John B. Keane, the prolific Irish writer of plays and novels (now deceased), wrote a short story, ‘Spreading Joy and Jam at Christmas,’ from his collection titled, ‘Irish Stories For Christmas.’ One man tells the story of how he and his friend traveled to Mayo at Christmastime to visit old schoolmates. His friend is jovial, lighthearted, and he is a master at role playing. They arrive in the village, Claremorris, and stop at a hostelry. Outside the door, they see a large van full of jam. There are pots of raspberry, strawberry, plum, gooseberry, marmalade, and mixed fruit. The teller of the tale writes,
“It’s a terror,” said my friend, “to see so much jam exposed to the naked eye and half the world starving.”
As the two men sit at the bar enjoying some whiskey, a young girl walks in and mistakes the friend for the driver of the jam van. She asks if she can have a pot of jam and the friend replies that if she has the means of transporting, she could load a few crates of the jam…”but not to overdo it. Ye don’t want to make pigs of yeerselves entirely.”
The men leave the pub and cheerfully walk through town encountering others who are in need of words of wisdom. Later, a cart passes them carrying two women beaming with happiness because they have two cases of jam. The young girl waves at the men ecstatically and the friend says,
“Were we to depart life now we would surely see heaven for the happiness we spread this day.”
I’ve just started my cookie baking marathon, including a new scone recipe made with marmalade that I brought to a recent Christmas ceili. Each year, I bake up to fifteen varieties of cookies and give them as gifts. The manager at a local farm store where I buy my greenery said to me last week, “It’s really Christmas when Cynthia brings us a plate of cookies.” I have a reputation of par excellence for my pastries, and I am not modest about saying so.
Each year, I buy good quality ingredients that include eggs from the local farm, as well as a lot of organic items. There’s no doubt that I spend a lot of money to make these superior cookies that I bless with my hands as I mix, roll, and form. I don’t budget well, I spend too much, and I feel a bit like the character in John B. Keane’s short story. In a way, I am role playing, too; intoxicated with the intensity of this sensory season and giddy with giving melt-in-your mouth cookies. Last year, after baking a batch of macadamia nut cookies with dried pineapple, I noticed that the band aid on my finger was missing. Oh my! So, I only gave this particular cookie to a few friends, and gave the instructions to cut up in small pieces before eating. I am very careful when I bake – apron on, cats cast out of the kitchen, hair pulled back, finger nails are clipped and no open sores! As I remember the comical incident of last year, I seriously hope this year my cookies can in some small way bandage seasonal stress, memory of loss, and the ache we carry for those who do not have bread, let alone cookies.
Nora in ‘The Irish Dresser’ is sincere, but foolish, when she steals the Captain’s food and attempts to feed the sick and dying in the hold of the ship, ‘The Star.’ There are Robin Hoods in all of us, our idealism and sense of justice fueling light-hearted, clandestine, and even illegal activity. I’m not advocating stealing, but I am challenging myself and others to give magic away – in cookies, donations, volunteerism, and activism. And if we have to be full of blarney like the character in John B. Keane’s story sometimes, so be it. We should all live with this mindset: “Were we to depart life now we would surely see heaven for the happiness we spread this day.”
Norah’s Dancing Scones
2 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour (wee bit more for handling)
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 ¼ salt
1 stick cold un-salted Cabot butter
½ cup buttermilk
2 medium eggs
zest of 1 orange
drop or two of juice of the orange
½ cup or more of marmalade (or other jams)
1) Set oven at 350 degrees; put parchment paper on cookie trays
Mix dry ingredients into a large bowl; cut butter into small pieces and add to dry mixture; mix with pastry cutter (I couldn’t bake without this gadget) or use fingers to break up into small pea-sized pieces; butter should remain solid.
2) In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, orange zest and drops thoroughly; add to dry mixture and barely combine.
3) On a well-floured surface, divide dough into two pieces (if sticky, add a little flour, but not too much); don’t knead, but gently pat into two disks about ¾ inch thick and 7 inches in diameter.
4) Spread marmalade or jam over one disk and top with other disk, pinching sides and pressing down; brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar; use a sharp knife to slice circle into 8 triangular wedges on baking sheet, leaving some space between them; chill until firm (20 min)
5) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating sheets halfway; scones should be golden and it’s fine to have some bubbling marmalade peeking out.