Until last week, I didn’t have a Christmas tree in my house. The old shoe boxes with decorations were still in the garage, and there were no stockings hanging on the fireplace. Presents were still unwrapped. I’m caring for my mother, who turns 89 two days after Christmas, and after a few days in the hospital with her, I contracted COVID. I still have fatigue, headaches and joint pain.
However, I haven’t lost my taste. Even without decorations, I baked 400 cookies two weeks ago and a week ago I started making 42 cream sherry cakes, which people ask me about every year. For me, the best part of the holidays is the gift of baked goods to someone.
According to many people, we need to get a hundred things done by the beginning of December or existential panic will break out. But what I remember from my childhood had nothing to do with rushing. We decorated our tree with the first ornaments my mother bought when she arrived in America in the 1950s, thin glass bells and baubles in red and green. We used tinsel for magic. And at the Formica counter next to the pink wall oven, my mother taught me how to bake.
By the age of 8, I could bake all kinds of cookies that we would plate up for neighbors, teachers, the mailman, and our relatives. Certain recipe cards only came out at Christmas: Russian tea cakes, brownie drops, Scotch shortbread with maraschino cherry stones, oatmeal with apricot filling.
Everyone’s favorite was the cream cheese and orange peel roll cookies cut into camels, stars, bells, trees and angels. The frosting, flavored with almond extract, red or green food coloring, fell carefully between my little fingers. My mother was demanding. The cookies had to be perfect. They sat on paper plates on the counter, a treasure that wasn’t allowed to be touched.
But the five of us siblings baked our own cookies from the ends of the dough, and on this baking day everyone was allowed to choose one for themselves.
A little over a week ago I baked 100 squares of traditional shortcrust pastry sprinkled with red and green sugar. I drove to Riverside Elks Lodge 643 and, along with four other women, assembled containers of homemade cookies and treats for homeless veterans. An hour later I went to the First United Methodist Church of Riverside where our nativity play was being performed on the lawn. Seven of us women stood behind long tables with hundreds of cookies for afterwards. This is my tribe – women who bake from scratch, from recipes or from memories, who put together plates and visit and laugh with each other.
But the cream sherry cake – that is my unique and famous offering. My mother taught me how to cook when I was 10. I think she found the recipe in a cookbook of California First Ladies recipes. I think that was Nancy Reagan’s contribution. It’s the most 1970s thing you can imagine, with nothing natural except the eggs. I use California Central Valley sherry and the top is baked brown with a hint of gold.
I bake these breads for all the people who help my family survive. My neighbor Nancy has been taking care of me during COVID with caldo de res and cough drops. Louie, who has been catching possums, raccoons and skunks for 20 years when one needs to be relocated from my yard. Mark and Cathy who do our taxes even when we are late and confused. The doctors and medical technicians who take good care of my mother, the UPS, Amazon and FedEx drivers who visit me even when I don’t get packages, the mailman, the garbage collector, landscapers – cake for everyone.
Every year my three favorite holiday moments revolve around this cake. A few days before Christmas, I’m hanging out in a warehouse with Dave and Phil, decorating a red 1950 Farmall tractor with Christmas lights. Dave and I drive it through the nighttime streets while I wave past the Mission Inn like a Riverside beauty queen. Phil will break open his warm cake with his fingers and we’ll drink some whiskey.
The next day I’ll deliver four large pies to Bob’s Auto, where George and his brother, nephew and fellow mechanics always get the best – they take care of five vehicles for my family, whether my girls all the way from Oakland or … drive Pasadena. After 20 years, George is like family.
I married the first man I ever baked cream sherry cake for. Now my ex still gets a cake every year when our three daughters are here. We’re all with husbands and partners this year, except JP, who works in the oil fields in Texas and whose cake we shipped. Last year my ex brought my favorite gift – a baby chainsaw from the Rubidoux Drive-In Swap Meet. Yellow and black, the perfect size for me, the home baker, the woman who climbs the old mulberry tree and drops long, leafless branches while he sits on the porch playing Earth, Wind and Fire on his phone, his in foil wrapped cake waiting to be opened.
My mother doesn’t have COVID – she’s indomitable, except for her severe memory loss. She doesn’t remember her keys being on her arm, but she said to me as I was assembling the baking ingredients, “Did you put almond flavoring in the frosting?” Did you get the orange from your tree to taste the peel? Did you put enough nutmeg in the cake?” She remembers the Formica kitchen counter and so do I.
Susan Straight’s most recent books are Mecca and In the Country of Women. She lives in Riverside.