Home Ick

I was ironing from my stash of vintage linens recently and came across an apron that set off a wave of memories for me.

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The fabric is vintage 1960s, sort of cool and retro. The sewing is novice—the waist band is applied awkwardly, so the uneven stitching creates puckers and wrinkles. The colors—the turquoise ties that match nothing in the main fabric—would appeal to a young girl.

I’d bet a lot of simolians that the apron was a project from a long ago Home Ec class.  

I was a young girl, a novice at sewing in the 1960s, too . . . I took classes in this thing Americans called Home Economics. 

It must’ve been the late 1960s and I was probably in 7th or 8th grade. The boys took “Shop” and used woodworking tools and learned about car engines, while the girls took Home Ec and learned about cooking and sewing. 

For a person who now loves sewing and even quite likes baking, I hated Home Ec. Even then, as a 12- or 13-year-old, I thought of it as Home Ick.

I have these clear memories of the teacher showing us how to butter bread. She stressed that we needed to spread the butter or mayonnaise or peanut butter right up to the edges of the bread, very carefully right up to the edges, so that the bread would stay moist . . . for our husbands and children.

She told us to take two slices of bread out of the package and open the slices like pages of a book so, when we put them back together, with filling, they would fit and match perfectly . . . for our husbands and children.

She taught us that it was of utmost importance, when measuring liquids, to squat down and look at liquid in the measuring cup at eye level, so we would get the precise amount and our cookies would turn out perfect . . . for our husbands and children.

Ai yi yi.

The sewing lessons were just as lame, to my 12-year-old sensibilities. We sewed one seam up a length of cloth to make a tube, stuffed it full of batting, and tied the two ends closed with cord and called it a bolster pillow. Really?

We also did class presentations on makeup and I remember a classmate intoning that we shouldn’t use eyeliner because it was passé. I was impressed that she could the word “passé” in a sentence but that whole thing about eyeliner . . . ?

I like to think I was ahead of my time, a mini-feminist in the making. Maybe the attitudes of the late 1960s and 1970s were influencing me, even in the backwoods of upstate New York, but taking an actual class in how to make a sandwich struck me as ridiculous. 

Maybe it was because my mother and father both worked and I had long made my own sandwiches . . . but taking an actual class in how to make a sandwich struck me as really, really ridiculous.

Maybe it was because what we were being taught was SO basic, not to mention sexist, and I knew the boys were learning skills of value—changing the oil on a car, making book ends with power tools—and no one was ever suggesting that they do it just so, for their wives and children.

Home Ec died a few years later at my school. I believe it has since been reincarnated, in different forms, in some schools. Boys can learn to cook and girls can take Shop, or not, as electives. Maybe they’re also teaching budgeting and organizational skills, and useful life skills, beyond how to butter bread and disdain eyeliner.

Thinking about my own Home Ec experience has me wondering—was it just that my experience was a lame one? Did other teachers, in other schools, provide a better, fuller range of skills? The person who stitched the vintage apron certainly learned to sew more than a bolster pillow! 

Was Home Ec just a thing in the United States? Did/do schools in other countries use valuable school hours teaching such things?

Do tell—what experience did you have with Home Ick?

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“Doris, I Need You!”

Doris“Doris, I need you!” I call these words and, always, my husband comes to help.

No, my husband is not named Doris. But his mother was and, though she died years ago, I invoke her name regularly, and he answers.

Beyond her sunny personality and her goofy sense of humor, Doris had a special skill that my husband inherited and that I am, sadly, lacking.

Doris could glance at leftovers—the tomato sauce, the cauliflower, the salsa—and gauge volume so perfectly she could always choose exactly the right container to store the food in.

This sounds like a little thing. But, to me, this little skill spoke of a stunning store of knowledge that confounded and amazed me, and has taught me a little something about craftsmanship—you can’t have a beautiful, impressive finished product without being fully in charge of the most mundane and seemingly inconsequential details of your craft.

I learned of her skill the first time I met Doris. My husband-to-be and I traveled across the US to visit his parents. His mother welcomed me in her sweet way and cooked a huge, fabulous dinner. I was mightily impressed with the meal—can we talk about her tamales? Her blackberry cobbler? I was thinking I should ask for her recipes.

But, first, wanting to impress my future mother-in-law, I tried to help clean up the kitchen. I who was, and still am, pretty much without skill or clue in the kitchen.

Doris asked me to find a plastic refrigerator container to store the leftover rice and beans. She directed me to a cupboard with plastic containers and lids of every size, perfectly organized.

I picked one that seemed right and handed it to Doris.

Long pause. A look from the container to me, to assess whether I was kidding. The realization that, no, I was serious.

And then Doris, the sweetest woman ever, laughed at me! She laughed at me in that way that says, “You poor pitiful child. Don’t you know anything?”

And she explained how the container I had chosen was way too big and she pointed out the one she wanted. And I KNEW she was wrong, that the designated container would be too small. I would be vindicated.

You can see where this is going. Doris spooned the leftovers into that container. She scraped every last bean and grain of rice right in there and it was perfect. Just right. Spot on.

I think I realized, right then, that Doris’s recipes, alone, wouldn’t do me any good.

She could make the food she made because she knew her kitchen, and its pots and pans and Tupperware, the way all experienced craftsmen know their tools.

It was this complete body of knowledge that underpinned the exquisite final products, the food that came from her kitchen.

Instead of asking for Doris’s recipes, I should’ve asked to be her apprentice!

Luckily for me, my husband inherited Doris’s love of all things kitchen. He is at home there and regularly concocts wonderful meals. He, too, depends on his knowledge of the tools of the trade and his long experience wielding those tools.

In all of this, my role is to clean the kitchen. So, here I am, 25 years later, still struggling with an unfamiliar art form. A medium not my own.

I call out, “Doris, is this the right container?” and Doris, in her son’s voice, answers.

Manly Hands at Home: A Cake for All Seasons

Why, yes, that is rhubarb. And, yes, I know that rhubarb is a spring treat and it is not currently spring anywhere.

But, when there’s a man in the house who loves to cook and is willing, nay, eager to cook, you mustn’t quibble when he wants to bake with rhubarb out of season!

My husband is the main cook at our house. He likes it and is amazingly good at it. And since I’ve already posted the three or four recipes that I know how to make, it’s time to move on to sharing some of his concoctions!

He found this recipe for Rhubarb-Pecan Upside-Down Cake in a back issue of Yankee magazine, a US magazine featuring all things New England. And even though he is usually more of a cook than a baker, this recipe seduced him and he could not rest until he made it!

I hope it’ll seduce you, too, and that, even if you believe that rhubarb can only be cooked with in spring, you will remember it when the time comes. It’s a lovely balance of sweet and tart, crunchy and crumbly. Plus you get to use a springform pan, which, if you’re like me, will make you feel like a real cook!

Rhubarb–Pecan Upside-Down Cake by Jane Walsh

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Overview: You start with pecans, brown sugar, butter, and rhubarb, then cover those ingredients with the cake batter. When the cake is baked and inverted, the rhubarb, sugar, and nuts create a caramelized topping that is delightful!

General instructions

Preheat oven to 350° and set a rack in the middle position. Butter a 9-inch springform pan; then cut a round piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. (The original recipe says you can use a cake pan). Place the pan on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, in case your springform pan leaks. (Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do).

Ingredients for the topping (which will be at the bottom for now!):

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
  • ¾ pound rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch-long diagonals
  • ½ cup pecan halves (we used a full cup and we toasted the pecans in the oven first; see notes)
  • ½ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar (we used more!)

IMG_8742Instructions or the cake topping:

To create the topping, start by arranging the pecan halves in the bottom of the pan and pour melted butter over them. Arrange the rhubarb, then sprinkle all over with the ½ cup of brown sugar. Set aside.

Ingredients for cake batter

  • ½ cup pecan halves
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ cup whole or reduced-fat milk

Instructions or the cake batter:

In a food processor, pulse the pecans until very finely chopped.

Mix the nuts with the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. You can do this mixing of dry ingredients in your food processor or by hand in a bowl.

In a large bowl, beat the remaining ½ cup of butter with the granulated sugar until fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl several times.

Add the remaining ½ cup of brown sugar

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

Add vanilla.

Add the milk in two batches, alternating with the dry ingredients, and scraping down the bowl as needed.

Pour the batter over the rhubarb mixture, and smooth with a spatula.

IMG_8748Bake until the sides of the cake are beginning to pull away from the pan and a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 50 minutes.

Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, run a knife around the edge to loosen, and invert the warm cake onto a serving plate. (If the cake cools too long, it will be hard to remove from the pan.) Serve warm or at room temperature.

IMG_8755Notes:

Toasting the pecans before using adds a great deal of flavor. I toast pecans in the oven, set at 350 degrees, for about 12 minutes. I use a heavy cookie sheet and stir the nuts every few minutes. They will start to smell yummy; be sure not to let them burn!

You may be tempted to use more than the called-for amount of rhubarb. If you do, you’ll be adding extra moisture to the cake and it will take longer to cook and may not cook fully in the center. Don’t ask me how we know that. We just do.

We served this with vanilla ice cream and a puree made from the leftover fresh rhubarb. YUM!

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The Sound of a Door Closing

closed for the season

photo by Alison Hurt

Listen—did you hear that? That was the sound of the door closing on my candy shop, for the 2013-2014 season.

One of the best things about working with chocolate is that you can’t do it when it’s warm. Chocolate simply cannot be tempered if the temperature is above about 70 degrees. So, as a home-based chocolatier, with no interest in a bigger operation, the coming of summer means the end of chocolate making. Right when I want to do other things, I can!

I just finished dipping the last of the candy that I will take to a spring boutique later this week. Last week, I deactivated the candy listings on Etsy. I’m out of the chocolate business until October!

I’m both happy and a bit verklempt about the end of the season. It was a good year, and very busy. I plowed through the 230 pounds of Callebaut chocolate I wrote about in August and had to order 55 pounds more of milk chocolate. That adds up to something like 700,000 calories worth of chocolate, spread around the US!

I did my first-ever face-to-face sale in December and it went so well I’m doing another on Wednesday, with a lot let angst this time.

I developed some new candies, most notably lemon meltaways and Irish cream meltaways, both with silky smooth flavored-chocolate innards, dipped in more chocolate. I also added delicate, crispy English toffee to my offerings.

I’ll miss my little morning routine of drinking my coffee, getting caught up with the news, and putting on my apron. I mostly make candy in the very early morning and those hours will be open to me now.

I’ll miss the smells—the chocolate, of course, the caramel bubbling on the stove, the mint oil, the peanut butter. And I’ll miss the heavy responsibility of taste testing!

But, as they say, when one door closes, another opens.

It is finally beginning to be spring in upstate New York so the door opens to lawn and gardens, and they need a lot of work.

The door opens to the linen closet, too—I have been very lax about listing vintage linens on Etsy and those piles of pretty linens are not getting any smaller!

The door will open soon to another glorious summer on beautiful Lake Champlain and summer activities—bike rides to go for soft ice cream, garage sales, campfires, and s’mores, and family time.

Who wants to be in the kitchen, making candy, when there’s so much else to do?!

So, I’ll go downstate and sell candy for one more day. I’ll stash any leftovers for sampling and sharing over the summer. I’ll put away the candy equipment and ingredients and soak my apron in Oxi-Clean to get the chocolate out.

And I’ll go outside, to play in the sun. I’ll weave things and finish a quilt. I’ll talk to you and do a lot of ironing of pretty things. I’ll get back to that list of things I’ve been meaning to do (IBMTD)!

And, along about September, I’ll start yearning for the smell of melted chocolate and the comfort of the candy-making routine. And then the door will open again. . .

 

Books for Hands at Home: Joy of Cooking

IMG_4762I have an elderly friend who helps me in the kitchen. She knows I don’t like to cook, and she’s patient with that. She also knows that I love baking and making candy, so she’s given me some great recipes, as well as tips to help me improve.

Mostly, though, I just enjoy her style and listening to her talk. She’s funny, knows so much about setting a nice table, and what Americans like to eat. And she likes a strong drink!

My friend lives in my kitchen and has for all my adult life. Her name is Irma, Irma Rombauer. Her voice comes to me through her iconic American cookbook, the Joy of Cooking. She has been the friend in the kitchen to generations of American cooks and wanna-be cooks.

Some of you undoubtedly already know Irma, and love her. Others may have never heard of her but, if you’re an American who wants to cook or from another country and are curious about American cooks and cooking, you should make an effort to get to know her.

Irma’s book really has it all—it has history and an interesting back story, it provides insight to what it means to be American, it has useful information for every cook, no matter how inexperienced or expert, and it’s just plain fun to read. The book, as a whole, has the most distinctively “loving hands at home” tone and approach to making food of any cookbook I’ve ever seen.

An important note before I go on—there have been many editions of Joy and they vary quite widely, reflecting a changing America. They all have a distinctive, chatty tone with the exception of the 1997 edition, which was designed to have a more professional sound, with streamlined recipes. It that edition, the cookbook, to me, becomes just another cookbook. The reasons I’m giving for loving the book apply to earlier editions. Apparently the 75th anniversary edition, published in 2007, puts the author’s voice and style back into the book.

Joy of Cooking was first published in 1931 by Irma S. Rombauer, a homemaker from St. Louis, Missouri. The year before, her husband had committed suicide and she was going through a difficult time, both emotionally and financially. Her children pressed her to focus on a cookbook. And what a cookbook it became!

Unlike other cookbook writers of the time, Rombauer, a “complete amateur with no official credentials . . . knew that neophyte cooks somehow learn faster in the company of a friend. This small, chic, witty, and immensely forceful woman appointed herself that friend.”  Irma Rombauer has remained a friend to American cooks throughout the generations. And, like my other friends, I call her by her first name.

The 1931 edition was self-published but by 1936, Irma had found a publisher and the book started to reach households all over America. Since then, the book has gone through a number of printings and each printing seems to have devoted followers. If you’re interested in the full story, visit the website of the Joy of Cooking Trust.

My own copy of Joy was published in 1946 and was given to my mother, by her mother, as a birthday gift in 1949. The book is beat up and shabby, with pages sticky and stained but the recipes still intrigue and guide me, especially the chapter on candies and confections!

IMG_4773The recipes intrigue me partly because many of them are solid recipes for food I want to make. But these days, because I can find recipes in so many places, in other books or online, I’m not sure this book would get used much if the recipes were all it had. It’s the other things that Irma brought to the book that set it apart.

I love this book partly because it’s a look into America at a certain time and place. And, with each edition, we can see a changing America. Recipes in the early editions reflected a more rural America and taught how to cook squirrel and venison and provided long, detailed guidance for canning and pickling.

In the 1943 edition, Irma included information about how to deal with the food rationing brought about by World War II and included strategies for substituting new ingredients for rationed ones. For example, she explained how to substitute soybeans for meat.

For readers looking for a modern cookbook, in the traditional style, this can be annoying. I’ve seen reviews that indict the book for “too much retro-inspired nonsense.” But, if you’re like me and love “retro-inspired nonsense” and a peek at America’s past—the world of our mothers and grandmothers—the details are all part of the fun.

And the more recent editions did find Irma keeping up with the times, as she chronicled changes in American eating patterns. She offered recipes for changing needs, like streamlined meals and the use of canned and frozen foods, and changing desires, like an increased focus on healthy eating.

Another part of the fun is that Joy is just delightful to read. In some ways, the tone of the book reminds me of today’s cooking blogs—they all have recipes but what brings readers back to certain blogs is the chatty, friendly tone of the blogger—the extras that surround the basic recipe.

Irma wrote like she was your pal, more experienced in the kitchen but not lording it over you. The recipes aren’t written with all the ingredients at the top and then a terse list of instructions but, rather, in a sort of narrative with the ingredients in boldface as you come to them. She provides extra details in the midst, like to just ignore lumps in the muffin batter, and leads the cook to completion.

Irma lets you know what she likes. She introduces a recipe that starts with two cans of condensed soup by saying, “I should like to sing a paean of praise about this . . . soup” and talks about her food mill, saying, “I am devoted to mine and shall reward it some day with an old age pension.” She also lets you know what she doesn’t like, including at least one recipe for a cake that is “uninteresting . . . but highly digestible.”

She also wins my heart because she includes lots of recipes for cocktails, including one for hot buttered rum that “has been said to make a man see double and feel single.” And she quotes Mark Twain on the subject of imbibing—“Too much of anything is bad, but too much whisky is just enough.”

And along the way, she tells stories about kings and queens and opera singers, and throws in quotes from sources as varied as The New Yorker, Noel Coward, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

But the book isn’t all quaint, old-time recipes and cleverness. It also has a wealth of valuable information for cooks at all levels. Irma includes an index that explains, in very plain words, cooking terms that experienced cooks take for granted but that might mystify a novice. For instance, she delineates the differences between beat, combine, stir, and mix. I didn’t know there were differences! And the differences between peel and pare—knowing the difference makes me feel like a real cook!

The book is great for novices, but many of the recipes are sophisticated and challenging, and Irma alerts readers to ones that are finicky or troublesome. She writes in detail to de-mystify notoriously difficult tasks like making soufflés and candy making, and her tone is always calm and patient. She will even offer advice about how to save a recipe gone wrong.

IMG_4766In addition to recipes, the book also includes information on all kinds of household management. She discusses how to use leftovers and how to impress guests. She provides sample menus for meals as varied dinners and picnics, tables of equivalents, ingredients substitutions, diagrams for setting a table—something for everyone!

IMG_4769In other words, Irma is a friend we all need. The woman herself died in 1962 but the cookbooks live on, with new editions still guided by her descendents. And lucky for us, earlier editions of the books are readily available though on-line booksellers and on eBay. Or, if you’re lucky, your mother or grandmother may have a copy, just waiting to be passed on to you.

Now that you and my friend, Irma, have been properly introduced, maybe you’ll invite her into your kitchen. I think you’ll find her a warm, wise friend.

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I’ve Been Meaning To . . .

i've been meaning toAs I’ve read your blogs about your hopes, dreams, plans, and resolutions for 2014, I’ve caught myself thinking, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to do that.” Then I was reviewing my never-ending to-do lists, which include prosaic items like “buy shampoo” but are also littered with things that never get marked off the list. The latter are things “I’ve been meaning to do.”

These aren’t the big, earth-shaking, bucket-list kinds of intentions. I don’t find the making of a bucket list too compelling. And they aren’t the little day-to-day to-do list kinds of items. Those are easy and they get marked off the list promptly.

Right in the middle of “really big” and “really small” are the kinds of good intention that are just right for my “I’ve been meaning to” list—you could call them the Goldilocks goals. These are manageable goals—projects to start, places to go, new skills to try. Maybe it’s because they are manageable that they never get done.

For instance, I’m always saying I’ve been meaning to spend more time in Montreal. It’s close, it’s easy to get to, it’s an antidote to provincial rural life. But because it’s easy and close, I can postpone doing it—it’ll be there tomorrow.

The quilt I just finished fell into this category. It was right there, waiting. It only needed a couple of days of focused work to be finished. Easy. Postpone. It’ll be there tomorrow.

But then I finished that quilt and felt such satisfaction! I strutted around for a couple days! And that has added to my certainty that I should do more of these things I’ve been meaning to do, both because they’re worthy things to do AND because I feel so smug when I actually follow through (and can take them off the list).

So, here’s my plan. I’m going to try to do one of the things “I’ve been meaning to do” every week this year and tell you about it. I’m going public with it because I hope that means I’ll be more mindful of following through.

My guidelines for myself are as follow:

  • I’m going to remember that my blog is NOT all about me. I write a personal journal for that. The blog is about, and for, you, too.
  • Having said that, I promise to write about things in ways that I hope you can relate to.
  • And having said that, I may not do a post on this topic every single week. I may do something I’ve been meaning to do that is too personal or weird to burden you with!
  • I will seek to stay true to my theme of “loving hands at home.” Many of the things I’ve been meaning to do are tailor-made. Some are a little further afield. Both may show up here., with an emphasis on the former.
  • If the plan gets boring to me or I think I’m boring you, I’ll abort!

So, thank you for sharing your plans and goals in the last week—it seems to have motivated me to re-consider some of mine. I hope we all follow through!