My first introduction to both cooking and baking came from my mom. As she tells it, she didn’t often have home-cooked meals or family dinners growing up and always thought it important that she give that to her family. As a result, my dad, my brother, my sister and I always had meals fresh from the oven or stove to grace our dinner table growing up – a fact I failed to truly appreciate at the time. Because she did not grow up on it, all of her skills and recipes are self-taught.
When she and my dad were first married, she began finding recipes from a variety of cookbooks, friends, and family to try and slowly tweak over the years, until she eventually accumulated a recipe box full of recipes on handwritten index cards, with plenty of tiny notes in the margins of attempted alterations or additions as well as little pink highlighter marks on the top right corners to denote recipes she had already tried, enjoyed, and planned to make again.
Of course, not all of her attempts at cooking were successes. She likes to tell the story of when she and my dad were first married and she tried to make “drunken franks.” Apparently, the recipe involves a lot of vodka in a sauce cooked in a pan on the stove top which ultimately allows the alcohol to cook out leaving behind plenty of flavor. She decided to make it a covered crock-pot to simmer for hours while both she and my dad left for work that day. Needless to say, they returned home to not just an apartment but their entire apartment building reeking of vodka and finding literal drunken franks as the alcohol had not only been unable to cook off in the covered crock-pot but had gotten much stronger in the hours of simmering. She and my dad got quite drunk off of dinner that night, and my mom learned never to cook recipes involving alcohol in a covered crock-pot again.I think everyone has certain recipes, meals, or foods which by a single bite or even just a smell, can immediately transport them to a specific childhood memory, regardless of where they are now in life or what they are presently doing. Although I cooked plenty of meals with my mom over the years, looking back, the thing I tend to remember most is baking with her. As a child, I loved following her around and “helping.” Admittedly, this “help” sometimes came in the form of taking a spoon to the raw brownie batter from the bowl while her back was turned after which she warned me once again to never to eat something with raw egg – a warning I still get from her at times even to this day as a 30 year old adult.
Still, I have very fond memories of baking with her, including spending whole days in the kitchen baking a plethora of Christmas cookies for family and friends around the holiday. We both have a sweet tooth so more than a few of these cookies ended up in our stomachs over the course of the day even before they had fully cooled. Whenever I bake any cookies now, Christmas or otherwise, I cannot help but think of those full days in the kitchen – nor can I help sampling a couple still warm from the oven…old habits truly do die hard I guess.Over the years, I have accumulated my own box full of handwritten recipes on index cards with their own pink highlighter marks. I have tried to become a little more adventurous in my own cooking – trying new recipes, working with new ingredients, attempting my hand at dishes from other cuisines that once seemed intimidating like Thai or Middle Eastern dishes. Yet, even as I attempt to expand the boundaries of my cooking comfort zone, there are still certain recipes, often baked goods, that I will always return to and which will forever remind me of my mom.
Reflecting on them, two recipes in particular come to mind – “Great Pumpkin” Cookies and Irish Soda Bread. If you would like to try your hand at either of these, please find the recipes here: NOT QUITE CHRISTMAS IN JULY: TWO ANACHRONISTIC BAKES.