I Honour My Grandma by Baking Her Christmas Specialty: Cherry Chews

My cherry chews triple the sugar my grandma used. It's the only dish I bake, as a way of honouring her memory.

My grandmother wasn’t the warm and cozy type. When she came to stay with us, even our family dog sat up straighter. She wasn’t big on cooing or cheek-pinching or saying, “I love you.” Instead, she made turtle-shaped pancakes from scratch for her grandchildren.

I was always a fan of Grandma’s baking. According to family lore, my first sentence was “Grandma’s peach pie.” (Which is actually a sentence fragment, she would want me to point out.)

She baked pies according to the season: peach and blueberry in the summer, apple in the fall. By first snowfall she turned her attention to holiday treats, including my personal favourite, cherry chews: three-layer squares made with salty oats, gooey coconut and maraschino cherries, and topped with icing coloured pink by the fruit’s juice. To my eight-year-old palate, they were confection perfection.

At my house, Christmas mornings were a whirlwind of crinkled wrapping paper and squeals of excitement, but by lunchtime my sisters and I were always brushed and dressed, ready for the drive to my grandma’s place in Aylmer, Ont.

A small farming community two hours southwest of Toronto, the town is best known for its tomatoes, corn and tobacco—and, in some circles, for my grandmother Marjorie Waterworth Grant, who lived in her home on Wellington Street for 65 years. She worked as a legal secretary before getting married and starting a family; when she was widowed at the age of 30, she took on her husband’s job and sold insurance, eventually putting four children through university.

A single mother with a modest income, her devotion to DIY was unwavering. She scoffed at anything “store bought.” As a result, her holiday baking required a staggered approach.

The Christmas pudding took six weeks to harden, and her “nuts and bolts” snack mix was baked in advance, jarred and stored to better soak up the Worcestershire sauce and seasoning salts. Then came the blondies, date trilbies, mincemeat tarts, gingerbread Christmas trees, rum balls, shortbread wreaths with holly garnishes and cherry chews. When friends or neighbours dropped by, Grandma was never short on seasonal refreshments.

On Christmas Day, my aunts, uncles and cousins would arrive, eagerly anticipating the roasted turkey. My grandma cooked a perfect bird, but for me it was a preamble to the baked goods. My mission was simple: Consume the cherry chews as quickly as possible, then feign surprise when stocks ran out.

As a teenager I started making cherry chews myself, going off the recipe my mom had in her childhood cookbook. In my 20s, the tradition lagged. My family spent the holidays at our home in Toronto or up north skiing, so some years there were cherry chews and others the season slipped by without them.

My grandma died in 2012, when I was in my early 30s. I don’t think I consciously decided that making cherry chews was my way of honouring her, but now, every December, I grease up my baking trays. The recipe isn’t exactly hard, but it does require focus. Not enough time in the oven and the base will crumble in your hands; a minute too long and you’re biting into rock.

Also, you must be patient: The bottom must be cool before you layer on the coconut and cherries and put everything back into the oven. Then, more cooling and more waiting while icing was eaten straight from the bowl. My one tweak has been to triple the amount of icing sugar, butter and cherry juice so that the top layer is a centimetre thick, minimum. I suspect my grandma would see this as terribly overindulgent.

When possible, I make a day of it: I pop into the local dollar store to pick up seasonal cookie tins, listen to Christmas music and turn my kitchen into a Yuletide crime scene (we’re still finding flecks of pink icing come February).

That batch of cherry chews is my one and only foray into baking. The mixer is then tucked away on our highest shelf; it won’t be needed for the next 11 months.

Two years ago, I made cherry chews at my mom’s place, where my family had gathered to weather the latest Covid-19 surge. We had multiple false starts and no shortage of drama. I forgot to set a timer and only realized my mistake when smoke pouring from the oven set off the alarms. I woke up to find that my sister had eaten my backup batch before it was even iced.

Every year there is a moment when I tell myself that I’m done—but then December hits and I can’t wait to re-enact the ritual. Just that one recipe, though. I can’t fathom devoting the time and care that my grandma did, continuing with her epic holiday bakes well into her 90s.

When I asked various family members to share their recollections of Grandma’s baking, the texts I got back were about date trilbies and rhubarb pies and picnics where my uncle refused to eat anything that wasn’t baked by his mom or her sister. Each of us has our own special memories.

I realize now that my grandma and I never actually baked cherry chews together. By the time Christmas rolled around, the work was done. I like to think that she would approve of my small way to mark her much larger legacy, if not of my updated icing ratio.

When my own daughter is older, I hope to share my memories of holidays at Grandma’s while the cherry chews bake in the oven.

Hungry? Try some of these vintage Christmas dessert recipes.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada