Remembering sweet treats from a sweet neighbor

image_balls01I put up my tree recently, and as with many a Christmas tradition, this ritual sent me back — footsteps clearly marked despite the drifting snow of thoughts flurrying in my mind — to trees of the past. Of prickly cedar trees whose feathery branches could barely bear the weight of tinsel but whose smell sent me to heaven; of the “upgrade” in the era of artificial trees to sturdier branches and fancier ornaments; to the varying range of fresh cut fir trees I have scored as an adult.image_tree

To a single pine bedecked with lights so bright they could be seen from down a lonely country road.

The only neighbors I ever knew growing up, the only neighbors close enough to be considered neighbors, were Bob and Donna, who lived a third of a mile away. There were enough differences and distance between our family and theirs that we were not in the space of close friends, yet there was camaraderie and caring, as people back in my part of the country afford. You are just good to each other. It’s the way to be.

Bob and Donna married at 18 and both began driving buses the same year. By the time we started school, they carried us there, and because we were in such close proximity to the bus-driving couple, we were the first ones on and the last ones off. It was a long daily ride along dusty, muddy, snowy, bumpy, occasionally unnavigable roads. Like the rural mail carrier, the rural bus driver had to be made of some sturdy, ucoatedimage_dippedskilled stuff, not only for the roads, but for the charges inside their crayon-box yellow vehicles. Donna was my bus driver all of my school days. She was calm and cheerful and quiet, with a friendly dimpled smile in the morning and afternoon.

At holidays, she treated us from her kitchen — sugar cookies shaped like pumpkins, crunchy caramel corn, a Christmas wreath made of green-frosted cinnamon rolls for the family. And chocolate dipped peanut butter balls better than any bought from a fancy chocolatier.

One year, she gave us the recipe. For the past, I-don’t-know-how-many years, I have made them, changing and modifying the recipe but a little (the original recipe used milk chocolate Hershey bars, and I opt for darker chocolate chips. It also called for paraffin wax to set the chocolate, which I let go of completely and substitute with a little vegetable shortening so the chocolate does not dull). They are simple to make and any trouble you go to for them (mainly mess, as peanut butter and chocolate will bring), is well worth it.

sheetThe recipe makes many chocolates. I give them to friends. I send them to my parents (my mom calls them “bon-bons”). They are wonderful and welcome at parties. Once you bite through the sweet chocolate to hit the buttery/salty, creamy crunch of the interior (made so with Rice Krispies), you will not be sorry you took a little time to do some dipped chocolates. If you have never dipped chocolates, I recommend this as your first recipe to try.

Each year, I make them at Christmas, and I think of Donna and how she saw a little girl (among many boys and girls) to school, from kindergarten through high school, in a bouncing yellow bus.

And the steady, but unspoken neighbor-ship she and her husband held with my parents as they eked out years living in the wild and tamed spaces where they all held up and held their own. How they watched and listened for each other, in all that could be watched and listened for in the distance of a third of a mile. Each year, Bob and Donna decorated a pine tree planted in their front yard, and my mom took comfort seeing the twinkling lights from her vantage point down below.

imagcutViewMy mother did not know that her neighbor also found solace in seeing the lit Howard tree, too, until the last years of Donna’s life, when she was ill and stayed mostly indoors and started to call my mom more, and in her last year, requested my mother keep her tree up past Christmas because it just made her feel better to look down the road in the dark hours and see the colored lights.

My mother kept it up through spring.

Donna’s Peanut Butter Balls
Makes about 65 balls

1 stick unsalted butter
One 16-ounce jar creamy or crunchy peanut butter
One 1-lb. package of powdered sugar
3 to 3-1/2 cups crispy rice cereal
36 ounces chopped semisweet or milk chocolate or chocolate chips
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening.

Line large baking sheets with waxed paper. In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine peanut butter and butter and heat until butter is melted. In a large mixing bowl, combine powdered sugar and cereal. Pour peanut butter/butter mixture over cereal mixture and stir together until all is thoroughly combined. Form into 1 to 1-1/2 inch balls and place on baking sheets.

Melt chocolate (I recommend doing this in batches, not all at once) with a little of the shortening) in the microwave (in 30-second intervals). Stir to smooth it out, then using two forks, dip each peanut butter ball in chocolate to coat evenly. Place on waxed paper to set. Once fully cool, store in airtight container.

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