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A vintage cake on my vintage Christmas tablecloth. It works.

A couple of days ago I baked my friend Kim’s grandmother’s holiday cake. A year or so ago I was treated to a jar of Granny’s grape jelly that would embarrass Welch’s, and so I was looking forward to trying this. And the below, from Kim, was quite an endorsement as well:

These recipes are all from a family cookbook that Granny (my mother’s mom) put together in 2004. The cover of the cookbook has a picture of Granny with sugar and butter, because they make things taste good! And as Granny says in the foreward, “Remember that love, and family – (and food!) are some of the most important things in your life.” Enjoy!!

Apple Sauce* Cake

 

2 c sugar

1 c shortening

4 eggs

2 ¾ c unsweetened cold applesauce

4 c all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 c raisins, cut fine

1 c nuts, chopped (I used walnuts)

1 ½ tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp cloves

 

Cream sugar and shortening with eggs. Beat baking soda into apple sauce and add to sugar mixture. Use about ½ c of the flour and dredge the raisins and nuts.** Add rest of dry ingredients then add raisins and nuts. Bake for 55–60 minutes in a 350° oven.

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My edits: I substituted butter for shortening and toasted the walnuts. I also cooked down apples from my favorite local, organic farmer.

 

What came as an unexpected plus what how much this cake hit the spot after the glut of heavy-duty sweets I’ve been eating all month. Full of apples, nuts and raisins, it is homey, and delicious as it is wholesome. Kim says Granny always serves this with the plum pudding sauce below. I should have, but didn’t this year simply because of how perfect the cake tastes to me just as is, for breakfast. Next year I’ll do it, and I’ll make the marshmallows!

 

Plum Pudding Sauce 

 

This is my great-grandmother’s recipe from 1935.  My grandmother, Granny, generally has this on hand at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

 

1 C butter (not margarine)

1 ½ c brown sugar

1 c canned milk (Pet or Carnation)

2 egg yolks

2 c miniature marshmallows

 

Cream butter and sugar together. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and add to mixture. Heat and add milk. Mix all together and cook in double boiler or at a low heat until thick. Add marshmallows. Keep in refrigerator. If too thick when ready to use, just use milk to make it thinner.

 

Good on Apple Sauce Cake.

 

One more note: the spicy smell of this cake baking mixed with the woodsy smell of the Christmas tree is pretty unbeatable. If you weren’t in the holiday spirit before, you will be afterward. Thanks to Kim and Granny!

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

*Editing skeptics are wondering why I separated apple and cake. It’s because Granny does. Period 🙂

**This is to keep the raisins and nuts from sinking to the bottom of the cake like lemmings.

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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So begins the first installment of my cooking project! I chose Anita’s cookies because every ingredient in them is like butter on a burn* to me, and because right now I want to expend only the barest amount of effort while still getting a fat payoff. What we cook should work for us. And for where I am right now, these cookies do that.

To be more specific, this month I’m backstage, crewing two theatre shows. And while I love it, it’s hard physical work. Factor in the frosty 95-degree weather, and my head feels like drywall. I hope you’re all less in the mood to dig into Big Thinking and more in the mood for goofing off a little, because I sure am.

I took a page from Anita’s book with this recipe and did my own thing in a few places: I added good-quality 60% cacao chocolate buttons instead of chopping up chocolate (zero energy for that today) and toasted the walnuts before adding them (a very nice thing to do to a nut). I also used organic whole wheat pastry flour for half of the flour called for.  Stirred it all up, scooped it onto cookie sheets, put the sheets in the oven, then I…

…Oh, you think that’s it?

No, right about here let’s throw in a monkey wrench, something completely screwed up, like having my oven refuse to go past 300 degrees, then slowly shut itself off and start emitting gas, like something out of a 1970s made-for-TV movie starring Dirk Benedict.

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Bring on your Battlestar Galactica plastic weaponry. I smite thee with stink.

The NJNG tech told me the igniter in the oven was busted and needed replacing. I asked my downstairs neighbors if I could use their oven. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t want the extra heat on a day like today. They did offer to see if they could relight it, something about kneeling on the floor, reaching through the broiler drawer with an Aim ‘N Flame and brute ambition. I know nothing about this method. It might have worked finely and dandily. But I couldn’t stop picturing a Hiroshima-styled mushroom cloud over the spot where my house had been and brioche tins flying out over the Atlantic. So I called my friends Kim and Doug, who are endlessly amiable and happy to help in a cookie crisis. Within an hour both batches were done.

These cookies are hearty, homey, flavorful, and textured in a very appealing lumpy bumpy way. As Anita points out, they lend themselves well to additions and substitutions. They’ll keep well frozen, I’m sure, and will defrost to keep my stomach full this week as I zip around the county. Thanks, Anita.

Here she is:

This is based on my mother’s oatmeal cookies, but I changed it up. Instead of cinnamon, I added cardamom. Instead of raisins, I used home-dried apricots (although commercially-dried apricots would do as well). I substituted chocolate chips (which I think are rather tasteless)** for chopped dark chocolate. I also added coconut.

I can’t keep these in the cookie jar. Heck. Half of the time they don’t even make it that far—they are eaten right off of the cooling rack.

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

2 c all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 c butter, softened

1 c brown sugar, packed

1 c granulated sugar

1/4 c molasses or barley malt syrup

4 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 c old-fashioned rolled oats

1 c chopped dried apricots (if unsulphured, slightly reconstitute by soaking in warm water)

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 1/2 c shredded coconut (unsweetened)

1 1/2 c chopped dark chocolate. (I put the pieces in a big plastic bag and whack the bejeezus out of it with a meat tenderizer.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a separate bowl combine flour, soda, salt and cardamom, and set aside. Cream butter and sweeteners together. Add eggs to butter and sweetener mixture, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Add vanilla. Add oats, flour mixture, apricots, walnuts and coconut. Mix on low speed. Add chocolate. Combine.

Scoop by spoonfuls, about 2-3 tablespoons each, onto cookie sheets, leaving a couple of inches in between. Bake for 11-13*** minutes. Cool on a rack, then feast.

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

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Do I seem obsessed with shiny chocolate?

 

*Especially the butter.

**Absolutely the case with Nestle.

***Mine took 18 minutes.

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There are times during this chronicling that I play the arrogant card and tell you I have a recipe that trumps whatever it is others are making. I’m afraid this is another one of those times.

I grew up eating banana bread. It’s one of my mom’s specialties, but it’s not her own recipe or a family one, either. It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s. Mom clipped it from our local paper, The Asbury Park Press, sometime in the 196os. I like to picture old Lyndon padding downstairs to the White House kitchen in his jammies on sleepless nights during Vietnam to have a slice of this. Any port in a storm, I guess. I imagine the bread also made a nice dessert if Lady Bird’s guests still had an appetite after all of that barbecue.

While pregnant with my brother, my mother had a nauseous reaction to the smell of fresh bananas. Some forty years later, the smell still turns her stomach; but she can eat banana bread, and was always able to make this as long as she added the bananas to the batter quickly enough. Which she did, and often, for which I’m grateful.

The bread cooled on the kitchen island and there it stayed, still in its loaf pan, with a piece of Saran Wrap over it. We ate it all week for breakfast or for a snack. It was probably the first thing I ever baked. Once I got cocky and added toasted walnuts to the batter and made it into muffins, much to my dad’s delight (and indeed, I was not allowed to make ordinary banana bread ever again). Toasted walnuts, as opposed to those just shaken out of their bag into the batter, make a marked difference in flavor, by the way.

This banana bread recipe is the best because unlike others, which are simply generic batter with chunks of banana here and there, this batter is permeated with banana. Your taste buds don’t have to hunt for bits and pieces of it as you go, which is a sorry way to eat anything.

I substitute whole wheat pastry flour for some or all of the flour it calls for (all-purpose works well) and cut back the sugar. Can’t taste the difference. The recipe calls for sour milk, a quaint addition that hearkens back to when people used everything, even milk that had naturally gone a little sour. (Regular milk, what we buy today at Shop-Rite, was called ‘sweet milk’.) You can use buttermilk or plain yogurt instead of sour milk if you like. Mom used regular whole milk.

The recipe calls for soda. This means baking soda.* It also says a ‘moderate oven’; 350 degrees works fine. (People also used to describe oven temperatures as low, slow, moderate, hot or fast. One imagines chasing their giggling ovens down the street, swearing and balancing a pan full of batter.)

As far as bananas go, the recipe is extremely forgiving; fresh yellow bananas work fine, spotty old bananas even better. Or you can be lazy and put them, in any state, right in the freezer until you want to make banana bread. They’ll turn the color of your bedroom armoire, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, put them on a plate on your counter and let them defrost for an hour or so. Now this is fun: Just tear open one end of each banana, hold it upside down over the bowl, and it will slide right in with a satisfying sploop, just like a boat on the Log Flume.

Here’s the yellowing, stained original recipe Mom cut out of the paper. Note the word written at top, in caps, lest we forget to add them.

This is a wet batter, so it takes a while to bake in a loaf pan. Use a tester to be sure it’s fully cooked. If you don’t feel like waiting, bake it in a shallower brownie pan or make muffins. Bake for 20 minutes to half an hour. Just like cupcakes, they’re ready when you can smell them, when they’re a little golden around the edges, and when they spring back when gently pressed in the middle.

A final note: Adding great-quality semisweet or dark chocolate chips to the bread makes a perfect house gift for people you really, really like or a luxurious treat for you should you not be able to part with it after all.

Here’s the bread the way my mom used to slice it, when we ate it for breakfast on school mornings.

* My cousin once passed along a cake recipe to an aunt who apparently wasn’t much of a cook. The aunt called her and asked, “It calls for soda. Do they mean…like…Coke?’

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Charlie Brown had a point when he said the holiday season can be kind of a letdown. Here’s a big portion of the planet spending December frantic, shooting for some magical feeling, a high, it seems to me, that will make all of this breathless marathoning worth it…and never quite finding the finish line.

Do you get that sense, too? Like we’re all reaching for something quite possibly unattainable, at least by the means we typically use (shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, schlepping)?

Parents of small children know the race, for the most part, is over by 7am on Christmas morning. And I bet they’d vote for going back to sleep until mid-January if they had the choice. Jews get eight nights, chosen as they are.  But they too might well feel that sort of wistful question mark after the last candle is lit.

It’s time for a reassessment already. As often—usually—overtaxed adults, I think it’s asking a lot of a holiday, and of ourselves, to push ourselves every year to exhaustion, reaching for a phantom high.

My posts this holiday season have emphasized cutting ourselves some slack and letting go of lunatic expectations that pummel us. I have one more point to make, and here it is: Even if that holiday high is out there, it would be over in a breath. That’s the nature of euphoria. Now ask if it’s worth it.

Contentment, now—that’s a different ballgame. Contentment doesn’t get the press that euphoria gets, but it lasts longer and is far more nourishing to the soul. So maybe that’s what we should go for.

Instead of hamster-wheeling ourselves into a frenzy from Black Friday to New Year’s Day, shooting for a high, let’s shoot for warmth. Coziness. Peace.

To wit: My mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It will not find the elusive pink suede booties your sister’s lusting after. It won’t keep your dog from chewing the little round bits of Styro left on the floor, courtesy of Best Buy. But Mom found the recipe in our local newspaper some 30 years ago and has been baking it in an ancient Bundt pan every Christmas morning for decades. It’s that good. It’s a step toward contentment…I promise you.

No chocolate chips in this puppy. Idiot-proof. (Want to know how much? When I was a teenager I started mixing up this batter, and 90% of the way through I realized I hadn’t been going by the directions, but had just been dumping the ingredients into the bowl, straight down the list. It still turned out perfect.) My mom adds walnuts to the filling; I thought, and still do, that they have no place in cake. I picked them out of every slice I ate and deposited them on the cake plate, and she’d eat them over the course of the day. It was a system that worked. But add them if you like them.

1 c butter, softened

2 c sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 c brown sugar, packed

Heat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, very well. Fold in cream and vanilla. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and add this gradually to the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine nuts (if using), cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Pour half of the batter into a well-greased and floured Bundt pan or 9″ tube pan. (You can really use any pan that’s big enough to hold the batter. If you use a rectangular Pyrex, or a springform pan, as I do, just reduce the cooking time.) Sprinkle with 3/4 of the cinnamon mixture. Pour remaining batter on top, then sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture.

Bake about 1 hour or until a tester comes out clean (check it after 45 minutes, just to be safe). Let it sit on a rack until cool. De-pan it, dust with powdered sugar and put a sprig of fresh holly on it, as my mom does, or be a heathen like me, add nothing, and cut a big greedy slice for yourself.

This cake won honorable mention in the county fair a few years ago, and the judges’ notes read, “Add more filling.” They may be right. Double the filling if you want and see if you like it better. It won for the soft, dense, tender texture—sour cream blesses every cake this way. I made the cake in the picture with plain lowfat yogurt instead of sour cream, and lessened the sugar to 3/4 c, so it’s not as high as my mom’s, but the texture is pretty much the same.

In October I broke my collarbone, moved two weeks later, then had surgery, so I couldn’t tear around like a rabid ferret the way I always do during Christmastime. Which is why I think I came up with the above shattering realization that we have the power to make the holidays a letdown or not. All I know is that I made this humble cake on Christmas Eve, and was so excited for it that I actually toyed with the idea of putting it under the tree. Contentment this year came in the shape of a springform.

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About 10 years ago I tasted a new apple pie from a place here at the Jersey shore that’s famous for its pies (and deservedly so, for the most part, which is why I’m not going to reveal its name). The idea was a sound one: Bake apples and a sugary walnut topping into a bottom crust, but leave the top crust off. The pie’s got face appeal—an ooh-ah dessert. My family dug it, but I always thought it was lacking. Too dry, walnuts tasted meh, etc. So a couple of years ago, feeling ambitious, I decided I was going to keep the idea but doctor it up.

Because plain cut apples dry out in the heat of an oven without a top crust to shield them, I gave them a leg up by poaching them in really good-quality apple cider first. I toasted the walnuts, which gives depth and nuance to any nut on earth. And I made my own crust, which left out partially-hydrogenated animal shortening (as appealing as that sounds).

Relying only on my memory, I literally winged the spices and measurements. But I think I nailed it. This is a pie that tastes as good as it looks. Why else eat anything? Make it for a fall treat or for Thanksgiving or for Arbor Day and tell me what you think.

Peel and cut 7-8 apples into eighths. Don’t use Macintosh or they’ll fall apart as they cook. Any other kind will do, but a variety is fun. Put 2 c apple cider into a large saucepan. (Unfiltered, no-water-added cider will be more intensely flavored. And it’s thick. If you can lose sight of a spoon in it, it’s the kind I mean.) Add your apples and poach over medium-high heat for about 5-8 minutes. Stir them gently and occasionally. Then take them out and spread onto a platter to cool a bit.

Take out a shallow, heavy little pan, put in three or so handfuls of shelled walnuts, and set it over medium-low heat. Do not leave to check Facebook or they’ll burn.* Shake the pan a few times as they toast. When you can smell them, turn them out onto a cutting board and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Then give them a quick chop and add them to a small bowl. Add 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp cinnamon (Saigon cinnamon for the win here…and everywhere actually. It will change your life), and 1/8 tsp nutmeg. If you can get the nutmeg in its whole form and grate it, all the better. Stir in 3/4 c packed brown sugar. I like dark, but use any kind you like.

Right, now for the crust. It’s easy, honest.** Take out your food processor and put in 2 c flour, 4 tsp (or less) sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt. Pulse it a few times. Add 3/4 c very cold butter and pulse again a few more times until bits of the dough come together in marble-sized balls. Add about 6 tbsp of ice water, just a little splash at a time, and pulse as you go, until the dough comes together as sort of a loose mass. Don’t over-pulse or the crust will be as chewy as the soles of your New Balances.

Next, what they call blind baking. Again, not a big deal. You do this partially, in this case, and the goal is to dry up the crust a bit before the filling goes in. Otherwise, it can go soggy on you.

Turn your oven to 400 degrees. Scoop out the dough and form it into a disk. Then put it into your pie pan, spreading it out to the edges and up the sides with your knuckles. Take a fork and prick the bottom of the crust a bunch of times. (This is called docking, for you curious types. The crust wants to bubble as it heats, but this lets the air escape, keeping the crust fairly flat).

Next, set some aluminum foil on top of the dough and pour in some cheap dried beans. (This is a back-up system to keep the crust flat.)

Bake the crust for about 15 minutes. Check to see how it’s doing by lifting up your foil a bit. If it sticks, leave it in the oven a little longer, for 5 or so more minutes, then take the beany foil out carefully. Lower your heat to 375 and leave the crust in for another 5 minutes or until lightly golden.

If you’re feeling brave, you can load up your crust with apples while the pan is still hot, but be careful, okay? Start at the edges and go in circles. I have four or so circles in this pie.

Last, add 1/4 cup of cold butter to your little bowl of topping and mix it in with your fingers until it’s well dispersed. Then sprinkle the whole thing on top of your apples. Nummy.

Bake on a lined cookie sheet for 50 minutes. You might need to check it from time to time to make sure the nuts aren’t burning. If they’re getting dark too quickly, loosely cover the top with a little piece of aluminum foil.

This pie is great hot after dinner and even better cold for breakfast. Juicy, rich, sweet and totally addictive.

*If you’ve toasted nuts on a stove top before, you can be cocky and set it on medium or medium-high heat. But still don’t check Facebook.

**If you really can’t deal, at least get a frozen crust that’s made with natural ingredients.  It makes a huge difference, in flavor and in texture.

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