Raise your hand if memories about your holiday week-that-was continue to swirl around inside your head like cream in a butter churn.
Okay. I’d say the majority of you look pretty glazed over, too.
Forgive the similes. I think in metaphors. And for me, this year’s Christmas metaphors are all tied up with food. Let me just say that we cooked-up a LOT of confections during the past week. Nutty, rich Rum cake. White- and dark-chocolate peppermint bark. Cherries Jubilee cookies (seasoned with brandy and Chinese Five Spice). Oatmeal cookies dusted with sea salt. Pumpkin pie. Sweet, flaky Rugelach. And two fat loaves of Stollen…which we’ll get to in a minute.
All this was in addition to sixty-five pounds of lasagna (one meat, one vegetarian), fifteen pounds of ham (studded with cloves and baked with an orange glaze), ten pounds of potatoes (five pounds mashed, five pounds scalloped) two meat loaves (with companion cognac gravy), oyster stew, and a hot, heavy casserole of Poulet Marengo—served with fresh, homemade tomato pasta.
And that was just for Christmas Eve….
But in all seriousness—we did make all of this food during a four-day period. Before you raise an eyebrow, let me point out that my two brothers are famous for roaring through buffet lines like Visigoths sacking Rome. And we had ten guests for dinner…
There were very few leftovers.
And I also need to point out that in the midst of all this food preparation, one of the burners on our stove decided to quit working. And it was the “good” burner, too…the one that can bring six quarts of water to a rolling boil in less than ten seconds….
So if you pressed me for a metaphor that would tie up this holiday with a fat little bow, it would have to be drawn from baking the Christmas Stollen.
Stollen was (and is) a yuletide standard in Salem’s family. It shows up every year with the same reliability as unanticipated Alberta Clipper snowstorms, and reruns of White Christmas on TCM. Salem grew up in a rural and remote corner of southern Illinois—a part of the heartland that is mostly populated by cows, soybeans, and a smattering of Moravians who emigrated to the Prairie State from their 17th-century settlement in the foothills of North Carolina. The Moravians headed west with their God, their hymnals, their redware tea bowls, and their recipes for spiced cookies and Stollen.
So for Salem West, Christmas means Stollen.
And there was a perfect symmetry in this for me, too. I had just finished writing my story “A Christmas Tree Grows in Baltimore,” where the lead character, Diz, decides to brave a blizzard on Christmas Eve, and do a good deed for the lonely German widow who lives next door. So my head was already filled with mouth-watering descriptions of German yuletide yummy goodness.
I’d never baked Stollen before, so the entire experience was new to me. I had no idea how any of it was supposed to work—so the adventure was akin to playing one of those party games where you’re asked to identify unseen objects by reaching into a paper bag and running your hands over their contours. But we managed.
Salem chopped her weight in dried cherries, currants, apricots, cranberries and almonds. I eyed all of this with more than a trace of suspicion (even though she kept assuring me that Stollen bore NO resemblance to the dreaded Fruit Cake). This dried fruit and nut medley was then folded into a mixture of sweet butter and yeast, and combined with enough flour to make a soft dough. I kneaded this sticky, lumpy mound for about ten minutes—while it managed to absorb another cup and half of flour. Then we set it aside to proof for nearly two hours. When it had doubled in size, we punched it down, and let it proof for another hour. Then we divided it in half, and formed two crescent-shaped loaves. These baked for thirty minutes.
What emerged from the oven was truly spectacular.
This slightly mysterious, nutty, fruity, dense, but not-too-sweet bread summons up old-world visions of sleepy, snow-covered Bavarian villages on Weihnachten. Making it was an exercise of love for Salem—a slender but strong connection to the best and warmest memories of Christmas with her family—at home on the farm in Illinois. For me, the ageless sacrament of making it with her—here, in our own home in Winston-Salem—became a transcendent metaphor for the life we are building together.
I once was lost, but now am found.
And we got the stove fixed, too…