What are those light-brown dessert squares with the coloured marshmallows in them? I see those a lot during the holidays nestled among the mini brownies, rumballs, and coconut squares that have emerged from someone’s kitchen—proudly and lovingly displayed on a festive plate.
Maybe it’s a combination of cynicism and metabolism but I proceed with caution when approaching a tray of homemade baking.
People make all kinds of wonderful things at this time of year but I think for many there’s also a need to bake out of sentimentality and to carry on tradition. As lovely as that inclination is, some traditions don’t belong on a plate, or in a recipe book, or in the mouths of co-workers.
My grandmother was a fan of the Jell-O mold. She had several varieties and many a diced pear hung suspended in a ring of red or green Jell-O like some cryogenics experiment. It had a special place in the middle of the dining room table. When my grandmother sliced through the Jell-O with a spoon it would make a sucking sound and then it would shiver silently after she plopped it into a bowl. For that extra fancy touch there was always whipped cream in a spray can. This is a Christmas tradition that should remain a memory. Times and tastes change.
When I was a kid my grandmother also made loads of mincemeat tarts. My parents’ generation loved them. I was having none of it. Nothing good can come of something described with the words “minced” and “meat.” I hold onto that belief.
My grandmother made trifle too which was a highlight for the older generation. She put it in a raised glass bowl—the one our cat wanted to sleep in when it was empty. It stood like a multi-tiered statue of sponge, custard and cream above everything else on the table. I still don’t understand the appeal.
When friends or co-workers share their family bakes it’s usually chockablock full of mystery concoctions, like the light-brown things with the fruity marshmallows.
At my last job I would wait until I was alone with the day’s tray of baking before plucking something from it that I hoped didn’t contain coconut or molasses or have a weird sandy texture. By taste testing when no one was around, I could slip over to the garbage can and discreetly tuck it under a napkin. Perhaps it makes me a horrible person but if the baker doesn’t know, where is the harm?
When you hit middle age you have to be selective about the indulgences you partake in. Butter and sugar stick to my thighs like S’mores stick to my chin. There are no free calories so I can’t afford to eat something I wish I hadn’t and have it take up permanent residency on my upper arms. When I was younger sneezing was enough exercise but now a lemon square means an hour at the gym.
It’s not just home bakes, chocolates can be fraught with danger too. My grandmother always got a box of Pot of Gold when I was growing up. Are they still around?
They all looked tempting but inevitably I’d bite into some coffee-flavoured nightmare and almost have a seizure. I swear the coffee chocolates accounted for half the box while another third was made up of those rock-hard caramels.
I’d chew those caramels like a dog eating peanut butter, drool dripping down the front of my dress, until it was bedtime and the caramel had to be extracted from my teeth and discarded. I don’t know if I actually ever managed to ingest one.
The only chocolates I really liked were the ones with the pink goo, I think it was “strawberry.” I had to bite into a lot of coffee before finding one of those.
In the meantime, my grandmother spent part of each day collecting the chocolates I had ditched with a bite missing or spit out and reassembled. They were subtly left under the lip of a plate, next to a plant, or behind the TV. My grandmother would confront me waving a saliva-covered candy, the chocolate partially melted from the heat of my tongue. I would briefly consider blaming one of the dogs, but I knew she wouldn’t buy it, our black lab would have eaten the whole thing. Instead I would say I was full and that I was saving it for later.
Then I’d hope and pray Santa Claus didn’t have time to unload my presents from his sleigh after I lied and made my grandmother “cross” again.
I would hope to confirm my place on the nice list when I went to bed on Christmas Eve. I was adamant Santa would get only the best: Chips Ahoy. Timeless.
If you’re a fan of vintage recipes, give these a look: