As Christmas fast approaches it stirs memories of my childhood holidays. The pungent smell of the balsam fir ready to be decorated, Christmas carols playing in the background, especially Joan Baez, the bright paper and ribbons waiting to wrap presents and the kitchen noises as my mother prepared all the holiday foods, including our favourites, the sweets. My mother baked all year round so we always had dessert but Christmas meant special treats.
November found my mother chopping dried fruits and nuts and mixing them in a big enameled wash pan, also used to bathe babies and soak feet. The fruit cake had to be started early so that after baking it could be wrapped in cheesecloth and regularly doused it in brandy. We liked fruit cake but we liked other things more.
Next came the shortbread cookies. I am not sure how much she enlarged the recipe because we seemed to have a mountain of cookies. While I make a log and cut slices or balls that I roll and flatten with a fork, my mother would roll out the dough and cut Christmas shapes. Stars, bells, candy canes and holly leaves all decorated with red and green cherries and silver balls would appear. Layers of cookies, laid between sheets of wax paper, filled a large canning pot put on the top shelf of the pantry to keep the cookies away from little hands. Luckily, with a step stool and a good reach, cookies could be extracted and enjoyed in ones own little space. Of course, many still remained for Christmas.
We loved the Cherry Bonbons, a candied cherry covered in cookie dough, rolled into a ball and coated with pink icing. Then the Gumdrop Squares, a chewy and spicy cake fill with chopped gumdrops and nuts topped with white icing and more gumdrops filled another tin. Another favourite, Cornflakes Meringue cookies with chocolate chips and a cherry on top quickly disappeared. Lastly, the Christmas pudding, steamed on the stove ready to be served with hard sauce. Never my favourite!
The day before Christmas was the time to make the Sugarplum Tree. I am not sure when my mother started making this treat. She rarely baked with yeast. The recipe had been cut out of a magazine and stuck into her book, spotted with years of flour and greasy fingers. The dough, filled with raisins and citron raised in a warm corner, rolled into a rectangle, spread with sugar and cinnamon, the corners folded in and cuts made on the sides to form branches magically appeared. She iced it, added more gumdrops for decorations including one flattened yellow gumdrop cut to form a star. All done ready for Christmas.
In our house, when we woke up Christmas morning, we didn’t hurry downstairs in our pajamas. We had to brush our teeth, get dressed, make our beds and then sit on the stairs waiting until everyone was ready. My father would go down and light the tree and then we rushed to see if Santa had come. We could play with our Santa Claus present while my mother made breakfast. Along with the Sugarplum bun we had half grapefruits with crushed pineapple, red and green cherries in the center and Santa mugs for our milk. Some people would even eat cereal!
My sisters continued the tradition of making sugarplum trees. My older sister had Christmases at her home after she married so she has made many buns. My younger sister began her own tradition after my mother stopped visiting her and making the bun at Christmas.
I never made the treat until the Christmas after my mother died. I had her recipe book with the original magazine recipe, so in her memory, I made the bun. Not quite like hers, as I used ginger, no gumdrops and a cream cheese icing. Still, the delicious sweetness evoked fond memories and so I will make it again this year. I did and a few pieces are still in the freezer!