Category: 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?

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.”

IMG_2287

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.

Comfort Food After the Storms: That Swiss Chicken Casserole My Mom Made

Four evenings of storms passed and our refrigerator remained running for three, so I’m cooking again.

The tornado warnings occurred on Monday, followed by severe thunderstorm watches and flash flood warnings. Many farms, parks, homes and campgrounds in North Iowa are experiencing flooding. Our block is located near a creek and we’re thankful it’s remained dry this week.

I wanted the first meal I prepared after our post-storm fridge dump to be simple and comforting. For whatever reason, a casserole my mom used to make popped into my head. It combined chicken breasts, swiss cheese, white wine, and stuffing.

It turns out that this dish is called “Swiss Chicken” or the vague and partially misleading “Chicken with white wine sauce.”

Swiss Chicken casserole is not gourmet. It won’t win any beauty pageants and contains condensed cream of [pick your poison] soup, but it made me happy and it tasted like my mom’s. Comfort food after the storms.

Swiss Chicken
There are a million recipes for this dish and they are nearly identical. I worked from The Girl Who Ate Everything’s post.

Swiss Chicken

Ingredients:
4-6 chicken breasts (or enough to fit into a large baking dish).
1 slice of swiss cheese per chicken breast
1 can of cream of chicken/mushroom/celery soup
1 cup milk
1/4 cup white wine
Black pepper
1 box of stuffing
Melted butter, enough to lightly drizzle over the stuffing

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350℉.
  2. If you are using smaller chicken breasts, pound the thicker part so it’s more uniform in size. If you are using large chicken breasts, slice them in half so you have two thinner halves of equal size.
  3. In a lightly oiled baking dish, line-up the chicken breasts in a single layer.
  4. Top each piece of chicken with swiss cheese.
  5. Combine the soup, milk and wine. Sprinkle in some black pepper.
  6. Pour soup mixture over the chicken.
  7. Sprinkle the stuffing on top and drizzle with melted butter.
  8. Cover and bake for 40-minutes. Uncover and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and the stuffing is golden brown. You will need to adjust the length of time depending on how thick your chicken breasts are.

This Is Why I’m So Obsessed With The 90’s.

I started feeling nostalgic for the old places that held significance throughout my childhood on a drive back to the Twin Cities last week. They beckoned me, which was strange, because ever since my mom passed away I’ve avoided them like the plague.

Days before, I had attended a work training in which the facilitator read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree out loud. I remember hearing this story many times before, but I don’t remember it making me feel so sad.

The story was fresh on my mind and so I visited the tree just beyond the fence at Diamond Path Elementary School before heading back to Iowa. I felt so much joy upon our reunion.

tree two

We used to sneak back to this tree during recess. My friends and I would lean against its trunk and dream about what we wanted to become when we grew up.

I made one last detour so I could drive past my old house and follow our most traveled walking path. We had built our house before the path existed, back when this pond was dead and murky and the trees were young. Over nearly two decades, my family walked this path a thousand times. We followed it to school and around the parks, and we rollerbladed its hills forwards and backwards.

My mother loved to walk and so we followed the path together, usually with our beloved family dogs.

Losing loved ones is strange.

pond

I paused here, half expecting them to march around the corner at any moment.

People my age are so obsessed with the 90’s because, for the first time, we feel our childhoods slipping away. The toys that we liked, the clothes that we wore, the foods that we ate are all becoming relics and the mere sight of them makes us wax poetically like they were the greatest things ever.

We feel unsettled when we see Friends and Full House have replaced Mork & Mindy and I Dream of Jeannie on Nick at Night. And how could we have known that we’d speak of Shark Bites with so much enthusiasm or that an empty bottle of OK Soda might sell for $75 on eBay?

Many of us are starting our own families and feeling anxious as we notice our parents aging. Some of them are downsizing and selling our childhood homes now that we’ve moved out. When we drive by our old homes for nostalgia’s sake, we find ourselves holding our breath in anticipation to see if the new owners have sustained our giving trees.

Some of us have lost loved ones and we no longer believe we’re invincible. We can see that there’s an end in sight and that it’s inevitable and totally real. We’ve moved past our quarter life crises and are on to the next.

It’s not that we’re the first generation to feel these things; it’s just we’re starting to feel these things for the first time. Or at least, I am.

I never did see my mom and two dogs turn that corner and the denim jacket waiting in the back of my closet still hasn’t cycled back into style, but the magnolia tree beneath my old bedroom window still grows, and so, for now, everything still feels all right.

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