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Book Lover's Cookbook

Such a sweet gift—a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill…. – Garrison Keillor, “How to Write a Letter” from We Are Still Married, a passage included in The Book Lover’s Cookbook, by Shauna Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen.

Two of my favorite things on earth are handmade writing and homemade cake, and the two collide in The Book Lover’s Cookbook. In the book, a passage from a piece of literature that describes a meal or a particular food is followed by a recipe for the featured dish. Sadly, the authors were unable to include some of my favorite literary foods, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her homemade mango ice cream, or Gene Stratton Porter’s description of how Eudora’s mother fills her new lunchbox in A Girl of the Limberlost.

I’ve always enjoyed reading about food, and writing about food comes pretty naturally, too. Because I write a lot of letters and bake a lot of things, handmade writing and homemade baked goods often collide in my own life. They did so in October 2014 when I wrote a letter to my friend, Ruby, about the cake I made the preceding Saturday night, in a rush, for homecoming at my parents’ church:

I called my mom at 8:00 last night, and she reminded me that their church’s homecoming was today and asked didn’t we want to come. Ernesto said sure, so I decided I better go ahead and make the cake I had planned to make on Sunday afternoon.

I already had the butter out to soften, so that was good. But I wanted to make a recipe that I had found in my grandmother’s old cookbook—one that she had written in by hand on a blank page of the Lizzie Sills Friends Cookbook. It was called Orange Slice Cake, and it included chopped dates and two cups of nuts. I had everything I needed, and thank goodness I bought the dates that were already chopped. But I had to chop the walnuts and the one pound of orange slice candy. That took forever. I also hit a snag with my hand mixer. I always keep the beaters for it in one particular kitchen drawer, and I could only find one last night. So I creamed the butter and sugar with one beater, and beat in the four eggs. It took longer to get full coverage of the bowl, plus, it looked ridiculous. That was actually nice, because while I was striving mightily to get everything beaten properly, I kept laughing at how silly my unbalanced, one-beater mixer looked.

My grandmother had written “Bake at 325 for 3 hours.” Three hours!! I preheated the oven to 350, and then turned it down to 335 hoping that would help. It was 9:00 before the cake went into the oven, and I finally took it out at 10:45, well after Ernesto gave up on the project and went to bed. I let it rest for 10 minutes, then had a devil of a time getting it out of the Bundt pan. I was in despair, when I finally gave it one last, violent shake and yes! it popped out. I made a glaze of powdered sugar and orange juice and doused the hot cake, cleaned up the worst of the mess, and went to bed.

The cake turned out okay, I think. I like it. It’s sort of like fruit cake but it wasn’t a true replica of Grandma’s cake, because I had used half the amount of dates that the recipe called for and didn’t have a full pound of orange slices because I had eaten about a quarter of them, and I left out the coconut because it didn’t seem necessary.

Maybe I’ll begin a project to compile vintage recipes into a volume, with annotations. When I was thumbing through the Lizzie Sills cookbook this week, a page torn from the December 1992 North Carolina Farm Bureau News fell out. The headline reads “Try These Favorite Holiday Recipes.” There was a recipe for Honey Bun Cake that sounded easy and fabulous, but the information, as is so often the case with these passed-along recipes, is lacking. “Pour one half batter in greased long pan.” What exactly does “long pan” mean? I guess I could find out, assuming the woman who submitted the recipe is still among the living. The Farm Bureau included the full name and mailing address of each submitter, so I know that Honey Bun Cake came from a Mrs. Dupree in Willow Spring, NC. I bet she would be surprised to get a letter from me with a question about her cake recipe.

I own a 1997-vintage church cookbook from a Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though it is slightly more modern than Lizzie Sills  and the Farm Bureau article, there are some mysteries in it, too. On page 45 is a recipe for Gorilla Crush, which involves milk, orange sherbet, orange juice, and a banana. There is a wonderful sandwich filling called Fake Shrimp Salad. The ingredients are one can of ground Spam, one grated onion, one grated carrot, and enough mayo to make the stuff spreadable. The instructions are simple: “Mix all together in mixer – delicious!” I am most interested, though, in the Upside Down Pecan Apple Pie. It sounds fabulous—you make a sort of streusel mix and put it in the bottom of a pie pan, then place the bottom crust on top of it. Next, add the apples, sugar, and spices, and crown it with a top crust. Then it gets tricky. The instructions read: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” The next step is: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” No matter how many times it is repeated, I don’t get it. Maybe if I had the multiple crusts in front of me I would understand how that works. After baking, you must keep the pie upright for 5 minutes, and then invert it onto a plate. I am going to try this pie, even if (as I suspect) I will end up with third-degree burns from hot syrup scalding my arms during the inversion process.

For now, until we have Honey Bun Cake and Upside Down Pie to enjoy, here are some more tasty morsels pulled from The Book Lover’s Cookbook:

Alice Hammond’s Laws of the Kitchen

  1. Soufflés rise and cream whips only for the family and for guests you didn’t really want to invite anyway.
  2. The rotten egg will be the one you break into the cake batter.
  3. Any cooking utensil placed in the dishwasher will be needed immediately thereafter for something else; any measuring utensil used for liquid ingredients will be needed immediately thereafter for dry ingredients.
  4. Time spent consuming a meal is in inverse proportion to time spent preparing it.
  5. Whatever it is, someone will have had it for lunch.

From The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection by Arthur Bloch


E. B. White, speaking of the classic Charlotte’s Web:  “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told why I sneeze either. A book is a sneeze.”


Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes, found tucked between recipes in the book. It is from If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens:

If there is no happy ending … make one out of cookie dough.

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Pound cake under glass: Making life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant.

I complained to my parents recently that, finding myself at home on a work day, I had to get up three separate times to answer the doorbell. “There was a flower delivery, which was fine, a political survey regarding Todd Akin, and a Jehovah’s Witness,” I told them. “You can’t imagine how many times the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in our neighborhood, spreading around copies of The Watchtower.”

“You should write up some tracts of your own, and give those out in return,” my dad said.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. It’s a brilliant idea. I have plenty of advice that I’d like to dispense, and mine is less aggravating and more useful than what I’ve seen in The Watchtower. And since Jennifer Stuart commented recently that she would like to try my pound cake recipe, and I am very fond of Jennifer, I decided to start with it. So I bring you Tract #1 in the Pleasant Life Series: Pound Cake.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #1: Pound Cake

This recipe is my favorite for pound cake. It comes from Carolina Cooking (1990), produced by the North Carolina chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America (“Answering the call of those in need”). It is important to note the following printed disclaimer:  “This cookbook is a collection of our favorite recipes which are not necessarily original recipes.”

Heavenly Pound Cake was contributed by Mable Bullard. I have rewritten her recipe to include some of my own notes, but the general idea, original or not, is all Mable.

Heavenly Pound Cake

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 box confectioner’s sugar (1 lb.)
5 eggs
2 cups sifted cake flour (or 2 cups regular flour, with 2 tablespoons removed)
½ teaspoon lemon extract (or almond extract, if you prefer)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10″ tube or bundt pan. (I use Baker’s Joy, a spray-on flour and oil mixture. It may not be nice to inhale, but it’s much less messy to apply and the cake pops out of the pan beautifully.)

Cream butter with sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Alternate adding flavorings with flour, beating very well between each addition. Beat an additional 2-3 minutes just for good luck, and because a stern beating makes for a finer cake.  Bake for approximately 1 hour, until golden brown.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate or wire rack to cool completely. If chunks of crust fall off, it is natural—indeed, expected—that the baker shall eat them.

[Note: The photo above is of a smaller pound cake baked in June 2012. I almost made a Heavenly Pound Cake today; I went so far as to take five eggs out of the refrigerator. But ultimately I didn’t feel much like it so I put the eggs back and dug up this photo instead.]

The recipe and photo would appear on the front of my tract. The reverse side would contain the following text:

Now That I’ve Baked a Pound Cake, What’s the Most Pleasant Use for It?

Having successfully baked a pound cake, you may find yourself asking this question and puzzling over the very pleasant possibilities:

  1. You can eat the entire thing by yourself (not necessarily in a single sitting).
  2. You can share it with others.
  3. You can give it away entirely.
  4. You can freeze it  and decide later.

There are no wrong answers, but all of us here at Tracts for the Pleasant Life (i.e., me) would submit that sharing it or giving it away—now or in the future—will be most satisfying in the long run. Plus, either course of action conforms nicely with the philosophy of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

If you are still not convinced, then we ask you to consider this quote from Aldous Huxley, who as far as we know was not acquainted with either Mable Bullard or the Telephone Pioneers of America, but whose words seem tailor-made for this occasion (to a frightening degree):

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.

Indeed.  Thus endeth Tract #1.

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http://jennartdesigns.blogspot.com/

Jennifer Wambach Designs

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

My sister sent me a link to a recipe this week. She wrote   emphatically, using capital letters and three exclamation points, that I was not to try to make this particular dessert, she only wanted to share its name: Coagulated Curdle Cakes with Foam. She had been searching for something lemony and delicious, and this recipe popped up on Allrecipes.com. I loved the name, but felt a terrible sadness, too, because there was no photo with it. I wished very much to know what Coagulated Curdle Cakes looked like. So I decided to whip up a batch.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The recipe contained strange ingredients—things I did not have, and could not find at my local market: chickpea flour, powdered egg substitute. Probably the Schnuck’s near my house carries powdered eggs, but if it does I don’t know where they stash them. I decided not to bother with soy milk, and the chickpea flour wasn’t with the other flours in the baking aisle so I gave up on that. It only called for a small amount, anyway. I picked up powdered fruit pectin and headed home.

The recipe entails mixing dry ingredients with milk and other liquids, and separately beating egg substitute with water, sugar and fruit pectin. I assumed that I could use a real egg and eliminate the water, but I knew I was in trouble when the recipe said, “fold the egg mixture into the batter” and I realized that my batter was more of a soup. The scant amount of flour called for had been thoroughly drowned by the cup of milk, the half cup of water, and the 1/3 cup of lemon juice. The sugar and salt had dissolved, the baking powder had melted away, and the nutmeg and cardamom floated on top like dirt. (The salt and spices had been measured out in pinches, which seemed fitting with a cake that was both coagulated and curdled.)

I went through the motions of folding the egg into this hell-broth and poured it into small ramekins. The recipe called for using eight, but one of mine was in the dishwasher and one cracked some time back, so I divvied up the Coagulated Curdled Juice among the six and poured the extra down the disposal as a sort of sacrificial offering. I placed the ramekins on a round cookie sheet and slid it into the oven.

When I checked on them 30 minutes later, they were heaving and spitting like live things in their little cups. They needed another ten minutes for browning, and were still huffing away when they came out. Once on the cooling rack, they stopped struggling and deflated. The unholy mixture slid down the sides of the ramekins and left a hard rind along the sides.

I ate one as soon as I could comfortably handle the ramekin, but the lemony thing inside was still caustic and hot.  I only say caustic because it smelled a bit like a cleaning product. It didn’t taste bad, but it was really an inferior lemon pudding with a pocked, freckled skin pulled over it. I ate another one at room temperature, and a third after it had chilled in the fridge. It is unpleasant at every temperature, but I found it less disagreeable when hot. At room temperature it is similar to a lemon chess pie filling. It is also difficult to remove the sticky residue from the ramekins. Oh, well, I needed a new set anyway.

I suppose it isn’t fair to malign the Curdled Cakes, since I didn’t use the correct ingredients. Certainly I never achieved a “fluffy little cake layer” as the original recipe describes; perhaps three tablespoons of chickpea flour would have made a crucial difference.

Nevertheless, I’ve performed a public service: I added a photo to the Allrecipes site so no one else ever has to make these blighted cakelets just to see what they’d look like. (In fact, I accidentally added a total of seven photos to the site, because I was unclear on the concept and didn’t bother to read the instructions before posting. And now I can’t figure out how to delete the extra shots. If anyone else knows how, drop me a line.)

Hecate
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

 

(Quotations from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. But you knew that.)

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Egg with woodland phlox

I am reflecting on Easter memories, as chronicled in letters written over the past 10 years. Here are a few excerpts:

Fernandina Beach, cheesecake, a cat on the table: Easter 2002

After church I picked up the ham, deviled eggs, cheesecake, and six orchid corsages and drove to Susan’s house in Fernandina Beach. Susan and I got everything ready and Day, Joan, Teresa, and Teresa’s friend Katherine came over for a late lunch. We pulled the long poplar table in the kitchen out from the three raised windows and gathered around it. A nice breeze blew through while we ate; Joan said it was like eating on a porch. Bougainvillea bloomed right outside the window, flowers bloomed on the table, a lady cardinal with a vivid orange beak hopped on the railing, and in the middle of the meal when we were all talking and laughing Susan’s cat, Kiffin, suddenly jumped on the table, creating quite a stir.

Then, in the conversational equivalent of a cat jumping on the table, Susan said, “Joan, tell everyone how you injured yourself watching TV and had to be life-flighted to Jacksonville.”

Joan said that on Friday evening she stood up and found that she’d lost the use of her left foot.  She called her doctor, who sent her to the emergency room. Fernandina Beach hospital life-flighted her to Baptist Hospital in Jacksonville for stroke evaluation, but it turned out it was a pinched nerve from sitting with one leg folded under her to watch TV. 

A food-related illness: post-Easter 2008

I am not feeling at all well, so I have gone back and made a list of everything I cooked (and ate) on Saturday and Sunday:

Saturday morning:  Coffee, of course.  At about 10:00 ate a ham and cheese sandwich. Ham left over from Easter; perhaps it’s beginning to Go Bad?? 

Saturday afternoon: Ernesto wanted shepherd’s pie so I browned the ground beef with onion, garlic, and broth to get the process started. Ate nothing at that point.  Made naan, the Indian flat bread that we love.  Ate one piece while warm and delicious.

Saturday evening:  Went to Applebee’s. Ate spinach and artichoke dip with tortilla chips, two mini-chicken sandwiches, two mini-steak quesadillas, a mini chocolate sundae. Maybe I ate too mini?

Sunday morning:  Pancakes, bacon, butter, maple syrup. Absolutely new package of bacon, absolutely new bottle of syrup.  Pancakes were frozen.  Butter is never bad. Right?

Sunday afternoon:  Hot dog with mustard and ketchup, jalapeno and cheese potato chips. Hot dogs have been around for maybe 2 weeks, but I hear that they stay good forever.

Later Sunday afternoon:  Started cooking for the week ahead.  Marinated chicken in yogurt and spices, then grilled it to make chicken tikka masala.  Ate one chunk of chicken. It was delicious. Made mashed potatoes to go on top of shepherd’s pie already in progress, assembled pie and placed it in oven. Through all of this, licked up quite a lot of mashed potatoes. Decided we’d have shepherd’s pie for supper, so put chicken in fridge to finish on Monday. Ate a delicious Russell Stover bird’s nest, then started making a pasta dish to pack for my lunch in the coming week:  Sauteed mushrooms, onion, garlic and spices in a bit of butter. Added milk, flour, and cream to the skillet.  Stirred a mighty long time, if you ask me. Finally it began to bubble. Drank a bottle of acai juice because it’s supposed to be good for you. Added one can of diced tomatoes and a package of frozen spinach, previously thawed, to the pasta sauce. Tasted the sauce.  Decided to get rid of more Easter ham by shredding some up and throwing it in with the pasta.  Ate a bite or two of ham. Dropped a mushroom in the sink—picked it up and ate it.  Ate shepherd’s pie with naan for dinner.  Ate a slice of leftover Easter coconut cake.  Drank a glass of milk. Had an emergency dose of Pepto-Bismol brought to me in bed by Ernesto. Threw up.

When I look back at the weekend, it occurs to me that at some point Ernesto and I also split another ham and cheese sandwich, but I can’t tell where in the world it fit in. I was the only one who got sick—which points to the mushrooms as the possible source of the problem.  And those mushrooms started off on a bad foot before they even got out of the grocery store.  When the cashier rang them up, she said, “You gonna eat mushrooms!?”  I told her it wasn’t as if I went out and picked them in the woods—they were legitimate, commercial mushrooms. That cut no ice with the cashier. And maybe she was right. 

Carrot cake and marzipan: Easter 2010

This year, Ernesto requested a carrot cake for Easter. I soon learned that I despise grating carrots. I found a recipe that called for one and one-half cups of grated carrots, which at least sounded more reasonable than the recipes that called for three cups, and I grated two of my fingernails completely off. That is only a slight exaggeration. The fingernail on my right thumb is down to the quick, and the fingernail on my right middle finger is grated a bit, too.  It’s possible that there are trace amounts of fingernail in the cake, but by the time I was finished grating I did not care.  

I bought a nice supply of Easter eggs yesterday to fill in the cracks that a carrot cake cannot possibly fill. Aldi had adorable little coconut and marzipan chocolate eggs. I have eaten one of the coconut batch, and they are very good and the perfect size. What I really crave, though, is my annual Russell Stover chocolate and coconut nest with three mini jelly beans inside. I love those a whole lot.

Tornadoes, bird’s-nest candy, and flan cake:  Easter 2011

Holli called yesterday to make sure that we had not blown away with the tornado that touched down here Friday evening. We are only 10 minutes from the airport, which got hit pretty hard, but we didn’t have any trouble at all. The storms passed after an hour or so, and the Cardinals were able to finish playing their game downtown.

Holli also mentioned that my niece, Anna, had a friend coming over in the afternoon and they were going to make bird’s-nest candy. She said to make the nests you must melt butterscotch chips and dump in a large can of La Choy chow mein noodles, then glop the mixture onto waxed paper to form little nests. She said she had a bag of Hershey’s candy-coated chocolate eggs to stick in her nests. Well, I caught bird’s-nest fever, and added chow mein noodles, butterscotch chips, and little candy eggs to my shopping list. I couldn’t find the Hershey eggs, but I got a small bag of Cadbury eggs and another little pack of Reese’s candy-coated peanut-butter eggs. Today, after about 15 minutes of nest-making, I had butterscotch up to my elbows and 17 charming little nests all done. It’s a messy project, but easy and satisfying.

Ernesto requested a flan cake for Easter this year. He said it’s a cake with a layer of flan on top. What would I do without the computer? I looked up “flan cake,” and voila—several different variations! Basically you line a bundt pan with caramel, spoon in a yellow cake batter, and then pour the flan custard mixture on top—evaporated milk, condensed milk, and four eggs. After baking in a water bath for an hour, the flan sinks to the bottom and magically becomes the top when you remove the cake from the pan. My cake is cooling on the counter right now, and we are nervously anticipating flipping it over. I’ll let you know how it goes…. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it went “gloomph” and came out in a big wet mess. We’ll see.

[Note: The flan cake turned out fine.]

Update: Easter 2012

This year we had a pecan rum cake (Holli’s recipe, using coconut rum) but decided against ham, having had an Unpleasant Experience with our Christmas ham. Ernesto is determined to procure a country ham from somewhere soon, so we will look forward to that. And tomorrow I’m going to stop at three different stores and buy up all the leftover, half-priced Russell Stover coconut nests that I can find.

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