Tag: family (page 2 of 5)

Grandmother Jane’s Old Southern Fruit Cake

This is the ninth installment in my series in which I cook all eleven recipes I found my grandmothers had submitted to their old church cookbooks. Previous recipes include Crabby SnacksRice Pilaf, Frozen Fruit AppetizerSalad with Cashew NutsHam & Sour Cream CasseroleOld Fashioned Cauliflower SlawApricot Jello Salad, and Ship Wreck casserole (the one my mom hated). 

Remember these?

Crabby Snack label

Hello crabby snacks. This is the Velveeta-canned crab concoction that derailed my quest to prepare all eleven of my grandmothers’ recipes I found in old church cookbooks. After mysterious casseroles and ice cream jello, Jake begged for mercy. We took an eight-month break from my grandmothers’ retro recipes and found her “Old Southern Fruit Cake” didn’t sound so bad.

I can singlehandedly dispute the rumor that there is actually only one fruit cake in the whole world that people keep re-gifting. Growing-up, my parents received a fruit cake every holiday season and I was the only person in my family who ate them. I don’t know where the cakes came from or if they were homemade, but I ate them all one slice at a time. Of course they were speckled with those fluorescent green and red candied cherries.

I examined my grandmother’s recipe and couldn’t do the candied cherry thing. Yup. I’d sooner dig into a bag of Lay’s Cappuccino chips or hack into a durian than purchase a bucket of green cherries for the sole reason that they just really freak me out. I followed the sound advice of a friend and substituted dried cherries instead. They lent a pleasing tart note and so I recommend you do the same.

Fruit Cake recipe watermarked

Grandmother Jane’s Old Southern Fruit Cake is totally not gross. I made half of a batch and live to tell the story. Like most fruit cakes, Jane’s is dense and thick with fruits and nuts, but it’s far from the store-bought bricks. We enjoyed slices fresh from the oven and relished the dried fruit which had become plump and gooey. I chose to add brandy to the batter and, after the cake baked for two hours, we were left with only a hint.

Fruit cake slice watermarked

If I had any qualms about this cake, it’s that I wished for more salt. Fortunately, this is a simple fix. Try adding a teaspoon of salt to the batter or swipe some butter on each slice and sprinkle with flaky sea salt.

This fruit cake is more like an energy cake with all of its dried fruits and nuts. Who needs chalky energy bars when there are glorious cakes o’ fruit? Thank you for this gem, Grandmother Jane.

My Take On Grandmother Jane’s Fruit Cake
This recipe halves the original and produces two loaves of fruit cake. I substituted dried cherries for candied cherries. 

Fruit Cake Cover Photo

Ingredients:
1/2 cup mashed banana
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup + splash of brandy or grape juice
1 1/2 tablespoon buttermilk (can substitute whole milk with a splash of lemon juice)
3/4 cup flour
2 eggs
1 scant teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups pecan halves
1/4 lb dried cherries
(optional) 2 slices dried or candied pineapple, cut into small pieces
1/2 lb. dates cut into large pieces

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 250℉.
  2. Grease pans and dust with flour so the cakes don’t stick.
  3. In a large bowl, mash the banana with the sugar until it forms a paste. Stir in the brandy, buttermilk and flour.
  4. Mix in the eggs until smooth.
  5. Add the vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  6. Stir in the fruits and nuts until combined.
  7. Pour batter into two loaf pans. Tap and shimmy the pans so that the batter is evenly distributed.
  8. Bake for one hour uncovered.
  9. Bake covered for another hour. Cool.

Only two grandmother recipes remain: Grandmother Jane’s braised Chicken Marengo and Crabmeat Casserole. I will not be preparing an entire Crabmeat Casserole which is a baked dish that contains crab, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise and cream. Fresh crab is not available here and frozen crab is expensive. Based upon the Crabby Snacks experiment, I’m afraid this dish would be a waste of resources if we prepared it with canned crab. Maybe I’ll try preparing a small ramekin of crabmeat casserole. 

A Surprise Birthday Party & Third-Life Lessons

This year I was honest about my age. Mostly honest.

I did try to blow out the candles on Gabe’s cake that said 25, but other than that.

My in-laws planned a surprise party for my brother-in-law and I at their house in East St. Paul. If there’s anything you should know about my mother-in-law, it’s that she has a long, sordid history with popping surprise parties on people. She absolutely loves throwing surprise parties. The boys literally grew up with a childhood full of surprise parties for themselves and everyone else, so it’s their norm. Gary Chapman might as well add throwing surprise parties to his five love languages.

Anyway, they really did plan one heck of a party and we were honored to see so many of our family and friends.

Happy Birthday

There were margaritas and a feast of tacos and enchiladas from Acapulco. And cheese sauce. Lots and lots of cheese sauce. I knew we had an epic weekend when I had trouble finding clothes for the ride back home not splattered with queso.

I was especially taken with the “Jennifer book” my folks made for my birthday. It was both touching and hilarious.

Birthday Book Collage

So much tie dye and even a Blossom hat. I never did inherit my mom’s love of gardening, but I have fond memories of helping her tend the church’s, which was sadly paved into a parking lot.

This might be my favorite page.

Does anyone else remember attending a birthday party or school field trip at the Diamond T Ranch in Apple Valley, MN? 

Watermark fun page

So I’m 30. Probably not an age traditionally associated with sharing words of wisdom, but I’ve made enough mistakes to dispense a few pearls. We’ll see what I come up with in the next 30 years, but, for now, I’ll continue to work on these:

Learn How To Say No: I lived for 24 years unaware of my choices and that I could say no. I’ll never forget when someone I looked up to asked me why I considered everyone else’s feelings more important than my own and that changed my life. With practice, I now feel freer to say no and it’s very liberating.

Of course, I don’t want to say no all of the time; sometimes we do need make sacrifices to help others and attend certain events, but we should be aware of why we’re saying yes or no. Also, saying yes doesn’t equate writing someone a blank check. We can still say yes with boundaries and we don’t necessarily owe others explanations for our choices.

Don’t Burn Bridges. Not with people, not with companies. With few exceptions, how can we be 100% sure that we won’t ever need to cross them again?

Overestimate & Over-Insure: If you plan to purchase a fixer-upper house, gather estimates on the work that needs to be done and double them.

Forgive Yourself. Why do we find it easier to forgive other people than ourselves? Apologize to those you’ve hurt and give yourself a break.

Say Yes To Wanderlust. If you are like me and feel that restless urge to explore new places and veer from the beaten path, give in. Wanderlust has taken me on some of my greatest adventures.

Step Outside Of Your Comfort Zone: I’m an introvert who prefers one-to-one interactions, but I’ve learned that good things can happen when I step outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s necessary to be the one that puts the effort into driving to a new place or attending an event of which you don’t know the other attendees. My friend Sara speaks from experience in her blog post Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone when she writes, “It’s up to you to make things happen in your life, nobody else can do it for you.”  She’s absolutely right.

Meet people online: I am a child of the 90’s when we first started chatting with people online and meeting them was initially considered dangerous. The first time I met people online was in 2008 at Qoraxlow, a Somali restaurant, where I attended a Chowhound meetup. This experience was exciting and slightly scary, but I had a blast trying new foods with new people.

Social media interactions have connected me with real life opportunities to meet people I wouldn’t have met in my day-to-day interactions and helped me become more outgoing and confident. I even met my husband online. [Of course, it goes without saying that one should always exercise common sense].

From my experience, social media friendships have always translated to real life friendships. I’ve had the time of my life exploring Iowa with a new group of friends that I met online.

Accept Food Hospitality: I’ve always looked up to Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. If you watch their television shows you’ll notice how they always accept the food hospitality from others, unless it poses a serious health risk. People put their hearts and souls into their cooking. That brownie or casserole isn’t just a snack, it’s someone’s pride and joy. Or possibly an attempt to welcome or nurture. Food has the amazing ability to bring people together and build bridges. When someone offers you a gesture of food hospitality, consider accepting it, or at least take a small bite.

Be Wary Of Extremes And Work With Those Who Demonstrate Kindness: During college, I got caught up in choosing sides and surrounding myself primarily with those who held the same religious and political beliefs. It’s not that I don’t hold values anymore, but feel that my life is richer now that I’ve broadened my interactions to people of differing viewpoints. Those who cling to extremes often set themselves up for failure, as extremes leave little room for hypocrisy.

Anthony Bourdain said, “I don’t have to agree with you to like or respect you” and I’ve adopted it as one of my mantras.

I love seeing people find their passions and 100% support the act of advocating for what we believe is good and just. I just don’t believe any cause gives someone permission to be mean. After watching people on every side of every food issue throw stones at each other, I made my rule short and sweet: I’m open to collaborating with people who treat others with respect.

Ask For Help & Don’t Be Upset With Others For Not Having The Ability To Read your Mind: Take the time to figure out what you need and what you want. And remember there isn’t anyone in the whole world who doesn’t need support to get through difficult times. I struggle with asking for help, so I try to remind myself that if the tables were turned and a friend asked me for help, I would want to be there in a heartbeat. I would never look down on a friend for asking for or consider them weak, so why would I expect a friend to respond to me any differently?

Do What Makes You Feel Alive: Because life’s too short. When I tune in to activities and people who make me feel alive, I have an easier time making decisions and find myself saying “I don’t know” less often. I feel most alive when I seek new experiences and travel to new places (even if they aren’t very far away), walk my dog, and spend time with people who make me feel comfortable being myself.

What lessons have taken you your whole life to learn? What experiences or people you feel truly alive?

Becoming The Grown-Up Assistant With Knife: Fish Sticks!

Earlier this summer I reunited with my first, three cookbooks.

DSC_0077

It took me some time and internet research to figure out their titles before I could locate them on Amazon.

I remember pouring over these books as a child. Most especially, the spiral-bound Kids Cooking: A Slightly Messy Manual that came with a plastic set of measuring spoons in primary colors. The books’ recipes aren’t anything mind-blowing for an adult who cooks a lot, but they are priceless for the memories.

Growing-up, my parents weren’t too keen on me experimenting in the kitchen, aside from baking projects. However, I do remember trying a few recipes from Kids Cooking such as the Alphabetter Soup and Frosted Chocolate Conecakes. I made mental checklists of recipes that I wanted to try someday when I had my own kitchen and, now, here I am!

One of these recipes was Home-Baked Fish Sticks from Kids Cooking.

DSC_0155

The legend goes that my mom choked on a fish bone when she was a child which led to her lifelong disdain of all things fish. Therefore, we never ever ate fish at home because the smell would make her feel ill. I grew up thinking I hated fish, too, even though I was fascinated by seafood. It was like a little hate crush.

Someone else’s family vacation snapped me out of my aversion to fish. I traveled with my friend’s family to Livingston, Montana in grade school and tried all kinds of new foods on our epic road trip west. I can still taste my first bone-in pork chop, chicken-fried steak, jumbo prawns sizzled in fondue oil, and crispy, fried shrimp nearly twenty years later.

After tasting that first bite of fried shrimp, I remember realizing, “Well, I guess I do like seafood,” and then I never turned back.

My first childhood cookbook meal was a smash.

Fish Meal Salad

I prepared cucumber-tomato-onion salad with “Snappy Dressing” from Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! to accompany my Home-Baked Fish Sticks and tartar sauce. Of course, I fiddled with the recipes.

For example, I added a step by dredging the fish in seasoned flour before dipping it in eggwash and bread crumbs. I may have added some garlic to Encyclopedia Brown’s snappy balsamic vinaigrette and chopped onion to the tartar sauce. Afterall, I am my own grown-up with a sharp knife now.

Kids Cooking Collage

Someday when Jake and I have children, I hope we can enjoy these cookbooks together. We’ll be ready to accept our new roles as their grown-up kitchen assistants.

My Take On Oven-Baked Fish Sticks
Kids Cooking’s method of drizzling melted butter over the panko-breaded fish sticks before baking produces a crispy, satisfying coating. While this is not fried fish, it definitely scratched my itch. 

Ingredients:
1 lb of white fish such as cod, halibut or tilapia
1/2 cup flour (or enough to lightly dredge the fish) seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic powder
2 eggs, beaten into eggwash
1 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs (add more if you run low or they become too mushy with eggwash)
1/4 cup butter, melted
Finishing salt

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400℉.
  2. Set up breading station by placing the seasoned flour, eggwash and panko in their own wide, shallow dishes.
  3. Cut fish fillets into manageable strips. I cut the tilapia fillets in half.
  4. Lightly dredge the fish in seasoned flour, shaking off the excess.
  5. Dip the dredged fish into the eggwash. Allow the excess to drip off.
  6. Coat the fish in bread crumbs. Turn and press the fillets until they are completely breaded.
  7. Place breaded fish in a single layer on a baking sheet that is lightly greased or covered in parchment paper.
  8. Drizzle each fillet with as much melted butter as you’d like.
  9. Optional: Sprinkle each fillet with a little sweet or smoked paprika for extra color and flavor.
  10. Bake for approximately 15 minutes or until golden brown and cooked-through.
  11. Sprinkle with sea salt immediately after removing from oven.
  12. Serve with tartar sauce and fresh lemon wedges. I made my tartar sauce by mixing mayonnaise with lemon juice, minced dill pickle, minced onion, pickle juice, salt and sugar, to taste.

Things We Ate At The Minnesota State Fair 2014

The Great Minnesota Get-Together is like a statewide family reunion.

On this Labor Day Weekend Saturday, Jake and I attended the Minnesota State Fair with his brother and my dad. The afternoon was hot and sunny and the density of people was literally shoulder-to-shoulder. You couldn’t find somewhere to sit even if you wanted to. Earlier in the day, the lines to popular food vendors were intimidating, but the fair opened up a bit as the evening approached. The cool evening air helped, too.

We laughed at ourselves as we grumbled about the crowds and the heat and the lines. They’re still all a part of the fair experience that we love and we’d always return, nevertheless.

The Minnesota State Fair vendors’ competitive spirit of food ingenuity builds momentum and makes this fair especially unique. I prepare for our visit each year by studying Heavy Table and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s opening-day reviews of the new fair foods. Part of the tradition is trying the much-talked-about new foods for yourself and comparing your notes with others. Two people will love and hate the same food with equal passion and that’s what makes it fun.

On this year’s visit, sharing foods between four people was much nicer than sharing it between two, though we still had limited stomach space. Here’s what we ate this year:

The Blue Barn
The Blue Barn is a stunning new fair restaurant from the restauranteurs that own the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. We arrived hungry and stopped here first.

Blue Barn

The line was long but moved quickly. We were impressed by how the barn was open for business from both sides.

Blue Barn Collage

From Left to Right: Chicken in a Waffle, Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz, Meatloaf on a Stick

Chicken in a Waffle: I was most curious about this food because of all of the positive feedback.

This food annoyed me. First, the item was $9.75. $9.75! Nothing was technically wrong with the item; the sausage gravy was flavorful and the chicken pieces were crispy and pleasantly spicy. But I had expected the chicken to taste freshly battered or breaded and have more of a buffalo kick. Instead, it reminded me of a frozen popcorn chicken product.

Jake and forgotten to order the Chicken in a Waffle without the malted milk ball in the bottom of the cone. He ended up eating this last bite and described it as “interesting,” in true Minnesotan fashion.

Placing a malted milk ball in the cone reminds me of something a panicked Chopped competitor would do. I have this mental picture of a chef saying, “Oh crap, I have fried chicken, an ice cream cone, sausage, and malted milk balls. I forgot to use the candy and have a minute left on the clock. I know, I’ll drop the milk ball inside the ice cream cone!”

The two brothers really enjoyed this food and gave it high marks, while it was too spicy for my dad who has no heat tolerance. Jake thought the popcorn chicken was noticeably higher in quality and flavor than generic popcorn chicken, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I say this time and time again only because I mean it: To each his or her own ☺

I think I might be alone on this one and that’s ok.

Blue Cheese and Corn Fritz: A Heavy Table staff member gave these fritters a dismal rating, writing that he ordered them “to the garbage heap.” In contrast, this was my favorite fair food. I’m not sure if Blue Barn changed their recipe or execution since opening day, but I found them delightfully crispy, corny puffballs. They had a gentle corn flavor with a very mild blue cheese presence, which might disappoint those who wish for a stronger blue cheese flavor. Together, the fritters and accompanying chimichurri sauce tasted refreshing and herby, hitting all of my favorite sweet and savory notes.

Meatloaf on a Stick: The meatloaf’s price made me cringe at $8.25, but we all enjoyed it. The portion really wasn’t large enough to justify the price, but we found the meatloaf flavorful and moist and liked the sweet and spicy sauce. I always glaze my homemade meatloaf with a similar sweet and spicy sauce, so it was right up my alley.

Corn Roast
The corn roast. Oh, the corn roast. We never miss the corn roast.

Corn

Jake takes his State Fair corn seriously.

This massive ear of sweet corn tasted perfectly toasty and dripped with real butter. Jake is the master of seasoning it with the perfect amount of salt and pepper.

Mini-Donut Beer by Lift Bridge Brewing Company & Indeed’s Sweet Yamma Jamma Ale
Jake and his brother enjoy trying different craft beers and made a point to try these two special varieties at the Ballpark Cafe. Lift Bridge introduced this fair only Mini-Donut beer last summer and brought it back. This was our first taste.

Donut Beer

Lift Bridge Mini-Donut Beer

Jake wasn’t a huge fan of the beer because of its sweetness and his preference for bitter IPA’s. Considering that Lift Bridge was attempting to mimic a mini donut, he felt they executed it well. I like smooth, light beers and thought it tasted pleasant, but neither of us liked the sugar coating around the glass’ rim.

I should preface these thoughts by explaining that when the brothers had first returned from the Ballpark with the beers, one of them handed it to me saying, “Try this!” I took a big sip without asking what kind of beer it was and was not prepared for a mouth full of sugar.

We all enjoyed the Slamma Jamma ale brewed with sweet potatoes. The ale didn’t taste distinguishably of sweet potatoes, but we liked its smooth and subtle pumpkin spice flavor. Mmmm. . . fall.

Mouth Trap Cheese Curds, Food Building
Like the roasted corn, Mouth Trap cheese curds are one of our annual fair traditions.

We’ve tried both cheese curd vendors and prefer the Mouth Trap. The stand is run so efficiently, it’s like a machine and the curds STILL cost $5 a boat. No matter how long the line is, you’ll collect your cheese curds within minutes. I wanted to salute them.

Cheese Curds 2014

The thin, crispy batter rocks and the cheese basically squeaks even after spending time in the fryer.

Other Things We Ate (Not Pictured):

Gyro from Demetri’s Greek FoodJake always visits Demitri’s for a respectable and well-constructed gyro. The meat is sliced nicely, the yogurt sauce tastes fresh, and we appreciate the slivers of fresh tomato and onions.

Fried Jalapeno Cheese on a Stick: Once upon a time in grade school, I ordered cheese on a stick at Valley Fair and it was a crushing disappointment I’ve never forgotten. I thought the batter-covered American cheese was just gross. On the flip side, Jake and his brother fondly remember Valley Fair’s cheese on a stick.

Jake’s brother passed around Fried Jalapeno Cheese on a Stick and I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop eating it. It was still made with white American cheese, but the batter was super crunchy, and, for whatever reason, the salty, gooey American cheesiness just worked (for me, at least).

Pronto Pup
One of my fair food traditions is grabbing a Pronto Pup or corn dog from the vendor closest to the fair’s exit. I love how an employee at this stand carefully brushes your choice of ketchup or mustard on the Pronto Pup. It just feels more special than pumping your own.

pronto pup

I wore this hat all the way home.

This year, we tried a few new foods and returned for many of our favorites. Each year’s food trends may come and go and we may continue to live in different parts of the Midwest, but we’ll always look forward to visiting the Great Minnesota Get-Together with our families.

What were your favorite and least favorite fair foods this year? What do you always get at any summer fair?

I Hope There Are 90’s Malls & Food Court Phillys In Heaven

On Thursday I toasted my mom with a Burnsville Center food court Philly.

We grew up roaming the Burnsville Center, long before the advent of online shopping and Amazon Prime.

Mall

The mall wasn’t just a place we shopped. We wandered it in packs of friends as we searched for products that would bring us peer acceptance and spaghetti strap tank tops. Of course, I had to wear my tanks over a white tee-shirt (at least, when my parents weren’t looking)

Things meant more back when I was growing up in the 90’s. I’d blow my babysitting money on a plain white shirt because it said Guess. Now, I’m happiest rotating between my two favorite t-shirts. We 90’s kids smelled like a Country Apples, Cucumber Melons, Freesia or Sweet Peas at any given time. These gateway scents led to Victoria’s Secret, to our parent’s dismay, and eventually Clinique Happy. And we probably always glittered.

We prowled for boys at the mall and met them for movies back when a theater was inside the mall. We asked each other out through friends and broke up by handwritten notes. “Going out” meant going wherever our parents were willing to drop us off and pick us up. It involved making a show of awkwardly hugging each other in the school hallways and pairing up for the square dance unit in gym class. And God forbid, if you mixed up a meeting time or place, you had to call your friend’s home phone from a mall pay phone.

90’s kids also liked froyo, but we didn’t have fancy, self-serve yogurt bars like Cherryberry. We got ours from Dayton’s, long before it became Marshall Fields and before it became a Macy’s.

Strolling through the Burnsville Mall brought back memories of my family: Mother-daughter shopping trips, back to school shopping and Christmas and birthday present shopping. We used to pick up my grandma up from Ebeneezer Ridges and stroll around the mall, always treating ourselves to soft pretzels. When my mom was in the last stages of hospice, we were known to spontaneously forgo a casserole and eat together in the food court.

Mom always chose a cheesesteak from that place near the corner. I was tickled to find that it’s still there last week when I stopped for lunch on the way to an appointment. The Philly Steak Grill’s name and ownership may have changed since 2008, but the sandwich tasted the same and it’s still called a “Philly Bomb.”

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The bread’s a little squishy and I wouldn’t know how it compares to a real Philly cheesesteak. Nevertheless, it sure tasted like I remembered, which is not to say “authentic’ or “perfect.” That’s not what I was looking for, anyway.

These days, the Burnsville Center seems a little quieter. Kay Bee Toys is long gone, along with Mervyn’s California and the Chinese buffet. I’m not longer interested in collecting cheap jewelry in a mesh basket at Claire’s and there ain’t nobody to lecture me about avoiding the back aisles of Spencer’s Gifts anymore.

It’s funny how places and food can awaken so many memories. I enjoyed a quiet moment of reflection with my cheesesteak in the mall’s food court. For my mom’s sake, I hope there are mall cheesesteaks in heaven.

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