As far as I can remember, Gram and Mom served dessert every day at dinner, unless we had pancakes, which was like dessert for supper. There were almost always homemade cookies on hand, and the number of cake variations Mom turned out was noteworthy – several versions of chocolate, vanilla, pineapple upside-down cake or something out of her favorite cookbook or a magazine. She made date-filled cookies, ice cream in the freezer, brownies and once in a while she constructed cream puffs.
Gram was the main pie maker, although she almost always prefaced the serving of it with “This isn’t the best pie I ever made,” which prompted my Dad once to say, “Minnie, what was the best pie you ever made. I sure wish I’d been here for that!” Gram made gingerbread and a lemon loaf cake I loved. With the gingerbread she often made a kind of shortcake only with sliced bananas and whipped cream instead of strawberries.
Besides baking, there were puddings as well as gelatin in unlikely colors. I liked smooth pudding and endured tapioca, because I had an uneasy relationship with the texture. A spoonful of jam or a few slices of banana might be hiding under the pudding which was fun. Canned fruit was a staple. Gram’s jars of whole crab apples were so beautiful – red and yellow together from one tree up by the sugar house. Mom mostly served store bought, of which my favorite was fruit cocktail, mainly because of the glowing red cherries. Sliced peaches – either Mom’s tins or Gram’s jars – were nice, too, especially with bread and butter. Fresh biscuits crumbled up and served with maple syrup poured over them was a treat, and I remember fondly saltine crackers sandwiched with homemade jam in between. I suspect those were at the end of the paycheck – they were also after-school snacks from time to time.
Then there was candy. They almost always made our candy. Mom made peppermints in delicate colors, often for the holidays. She made fudge, which she had been concocting since high school, when she probably tempted Dad with it. Gram stirred cooked maple syrup until it grained and turned into creamy maple candy. In the spring she saved empty eggshells for molds and poured the still-soft maple sugar in a hole in one end. She colored the shells and presented them at Easter. You cracked the shell, like on a hard-boiled egg, and exposed the sweetest Easter egg ever.
In the winter when the air was dry and cold, Gram sometimes made molasses taffy – pulled candy. She boiled molasses until a drop of it did the right thing in a glass of cold water (hard ball? Crack? No one I knew had a candy thermometer), and then poured it on to a buttered plate to cool. When it was safe to handle, we buttered our hands, gathered up the molasses from the plated and started pulling it. You pulled the sticky stuff until it was a rope, then folded it back on itself and pulled again, over and over. You could do it in teams, too, one person on each end. Eventually the candy started to lighten to a soft yellow color, and it was done. You pulled it into a rope one last time and cut it into bite-sized pieces.
I was never so good at all this – we were more worried about sugar then, and though I made a lot of granola (really!), and a million or two cookies, I really didn’t get into the “what’s for dessert?” tradition. I hope my kids are healthy, but it wasn’t so much fun. By now I think it might be permissible to pull taffy with grandchildren once in a while, don’t you?