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Bonding over holiday sweets and treats

My grandmother was the queen of Christmas.

“Elf” might be a more fitting title, given her diminutive stature, but my grandma didn’t work quietly behind the scenes. She reigned over and reveled in all the sights, smells and tastes of a family celebration.

Numbering between 13 and 17, our gathering wasn’t too large to blow Grandma’s gift-giving budget, yet sizable enough to warrant a seasonal display of excess, down to color-coordinated ornaments and gift wrap to complement her beloved flocked Christmas tree.

Food was no exception. So long as the length of Grandma’s kitchen counter was crowded with pie plates, cookie platters and Tupperware full of sweets and treats, the Christmas culinary mission had been accomplished. There were classic renditions of divinity and fudge, chocolate-dipped dried fruit and pretzels for my grandpa to nibble, several preparations of pecans for which my family has an insatiable appetite, and a couple of signature recipes with candied fruit that only Grandma and I seemed to like.

And cementing our family bond was popcorn balls. Even members who weren’t so keen on consuming one vouched for their manufacture — if only for sheer entertainment.

Popcorn balls are a production, starting with popping enough kernels to yield 7 quarts. While someone manned Grandma’s trusty air popper, she simmered the butter and sugar until it reached the soft crack stage.

Then it was all hands on deck — literally. Everyone within arm’s reach of the molten pan of candy liberally slathered palms and fingertips with margarine and helped form balls from the popcorn before it hardened into a useless mass.

The maneuver takes some practice — and courage. Quickly but gingerly scoop up a handful of scorching hot corn. Toss the sticky blob from palm to palm, form it into a rough sphere somewhere between baseball- and softball-size. Press it together too firmly, and the ball will be too hard to eat. Don’t exert enough force, and it starts to fall apart when placed on a sheet of waxed paper to cool.

It’s almost impossible to produce a batch without someone getting burned. Minor mishaps, along with the exclamations flying around the kitchen, have been major sources of amusement over the years.

Gluttons for punishment, we did concede one year to trying Jolly Time’s popcorn ball mold, which I received in a press kit. The contraption confirmed itself — upon its first plunge into the vat of corn — as promising in theory but seriously lacking in utility.

My family felt justified in our old-fashioned method, regardless of how much it hurts. Try our recipe for yourself as a departure from yet another batch of cut-out cookies.

Also treading into the territory of holiday icon with a touch of irony is my grandma’s answer to fruitcake. Texas Pecan Candy Cake is a rich mixture of nuts, candied fruit and coconut amalgamated with sweetened condensed milk, making it more confection than cake.

Calorie-dense with a refrigerated shelf life months long, this recipe was dubbed “Grandma’s Texas Survival Cake” among my college circle. Easy to mix up and eye-catching when cut up, it’s my antidote to endlessly rolling, decorating and generally futzing over sugar cookies.

But if it’s cookies we’re craving, my family’s go-to is that holiday mainstay known by different names — pecan snowballs, Russian teacakes or Mexican wedding cakes — depending on the household, its region and roots. I may dispense with family tradition this year and update mine with pistachios, cardamom and a splash of rosewater to evoke the cookie’s migration to Morocco from Spain and its journey around the Mediterranean.

Lemon Family Special Popcorn Balls

3 cups sugar

1 cup white Karo syrup

3/4 cup margarine or butter, plus more for greasing hands (see note)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla

7 quarts plain, popped corn

Mix the sugar, Karo syrup, butter and salt with 1 cup water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring continuously. Reduce heat but keep boiling until a candy thermometer attached to pan’s side reaches 270 degrees. Remove from heat and add the vanilla.

Pour candy mixture evenly over popped corn in a large mixing bowl, stirring to evenly distribute liquid. Grease palms and backs of hands and mold corn into balls, working quickly before candy can harden. Place balls on wax paper to cool. When cool, wrap each in plastic wrap. Balls store at room temperature for several weeks.

Makes 15 to 20 popcorn balls.

NOTE: I prefer butter over margarine in just about every recipe except this one. Margarine seems to yield a stickier candy, and butter definitely isn’t worth wasting simply to grease hands.

Texas Pecan Candy Cake

1/2 pound candied, red cherries, quartered (about 1/3 cup)

1/2 pound candied pineapple, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

1/2 pound pitted dates, coarsely snipped (about 1-1/2 cups)

1 tablespoon flour

4-1/3 cups coarsely chopped pecans

4 ounces flaked coconut (about 1-1/4 cups)

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Grease and flour a tube pan.

Combine the cherries, pineapple and dates in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the flour and toss to coat well. Add the pecans and coconut and toss to mix. Add the sweetened condensed milk and stir to mix well. Spoon mixture evenly into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack. Remove cake after it has totally cooled and wrap tightly in foil. Refrigerate at least two weeks. Cake cuts best when cold. A serrated knife slices best.

Mexican Wedding Cakes

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for rolling

1 teaspoon vanilla

2-1/4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped pecans (may substitute almonds, hazelnuts or any other nut)

In a bowl with an electric mixer, thoroughly mix the butter, powdered sugar and vanilla. Stir the flour and salt together, then blend into butter mixture. Mix in the nuts. Chill dough.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheets (cookies do not spread) and bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until set but not brown.

While still warm, roll cookies in additional powdered sugar. Cool and roll in powdered sugar again. Store in an airtight container.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Popcorn BallsPhoto by Sarah Lemon
More confection than cake, Texas Pecan Candy Cake is a family favorite recipe from food columnist Sarah Lemon.