Miracles and wonder: passing down family traditions through food

By Sam Woulidge, 20 December 2022

In Sam Woulidge’s family, Christmas would not be Christmas without condensed milk and a pile of well-chosen books – family traditions she has passed down to her son. This year she shares this tradition through an easy four-ingredient condensed milk cake.

Condensed milk and Christmas and books and the sea are forever linked in my mind. From the age of 10 my Christmas gift consisted of going with my mom to Pilgrim’s Books, an independent bookshop in Cavendish Square in Cape Town, and being allowed to choose 10 books. Yes, 10. These were then wrapped in Christmas paper and given to me on Christmas Eve. I cared not for surprises, I cared only for books.

The post-Christmas days would be the happiest of the holidays for my shy, introverted self. I spent them reading obsessively in my bed until late at night, or under the milkwood trees while hiding from the blazing afternoon sun, or on the rocks next to crashing waves on misty mornings, ever grateful to the wonderful Miss Ashton who, when I was nine, told me that should I learn to read, I would never be lonely again. That I would discover there were others who felt exactly the same way as I did and, even if they did not, the reading of their stories would offer a connection, and there would be a sweetness in knowing that. There was also a sweetness, an intense sweetness, in the cold, sticky can of condensed milk waiting for me in the back of the fridge. Every so often I would walk to the kitchen and take slow sips from the can that had two holes punched into either side of the lid to allow for easy flow. A secret pleasure. Condensed milk has always been my weakness; my mom’s too.

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My very best would be the rare occasions when she would open a can of the milky magic, peel off the lid, and offer me a teaspoon. We would then both double dip in utter condensed milk contentment. Jacques once told me how as a child he would walk to the café in Onrus and buy a can of condensed milk. He would then devour it alone while reading The Adventures of Asterix in a quiet corner of whichever house his family was renting for the Christmas holidays during their annual trek from Pretoria. He, too, would pierce a hole in either side of the top to allow for maximum flow. So, there we were, the two of us, slightly socially awkward, in the same seaside dorpie, doing the same sweet bookish things, years and years before we would ever meet. Kismet. And now there is Seb, our beloved ferocious reader, who will set an early alarm so that he has time to read before school.

Our boy always has a book in his hand. He is an unstoppable reader. He is also, thankfully, partial to some condensed milk, although he prefers his caramelised. But mostly he likes it when we bake a terrifically easy, not-too-sweet, four-ingredient condensed milk cake. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the three of us making our way through our respective reading lists and occasionally cracking open a can of the sweet stuff. I’ve changed the bookish Christmas tradition somewhat. Of course Seb receives books as gifts, but we don’t make him wait until Christmas Eve to open them. Instead, we have the Christmas countdown; a pile of carefully and lovingly chosen books wrapped under the Christmas tree and, as he finishes one, he can take another.

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Soon he’ll be wanting to choose his own books, as I once did. I’m looking forward to that because I know that he’ll choose an Afrikaans book for Jacques to read to him, as he has done every night since Seb entered our world. Because his father is steadfast like that. And I know that he will choose at least one book that has a touch of magical realism, because, like me, our son believes in miracle and wonder. And because Christmas is a time of miracles and wonder. And because Seb is our living proof of miracle and wonder. Kismet.

Find the recipe for four-ingredient condensed milk cake here. 

Sam Woulidge

Article by Sam Woulidge

Cape Town-based writer Sam Woulidge is a regular TASTE columnist, blogger and author of 'Confessions of a Hungry Woman'. Follow her on Twitter @samwoulidge
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