When I was a wee lass my grandmother (my mother’s mother) always spent quite a bit of effort at Christmas time making cookies. It was part of her tradition and there was always a healthy spread of festive plates piled high with treats on card tables in the back room of the basement on Christmas Eve. The basement was the only room big enough to fit our family for dinner and year after year, the sequence of events didn’t really change much.
We would arrive close to dinner time. All the men would take seats in the living room where some sports ball event would be on the big cabinet that was a tube TV. All the women would congregate in the kitchen and dining room finishing preparations for dinner, my aunt Barb faithfully at the stove as it was her job to make the gravy which was the very last thing to get done. All the cousins would gather in the back bedroom. It was a 2 bedroom house with 1 bathroom on the main and that tiny back bedroom had two twin beds. That’s the room my mom and aunt shared growing up. It was a small space but somehow it was big enough for them and subsequently big enough for the 8 cousins. I don’t remember specifics of activities except one year someone brought a ouija board. Even way back then I was highly skeptical and didn’t believe in the validity of the messages that came through. I always wondered which one of my cousins was the faker. I’ll probably never know.
Once the turkey was done my grandpa would get in the kitchen to carve the bird. Apparently that’s was a man’s job. And after.. we would form a line around the dining room table where all the dishes people brought were set out and then the group would head down to the main room of the basement. The adults would eat at the tables set up in the main room in front of a fake fireplace (it was electric) and the kids would eat at other card tables set up in the unfinished utility room next to the ones with the desserts. There was limited space so even the washer and dryer were used for the overflow of cookie trays.
Grandma made batches of ginger snaps, fudge, sugar cookies, those disgusting coconut birds nests, peanut brittle, rice crispy marshmallow balls, chocolate dipped pretzels, peanut butter melt-aways, and my very favorite.. divinity!! It was my favorite because of course it’s basically pure sugar. She would always press a giant ugly walnut into the top while they were still soft and I had to pluck that out and sneak it into the trash but other than that, they were perfection.
I was in high school when the traditions started to fade and my aging grandparents could no longer host the event. It was really the last time that side of my family would ever be together as no-one took on the task of playing host. The cousins grew up and some moved away and of course some started families and created new traditions.
I have a few faded memories that linger.. my uncle Chuck putting on country music after dinner when we all moved the tables and chairs and he tried to teach us how to two-step. We also sometimes played games after dinner like twister and of course the part where we exchanged gifts.
Someone once told me my grandpa wore a cologne called Jade East and the fancy stuff could only be found at Walgreens. I got him some every year. I’m sure it was terrible and thinking on it now it’s possible he had a cabinet full of unopened bottles, though when he opened it he would always smile and thank me.
As it is with the past, there are always some not so great memories too. I remember being in high school and still sitting at that kids card table in the back room when my cousin, who was the same age as me, got to sit with the adults. It was always clear who my grandmother’s favorites were and I was not among them. They spent way more time with grandma than we did. And they had money and nice clothes and I was the shy, smaller girl who lived on her cousins hand-me-downs. I never voiced my feelings.
Anyway, at some point it was decided that all those cookie recipes would be collected and put into books and distributed to the family. Women only of course as that’s still just how things were. Finally I had the secret of divinity in my grasp and could carry on the tradition. Or so I thought.
What I found on my first attempt was that there were secret ingredients which I did not have the key to… temperature and timing. I knew the sugar had to boil for a certain amount of time but I didn’t have the first clue what that was. At that time, I could still ask.
I made a special visit to my grandmother’s house where she showed me the secret. She was able to tell the sugar was ready by running a spoon of it into a stream of cold water from the faucet. If the ribbon dripping off the spoon turned to “glass” and was easily cracked into hard pieces, it was ready to mix into to fluffed egg whites.
“It’s as easy as that” she said and told how when she was 10, her and her siblings would wait until their parents would be distracted with business on the farm or other errands and they would sneak into the kitchen at the farmhouse and whip up a batch. I remember thinking that if a 10 year old girl could make this treat that I certainly could too.
I was proved wrong time and time again. Most of my attempts turned into gooey messes and flat sticky pancakes of taffy that never “set up” or hardened into the fluffy yet dense texture they were supposed to be. I pretty much gave up trying. My grandmother is long gone now and I’ll never to be able to ask her about that I any other stories from growing up on a farm. It’s sad to think about what has been lost from that generation. Unless we tell stories, the history of it just fades away.
With my current plan to try and be a different cookie every day from now until Christmas, it was only natural that Divinity would find its way into the mix. So today it is!!! And to put an exclamation point on it, I decided last night to try once again to make them.
This time, instead of using the recipe from my grandmothers cookie book, I consulted the internet. I found a recipe that had 5 stars and got out the ingredients and supplies and got to work.
Now I mentioned before that some of the magic had to do with timing and temperature but what I was still missing was a better measure of patience. Instead of constantly testing the boiling sugar for the right done-ness, I used a candy thermometer and waited and waited with my high-speed mixer and bowl of whipped egg-whites ready for the exact moment the temp was 260 degrees Fahrenheit or “hard-ball stage”. Miraculously, that the trick!!
I slowly poured the hot liquid into the egg whites while mixing at a high speed. Then, working quickly because the mixture starts to harden as soon as the mixer is off, I dropped heaping teaspoonfuls onto wax paper. I was truly amazed that they actually looked close to what I remembered having as a child. Of course, I left off that last step with the walnut (and did not put any nuts in actually as most store bought divinity has).
I even had enough “batter” left to try and mix in some cherry pieces which was something the internet recipe suggested. However I made the mistake of adding too much cherry juice and that made the mixture turn back into that gooey substance that never hardens. Even now, the morning after, they are still sticky to the touch.
Anyway.. so that’s the very long, winding tale that led to me finally meeting with divine success. Now I have about 2 dozen cookies to share. They aren’t pretty.. as my dropping technique still needs some work, but they have the right taste and consistency. I’m going to surprise my mom with some when I meet her for lunch today. Hopefully it will lead to some good conversation about her childhood. I want to hear more about that while there’s still time.
In the Mood to Reminisce,