Hello, Back There

I wear light clothes on a late-September Thursday; it is hot,—hot and muggy. That night, I crawl into bed with the ceiling fan whirring full blast. As I nod over my book, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on again.

It’s been running hard most of the day.

I wake up sometime during the night and know that rain is pounding the roof. I sleep, deep and sound, until the morning has lightened, and I realize, before even swinging my feet out of the bed, that something has changed.

Finally, overnight, crisp fall weather has arrived.

I dress in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I spend Friday morning grading papers and running errands. In the afternoon, I rake the front yard, and my cheeks are rosy and cold by the time I come into the house. I sit at the dining room table, I check my phone for messages, and I think: SOUP.

I know just the soup I want, and I have all the ingredients. I dig out the old yellow notebook and flip back to Kathie’s recipe for chicken and wild rice soup.

I get out all the ingredients, substituting here and there. I don’t buy Velveeta these days, but I have a wonderful Vermont cheddar and some sharp, creamy, American-style cheese that Mark brought home from one Saturday expedition; those will do nicely. And I’ll use my own chicken broth in place of the five cups of water. And I don’t buy canned cream of mushroom soup any longer; instead, I make something called “Cream of Something Soup.” Those directions lodge in the same notebook as Kathie’s soup recipe.

I found “Cream of Something Soup” when we were trying to wrestle Jim’s diet into some kind of control. Before his autism diagnosis, we discovered, with the help of a book called Is This Your Child?, that Jim was sensitive to a slew of foods. He loved casseroles with meat and cheese and canned cream of chicken soup. The book cautioned against using processed foods, and especially discouraged salty processed soups. I went looking for alternatives and found “Cream of Something Soup” on line.

The recipe provided all kinds of alternatives. I could use AP flour, or I could use gluten-free AP flour substitute. I could use milk, or I could use broth. I could add mushrooms or onions, or no veggies at all. And the prep time was three minutes. I used it in one of our family favorites dishes, a chicken and rice bake, and Jim liked it BETTER than when I used cream of chicken soup from the can.

I bookmarked the recipe, and used it again and again. Finally, I printed the recipe and taped it into the notebook.

One of my students had used the yellow and black notebook for her English assignments; at the end of the semester, she did not pick it up. Most of its pages were, sadly, unmarred by academic work and, after waiting a few months to see if she’d come back for it, I ripped out the used pages and started pasting recipes inside. Her name is still emblazoned on the yellow plastic cover in black sharpie that has faded but not disappeared over the 25 years I’ve been taping and using recipes in this book.

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While the soup simmers, I page through the yellow notebook. I have some awesome veggie recipes from a book called Black Dog: Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook. I found that at our former hometown library; the recipe for Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Salad makes one of the best bring-a-dish concoctions I’ve ever found. I copied those cookbook recipes on my printer at home; the pages were brightly colored, and my printer was not up to their vibrancy. But the words were there. I trimmed the pallid copies and pasted them on the loose-leaf pages of the book.

Some recipes I copied long-hand.

Some recipes were written out for me in someone else’s hand: Mark’s dad gave us his meatball recipe. Wendy gave me directions to make her neighbor Joan’s rhubarb cake. Terri sent me wonderful veggie-based recipes on beautiful flowered cards, written in her unmistakable flowing hand.

Kathie emailed me her recipe, and I printed it out.

And I found the other recipes in all kinds of random places—in magazines and newspapers and on-line cooking sites, on the backs of packages and boxes. I cut them out or printed them off, and I pasted them on loose-leaf pages intended for cramped, painstaking notes on some challenging academic subject, and the cast-off notebook grew fat.

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Now I page through the book. I am thinking of making some kind of dessert—not cookies; we just had cookies. We’ve also had pie and a sort of chocolate pudding-y trifle recently.

Maybe, I think, a cake, and I flip a page over and see this in-my-face title: “Better Than Sex Cake.” Despite the title, I read through. It is a Bundt cake; with a little creativity (I’ll use Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream; I’ll pulverize chocolate chips in the food processor instead of grating German sweet chocolate), I can put this together with things in my pantry. I take the notebook to the kitchen and start to gather ingredients.

And as I gather, I begin to wonder. Who was I, and what was I thinking, when I cut out this recipe? I was probably in my late thirties or early forties; I was parenting a bright, lovable, special needs kid. I was helping my husband make his law school dream come true. I was working.

And I was clipping recipes. They were recipes I probably wouldn’t use at the time that I clipped them. In a way, I think, I was sending letters to my future self.

Someday, I was thinking, someday…we’ll be settled and life will be calmer, and I’ll have a lot more time to browse through my recipes and try new things.

Someday, I was promising, we are going to make this cake.

For a minute, I feel like I’ve connected two wires, felt the snick as they cleaved together, and now hold the completed, humming cable in my two hands. There was a moment of reaching back, of putting my hand on that younger woman’s shoulder, of telling her that there were going to be some stunningly rough spots, but that it was all going to turn out to be okay.

Young self: sending message.

Old self: making the cake.

Message received.

That recycled notebook is looking a little bit like a time capsule to me.

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I am not the only one who does this, who clips and collects and keeps recipes I won’t use right now but might indeed use later. I know this because, when Jim was at odds and between jobs, I asked him if he’d catalog my recipes for me.

He did better than that. He took my old yellow notebook, and my mother’s wooden recipe box—the one with the strawberries painted on it,—and the shoe box full of magazine and newspaper and back-of-package clippings, and he retyped all the recipes, and he printed them off, and he organized them into binders. They are categorized and alphabetized. They comprise four volumes.

My friend Susan contracted with Jim to create a binder for her. One chilly afternoon, they met in her pretty kitchen and bent their heads over a flat, square recipe box. Susan pulled out recipes she loved and recipes she treasured and recipes she wanted to try. Just as I did, she had started, in her young womanhood, clipping and collecting.

Jim made a binder for Susan, too, organizing those missives from a younger self into a tidy, easy-to-access tome, a book that current self could browse through easily. And I knew I hadn’t been the only hopeful young soul spinning dreams of parties and gatherings and comforting meals out into the future.

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I love my binders. But I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the old yellow notebook. Sometimes I like to bring it out and just browse. I mark recipes to try soon and I put x-es through recipes I attempted that bombed, but mostly I think about who I was back when I saved that recipe for me. I run my fingertips over the glossy magazine clipping from twenty years ago, and I feel the cloth-y softness of recipes clipped from long-ago newspapers. I stop and take in the handwriting of some loved person, now, maybe, gone.

For a minute, nowness fades and I feel the continuum, the whole roiling, circling line that is life. I think that, if only I could master the art of tessering as Meg did in A Wrinkle in Time, I cold fold the continuum neatly and step off into those other days, bringing reassurance and giving promises.

But maybe, somehow, that’s already happened.

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The cake is good. Does it live up to its name?

I’m not even going there.

And I’m going to re-name it, anyway. One of the funny quirks of autism, I’ve found, is a sort of Puritanical streak. Jim would not find it amusing to eat “Better Than Sex” cake.

Maybe, I think, we’ll call it “Better Than Books” or “Richer Than Reading” cake. And of course, then I’ll have to dispute that title, too.

Whatever we call it, we’ll eat that cake, down to the crumbs on the platter.

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And isn’t it funny that, years ago, younger me clipped the very recipe that I’d have wherewithal to mix together at the ripe old age of 64, when all the worries of those days, all the encompassing demands on my time, and all the pulsing questions of the time have been resolved?

I might, of course, have been able to find a very similar recipe on line, but then that current never would have been coursing. I wouldn’t have held that humming cable in my hands.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn back and say, “Hello, you. Thanks! And wait till you see how it all turns out.”

Recipes…

Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe

First Mixture:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1-3/4 cups vegetable shortening
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Second Mixture:

  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup water

In a large mixing bowl, mix all the ingredients in the first mixture with a fork until they’re well-blended.

Whisk the second mixture in a separate dish.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all the ingredients are moistened.

Mold dough into a ball, Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide in five portions. Roll out what you need on a floured surface.

Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Makes five nine-inch crusts; freeze the dough balls you don’t use.

 

Lee Brothers’ Mac and Cheese can be found at….

https://www.tasteandtellblog.com/cookbook-of-the-month-recipe-macaroni-and-cheese/

 

Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies (with thanks to Terry)

Mix together:

1 cup margarine

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons water

 

Stir, then add to the above:

2-1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

 

Stir in:

2 cups oatmeal (quick oats)

And:

12 ounces chocolate chips (optional)

Drop on cookie sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes in 350-degree oven.

(For oatmeal raisin, omit chips; add raisins; and add 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon cloves to flour mixture.)

 

 

A Recipe to Share

Recipes

Larisa texted a couple of us about an event she was going to at her church. “I have to bring two quiches,” she wrote. “I’m using Pam’s pie crust recipe.”

It struck me, seeing that written out. I had shared the recipe with Larisa. It is a recipe I had sought out, long ago, for less than altruistic reasons, and one I use regularly. But I’ve never thought of it as MY recipe.

Way back when, back in my husband’s murky past, there was an accomplished pie-baker. We’ll call her Lulu. Newly married, I was determined that MY pies would surpass hers, surpass them by so much that those pies o’ mine would wipe out any nostalgic memory. There would be no reason for folks at family gatherings to sigh and say, “Remember Lulu? Remember her strawberry rhubarb pies?”

So I mastered pie fillings: that was fun. But the crust part was a little harder to handle.

My mother was unabashedly, unashamedly, no help.

“My crusts are awful,” she said, calmly and with no regret. And it was kind of true. Her pie shells were containers to showcase wonderful fruits and puddings, but the crusts themselves were tough and sometimes sodden. She dealt with it, secure in the knowledge that legions of children, grown and growing, adored and devoured her vast repertoire of cookies.

So I turned to cookbooks for pie crust magic,–turned to them with varying results. “Don’t overhandle the dough!” they all admonished, but how could one get the mixture smooth without pummeling it? I bought a special rolling pin that I would fill with icy water, insuring the crust, in the rolling, flattening phase, did not get too warm. I put the shortening in the freezer. A couple of times, I substituted butter.

Sometimes my pie crusts were good and sometimes they were chewy, and I could not pinpoint any definitively good reason for the difference.

And then one day, Mark and I went to dinner with old friends, Gretchen and Jim. Gretchen served a blueberry pie with a sugar crusted, flaky crust. It was so good. It was good enough that just eating a big piece of the crust would have been an amazing dessert; to have it filled with fresh-picked blueberries, sweetened and coaxed into giving up their syrupy secrets, just put us all beyond the bend.

“I wish I could make a pie crust like this,” I moaned as I slipped into a sugar coma.

Before I faded completely, I heard Gretchen whisper, “Have I got a recipe for you…”

And she did. I know to look for it under G in my cookbook; it is labelled ‘Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe.’ I use it so often, now, that the book flips open to the page of its own accord. It is a recipe that makes enough dough for five crusts. It calls for an egg and a little bit of vinegar, and the result is always, always, fine and flaky. Every month, I make up a batch, and I constantly have three or four lumps of dough in the freezer—ready to use up chunks of ham and the ends of cheddar cheese bars in a quiche-y, last-minute dinner; ready to support a robust filling of apples sliced thin and tossed with sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon and cooked until they ooze up their own thick sauce.

Hallelujah: thanks to Gretchen, pie crust mastered.

Once, years after she shared that recipe, we got together again with Gretchen and Jim and other friends for a picnic. We portioned out the dishes to pass, and dessert fell to Mark and me. My friend Sandee had made a swing through town, and when I came home from teaching, I found, on the side porch, four gleaming baskets of raspberries from the bushes she and her husband Don nurtured for years. I made a Friendship Pie—Sandee’s berries, Gretchen’s crust—and toted it proudly along to share.

When I mentioned to Gretchen I’d used her crust recipe, she laughed. “I got that recipe from Karen,” she said, nodding at one of the other friends at the picnic.

Gretchen lists that recipe as ‘Karen’s Pie Crust’ in her cookbook. In Karen’s files, it’s ‘Grandma’s pie crust recipe.’

And who knows where Karen’s grandma got the recipe. I imagine young women, Depression-era maybe, meeting while the men are at work, sharing recipes and methods. I see a recipe card changing hands. It’s index card-sized, and ‘From the Kitchen of _______________’ is printed in the upper left-hand corner. “Millie” is written in the blank space, written in flowing Palmer-method script, written in spiky fountain-pen ink.

The recipe card has seen hard use, sitting on a counter, soaking up the grease and flour of dough preparation. There is a translucent half-moon on the bottom edge. There is a tiny plunket of hardened dough stuck on to the ingredient list. The woman who borrows the recipe absently picks that little plunket away; she shoots it into space between her work-hardened index finger and thumb. Then she smooths it out carefully and picks up her pen. In flowing script that belies the toughness of her hands, she fills in the title at the top of her pristine recipe card: ‘Millie’s Pie Crust Recipe.’

Someday, maybe, she muses, her granddaughter will copy that recipe into her own cookbook. And then, she, too, will share.

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I remember the first office potluck after Terry came to work. She brought a big plateful of delicious cookies, chewy, oatmeal-y, studded with chocolate. There was a crowd around those cookies; people elbowed in and shoved each other away.

And when the lovely sweet treats had been reduced to crumbs…which one forlorn cookie-lover swiped up with a finger and scraped into his mouth…we asked Terry for the recipe. Ah, she said. Those are Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies, and she told us a story about a little boy at the school where she’d once worked. He was a mischievous, freckle-faced boy, if I remember Terry’s story well, loveable in himself, but he would have been forgiven many things even if not. The cookies Kevin Weaver brought to events and parties made the angels and the teachers sing.

And Kevin’s mother, who must have been kind-hearted and full of humor, gladly shared the recipe.

Terry shared it, too, and we knew something then about her expansive spirit. She was the kind of person who loved to bake cookies that people swooned for. She was the kind of person who shared the instructions so YOU could bake them, too.

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Not every person is the recipe-sharing type.  Once I knew a woman who made a super delicious cheesecake, a double-batchy homemade delectation of a confection with a smooth and luscious sour cream topping. She was the mother of a friend; she held that recipe tight to her chest. I would beg for those instructions, and she would smile, a little smugly, and say something vague.

“When I have time,” she’d murmur, or, “Let me see what I can do.”

She never had time; she never saw what she could do. And oh, I wanted that recipe.

One day, at the supermarket that helped me work my way through college, I lamented the lack of that recipe and Marie, a good-hearted produce manager known to be an amazing cook, took umbrage.

The next day she handed me the exact cheesecake recipe. It was handwritten in red ink on a pretty recipe card adorned with a teapot. “From the Kitchen of Marie!” it read, and it was encased in a plastic, protective sleeve.

“Good cooks SHARE,” she said.

At the end of the recipe, she’d written, “Eat hearty!!!!”

I use that recipe every Easter I use it because I love the cheesecake, and I use it in honor of big-hearted Marie.

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There are some people who don’t share because, maybe, that recipe is part of a kingdom they rule with a close and jealous hand, and there are some people who don’t share because they are not the recipe-following type.  My Aunt Annie, my mother’s sister, was that kind of cook, the kind who used a recipe the first time through, maybe, but who then took those instructions as simple guidelines. Why not, that kind of cook might think, try chicken broth instead of heavy cream? Why not use half Swiss and half Monterey Jack instead of a full cup of grated cheddar?

My mother would tell stories about Aunt Annie’s mac and cheese—how people would angle for dinner invitations just to taste it, how mac and cheese nights were always call for celebration and extra beaming faces at the table. And my mother would ask for the recipe, always, and Aunt Annie, always, would say, “Well, I start with a white sauce. I usually boil a full box of elbows, but sometimes I use ziti…”

She’d go on, saying you COULD do this, or she might add that, and my mother would, finally, slap down the loose-leaf sheet on which she’d been trying to capture that recipe. She’d click her pen shut and mutter, “Never mind,” and later, she’d bemoan the lack of that wonderful recipe. She would scour magazines for macaroni and cheese methods; she would experiment with different cheeses, half and half, heavy cream. Never did her efforts meet her hopes: in Mom’s eyes, her mac and cheese never came up to the Aunt Annie standard.

So I kind of inherited a mac and cheese quest, but again, someone gave me a recipe. My niece Margaret moved to Charleston, and one Christmas, she sent up a fat cookbook by a couple of skinny Charleston lads called the Lee Brothers. Despite their extreme slenderness, those boys whipped up southern recipes that bloomed with bacon and lard and whole milk. We found our favorite collard greens recipe in their pages, and we adopted their Hoppin’ John technique for our New Year’s Day fare.

And we discovered, to our great joy—and to what I imagine would have been my mother’s great joy, too—Lee Brothers Macaroni and Cheese. We make it for company, and for a side when we roast up a Flintstone-sized slab of barbecued ribs. It is one of Mark’s go-to dishes when he has to bring a dish to pass; he mixes up a batch of Lee Brothers in the crockpot and takes it to work. He puts the crockpot on the break room counter and plugs it in and lets the smell of bubbling cheese sauce marinate his morning.

People ask him for the recipe. He shares.

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Because recipes are meant to be shared. When we share them, we weave a kind of connection net, whether we are passing on handwritten delights on aging index cards, or printing off, say, a copy of the Beef-Barley Stoup recipe that Jodi so kindly offered up on her blog. It is not the first recipe of Jodi’s to become part of family food lore; it is, Mark says, the best beef soup—or, umm, stew—err, stoup—he’s ever eaten. And even though Jodi and I have never yet met, she’s woven into our family culinary repertoire, along with Gretchen and her pie crust, and Terry, and Kevin Weaver, and Kevin Weaver’s mom.

Those recipes weave our experience together, weave us tight across time and distance, tromp over barriers, and melt away cold towers of isolation. The sharing reminds us that people are good and open and generous—that people enjoy good things at special times, and that they want others—they want everyone—to do the same.

(My) Life of Pi(e)

Pie

 

Randy sends, in our CSA basket, a fat baggie of plump blueberries.  Hmmm. Muffins?  I ponder.  There are not enough berries for a whole pie.

Then we have dinner with our old friends from Mount Vernon, and wonderful Larry hands me a gift bag as we are leaving.  When we get home, I unpack it and discover a quart of sweet cherries.

Oh, that’s cool, I think: we can make a patriotic pie like the one I just saw on Facebook.  One fourth of the pie has blueberry filling; the other is red fruit.  On top, there are sugared pastry stars and stripes.

The cherries prove too tempting for Mark, though. By the time Friday–and baking leisure–rolls around, only a cup or so is left.  We have blueberries, we have cherries, and we have a couple of apples.

Let’s, suggests Mark, put them ALL in a pie.  So, aided and abetted by Joy of Cooking, which supports all kinds of adventurous fruity filling combinations [and inspired by our friend Wendy, a renowned pie-baker: Wendy visits each summer, scouts the farmers’ market and combines what’s ripe–peaches, maybe? Blueberries, perhaps?–into one glorious and unforgettable pastry-baked treat], we do.  There’s actually enough filling for TWO pies, once all the mixing and seasoning is done,–two smallish pies in pie tins saved from store-bought pie experiences.  The cherry-berry-apple pie is GOOD.

Mark takes one to work to share, and people like him for it.  Debbie, who works in his office, says the pie is fine, but she really likes the crust.  Tell Pam, she says, to try making pinwheels sometime…to pat the crust and butter it and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar…

See there, I think.  Pie is not just a dessert; it’s a theme and it’s a thread.  It’s past and present all rolled up and hog-tied into one. Mark, too, has fond memories of leftover crust, buttered and cinnamon-sugared, and baked until it’s crisp…sweet crunch of innocence and youth…

We all, I think,  have a story, we all have a LIFE, of pie.

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The crust was the thing for my mother; she couldn’t get the knack of a rich, flaky crust.  Hers were sodden and heavy, though the fillings were wonderful.  We each had favorites.  My father [insert groans and gagging noises] cherished minced meat pie, which he generally only got at Christmas–that must have had childhood connotations for him.

My skinny, bespectacled brother Dennis was renowned for his pie-eating ability, but he was especially partial to cherry.  And he was known, too, for finding the one lone pit left in a cherry pie.  He became so well known, in fact, for crunching on the cherry stone that a friend’s mother–the kind of freckled, outdoorsy woman who wore one piece gym suits to energetically clean house, grocery shop, and herd children–decided to make a joke.  She put a cherry pit into a cream pie and marked the piece.  When serving time came, she made sure Dennis got the pitted piece.

To her horror, he broke a tooth. But his cherry pit legend grew and grew.

Some of my brothers liked apple pie, and others liked chocolate pudding pie.  I was partial to lemon meringue.  If my mother didn’t have the knack for crusts, she certainly mastered meringues–hers were high and fluffy, dewed with sweet drops and limned in golden brown.

Often we would eat the filling and leave the crust, as if it were a cozy, inedible, legless chaise lounge on which the filling had sat.

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Pondering all this all got me wondering about how long pie has been around, and I went to a site called What’s Cooking (whatscookingamerica.net) to gather some background.  I found there that the concept of a pastry crust as food container has deep historical roots.  I discovered that, for hundreds of years, the pastry was just the thing that held the filling–more of a dish or a carrying case than a tasty part of a pie.  In fact, the author tells me, early pies in England were called ‘coffins’ after the pastry encasement (‘Coffin,’ the author points out, meant box or basket at that time, not a repository for a carcass. Although, now that I think about it, if we’re talking about a meat pie, maybe ‘coffin’ is not so far off.)

A pie without a top crust was known as a trap.

Crusts were thick and pretty unappetizing–made to stand up to hours of baking, and to travel and time.  Crusts were, originally, basically just disposable baking pans. (I don’t know if that knowledge would have comforted my mother.)

What’s Cooking tells me that the making of pies goes back, far back, in human history–back, at least, to Egyptian cuisine in 9500 BC. In early United States days, it was pretty common for pioneer housewives to serve some sort of pie at every meal—think of those hard-working farmers devouring a big slice of apple pie with their bacon and eggs before heading out to hitch up the mule and plow the back forty.

Pie has global roots, but the United States has embraced pie, has made it a national icon; we jealously guard it as a national treat.  Mark Twain–and one doesn’t get much more American, quirks and all, than Twain–was a dab hand for eating US pie, and a scathing critic of European versions. (He once wrote a recipe for English pie; the last step, he said, was to seal it up and let it petrify, then serve it to one’s enemy.)

(Perhaps it was Twain who coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.”  I am pretty sure, though, that exquisitely wonderful pies exist outside these red-white-and-blue borders, Twain’s opinion or no.)

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As I grew into cooking age, I found I longed to master the art of flaky pastry.  It would be a score for me in that mother-daughter cooking competition. Our first friendly battlefield was the art of the chocolate chip cookie.  The second could be the pie crust. Later, I was motivated by the fact that my significant other’s ex had a pie-baking reputation.  I vowed, vain young person that I was, to equal or surpass her mark.

I learned about using ice water and about chilling your shortening.  There were decided schools of thought about lard versus butter versus plain old shortening. Advice bounced and conflicted on what sort of mixing tool to use–forks or knives or wooden spoons, or maybe, even fingers. I found a wire pastry cutter in a bin at a second hand emporium; that proved to be the perfect mixing tool for me (and it was so well-made that I still cut the fat into the flour with that very same tool today).

But every pastry recipe would adjure me: handle lightly.  Dough becomes tough with excess handling.  There was something that went against my grain in not kneading a dough into a smooth, firm ball.  I suspect my mother had the same challenge.  I just HAD to work the dough excessively.  And it was always tough.

And then came the day I poured out my plight to a lovely friend, Gretchen.  And Gretchen shared a recipe she’d gotten from her friend Karen. This recipe incorporated a splash of vinegar and  an egg, and one batch made enough crust for FIVE pie crusts.  This crust was flaky and good no matter how long I man-handled it.

This recipe (shared at the end of this post) remains my go to crust recipe today.

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So, I had a crust method that worked, and I went through long pie-baking phases.  I saw a photo in Country Living magazine thirty years ago; it showed a pie with the top crust decorated with pastry roses.  For a long time, I topped my pies with sculpted pastry glued to the crust with eggwash, shining with sugar.

I had a lattice crust phase.

I had my crumb topping era.

After a gentleman at a church potluck commented that no one made it from scratch anymore, I went through a militant meringue period.

But I calmed down eventually.

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Today, I try to keep a batch of Gretchen’s pie dough on hand, in the freezer.  Just in case, say, there are leftovers enough to make a chicken pot pie, lush with tiny onions and plump peas.  Just in case sweet friends send over a variety of fruits and berries.

 My friend, this summer, I hope crusts are flaky and fillings satisfy. This summer, I wish you all the happiness of pie.

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Pie Crust Recipe Shared by Generations of Women (from Gretchen, who got it from Karen, who learned it from her grandmother…)

Mix with a fork:

1-3/4 cups shortening, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour.

In a separate bowl, use the fork to stir together  1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup of water.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into a ball. Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into five portions. Each will make a top or bottom crust for a standard pie. It can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen. It’s always tender, even with excess handling…

 

 

 

Recipe Reminiscence

BC Cookbook

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.

**********
For instance.

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.

 

Loolie Scrumptious

Valentine's Crafts

(A short tale, with recipes at the end.)

Normally I’d just fly to the conference, but then I talked to Loolie.

“You know,” she said, “if you stopped here on the way home, it would be just about halfway.  You could stay overnight on Saturday and we could have breakfast on Sunday. We could get together with TJ ; she’s going to be here for a shower. We could go JUNKING!”

There is a huge second-hand barn in a little wink-and-you’ll-miss-it village near Loolie’s home; it’s always an adventure to explore.

And it’s always an adventure to get together with Loolie, and with TJ, too.  So I drove to the conference.  It was about eight hours from my house, at a college town in central New York; I made a day’s drive of it to get there–stopping at fun little coffee shops, doing a little bookstore visiting, treating myself to a leisurely lunch. I took, all in all, about twelve hours to make that eight hour trip.  The conference was in my hotel; I had a nice night’s sleep and got up raring to confer.

And it was a good conference; I learned a lot, and I was on a panel; we worked really well together and our session drew a nice, receptive crowd.  On Saturday, the after-breakfast meeting broke up early–everyone clearly had already mentally headed out,– so I got on the road well before noon.

I was at my hotel in Loolie-town by 4:30; I grabbed a burger at a nearby pub and was back at my room, ready to settle in for the night, by 6:30.

And then my cell phone rang.  It was Loolie, of course.

“Where ARE you?” she demanded.

When I told her, she said, “Well, come over!”

I demurred; she was hosting us for breakfast the next morning and I didn’t want to impose, but she insisted. “I’m making my Valentines,” she said.  “You can keep me company. And we’ll have cookies and coffee, and you can help me decorate the ones we don’t eat.”

So of course I went.

Loolie was in her kitchen making our breakfast for the next day.  “Breakfast bake!” she crooned.  A variety of ingredients spread out over her counter.  She poured me coffee and assembled as we talked.  Into a greased, vintage Pyrex casserole went two hamburger buns and a slice and a heel of bread, ripped into bite-sized chunks.  Little dimes of cooked, chopped breakfast sausage joined chunks of ham on top of the bread.  Then she took a big glass Corningware measuring cup–the four cup kind–full of grated cheddar and swiss cheese, and she sprinkled it over the other ingredients.

She fluffed and spread–“Everybody should get a taste of sausage!” she said,– and then she poured an egg and milk concoction over the top. (“The secret,” she confided, “is a dash of dry mustard.”) She covered the whole thing  tightly with a sheet of foil and put it in the fridge.

“All I’ll have to do in the morning is put it in the oven and pour juice and coffee,” Loolie said, a little smugly.

She let me do up the few dishes while she mixed up some frosting in her Mixmaster, and we moved into the dining room, where two cookie sheets overflowed with heart-shaped cut-out cookies.

“Hokie smokes!” I said.  “Got a Valentine or two???”

She laughed.  “Kerri’s got a party,” she said.  “But trust me, these are so good, she and I could make a serious dent.  Let’s frost a while, and then we’ll have coffee and try some.”

She spread the icing; I sprinkled rosy tinted sugar on the freshly frosted cookies.  Of course, once frosted, they could not be stacked, so I kept running to the kitchen for more cookie sheets on which to spread the tasty, sticky treats.  Even working like a well-oiled machine, it took us most of an hour to frost all of those cookies.  When we were done, every flat surface in Loolie’s kitchen held a tray of cookies, the frosting drying. The dining room table was a sticky sugary mess.

I scrubbed while Loolie made coffee and kept up a loud running commentary.  Kerri was off with friends, gone to a hockey game in the city and wouldn’t be home till the wee hours.  Loolie’s brother Mick was retiring in two months and thinking of moving back to the area, snow or no snow; he really missed it.  Loolie herself was looking for a dressmaker’s model or mannequin when we junked; she had a cache of full-length aprons someone had made for her.

They were too nice, she said, to get all covered with frosting and sugar, but she’d love to display them, tied nicely onto a dressmaker’s dummy, in a corner of the kitchen.  I could see it; it was just the sort of unique touch Loolie could pull off with aplomb.

While she talked, she bustled, and soon we were ensconced at the table with a plate of cookies and steaming mugs of Italian roast.

I sipped the coffee. Ahhh; robust heaven.

“Try,” said Loolie, and she pushed the cookies my way.

I took one and took a bite.  Oh my.  Oh my.

“That tastes,” I flung downward from my cloud in seventh heaven, “like—”

“It IS!” she crowed. “Shortbread! Your mother’s recipe.”

They were thin and crisp and melt in my mouth buttery with a little glaze of sweetness on top. We ate the whole plate, between us, in about ten minutes.

“See what I mean?” asked Loolie.  “It looks like a lot of cookies, but once you start…”

“Keep them” I said darkly, “away from me!  I don’t think I have the willpower—”

Loolie laughed.  “No problem!” she said.  “Time to make some Valentine’s, anyway.”

She got up—ten minutes is about her resting-state limit–and swiped off the table, then began slapping down card-making materials.  She’d chopped up old file folders, cutting off the worn edges and saving a card-sized folding part.  She got, she said, two cards from each file, which otherwise was going to get recycled or thrown away.  They were from the church office, and they knew her at the church: before they threw anything out, they called Loolie.

She had a stack of envelopes a friend who worked retail had rescued for her.  There was a greeting card section in her store.  When the cards ‘expired’, they had to return the fronts and dispose of everything else.  Brand new envelopes, saved from the landfill! Loolie was practically crowing.

She had magazines from Februaries past; she had scissors, tape and glue.  She had tiny magnets printed with random words. She had scrips and scraps of ribbon and construction paper and paper doilies.  She had some ends of lace. She had the heart-shaped cookie cutters–cleaned, thank you–that she had used to make the cookies. She had markers and Crayolas.

She spread it all out, raised her hands like a conductor, and surveyed her little plot of creativity. She obviously deemed it good.  Lowering her hands, she nodded.

“Let us,” she said, “begin.”

And we did.  We dove into the magazines and cut out pictures and then ripped funny sayings and phrases from the ads.  We mixed and matched.  “You’ll love” went with “…the cook,” and landed on top of a heart-shaped cookie picture with a little, hand-drawn chef’s hat perched perkily atop.  “A TOAST to,” read the cover of one card.  Opened, it finished, “the nuts!” There were whole walnuts and almonds and peanuts, with markered-in stick arms and legs, clutching construction paper hearts and dancing around the card.

I mentioned that I’d seen deer tracks by her drive; the splayed grooves looked to me like splashy heartprints in the snow.  Loolie jumped up and grabbed her phone; she turned on the outdoor lights and ran out to snap some photos.  She bustled in, emailed the photos to herself, printed them out.  Sure enough, those prints looked like deeply engraved hearts.

Loolie snipped around them with pinking shears, and glued them on the cover of a card. “Here’s my heart,” she wrote.  Inside she added, “….you little deer!”

“I LOVE it!” she crowed.  “This is genius!”

We spent five hours making cards that night.  I haven’t had so much fun since I was in second grade, making Valentines for the class party. As I was getting up to leave–it was almost 1 AM,– I said, “You know the only thing we missed making were folders to hang on the front of our desks.”

Loolie Cards

Loolie got a surprised, thoughtful look on her face, and I said quickly, “But it’s too late! And we don’t need them!”

Her face fell a little, but she saw the wisdom, and she bustled me out to my car.  TJ was meeting us at 9:00 in the morning; we needed our rest before junking.

At 8:59 AM I was back at Loolie’s, reveling in the smell of baking eggs and bread and ham and cheese.  The three of us ate the whole casserole–oh, it was good.  We were licking the crumbs off our plates when Kerri wheeled in. TJ and I looked at each other in ashamed panic–we left nothing for that poor child!

But Loolie laughed and put her oven mitt on, and pulled a little, personal pan breakfast bake from the oven for her darlin’ daughter.  Kerri grinned at us.  We sighed and relaxed, and when Loolie asked, “Would you like a cookie or two to top that off?” we answered with one voice: “Yes!”

Urp.  We finally waddled off to the secondhand emporium, and if you’ve never junked with a Loolie,–well. You’ve never junked, that’s all.  But I’ll save that story–and the pictures of the aproned dressmaker’s dummy–for another day.

*****
It was good to get home, and  my guys were happy to see me; they’d had their own adventures, which they shared with me while they devoured a plate of shortbread cutouts, compliments of Loolie. And then, tired and traveled out, I unpacked my bag and soaked in my own tub before…ahhhhh: sleeping between my own sheets in my own sweet bed. Reality was waiting to welcome me back when Monday dawned.

That Wednesday, when I got home from work, I found a large square envelope in the mail; it was addressed to me in Loolie’s scrawl.  There was a note inside.  “Hang this on your fridge to store your Valentines,” it read.

I unfolded a beautifully decorated construction paper folder–just right for storing any Valentines that straggle in.  I hung it on the refrigerator; not much chance of the boys forgetting Valentine’s Day this year, is there?

Thanks, Loolie.  That, too, is truly scrumptious!

*********

Grandma Jean’s Shortbread Cookies

5 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 pound butter

Cream butter; add sugar. Blend well. Knead flour into dough a little at a time. (Loolie and I use  our Mixmasters for this step.) Roll out on a floured surface. Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees until edges are golden brown. (These are melt-in-your mouth delicious with or without icing!)

*****

Loolie’s Breakfast Bake

4 slices stale bread and/or  buns

about 1 pound of meat–breakfast sausage, ham, etc. or any combination thereof

1 cup grated cheese–sharp cheddar, definitely; add whatever else you like.  Swiss adds zip; I like a little Asiago grated in, too.

6 eggs

2 cups milk

1 tsp dry mustard

good shake of parsley flakes

salt and pepper to taste

(This can be made ahead and left in fridge overnight. That may actually improve the flavor blends!)

Tear up bread and place in greased 13 x 9 x 2 casserole.

Brown sausage, if uncooked. Chop; sprinkle chopped meat over bread.  Sprinkle cheese over top.

Beat together eggs, milk, mustard, parsley, salt, and pepper. Pour over bread, cheese, and meat. Cover. Refrigerate if eating is far off.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.  During the last ten minutes, take the cover off so the bake will brown nicely.

Cool slightly; cut into squares and serve.