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Cheap Cream Cake
By Mary Ann Parker
THREE DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS in 1963, I stepped into the long, white dress I had just finished sewing, looped my arm through my father's, and grinned as I walked down the aisle of my childhood church toward the man waiting to become my husband. I was finishing the clinical portion of my nursing degree, and Joe was between jobs, so we skipped the honeymoon and drove from Texas to Oklahoma City to move into our first home. This tiny, furnished apartment was attached to another rental property. It looked like a playhouse because of its size, and definitely needed a lot of TLC. Joe painted, I cleaned, and as we moved our boxes of old stuff and new wedding gifts in, we were amazed how quickly the little kitchen, living room, and bedroom filled up.
Before I loaded kitchen gear into the few drawers there, I pulled out each, cleaned it, and lined it with shelf paper. As I opened the narrow drawer to the right of the small electric cooktop, I realized that one was not empty.
"Look what I found!"
Joe squished the paintbrushes under the kitchen sink faucet as he cleaned them. "What?" Turning, he nodded. "Somebody left a book?"
"Not just any book. See, it's called Hypatia Club 1903–1950, with 'cookbook' down at the bottom."
"Ah, so exactly what is a Hypatia Club?"
"I don't know, but inside it says 'Cushing, Oklahoma.' "
I held the book up, riffling the pages. "There are 576 pages with a handwritten recipe or other stuff. It isn't just different recipes; each one is a different handwriting. Looks like the person who contributed a recipe wrote it out herself."
Joe put away paint and paintbrushes and came to sit by me where I perched on the orange vinyl of a Danish modern love seat that served as part of the sparsely outfitted living room.
"I'll bet they sold it for a fund-raising project."
We turned through the pages.
Joe laughed. "Look at this one! Burnt Leather Cake?"
"That writing is so hard to read I can barely make sense of it, but it really does say to start with burning something—a cup of brown sugar. Do you really think that would taste good? I have been trying to learn not to burn things when I cook!"
"Sounds more like a western movie to me." Joe winked at me.
I found other recipes amusing, too ...
"I wonder about Epicurean Peas with frozen peas and shredded lettuce cooked together!" We saw there were pages of cleaning and household hints and advertising for local businesses, as well as a wide variety of recipes.
All the different handwriting gave it a personal touch. There we were in Oklahoma with lots of Oklahoman people offering their favorite recipes! Their names were almost as much fun to read as the names of their dishes.
The book became more than a curiosity. It was, after all, a cookbook! In the first week of my marriage, I began a habit that continues through to the present. I assess my pantry, pick recipes accordingly, and make menus for the week along with the list of groceries I need to buy. Because I kept the small note papers on which I wrote these menus and grocery lists for January first through Valentine's Day, 1964, I do not have to trust memory to tell you the first recipe I used from the Hypatia Club Cookbook, nor that I used that recipe before I had been married for a week. The first time, I chose the recipe because it required ingredients I knew I had, and it was simple. The name attracted my attention because I was proving my money-managing abilities. After that first time, there were different reasons for choosing it. None of the reasons have anything to do with the way it looks, because it is not a pretty cake. In fact, it is unlike any other cake you will bake! Plain.
My mother-in-law would have called it a sad cake. But at least one person declares it is just plain good.
"Joe, what do you want for your birthday cake?"
"Cheap Cream Cake."
"I'm planning Father's Day lunch. Any requests?"
"Cheap Cream Cake, please."
"Here's to you, Valentine!"
"Woo hoo! Cheap Cream Cake!"
Once a marble cake fan, Joe now favors this simple, not-so-sweet cake. I love that this is his favorite. All these years later, with people looking for low-fat desserts, I smile and say, "I know a cake recipe you could try."
I am not able to reproduce the uneven, quivery handwriting here, but the abbreviations and spelling are exactly as they appear in the Hypatia Club Cookbook. Have fun figuring out the missing directions!
CHEAP CREAM CAKE
1 c. sugar 1 tbsp butter, 1 egg,
c. sweet milk
2 c. flour,
1 tsp. Vanilla.
Bake in two layers.
Beat 1 egg, ½ c. sugar, ½ c. flour together.
Stir this into 2 c hot milk.
When thick flavor and spred on cake when cool.
—Mrs. Frank Combes
I have used other recipes from the book, such as Raw Tomato Relish from Lois Deacon and Kosher Dill Tomatoes by Ophelia Simon.
I still love thumbing through the book and looking at the writing—some spidery, some back slanted, some tiny and neat, some with sketches, some barely legible.
With today's technological advances, I can research and publish a book from my own corner in the kitchen if I wish. I can certainly google "Burnt Leather" and "Hypatia Club." So I find some answers to our long-ago questions. Yes, there really is a vintage recipe named "Burnt Leather Cake," in which you scorch brown sugar in a heavy skillet to make syrup that flavors both cake and icing. It is mentioned in letters and journals from the Oregon Trail in the 1880s and is reported to be delicious.
Also, in case you were still wondering, Joe ... The Hypatia Club was founded nationally in 1886 by Mary Elizabeth Lease as a woman's self-improvement organization and was politically active in the early days of women's rights. The purpose of the club was intellectual development and social stimulation. But the name of the book is mostly lost now. We just call it the "Cheap Cream Cake book." Many thanks to all the women who wrote down their good recipes and shared them with not only the Cushing, Oklahoma, community, but also whoever used and left it in my first kitchen. In my possession, your recipes, your names, and your handwriting have traveled far.
Like an Arancino
By Michael Procopio
Food for the Thoughtless
WHEN I THINK OF MY grandmother, I think of arancini.
It is an odd association, because she never once stuffed and fried a ball of leftover risotto. It hardly matters, because I don't think about her making them.
Instead, I think about her being one of them.
There is a particular story that everyone in my family remembers in great detail about my grandmother. That it is packed with drama, violence, and excellent set design is the primary reason for this vivid recollection. As a boy, I enjoyed the tale because, in it, Grandmom did her own stunts. As a grown-up, I love it because it explains her nature better than any other story could. And because she did her own stunts.
I fondly refer to this tale as "The Affair of the Handbag."
This isn't your typical, heartwarming, food-related granny story. The lady may have been a phenomenal cook, but she wasn't the type of woman about whom most food writers like to reminisce.
She never thought to teach me how to make her famous meatballs. There were no moments of deep, generational connection over a pot of simmering minestrone. She was more the type to roll her eyes at me as I shrieked at the sight of her bludgeoning an octopus in the sink.
My grandmother was a tough broad with excellent posture and a mind of her own. She held her nose high when she wasn't busy sharpening it against the grindstone of hard work; her home and her person were as immaculate as the Holy Conception in which she believed; and she knew the value of a hard-earned dollar, several of which she wisely invested.
As a girl, she abandoned her legal first name and demanded that everyone refer to her as "Rita." As a woman, she hopped a train bound for California with her son and left her husband, her family, and Philadelphia behind. Within a year, the entire family moved to be with her. On her turf. My grandfather came, too, but on her terms.
She frowned upon extravagant outward displays of wealth. Money, she believed, was to be invested and not flaunted. She wasn't what I would ever consider miserly—especially where her loved ones were concerned –- but she was never lavish. It was entirely against her nature to shower her grandchildren with toys and candy on Christmas. She gave us US savings bonds instead. She preferred to invest in our futures rather than our entertainment.
She was insufferably practical and marvelously intimidating.
And only a stranger or a fool would try to separate her from her money. Which is precisely what someone attempted to do in Palermo.
Because Rita did not enjoy the idea of being told where to go and when to go there, my grandparents ditched the end of their air-conditioned bus tour of Europe and hopped a plane for Sicily, which, as the homeland of her parents, was where she had wanted to go in the first place.
One afternoon in Palermo, they found themselves wandering a quiet residential street during the riposo. My grandmother likely enjoyed the lack of noise, but was disappointed by the drabness and decay of the houses. The streets were tidy, but the stucco on the houses peeled and cracked. No color. This was not how she imagined Sicily to be.
She didn't have long to process her disappointment. The annoying buzz of a motor scooter approaching from behind broke her concentration. It was a Vespa Lambretta—a mode of transportation charming when used by likes of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, but upsetting when the rider is a purse snatcher with no obvious Hollywood connections.
The thief may have viewed my grandmother as an ideal target—a sixty-something American tourist, which in thieving circles means: lots of cash, not much resistance. He did exactly what you might have expected him to do: He rode up behind her and grabbed her handbag. Unfortunately for him, my grandmother refused to play the role of the victim.
She held on to her purse.
Leaving my grandfather behind once again via an abrupt choice of transportation, she decided she would rather be dragged to death than let that dirty son of a bitch of a scippatore win. Her new and utterly confused chauffeur traveled with her for a block before he gave up. Though her nylons may have lost the battle, Rita won the war. It was the shortest excursion of her holiday, but it left the deepest impression.
As convenience would have it, my grandmother was deposited directly in front of the home of a luncheoning doctor. He ran to his window to find a woman of extreme middle age lying in the street below him: smudged, bloodied, and white-knuckling a handbag. (To this day, my cousin Ann Marie still marvels at the quality of that purse's stitching.) He helped her to her feet and brought her inside where he could examine her more closely.
Upon entering the doctor's house, my grandmother fell into a state of severe shock. Though her injuries were fortunately minor, it was the interior of this kind stranger's house that caused her convulsions.
She could not get over how beautiful everything in his home was. She was overwhelmed by the fact that a house, with a façade so dull and cracked and unassuming, could hide such inner richness.
As a headstrong woman with the apparent upper body strength to match, she recounted the story as though it were a foregone conclusion that she should be victorious over the purse snatcher. She was always more interested in telling us of the fine paintings, the sparkling crystal of the chandeliers, and gorgeous detail of the fabrics and draperies she found inside the doctor's house. She sounded like a female Ali Baba stumbling into the cave of the forty thieves rather than into the home of a good Samaritan.
When she talked of the doctor's furnishings, however, she wasn't bowled over by his wealth. Instead, I sometimes came away with the impression that she was moved by something else. Something deeper: the idea that something plain and sturdy and old could hold within its walls a beauty and a hidden richness that only those who are allowed inside can see.
When she told that story, I don't think she saw herself as the victor over the thief. I think, instead, she saw herself as the doctor's house.
At least, that's the way I see her now. A crusty, old woman with a no-nonsense façade but with a warm, rich heart shown only to those lucky enough to be allowed in to see.
Or, in culinary terms, like an arancino.
An important thing to remember about arancini is that it means "little oranges" in Italian.
I've heard one man on television tell his viewers that he likes to make them pear shaped, which would necessarily make them piccole pere. He clearly has no respect for the Italian language.
I doubt very much that my grandmother ever gave the matter much thought. It may have never occurred to her to make risotto in the first place, since it's a northern Italian thing. However, one of the most delightful notions about arancini is that the Sicilians have taken a food staple of the north and made it something very much their own.
It's almost as if they're saying, "Eat me, Po Valley," every time they make it—a culinary thumbing of the nose.
You can stuff your arancini with whatever suits your fancy. The following recipe, though bloody good, is merely one example. Just be certain to make the flavors bold. There is no room for subtlety in these little fried balls.
550 grams (20 ounces) of basic risotto, refrigerated. (About 5-ish cups of the stuff. I am not teaching you how to make risotto today. If you'd like to know how, try this place or this one, but for god's sake not this one. Just make a lot, so you can have enough left over to make this recipe.)
150 grams of pancetta (2 ½-inch-thick slices), finely chopped
1½ cups of grated smoked fontina cheese (I did not measure this in grams, but it's honestly not important.)
1 tablespoon of finely chopped parsley. I use Italian for obvious reasons.
3 whole eggs
Plenty of panko bread crumbs. About 2 cups. Regular bread crumbs are more authentic, but I am not authentically Sicilian, and therefore do not care.
A good amount of all-purpose flour, for coating and dredging. I wouldn't dream of measuring this and neither should you.
1 quart of vegetable oil for frying
As much salt and pepper as you are willing to invest
To make the filling, dice up the pancetta and cook gently over a low-to-medium heat until it releases a good amount of grease. Once it is sitting in a puddle of its own hot fat, turn up the heat to medium and cook until browned and fairly crispy. Remove from heat, drain onto a paper towel–lined plate. Once the pancetta has cooled, mix it together with the grated cheese and parsley. Cover and refrigerate overnight or until ready to use.
Pour the vegetable oil into your pan to a depth of 1 to 1½ inches deep. Warm the oil over low heat on the stove while you're assembling the arancini. I would strongly suggest you use a frying thermometer to properly gauge the ultimate desired temperature, which is 350°. If you are experienced enough to interpret the subtle changes in hot oil temperatures, you will not need one, and you have my full respect.
Preheat your oven to 400°.
Clear a good-sized workspace on your counter. Assemble ingredients to be put into three separate bowls: (1) two eggs, lightly beaten with about 2 tablespoons of cold water, (2) all-purpose flour generously sprinkled with salt and freshly cracked pepper, and (3) bread crumbs. Remove risotto and arancini filling from the refrigerator.
Divide the risotto into equal portions. I prefer to weigh mine for the sake of consistency to 55 grams, which is a substantial weight. If you're planning to serve your arancini as hors d'oeuvres, you will want to make them smaller. Roll the filling into balls roughly the size of a tablespoon and set aside.
Excerpted from ROOTS by Rita Arens, Julie Ross Godar, Stacy Morrison. Copyright © 2013 BlogHer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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