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It's a One Potato Day

Connie Moore

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February days can be brutal. Weather is not conducive to outdoor hours. Time is not any more forgiving than any other winter month. Cooking is taking on a boring element.

In desperation, we resort to experimentation of culinary magnitudes. Can what is left in cupboards be combined to make a surprisingly edible something that is not completely off-putting and is somewhat like the imagined outcome?

At the same time — probably due to the common factor of boredom — the Powers That Be have declared the month of February be inundated with special food days. You know, those "holidays" that beckon us to eat a particular food? In the first 14 days of February there are 14 different food days. February’s last 14 days have a "holiday" for 17 more foods. It means you might have to eat banana bread, toast, and chili on the same day (the 23rd). That’s not so bad, but, how about chocolate-covered nuts and clam chowder together (the 25th)?

Referring to the second paragraph — the desperate experimentation — we opt for February 22 as our guide to gastronomical surprise. It is National Cook a Sweet Potato Day. We have one sweet potato left in the basket. Iit only takes about 20 minutes to cook in the microwave and yields a straight-forward half-cup of mashed potato. Now what?

Well, we could eat it just like it is, but remember, we are looking for exciting surprises. So we might mix it into some fudge. Or blend it into a can of tomato soup. Or spread it on a piece of toast and top with cheese, melting the whole thing under the broiler. Or we could mix it with pecans, brown sugar, butter, and a touch of cinnamon for a microwaved cup of soufflé.

We could wash the potato, dry it, slice it, and dip the slices in some water that is mixed with lemon juice or vinegar. That will keep the slices from turning brown (like preserving apples or avocados). Then pat the slices dry and fry them in deep oil for a small, one-serving batch of potato chips.

We could make one of my mother’s favorite winter suppers. She boiled a sweet potato or two, and when it was almost done she cooled, peeled and sliced it. In a skillet, she melted butter, added a cored, peeled, sliced apple (or two) and a bit of brown sugar. Over low heat she fried the potato and apple until soft and browned a bit. Sometimes she fixed a whole casserole of this mixture and baked it in a 325-degree oven for half an hour.

Yet another skillet dish is cubed sweet potatoes, sautéed in butter with a bit of orange juice, raisins, or dried cranberries.

But we wanted to use the sweet potato to the best of our abilities in regards to surprise twists, so this is what we did:

Fudge Brownies.

Here is how we made them. And when we passed them out, we put the secret ingredient in an envelope and let the recipient choose to know before or after as to what they were eating.

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After all, what’s a day in February without a challenge?

Sweet Potato Brownies

Ingredients

• 1/2 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
• 3 tablespoons water
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil
• 2 eggs
• 1 box (18.3oz.) fudge brownie mix (We used Betty Crocker)

Instructions

1. In mixing bowl place potato, vanilla, water, oil, and eggs. Using electric mixer, beat until well combined.

2. Add the brownie mix and stir together using mixing spoon. Mix thoroughly, but do not beat hard.

3. Pour into a greased 13x9-inch baking dish. Bake in preheated, 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until done.

4. Cool and cut. Can be glazed with dark, bitter, or milk chocolate.

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Just Before a January Winter Morning

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Off to the east, there is a wedge of sky that holds soft blue, creamy white, and that mellow, cottony, winter pink of sunrise. Outlined by roof edges and bare-limbed trees, the space is the first area in which to see the new day.

To hear the new day, you must be willing to brave the still-cold air and sit outside wrapped in blankets and dark clothing so as to blend in with the tangled fence row. There, ever-so-slight peeps of cardinals and sparrows can be heard if we holds our breathe. Life seems suspended in time.

As the light increases in the wedge of sky, more sounds join as feathered creatures wake to empty stomachs and the need for quick energy. Moving inside, we give way to their need to come out of hiding. While we enjoy hot coffee, they enjoy seeds and suet.

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They have a hierarchy or pecking order for the first meal. Juncos and cardinals are first and eat off the ground under the feeder. With charcoal-grey coats, the juncos blend in well and, surprisingly, so do the red cardinals. Mourning doves come in under cover of pre-dawn, wary of a certain cooper’s hawk which makes a regular fly-through on frigid mornings. He needs quick energy, too. A dozen gray doves keep to flower bed edges, ready to leap for cover if the hawk’s large, dark shadow appears.

White-throated sparrows, chestnut-capped chipping sparrows, brown stickpin song sparrows, and the ever-present house sparrows are next to show up. They too prefer the ground, although the crowds of house sparrows will inundate the feeder and shuffle seeds off the edge.

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As sunlight streams across the fence into the expanse between trees and feeder, a large woodpecker swoops in. Although his cap is red, he is a red-bellied woodpecker. He is keen for the peanuts mixed in with the seeds. He takes his turn, and as he flies off to eat in the safety of a tree, his mate takes her turn.

Back on the suet feeder, downy woodpeckers take turns. They don’t mind the Carolina wren eating on the other side of the wire cage that holds the suet block. When it is this cold out, they are tolerant of each other’s presence. Perhaps they have a community sense of survival. Inside, we have a family sense of survival, beginning with our own breakfast.

One week later, the same wedge of sky is a brilliant, spring-like pink with thin, yellow shafts of sunlight. To see and hear this day, one could hardly imagine that it is still January. Birds, too, feel the warmer air moving in for the first time since November. Songs replace squeaks of hunger. The day will prove to be another yo-yo turn of weather events. Sixty degrees is not hot oatmeal weather.

Rain is in the mix. Keeping birds and humans alike holed up under cover, high winds sweep in over the land. Turbulent air moves over our valley and the rest of Ohio, bringing an aching for the real warmth of spring.

Another few days and the cold returns. Icy conditions bring much activity to a standstill. But the birds still need to feed. Slip-sliding over the feeder roof, bigger ones flutter into piled up seeds. On the ground, dozens mill about, scratching up seeds caught in the icy mix. Their small faces look as forlorn as we feel. It’s back to hot oatmeal and survival.

Each morning we look to the wedge of sky, wondering what it will hold as the day begins. Soft, muted tones or bold, bright light? Will there be sounds of hunger or songs of delight? Only January knows.

Winter Outdoor Cooking

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In one of our old family albums, there is a faded black-and-white photo of my husband grilling in the dead of winter with snow a foot deep. He is dressed out as thick as an Eskimo, the grill shifted to the open porch where he could keep an eye on it and run into the house to catch a breath of warm air every so often.

He had no desire to stand out in January cold, building a fire, slowly grilling a beef roast with barbecue sauce on it. Yes, it could have been done in the oven, but what about the great smoke flavor? What about the challenge of keeping the temp just right? What about the macho thing? Ah, yes, that was back when he was young, easily influenced by his wife and willing to answer questions from the curious neighbors.

We still grill in winter, but it is our son who is master of the outdoor range now. With a grill and smoker, just about any meat or fish can be cooked. While I write this, the smoker is puffing away with a five-pound pork butt (mustard and dry rub applied) slowly coming to a temperature of 205 degrees F in a heat of 265 degrees F. Patience is essential; hours go by before it is time to let it cook over a pan of apple juice. After a ten-hour process, the meat is full of flavor and tender enough to shred at a touch of a fork. But it’s not done. Honey is smoothed over top and it rests for two hours. Only then is it shredded, sliced, and ready for the next day’s eating.

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Last evening, a large trout was cooked over coals in the kettle grill. Cold evening air blew steady all around, but the foot or so in front of the grill was toasty warm. An inviting aroma filled our senses with butter, salt, pepper, and thoughts of the hot sauce of butter, shallots, green onions, garlic, and hot pepper flakes to be poured over the plated, crispy, brown beauty. Fish cooks quickly, so it wasn’t long before we sat down to eat.

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Last week, the grill master produced a succulent, crisp-beyond-belief, spatchcocked chicken. In cooking history, spatchcock was a culled, immature, male chicken, but today it refers to a way of cooking a whole chicken quickly over high heat. It requires a very sharp pair of kitchen shears, and one cannot be squeamish when it comes to cutting through bones, gristle, and flesh in order to flatten the bird. The bird is butterflied. Cutting down both sides of the backbone and removing it completely will lend the bird space to spread out and flatten under the pressure of a heavy hand or iron skillet. The hardest part of it all is done. Apply a dry rub and put it on the hot grill. Cook till juices run clear and joints can be moved easily. Bring it in, tent with foil for ten minutes while putting the rest of dinner on, and dig in.

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While we can be satisfied with the entrée off the grill and a salad, some may want to round out the meal with vegetables and fruits. Blueberry Salsa goes well with the chicken. Fried Bacon Cornbread is a good side for the crispy fish (no sauce) or pork.

Blueberry Salsa

Ingredients:

• 1 large pink or red grapefruit (or substitute an orange)
• 1 teaspoon honey or sugar
• 1 tablespoon lime juice
• 1 cup fresh blueberries
• 1/2 tablespoon finely minced jalapeno pepper
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped red or sweet onion

Instructions:

1. Section grapefruit or orange and dice the sections. Add the rest of ingredients and mix — more or less pepper or onion is up to you.

2. Chill until serving time. Serve with chips, crackers, or alongside meat or fish.

Fried Bacon Cornbread

Ingredients:

• 1/2 cup cornmeal
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• Dash each of salt and sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 cup milk
• 3 slices crispy fried bacon, crumbled
• Leftover kernel corn, optional
• Vegetable oil or butter for frying

Instructions:

1. In mixing bowl, sift together flour and baking powder; stir it into the cornmeal.

2. Add salt, sugar and crumbled bacon. If using corn, add also.

3. Mix egg and milk together; add to dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Heat oil or butter in heavy, 10-inch, nonstick skillet or well-seasoned iron skillet. Drop batter by tablespoons into hot oil. Fry until brown, turn, cook until done.

5. Serve hot with butter and maple syrup.

Baffling Squirrels

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Photo courtesy Russell Moore Photography

For decades, mankind has been baffled by a smallish, gray, furry, and unquestionably cute creature. Oh, they have come to know all sorts of technical information about the rodent — structural makeup, strength of limbs and muscles, living habits, eating habits, etc. — but what baffles so many scientists and common folk alike is just exactly what goes on in that tiny little brain that gives them the edge over inventions meant to thwart their upward and outward trek towards contents of bird feeders.

Yes, we’re talking squirrels, those intrepid backyard animals that make feeding the birds a challenge par none. The extent to which writers over the years have gone to document the cuteness of these creatures can be seen in a simple count of the Clark County website catalog of books. Over 200 books line the juvenile bookshelves. There are series such as Those Darn Squirrels and Scaredy Squirrel. Four titles are simply Squirrel. There are titles that hint of what a squirrel can do such as Frisky, Brisky, Hippity-Hop and Aw, Nuts.

In the story books, all squirrels are named. Mick, Mack and Molly play together while Bob and Rob have their own adventures. Then there are Mario and Isabelle and Merle. One of the older squirrels of course is Squirrel Nutkin, from author Beatrix Potter. Yes, there is much to read about those little furry bundles of energy.

On the other hand, only one book shows up in the adult reading section on how to cope with — nay, outwit — the residential squirrel. Actually, we should use the plural, because if there is one squirrel then there is more than one. Our backyard and adjoining trees are home to five. But we have them baffled when it comes to our large bird feeder. More on that in a minute.

It seems that at least one man has had the courage not only to investigate and experiment, but also to document his findings, failures and all. Bill Adler, Jr. wrote Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels. The title says it all. The 101 list is in the back of the book, but we recommend you read the whole thing. It is truly an eye-opener into the world of squirrels. And for the most part, the entire world around your bird feeder. Written in 1988, the book is in its 3rd edition, so that tells you it’s a must-read for anyone thinking of feeding birds.

Squirrel-proof feeders are addressed at length in Adler’s book. Brands such as GSP Feeder, Steel Squirrel-Proof Feeder, The Hylarious Fortress Post Feeder, Cling-a-Wing and Spinning Satellite and others are tested, summarized and rated.

Locally, most stores that stock birdseed also sell feeders, some of which are supposed to thwart squirrels. Just recently, a local chain advertised Squirrel B Gone feeders and Squirrel Stumper bird feeders. Costs can swing as wildly as a squirrel trying to hang onto those feeders — a few dollars to over twenty.

Sometimes a book can be worth its weight in energy and monetary savings. Taking note of Adler’s experiments, measurements and predicaments, we have a squirrel-proof feeder, much to the delight of dozens of bird species and their human benefactors.

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Photo courtesy Russell Moore Photography

The feeder’s support post is an 8-foot long, treated, wood, 4x4 post, two feet of which is sunk in the ground. So, ground level to the bottom of the feeder is 6 feet. At the top of that six feet is an open-sided, roofed, platform feeder. Attached under that feeder is a 2-foot section of galvanized steel stove pipe. Just two screws hold it in place.

Squirrels have tried to climb it only to slide down. They have tried tunneling up under it only to back out, as it closes in closer to the top. Only once has any squirrel tried climbing the wood then leaping for the feeder. Unhurt, they thudded to the ground.

The feeder is placed away from any trees or bushes; the closest is ten feet away. And yes, the squirrels do climb those junipers, walk out to the very edge of the longest limbs, and get ready to jump. But a squirrel’s distance perception is remarkable, and calculating that the ten feet from where they stand to the feeder is more than they can high-dive, they are resolved to eat under the feeder and hope for a bunch of squabbling birds to shift seeds over the edge.

So far we haven’t named our squirrels, but we admit to (on occasion) adding to their sustenance a few peanuts or cereal/peanut butter nuggets. After all, they are furry and cute.


Comments? Email me at mooredcr@Juno.com.

Last Week of 2016

Connie Mooresunset on the water

On this last week of 2016, as we engage in familiar routines, I work in the kitchen amid aromas of spicy chili and sweet corn bread, pumpkin buckle and a freshly brewed pot of coffee.

In some ways, this week is no different from the same week of years past. We look at the weather, feed the birds, pay bills, and wait for January’s tax paperwork to appear. A bonus is the occasional seed catalog.

We try to go for a walk at least once a week. Walking in the park where a few crows sit atop bare skeletons of trees, eyeing us, can be a healing, calming act. Or walking in the small cemetery down the road, where quiet, peaceful air moves gently over personalized stones, some a hundred years old. Or strolling down by the pond where geese softly move over grasses to find a bit of something to eat.

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Looking back over the past year, we ask ourselves what is it we learned from warm spring days in the garden (plants start out in funny shapes); from hectic days of computer mishaps (machines have a mind of their own); from the realization that nothing about the state’s dumping thousands of us retirees over into the Medicare system will work out to our benefit (who can you trust nowadays?).

We realize that it is no use despairing over negatives. The year takes them out with its last breath and replaces them with a promise of new days. 

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What will we wish for? Peaceful times are paramount. We are not naïve enough to think this world will ever again get whole days of the precious commodity of peace, but we wish for at least a few hours of it each day, not only for ourselves but also our entire community.

We wish for our neighbors and friends to stay safe. Again, we realize that in the times we live in the odds of complete safety are pared away like shingles from a roof in high winds. But we can hope.

Patience seems to be at the center of all things learned this year.

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We wish for you, dear reader, to have a year of positives. We hope your days will be satisfying and fulfilling, and your paths paved with patience and lots of hugs. And we thank you all for reading our blogs and sharing with us in your blogs. See you in 2017.

Winter Bread Recipes

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Years ago, my mother-in-law asked me to help her bake quick breads for a fundraiser in Germantown. It was a marathon baking session, which I loved — I baked twenty-two loaves in three mornings. Today, I’m doing good to get just one loaf out of the oven. It seems the older we get, the slower the mixer goes. Well, I can blame it on the mixer or the oven or anything else, but the truth of the matter is that we just don’t eat as much bread as we used to around here.

We still love a hot biscuit with butter and jam. We go for muffins rather than loaves of fruited breads and dinner rolls rather than large yeast-scented loaves. Winter is the ideal time to bake yeast, quick, or other kinds of bread; many of the ingredients are on sale during December.

Waffles are a bread that we don’t think of as dinner or supper fare, but, made ahead and frozen, they can be popped in the toaster for a sweet or savory bit of bread any time.

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Even Martha White — those southern products on shelves since 1899 — has wonderful ways with breads from just a couple of muffin mixes. So don’t skip baking some hot bread just because you don’t eat as much as you used to. Small breads are just as tasty, take less time and energy, and allow for more variety. Quick bread batters can be baked as muffins if you just adjust the time. Whether twenty-two loaves or just a few muffins, winter is hot bread season.


Martha’s Special Scones

We found this easy recipe from Martha White years ago in a magazine. It works best with her muffin mixes.

Ingredients:

• 2 packages Martha White Muffin Mix, any fruit flavor
• 6 tablespoons milk
• 1/4 cup butter, melted
• sugar
• softened butter

Instructions:

1. Place muffin mixes in bowl. Add milk and melted butter. Stir to make a soft dough.

2. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Knead gently into a 6-inch round. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. Cut into 8 wedges.

3. Place on a greased baking sheet about one inch apart. Bake 14-16 minutes at 400 degrees F.

Half a cup of chopped nuts may be added. To serve, match jam with muffin flavor and have lots of butter on hand!


Pineapple Tea Bread

Ingredients:

• 1/2 cup butter, softened
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 2 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple with juice

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour an 8x4 inch loaf pan.

2. Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla. Beat in eggs.

3. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add alternately with the pineapple and its juice. Mix just until blended (over-beating tends to make the bread tough).

4. Pour into the pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in middle of loaf comes out clean.

5. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Turn out on rack to cool completely.

Can be wrapped and frozen for up to 3 months. A half-cup of chopped pecans can be added.


Bacon & Chive Cornmeal Muffins

Ingredients:

• 2 package (6.5 oz. each) Martha White Cornbread/muffin Mix
• 2 teaspoons dried chives
• 1/2 cup cooked, crumbled, crisp bacon
• 1-1/3 cups buttermilk, milk, or water
• 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Instructions:

1. Empty cornbread mixes into bowl. Stir in chives and bacon. Add buttermilk, and mix until batter forms.

2. Divide into 12 greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake at 400 degrees F for about 16 minutes or until done, tested with a toothpick.

Serve hot with plenty of butter and syrup, if you like.


Cathead Biscuits

Ingredients:

• 4 cups self-rising flour
• 1/2 cup solid shortening
• 1-1/2 cups regular buttermilk

This recipe can be cut in half if need be (2 cups flour, 1/4 cup shortening and 3/4 cup buttermilk).

Instructions:

1. Place flour in bowl and cut in the shortening with a fork, pastry blender, or clean fingers. Add buttermilk all at once, and stir only enough to form a soft dough.

2. Turn out onto floured surface. Turn one or two times in flour — do not knead or cut.

3. Pinch off portions of dough with floured hands to form into large biscuits (the size of hamburger buns). Place on cookie sheet — sides touching means soft-sided biscuits, placed apart means crisp-edged biscuits.

4. Bake in a 450-degree, preheated oven for about 12-15 minutes, or until raised, golden-brown, and done.

Serve hot with butter, jelly, molasses, or anything you enjoy on hot bread.


Strawberry Jam Bread

Ingredients:

• 1/2 cup butter, softened
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 cup strawberry preserves or jam
• 1/2 cup buttermilk

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease bottom of an 8x4 inch loaf pan.

2. Cream butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla.

3. Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda.

4. Mix preserves and buttermilk together.

5. Add dry ingredients and wet alternately to the creamed mixture.

6. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for about 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely.

Wrap and store in a cool place overnight for easier slicing. A half-cup of chopped nuts may be stirred into batter or sprinkled on top before baking, if desired.


Rice Waffles

Ingredients:

• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 cup sour cream
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 cup cooked rice, cooled

Instructions:

1. In mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Make a well in the middle.

2. Add sour cream, eggs, and oil. Blend well.

3. Add sugar and rice. Stir to incorporate.

4. Bake on hot waffle iron.

If not eating right away, bake waffles, cool completely on rack, wrap in wax paper, and place in freezer bags in the freezer. To eat, remove waffles, break into sections, pop frozen into toaster.

Old-Lady Cooking (and Cake)

Connie MooreWhile searching for a recipe request, we came across a recipe named Old Lady Cake. Well, it got us to thinking about "fancy" versus "plain" cooking. Just what is the difference? Age certainly has something to do with it, but age of who or what? Is the recipe plain if it is over fifty years old? Or maybe it’s plain cooking if the cook is over fifty?

Or is "plain cooking" a term for anything fixed on a regular basis, with regular ingredients, and eaten on a regularly scheduled day? You know, like years ago Mondays were bean soup day because it could simmer while the laundry was being done, or Sunday was pot roast day because it could cook in the oven while everybody was at church.

Another way to look at this age-related cooking question is found in the popular commercial ending, “What’s in your wallet?” You might recognize it as a Capitol One's charge card slogan. But for us old folks, today’s charge card was not in our wallets years ago. We tendered in cash, and that had a direct bearing on what was in our cupboards. A loaded wallet tended to make for a cupboard well-stocked. Therefore, some fancy cooking might occur in place of plain, everyday cooking.

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So, what’s in your cupboard? How you look at, that’s up to you.

We kind of took that "old lady" cake thing personally. While mulling it over, we went for ice cream.

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Old Lady Cake Recipe

Ingredients:

• 1/4 cup butter
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 2 cups sifted cake flour
• 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup sour milk

Instructions:

1. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg, beat well.

2. Sift all of the dry ingredients together three times.

3. Then add the dry mix to the creamed mixture, alternating with the milk as you do.

4. Bake in a greased tube pan at 350 degrees F for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in middle of cake.

5. Cool for 5 minutes, release from pan. Cool completely.

6. Ice with favorite frosting or glaze.

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Recipe source: Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia Cookbook, 1948.