Christmas Traditions: How to Make Sugarplums

Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore. It’s become an indelible part of the American Christmas tradition, and many of us know it by heart. The line I’ve always wondered about is:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads….

So I set out to discover what this delectable sounding treat might be. The dictionary defines a sugarplum as a small round or oval piece of sugary candy. Knowledge about exactly what it’s made of is considerably less exact. Perhaps the name arose from its resemblance to a small plum, or from the practice of preserving plums in sugar, a way to keep some summer fruits around for a while longer. No matter. Recipes using real plums date from at least the 16th century. (The sugarplum referred to in the Victorian poem are composed of a mix of ingredients, including dried fruits and nuts.)

The making of genuine sugarplums is quite time consuming, although it is not difficult.


1 pound of plums

2½ pounds of white granulated sugar

16 ounces of  water plus 2 Tbls water

1. Make a thin sugar syrup by mixing ½ lb of sugar and 16 oz. of water in a large pot.

2. Slit the plums down the seam and place them into the syrup so they are fully covered. Poach gently until just tender. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the plums to absorb the sweetness.

3. Make a heavy sugar syrup by mixing 2 pounds of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a large pot. Slowly boil until a drop of syrup in cold water makes a thick but soft ball. Transfer plums from the thin syrup to the heavy syrup and remove from heat, making certain plums are covered by the heavy syrup. Allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate for about a week.

Once flavor has developed, separate plums onto parchment paper and place them in a warm (170 degree) oven, turning them every half hour until dry (or use a home dehydrator.)

Entertain visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy while enjoying this traditional confection!

How to Make Rock Candy

As a kid, I thought rock candy was positively amazing, and I still think it looks really neat. I always wondered how to make it, but never had the opportunity till now. Here’s an easy recipe to try with or without your kids. If children are present, care must be taken around the hot liquid.

4 ½ c. sugar
2 c. water
4 (12-oz.) glass jars
4 (7-inch) pieces clean string
4 wooden skewers or pencils

1. Sterilize jars: Place the jars in the bottom of a large pan, and fill pan with enough water to cover the jars by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; boil for 2 minutes (to sterilize). Remove jars, cool completely, and dry.
2. Tie the strings around centers of wooden skewers or pencils. Place 1 string in each jar, resting skewer or pencil across the rim of the jar, and making sure the strings do not touch the bottoms of the jars.
3. Make syrup: Combine sugar and water in a large saucepan and bring to boiling over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally; boil, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.* Let stand 5 minutes.
4. Pour about 1 cup syrup mixture carefully around skewer into each jar. Loosely cover with aluminum foil (including skewer); pierce aluminum foil several times with a skewer or knife. Let stand 10 to 14 days or until crystals form on strings. (Occasionally break up hard sugar layer on surface using a wooden skewer.)
5. Remove strings from jars, and suspend between jars until crystals are dry (about 1 hour). Remove strings from skewers or pencils.

*If you wish, you can also add food coloring and flavored oils such as cinnamon oil at the end of step #3, after you remove from the heat but before you allow the mixture to stand 5 minutes.

Adapted from Southern Living magazine.

There are many references to what we now call Rock Candy in literature. There are several references to it in the poems of the Persian poet Jalal-ad-Din Rumi who lived in Turkey in the middle 1200’s. One early English reference in 1584 seems to sum up the virtues of Rock Candy where it is quoted “White sugar is not so good for phlegume, as that which is called Sugar Candie.” Shakespeare in Henry IV (1596) referred to its therapeutic value as a throat soother for long winded talkers. (from Dryden and Palmer candy website.)

How to Make a Hot Toddy

Feeling cold? Have a cold/sore throat/cough? This is the drink for you. Simply stated, a hot toddy is a mixed drink containing tea (or coffee, water, cider, coffee, etc.),  whiskey or another form of alcohol, and a sweetener.  Sometimes fruit, spices, and butter are added. Once believed to alleviate a cold, toddies were traditionally drunk at bedtime, or to warm up after becoming chilled.  Whether or not it has medicinal properties, it’s likely to make you feel better, if only for a little while! The toddy  appears to be a close relative of the more widely known Irish Coffee. The recipe’s very basic, and is amenable to all sorts of variations.

  1. Brew tea and fill a large mug 3/4 full.
  2. Mix in honey ( or other sweetener), 1 tbsp or to taste.
  3. Mix in 2 brandy or whiskey shots.
  4. Optional: Add lemon slice, cinnamon stick, a few cloves

Personally, I’d rather drink this when I don’t have a cold, the better to taste and enjoy. A few variations to try: flavored brandy, flavored tea or coffee, herbal tea, lemonade, star anise, or gin. (It’s also easy to make a virgin hot toddy, using apple cider or lemonade )

Easter Traditions: Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns
One a penny buns;
One a penny,
Two a penny,
Hot cross buns.

If you have no daughters
Give them to your sons
One a penny
Two a penny
Hot cross buns


Hot cross buns are a small, spicey fruit cake decorated with a glaze and a white icing cross. In some versions, the cross is cut into the top with a knife, or made by crossing pastry strips.
Although they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, they were not always associated with Christianity. Their origins lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. During early missionary efforts, the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross. In 1361, a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe began a tradition of giving hot cross buns to the poor of St Albans on Good Friday.

In years that followed, many customs, traditions, superstitions, and claims of healing and protection from evil were associated with the buns. In the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was banned in England, but the popularity of hot cross buns continued. Queen Elizabeth I passed a law banning their consumption except during festivals such as Easter, Christmas and funerals.

In the 19th century, the buns were hawked by street vendors to the cry of “Hot cross buns!” I remember playing the little song above when I first started piano lessons.


(from Bella Online)
1/4 cup water – at room temperature or slightly above
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of allspice
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup finely chopped, mixed candied fruit

2 T. granulated sugar
2 T. water

1/2 cup Confectioners’ sugar
2 tsp. water

Preparation Place all the dough ingredients, except the raisins and fruit, in the bread machine pan. Set on the dough only cycle. Add the raisins and candied fruit at the bread machine’s signal for adding extra ingredients. Remove the dough from the bread machine at end of dough cycle. Place it in a bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest for 10 minutes.

**Divide the dough into 12 pieces. Shape the pieces into balls and place them 3 inches apart on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise in warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes to an hour. Bake in a preheated oven at 375º for 15 to 18 minutes, or until light brown on top. Remove from the oven. Place the baking sheet full of buns on a wire rack to cool. Prepare the glaze, then spread it over the warm buns. Let the buns continue to cool on the baking sheet. When completely cool, fill a cake decorating bag, fitted with a round tip, with icing. Pipe an icing cross on each bun. Or… simply spoon narrow stips of icing, in the shape of a cross, on each bun.

**To prepare this recipe without a bread machine, use this mixer method –
Mix the yeast, 1 cup flour, sugar, salt, and other spices in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the milk and water together. Combine the dry ingredients mixture, the liquid ingredients, and the butter in a large bowl. Beat for 2 to 3 minutes at medium speed. Add the egg and beat 1 more minute. Stir in the raisins, fruit, and enough of the remaining flour to make a firm dough. Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 5 to 7 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Use additional flour if necessary. Place in a lightly greased bowl; turn over to grease the other side of the dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place. After about 15 minutes, test the dough to see if it has risen sufficiently and is ready to be shaped. To test, gently stick two fingers into the risen dough up to the second knuckle… take them out. If the indentations remain, the dough is ripe and ready. Continue to follow the preparation directions above, from the **.

Enjoy the buns, warm from the oven. And Happy Easter!

Thanksgiving Traditions: Ginger Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Traditions can be started any time, and last year, using a recipe provided by Meg, my DIL, I changed my Thanksgiving sweet potato tradition from lightly candied with brown sugar, to ginger mashed. The pilgrims didn’t have ginger, but we do, and these potatoes were scrumptious, with the added the benefit of less sugar and butter. This our the second year following our delicious, healthier new tradition. I believe the following recipe was provided by Teri Hatcher on the Rachel Ray show.


  • 4 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed well
  • Extra-virgin olive oil , for drizzling
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger or 2 teaspoons dried ginger
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or heavy cream (eyeball it)

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place the potatoes on a small baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and rub them with some salt and freshly ground black pepper before wrapping each potato in foil. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until tender. When the potatoes have finished baking, remove them from the oven, unwrap and  cool enough so you can handle them.

Cut potatoes lengthwise. Scoop out the cooked insides  and roughly chop the skin of the potatoes – it adds great texture and more rustic flavor! Reserve both.

In a large sauce pot over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter and add in the fresh or dried ginger. Cook for a couple of seconds to bring out more of the flavor before adding in the reserved potatoes. Coat  well in the butter and ginger, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add  stock or heavy cream, then mash and serve.

Serves 6.

Thanksgiving Traditions: How to Make Vegetarian Mincemeat

Last year over at Ravelry, member NicolaKnits posted a recipe for vegetarian mincemeat. She kindly consented to my posting it here. So this is her recipe, word for word.

Mincemeat (vegan and fat free)

3 cups dried currants
1.5 cups golden raisins
1.5 cups raisins
.75 cup candied peel
1 pound apples, peeled and finely chopped
2.5 cups sugar
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
zest and juice of 2 lemons
.75 cup brandy or fruit juice

(Notes: I don’t use the candied peel as I can’t find any that is additive-free. I just leave it out. I reduced the sugar to 2 cups when I made it today. Only use the zest of lemons that are organic and unwaxed. I use apple or grape juice, not brandy.)

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, cover and leave overnight. Put into sterilised jars and leave in the refrigerator for 4 – 6 weeks. (This recipe will fill almost five 500ml/2 cup jars.) Edited to add: I made double this weekend and actually filled 8 jars.

And here is the link to Nicola’s own blog. You’ll enjoy your visit:


Christmas Traditions: Plum Pudding

Here in America, we’re familiar with the old English Christmas dessert, plum pudding, from stories and songs. Few of us, however, have ever even tasted it. One year I bought a boxed one, with a little tin of hard sauce, from the supermarket, but it was truly awful. Now I’m curious enough to do a little research on this elusive confection once held in such high esteem.

First, it’s necessary to understand that there are none of what we commonly think of as plums in plum pudding. Hmmm. The OED defines “plum” as follows:

A dried grape or raisin. This probably arose from the substitution of raisins for dried plums or prunes as an ingredient in plum-broth, porridge, etc., with the retention of the name “plum” for the substituted article.

Raisins. Got it. Now, what is pudding? That creamy custard like chocolate or vanilla dessert all kids like? Nope, the Christmas pudding’s different. Back to the OED:

A term describing several different desserts, usually cooked, including cakelike confections such as plum pudding; or a dish of suet crust containing fruits and sugar; or a spongy steamed dish; or a pastry crust filled with chopped meats, like kidney; or Yorkshire pudding, a crisp, breadlike side dish made from a flour-and-egg batter cooked in pan drippings.

Right. That means that plum pudding is steamed or boiled, and rich and heavy. It contains fresh or dried fruit, suet or other animal fat, and for holidays, is dowsed with a respectable amount of brandy or other alcohol. Christmas pudding takes a long time to age, or develop full flavor, and if you’re thinking of whipping one up for this Christmas, you’d better get started. Chef James Beard recommended making it a full year in advance!  When you think of it, it’s actually a lot like fruit cake. But you can make it this week and it should be pretty good by the 25th. Traditionally, in English families, everyone would take a turn at stirring the batter with a wooden spoon, for good luck, or to make a wish. It is also a custom to add small charms, such as coins for wealth, a ring for marriage, or a silver thimble for thrift. If you have friends or relatives who are prone to lawsuits, I would skip this custom.

Serving plum pudding should be an event. Sometimes it is decorated with holly, but I like the sounds of dowsing it with brandy, flaming it, and delivering it to the table with style. Servings are typically topped with brandy butter, rum butter, hard sauce, or cream.

Ta Da!

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1843, “In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half or half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.

A little trivia:

The name Christmas pudding is first recorded in 1858 in a novel by Anthony Trollope.

During the Puritan reign in England, plum pudding was outlawed as “sinfully rich.”

Christmas puddings were boiled in a pudding cloth, and they are often represented as round, but at least since the 20th century,
they are usually been prepared in basins.

And   here’s Julia Child’s own recipe for Glorious Plum Pudding. There are literally hundreds of other recipes out there. Find your favorite.

It’s Fall: How to Make Concord Grape Juice

We have some decorative grape vines covering our backyard pergola, and each year I’ve  felt  bad about not, somehow, using the grapes, other than eating out of hand. I’ve never tasted a homemade wine that I’ve liked, not even in Italy, and besides, we don’t have a large enough crop for wine.  Just this morning, while relaxing under the shade of the vines, I decided to try making grape juice. I don’t have any special equipment, so simply winged it. It was very simple. And very delicious and healthful.

1.5 lbs Concord grapes

sugar or artificial sweetener to taste

Remove grapes from stems. Wash in cold water. Place grapes in a large cooking pot. Crush with a potato masher. Cover grapes with water and bring to a boil, immediately turning down temperature to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Allow to cool.

Pour grape liquid into a colander lined with cheesecloth, set over a 2 quart bowl. Allow juice to drain, leaving seeds and peels in the colander.

Sweeten (or not) to taste. Makes about 2 pints. Store in refrigerator and use within 4-5 days, as there are no preservatives in your yummy homemade juice.

Watch This: Julie and Julia

4.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully delicious

In 1949, Julia and Paul Child moved to Paris. For a while, newly unemployed, Julia flounders about for something to do, and finally hits upon cooking. It’s France, after all. In 2004, Julie and Eric Powell moved to Queens, NY. Julie thought she’d become a writer, but has become stalled in a depressing job answering calls for the post 9/11 World Trade Center. She flounders about for some meaning in her life, and finally starts a blog, for which she will attempt to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in one years time. It’s not Paris, after all. Julie and Julia juxtaposes the stories of these two cooks. Meryl Streep, in the sort of virtuoso performance we’ve come to expect from her, is spot on, and very effective, in her portrayal of Julia. Amy Adams has the simpler task, and brings a pleasing credibility to her role as Julie. Julia sets out to become a teacher and ends up a writer, going on to make history. Julie sets out to become a writer, and what sort of mark she will make remains to be seen. Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina are well cast as the respective well-fed, supportive husbands. Sets, scenery, and costumes are picture perfect, with subtle lighting and period charm. Scripting is deft, balancing sincerity and humor, but a bit cloying at times – the Childs could not possibly have so perfectly sustained such buoyant optimism and unflagging empathy in the face of their setbacks. Julia, of course, made history, and it remains to be seen what sort of mark Julie will make. In their film, these women demonstrate what personal effort, genuine love, and a bit of luck can accomplish. Don’t miss it. And don’t go hungry!

Summer Traditions: Salt Water Taffy

As a kid, whenever we spent a day at the beach, I couldn’t resist a sack of salt water taffy. Sweet, sticky summer stuff! But I always wondered about the “salt water” part of its name, as there isn’t so much of a hint of salt lurking below its many flavors. Today I’ll try to summarize what a bit of web surfing has turned up.

The first known recipe for taffy was found in a 10th century cookbook from Baghdad, but it wasn’t until sugar became widely available that the treat spread to Europe, during the 18th century.  Traditional taffy was made from sugar, molasses or corn syrup, and butter or cream, and was flavored with vanilla, cocoa, mint, or lemon oil. By the 1840’s, taffy was being produced and sold in the United States,  quickly growing popular along the east coast. During this period, Atlantic City, New Jersey, was emerging as one of America’s premier seaside health resorts, and when the famousboardwalk was built, vendors set up shops selling knickknacks, ice cream, and candy.  One night, several shops were flooded by a unusually high tide, and after cleaning up, a merchant sampled a piece of taffy to see if it was still fit to sell. It was, and he began to call his stock “salt water taffy” as a marketing strategy. It worked, and it wasn’t long before candy manufacturers got wind of its popularity along the seaside.  Joseph Fralinger is generally given credit as the first to produce a line of salt water taffy, and he expanded his original line to include the iconic pastel colors that we associate with it today. Opening shops in Cape May and Ocean City, Fralinger became the “taffy king”.

Now this chewy stuff comes in every flavor imaginable, but I’m still partial to vanilla…..