Thursday, November 10, 2005

Thanksgiving at Gram's

November brings thoughts of Thanksgiving Day, and I have many memories I'd love to share across the kitchen table. If possible, I should do this before my table becomes laden with food for that special day. I'd like to begin by sharing this reminiscence of my childhood Thanksgivings at my grandmother's New England farmhouse.


THANKSGIVING AT GRAM’S

It wasn’t a large group that gathered at the farm for Thanksgiving, although ours was a big family. All of Gram’s six children were married, with families of their own, so it was understandable that not everyone could manage to come at the same time. Usually, about eight or ten adults and teenagers were seated around the dining room table, while five or six younger children ate in the kitchen. It was a very big deal when one was considered old enough to eat in the dining room.

Gram’s dining room was a magical place, even on ordinary days. Creamy-smooth painted wainscoting ran halfway up the walls, where it met a pale wallpaper patterned in clear, bright colors. At the far end of the room were dark built-in cupboards that held plates and serving dishes, and a maple sideboard containing the good silver and the table linens. In one wall were two large sunny windows; in the other, one small window which opened -- amazingly! -- into the pantry. No simple pass-through, this was a real window, with glass in it. As a child, I found that window endlessly fascinating, and I always wanted to see it actually being used.

But the most enchanting thing about the dining room was the corner cupboard that held Gram’s pitcher collection. I could stand in front of that glassed-in cupboard for hours and still not see everything. There were animal-shaped pitchers, like an orange-and-black striped tiger and a lifelike moose head. There were brightly painted Toby jugs and other pitchers made to look like people. There were small, shiny copper pitchers. In fact, her collection included almost every kind of pitcher imaginable. The ones that delighted me most were the miniatures. Some were no bigger than my fingernail, and they were beautifully detailed, painted with tiny flowers, rimmed with gold.

On Thanksgiving Day, the dining room assumed an even greater splendor. The table was extended to its full length and spread with a snowy linen cloth. It was set with Gram’s best dishes -- white with a graceful design of trailing green ivy. The serving dishes were of the same pattern. At each end of the table stood a butter dish and salt and pepper shakers, all of clear glass in a bumpy hobnail design.

And the food! Even before the meal was ready, nibbling was encouraged. The sideboard was covered with a tempting array of pretty little dishes, filled with mixed nuts, chocolates, homemade fudge and divinity, and Grammie Wallace’s famous stuffed dates. For those not inclined to nibble on sweets, cheese and crackers were available. My favorite was sage cheese -- an extra sharp Vermont cheddar, with aromatic sage marbled throughout it.

Even with all the snacking, everyone managed to do the Thanksgiving dinner full justice. In fact, the only sounds during the meal were the clink of forks against china, and the occasional murmur of conversation. Gram prepared and served all the food herself, and never sat down until everything was on the table. There was turkey, of course, with mounds of moist bread stuffing, redolent of Bell’s Seasoning, and Gram’s incomparable dark brown gravy. There were vegetables -- white, fluffy mashed potatoes, well-peppered golden winter squash, boiled onions, and tender green peas. There was cranberry sauce, both the jellied and the whole-berry types, both referred to by Gram as “cranberry jelly”, and often there was cranberry-orange relish as well. Always, there was a huge tossed salad with Gram’s favorite, Wish-Bone Italian dressing. There were home-baked rolls that exuded a marvelous, yeasty aroma. And sometimes, in keeping with Gram’s love affair with convenience foods (understand this was a lady who once cooked in lumber camps, and you’ll know why) there were Pillsbury butterflake rolls! What fun it was to pull them apart and eat them layer by layer -- at least, it was fun unless my dad happened to notice, at which time I would be scolded for playing with my food. (There were some benefits to being relegated to the little kids’ table in the kitchen!)

After all this, the desserts were a bit of an anticlimax: apple, custard, and pumpkin pies, and hot, sweet Indian pudding that never tasted quite as wonderful as it smelled.

Even after consuming all that food, most of us were not uncomfortably full. (My cousin Kevin was the exception. He invariably ended up on the living room couch clutching his stomach.) And, as everyone rallied around to clear the table and help with the dishes, there seemed to be a spirit of family closeness and good will that was rarely felt at any other time. Maybe -- just maybe -- the magic of Thanksgiving at Gram’s worked on grownups just as well as it did on children!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Kitchen Memories

 Recently I was challenged, by a Bible study book I was using, to think back to my childhood and memories of my mother as a homemaker -- to reflect on things she may have taught me.

As far as cleaning and housework-type skills, I didn’t learn the lessons I should have, in part because not all the right lessons were taught, and in part because the ones that were taught were not absorbed.

But oh, the kitchen memories! Now THOSE are worth their weight in gold!

There were always wonderful things to eat coming out of Mom’s kitchen. There was always something homemade to snack on after school, and supper was always a good, nourishing meal. Only occasionally was something served that I truly disliked, such as liver. I also remember not liking runny eggs for breakfast, and I didn’t really care for pot roast as a child because we always had farm-raised beef that was not cut particularly well, and there were all these tendons and other things showing up in the meat that just made me gag. Other than those few exceptions, I loved the food that Mom prepared.

It’s funny how some of my sharpest memories are of little things -- like how she always set my dad’s place at the table with a separate little sauce dish for any vegetable (for example, summer squash, or peas) that might be too liquid on the plate. She didn’t do this for the rest of us as I recall, just for Dad. That was the way he liked such things to be served. Another little thing was how she always made her own salad dressing fresh for each salad we ate. As far as I remember, there was no making up a whole jar of dressing and storing it in the fridge. She never measured, just shook up oil, vinegar, and seasonings. I was probably ten or even older before I tasted -- and instantly fell in love with -- bottled Wish-Bone Italian dressing, at my grandmother’s house.

My mom was always exchanging good recipes with friends and family too. She had a recipe box full of them, scribbled on bits and pieces of paper and envelopes as well as on 3x5” cards. Most of her scribbled-down recipes (probably relayed to her across the kitchen table or over the phone) have rather sketchy directions and amounts, but they’re fun to look back at and try to translate.

Holidays were special times at home -- especially Christmas. I’ve written an entire book of my Christmas memories, and am sure I barely scratched the surface of them. Thanksgiving was also special. Often we went to my grandmother’s, but other times we ate at home, and Mom went to a lot of work to make things festive and to involve us kids in the preparations. I remember grinding cranberries and oranges for cranberry relish, washing seedy red grapes, cracking nuts, etc. Mom loved to have fancy dishes of grapes, nuts, and candy around for people to enjoy on Thanksgiving Day. I believe this is something that her family had often done, at least in later years when they could afford such things.

Another kitchen memory is how warm and cozy it always seemed when we came in from playing outdoors in the winter. We would be greeted with mugs of hot cocoa with blobs of marshmallow fluff melting on top. I never thought much about it at the time, but several older children from a neighbor family often went sliding with us, and they were always welcomed in Mom’s kitchen too. These children were from a very poor family; I can’t imagine that they ever were greeted with mugs of hot cocoa at home. A smack upside the head was probably more like it, unfortunately. I was too young to realize that, and also too young to realize what a wonderful opportunity my mom was giving them to spend some time with a real family around a welcoming kitchen table.

As I’ve thought about this topic ever so briefly, I realize there are many more kitchen memories yet to surface. I’ll be sharing more of them across my kitchen table in the weeks and months to come...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Doughnut Doings

What an unusual mess my kitchen table was last night! A friend has a ministry with a dozen young girls ages 10 to 15. I had told her some weeks ago that if she ever wished to use my kitchen for a cooking or crafting venture with the girls, she would be welcome to. (The home where they usually meet is small, and kitchen space a bit cramped for so large a group. My kitchen, by contrast, is large and rambling.) She had the wonderful idea that for their October meeting, she would like to use my kitchen and have me teach the girls to fry doughnuts. We would have hot cider to go along with the finished product. It sounded so simple!

Let me hasten to add that, although I learned to fry doughnuts at my grandmother’s elbow, I have not made doughnuts for years. One of my daughters made them several times during her high school and college years, but at those times I only supervised. So my skills were rusty and my aversion to deep-frying deep-rooted, but I was game for the challenge. I was quite certain the finished product would not likely resemble my grandmother's doughnuts in any way, though I intended to use her recipe.

As time went on in my planning for this event, I decided just to make one batch of my grandmother’s recipe -- which produces 3 1/2 dozen doughnuts -- for the girls to fry. In addition, I would make a double batch of a no-fry, baked doughnut of the raised variety -- much healthier than frying. These would be all baked when the girls arrived, allowing them to spend all their time in the production of the fried cake doughnuts.

Their leader had told me she hoped to have each girl be able to take part in the frying process, and hopefully in the rolling and cutting too. In addition, we decided to provide frosting for the baked doughnuts and to ask the girls to bring sprinkles, coconut, nuts, or other toppings. This sounded wonderfully easy when we were planning it. However, when I sat down yesterday morning to try and plan how it would all work, I found I had a challenge on my hands. I made four charts before I found one that worked. We would have 12 girls and wanted each to be able to roll, cut, and fry some doughnuts, as well as take a turn removing them from the fat and later frosting some doughnuts. In addition, I thought up a couple more jobs to streamline things and keep everyone busy -- 1) Transferring the cut doughnuts to waxed paper-lined trays; 2) Carrying said trays to the girls who would be frying doughnuts in 2 electric skillets (stationed at opposite ends of the kitchen to avoid tripping a circuit breaker) and 3) Finishing, which included arranging finished doughnuts on doily-lined plates for each girl to take home; cleaning up, and doing dishes. We would have 1 hour of their 2-hour meeting time to accomplish all this. Making up a schedule that worked was like doing one of those logic puzzles: If Jane’s favorite subject is math, and Sue takes peanut butter sandwiches in her lunch. what position does Linda play on the basketball team? (Fortunately, I have always enjoyed such puzzles.) I assigned each girl a letter of the alphabet and made up a printed schedule for each girl detailing what she would be doing first, second, etc. My thought was that every 10 minutes we would rotate jobs. Even when the first part of the meeting went a bit overtime, I still thought it would work -- we would just rotate jobs every 5 minutes instead.

My plan did work well, but not as well as I had hoped. To begin with, I should have had a few doughnuts -- maybe 3 for each fryer -- all cut out and ready so that the girls frying could begin their task at once and not have to wait for those rolling and cutting. Other than that, things went quite smoothly, and most of the girls followed their schedules quite well, seeming to enjoy every part of the process.

Flour, dough scraps, frosting and sprinkles were everywhere! But most of the girls and a few moms pitched in to clean up the kitchen, and it was soon restored to order. All the girls (I hope!) got to try their hand at the deep-frying technique, and the frosted doughnuts were works of art! The plates of doughnuts they took home looked wonderful, and if a few of them turned out raw in the middle, some family member probably ate them anyway. All in all, it worked well, and the girls seemed to have a marvelous time. An "all-round" good evening!

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Work in Progress

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how God has answered my prayers in the area of homemaking. For a long time, I’ve been asking God to help me improve and sharpen my skills in the areas of homemaking and time management. I’ve always felt that a schedule was necessary to keeping housework done and the house presentable, and I’ve even managed to create such a schedule, but I’ve seldom been able to stick to one for very long. I’ve tried all different systems and none of them have worked really well for me. Though the “index card” system of daily, weekly, monthly, etc. tasks to do worked the best, it was still lacking something. I was just muddling along from day to day, doing the best I could, but still praying about it (though not as faithfully as I should have been). Each time we would have overnight guests it meant a major cleaning project.

Still, there was progress. As my two daughters went off to college, each chose to major in Home and Family Management. In their various classes they would learn things about cleaning and organizing which they would often share with me. Their discovery of a product called “Clean Shower” revolutionized my life. We live in a hard water area, which means hard-to-remove soap scum on tubs and showers. For years, my husband cleaned our tub because he had the necessary muscle and force to budge this soap scum. He usually used a heavy-duty cleaner along with large abrasive Scotch-Brite pads. I found that simply spraying Clean Shower each morning after my shower, or after a bath, kept the soap scum to a minimal, manageable level. No longer was a tub-scrubbing session a prerequisite to having overnight guests! Now, daily shower cleaners are everywhere, but back then they were an innovation. They have improved a lot, both in scent and efficiency, in the intervening years. I’ve also learned over time that if there are 2 people using the same shower in the course of a day, and one forgets to use the cleaner, things will stay clean. However, if there are 3 or more using the shower in the course of a day, and only one remembers to use the cleaner, you still have quite a bit of scum. But I find that with just my hubby and me here (and he almost never remembers to use the cleaner!) I can get by with actually only scrubbing the tub/shower once a month. And I just use either Comet spray bathroom cleaner or Greased Lightning, with a regular sponge!

As time has gone on and my daughters have married and left home, they’ve continued to share tips with me, and one of the most life-changing had to do with FlyLady. My “local” daughter began alluding to FlyLady from time to time. When we were chatting once about how Mondays always seemed to be a time for restoring order to the house from the weekend, she remarked, “FlyLady calls it ‘Blessing Your Home’.” For a long time I didn’t check into this FlyLady business, but a lot of it seemed to make sense, so one day I visited FlyLady.net. It was so cheering to be greeted with that day’s date and the welcoming words, “Come On Into FlyLady’s House!”.

I soon found out that FlyLady is a terrific coach and motivator for my goal of a neat, orderly house that almost cleans itself. Is my house at that stage yet? No, but things are sooooo much better than they have ever been. I’ve also been helped in my goal by several of Elizabeth George’s books, especially God’s Wisdom for a Woman’s Life, A Woman After God’s Own Heart, and Life Management for Busy Women. Mrs. George stresses the need of routines and scheduling. FlyLady offers the tools to make the routines and schedules happen. I now have a “Control Journal” which I created from FlyLady’s directions and it is such a help. I have a weekly schedule and even a daily schedule. I follow a basic morning routine, evening routine, and afternoon routine. For those not familiar with FlyLady, each week you work in a different zone of your home -- this week we are in Zone 5, the living room. Each day you declutter for 15 minutes in your zone. Of course, your routines mean that things like laundry, dishes, meals, bed-making, bathroom spiffing, and other necessary things are still getting done. When I work in my zone I also do additional chores in that zone that FlyLady (or her able assistant, Kelly) may not always tell me to do. For example, last week in Zone 4, the master bedroom, I also washed the bedspread and the mattress pad. This week, I’ll do the living room curtains. And so on...

This system makes so much sense for me! No, things are not perfect in my home. But they are getting better all the time. Now, when overnight guests are expected, usually all I have to do is change the guest room sheets and possibly do a quick vacuum. (I hate vacuuming!) The bathrooms are always “company ready” with FlyLady’s system. I still do have several areas that are not completely decluttered, but they are improving. And I have to admit that my guest room is rather dismantled at the moment, as my daughter and her hubby removed some items (a hope chest and a large painting which they had stored there) this past week. I have items to put in their places, which will free up more space in other rooms, but want to repaint the guest room walls first while it is still somewhat empty in there. Hopefully that will get done this week.

Yes, my home is a work in progress! But as I look back over the past few years, I see how God has faithfully answered my prayers to help me grow in the areas of homemaking and time management. It is such an encouragement as I see how He cares about even the minutest detail of our lives!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Memories of a Summer Place

It’s been well over 30 years now, but once upon a time I had the delightful summer job of being “second cook” at a beautiful New England inn by a lake. I worked two days a week, substituting for the chef on his day off and then for the pastry cook on her day off. It was the “chef” part that terrified me, but I was assured the menu would be made easy for me, and it was. Fortunately, this was a place with a limited menu -- the sort that may change a bit everyday but is short and simple enough for a waitress to recite from memory. I will never forget how scared I was that first day as I arrived at the basement entrance to the kitchen in the early-morning hours. I knew one lady who had assured me she would be praying for me -- that was my first real experience with actually sensing that someone was praying. Soon enough, the job settled into a routine and I enjoyed almost every moment of it.

The waitresses were around my age or a little younger, mostly college or high school girls from wealthier families. Their uniforms were unusual then and would be even more so now, when most waitresses seem to wear jeans -- or, in the dressier places, shorts or slacks. These uniforms were flowered print dresses in a sort of dirndl style, very demure. As I mentioned earlier, the menu could be recited easily from memory, although it varied each day, and the waitresses were required to do so. They were also required to memorize their orders -- nothing so lower-class as an order pad would be in view here! It got rather complicated at dinner if one had a table of ten or twelve! At breakfast, they squeezed fresh orange juice for those at their tables who ordered it.

At lunch, one thing I particularly remember is that there was a bread basket. The contents varied with the day, but there was usually some sort of muffin or quick bread along with the rolls and bread. All the food here was homemade, but I guess that goes without saying. I remember making donut muffins, blueberry muffins, banana bread, lemon bread, apple bread -- and two kinds of apricot bread, dark and light. Many of the recipes were quite unique to the inn or its pastry cook, and thus new to me. I itched to copy some of them down to use at home, but that was forbidden. So, in my free moments I put my mind to work memorizing the recipes, and wrote them down when I got home. Sometimes it took several tries to memorize the longer recipes, but I eventually got the ones I wanted. After all, I had no intention of competing with them or selling their recipes -- I just wanted some yummy new things to try out on my family and/or guests.

Desserts have always been fun for me to make, so the pastry chef part of the job was a dream come true! The lunch desserts would be things like gingerbread with whipped cream, or grapenut pudding. Ice cream was always on the menu, but I believe the flavor selection was quite limited. Like maybe vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. The dinner desserts, however, were fancier and even more fun to make. I remember a 3-layer chocolate cake decorated with walnut halves; a tall walnut chiffon cake; a special ice cream pie that was one of the inn’s signature desserts; and a delicious lemon meringue pie. There was also a special berry cream pie in which the top layer was a glaze made with fresh strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries. The bottom layer was simply billows of freshly whipped cream, sweetened only with a bit of vanilla and piled in a pastry crust. It was a truly heavenly dessert.

The “chef” part of the job was not too bad. They kept it very simple on the nights I cooked. There was a wonderful entree made with mushrooms and boneless chicken breasts that I could easily do. Back then, boneless chicken breasts were practically unheard of unless you boned them yourself. But these had been purchased frozen, if I remember right, and after we had doctored them up with mushrooms, broth, etc. they were very good. The accompanying vegetables were served in heavy silver divided vegetable dishes -- dinner was served family style. I really can’t remember much about what was served at those meals. Sometimes baked potatoes, or mashed potatoes, or parsley potatoes, or occasionally rice pilaf, I think. And of course other veggies like carrots, or mashed squash, peas, green beans -- possibly even brussels sprouts. It’s clear to see that my heart was really not in this part of the job!

After dinner, the waitresses brought out trays of crystal finger bowls filled with water for the guests to dabble their fingers in.  This still amazes me.

One of the neat things about this inn was that it had its own gardens -- both for fruits and vegetables and a cutting garden to provide flowers for the tables. An elderly local man maintained the gardens, which were just beautiful and were located out back between the inn and the lake. I can see the walk-in coolers now, loaded with boxes of freshly picked strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries in their respective seasons.

This wonderful New England inn no longer exists, but what a wonderful memory to share with those around my kitchen table today!

Favorite Freezer Recipes

One of my favorite sites online is Organized Christmas.com. As I've spent time there the past couple of weeks, I've been challenged to think about doing a little cooking ahead for the holidays. I always bake dozens of cookies to freeze and use for gifts and holiday refreshments. Main dishes and side dishes are something I don't always think about making ahead and freezing. I gave a little thought to a couple of my family's favorite holiday dishes that happen to freeze very well. I'll be doing a couple pans of lasagna and at least one of sweet potatoes -- assuming I can find room in the freezer amongst all the cookies! Here are my recipes:


VEGETABLE LASAGNA
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tblsp. olive oil
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped broccoli, thawed
1/2 tsp. salt-free garlic-herb seasoning blend
1 lb. part-skim ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (divided use)
1 egg
3 Tblsp. grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
3/4 tsp. oregano OR Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 quart spaghetti sauce
9 lasagna noodles, UNCOOKED
1 cup water (maybe less)
Extra Parmesan, if desired

In large skillet, sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add the thawed vegetables and the herb mix. Stir to combine, cover skillet, reduce heat, and simmer about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In medium bowl, combine ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella, egg, Parmesan, and seasonings. Set aside.

Spread 1 cup spaghetti sauce on bottom of a 13 x 9” baking dish. Layer on: 3 noodles, half of cheese mixture, half of vegetable mixture, and 1 cup sauce. Repeat layers. Top with remaining 3 noodles, 1 cup sauce, 1/2 cup mozzarella. Sprinkle with extra Parmesan if desired.

Pour water around the edges of the baking dish. If your vegetables happened to produce a lot of liquid, reduce the amount of water accordingly. Cover baking dish tightly with foil.

Bake at 350 for 1 hour 15 minutes. Let stand 15 more minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


May be made ahead and frozen for future use. Simply thaw overnight in refrigerator and bake as directed.


SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE
2 large cans cut yams, drained and mashed*
1/4 cup margarine, melted
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/3 cup evaporated milk**
Pinch of nutmeg
Topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour (may use whole wheat)
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/4 cup softened margarine (may use 3 Tablespoons oil instead)

Mix the first six ingredients in a large bowl; beat with electric mixer until well combined. Pile into a 2-quart baking dish.

In another bowl, stir together topping ingredients. Sprinkle over top of potatoes.

Bake the casserole at 325 to 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings

May be made ahead and frozen for future use. Simply thaw overnight in refrigerator and bake as directed.

* Or substitute about 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, cooked, and mashed.
** Or substitute evaporated skim milk or fat-free half & half.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Tale of Two Coffeecakes

It surely has been awhile since I posted here, but I’ve been busy in the kitchen -- and elsewhere! My hubby and I have been serving as chaperones at a childrens’ ministry campout sponsored by our church for the past few days. It’s been an exhausting time, but a worthwhile one as we have seen how well the campout went and what a blessing it all was to the children.

Before that, however. I WAS in the kitchen. I baked two coffeecakes -- a pumpkin streusel one and a blueberry one -- for a Labor Day breakfast with campground friends. I baked a second blueberry coffeecake for the children’s campout; it was served, along with oatmeal, juice, hot chocolate, and muffins, for breakfast this morning. I had many requests for both coffeecake recipes over the 2 events, so thought I would post them here. Now I’ll know where to find them!

PUMPKIN STREUSEL COFFEE CAKE
Cake:
1/2 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup sour cream
Pumpkin Layer:
1 (15 to 16-oz.) can pumpkin
1 slightly beaten egg
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
Streusel:
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 to 1 cup chopped pecans
Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla in mixer bowl. Add eggs, beating
well. Sift together flour, baking powder, and soda and add them to the
creamed mixture alternately with the sour cream.
In a smaller bowl, combine the pumpkin, egg, sugar and pie spice.
In another small bowl, combine all the streusel ingredients until
crumbly.
Spoon half of the cake batter into a well-greased 13 x 9-inch pan. Spread
the batter evenly, being sure to get into the corners of the pan.
Sprinkle half of the streusel over the batter. Now spread all of the
pumpkin layer over the streusel. Next, spread the remaining cake batter
evenly over the pumpkin layer. sprinkle the remaining streusel over the
top. Bake at 325 until a toothpick comes out clean.
Makes one 13 x 9-inch coffee cake.

****************************************************************

BLUEBERRY COFFEE CAKE
Coffee cake batter:
2 1/3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup milk
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
Cheese filling:
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg
2 Tblsp. sugar
1 Tblsp. grated lemon peel (or substitute 1/2 tsp. pure lemon extract)
Streusel topping:
1 cup reserved crumbs
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (optional)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
To make batter, combine flour, sugar and salt in large bowl. Cut in
butter until crumbly. Reserve 1 cup of this crumb mixture and set
aside. Add baking powder, milk, eggs, and vanilla to dry mixture
remaining in bowl. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, scraping bowl
often. Pour evenly into greased 13x9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle blueberries
evenly over batter. For cheese filling, blend all ingredients together
until smooth; spoon evenly over blueberries. For topping, combine
reserved crumbs with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts if using them.
Sprinkle over cheese layer. Bake at 350 for 45 to 60 minutes or until a
toothpick comes out clean. Cool slightly before cutting. Makes 1 13x9-inch
coffeecake -- about 20 to 24 servings.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Lesson from the Linen Closet

This week I was beginning the process of decluttering a file cabinet... trying to decide what to save and what to throw away. Some things are no-brainers -- owners’ manuals for worn-out or discarded appliances, instructions for craft projects I’ll never make. Others are more difficult. Over the years I’ve saved many articles, devotional thoughts, newsletters, etc. Some of those are worth saving, and I’m trying to sort those into categories to file.
As I sorted through some old newsletters, I discovered one devotional article that really spoke to my heart. It was written by Beneth Peters Jones, who, some years ago, used to write a regular column -- “Sunshine on the Soapsuds” -- in a couple of different periodicals. In this particular column, she was speaking about changing the sheets in the master bedroom, and how she would usually simply wait until the pillowcases had been washed and dried and then replace them on the pillows. But on this day, she didn’t want to wait that long before putting on fresh pillowcases. She went to the linen closet and pulled out two white pillowcases. She had my attention now, because I dearly love my white pillowcases. They are older and need to be ironed each time they’re washed, but oh, what a nice crisp feel they have to them! But Beneth Jones was somewhat disappointed in her clean white pillowcases, and she found a spiritual lesson in her linen closet. She wrote:


“I started putting the cases on the pillows, but while doing so I detected a musty smell. Examining the pillowcases, I saw that both had been smoothly ironed; both had been neatly folded; both had been stored in the linen closet and left there unused for some time. My inspection revealed pillowcases that were clean, but stale.
“There are many Christians who are much like my pillowcases. Yes, they are genuinely born again. They are not dirty; they keep themselves set apart from the grime of the world. But they are on the shelf, out of circulation. Seemingly, they are content just to exist -- safe and quiet on their shelf, ignoring God’s commands to be active for Him. There they sit, not serving the purpose for which God intended them.
“And, like my pillowcases, those believers inevitably grow stale! An unpleasant aroma wafts out to those around them: the closet-kept smell of Bible verses learned as children and kept as ‘emergency material’ should they be called upon to quote a verse in Sunday School; the mustiness of their shelf-bound lives as they only comment upon and criticize those who are active for the Lord; the slightly sour aura of their self-saving motivations. Not dirty -- just stale.
“As I put those stale-scented pillowcases into the washing machine that morning, I had to wonder about the aroma of my life on a day-to-day basis. It is so easy to become stale, though we keep ourselves from the dirt of gross sin! The only way you and I can stay both clean and fresh... is through daily cleansing, sweetening, empowering, and using by the Spirit and the Word!”
-- Beneth Peters Jones


What a great lesson this was to me! I pray it will be an encouragement to someone else as well.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

My Outdoor Kitchen Table


For several days this week, my kitchen table was a picnic table at a campsite in a beautiful local campground. Although my hubby continued to go to work each day, I had the days to myself in the midst of a quiet natural setting. What a blessing! I took lots of walks and did a lot of reading and studying for my Sunday School class preparation. Also had an opportunity to work on a cross-stitch project -- nearly completed! -- and to spend some precious times with good friends who are camping at a nearby site. Each evening we enjoyed time around a campfire with dear friends.

We love camping -- “real” camping in a tent, that is! My camping kitchen looks a lot different from my real kitchen, but it’s so functional. After covering the picnic table with a colorful vinyl tablecloth -- a flannel-back Wal*Mart special -- we set up the Coleman stove on one end of the table and a Coleman lantern in the center.

At the other end we put what we call the “camping cabinet”. It’s a small chest of drawers some friends were getting rid of many years ago. They had used it for camping themselves for years. It has a plywood top covered with Contact paper -- a very useful place to keep cooking utensils (stored in a clean empty maple syrup tin) and a citronella candle. The drawers hold a multitude of things from a clothesline and clothespins to matches in an Altoids tin to bungee cords to dishwashing liquid. Last year we bought a large plastic tote to replace the cardboard boxes we formerly used for larger kitchen items. In here we store everything from cooking utensils to paper plates and plasticware, clean dish towels and hot mats. The tote works really well to protect these items from chipmunks and squirrels.

If we are camping for an extended period of time, we will set up a screen tent and place the picnic table and other kitchen “furnishings” inside. This time, since we were only camping for a few days, we just put up a tarp over the kitchen. We use water frozen in gallon milk jugs as the ice supply in our cooler. Works beautifully! If the weather is really hot, we have been known to bring our kids’ old “college fridge” and plug that in if we have a water/electric site. Otherwise, it’s our good old cooler. Our Coleman stove has a removable Teflon griddle which we love. We bought this stove/griddle many years ago at a consignment shop for $15. It has served us well!

I enjoy cooking in my camp kitchen. And I especially love walking through the campground in the morning and smelling all the wonderful aromas as campers cook their breakfasts. Bacon & eggs, anyone?

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Picnic Memories...

Lately I've been thinking back to picnic memories of summers gone by. There are so many, it’s hard to know how to sort them out or where to start.

One special type of picnic I recall was evening picnics at a nearby lake after my dad came home from work. There was a state park there with a beach, plus a playground, picnic tables, grills, etc. We would take hot dogs along to cook over the grills, or maybe just sandwiches. Many of the picnic tables were in little wooded nooks just a little way from the beach. High on the ledges above the beach were more picnic tables and also horseshoe pits. My dad and brothers often enjoyed a game of horseshoes after we ate, or while the picnic was being prepared.

We also took a picnic every time we went on a road trip in the summer or fall. There were no fast food places along the highway in those days. Ice cream places and dairy bars were about it. (I was nearly college age before I ate at the only McDonalds in our state back then!) We often went out for ice cream in the evenings in summer -- there were several places not too far away. But we didn’t eat out much. A Chinese restaurant occasionally, and my grandmother sometimes took us (one or two at a time!) to Howard Johnson’s or a similar type of place. So picnics were always in order on day trips. Our very favorite picnic sandwich was something I think my dad invented, though my mom was usually the designated sandwich-maker. It was a bologna-tomato sandwich, which doesn’t sound as delicious as it actually was. Wheat bread would be generously spread with mayonnaise or, more often, Miracle Whip. A slice of bologna would be placed on one side and thinly sliced, perfectly ripe tomatoes on the other side. The tomatoes would be lightly salted and generously peppered. Then the two slices would be put together and neatly sliced in half. No plastic sandwich baggies back then... we put the sandwiches in little waxed paper bags.

Blueberry -picking expeditions also called for a picnic lunch. Sometimes we went to the top of a nearby mountain, where there were many high-bush blueberries. The old farm up there had been the boyhood home of the hired man on the farm of my mother’s childhood. In later years, my parents found another mountain farm even closer to home where we were welcome to pick berries -- although the blueberries there were of the low-bush type. In either case, we could drive the family station wagon to the top of the mountain and then, buckets secured to our waists by a belt (leaving both hands free for picking) we would fan out to our chosen picking areas. Farther afield, we would drive to my great-uncle’s farm about an hour and a half away. He had a cow pasture which was filled with high-bush blueberry bushes. It was very quiet and secluded there, and we always thought about bears. .. and bulls. Uncle Tom had a sign reading “Beware of the bull” or some such warning. However, he did not pasture such a creature in this field. He merely wanted to keep people out of his blueberry patch!

For a few years when I was in elementary school, the school year always ended with a picnic. One year, for some reason, my grandmother was going to be packing my picnic lunch. I can’t remember if my mother was ill, or too busy, or just what the reason was. But I do remember my grandmother asking me what kind of sandwiches I would like her to make. I think I surprised her (and myself!) by asking for her famous Ribbon Sandwiches, a time-consuming delicacy which started with an unsliced pullman loaf sliced crosswise in fourths. It was then filled with three different fillings -- I believe she used tuna or chicken salad, ham salad, and egg salad. The next step was to wrap the loaf snugly and chill it well -- ideally, overnight. When ready to serve, the loaf was sliced to reveal colorful “ribbons” of filling in the white bread. What nerve I had to ask for something that required so much work! But, if I remember correctly, she did make Ribbon Sandwiches for me.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Picnic Hill

We've had a couple of cookouts lately, and this got me thinking back to my childhood picnic memories. We picnicked a lot when we took day trips in the summer, and also sometimes after my dad got home from work. And then there were the picnics we kids took all by ourselves on a nearby hill. I want to share some more of my memories later when I have time to write more. But for now I'll just share this remembrance of our special picnic place.


PICNIC HILL

Picnic Hill! Even today, the words conjure up the scents, the sounds, the tastes of a very special part of a ten-year-old’s world. It was only minutes from home, but it could have been on another planet, so far removed was it from everyday life.

Even the way there was enchanted. First a stroll down a leafy tree-lined lane, where bees buzzed sleepily on clover blossoms and sun-warmed grass exuded its intoxicating scent, then across a stream by way of a fallen apple tree. We followed the sparkling brook as it wound its way through a meadow of spring-green velvet. It was a miniature stream, a delicious sunlit brown color with smooth rocks visible on its bottom: a perfect place for wading. It simply beckoned to us. But we postponed that pleasure, and followed the brook to the base of Picnic Hill.

It was high and rounded, exactly like the top scoop of a double-decker coffee ice cream cone. It was dusted with spicy brown pine needles and crowned with several huge old evergreens.

Seated on the spongy forest floor, we’d have our picnic. I can’t even remember what we ate, but I do know the neighbor children who accompanied us often had cucumber sandwiches. Nor can I recall what, if anything, we drank. Maybe just the magic of being on Picnic Hill made us forget about what we were eating.

After lunch, we stretched out in the sun-dappled shade of the pines, closing our eyes and inhaling the balsam aroma. These interludes never lasted too long; there were other pleasures in store. One was sliding down the hill. Those dry pine needles were wonderfully slippery. It was more fun than any metal or wooden slide could ever be.

Before starting home, it was part of the ritual to remove shoes and socks and wade in the stream. The water was clear and cold, the pebbles silky smooth, and little fish darted here and there, nibbling at our toes. (The brook was so clear and fast-moving here that we never feared bloodsuckers, as we did in the part nearer our home!) Finally, we sat in the warm grass to replace our footwear for the homeward trip.

Picnic Hill never failed to refresh me. It was a place apart from worries, from squabbles, from adults. I’m an adult myself now, with children and grandchildren of my own. Picnic Hill is all grown up, too -- so ringed with brush and alders it is almost unrecognizable. Yet in memory I can always go back to Picnic Hill, and be refreshed again in spirit.


...Thinking back, I've wondered often about those cucumber sandwiches our neighborhood friends brought along. These were poor kids from a tough background, in the 1950s. Cucumber sandwiches sound more like teatime in England. I've often wondered if cucumbers were just a cheap sandwich filling, or if they were some handed-down family recipe from long ago and faraway. I'll probably never know!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Saving Money in the Kitchen and other thoughts

I teach a ladies’ Sunday School class and we’re currently studying Proverbs 31 together. This week’s lesson reminds us that a godly woman is thrifty. As part of my preparation for this lesson, I referred to a book I once purchased for $1 at a used-book sale. It’s called How to Pinch a Penny Till it Screams, In the first chapter, the author, Rochelle McDonald, lists 12 guidelines for thriftiness, and one of these is not to buy something if you can make it yourself more cheaply. That reminded me of some of my favorite recipes for things I make rather than buying.
Years ago when money was really tight, there were a lot of things I made myself -- yogurt, mayonnaise, French salad dressing -- that I don’t do anymore. But I do still make specialty mixes like taco seasoning mix, ranch dressing mix, zesty Italian dressing mix, and onion soup mix. I find that these mixes are often called for in various recipes, and they can be quite expensive. So I thought I would share those recipes here.


TACO SEASONING MIX
1/4 cup dried minced onion
1/4 cup chili powder
2 Tablespoons salt
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon dried minced garlic
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons beef bouillon granules
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
Mix all together well and transfer to an airtight container such as a small tin or jar. For each pound of ground beef, use 3 Tablespoons mix and 1/2 cup water. Add to the browned beef. Bring to boil; cook & stir 2 minutes.


ONION SOUP MIX
3/4 cup dried minced onion
1/3 cup beef bouillon granules
1/4 cup onion powder
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon celery seed, optional
Combine all ingredients; store in an airtight container in a cool dry place for up to 1 year. When a recipe calls for onion soup mix, use 5 Tablespoons mix for each envelope of soup mix called for.


RANCH DRESSING MIX
2 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons dried minced onion
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
In small bowl, combine all ingredients. Store in airtight container. For each packet of ranch dressing mix called for in recipe, use 1 Tablespoon of this mix.


ZESTY ITALIAN DRESSING MIX
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: pepper. oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, sweet red pepper flakes
Pinch of paprika
Mix all together. Whirl in blender if a finer texture is desired. This recipe equals one envelope zesty Italian salad dressing mix. It may be doubled, tripled, or whatever quantity you need to make.




AND ALSO IN THE KITCHEN TODAY....


I‘m preparing for lunch guests after church tomorrow. We’re keeping it simple... raw veggies, chips and dip for starters while the hamburgers and hot dogs are grilling. With the burgers and dogs, we’ll have purchased potato salad. For dessert, ice cream with brownies and homemade fudge sauce.
The brownie recipe is the best I’ve ever had. It came originally from my pastor’s wife, and I still want to give her credit for this great recipe even though I’ve changed a couple of things.

THE PASTOR’S WIFE’S BROWNIES
1 cup flour
2/3 cup baking cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup canola oil
2 scant cups sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a mixing bowl beat together the remaining ingredients. Sift in the flour mixture and stir it in thoroughly. (Some people will add 1 cup chocolate chips here.) Scrape into a greased 13x9” pan. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or just until done. Don’t overbake or you’ll lose the fudgy texture.

And the hot fudge sauce recipe is also a “best-of-the-best”. Made in the microwave, I found the recipe in Cook & Tell, my favorite cooking newsletter.

BEST HOT FUDGE SAUCE
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 1/2 squares unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup baking cocoa
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cream, evaporated milk OR regular milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place butter and chocolate in a 1 1/2 qt. microwave-safe casserole or bowl. Cook 2 minutes on High. Stir in cocoa, sugar, cream or milk, and salt. Heat 2 more minutes on High. Stir in vanilla. If necessary, cook another 30 to 60 seconds on High, or until no longer sugary.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

From Gram's Corner Cupboard



Thinking about my grandmother, as I did in yesterday’s post, reminded me of an essay I wrote some years ago. I decided to post it here so I’ll know where it is. Maybe it will stir some memories for someone else.

FROM GRAM’S CORNER CUPBOARD
Almost anyone else would have thrown it away. In fact, I nearly missed seeing it as I sorted through a box of things from my grandmother’s house. It was just a little cellophane packet containing three unused paper coasters. Why had she saved them? They were of quilted white paper, about three inches square, with scalloped edges. Embossed in red were a house, a tree, and a cheerful folk-art couple, along with these words:

Come in the evening
Or come in the morning
Come when you’re looked for
Or come without warning.

Yes, almost anyone else would have thrown them away. I nearly did. Then I reconsidered, thinking that the coasters would be like a little part of my grandmother in my home. I could use them, perhaps, when a special friend came over for tea. Or maybe I would just display them in my corner cupboard as a bit of memorabilia. Whatever I did, I knew I would not choose to throw them in the trash. I wondered why they reminded me so strongly of Gram.

Why indeed? Maybe it’s because just those few words, embossed in red, tell one a great deal about my grandmother. She was a truly hospitable person who loved company -- the more, the better. As I gazed at the little paper coasters, so many memories returned. The huge family feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Sunday dinners, back when all of the cousins were so much younger, and grownups ate in the dining room, kids in the kitchen. The steamy summer days of childhood, when I would enter her big, cool house on an errand, and she’d take iced tea from the refrigerator for me. Summer afternoons, when relatives or friends came to call, and she’d invite them to “step out onto the piazza”. The roomy porch would be lined with folks in rocking chairs, just visiting and enjoying the breezes that always seemed to blow there.

How wonderful to have all these memories of my grandmother’s hospitality! But I remember, too, other times. On a Saturday or Sunday, Gram would often bake one of her light, fluffy cakes or a batch of her famous chocolate cookies with the shiny white icing. And then on Monday, she might call and offer some of the cookies or part of the cake to my mother, for us kids to snack on. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the pattern in all of this. On the weekends, she always hoped that some of the family -- from near or far -- would drop in for a visit. Sometimes they did. And she was prepared with her freshly frosted cake or her full cookie tin. But often -- probably more often than not -- nobody came. Now I look back and my heart aches a little when I think of the times I could have gone but didn’t.

But, in a way, it’s not too late. Though she has been gone for many years now, I am still learning from my grandmother. I thought of her just now as I arranged two comfortable rockers on my front porch. And I know why I didn’t throw that little cellophane packet away.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My Grandmother's Cool Kitchen


Thinking about memories of kitchens I have known, I was reminded this morning of how cool (literally) my grandmother's farmhouse kitchen used to be on hot summer days. We lived just down the road from my grandmother, and we kids were often sent there on one errand or another. We especially liked going in there on a hot day. There was a dirt and rock cellar under her house, and so the house stayed cooler than most. I suppose she also opened the windows at night and closed everything up in the early morning while it was still cool. So when you went into her kitchen later in the day, it was cool and dim -- she refrained from putting lights on too, and the shades were drawn against the sun. Oh, how nice it felt after the steamy heat of a New England summer day! Even better were the times when Gram would open up the refrigerator and pour us a glass of chilled iced tea from the jug she kept there. She had some of those shiny aluminum tumblers in different colors, and the tea tasted especially icy when sipped from one of those.

This summer, I've been trying to follow Gram's example and keep a jug of iced tea in the fridge. After tweaking a few recipes, this is the best formula I've come up with.

SUMMERTIME ICED TEA
12 tea bags, either regular tea or green tea
6 cups boiling water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup orange juice
6 cups water
Ice and lemon slices, optional
In a large bowl, pour the boiling water over the tea bags. Let steep. (Green tea should steep no longer than 7 minutes.) Remove tea bags, squeezing excess tea back into the bowl. Add the sugar, lemon juice and orange juice; stir well to dissolve sugar. Let cool until lukewarm. Pour tea mixture into a gallon jug or container. (I use one of those nifty glass jugs with a spigot.) Add the cold water and stir well. Add ice and lemon slices if desired. This makes a really neat thing to take along to a picnic at the beach or elsewhere. I just keep it in a cooler with ice. The ice and lemon slices make it look so refreshing!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A new venture . . .

Inspired by my daughter and some other friends, I've decided to try my own hand at blogging. It occurred to me that so much of life takes place around a kitchen table. We do so much more there than just eat meals and share family time. Board games may be played there, homework may be done there. Craft projects may be worked on, and the pieces of sewing projects may be cut out there. Food preparation, correspondence, bill-paying... the list could go on and on. Not to mention all the wonderful times of fun and fellowship that happen at the kitchen table. As a friend of ours once commented, "We're kitchen-table people". So much laughter takes place at a kitchen table! Tears may be shed there as well. Jokes are told and serious conversations are shared. I hope that this blog will be a "virtual kitchen table" where I can share recipes, memories, and kitchen-table thoughts with those who visit here.