According to family lore, on the occasion of my younger sister turning four or five, a family friend asked her whether she was having a nice birthday. She replied, “Mommy hasn’t made it yet.”
In her mind, a birthday meant a cake, and until the cake had happened, the birthday hadn’t either. A few months later as my mom prepared for Christmas, that conversation got her thinking that perhaps we ought to have a birthday cake for Jesus as part of our celebration.
While scholars might have some access to cultural traditions in ancient Israel, we have no idea what Mary and Joseph’s individual family culture might have been like. One thing we can be sure of is that Mary wouldn’t have made Jesus a western-style frosted layer cake studded with candles to celebrate his birth.
Not having access to information about authentic Hebrew delicacies of 2,000 years ago, my mom struck a compromise. She found a recipe for a yule loaf, a rustic peasant bread that included whole wheat flour, oats, dates, nuts and raisins, and made one for our Christmas morning. She drizzled on some glaze and decorated it with pecan halves, putting a candle in the middle that we could light and watch while we sang “Happy Birthday” to the Savior. A Yule loaf has been part of our family’s Christmas celebration for decades.
Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon, Christmas Eve. Though my mom usually holds on to the job of making the Yule loaves, I had talked her into letting me do the majority of the dough preparation, after which she shaped the loaves (two for the family and three to give to friends). Just before she and my dad left for an evening visit, she put the loaves into two ovens, set the timer, and asked us to take them out.
El Guapo would do this task because most of us were heading to a nearby Christmas Eve service and would miss the end of the baking time by about 10 minutes.
Have I mentioned before that El Guapo can get really immersed in his work?
As we arrived home an hour later, I was greeted by a strong burning smell. I rushed to the ovens and discovered that the five rounds had surpassed “golden” and achieved a color somewhere between mahogany and ebony, with an overlay of ash. I can hardly describe how this near cremation of my mom’s cherished tradition affected me, but if it were a recipe, I would say it called for quantities of incredulity, panic, desolation and ire.
Uppermost in my mind was that when my mom returned she would be greeted not by the loaves she planned to deliver that evening to friends, but by an acrid smell and a collection of construction-grade bricks. I began frantically planning to begin again, but the whole process takes more hours than we had left. I quickly switched gears and began gathering ingredients for a nice banana bread that I could bake as round cakes and brush with an orange syrup I had on hand. Her friends need never know.
El Guapo was all helpfulness, being keenly aware that responsibility for the disaster rested squarely on his absentminded shoulders. While I worked on the banana bread, he ventured a suggestion: what about surgery? Beneath the blackened surface of each round loaf, there might be something to salvage.
So El Guapo and Loquita got to work with various serrated implements of destruction, and carved away until they reached something resembling the bread we hoped for. Loquita, ever the artist, began an assemblage art project:
Though reduced in size, these rounds were something we might work with, but we definitely needed disguise options. We would not pretend nothing strange had happened, but while I recounted the tragedy, I wanted my mom to have something to gaze upon that looked edible.
El Guapo made up a brown sugar frosting, and we added finely chopped nuts and coconut that could help draw attention away from the nobbly texture beneath.
I will say that relief was only part of the reason the yule loaf tasted so good to me at Christmas lunch—it was genuinely delicious. I have had some hard things to say about frosting in the past, but it performed a great service in camouflaging this Christmas near-disaster, and for that I am grateful.
[Images: the family file, seattleweekly.com, Ginger, Loquita, El Guapo]