Many of us complain of the stress associated with the holidays as we juggle cooking, shopping, decorating, work, travel, in-laws and so forth. At the same time, it's almost impossible not to be intoxicated by the season, whose hallmarks are the eager anticipation and easy laughter of children and the spontaneous generosity that is in short supply at other times of the year.
Throughout my life the spirit of the holidays has been personified by a number of people, but no more so than by Mary Louise Dodge, an aunt in Salina who passed away last February at the age of 93. What set her apart from other mortals was her selfless approach to life and her genuine interest in other people.
At a family gathering of 50 people, she moved through the room like a politician, stopping to speak to every single person, asking about their children and their pursuits, and never forgetting what everyone had been doing the last time she inquired. But the difference between Mary Louise and the candidates who are working the crowds this election cycle is this: When she clasped your hand and said, "It's SO good to see you," you knew she really meant it.
I have missed her this holiday season for the optimism and sense of well-being that accompanied her wherever she went, and for her ability to impart that to others. Not a little of me also misses the box full of English toffee that she brought to family gatherings.
The recipe for the toffee follows. For decades, Mary Louise made dozens of batches of it for the annual St. John's Hospital Bazaar in Salina. Her daughter, Janet Denning, read the recipe to me over the phone, including some pointers her mother had written about how to assemble the toffee. Janet paused and noted that she could hear her mother talking as she read.
She and her sisters continue to make the toffee and a family peanut brittle recipe, just as their mother had. "We try," Janet said, "but it's never quite as good."
That's because love and a belief in the goodness of others were Mary Louise's signature ingredients.
Mary Louise's Toffee
1 cup coarsely chopped blanched almonds, toasted (set aside 1/3 cup)
1 cup butter (or 1 stick butter and 1 stick Fleischman's margarine)
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light Karo syrup
3 tablespoons water
4 to 4 1/2 ounces Hershey's milk chocolate, melted
Spread 2/3 cups of the chopped nuts evenly in the bottom of an ungreased 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Reserve 1/3 cup for the topping.
Melt butter in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Add sugar, corn syrup and water. Cook, stirring, until the mixture boils. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches 300 degrees.
Poor the mixture evenly across the top of the nuts in the baking pan and let cool completely.
Turn the sheet toffee out on a piece of waxed paper. Spread the top with half the melted chocolate and sprinkle with the remaining nuts. If necessary, chill to firm the chocolate.
When the chocolate is firm, break the sheet of toffee into pieces.