I know it is not Christmas, but all the Valentine’s Day chocolate has started me thinking about my mother’s fudge. She always made it at Christmas time……
Mother said, “The best Christmas gift was really three gifts; a gift for the mind, a gift for the stomach and a gift for the heart.” Cooking cocoa fudge with Mother was a gift that combined all three.
One of my clearest Christmas memories was making fudge at odd hours of the night, Mother’s favorite time of day. We had our Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve night and Mother cooked for days and nights before. As soon as the turkey was cleaned, trussed, sage stuffing made, the fudge pot would appear on the stove. My older sister Donna and I (Billy was still too young) would stand in our warm Texas kitchen, barefoot on oven-heated linoleum, drinking thermos glasses of coffee that were ninety percent milk, while also drinking in the steps to this favorite recipe. The anticipation of tasting Mom’s fudge was almost as good as eating it. The memory of that flavor lasted year round.
“Hershey’s cocoa, milk, sugar, salt. Bring to a boil, then stir and simmer.”
Mother used wooden spoons, iron skillets and huge sauce pots. I remember her saying, “In fudge making, a wooden spoon makes all the difference.” She would sense the fudge through the wood as if it were part of her hands, which were strong, sun-browned and long-fingered. Measuring cups were optional equipment. Those same strong hands held the right amount of salt or cocoa. “OK, use a coffee cup if you have to.”
We would wait, standing on one foot and the other, for the correct sounds to issue from the pot. “This fudge sounds just like the mud pots at Yellowstone Park when it’s ready. Plop. Plop.” Of course, it occurred to both of us that mother had never been to Yellowstone Park, but that didn’t matter. It was a mother thing. I remember her face at those moments; cheeks flushed with the heat, brown hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun and soft, hazel eyes rich with flecks of green and brown and gray. Eyes that could see right through to your bones over the top of reading glasses. Those eyes had the same sort of automatic sensing mechanism as her hands; she could see if you were lying. Very inconvenient growing up.
Our talk would be about a lot of things while the fudge simmered; movies, books we were reading, who we would cast in the lead roles if the movie were made from that book and family stories. She would talk about the kitchen of her childhood in the ‘30’s. Mother grew up in the countryside of Jacksboro and Weatherford, in a kitchen with a wood cook stove. She had a love/hate relationship with that stove, which had to be stocked with wood and emptied of ashes daily. The kitchen was the warmest place in the house, so you got dressed in the morning behind the cook stove. But be careful how you bent over, or you’d get branded. In back of the kitchen was the porch where you washed your face in the mornings in a metal basin. A coal from the cook stove would melt the ice on the water in the winters. She could still smell and hear that ashy sizzle. God help you if you had to go to the outhouse during a winter night. Your feet would need to be washed with that same freezing water and lye soap before you got back in bed. You didn’t get on clean sheets with dirty feet.
Plop plop. How safe and warm our kitchen felt, with the rich smell of chocolate and memories whirling around us, the darkness of night insulating the kitchen and stopping time.
“Simmer the fudge until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a soft ball.”
What’s that soft-ball thing about anyway? To hell with those fancy, prone-to-crack candy thermometers. “Use your eyes and ears, kid.” Plop. Plop.
Books were a favorite topic. All the rooms of our house had bookshelves. In two rooms, the shelves formed the entire wall. Mother read voraciously, constantly, for fun and for escape. A favorite challenge during fudge-making was inspired by the movie ending of H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. Going back to the primitive society in the past, the time traveler took back three books to begin a new world. Which three books he took were unknown. “Which three books would you take back? Think, what would be your reasons?” Much discussion would ensue. Through Mom’s books and Dad’s too, (Dad’s topic is history) we traveled through time and across continents.
“Take the fudge off the fire and add the butter and vanilla.”
This smelled wonderful. The vanilla would bubble down through the fudge and reappear as a secret chocolate volcano, belching an almost indescribably sweet steam geyser. Yellowstone again.
Developing good judgment was part of the process of making fudge. Judgment of correct color and consistency as well as when the fudge had been beat enough and was ready to be poured into buttery pans. Mother would say, “Now watch for the fudge to lose its shine. When it does, pour it quickly into the greased pans.” Donna and I both discovered that “shine” and “quickly” are relative terms. Cooking our earliest fudge batches, we always waited that fraction of a second too long, and the molten fudge solidified into an instant stalactite as it was poured from the pan. No matter. Mother was very philosophical about such failures. And we ate the fudge stalactite just as quickly, laughing.
After the fudge cooking was the spoon and pan-licking. Two prizes were to be had. The wooden spoon which mysteriously had developed a two inch coating of fudge and the pot which had those lovely crusty brown layers of pure chocolate sugar at the top. The kind of confectionery-coated dentist’s nightmare that could wrap you in chocolate euphoria for an hour. Simply put, it was warm fudge heaven.
Fudge pans were usually cookie sheets, but any size pan would do. We had been known to butter the kitchen counter if we were in a bad mood. Our childhood fudge-eating capacities were quite legendary. We were to leave Dad some fudge. We did; two neatly cut squares in the middle of the pan. Mom was not amused. Luckily, cocoa, vanilla and sugar were always in the cupboard. And fudge technique must be practiced. Dad got his fudge. Plates of fudge were always on the coffee table on Christmas Eve.
Not long after mother’s death I found my well-worn card for Mom’s fudge. On the back was the name and number of the hospital where my nephew Paul was born. It seems I made fudge in my kitchen while waiting for his birth. A good omen. A gift. Mother’s cocoa fudge was a gift, a gift of time spent teaching, listening and caring. It is a recipe for the love she gave in double-batched size to all of us. With no apologies to H.G. Wells, if I were the time-traveler, I would take Mom’s fudge recipe back to start a new world. It would be a gift for the mind, a gift for the stomach and a gift for the heart.