My dear friend, mentor and colleague, Abigail Hamilton, sent me this bag, with a note that read:
"In the humble homes of the - at least American - past, Christmas gifts were home-made, hand-crafted gifts given in the spirit of the season. From mittens to cookies to samplers to jellies and jams to wood creations to hand-dipped candles . . . each gift gave warmth and simple beauty. The children's creations were, and still are, always the best.This year, I have been making 'bolinhos' - the Portuguese version of biscotti - using my grandmother's recipe for those yummy twice-baked cookies that go so well with tea or coffee or hot chocolate.
In that mode, I am sending you what I "craft" for Christmas use (and also for Harmonie Hall Antiques in Bainbridge, NY - family!) with the hope that you will fill it with a small gift for a neighbor, a friend, maybe even a random person."
I've made a ton of them - Cranberry Pistachio, Orange Almond Walnut, and Chocolate Chip Almond - and had even more fun decorating some of them with chocolate icing, sprinkling some of them with shredded coconut or festive chocolate 'jimmies'.
With each batch, I marvel at the first step - beating together two large eggs in 2/3 cup of sugar - and watch how they mix together in rapid perfection, forming a creamy, pale yellow batter that eventually, after about 5 minutes or so, drips like velvet ribbons from the end of the beaters.
"Como isso acontece, mi avo? (How does that happen, grandmother?)," I would marvel.
"Ah, e um milagre, querida! (Ah, it's a miracle, sweetheart!), she would say as she beat the mixture with a wooden spatula in a large earthenware bowl.
No electric mixers or whisks for her. Her forearms would make Martina Navratilova jealous - and strike fear and trembling into the hearts of her grandchildren - or, even adult children - when she raised one of them as a warning to behave - or, else.
In goes the flavoring (vanilla, almond or orange extract), then the flour, baking soda and salt which quickly becomes a thick dough, into which gets folded whatever ingredients that particular batch will have.
Then, it gets shaped into a log on a lightly oiled baking pan (Parchment paper? You must be kidding! Not in my grandmother's house).
Into the oven, then. The first time for 25 minutes. Then, cooled and cut into slices which will be baked again - 10 minutes on each side until golden brown and crisp.
Meanwhile, the house fills up with aromas so delectable that the very walls seem good enough to eat.
It smells like my grandmother's house - Mia avo. It smells like love.
I think I am becoming my grandmother. At least, I hope I become half the woman she was. Feisty. Opinionated. Stubborn. Earthy. Bawdy. Intelligent. Generous. With a quick laugh and razor-sharp wit. A woman who loved Jesus and "the old, old stories" of his mercy and love.
I've got a few small bags, gaily festooned with Christmas themes and images which will transport a carefully selected variety of the 'bolinhos' to some of my friends and neighbors.
I don't yet know to whom Abby's bag will go. I suspect it will be a 'random person'. I think she'd like that.
I may have to make a few of these bags myself which is ever so much nicer than the stuff I got from the local Dollar Store.
I'm no artist so mine will not be as beautiful as Abby's, but that's not the point, is it?
The message of the humble birth of the Christ Child is that The Gift is not about aesthetics.
It's about Love.