Articles in Family
I am a potato salad snob. It all dates to summers as a kid. Those lazy days when life was more casual, the rules less rigid. Our family spent the summers at our lake house. Mom and Nana seemed more relaxed and so were our meals. Dad was working during the week, so we were pretty much the women and the kids.
Our summer house was modest. I remember the kitchen with its Formica cabinets and white Formica countertops trimmed with red. I thought they were so stylish. But it was the harvest gold range with electric burners that held a particular fascination. I loved watching the coils heat up and playing with the buttons to figure out how many coils lit up when I pressed low versus the all-red of high.
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I always saddled up to my grandmother during most of the cooking that happened on that electric range — from her zucchini fritters to her awesome potato salad. That potato salad was a giant mound of creamy comfort. The perfect side to a burger, hot dog or grilled chicken. In fact I preferred it all by itself. As my main course.
Nana would wash the potatoes with the brush reserved just for washing potatoes. I, of course, have continued this tradition and keel over with laughter when someone tries to use it to clean dishes. My reaction, with a giggle is always, “Didn’t you wash your potatoes with a specially reserved brush?” I realize that these wonderful quirky methods create the rich tapestry of our heirloom memories.
A potato salad for any variety
I couldn’t tell you whether the potatoes were red bliss, Yukon Golds, russets or other. They were just potatoes. She put them into the pot, covered them with water, brought them to a boil and then asked me to poke them to see whether they were done. I stabbed away, fishing for the ones at the bottom and trying to have them swap places with the ones on the top. Once done, we drained the water and then rinsed the potatoes in cold water in the colander. I was able to scrape the skins off with just my fingers. This is where I began to truly understand the game of hot potato.
Nana cut up most of the potatoes, leaving a few to be mashed. She used the typical ingredients — onions, celery, salt, pepper, mayo. But her two secret ingredients were sweet pickle juice and hard-boiled eggs. Come to think of it, it’s what made her tuna salad amazing as well.
Nana was always about the presentation. She sliced a red or green pepper and saved a boiled egg to slice on the top. The final step was always four or five taps of the paprika can, and the best summer side dish in the world was ready. You could eat it warm or cold or, in my case, both ways. To this day I snub most other potato salads because nothing lives up to Nana’s creamy potato salad.
Nana and Mom always made the best potato salad. Not surprisingly, there was no recipe. They just knew what to do and made it sort of the same every time. The basic ingredients were potatoes, eggs, onions, celery, parsley, mayo and the secret ingredient pickles, pickle juice or relish, depending on what was on hand. I have re-created it with this recipe. My stepson says it's like a creamy, yummy potato-egg salad. Success! Another generation experiences the love and memories that this side dish brings forward.
- 5 pounds of organic potatoes
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 5 to 6 hard-boiled egg yolks
- 1 sweet onion, chopped
- 3 to 4 celery stalks, chopped
- ¼ cup parsley,chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Paprika for garnish
- Pickle slices, pepper strips and hard-boiled egg rounds for garnish
- Place whole potatoes into a pot. Cover with water and boil for 20 to 30 minutes until soft. Drain and run cold water over them. Peel and place into a bowl.
- "Mash" them lightly so you have a combo of potato chunks and mashed potatoes. Add onions, celery and parsley.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayo, pickle juice, sugar and mustard. Pour over potato mixture until well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Mash the egg yolks and add to the potato salad until well incorporated.
- Sprinkle with paprika and garnish any way you'd like.
Main photo: Nana’s Creamy Potato Salad. Credit: Carole Murko
You just can’t escape a barbecue grill on the Fourth of July. The holiday demands outdoor cooking followed by fireworks. And the curious thing about Americans’ Independence Day food traditions is that they are not confined to one or two expected dishes. Almost anything goes.
When I lived in Arlington, Mass., July 4 was an especially big deal because my house was about 100 yards from the route taken by William Dawes when he rode the southern route to Lexington while Paul Revere took the northern route on April 18, 1775, (as you know, Revere got all the fame and Longfellow’s poem).
Traditional New England fare
Traditional July 4 fare in New England, especially in the 19th century, was poached salmon with egg sauce, fresh peas and new potatoes, lemonade, and blueberry cobbler. Not once in the 14 years I lived in New England did we have this menu. What we did have was anything we damned pleased — hamburgers and hot dogs being on everybody’s go-to menu, along with potato salad, a bean salad, and, of course beer, plus soda and juice for the kids.
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This July 4 perhaps a little innovation is in order such as the favorites of Italian-Americans, braciole, stuffed meat roll-ups. They go by other names such as involtini, but for any Italian-American they’re always known as braciole and they’re always braised in ragù or grilled. But this was not always so. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked alla brace, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.
Braciole was once synonymous with “cutlet.” The place to begin is with the cut of meat. Not all braciole are cut from the same meat. If you grill the braciole, you might want to use a large piece of beef such as sirloin tip or beef round from which you can slice nice flat steaks that can be pounded thinner in order to roll them up.
Pound them as thin as scaloppini with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver. Lay the meat slice in front of you and place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing on the end nearest you. Roll once away from you and, pressing with your fingers so it’s tight, keep rolling and secure the ends or anything that looks loose with toothpicks. Now you’re ready to grill.
Here is a recipe to get you started after which you will only be limited by your imagination. The roll-ups can be prepared the day before and kept refrigerated until time to grill.
These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.
- 12 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
- 1 tablespoon currants
- 1 ¾ pounds beef round, cut into twelve 3x5-inch-slices
- 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for basting
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped onion
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Twelve 8- to 10-inch wooden skewers
- 1 large onion, quartered, and separated
- Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
- If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
- Place the beef slices between 2 pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver until they are about 1/16 inch thick, being careful you don’t rip the flesh.
- In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Drain the currants and add to the bread crumbs with the pecorino, pine nuts, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
- Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
- Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide a bay leaf, an onion slice, and a beef roll onto each set of skewers.
- Place the skewers on the grill close to the fire, if possible, and baste with olive oil. Cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Move to the cooler side of the grill if there is too much flare-up. Serve hot.
Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.
Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.
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Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.
Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.
The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
- 1 cup sweet corn
- 1 chopped bell pepper
- 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- ½ cup champagne vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
- Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
- Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
- Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
- Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.
Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
As a first generation Italian-American, I was raised on culinary delights my friends could only imagine: a never-ending supply of homemade tomato sauce and meatballs; fried bread dough glistening with olive oil; fresh pasta made from scratch. Perhaps because she couldn’t stand the thought of her son having to eat dried spaghetti and sauce from a jar, my Italian grandma made sure my mom — a non-Italian from West Virginia — learned how to cook my dad’s favorite dishes.
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Although she had no experience making Italian food, my mom was a quick and enthusiastic learner. It was she who first taught me how to make fresh pasta in our basement, albeit against my will.
Unlike people with fond childhood memories of cooking at their mothers’ elbows, I was not interested in learning to make pasta as sassy pre-teen. When my mom tried to reason with me, “If you don’t help, how will you know how to do this yourself someday?” I shot back, “I’ll have my maid do it for me.”
It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me with a rolling pin.
It wasn’t until I moved from home and had to fend for myself in the kitchen that her words sunk in. Where was the fresh fettuccine going to come from, if not my own hands?
Technique makes all the difference
If my mom felt the warm glow of I-told-you-so when I finally asked for her recipe, she didn’t show it.
I made fresh pasta many times over the years and came to understand all too well why my mom had been so eager for extra hands. The process seemed to take forever! I’d spend half a day cranking dough through the pasta roller, and by the time I was finished, all I’d want to do was order pizza and go to bed.
Until a few years ago, when my Aunt Lena invited me to her house for a linguine lesson, I never suspected that pasta-making could be anything other than an act of martyrdom. That day, my aunt taught me a few things that helped explain why my previous attempts had been so exhausting. Here’s what I’d been doing wrong:
I made my dough with a food processor, which can make it too stiff. Only by kneading the dough with your hands can you feel when the texture is right.
Because my dough was so unyielding, I had to run it through the roller more times than normally would be necessary. This made the process take longer than it should have.
I didn’t let the dough rest properly. Letting it sit for 10 minutes or so before each trip through the pasta roller relaxes the gluten and makes the dough easier to work with. (Aunt Lena also taught me that while the dough rests, I should rest too — with a glass of red wine in hand.)
In only two hours, the two of us cranked out enough pasta to feed a dozen family members, with plenty of leftovers. And the experience was fun and relaxing!
To make my pasta pursuits even more enjoyable, I’ve since adopted an innovation recommended by my mom: a pasta roller/cutter attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. I was reluctant to give up my hand-crank machine at first, but changed my mind when I discovered that because the mixer’s motor turns the rollers automatically, I could use both hands to guide the dough as it came out of the roller. That makes solo pasta-production much easier.
Now that I know that making fresh pasta doesn’t have to involve five hours of hard labor, I don’t wait for a special occasion to make it.
Serves 4 to 6
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs (room temperature)
3 ounces tepid water
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mound flour on a cutting board or clean work surface and make a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add water and salt. Use a fork to break the yolks and slowly begin scooping flour into the well, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.
2. Knead dough until smooth. If the dough feels sticky, it is too wet; add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it feels smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Form dough into a log shape.
3. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest 10-15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can relax and drink some wine (this also applies to steps 4 and 7).
4. Knead again for a few more minutes until dough is smooth, adding a bit more flour if needed. Cover and let rest for another 10-15 minutes.
5. Slice log into five pieces of equal size. Dip each slice in flour to coat and brush off any extra flour. Roll each slice with a rolling pin to flatten into small ovals and sprinkle with flour.
6. Run dough slices through a hand-crank pasta machine or KitchenAid mixer roller attachment at the 1, 4 and 6 (wide, medium and small) thickness settings. (Run all the sheets through on the wide setting, then roll all of the sheets on medium, etc. That allows the sheets to rest for a few minutes between rollings.) Skip the smallest setting if sheets have reached the desired thickness after two trips through the roller. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the sheet. When dough is coming out of the roller, pull on it gently to stretch it out. Sheets should be smooth and elastic.
7. Cut sheets in half so they are each about 12 inches long. Lay sheets on a tablecloth, dust with a little flour and turn them over. When edges begin to dry (in 20-30 minutes), the pasta is ready to cut. Don’t let it dry too much, or sheets will buckle and get caught in roller.
8. Run pasta sheets through cutter and arrange noodles in loose nests on a tablecloth. Sprinkle with a little flour to keep strands from sticking together. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente (2-3 minutes). If you’re not planning to eat the pasta that day, leave it to dry completely, turning nests over after an hour or so. Dried pasta will keep in the pantry for a few months.
Top photo: Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo
I’m holding a well-worn and yellowed 3-by-5-inch, lined recipe card for Date and Nut Bread baked in cans as my mind wanders back to the New Jersey kitchen of my childhood.
I’m about 10, and Mom and I are tying our aprons in the yellow-print wallpapered kitchen with vertical knotty pine planks that go a little more than halfway up the walls. As the two of us gather ingredients from the pantry and put them on the speckled Formica countertop, the black, wall-mounted, rotary-dial telephone rings. I rush to answer in my most grown up voice, “Hello, this is Nancy,” and wait for a response through the LI6-2489J party line. It’s my aunt with the recipe we are about to tackle. I hand the receiver to my mom so she can write everything down clearly, in her distinct script. In my excitement, I’m hoping a neighbor doesn’t cut in wanting to use the line.
A tradition born of necessity
It’s the late 1950s, but ever since World War II, when metals were in short supply, people became used to recycling tin cans rather than buying specialty loaf pans to make quick breads. The easy breads are popular because yeast and kneading aren’t required — only baking soda or powder is necessary for them to rise — and they’re cake-like, thanks to the addition of sugar.
First, we empty out the pile of baking sheets and odd pans stored in the oven before my mom preheats it to 350 F. She tells me to get a wooden cutting board and snip three-quarters of the dates into little pieces with scissors. Back then, a box of Dromedary-brand dates held 8 ounces, so I have an arithmetic problem to conquer as well as a messy, sticky job ahead. I take a seat at the kitchen table by a window and get to work.
By the time I finish cutting dates, everything else is ready to get stirred together, spooned into tin cans and popped in the hot oven. An hour later, the cans are placed on cooling racks, the house smells like heaven, and the bread’s unbearably long cooling-down period begins. Because one of the breads doesn’t slide out of its can easily this time, Mom removes the bottom of the can using a can opener, and gently pushes the dense bread out to cool thoroughly.
To get things moving along, I take the silver brick of Philadelphia cream cheese from the refrigerator to soften. I also grab a jar of homemade blackberry jam and stab a knife into the paraffin layer, wiggling it free, trying my hardest to remove it in one clean chunk.
Finally, Mom cuts one moist loaf into round slices with a serrated knife. My mouth is salivating as the family gathers for tastes.
Because I worked so hard, I get part of the prized top that puffs up from the can like a muffin mushroom; it’s crunchy and chewy at the same time, with an unctuously sticky center. Cream cheese glides on and a dab of jam gilds the lily.
This recipe makes a darker, moister bread than the similar, defunct canned Crosse & Blackwell or Thomas’s or Chock Full ‘O Nuts coffeehouse walnut-raisin versions. Other similar recipes from the 1950s use brown sugar, and some call for molasses.
Date and Nut Bread Baked in Cans
Makes 2 loaves
6 ounces pitted dates
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup warm water
1 large egg
1¾ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 used 14- to 15-ounce cans, cleaned and paper labels removed
Cream cheese, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Using scissors, snip the dates into small pieces (about the size of the walnut pieces) over a medium bowl.
3. Mix in the baking soda and sugar, and then pour in the water to soak the dates.
4. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir the egg, flour, salt, nuts and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter into the soaking dates.
5. Being careful of any sharp edges, generously grease the cans using the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and a pastry brush. Fill the cans a bit more than three-quarters full with thick batter. Tap the cans to rid them of air pockets.
6. Place the cans upright on a sheet pan. Bake 1 hour on the oven’s center rack.
7. Remove to a cooling rack. When the cans are cool enough to handle, give them a shake. The warm bread should slide out; if they are stubborn, remove the can bottoms with a can opener and push on the flat (bottom) end. Cool another hour. Date and Nut Bread tastes best at room temperature.
8. Slice into rounds (a serrated knife helps) and serve with cream cheese.
Main photo: Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
With Mother’s Day almost upon us, I can’t help but muse over what a challenge it has become to feed children. I wasn’t aware of ordeals surrounding food when I was growing up. I ate the same food the rest of the family did and devoured it gratefully.
On the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants (I say rare because my father didn’t think most restaurant food could match up to my mother’s cooking and he was probably right), we ordered from the main menu, not the so-called children’s menu that offered nutritionally worthless items.
I won’t dignify most of the fare on these menus by calling it junk food because that implies it is food of some kind. According to the Oxford dictionary, food means “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” Simply put, we are feeding our kids substances that humans are not meant to eat.
Teaching kids what to eat
The kind of children’s food I’m talking about is standard in most restaurants, particularly those touted as family friendly. I was recently in such an establishment, and watched incredulously as a mother and grandmother ordered chicken and vegetable stir-fry for themselves, and a processed cheese melt on white bread, French fries on the side, for the toddler.
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I have to stop here and say that I believe parents simply must take matters in hand and teach their children what is good to eat and what isn’t. David Ludwig, the widely respected endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital — who I first met at a nutrition think-tank in Rome dubbed “Pasta Fights Back,” organized to debunk the low-carb phobia that took the nation by storm in 2004 — has gone so far as to say that kids can’t survive unless their parents teach them how to eat.
In a book titled “Ending the Food Fight,” considered by his peers to have brought together the best available scientific evidence on childhood obesity, he argues, “…no species of mammal in nature allows its young to eat whatever they want. What would happen if a bear mother didn’t teach its cub what and how to eat? The cub wouldn’t survive the winter. Our modern nutritional environment can be as dangerous to children as an arctic winter is to the bear cubs.”
Think of the adorable cartoon rabbit dreamed up by marketers to sell Trix, the psychedelic-colored cereal made of 46% sugar that debuted in 1955 and is still going strong. The rabbit has spent more than half a century trying to steal Trix away from kids for himself, only to be thwarted every time. The slogan is the stuff of American childhood: “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids.” It is?
While I look back longingly on my own daughters’ early years when I would entice them to the breakfast table with the smell of baking bread and spend the days simmering ragù or stirring polenta, recipes usually destined not just for the dinner table but also for cookbooks I was writing, I know that few parents have the luxury to be able to stay at home and cook such meals the way I or my own mother did. Besides, the Mad Men entice children more than ever with clever commercials and the most well-intentioned parent faces an uphill battle trying to feed their kids decent food.
Kid food the Italian way
Having climbed onto my soapbox, and being painfully aware that my standpoint is not popular in certain circles, let me close with a suggestion for a wholesome and easy dish that can please anyone. These are the whimsical stars, alphabets, and other tiny pastas that Italian children eat as their first solid food, and which have a place in broths and light soups as well.
With it you can feed anyone from the age of, say 6 months, until at least 100 years old. I ate it from infancy. Not only did I feed it to my own tribe, I cooked it regularly for hundreds of fussy school children in an experimental lunch program that you may hear more about someday. No child I’ve ever known has ever said no to pastina.
Everyone knows that our first foods form our palate, and we forevermore crave them. My pastina habit continued into my adult life. I was so enthusiastic about this pablum that as a young mother sitting in baby-and-me support groups with other dazed young parents, I enthusiastically spread the word.
Realizing that most had never heard of it despite its presence in virtually any supermarket, I got into the habit of bringing a backpack filled with little boxes of pastina to pass out to the group. They would bring it home and make it for their babies, simply following the package directions and without fail, come back the following week, raving about the newfound simple and easy solution to otherwise stressful mealtimes.
This is so simple, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me until recently to write about it. Whether you are feeding kids or just yourself, and haven’t yet discovered its charms, this recipe is for you.
Pastina ‘Stars’ With Butter and Milk
Serves 4 children or 2 adults
Nothing is more emblematic of an Italian childhood than pastina (literally, “little pasta”) with butter and milk. It is baby’s first solid food, remembered in adulthood with great nostalgia. Stelline (“little stars”), acini di pepe (“peppercorns”), alfabetti (“alphabets”), tubettini (“little tubes”), orzo (“barley grains”), and farfalline (“little buttterflies”) are the most common. My favorites are the first two — and yes, somehow, different cuts do “taste” differently. Use tasty organic butter for the most wholesome and flavorful results.
1 cup “little stars” pastina or other tiny pasta shapes
3 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup warm milk, plus more if desired
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil. Stir in the pastina and salt. Cook according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While it is still piping hot, add butter to the pasta, burying it in the pasta to melt. Stir in a little of the warm milk and serve at once. Add a little more warm milk for a looser texture if desired. Serve at once.
Variations: For added nutrition for babies, stir a teaspoon, or to taste, freshly puréed carrots, spinach, or other puréed cooked vegetable(s) or a touch of tomato sauce into a portion of hot buttered pastina before serving. A classic is to stir the yolk of a small fresh egg, butter, and grated parmigiano cheese into piping hot pastina. The heat will cook it through. You might try it if you have a trusted source for fresh eggs.
Main photo: Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog. The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.
I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.
I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.
Recipe box about the why, not just the how
I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.
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The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)
But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.
Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.
A relentless diet
There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)
Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.
A reflection of progress
My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.
There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.
My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.
Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison
My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.
I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).
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I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.
Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.
Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.
When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.
Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.
Classic buttercream frosting
According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.
Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.
“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”
The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.
“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.
True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.
I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.
Karen’s Buttercream Frosting
Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)
1 cup milk
4½ tablespoons flour
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.
2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.
3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.
Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo