Mom’s Brownies

Okay, so as I’m going through my old columns, keying them in and so on, I ran across a mention of my mom’s brownies. Now I am suffering from an intense craving for them. Because I am nursing a horrible sinus infection, I simply don’t have the energy for baking. But I thought if I shared the recipe with you, it might help alleviate my longing. Well. It’s worth a try. I love these brownies—they are perhaps the most moist I’ve ever eaten. Of course, that’s the Hershey’s Syrup making it’s magic. Enjoy!

Preheat oven to 350.

Melt one stick of butter (or oleo, as mom says).

Mix it with one cup of sugar and four eggs.

Mix in one cup of flour and one 6-ounce can of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup.

Grease a 13 x 9 pan.

Pour the batter in.

Bake for 25 minutes.

After it cools, sprinkle powdered sugar over it.

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Dreams. Recipes. Life. My Grandmother’s Recipe Book.

I come from a long line of savers.   Sometimes I curse them for all the things they’ve left behind for me to sort through from time to time, other times I feel incredibly blessed.

One tattered blessing is a brown notebook brimming with recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers pasted on the pages, along with recipes written in my grandmother’s  handwriting. Some of the clippings are from the 1930s. This was when she first married, had a whole married life ahead of her, and was dreaming about what she would cook and bake for herself and her new husband in the years to come.

But there were wars to fight, careers to wield, and one very special baby girl to adopt, raise, and love. My grandfather went off to the war; my grandmother went to work—and found that she loved it, changing the landscape of their family life.

When I asked my mom about the recipes in this notebook, I was a bit surprised to find that my grandmother had never cooked most of them—at least not after my mom arrived on the scene. But only a bit.  After all, so many of us love our cookbooks, read them, dream over them, and yet don’t cook from them. As my mom said,  “As cooks we perfect several dishes we learn to rely on and sometimes we never branch out.” As the author of two cookbooks, you might think this trend upsets me, but it doesn’t. Thinking of readers dreaming over my cookbooks is every bit as satisfying to me as thinking of cooks cooking from them.

Still, as I run my fingers over the yellowed pages neatly put together and organized by my own grandmother’s hands, along with the comfort that envelops me, I feel a sense of regret. The passage of time requires us to pick and choose which dreams to follow and which recipes to make.

What I see here is so clearly my grandmother—the neat handwriting, the clear, organized mind at work in her table of contents and a meticulous index. (Unfortunately my camera doesn’t focus that well on her text.) Her passion for Chinese food is evidenced by these recipes and clippings, as well. She lists several recipes for chop suey, yet Mom only remembers her making chow mien.  Gram embraced Chinese food while my grandfather was stationed in China, then Burma. Chinese restaurants were popping up here and there, as well. My grandmother was the kind of a woman who would wake up at 2 a.m., hungry for Chinese food, and drive 40 miles to the nearest all-night Chinese restaurant to quell her craving. Such is the stuff of family history.

My mother waxes poetic over certain dishes her mother prepared. One of them is doughnuts. Eureka. Several doughnut recipes are contained in this book. The baked doughnut recipe calls to me and we’ll try it out sometime over the next few weeks. As we mix the dough and make a mess in our own kitchen,  I’ll tell my daughters stories about their greatgrandmother, her dreams, her recipes, her life.

Baked Doughnuts

Full disclosure: I’ve not tried this yet. If you try the recipe and it doesn’t work, please let me know. I’ve copied it exactly as my grandmother wrote it.

2 cakes compressed yeast of 2 packages dry granular yeast

¼ cup lukewarm water

1/3 cup shortening

2 tablespoon, salt

2 eggs beaten, melted butter and granulated sugar

1 ¼ cups scalded milk

½ cup sugar

1/1/2 teaspoons nutmeg

4 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

Soften yeast in the lukewarm water. Meanwhile scald the milk and pour it over the shortening, sugar, salt and nutmeg measured into a mixing bowl. When milk mixture cools to lukewarm, stir in softened yeast and eggs, the flour and beat until thoroughly mixed. Cover and let stand in a warm place until double in bulk (about one hour.) Then turn dough out onto a well-floured board. Shape into a soft ball, but do not knead. With floured hands, gently press the dough out to about ¾ thickness. Then use slightly floured rolling pin to roll dough to uniform ½ inch thickness. Brush off lightly any excess flour on the top. This dough is very soft. Cut-out with a floured 3-inch doughnut cutter, lift carefully with a pancake turner so as not to distort the round shape, and place 2-inches apart on a greased baking sheet.

Brush gently but thoroughly with melted butter or margarine and let rise until double in bulk—20 to 25 minutes. Bake in a 425-degree oven from 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately brush with hot melted butter while on the baking sheet, the remove from the pan and put two or three at a time into packer sack containing granulated sugar. Shake gently to coat. These are elegant served warm, but if any are left, they may be reheated in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes and will be just as delicious as when first baked. Makes 2 ½ to 3 dozen.

Garden Dreams

An old garden column on remembering to dream

I had such a vivid dream the other night. I dreamed that Emma and I were walking down the beach together. We both had our shoes off and she was squealing with delight when the water would wave in and touch her feet. As I always do when I visit the ocean, I felt the awe and wander of it, along with the fear of it—especially as I watched my very small child teetering on the edge of sand and sea.

Being about seven month pregnant now, I can tell you that my dreams have gotten very strange and vivid, even more so than usual. I am one that almost always remembers my nighttime wanderings.  In fact, I have written a couple of short stories about my dreams. But when I am pregnant, dreams get even stranger.

The other night, I dreamed that I was back at my townhome in Reston in postage-stamp backyard we had magically transformed into a beautiful scentual garden. Even though I was sleeping, I woke up feeling as if I was actually smelling the lemon verbena, chocolate mint, lavender, and sage. And it was as if the pink of the yarrow and the bright purple of the echinacea in that garden were more than a distant memory. It was closer now. I did not even have to close my eyes to see it.

In my dream, I also saw the lilac bush we planted in the corner along the fence.  And it was in full bloom. We bought it during an excursion to Harper’s Ferry, which is one of our favorite places.

Many of the other plants in our Reston garden came from a different nursery in Harper’s Ferry. For my 30th birthday, my husband took me there and said, “Get what you want.” I remember the older gentleman who owned the store telling me about feverfew and how good it is for migraines. “It tastes awful, but it does the trick.” He was right, it did taste awful, and it worked on my headaches. What he did not mention is how beautiful the plant gets, with little white spiky flowers and a beautifully-oblong leaves providing such an interesting texture in the garden.

One my favorite places to get herbs is the Goose Creek Annual Herb Fest at the Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, usually the first weekend in May. Some of the best vendors in the northeast are there and the Oatlands garden itself is open and is a work of art. Every herb I have bought there has been healthy and has given me many hours of joy, especially in my backyard Reston Garden.

It was such a small space that we were forced to be creative. Eric built raised beds all along the fence. They were about 2 and half to 3 feet wide. Then we decided to put flagstone down on what was left of the grass—there was not much and we thought it would be ridiculous to mow it. (And if you don’t mow your grass in Reston, you can get a hefty fine.) We then placed a swing under the deck and spent many hours there, enjoying the garden, reading, writing, talking, and sometimes entertaining.

We sat among the herbs and all of different scents and textures during many summer evenings and planned and dreamed of a future that included children and moving to the country. (And here we are—well, almost.)

For better or worse, those long, idling days are gone. Our dreams have come true—our focus has shifted to a rambunctious two-year-old, and a new baby on the way. Another kind of garden, if you will.

We look forward to teaching them about the earth and its many pleasures, including gardening and herbs. And we also look forward to seeing all this through their eyes and making new discoveries with them in the Shenandoah Valley and wherever our lives take us. And now, as we settle more into our new lives here, we make new discoveries, along with tedning some memories.

Many of my memories with my husband center on the mountains we have hiked, the gardens we have tended, the herbs we grew, and where we purchased them. Each plant and herb holds a memory and tells a story for us.

As you get the soil ready for the spring and begin to gather your own herbs and plants, remember that yes, it’s important to know how to fertilize, what temperature to plant in, which plants like the sun and which don’t.  But it’s also important to be mindful of the creation you are taking part in, the memories, the stories. And when it comes to your garden, dream a little and see where it takes you.

Five things I thought about during my morning run:

1. Looking over some of my garden columns. Yes–I had a garden column at one point for a local paper long out of business.  It focused on herbs and herb lore and sometimes I wrote about other things. But I’ll be posting some garden thought in the upcoming weeks. Gardens were such a part of life on Fish Pot Road–and since then for me. It just makes sense.

2. I have another contractor coming over this week. I’m hoping to talk with three and then make a decision.

3. I gave up on the Virgin’s Lover. Then I went to Amazon and read some of the reviews. Some people loved it, but many people felt the same way I did.

4. Now I’m reading The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne. It’s breathtaking.

5. A year ago I was in New York City finally meeting Monica and Charmain after a few years of email conversations. I also met many new friends, like Warren and others. That weekend, I had the best pizza in my life in Brooklyn. I will never forget it.

Five things you may be surprised to know about me:

1.     I don’t bake pie on a daily basis. I never did and probably never will. heh.

2.     I took a quilting class when I was 23 and I’ve made 4 quilts in my life. Working on finishing the fifth and have plans for a new one. This one is for me.

3.     I love paper, which may be the reason toward the pull I feel toward scrapbooking. And why I will always have (physical) books around. One of my first memories is falling in love with blank newspaper my grandfather brought to me. He was a layout artist at the Beaver County Times. I took a pencil wrote headlines, drew boxy little articles all over it.

4.     I never wanted to have children until I saw my oldest niece, Carly, shortly after she was born. “Cool, I want one,” I thought. I didn’t get one until I was 36. And she is a doozy.

5. In real life, I don’t make friends easily, I’m kind of shy and fearful of letting people get too close to me. If you’re a friend of mine, though, you know it. I’m not standoffish. I need to make that clear. I am just careful about who I trust. I learned that  the hard way. And I continue to learn it from time to time.

Red Velvet Lovey-Dovey Pie for Valentine’s Day

Red velvet is special in the Bryan house. Last year, I made my first red velvet cake from scratch for my husband of now nearly 20 years. Red velvet cake is his favorite. We’ve bought so many of them over the years for him that I really had no idea what a homemade red velvet cake would taste like. He asked for a homemade cake and that is what he got. Quite happily.

Of course, the cake was so much tastier. And I fell in love with the process and idea of making cake. But pie is more a part of my family tradition—and it is the subject of my cookbook, even though it’s Mrs. Rowe’s pies, not my own.

So as I found myself enjoying making the cake, I also felt a little like a traitor to pie. But I learned a lot about the cake that I wouldn’t have known without actually making it. It’s not a simple chocolate cake—as some have suggested to me. It’s really a buttermilk-cocoa cake. I’m no fan of sipping buttermilk—but it adds a depth of flavor and tang to cooking and baking that’s hard beat.  As I was mixing the cake, I thought of Mrs. Rowe’s buttermilk pie. How easy would it be to make it into a “red velvet” pie? Quite easy, as it turns out.

I just added cocoa and red food coloring to an otherwise perfect buttermilk pie recipe. The pie gets a thin cakelike skin on it as it cools, which is lovely for topping purposes. It would work with a number of toppings. But for me, it’s not red velvet without the cream cheese icing.

This recipe is a perfect example of how versatile pie is—once you have a good, solid recipe that works, it’s fun and easy to experiment with it. I call this pie my “Lovey-Dovey Red Velvet Pie” because I’m honoring my husband’s Southern traditions and tastes while also acknowledging my own pie-loving Yankee family and traditions. Perfect for Valentine’s Day.

Makes one 9-inch pie

1 pie crust

1 cup unsalted butter, melted, slightly cooled

1 cup sugar

½ cup all purpose flour

3 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 heaping teaspoons of cocoa

1 ounce of red food coloring

Preheat oven to 325. Line a 9-inch pie plate with dough and crimp the edges.

In a bowl, combine the butter, sugar, and flour, and stir
well. One at a time, add the eggs. Mixing well after each addition. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and stir well. Next, add the cocoa and stir into filling. Last, stir in the food coloring. Red, isn’t it?

Pour the batter into the pie crust.

The original buttermilk pie recipe called for baking for 25 to 35 minutes, until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. But it took 45 minutes in my oven for it thicken. When you insert the knife, there will be a little filling on it—but it continues to firm up as it cools.

Transfer it to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, until the filling firms up. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

You can top this with just about anything; I used a cream cheese icing recipe that was a bit too sweet. I’m still searching for a better cream cheese topping for this pie.

Disclaimer: this post is a rehash of an earlier one.

Holiday “Black Sheep” Pizzelles

I am sort of the black sheep of my family, the one who had the audacity to move away from Western Pennsylvania. According to my certain members of my family, moving away is almost as bad as, oh, I don’t know, having served jail time or something.

Since I have had children and moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia from Washington, D.C., home is on my mind more. Perhaps it’s because where I live now is so similar to where I grew up. Perhaps it is because I somehow see my childhood more clearly now that I have my own children. My memory banks reach further into my childhood with each passing year. I sometimes catch myself, unguarded, longing for something from home and usually it’s food.

I was recently at the local grocery store and a flat round cookie caught my eye. My heart raced. Could it be the pizzelles of my youth, wrapped in pretty cellophane paper?

(Photo by Stacy of Total City Girl.)

(Photo by Stacy of Total City Girl.)

My grandmother, Irene, made these delicious cookies every Christmas. They were a lighter and more delicate flavor than most of our other holiday treats—the rich brownies and nut cakes and prettier than the poppyseed cakes and rolls.

Holiday organ music would blare into Gram’s kitchen, where she was firmly planted for the day. This was an unusual stance for Gram, a woman who was the assistant controller at the Aliquippa Hospital for twenty-some years— part of the generation of women who worked outside of their homes but would never call themselves feminist. She loved being in the kitchen and dishing out treats, but she simply did not have the time or energy to do it on a daily basis. If there was a computer problem at the hospital at 2:30 in the morning, her phone would ring and she’d be there in 30 minutes. Gram’s pizzelle making was carefully planned and usually done on a Saturday a few weeks before Christmas—and if I was lucky, I was there to relish in the smells and the holiday atmosphere.

Pizzelles take time and special equipment. In Italy, hundreds of years ago, the pizzelles were baked over an open fire with simple irons. Today, there are non-stick electric pizzelle irons, similar to waffle irons. The thin eggy mixture is poured on the hot iron and pressed down with a lid. The result is  6-inch cookies that look like squashed, round waffles, with delicate-looking snowflake designs pressed into them.

Photo by Steve Snodgrass

Lifting the cookie from the iron can be tricky. Broken pizzelles happen. But the broken bits are great for satisfying impatient children like myself and my sister, who were eagerly awaiting a taste, usually perched on Gram’s kitchen stools.

For purists, pizzelles are only flavored with anise, (with maybe a little vanilla.). My grandmother, for example, at first, only made the original anise-based recipe. But she found that lemon works nicely, too. My favorite is the chocolate—best before they harden, still slightly warm. The thought of my grandmother’s “experimental” chocolate pizzelles still warms me—a testament to her kitchen creativity.

Funny thing is, my family is not Italian and I don’t know how or where my grandmother heard of pizzelles. We are mostly of Scotch-Irish, English, and German heritage, the lineage of most of the pioneers of the region  But, Gram’s work at the Aliquippa Hospital placed her in the center of our ethnically diverse steel mill community, so it’s not hard to imagine one of her colleagues sharing the pizzelle tradition and recipe with her.

The flat Italian cookie took me by surprise at the Kroger. I had not thought about them in years. As I picked up the package, I was moved to tears. Yep. Standing at the Kroger crying. It was like a great, empty wound exposed—both to myself and those unlucky shoppers around me.

Now, I have my own pizzelle iron and carry on the tradition from my Shenandoah Valley home, with my daughters by my side, every Christmas. I tell them stories about my grandmother as we fashion our own pizzelles. One year, we added bright red strawberry flavoring, giving the cookie a more festive look.

I try my best not to break the cookies as I pull them from the iron, but when I do, my daughters happily fill the role of my sister and I all those years ago in our grandmother’s Pennsylvania kitchen.

Curiouser and Curiouser, My Pie Adventure In New York City

I’m just back from New York City. A curious place when it comes to so many things—especially pie. The week I was there the New York Times had just come out with an article about pie being the new cupcake. Well, something should be. I like a good cupcake, but what’s all the fuss about? (I have friends who are really into them and I always say, “You realize cupcakes are just small cakes, right?” )

I arrived in the city late on Tuesday night, after a harrowing flight in the middle of a storm. It’s a good thing I hadn’t eaten since noon because I’m sure I’d have gotten sick. But it was a bad thing, too, because I was starving and after placing my bags at my friend’s apartment and saying hello, I was off to find some food. I went to a local diner, and ordered soup and pie.  According to the menu, the pie was homemade. Well, suffice it to say, it was not.

The offending pie.

I ordered a gorgeous chocolate cream pie that was one of the fakest-tasting pies I’ve shoved into my mouth. Pure chemicals. The whipped cream was hardish and the “chocolate cream” was not creamy at all. The crust was like cardboard. Hmmm. A friend of mine stopped by to see me briefly and he took a bite. “Toxic,” he said. And that sums it up.

The next day at a meeting at my agent’s office, they bristled when I told them about this pie. “Never order pie at a diner in the New York City.” Curious. In the rest of the country, diners are usually a good bet when it comes to pie. If they are not homemade, they may be 50/50 pies (frozen crust, homemade filling), or decent frozen pie. (Some of that is not edible, but once in a while a good frozen pie will do.)

Even though I love pie and dessert of all kinds, I don’t make a habit of eating a lot of sweets. This pie affected my whole trip. It was awhile before I could look at a sweet.

So dear readers, my pie report is not much of one at all. But there was hope in the form of tarts, which I ate a little later during my trip.

I had a lovely lunch with my new Kensington editor, Martin Biro, at Bryant Park Grill. Of course, we had dessert. I ordered an apple tart. A long skinny slice of a big tart, served with a little scoop of cinnamon ice cream. There’s really not much difference between a pie and a tart, is there? This slice of apple and cinnamon and crust was perfectly spiced, extremely fresh, baked to perfection.

Later, I went out for pizza with a friend who is a native New Yorker. He bought the pizza: and I treated for dessert. I wanted pie. “When you are in New York, you don’t have pie, you have cheesecake or pastry. “ Curious. Okay, I had a cannoli, which was so delicious and rich that I couldn’t finish it. My mouth wanted more, but my full stomach protested.

The next day I wandered through Chelsea Market—I was eager to try a brownie from the famous Fat Witch, but alas, they were closed. But Sarabeth’s was open. Now, Sarabeth’s was on my original list of pies to try. But they weren’t offering pie so early in the day. I’ve always felt that when you travel, you must keep an open mind and go with the flow. So to speak. A tart would do.

I ordered a  ginger pecan tart and if Sarabeth’s pies are the same quality as their tarts (small pies, after all), there is hope in New York City for not just decent pie, but incredibly delicious pie. Fresh ingredients. Good crust. Not too sweet.

Is it really that complicated, New York City?