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Holiday Makeovers

Caramel Spice Cake

Right now, I’m in the midst of making a cake. The icing-glaze is cooling and thickening before I pour it over the cake. My mom and I have stood over the new induction cooktop and the old cast iron skillet, stirring as the sugar, baking powder, buttermilk, and dollop of Karo syrup melt and bubble and foam and turn that magical, golden-brown color. The sound of the spoon scraping the bottom of the pan softened as I pulled up more and more of the browning sugar from the bottom. Finally, when just the right crisp smell arose, I turned the heat off and stirred in the butter. Now it cools.

I love this cake. Over all the holidays, it became my favorite from the numerous yummy things my mother and grandmothers baked. It is the one that I make still—not the amazing amalgamation cake, not the high white coconut cake, not even usually the dried apple stack cake. It is the humble cake that remains my favorite—dark and spicy, complex and serious.

I haven’t mentioned the name of this cake. For many years, it had an image problem. In my youthful days (before my parents divorced), we would throw parties at the holidays—friends would come by and eat well, sit by the fire and laugh, catch up after years apart at college or at new jobs. For years, few would eat this cake. It would sit unmolested while the aforementioned amalgamation, coconut, and apple cakes dwindled. I felt sorry for this cake, and for all the people who missed out on it.

So one year when I was in college, I convinced my mother to change the name. We put out little label cards for each dessert on the buffet. Lo and behold, the cake disappeared that year. Many commented on how delicious it was. It no longer had an image problem. We had changed the name from “prune cake with burnt sugar icing” to “caramel spice cake.” That was all.

Today, we laugh over the story. We feel a little conflicted still about what to call it. We talk about the ladies who created the original recipe, and how honest they were: the caramel glaze is, I am sure, not a genuine caramel as you would find in a box of candy from the Carmelite nuns. It’s a different process. And the prunes are a main ingredient, the fruit that moistens and darkens the cake and gives it that underlying rich flavor. But we faced up to the fact that “burnt” sounds bad and that people associate “prunes” with constipation relief. The latter might be a great thing alongside the overabundant and overly unhealthy food we usually fill up on at holidays, but no one wants to think about it while they indulge.

This is an image makeover that I can live with.

It’s also something that makes me think about the ways in which family traditions, especially around holidays, evolve and how that evolution is a great part of every holiday, even if sometimes we miss the way things were when we were younger. My mother’s most widely adopted holiday innovation was putting orange peel in the toll-house cookies—just the other day, after I’d given out a tin of cookies to our contractor, and he brought the tin back empty, I asked him which was his favorite. “The ones with the orange,” he said. “So good.”

My own adaptation of that standard recipe was using half shortening and half butter. The recipe says “either or,” and most cooks adamantly choose all one or all the other. The butter purists are after the flavor, the shortening folks cite its cheapness and lower saturated fat. I tried going with butter, but my cookies always spread out too much and burned at the edges. So it finally occurred to me I could combine the qualities. Voila! Perfect orange-tinted toll-house cookies.

My brother recently told me that his adaptation has been to the giblet gravy, which I gave up on entirely some years ago. He said the key is to leave out the heart and liver, which have a bitter flavor and which no one seems to want to eat. He still uses the gizzard meat and a hard-boiled egg for that chunky feel.

This year, I’m making another change—to the sweet potatoes. When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my mother took to reducing sugar all around. She immediately got rid of the icky marshmallows and gooey butter and heavy loads of brown sugar in the sweet potatoes, and she sweetened those with orange juice and just a touch of brown sugar. She would whip them up to a light soufflé-like consistency, sometimes with nuts and raisins, and they were great. But now I am married to a man from the northland who likes his regular old white mashed potatoes. So this year I decided that I wanted a different texture in one of the potato versions, and I am going to roast a medley of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, red peppers, and onions with olive oil, thyme, and rosemary.

All of these adaptations and all of this sharing of food is one of my favorite things about the holidays, along with the caramel spice cake. I love to bake, and I do it only once a year because as a chubby diabetic, the last thing I need is a lot of baked goods around the house. At Christmastime, I can give a lot of it away, though more and more people say they have too much. But there are still people who are eager to try the various attempts—the neighbors with a house full of teenagers, a few skinny friends, and others who are seizing the day.

This year, I experimented a lot with cookie recipes, trying to find “healthy” or at least healthier ones. The results were mixed. The ones sweetened with only mashed banana were too soft (so I started calling them oatmeal macaroons), the pineapple-coconut ones spread into flying saucer shapes (so I started calling them scones and served them for breakfast), and I put too much flour in the oatmeal-honey-raisin ones (so I called them biscotti and served them with tea and coffee). The mostaccioli (little Italian chocolate cookies that are only mildly sweet) turned out beautifully, and the blueberry and white chocolate chunk ginger cookies are good as gold (though they need a simpler name). All around I was able to reduce sugar and butter and still have some good things to share.

Mostaccioli Cookies

And so this experimenting and this changing is an integral part of the holiday. Some nostalgia for the “way it was” is part of reminiscing, but I try to remind myself that it’s natural that the recipes change, the relationships change, the faces around the table change. Holidays are eternal, but they shift and modify, too. My wish for everyone this season is that they enjoy both the traditions and the evolutions.

Bon appetit!

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