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!


Aunty Belle said...

Lovely tribute to yore GrandMother! She would be so pleased at this remembrance on her birthday.

I has wunnerful memories of visitin one of mah GMs in Louisiana whar' the fresh ground cawfee aroma felt warm as a blanket. She taught me to respect ingredients no matter how incidental to a dish.

Happy youse traveled safely wif'out snowy snags.

moi said...

This is a great line: there is no substitute for learning at someone’s elbow. So true! I still have the little red stool I insisted my mother buy me when I was about five or six so I could stand by her side in the kitchen and watch her cook . . .

Grandma R sounds like she was a real kick. That photo is full of personality. Ninety-six? Right on.

Thanks for sharing the chocolate cake recipe. I'm obsessed with perfecting mine (haven't done it quite yet) and will definitely try this once I've shed a bit of the holiday bloat.

Glad you had a great time and are home safe!

LaDivaCucina said...

What a sweet post, Eggy! How lucky you were to have such a loving grandmother, I never had the luxury with any of them.

I too think the ability for some of us to be clever and creative cooks is not only intuitive but inherited. Sometimes it's just in the blood.

I also wonder what anyone would think of the recipes I have in my cookbook once I'm gone? It's mostly other peoples' and not necessarily ones I even tried! All of my every day cooking is on my blog posts...that would be the better indicator of how I cook. (maybe I should print them all for posterity's sake?!) I only was sent some of my mom's (deceased since 1973) recipes by my cousins in the last few years, and of course, they are precious to me.

Nice, thought-provoking post, Mizz Eggy!

By the way, did your dad like his book?

LaDivaCucina said...

PS: thanks for sharing the family recipe for chocolate cake!

Sharon Rudd said...

Aunty, ooh yeah to the “fresh ground cawfee aroma felt warm as a blanket” and thankee again for the swell Christmas story you concocted.

Moi, yes, indeed to the “learning at someone’s elbow” and love imagining you on that red stool next to the stove :)

Diva, you make an interesting point. My blog posts probably are more representative of my cooking than my accumulated recipes too. As to whether being a “clever and creative” cook is inherited, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t put my either of my grandmothers in the “creative” category, but they were certainly solid cooks who always put out delicious, if simple, food, and who knew how to stretch things, given their Depression-era backgrounds. On the other hand, food cooked from scratch was something I was exposed to throughout my childhood. I feel sorry for people who didn’t grow up that way, and I probably can’t imagine how differently they view food and cooking, as compared to me.

Moi and Diva, so glad you liked the chocolate cake recipe – it really is a winner. If you try it, please let me know how it turns out for you. The cake is pretty straightforward, although the icing can be a bit tricky (especially in humidity, Diva).

chickory said...

that sounds really good - buttermilk choc-cake! I have to wait until I fall off the new years resolutions wagon. Nobody ever showed me how to cook anything...not really. I just started really trying this past decade. Ive got a few things i do well. I loved this post and thought about the smells of my grandmothers house: mint. cigarettes.

why did Grandma R move to Tennesee?

Sharon Rudd said...

Chicky! This chocolate cake is good any time of year :)

To answer your question, Grandma R moved to TN because that's where my dad (her only child) was living when she became too forgetful to remain at the "apartment building for the elderly" in her native Nebraska. It was heart-breaking to see her decline, and I'm sad to say that by the time I made that calendar in her honor, I don't think she grasped much about it. I much prefer to remember her in her younger, jauntier days - like when she was only 80, in that photo.

Jenny said...

awww, I love this post and promise I will give your Grandma's recipe a try. I love what you said about learning at someone's elbow. I hope that's the case with my Nephew and I know it's how I learned much of what I know. What an honor for you to receive her box of recipes and I still think you to devote an entire post about that name of yours and your post. ;-) Happy Happy New Year Dear Eggy!

fishy said...

Eggy what a sweet tribute to the importance of family and traditions. Is there anything as long lasting as those lessons we learn from our grands? VERY generous of you to share this family recipe for chocolate cake. Baking is not something I do, but if I did, I would start the New Year with this cake for breakfast..... great beginnings and all that.
Happy New Year!
Blessed be you