Remembering Mom’s cooking

In response to my recent update and reposting of the post about my grandma’s butter brickle, my mom emailed me to say how much she enjoyed re-reading it and remembering both her mother-in-law and the delicious things she made. I replied that there’s just something about food that evokes strong memories.

Mom replied: 

Last summer I made (for different meals) fried tomatoes, and then warm cabbage slaw.  I really thought of Grandma Losch [her own mother] then.  Hmm,  will/does anything food-wise make you think of me? I think of you often when I make applesauce.

Well, yes, of course there are food memories that I tie directly to my mom in particular, and to my growing up in general! Rather than email them to her directly, I thought they deserved a blog post of their own. Here they are, in no particular order, addressed directly to my mom:

  • I remember when you would bake pies, you would give me the scraps of dough to roll out, then we would prick them with a fork, place them into a small tin pie plate and bake them. I loved eating those homemade “crackers.”
  • Of course, I remember you making sand tarts at Christmas! That’s why I attributed this recipe to you. You can’t imagine how tickled I was to learn that my future mother-in-law made the exact same cookies. That was another indicator that I was marrying the right man.
  • I remember when you tried to convince me that tossed salad tasted so much better when I cut up the ingredients. I am sure that was your way of getting out of making a boring old salad, but it was my early introduction to the kitchen and, even though I suspected I was being conned, I enjoyed slicing carrots and placing them atop iceberg lettuce. (Back in the days before arugula and field greens and balsamic vinaigrette.)
  • I remember how most of our family meals – and we mostly ate dinner as a family – included a meat, a potato, and a vegetable, with a fruit for dessert. I also recall you saying that was what dad preferred, and how he really didn’t like “one-dish meals.”
  • I also remember that on the infrequent occasions he was out of town and it was just “us girls” for dinner, you would always fix something “one-dish” like hamburger pie, chicken pot pie, spaghetti with meat sauce, or lasagna. Or pizza!
  • During dinner prep, being asked to go down to the basement and get a vegetable and/or a fruit out of one of the freezers, or off of the canning shelf, to prepare for dinner.
  • Wrapping meat in freezer paper, so that the side of beef we’d just purchased would last for months and months.
  • I also have memories of food that I would not eat. Liver & onions comes to mind. Or pickled tongue.  (GAH.) Scrapple, puddin’, and all those butchering by-products. I was not a fan of the gamey birds that sometimes showed up.  Venison was a push – OK in baloney and ground, but not as a steak. Giblets in gravy, yuk! And – sorry to say this – I was not a huge fan of that canned “Swiss steak” you made lots of in an attempt to salvage some particularly tough beef.
  • And let’s agree not to talk about the liver pate, OK?
  • I remember that you insisted that “jelly was too hard to make!” which was really your cover story, told in a convincing enough fashion that your mother-in-law kept you supplied with black raspberry jelly year-round.
  • Doing corn.
  • Gardening! Looking back on it now, I was less impressed then than I would be now. Then, the garden was, to me, the thing that stood between me and a ride to the pool. You would make us brave heat and humidity and gnats and sweat bees and pull weeds in order to “earn” our ride. Of course, it was that garden that made me love yellow wax beans and limas.
  • Pork & sauerkraut for good luck on New Year’s Day. I can’t not make this each year – it’s a must.
  • Making milkshakes in the workhorse Waring blender on Saturdays for lunch. That blender is still going – I use it now to make smoothies for the kids.
  • Turning Aunt Vivi’s grapes into juice.
  • That year that you had all those apples and were elbow-deep in turning them into freezer-ready apple dumplings, such that you decided Richelle’s grandma would be entirely qualified to take me for my driving test. I came home, giddy at having passed the test the first time, and you immediately dispatched me to drive over to Uncle Bill’s store for some ingredient that you need. Was that a legitimate need, or just a chance to let me go do what you knew I was dying to do (drive!)?
  • I can totally picture the kitchen at our farm house. Every cupboard, the stove, the sink, the wallpaper – all of it. And if I try really, really hard – I can smell it.

It’s one thing to reminisce about things you remember from long-gone grandparents. But this is cool because I get to share my memories while my mom’s around to read them! I hope my mom will weigh in with memories of her own that I may have forgotten to include.

Thanks for the memories, Mom!

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My Inspiration

Presenting, the ladies who inspired this blog:

Grandma Sara, with my sister (r) and me (l)

Grandma Sara died five years ago at the age of 89, and I ended up with her recipe box.  My initial thought was to collect her favorite recipes into a cookbook and distribute it to family members, but then I thought a blog would be better… because I can add posts as the spirit moves me, and it’s interactive.  I grew up not three miles from her farm, and as a result we gathered ’round her dining room table for many holidays and birthdays.

The best memories I have of things she made are her Amish-style sugar cookies and molasses cookies and chicken corn soup (link is to Grandma Losch’s recipe, with rivels – I don’t recall Grandma Sara’s having rivels), and how she always made my dad an angel food cake for his birthday because she knew how much he loved it.

Baby me with Grandma Losch, 1967

The more I considered the blog idea, the more I thought it should be a plural possessive Grandmas’.  Grandma Losch cooked more by feel than by actual recipe, and lordy, could she ever cook for a crowd.  Aside from the fact that she had to feed five kids, she also made a living as a cook for a fraternity house at Susquehanna University and had her own restaurant in Millerstown PA for a time.  She was her own worst critic in the kitchen – she’d serve up a slice of lemon meringue pie so good it would bring tears to your eyes with the disclaimer that “it got a little weepy” and maybe wasn’t her best effort.  If you looked up “comfort food” in the dictionary, her picture would illustrate the entry. Food was love to Mary Losch, and if you didn’t sit yourself down at her kitchen table and eat – no matter the time of day or your current state of hunger – it was practically an insult.

Some of her recipes are captured in cookbooks of recipes collected by the members of her church, and I’m pulling out some of the best ones here as time allows.   My favorite food memories connected to Grandma Losch include that she would make me a red velvet cake each year for my birthday, and made the best pig stomach and chicken pot pie. She also made some delicious pork & sauerkraut on New Year’s Day, as is the tradition in Central PA.

I wrote about them yesterday on my other blog, Soup Is Not A Finger Food, but this tribute more fittingly belongs right here, where their recipes live.

Chicken Corn Soup With Rivels

This is my Grandma Losch’s recipe for the traditional “chicken corn soup”, as can be found at church suppers and firemen’s carnivals throughout the land Central Pennsylvania.  This version appeared in the first edition of her church’s cookbook, published in the mid-1970s.   Here’s how she quantified it:

INGREDIENTS

One 4-5 pound chicken, cooked

12 ears of corn (cut off)

2 tablespoons salt (more if needed) [this seems like a lot to me – 1 Tbsp would probably be plenty]

1 teaspoon parsley (I’m sure she meant dried parsley)

2 tablespoons onion (assume she means fresh)

1 cup flour

1 egg

Cook chicken in about 4 quarts of water. Add salt. Remove chicken when cooked. Discard skin and bones. Dice meat. Set aside.

Bring broth to boiling. Add corn, parsley and onion.  Bring to boil again. If more broth is needed, add water.

Make rivels out of 1 cup flour and 1 egg, with a fork. Add to soup when boiling. Boil slowly for about 15 minutes. Lastly add chicken meat.

But here’s the thing, friends.  My grandma didn’t really follow recipes.  She cooked by feel.  She would say things like, add a cup of flour, but “a cup” meant “her special cup” and not necessary a regulation, calibrated eight-ounce measure.  She also knew exactly what to throw into a pot to make soup, and, in true loaves-and-fishes style, could whip up a giant pot of warm, delicious goodness to feed whatever crowd showed up in her kitchen.  I’m sure she was “forced” to quantify this concoction for purposes of publishing it in a cookbook so that others could follow along.

This is the very cookbook I pulled off my shelf last night when I had most of a leftover rotisserie chicken in my fridge and recently-frozen corn in my freezer.  I am my grandmother’s granddaughter – I often cook by feel. I like to improvise and embellish. So below is my version of the same soup. I don’t want to say it’s an improved version, but my family loved it.

FIRST: I had most of a cooked, rotisserie chicken I had purchased the day before at the grocery store.  I pulled off and kept the meat, and threw the rest into my giant stockpot, along with a fresh boneless, skinless chicken breast that was in the fridge. I also added some chicken soup base to enhance the flavor, but this is optional.  I added the four quarts of water (give or take, I didn’t measure), plus half a chopped onion, two chopped celery ribs, and maybe a tablespoon of dried parsley (though if I’d had any fresh, I would have used that), and  a bit of salt & pepper. I revved that up to boiling and cooked it for, I dunno, 30 minutes? Maybe 45?

[A note on chicken stock. I will often buy chicken parts on sale and cook them, then freeze the stock for later use.  The most flavorful stock results from cooking dark and light meat. But cooking a roasted chicken carcass is a good substitute in a pinch. Then you can supplement with more chicken breast meat, which I prefer eating anyway. You could also add some store-bought stock – just be mindful of the salt in the stock and reduce added salt in this recipe accordingly.]

While that was cooking, I peeled and diced two potatoes, and to save time, started them cooking in another pot. If I’d had more time, I would have waited till the chicken was done, pulled it out of the broth, and then cooked the taters. Either way works. But the potatoes are totally optional and the soup is great without ’em, I promise.

Once the chicken was done, I pulled it out of the broth and picked the carcass for any good meaty bits. I also shredded that one chicken breast I had cooked with it. Then I set the meat aside.

I brought the broth back to a boil, then transferred the potatoes into it, adding some of the potato water to the broth. I also added 4 cups of cut corn kernels. IMPORTANT NOTE! Don’t waste your time trying to cook this soup with the corn you buy in your grocer’s freezer. And, if you dare try this with canned corn, I will send out a squad to find you and possibly hurt you. Seriously. Don’t do it. I mean it. Don’t.  I can’t stress enough that the sweetest, most flavorful soup results from using home-prepared corn. You could buy the ears fresh if they’re in season, blanch them and cut off the kernels, being sure to scrape the cob to get the flavorful, milky-sweet juice. Or, if you happen to have recently processed and frozen, say, five dozen ears of corn (which I just did a few weeks ago), you can use what you have in the freezer. 

So, back in the stock pot, we have broth, potatoes, and sweet corn. I added the other chopped half of an onion, two more diced celery ribs, three shakes of poultry seasoning, some fresh ground black pepper, a little more salt, and maybe 1-2 more tablespoons of dried parsley. (Again I was wishing I had fresh – that would have been so much better.) I brought that to a boil, THEN I made and added the rivels.

What are rivels? They are a super-easy egg-based kind-of noodle.  They’re a lot easier than making pot pie dough and they will remind you of the German spaetzle.   I placed one cup of flour into a bowl, then in a separate bowl I beat one egg, then I put the egg into the flour bowl and mooshed it around with the fork until all the flour was combined into the egg, forming very coarse “crumbs.”   (You could add a few shakes of salt to the flour, but I didn’t.)

Gradually drop these “crumbs” into the boiling broth, stirring the broth so they don’t clump together. Grandma’s recipe says to cook for 15 minutes but I think that’s more than enough time – probably no more than 10 would do it.  Any extra flour left unincorporated into the egg mixture will help to thicken the soup, so throw that in, too.   You don’t want a super-crazy rolling boil here, just a gentle boil, so turn down the heat if it gets too, um, boily.

About five minutes after you’ve added the rivels, throw in the cooked chicken meat and stir it around so it re-warms.

Voila! A hearty soup that’ll warm your innards.

Another way that I’m definitely my grandma’s granddaughter is that I cook in quantities sufficient to feed up to ten hungry farmhands – really hungry ones, who’ve spent the day digging fence posts or bailing hay. I can’t help it. I don’t think it’s possible to make this in a smaller quantity that would be suitable for a small family with modest appetites, but you could try. But if you do cut the recipe in half, I suggest that you make the same amount of rivels. They’re just really eggy-licious.  You won’t regret having more egg noodles in this soup.

Seven Layer Salad

This is an extreme close-up of what we have come to call Seven Layer Salad. Actually, my version has more than seven layers, but that is how we originally came to know it. The detailed recipe is on my other blog,  Soup Is Not A Finger Food. Go check it out.

Homemade Ice Cream

This is a photograph of my dad, my grandfather, and my great uncle Roy, circa the late 1970s, all crouched around an electric ice cream freezer in our kitchen. It was undoubedly winter, not only because of Uncle Roy’s stylish plaid wool trousers and Pappy’s V-neck sweater, but also because I remember that we would usually have ice cream parties in the winter. Which seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Except that you need lots of cold stuff to mix with the salt to make the ice cream mixture freeze, and if memory serves, we would use snow for this purpose. Or maybe we would buy bags of ice, but we would store them outside until we needed them. Because in January, the world is your freezer. Especially in Central PA.

I have never made homemade ice cream myself, but I checked my grandma’s recipe box, and my own, and while I didn’t come up with an official “grandma” recipe, I did find one from a bona fide Central Pennsylvanian Woman named Polly.  The card is in her handwriting, and I remember it was said that Polly really did have the very best recipe for homemade ice cream.  It came to be in my recipe box because for one of my bridal shower gifts, my cousin Rita gave me a recipe box that she had tole-painted for me and filled with recipes she had collected from many women in the community. It was a beautiful and practical gift! Anyway, Polly’s card was included in the box.  And it goes a little something like this:

ICE CREAM FOR 4 QUART FREEZER

4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar

–Beat these ingredients with a spoon or mixer.

2 vanilla Junket mix (I had to look this up – here’s what this is)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

–Polly’s instructions say “mix and beat” these two ingredients, and I assume she means to incorporate them to the first mixture

1 can Eagle Brand (sweetened-condensed) Milk
1 can Carnation (evaporated) Milk
1 quart (or more) milk (call me crazy but I’d probably start with whole milk here because YUM)

—Add to previous mixture and mix.

Pour this mixture into the can of the ice cream freezer. Then add more milk to fill 2/3 full, or 3 inches from the top.

…and that is where Polly’s instructions stop. There is a note on the card that say if you’re making chocolate ice cream, use one vanilla Junket mix and one chocolate Junket mix. But of course, the card doesn’t include instructions on how to actually turn this concoction into ice cream because it assumes you own an ice cream freezer and you are licensed to use it.  Or, it assumes you are a grown man from the late 1970s, because didn’t all men just know how to make ice cream then? But if you don’t fit into any of those categories and, like me, you aren’t sure what to do with this goo, check out this helpful post for an alternative recipe, including step-by-step photos and an explanation of the science of making ice cream in an old-fashioned freezer.