It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
By Paulette Haupt Tobin
Even those of us who think of "winter wonderland" as an oxymoron have to admit the December landscape in the Dakotas can have a cold, dangerous beauty. There are those mornings when the trees and bushes are furred with an iridescent coating of ice, frost and snow, and nights when the sky vibrates from the horizon to the heavens with the glow of the northern lights. Sometimes when I look outside before I go to bed, the moon is so bright, that - like the famous Christmas poem - it gives "a lustre of midday to objects below." Still, the beauty of ice and snow are hard to appreciate when you slip and slide through it on your way to work, scrape it from your windshield and shovel and chip it out of your driveway every day.
I don't like winter. Never have, never will. Years ago, when I was in my 20s and it was my first time living in North Dakota, I had a friend who tried to convince me to take up crosscountry skiing. I thought about it for about one-half second, and decided there just wasn't enough long underwear in the world. I remember going out to play when I was a kid, wearing socks, tights, pants, snow pants, parka and hat, with a scarf wound over my mouth and nose, so that nothing was showing but my eyes, and still freezing. Not to mention how my scarf would freeze over my mouth because of the moisture of my breath, which also caused my glasses to fog up. Nothing like being blind AND freezing. What fun.
So I am grateful for Christmas for breaking up the winter a little bit. This year it was nice enough to put up our outdoor lights over Thanksgiving weekend. Then we splurged and bought an 8-foot frazier fir Christmas tree, which for it's amazing scent alone was worth every penny. It's made the whole house smell good.
Christmas can be a stressful time for me, because - and I blame this on being German - I tend to try to do too much, and thereby make myself miserable. As I grow older, each year I try harder to push the Christmas "things" further into the background and think more about the amazing message of the birth of the Christ child. And I've learned to accept that Mark, Emily and I probably won't spend much of the holidays with our family - at least not our "blood" family - because for most of the 20 Christmases we've been together, either Mark or I have had to work on Christmas eve and/or Christmas day. So we've learned to make our own "family," wherever we are, and our own traditions.
I think the traditions we keep at Christmas say so much about who we are. Do you open your gifts Christmas eve or Christmas morning? Do you attend the Christmas kids program, or are you a midnight mass person? Tradition should never be a burden, but rather a joyous remembrance of times and people that we've loved. One Christmas tradition that I try to find time for is baking Christmas cookies. I have no talent or patience for making the fancy decorated ones, but I do like to make pfefferneuse and my Grandma Ida Beck's ginger cookies. My Christmas gift to you is that I'm going to share the recipes with you. Here goes:
Grandma Beck's Ginger Cookies
1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening
One-half cup molasses
One-half cup sweet or sour cream (I use sour cream)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
Flour for a medium dough (start with 2 cups)
Cream sugar, shortening and eggs and then add dry ingredients. Form into small balls and flatten with a spoon or fork after placing on a cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 10 minutes. Frost with an icing made from margarine, powdered sugar, milk and a little cold coffee for flavor.
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup black coffee
1 cup brown syrup or honey
6 cups flour
2 tablespoons ground star anise*
2 teaspoons ground cloves
One-half teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
Combine ingredients and referigerate dough, which will be very soft. Roll into balls the size of walnuts or slightly bigger. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees and roll in powdered sugar. My sister-in-law, Denise Haupt, gave me this receipe, and it is really good.
*Note: If you've never made pfefferneuse, do not confuse ground star anise with anise seed. Ground star anise can be hard to find. My mother buys it for me at the Eureka Drug Store and mails it to me, although you may be able to find it in a health food store or other specialty food shop.
This year I'm also planning to try to make hochzeit schnapps, something I've never tried before, but -- who knows? -- maybe I'm starting a new holiday tradition. Hochzeit schnapps -- also known as "red eye" and "190 and burned sugar" -- was a tradition at many German weddings, as those of us who grew up in Eureka well know. I watched Carol Just Byhre make it on the Prairie Public Television documentary video about Germans from Russia food traditions called "Schmeckfest," and decided I wanted to try it. So far I have gotten as far as buying the bottle of Everclear. I'll let you know how it turns out.
Here is the recipe, courtesy of Carol Just Byhre. (The address for ordering the "Schmeckfest" video is elsewhere on this site.)
1 Liter 190 proof Everclear
2 cups white sugar
5-6 cups hot water
Melt white sugar slowly in sauce pan (or electric fry pan). Stir it constantly so it doesn't burn. Brown the sugar to a nice amber shade (about this time you will notice the caramel scent.) Slowly add the warm water and stir until well blended. Using two empty liter bottles and the everclear bottle, separate the liter of Everclear into three portions. Add enough of the sugar mixture to fill the bottles. Carol says: "If desired, add flavorings. Cherry and licorice/anise seem to be the favorites. I'm a purist and don't like to add anything to an already wonderful product. Cheers!"
(Paulette Haupt Tobin grew up on a farm 12 miles north of Eureka and graduated from EHS in 1973. Today she lives in Grand Forks, N.D.)