Every year at Christmas, Donna Gaylord makes her mother-in-law’s Quaker Plum Pudding. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

WELLS — For decades Rosa Gaylord, a homemaker in Winthrop, made the same dessert for Christmas: Quaker Plum Pudding.

Her son, Jim, loved warm desserts, so she indulged him, as she usually did her only son. She began making the pudding about 65 years ago, when he was 10 years old.

“I was the only son of an only son of an only son,” Jim Gaylord, a retired teacher, recalled with a small laugh. “I got mostly what I wanted.”

Fast forward 30 years, to 1984, and Gaylord’s wife, Donna, phoned her mother-in-law to get the recipe. For years, the couple had spent Christmas with Jim’s parents, but now they had small children of their own, and they were living in New Hampshire. They decided to forego the traveling and spend Christmas at their own home in Hennicker.

“When I called her for the recipe, she said she couldn’t really give me a recipe because she just threw it all together,” Donna Gaylord said.

Sound familiar? It’s a cook’s Christmas conundrum, asking for a beloved family holiday recipe and being told it’s not available, for one reason or another. In this case, Rosa Gaylord was like a lot of other good home cooks, rarely following recipes for items she made frequently and knew by heart. That’s the way Rosa made her bread, muffins and pie crusts – a little of this, a little of that, with no written instructions in sight.

But was there also something else going on? Some desire to hold the secret close for a little longer? To be the only one who could make this special treat for her son?

Donna Gaylord didn’t press her mother-in-law, and instead over the following months tried plum pudding recipes she found in other cookbooks, and even a boxed version. None was ever quite right.

A family photo of the late Rosa Gaylord, who began making the plum pudding 65 years ago. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Rosa Gaylord, who died in 2010 at the age of 90, served the plum pudding every year after a hearty Christmas meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She was known to her grandchildren as Mémé, a French-Canadian name for grandmother. (Her husband, Leonard, was called Bumpa.)

More than anything, Rosa loved taking care of her eight grandchildren. “She really loved her family,” Donna Gaylord said. “That’s what made her happy.”

She was also the family story teller. Rosa regaled her family with tales of the crazy things she and her siblings did as kids, before there was television – driving cars out on the ice, jumping into snowbanks. “She could tell family stories that, well, you either wanted to throw up because you’re laughing so hard or you wanted to pee your pants, one or the other,” her son recalled. “She was good at it.”

She could also be serious, he added.

“They lived through the Depression,” Jim Gaylord said. “They lived through the war. My dad was a POW. He got shot down over Berlin, at the very end of the war, luckily, so he didn’t stay long. And so he dealt with all of that, and she still maintained her sense of humor. But she could be in my face whenever she wanted to.”

Rosa was no pushover, her family says, and her Catholic faith was very important to her. So was cooking.

The Gaylord family home housed three generations. Jim Gaylord’s grandmother would not cede the kitchen to Rosa until she reached her mid-80s. His grandfather owned the local grocery and came home for lunch every day, and if the soup was too hot, “he’d push it away and say ‘Bring it back when it’s fit to eat.’ ”

“There was a window in the kitchen and she could see (my grandfather’s) truck turning the corner on the street,” Jim Gaylord said, “and she would go over and blow on it to be sure it was the right temperature when he came home.”

When it came time for Rosa to take over the cooking, she set her own, firm boundaries in a most memorable way.

“When my mother finally took over, the first Sunday night she placed a sandwich on a plate in front of my grandfather, who had always eaten what he wanted to eat,” Jim Gaylord said. “And he looked at the sandwich and said ‘What the hell is that?’ And she said, ‘It’s a sandwich. Get used to it.’ ”

It was her way, Gaylord said, of letting him know that there was a “new sheriff in town.”

Rosa loved to garden. She canned a lot of food, and made her own jam. She taught her daughter-in-law how to make fish chowder, deep-dish chicken pies, cookies, brownies and Woodrow Wilson hermits. The hermits are still a family favorite.

“I make those every time my son comes home, the youngest one,” Jim Gaylord said. “When he gets off the plane, as soon as he gets here he has hermits and cold white milk.”

Donna Gaylord makes the plum pudding at her home in Wells. It steams on the stovetop for several hours and is served with hard sauce. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Rosa shared the hermit recipe, so why not the plum pudding? Donna Gaylord, a retired nurse, said she never saw her mother-in-law’s withholding of the recipe – if that’s what she was actually doing – as a negative, and it’s become a fun family story. “I think she may have forgotten that she had a recipe,” Gaylord said.

But Donna’s daughter, Jennifer, who lives in Boston, is more skeptical. Donna Gaylord recalls her saying ” ‘Oh come on, mom, Mémé knew where that recipe was. She just wanted to make it for dad.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK too. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like making things for my children that I know they like.’ ”

So how did she finally get the recipe? One summer, the Gaylords and their three children were visiting the family in Winthrop. Donna Gaylord sat at the kitchen counter, chatting with her mother-in-law and watching her cook. She reached out for a cookbook on the kitchen counter, and when she opened it, it fell right open to the Quaker Plum Pudding recipe. Gaylord doesn’t recall the name of the cookbook, but she remembers that the page was splattered all over, a sign that the recipe had been consulted many times, many years ago.

“I didn’t even say anything to her,” Donna Gaylord said. “I just wrote it down, and that’s what I’ve used ever since.”

The pudding is moist, but not heavy. If fruitcake and gingerbread married, this would be its offspring.

Gaylord now uses the plum pudding as a fitting end to her own family’s Christmas dinner in Wells, where she and her husband have retired. Every year she serves roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (the recipe is from “The Joy of Cooking”), just like her late mother-in-law used to do, with side dishes of peas, onions, mashed potatoes and some kind of squash.

Donna Gaylord is doubtful that the Quaker Plum Pudding recipe will last far into future generations. All of her adult children – her stepson Jeffrey, her daughter Jennifer and her son Jason – eat the pudding, but are less enthusiastic about it because they have their own favorite Christmas desserts: vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, and (Jason’s favorite) apple pie.

But as long as the Gaylord family eats Christmas dinner together, there will be Quaker plum pudding on the table. And with every bite, they will think of their mémé.

The pudding is made in a decorative mold. Buy this Photo

QUAKER PLUM PUDDING

Donna Gaylord uses Pepperidge Farm oatmeal bread for the breadcrumbs. She uses some of the crust, but not all of it. This pudding can be made a few days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.

Serves 8-10

4-6 slices soft bread of any kind

1 cup milk

½ cup butter, melted

½ cup molasses

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon cloves

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup citron

Make breadcrumbs by tearing apart the slices of bread. You need 3 cups coarse, slightly packed breadcrumbs.

Generously grease a 1-quart mold. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, pour the milk over the breadcrumbs. Stir in the butter and molasses, then add the rest of the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the prepared mold.

To steam the pudding, place a small wire rack on the bottom of an 8-quart pot and fill the pot with about an inch of water. (It’s fine if the water touches the mold.) Place the pudding mold on the rack and cover it with a piece of wax paper to keep water from dripping off the lid of the pot onto the pudding. Bring the water to a boil on the stovetop, then lower the heat as low as it will go while keeping the water at a light simmer. Steam the pudding for 3 hours, checking water levels occasionally and adding more water if necessary.

Let the pudding sit for 5 to 10 minutes until the surface is dry. Flip the pudding out of the mold onto a serving platter, slice, and serve warm with hard sauce.

FOR THE HARD SAUCE:

½ cup butter

1 ½ cups sifted confectioners sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream the ingredients together and refrigerate until time to serve.

Recipe cards for hermits, a Gaylord family favorite. The oldest one is so well-used, it’s almost impossible to read. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

WOODROW WILSON HERMITS

Makes about 30 small bars

This is a popular old recipe that has become a Gaylord family favorite. A version of it was published in the “State of Maine Cookbook” in 1925.

1 cup sugar

½ cup shortening

½ cup molasses

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup lukewarm water or coffee

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 cups raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the first four ingredients. Dissolve the baking soda in the water or coffee and add it to the bowl, then add the remaining ingredients and stir until combined. Spread the batter in the baking pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to check for doneness. When cool, cut into bars of any size.

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