Much attention has been given to the changing economy these days and people have been suggesting that we turn back toward the old days for our celebration of Christmas. In our Christian tradition, top priority would still center around the birth of Jesus with all the singing of Christmas carols and the church services. Along with the religious aspects, there are other traditions that we might bring back to return the touches of home to our celebrations.
My mother was into popcorn popping at our house. She measured out just the right number of kernels into a little wire basket that she shook back and forth over the hottest lid on our old coal stove. Soon the pop-pop-popping began and continued until the basket was filled and the popping stopped. Then she dumped the popcorn into a big bowl, poured melted butter over the whole works, and added a generous sprinkling of table salt while shaking the bowl lightly.
Sometimes the popped corn was strung, one by one, on a string and used for tree decorations. I was never too much in favor of using any potential food item for any other purpose than eating – I prefer the idea of paper chains for decorations, but I suppose those dried-out strings of popcorn could have been hung outside after Christmas for birds to nibble. Other times, the popcorn was mixed into a gooey concoction of various flavors and then formed into popcorn balls. That, I accepted with pleasure, although we were all at risk of losing the fillings out of our teeth.
In later years at our house, we had a little metal, electric popper into which we’d pour oil and then wait for the heat to activate the popping. There were some claims that this method produced a less-healthy result, but it certainly tasted good when a little salt was added. Then came the hot air popper that used no oils at all, just a hot current of air to stimulate popping of little puffs of healthy eating. These days, little packets for the microwave really work well and quickly for a team of eaters like my wife and me.
My mother also knew how to make homemade batches of root beer. She usually kept some extract, probably made by Hires, on hand at all times so she’d be ready at a moment’s notice. One recipe called for one level cup of table sugar or less if that’s too sweet, and ¼ teaspoon of powdered baker’s yeast that was fresh and active, all shook together in a 2 liter plastic bottle. Then swirl in 1 tablespoon of the extract and half-fill the bottle with cool fresh water. Tip the bottle up and down several times to thoroughly mix the ingredients and add enough additional water to almost fill the bottle. Larger batches can be prepared in a bucket by doubling or tripling the measurements. Be sure to leave some room for expansion in each bottle, and close the cap tightly.
Set the bottles aside at room temperature for several days to work! After a few days, all bottles should be refrigerated. If the root beer is not cooled after a reasonable amount of time, the action will continue and the bottle will blow up leaving a sticky, but tasty, mess all over the place. You will hear one of those mystery “bangs” somewhere in the house and look all over to find what it was, and it will turn out to be the root beer. That’s the reason for using a plastic bottle instead of glass – the danger of being cut with flying glass is a little greater than being bombarded by flying bits of plastic.
One time at our house, we had some root beer aging on our kitchen counter. When we got home in the later evening, we noticed a wet spot on our basement floor – a spot that smelled like root beer – and it finger-tasted that way, too. Sure enough, a half-gallon of our home brew had blown up in the kitchen and the liquid had run down through the dish washer’s plumbing to the basement. What a sticky mess all over the kitchen – without even mentioning the loss of the wonderful brew!
I really loved root beer floats! You can take several scoops of vanilla ice cream, or some other flavor if you prefer, and drop them into a big mug of root beer. You can sip the foam off the top with a straw or pull out bite-sized portions of root beer flavored ice cream with a long-handled spoon. The only thing better than that is homemade ice cream itself. I can remember enjoying a lot of that, too, especially when company was coming, and before I began to depend upon the Schwan man.
An old recipe may have called for something like a quart of heavy cream, ¾ quart of whole milk, two cans of evaporated milk, and two cups of sugar dumped into a large bowl and mixed well. Pour the mixture into the can of an ice cream freezer and add enough whole milk to bring it up to the “full line” premarked on the can. A tablespoon of unflavored gelatin may be added as a stabilizer to slow down the thawing process when the ice cream is served.
Six egg yolks may also be added to a gallon of the mixture to bring out a smoother texture in the finished product, although there is some disagreement with this idea today due to food safety concerns with uncooked poultry products. The American Egg Board suggests, “In a medium saucepan, beat together eggs, milk, sugar, flavoring and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches at least 160° F and is thick enough to coat a metal spoon with a thin film. Cool quickly by setting pan in ice or cold water and continue stirring for a few minutes. Then put it in the can for freezing.”
Homemade ice cream is frozen by placing the can inside a circular wall of ice and then causing the can to rotate while an internal paddle, called the dasher, stirs the mixture. As the ice cream stiffens, the handle becomes harder and harder to turn. Our earliest freezer was powered by a little electric motor that screeched while it turned until no one could stand to be near as it finally wound to the stopping point. Many freezers are turned with a hand crank with family and friends taking turns at the wheel as crankers. Our very best freezer, a real antique, was designed for the can to turn in one direction and the paddle in the opposite, a method that cut down on the time of waiting for the tasty treat.
Once upon a lifetime ago, the men of our church used to treat the girls with homemade ice cream as dessert for the Mother-Daughter dinner. The usual process was followed and the freezers set, but special flavors were added. Pharmacist Dick Gillung was famous for his peanut butter ice cream that made the ladies swoon! Our friend Al George had a special recipe that he liked to slip in, too. He would take commercial ice cream from the market, allow it to get pretty soft, whip air into it, and then pour it back into a cold hand-cranked bucket and re-freeze. It could often pass for the home-turned variety without the big investment in time and labor.
Around our house, homemade Christmas cookies have also been very popular with the family. It doesn’t really matter if they are sugar cookies shaped like little trees and covered with green sugar; cream cheese figures of many colors with little silver beads; gingerbread men, women, Santas, and sleighs; peanut butter or chocolate fudge; chocolate brownies with peanut butter frosting; macaroons; or anise-flavored Christmas pizzelles like my mother used to make.
Please keep in mind that kitchen work is not my specialty. The bottom line on all these homemade treats comes with the memories created through the companionship of family and friends, whether in the creation or the enjoyment of the treats, or in passing them along to others. It is the love a family shares while the process takes place. I enjoy my role as taste-tester of the finished products – it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.