Cooking with Mom

A nostalgic look at childhood's comfort foods.

RB1

Toni Leland

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Mom's Peachy Cake
Layered Mac & Cheese
Nutty Canteloupe Salad
Nana's Cabbage Soup
Tuna Noodle Casserole
Date Bars 

Not a week goes by that I don’t find myself in the kitchen with my mother. Mind you, she hasn’t been with us for many years, but she still influences the food of my heart. Two of her ingredient-stained, dog-eared cookbooks sit among my own modern volumes. My pies unfold beneath the satiny sheen of her wooden rolling pin. Her cast-iron skillet still serves up melt-in-your-mouth pot roast and Swiss steak.

Mother taught me everything I needed to know in the kitchen, during an era when women loved to cook and kept their families well-fed. She taught me how not to boil an egg that rivaled the consistency of Silly Putty®, secrets to flaky, golden pie crust that didn’t come from the freezer case, and how to make gravy that wouldn’t do double-duty as wallpaper paste. She introduced me to interesting flavor combinations and the fun of trying something new. Mom adored cream and butter, and used both lavishly in her cooking. Her favorite query was: “What shall we have under our butter?”

Making do

During the late 1940s, homemakers emerging from the burdens of World War II found it difficult to give up their thrifty habits and, as the country regained access to foodstuffs that had disappeared during those long war years, housewives found innovative and frugal ways to produce delicious meals. Those children of the Great Depression – having survived daily sandwiches of lard with cracked pepper, or turnip greens wilted in salt pork fat – knew the meaning of hard times. Then came the war, and struggles with depleted food stores and rationed staples. Coffee and sugar were strictly rationed; by 1942, meat was rationed at 21/2 pounds per adult per week; eggs and chicken were not rationed, but scarce and expensive. Providing nutritious meals was a challenge. When the war ended, those same homemakers found it difficult to embrace the convenience foods that began to appear: cake mixes, dry yeast, instant potatoes and quick rice.

In the 1950s, frozen pot pies, fish sticks, TV dinners, instant pudding and Rice-a-Roni® took America by storm, and housewives began to embrace the ease and speed with which delicious family meals could be prepared. But they still wasted nothing. My mother’s “roly-poly” was my favorite treat – leftover pie crust rolled out, slathered with butter (of course), sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, then rolled up and baked alongside the pie.

Our childhood foods

Comfort food as we knew it became the staple diet of modern American families: meatloaf made with onion soup mix; casseroles creamed with canned soup; salads and desserts shimmering with flavored gelatin mixes. Sauces, gravies and marinades became everyday fare, and the size of individual servings grew.

By the end of the 1960s, the microwave had a place in American kitchens, but many homemakers resisted the concept. Then in 1975, the microwave outsold the range; Americans now embraced the microwave. When I finally bought one for Mom, she grumbled a bit, but later admitted that it was “fantastic for melting butter.”

My mother’s tin recipe box bulges with yellowed cards filled with her careful handwriting; recipe names – Tuna Noodle, Chuck-Wagon Beans, Perfection Salad, Date Oatmeal Bars, Three-Bean Salad – bring on a flood of memories. These foods became the foundation for my own cooking adventures as a young wife and mother.

With every dish she lovingly prepared, Mom added a pinch of humor – many of her recipe cards have notes scribbled on the back, wry thoughts or downright hilarious comments. One rich dessert recipe bears the advice: “Keeps well in the refrigerator if you can hide it from husbands and children.” Tattered clippings from newspapers and magazines are treasures to discover between the pages of her cookbooks. These bits and pieces paint a picture of a homemaker who endured hardships we modern women can barely imagine – and she did it with a smile.

MOM'S PEACHY CAKE 

In the crisp days of autumn, the scent of cinnamon and clove greeted me at the door after school. This moist, almost decadent cake was one of Mom’s inventions, and one of my favorites.
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 medium egg, beaten
3/ 4 cup canned peaches, drained  and puréed or mashed
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup boiling water
3/4 cup raisins
Heat oven to 300°F. Butter 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking pan; set aside.
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy; add egg and blend well. Stir in peaches and set aside.Sift together flour, salt, cinnamon and cloves.
Place baking soda in measuring cup and add boiling water.
Add half the dry mixture to creamed mixture, stir in, then add half the liquid, blending thoroughly and scraping sides of bowl; add remaining dry ingredients and liquid alternately.
Stir in raisins and pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake on middle rack of oven for 50 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream. Yields 12 servings.

LAYERED MAC & CHEESE

Though boxed macaroni and cheese was all the rage, nothing compared to Mom’s rich, cheese-crusted casserole. The “secret” technique was layering the ingredients and letting them blend as they baked.
2  cups elbow macaroni,  cooked and drained
Salt and pepper
2 ounces cold butter
8  ounces sliced sharp  cheddar cheese
2 medium eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
Heat oven to 375°F.
Butter 2-quart casserole; place layer of cooked macaroni in bottom. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then dot with pieces of cold butter. Add layer of cheese. Repeat for two more layers, ending with remaining butter and cheese.
Combine eggs and milk; pour over layers. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes (cheese on top will be crusty and golden). Let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Yields 8 servings.

NUTTY CANTALOUPE SALAD 

Interesting flavor combinations can sometimes be a delightful surprise. Peanut butter makes this fruit salad  different and refreshing.
1 large ripe cantaloupe
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2  tablespoons creamy  peanut butter
1/ 4 cup salted cocktail peanuts, coarsely chopped
Halve cantaloupe and remove seeds. Slice into 3/4-inch-wide sections and remove rind. Cut slices into cubes.
Combine mayonnaise and peanut butter and blend until smooth. Add to cantaloupe and gently mix with rubber spatula until dressing thins and coats fruit.
Sprinkle with chopped peanuts just before serving. Yields 4 servings.

NANA'S CABBAGE SOUP

A hearty winter soup, full of rich flavors and tons of nutrition. Mother's comment: "It is so good that one person could eat the whole kettle, but in emergencies, it will serve more."
1 large head cabbage
3 small onions, divided
4 whole cloves
6 ounces diced salt pork
2  cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
8  ounces Polish or smoked  sausage, cut into bite-size pieces
6  cups beef broth, canned  or bouillon
1 can (15 ounces) pinto beans
1 tablespoon honey
Cut cabbage into wedges, then cut each wedge into 3 chunks.
Peel and dice 2 onions; stick cloves into remaining whole peeled onion.
In large kettle, sauté salt pork  for about 5 minutes, then add diced onions and cook for about 2 minutes.Add cabbage, garlic, salt and pepper; cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until cabbage is wilted. Stir in sausage. Place clove-studded onion in center, and pour broth over.
Cover and cook on low for 30 minutes, or until cabbage is tender. Add beans and honey; cover and cook until cabbage is very tender.
Serve with thick slices of French or Italian bread. Yields 6-8 servings.

TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE

The epitome of comfort food, tuna noodle casserole took many forms over the years, but none were as good as this version that originated from one of the many recipes distributed in the 1950s by the Campbell Soup Co. As usual, Mother changed it and made it her own.
6 ounces egg noodles
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 cup chopped celery
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup diced pimiento
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste
6 ounces canned tuna, drained
1 can (10 ounces) cream of celery soup
1/2 cup milk
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
2 ounces butter, melted
Heat oven to 425°F. Butter 2-quart casserole; set aside.
Cook egg noodles according to package directions until just tender. Drain, add mayonnaise and stir well. Add celery, onion, green pepper, pimiento, salt and pepper; mix well. Add tuna, but do not stir in yet.
In small saucepan, combine soup and milk; heat (do not boil). Stir in cheese until it melts.
Pour soup mixture over tuna and gently blend with rubber spatula, so tuna doesn’t break up too much. Pour mixture into prepared casserole; pour melted butter over top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until bubbly. Yields 8 servings.

DATE BARS

After I baked these, I took several to our widowed neighbor. His eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, “My mother used to make these!” Rich and chewy, they outperform any granola bar.
2 cups chopped dates
1 1 /2 cups packed brown sugar, divided
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour, divided
1 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup butter, melted
Heat oven to 375°F.
In small saucepan, combine dates, 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1 tablespoon flour. Add water and simmer 10 minutes; stir in vanilla extract.
Combine remaining sugar, remaining flour, baking soda and oats. Add melted butter and stir well.
Spread half of oatmeal mixture in bottom of 8-by-8-by-2-inch pan.
Spread date mixture over oatmeal base, sprinkle remaining oatmeal mixture over top. Press lightly into dates.
Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting into 16 squares. Or cut into 9 squares and serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Yields 16 squares or 9 dessert servings. (Recipe doubles well.)

Toni Leland is an Ohio author who sacrificed her waistline to test each of the recipes in this article. She writes both nonfiction and fiction about horses, as well as a biweekly Master Gardener column for the Zanesville Times-Recorder.