down tonight. I will forget about the dirt on my floors and the fourth tree that I never put up. I will just breathe and enjoy the smell of cupcakes coming from my oven and the happy chatter of my family as we watch a holiday movie.  It’s these times that are important, not the picture perfect holiday — wait I can’t say that.  This is perfect.

Merry Christmas.


A’Tempting’ Tuesday: Cornbread Dressing and Memories

Cornbread Dressing

I started my love of cooking at a very young age. I remember making my mom lunch during the summers when she came home from work, probably at about the age of 11.  Back then, I’m told it was a lot of gravy and garlic.  Fortunately, things have improved.

Many of my recipes and favorite dishes were handed down from my Mother and grandmothers, many I’ve made up.  Quite honestly, most are prepared from memory.  This can be good and bad.  It’s quite convenient because I don’t have to keep up with a recipe for a lot of the things I cook often.   However, when someone asks how I’ve prepared something,

“a little of this, and a dash of that until it looks goods” is not a very good answer.

This happened to me recently when my aunt called and wanted a recipe for my mom’s Cornbread Dressing.  I make it like my mom did.  She made it like her mom did.  Basically, we take the ingredients, stir them together and taste until it’s right.  We bake until it looks good.  Really, that’s it.

While the ingredients remain the same every time, I have no recipe or measurements for said ingredients, only the memories of learning to prepare it with my mother and grandmother.  Even today, when reliving those days of my childhood when we lived next door to my grandmother, I can almost smell that dressing baking in the oven and begging to be covered in gravy made from the turkey drippings.  My grandparents, my mom, my sister and I, as well as my aunt and uncle spent many a Thanksgiving in that tiny house on Hickory Street in Marshall, Texas.  It’s funny how my aunt asking me for a recipe can bring back so many memories.

In the absence now of my mom and grandmother, I guess I am now the holder of the recipe.  I don’ t know whether to feel flattered or just old!  When my aunt wanted my mom’s recipe  I panicked a little.  I really couldn’t tell her to make some cornbread and throw a handful of a bunch of “stuff” in it and bake at 350 for a “little while.”

So, I put on my queen of everything hat and this is the recipe I came up with.

Keep in mind,  this is one of those “to taste” kind of recipes.  Many of the measurements are approximate and up to the taste of the cook.

Gram Gram’s and Mom’s Old Fashioned Cornbread Dressing

  • Cornbread (I sometimes make it from scratch, other times I use whatever mix is on sale. A sweeter cornbread is really nice in this recipe.  Either way, I make two batches.)
  • 2-4 cups chicken or turkey broth (I make fresh broth by boiling a chicken, adding salt and pepper, chopped celery and onion — 3/4-1 cup each.  I debone the chicken and use that at another time). 
  • 4 tablespoons rubbed sage (or to taste.  I tend to go a little heavier on the sage)
  • 3 to 4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 2 or 3 pieces of dry toast made from your favorite bread, crumbled (I dry on low heat in the oven and prefer plain old white bread)
  • Salt and pepper to taste (I really like to use celery salt for added flavor instead of regular salt)
  •  2 Green onions, chopped (optional)

Prepare the broth.  I boil the chicken, adding chopped onion and celery as it cooks.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Better seasoned your broth, means less work on the finished product.  I often make the broth a night or two ahead of time, putting away the deboned chicken for another use.  If you are from the south and prefer giblet gravy with your dressing, the giblets can be boiled and chopped at this time.

Bake the cornbread, whether it be from a mix or from scratch.  I generally prepare two batches of cornbread using a large cast iron skillet.  I do this a day or two ahead if I can too.  When ready to prepare the dressing, finely crumble the cornbread into a large baking pan or 13X9 casserole dish. There is no need to butter or spray the pan.

Dry the toast  right on the rack in the oven.  Crumble and add to the crumbled cornbread.

Pour about 2 cups broth into the cornbread/toast mixture and stir.  Add more as needed.  You don’t want it watery, but you don’t want it dry either.  In the end, you want a firm, wet mixture.  You shouldn’t be able to pour off any liquid.  Add the rubbed sage, pepper and salt or celery salt to taste at this point.   Like I said, I stir and taste until I think it tastes good.  Any leftover broth can be put aside to use when making your gravy.

Stir in the chopped boiled eggs and green onions, if you want them.  Some people add the egg raw (especially those who make a more traditional stuffing), but I really like them boiled.  The green onion is not necessary, but I think it adds a little more freshness and color to the dish.

Bake in a 350 degree oven until it starts to dry and brown on top.  It should be a little moist, but not wet.  I start checking it at about 45 minutes, but it almost always winds up cooking for about 1.25 to 1.5 hours.  You can serve straight from the baking pan, with your choice of gravy available for topping.  (Gravy is a must!)

Cook’s Notes and Tool Talk:

  • As I said, you can bake the cornbread from scratch or use a mix. It really depends on your preference, your time and what you have on hand. We really prefer a sweeter cornbread for dressing. Jiffy in a box is an excellent choice. However, my hubby is now diabetic so I’ve had to adjust what I use. I just add a couple tablespoons of Splenda to my cornbread batter (scratch or mix). I think baking the cornbread in a cast-iron skillet is a must. The brown, crunchy texture the cast iron gives to the cornbread is perfect in the dressing.  My favorite skillet is one from one of my grandmothers.  I don’t even know how old it is.
  •  I generally keep a can of chicken broth on hand in case I run out of my freshly prepared broth.  Any leftover broth I use to make the gravy.  As we generally fry our turkey, I usually need extra when it comes time for gravy as there is no turkey drippings when frying.  To make the gravy, brown 2 tablespoons of flour in 2 tablespoons butter (not margarine) over medium heat until a light brown. It’s a good idea to stir constantly.  Add broth, about a cup at a time, stirring over medium heat until you reached your desired consistency.  If gravy is too thick, add more liquid.  If it’s too thin, you can thicken with a tiny bit of cornstarch dissolved in cold water and stirred into the gravy. Add salt and pepper if needed.
  • If you roasted your bird, you can thicken your drippings right in the roasting pan using the water/corn flour mixture.  Flour dissolved in cold water will also work.  Just make sure you dissolve the flour in the water before adding it to you hot drippings so you don’t have lumps.

I hope you enjoy.  I know this recipe is still a little vague.  However, short of burning it, you really can’t mess this up.  Writing this recipe down has actually started me on yet another Cooking, Crafting and Chaos journey.  My daughter may some day want some of these recipes.  My niece has asked me for a few.  So, I’m making a conscious effort to record how I prepare many of my older recipes.  Next, I think I need to record Banana Pudding, one of my daughter’s (and best friend’s) favs!  But first ….

NEXT TIME:  Crock Pot Candy

A’Tempting’ Tuesday: A Very Christmasy Cookie

Whew! I’m really behind. We traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday for the first time in years, so I am not only behind on blogging, but also decorating. I still have Fall pumpkins all over my house.

I am a firm believer in leaving the Fall décor until the day after Thanksgiving, but on that day we were six hours away from home. It was worth it though, as we had a wonderful time visiting my in-laws and spending time with our daughter in her college town.

But, now we are “that” house on the block with no lights up yet, or no Christmas tree in the window. Fortunately, my recipe for today is definitely a holiday one and has me in the mood to decorate.  Since it is now December 3, I must get a move on.  But, first the cookies!

I’m invited to a cookie exchange this weekend. I really wanted to do something festive that I haven’t done before. I definitely have some great cookie recipes that are always a go-to, but decided it was time to try something new. I had a “friendsgiving” get together at my house recently so in preparation for the exchange, I made my friends my guinea pigs.

I picked this cookie mainly because of its holiday ingredients and appearance.  It calls for candy cane “dust.”  Doesn’t that just bring visions of Santa’s elves hard at work in the North Pole’s bakery?

I also chose these because my son is very much a fan of chocolate, minty-type things. This recipe for Chocolate Fudge Cookies with Candy Cane Buttercream fit the bill. It is definitely minty, and is a very pretty and festive cookie. My photo here really does not do it justice. Its appearance just screams “holiday”. Crushed candy canes give the buttercream frosting that is sandwiched between to chocolate cookies a pink color, with little flecks of red running through.

Again, this recipe came courtesy of another blogger, who I think found it from another. You can find the post I got it from HERE.

This recipe makes approximately 2 dozen cookies.

Chocolate Fudge Cookies

1 cup + 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave for about 1 minute. Stir. Continue to melt in 30 second increments until fully melted and smooth. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and vanilla. Set aside.

With an electric or stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat the butter until smooth and creamy – about 1 minute. Beat in the sugars, scraping down the sides every 10 seconds or so. The mixture will be granular.

Mix in the beaten egg and vanilla until incorporated.

Add the chocolate in a steady stream and beat until combined.

Add the dry ingredients on slow speed.

Fold in the mini chocolate chips. Do not overmix.

Chill dough for at least 30 minutes.

Scoop about 1 Tbsp of dough and roll into a slightly flattened ball.
Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the cookies have just begun to set with the centers still appearing very soft. They will firm up as they cool.

Candy Cane Buttercream
3/4 cup (1.5) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2.5 – 3 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 Tablespoons heavy cream or milk (I prefer heavy cream in frostings)
1/2 cup candy cane dust (about 8-10 candy canes ground to a fine dust in a food processor)
Crushed candy canes for rolling, optional (I did not do this)

Beat the butter for 1 minute with the paddle attachment on medium speed.
Add 2.5 cups of sifted powdered sugar and slowly mix on low speed.
Increase mixer speed to medium and add vanilla extract, salt, and 1 Tablespoon of cream/milk. Beat for about 1 minute.
Manually stir in candy cane dust.
If your buttercream needs to be thicker, add more powdered sugar. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add remaining milk/cream.

Frost the bottom end of a cooled cookie and top with another to make a sandwich.

Cook’s Notes: 

  • I premeasured everything before I began preparing the cookies.  I know this makes more mess to clean up, but baking is so much quicker and easier when I do this.  I don’t mind washing a few more prep bowls and measuring cups.
  • The original recipe I used called for sifting the ground candy canes before putting them in the butter cream.  I did not do this and it was fine.  If you pulverize it enough I don’t feel there is a need for the sifting.
  • This is a really, really sweet cookie.  Almost too sweet for my taste.  I do recommend using the dash of salt in the buttercream to cut some of the sweetness.
  • I did not prepare extra crushed candy canes to “roll” the cookie sandwich in.  I think for the exchange I will roughly crush candy canes of a different color, maybe green.

Tool Talk: 

  • I would recommend using a stand mixer with paddle attachment for the cookie dough if you have one.  (My Kitchen Aid Professional stand mixer is my pride and joy.)   It could certainly be done with a hand mixer, but the dough is really thick and is handled much easier with a stand mixer.

All in all, this batch of cookies was a success and I think they will work quite well for the cookie exchange.  As I mentioned above, it is a very sweet cookie.  Although they are good, one cookie is almost too much for my taste because of the sweetness.  I may try making smaller cookies for the exchange.

Hopefully by Friday, I will have some handmade tags for the cookie “packages” to share with you.

Until next time, enjoy….

Next Week:  Old Fashioned Cornbread Dressing