In My Mother’s Kitchen

- December 6, 2011

"I recently marked the 20th anniversary of my mom's passing, and it caused me to pause, and reflect."

I recently marked the 20th anniversary of my mom's passing, and it caused me to pause, and reflect. I grew up in the kitchen at my mother's elbows, learning to make pie crust, barbecue sauce, buttery Thanksgiving stuffing, spanokopita and other delicious dishes from my mom, who died at age 56 in 1991.

The recipes she taught me are etched in my heart as well as my hands, and I make them regularly, not just for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter and other holidays.

My mother loved to cook. It was something she inherited from her grandmother, who grew up on a poor Virginia farm cooking for a family of six. My mom made the Southern staples – corn relish, fried chicken, mashed potatoes pooled with thick, rich gravy – as well as the upscale Julia Child recipes from the '60s, which featured butter, butter and more….butter. But she also could whip up a delicious pot roast, a fragrant homemade pie, and the perfect scrambled eggs, which she always stirred with a spoon to achieve the right consistency.

I remember getting a copy of the Betty Crocker's Boys and Girls Cookbook as a Christmas present one year, and I think I made every recipe in the darn thing, including the fancy Enchanted Castle Cake, the apple crisp (best recipe ever!) and the pancakes cut into animal shapes. When I finally went off to Iowa for my first newspaper job after college, my mom gave me a copy of the Joy of Cooking that she signed, of course: "To Lynn, on her 22nd Birthday, Love Mom & Dad."

The kitchen was the place where my mother and I could connect as we prepped Thanksgiving dinners, Sunday brunches and elegant dinner parties. She was in charge, but I greased the wheels, making sure that things ran smoothly. Though we fought over things like my friends, my clothes and my boyfriends, we agreed when it came time to pre-heat the oven.

When my mom grew sick, things changed. After her bouts of surgery, chemo and radiation, we hired a hospice nurse to help at home. Instead of rich, fun foods, she was restricted to a diet of broth, brown rice and other bland foods. Her appetite diminished, and she lost a lot of weight. As the illness progressed and the end came near, we took her out one night for a meal that she requested – sushi at one restaurant followed by grilled sausages at another. After that, we stopped for ice cream – lots of ice cream. It was to be one of her last meals.

A few days later, she was hooked up to an IV in a hospital bed at home. The only nutrition she took in was through a tube. Ironically, she lapsed into what the doctors called "salad talk," a toss of nonsense words.

When she slipped away, a neighbor and close friend who is now my stepmother had invited my dad, my brother, home from Los Angeles, and me over for grilled 

hamburgers, so we could take a break from our daylong vigil. We hadn't even started our dinner when her son-in-law's walkie-talkie squawked (he was the police chief then): "A woman has stopped breathing at…" the voice said, and it gave our address. We raced home, but were too late, and then we realized that she had been waiting for us to go, that she had not been able to leave this world while her family held vigil in her longtime bedroom.

Today, I still cook the recipes my mother handed down to me. And I have a few of her kitchen utensils, now vintage pieces, that I treasure, along with her copy of The Silver Palate (a long ago Mother's Day present to her from me) and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I always think of her as I'm rolling out the crust for a pumpkin pie, chopping the onions, bread and celery for the turkey stuffing, or making her famous chocolate almond cake. I am forever grateful that she passed along her passion for cooking to me.

Julia Child's Reine de Saba (Chocolate and Almond Cake)

4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon coffee or rum
1 stick butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/3 cup pulverized almonds
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup cake flour, sifted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour the cake pan.

Set chocolate and coffee or rum in a small pan, cover and place off heat in a larger pan of nearly simmering water. Let melt while you proceed with the recipe.

Cream butter and sugar together for a few minutes until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks until well blended.

Beat egg whites and salt in a separate bowl until soft peaks form. Sprinkle on the 1tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.

Using a rubber spatula, blend the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar mixture, then stir in the almonds and almond extract. Stir in ¼ of the beaten egg whites. Delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift in one third of the flour and continue folding. Alternate rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all egg whites and flour are incorporated.

Turn the batter into the cake pan, pushing batter up to the pan's rim with a rubber spatula. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes. Cake is done when it has puffed and 2 ½ to 3 inches around the circumference are set so that an inserted needle comes out clean. The center should move slightly if the pan is shaken and a needle comes out oily.

Allow cake to cool in pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and reverse cake on rack. Allow to cool for an hour or two so it is thoroughly cold before icing.

Glaçage au Chocolat (Chocolate Icing)

2 ounces semisweet baking chocolate
2 tablespoons coffee or rum
5-6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Place chocolate and coffee or rum in a small pan, cover and set in a larger pan of nearly simmering water. Remove from heat and let chocolate melt for 5 minutes, until perfectly smooth.

Lift chocolate pan out of the hot water and beat in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Then beat over a bowl filled with a tray of ice cubes and water to cover them, until chocolate mixture has cooled to spreading consistency. Spread at once over the cake using a spatula or knife.

Apple Crisp (From Betty Crocker's Boys and Girls Cookbook)

4 cups peeled, sliced apples
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
¾ cup flour
1/3 cup butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread apples evenly in square pan and sprinkle with water, cinnamon and salt. With pastry blender, mix sugar, flour and butter until crumbly. Spread crumb mixture over apples. Bake for about 40 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, if desired.