One of the many interesting things about my Aunt Helen is that while she was a diabetic on a strict sugar-free diet, she was a fabulous baker. Her cookies, cakes, and quick breads were a staple in her kitchen, there for the pleasure of the many townspeople who paused in their day to sit at the table and chew the fat (and some goodies) with her. My Uncle Ferd did not fare so badly, either, with a plate of raisin cookies or cream puffs close at hand, always.
Did I mention that my two sisters and I spent many after school days at her house? It was a snippet of Americana — a glass of milk (or “Coffee Please,” my concoction of milk, several tablespoons of sugar, and a dab of coffee), accompanied by a stack of cookies served on one of her green milk glass plates.
When the Christmas season beckoned, Aunt Helen’s kitchen could compete with the local bakery in the quantity and quality of the sweets she turned out. It seemed that nearly everyone in the town of 1,000 people was on the receiving end of a paper plate stacked with cookies, candy, and bars. Wrapped in plastic, each gift was topped with a red or green bow, and then stacked on the table on the freezing cold front porch until delivery day.
Snow-covered boots were hurriedly pulled off and tossed aside as we entered the house that week of Christmas. Scarves were unwrapped from around our faces, stocking caps and mittens stuffed into parka pockets, and we quickly scrubbed our eyeglasses free of the frost that formed stepping into the heated house. Snacks devoured and hands washed, my sisters and I were ready to don oversized aprons and get down to the business of frosting cookies.
I usually went for the single-color, doused-with-colored-sugar effect; my older sisters were more artful, even to the point of painting in frosted pleats of different colors on the angel cookies’ gowns. Broken cookies were up for grabs, and oops! There goes another one…
What we only watched from the chairs on which we were perched, was the creation of two of Aunt Helen’s most popular holiday items: dense, sugary fudge studded with chunks of walnuts, and the ephemeral candy known as Divinity. It truly is divine, although I’m not sure that is the source of its name. Whipped up from egg whites and corn syrup, she never made it on a cloudy, snowy day. The weather, she said, determined if Divinity would form into an airy confection or a frothy mess. A careful cook, concerned with not wasting precious ingredients, a sunny afternoon meant that she would be underway with Divinity as we nibbled our sugar cookies, licked our fingers, and watched her whirl about the tiny kitchen.
The fudge is known to us not only as “Aunt Helen’s Recipe,” but also “Howie’s Fudge.” Howard “Howie” Nelson was a flamboyantly eccentric high school science teacher, renowned for his culinary expertise. Aunt Helen’s fudge recipe is derived from the one Howie shared with her (and a few other select citizens of the town), and further tested in my sister’s kitchen.
Penuche, a brown sugar confection, was another one of her tour de forces for the holidays. A thinner variation was the brown sugar icing that dripped down the sides of Aunt Helen’s spice cake, but at Christmastime, Penuche — and the fudge — required a strong arm for beating, beating, beating until the hot sugar mixture thickened.
Eventually, we grew larger and stronger and were invited to take part in the beating process that turned liquid chocolate into fudge and caramelized sugar into Penuche.
If I close my eyes, I can still smell the scent of Christmas: cookies baking, chocolate simmering, sweetness tainting the air. And of course, the overtones of the endless pot of coffee percolating, ready for the next visitor through the door.
While Aunt Helen’s Divinity recipe, as well as Aunt Helen, has slipped away from us, my sister, Mary, has become the queen of Christmas candy in the family. We have no qualms about sharing our family recipes. I guess I could say, “Mary” Christmas to all.