Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Our heritage cookbook

“In proposing a collection of Mom's recipes, these are the recipes she could make with her eyes closed, or one hand behind her back, if you get the idea.” 

These were the words that last year launched our family’s heritage cookbook project.

The idea had been working on me for some time. It was hastened along when several of us discovered we held differing versions of a cookie recipe Mom made every Christmas and Easter in our growing-up years.

It wasn't new to me that recipes can alter relatively soon after leaving their home base, either by how they are copied down, interpreted according to directions given, or purposely tweaked afterwards. But the surprise of it was still an impact.

Recipes follow a decidedly evolutionary pattern. They mutate over time and by the number of hands they pass through. Their transitory nature after they ensue from their origins felt like a revelation when the experience happened to us.

There’s fragility in anything of substance. Change and loss come to everything. This is true also with family recipes as we learned. 

It was clearly time to collect and preserve this loose treasury of Mom’s recipes, and there was no better time than now.

The recipes we dug into our files for, to write out to put together into a cookbook, mostly had their origins with Mom as we began to formulate the scope of this heritage volume.

Some of us contributed favorite recipes but the emphasis was on the main dishes, breads, desserts, homemade jams and miscellaneous food items under Mom’s mastery as she fed all who came to her table.

These were the recipes we associated with her busy kitchen and the family times when the call to eat was the defining moment of the day.

My recipe files and my sister’s are especially full of Mom’s recipes. Some are recipes she wrote out for us. Other recipes – recipes Mom used often - were copied down by us out of her recipe books.

A few recipes were written down while watching Mom measure and stir as she made a dish for which we wanted the recipe. We wanted to ensure we could duplicate her steps. Putting what she did on paper was a good start. 

These were the recipes that were in her head. She’d made them for so long she didn’t know where she came by them or if there was a written recipe for them. With these recipes she shared best by showing us rather than writing them down.

Some of Mom’s recipes, and my remembrances of food in our family life, have been written about at this web site. Food is a big deal and comes easily to be written about. 

If I were to name one recipe that says Mom, out of the many which qualify to share top billing as favorite foods she made, it would be brownies.

Brownies were the treat we couldn’t get enough of as kids. They were made mostly for special occasions, such as for company. Their spaced-out appearances made brownies extra special.

The recipe came from a relative. Mom made up her own chocolate icing to frost the bars, which makes a 9” x 9” pan. She arranged three rows of walnut halves (a total of nine walnuts) on the icing as a finishing touch.

She made brownies to serve when Al's parents traveled to Minnesota for our wedding. The two sets of parents met for the first time two days before the wedding date.

His folks, upon arrival in town, were invited to my folks' place. When we all came into the house together, with the good cheer of a happy group, I saw the covered pan of brownies in the kitchen for serving later.

It was pleasant to know that these bars, so consistently delicious, and going back so far with us, were to be part of our family’s welcome to my future in-laws.

There were other goodies on the platter passed around with coffee that night. The brownies stand out. They were that good.

About this time Mom began to make Hershey Brownies, a recipe that came from my sister-in-law, a great cook. This recipe is for a 9 x 13” pan. The bigger yield was what Mom was looking for then as the family started to grow. 

More of us home for family gatherings meant more food was needed. The large pan of brownies provided more pieces, and that was important.

Mom made many varieties of cookies through the years. Chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies were made most often, probably based on what we kids liked. 

Her cookbooks, with food stains (we kids liked to "help") and her written-in notations on certain pages, point to the recipes used the most.

By far, molasses crinkles were Mom's favorite cookie. My kids were with her on this. 

As with all the grandchildren, these were happy trips to Grandpa and Grandma’s house. There was always something freshly baked to welcome us. No one who visited them ever lacked for snacks or dessert.

Many times in those years the cookie jar was full of molasses crinkles. With our small ones as allies, Mom was able to indulge her preference for the crisp, spicy cookie.

Jello in multiple flavors was a staple on Mom’s kitchen shelves. She made Jello in summer as a light touch and made Jello salad for the holiday table every year.

The Christmas table derived some of its festivity from the seasonally colored Jello salad. Mom used red (strawberry) Jello or green (lime) Jello with usually some kind of fruit folded in. 

A Minnesota heritage cookbook is incomplete without a Jello recipe. Jello had a dominant sway then (less so today). 

Jello’s place on the table was true for our family as well. Our cookbook endeavor would have to incorporate a Jello recipe or two as we began the vast collecting task.

In later years Mom became a pro at making Knox Blocks. It was my recipe to begin with. I shared it with her. As it turned out, she found she had a hit with it with the grandkids.

Jello, Knox gelatin and boiling water are the only ingredients. The soupy mixture is poured into glass pans, refrigerated and cut into squares when set. Knox Blox is bright-colored and squiggly. Under-ten is the age to enjoy it most.

Knox Blocks was a summertime treat that rivaled Rice Krispie bars for how it made the grandkids smile to eat it. 

It was another recipe to put in the cookbook. It would stand as a remembrance of the years when to cook and make for the grandkids was for Mom - everything.

Others in the family, asked to name a food or recipe they link to Mom, would rightfully answer homemade bread. 

Mom loved to bake bread. We were familiar with the heavenly aroma of bread cooling from the oven and the sight of the kneaded dough rising in the big covered bowls beforehand. 

She used a basic yeast dough recipe which lent itself to several variations. Her homemade pizza dough was made from this.

This recipe was used for crispellis, finger-length slices of dough deep-fried in oil and rolled in powdered sugar, which was the Christmas Eve dessert we borrowed from our Italian side.

Mom's cinnamon rolls, from this same yeast dough recipe, were outstanding. The soft warm rolls were all gooey caramel on top where dots of butter and the sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon introduced themselves and agreed to harmonize.

By the time we younger kids came on the scene she was baking less bread. This wasn’t strictly her choice. 

Store-bought bread had established itself as budget friendly and convenient. Moreover, we kids probably preferred the pre-sliced white slices that made good and easy toast.

She continued to bake loaves of bread, particularly Swedish limpa, a dark, dense and delicious rye bread which I like to this day.

In our school days Mom occasionally made Boston Brown Bread, which is more like a steamed pudding. It has whole wheat flour and cornmeal in it, molasses, sour milk and raisins. It’s iron-rich in every way.

The bread was sometimes made in the pressure cooker although the original directions say to steam three hours, cover with wax paper and tie it with a string (an old recipe). 

This recipe came out when the supper meal was beans, which cooked at low heat on the stove through the afternoon. It was a bread from Mom’s girlhood and first made by my grandmother. Even then the tracks of a recipe felt long.

Mom's Scandinavian background influenced her tastes in food and the foods she prepared. Potatoes and bread, which her family consumed as basics, were her stock in trade as she put meals on the table to fill up her big family.

Rice porridge (the recipe coming from a Norwegian-American aunt) was liked by most of us. I’ve written about rice porridge in a previous blog.

Norwegian fruit soup, also possibly the subject of a previous blog, was a winter dish like rice porridge. It was generous with dried fruits – prunes, apricots, raisins – and thickened with tapioca. Some of us liked it, some didn’t.

The relative who gave Mom the brownie recipe additionally provided the lefse recipe the family still uses.

We've heard lefse called a Norwegian burrito but that doesn’t quite describe it except the similarity of folding it with something inside it.

Mom didn’t make lefse often. Occasionally, on a cold winter Sunday afternoon, with mashed potatoes in the refrigerator, left over from the noon meal, it became a family activity to make lefse.

Lefse is made by mixing cold mashed potatoes and flour together. The mixture is rolled into 7” circles, rolled out with a rolling pin and baked in a dry (non-greased) skillet on the stove.

My brothers took turns at the stove watching to see that the lefse circles didn’t burn as they baked. Each of us gravitated to certain kitchen jobs. Lefse, as with the crispellis, was where the boys got involved.

When done, the lefse was folded into triangles or, as some of us did, we rolled them tight like cigars after buttering them and sprinkling them with granulated sugar. 

We liked lefse, which was a rare treat. Lefse is not a taste I miss but without a doubt it had a place in our cookbook.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, when J. I. Rodale of Organic Farming and Prevention magazines, and healthy eating advocates Adelle Davis and Euwell Gibbons were popularizing natural foods, Mom began making homemade granola.

She fixed what she called “Adelle’s Cereal” for years, filling large empty peanut butter jars to store the old-fashioned rolled oats, sunflower seeds, shredded coconut, honey and oil mixture baked on a cookie sheet in a 250 degree oven.

At this time Mom found a yogurt recipe which used powdered milk, evaporated milk, water, gelatin and 3 tablespoons yogurt.

The mixture is poured into glass jars set in water heated to 120 degrees, and the heat maintained at 120 degrees for 3½ hours. 

These were the getting-back-to simple recipes that were in vogue then, and Mom found them interesting. The recipes used techniques that took time but emphasized the individual's role in the choice to eat wisely.

Many of the foods we remember in particular are the meals we ate at the family table. 

They were a rotation of hot dishes and meat and potatoes suppers. Each of us had meals we waited for and entrees we didn’t much care for (think liver and bacon).

All recipes, as we considered them for inclusion, were to be treated equally. If on the family table, and liked by some of us, they were earmarked for the cookbook.

Pie making was an area in which Mom excelled. Pie was Saturday dessert for many years. 

Mom made all kinds of pies - apple, lemon, pecan, pumpkin, sour cream raisin - to note a few. She made them all very well. We knew the pie listings would be among the cookbook’s best sections.

Food which Mom cooked and served was nourishment, warmth, inclusion, connection. 

We took in these elements of love along with the air we breathed and the times we lived. Our collective food history threads us together well into our adult years and extends into the next generations.

A family recipe collection is a record of past times and present moments, as we are finding out. 

It’s a snapshot of family then, and family as it is now. It lets any of us, at any time, any number of years down the road, pull up a chair to the family table and be part of the story. 

Like a good plate of food in front of us it's there to tuck into and enjoy.

Our heritage cookbook, undertaken as a family project, without any sure thought as to how the idea would be received, or its end result, simmered and cooked and is now on the family table. 

It comes seasoned and savory, and ready to serve us for many years to come.


3 - 3 oz pkg Jello, 4 envelopes Knox gelatin. 4 cups boiling water

Stir till entirely dissolved. Pour into two 9” square glass pans. Cool. Refrigerate 

Ro Giencke - November 25, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

If it's in you

Dear Grandma and Grandpa

We climbed a real steep Hill. on top was a metal plate in the ground that was marked U.S.G.S. Eddy. We went to our summer place too. We had a real nice day. they caught some fish. Love, 

... me. This letter, sent to my grandparents almost too many years to count, filled a half sheet of paper and was hand printed. Our 2nd grade class had not yet been taught cursive.

At the bottom my grandma has noted: "Can you believe at 7 years? I mean of course, this good work."

The letter, and Grandma's kind writing beneath, was found when looking for a letter from an old friend which I believed I could find in a collection of saved items. 

The search brought out the folder of my oldest things, a miscellany of fading pictures, report cards and the like. It's a treasured stash because of the associations with my start in life, but a folder seldom foraged in because, quite honestly, there's too much present living to do.

I'm thankful for the thought of this old friend which caused the hunt. it didn't lead to finding her letter but it did put me in contact with this letter of mine written at the age of seven. 

When I read now the few lines set down for my grandparents there was instantaneous acknowledgement that if it's in you, you do it. And you'll do it naturally, spontaneously and repetitively.

It's been that way with me with writing. As soon as I could put pen to paper I did. I've written all my life. It's been joy and fulfillment all the way.

And dear Grandma!  A role model for mentors, she saw something in my letter and took time to remark on it. 

Making a comment or giving encouragement validates an effort. This kind of confirmation is valuable in raising up our young, and others who can use guidance and support as well. 

My grandma saw passion and an interest in things in my desire to communicate. Then she more than noted it mentally. She added her evaluation of the effort and sent the letter back to my mom.

Mom also plays a part. She kept the letter with words on it which belonged to both her daughter and her mother. At some point she gave me the letter, probably early in my married life. I took the letter and put it away.

Quite probably it tickled me then to read it before I consigned it to storage. It takes years and perspective, however, to revisit something and see it properly. 

When that time comes, often requiring the passage of time, you look at it in the light of experience and the knowledge you've gained about yourself.

The letter written at seven is the real me. It was me as a 2nd grader and will be me at seventy-seven when that time arrives.

It's a snapshot of more than the person I'd become. It's a picture of me already formed by my love for writing and a keen desire to share with others out of my chosen words. 

The seven-year-old simply awaits further shaping, which the years have come along and brought.

Ro Giencke - November 20, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

Serendipity in Sorrento

Outside it’s a chilly ten degrees.

I know because I just looked. Ten is what you can expect as a start to a January day in Minnesota if you’re lucky. 

This, however, is ten degrees at mid forenoon in the middle of November. Come on, really, we grumble. This is winter way too soon.

Luckily, a couple weeks ago some of us had a free vacation to Italy with an Adriatic and Mediterranean cruise thrown in.

Memories of sunshine and warmth are helping get us over this rough patch. Weather was mild, packing was minimal and when the cruise was over we were well traveled, well informed and well rested.

The free vacation didn’t make us any more ready for the cold that’s settling in. At least we have a cushion of well-being to fall back on, which is all to the good.

We didn’t win this vacation in a lottery. We didn’t sign up and our names were picked in a drawing. It was much easier than that.

Friends took a trip of a lifetime by mapping out a vacation that included train and bus travel in Italy with stays in Rome and Venice for sightseeing. 

When you’re about to say, “Wow, that’s some getaway”, the bigger share of their adventure begins.

They boarded their cruise ship in Venice on an itinerary that took them to the fruitful, sunny welcoming lands of Slovenia and Croatia and swung them around the boot heel of Italy to Sicily and so on back to Rome.

There were wonderful days of exploring on their own time before the cruise. There were the excellent land tours that are done as part of the cruise. Almost daily they emailed updates and photos.

The emails were looked forward to.They made us feel that the essence of the experience was ours to share in.

Almost every day they were somewhere interestingly new. Some places were new for us in every sense. We were unfamiliar with some of the ports they visited. We did a fair amount of googling of locations to keep up.

Usually an email came with just one photo attachment. Our friends didn’t wear us out by showing us everything. They gave enough to open the door to each place with the promise that there's so much more.

The emails were brief. They were kept to a couple lines each. We learned their current locations. There might be a comment on the weather. More than once there was mention of the delicious food.

The emails set the stage so we could travel along from our homes thousands of miles away. We had everything with us to enjoy this fall cruise. It didn’t entail passports or carry-on luggage to be there with them.

Their arrival home was followed by a long phone visit with them (after a decent interval for jet lag recovery). 

It was great fun to ask questions of the trip and to hear more about places they saw. In a way it was a chance for us to relive the Mediterranean cruise we took five years ago. 

The cruise we took was one of those experiences that come along that you call a life changer. Of course, we thought life changing meant we’d book another cruise soon and continue to put our passports to work. 

Time has elapsed and another cruise hasn’t happened. This is less important than that we had this time, used it advantageously and benefited from it.

Like us, their cruise stopped at Sorrento. I wanted their reaction to it believing they couldn't have escaped its charm.

We (meaning me for sure) left our hearts in Sorrento. The memorable noon meal that a Sorrento restaurant served our tour group, with much visiting among us at the table, with glasses of wine to reinforce the fact we were dining in Italy, is not to be forgotten.

The stroll through the lemon groves afterwards, the fragrance of lemons splendid and yellow as they grow on the trees, the sheer beauty of steep cliffs, and the blue sea with Capri and its famed Blue Grotto lying to the westward, captivated me differently from other places we took in.

My forebears could have come from here is what I thought. I drank in the scene along with the limoncello, the refreshing and potent Italian liqueur, which we enjoyed at some outside venue as we recall. I felt I was returning home.

I remarked to our friends on the fragrance of the lemons at Sorrento. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line. 

They don't have an association with lemons as we do by visiting in May. Lemons were out of season (harvesting is done by October) when they were there, they said. They missed the whole lemony sense of Sorrento which we embraced.  

Travel is a matter of serendipity we agreed. Season, time of day and weather all play a part in the impression you take in and the impression you take away.

Ro Giencke – November 14, 2014


Thursday, November 6, 2014

A father-in-law's perspective

My propensity is for sharing what I read, hear or see.

Call it a gift, or call it a developed inclination, satisfaction for me is taking in life and beaming it back out to the world.

Blogs are a way to do this. Sharing things of interest also happens when visiting, as my husband Al will readily testify. 

The car is often where thoughts formulate as the two of us drive somewhere together. The other day a quote from the November 2014 O (the Oprah Winfrey magazine) worked its way into the conversation. 

"There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths" is the quote (attributed to Mark Nepo). It was fresh in my mind when I brought it up as a line with truth to it. 

The quote has meaning for me. It corroborates my game sense. Give me a new road and I’ll take it every time. I’m not unwilling to back up, turn around, admit I’m lost, or retrace the route, if it comes to that. 

The thing gained is new area that is tested and tried. You widen your boundaries on familiar when you press into the previously unknown. My philosophy has evolved to believe that the journey is every bit as worthy as the destination. 

Provide yourself with extra time is my tip for anyone wanting to experiment with this creed. Extra time and a topped-off gas tank are handy when you skip the straight road for unexpected paths.

The quote from O led Al to recall and share a comment made by my dad many years ago. Dad’s words have stayed with him he says.

It was after a long road vacation we took. It was the kind of trip made in the years our kids were in grade school. We wanted to show them the wonders of our big United States. 

The trip included stops at many places that aren’t on interstates but require going out of the way to see them. We put a bunch of miles on the car. We came home full of the vision of our wonderful country through its regional attractions.

The trip, and the photos we took, were happily shared with my folks when we visited them shortly afterwards. 

Al and my dad were probably in the living room, close enough, as it came to dinnertime, to hear the rattle of plates as they came out of the kitchen shelves to be set on the table,

As they visited Al remarked (with a sense of accomplishment in his voice) that we hadn’t taken one wrong turn on the trip.

“That’s too bad,” my dad answered. An inveterate road trip man himself, my dad by then had racked up thousands of miles with my mom as they traveled West each fall in well-earned vacation time after closing down the seasonal home.

The wisdom in my dad’s reply took maybe a second to sink in. Al was impressed with it, enough so that it has stuck and shaped some of his perspective about travel.

The gist of what my dad was saying is this: a wrong turn here or there, or a detour, can be considered a nuisance or a delay at the time. It can have interesting and even beneficial results if you’re open to the experience.

Seemingly wrong turns and detours can teach us there are many ways to get where we’re going in life. 

Unexpected or spontaneous roads may turn out to be more suitable or more rewarding than the planned (and often predictable) route, or the destination you start out to see.

Ro Giencke – November 6, 2014.