And my Grama could cook. She could take scraps and figure out how to make such a good gravy on it you wouldn't even notice. She could bake without written recipes; doing it all by eye and feel. In that small kitchen in her house in Pleasant Grove, I would join her, and from her, found my love of cooking.
Grama died 10 years ago last February. I was speaking at a retreat in West, Texas when my mom called to tell me. I loved that old woman, and I miss her terribly. I often find myself wondering what she would think of my life down here in Shenandoah, and how much she would have loved meeting Ursula, whom I named after her.
And Christmas is when I miss her the most. You see, by official declaration, Christmas Eve was at Grama's house. That is just how it is done. She would bake and cook for the days leading up to it and then just sit in her rocker though the night watching us open presents, or look out off the front porch for Rudolph's red nose. Even one of the streets on the way to her house was named Santa Cruz. As in, "Her comes Santa Claus. Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Cruz Lane. Dasher and Dancer and all his reindeer, pulling at the rein..."
This is also the time of year I pull out my Czech card. All things Czech Republic I can be about. It makes me feel like Grama is watching me, nitpicking my technique for kneading the dough and getting disgusted with me for just throwing away the foil instead of rinsing it off, folding it up and putting it in the drawer to use again. I can almost her voice saying, "Baby Doll, you can do this, just follow my recipe."
And so when I baked today, I baked with my Grama. We made vánočka. It is Czech Christmas Bread. It was made with happy thoughts, good memories and love. By both of us.
And here is the recipe. I couldn't find my Grama's. I don't even know if he ever wrote one down. But this one seemed to be about the same.
1 compressed yeast cakes or 1 (1/4 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/4 cup water, warm
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup margarine
2 teaspoons salt
5 1/2-6 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup milk, warm
1 teaspoon lemon peel, finely shredded
1/4 teaspoon ground mace (I couldn't find mace. I used nutmeg and some ground black pepper.)
1 cup light raisins
1/2 cup nuts, chopped (I used walnuts.)
1 egg yolks, beaten
Soften yeast in warm water.
In a mixer bowl, beat together sugar, margarine, and salt.
Add eggs and beat well.
Beat in 1 cup of flour.
Beat in milk, lemon peel, mace, and yeast mixture.
Stir in as much remaining flour as you can with a spoon.
Stir in raisins and nuts.
Turn out onto floured surface.
Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3-5 minutes total).
Place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once to grease surface.
Cover, let rise in warm place till double; divide in half.
Divide one portion of the dough into fourths for the bottom braid. Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, divide the remaining dough into 5 portions for the other two layers of the dough. Cover those portions and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, form each of the first 4 portions into 16-inch long ropes.
On a greased baking sheet, arrange the 4 ropes, 1 inch apart.
Beginning in the middle of the ropes, braid together toward each end.
To braid 4 ropes, overlap the center 2 ropes to form an X.
Take the outside left rope and cross over the closest middle rope.
Then, take the outside right rope and cross under the closest middle rope.
Repeat braiding until you reach the end. Pinch ends together; tuck under.
Turn baking sheet and braid on opposite end.
Gently pull width of braid out slightly.
Form remaining 5 portions into 16-inch long ropes.
Braid 3 of the ropes together.
Brush the 4-strand braid with water and center the second braid on top; gently pull width of top braid out.
Twist the remaining two ropes of dough together.
Brush the top braid with water; place the twist on top of the second braid.
Cover the shaped dough and let rise till nearly double.
While loaves are rising, preheat oven to 350°F.
Brush surface of the shaped dough with egg yolk.
Bake in oven for 35-40 minutes.