When my family decided on a simple Christmas, I imagined a quiet day of games and puzzles, snacks and naps. No big meal to prepare, no big mess to clear up later. Of course, reality rarely matches the imagination; with 11 adults, three small boys and five dogs in the house, the whole day was a bit more energetic than I had envisioned.
The lack of a formal schedule was amazing. The out-of-towners were able to wake up on their own and arrive refreshed and unhurried, we all enjoyed wonderfully long FaceTime calls with my Army Guy brother in Korea and my cousin and his family in Houston. I even got to go for a short walk with my dog with no guilt about leaving my guests.
But there were two things that were particularly meaningful to me: a lesson from my daughter on the art of using the planner she gave me for my birthday, and helping my cousin conquer her cookie Everest, the macaron, both of which were made possible by our relaxed agenda.
Susie has been an enthusiastic and prolific baker since she was a preteen. She and her best friend would spend long afternoons creating cakes and cookies, while simultaneously destroying her mother’s kitchen and grocery budget. She has kept it up as an adult, baking in her free time and always volunteering to bring desserts for family gatherings. Baking is her comfort and her guilty pleasure, and she can be pretty ambitious in her confectionery undertakings.
To me, baking is a pleasant chore. I tend to stick to the basics: biscuits, cornbread, brownies and a few simple cookie recipes, eschewing anything that requires ingredient or tools not available in any moderately well-stocked and well-equipped kitchen. My husband bakes and decorates the birthday cakes, and our pies often come from the freezer section of the local grocery store.
Back to the macarons. I had been following Susie’s saga with the fussy French confection on Facebook for a few days, but I did not realize that the struggle was actually a year long and that she had made four or five failed attempts at the little beasties. I didn’t understand her obsession, but I sympathized.
When I saw her on Christmas Eve, she was tired and emotional. We visited a bit about our mothers (both gone for some years now) and the holidays we spent together as children. We spoke about balancing family tradition with the needs and desires of the current generations. She also mentioned her disappointment with the cookies, and I asked her to bring the recipe and whatever special ingredients it required, and we would give them a try together.
She did, and in the early afternoon we cleared off space on the counter and went to work making the macarons, which it turns out are a meringue-based cookie often served sandwich-style, filled with buttercream or jam. The recipe she brought called for the creation of a ganache , which is one of those words I like to make fun of, often in conjunction with a phrase like, “The macarons and ganache marry beautifully to form a lovely, delicate dessert that melts in the mouth and sets off the silvery raspberry notes of the digestif.” My husband tells me that the Food Network is not meant to be a comedy channel, but I’m not convinced. (Mirepoix!)
We carefully followed each step of the recipe, including using kosher salt and the food processor; Susie had used table salt and skipped the food processor in her earlier attempts, thinking the ingredients were fine enough. We carefully whipped the egg whites to the proper stiffness, folded in the dry ingredients, piped the cookies onto cookie sheets, and let them sit for a bit before baking.
The cookies turned out beautifully. Susie had to improvise a piping bag because my kitchen isn’t so-equipped, so they weren’t exactly uniform in size, but they were well-formed and chewy with the characteristic ruffled edge and ‘foot’. The main thing is, Susie was happy with them. Delighted, even. If you’d like to give them a try, you’ll find the recipe here.
First, whether you’re baking cookies, knitting a cap, building a website, or trying to get your life back on track, it’s often best start at the beginning a proceed one step at a time. This may seem obvious, but I’ve often misread instructions or made incorrect assumptions resulting in costly mistakes.
It turns out that the problem with my cousin’s first attempts at macarons was probably simple physics. She assumed that it wouldn’t make any difference to substitute table salt for kosher salt, but the larger grain size results in about half the salt by weight than a similar measure of table salt. It’s all explained right here on the website of the network I disparaged in fun earlier. The food processor is need to reduce the size of the salt particles, if not the other ingredients. At least that’s my best guess.
Second, traditions are meant to serve us, not rule us. We have chosen to celebrate Christmas in an apparently much different fashion than our mothers, who celebrated in much the same way as their own mother. But we honor them by making an effort to be together, by loving one another more as sisters than cousins, by cherishing one another’s children and dreams, because in doing so we acknowledge the esteem in which our mothers held each other, and the value they placed in family. We have the recipes they loved and make them regularly, but they are not imperative for observing a holiday. I have shed any number of tears over an absent loved one, but never one over a missing Texas Fruit Salad.
Finally, when you set aside slavish adherence to family tradition or societal expectations, you free yourself up to enjoy what you love, and you create margin for pursuing dreams or being present for those you love. By skipping the big dinner and focusing on family, we don’t dilute our family tradition but distill it to its essence.
Grandma’s Texas Fruit Salad Recipe
2 21-oz. cans cherry pie filling
1 11-oz. can mandarin oranges
1 20-oz. can pineapple chunks
1 cup pecan halves, lightly chopped
1/2 cup flaked coconut
1 banana, peeled and sliced
Drain mandarin oranges and pineapple chunks; mix into cherry pie filling. Add pecans and coconut. Refrigerate for an hour or so, or overnight. Add bananas immediately before serving.
Honestly, it’s not that great, probably some Depression Era holdover that my family forgot to let go of. But Grandma would be pleased that I shared it, and it does make a nice change from pie.’?
What is it that’s important to you? How would you spend time saved if you weren’t doing what’s ‘expected’? Or do you prefer things to stay the same? (Because that’s OK, too!) Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and please follow and share this blog with someone who might enjoy it.