Glance at magazine covers, and you’ll see the unmistakable signs. Cakes with frosting as smooth as silk scarves. Glistening pies displayed like fine jewelry. “Easy” tips for 12-course dinners. Smiling people sipping champagne in beautifully decorated rooms.
Yes, the holidays have fallen on us like a truckload of wet snow, with just as much pressure.
This time of year, I think about what a tour guide in Quebec City told me. She said that, in the old part of the city, saber-like icicles can unexpectedly plunge off the roofs toward unsuspecting pedestrians. Preparing for the holidays can be like that. Just when the family dinner is taken care of, here comes an office party. I feel like I spend a lot of time shouting, “Incoming!”
Just toss out a bag of chips and salsa for a party? Carry yet another bottle of wine as a hostess gift? No. We think, “It’s the holidays!” The magazine covers tell us that perfect, tasty, glittering beauty is merely a few pages away, if we only worked just a teensy bit harder and were a wee more organized.
(You know, “hostess gift” isn’t even in the party vocabulary the rest of the year. I’ve yet to see someone show up with one for a basketball-watching party.)
Although I certainly know better, I too have fallen victim to the lure of the holiday shiny. Even though that sparkle in the distance may turn out to be an icicle headed my way.
Let me offer some examples.
I grew up in Winston-Salem, home of the Moravian Christmas cookie. These spice cookies are as thin and crisp as oak leaves – ideally, 1/8 to 1/16 of an inch thick. My family bought them from professionals.
When I was in junior high school, I found a recipe. In a magazine. My mother and I decided to make them – well, I decided and nagged her into it. I imagined it would be one of those soft-focus, mother-daughter bonding experiences.
To start with, my mother had to dig to the back of a cabinet to find a rolling pin, which she had received as a wedding gift in 1956 but had only used to tenderize meat. Mixing up and refrigerating the dough wasn’t hard, but as we rolled it out we quickly found out that in a warm kitchen, it stuck like caulking to everything it touched.
The process wasn’t a bonding experience, but it certainly was a learning one. My mother’s comments during the rolling expanded my vocabulary quite a bit. We produced chunks rather than gossamer-weight cookies.
As an adult, I found a recipe for another Moravian holiday goodie that I adored, sugar cake. The name says what it is: a rich coffeecake made with sugar, butter, cinnamon and a yeast dough.
My family always bought sugar cakes, too. But I was going to actually make one. It was going to be a tender puff of holiday fabulousness. No matter that poor time management on my part meant that I was putting it into the oven at 10 p.m. that fateful winter night. But that only meant that the sugar cake’s lingering perfume would still waft through my kitchen at breakfast, I told myself.
I put the sugar cake in the oven and wandered off until the blaring of the smoke alarm summoned me back to the kitchen. I had misread the instructions and put the dough in a too-small baking dish, causing the butter and sugar on top to overflow and catch fire.
Not exactly the holiday glow, nor lingering perfume, that I’d been looking for.
I could go on. I’d never eaten Hanukkah latkes before marrying The Hub, and fried batch after batch in search of a version that wasn’t greasy. Then he told me that grease is what the potato pancakes are all about.
And there was the turkey gravy that looked like something drained from the crankcase of a 14-wheeler. It was a testament to The Hub’s craving for gravy, or his desire to stay married, that he stopped me from throwing it out and ate it.
Bless his heart.
Sometimes that lovely holiday sparkle isn’t an oncoming icicle after all, just a warm, enjoyable glow, if we can all just relax. And if you roll up those magazine covers, they make nice Yule logs.