When my family starts reminiscing about Christmases past, I tend to bring up stories that my mum shared when I was a child. It’s not because I don't have any fond memories of my own, but rather it gives my children the chance to learn more about their grandmother. I'm sure a lot of people who have lost a loved one do the same especially at this time of year.
One of the stories she used to tell is the reason I make a point to have fresh fruit around the house on Christmas morning.
My mum Virginia grew up on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan and one of the things she talked about and something I experienced myself while in college was the weather. Winters in the Canadian prairies were cold with temperatures at times being as low as -43.8 C.
One Christmas, as her story went, was particularly bad not only because of the high winds and additional snow. (Think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer kind of blizzard.) It lasted for days and everyone was grounded including the trucks that delivered food and supplies to local merchants. My mum’s family being farmers usually had access to meat, dairy products and dried goods and if they ran out they could always count on loans from a neighbor. Despite the weather, my grandfather insisted that the chores needed to be done. The animals had to have food and proper shelter. What my mum remembered about coming in from the cold was seeing the kitchen table set with bowls of hot soup and a loaf of freshly baked bread. My grandmother said the best way to combat the cold was with a hearty meal.
A day or two before Christmas the weather finally broke. As my mum recalled, it was the bright sun shining through her bedroom window that shook her out of bed, that and the smell of bacon and eggs frying in a pan. Excited to see the sun and knowing it meant a break for everyone, she darted into the kitchen. Once there she stood in awe at the amazing show of light and color created by the sun's rays bouncing off the linoleum floor that her mum had spent hours polishing the night before. That's how the morning started. After breakfast, the family headed into town. The trucks were still grounded but a train had arrived and once word got out that it was loaded with supplies, a parade of people showed up downtown.
By the time they opened the doors to the train, everyone was standing around -- with fingers crossed and eyes closed -- hoping that their Christmas packages had arrived. What my mum remembers most is that the second the doors opened, the air around her was filled with the smell of fresh apples. I believe it was growers from surrounding provinces -- having learned of the terrible conditions in Saskatchewan - that had loaded a boxcar with crates of fresh produce. My mum said she will never forget how sweet an apple could taste in the dead of winter. The crate of apples also made for some great homemade Christmas gifts.
In the spirit of remembering our loved ones and the stories they tell, I am sharing the following homemade baking ingredients courtesy of Spice Islands' flavor explorer Gaby Dalkin of "What's Gaby Cooking." Each one can be used to create a sweet treat befitting a holiday care package (and maybe the start of a holiday memory):
Applesauce: Peel and slice a bowl of apples (remove the seeds) and flavor them as desired with cinnamon and sugar. Place the apples in a slow cooker and add enough water to cover them, plus a tablespoon of lemon juice. Cook on low heat for 5 to 6 hours. Then pour them into canning jars with fancy labels and Christmas greetings tied with a bow. Or invite a neighbor over and serve it with a bowl of ice cream and a hot cup of tea.
Peanut butter: Pour a batch of fresh peanuts into a food processor and grind them on high power until the mixture looks creamy. Dalkin said the peanuts will form a thick ball before turning into butter. Before you pour the peanut butter into a jar, add your choice of vanilla extract, cinnamon or brown sugar to give it an extra dash of flavor. Package the jar with a loaf of fresh homemade bread or a box of sweet crackers.
Chocolate syrup: Sanders rocks when it comes to chocolate fudge toppings, but it only takes a few minutes to make your own. In a saucepan, combine 1/2-cup of cocoa powder with 1 cup of water. Once the cocoa dissolves, add 2 cups of sugar. Let it boil for a few minutes before adding a dash of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Then pour it into a fancy bottle wrapped with shiny ribbon. Don't forget the tag saying “Merry Christmas!”
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