Aunt Dorothy’s Ginger Snaps

The last time we visited my Aunt Dorothy at her home east of Hayward, she poured us cups of coffee and set out a plate of Christmas cookies. Prominent among them were soft ginger snaps. Many people like cookies that go “crunch” in your mouth. I do not. Give me cookies that remind me of cake, not croutons.

When I asked for the recipe, she said, “I think you can find it on the molasses jar.” We looked. No luck. When we got home, I looked at the two molasses jars in our pantry. Still no ginger snap recipe, so I called and asked her to look for the recipe. A few days later it arrived with a note that began, “Hi Chuck, Here’s the recipe you wanted. Everybody seems to really like the ginger snaps. I make them often and sometimes double the recipe.”

I can understand why. These cookies are addictive.

INGREDIENTS:

3/4 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 large egg
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1 tsp. powdered cinnamon
1/2 tsp. powdered cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
White sugar

PROCEDURE:

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease the cookie sheets.

Cream the butter and shortening. Stir in the egg and molasses. Sift together the dry ingredients and mix them into the molasses mixture. Form the dough into small balls, roll them in white sugar and place them about two inches apart on the cookie sheets.

Bake the cookies on the center shelf for eight to ten minutes. Remove them from the oven, let them cool slightly, then use a spatula to transfer the cookies to wax paper to finish cooling.

NOTES: Be careful not to bake the cookies too long, or they will end up hard and crunchy. This recipe will make about five dozen cookies.

If, despite your care, the cookies end up crunchy, you can store them with a half slice of bread in an airtight container for a day or two until they become chewy.

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My Really Simple Italian Meat Sauce

On a rainy summer day or a cold winter afternoon I sometimes get the urge to make my marinara sauce. It’s best made with fresh tomatoes and needs to simmer slowly for a couple of hours to let the flavors develop. I usually make a pretty big batch and we freeze it in pint and quart containers that we can use as needed. But no matter how much I make, it seems that we run out before tomatoes are in season, or I just don’t want to spend lots of time in the kitchen.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says the old proverb, but so is laziness. Here is a meat sauce with lots of flavor that you can serve a half hour after you open the first can. Start the pasta water when the meat starts to brown, and everything will be ready before the family starts whining for supper.

It is easier to open a jar of commercial sauce, but if you follow this recipe, you’ll be serving a sauce that tastes better with less starch, sugar and salt than commercial products. If you appreciate good food, are concerned about your health, have diabetes or other health issues, this sauce is for you.

This recipe makes six generous servings.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1/2 lb. hot or sweet Italian sausage
3 T chopped onion
3 T green bell pepper
1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 8 oz. tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1/4 tsp. fennel
1/8 tsp. basil
1/8 tsp. oregano
1/16 tsp. cayenne
1/16 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil

PROCEDURE:

Brown the meat in a three quart saucepan, breaking it into pieces as it cooks. Drain any excess fat. Chop the onion and pepper to a quarter inch dice and add it to the meat. Cook for two or three minutes to soften the onion.

While the meat and vegetables are cooking, measure the spices into a mortar or coffee cup and grind them together a little with a pestle or spoon. Stir them into the meat mixture and sauté them a minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste along with the wine and olive oil.

Mix everything together, reduce the heat and simmer the sauce while the pasta finishes cooking. When the pasta is nearly ready, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.

Serve over pasta of your choice with a green salad and bread. Offer Parmesan cheese.

NOTES: Jerri says, “There’s a lot of meat in this sauce.” I say, “It’s meat in a sauce, not sauce with some meat in it.”

If you are concerned about the alcohol in the wine, simmer the sauce five minutes longer to make sure that you have driven off the “Devil’s brew.” You just want the flavor.

This sauce freezes well.

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Honey Rye Bread

For many years Jerri has occasionally added some rye flour to her basic white bread. It makes a flavorful variation on an excellent white bread. When she adds enough rye flour, the bread takes on a grayish cast, and so we call it Graubrot, which translates literally from German as gray bread.

Graubrot is the popular name for Mischbrot (mixed bread) in Nordrhein-Westfalen. It describes a bread that is made with both white and rye flours. Bakers vary the proportions to create many different kinds of bread and may add spices such as caraway, anise, fennel or coriander.

I remember eating Graubrot nearly every day when I studied in Münster (in Nordrhein-Westfalen). A baker at the farmer’s market sold it by weight, like meat or cheese. If you asked for a pound, he would cut a piece off a loaf, weigh it, wrap it in paper and tell you how much you owed. The loaves were large and round, weighing four or five pounds. A half loaf weighed about a kilogram and would last me for a week.

The recipe below does not produce authentic Graubrot, but it is a delicious rye bread much different from the versions sold in most bakeries and supermarkets in the United States. It makes two medium-sized loaves and a pan of dinner rolls. The milk and honey give it a slightly sweet taste.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup warm water (105 degrees or so)
1/4 tsp. sugar
2 1/4 tsp. (1 package) active dry yeast
2 cups milk
3 T butter
3 T honey
1 T salt
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups rye flour

PROCEDURE:

First dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water and set it aside to proof. Melt the butter and warm the milk to about 105º and pour them into a large bowl. Stir in the salt and honey, beat a cup of white flour and a cup of rye flour into the milk, then stir in the yeast. Add the second cup of rye flour and beat well.

Add more white flour one cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When you have added enough flour, the dough will become hard to stir and start to come away from the sides of the bowl. The exact amount of flour needed depends on the humidity, kind of flour and other factors. When it is sticky but stiff, it is ready to knead.

Let the dough rest for five minutes, then turn it out onto a well-floured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth and silky and is no longer sticky, seven to eight minutes. Grease the bread bowl with butter or shortening. Make the dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, turning it to cover it with grease. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and put it in a warm, draft-free place. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in bulk.

Grease two 4 1/2 by 8 1/2-inch loaf pans and an 8 or 9-inch baking pan.

Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it five or six turns to remove the gas. Cut the dough into three equal pieces. Form two of the pieces into loaves and put them into the loaf pans. Roll the remaining dough into a half-inch thick rectangle and cut it into nine pieces. Shape each piece into a roll and put them into the baking pan.

Cover the pans and let the dough rise again until it nearly reaches the tops of the pans. You can tell when the bread has finished rising by gently poking the top of the loaf. If the dimple remains, the loaf is ready to go into the oven. If it puffs out in a few seconds, the bread is not yet ready.

When the dough is nearing the tops of the pans, preheat the oven to 375º. Bake the rolls about twenty minutes and the loaves thirty to forty minutes. I suggest that you turn the loaves out of the pans after thirty minutes to test for doneness. Loaves are done when they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. If they do not sound hollow, bake them on the oven rack for an extra five or ten minutes. Remove them from the oven and place on a rack to cool.

For a shiny top crust, brush the loaves and rolls with an egg wash before putting them into the oven. Make the wash by beating a tablespoon of cold water into the white of an egg. Or you can brush the tops of the hot loaves with butter after you take them from the oven.

You can devour the rolls still warm from the oven with plenty of butter and jam, but the loaves slice better if you let them cool completely. This bread makes delicious toast too.

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Aunt Dorothy’s Cabbage Hotdish

Before my mother met and married my father, she played guitar and sang with her brother Basil (nicknamed Blackie) in a small band that played at taverns and supper clubs around Hayward in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. When I asked her how she learned to play, she told me that a neighbor had taught her the basics. Then she had practiced with Blackie and the other musicians who formed their band. She would listen to the radio, write down the lyrics, learn the melodies, and work out the chords, then teach new songs to the band.

In going through old photos I found this one of Mom and Uncle Blackie with their guitars when she was a teenager.MomBlackie-guitars I remember her playing and singing on the front porch when I was a kid. She could yodel too, which really impressed me. I loved her singing and yodeling in “Cattle Call” and “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” “Red River Valley” and “Old Shep” were two more of my favorites.

The closest I came to musical stardom was my rendition of “Old Shep” at one of the PTA evenings at Blair School. It’s a wonderful tearjerker. I still sing it to irritate my wife. It opens with “When I was a lad and old Shep was a pup” and concludes, “If there’s a dog heaven, there’s one thing I know, Old Shep has a wonderful home.” To get the right audience reaction, you have to drag out the last few syllables.

Mom had taught me the song and coached my performance. There was no prize, but everyone clapped. Elvis Presley won $5 when he sang the song. Years later, when I learned that, it made me feel proud to have shared something with one of my early heroes.

Dad didn’t sing very much, but he did play the harmonica. On hot evenings in the summer, he would go in the bedroom, bring out the box with the harmonica and say, “Let’s make some music.” Mom would get her guitar and notebook with the words to the songs she knew, and we would all go out on the porch.

One of my favorites was “Little Red Wing” with Dad playing the harmonica and Mom on guitar with the vocal. I can still almost hear those words about the Indian maiden who lost her warrior lover:

“Now the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
The breeze is sighing, the night bird’s crying….”

Sometimes my sisters and I would join in on the choruses. More often we just listened to music we liked a lot more than anything on the radio.

I don’t remember hearing Uncle Blackie play music with my mother, but I wish I had. When he came back from the war in Europe, he married Aunt Dorothy and they settled down at Hayward. They had a family like ours with kids that she needed to cook for. She still cooks and bakes a lot, and she obliged when I asked for some of her recipes. Here is one of them. Vegetables, hamburger, and starch in one dish. Very tasty too. Try it.

INGREDIENTS:

4 or 5 cups of coarsely chopped cabbage
1/3 cup rice
2/3 cup water
1 lb. hamburger
1 medium onion (2 1/2 inch diameter)
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cans tomato soup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. sugar

PROCEDURE:

Remove any damaged leaves and rinse the cabbage. Chop about half a medium head into a two-inch dice. You can parboil it in a pot of boiling water for three minutes or steam it for about four minutes. Drain any liquid from the pan and put the cabbage into a large mixing bowl.

Rinse a third cup of rice, then put it in a small covered saucepan with two-thirds cup of water, cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low and cook until all the water has been absorbed, about fifteen minutes. Turn off the heat and put the rice into the mixing bowl with the cabbage.

Preheat the oven to 350º.

Peel a medium onion and chop it into a quarter to half-inch dice. Wash and remove the seeds and white membrane from about half a medium green bell pepper. Chop it into a half-inch dice. Peel the paper from two or three cloves of garlic and mince them.

Brown the hamburger over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it is translucent. Season the meat and onion with the salt and pepper, then stir in the garlic and green pepper and add the meat mixture to the bowl of cabbage and rice.

Pour two cans of condensed tomato soup and a quarter cup of water into the bowl, add a half teaspoon of sugar and mix everything together. Spoon the mixture into a three quart casserole and bake it covered for an hour.

NOTES: You can use two or three extra cups of cabbage and a full cup of green pepper to make the hamburger go farther. If you do that, add a little extra salt and pepper.

This is a good dish to bring to a potluck.

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Dorothy Olaf’s Cranberry Kitchen Cookies

“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” I was too young to understand the truth of that old proverb when a fire damaged the drugstore on Main Street in Hayward. Clearly it was an ill wind for the owner of the store, his employees and customers, but it proved to be a bonanza for a boy with a very limited budget who wanted to buy Christmas gifts for his family.

I think it was shortly before Christmas in 1948 or ’49 that a truckload of smoke-damaged goods from the drugstore appeared in Mr. Ramsdell’s bait shop next to the Chrysler garage where my father worked. The shop was closed for the winter, and planks were laid over the empty minnow tanks to display the salvaged bottles, boxes and bars of soap.

I remember the bars of soap most clearly, because I bought them as presents for my grandparents and even a special scented one for my mother. I don’t remember whether my two sisters also received soap bars carefully, if not artistically, wrapped as well, but they probably did. I was into soap. When I proudly showed the purchases to my father in the garage, he asked why I had bought so many bars of soap. My answer stuck firmly in his memory, and he reminded me of my logic for the next four decades: “Everybody can use a bar of soap.”

This is still true today, and occasionally Jerri and I will buy a nice bar of soap in a gift shop or from our neighbor Jill, who with her husband started the New Richmond Soap Factory to make and market all-natural soaps. When you give someone a bar of soap that didn’t originate in a vat the size of a swimming pool, you can be almost certain that it will be used and appreciated.

I’m not sure, but I think that I found other Christmas gifts in the bait shop besides soap. I vaguely recall buying some bottles of cologne with only slightly discolored labels and a packet of razorblades for my father that looked completely undamaged and was priced at only a nickel. In fact, everything I bought cost a nickel. This was a good thing, since I hadn’t been able to save much over a dollar during the year.

Dad gave me a nickel allowance when my family went shopping on Friday nights, but I squandered at least a couple of pennies on candy or bubblegum at the Five and Dime that same evening and another penny or two on the walk back from school the following week. My main source of income the year of the Christmas fire sale was from a business arrangement I came to with Mr. Ramsdell at the bait shop. If I had named the endeavor, it would have been called Chuck’s Frog Supply.

I have always enjoyed learning new things, so I peppered business owners and employees with questions about what they did and how they did it. Mr. Williamson, the fuel dealer, and the blacksmith were frequent victims of my curiosity. They never made me feel unwelcome and were always polite when they explained they were too busy to answer my questions.

One day I stopped at the bait shop and asked Mr. Ramsdell how much the leopard frogs in the live bait cage cost. “A nickel each,” he told me.

“So you’d give me a nickel if I brought you a frog?” I asked innocently. That was the day I got my first lesson in capitalism.

“If you bring me two frogs,” he said, I’ll give you a nickel. I have to make some money on the deal.”

Visions of wealth popped into my head. There were lots of leopard frogs along the lakeshore a couple of blocks from my home. Before I got out the door, Mr. Ramsdell cautioned me sternly. “Only leopard frogs, now. And no toads.”

I got a large vegetable can with the lid still attached on one side to hold the captured amphibians and began my first commercial frog hunt. Already at the age of six I had caught a few frogs and had observed my father catching them for bass bait since I was old enough to walk. It seemed to me that wealth was mine for the grabbing.

After an hour or so, however, I began to learn what it meant to work for a living. I started thinking that the frogs I had caught earlier must have been lame or very unlucky. When I tried sneaking up behind the frogs that were going to make me rich, they hopped into the water and when I got between the water and the frogs, they just disappeared into thicker grass. Even more frustrating, when I managed to get close enough to have a hand poised over what seemed to be a sleeping frog, he would suddenly jump a foot out of the way in the time it took me to slap the ground where he had been sitting.

However, I finally managed to collect two nice leopard frogs. They stared at me from their bed of wet grass at the bottom of the can as if to say, “Well, okay, you caught us. We give up.” I put the can next to the back door when I came home for supper and carried my merchandise to Mr. Ramsdell the next morning.

I walked into the bait shop and put the can on the counter, proudly announcing that I had two frogs for him. Mr. Ramsdell carefully pried the lid up, looked in and told me that there was only one frog in the can. Sure enough, only one set of bulging eyes starred up at me when he held the can out to me.

“That musta been an extra strong frog,” said Mr. Ramsdell, “to jump up and push that lid open far enough to squeeze out.” I was nearly in tears. No nickel after all that work, and my deal with Mr. Ramsdell was probably finished before it began. He couldn’t count on me to supply him with frogs.

But then he took a nickel out of the cash register and gave it to me. “Frogs get away sometimes. Don’t take it to heart. You owe me another frog. So get going and bring one soon as you can. Bring more if you can catch ‘em. There’ll be bass fishermen coming in this afternoon.”

As I headed out the door, he called after me, “And put a hunk of firewood on the can lid to keep those frogs inside.”

That summer I caught enough frogs to buy slightly smoky Christmas presents for the whole family.

As I was writing about Christmas presents and frogs I was trying to think of a recipe that would tie the two topics together. Here is one from Dorothy Olaf, a friend of my mother. Dorothy named it Cranberry Kitchen Cookies. Fresh cranberries are still available at Christmas, and since they freeze well, you can bake these cookies in the summer when the young entrepreneurs in your home or neighborhood might need sustenance to strengthen them on their frog hunts.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup granulated white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
2 T orange juice
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped cranberries

PROCEDURE:

Chop the cranberries. Many cooks use a food processor. Lacking one, I simply quarter the cranberries with a sharp knife. Chop the nuts. Either walnuts or pecans work fine. Set the cranberries and nuts aside in a bowl.

Preheat the oven to 375º and grease two cookie sheets.

Cream the butter and sugars together in a mixing bowl. Beat in the egg, milk, orange juice and vanilla. Measure the flour, baking powder, soda and salt into a sifter and sift the dry ingredients into the sugar mixture by thirds, stirring well after each addition. You may need to add a small amount of extra milk or juice to moisten all the dry ingredients. Stir in the cranberries and nuts and mix well.

Drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the greased cookie sheets and bake the cookies on the center shelf of the oven for ten to fifteen minutes until the cookies begin to turn golden brown on the edges.

NOTES: It is much easier to cream butter and sugar if the butter is at a warm room temperature, so take it out of the refrigerator an hour before you need it. If you use unsalted butter for this recipe, add an extra eighth teaspoon of salt.

We buy cranberries in bulk at a marsh in late September or early October. We use some of them fresh but wash and freeze most of them in bags holding three cups each. Chopping either fresh or frozen cranberries is a snap, though it does take a few minutes.

And a confession about using frogs for bait. I tried using a live frog as bait one time, but I couldn’t stand watching him try to pull the hook out with his little front legs. The frogs I use today are made of soft plastic. They’re easier to catch than live ones. Just use dollar bills to lure them into your tackle box.

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Cream of Celery Chowder

“Why would anyone put hard-boiled eggs in soup?” asked Jerri as I put a bowl in front of her.

“First of all, it’s not soup. It’s chowder,” I answered, “and it was probably a Mennonite farmwife with lots of chickens.”

This recipe was inspired by one from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter, a cookbook I have referred to many times over the years. Since Jerri was born into a Mennonite family, one would think she would understand that if your chickens were laying, you had to use the eggs. This is a good way to get rid of a couple, or three, if you really like hard-boiled eggs.

INGREDIENTS:

3 cups chopped celery with the leaves
1 cup chopped potatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups water
1 chicken bouillon cube
2 large eggs
3 T butter
3 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
3 cups whole milk
1/4 tsp. celery salt
Dash of hot sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

Clean and chop the celery and potato into a half-inch dice. Clean and finely chop the onion. Put the vegetables into a three quart saucepan, cover them with about a cup and a half of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about fifteen minutes.

Put the eggs into a small pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook the eggs for five minutes, remove from the heat and let the eggs continue cooking in the hot water for another eight minutes. Cool the eggs in ice water for a few minutes. Peel and chop them into a quarter to half-inch dice and set them aside in a small bowl.

Remove the vegetables from the heat. Make a roux. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a skillet, add the flour, salt and white pepper and stir the mixture until it begins to bubble. Continue cooking the roux over low heat for two or three minutes, but be careful not to brown it. Add the milk to the roux, stirring constantly until it thickens and turns into a smooth sauce. Cook the sauce for another two or three minutes.

Stir the sauce into the vegetables and fold in the chopped eggs. Return the soup to the heat and stir in the hot sauce, celery salt and a grind or two of black pepper.

Bring the soup to a simmer, taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve as a satisfying lunch or as a first course for dinner. With a sandwich it makes a good light supper.

NOTES: If you don’t have whole milk, mix a half cup of half and half with two and a half cups of reduced fat milk or add an extra tablespoon of butter to the soup. Whole milk gives you a velvety smooth soup.

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DeKock Nantucket Cake

Covered with a generous mound of real whipped cream, the warm coffee cake was fragrant with the scent of almond extract and cranberries. When I transferred the first forkful to my mouth, I knew right away that I had lucked into a winning recipe for “Courage in the Kitchen.” I had never heard of Nantucket Cake, so I asked Nina for the recipe. She photocopied the handwritten card for me.

If you look for Nantucket cake recipes on the Web, you’ll find a few grouped with recipes describing how to make Nantucket Cranberry Pie. Cranberries grew wild in what was the largest contiguous cranberry bog in the world on Nantucket, the large island south of Cape Cod, so the recipe may well have originated in some housewife’s kitchen there a long time ago.

Cranberries are still harvested on the island from two bogs preserved and managed by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. Almost two million pounds of the red gems are sent to market from Nantucket’s Milestone Cranberry Bog every year, but Massachusetts no longer leads the world in cranberry production. Wisconsin achieved that honor a few years ago, which means we need to do our part by baking a Nantucket Cake once in a while with genuine Wisconsin cranberries.

This recipe includes a cup of rhubarb, another fruit that grows well in Wisconsin. The cranberries, rhubarb and walnuts create a flavor combination that I think works something like the different peppers in a really good chili. Though both fruits are tart, they have distinctive flavors that complement each other. The walnuts add texture and yet another flavor. Finally, the almond extract merges with the fruit and nut flavors to give your tastebuds a real treat.

I asked Nina how the cake came to be called DeKock Nantucket Cake, and she said she didn’t know, other than the fact that she got the recipe many years ago from her mother-in-law who copied it out for her on the recipe card she showed me. Whether Mrs. DeKock created the recipe herself or got it from a friend, it is a quick and easy cake that will wow your guests.

INGREDIENTS:Nantucket Cake
1 cup rhubarb
1 cup cranberries
1 cup walnuts
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
2 large eggs
1 tsp. almond extract

PROCEDURE:

Preheat the oven to 350º and butter a ten-inch round baking pan or pie plate. Clean and chop the rhubarb into half-inch pieces. If you use fresh or frozen cranberries, cut them in half. Coarsely chop the walnuts. Put the fruit and nuts in a medium bowl, add a half cup of sugar and mix well with a wooden spoon. Spread the mixture on the bottom of the pan.

Stir the sugar and flour together in the same medium bowl. Melt the butter and beat the eggs with a fork in a small bowl until they are lemon colored. Beat the almond extract and butter into the eggs and stir the mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir with the wooden spoon until you have a smooth batter.

Spread the batter evenly over the fruit and nut mixture and put the pan on a center shelf in the oven. Check the cake after thirty minutes and turn it to brown evenly. Set the timer for another ten minutes and bake until the top is golden brown, about forty to forty-five minutes.

Serve warm with ice cream as a dessert or with whipped cream as a coffee cake for breakfast or brunch.

NOTES: If you use unsalted butter, add a heaping quarter teaspoon of salt to the batter. When Nina couldn’t find any fresh or frozen cranberries, she used dried cranberries. Both work just fine, but the fresh/frozen cranberries make for a juicier cake.

Posted in breakfast Dishes, Cookies and cakes, Desserts, Vegetarian Dishes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Potato Pancakes

Jerri likes potato pancakes and often chooses them when they are on the menu. I enjoy them once in a while, but I think that I had enough potato pancakes when I was growing up to last a lifetime. They are not high on my list of favorite foods.

When I queried my sisters about Mom’s potato pancakes, replies ranged from “Ugh, we had them all the time” to “You know Dad planted lots of potatoes, so we ate lots of potatoes. Better than just all boiled spuds.” The most useful reply included some information about how Mom made her potato pancakes: “I remember that she used eggs and flour to make them stick together. Pretty good.” Not exactly enthusiastic reviews, but they show a certain acceptance of a staple food that north country families ate when we were growing up.

Potato pancakes are very popular in Austria and Germany. When we ate them on our travels last fall, I tasted something besides salt and pepper mixed with the potatoes. Those pancakes were delicious so I started researching potato pancake recipes.

There are lots of them. Many start with mashed potatoes, others with grated potatoes. Some include garlic, green onions or parsley. A few call for cheese, flour and baking powder or even biscuit mix. One that especially intrigued me was a Chinese potato pancake made with sweet potato starch and flavored with a little black pepper and Chinese five spice powder.

Some time ago one of our nieces mentioned that her husband really likes potato pancakes but had not yet found a recipe he was satisfied with when he made them at home. She wondered if I had a good recipe, so I started looking in earnest.

I couldn’t find one that tastes exactly like the ones we ate in Germany, but I did find a recipe for German potato pancakes that listed nutmeg in the ingredients. Following Mom’s lead, I used both flour and egg to bind the grated potatoes together and added a little nutmeg for a more complex flavor. We like them this way and think that the nutmeg makes these potato pancakes especially good with applesauce.

Potato pancakes are a great side dish to eat with bratwurst, braised pork chops or ham steak. They are good with fried fish too. That’s why almost every good fish fry in Wisconsin offers potato pancakes with applesauce as a choice of potato on Friday nights.

INGREDIENTS:

2 or 3 medium russet potatoes (a generous pound)
1/2 medium onion (2 1/2 to 3 inch diameter)
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg (scant)
1 T all-purpose flour
1 large egg
Vegetable oil for frying

PROCEDURE:

Peel and grate the potatoes into a bowl. Transfer the grated potatoes to a clean tea towel and squeeze into a bowl as much liquid as you can from the potatoes. If there is any liquid in the bowl let it stand a few minutes while you grate the onion, then pour off the water and leave the potato starch in the bottom.

Return the potatoes to the bowl, add the onion, salt, pepper and nutmeg and sprinkle the flour over the potatoes. Mix everything together, then beat the egg until it is lemon yellow and stir it into the potatoes.

Pour about an eighth inch of oil into a heavy skillet and set it over medium heat. When the oil is hot, spoon quarter to half cup mounds of the mixture into the pan. Press the mounds to about a half inch thick with the spoon or a spatula.

Fry the cakes about four minutes, then turn them and continue frying until they are golden brown on each side. Unlike batter pancakes, you can safely turn potato pancakes a couple of times without making them tough.

Set them to drain on paper towels on a warm plate. Serve with applesauce on the side.

NOTES: Be sure to use russet potatoes because they have more starch than the thin-skinned varieties like Yukon Golds or red potatoes. Some potatoes have more liquid than others. The last time I made potato pancakes, the towel became damp but only a half dozen drops of liquid ended up the in bowl. On other occasions, I have poured off a half cup of water.

If you wonder whether the oil is hot enough, drop a little potato mixture into the pan. If it starts sizzling right away, your oil is ready. Spoon more mixture over the test potatoes. You may have a slightly darker spot on that pancake, but all will be well.

It is difficult to judge exactly how much salt you need. If you prefer foods with a definite taste of salt, use a little more.

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Nellie’s Potica Recipe

Here is another recipe from my brother-in-law Patrick, who grew up in Hibbing. His mother died in childbirth when he was four, and when he was six his father married Nellie. Patrick and his brothers got a stepmother who baked some special desserts that still rank high on the list of his favorites. Potica and rhubarb cake are near the top. He isn’t sure where she got the recipes. Nellie was from Duluth, so she might have brought them with her when she moved to Hibbing, or she may have gotten them from a relative there.

Potica (pronounced po-TEET-suh) is the Slovene version of a nut roll. Slovenia is a small country on the north coast of the Adriatic Sea bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. The largest number of Slovenes came to the United States between 1880 and 1920. Many of them came to Ely, Tower, Hibbing and other cities on Minnesota’s Iron Range to work in the mines.

While the men worked in the mines, their wives worked in their kitchens. They used the recipes they had learned from their mothers, and one of those recipes was for a special bread called potica. Of course, people from other countries also came to the Iron Range. One of them was Giulio Forti, who opened the Sunrise Bakery with his wife,Virginia, in 1913.

When their oldest son, Vincent, married the daughter of a Croatian immigrant in 1932, she taught him how to make potica. For over twenty years he baked it for friends and family, but finally, Vincent’s daughters persuaded him to add it to the regular offerings of the bakery. Today, the descendants of Giulio and Virginia ship thousands of loaves of potica to customers around the world from the Sunrise Bakery.

The dough for Sunrise potica is stretched paper thin, but many housewives on the “Range” simply roll the dough out as thin as they can and spread a generous layer of filling on it That is how Nellie made hers. The thinner you roll it, the more authentic your potica will be, but it will always taste good.

Here’s slice of my potica.

image

INGREDIENTS:

Dough:
1/2 cup water
4 tsp. yeast
2 cups scalded milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 tsp. salt
2 eggs
6 T butter
6-7 cups flour
Cinnamon and sugar when forming loaves

Nut Paste:
1 lb. ground walnuts
1 cup honey
1 cup milk
1 egg

PROCEDURE:

As usual, scrub your hands well as you will be kneading dough.

Dissolve the yeast and a quarter teaspoon of sugar in a half cup of lukewarm water. Heat the milk until it is steaming and put it into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the butter, salt and sugar into the hot milk. When the milk has cooled to lukewarm, beat in the two eggs and a cup of flour to make a thin batter. By this time the yeast should be foaming. Stir it into the batter.

Continue adding flour a cup at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition, until the dough begins to come away from the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until it is smooth and satiny. This will take six or seven minutes. Form the dough into a ball.

Grease the bowl with butter or shortening and put the dough into the bowl, turning the ball to coat the surface with grease. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and set the bowl in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Make the nut paste while the dough is rising. Use a fork to mix all the ingredients together to make a smooth batter in a three quart saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and bring the batter to a simmer, stirring continuously. When the batter just starts to steam, reduce the heat to low, keep stirring, and cook the batter until it turns to a smooth paste. Cover the pan and keep it warm on very low heat until you are ready to spread it on the dough.

Grease three loaf pans and melt a stick of butter in a small bowl or pan.

Turn the dough onto the floured surface and knead it five or six turns. Divide the dough into thirds.

Roll the first third of dough into a rectangle on a well-floured surface. The dough should be as wide as your loaf pan and as long as practical. Paint a layer of butter on the dough and sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon. Spread one-third of the nut paste on the dough. Starting at the narrower end, roll the dough tightly as if you were making a jelly roll. Tuck the ends of the loaf together and put the loaf into the pan. Repeat these steps for the other two pieces of dough.

Put the pans in a warm, draft-free place and cover them with the damp towel. Preheat the oven to 350º while the loaves are rising. When the dough is even with the tops of the pans, place them on the center shelf of the oven and set your timer for thirty minutes. Turn the pans to help with even browning after thirty minutes and set the timer for another ten minutes. Check the loaves regularly after the timer sounds the second time and remove them from the oven when they are golden brown and sound a little hollow when tapped on top.

Brush the hot loaves with a little butter. Let them cool a few minutes in the pans, then carefully remove them from the pans and allow them to cool thoroughly on a rack.

NOTES: Nellie’s recipe does not say how much sugar and cinnamon to use when you assemble the loaves. I sprinkle three or four tablespoons of ordinary granulated sugar over the butter followed by a half or three-quarter teaspoon of cinnamon sprinkled on the sugar before I spread the nut paste.

If you can keep the loaves straight you might try varying the amounts of sugar and cinnamon in each loaf the first time you make potica and using the amounts you prefer the next time you make it.

Whole milk works best for making potica. You can fortify that reduced fat milk with some half and half or heavy cream or even with some melted butter.

The first time I made potica I used ground pecans sent to us by one of Jerri’s nieces. The potica was delicious.

My sister Patsy bakes her potica on baking sheets instead of loaf pans. Take your choice.

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Grandma Hopp’s Meatloaf

In the spring of 1951 I got a bicycle for my eighth birthday. It was a red Schwinn bike that had belonged to my Uncle Bill, my mother’s youngest brother. I admired him immensely. He was a soldier serving at an American Army Base in Germany and no longer needed the bike. After we wheeled it out of the haymow where Grandpa had carefully stored it, Dad gave him $10 to save for Uncle Bill. Then we loaded the bike into the trunk of the Plymouth and drove home.

I was excited but also a bit apprehensive. I was eight years old, didn’t know how to ride a bike and had short legs. When we got home, Dad offered to teach me how to ride. After I fell over a few times I refused to get back on the bike, so Dad got on to show me that it really was possible to keep it upright. Even Mom came out and demonstrated her skill on a two-wheeler.

It would have been easier learning to ride if the road in front of the house had been paved. Our driveway wasn’t very long, and when I got to the rutted sand and loose gravel I was in trouble. However, after a few days and a number of scrapes and bruises, my skill improved. Soon I was riding the quarter mile down to where Phipps Road ended at U.S. 63.

My usual method of stopping was a controlled fall, and starting was also a challenge. Since I could not hold the bike upright and get a leg over to the pedal to start riding, I positioned the bike next to the front steps, climbed on the bike and pushed off. There were, of course, no front steps along the highway. After pushing the bike home a couple of times, I loaded an unsplit block of firewood into my wagon and pulled it down to the highway. A day later I hauled one down to the bridge at the river, a quarter mile in the opposite direction.

With a half mile of road to ride on, I was in heaven. Our neighbors had front steps, so I could visit Gus Gauch, Mr. and Mrs. Hagberg and my friend, Bob Hanus, who lived with his parents just beyond the bridge. By September I no longer needed steps or blocks. I may have had a growth spurt that summer, or maybe I just learned how to tilt the bike, get my leg over the crossbar and push off with enough speed that I almost always managed to stay upright.

I also learned that my Schwinn was actually an all-terrain vehicle. The balloon tires were ideal for riding across fields, of course, but I also rode it on the trail to the garden and even through the garden until I was told to stop. I rode it on the footpath along the river used by trout fishermen and raced across pastures, dodging rocks and cow pies and bouncing over fallen tree limbs.

When I turned ten, I was allowed to ride on the highway into Hayward. By then I had a basket mounted to the handlebars which made it possible for me to run errands for Mom when she needed something from town. The shoulders along 63, though it was a U.S. Highway, were not very wide, but I squeezed as far to the right on the pavement as I could, and I never had any close calls. Perhaps I should thank the drivers, the slower speeds that most people drove and the fact that we didn’t have cell phones to distract us.

I’m pretty sure that I first rode my bike to Grandma and Grandpa Hopp’s farm when I was eleven. I had been spending a week or two with them every summer since I was eight or nine years old and looked forward to my “vacation” all year long. Grandpa had a small herd of dairy cows that he milked twice a day by hand. I was especially impressed that he could squirt milk into the cats’ mouths as they sat begging near him. When he had finished milking, I would help carry the buckets up to the milk house where Grandpa strained the milk and stored it in milk cans in the cooling tank for pickup by the milkman who also delivered butter and cheese.

It was a little over eleven miles from our home to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and my mother worried that I would “get run over.” I worked out a route that put me on town roads with little traffic except for the final three or four miles on a county highway, which was, as I explained, the distance I rode into Hayward. My father did not seem very worried in any case, and my mother approved the route when I promised to be very careful.

I had only two problems in the four years that I made the trip. The first year I learned that deep sand at the bottom of a steep hill would make me take a header. On the second or third trip a front axle broke and I had to walk the last two miles. Grandpa and I called my father at work from a neighbors’ phone. Dad brought out an axle and the tools to repair the otherwise trusty Schwinn. Incidentally, that road is paved now, but I still think about walking my bike down the hill and pushing it through the sand whenever we drive it.

A few moments from those summer weeks at Grandma and Grandpa’s are still fresh in my memory. I remember waking up one morning when it was just getting light. Grandpa must have made a noise as he was getting dressed, so I pulled on pants and joined him in the kitchen. As we drank our morning coffee (mine heavily laced with milk), I asked him how he woke up every morning without an alarm clock. He answered, “I just wake up when it starts to get light. I like to watch the sun come up.”

I made him promise to get me up every morning, and he was true to his word. After coffee we would go out, open the chicken coop and let the ducks and geese out of their sheds so they could get busy eating bugs and weeds. Then we would sit on the steel lawn chairs and watch the hummingbirds at Grandma’s flowers and the acrobatics of the barn swallows and purple martins as they caught breakfast on the wing while we waited for the cows to come walking through the pasture on their way to the barn.

When I asked, Grandpa explained that the cows came to the barn because they wanted to be milked, that their udders started feeling full and they knew it was time, but sometimes the cows did not show up for the morning milking. That always meant that they had gotten through the fence and couldn’t find the way back.

The pasture was mostly woods with some small clearings where Grandpa had cut trees for firewood, and there was a larger meadow by the ponds where moonshiners had cut fuel. The cows did a good job of keeping things clear, so it was easy walking.
We would follow the fence until we found the problem. It was always where a dead tree had fallen over the barbed wire and pulled down a post.

We would listen for the bell on Bossy, the head cow. It didn’t take long before we found the herd in the forest and guided them back to the opening in the fence. After milking and breakfast I would help Grandpa put in a new post and splice the wire.

My grandfather loved to read, and he was interested in lots of different things. I remember reading Zane Grey novels, mysteries and books about history and geography. But most of all I loved Grandpa’s collection of The National Geographic Magazine shelved on the porch. When he built the house, Grandpa included a stone porch on the north end. The stone walls, about five feet high, were topped with screen panels.

As I read about faraway places, the fresh air carried the smells of pines and flowers and the screens let in the songs of birds, the chattering of squirrels and the raucous conversations of the chickens, ducks and geese. It was a marvelous place to read about ancient civilizations, beautiful islands, temples and palaces, castles and people living in the jungles of South America and Africa. Like many boys my age, I saw my first female breast in a National Geographic photograph illustrating an expedition to Equatorial Africa. I was fascinated.

Not too fascinated to skip meals, however. When Grandma called, Grandpa and I came. It was not fancy food. Grandma was a meat and potatoes cook, but she baked great bread and cookies and, with Grandpa standing in for an electric mixer, wonderful cakes. “Three hundred strokes, pa,” she would tell him, and he would sit at the table cradling the mixing bowl and whipping the batter with a big wooden spoon.

My Aunt Dorothy preserved this recipe she got from Grandma. I probably ate a few slices of this meatloaf before I tackled the dessert.

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
1/2 lb. pork sausage
2 slices bread
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1/2 medium onion (3 inches diameter)
1/2 cup green bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. seasoned salt or equivalent
Grind of black pepper
1 or 2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1/2 – 1 cup water

PROCEDURE:

Preheat the oven to 350º.

Clean and chop the onion into a quarter inch dice. Do the same for the green pepper. Remove the papery outer skin of the garlic cloves and mince them.

Tear two slices of bread into pieces and put them in a mixing bowl. Soften the bread with enough milk to make a paste. Add the vegetables, egg, salt and meat and mix everything together.

Pack the meat into a casserole or loaf pan and bake, uncovered, for about an hour or until a fork stuck in the top of the loaf doesn’t bring up any red juices. Pour off any fat.

Mix a can of cream of mushroom soup with a half cup of water and pour it over the meatloaf. If you want more gravy, use two cans and a cup of water. Bake an additional fifteen to twenty minutes.

Serve with bread, potatoes and any other vegetable of your choice.

NOTES:

The amount of onion and green pepper is not specified, and my guess is that Grandma put in enough of both to be noticeable but not enough to overwhelm the flavor of the meat and gravy. I think I remember eating this when I was a kid and being suspicious about the green chunks. Mom did not put peppers in her meatloaf.

The original seasoned salt was Lawry’s, and that is probably what Grandma used. Today there are dozens of different varieties and brands of seasoned salt. If you have one you like, use it in this recipe. We don’t have seasoned salt in our spice racks, so we improvise for recipes calling for it. A half teaspoon of salt with a grind of black pepper, a little turmeric and paprika with dashes of onion and garlic powder and-voila!-you have seasoned salt. I also added a little extra black pepper to the recipe.

The recipe says to form the loaf in a three quart casserole. We don’t have one, so I decided to try putting the meat in a standard bread loaf pan. I packed it firmly into the pan, and the resulting loaf was excellent. If you do it this way, you will have room for only one can of soup.

Aunt Dorothy noted that this is a “nice change from traditional meat loaf.” An understatement: This is a different but delicious meatloaf. Peas, carrots and cranberry sauce all go well with it.

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