All is Calm, All is Bright

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To me, Christmas tastes like angel bars. I’m up early this morning. Tony Bennett croons from the speakers (not the wireless ones I’ve dropped hints about for weeks), telling me to have myself a merry little Christmas, as I pull a hot pan of shortbread crust from the oven. Just a hot whiff of the lightly browned edges is enough to send my mind whirling back to the 1980s.

In the Christmases of yore, I spent a good part of December anticipating Christmas Eve, where the strict two-cookie-per-day regimen would be temporarily lifted. For that one not-so-silent night, it was no holds barred. Our family’s go-to cookie was the angel bar: buttery shortbread topped with a chewy pecan caramel and a lemon icing, named certainly not for the angelic nature of their ingredients, but perhaps on the whim of some optimistic Joy of Cooking contributor. It was a rite of passage to learn how to make them, and the opportunity only came once a year.

As I patiently counted down the days not to the arrival not of Santa Claus, but of unlimited access to cookies, my grandfather put on scratchy records of Frank Sinatra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. My grandmother set out brie wedges, mixed nuts, and Christmas tree napkins for the friends in town who would come pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming with gifts and stay for cocktail hour.

When the big day finally came, I donned my best for Christmas Eve — think black velvet vest over a red cotton turtleneck with a plastic green wreath pin to tie it all together — and we traipsed to my Aunt Punky’s house, where we gathered around the grand piano and belted out the tunes: Away in a Manger; Joy to the World; Adeste Fideles — or, for those of you who, unlike my mother, refuse to sing it in its original Latin — O Come, All Ye Faithful.

For dinner, we packed into the formal living room where cold cuts spread out in fans on Spode Christmas Tree china, and cream cheese with mint jelly and water crackers beckoned from the candle-lit side tables. “How about now?” I pestered my mom. “Is it time for dessert now?”

When the moment was nigh, Uncle Bob poured champagne and my cousins nibbled from the trays stacked with macadamia nut fudge, persimmon cookies, and crunchy English toffee. I went straight for the angel bars. They were nutty and rich, a sandwich of buttery shortbread and sugar-laden coconut in concert with the minced pecans my dad had meticulously chopped into bits. I searched for the edge pieces, where the icing had pooled up in divots or drizzled down the sides. I took tiny nibbles, the crust dissolving into notes of butter and chewy coconut, finishing with a crescendo of tangy, lemon-drenched powdered sugar.

I savored every last crumb as Punky launched into We Three Kings, the verses divided up into solos, so that Aunt Joanie would bring the myrrh, and Gam could carry the frankincense. I wondered how long it would have taken to journey all the way from “Orient-are.”

Sarah Barthelow is a freelance food writer and the voice behind the popular food podcast, And Eat It Too! She lives in Seattle, where she spends her days eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Christmas season.

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