Traditions, by and large (more by than large) are good things. We all have traditions, and most are fun and give us a sense of attachment. And then there are the really stupid ones, the traditions that are observed even though no one knows why, or how they even started.
For example, I heard a story once about a woman who was cooking for the holidays with her daughter, and they were baking a ham. The woman cut the end of the ham off before she put it in a pan and into the oven. Her daughter asked her why she cut the end off first.
The woman said, "I don’t know. My mother always cut the end of the ham off before she cooked it, so I do, too."
The woman started to wonder about that, so she called her mother and asked her about it. Her mother said, "I don’t know, that’s just what my mother always did."
So they loaded up and made a trip to the nursing home to see the little girl’s great grandmother, hoping she could shed some light on the issue. When they asked her why she always cut the end of the ham off, the old woman said, "The hams they sold at the store were always too big to go in the only pan I had to cook them in, so I cut the ends off."
No doubt you have holiday traditions in your family, too, hopefully ones that make sense. My family has one, and it’s fudge. We never have a holiday without fudge, but when I was a kid I wanted fudge far more often than my mom would make it, so I learned to make it myself. It’s the only thing I know how to cook.
I’m going to share my family fudge recipe with you here, not out of holiday spirit or goodwill toward men, but because I really need to come up with another 500 words for this column.
First you have to get hold of a real cast iron skillet. You can use a stainless steel pan, but if you do your fudge will not turn out right, and people will make fun of you.
Pour 2 cups of sugar, 1 cup of milk, a tablespoon of Karo, and 2 heaping tablespoons of cocoa into the skillet and stir that up. Mixing completely is not necessary, and is in fact impossible.
Cook that at 300 degrees and keep stirring it until it comes to a full boil, and then quit stirring. Don’t even think about stirring. Well, you can think about it, but don’t do it. If you do the fudge will be grainy, and no one likes grainy fudge. I mean, seriously.
Just let it cook until a little bit dropped into a cup of cool water makes a soft ball. At that point the fudge will smell burnt, but that’s OK. Just take it off the heat immediately and set it in a sink with about an inch of standing, cool water in it, and add two large pats of real butter (about twice the size of the ones you get at a restaurant) and a capful of vanilla. Make sure no water gets in there, or you’re toast. And keep not stirring.
Once both pats of butter melt completely to liquid, take the skillet out of the water and beat the fudge with a wooden spoon until a high degree of pain is achieved in both arms. Keep beating until the fudge starts to firm up and lighten in color just a smidge, then pour it into a buttered dish and mash it flat. Be quick.
A cup of almonds or pecans or whatever can be added at the point where you start beating, if desired. Or if sort of desired.
That’s how you make chocolate fudge, but if you’d rather have the peanut butter version, what you want to do is leave out the cocoa at the beginning, and then add 2 heaping table spoons of crunchy peanut butter right before you start beating, and mix it up with the fudge. Otherwise everything is pretty much the same.
If the fudge is grainy, someone stirred it while it was cooking after it came to a boil. I warned you.
If the fudge sets up too quickly and can’t be poured into the buttered dish, but instead gets hard as a rock in the skillet, eat it out of the skillet.
If the fudge won’t set up, even after you’ve beaten it until your arms have long since lost all feeling, then you started beating it before the butter melted. You shouldn’t have done that. If you cut the pats of butter from regulation sized butter sticks they should melt about right. As long as the butter isn’t, like, frozen or something.
Fudge that won’t set up can be put in the refridgerator and it will get hard, but won’t really ever set up. Live with it.
And if it comes out just perfect, bring some by my house. Besides my fudge tradition, I have a tradition where I eat free food during the holidays . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who once made about eight batches of fudge in one day. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org