Baking

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“Mom, can I help you with that?”

My daughter was watching me cook a batch of chocolate frosting for the fudge cake we were about to devour. Her eyes told me that this was more about a chance at licking the frosting bowl. My independent girl, the one that would soon brave her first year in junior high at a new school, the one I found—at two years old—directing traffic at the top of a slide swarming with kids, the one that gets mean when she’s sad, just like me. The trailblazer that runs ahead of me all day long, but at night asks for me to cuddle her to sleep. The child that still holds my hand.

So we make frosting together, her adding the ingredients that I measured out for her, me lecturing on the proper speed of stirring (fast enough to keep it from scalding, not so much it splatters all over your shirt).

And as I’m demonstrating she asks

“How did you get so good at cooking?”

This stops me in my tracks as I stifle laughter. Because I am no great cook. I can can all day and am handy with dessert, but I often come up short at mealtime in comparison to her chef of a father.

So I’m tempted to correct her, but stop myself. I need to be careful here. My goal is to raise a confident, mighty woman that does not apologize for herself or negate her gifts. I want her to take a compliment gracefully, to achieve her full potential, and not hold herself back out of some twisted notion of modesty.

And, too, if I really listen to the question, she was asking how to learn, not debating my kitchen skills. It’s not about me.

So instead of correcting her honesty, I say “Well, honey, with a lot of practice. My mom taught me, and-- here—you go ahead and try.” And with that I hand her the whisk and let her do it. It’s awkward and imperfect because she’s eleven and still learning, but it’s FROSTING and when it comes to my kid’s joy, perfection can go jump in a lake.

Gwennie's Fudge Cake with Chocolate Frosting

This is why I cook real food. This is why I let my kids in the kitchen and spend time—gobs of time—and dirty all of the dishes in my cupboards and spend time at farmer’s markets and grow what I can in my garden. All of it. This is why.

It’s healthy and economical , yes, but it’s so much more than that.

When I invite my child into my space and she learns how to do things for herself in the process, she becomes more confident. And more self-reliant too, and suddenly cooking becomes a way of expressing her independence without (too much) rebellion.

When we are cooking together, the sweetest conversations bubble up. Standing side by side working together to create a meal, life happens. Questions are asked. And if I make this cooking of the meal the priority, and have managed some sort of balance in the rush of life, I can breathe. And I can answer.

This doesn’t happen always. There are days when we order takeout or when I’m tired and my patience is gone and the words are less than graceful. There have been days, especially when they were younger, that the kids were shooed from the kitchen just so I could slap a meal together.

But most days, the kitchen is where you’ll find a child cracking an egg or flipping a pancake or me nervously watching them practice knife skills. We have braved their creations ranging from salad to “soup” and have learned from their, ahem, adventures (graham crackers dipped in cider are a thing. Try it.)

This day it was frosting. It was a little runny. So my daughter and I took turns drizzling on the chocolate frosting, making a mess and laughing at our efforts. The finished product was predictably ugly. But it was delicious, and my family gobbled it up. No special occasion, just a regular day. Because regular days are when we cook around here.

Classic Fudge Cake Recipe

Gwennie’s Fudge Cake

Gwennie Olmstead was Lucie’s sister-in-law, Uncle Oral Olmstead’s wife

Ingredients

1 cup sugar
2 TBSP cocoa
1/3 cup shortening (1 large TBSP)
1 egg
¾ sour milk*
1 tsp soda
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup hot water—added last

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°. Mix the sugar and cocoa together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the shortening, creaming together until mixture is crumbly. Mix in the egg. Sift the baking soda and flour together in a small bowl, then add to the chocolate mixture, alternately with the milk. Stir in the vanilla. Add the hot water last. Pour into a greased 9x13 pan. Bake 30 minutes until edges are pulled away from the pan.

Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Frosting

Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
2/3 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

Melt butter. Stir in cocoa. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla. About 2 cups frosting.

*Sour milk was abundant in the days before refrigerators, and it was put to use in old recipes like these. If you don’t have any sour milk around, just add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to your milk, and you’ll be good.

 

When I think of Aunt Edna, she’s laughing. She spins off a one-liner, claps her hands one time and does a little kick while everyone busts out in laughter. Usually she will tap the person next to her and whisper a few more observations loud enough for everyone to hear, and the party goes on.

The number one recipe requested by my cousins for our family cookbook project is by far my Aunt Edna’s Scalloped Corn. The dish brings grown men to tears.

Scalloped Corn

And by far, this has been the toughest one to pin down, because when you make a thing for 60-plus years, the word “recipe” doesn’t apply.

When you know something well, you cease to measure ingredients.

I wanted to make sure I was making the Scalloped Corn just right, so I made an appointment to learn from the master. She gave me more than a recipe:

When you watch a person, you get a feel for what they are aiming at. Edna very plainly wants everyone to know that they are loved. Praise and I-love-you’s and hugs spill over from her heart to yours, and you walk away wanting to come back for more.

Maybe that’s the secret ingredient that makes everyone beg for this dish.

Tracing the Lineage of a Recipe: Edna was given this recipe by her mother Lucie, who we are pretty sure received it from her mother Chloe Hamilton. Edna remembers her cousin John (Lucie’s sister Mary’s son, if you follow) bringing Scalloped Corn to a family function “and it tasted exactly like mine.”  Chloe must have been the common thread. Edna’s granddaughter Bethany makes it now, adding a little brown sugar to her version. Five generations of a family recipe.

Edna’s Scalloped Corn

3 8-oz. cans creamed corn
½ cup sugar
½ cup milk
3 eggs
1 ½ sleeves of saltine crackers, crushed
2 Tbsp butter

Mix the corn, sugar, milk, and eggs. Reserve ½ cup of the cracker crumbs, and add the rest to the mixture. Pour into an oven-safe dish. Sprinkle the crackers on top and dot with butter. Bake at 350° for  45-60 minutes, until mixture is solid and golden brown on top.

“Mother could make a Banana Cream Pie from one banana. I don't know how she did it, but I can remember.”

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My aunts Edna and Helen each tell this tale, recalling the thin slices that Lucie stretched into a shared memory over 60 years ago. Even though food was often scarce, Lucie could still create something delicious from that one banana, the rest of the ingredients ubiquitous to a farm wife with a cow and chickens in the back yard

The legend has inscribed itself onto my own memory, even though Lucie left twenty years before I was born.

And none of her pie recipes are written down.

“Well no, because that’s something she just knew” is my aunts’ answer to this.  In Lucie’s kitchen, pie was more than a recitation of ingredients; it was a gathering of experience: how to handle a crust just right, how much thickener to add, how to cook it through without burning the edges.

You don’t need to write down what you make by heart.

For a while I was disappointed that Lucie left no written record of one of her hallmarks. But then I realized the most important ingredients had been handed to me:

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So in honor of Lucie I made a Banana Cream Pie this morning, with pieces of recipes from different authors, and with just one banana. My pie skills aren’t legendary, but I can pass down what I know.

Banana Cream Pie

Pie Crust
from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
¼ pound cold butter
3 to 5 Tbsp ice water, as needed

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl, then cut in the butter, using your fingers or two knives, until it resembles coarse meal. [I use the pastry paddle on my mixer]. Lightly stir in the water a tablespoon at a time until you can bring the dough together in a ball. If crumbs remain on the bottom, add a few drops of water so that you can pull them together as well. Shape the dough into a disk and roll it out into a circle ⅛ inch thick. If the dough is so warm that it's sticky, refrigerate it for 15 minutes, then roll it out.

Becky's notes: Line a 9-inch pie pan with the dough and crimp edges. Prick the bottom several times with a fork. Bake at 350° for 12 minutes. Cool at room temperature.

Filling
from Betty Crocker's New Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know

Ingredients:

4 large egg yolks
⅔ cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
½ tsp. salt
3 cups milk
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp vanilla
1 cup sweetened whipped cream

Beat egg yolks with fork in small bowl. Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in 2-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir 1 minute.

Immediately stir at least half of the hot mixture gradually into egg yolks; stir back into hot mixture in saucepan. Boil and stir 1 minute; remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Press plastic wrap onto filling in saucepan. Refrigerate until room temperature.

Slice 2 bananas [or one, in a pinch] into pie shell. Pour filling over bananas. Press plastic wrap onto filling. Refrigerate about 2 hours or until set.

Remove plastic wrap. Top pie with sweetened whipped cream. Garnish with banana slices if desired. Immediately refrigerate any remaining pie after serving.

 

See more about my pie life here. Coming soon: Sue's first pumpkin pie.