Tuesday, December 27, 2011
A Tribute and a Recipe
I’m back from my holiday weekend with family, which was filled with food, food, and more food, as well as family traditions (old and new), inside jokes, and fun surprises. Roast beef and apple pie were part of our Christmas menu, and they got my sister and me talking about Grandma R., whose birthday is today.
Long before my blogging days, I had a tendency to come up with made-by-me holiday gifts, often of the verbal variety. For Christmas 2002, I made a recipe calendar and dedicated it to my Grandma R., who would have turned 105 today. She didn’t make 105, but she did make it to 96. As iron-fisted as she could be, she knew how to enjoy herself and wasn’t about to let her birthday be overshadowed by that big December holiday that always fell two days earlier.
I pulled out my copy of that calendar earlier this month and reread what I wrote about both my grandmothers nine years ago. I think stands up over time, and it was the first time I wrote about “Intuitive Eggplant,” which later became my screen name.
One of the most evocative memories from my childhood is the intertwined aromas of roast beef and apple pie in my grandparents’ house in Nebraska City. Grandma R. insisted on buying her beef at Goody’s butcher shop, and the fall harvest of Nebraska City apples is renowned (at least among Nebraskans).
I’ve never learned to make roast beef or apple pie quite like Grandma R.’s. But one thing we have in common is that we aren’t given to cooking from recipes. The dishes we cook best we cook from experience, and from the heart.
That was brought home to me recently. After she moved to Tennessee, I inherited Grandma R.’s recipe box. I remember it always being in her kitchen, but don’t recollect her ever referring to the recipes inside. I was honored to receive it, and hoped the special cedar box would yield her culinary secrets. What I found were mostly recipes from other people, not the ones I remember her cooking. Then again, perhaps that was because whenever she asked me for meal requests, I always wanted her roast beef and either apple pie or her special chocolate cake.
Like Grandma R., I ask for other people’s recipes. I also turn to my collection of cookbooks and magazines, the Internet and TV. Long before there was “Emeril Live” or a cable channel devoted to food, I watched Julia Child with Grandma W. I feverishly took notes as Julia whipped up a tomato and zucchini gratin. Then Grandma W. and I prepared our version of it, with freshly picked vegetables from her garden.
Whatever the source, these days I use recipes more for inspiration than as prescription. I love to experiment, to mix and match, to tweak a recipe, or to recreate something I’ve tasted elsewhere.
My cooking style might be described as “Intuitive Eggplant,” as housemates at Oberlin College dubbed one of the dishes I love to make. I can’t tell you how to make my eggplant parmesan, but I learned the basics in Colorado by watching my buddy Derf (who learned from Italian mamas in New York). For many dishes, from marinara sauce to chocolate cake, there is no substitute for learning at someone’s elbow.
Grandma’s Buttermilk Chocolate Cake
Melt over medium heat:
2 squares chocolate
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. sugar
Combine in mixing bowl, then add melted chocolate mixture:
1/2 c. shortening
1 c. sugar
Add 2 eggs.
Sift dry ingredients together:
2 c. cake flour
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
Combine following wet ingredients and add to mixing bowl alternately with the dry ingredients:
1 c. buttermilk
1 t. vanilla
Mix and bake at 350 degrees 20-30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool at least half an hour before icing.
The Boiled Chocolate Icing
4 T. shortening
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. milk
2 T. cocoa
Melt and combine above ingredients in a small, heavy-bottom saucepan. Increase heat and boil exactly one minute. Remove saucepan from heat and place in sink filled with cold water, being careful that water does not touch icing. When icing is cool, beat until thick. Do not rush this process. If you stir the icing while it is too hot, it will sugar (this was a tip I got from Grandma only after I thought I had finally learned how to make “her” icing).
Here’s hoping you enjoy, experiment, and taste something new this year!