Breaking Bread

Usually I pack my lunch before going to work, but today I bought a cup of soup at the soupcafé on the first floor of the building where I work. I burned my tongue on the thin broth while answering my email and searched the bottom of the styrofoam cup for bits of chicken and summer vegetables.  After the soup I ate a handful of cherries, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

Listening to my stomach growl, I wished I had brought something from home that might fill the empty gap.  From the depths of my past came the memory of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on my mother’s homemade bread.

We rarely bought bread from a store when I was growing up. Instead, my mother made it from scratch, six loaves at a time, every few days.   She mixed it in a large aluminum pail fitted with a hand-held churn.  It took two people to start the mixing process- one to hold the bucket and one to work the churn, but in no time, the flour, milk, butter and yeast came together to form a giant ball, which she would turn out on the counter and knead until it was smooth.  Once in a while, she used the side of her hand to form crease in the middle of the rounded loaf and spanked the “baby’s bottom.”  We children would explode in peals of laughter and beg to give the bottom a spank too.

From this basic white bread recipe, my mother made countless treats.  She filled muffin cups with balls of dough to produce steaming dinner rolls that dripped with melted butter and sopped up gravy from Sunday’s roast.  At Christmas she decorated stollen with a sugary glaze and candied fruit, and gave them as holiday gifts to our neighbors and friends.  During the summer she fried dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, creating a treat for hungry children who entered the house from the front door and exited from the back.  She toasted bread for breakfast, sharing the crust with Greta, our collie shepherd, who preferred hers with a bit of peanut butter.

On most days, however, Mom formed six even loaves, carefully kneaded and risen, and baked them three to a rack in an old gas oven.  Half way through the baking, she moved the loaves on the top rack to the bottom, and vice versa, to ensure that they were evenly baked. She taught me to remove the golden loaves from the oven, dump them out of their pans and tap on the bottom with a finger.  The ring of a hollow thump meant the loaf was fully baked.  A dull thump indicated that the loaf needed a few more minutes in the oven, least it be gummy in the center.  Placed on racks to cool, each loaf was coated with a thin layer of butter, so a soft crust would form.  An hour later, the cooled loaves were sealed in plastic bags, ready for the next hungry batch of children.

There was nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my mother’s sunbeamkitchen.  A huge slab of bread was spread with Sultana peanut butter, which was sold in a huge yellow tub that was later used to collect sea shells and starfish at the beach.  A second slab of bread was spread with strawberry preserves that Mom canned on hot June evenings.  The slabs were gently pressed together and cut on the bias.  Paired with a cold glass of milk, it was a filling repast fit for any king, or at least any kid.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mother made bread instead of buying it at the grocery store.  My friends ate Wonder Bread, or Batter-whipped Sunbeam bread.  Their sandwiches fit neatly into little bags, while mine were bigger, sloppier and had to be wrapped in flat sheets of waxed paper.  It seemed to me that Mom could have been doing things that were much more fun than kneading and baking.

I was right. Mom could have been doing other things.  But to her, feeding her family was an extension of who she was.  Her hands- the same gentle hands that wiped tears from little cheeks and pushed back bangs from sweaty foreheads firmly kneaded the loaves that would nourish her growing children.  Every cup of flour was measured with care.  Every slice of bread was a gift.  A metaphorical kiss.  A work of art laced with love.

Wish as I might, there will be no peanut butter and jelly on my mother’s homemade bread for me, today, or any other day.  But the memory is as sweet as Mom’s strawberry preserves, and the memory alone got me through to the next meal.  And it made me think of the meals I cook for my family.  Do I put as much love into the dishes I serve them?  Hmmm…food for thought.

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Piece of Cake

Last Monday evening when I got home from work, Elizabeth was sitting on the couch.  “I messed up your cake,” she said with a frown. 

I glanced at the stove and saw a chocolate cake sitting in a quiche pan.  It looked fine, except it had a rather large divot in the middle.

“Looks fine to me,” I lied.  “Just needs some frosting.”

Elizabeth grinned, walked to the kitchen and slapped a spoonful of frosting into the divot.  A few minutes later we were laughing together as we stuffed gobs of German chocolate into our mouths.

I wasn’t always so cavalier about cooking mistakes. Most of my friends let their children cook and bake with them, but I cringed to let my kids measure, stir and pour.  This is still an enigma to me.  When I was growing up, my mother encouraged us to experiment with gastronomy.  If we asked for cookies, she would hand us a stained copy of Betty Crocker, point us to the kitchen and remind us to clean up after ourselves.  As a result, I could cook dinner for ten people by the time I was in fifth grade. I thought nothing of whipping up a white sauce, or baking a three-egg cake, or turning out popovers for the family’s supper.

Unlike the stainless steel and granite kitchens of HGTV, the kitchen I grew up with had no counters.  A free standing double sink and the top of the clothes washer were the only work areas besides the kitchen table.  There was a gas stove whose pilot lights didn’t work.  I would timidly turn the dial and toss a lit match in the direction of the pilot, while simultaneously jumping to the other side of the kitchen in fear of my hair catching fire with the “Whoosh!” of the flame.  It is a miracle I didn’t blow up the entire house.

My favorite thing to make was cake.  Betty Crocker had pages and pages of delightfully named cake recipes, and I tried them all, from “Silver White Cake” to “Brown Betty Butter Cake.”  One day, despite my mother’s admonishment, I used a coin silver serving spoon to mix the batter instead of a wooden one.  Scraping the side of the glass mixing bowl, I lost my grip and the spoon got sucked in with the creamy batter, twisting and bending around the moving beaters.  Cheeks burning, I had to tell my mother I had disobeyed her and watch as she disentangled the mangled silver spoon.

I was not the only child in our family to have kitchen disasters.  One afternoon my sister Robin made frosting and deciding to experiment with food coloring, added several drops of each color to the sugar and butter.  The result was akin to something we would find in our baby brother’s diaper.  My father took one look at it, gagged and threw it in the trash.  Another time, my youngest sister Missy made pumpkin pie for the family.  It looked delightful- caramel in color, shiny on the top. When the last person was served we dug in together, anticipating the smooth sweet flavor of pumpkin and spice that would tickle our taste buds.  I looked across the table at Scott, whose bugging eyes and coughing confirmed my suspicion.  Soon everyone was sputtering and laughing, except Missy, whose face slowly turned a deep shade of crimson.  She had forgotten the sugar.

Despite these mishaps, my mother continued to encourage us.  Although none of us is exactly a gourmet, family pot lucks prove that we each have a robust gastronomic repertoire.

If I had it to do over again I would forget about the spills, turn a blind eye to the mess and let my kids measure and chop until they found their own inner chef.  They might have understood fractions sooner.  They might have learned not to open the oven door while a cake is rising. They might have learned to skillfully wield a knife like the folks on Food Network, or truss a turkey like Julia Child. They did not.  Instead they learned to “get-out-of-the-kitchen-while-Mom-makes-dinner.”

In spite of my hang ups, they are learning on their own, as adults.  They may make a few mistakes along the way, but they’re figuring it out.  Abby makes the best butter cream I’ve ever tasted. Gabe made me chicken korma after I had hand surgery.  And Elizabeth baked a delicious German chocolate cake for my birthday.  It might not have looked perfect, but it was made with love.  Besides, that little divot made the perfect pool for some extra frosting.

Greek Yogurt: Where MacGyver Meets Momma-G

I really love Greek yogurt.  Mixed with a banana, a handful of almonds andsunflower seeds, it is the power breakfast that keeps me running from six until noon, and helps me bypass the carbs that settle around what used to be my waist.

However, Greek yogurt is expensive.  Now that everyone is home for the summer, every food item has to undergo an evaluation to measure its cost against its relative family value.  In short, I have to trim the budget.

Madison women are known for our prowess in a budget conscious world.  In the seventies, my mother gardened, canned, put up jam, and yes, made her own yogurt for her family of ten.  She started with a yogurt maker, but within hours all five cups were gone.  She soon switched to a gallon size glass Sultana peanut butter jar, and used the pilot light in the gas oven to keep it warm.  It made wonderful albeit thin yogurt.  I still remember how my dad loved to mix it with homemade preserves and eat it as an evening snack.

Nobody sells gallon sized peanut butter jars anymore.  They do sell it in plastic buckets but it would take several years for my family to eat all that peanut butter.  The thought of that amount makes me gag.  Still, I needed something large and made of glass- not easy to find in this age of cellophane and Tupperware.  Undaunted, I dug deep into the cupboards and produced a large glass applesauce jar I had kept for storing home made soup. 

I looked up a basic yogurt recipe on the internet.  Easy- heat 2 cups of milk until boiling, cool, add 2 tablespoons of starter, and incubate for about twelve hours.  To make Greek style yogurt, just strain off the whey (technical talk for milk products) leaving the dense, tart concoction I crave.

I was able to boil the milk without trouble, and added the starter when it reached the proper temperature.  It was then that I hit a snag.  I have an electric oven. There is no pilot light.  It stays as cold as a stone when not in use.  When turned on, its lowest temperature is about one hundred and seventy degrees- about seventy degrees too high.

Hmm… what to do?

When my kids were growing up, one of our favorite television shows was MacGyver.  As any child of the eighties knows, MacGyver was a genius at finding unorthodox solutions to unusual challenges.   He made repairs from chewing gum, pen barrels and duct tape.  He had a clock powered by potatoes.  Not only that- he had a social conscience and was opposed to guns.  I thought I died and went to Heaven.  I think the kids outgrew him before I did. 

My kids dubbed me Mrs. MacGyver, because I too, did some unorthodox handiwork.  I have duct-taped sneakers, toothpasted nail holes and stapled hems with the best of them.  Also, I have performed repair jobs to which I will never admit, for fear of prosecution from past landlords. Suffice to say, I am fierce with a power drill.  

So I was not about to admit defeat over a small thing like this.  The crock-pot was too hot.  The cooler filled with warm water too cold.  After much pondering, I decided to try an electric heating pad.  I tried measuring the temperature on the lowest setting, by sticking my kids’ oral thermometer inside a folded area.  It kept beeping at me, displaying a message that means either the thermometer is improperly placed or the patient is dead.  I gave up, figuring I couldn’t go wrong with a Medium setting.

I carefully wrapped the jar filled with the precious white substance and secured the pad with a large elastic band.  Twelve hours later, I had produced the same runny yogurt of my mothers’ days.  It took me another twenty minutes to strain the yogurt through cheesecloth, which, by the way, is not easy to find. At long last, I produced my first batch of Greek yogurt.   I’m not sure how much money I saved, but MacGyver would be proud.

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