Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Apologies

In an earlier post in which I discussed my mother's hometown of Sparta, Tennessee (January 10), I mentioned that Sparta's only claim to fame was it's proximity to the Oak Ridge nuclear facility (a la the movie "Silkwood"). Well, my apologies all around. I have since found Sparta's website, and consider myself completely out of line for not knowing it is known as Bluegrass U.S.A., and is the final resting place of many Confederate soldiers. If you have any interest in learning more about this quaint southern hamlet—oodles more than I ever knew about it— please visit www.spartatn.com.

Who knew I could make macaroons!?!!

Such an easy recipe, delicious, and they look almost professional when you're done. If you read my last blog post about the chocolate cake, you should know that I made the macaroons BEFORE I attempted the chocolate cake from scratch, so I was feeling really cocky and had that, "I can cook anything!" attitude going after I aced the macaroon test. It is no doubt that mentality that led to the frosting fiasco. But enough about that.

My mom and dad have a love/hate relationship with coconut. My mother says that coconut cake is her favorite dessert (funny, there is no coconut cake recipe in her collection!) and my father hates anything to do with coconut. Despite his vehement dislike of this item (is it a fruit??!), the story goes that when he was a young preacher traveling around the south with his beautiful young bride, attending a variety church potlucks and meals in the homes of congregants that followed the services, my dad had to endure many a coconut concoction. Rather than politely saying, "Oh, no thank you, I really don't like coconut," he ate every last bite with his usual good humor and sense of calm. For years, one of their dear friends thought that he loved coconut cream pie, and baked it for him every chance she got. Again, he ate it, over and over again, hating every bite.

So when I told my mom that I made the macaroon recipe in her collection, she said, "Huh, I bet I've made that twice in my life," as if she didn't even know it was in there. I guarantee you that if her husband liked it, she would have made it a regular in her dessert rotation.  They are delicious. To quote my friend who enjoyed them last Saturday night, along with the disastrous cake, "Your macaroons are like pillows of fluffy goodness." Amen, sister.

Baker's Coconut Macaroons
(I'm going to assume this recipe came from the back of a Baker's Chocolate package...)

1 pkg Angel Flake (not sure what this is or was, but any brand of sugared coconut will do)
2/3 cup sugar
6 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
4 egg whites
1 tsp almond extract
1 pkg / 8 squares semisweet chocolate

Mix coconut, sugar, flour, and salt in a bowl. Stir in egg whites and almond extract until well blended. Drop by the spoonful onto a greased cookie sheet (I used an medium sized ice cream scooper so the dollups were pretty big.) Bake at 325 for 20 minutes, or until edges are golden brown. The larger the scoop, the longer the cooking time; I baked them for about 35 minutes). Remove from cookie sheet and cool completely on a wire rack. Melt chocolate over a double boiler. Drizzle macaroons with melted chocolate, or dip cooled macaroons halfway into melted chocolate. Store in tightly covered container for up to a week...but who would make them last that long??!!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

XXX Sugar...Another Lesson Learned

Lesson #2: XXX Sugar has nothing to do with sex.

So I needed a chocolate cake for a birthday party. Easy, right? Let's just go buy the mix in a box, the frosting in a cardboard can, 30 minutes later, done. But no, I'll make a chocolate cake from scratch just like my granny used to make. How long can it take? How hard can it really be? The recipe looks simple enough, not that many ingredients, I've got my KitchenAid Artisan Standmixer. I can do this. It's not like I'm attempting a ganache or anything (cause I bet that's really hard). Just good ole American chocolate cake.

So the cake part was not especially challenging. Again, thank you KitchenAid. But there were so many moments I was trying to figure out why anyone would make a cake from scratch...I visualized the cake mix aisle at the store, how many different varieties there were, none boasting anything more complicated that opening the bag, adding an egg or two, some vegetable oil, a bit of water, stir, and bake. And they were all moist and delicious, every single one. This cake was shaping up to be like one of those, except for more ingredients and the consistency wasn't really luscious and moist like the others. But I baked them, they came out okay, and my kitchen is now covered in a microthin layer of flour and cocoa powder. I will probably still find that fine layer weeks from now.

So on to the frosting. Even fewer ingredients. I'm in the home stretch. The first ingredient on the list: xxx sugar. Huh. Wonder what that means. I was thinking of Googling it, but was afraid what might come up on my screen. So I just decided it was an old term for sugar, you know, just plain white granulated sugar. Maybe that's what my granny called it. I'm sure everyone but me knows that xxx sugar is confectioner's sugar, or powdered sugar. I had that in my cupboard. I could have taken two extra minutes to call my mom and find out, but no, I had to go with it and just assume. Well, after making the batch of frosting with the wrong sugar and realizing that this was no frosting—gritty brown paste really—I almost ran out to buy the cardboard box frosting and fake it at the birthday party. Instead, I ran to the store to buy more xxx sugar, came home and cleaned out the KitchenAid for the second time, and made a batch of real frosting. It wasn't perfect, it wasn't even that great, but it was from scratch. Cause that's what really matters, right? Huh. Not sure. The birthday boy loved it (or at least that's what he told me to my face) and it looked like a real chocolate cake my granny would have made.

The Beginning of Lessons Learned

I have been a cooking machine this weekend in a kind of an obsessed way. I'll finish one dish or one meal, and I'm already thinking of what I can do next. There is a thin layer of flour and cocoa powder in my kitchen right now, for the first time ever, and I think this is the fastest I've every gone through a dozen eggs, a bag of sugar, and a box of unsalted butter. And in the midst of all the prepping and cooking and cleaning up, I've learned a few things...in addition to having some pretty good food, if I do say so myself.

Lesson #1: Cooking is an inexact science, no matter how perfect I want to be.

I came home from work Friday night thinking about cauliflower, a cauliflower gratin recipe I had seen on a wonderful blog I recently found, called "The Wednesday Chef" (see my Blogs list on the left column). The recipe sounded decadent (gruyere cheese sauce, for one) and it didn't seem too difficult or time-consuming for a Friday night after a long work week. Plus my mom did actually have a cauliflower gratin recipe in her collection. So I thought I would try combining the two recipes to see what would emerge. If I hadn't boiled the cauliflower for too long, and possibly added a bit more salt, it would have been perfect. But slightly imperfect is okay too. The term "make it work" applies to fashion and cooking, as it turns out. Cooking is all about experimentation and improvisation and coming up with answers to questions that arise during the middle of a recipe. Although I have all of these recipes from my mother, I know that following them to the letter will not necessarily result in the dish that I remember from my childhood, because I am certain my mother, like every mother that came before her, improvises each time she makes it. Maybe while the cauliflower is cooking, you have to run to the pottie with your 2-year-old and don't get to watch it closely enough to avoid the inevitable mushy vegetable dilemma. Maybe you think using a little extra salt and a little less butter would improve things a bit. Whatever the case may be, recipes are roadmaps, but we can feel free to take detours...or some metaphor like that.

For the Cauliflower Gratin recipe, visit The Wednesday Chef)

To accompany the cauliflower and the steak my husband was handling, I decided to go old school with Southern Greens as a second side dish. Growing up, we would have a Southern Dinner every once in a while that would consist of pork chops or ham, black eyed peas, greens, turnips, and macaroni and cheese. Pone cornbread was usually on the table as well. Rarely have I had greens without the rest of the meal, but I had bought one of those pre-washed packages of a mixture of greens and needed to use it before they were mush in my crisper. (Note: husband doesn't like cooked greens of any kind, notably spinach, so this was another gamble I was willing to take.) Mother just gave me this recipe the other day in the list of items I had requested specifically, most of which she had no recipe for other than the one in her head. She usually used mustard greens, but this was a blend of mustard, collard, and kale. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided what the hell, let's give it a go (since I was feeling so obsessed and ready to try anything). Turns out, this was the greatest success thus far; so good, I actually ate the leftover greens the next day and wished I had more. Try them! You might like them. I'm happy to report, my husband did...that makes two conversions in one week. I'm on a roll.

Southern Greens

1 lg package of mixed greens (kale, collard, mustard, turnip)
4 strips of bacon (or a ham hock, if you have one laying around)
2 Tbsp butter
salt to taste
pinch of sugar

Cut bacon into small strips, and brown in a large stock pot. When bacon is cooked, add the greens and fill the pot with water to cover the greens about 1/2 way. Bring to a boil and add butter, salt, and sugar. (Note, this is a Granny Lula Tip: sugar melds the flavor of any vegetable). Reduce heat to low/medium and simmer until greens are tender but not mushy, about 45 minutes to an hour; check often. Plate the greens and add just a touch of white vinegar to each serving. (If you keep a small bowl of vinegar by the stove, it will help reduce the odor of the greens cooking; yep, it actually works!)

More lessons to come from the weekend cooking extravaganza...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


(sign painted by my grandfather)
 A moment needs to be taken to get a bit organized. I feel like I have jumped into this full steam ahead with lots of ideas floating around and lots of recipes staring at me when I walk in the door every night. And with the addition of the two binders of recipes now residing in my house, I felt the need to make some plans...

At first count, it seems that I have exactly one hundred recipes that I would like to attempt. There are many in the binders that are either magazine clippings or recipes my mother has collected from friends that don't hold any sentimental value for me, so I don't think I'll include these at this point. Then I have the prospect of my grandmother's recipe cards that I haven't seen yet, which I'm sure will be a treasure trove of old-time, traditional southern recipes written in her own hand.

Memories of Granny Lula are limited. I was 8 years old or so when she died and I have no memories of her standing on her own two feet. I only knew her as bed-ridden, her bones like lace, riddled with bone cancer. When she received the diagnosis, they gave her 6 months—as it turned out, she was in bed for the last 3 years of her life with a broken leg that never healed, mostly in excruciating pain and back and forth to Nashville for stints in the hospital for treatments.

But when she was in that huge four-poster cherrywood bed in Sparta, she would hold court; visitors would come by to sit a spell either in her bedroom or on the front porch by the window near her bed, bringing her fresh vegetables and dishes and tales of their own woes. She would cheer up her visitors even though they came to cheer her up and relieve her pain. She loved Boston Celtics basketball (for some unknown reason) and Pat Sajak when he was a weatherman, long before Wheel of Fortune. There was always a bowl of magnolia blossoms on the dresser, and her African violets were by her bed. When we would go back to visit, I have very fond memories of sitting on the floor and making greeting cards which I sold to her visitors for 10 cents each...foreshadowing my later graphic design career, of course. I wish I could have seen her work with her hands. I'm sure she was a force in the kitchen—organized, in charge, efficient. Even in bed, she was in charge of the meals...my mother tells me that Granny would cut up a chicken in the bed, and shuck corn, and string beans, and would tell my mother what to do in the kitchen from the bed. And before she was ill, everything was homemade, everything grown in the garden, or brought to the house by friends and cousins. Like having a farmer's market delivered to your door every day. I remember what I thought was a creamed corn dish, but my mom just informed me that it was simply white corn (a variety rarely found in these parts), cut from the cob and scraped down to a milky pulp, fried with bacon fat and a little salt, pepper, and sugar. It was divine and I can still taste it, so creamy my sense memory thought for sure it was made of cream...

I could go on and on. More to come on Granny Lula once I dive into her original recipes. In the meantime, I've set up a spreadsheet listing all of the recipes I'd like to tackle, with the name of the dish, the category (main dish, appetizer, side dish, etc.), who the recipe came from, the date of my test, and any modifications I make (Yes, you're right, I am totally OCD!)

There's more cooking to do to get through the 100 or so recipes I have to test. This weekend, a dessert for a friend's birthday and possibly the Davis family staple: chicken and rice casserole. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Test #2: Meatloaf, The Classic

I am going to venture a guess that the last time I had meatloaf was at my sister's house, since it is one of her two specialities (the other being pork chops with applesauce). But the last time I had my mother's meatloaf, God only knows. High school maybe? I never order meatloaf in restaurants because it just seems too heavy, and I always envision it arriving on the plate like a slab of concrete, gray, hard, and ready to sit like a ton of bricks in your stomach. My mother's meatloaf, in contrast...so flavorful and moist and juicy. So juicy, I had to drain off the juices a few times. Nothing related to a slab of concrete in the least.

I guess the typical topping for meatloaf is the traditional ketchup, but I thought I would add caramelized onions, mainly because I had seen Giada DeLaurentiis caramelize onions for an appetizer on "Everyday Italian" last week. She put 3 medium onions in a pan and let them saute for 1 hour and 45 minutes, or so the recipe said when I looked it up online. Well, I must have missed the part about "incredibly low heat" because my onions were caramelized, or rather charred about 35 minutes in. Still delicious but I did not achieve the sugary, almost jam-like goodness that Giada described on the show. Lesson learned. Low heat. I get it.

So I added about a 1/4 cup of my "caramelized" onions to the meatloaf mixture and then I topped the loaf with the onions about 5 minutes before I took it out of the oven. I have to say they were a great addition, and they made me think you could really modify meatloaf a thousand ways. Who knew? And the best part: my extremely skeptical husband who said he would absolutely not even taste the meatloaf, actually did and admitted that he liked it. My work here is done.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mom's Reaction

I had lunch with mother today to celebrate her 83rd birthday and I shared this project with her. I don't think she really grasped what I was doing until she went home and looked at this blog...of course, she has no idea what a blog is, but here was her e-mail to me after reading the few entries I have so far:

I just read the whole blog, Shirley, and I am now wiping tears from my eyes because this is without a doubt the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me or about me...as time goes on we will get together and I will show you some other things, like some of my Mother's recipes written in her own handwriting which I have kept in a separate place [OMG, there are more recipe cards?!]. Also I will give you some history of how I got some of the recipes and how I grew up in the kitchen watching Mother who was such a great cook.  She  never had an electric mixer until I was probably leaving High School.  She used a hand beater to beat egg whites and whipped cream and it always came out perfectly.  To cream butter and sugar she used her hands and I still can't make the batter look that creamy with my KitchenAid Mixer...I love you so much, Shirley, and it means the world to me to see you really interested in cooking, but mainly in cooking to share with your own family and with friends.  I learned a long time ago that people really appreciate it when you prepare special things for them.

I guess WE are now off and running. She delivered to me two binders of recipes cards today—oh my goodness. Driving home from lunch with the literal and figurative weight of this project on my lap, with snippets of memories from my limited time spent in Sparta floating through my head, I realize that this isn't just a project to learn about cooking, or to learn new recipes. It's a history lesson and an attempt to grow closer to my mother by learning who she is and where she came from. So forgive me if I take some detours along the way; I'm realizing that the food is only part of the story.

Test #1: Scalloped Oysters

Warning: If you hate oysters, you will hate this recipe. If you love oysters, you may hate this recipe. Canned oysters might as well not come from the ocean. They have lost all of the subtle briny qualities that oyster lovers love in raw oysters on the half shell. They are basically globs of oyster meat, heavy and rich. Perfect for this dish. And if the oysters don't put you in a coma, the stick of butter will.

Let me digress for a moment of introduction. Scalloped Oysters is a favorite recipe of the Howard family, my mother's family. They would eat this dish at Thanksgiving and Christmas and rare other special occasions in between. I can't remember a time that we ate this other than a winter occasion. It just ain't right for a spring soiree. Anyway, let me introduce my mother: born Vera Howard to Lula Dillon Howard and Augustus Paul Howard ("Gus" to his friends, "Pa" to his grandkids), Mother grew up with her older brother, Paul, in Sparta, Tennessee. It's only claim to fame is that it is spittin' distance from the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, a la the Meryl Streep movie "Silkwood." Other towns in its vicinity: Cookville, Macminnville, Shelbysville...and for those who don't know "ville" is pronounced "vul." My memories of Sparta are vague but priceless, almost Southern Gothic...cooking an egg on the sidewalk with my Aunt Ro, catching fireflies in glass jars, sitting on the porch in a hot thunder and lightning storm guessing the color of the next car to go by. In Granny and Pa's house, lunch (or supper) was the best meal of the day: huge, with bowls of dishes all across the huge table. I remember one day sitting at the table and some man walked in the back door and set a huge basket of enormous home-grown tomatoes on the table and then walked away without a word. Of course, in my fuzzy memory, he looked just like a character from "To Kill A Mockingbird." Anyway, all of this is just to say, Mother came from Sparta, a small southern town straight out of a Flannery O'Connor short story and brimming with amazing southern food. But more on that later....

Scalloped Oysters
The size of your casserole dish will determine the amounts below. I used a small oval pyrex baking dish.

3 small cans of oysters
about 3/4 of a sleeve of saltine crackers
2-3 cups of whole milk 
one stick of butter

In the casserole dish, layer the above ingredients, starting with oysters on the bottom, then crumbled crackers along with small pats of butter, salt and pepper. Continue layering until desired amount (I did three layers), ending with crackers. Pour milk to barely cover all the ingredients. Bake 350 until most of milk is absorbed, but not dry, and lightly brown on top, approximately 45 minutes.

Although this effort came out almost as I remember it (should have left it in the oven a bit longer; it was a little soupy), I did try an experiment in a 4" ramekin, substituting the crackers with plain bread crumbs. The consistency was much better and the texture reminded me of a gratin. Plus, unless you have a large group, the ramekin is perfect for a single serving. Did I mention this is a rich dish?

I served the oysters along with a slab of maple glazed ham and Brussels sprouts with browned butter (one of my dad's favorites). And, although we never had this in our house growing up, a few dashes of Trappy's Louisiana Hot Sauce was the perfect addition to the oysters.

Friday, January 8, 2010

White Fluffy Icing

Many thanks to Laura of "White Fluffy Icing" for mentioning my project on her blog! A friend recommended that I check out WFI and I'm so glad I did. Laura is starting a cool project too: she is going to make the recipe found on the cover of every Bon Appetit magazine this year...extremely brave. Follow along as I will at: http://whitefluffyicing.com/category/bon-appetit-challenge/

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cookbook Round-Up

Interesting article from NYTimes Style Magazine with a list of cookbooks professional chefs like best: http://tinyurl.com/ybt8mvk

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is, of course, at the top of the list. I bought this cookbook during my pregnancy when I was obsessed with reading about cooking and food and the lives of top chefs (anything to get away from those horrific pregnancy and breast feeding books!) When I finished Julia Child's book, "My Life in France," I was blown away by her tenacity, her willingness to be completely absorbed and to learn every last thing about French food and cooking, and then to so "masterfully" share it with all of us. I can only hope to have the kind of time I will need to immerse myself in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" one day and the first recipe I will attempt will be the sole meuniere.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mix Thoroughly

I'm finding as I type up my mom's recipes from her assorted recipe cards, the main instruction after the list of ingredients is, "Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly." So simple and yet you'd think she slaved all day over some of this stuff. The thing is, she had all day to slave over this stuff since she wasn't working.

Here's a good one:

Quaker Oatmeal Meatloaf
1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef or turkey
1 cup tomato juice
3/4 cup uncooked oats
1 or 2 egg whites, slightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped onion, sauteed
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Heat oven to 350. Combine all ingredients; mix thoroughly. Press into a 8x4" loaf pan. Bake 1 hour or until meat is no longer pink and juices run clear. Drain. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Try it, or if you have another Mother recipe for meatloaf, please post it!

The Possibilities

I had an idea to somehow include my mom's close friends in this venture...also known as the Extra Mothers...to get their input about my mom's cooking (because it truly is renowned among our family friends) and to potentially add recipes to the book in a special "The Extra Mothers" chapter. Also, looking at how other recipe collections have been done on blurb.com, seems that photos are going to be essential. Old family photos plus great food shots. I am also thinking that my mom really needs to be in the know on this so I may end up telling her this weekend. We'll see! The possibilities are growing...

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Stack of Cards

I started organizing the recipe cards tonight and typed my first few recipes. Fortunately my mother's handwriting is not my father's handwriting and I can actually read them. I also found a lot of sweet notes like, "This recipe was given to me by my mother," or "From a well-known restaurant in Nashville that we used to go to as children and young adults," or "Good for a church potluck." I start with the most famous, most cherished, most delicious pies in the bunch: Kleeman's Apple Pie, Chocolate Pie from Granny Lula, and Black Bottom Pie. Makes me want to go make them all right now, but the Black Bottom Pie alone would keep me in the kitchen all night.

Gathering the Favorites

I sent my two sisters an email asking for their favorite childhood recipes from our family. They responded with a whole new list of dishes that I had completely forgotten about. Considering the fact that my sisters are 10 and 13 years older than me, they have more cooking history to remember and have dishes in their heads that my mother probably let fall by the wayside by the time I came around. When I was growing up in the 70s, my mom was learning new, healthful ways to cook, and decided to never again make her famous fried chicken (mainly because of the mess, but also because of it's high fat content.) This was also around the time that she was trying her hand at Weight Watchers...so my childhood dinners were much different from those served in our household pre-1971.

I also made contact with my mother to ask for a handful of recipes to update my collection. She offered to type up the handful I requested and email them over. But when I added about 10 more to the list after receiving my sisters' emails, she said I should just take her handwritten cookbook and make copies. Bingo! So this weekend, when we go to celebrate her 83rd birthday, the treasure trove will be in my possession. And so the project will begin!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Beginning

I had an opportunity to cook with my mother over the Christmas holidays. We were in a kitchen alone for about 2 hours working on 3 different dishes: white bean soup, spinach and cheese strata, and the famous black bottom pie. The experience was a bit complicated by the fact that we were in a strange kitchen away from our homes, and we often had to scavenge and make do with makeshift kitchen utensils that were not optimal (e.g. I pounded chocolate wafer cookies into tiny bits in a ziplock bag with a potato masher on the concrete patio, rather than in a food processor as is the usual method). But I noticed two things about how my mother cooks: 1) she moves fast and is constantly moving, and 2) there is a way to do everything and her way is the only way. I found myself trying to sense what tool or utensil or bowl or measuring cup she was going to need next, find it, and hand it to her just so she could have it immediately so as to not interrupt the flow. It was quite a production.

This experience is I think what led me to this project. She has a slew of recipes, all of which are hand-written in one of many three ring binder cookbooks, compiled over the course of probably 60+ years, from family, friends, magazines, restaurants, and other cookbooks. I can think of maybe 20 in my head that are family favorites, but there are so many more. Going through the various cookbooks and recipe card boxes that she has given me, mainly since I was living on my own and then married, I have a stack of over 50 recipes from vinaigrette dressing to Russian tea to artichoke chicken to the famous Black Bottom Pie (which requires capital letters...you'll understand later).

So my goal is to first, type all of the recipes, including her tips and anecdotes often written on the cards; I will also need to surreptitiously gather recipes from her kitchen's cookbooks, and spirit them away for transcription without her knowledge (did I mention this is a surprise for her??). Then I'd like to test all of the recipes...God knows how long that will take...and possibly add my own touches and enhancements. I will then publish the cookbook, complete with photos and stories, and give it to my mother for Christmas 2010.

Along the way, I hope to discover how to perfect the recipes we've lived with in our family for over 50 years and, in the process, make my mother very proud.

Wish me luck!