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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Suzanne Crow Haggerty
Hobo
Tubby (?)
dogs
Spring 1977

Growing up near my grandparents’ farm was simply magical. At times, the place was our own little back-country Camelot, with horses, cows, puppies, the tastiest tomatoes, the sweetest watermelons, a barn filled with hay bales perfect for climbing and a creek suitable for wading, splashing and floating.

Small wonder we never ran across a snake (literally) or broke an arm falling out of a tree, a fate that did befall a younger cousin when I was a teenager.

That small farmhouse was the steadiest structure in my life. While my parents tended to move every few years, my grandparents weren’t going anywhere. Even when I grew up and lived in the same spot for about 10 years, then another place for seven, those houses didn’t feel like home in the way that old brick house in South Mississippi did.

The smell of burning firewood will still transport me to the den, where my grandfather’s wood-burning stove steadily burned during the winter months. The taste of a simple yellow cake with chocolate icing puts me right back in the kitchen, licking the beaters as my grandmother put the finishing touch on a birthday cake.

That era has been over for a number of years – my grandfather died in 1999, and my grandmother in 2010. This fact didn’t really hit home for me until a few weeks ago, however, when my uncle and his wife finally sold the house and the rest of the land (my mom had sold her half, located across the highway, several years ago) to move closer to their daughter.

After completing a business trip in New Orleans earlier this month, I rented a car and met my mom to visit the homestead one last time before it was officially under new ownership.

I expected an emotional, memory-filled goodbye. What I faced, instead, was the realization that home wasn’t really home without the people. Without my grandfather sitting in his recliner, the den was just a room full of furniture. Without my grandmother mixing up family favorites for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the tiny kitchen was just another place to store plates and glasses.

Without a pasture filled with cows, or a barn housing a couple of horses, the back pasture was just a hilltop.

It’s gone, but the memories are priceless. I could choose to be sad, or I can choose to remember rolling around in the back yard with a litter of puppies (with only one case of ringworm during my entire childhood, thank you very much). I can share bittersweet memories, or tell everybody about the time I smacked the Shetland pony while my brother was riding to make her go fast for him (YOU’RE WELCOME and I don’t know why you still hold a grudge about this, Rob).

My fondest hope is that my uncle and aunt can create these kinds of memories for their grandchildren on their new place, which features a slightly smaller piece of land, but has all the potential of my childhood stomping grounds. Go forth, and make those kids remember your house with utter delight.

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Every few months, I convince myself that I need an old-fashioned country breakfast, complete with some form of eggs, bacon or sausage; pancakes, biscuits or toast; grits; and coffee. All dishes I could perfectly well make at home, but dishes that, like sandwiches and salads, are somehow better when made by someone else.

Deep down, I realize that I don’t really want these foods for their sake, but for the link they hold to the past. Weekend breakfasts with my grandparents were some of the most special moments I had, first as a child, then as a young woman.

They were long, lazy affairs, with bottomless cups of coffee and free-range conversation. I got to know my grandparents, and they got to know me.

It wasn’t about the food, but man, the food. Endless stacks of pancakes, biscuits for days, homemade possumberry or muscadine jelly, crunchy bacon, creamy grits.

I realize this is the path that takes many people on an emotional — and dangerous — journey with food. Ice cream reminds you of Saturdays at the skating rink, but pint after pint doesn’t take you back there. Potato chips remind you of afternoons in front of the television, shoes kicked off and homework tossed in the corner, but munching your way through an entire bag won’t ever reinstate that feeling of freedom.

Food as comfort is a trap, a tasty one, and one we build for ourselves. Acknowledging emotional eating is vital, but also a little hollowing, making us recognize the void we’re trying to fill with food. Recognizing that void means knowing that the past is done, that the people associated with certain foods are gone, and those memories are all we have.

It’s an acknowledgement that, hopefully, helps us all have a better relationship with food, one that lets us make new memories instead of living in the past.

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So it turns out that strawberry shortcake is NOT simply strawberries with pound cake, angel food cake or sponge cake (no, not even those perfectly round little sponge cakes sold in packs of six in your grocery store’s produce section).

The shortcake you likely remember from your childhood? An imposter.

Shortcake is its very own thing. Simply placing strawberries and whipped cream (or, more likely, Cool Whip) on top of any kind of cake does not magically turn it into shortcake. (And while I’m on the subject of Cool Whip, how is it that nobody ever told me how EASY it was to make your own whipped cream?)

Shortcakes are essentially biscuits made with butter instead of shortening, with just a hint of added sugar. They’re supposed to accent the strawberries, after all, not compete for the title of sweetest dessert element.

I’ve made the Cook’s Illustrated version of strawberry shortcake a couple of times, and it’s a winner. The shortcakes are light, but substantial enough to hold the juicy berries without falling apart. The strawberries themselves could probably do with a little less added sugar, especially if you’re lucky enough to get specimens as sweet as I’ve found at the Dennison’s Family Farm strawberry stand this year. The recipe makes way more shortcakes than two people need, but the leftover cakes are good for a couple more days and you can make half, a third or even a quarter of the whipped cream recipe if you like.

Strawberry Shortcake

  • 8 cups (about 2.5 lbs.) strawberries, hulled
  • 6 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting the work surface and biscuit cutter)
  • 5 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick (8 Tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tsp. half-and-half
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups whipped cream

For the strawberries:
Place 3 cups of the hulled strawberries in a large bowl and crush with a potato masher. Slice the remaining 5 cups berries and stir into the crushed berries along with the sugar. Set the fruit aside to macerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. (Note: Our leftover macerated strawberries were good for three more days.)

For the shortcakes:
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the flour, 3 Tbsp. of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt to combine. Scatter the butter pieces on top and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about fifteen 1-second pulses. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Mix the beaten egg with the half-and-half and vanilla extract in a measuring cup. Pour the egg mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Combine with a rubber spatula until large clumps form. Turn the mixture onto a floured work surface and lightly knead until it comes together. (Note: I’m not sure how I avoided screwing this up, given my lack of prowess with bread dough. It was a sticky mess, but I somehow managed to work enough extra flour in to make it work without ruining it. The husband has mad dough-making skills, so I should probably convince him to handle this part.)

Use your fingertips to pat the dough into a 9-by-6-inch rectangle about ¾-inch thick, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Flour a 2¾-inch biscuit cutter and cut out 6 dough rounds. Place the rounds 1 inch apart on a small baking sheet, brush the tops with the beaten egg white, and sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar. (Dough rounds can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 hours before baking.) (The recipe notes that you can roll up the leftover dough scraps and make more shortcakes, but warns that they may not be as good as the originals. I detected no difference, so use all of your dough.)

Bake until the shortcakes are golden brown, 12-14 minutes. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack and cool the cakes until warm, about 10 minutes.

To assemble:
When the shortcakes have cooled slightly, split them in half. Place each cake bottom on an individual serving plate, and spoon a portion of the fruit and a dollop of whipped cream over each cake bottom. Cap with the cake top and serve immediately.

Whipped Cream 
Makes about 2 cups

  • 1 cup heavy cream, cold
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Chill a deep, non-reactive, 1- to 1.5-quart bowl and beaters in the freezer for at least 20 minutes. Put all ingredients in bowl and beat on low until small bubbles form, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat until beaters leave a trail through the mixture, approximately 30 seconds more. Beat on high until the whipped cream is smooth, thick and nearly doubled in volume, about 20 to 30 seconds. (Note: Don’t skimp on freezing the bowl and beaters. That’s what makes the magic happen.)

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CokeCake

During the last few weeks of my brief relocation to Atlanta, I craved Coca-Cola cake. Not because I saw it on a menu or because somebody mentioned it, but because you can’t travel an entire block in Atlanta without seeing some sort of reminder that it’s the home of Coke, and my mind heads off in unpredictable directions when it gets a prompt.

Atlanta, the home of Coke, leads to Coca-Cola cake. Why not?

I remember eating Coca-Cola cake on a pretty regular basis when I was a kid. It’s pretty easy to throw together, and since you bake it in and serve it from the same pan, the presentation is simple, too.

I’ve had a copy of Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola for years, apparently always meaning to make this cake, but I got very confused when I tried to look up the recipe. I found three recipes for chocolate cakes containing Coke, but none of them called for the 13-by-9-inch pan that I specifically remembered. Online, Southern Living linked to a recipe that called for a good bit more sugar than the one in my book (not that I’m trying to make a low-sugar cake, because LOL low-sugar cake, but I didn’t want a chocolate cake in which the sugar overwhelmed the chocolate). Finally, I flipped through my copy of The Mississippi Cookbook, figuring that the Southern classic would surely hold the recipe I was looking for. I found that the sugar-cocoa ratio in its version was even more unappealing than the one in the online recipe.

Other than the sugar discrepancy, the online recipe’s ingredient list was nearly identical to one of the recipes in Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola, AND the online recipe gave me instructions for baking in a 13-by-9-inch pan instead of a sheet pan, so I figured my baking time would be about the same. And it was.

As I remembered, the cake was at its best the day after I made it. As the icing sits overnight, it hardens into a fudgy topping — not quote a hard coating, but not a soft frosting, either.

Admittedly, this cake was not the ambrosial concoction I remember from my childhood, but it was quite delicious. I think cake, like sandwiches and salads, is simply one of those treats that always taste better when somebody makes them for you.

One regular can of Coke is enough to make the batter and the icing, provided you don’t drink the leftover soda while the cake is baking. I’m not judging, either way. And seeing as I have NEVER purchased a carton of buttermilk, I always have to use the standard substitution: 1 tbsp. white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup milk. I also understand you can use yogurt or buttermilk powder.

Start making the icing a couple of minutes after the cake comes out of the oven. You’ll want to pour it on top of the cake after the cake has cooled off for about 10 minutes. Also, the original recipe indicated that the pecans in the icing were optional, and pecans are SO not optional for this cake. In fact, I might try to work some pecans into the batter AND the icing next time.

Coca-Cola Cake

  • 2 cups plain unsifted flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 3 tbsp. cocoa
  • 1 cup Coca-Cola
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows

Grease and flour a 13-by-9-inch pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift the flour and sugar into a large mixing bowl. (Note: I didn’t sift anything because I kind of hate to sift. I had to mash down a few flour pellets in the batter with my stirring spatula, but that was the only consequence.)

In a saucepan, bring the butter, cocoa and Coca-Cola to a boil. Pour this mixture over the flour and sugar and stir until the batter is mixed thoroughly. Stir in the buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, vanilla and marshmallows; mix well.

The batter will be extremely thin, and the marshmallows will float to the top. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, and move the floating marshmallows around until they’re spread out reasonably evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. (Note: None of the recipes I consulted tell you how to tell that this cake is done, which was a little scary because the batter is so weirdly thin. The toothpick test worked, though. After 35 minutes, the toothpick came out with a few moist crumbs on it.)

Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then pour the icing on top. It should spread itself out pretty evenly over the cake. Let the iced cake sit for at least an hour to let the icing firm up a little before you cut it, or risk scraping icing run-off out of the bottom of the pan with a spoon (which, really, is not such a terrible thing).

Coca-Cola Icing

  • 1 stick butter
  • 3 tbsp. cocoa
  • 6 or 7 tbsp. Coca-Cola
  • 1 box powdered sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

In a saucepan, heat the butter, Coca-Cola and cocoa until everything is melted and mixed together. Pour over the powdered sugar and mix well. (Note: I broke out the mixer for this.)

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Easter1977

Easter 1977: The year before we blended flowers and plaid.

The year that at least one of us didn’t want his photo taken in suspender shorts.

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Me, dad and Hans.

December marked the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, meaning that I’ve lived a full quarter of my life without him.

I’ve learned that it’s not the big things in life that you really miss talking about when you lose a loved one. I don’t need job advice (OK, I totally need job advice, but from a higher authority than my dad). I don’t need him to answer the Big Questions.

Instead, it’s the funny little topics that make me want to talk to him, the goofy questions that pop into my head with some regularity.

Would his love for horror and sci-fi films from the ’50s and ’60s make him a fan of the current cultural obsession with zombies? (I can tell you with certainty that he would have little tolerance for sparkly vampires.) Just how flawed is the Alien prequel? Why did he like dachshunds so much? Doesn’t he think it’s time for a black actor to play Batman? Doctor Who: Still totally awesome, right? Why are there no Tom Waits albums in his music collection, when it simply BEGS for Tom Waits?

It’s the seemingly forgettable one-off chats that I miss, the perfectly benign conversations over coffee (Diet Pepsi for him), not the big, earth-shattering talks that we all think must be so important.

I also miss the dachshunds.

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If I had a nickel for every time I deftly shook all the coins out of this little piggy bank when I was a little girl, I would need a WAY bigger bank for all my nickels.

Like the old glass measuring cup and my grandfather’s blue denim jacket, it’s one of the few items that I simply HAD to have from my grandparents’ house. I seriously played with it for hours at a time when I was younger, shaking out coins, counting them, stacking them and carefully putting them back in again.

It’s made it all the way from Smithdale, Mississippi, to Huntsville, Alabama, and then Atlanta.

It’s still doing its job beautifully, holding the coins fished out of pockets and the bottom of my purse. The only difference is that I don’t really have the urge to shake them out and sort them anymore.

Not much of an urge, that is.

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