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!

Café de Olla

Excellent Mexian coffee boiled with raw sugar and cinnamon. No cream needed.

In a medium saucepan, place 4 c WATER, 3 oz or 1/3 c PILONCILLO or DARK BROWN SUGAR, 1/2 STICK MEXICAN CINNAMON. Bring to a boil, turn heat down and simmer until the piloncillo is dissolved (about 7 minutes). Add 4 T GROUND COFFEE, turn off the heat, stir, cover, and steep for 5 minutes. Strain and serve.

SOME THOUGHTS ON GOING PLANT-BASED AND A RECIPE FOR VEGAN BARBECUE SAUCE

After much thought, some serious reading, and a few gross-out videos, I have decided to limit all animal-based products in my food intake. Vegan is not synonymous with tasteless. If you enjoy pizza, barbecue, curry, salsa, or any of the many flavors that distinguish different international dishes, they can be made without animal products and served over potatoes, cauliflower, portobello or other mushrooms, or just about anything you can think of.

Here is a recipe for vegan barbecue sauce. If you are a purist, look for organic ketchup, low sodium soy sauce, and vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Whisk together 1 c KETCHUP, 1 T MOLASSES, 1/8 c BROWN SUGAR, 1/8 c APPLE CIDER VINEGAR, 1 T SOY SAUCE, 1 T WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE, 1 t SRIRACHA OR OTHER HOT SAUCE. Makes about 1 1/2 c. Double or triple as needed. Spoon over baked beans, tofu, portobello mushrooms, mashed potatoes, vegan meat substitutes.


There is overwhelming evidence that human beings are designed to be herbivores. Some experts say we are frugivores–fruit eaters. Our ability to adapt to environments that are less than suitable for our species has given us great advantages over other creatures, but there has been a price in health and longevity for that adaptability.

Some people go vegan fanatically, but I favor gentle transitions and a light touch. A Whataburger Junior once or twice a year will not kill me, but a daily diet of Whataburger ingredients will be a serious obstacle to more years of life and the health and energy to enjoy them.

Many plant foods are delicious with little or no enhancement. Ripe pineapples, bananas, mangos, guavas, peaches, pears, apples, watermelons, cantaloupes, and many other fruits call for minimum preparation and no other ingredients. The same is true for nuts and seeds like pecans, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, cashews. Ripe avocados and tomatoes need a little salt for my taste but nothing more. I like my strawberries with a little extra sweetness, but ripe bananas and strawberries mixed together are delicious with nothing added.

The “balanced meal” of meat, starch such as potatoes, rice, or pasta, green or other brightly-colored vegetable like green beans or carrots, a leafy salad, bread, and a beverage is firmly embedded in my mind because that’s what I learned as a child, but it is not the healthiest way to eat.

COOKOFF CHAMPION CHILI

This chili recipe is adapted from traditional birria, popular in the state of Jalisco and the city of Guadalajara. Birria is usually made with goat meat, but I used ground beef in this one. This chili won first prize in a chili cook-off at Bells High School in Bells, Texas, where I taught Spanish for ten years.

  1. (REMOVE seeds and stems from the chiles and chop them coarsely.)
  2. SAUTÉ 1 GARLIC CLOVE, 1/4 MEDIUM SLICED ONION, 50 g (1.76 oz) PASILLA* CHILE, 25 g (0.88 oz) ANCHO* CHILE in 1 1/2 T OIL
  3. ADD 1 c WATER, 2 cubes MAGGI TOMATO BOUILLION, and 1 1/2 t CUMIN
  4. BRING mixture to a boil, then cool and process in blender
  5. STRAIN and return the strained mixture to heat
  6. ADD 1/4 c WATER and 1 cube MAGGI TOMATO BOUILLION
  7. STIR IN 3 1/2 lbs GROUND BEEF
  8. COOK over medium heat until the meat is done
  9. SERVE with LIME JUICE, OREGANO, and CHOPPED ONION on top.

*Chiles have different names, depending on whether they are fresh or dried. On the left, the fresh version. On the right, what it’s called after it’s dried. If you are cooking outside of Mexico, this guide will help if the names are different. You can see what they look like.

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