31 May 2010

Family recipe Monday: more classic cakes

The oatmeal cake recipe

Yes, it is written on the back of a blank check, just as you suspected.

We are still adding to the Simple Gifts files of recipes and stories from the extended families in all directions. That would be a lot of directions, as we now have to factor in the stories from Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Mexico, in addition to the Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma files. Many of the best ones were never written down, as previously noted. We're finding that to be a truism on many of the fronts.

Cakes always seem to take up a disproportionate amount of space in the written files, though. They seem to have been viewed as the true tests of baking skill. Here are three arranged in order, from simplest to fanciest.

Oatmeal cake
Pour 1 ½ cups boiling water over 1 cup oatmeal and I stick butter or margarine. Do not stir. Let stand covered for 20 minutes. Mix

1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp nutmeg
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

Mix oatmeal and above. Mix together and bake in greased biscuit pan for 30 minutes at 350* F.

Top with mixture of
¾ stick butter or margarine
¼ cup Pet (evaporated) milk
½ cup sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup coconut
1 tsp vanilla

Spread on cake while hot and brown under broiler.
--Lela Lawson, Vada Brooks Johnson

Note: The biscuit pan referred to above is not a pan with individual biscuit/muffin cups; it is simply a 9" diameter round metal pan, like a cake layer pan but a bit shallower. You can use a pie pan or plate to get the same results. That broiler time should be extremely short, maybe a minute.

I don't remember when carrot cakes started popping up in the family cooking options, but here is a bit of history from Candis Reade: "Carrot cake is a confectionery conundrum: it seems you either love it, or you hate it. But either way, theres no denying the appeal of this rich dessert throughout history. Food historians tell us that the origins of carrot cake were likely a type of carrot pudding enjoyed during medieval times. Later, during the Middle Ages, sweetening agents were hard to come by in Britain and quite expensive, so as a result, carrots were often used in place of sweeteners. Interestingly, despite being such a longstanding mainstay in Europe, American cookbooks didnt start listing carrot cake recipes until the early 1900s. And, it was actually in the 1960s before carrot cake began becoming a more common cake in the United States, soon becoming the dessert of choice at summer family reunions picnics and Mothers Day celebrations." Add a few commas and apostrophes there, and you're all set.

This is Carol's Carrot Cake. I am not sure who Carol is (I assume that she is the "she" referred to), but apparently someone in our line disagreed with her on the amount of cream cheese in the frosting, enough to mention it twice. Note on the other side of the recipe: “The original cook used only a 3-oz. package of cream cheese, but we prefer more cheese.” Sorry, Carol. We're nothing if not self-indulgent. So there.

Carol's carrot cake
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
2 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
3 cups grated carrot
1 ½ cups corn oil
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Mix all dry ingredients together. Add oil, eggs and vanilla and blend well. Bake in three 9” pans at 350* F for 30 minutes or until done.

1 8-oz. package cream cheese
1 stick butter or margarine
1 box powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans

Cream the cheese and butter. Add sugar, vanilla and pecans. Blend well. Add milk if necessary and spread.

P. S. Grate carrots real fine and pack in cup--usually takes a whole bunch. Also she uses 3 oz. cream cheese instead of the 8 oz.
--via Shirley Johnson Shelton

Finally, here is one of the recipes that won a blue ribbon for my grandmother at the South Plains Fair. This one is a real test of skill. Warning: Any recipe with parts listed in Roman numerals is going to take up most of your baking day. I don't know what the name of it was before the Fair, but it was never going to have any other name afterward.

Prize chocolate cake

Part I
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ cups sweet milk
¾ cup cocoa
Cook these ingredients to a medium thick syrup and allow to cool. Add 1 tsp vanilla.

Part II
¾ cup butter
3 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ tsp baking soda
4 T cold water
¾ cup sour milk
3 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar until light and puffy, and add eggs not separated. Next the water with soda dissolved in it. Mix well. Add flour and milk alternately and beat well. Now add part I and beat again. Pour into lined cake pan and bake at 350* F 40 minutes.

2 cups brown sugar
½ cup rich milk
2 T butter

Cook to soft ball in cold water. Beat until creamy.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Caveat I: If you're not familiar with the art of cooking sugar and candy, don't start this recipe just yet. Of all places, the Exploratorium in San Francisco has the best instructions on the science of candy here. This entire Science of Cooking section is terrific.

Caveat II: Sour milk is not the same as buttermilk. It was originally literally milk that had started to turn. You don't have to wait for milk to go bad, though. Add a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to fresh milk instead, as detailed here.

The note "add eggs not separated" is an interesting turn of phrase. I notice that this is the second recipe posted here with instructions for making "filling" rather than "frosting" or "icing." Wonder if this was an Oklahoma colloquialism that we've lost the use of today?

Happy Memorial Day, all.

27 May 2010

Scenes from Sioux Falls III: signs

Fair warning

Collecting signs is an extremely interesting way to make a road trip meaningful. Also a hazardous one. I seem to attract a disproportionate number of tail-gaters and bewildered stares as the drivers zoom past. This makes it a good idea to travel the blue highways, but prevents documentation of the huge, often obnoxious interstate billboards. The signs on my roads are smaller and better behaved, if occasionally weirder. Enjoy.

Hayes, SD

Bad River sign

I know that this is not a sign, but I don't know where else to put it....or even for sure what it is, though my money is on a rocking Longhorn...

Nice juxtaposition of signs

Plum Creek station marker

And here is everything else you might need to know about the Plum Creek station

It's a very large area.

A very tasteful Wall Drug sign

Another Wall Drug sign, which should delight the herpetologists

A final warning

26 May 2010

Scenes from Sioux Falls II: architecture of the open spaces

House, South Dakota, surrounded by sudden spring greenery

Driving across the southern half of South Dakota, west to east and then back, is an odyssey in hard-scrabble vernacular architecture. There is no place in the state that provided an easy life, and these deserted structures are mute testaments to the harshness of prairie life. Some of them are unexpectedly beautiful, by purpose or by accident, with colors as striking as the quilts of Gee's Bend. Since starting this project, I am always taking the tiny blue highways and looking behind trees--where there are trees--and around curves--where there are curves.

Barn, South Dakota

The violent weather in the state this past weekend reminded me just how tough it was to survive through the winter and spring. Every season brought its dangers and its beauties. There was never any guarantee that this season would not be the last.

Barn after heavy rainstorm

These shots are just a tip-of-the-iceberg sampling of the lovely, lone sentinel buildings on the prairies. Every one has its story, but many of those are lost. Their whispers are wordless.


Abandoned barn

Working barn

Christ Episcopal Church, Ft. Thompson

Abandoned church

Grain elevator. If ever a shot demanded black-and-white photography, this is it.

Hilltop buildings


House with metal roof

House and outbuilding


They have survived their builders, outlived their families, and even outlived their purposes. Don't drive by them too quickly--they are the last of their kind.

25 May 2010

Scenes from Sioux Falls I: birds

Shorebirds, Sioux Falls area

We spent last weekend driving to Sioux Falls and back, a distance of 350 miles if you stay on the interstate, which we did not. Because we were going to the spring meeting of the South Dakota Ornithological Union, we (predictably) stayed on the blue highways as much as possible. The weather was wildly unsettled--there were tornadoes in other parts of the state, more of a rarity here than in West Texas--and there was at least as much good birding on the drive as there was at the meeting.

There is, as you will see, a great deal of nesting activity going on, in spite of the fierce high winds and cold rain over much of the weekend.

Golden eagle on nest. We did not want to get any closer. There were two downy white eaglets under her--we could see their heads, and one of them stretched its wings while we were watching.

Lone grebe at roadside pond.

Terns in flight

American robin on nest

Yellow-headed blackbirds in reeds

Hudsonian godwit

Hudsonian godwit

Ruby-throated hummingbird in silhouette

Tree swallow on nest box, not going anywhere until the weather improves


Green heron, refusing to be a yellow-crowned night heron

White pelicans on Misouri River

Rose-breasted grosbeak

Marsh scene: yellow-headed blackbird, Canada goose on muskrat hut

Yellow-throated vireo on nest

24 May 2010

Family recipe Monday: soup's on

Late May in eastern South Dakota. Definitely soup weather.

Soup recipes include the ultimate comfort foods. There is nothing quite like them, especially for a crowd on a cool night. Many of these are meals in themselves. What’s even better is that many of these are very forgiving recipes that encourage and respond well to experimentation, substitutions, or panic-stricken corrections. Ask us how we know. Better yet, don’t.

This is a good time to start making big batches of soup stock to have on hand for the summer. It's still cool up here (that is a major understatement--it's thunderstorm/tornado season up here, and the temperature is fluctuating wildly). Having stock on hand reduces the amount of cooking time later in the summer, when the prairie sets its own temperature to Broil and no one wants to add any more heat than necessary, anywhere. Here are some ideas from the files.

This is a recipe that Shirley sent to everyone with the following comments:

“We found this incredibly wonderful recipe to use some of the roasted green chiles we brought home from Albuquerque. The source is The Feast of Santa Fe, by Huntley Dent. We thought you might like it.... we did!”

We did.

From the book: “This most simple and delicious of Southwestern soups is really a shortened form of the green chile stew called a cocido. It tastes purely of green chiles, but the mealy potatoes smooth the taste and make it more comforting than raw chili could ever be. A soup very much like this is served every day at The Shed, the most popular lunch place in Santa Fe, just off Sena Plaza.”

Potato soup with green chiles

2-3 T vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp black pepper
Pinch oregano
2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks as for vegetable soup
8 whole canned green chiles, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
Optional: 2 T canned jalapeƱos
5 cups chicken broth
Optional garnish: shredded Monterey Jack cheese or chopped cilantro
For variation: ½ cup sour cream

Heat the oil in a 2-quart saucepan; add the onion and garlic, and cook, covered, over low heat for about 5 minutes so that the onion can wilt. Uncover the pan, raise the heat to medium, and stir in the cumin and pepper. Stir for 2-3 minutes or until the onions start to show signs of browning, then add oregano, potatoes, green chiles, jalapeƱos (optional), and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer slowly for 45 minutes. Serve very hot with the optional cheese or cilantro sprinkled over each portion if you like.

Variation: the addition of ½ cup of sour cream, stirred in off the heat after the soup has finished cooking, makes it taste even richer, and many people would say even better.

Basic white chicken broth

6 lb. chicken backs, necks or bones, or 6 lb. stewing hen cut into 8 pieces
1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium-sized carrot, coarsely chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 bouquet garni (10 fresh thyme springs, 1 large bunch parsley, 1 bay leaf tied together, or 2 T dried thyme, 1 bunch parsley, including stems, coarsely chopped, and 1 crumpled bay leaf, all in cheesecloth bag)

Trim excess fat and all skin from chicken, Put vegetables and bouquet garni in the bottom of a 10- to 12-quart stockpot, add the chicken and pour over enough water to barely cover. Heat over medium to high heat until the eater comes to a simmer. Turn the heat down low enough to keep broth at a slow simmer and cook for about 3 hours, For the first 30 minutes, occasionally skim off any fat or froth that comes to the surface. When broth is done, strain into clean heat-resistant container. Let cool for an hour before refrigerating. Next day, spoon off and discard any fat on surface. Yield: 3 ½ quarts.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess

White bean soup with rosemary

2 T olive oil
1 ½--2 cups finely chopped yellow onion (1-2 medium)
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1 large branch rosemary (5-7”)
~3 cups drained cannellini beans (2 14.5-ounce cans)
4 cups chicken stock or broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large, wide-bottomed stock pan or saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add onions, garlic and whole rosemary branch and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the beans and stock, cover partially, increase the heat to medium-high, bring to a simmer and cool for 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat; cool for 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary branch. Transfer cooled soup to a food processor and puree in batches. Return soup to pot and place over medium heat until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess

Happy Monday and good cheer.

18 May 2010

Notes from Minnesota: great blue heron rookery

Great blue heron in rookery tree, Minnesota

The Minnesota branch of the clan has sent in some amazing shots of a heron rookery in the Mississippi River near their place. Great blue herons are the majestic slow-flying birds seen across the country at any available body of water--streams, lakes, ponds, fish hatcheries, and the like. They stand four feet tall or so, with six-foot wingspans. It's startling at first to see them nest so high up. The altitude and the island site together make an excellent predator defense, along with the close grouping of nests.

Rookery island in Mississippi River

Rookery trees on island

Rookery trees

Great blue heron flying in with nesting material

Heron penthouse