Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes

Recipe for a Christmas Memory

Candy is childhood, the best and bright moments you wish could have lasted forever.

Dylan Lauren 

Mama ushered in the holiday seasons by recruiting anyone whose hands were not otherwise occupied to shell pecans. The pecans were used liberally in the Thanksgiving dressing, cranberry salad, and pecan pies, but the biggest and prettiest ones were set aside for Mama’s Christmas specialties: divinity, marshmallow cream fudge, and date loaf. She would fuss and sweat in the kitchen for days, sometimes discarding whole batches that didn’t meet her high holiday standards.  These imperfect batches were happily devoured by less-demanding family members like me.

Perfect specimens, which were off limits to family, were saran-wrapped and artfully arranged in beautifully decorated cigar boxes, along with a few store-bought peppermint sticks and pieces of ribbon candy. These were hand-delivered to special people: neighbors, teachers, employers, merchants, the pastor, and the church secretary.

I never cared much for divinity, a mysterious tricky mix of egg whites and sugar, although I would eat most anything that contained obscene amounts of sugar, as long as shredded coconut was not involved. The recipe for marshmallow cream fudge was printed on every jar of the sticky stuff that was its star ingredient.

When I got married, I imagined coming home for many Christmases to learn from Mama the arts of candy-making and Christmas joy-box preparation, but she survived only one Christmas after my marriage, and the recipes, which she seldom used because she knew them by heart, were lost in a jumbled box of papers under her bed that she had intended to put in order someday when she had time. After Mama died, I pestered relatives and friends for the mysterious date loaf candy recipe. Several volunteered their versions, but none were a match for Mama’s. Cookbook and magazine recipes for just about anything called for ingredients like cardamom or capsicum that I’d never heard of and that were not easily available at the local A & P. Mama’s recipes were made from simple ingredients that we had at home all the time. She called them “staples.” Sugar. Butter. Flour. Vanilla. And the things she made from them were delicious.

Date loaf, however, was a Christmas joy beyond belief: sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, dates, and pecans combined, cooked, wrapped in a damp dishtowel overnight, and transformed into a small taste heaven. But I didn’t find the recipe in the box under the bed, and nobody else had the recipe.

I searched the internet for years with no success. Until today. Someone posted her great-grandma’s recipe, and it is THE ONE.

HELEN RUTH RICE LESH’S (AND SOMEONE ELSE’S GREAT-GRANDMA’S) FAVORITE DATE LOAF RECIPE

Stir together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. Do not stir after it begins to boil.

  • 2 cups of white sugar
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/4 cup of butter

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in

  • 1 cup of chopped dates
  • 1 cup of chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

Dampen a piece of cheesecloth or a gauze dishtowel, lay it flat, and pour the candy mixture into the center. Roll the cloth around the candy to form a log. Refrigerate 8 hours. Remove the cloth, and the candy is ready to be sliced and packaged (or devoured). 

Mama would put the rolled up cloths on the outside window sill because the weather was cold and refrigerator space was always at a premium post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

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