My family was big on traditions, but not the “Fiddler on the Roof” kind of tradition, but the “we’ve always done it this way” kind. For example, every Christmas my aunts made maple mousse. Truthfully, I was not especially fond of this, but it was “tradition” and one that was never broken until my aunts were too old to make it. Of course, there was always the requisite platter of Christmas cookies, baked only during the holidays. And every New Year’s Eve my mother made oyster casserole. That too was our tradition.
But what I remember was my father making his fudge. Every Christmas he would make it, served along with the cookies. One of my favorite memories was of me, standing next to Dad, peering over the boiling pot of molten chocolate goodness, secretly dipping a spoon into the boiling confection when Dad’s back was turned. And Dad and I were the lucky ones who got to scrape out what was left in the pot after the fudge had been poured into the pan. A definite perk. When I was old enough to understand what he did to create this melt-in-your-mouth confection, he began to teach me his secrets.
The pot had to be very large and heavy, ideally a soup pot. The ingredients didn’t vary. Evaporated milk, sugar, butter, two squares of unsweetened chocolate and a pinch of salt. Pretty basic. But the chocolate had to be good. Dad used the best chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate that was available locally. Vanilla, corn syrup and marshmallow fluff completed the list. These were always pre-measured and in bowls ready to be added.
Although true candy makers always use a candy thermometer to get the desired soft-ball consistency, Dad never bothered. We didn’t have a thermometer and he didn’t see any reason to buy one. Instead, he watched the size of the boils. When they got to be a certain “look,” he would drop a spoonful of the fudge mixture into a small dish of ice-cold water. He’d wait a few seconds, then reach in and try to form it into a soft ball. If it fell apart, it needed more boiling. Sometimes it took two or three tries before he was satisfied. He would turn off the heat and dump in the fluff, the chips, the vanilla and the syrup and beat like crazy until everything was melted. This took a strong arm because it had to be done quickly before the fudge hardened in the pan.
It was a rare occurrence when the fudge refused to harden as it should. In that case, my mother would add cream to the mixture and heat it up again. Instead of fudge. their friends received a jar of Dad’s delicious fudge sauce. Not much went to waste in our house.
After I graduated from college and had my own apartment, I decided to try my hand at fudge making. I quickly learned that it wasn’t as easy as I had thought. But I persevered and eventually got to the point where my fudge was as good as Dad’s, or at least close. I didn’t experiment very much either. Other than sometimes using dark chocolate instead of semi-sweet. Occasionally, my fudge ended up as fudge sauce. After all, how could one let a pot of chocolate, butter and sugar go to waste?
For a number of years now, I’ve carried on a few family traditions and made some of our own. Foregoing the dreaded maple mousse, I make a cheesecake. And cookies. I make oyster casserole every New Year’s Eve. It’s primarily for me as my son and husband are not fond of it, but it’s always on the table. And I make fudge. It is the tradition I carry on. I make it because it is so delicious and because it’s part of my family. It is my father’s fudge. I make two batches because friends practically demand it as a gift. I don’t remember a holiday season when I haven’t continued this tradition. I made fudge two months after giving birth to our son, after a bout of double pneumonia, and a few weeks after my hip replacement. I missed the year when we were in the midst of moving and my kitchen was in boxes. With the exception of that small blip, the fudge was made. Because it is to me, as Tevye sang, “tradition.”