Downriver residents make Santa’s ‘Nice’ list over the holidays

Mandy Silvani and her aunt, Vicki Dortland make Christmas cookies every year.

Val Dutton

Santa couldn’t write “Nice” big enough on his 2020 Naughty and Nice List when he learned how Downriver families remember their loved ones over the holidays, regardless of what is happening around them.

It usually involves fresh ingredients and old recipes. In other words: yummy food linked to the past.

Chuck Peacock of Wyandotte has the old penuché recipe used by his late grandmother, Nina Wiltsee of Brownsville, PA, which he thinks she may have gotten from “a Pittsburgh newspaper.”

“(The recipe) is at least third hand,” Peacock said. “Grandma made it during the holidays as early as 1949.”

There is some mystery attached to the recipe, which includes a note from someone identified as “Miss M. May Nickerson, of Quincy, MA”: This is the time of the year everyone will want penuché.

“I have no idea who Miss M. May Nickerson of Quincy, Massachusetts was,” Peacock said. What he is certain of, though, is that the fudge-like concoction “is sinfully delicious.” And as addictive as those holiday dancing sugar plums.

“When I was a kid, I would happily eat myself sick on this stuff at Christmas time,” Peacock said. “Once she saw how much I liked it, (his grandmother) probably made it just for me – looking back, she had a tendency to spoil me and my brother.”

Vicki Dorland and her niece Mandy Silvani schedule a Christmas cookie-making session annually at Dorland’s Southgate home. The new gingerbread cookie recipe they tried recently “needs a few tweaks,” said Dorland, secretary at The First United Methodist Church of Wyandotte.

But no tweaks were necessary for the family classic: the Santa cookies that Dorland has made for 40 years, a sugar cookie “with extra flavor” coming from a little almond extract — and a lot of holiday spirit, of course.

“It’s a fun thing that Mandy and I do together, from the time she was a baby standing on a ladder to see,” Dorland said. “We used to do them with my mom. She taught me how.”

All three grandchildren of the late Mary Robertson of Southgate got elbow-deep in the cookie dough at one time or another, but “Mandy kept it up,” Dorland said. “She’s a great baker.”

The Santa cookies aren’t easy to work, requiring a careful manipulation of toothpicks to release the dough from the intricate cookie cut-out, which Dorland inherited from her mother, along with very specific directions on how to decorate the Santas.

“You start with the hat, then the face and beard,” Dorland said. “Next comes the mustache. You do it in a certain order or they won’t turn out.”

Aunt and niece made 45 Santa cookies in their six-hour baking session this past December. “The whole time we are thinking of my mom,” Dorland said.

“Alverna Baxter’s Cherry Dessert” came into the large Dutton family in 1998, when the late Bill Baxter of Wyandotte married the widow Elaine Dutton, formerly of Riverview.

The holiday recipe from Baxter’s mother got mixed reviews by the clan. The controversy was over whether it should be served frozen, as Bill had insisted, or thawed.

“It tasted the same to me whether it was frozen or thawed,” said Anna Dutton, one of Bill’s daughters-in-law. “Its pink color is very festive, though.”

But there was never controversy in the family over Bill; everyone loved the gentle man who ran the Baxter Hardware Store on Fort St. before retirement and treated Elaine’s nine grandchildren as his own.

“I made it every year when Bill came for a holiday dinner,” said Kelly Dutton, another of his daughters-in-law. And she served it frozen.

For 85 years and spanning five generations, the Milewski family has made pierogis for dinner as part of their Christmas Eve wigilia, or vigil. The tradition began with the arrival to Wyandotte from Poland by Tom Milewski’s busia, or grandmother, Maryanna Zegota, in 1920.

Candis Milewski, Tom’s wife, continues the tradition in her Wyandotte kitchen. Her two children, one who lives as far away as Colorado, do, also. “Two years ago, my grandchildren joined us to make pierogi,” Milewski said.

Candis doesn’t use the original recipe. Her mother-in-law was “very protective of her recipe and gave us the wrong recipe,” she said. “So, we came up with our own.”

A Christmas gift in disguise, perhaps, because she actually prefers her recipe. “Every family has its drama,” she said, laughing.

This year the family tradition was postponed until Dec. 27, since Tom had a medical emergency requiring hospitalization over Christmas Eve.

“He was upset because he thought he had missed his Christmas Eve meal,” Milewski said. “We waited for him to come home … to celebrate. The first thing Tom ate was the pierogi. That is the first thing he did when he walked in the door.”

Santa would consider that very nice, indeed.

‘Traveling’ Cheese Ball is a Renaud Family Favorite

Pam Goscinski of Wyandotte can’t remember a family Christmas party in her lifetime that did not include the cheese ball made “famous” by her late father, James “Bud” Renaud, formerly of Trenton.

No one quite remembers the recipe’s origins, but Renaud began making it in the early ‘80s. He liked to cook, Goscinski said, and his culinary repertoire ranged widely, from homemade sausage to tacos and a mac-and-cheese dish.

The cheese ball always got rave reviews.

In fact, it became so popular that the “Bud Renaud’s Cheese Ball” recipe was widely dispersed. Published in two church cookbooks, it also found its way into the recipe boxes of friends, appeared without fail at the family’s annual church party and, even now, is simply expected at all Renaud holiday events.

 “That cheese ball has traveled!” Goscinski said. She wonders how many families have adopted the cheese ball as a “must” at their holiday feasts.

Goscinski’s sister, Caryn Cable, also of Wyandotte, inherited the role of cheese ball maker when Bud died in 2008. She ensures that it takes its rightful place amid the appetizers, meatballs and the Jello salad offered buffet-style at Goscinski’s home when she hosts the Renaud Christmas event.

“Since our entire family looks forward to it and enjoys it so much, I just continue to make it each year,” Cable said. “It’s in honor and remembrance of my dad each Christmas.”

The cheese ball is more than a creamy spread on a cracker.

“There’s always the cheese ball at the parties,” Goscinski said, “so Dad always shows up.” She believes Bud would be honored to share the recipe with a larger audience.

“His famous cheese ball is his legacy,” she said. “Dad would be very proud.”

Bud Renaud’s Cheese Ball 

• 8-oz. brick of cream

cheese

• 1 stick of margarine or

butter

• ½ cup of chopped green

olives

• 4 green onions, chopped

• Chopped walnuts,

optional

Combine the first four ingredients and shape into a ball. Roll in the chopped walnuts. Refrigerate overnight. Enjoy!

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