Christmas aromas and flavors are powerful.
Gingerbread, peppermint, cookies, roast turkey and ham, stuffing, cranberries, hot chocolate, eggnog — even fruitcake and Tofurky — can conjure up warm childhood memories of fun times, great meals and meaningful connections with families and friends.
Because holiday food traditions and experiences are a big part of what makes this time of year special, we decided to reminisce recently with five prominent Central Oregonians about Christmas food.
KTVZ meteorologist and community affairs director Bob Shaw, artist Ingrid Lustig, quilt expert and Stitchin' Post owner Jean Wells Keenan, Jackalope Grill owner and chef Tim Garling and Sparrow Bakery owner Whitney Blackman kindly shared personal Christmas memories with us.
We heard some great stories about family recipes, endless cookie baking, a near-disaster with a Smithfield ham and how unusual ethnic foods can scare the guests.
Life is sweeter around the holidays, with a focus on love, giving, peace and celebration. We wish you a delicious Christmas holiday filled with your own favorite foods that have the power to feed both body and soul.
Easy Christmas cake
When we asked Jean Wells Keenan for a favorite Christmas food memory, she immediately emailed us a recipe for Grandma Clara Wells' Poppy Seed Cake (recipe on Page D2).
We wondered how the busy author, quilter and owner of The Stitchin' Post in Sisters got it to us so fast.
“I have it on my laptop, because I make it frequently. It's my 'go-to dessert' that everybody loves, especially during the holidays,” Keenan said.
She told us she gives the cake to friends as a Christmas gift.
“It's one of those great comfort and festive foods. The cream sherry in it makes it really good. I bake a whole bunch at once,” she said.
Keenan said another benefit of the cake is that it keeps for a long time and stays moist.
“I wrap it in foil, and keep it at room temperature. It never lasts real long, though,” she said.
The Shaw family's cookie factory
No matter the time of year, black licorice makes Bob Shaw think of Christmas.
That's because this “Have a Sparkling Day in Central Oregon” meteorologist grew up helping his mother bake dozens upon dozens of anise cookies with butter cream frosting every December.
“We looked forward to it every year. My sisters and I were Mom's assembly line. Mom made an anise-flavored sugar cookie and we rolled out the dough and made every shape imaginable. I remember snowmen and stars.
“Mom would make mountains of icing in white, pink and green. We had every cookie decoration — the beads and sugars and all the rest — and we'd decorate for days. The cookies would be everywhere: the kitchen table, the counters, the dining room table. I remember it taking over the house for a week or two,” Shaw said.
Shaw's mother gave the cookies to friends and family.
“I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and we never had enough money to go out and buy presents for everybody, so Mom would give them away, a dozen at a time, boxed up and wrapped. People started to expect them. They'd share them and then other people would ask, 'Can I get some?' It grew into a monster. She could have created a cottage industry if she wanted to,” Shaw said with a laugh.
What started out as exciting and fun each December quickly turned into an exhausting chore.
“By the time we got to the end of it, I was so sick of friggin' Christmas cookies! I'm a sugar junkie. I always have been. I can tell you, straight up, there are no bad cookies on the planet. Some are better than others, but I'll never turn down a cookie. But we'd make them from morning until night, and it would just wear us out,” Shaw said.
You might imagine that Shaw and his wife and grown daughters continued to bake the famous family anise cookies every Christmas, but they don't, and it's not just because the recipe was lost years ago.
“I love licorice, but my wife doesn't like licorice in any way, shape or form. She doesn't even like the smell of it. Odd as it may sound, the smell of licorice always reminds me of Christmas,” he said.
First came Dad's croissants, then Sparrow Bakery
Whitney Blackman is the co-owner of Bend's Sparrow Bakery, home of the Ocean Roll (a sweet bun redolent with cardamom), and a popular breakfast, lunch and dessert spot (50 S.E. Railroad Ave., Bend). Blackman credits her father, Jon Blackman, for her successful career as a baker.
“One of the things the Sparrow is known for is our croissant dough, and I never would have been inspired (to make it) if not for my dad's tradition — which started before my birth (30 years ago) — of making homemade croissants to eat on Christmas morning,” Blackman told us.
She helped make the croissants when she was a child.
The recipe takes two days. It's a long process of folding a pound of butter into the dough.
“Dad would always let me help. He'd make a well in the flour, and you pour this egg and milk mixture into the center of the well, and then carefully take down the sides. If you break the side, it all comes running out onto the floor. I was the most careful of my siblings, the oldest,” she said.
Blackman said her dad still does his Christmas baking, and some of his lucky neighbors get four croissants on their doorstep on Christmas Eve, wrapped in plastic, and ready to bake on Christmas morning.
Now in her seventh holiday season with Sparrow Bakery, Blackman has a once-a-year tradition of selling frozen, raw croissant dough on Christmas Eve so that her customers can bake them at home. It's a different recipe from her dad's, but the same French style.
“We call them U-Bake Croissants. On Christmas, I'm always with my parents in Portland, and I always think of the hundreds of croissants being baked by our Central Oregon customers in their own homes. Of course, there's nothing like having something fresh out of the oven. That's really one of my proudest business owner moments,” Blackman said.
Blackman no doubt ate her dad's croissants this morning.
“They're delicious and buttery, but some years they turn out and some years they just don't. Last year they weren't very good, and his emotions ride on the success of his croissants. But that's part of baking at home. I don't care; I always eat them. They're great,” Blackman said.
For Bend artist and printmaker Ingrid Lustig, Christmas isn't Christmas without pickled herring, Swedish meatballs, julglogg (spiced and spiked red Christmas wine, see recipe), and the rest of her family's smorgasbord, thanks to her Swedish mother.
“Swedish food really shines during Christmas; that's when the Swedes go all out. But when I serve it, some of my friends say, 'Uh, I can't eat this.'
Everybody loves the meatballs, but some of the other items that I think are fantastic, like Jansson's Temptation, you have to acquire a taste for,” she said. (See recipe: It's a casserole of potatoes, onions, cream and ... anchovies!)
Lustig has been a working artist for 25 years, specializing in animal and nature subjects (www.ingridlustig.com.) She was the education director for Bend's Arts Central for a decade.
Christmas Eve dinner at her home is a creative endeavor too, with strong family ties to ethnic traditions.
“After pickled herring, pickled beets and cranberry sauce, small red or new white potatoes, and veal, which I don't serve anymore, the second course is a turkey or ham, Jansson's Temptation, gravad lax (dill-cured salmon), and red cabbage (see recipe).
“The cabbage sounds awful, but it's really yummy, cooked with maple syrup and apples, and it goes so well with ham. They are made for each other. And we have meatballs. That's a lot of food,” Lustig said.
Swedes are known for their baked goods, too. Lustig is making pepparkakor (gingersnaps) with her 7-year-old granddaughter, Leilani, this year.
“I'm not a big holiday person, but I always celebrate Christmas Eve dinner because it's in my blood,” Lustig said.
Hamming it up
Garling's favorite Christmas food memory is from the 1970s, when he was in graduate school studying physics at the University of Washington. His dad was by his side as he cooked Christmas dinner.
“You have to understand my dad. He's the kind of guy who'd take a steak, like a T-bone, and he'd say, 'I'm going to fry that thing until it's well done,' and then he'd put it in the oven for another 15 minutes. He had an underlying suspicion that meat wasn't done until it was well done,” Garling said.
In grad school, Garling had just started cooking and entertaining friends, so he decided he'd cook a Smithfield ham for his family for Christmas. (Smithfield hams come from Virginia, and are dry-cured, seasoned, smoked and aged. They're notoriously “rich, salty and dry,” according to “The Food Lover's Companion,” and “before being cooked, must be soaked for 12 to 24 hours to remove excess saltiness.”)
“It probably cost $40, which was an extraordinary amount of money at the time. It had a big old bone. Dad looked at it, and it was kind of moldy on the outside. His look said, 'I don't know about this,'” Garling said.
The directions said to soak the ham for a few days. The Garlings finally found an old washtub big enough. After a couple of days, they were supposed to scrub the ham and soak it some more.
“Dad watched as I scrubbed all the crusty stuff off the outside — kind of greenish; I think it was bloom from the salt. Then we couldn't find anything big enough to cook it in. Dad comes up with the idea of taking the old carpenter saw and cutting some of the bone off,” Garling said.
They found an old electric roaster and started cooking the ham.
“I can't remember the method, exactly, but it was moist heat, and we cooked it for a long, long time. It was not giving in; it stayed hard and tight. Dad kept checking it. My reputation as a budding cook was on the line.
“This was my first experience with getting food done exactly when it needs to be served. That's what I do all the time now. Back then, it was a breathtaking, adrenaline-producing event,” Garling laughed.
Garling said he finally decided to slice it very thin and serve it.
“It had the most amazing flavor. It's one of those things you don't forget. Dad loved it. He said, 'You know, that was pretty darn good.' I think we also had mashed potatoes. I can't remember what the whole meal was,” Garling said.
But it was a Christmas dinner to remember.