Party planning

I was digging through Grandma Sara’s recipe box to find something good to share. It seems that the recipes that impressed her most were for desserts. There are cookies, cakes, pies galore.  Also, a good number of casseroles… but mostly sweets. I’ve selected a couple to share in the coming weeks.

I also found two notecards that appear to have outlined holiday menus and quantities of food, presumably for future reference. For example:

christmas-1991-menuShe didn’t specify how many people were at the meal, but included quantities to make a turkey, stuffing, mashed and baked sweet potatoes, plus 4 pies (mince, pumpkin, and two pecan).

Then we have Thanksgiving from 1985:

thanksgiving-1985-menuHere, she lists what she prepared for 15 people. It seems an 18 1/2 pound turkey was the right size to feed the crowd, however, two pounds of mixed vegetables and 4 boxes of yellow beans were too much, as were the large tossed salad and two packages of potato rolls.  I’m sure as I filled my own plate on my 19th Thanksgiving,  I most assuredly skimped on the vegetables (can you say afterthought?) in favor of the mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing. Funny, she doesn’t even mention stuffing on this list; probably because it was a given, because in those days, you didn’t cook a bird without stuffing some seasoned bread into the cavity first.

The other thing she doesn’t mention is how she always used to put out two gravy boats – one that contained the giblets, and one that did not. I always thought she did this as a favor to me, but relatives, correct me if I’m wrong. I was a non-giblet girl. Still am.  Always will be. I’ll cook them and give ’em to the cat, but don’t you dare sneak them into my gravy. Blech.

When I’m planning a party or big meal, I do something she used to do – I will sit out all the serving bowls and utensils and label them ahead of time with what food goes in which one. That’s the kind of stuff I can handle. And, while I will write down a menu ahead of time, for grocery shopping purposes, I have never kept it and made notes about whether the quantities were appropriate or that everyone took their “polite bites” but nothing more of a certain dish, or notes on timing the cooking of things or… anything remotely helpful.

Now that I’ve discovered my grandma’s cards, I may have to start doing this. And what better opportunity than this weekend, when the members of my church choir and their families are scheduled to come over on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Christmas. Of course, this party’s more of a covered dish. I agreed to provide a ham and paper supplies, plus electricity, running water, climate control, and places to sit. And that’s about it. I really know how to throw a party, don’t I?


Molasses Cookies

It was the rare visit to Grandma Sara’s house when there wasn’t a plate of cookies to share, and if there wasn’t, profuse apologies would ensue. Molasses Cookies were in Grandma Sara’s heavy rotation. In fact, I have three separate recipe cards in her handwriting, and I remember asking her to write it for me a few times. On one of the cards, she wrote:

This is not Grandma Daisy’s but tastes as close to hers as I can find.

Grandma Daisy was her mother, my great-grandmother. So, I’m double-dipping in the grandma category, but more than that, I’m sharing a recipe that my own grandma really tried to make as close as possible to what her mother made. I think that’s cool.

This recipe makes a good-sized, soft, cake-y cookie. Anyone familiar with Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish cooking would recognize these.  These were never in anyone’s “Christmas cookie” repertoire, but were made year-round. Of course if you ask me, you could fill a tin of these, stick a bow on it, say “Merry Christmas,” and it would all be the same thing.

None of my recipe cards say how many cookies this recipe makes. I think it’s several dozen, but it’s been a while since I made them.  Now, however, these are on my brain, and this usually means I’ll have to make them soon. If I do, I’ll post pictures and update with quantity.

Molasses Cookies

1 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup baking molasses
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 cup dairy sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg (for eggwash)

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add 1 egg and molasses and beat well. Add vinegar and sour cream and mix well.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, spices, baking soda and salt. Gently stir the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. Do not overbeat.

Drop by teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet (or you can use baking parchment). Allow room for them to spread.   Beat the other egg; using a spoon, press gently on top of cookie and spread a bit of egg on top. (Or, skip the egg and sprinkle with sugar… but I always remember egg on top of Grandma Sara’s cookies.)

Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

These are great served warm and the way I see it, can also pass as something you might call “breakfast.”

Ham Bone (Bean) Soup

This is another one of those recipes that’s difficult to attribute to one grandma or the other, because both of them made it regularly. Frankly, this soup is best made by little old ladies – members of the Grange or the Lions Club or the Moose or Elks or the Fire Company or the Lutheran Church – cooked for hours in giant iron kettles and served up at community festivals such as carnivals or parades, or weekend church supper fundraisers where you can take it to go if you bring your own quart jars along.

I myself am neither little nor old, nor a member of any of those groups, and I do not own a giant iron kettle. Nevertheless, I cooked me a half-ham last Thursday, and my dear husband knows me well enough to have saved the ham bone because he knew I would want to do something with it.

This is very simple recipe, and because it appeared in print, here is Grandma Losch’s version:


When I say “in print”, I am referring to the Faith Lutheran Church cookbook, circa 1976, and believe me when I say, this is one cookbook I keep going back to. My grandma’s recipes are well-represented, as are those from my aunts, cousins, as well as many lovely folks from the church in which my own mother grew up. The contents are priceless, and frankly, so is the cover photo:

faith-cookbookCheck out that kitchen, people! The harvest gold countertops! The dark wood cabinets! The orange linoleum! Such a period piece!

Sorry, got distracted there. Some of Grandma Losch’s “greatest hits” are in this cookbook, and you’ll see many more of them here in future installments. But for now – where was I? – oh yes – Ham Bean Soup. Or, as it’s listed herein, Ham BONE Soup. And I suspect it was bone rather than bean because Grandma was a child of the Great Depression and she was as thrifty as the day is long.  She could make a good soup out of a bare bone and whatever else was in the fridge. This is the woman who reused plastic bread bags. She made us rewash styrofoam plates and cups and plastic cutlery.  I used to be embarassed by how “cheap” she was, but now I realize she was simply trying to “reduce her carbon footprint.” She made “Dandelion Gravy”, which, frankly, I couldn’t get over because I watched her walk out and literally pick grass (dandelion leaves!) from the yard, then cook to drippings and a sweet/sour sauce.  FRUGAL was her middle name! Actually, her middle name was Margaret, and that’s what my mom chose as my first name, and my middle name is the same as my other grandmother’s, and… well, now you understand, don’t you?

WHERE WAS I? Oh yes, the Soup! It’s a simple recipe. I took pictures! And, I had to make emergency substitutions and embellish a wee bit.  If you want to go Old School, follow what’s pasted above. But here’s how I did it, using the leftover baked ham and the other stuff I had in my pantry:

1. RE-COOK HAM BONE IN WATER. For, like, a couple / few hours.


2. SOAK SOUP BEANS OVERNIGHT. Grandma’s recipe calls for “soup beans”, where “soup beans” equals those dried navy beans, I think. However, all I had was some dried pinto beans, and I had not had the forethought to soak ’em overnight (who can remember?), so I threw them into a pot and boiled them for, like, a couple of hours, which is pretty much the same thing as soaking overnight:


Once the ham bone is cooked and the beans have boiled until soft, you are ready to rock ‘n’ roll with the rest of the ingredients, where “rock ‘n’ roll” equals throw ’em all into a pot and cook, cook, cook:


A couple of points about how my other ingredients vary from what’s called for in the recipe: First of all, I don’t know why she lists “tomato juice” because my soup was pretty watery and tomato juice wouldn’t have helped me there. Also, tomato juice is something I never have just laying around, and if I do, I’m saving it for Bloody Marys. So, I substituted a small can of tomato paste, and that worked great.  Plain tomato sauce would work, too. But it has to be PLAIN, not, like, Ragu or some other flavored sauce, OK?

See those clear bags of Celery Flakes and Bay Leaves? I had no fresh celery (actually, I did, but when I went to get it out I discovered it had partially frozen, and celery frozen is just nasty) so I used some dried celery flakes from my favorite spice store, Penzey’s. (Have you shopped Penzey’s? They mail order, and also have retail stores, one of which happens to be within 8 miles of my house. [Be still my soul.] The spices are excellent quality, and less expensive than what you can get in the grocery store. If you like to cook, you need to shop Penzey’s!) Well, my grandma didn’t have Penzey’s, but she had the next best thing – she lived next door to my aunt and uncle, who ran a small country-crossroads grocery store at the bottom of their hill, and she could call down and just ask “Troupie” to bring something up for her. Like celery and tomato juice. And an onion, too, please. If it’s not too much trouble.

Bay Leaves: I threw in a couple while the soup was cooking. Why? I thought it’d make it better. Grandma’s recipe doesn’t call for them, but I threw caution to the wind and snuck ’em in there. (Also, I’m trying to find ways to use them up, because I got pretty excited and bought that huge bag of them at Penzey’s.)

Lastly: Grandma’s recipe calls for chopped hard boiled eggs. I seriously have no recollection of her putting eggs into her soup… so I don’t put ’em in. I give you permission to buck tradition – like I did – and just skip the eggs. But – shhhh – don’t tell anyone, OK? About the added bay leaves OR the omitted eggs.

OK, so you put all of that into the pot with the ham broth and the beans and keep on cooking it, again, for maybe another hour or two.  Stir it occasionally to keep the beans from burning to the bottom. OR, throw it into the crock pot at this point and let it cook all afternoon. You’ll also want to add the extra ham here, too, and pull out the bone at some point and clean it off and add that ham to the soup as well. 

Ideally, your soup will thicken into a hammy, beany, salty stewy soup. Mine did not; I carelessly used too much water.  But it tasted good, and heck, if you add enough saltine crackers, any soup will thicken right up. Here’s what it looked like right before Middle Son (a.k.a. The Boss) inhaled his:


You can freeze this soup, or just keep it in the fridge and reheat it over and over for, like, days on end. It gets better every time.

In further proof that I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter – aside from the wicked hammertoe that appeared when I turned 40 – I offer this: Soup Husband Curt and I are sitting at the table eating this soup, and he says, “Good soup!” To which I reply, “meh, it’s watery, and it doesn’t taste ‘hammy’ enough.” And he was all, “OKAY Mary Losch, quit selling yourself short!”  – because any of you readers who were lucky enough to know Mary Losch know that nothing she made was ever perfect. The pie was “weepy” or the crust wasn’t quite flaky enough, or… something. But I couldn’t help it; the soup wasn’t perfect. It just wasn’t! But it was good, and it reminded me of the grandmas and that’s all that matters, right?


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash out a breadbag…

Meg’s Mom’s Sand Tart Cookies

My mom has made these thin, crispy cut-outs at Christmas for as long as I can remember. The same treats could be found at both Grandma Sara and Grandma Losch’s homes in December each year. When I married, I discovered that my mother-in-law also makes the same recipe each year! Must be a Pennsylvania thing.

Make the dough ahead of time, and you might as well go ahead and make two batches because once you bake them, these cookies go fast. In fact, the trick with these is really in the hiding: The earlier in December you bake them, the better you have to hide them from the children and men (mostly, the men).

These are a lot of work, what with all the rolling, cutting, decorating (and hiding), and they bake fast, so once you start putting them in the oven, you’re going to get a good workout. This must be why my mom only made them once a year, and recently threatens each year not to make them at all. (I think this year she’s going to make good on that threat.) Even so, with non-Christmas cookie cutters, you could turn these into a Valentine’s Day treat for your sweetie, or whatever other seasonal reason you can use to rationalize making them.

MEG’S MOM’S SAND TARTS (modified just a wee bit by Meg)

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

3 eggs

1 Tbsp milk

1 tsp baking soda

4 – 4½ cups flour


An extra egg white for eggwash


Colored sugar sprinkles and cinnamon/sugar for decorating cookies


Tools you’ll need: That giant electric mixer that’s collecting dust in your cupboard, cool Christmas cookie cutters (why not treat yourself to some new ones?), baking parchment to cover your baking sheets (or buy some new airbake sheets if yours are as crusty as mine), a pastry brush, measuring spoons and cups, a thin metal turner/spatula, rolling pin, cooling racks, a timer, and lots and lots of patience. Also, it’ll be much easier if a friend helps.

In a large mixing bowl, using electric mixer (just the excuse you need to bust out your KitchenAid!), cream sugar and butter well.  Add eggs and milk and mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine flour and baking soda.  Using a wooden spoon (you can put the mixer away again until next year), add flour mixture gradually to sugar/butter mixture until dough is somewhat firm. Don’t allow it to become crumbly.  Divide the sugary, buttery goodness into 3 or 4 pieces and form each into a nice, tidy disc. Tightly wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least several hours, ideally overnight.  This dough can be stored in refrigerator for several days.

You’re done for the night; uncork the cabernet. Clear your schedule for tomorrow night or Saturday afternoon.

Bring your dough to room temperature by allowing it to sit on the countertop for as long as it takes you to finish last night’s leftover wine a couple/few hours.  Clear all the other stuff off of your countertop. Flour your rolling pin and surface well, and keep the flour handy – you don’t want the dough to stick!

Using your grandmother’s rolling pin for good luck (yes, I do), roll the dough very thin and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Depending on the dough’s texture, you may be able to re-roll scraps one or two more times, but each time you re-roll, the finished product will be less tender, so don’t get too crazy with the rerolling.

(About the thin-ness: Listen to me here. If they’re too thick, they won’t be flaky-crispy and I won’t allow you to call them Sand Tarts. Trust me – these cookies taste best when they’re almost paper-thin, and crispy.)

Using the metal turner, carefully transfer cut-outs to ungreased cookie sheets lined with baking parchment.  Mix that extra egg white with a Tbsp water in a small bowl, and very lightly brush each cookie with the eggwash. No puddles! It’s only there to make the sugar stick.

Now, the fun part. Find the kids, because this is the only part they’ll want to help with anyway. Bust out the colored sprinkles and go crazy! Also, try using a cinnamon/sugar mixture, paired with a sliced almond or some chopped walnuts, which will enable you to rationalize eating serving these for breakfast.

Bake at 350 degrees (you did preheat your oven, didn’t you?) for 5 to 8 minutes or until they just start to turn golden – watch carefully and often to make sure they don’t burn.  USE A TIMER – don’t lose track! Adjust baking time as needed. DO NOT WALK AWAY BECAUSE I PROMISE YOU WILL GET DISTRACTED AND BURN THEM.  Yelling on purpose here. I speak from experience.

Using a potholder (I make no assumptions), remove cookie sheet from the oven and allow to cool for a minute or two. Shoo onlookers away and tell them to come back later, after they’re all baked. (The cookies, I mean.) Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely.  Store in airtight container.  These cookies will last for weeks in your freezer, assuming your husband doesn’t know that the freezer is your hiding place.

Sand Tarts!
Sand Tarts!

Grandma Sara’s Butter Brickle

Here’s one you’ll want to add to your holiday cooking list, and I’m telling you right now, plan on making a double batch because it goes fast. This is Grandma Sara’s butter brickle, or English toffee. She made it every year at Christmastime, and a batch of this, placed in a special piece of pottery, was the coveted gift in our family gift exchange for years!  I learned to make this many years ago, but even though I follow her recipe closely, I still say hers tasted better.


2/3 c. sliced almonds, crushed, divided into 2 parts
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 bag (12 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate chips (milk chocolate is okay too, because really, when does milk chocolate not work, anyway?)

All you need to make this awesome stuff.

Prepare pan: Line a cookie sheet that has sides (jelly roll pan) with foil, then butter the foil (or spray with PAM). Sprinkle with 1/3 cup of crushed sliced almonds. (Or more than that if you really dig nuts.)

Prepared pan. Feel free to use more almonds.

Place brown sugar, butter and vanilla in heavy saucepan. Cook on medium to medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until candy thermometer reads 300 degrees (hard crack stage).

Do NOT stop stirring! It takes longer than you think it will, so wear comfortable shoes and don’t be in a hurry.

It's almost done!

Remove sugar mixture from heat and pour it evenly over almonds on cookie sheet. Sprinkle it with chocolate chips. Wait several minutes to allow chocolate chips to melt, then spread them evenly over sugar mixture. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup of almonds over top of melted chocolate.

Allow to cool completely (refrigerate to speed the process, or put it outside if it’s cold out), then break into smallish pieces. Store in a covered container in a cool location. Hide it from your spouse and children, because once they find it? It’s as good as gone.

UPDATE, 7 DECEMBER 2010. I’ve added a few photos, but it seems I neglected to snap a shot of the finished product.  Coincidentally, Ree (Pioneer Woman) posted a similar recipe with much better photos. Go check it out!

Update, 22 November 2011. Finally – a photo of the finished product:

Butter Brickle
Butter Brickle. Yum.