Back Deck Potato Salad

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In the forty-six years that I have lived in my comfortable split ranch, the two features that I have enjoyed most are the half-acre treed lot (realtor speak) and the modest back deck. The appeal of each is intertwined with the other. The deck in itself is ordinary and really quite forgettable. The back yard, with its variety of mature trees, vines, and volunteer shrubs, is more attractive, especially on a summer day when the late afternoon light filters through the greenery, which is almost always in motion. Observing the pleasing scene through a window, distorted by the glass and screen, cannot compare to watching it play out while sitting in a comfortable chair on the deck, especially if one has a cold drink and an engaging book or company nearby.

I have served countless meals on the sturdy brown deck – largely standard summer fare comprising burgers, grilled steak, barbecued chicken, or hot dogs. From time to time, I have experimented with more adventurous dishes such as beer-can chicken, brined turkey breast, herb-laced pork tenderloin, or teriyaki beef kabobs. Whatever the menu, the main dish is always cooked on my unpredictable charcoal kettle grill. Though other outdoor chefs have tried their hardest to convince me to switch to more reliable gas, I have resisted. The challenge of getting the fire going, not so easy after a summer shower, and regulating the heat by adding or moving the briquettes around with metal tongs is part of the fun of outdoor cooking for me.

My simple version of summer potato salad has been a side dish with just about every one of the countless main dishes that I have prepared on the grill. While I do not recall each of these occasions in specific detail, I do remember them all as a category – “outdoor dinners on the deck.” One meal, however, does stand apart from the rest. It was not a dinner, and it did not involve grilling on the barbecue. We had just two guests that summer day – my late brother Arthur and my teenaged niece. They had taken a road trip to New England to visit my mother and other family members. I invited them to lunch and planned a casual menu, so we could relax and just enjoy each other’s company. I recall putting out a platter of Italian cold cuts and rolls, my cousin’s famous bean casserole (see September 2016), a pasta salad with pesto (see August 2016), and my old standby potato salad. We sat on that deck for hours while my charismatic brother regaled us with his comical stories and thanked me more than once for the lunch – his kind of food.

I wish I had a photograph of that day, but I do have another of him taken on the back deck last year. While other family members helped me plant my vegetable garden, Arthur, restricted by a cast on his intractable sore foot, sat at the patio table and watched his beloved Red Sox on a laptop computer. My sister-in-law snapped a picture and sent it to me later in the summer after his sudden and unexpected passing. I treasure the memory of him that day and the one many years earlier when he and my niece came to lunch.

Potato Salad 

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Stir 1 tablespoon of white vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a small bowl until the sugar and salt dissolve. Add 1/2 teaspoon of celery seed. Then sprinkle the mixture over 4 cups of potatoes that have been cooked until they can be pierced easily with a fork but still hold their shape. (I use red potatoes and remove the skins after they have cooled). Fold in 1/4 cup of chopped onion and 1/4 cup of minced celery. Then add 1/2 cup of mayonnaise and mix gently but well. Sprinkle a chopped hard boiled egg over the top and garnish with paprika and chopped parsley if desired. Let chill for two or more hours before serving.

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Date Nut Bread for Mother’s Day Tea

teatimeOver the course of many years, my family’s Mother’s Day celebrations evolved into a set of cherished rituals. When I woke up and headed to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee, I would inevitably be greeted by the overwhelming fragrance of an instant garden spread out over the dining room table. The Saturday afternoon before, my husband always trekked to the local garden center to purchase my gift – every single item on my list of suggestions! Despite my pleas that he choose only one or two selections from among the baskets, hanging plants, perennials, and annuals that I included on my wish list, with the help of the genial proprietor of the garden center, he would insist on purchasing everything I desired. If I tried to suggest only a plant or two, my husband would protest that the nursery might be sold out, and he needed more items from which to choose. He was a giving person with a big heart when it came to those he loved.

The breakfast menu was always French toast and bacon. Later in the day, my brother and sister-in-law would arrive with my mom, followed by our son, daughter, and her family. We sat around and chatted, after which some of the entourage would head out to the garden center themselves to pick up tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables and flowers for May planting. For dinner, we ordered takeout from a favorite Italian restaurant. Rain or shine, cold or mild, we enjoyed our Mother’s Day tradition.

My mom, our steadfast anchor, has been gone for a while; my brother and sister-in-law stopped coming because it was too painful for them to celebrate without her. My husband’s health declined, and he was too frail to go to the nursery to buy me a flower garden. The beloved Italian restaurant closed. But we adapted. We found a substitute restaurant from which to order our dinner. Our daughter conferred with her father and picked out his gift for me. Despite a smaller party, we continued to troop to the garden center as always.

This year has been one of loss and sadness for my family. There will be no flowers waiting on the dining room table for me to exclaim over. No phone call from my out-of-town brother. The weather forecast is bleak. Still, we have much to be grateful for. So, we will continue to celebrate Mother’s Day, but I have decided to break with tradition and to Tea with the Queendo something different for a different kind of year. I plan to have a tea in honor of my mother, who dearly loved her cuppa. I will use my mother-in-law’s bone china, make my daughter’s favorite tea sandwiches, and bake some date nut bread from an old recipe that my mother wrote out for me on lined school paper a very long time ago.

Date Nut Bread

Ingredients: 1 cup of chopped dates, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of butter, 3/4 cup of boiling water, 3/4 cup of sugar, 1egg yolk slightly beaten, 1 tsp of vanilla, 1 3/4 cup of flour, pinch of salt, 1 egg white beaten until soft peaks form, and 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts.

Procedure: Place dates, baking soda, and butter in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the mixture, stir, and let cool. Add the sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla and stir to mix well. Then add the flour and salt. Stir again and fold in the beaten egg white and walnuts. Mix well but do not beat.  Pour into 1 large loaf pan or 3 small ones that have been coated with non-stick spray and dusted lightly with flour. Bake in a 325 degree oven until a toothpick comes out clean – 1 hour for a large loaf and 45 minutes for the smaller ones. Cool on a rack, slice, and serve plain or with cream cheese.

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Coffee Cake Loaves with Brown Sugar Topping

This recipe is one that has evolvedWP_20170423_019 over nearly a half century, and, despite my tinkering with the original, it still holds up well. I began baking the earliest version when we moved to the suburbs to start our family. My mother-in-law came to live with us at about the same time. She, my husband, and I all loved Sunday brunch especially when there were homemade sweets like this brown sugar-topped coffee cake.

When our children were very small and Sunday mornings became quite hectic, more often than not, we settled for donuts that my husband picked up when he went out to buy the newspapers. That was many years ago, but it is a ritual that I still miss.

I used to bake the coffee cake in a large tube pan, but now I use two medium loaf pans and store one of the loaves in the freezer for a day when I need something sweet to bring to a function or just feel like tasting a memory of times past. Other changes in the recipe include reducing the amount of each ingredient by one-third and using plain yogurt rather than sour cream to eliminate a few calories.

As I write today, I am looking out at a nearly cloudless spring sky. The forsythias are bright yellow, the azaleas are beginning to bloom, the lawn is a lush lime green, and I am feeling a little blue as I remember springs gone by. Perhaps the coffee cake that I baked when I got home from a walk around the neighborhood will cheer me up. It always does. WP_20170423_004

Coffee Cake Loaves with Brown Sugar Topping

For the loaves: 1/2 cup of softened unsalted butter, 1 cup of white sugar, 2 eggs, 1 tsp of vanilla, 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1/8 tsp of salt, 1 cup of plain unflavored yogurt.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, followed by vanilla. Mix well. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Stir into butter mixture alternately with the yogurt, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.

For the topping and filling:  Combine 1/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/3 cup of chopped walnuts or pecans, and 1 tsp of cinnamon.

Coat 2 medium loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray and dust lightly with flour. Spread approximately 1/4 of batter on the bottom of each pan. Sprinkle batter with 1/4 of the brown sugar mixture. Repeat procedure so that each loaf pan has two layers of batter, each topped with some of the brown sugar mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaves comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing the loaves from the pans. Allow to cool completely before serving or wrapping in foil to store or freeze.

Classic Cornbread

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A snowy February weekend in New England is the perfect excuse to cozy up with a book, a cup of tea, and some warming food that is homemade but not too taxing to prepare. Yesterday, as nature set about reminding us that it is still winter, I dropped a pot roast into the crockpot with a few root vegetables to simmer away and fill the air with savory smells foreshadowing a satisfying dinner. Then I read the Sunday papers at my leisure, but every so often I paused to consider how to round out the meal ahead without breaking the spell of a quiet, lazy day. So I decided on a quick pan of old-fashioned cornbread to bake later – much later. There was still that novel to finish and my weighty copy of Hamilton beckoning.

This recipe doesn’t come with much of a story. I cut it out of a magazine years ago, changed a few directions, and baked it so frequently when everyone was here that I had to copy it onto a card and throw the original out due to crumbling edges and batter stains that threatened to obliterate the text. Among the positive attributes of this cornbread is the fact that is not too sweet, so it can be served in place of a dinner roll. The texture is soft but not so crumbly that one cannot eat it without making a mess. It slices neatly and holds its shape, making it ideal for toasting up the next morning and topping with a little jam for a breakfast treat. So that’s what I did today.😋

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Classic Corn Bread

Coat an 8″ x 8″ square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and pour into a medium or large mixing bowl. Add 1 lightly beaten egg, 1 cup of sour cream, sour milk or plain yogurt, 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, and 3/4 cup of cornmeal. Mix just to combine. Place a sifter on a piece of wax paper and add 1 cup of all purpose flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Sift about half the dry ingredients into the cornmeal mixture, stir lightly, add 1/4 cup of milk, stir again and end with the rest of the dry ingredients. Again stir just enough to incorporate all the ingredients. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in a 375º oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for a few minutes in the pan, slice,  and serve warm.

Birthday Banana Cake

wp_20170122_003-copyYesterday was my son’s birthday, and I baked him a cake, as I have almost always done for both of my children, because no matter how old they are, there are some traditions we three cling to tenaciously. A favorite meal, mostly home cooked, with chocolate cake for dessert, is de rigueur for the special day. This year we are celebrating a week late, so I decided to surprise my son with a treat from the distant past on his real birthday, knowing full well that I will probably still have to bake the chocolate cake next week. I really don’t mind because in truth I have a sweet tooth, and I love cake as much as my grown up children do!

This recipe is another from my late neighbor Sally, handed on to her by her mother-in-law. She lived in the Midwest and visited infrequently, but I did meet her once or twice. I do not recall our conversations, but I do remember her as a friendly and confident middle-aged lady. She must have been an accomplished baker, because I have more than one of her recipes, courtesy of Sally. Despite not being labeled as to ownership, they are unmistakable. Sally’s neat, blocky printing was distinctive. I kept all these cards intact, many of them yellowing and spattered with ingredients, not knowing when Sally gave them to me how precious they would become so short a time later.cake

I clearly remember one birthday when I served the banana cake, along with peanut butter and honey sandwiches on whole wheat bread, carrot and pepper sticks, and apple juice. My mom, who had come to celebrate her four-year-old grandson’s big day and to help me manage the guests, was taken aback by the menu. She shook her head, and asked if I thought the kids would really eat this stuff. Wouldn’t they want pizza, or hot dogs, or burgers and chips? I assured her that all would be well. And it was. The little partygoers dutifully ate their whole wheat sandwiches (no peanut allergies, thank goodness) and munched their veggies. “Suburban Kids,”my mom remarked afterwards, in a tone implying that no self-respecting city child like the ones she raised would stand for my idea of a birthday party lunch.  Of course, like all kids, my suburban guests were most enthusiastic when they got their cake with a generous serving of ice cream on the side.

Banana Cake

3/4 cup of sour milk, 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of shortening, 1 beaten egg, 1 tsp of baking soda, 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1/8 tsp of salt, 2 ripe mashed bananas , and 1 tsp of vanilla.

Sour the milk by pouring about 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice into a measuring cup and adding enough milk to reach the 3/4 mark. Cream shortening and sugar well in a large bowl. Beat in the egg. Combine the baking soda with the sour milk. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add flour mixture to creamed shortening mixture alternating with the sour milk. Add vanilla to the bananas and fold into the mix, stirring until well combined.

Pour into an 8 or 9 inch square pan and bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned and the middle springs back to the touch. Cool for about 10 minutes in the pan, invert onto a cooling rack, and wait until the cake is room temperature before frosting. You may want to omit the frosting altogether and just cut the cake into snacking squares.

I find that a basic butter and cream cheese  frosting goes really well with this cake. For enough to frost the top, beat together  1/4 cup of softened unsalted butter, 1/4 cup of softened regular cream cheese and 1 tsp of vanilla. Then beat in powdered sugar beginning with  1/2 cup and adding more until the frosting is smooth and of spreading consistency – usually another cup or so.

 

 

 

Scrambled Egg Casserole

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Many years ago, I was teaching at a small rural high school that was experiencing hard times. Our standardized test scores were less than stellar, and our numbers were declining as students opted to go elsewhere under a new school choice program. Consequently, morale among staff and faculty members was low. The holiday break was coming, but no one had much spirit. One afternoon, as a few teachers were grousing in the lounge about unruly students and unfair administrators, someone, I have forgotten just who, remarked offhandedly that maybe we needed a party to introduce some cheer.

The idea resonated, and a plan was hatched for a potluck brunch to be held on the day before vacation. Since everyone had at least a twenty-minute break for lunch, even those who did not have a midday planning period would be able to attend. We posted a sign-up sheet for food, beverages, paper goods, and utensils, and even organized an anonymous gift exchange, the identities of the givers to be revealed on the day of the brunch. The event proved to be quite a hit, and, despite inevitable changes in staff and administrative personnel, it solidified into a tradition that continued for a number of years.

Although I have not forgotten the homemade red pepper jelly, the mouth-watering chocolate mints, or the gilt picture frames, the most enduring gifts that changed hands among participants did not involve wrapped packages tucked surreptitiously into our mailboxes. Instead, they were the recipes that we shared with each other when our food contributions to the communal meal were warmly received.

My family’s favorite is the scrambled egg casserole that a colleague’s wife sent each year and that I made for Christmas morning at our house for decades. It is a convenient make-ahead dish and one that warms the spirit on cold winter weekends. My daughter and her family now host our holiday brunch, and their one request is always that I bring Ted’s Eggs. Here they are. . .

Scrambled Egg Casserole (serves 6 – 8)

1 medium onion chopped and sautéed until soft

½ lb of bacon cooked until crisp and broken into bits

1 cup of fresh mushrooms thinly sliced and sautéed until soft

1 dozen large eggs scrambled until cooked but still soft

3 cups of light white sauce to which 1 1/8 cups of shredded cheddar cheese has been added.

Bread crumbs and paprika for topping

Assemble in a buttered 13×11 inch baking pan in the following order:

1) onion

2) bacon

3) mushrooms

4) eggs

5) cheese sauce

6) crumbs and paprika

Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until heated through and bubbly.For reheating, remove a few minutes earlier, and cover with foil. Reheat at 325 degrees until warm.

Note: I cook the bacon on a foil lined cookie sheet at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until crisp and brown.

I use one pan for the onions, mushrooms, and scrambled eggs – wiping it clean with a paper towel after each ingredient is cooked and placed in the casserole dish ending with the scrambled eggs.

Molasses Spice Cookies

 

cookies“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” complained Jo in the opening line of my favorite childhood novel, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I wholeheartedly agreed with the thought expressed by this literary character with whom I enthusiastically identified. By the time I reached high school, other novels and characters had risen to the top of my list of favorites, and I substituted cookies in place of “presents” in the familiar sentence from Alcott’s classic.

I’m not sure what triggered my obsession with Christmas cookies. It might have begun after reading a December copy of my mom’s Woman’s Day magazine or Ladies Home Journal. I always loved to study the colorful photographs of neatly packaged cookie gifts that contained a number of varieties of different shapes and flavors. I decided at some point that I should be able to do that too. I didn’t have much experience with baking, but I did love to wrap gifts up nicely. My father taught me how to estimate the amount of paper needed for each parcel as well as how to make perfect corners without any bulges. I got to be such an expert that my bachelor uncle hired me every year to do his Christmas wrapping. I eventually used my earnings to buy the ingredients for my cookies.

After baking and packaging my first successful batch of Christmas cookies at around age sixteen or seventeen (it was a long time ago), I was completely hooked. Every year thereafter no matter how hectic my real life was, I baked and gave away cookies during the holidays. Neighbors, postal workers, deliverymen and women, teachers, and anyone not on my regular gift list but whom I wanted to recognize for a service or with whom I wanted to share some good spirit was fair game. Who doesn’t appreciate a box or bag of homemade sweet treats during the festive season? cookies2

The very best part of baking big batches of cookies during the holidays is the leftovers. I store them in colorful tins that even now my grown up children love to see appear on the kitchen counter. And if someone shows up unexpectedly or gives me an unanticipated present, I can hastily pop some cookies into a tin or decorated box to spread Christmas cheer or to reciprocate.

Each member of my immediate family seems to have a different favorite. My daughter loves Polish tea cakes, my son always looks for anything lemon-flavored, my grandson can’t get enough of the sugar cookies that he helps decorate, and my brother must have his own little stash of chocolate chippers. Everyone enjoys the spice cookies. They were the first choice of both my mom and my husband. In their memories, I am sharing the recipe. I think I found it in a magazine many years ago.

3/4 cup of softened butter (the real thing works best)
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup of molasses

2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger

Powdered sugar for dusting

Cream butter and sugar well and add egg and molasses.
Sift dry ingredients and stir into butter mixture with a wooden spoon. The dough will be stiff. Roll into 1 inch balls and place on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet leaving space between each for the cookies to spread. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 — 10 minutes.  Cool on a rack and dust with powdered sugar. Makes about 40 cookies.

Note: You may want to refrigerate the dough for easier handling and then press each ball of dough down a bit on the sheet before baking.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS