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

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