Monday, October 19, 2009

Pound Cake

Pound Cake. This is one thing my mom, who has never fully embraced matters of the kitchen, does really really well. It's her specialty and her required dish at every family get-together. 

I guess, partially because it was always around the house growing up, pound cake has never really held much appeal for me. Sure I'll indulge in a piece when it's fresh out of the oven and I can appreciate its delicious simplicity. But pound cake is my mom's thing and there has never really been a reason for me to try to bake one. Until now. 

In my great-grandmother's collection there is a recipe entitled Grandmother's Pound Cake, which should, if the title is correct, be my great-great-great-grandmother's. It's a well-used pieced of paper, stained and wrinkled, with simple instructions written in my great-grandmother's lovely script. She was born in 1908, which means my great-great-great-grandmother was probably making this recipe in the second half of the 19th century if not before. 


This recipe lacks much of the hand-holding that many modern recipes offer, like baking time or temperature. But I have watched my mom make enough pound cakes to know that I needed to soften the butter and grease and flour my bundt pan. I turned to the Joy of Cooking's basic pound cake recipe for baking time and temp (up to 90 minutes and 325º). 

My pound cake turned out beautifully, dense and moist with good crust. It wasn't as good as those that my mom makes, which rise high and turn a rich, deep brown; but it was a good start. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I can remember the big mason jar of this stuff every time we sat down  at my great-grandmother's table. I'd stare at it skeptically  as my dad scooped it onto his beans with relish and passed the jar around the table. I can't remember even once actually trying it. So when I found this recipe in the collection, I thought I should finally give chow-chow a go.  

First off, take a look at it. The list of ingredients is insane - two gallons of green tomatoes, three heads of cabbage, 12 onions, 12 red peppers, 12 green peppers, 12 apples, six pounds of sugar? 

This recipe is attributed to "Ma Ma Griffin," who, I'm pretty sure, is my grandfather's grandmother. I envision it as a once a year thing; made with friends, canned, shared with neighbors and stored up for particularly lean times. So right off the bat, I cut the recipe by six. 

I was also unable to find green tomatoes this time of year, so I substituted tomatillos. One thing that may hinder me slightly in this little experiment is that I'm really not a "by the books" kind of cook. I like to play, toss in dabs of this and pinches of that. I do, however, like to think that I inherited this tendency from my great-grandmother and since these are her recipes - it should all turn out just fine. 

This recipe calls for grinding all of these vegetables and fruits by hand. Hand-grind 48 vegetables, two gallons of tomatoes and three cabbages? I don't think so; out came the food processor. Once I got started, the recipe was really very easy. Chop all the fruits/vegetables and let them drain overnight. The result was a bright, colorful hash. 

The next morning I added vinegar and brown sugar and voila, chow-chow. I love the last line of this recipe, it's a personal touch you just don't find in cookbooks or online. I'm not sure chow-chow will become a staple on my table, but it sure was fun to finally give it a try. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

And so it begins.

Saturday morning before our weekend houseguest was even out of bed, there I was in the kitchen, wrist-deep in biscuit dough. 

Now I know that in her whole life, my great-grandmother never once used a recipe for biscuits. I'm sure that she learned from her mother, probably before she was even old enough to tie her own shoes or reach the kitchen counter. But I missed that boat; I wasn't ready when she was still able to teach. 

I have, after my first failed attempt, actually managed to make several batches of respectable biscuits over the years thanks to a recipe from the Amateur Gourmet. Adam's recipe involves ingredients that most of us already have on hand and a few quick pulses of a food processor. These biscuits are quick, easy and satisfying - but nothing like those of my great-grandmother. 

So Saturday morning, I dug out the pastry cutter (purchased at a thrift store years ago) and found this recipe in her collection, Sue's Best Biscuits.  I set to work in the hopes that the result would be something like those biscuits my great-grandmother churned out all those years ago.  


They weren't even close. 

They were flaky, golden and better than any I had ever made before; but they weren't her biscuits. However, as I was cutting shortening into the flour, measuring out a half-quart of buttermilk and remembering how she always mixed her biscuit dough by hand; I was following her lovely script and reliving memories of her kitchen. It felt good. 

There is still some hope of recreating my great-grandmother's biscuits - my grandmother. She lives only about three hours away and I think a visit is in order. 

Next up in the collection - chow chow. 

The recipe: 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I don't know biscuits ...

All my life, my great-grandmother, Dorcus Kreola Philbeck, was in constant amazement that at the age of 8, 10, 12, 14, 20, etc. – that I didn’t know how to make biscuits. Well, at the age of 29, I made my first rock hard, flat biscuit and in the spring of that year, at 99, my great-grandmother passed away.

I was lucky to have those 29 years with her. I grew up spending weeks in the summer in her garden learning how to pick strawberries and shell beans. Every morning, she made a feast of scrambled eggs, bacon, livermush, biscuits and red eye gravy. She grew up and spent her whole life on the same land; she burned her own trash, made quilts by hand on a loom in the basement and went to church every Sunday. She was an amazing no-nonsense cook and impossible to pin down on a recipe. She threw in dashes, measured by sight and cooked following instinct and memory.

Yet she did have a massive recipe collection, which I was lucky enough to inherit this past summer. I was entrusted with this gift under the condition that I would organize it for other family members to enjoy. This collection represents her life. It's unorganized and spread over 10 notebooks, hundreds of folded slips of paper and a couple of boxes. Some of the recipes are scrawled in her elegant handwriting, some are typed on an old school typewriter, some are from friends and others from even older matriarchs of the family.

It's an overwhelming collection full of Southern staples and rural obscurities. From recipes for homemade wine (combine sugar, water and fruit, then bury in yard for 30 days) to complex cakes that require 15 half inch layers, it’s a diverse collection that harkens back to another time.

As a way of reconnecting and learning something of her through her writing and cooking style, I'm going to try to cook my way through some of her collection and document it here. Hopefully in time, I’ll be able to churn out batch after batch of those perfect biscuits ... just as she always insisted I should.