Sunday, January 27, 2013

For Cornelia: Florida Orange Meringue Pie

I've been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, Cornelia, the past couple weeks.

She was born in January, 130 years ago, and though I never met her, I feel a strong connection to her, through my mother and grandmother, of course, but also because I've learned so much about her by the photographs and letters and assorted ephemera she left behind in the attic of the old farmhouse three miles west of Oneida, Illinois.

I've been wanting to get back to the project of organizing those things--many of which now live in my attic--and this weekend, I did make some progress.

Born to parents who came of age during the Civil War, the granddaughter of pioneers from New York who staked out adjacent land grants in the largely unsettled prairie of western Illinois in the mid-19th century, Cornelia was born on the family farm in Ontario Township, Knox County, Illinois.

Cornelia Alice Mosher, born January 1883.
She grew up in the house her father grew up in, the house her grandfather built, the house my grandmother and mother grew up in, too--the house that was just across the road from a station on the Underground Railroad.

The family home in Ontario Township, Knox County, Illinois.

Cornelia went to the local rural school until the 9th grade, when her progressive parents, who wanted their two daughters to get the best possible education, sent her to high school in Galesburg. 

Cornelia, left, and her older sister, Grace.
She was valedictorian of Galesburg High School in 1901. From there, she enrolled in Knox College, where she was known as "Kit" or "Kittie" among her boisterous circle of friends. She graduated from Knox in 1905 as one of four honor graduates and spoke at that year's commencement.

Kittie, during her Knox years.

After college, Cornelia was an assistant principal at Oneida High School until 1909. She was needed at home and there were expectations that she marry and start a family.

A draft of Cornelia's resignation letter from 1909.
The man she married was Joseph Jay "JJ" Clearwater, another New York transplant who'd landed in downstate Knox County after going to to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He had been managing the Mosher farm since the death of Cornelia's father, Will, in 1902.

Joseph Jay Clearwater
Cornelia had a great sense of humor and she loved her husband and daughter and grandchildren dearly, but I have to wonder how she tempered her erudite tendencies with the realities of farm life, how fanciful and rich her scholarly days at Knox must have seemed when, years later, she was rendering beef fat to make candles during the Great Depression.

From left, my grandmother, Hester Clearwater Nelson, and her parents,  Cornelia and JJ, around 1924.
Perhaps that's why she saved every memento of her college years in the attic, and how I'm lucky enough to have them now.

This bright mid-century postcard caught my eye this morning as I was packing up Cornelia's things to go back into the attic.

After a week of sub-zero temperatures topped off by a gray day of freezing rain, a pop of Florida sunshine seemed quite appealing. But it also made me laugh a little, both the juxtaposition of this 1950s postcard next to her early 20th-century letters, and the knowledge that the kitchen was not our Kit's forte.

Cornelia didn't clip recipes. She wrote poetry and doodled about Shakespeare and bird migration. Beyond her specialities of homemade doughnuts and cottage pudding, she was not known for her culinary expertise. When she lived in the old farmhouse with her daughter's family, she was not the culinary matriarch patiently stirring things at the stove. She was the reluctant sous chef, relegated to peeling potatoes in the corner. She was accidentally putting salt instead of sugar in the tapioca. She was inspiring my mother, to this day, to describe culinary failures as "just like grandma used to make."

In other words, I'm sure she never made this recipe. I'm sure no one in my family ever did, but that it's been preserved in the attic for the better part of a century made me think I should give it a try.

It's like a lemon meringue pie, of course, but with chunks of fruit mixed in with the juice and the sugar and the cornstarch, then cooked over low heat and poured into a baked and cooled shell.

It looks nothing like the pie on the postcard, either, and it was a bit runny.

But no matter. Topped with an enthusiastic meringue, it made for a bright addition to a rather bleak January day.

And I'm just going to pretend that Cornelia held on to this postcard because the mere image and idea of a Florida Orange Meringue pie were enough of a sunny solace to her during a dreary Midwestern winter that she need not bother rolling out the crust, juicing the oranges, and grating the rind.

Happy birthday, Kit.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Farewell to Common Cookery: Cheese Cake Rich and Devastating

Are you an imaginative and creative cook in search of a repertoire of unusual recipes?

I didn't know I was until I found this book last summer in a little bookshop in tiny Ellison Bay, Wisconsin.

I knew instantly that I needed to have it, and not just because I have a thing for vintage cookbooks (this one having been published in 1968).

And not just because of the hot pink cover, either.

These words, from the jacket, spoke to me: Are you tired of common cookery? Ruth Mellinkoff believes that each household should evolve an individual repertoire of magnificent menus and meals, based on the theory that the pleasure of eating good food can only be matched by the pleasure of preparing it. 

Well said, Ruth.

As if that wasn't enough, I scanned the recipes and found such uncommon delights as:

  • Properly Puffed Up Cream Cheese Pastry Turnovers with a Mushroom Filling
  • Egg Mountain Hidden Under a Caviar Frosting
  • A Fiercely Fancy Flounder, Stuffed with a Miraculous Mousse and Covered with a Silken Sauce
  • Oysters "Ruth-e-Feller"
  • Clever Casseroles of Contented Turkey
  • A Noble Spaghetti Caruso
  • Lavender and Lace Spice Cake with Sea Foam Icing
  • Old Souls Applesauce-Date-Nut Cake
The book became mine.

And then it sat among dozens of other vintage cookbooks on the shelf, until I became inspired to seek out an uncommon dessert to add to my repertoire for the holiday season.

I wanted something rich.

Something devastating.

And so...

Let's do this, Ruth. 

I don't even like cheese cake that much, but I needed to make this for the sake of vintage cookbook lovers and wayward poets the world over.

I do, however, have a fondness for graham cracker crusts, and that's how this got started, with the ground crackers and sugar and butter kissed with a bit of cinnamon.

The cheese cake layer includes a delicate two pounds of cream cheese, whipped with a pinch of salt, 4 eggs, more sugar, and some fresh lemon juice.

Once that has spent some time in the oven, it's time for a quite uncommon layer: sour cream whipped with sugar and vanilla, spread on top. And if you've followed Ruth's directions to save a spoonful of your graham cracker crust, you sprinkle that on the top for a truly devastating effect.

Back in the oven, then to cool, then to refrigerate, and then to be freed from the strictures of a common spring-form pan.

O, cheese cake. Thou art rich and devastating.

I think I might like cheese cake now.

Or at least I like this one, and while it is indeed rich and devastating (please note that this one cheese cake is meant to serve 16 to 20 people and also please note that only 2 people live in our house), it's the subtleties of this dessert that I like the best.

The hint of cinnamon in the crust, the slight lemon tang of the decadent filling, the sweet vanilla finish of the fluffy top layer.

It's good, folks.

Uncommonly so.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Easy Like Sunday Brownies

It being Sunday and a really long time since I updated this blog, and also that magical day of the year when we get an extra hour, I decided first thing this morning that I would be making Marilyn's Sunday Brownies.

Because nothing says the end of Daylight Savings Time and the end of a blogging hiatus* like baking something that calls for a pound of chocolate syrup.

Marilyn's recipe--pretty much the classic Hershey's brownies recipes that many people's mothers and grandmothers made back in the day--calls for a 1-lb. can of Hershey's syrup. No cans of chocolate syrup at my grocery store, so I got the squeeze bottle instead. I don't think there's a difference between the can or the bottle, but even if there is, I'm willing to bet a pound of anything chocolatey and syrupy would suffice. 

I wonder why Marilyn called these Sunday Brownies. Because they were something special? Or because Sunday is a day of rest and dumping a pound of chocolate syrup into anything really is a low-effort way of fulfilling any weekend chocolate desires?

Anyway, you start by creaming the butter and sugar, adding the eggs and vanilla, and then you pour or squirt in your syrup. Then the dry ingredients, and a good mix, and you're ready to pour this into a greased pan and bake it. 

No temperature or time instructions on Marilyn's recipe, but I went with 350, and it took about 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center came out clean and the brownies started to pull away from the edge of the pan.

I made the frosting as instructed and poured it over the brownies while they were still warm. 

These are messy, sticky things with a strong but simple chocolate flavor, halfway between a fudge-like and chewy brownie and a moist and dense cake. 

*As for that blogging hiatus, I didn't intend to go so long without posting. I've missed it, and I won't wait so long before showing up here again.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pumpkin Cookies with Caramel Icing, Baby!

It's that time of year when people start getting really excited about pumpkin.
This weekend, for instance, more than half of the citizens of the United States will drink pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks and tweet about it.

Likewise, Pinterest is an orange orgy of pumpkin porn right now--pumpkin banana quinoa crockpot muffins, paleo-friendly pumpkin corkboard waffles, all-natural honey pumpkin seed toothpaste... You name it.

Pumpkin pumpkin, everybody wants the pumpkin.

Lucky for all the pumpkin freaks out there, cans of the stuff were on sale at County Market today.

I bought one, carried it home, and hauled out my vat of Crisco so I could make these cookies from Marilyn's collection.

We'll get to the icing later, but here's the line-up for the cookies.

Hi, pumpkin.

Hi, Crisco.

Hi, Cinnamon.

Hi, Ginger.

Hi, Nutmeg.


This recipe starts out by creaming the shortening, the brown sugar, and the granulated sugar, and then adding the eggs.

Meanwhile, you ready the pumpkin (by "carving" off the lid and dumping the "guts" in a bowl) and sift together the dry ingredients, effortlessly creating a lovely--and lovely smelling--autumnal tableau for your kitchen. (Pin it!)

About the pumpkin, do not make the mistake of buying canned pumpkin pie filling. You just want pumpkin. Pureed, fiber- and Vitamin A-rich pumpkin. The stuff that looks like baby food.

Speaking of babies, look who came out of the Saltine box we keep him in to play today!

(See Baby's previous appearances here and here and here.)

OK. So, now add a little bit of pumpkin to your butter-sugar mixture, then a little bit of dry ingredients, then pumpkin, then dry ingredients, pumpkin, dry ingredients, pumpkin, dry ingredients, until... BAM! You turn into a pumpkin!

OR, until you get some pretty unique looking cookie dough. Cookie dough that seems more like rust-colored cake batter than cookie dough.

Baby digs it.

Next, line some baking sheet with parchment paper, hand Baby a spoon, and supervise Baby closely as Baby makes some droppings.

The droppings go into a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

There will be a lot of droppings when you are done.

Droppings that vary in size and shape and have a light, spongy, moist texture.

Droppings that need icing.


(I'm not really Baby's mother, but I let Baby call me that.)

The icing starts with melted margarine (or butter), continues with brown sugar and milk brought to a boil, and ends with a pound of powdered sugar.

The icing is good.

The icing glistens.

Baby happens to like how imperfect these cookies are. How so very un-cookie-cutter they are, each one a little blob with unique features. (Just like Baby.)

I happen to like the volume of these cookies. Not just that this recipe makes approximately 800 cookies, but the actual bulk of the individual cookies. The combo of shortening, baking soda, baking powder, and pumpkin gives these things some serious shape.

You think they might be crispy on the edges, but no. Almost like little blobs of pumpkin bread, which I freaking love. (PUMPKIN BREAD BLOBS OMG!)

Yes, little poofy blobs of pumpkin bread, topped with a glistening icing.

(Baby's head shown for scale.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Pie That Binds

It's been almost a year since I started this project, which means it's been almost a year that you can find me curled up most Saturday mornings on the couch--cat in my lap--reading through Marilyn's recipes and pulling the ones I think I might make in the next week or so to the front of the little wooden box.

I pull the ones that I think are funny/bizarre, I pull the ones that sound like they might be good, I pull the ones that remind me most of Marilyn.

This recipe--Bean and Potato Taco Pie--falls squarely into the first category.

Beans? Potatoes? Tacos? In a pie?

How could I resist?

Despite my best attempts at organization, I somehow misplaced the recipe card for this gem between the time I pulled it out of the box to make my grocery list and when I got home from the store.

Not sure what else I could do with instant mashed potatoes, taco seasoning, ground beef, beans, and barbecue sauce (yes, barbecue sauce), I turned to Google and came up with this recipe, which matches the one from Marilyn's recipe box in ingredients if not exactly in title.

So, here we go. 

This appears to be some kind of low-rent, inverted, Tex-Mex version of Shepherd's Pie. With barbecue sauce. The kind of thing you can only imagine was invented and widely disseminated by a company that made instant potatoes, taco seasoning, and barbecue sauce and thought women needed a way to use them all in one recipe. With beans and beef, too.

First up: the crust. By crust I mean instant mashed potatoes mixed with milk, butter, and a bit of taco seasoning and then pressed into a pan.

I don't think I've ever purchased or made instant mashed potatoes before, much less sculpted them in to a taco-tinted pie crust, but it happened, and I took pictures to prove it. I tasted a tiny bit of the potato mixture as I was sculpting the crust, and it reminded me of elementary school, not just because of cafeteria memories of instant spuds but because I am not ashamed to admit I did occasionally eat glue and/or paste during the course of my formal education.

The filling for this pie is onion, ground beef, refried beans (I bought refried black beans instead of refried pinto beans, hence the robust color), the rest of your taco seasoning... and, inexplicably, half a cup of barbecue sauce.

You might think the crust would firm up and become golden and crispy and more flavorful in the oven, but it didn't. It still kinda tasted like glue.

Topped with cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes... we had our little bean/potato/beef/taco/bbq pie.

Like most pies, the first slice came out more like a crumble. A bean/potato/beef/taco/bbq crumble. But the second piece, which I served to Chad, was more pie-like.

Chad ate a bite and declared, "It tastes like the 1980s."

He must have eaten his fair share of paste in elementary school, too.

In addition to our shared affinity for a nice shot of Elmer's before recess, Chad and I were in agreement that should we ever crave beans, beef, taco, potato, barbecue sauce, and pie, we'd probably do our best not to put them all together.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Calling Fall: Molasses Sugar Cookies

Understatement: I am ready for summer to be over.

Fun Fact: I straighten my hair most mornings, but in the humid summer months I still end up looking like a Cocker Spaniel by the time I get to work.

Revelation: Perhaps, when I was craving a spicy, chewy kind of dessert, what I really craved was fall. As in autumn?

Rumination: Clear, crisp, beautiful autumn? Remember it? When all the plants are dying but it's OK because that's just the freaking cycle of life and not because it's August and there's a drought and it's all kind of depressing?

Remedy: Make some chewy, spicy cookies and just pretend fall is already here.

That's what I did last weekend, and lo and behold, about five days later, the temperature dropped to a mostly tolerable temperature and we got about a teaspoon of rain. MAGIC.

These Molasses Sugar Cookies are one of Grandma Haase's--Marilyn's maternal grandmother--recipes, written out by hand and tucked away in Marilyn's recipe box for 35 years or so. With a little research on the ol' Internets, I learned Grandma Haase's handwritten recipe is identical to the one on the back of the Brer Rabbit Molasses bottle in the 1940s and 1950s.

Word for word.

Not exactly the kind of dessert that screams mid-August but that's pretty much the point.

Make these, and fall will come sooner. I promise.

If you need any more evidence that this is a mid-century recipe, consider that you start by melting shortening in a saucepan. Chad walked into the kitchen while I was doing this and asked if I was making fried chicken.

Speaking of shortening, this is what's going to make your cookies chewy. The flavors in this are similar to a ginger snap, but instead of the flat and crispy effect you'd get from using butter as your fat, you're going to get a chewier and slightly more plump cookie.

I poured my melted shortening into a bowl to expedite the cooling process, then added the rest of the wet ingredients, followed by the dry. 

And then I mixed it by hand, just like in the olden days.

The dough chilled in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, and then I rolled chunks into balls and gave them a little spin in granulated sugar.

After about 8 minutes in the oven, it was much easier to continue my charade that fall was already here.

These were good.

Really good.

Like, give me a cup of cider spiked with bourbon and a couple of these things and I'll rake all your leaves and carve all your pumpkins and because it's beautiful outside GOOD.

Crispy on the outside, with the cinnamon in the dough and the granulated sugar on the outside conspiring to make your tongue tingle.

And inside? So chewy they are almost gooey. Almost like candy.

Rich, sweet, a little old-fashioned, and so very comforting.

Come on fall.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Taco Dip Time Machine

After the era of trading hand-written index cards but before the era of emailing links from favorite cooking websites, the exchange of recipes among friends required a piece of equipment known as the dot matrix printer.

Someone typed the recipes on a computer with a black screen and a blinking green cursor, then sent the file off to a whining, temperamental machine that devoured trails of paper with perforated edges riddled with perfect little holes. What emerged from the mouth of that godawful printer was a miracle of modern convenience, at least for 1987. Type it once, print it as many times as you want--and then share it with everyone at your Bunco game.

Not surprisingly, this taco dip recipe from Marilyn's collection--an artifact from the days of dot matrix, if I've ever seen one--takes me back to the glory days, both in terms of the font and the food.

When I was in junior high and high school, a friend's mom used to make this exact dip. To my callow palate, it was one of the most exotic things I'd ever tasted.

Granted, Taco Bell seemed pretty exotic at the time, too.

But, man. I liked this dip. 

So much so, that when it came time to celebrate the occasion of my release from the local consolidated high school in the spring of 1994, I wanted this very taco dip served at my party.

I was going through a tropical fish phase at this point in time, which was after the daisy phase but before the sunflower phase. I'd purchased a tropical fish comforter set for college in the fall, and I often subjected my friends to my beloved fish tank VHS tape, which played a loop of colorful fish swimming in a tank against a backdrop of soothing music. (If one of my sisters destroyed my fish tank video, it probably was just payback for that one time I ejected her her Kenny G. cassingle from the tape deck and threw it out the window of a moving car.)

This is all just to give you a little insight on why I decided it would be appropriate to have a tropical-fish themed graduation party in 1994 at the Carlson Ranch outside Rio, Illinois. I went to the party store, bought as many fish party favors I could afford with my babysitting money, and splurged on a large fish platter--on which I would serve the "exotic" taco dip.

No photographic evidence of the fish-platter taco dip exists to my knowledge, but I did find this family portrait from that day, which begs the question... why I did not carry on the tropical fish theme with my attire?

I mean that cherry-red ankle-length culotte jumpsuit with white polka dots and spaghetti straps is a pretty hot look, but it's not exactly exotic, you know?

Neither is a combination of cream cheese, sour cream, and Ortega taco seasoning, but that's what gets this old-school taco dip going. You mix it and then you spread it, on whatever you have handy.

Sadly, the fish platter from my graduation party is no longer with us (perhaps it went the way of the fish tank VHS and the Kenny G. tape), so I went with the next best thing--a Fiestaware plate, in the Seafoam color. 

Next come the toppings. In order for this dish to be historically accurate, please don't try to make it authentic Mexican food in any way. The base is a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream, and Ortega taco seasoning, remember? Thus your Picante sauce should be Pace, your lettuce should be iceberg, your cheese should be shredded cheddar, and your tomatoes should be Romas, seeded and diced.

And for this dip--with its flesh-colored base that emits an unmistakable tang of... cream cheese, sour cream, and Ortega taco seasoning--you really are going to want to go with traditional Tostitos, as the dot matrix recipe suggests.

Save your blue corn chips and your fancy lime and salt varieties for another time.