I think I was six when my mother first made the sweet dough. She was searching for a yeast-raised coffee cake or sweet roll to serve for Easter breakfast: this particular recipe called for 11-3/4 cups of flour, a lot of muscular pummeling, and several raisings, deflatings, and raising-agains.
There was muttering; there was a floury mist and a fine silt that covered every kitchen surface, but, at the end of that first long-ago run through, there were trays and trays of wonderful, yeasty, cinnamon-scented sweet rolls. Golden brown, light and powdery, they were topped with thick swirls of butter cream icing. They sat, triumphant, those rolls, on six or seven cookie sheets around that big old country kitchen, an Easter-Eve culinary triumph.
Very few actually made it through to the next day: the yeasty creations were an unusual treat for four healthy boys and a sturdy sister with a willing appetite.
From that Easter on, the recipe became an expected part of family festivities. I think Mom tired, quickly, of shaping all those individual sweet rolls by hand; one Christmas, she braided the dough into coffee cakes, frosted them, and using what was on hand, made a pleasing pattern with halved maraschino cherries and walnuts. That, too, became law: “Cherry NUT cherry!” my organized little niece Meg would intone, helping Grandma decorate the cakes. No deviations were thereafter allowed. (It may not surprise you to learn that Meg grew into a wonderfully talented, highly disciplined, very orderly, engineer.)
The yeasty coffee cakes are still holiday essentials; I am thinking of them as Easter approaches. I confess to giving up that fine layer of silt in favor of buying frozen yeast dough and skipping right to the raising and shaping steps.
But still. Easter morning without this particular coffee cake would just seem flat and wrong and weirdly devoid.
I am thinking of this–of coffee cakes and other favored family dishes–as my son Jim tackles a new project: organizing our rampant collection of recipes.
Some of our recipes spill out of boxes and folders; some are carefully collected and committed to notebooks and binders. Recent clippings sit on top of the microwave. Ripped-from-magazine possibilities poke from ‘real’ cookbooks,–an aging Betty Crocker binder from the late 1960’s, the red-checked Better Homes & Gardens classic I’ve replaced at least twice.
Just recently we went searching for the Buffalo wing dip recipe. I thought I knew which collection it was in, but couldn’t find it in the table of contents Jim had carefully organized a few years ago. The title by which we called the dip didn’t match the title under which it actually resided. Mark had been commanded to bring the dish to work for a birthday celebration; we needed to shop for the ingredients. I was looking under ‘Buffalo’; the recipe actually was listed under ‘Hot.’ We found it, in time, but not without a little angstiness.
Jim’s organizational chore is timely and helpful, and it has me thinking of how we acquire the recipes we love.
Our go to recipe for “Beef Paprika” comes from my old friend Pam Hall. Pam and I worked together in college; we dated fast friends; broke but hospitable, we served a lot of scratch-cooked meals at our respective tables. Pam’s talented mother tested recipes for Betty Crocker, and one of the recipes she tried out was Beef Paprika. Cubes of beef that simmer in a rich paprika-based sauce, it starred in a meal Pam fixed for our troupe shortly after we stumbled onto that wonderful friendship. I borrowed the recipe; I committed it to an index card. I cooked it many times.
And then I moved out of that particular phase of my life, and I discovered, with dismay, that the index card was lost in the transition. Pam moved away for graduate school, and we lost touch; and it was only years later that I discovered “Beef Paprika” was the cool insider’s pre-publication name. The recipe is in that Betty Crocker Cookbook on my shelf, the very one my younger brother Sean and I scrimped and plotted to buy our mother in the late 1960’s. It is called, there, Hungarian Goulash. We still call it Beef Paprika; I still make it at least every other month.
And I never fail to think of Pam, who was a dynamic, successful woman, taken by an invidious cancer way too early. I treasure the times.
My first real job after college, not counting things that had no relation whatsoever to my college degree (dental assistant, ice cream factory worker, deli clerk) was teaching middle school English at a little inner city parochial school. During my nine years there, I went from married to unmarried to married again. And during that time, my role as doting aunt prepared me for a new step-mom gig, and finally for the impending arrival of my son James.
When James arrived, I left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom for a while, and joyfully joined the group of Catholic school mommies who met for breakfast every other week at one another’s houses. The children played and fought and fell asleep to Sesame Street; we mommies ate delicious home-baked goodies and drank quarts of coffee and shared our worries and exhaustion and cost-saving tips.
And recipes. Our family enjoyment of breakfast bakes and pig-picking cakes dates directly bake to those blessed bi-weekly outings, which offered sustenance on many levels.
I mentally fast forward twenty years to the Pasta Club, our group of seven friends with a love of cooking and a reverence for each other. We took turns, every month or so, meeting at each other’s homes and enjoying meals that often, but not always, centered on pasta dishes. One Saturday night, Kathie and Dan hosted us in their beautiful farmhouse, and Kathie lifted the lids from two pots of fragrant soup. I can’t remember what the second one was, I was so taken with her rich and hearty chicken and rice soup. I called her for the recipe not long after, needing a dish to pass for a work event, and she generously shared. Last month, I made it for the Thursday lunch club that meets in our building, and the crockpot was pretty much scraped clean. That soup says “fellowship” to me with every savory, cheesy spoonful.
The menus of our lives are gathered from family celebrations, from sharing with friends. They are shaped by individual leanings and by nutritional needs. I have a repertoire of goodie recipes from the days we tried hard to avoid using wheat or dairy in Jim’s diet. During that era, we also discovered an easy chicken and rice bake technique and added it to our regular offerings–one dish, thrifty, tasty, and inoffensive, ingredient-wise. We wove that sucker into the family repertoire; we enjoyed it just last night.
And then there are Holy Grail recipes for which I continue to search. In high school, at a bake sale, I tasted a bar cookie that was a revelation: all these years later, I taste those cookies in my dreams. I still scour websites and pore through magazines, seeking a cookie method that REACHES that bar. And I circle in on a recipe that, baked at home, approximates the wonderful Reeses cup cookie in some, but certainly not all, Starbucks branches that are tucked into Barnes and Nobles stores. (“STOP!!!” I yell when, on a trip to our old hometown, we approach the Peach Street exit outside of Erie, PA. “STOP! I have to get a cookie!!”)
My recipes are aided and abetted by thrift and an inherited horror of waste: I have tasty recipes that use up stale bread and the ends of bags of potato chips, nubbins of cheese, that little bowl of boiled potatoes, and the last bit of ham in the tupperware on the back of the shelf. An anthropologist, I think, could look through the book that Jim is assembling, years hence, and probably make some pretty apt guesses about who we, as a family, are.
I think of our wonderful wellness coach who wants so badly for us to give up some of the things in our diet—white flour and sugar, most carbs and red meats, candy bars and cheese curls. She offers us a snacking recipe of organic nut butter balls with flax seed and agave syrup, tiny sticky things that are no doubt very healthy.
And I think of my cookie jar, which cries out piteously when empty. I think of Grandma’s Christmas fudge and special occasion roast beef and gathering a crew around a big pot of Mark’s parents’ sauce and meatballs. I think of the chocolate chip cookie recipe we have all come to favor.
So, the flax balls: probably not, although we have committed to more salads and fewer mac and cheeses (but, oh! I have a wonderful recipe for mac and cheese…) We aim for healthy, but the foods of our life, the feast and the treats, are more than that. They’re history and they’re memory; they’re ropes that tie us together, and they are joys that set certain days apart. We’ll always weave them in, just maybe not as often–but they’ll be more treasured, due to that.
“Is Chex mix an appetizer?” Jim asks, looking up from his perusal of rumpled, dog-eared recipes. And I remember, suddenly, when he was a wee one and we lived down the street from Jane Lincoln, that talented French teacher, that wonderful mom. Every Christmas, Jane would make buckets of Chex Mix, pack it into beautiful tins, and her glowing girls would bring those offerings to the neighbors. Like Pam, Jane left us way too soon. Like Pam, a simple dish is one of the things that keeps, for me, her giving, gallant memory alive.
“For sure, Chex mix is an appetizer,” I agree, and Jim turns back to his keyboard, fingers flying, gathering the recipes of our lives and loves together.