I never imagined doughnuts would make me cry, but here we are.
I’m not a huge doughnut lover, but a few weeks ago I began a quest for a doughnut recipe. Not just any recipe — THE recipe, the one behind a family Christmas story.
This is the time of year my father used to retell the story of the childhood Christmas his family’s doughnut stash disappeared.
He’d explain how in the lead-up to the big day, his mother Jeanne Laure d’Entremont always made batches of what he described as “the most delicious doughnuts you’ve ever tasted.” She’d stash them in several tins, giving her five children strict instructions to stay away from them at all costs.
For the most part, they obliged.
But on the Christmas Eve in question, the tins containing the highly anticipated treats were opened and a shocking discovery was made. Except for a few crumbs, not a single doughnut remained.
Following an interrogation, it was determined that my father, the eldest son, who was eight or nine years old at the time, was responsible.
“Did I go in there and take the lid off and maybe sneak one or two when they were first made? Yes! Would I eat all of them? No! Who’d be fool enough to do that? I was blamed and punished for it anyway,” my father would say, shaking his head with mock outrage.
Fast forward many years later when as an adult, the baby of the family, his sister Joanne, admitted to being the thief. At the tender age of six or seven, she’d happily let my father take the fall for the doughnut debacle.
Following a confession during which she unsuccessfully stifled her laughter, my father cursed, then laughed, and the doughnut story continued to be told even though the mystery had been solved.
Although recalling my father’s story makes me smile, I’d never given much thought to the recipe.
That changed recently when my teenage son became interested in cooking and baking.
“You really should make sure you have that written down somewhere so it doesn’t get lost,” he’d remark while helping me in the kitchen with a soup, casserole, or the biscuits that I’d been making since before he was born.
In particular, he expressed a keen interest in family recipes handed down through generations. He started asking:
“Who gave you that recipe?”
“Whose handwriting is on that one?”
“Grand-mère (grandma) makes this all the time, but did her mother and grandmother also make it?”
This led me to begin questioning their origins. I’d always had an assortment of handwritten recipes scribbled on cue cards, postcards, and greeting cards, tucked into my favourite spiral bound cookbook. But I didn’t know the origins of them all.
A few weeks ago I went searching for — and found — an old plastic box I knew contained several handwritten family recipes. It was a fascinating rediscovery.
I pulled out recipes for my maternal grandmother’s gingerbread cake, my mom’s cranberry and blueberry breads, her creamed turkey, our family’s version of the Acadian staple called rappie pie (râpure), potato pancakes, my mom’s baked beans, chow chow (pickled relish), and so many more.
“You know that baked bean recipe? We used to wash and wax the floors every Saturday and then for supper we’d always have baked beans with cornbread and hot dogs,” my mother told me recently, explaining how comforting that childhood memory was.
I’ve recently come to realize how food is also connected to many of my own favourite childhood memories.
The time my grandfather and I ate too many lobsters with melted butter while everyone was out and we had to hide the shells — and the fact we felt very ill — so that my mom and grandmother wouldn’t find out.
My father sitting shirtless on a kitchen chair, bent over an old scrub board grating potatoes for rappie pie, and whistling while he worked.
Me at age 10, imitating my mom by seasoning the spaghetti sauce when she left the room. The black pepper shaker top came off, and at least a half cup of black pepper tumbled out. I watched in dismay as the bubbling sauce gobbled up the pepper before I could scoop it out. I told no one, but I’ll never forget my father’s face when he took that first — and only — bite. Needless to say we didn’t eat spaghetti that night.
I also have warm memories of my mom preparing so many things, including her unbeatable seafood chowder and homemade rolls. That combination is guaranteed to make every Christmas Eve magical.
My father passed away in 2018 and I began to wonder: Wouldn’t it be something to make those exact doughnuts over the holidays?
I was determined to track this recipe down.
I contacted my father’s three sisters. Joanne (the doughnut thief) didn’t have it, but shared one for soft molasses cookies, and another for an old family sugar cookie recipe.
She also shared stories I’d never heard, including a fascinating one about the molasses cookies and the childhood neighbour who used to make them.
My aunt Corinne didn’t have it either, but shared a few of her own tried and true recipes. She said the eldest of the family, my aunt Rosaline, might have the doughnut recipe. Rosaline didn’t, but she definitely remembered them.
“The doughnuts were plain. They were thicker than the ones we buy. No molasses. But they tasted very good. I guess I didn’t prepare the ingredients as I don’t remember anything about that part,” Rosaline said.
“I do remember cooking them in oil and my face would get all greasy.”
Soft, tasty, thick, and they made your face greasy. Not much to go on, but at least I knew they weren’t molasses doughnuts.
Rosaline sent me some of her own family recipes and a few of my grandmother’s. She’d scrawled my grandmother’s name in pencil at the top of the chocolate fudge recipe, ensuring readers would know where it came from.
My own mother also found handwritten recipes from my paternal grandmother tucked into the pages of her old recipe books. She took photos and sent me the recipes for my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies and coffee cake.
Looking at the aging pages ripped out of a ringed notebook, I marvelled at the fact I was staring at my beloved grandmother’s handwriting.
I became emotional as I reflected on the connection between these treats she prepared for family and guests and the fact that a tiny piece of her was somehow preserved on this page, 30 years after her death.
Why had I not thought to ask about family recipes before?
Inspired by my request for long forgotten family treasures, my mother also began digging.
She discovered a long lost recipe for her own grandmother’s cranberry pie. That strong and adored family matriarch had been many wonderful things, including a midwife, storyteller, master of card tricks and lover of baseball.
She also made every child in her life feel special and loved.
“I can’t believe I found this. I remember grand-mère sending us out to pick cranberries for her so that she could make this pie,” my mother said over the phone, a wistful smile in her voice.
Handwritten and stained with what must’ve been a dollop of shortening and several splotches of vanilla, the scrap of paper for “cramberry pie” is crookedly cropped and ends with the notation ‘makes a delicious pie.’
Great grandmother’s cranberry pie. I never knew this existed. I was delighted.
The latest addition to my growing collection? Blood pudding.
“We never wasted a single thing growing up, including when it came to our pigs,” my mom said. (Until recently, I didn’t know she’d grown up eating this).
Handwritten by my maternal uncle’s wife, it’s not likely I’ll ever make blood pudding. However, I’m thrilled to have this family recipe nonetheless.
I realized I had to do something with my rapidly growing collection of family goodies. The more inquiries I made, the more stories and recipes (some of them handwritten) were being sent my way.
This is where I hope my teenager’s habit of never reading my work continues…
I decided to take these recipes and put them together in a collection to present to him as a Christmas gift. I ordered a handmade wooden recipe box and have started the process of handwriting and/or printing and filing them.
Still determined to find that elusive doughnut recipe, I reached out to my father’s cousin, Felixa. Her mother and my grandmother had been sisters, and she and my father had been close.
She assured me she had dozens of tried and true recipes she’d happily share.
What followed were emails with a bumper crop of her own recipes featuring main courses, appetizers, and desserts.
When I opened the most recent batch this week, I noted they included a handful of recipes from three of my grandmother’s sisters.
I held my breath when I spotted one titled ‘Doughnuts.’
“I had three recipes of doughnuts that belonged to the tantes (aunts) and they were all the same recipe,” Felixa messaged me.
It seems likely that if all three of her sisters had this exact doughnut recipe, my grandmother had also used it.
Joanne (the doughnut thief) agreed.
“Well that’s fantastic, Yvette. There’s no doubt then. It’s got to be, just got to be the same one that mom used,” she told me in a recent phone call.
I called my mother with the news, and before I could tell her what I was thinking, she said “We really should make them this year.”
So even though I’m not the world’s biggest doughnut fan, next week I’ll be making what are almost certainly the infamous Christmas doughnuts from my father’s childhood.
I’ll eat at least one and savour it, remembering my father’s doughnut story, his laughter, and that mischievous twinkle in his eye.
I’ll think about both grandmothers, but especially my dad’s mother. She’d often urge me to sit beside her on the organ bench while she enthusiastically played her favourite Christmas tune, ‘Il est né le divin enfant,’ no matter the time of year.
We’d then enjoy a plate of whatever sweets she happened to have in her kitchen that day. There were always sweets.
I’ll also give silent thanks to my grandmother’s wonderful three sisters who each thought it worthwhile to write and share this family doughnut recipe. I can only hope that decades from now, someone will find at least one of my handwritten recipes and think fondly of me.
Above all, I’ll reflect on how despite the many decades that separate us, recipes scribbled on yellowing scraps of paper can connect us to the warm memories, comforting food, and love of those who have long since left us but continue to live on in our hearts.
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Yvette, tcheu belle histoire! Thank you for sharing this family story through recipes; I saw so many echoes of my own family’s life and lore through it as well. I feel very honoured to have one of my Mémére’s recipe books, written in her elegant handwriting – and some of the ingredient lists include volume instructions like “butter – size of an egg” and cooking instructions such as “cook until done” (my favourite).
I’m sure your son will love and treasure his gift; I hope you include this story too. Joyeux Noël.
What a great story Yvette ! There always has to be one doughnut thief in the family 🙂 My partner is from West Pubnico – Joanne – daughter of Duffy(who just passed away in the fall) et Appoline Talk about hand written recipes, now that you say that, I had some of my mother’s recipes. She was from First South, over the hill from Lunenburg and they had all of their own recipes too. Merry Christmas Joyeux Noel
Great Xmas story Yvette, it’s all about the family memories & traditions.