Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 16, 2004
I envy people who make desserts as beautiful as the ones you see in magazines and television. You know the ones I mean. Those people whose gingerbread boys and girls stay in perfect shape. The ones whose angel food cakes don't fall.
This is the time of year when my less-than-stellar baking skills bother me the most. At holiday parties, I sample all the delicious offerings - melt-in-your-mouth caramel squares, creamy fudge, perfectly-shaped sugar cookies frosted with flawless piped icing - and it's almost more than I can bear!
Art's cousin Claudia is one of those whose baking skills I greatly admire. Her Christmas cookie plates are picture perfect with three kinds of Spritz, Chocolate Dipped Creams, Almond Moons and sugar cookies shaped like snowmen, angels, Santas and reindeer. Art, the girls and I nearly come to blows over who gets the last cookie in the holiday tin she sends home with us.
Rita, my first husband's mother, made the best pies. Dad loved her lemon meringue pie, each with perfect swirls of meringue. Art long complained that you never get a good mincemeat pie any more. So Rita made one just for him one Christmas. Art was so pleased. When Rita died, Art wrote a tribute to her titled, "No more mincemeat pies." But his daughter Karen picked up the challenge and now fills that request.
Art's Mom's Christmas specialties are perfect little peppernuts - pfeffernüss is what she calls them when she wants to gives her mother credit for the recipe. My old friend Teddy made dozens of pretty Stained Glass cookies for her neighbors. Mom makes chocolate chip cookies and brownies.
And me? It's not that I haven't tried to do some serious Christmas baking. It's just that my efforts don't pan out. In fact, my efforts give new meaning to the phrase "don't pan out!" When I was about Katie's age, I tried to make fudge. Somehow I let the mixture get too hot and when it finally cooled, it was hard. It was so hard I had to throw out the spoon, the brownies and the pan.
And then there was the sponge cake. At its peak, it barely rose two inches.
There was also that nasty incident I have worked so hard to forget that I can no longer even recall what the recipe was for. All I remember is that it had orange peel in it and it was to be something special for Rita and the rest of Jerome's family. I spent most of a day working on the concoction. I should have been forewarned by the orange peel. The result was so bad, our farm cats wouldn't touch it.
That's not to say that everything I try turns out to be a disaster. In 4-H, I made a banana bread that won a purple ribbon at the county fair. My Swedish braids weren't bad either. A few years ago, I made a nice cheesecake with blueberries and strawberries in an American flag design for Independence Day. For Art's birthday, I made a pretty good blackberry pie from scratch with berries we picked in the Wisconsin North Woods. And this past Halloween, Katie and I made spiders out of Rice Krispies. They weren't pretty, but they were edible.
When all is said and done, when it comes to desserts, I'm kind of a one-trick pony. People seem to love and even ask for my Amish Friendship Bread. Every few months - including during the Christmas season - I get out the recipe my friend Jeanie gave me a few years ago and make several loaves for friends and family.
Art's Mom even hides what I give to her in the back of her refrigerator so no one else will find it. She's described to Katie several times how she'll take it out in the morning, cut herself one thin piece when no one else is around, carefully wrap the loaf up and then return it to her secret hiding place again.
But as a whole, if someone wrote a remembrance about my efforts at dessert, it would probably be, "No more fudge - and thank God!"
Art's cousin Claudia Wittmann of Three Lakes, Wis. makes the most beautiful Christmas cookies.