As I strive to take this holiday season day by day, moment by moment, instead of getting caught on the roller coaster that so often drives the season, I have spent time really thinking about what things have been special to me over the years. Many of these things are from my childhood - traditions and rituals that I grew up with and have a hard time imagining the holidays without. The green china Christmas tree with the little plastic lights sticking out of the holes at the ends of its boughs; my hand-knit Christmas stocking, with my name knitted across the cuff and a patched hole from being stuffed full one too many times; a brass snowflake ornaments that hung on my childhood tree as well as the jovial Santa-elf (not nearly as creepy as that Elf-on-a-Shelf critter that I’ve seen around today) who sits on a branch close to the trunk of the tree and keeps an eye on all the gifts.
Our daughters are now seven and twelve, and I can see how these traditions, as well as the traditions of my husband’s family (tree-trimming parties, a beautiful antique wooden angel and the Christmas tree music box with the battered and lopsided carolers standing around it) and the traditions that we have begun as a family have shaped their memories of the holidays.
I enjoy revisiting some of these more recent ‘Christmas Past’ - not necessarily the ones that we are actively recreating and blending into our family’s tradition year after year, but things made special that I won’t ever forget. I find that this is especially true with my memories of my husband’s mom, Lil. She had been a teacher for years and this colored her zest for living until the end of her life - she loved to do things with children and would happily take on projects to do with our young daughter that I simply didn’t have the energy for.
The year that Marielle was four Lil made Monkey Bread with her while we were visiting her refurbished farmhouse in Cambridge, NY. It was one of those idyllic early winter days - crunchy snow, chilly winds, Christmas carols playing in the warm house and good smells in the kitchen. I remember Marielle desperately trying to lick her butter-and -sugar-coated fingers on her way to the sink to wash her hands and the crunch of sugar as she walk across the floor. After the bread baked, Marielle could hardly wait for it to cool so that Lil (known as ‘Muggle’ to her grandchildren) could unmold the bread from the pan for tasting. It was delicious and decadent, sweet and sticky, fun and frivolous.
Being fortunate enough to have Lil’s recipe cards and old family recipe book, I decided to see if I could find the recipe that she and Marielle had used that day. Seven-year-old Margot, who had missed out by virtue of not being born yet, would love such a project and Monkey Bread would be a fun gift to give this year, a bit different from the cookies that generally come out of our kitchen. I knew this would not be a quick search and not just because of the volume of recipes to go through, but because I get so caught up in looking at them all. Not only are there index cards that Lil collected from friends, magazines and who knows where else, but scraps of paper - backs of play scripts and bits from notebooks, postcards and interesting things torn from newspapers - but also two recipe books from her Aunt BB, full of handwritten recipes from the ‘30s and ‘40s.
I went to the file box and struck out looking under the ‘Bread’ tab. So I started looking around under the ‘Desserts’ where I came across recipes for ‘Eggedosis’ (egg yolk and sugar, beaten and served with sherry) and ‘Seven-minute Prune Whip,’ both clearly old recipes from the ‘30s. Appetizers uncovered more interesting noshes, several of which featured grated American cheese, pie crust mix and funny combinations of unlikely ingredients. Lil was a great cook, and did a fair amount of entertaining, so somehow these kinds of recipes always surprised me. Chuckling while I acknowledged what a food snob I was, I continued to look through the cards. Some things had ingredients so specific I was quite sure that I wouldn’t be able to recreate them any more (a special salad dressing sold in the gourmet food section of Macy’s in the ‘60s) while many of them showcased the prepared foods so popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There were plenty of things that sounded delicious as well - fantastic muffin recipes (I’ve never seen so many muffin recipes in one place in my life!) as well as a bunch of new soup recipes, something that I am always on the lookout for.
Realizing that I could easily spend the bulk of my day browsing these recipes, I turned to Aunt BB’s first recipe booklet. Many of these recipes were duplicated on the cards I had just been perusing, but there is something about this hand-written collection of recipes, complete with what I think was BB’s rating system of X’s (four x is a great recipe, two not so much) as well as details on who provided the recipe and notes about making them that makes this book so precious. Tucked inside I found a large note card in unknown hand writing with the recipe for Monkey Bread (probably that of a student or young friend of Lil’s who had made it with her previously).
Using tubes of refrigerated biscuit dough, it’s a crazy, processed project that is perfect for short attention spans with a big pay-off of deliciousness. I spent some time looking for Monkey Bread recipes ‘from scratch’ and they definitely exist, but in the end this is the one I am sharing, as it is the one that holds those memories in my heart. Monkey Bread
3 7.5 ounce tubes of refrigerated buttermilk biscuits (not the flaky kind)
One-half cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted
Separate biscuits and cut into quarters (I remember Marielle using scissors to do this). Roll each piece in the combined cinnamon and granulated sugar . Drop into a greased Bundt pan. Combine brown sugar with melted butter and pour over prepared dough balls (it will look like way too much). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Let cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate and enjoy eating warm. Not even sort-of healthy.
Remember that nostalgia, even while sometimes bittersweet, is full of joy. In trying to recreate a particular time and place of a past holiday season, I browsed through recipes that had fed and entertained many family members and friends, most of whom I never knew. I got a glimpse of who they were and how they lived, some of the cultural trends that shaped their menus and lives. Undoubtedly, some of Aunt BB’s recipes were favorites of Lil’s and held special memories for her. Just as a chipped china Christmas tree still graces a corner in our home during this season, reminding me of my childhood holidays, so shall Lil’s Monkey Bread grace our table, without any fancy updating. Notice the memories and things that you hold dear and take a moment to think about where they came from and who shared them with you. You’ll be connecting with your heart.