Sunday, December 20, 2009

The First Christmas at Sunset Trail and Fruit Cake

I wasn't very old but I do remember Christmas at Sunset Trail. By the time Christmas rolled around in 1952 my Uncle Sam had finished the plumbing in the bathroom and the kitchen. As my Mom would tell it in later years, "it was a luxury to have running water and a flush toilet". With six people crammed together on that main floor, I can only imagine how the definition of luxury took on a new meaning - at least from the conventional understanding.

The icebox remained, the kitchen was really just an assortment of crates with wood planks countertops, we didn't have stairs to the second floor or the basement and we still had to walk to Mason's Corners to make a phone call but, Christmas could officially happen. We wouldn't have to head downtown to the Grandparents' home for the holiday.

I was old enough to know that Santa Claus needed a fireplace to get into the house (and I wasn't the least bit concerned that we didn't seem to have one) Dad was a builder....a fireplace would happen. And, indeed a fireplace did happen. Dad fashioned one from grape crates (my Mom's family, being Italian, always had grape crates). Dad covered the "fireplace" with red corrugated paper and TA DA, a fireplace to hang our stockings on and Santa's entrance into our world. Mom was worried that I'd "undecorate" the tree so it was planted on top of the cabinet of the treadle sewing machine in the front window......(the window Dad is installing in the photograph above). Lovely crystal and glass ornaments with cotton wool snow, a garland made of the foil papers from cigarette packages and popcorn strings.

Mom made Christmas Cake that year. She let the girls help measure the fruit and make sure it stayed submerged in the brandy....then mixed up the whole thing in a pale yellow and green enamel roasting pan. I don't remember the baking part....just the tasting part..... I wasn't a fan of mixed peel but, my old sister was and she didn't like all worked out.....much to my Mom's dismay as we picked through the baked cake to eliminate and swap-out the unwanted elements.

Christmas Fruit Cake (from Mom's cookbook "The American Woman's Cook Book, published in 1939)

1 pound of butter or lard - I know my Mom would have done half and half
1 1/2 pounds of brown sugar
1 1/2 pounds of flour
10 eggs
1 cup of molasses
1 cup of strong coffee - Mom's coffee was like motor oil
Juice and grated rind of 2 oranges
1 cup bourbon
1 cup tart jelly
1/4 pound almonds
3 pounds of raisins
2 pounds of currants
1 pound chopped citron
1 pound chopped dates
2 teaspoons of nutmeg
1 teaspoon of mace
1 teaspoon of cloves
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon soda
3 teaspoons baking powder

Cream the butter and sugar. Add molasses, coffee, juice and bourbon and jelly. Reserve two cups of lour in which to roll the fruit (after it's been soaked in bourbon) Mix and sift dry ingredients, add to mixture, mix well and add well-beaten eggs. Add the floured fruit and mix thoroughly. Bakin in greased paper-lined pans. Over the top of the cakes sprinkle blanched shredded almonds. Cover cakes with heavy waxed paper. Stem them two hours and bake in moderate over for one hour.

One and one half pounds of brown sugar.....!!!! Show me a little kid who would want to help Mom with this recipe!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Refrigerator Cookies and Moms

The Durning Family moved to Sunset Trail early in December of 1952. My father began construction of Sunset Trail in 1949. Ours was to be a VLA house.......with a floor plan like thousands of others across Canada. The Veterans Land Act allowed Dad and Mom to purchase their property, the house plans and much of the material at a greatly discounted rate. Even with the assistance of the VLA money was tight for my parents who lived with four children in a flat on the second floor of my Dad's parents' house. Just days before he passed away this summer, Dad talked about not having a lot of cash and on his first site visit to map out the location of our home Dad decided he could save money by digging the basement by hand. His brothers, Charlie and Neil, tagged along on the first visit and helped map out the footprint of the house and set to work digging.
Since the three Durning boys were veterans, they were all attending school and retraining programs and they all had full time jobs. Weekends were the only times available to them to do the work. Uncle Charlie and Uncle Neil apparently weren't as enthusiastic as Dad in the insanity of digging of the basement by hand. After one weekend on the site, sleeping in an army surplus tent and cooking on a Coleman stove, the only person who showed up on a regular basis was Dad. Dad eventually relented and hired someone to finish the basement project but, only after he had dug down almost four feet. "Do you have any idea how high the pile of dirt is when you're four feet down and tossing a shovel full up and out?" Nope, not me....we both laughed about that.

In July this year a thinner and much older Dad opened up about his adventures in home his last days at TEGH. He laughed when he told me how long it took to get from Salisbury Avenue in downtown Toronto to the VLA suburb springing up just north of the Town of Weston......."sometimes more than three hours".... All of his trips in the first two years were by public transit and a lot of walking - always carrying the tools, the food and the clothing he needed for the weekend at Sunset Trail. "A guy couldn't afford to replace a shovel or a hammer in those days. I'd made the mistake of leaving some tools behind once when I was too tired to carry everything five blocks to Main Street and wait for the Humber Summit bus to take me to the Oak Street Loop and then on to the Main Street bus to Bloor streetcar. When I got back the next weekend, everything was gone. I wanted to cry. There weren't any phones in the area then so, I just did something that didn't require a hammer and a shovel. Your Mom cried. She knew we couldn't afford another shovel and hammer."

So, what the hell has this got to do with Refrigerator Cookies and Moms? I'm getting there. When we finally moved into Sunset two older sisters, my Mom, my Dad, my brand new brother and I......we didn't have a refrigerator. Hard to believe. No phone. No fridge. We had an icebox.

I've always called my Mom's recipe for Refrigerator Cookies Icebox Cookies until recently, when a youngish friend asked what the heck I was talking about and I had to explain what an Icebox Cookie is.....hell, I had to explain "icebox" to her. Now I feel old. I remember not having a phone and having an icebox.....sheesh. Get the walker out. I was afraid to scare her and tell her we didn't have the plumbing hooked up either and relied on an artisian well for water. Geez, Dad had no experience building until he built that house. When we moved in he hadn't learned how to make stairs - so guess fridge, no indoor plumbing, no phone and no freaking stairs. We all lived on one floor in a kitchen, an unplumbed bathroom, a livingroom and a bedroom.

Icebox Cookies
1 cup lard (yup, lard)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespons milk or top cream (don't make me explain this)
2 1/4 cups flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cups chopped walnuts
Cream together lard and sugars; add egg and milk; beat well (by hand, of course). Sift together all dry ingredients; stir into creamed mixture and add nuts. Shape into rolls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper; chill in icebox.
Slice about 1/4 inch thick. Place 1 inch apart on greased baking sheet. Bake in moderate oven (ours didn't have a Mom used a piece of newspaper....she counted how long it took to catch and made her decision about the oven temperature based on that). Check the cookies at about 5 or seven minutes. Remove to cooling rack. Should make about six dozen.
We were always happy to get cookies.