She’s a little on the order of Santa Claus, if Santa sported an apron and a recipe collection. She’s not the red clothes and ho, ho, ho part, but she’s totally immersed in Santa’s spirit of giving. For weeks now, Sheila Lincoln’s East End kitchen has been a whirl of flour and sugar and butter. She has been baking something almost every day since Thanksgiving.
She has to keep after the list, for it’s a big long list like Santa’s: family and friends and lucky neighbors. The to-do list is equally as long.
Divinity, fudge (multiple flavors), huge batches of caramels (nuts and no-nuts), baklava, fruitcake.
Although that’s just for starters. And then she gets to give it all away.
“I love wrapping it all up in beautiful packages with beautiful ribbon, and putting it at the front door and leaving,” she says.
She’s not anonymous, but that’s OK — people know who the neighborhood baker is. “I can just let it go and know it’s going to be a sweet surprise,” she says. “And it’s fun to have sweet surprises. We don’t have many of those any more.”
Lincoln’s childhood didn’t have such happy holidays. “Christmas is more special to me, I think, because it wasn’t as a child,” she says. “I wanted to create a magical Christmas for my family.”
Peanut butter balls. Popcorn balls and pralines.
“I love it,” she says. “That’s my gift. I mean, I think it would be dreadful out there shopping for all those people. So my gift is food.”
Besides all the sugar and butter, her gifts represent (to a bystander) a daunting amount of time, presiding over a Kitchen Aide or the business end of a spoon. Caramels alone are 45 minutes of stirring — one batch. That she gives away.
“Oh!” she says. “Well, yes. And isn’t that a joy?”
Her generosity is not limited to Christmas. She just has a knack for desserts, even though she’s not burdened with a sweet tooth (surprisingly), nor is her husband. For his birthday, for example, she made his favorite lemon pie.
“He’ll have one piece, so the neighbors get a pie with one piece missing.”
That happens on a regular basis. She feels a little bit guilty. Not about the missing piece, but about how good it makes her feel.
“It gives me great joy to see people light up when I knock on the door,” she says. “That’s just what I do.”
Walnut cake, pecan sandies, toffee, rum cake.
“I just want it to be homemade,” she says. “People don’t do homemade any more.” She cites the textures and additives — but, really, it’s not that. She gives with joy and she gets it back.
“It’s my identity. I’m the lady with the treats.”
As for a 5-year-old neighbor girl, “I’m an angel food cake for her,” says Lincoln. “As she gets a little bit older, we’ll do it together.”
That’s another part of the joy — sharing the fun. Making cupcakes from scratch with her grandchildren. Or biscuits. “Huge messes,” she laughs. “Really fun.”
Brownies, cheesecake (of all kinds), carrot cake (with pineapple, without; fresh or crushed.) Chocolate angel food cake.
“(Baking) puts me in a happy place,” she says. She theorizes that food evokes powerful memories and that’s why we like it. “I think it takes people back to their childhood or a fond memory,” she says, remembering a friend exclaiming that an aunt used to make a certain cookie. “It takes them somewhere they haven’t been for a while.”
She has her own memories of making fudge with her mother — from a recipe she still uses. “We grew up very poor, but still,” she says, “some of my fondest meals are the chili my dad would make or the salmon patties my mom would make from (home-) canned salmon from her sister.”
And she likes that. She likes stirring up the good memories and they’re embedded all along the way: in the giving, in the making and in the receiving.
Peanut butter cookies, pecan pie, fresh strawberry pie, apple blackberry cake. Banana cake.
Lincoln, a retired school nurse, volunteers for a summer diabetes camp at Lake Alturas. For years, she has made a treat for the staff, (which they hide from the kids). It’s a chocolate coconut bar — except they’re not called that any more. “It’s called Sheila Bars,” she says. “They go up to camp whether I go or not.”
Recently, Lincoln, dropped by her old school. One of the staff members walked by and said, “Your rum cake! I remember the rum cake you used to bring in.” A few days later, Lincoln returned, rum cake in hand and a copy of the recipe. “In case she wanted to make it.”
She’s like that. As Lincoln goes through her recipes and thumbs through her cookbooks, each recipe that she stops at has a memory and a story and a person for whom that’s their favorite.
And the hand-written recipes — those are the treasures. “It connects me,” she says. Some of her recipes are in her sister’s handwriting, and some in her sister’s recipe box are handwritten by her mother — both of them are no longer living.
Her fruitcake recipe belongs to her husband’s aunt. She had no children. But she has a fruitcake recipe. Lincoln looks at the stained, faded recipe card and smiles. “I just remember how sweet it was when we sat and had it together. It just takes me back.”
Maybe that’s what makes her baking so good: The memories. The stories. The love, the generosity and care. And giving it all away freely.
“Joy,” she says. “It comes back to me, yes. It just makes me really happy.”
• King Arthur flour (available at WinCo) and Scharfenberg chocolate (from Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum).
• Lincoln gets her recipes from magazines: Gourmet, Sunset, Saveur, Chocolatier. (But she’s stopped subscribing and is just working her way through her accumulated old issues.) She recommends recipes on the back of products because the company has invested time and energy making sure it’s a good recipe. She usually finds one good recipe from the Saturday Wall Street Journal.
Sheila Bars (chocolate coconut bars)
Makes one 9 x 13 pan
2 cups graham crackers (crushed)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1 can Eagle Brand milk
7 ounce package Angel Flake coconut
8 1/2 ounce Hershey Bar with almonds
2 tablespoons peanut butter
Mix together graham crackers, sugar and melted butter. Press into pan. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.
Mix together milk and coconut; spread over graham cracker crust and bake for 10 minutes.
Melt together Hershey Bar and peanut butter in double boiler.
Spread over the top, cool in refrigerator and cut into small bars (1 inch).
Mary Jane Webb, from a Boise Junior League Cookbook
Make three weeks ahead; makes one very large tube pan or two bread pans (see note below)
24 ounces pecans
3/4 pound chopped candied pineapple (see note)
3/4 pound candied cherries
1 pound seedless white (golden) raisins
1/2 pound butter
2 1/2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 ounces brandy (cheap is fine) plus a lot more for soaking
4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 tsp. good quality cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
Rinse raisins in very hot water and drain. Let dry on paper towels.
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, brandy; then flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt. In very large bowl, combine pecans, pineapple, cherries, raisins and pecans. Add cake batter and stir with a heavy wooden spoon; mixture will be very stiff.
Oil pans with shortening, line with parchment paper and grease again. Bake tube pan 3 hours at 275 degrees; 2 hours for bread pans and 1 1/2 hours for small loaf pans. Let cool thoroughly.
Brush generously all over with brandy. Wrap in cheesecloth; brush again with brandy. Seal tightly in aluminum foil (so the brandy doesn’t leak out) and place in a cool dark place. Check weekly and renew the brandy as it is absorbed.
Note: Sheila Lincoln uses 1/2 pound pineapple and 1 pound candied red cherries. The fruitcake will not rise, so what you see is what you get. Sometimes Lincoln gets two bread pans and two little loaf pans.
From Wilma Burson, David Lincoln’s aunt