20 December 2011

Like the best chocolate... bitterseet

Like the best chocolate, Christmas, well-kept, is bittersweet.
Each year we anticipate the sweetness of Christmas. We prepare for it; we celebrate it. The sweetness of Christmas comes easily: the fragrance of evergreens, the ringing of bells, the glow of candles, the singing of carols, the joy of giving, the surprised delight of children, the gatherings of family and dear friends, and all the precious memories, bittersweet, of Christmas Past. Oh, the sweetness of Christmas: a baby asleep in a manger, and all heaven and earth proclaiming, "Hope! Peace! Joy! Love!"

And yet, there are those who will meet this Christmas with loss and pain and despair. There are, as always, the poor and those in desperate need. There are, as always, nations at war. There are, as always, those who mourn. For such as these the darkness of winter is dark indeed and Christmas, more bitter than sweet. Jesus walked among sheep without a shepherd and, one by one, he touched and healed and comforted. In his presence they found, as we still hope to find, peace and joy and love.

So, we will keep Christmas and try to keep it well. We will celebrate the birth in Bethlehem by making room in our hearts that Christ may be born in us. We will look upon the babe in the manger and see the man on the cross. Bittersweet! Like the angels we sing praises and speak peace. Like the Magi we offer gifts of adoration. Like the shepherds we "spread the word concerning... this child."

Hope! Peace! Joy! Love! Christmas... bittersweet.

Listen to Mark Lowry's "Mary, Did You know?"

17 December 2011

It's a date...

I love dates.  Sooner or later if a recipe calls for raisins or cranberries, I'll substitute chopped dates.  I clip or copy any recipe that calls for dates.  My Gran Oma Cummings did the same.  One of her special Christmas goodies was "date nut loaf."  Sounds like it's bread; but it's candy.  The nut is the pecan--favorite nut of all Texans and used in lieu of walnuts in most recipes.  It's cooked pretty much like any candy then dumped out onto a clean, cold, wet dishtowel and shaped and rolled into a log or "loaf" about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and, after it's cooled, sliced about a quarter of inch thick.

My mother has made date nut loaf for more decades than I've lived.  Her mother, my Grandma Mary Bridgett Wieland also made date nut loaf. It's a Texas tradition. 

Mother made several candies every year for Christmas.  Date Nut Loaf was the first and the favorite of my sister and me.  Daddy's favorite, too.  Other favorites are Boston Cream Candy, Peanut Brittle, Peanut Pattie, Fudge, and some awful peanut butter cocoa thing that Mother always tries to trick me into tasting.  I don't like peanut butter; I've never liked peanut butter; I may even be allergic to peanut butter.  If Reese's Cups were the only candy in the world, I'd never eat another bite.

This year Mother decided she wasn't up to making candy and delegated the Christmas chore.    My brother makes Boston Cream.  He also makes Grandma's teacakes.  Two years ago Mother supervised my making date nut loaf in her kitchen during an early December visit when she wasn't feeling very well.  (I've noticed that our visits are improved when I let her teach me things.)  Two batches of perfect candy!  I tried a couple of batches in my own kitchen last year which didn't come out well--one was sticky and the other was grainy and obviously overcooked--so I'm a bit nervous because this year I'm on my own.  I'm even more nervous because I've been unable to find the recipe with all my notes.  It was either lost in the computer disaster of last January or is buried in one of my file folders of recipes which never quite manage to be organized into a cookbook.

So here follow 2 recipes: first, the old-fashioned stove top version like Mother and Gran and Grandma made and second, the microwave version which I made this afternoon.

Classic Texas Date Nut Loaf (Candy)
2 cups sugar                    1 cup milk 
8oz dates (chopped)        1 cup chopped pecans 
1 Tablespoon butter        1 teaspoon vanilla.

In a heavy saucepan (Mother always uses a heavy aluminum pot which has been missing a handle for decades--I think that pot is part of her magic.  I'm always in danger of scorching the milk.) combine sugar and milk.  Stir over low heat, not letting it boil, until sugar is dissolved.  Turn up the heat to medium and bring to a boil.  Add the chopped dates and continue to boil until it comes to the soft ball stage.  (Mother can tell by looking but uses the drop a bit into a cup of cold water test.)  Remove from heat.  Stir in the butter, vanilla, and pecans.  Cool a bit.  Divide into 2 batches and dump each out onto a cold, wet dishtowel.  Shape and roll into a loaf.  Cool completely. Unroll from the towel, transfer to a cutting board and slice.  Layer into a tin, separating layers with wax paper.  "Keeps a couple of weeks if you can keep from eating it."  May be frozen either before or after slicing.

I read dozens of recipes.  Some use evaporated milk which causes me to suspect that cream might have been used in the days of home dairies.  I suspect that the increased fat in the cream would make a smoother, richer candy.  And since I'm pretty frustrated by my attempts at stove-top candy making, I thought I'd try a microwave version.

K's Date Nut Loaf (Candy) Microwave

2 cups sugar                  1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 oz. dates (chopped)   1 cup chopped pecans
1Tablespoon butter       1 teaspoon vanilla

In a 4-quart microwave-safe glass bowl, mix together sugar and cream.
Microwave, on high and uncovered, for 4 minutes.  Watch to be sure it doesn't boil over. Stir and scrape the sides of the bowl to dissolve sugar.  Check the temperature with a candy thermometer--they make them for use in a microwave but I don't have one.  I just stuck in my instant thermometer when I wanted to check.
Return to the microwave for another 4 - 6 minutes--stirring to prevent boil over--until the mixture reaches 235 degrees F. which is that soft ball stage.  (It took only an additional 5 minutes for my batch.) check out the candy temperature chart
Stir in the dates.  Return to the microwave for another 2 - 2 1/2 minutes, stirring at least once. (It took just under 2 minutes.  My candy thermometer read 240 degrees.)  The dates had softened and begun to dissolve into the candy mixture.
Remove from the microwave and add the butter, vanilla, and pecans.  Mix well.
Let stand to cool until lukewarm.  Then beat, beat, beat by hand for about 5 minutes.  (Hard work for us electric mixer cooks.) .  The candy will thicken (kind of fudgey) and change color a bit.
Pour half the mixture onto wax paper (I used that  clean, cold, wet tea towel for half and didn't think it worked as well) and shape and roll into a loaf.
Repeat with the other half of the mixture.  Yields 2 rolls, each about 9 inches long.
Allow candy to cool and harden for 4-6 hours.  May refrigerate to speed the process.
Unroll towel or wax paper and slice.

Perfect date nut loaf candy.  Yummy!  And since I've posted the recipe on-line, I can't lose it.

15 December 2011

Christmas greetings...

We greet you with words from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel of Luke.. .

and offer a prayer of blessing for family and friends from I Thessalonians 5:23.

As we have for many years, we ordered our cards from cards direct where we get to write our own greetings.  We ordered them in the middle of the scorching summer drought and, feeling a need for hope, we were perhaps in an apocalyptic mood when we selected the scripture texts.  We also selected a photo.  If friends have watched us age through the years, there is some hope they will recognize us when we meet again.  One of my pet peeves is the family greeting that includes only children or grandchildren of the friends we know and long to see again

20 March 2011, K's father's 90th birthday at their home in Clifton

This photo recreated a family portrait made when "the grandkids" were small.   

The original family portrait made when "the grandkids" were small.
 Kendall & Dorthy "Dot" Wieland Cummings surrounded by their 3 kids and their spouses:
  •  Zacha & Jack
  • K & David
  • Jolene & Kelvin
and their four grand children:

  • Brittany K (Zacha's daughter)
  • Kendall II (Kelvin's son)
  • Victoria (Kelvin's daughter)
  • Josh (Zacha's son)

The clan with Josh's wife Amy and their 2 children Tilson and Tatum and Victoria's Philip and Kendall's Crystal.

We ordered fewer cards this year because we think we lost a lot of addresses in the great computer disaster last January.  We're hoping this blog post, shared on facebook, will help take up the slack.  

 Today is the day I'll try to finish Christmas cards and gift wrapping so I can start making candy (date nut loaf) and baking pies (apple and mince) and maybe a few other goodies. I'll not succeed--a torn lattissimus dorsi is slowing me down--but I delight in the merry rush. 

 Last night DMP (still recovering from surgery) and I missed the Children's Christmas Cantata at Southwest Central Church of Christ because an evening of rest had to be a priority.  It's the second  small disappointment of the season for us:  for only the third time in our 40 years of marriage, we did not get to go get our Christmas tree together because I stayed in Clifton for the week following Thanksgiving to help Mother with her decorating and shopping.  Thanks to brother Bryan for helping David pick out "the prettiest tree ever" which is what I always think.  Even when things are a bit painful, we still "keep Christmas" with as much joy and as little stress as possible.

08 December 2011

A barbed wire Christmas...

I'm somewhat like a chameleon. My free thinking and somewhat liberal views are well camouflaged by my conventional lifestyle.  I do like tradition but I like it best when it stands in opposition to the current culture.  My Christmas decorating style reflects this aspect of my personality.

I decorate my home for Christmas very much like I live and a peek inside today looks very much like a mid-20th Century suburban ranch house would have looked on its first Christmas.  Except for the facts that it's a "store bought" Noble fir instead of a "cedar" cut from the Caprock Canyons and that LED  lights have replaced the incandescent bulbs of my childhood and that I use curly willow in lieu of the silver foil icicles--our house bunnies who were our pre-Mandy pets tended to eat things off the tree and foil is not a holiday goodie--my tree looks very much like the ones my mother decorated in my childhood.

When one of my younger cousins was invited to view our freshly decorated tree, Kim said, "Oh, I don't need to look at it.  Your tree looks just the same this year as it did last year."  His mother offered up a new theme and color every year.  While I admire the elegance of the decorator tree, I want a tree that once had roots and still needs water.  While the soft shimmer of white lights are oh-so-tasteful, I prefer red, green, gold, and blue twinkling within green boughs.  I don't want to see a lot of "cutesy" ornaments; I scatter a few realistic owls and a couple of bunnies among the green and gold balls and hang the treasured antiques at the top of the tree. 

 I love the little wooden church, a coin bank box used by Grandma Wieland for her Assembly of God Church in Lockney, TX.  I remember the culmination of childhood decorating was placing this tiny church (flanked by two wax candle angels which were never lit and one hot summer melted like the witch in The Wizard of Oz) under the tree.  Many years ago, Mother gave the little church to me.  It always occupies a place of honor on my piano.  I like to imagine it's the one Miss Toosey used for her African Mission in Evelyn Whitaker's book

All the sentimentality surrounding a baby in a manger can turn me cynical and I appreciate a reminder that the church is now the body of Christ on earth.  One Christmas brought a card from the decorating aunt mentioned above  with a photo of the altar of South Plains Baptist Church where I grew up.  I framed it and put it behind the little church.  I made one change to my decorating tradition this year; I added a barbed wire bracelet.

David and I have always supported missions, particularly Wycliffe Bible Translators and this year the persecuted church (in Islamic countries, in Korea, and in China) weighs heavily on our hearts.  As we celebrate, we choose to remember our unity with all Christians and proclaim that we are "one with them."

"Come quickly, Lord Jesus."