One of the things I love about this time of year are all of the holiday traditions. I think it is interesting that as Americans we tend to hold on to the history and heritage of our family's past. Because we are a nation built on immigration, so many different cultures have blended together and become one. I think that because as Americans we have built our country, our families, our religions based on the practices of other countries, we tend to identify ourselves not only as Americans, but as the ethnicity of the regions our ancestors once came from. If you were to ask a person who was born and raised in France what ethnicity they identified with, they would probably say that they identified themselves as French. However, if you were to ask an American what ethnicity they identified as, they would probably list their heritage by their ancestry that came over to America many years ago.
It is a funny thing, how committed we are to our heritage. People that have never been to the country of their ancestors - people that could not speak one word in their ancestors language - will fiercely argue why their heritage and traditions are better than another's. It is silly, and juvenile, and at times seems a little uneducated - but it is strangely necessary. Now, I don't think the fighting and bickering is called for, but I do think that the strong hold we have on our family's ancestry is important.
My father's father was Irish. His name was Kevin. His mother and father came over from Ireland in the early 1900s. They had five boys, my grandfather being number four. They lived in a very Irish part of Boston, and probably had Irish friends and worked in Irish jobs and ate Irish food and drank Irish beer. But then my grandfather met my grandmother, Evelyn. My grandmother lived in a very Polish part of Boston, where they had Polish friends and worked in Polish jobs and ate Polish food and drank...vodka. Okay, I am making a bit of this up because sadly, I don't really know how they lived before I knew them. But I do know that my great-grandfather Weslowski – my grandmother's Polish father – didn't like the fact that his daughter married an Irishman. Of course he was nice and I am sure he really loved my grandfather (because who wouldn't love him? He played the piano and was the sweetest man) but I think that he was trying to hold on to the Polish customs. Back in those days, the different ethnicities tended to stick together – and marrying out of your circle was not always a good thing. Thankfully, my grandparents were a part of the era where marrying someone of a different heritage was becoming more and more accepted. In the 1950's most families were on third and fourth generation Americans, having had great-great -grandparents making the jump from their home country. Traditions still stuck strong, however, especially when it came to food.
When I was growing up on Cape Cod we lived in the same town as my father's parents. When I was little, my great-grandmother was still alive. I didn't get to meet any of my other great-grandparents, but my grandmother's mother was still kickin' it strong. Her name was Sophie, and she lived with my grandparents at the time. We spent a lot of time with them – I think it was a big help for my parents to have a set of grandparents so close by. We even lived with them when I was in kindergarten while our house was being built. Sophie was born in 1896, which I knew was a cool fact even when I was young. I loved talking to her about when she was growing up, and for a woman approaching 100 years old, she knew her stuff. She told me that her father was a repair man in their town, and they were the first ones on their street to have a television. She jumped rope with me once and almost broke her hip, but she didn't let that stop her from doing it again the next time I asked her (why the other adults were letting a 5 year old ask a 93 year old to jump rope is still not clear). She also used to cook with her son, Robert, every time he was in town. My great uncle Bob was a really good cook – as far as I can remember. Or, at least, I remember him making these really yummy Polish cookies and candy...and therefore, in my child mind, he was a really good cook. I think that my Nana really loved cooking with her son, because the only clear memories I have of that time is watching them smile and laugh around my grandmother's big orange laminate island in the kitchen.
My great-grandmother lived to be 101. I still think that is so great. My grandfather died when I was 8, and my grandmother passed away on December 23, 2004. This time of year will always remind me of my father's side of the family. I remember the big gatherings we used to have for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I remember the fried banana fritters my grandmother used to make, the toffee candy, the tinsel on the tree with the big old bulb lights that were probably from the 50's. I remember the poinsettia pin my grandmother used to wear every Christmas on her sweater, the powdered sugar cookies Uncle Bob and Nana made, and I remember the sound of my grandfather playing the piano downstairs while I fell asleep on Christmas Eve.
The big party tradition still continues, now on the 23rd of December every year. We celebrate this day in honor of my grandmother, but I think it's really to remember and celebrate all of the family members we don't have here with us any longer. I look forward to it every year, and it is now the one tradition that ties this side of the family together.
So, in keeping with traditions, in keeping with ancestry and family pride, and in keeping with the honor and love I hold for my fathers side of the family – I made two of the treats I most remember at Christmas time - my Nana's Christmas toffee, and my uncle Bob's Polish Faworki (which Nana apparently used to call dog ear cookies...they do look a bit like dog ears!). I also found a recipe for Polish gingerbread, which I think might become one of my own Christmas traditions.
I wish I had had more time to talk with my grandparents, and my great-grandparents. It is always hard looking back and wishing that you could have had one more conversation, one more year, one more lifetime with them – but I do find comfort in knowing that I will see them all again one day. Heaven sounds like a pretty exciting place, if you ask me.
Of course, this is only one quarter of the heritage I share with my family. I know I didn't share any Irish family recipes, but come on, with five boys I don't know that they did much baking and cooking (my poor great-grandmother!). I still have the Italian and English side from my mothers family to share…but that is for another post!
Today is also my baby brothers 22nd birthday - Kevin Henry III - we love you so much Kevin! Can not wait to see you next week, after you come home from Montana. Endless x's and o's.
• NAna Weslowski's Toffee Candy •
makes two baking sheets
• 4 sticks salted butter
• 2 cups sugar
• 1 tablespoon water
• 3 tablespoons corn syrup
• 2 cups of chocolate chips
• 1 cup crushed walnuts (or chopped, I just like them very finely crushed)
• candy thermometer
Bring the butter and sugar to a boil in a large, heavy bottomed pot. I use my dutch oven, because it heats evenly and is an easy cleanup!
Add the water, very carefully, as it will spit. Add the corn syrup. Return to a low boil stirring constantly until candy reaches 290F.
Quickly pour the toffee onto baking sheets and spread around. I think the best method is to pour half of the mixture onto one pan, and the other half onto another pan. Once I have both pans poured, I pick up one pan and tip the pan, watching the candy spread out. I continue to tip and turn and twist the pan until the blob of toffee has spread out and thinned a bit. I then do it to the next pan. The tricky part about this is that the toffee does harden quickly, so you have to move fast.
Once the toffee has been spread, sprinkle the chocolate chips over the toffee. Using a butter knife (or better yet, an icing spatula) spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee. This step is a tad strange, because you need the toffee to still be hot enough to melt the chocolate chips (which it will be! It stays hot for a while) but cool enough so that you aren't mixing the chocolate with the toffee. Just take your time, and spread the chocolate evenly.
When the toffee has an even layer of chocolate, you can sprinkle the crushed walnuts over the top of the chocolate. I often make one pan with walnuts, and one pan without.
Let the toffee cool for an hour or two. Once the chocolate is set and cool, you can break the toffee up in to pieces by hand, or by chopping with a knife. It tends to break up on its own once you pierce it.
Give it to your friends, to your neighbors, bring it to a family party - or eat it all yourself! Just be sure to brush your teeth afterwards!
• Faworki • (or Chrusciki, or angel wings, or dog ears…)
makes about 25 cookies
• 2 cups all purpose flour
• 4 egg yolks
• 3 tablespoons sour cream
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 tablespoon vodka, or white vinegar
• 1 tablespoon water
• vegetable oil for frying, about 4 cups
• powdered sugar for dusting
Mix the first six ingredients together in a large bowl. (You could use a stand mixer, but I found that it was more efficient to do the mixing by hand. Besides, its how your grandmother would have done it!) Knead in to a stiff dough. It will almost resemble a pasta dough.
Roll out the dough as thin as you can get it without breaking. The thinner the better because when it fries it will puff up. A thinner, crunchy cookie is the goal.
Once the dough is rolled out, cut into strips. If your dough is rolled out long, cut the strips in half. You want the strips to be about four inch long rectangles. Slice a line in the middle of each rectangle.
Take one end of the rectangle and pull in through the center, creating a "bow tie" look.
Heat oil to 375F. Drop four or five cookies into oil (be very careful!) and fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side, or until golden brown. Remove from oil using tongs or a slatted spoon and place on paper towel. Repeat with all of your dough.
Dust cookies with as little or as much powdered sugar as you like!
• Polish Gingerbread •
adapted from aboutfood.com
makes about 25 cookies
• 2 large eggs
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ginger
• 1 teaspoon cloves
• 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
• 1 cup honey
• 5 cups all purpose flour
In a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat eggs with sugar until light and lemon-colored. Add the spices, baking soda-water mixture and honey. Mix well. Add flour gradually and mix until a stiff dough forms. Shape into a ball, wrap in plastic and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 400F. On a floured workspace, roll the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into whatever shape you desire. Place cut shapes onto a parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly brown around the edges. Let cool completely before icing.
• Gingerbread Icing •
• 1 cup powdered sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 tablespoons heavy cream
Mix all ingredients in a bowl until a thick paste forms. Spoon icing into a piping bag, fitted with whichever tip you would like to use. I used a very fine tip.
Decorate your gingerbread cookies however you would like, just be sure to have fun doing it!
listening to: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland