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Monday, December 6, 2010

Serious Business

As a small child, one thing continually confounded me. Every morning, my mother got up and made a huge breakfast for the family but never joined us at the table. She served us all, got everyone off to school and work and then sat down alone to her own breakfast.

As an adult, the answer is, of course, clear. My mother had nine children. After the clatter of dishes, scuffling of siblings, paper lunch bag filling and pulling on of winter gear for the race to the school bus, she could finally, alone, relax.

My mother was an outstanding cook in her day, by any standard. Her knowledge of scratch cooking, everything from handmade pasta to fresh pastries to cooking all manner of wild game looked so relaxed but was a remarkable daily feat. I was the one child she could never quite shoo out of the kitchen and despite the busyness of her daily routine, I absorbed a great deal in that room. The only time I was completely banished with the others was on holidays when my mother and grandmother made spectacular Midwestern feasts. They alone were allowed to cross the threshold into the kitchen and I remember there was always a great deal of discussion between them about creating the perfect gravy. My grandfather, a professional chef, would sometimes enter the room at this point to taste and confer with the two women until a consensus was gained. This was serious business.

Recently, my children, now grown and beginning their own traditions, began asking me for some of the recipes they enjoyed in their early years. “That coffee cake you used to make on Saturday mornings” and “those reeeally good applesauce spice cookies” are now being baked in their own kitchens.

To me, there is something remarkable about family traditions, especially those that emanate from the kitchen. It is the way we connect the generations of our families. Knowing that my sister Barbara, in Texas, will make the same Fresh Apple Cake recipe each year for the holidays that she and I have made for 30 years, connects us. That we will each tell that story again, about the first holiday we shooed Mom and Grandma out of the kitchen and made the feast ourselves (fully stuffed from ’tasting’ by the time dinner was served), though we will do the telling in separate states, binds us. It makes us remember that we are family.

In the hustle of your holiday preparations this year, I hope that you can take a little time to include those giggly kids who are peeping around the corner from the dining room and give them the memory of mashing the potatoes or whipping the cream for the pie for the first time. They may just tell that story for years to come.

Barbara’s Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Topping
This simple cake freezes well after baking if you can hide it long enough to do so. I like to bake little ‘baby cakes’ in small baking pans. To take it over the top, purchase some good quality caramels, melt them slowly with a tiny bit of water and drizzle the baked cakes with this – crazy good.

2 cups chopped fresh apple
¾ c sugar
1 egg, beaten
½ c vegetable oil
1 ½ c flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ c raisins
½ c toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
½ c coconut

6-8 Handmade or good quality caramels
1 tsp water

Mix together apples and sugar. Lightly beat egg and oil together, add to apple/sugar mixture.

Sift dry ingredients together, add all at once to apple mixture and stir just until all is combined. Add raisins, nuts and coconut, as desired.

Secret weapon number 415? The freshest spices I can find. I often use Tradewinds Spices from Stillwater Minnesota. Penzys is also a great source and Williams Sonoma just came out with a line of high quality spices and spice blends. If your jars of herbs and spices don’t smell strongly when you open them, throw them out and buy fresh.

Use a nutmeg grinder or a microplane to grate your own nutmeg– the smell and flavor are fantastic. They are relatively inexpensive tools that pay off big in the kitchen.

Bake in a lightly greased 8” pan at 350 degrees until golden or bake in smaller individual pans. Use toothpick test for doneness. Baking time varies on pan size used. An 8” pan takes 30-40 minutes. My Texas muffin size individual cakes took 25 minutes.

In a small bowl, microwave the caramels and the water for 1 minute. Stir to create a smooth texture similar to melted chocolate. Turn cakes onto rack to cool slightly. Place a piece of parchment under the rack and drizzle the caramel over the warm cakes. Serve warm or at room temperature. You can take it totally over the top by going ‘a la mode’ with cinnamon ice cream.

Kids in the kitchen? They are tireless caramel unwrappers and though a few go missing in the process each time, no one seems to notice.

Sources for spices:

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