This is how it is: I’ve been in my new old-house neighborhood for over a year and I know exactly three neighbors. I do, however, know all of the dogs. I blame hats.
My neighbors and I approach each other with short, cold-weather greetings like: “Morning!” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and “Which house are you?” We are covered from hat to boot with only our noses exposed.
Once, taking my English Springer puppy Gigi on a longish walk two miles up our long rural street, a woman in a sprawling colonial opened its front door and hollered from atop her hill, “Hello! Is it very icy?”
But, today I will finally be able to put the people names with the dog names and all of them into the landscape of our old logging woods neighborhood because today is the Neighborhood Christmas Party. Of course I’m expected to bring something. I only remembered this fact a couple hours ago and as I write this, my last batch of something is in the oven and the party starts in 50 minutes.
In my perfect week-before-Christmas dream I have hours to sit with my dessert cookbooks contemplating options while I drink a pot of tea. All the handmade by me Christmas presents are already wrapped, shovels are greased and ready by the door, and I know exactly what I’m wearing to every Christmas party.
In my reality none of these things is possible because I spent all my time reading Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog aloud to anyone in the house.
With the few hours before the party that I was going to work on my manuscript (memoir-in-it-seems-forever-process) instead I pulled my trusty Hershey’s Homemade cookbook from the kitchen bookshelf.
I bought Hershey’s Homemade in 1991 by sending an envelope to the Hershey Company with three cocoa powder proofs of purchase wrapped inside a check totaling $1.50 for shipping and handling. I was a newly engaged college junior with a chocolate addiction. That my fiance (now my husband, Greg) didn’t (and still doesn’t) like chocolate didn’t even enter my mind. If I was going to go through the effort to bake, I was going to bake what I liked. Today, 25 years later, my eyes fell on this recipe:
Black Magic Cake
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk *
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee plus 1 cup boiling water
- 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan, two 9-inch round baking pans or one 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
- 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (Batter will be thin). Pour batter evenly into prepared pan.
- 3. Bake 50 to 55 minutes for fluted tube pan, 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Loosen cake from side of pan and remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost as desired. Makes 12 servings.
- * To sour milk: Use 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.
This was the “bring something” winner because I happened to have all the ingredients. But the presentation of the cake in the cookbook was a little wah. . . wah. The photo showed the cake baked in a rectangular sheet pan and frosted.
It was clearly a time for my grandfather’s Jell-O molds.
My grandfather was a professional baker who died when I was six. I’m lucky enough to have one of his commercial mixers as well as an assortment of individually-sized Jell-O molds. I can’t stand Jell-O so I use the molds for individual cakes.
I made Black Magic Cake as directed and poured into my molds. I greased and floured the tins which was a mistake. A good deal of the flour stuck to the tops of the cakes when they were turned out onto the cooling rack. For the second batch, I only used Pam.
The solution for the mistake cakes was to brush off as much flour as I could and apply powdered sugar through a sieve. Presto.
The remaining cakes I whisked confectioner’s sugar and milk, used the whisk to flick-drizzle it onto the cakes and added a garnish of a single blackberry and blueberry each.
Wow. These look better than I hoped. I feel very generous in a Christmas-y way, letting anyone other than me eat these. Watch out neighborhood, here I come!
I am beginning this blog post from the check-out line at Michael’s craft store. It’s a line that rivals only the infamous line at Barnes and Noble on Black Friday. My craft store line has snaked from the registers past Christmas bows and wrapping paper into the serious art isle whose shelves include empty canvases, cold-pressed papers, and watercolor paints in cabinets under lock and key. I’ve moved up and now stand next to intricately designed coloring books for adults.
Why would I put myself through this? Pinterest. It’s all Pinterest’s fault. A couple weeks ago I came across this image:
. . . and I was smitten. I’ve loved miniatures forever and used to have a dollhouse.
But my dollhouse is long-gone and a few years back, I gave the dollhouse furniture away to a friend with two little girls. My boys were more interested in other toys and I wanted the miniature beds and bureaus to go to someone who would enjoy them.
I don’t have the time for a dollhouse now, but a miniature Christmas world in a jar? I think I can swing that. The supplies are few and directions simple: pour the snow (Epsom salt) into the bottom of the jar, add figures, and ta da! It’s Christmas.
Down in my scary basement, I have about fifty old glass jars. I try never to go down there. It’s got a dirt floor and stone walls. Snakes have been known to make it home. I made my husband bring about ten of the jars upstairs. Then he cleaned them (OMG)!
So, here I am in line, holding some cute little trees, a couple reindeer, and some metal house ornaments. Finally! Once I get home I realize the tin houses are too big for the jars. No prob. I repurpose some glass vases and now, twenty hours later- it’s instant Christmas.
I have just enough Epsom salt leftover to soak my feet.
It’s been a while, I know. As thirty-five years have gone by since my last letter, you might think I had forgotten you. But I didn’t forget, I just got busy.
I was busy growing up. Somewhere between 1979 and 1990 I began to believe that you were just for children. That you were mostly mall laps, a fuzzy red and white outfit and a pom-pom hat on a float in a parade. I came to believe that as an adult, I had other uses for you. Instead of writing you letters and telling you I had been good, I brought you with me and my young children. You went with us on errands in the car, to the beach, the grocery store and to church. When I said, “Spencer, don’t hit Parker!” “Trevor, come here, I need to spray on this sunscreen,” or “Let Spencer push the cart this time,” and “All of you, sit still and look at the pictures in this Bible!” I said that last one in a whisper that sounded like a yell. I finished all of those sentences with “…or Santa won’t come.” I used you, boldly, and at my discretion.
I stopped believing in the real you I think, because I thought I didn’t have to. Their father and I did everything. We earned the money to pay for the gifts, stayed up late at night putting together Bouncy Ball houses, lacrosse nets, and Optimus Prime Transformers. We baked and ate the cookies, sipped the milk (“you” left a note one year saying you were lactose intolerant and asked for Lactaid). One year “you” even went on the roof with a bunch of jingle bells from Michael’s craft store. You thumped and stomped on our old shingles so much I was afraid you would land in the attic. Trevor’s eyes were unblinking as he ran to me from his room. He had the thrill of his 5- year old life. He believed. No magical chubby guy fell down the chimney to help us.
And yet, belief is a powerful thing. Like faith, it’s gotten me through a lot. I realize I had to choose to believe that I could possibly raise three sons coming from a family of women, survive an illness that has killed millions and three of my grandparents, and become the woman I wanted to be. I believed, even if I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.
Yes, this is my Christmas wish list, but the things on it aren’t for me. They are things I want to give to my children. Trevor is in college and the twins are headed to high school soon. I don’t want them to stop believing in you. Because one day in the near future, they will leave their father and I and go out into the world, and it will happen: the inevitable disbelieving. To prepare them, I want to believe that I could pop this letter in the mail and have it land on your desk just as you were reaching for another envelope to open. You could read it and tell right away if I was naughty or nice and send me what I asked for.
My children are not boys anymore. They are nearly men. in their stockings this year will be a beard brush for one, cell phone cases for two others and under the tree, fewer gifts because what they want is expensive. No more Tinker Toys, Legos or Flash Gordon action figures. One of the 14-year olds asked for a leather coat.
If only all of us parents could write you letters and ask for the gifts our children already have, the ones within. If you could, this year- would you look down on all the parents of the world and see how hard we work for our children, how we want them to realize that everything they want is already inside them? That they, not Target hold the secret to their happiness? Instead of Ipad’s, let our children unwrap their inner fire?
While we sleep on Christmas Eve, can you put Kindness in their stockings, Gratitude under the tree, Humility in the water they brush their teeth with, and as a special favor to me as the mother of sons, sew Chivalry onto the labels of their pajama pants?
I want to show my nearly grown boys that they should believe in magic, expect the fantastic, and that goodness can appear anywhere at anytime and not ask for anything in return. Please give them the ability to see the good in others not as something separate, but as an example of our commonality.
I know I want a lot, and I might not get it all.
But Santa, if anyone can make it happen, it’s you.
You did, after all, help me raise them.