It's funny how when you get older, certain memories come and go. Guess I need more ginkgo biloba. When asked by Bravo to write a holiday blog, I thought long and hard about what Christmas means to me. My family was not religious when I was growing up. I think I debunked the Santa Claus legend by the time I was 10 (A. Because Mom and Dad never actually ate the cookies and milk, and B. because I was a sneaky little thing, staying up late at night to eventually catch my Dad in action.) My fondest memories are not of any singular Christmas or gift.
When I try to remember something specific, what pops into my head are memories with my Mom and Dad. Let's start with my hero and my superstar, Mrs. Wong. My mother worked the graveyard shift in the ER when my brother and I were kids so she could spend time with us in the day. My mother might single-handedly be the craftiest self taught cook and homemaker I know. She'd come home from work at seven in the morning and bake something spectacular for us to take to school to give to our teachers (the other kids called me and my bro brown-nosers).
You've heard about apples for the teacher, right? Try double fudge brownies with a peanut butter swirl, or Oreo cheesecake. In and of that, she became famous around our small town for her culinary genius, making tasty treats year 'round, but giving gifts beyond fruitcake around the holidays. For a few years, she got into making bread dough ornaments for the tree. She'd shape and bake the bread dough, then use paints and polyurethane to finish and decorate the ornaments: everything from Siamese cats to Raggedy Ann and Andy. She has also created several gingerbread house masterpieces over the years. Quite the candy architect. All beautiful gifts for friends and teachers. Some people even got into collecting my Mom's ornaments.
I will forever be indebted to my parents for encouraging my creative talents. When I was very young, maybe seven or eight, my Mom would take us to go see the Christmas Tree show at the Albany Historical Society. Lots of beautifully decorated trees sponsored by businesses and artists benefiting the Society. Finally, one year my Mom bought a tree for us to decorate, I might have been 9 at the time. We decided to pimp it out it with origami. It was the first of its kind ever displayed in Albany. My little fingers folded boats and frogs, cranes and penguins, ornaments, samurais, and even Old Mother Hubbard and her dog, for over two weeks. So now you all know where the kung fu from the wedding challenge came from (I will never fold that many cranes EVER again).
The one thing that she is quite well known for, and I look forward to having anytime there's some around, is her pecan candy. She'll make gads of the stuff and wrap it up in festive tins, or little holiday cellophane bags with ribbon. And the way people inhale it and ask for more, you'd think it was pecan crack. Several years ago, after I had graduated from a prestigious culinary school and had worked in a professional kitchen for some time, I attempted to recreate her pecan candy in my apartment. I even called my Mom to ask for the recipe and she recited it to me over the phone. Failure. Not even close. I mean, just a few simple ingredients: raw pecans, butter, sugar, salt and vanilla. Mom's got the Midas touch. What has always been slightly mind boggling to me and drives me a little bonkers is that my mom doesn't really measure anything, nor does she use a candy thermometer.
This year she promises to teach me how ... otherwise known as "The Wong Way to make Pecan Candy." So while Mom was busy baking and crafting, Dad would be setting up the tree and looking through issues of Consumer Reports to pick out the very best gifts for the family. Dad was a big fan of my athletic career as a child so hockey sticks, softball gloves, and BMX bikes could always be counted on as gifts.
My Dad is hilarious when it comes to buying gifts, and practical. One year he bought me a new toilet seat for my apartment because the one I had was slightly busted and old.
One of the things that is so charming about my father and he's still the only one who wraps the presents these days (I actually unwrapped the toilet seat). Mom will just hand everything over in a shopping bag because she's usually working double shifts at the hospital right around now. Dad's new thing is getting me lots of things to do with cutlery and knives. He's had this great hunting knife collection that I would always admire as a child. I feel that my current knife collection (kitchen knives, of course) is not only larger but also slowly turning into a monster, so much that I could join the circus if I wanted to. Again, all chefs like to collect knives.
Me, on the other hand, I need a new knife like I need a hole in my head. Got that Dad? The past few years have been hectic for me, and while my family only lives several hours away, it is sometimes difficult to get upstate to see them. I'll try this year, braving the Amtrak and Greyhound crowds. It is most definitely winter in NY (it's about 40Ã‹Å¡F outside right now). Everywhere you look, it's shopping season. Bing Crosby and I are becoming fast friends. It seems a bit odd to me when I'm asked what I want for Christmas.
Honestly, in my mind, it is so much less about the gift giving. I really don't need anything more right now other than the company of my family and friends. I suppose I'll create a small wish list of cookbooks, DVDs, and kitchenware, but that's about it. I have been traveling so much in the past year that it will be great just to see my family and be able to cook for them and spend time together. The idea of having to shop for others, family and friends alike, seems daunting at best. One, because I really don't have the time. And two, because I seriously have not a clue what to get anybody. They'll all have to be satisfied with gift certificates for bacon of the month club. With any luck, Mrs. Wong will teach me how to make her famous pecan candy and then I'll never have to go shopping ever again. Either way, I am looking forward to this holiday.
It's been a tremendous year and I have so much to be thankful for, and I want to thank you all for your continued support. Heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy holiday! And my gift to you? Mom's secret recipe. Good luck, send me photos and let me know how it turns out.
Mrs. Wong's Pecan Candy ¼ cup (1/2 stick) Unsalted Butter 1 cup Granulated Sugar 2 cups Raw Pecan Halves Pinch Salt 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract 1. In a small pot, combine the butter, sugar, salt, and nuts. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often until the nuts are toasted and the sugar is caramelized (12-15 minutes). 2. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir rapidly to incorporate. Spread the candy onto a parchment lined sheet tray, pulling apart the caramelized nuts with 2 forks until it is in a single layer. Allow the candy to cool before breaking into smaller pieces. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks.