Showing posts with label Grandma Annie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grandma Annie. Show all posts

16 August 2014

Sunday in Frenchtown: The Old House

My great-grandparents and their children, on the balcony.
Welcome to Frenchtown, tucked away along the river on the west side of town, home to many of my hometown's French Canadian immigrant families in the late 1800s.

The building above was likely built when the area was subdivided in 1863, and enlarged over the years. My grandparents moved in after their marriage in 1883, and raised their five surviving children, plus my great-grandmother's daughter from her first marriage, in the six-room flat above the store.

They took out numerous mortgages over the years, and it appears the structure was remodeled in about 1914. That was around the time my grandmother, a middle daughter, moved into the now-closed general store area with her husband and young daughters, my older aunts.

In 1930, the building was converted into a family home, and it received additional updates in 1960. The photo below was taken about 1954. At that time, the third generation, my grandmother's daughters and nieces were chatting on the front steps after Ascension Thursday mass, with Grandma Annie leaning against a pillar.

The old house in 1954, taken from the southeast side.

In the intervening years, the house became a focal point for holidays and family gatherings, most notably summer stays with Grandma Annie and Réveillon Open Houses on Christmas Eve. Finally in 2003 with Grandma Annie gone for more than two decades and a maiden aunt  living their alone, it was sold to a loving family who carefully gave the building its most massive rehab ever, converting a two-flat structure into a one-family home. My siblings and I couldn't be happier. The house has entered its third century under good stewardship. The owner tells me she feels friendly vibes there. That would be Grandma Annie and her parents; they loved that house.

I have my own house to love, also built in the 19th century, but I drive past the old house when I need a boost. It's sacred to me now, the simple clapboard structure.

24 June 2014

Light and Lower-Carb: Graham Flour Muffins (Raisins Optional)

Graham Flour Muffins

My paternal grandmother, Laura LaBrie Diamond, was the antithesis of Grandma Annie.

While Annie wore plaid or checked house dresses at home, Laura sported capri pants and sleeveless blouses. Annie wore sensible brogans around the house; Laura slipped her feet into ballet flats. Annie wore pearls and navy blue with a demure cloth coat, while Laura wore diamonds and furs. Annie read women's magazines that focused on housekeeping while Laura subscribed to movie mags.

They were a fascinating contrast. I adored them both.

Both women were children of French Canadian immigrants, and both loved to bake. We remember Annie for her Lady Baltimore cakes and Laura for her raisin-graham bread.

20 June 2014

What to Do with Eggshells: Feed Your Garden

Eggshells soaking in water.
Life has gotten in the way of blogging lately. I have new admiration for those who manage to post something daily, even weekly.

Life is not allowed to get in the way of eating, however. I just haven't had time to eat anything blogworthy.

What I have been eating: Eggs. I've been eating baked, over easy and sunny-side-up eggs for breakfast about four times a week.

And they have been delicious. For the most part, I buy them organic from a jovial and friendly farmer named Jeff and his wife, Jo. I can taste the difference.

I can't bear to waste eggshells, however, so I follow Grandma Annie's practice of soaking the eggshells in water that I can use to keep my indoor plants moist and give them a dose of calcium. After a few days, the water begins to smell a bit eggy, if you know what I mean. And you do.

12 April 2014

Bread of the Month: Swedish Rye

In her later years, Grandma Annie's best friend was a Swedish woman, the pampered wife of a haberdashery owner. The two women shared a first name: Anne, but my grandmother's friend was more often known as Nana. She was like another grandmother to me - I had many - and now that my mother's home has been sold, I am the owner of many of Nana's possessions, from a gate-leg table to a pair of Russian dancer statues, as she left these to my grandmother, who she preceded in death by about 19 years.

Nana's home was intriguing to me: Filled with lovely candy dishes and pastel hues. Her kitchen always smelled of freshly-perked coffee and from-the-oven baked goods. Swedish rye bread, tasting ever so slightly of citrus, was part of her repertoire.

My bread this month is Swedish rye, not unlike Nana's and also like the delectable loaves I often pick up on trips to Door County.

I ended up freezing last month's loaf for a future project (soon!) but I promise this loaf will be featured in a day or two.

This is February's loaf and this is what became of it.

14 October 2013

A New Name

I had high hopes seven years ago when I began blogging. I thought I'd experiment with French classics and explore my French and French Canadian culinary roots, talk a bit about my beloved Grandma Annie, and help the college freshman and sophomores I was teaching learn about blogging.

The name I chose was "French Kitchen in America," for that was what I was attempting to create. Our mortgage was paid off, and my husband and I were enjoying traveling to France, exploring Paris and the southwest of France, where we knew someone with a marvelous country home we could rent. I had visions of exploring new food while in France, and recreating the recipes in my own kitchen.

If I'd known what I was doing I'd have started my culinary adventures closer to home. A smaller start with less grandiose plans would have been the wisest course of action and easier for me to maintain when life got complicated.

In fact, my blog became a reflection of my life, which has changed dramatically since June 2006. I quit teaching and writing for a living, took a new job from which I retired last year. It's been nearly a year since my last food post.

I have been eating, of course, and eating rather well, but food has taken a bit of a back seat to my other projects, which include looking after my mother, who is 90 years old and has Alzheimer's Disease. She is in an assisted living facility, and I try to visit 2-3 times a week. I'm her laundry lady and the woman who does her makeup. I love to see her smile and make her laugh. I share these goals with my younger sister.

My sister and I have been attempting to clear her home so we can get it on the market. During the course of that we have learned much about our family and each other. Most of us go through this process, and I recommend it as part of life's more difficult but certainly rewarding activities.

Also during the course of this process, we unexpectedly lost one of my two brothers. If you have lost a sibling, you will understand the layers of this particular type of grief.

You may also understand my particular need for comfort food at this time. Coupled with the onset of cold weather here on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, it is especially fierce. I will need to get back to the gym soon.

I will need to get back to the kitchen soon, too. I miss it. Right now it's just a room I pass through from time to time. Yes, we still eat meals but more often than not, it is my husband who does the cooking. Or it's a grilled cheese sandwich.

Lots of recipes and cookbooks turned up in my mother's pantry, and in an old kitchen table with a drawer that we just sold to a local antique dealer. I hope to make some of them and share the results with you in the next year. We've also encountered some of Grandma Annie's favorites, most of which I no longer consume, but which I will happily share with you.

The blog's new name reflects the neighborhood where my grandmother and mother grew up, the west end of my hometown. More commonly known as "The West End," the neighborhood has its roots in the decades after the Civil War, when French Canadian families left their rocky, Quebec ribbon farms for the promise of prosperity in the textile mills of New England and the lumber towns of the Upper Great Lakes region.

I was lucky to know the West End in the 50s and 60s, when grandparents still spoke French at home and neighbors - often related by bloodlines or Quebec village origins - shared the bounty of backyard gardens.

I dedicate this post to my mother and my late brother (above, with me, in a backyard in Frenchtown), and as always, Grandma Annie.

14 October 2012

Pear-and-Cabbage Slaw with Golden Raisins

Pear-and-cabbage slaw with golden raisins.

On a recent inclement weekend, I made this recipe for beef stew in the slow cooker, picked up some French rolls at the Italian market and prepared cole slaw.

I was inspired by this recipe for pear slaw, which is part of a delicious repertoire of recipes for pears that I think I will work my way through over the next 10 years.

Pears remind me of Grandma Annie, as you know. In middle age, Annie often took a short trip in the early autumn, then settled down to begin her holiday preparations and settle in for the winter. It was part of the rhythm of her life.

On dark, wet fall days like today she baked, usually date bread, or spice cake, or something that reflected this the rich flavors of this darker, deeper time of year.

She always seemed to have pears on hand, and while she would have never put them in cole slaw, I am pretty certain she would appreciate the subtle mix of flavors in this tasty side dish.

The slaw added the right degree of crunch and tartness to a meal built around the stew, which turned out to be wonderfully savory and just the thing to ward off the chill on a blustery weekend.

21 July 2012

Simply Good: Grandma Annie and Our Chopped Vegetable Routine

For the very reasons described in my last post, I associate the slow shift from high summer into late summer/early fall with Grandma Annie.

The chorus of crickets, the flocking of birds, the lowered angle of the sun, the warm days and cooler nights: This is how my grandmother speaks to me now.

The busy mornings, the lazy afternoons, the many kindnesses and the boundless generosity of spirit - that describes her life and her character.

Annie left school to be a dress-maker, a fact that sometimes embarrassed my mother. Yet she was an avid reader, with a keen interest in politics and current events. The fact that she subscribed to every woman's domestic magazine on the market is surely one of the reasons I have always loved writing feature stories about home and food, because when I was visiting Annie, I gobbled up those magazines, absorbing everything from short stories to Faith Baldwin's column to recipes for Beef Stroganoff.

Annie read two newspapers every day, the Milwaukee Journal and our local daily. On Sundays, she read the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal. It took all afternoon, from 1:45 p.m. when the lash dinner dish was dried and put away to about 5:30 p.m. when she set the table for supper. It should come as no surprise that I became a journalist.

While Annie's outlook on life contained fewer shades of gray than my own, she was accepting of the foibles of others, and rarely, if ever, passed judgment on anyone. I can't think of anyone she disliked, with the possible exception of the Republican Party in general.

Sadly as an adult, I've run across many women who are the antithesis of Annie: Shrill, grasping, envious of another's success, dishonest, capricious and calculating. I feel bad for their children and grandchildren.

Annie never held a job after she left her dressmaking position to marry my handsome Irish grandfather, other than poll worker and newspaper stringer (the society editor knew Annie had a finger on the pulse of Frenchtown). She was never a CEO, a board of directors president, or dean of a college. But she had more knowledge of human kindness in her little finger than any person who has ever touched my life.

It is no wonder why her grandchildren revere her memory, and why my mother, in the throes of Alzheimer's Disease, misses her most of all.

On days when the world seems to have gone crazy, I take comfort in my memories of the safety and security Grandma Annie provided for her family.

My husband and I have tried to create our own comforting rituals, including preparing humble meals together. One culinary ritual that we turn to in summer is chopped vegetables.

It all started many years ago when we began married life in a five-room apartment. We needed a kitchen strategy for hot days, as we had little cross ventilation (and I've never been fond of air conditioning). We'd poke around farm stands and markets for long-lasting vegetables like onions, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and celery and have a chopping marathon when we returned home. Each vegetable was placed in a separate container in the refrigerator.

It was so hot last weekend that we opted for the chopped vegetable routine. 

As usual, we made sure we had a variety of enhancements and condiments like sour cream, cream cheese, chevre, olives and tomatoes (which get mushy after a day or so) on hand, too. My husband grilled fried beef; my preference is stir-fried shrimp or chicken.

Over the next few days, the vegetables - and the protein source - were added to salads, wraps and stir fries. What remained after three days went into the freezer for use in a winter soup or stew.

Of this, Annie would surely approve. 

09 July 2012

Grandma Annie's Kitchen Door

On warm summer days, Grandma Annie's kitchen was breezy and cool, thanks to a complex but purely accidental system of cross breezes from east and and west. The new exterior door that opened into the remodeled pantry and the adjacent "back bedroom" windows allowed the easterly breezes to enter the room while the lone kitchen window and the window and exterior door off the back hallway provided access for westerly winds.

Annie's house, which probably has it roots in 1863 when the neighborhood was developed, grew  higgledy-piggledy over the last decades of the 19th century, serving once as a general store with an owner's flat above and later, when Annie's father (known to longtime readers as Pépere) renovated the structure in 1930, a stately, two-flat house with little setback from Dunlap Avenue and Bellevue Street where they intersect in the heart of Frenchtown. Annie lived most of her adult life in the downstairs flat, but spent her childhood living upstairs.

The hallway that ran along one side of the downstairs flat included an exterior door that allowed us to enter and exit on Bellevue Street. The egg man and the man who sold peas and beans used this door. The hallway was cold and mostly unused in winter, except for vegetable storage. It connected Annie's heart-of-the-house kitchen with the back room, a sort of keeping room where my grandmother stored extra pots and pans in a large red bead-and-board cabinet, surely built by Pépere, as well as her sewing machine, her cheese box full of old recipes and her herb-drying rack.

The door between the kitchen and hallway was a heavy, 19th century model with two windows, painted a dark brown on one side and creamy white on the other. When the family who bought the house from my aunt nine years ago gutted the interior - bringing the structure into its third century and creating a comfortable one-family home - they gave the door to my sister. She uses it as garden art.

I think it looks charming in her garden, don't you? It's like having Grandma Annie with us.

Annie's sewing machine is now in my sister's living room, while Pépere's garden cabinet is part of mine. Once I've cleaned it out, I promise it will make its way into a post here.

In the upstairs flat, where my grandparents reared Annie and her siblings, Pépere built an early version of kitchen cabinet, with a flour or vegetable bin, utensil drawers and other conveniences that rival today's fashionable and efficient kitchens. I wish I had taken a photo of this kitchen before the house was sold.

No matter, for that kitchen lives on in my memories, too.

26 February 2011

A Kind and Gentle Memory in Cruel Times

I often dream of Grandma Annie's house in Frenchtown, and I still drive past it when I need reassurance in these crazy times. My heart catches and I whisper that I miss her.

I miss her wisdom, which she probably never knew she possessed. She judged no one, understood boundaries, and knew her place in the world. She was light a light that we all rallied around in darkness.

Here she is with me. As she is now.

05 December 2008

Chicken Soup with Cider-Glazed Vegetables

Now when I return home from work at dusk, my neighborhood smells of woodsmoke. This scenario never fails to invoke Grandma Annie, who kept a "burn barrel" in her backyard, as did many of her neighbors in those pre-recycling days. I never got too close to the barrels, but I am imaging they were filled with old newspapers and egg cartons and other materials that we recycle today.

The burn barrels may have been dangerous and harmful to our air quality, but they filled the neighborhood with a pungent aroma that I liked as a child. Today wood-burning stoves and fireplaces fill my neighborhood with the same pleasant, smoky aroma that never fails to bring me back 40 years or so.

Back then, when Grandma Annie had to step out to her neighborhood store before suppertime, she would return with that aroma clinging to her coat and hair, until the smells of the evening meal began to permeate the house in Frenchtown. A particular night when Annie donned her black coat and slipped across the way to the Sobieski's store has stayed with me all these years.

She went there to buy chicken, as I recall. Annie always used matches to rid the chicken of any remained fuzz that clung to its pinky skin. Soon the odor of sulfur filled the kitchen. It was quickly replaced by the aroma of roasting chicken.

When I roast a chicken, I am usually thinking ahead to the soup I will make from the chicken carcass. I knew Tuesday that my Wednesday night meal would be a soup of roasted vegetables.

And so it was. Wednesday night, Into the stock pot went the carcass, along with remaining shallots, garlic and thyme and about five cups of water.

While the stock was simmering, I cleaned and trimmed one large potato, four medium carrots, one parsnip and three shallots. I coated these in olive oil and roasted theme in a pre-heated, 425-degree oven until they began to turn golden.

I removed them from the oven and transferred them to a large saucepan containing melted butter and about two cups of apple cider. I brought the pan to a mild boil, and then lowered the heat until the apple cider was reduced and absorbed by the vegetables.

Then I added the broth, straining it first. Next came chicken, salt, pepper and chopped thyme. I added some freshly roasted garlic - about four cloves - to balance the sweet taste. This I allowed to simmer for about 15 minutes.

Some buttered rolls, a hunk of Gouda and a mild white table wine were all I needed to complete the meal.

My soup was savory, sweet and herby.

07 May 2008

Growing and Drying Herbs

I bought my first small pots of herbs yesterday: Cilantro, Rosemary, Sage and Basil.

It gave me great pleasure to do so. I was on my noon hour, which is usually non-existent or much less than an hour, when my soul needed sustenance.

Bringing the plants up to my nose, I breathed deeply and fully. Is there any sweeter aroma than the first herbs of the season?

I love the soapy aroma of cilantro and the licorice-like flavor of basil. Sage has a calming affect on me and rosemary is probably my favorite of all.

Even before I knew the scents and names of herbs, I knew they were magical. I am not referring to their medicinal or even mystical properties, mind you, but to something I saw Grandma Annie do when I was about eight years old.

Someone had given her a bunch of parsley, which she tied and hung to dry in her back kitchen.

I loved that room, the big red cabinet, the battered old table, the ancient treadle sewing machine and the pleasant jumble of pots and pans and crocks and cheese boxes. Down a short hall from the warm kitchen, it was a cool place for just-from-the-oven pies and cookies.

The wallpaper, probably from around 1920, was a yellowed cream with green and red flowers. The plaster underneath it was crumbling and I have since come to believe this was the original wing of the old house, very possibly dating from 1863.

It was always a little mysterious, shut away as it was from the daily traffic of the old house in Frenchtown.

I knew somehow that the drying herbs imbued it with some sort of magic. They remained hanging from a nail for months, and were eventually joined by other herbs.

Annie used the room mostly for storage, only spending time there when she sewed, which she did with fierce concentration. This she did in August, pumping her foot to the rhythm of crickets and cicadas.

But I knew the room was magic, and I often lingered there. It seemed to calm me, to soothe me in some way I could not grasp as a child.

Today I have my own back room, with a large computer desk, an old cabinet and some book shelves. It is a catch all for pots and pans and cheese boxes and crocks. When we were doing major work on the front part of the house, living out of town and commuting on weekends, this was the room we lived in at the end of the day. It is my favorite place in late summer, when the crickets are singing.

19 January 2008

Paris: From My Grandmother's Desk

Allow me to tell you about the mysteries of my grandmother’s desk. Indulge me. I am leading somewhere with this one.

To Paris, in fact.

It all began when I was a child, seven years old maybe. Old enough to read. Young enough to venture where I should not go with no qualms.

On Sundays, after that big midday meal of chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans that went on interminably, the grownups would move drowsily to the living room, grab their favorite part of the paper and drift into somnolence.

I would delve into the deep drawers of my Grandma Annie’s desk. Oh, the intrigue there! Old letters and postcards and programs from concerts and plays and church events. Holy cards and prayer books and recipes scribbled on the back of envelopes. Old leather bookmarks and bottles of glue with orange rubber tops and photographs of women garbed in high-necked dresses with leg-of-mutton sleeves and men with handlebar moustaches, all of them dark-eyed and dark-haired and looking squarely into the camera with stern faces

Each item fascinated me and gave me a sense of what? Family? Roots? Place?

This was the ephemera of my grandmother’s life, and it acquired a certain mystique for me, while it also shaped my notion of the past.

The desk had a certain smell, too: A flat, old, paper-y smell.

For decades the sherry flat-topped desk with its two pedestals of drawers remained in the living room of Annie’s house, the house her father bought in 1883.

Lamentably, the house was sold four years ago. Happily, it was sold to people who care about old houses and who have brought it into the 21st century.

The desk remains in the possession of my Aunt Pat, who lives now in a modern apartment only a few blocks away.
It still holds secrets, apparently.

One of them was a tattered book of black-and-white postcards of Paris, which my aunt gave us earlier this year upon our return from that storied city. Most of the cards have been torn from the book; those that remain suggest – from the look of automobiles in the street shots and the clothing of pedestrians – that the book was produced in the 1930s, in the years just before the Nazi Occupation.

These are bittersweet images then, images of a Paris gone forever, a Paris humbled and brought to her knees, a Paris not yet beautified by Andre Malraux and his exterior cleaning program: The buildings and monuments are soot-blackened with age.

These and other images formed the Paris of my young dreams. Gritty, a little seedy, but still elegant.

Who gave this booklet to Annie or her mother, Memere? Someone who knew what Paris meant to them. Paris, the mother of cities in the far-off motherland.

Neither woman ever traveled to France. Memere was born in Quebec, Annie in Michigan. But Paris drew them all the same.

I wonder about this book of postcards. But I am not overly eager to solve the mystery of its provenance.

I know this: At some time my young hands must have held the book, my eager fingers rifling through its pages.

And it must have touched me and formed my views of Paris. And forged my dreams.

30 November 2007

Quelle Fromage! St. Paulin Cheese

Preparing for Christmas always brings to mind Grandma Annie.

Not that I need a holiday to think about my warm and wonderful maternal grandmother.

But, oh, how Annie loved preparing for Christmas! She baked and baked and stashed her cookies in tins stacked inside the big red cupboard in the back kitchen, the room separate from the main kitchen by a long hallway. Classic Christmas cookies, rolled and cut from orange-infused dough and baked and iced with pastel frosting; thumbprints rich with raspberry and apricot jam; and sand tarts, sugar cookies filled with dates.

Annie loved shopping, too, and would have certainly enjoyed the ease of the Internet.

The year I was first on my own, Annie gave me a cheese basket and a cookbook.

Port de Salut was one of the cheeses in that sampler basket. I have loved its creaminess since then, and I equate it with the comfort of Annie, her kitchen and her cooking.

In Paris, one of my first purchases was a hunk of St. Paulin cheese, a sort of sibling to Port de Salut. I bought it in part because of its promised creaminess, but also because St. Paulin, P.Q., was the birthplace of Annie’s mother, Josephine, known in previous posts as Mémere.

St. Paulin, originally made by Trappist monks, was the first cheese made with pasteurized milk, about 80 years ago. It is tender, sweet, and tangy and well suited for soups and macaroni and cheese. Its rind is soft and edible.

I will be cooking with it in a day or two - they say a winter storm is on the way. I'm going to be prepared for it.

19 August 2007

More Memories of Annie's Kitchen and Blueberry-Nectarine Crisp

I wish I could take you back to the comfort of Grandma Annie's kitchen.

It was quite ordinary as kitchens go. A square room with no built-in cabinetry, it had a deep farmhouse sink and white appliances. There were three or four mismatched cabinets around the perimeter and a table in the middle, not a scarred wooden table, but a newer white enamel-and-chrome model with slats that pulled out to make it larger.

On cool, dreary days, the kitchen was redolent of vanilla and almond and buttery aromas and perhaps chopped fruit in an old stoneware bowl. Annie had no newfangled gadgets, only time-tested utensils of wood and stainless steel. She used an old meat grinder, the kind you clamp on a table or cupboard, and an old-fashioned potato masher.

Her conversation was not deep, for she was not on the outside a deep woman. But she posessed an inner core of steel and a firm convictions when it came to her Catholic faith and her unwavering sense of right and wrong. She was generous, always buying this or that for her grandchildren. I did not truly appreciate her until she was long gone.

Her kitchen remains, though four years ago the family home on Dunlap and Bellevue in the heart of old Frenchtown was sold to a couple who gutted much of it and made it stronger, bringing it into its third century. The kitchen was the first room finished and when I visited it while the remodeling was in progress, I could feel Annie's presence. It was a mid-fall evening and as I stood in the kitchen with Denise, its new mistress, I could sense Annie's approval.

"Yes," I could hear Annie say to me in the deepening dusk. "This feels right. It is still my kitchen."

How lucky that Denise and her family have the sense of goodness my Annie had! How lucky for us that Annie's house - the home Pépere bought about 1883 - is in such good hands. Its new occupants were already friends, now they are part of our extended family.

As I baked this dessert in my own kitchen tonight, I though again of Annie and the passage of time and the timeless chopping and peeling and mixing that is part of what we do in kitchens, what we have done for centuries. I wonder if Denise feels part of that. I must ask her next time we talk.

Blueberry-Nectarine Crisp

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup brown-sugar/Splenda mix
  • 1 cup cold Smart Balance (in place of butter)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • 5-6 fresh nectarines. cored and diced
  • 1/2 cup fructose
  • 3/4 cup cognac-white wine blend
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons cornstar]ch
  • dash cinnamon

Blend flour and sugar. Cut in butter or Smart Balance and pecans for a coarse mixture. Set aside.

Dice nectarines and combine with blueberries in large bowl. Blend Cognac-wine mix with cornstrach, vanilla and sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour over fruit and gently toss. Pour fruit into greased 9x9-inch baking pan. Top with crust mixture. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven on middle rack for about 40 minutes. Serve warm with French vanilla ice cream.

Note: My husband and I loved this recipe, which is adapted from one on Epicurious. My husband raved, saying it was a good balance of sweet and tart. Annie would have loved it.

04 June 2007

Rainy Day Rhubarb Pie

It's been a rainy spring.

“Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” Grandma Annie always asked on rainy days this time of year.

Saturday my husband wasn’t taking any chances. He picked, cleaned and chopped several pounds of rhubarb from our two ancient rhubarb patches.

Sunday he made rhubarb pie, one of his favorites. Using a store-bought crust, he managed to make the best rhubarb pie I’ve ever tasted.

“Not too tart, not too sweet,” we agreed as we eagerly dug into the pie about two hours after he removed it from the oven.

My husband does not follow a recipe.

“And I don’t measure,” he says. Ah, true cooking from the heart.

Rhubarb Pie

  • 5 cups rhubarb, chopped into cubes
  • 2 cups sugar
  • two eggs
  • pie crust, your own or pre-made

Place rhubarb in large bowl and pour sugar over it. Mix with spoon, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Prepare pie crust and place in greased pan. Mix one whole egg and the yoke from a second with the rhubarb and pour into bottom crust. Top with second crust, venting it so stream can escape.

Place in pre-heated 400-degree oven, baking for about 40 minutes. After about 25 minutes, brush top with egg white and sprinkle with sugar, returning to oven. Allow pie to cool for 1-2 hours. Serve with French vanilla ice cream.

06 January 2007

The Sounds of Sunday

For two relatively short periods — once when I was a baby and again a few years later when money was tight — my parents lived with Grandma Annie and Memére in the old cedar-shingled house at the corner of Bellevue and Dunlap in the heart of Frenchtown.

We slept in the flat upstairs when I was a newborn but later moved to the rear wing of the long, narrow house.

I still dream of those back rooms. Along with the old kitchen, which I described in a previous post, there was a large bedroom and a much smaller one.

The room I slept in was close to the kitchen. Usually the smell of eggs or bacon frying woke me in the mornings.

Sometimes on rainy days, Annie would make pancakes or waffles with a fruity syrup. I will always associate the sweet tart aroma of associate blueberry syrup with the sound of rain beating relentlessly on windowpanes.

But it is Sunday mornings I recall the most clearly. Annie and her mother rose early for mass, and the sounds of their voices — arguing, as mothers and daughters do — woke me and kept me from falling back asleep.

Alone together, they spoke only French. I don’t recall their conversations. Perhaps Memére had misplaced her gloves. Maybe Annie was missing a hat pin.

I waited for them to leave, for the front door to slam so I could burrow back down under the covers for more sleep.

When they returned home, Annie would start breakfast. The sounds changed, coffee percolating, eggs breaking, juice pouring, toast popping.

When breakfast was finished, she would begin preparations for Sunday dinner. Pans rattled as she removed them from cupboards, the refrigerator door opened and closed.

Over dinner, there was much conversation, and everyone lingered long over dessert.

Sometimes in the afternoon, relatives from “up north” would visit and the living room would be noisy with the swooping cadences of French Canada.

Other times, the afternoons would be long and somnolent, with the only sounds — save for the turning of newspaper pages — coming from the mid-afternoon mail plane.

The rhythm of my life has changed considerably over the years. But the sound of two women arguing in French, the clatter of pans in the kitchen and the drone of a single-engine plane on a summer afternoon can instantly transport me to that other time.

And the smells, too, but that is another post.

01 January 2007

Grandma Annie's Back Kitchen

Setting my cranberry upside-down cake on the cupboard in the “back room” to cool the other day, I was reminded of Grandma Annie’s back room.

It had been a kitchen once, in one of the mid-19th century structure’s many incarnations. But when I was a child, it was used mostly for storage.

When I was a child, it contained a massive red cupboard, filled with kitchen items Annie used only once or twice a year. Old bean crocks sat cheek by jowl with glass jars of beans or rice. An old tin colander, ancient wooden spoons, a bowl of cookie cutters and other kitchen miscellany filled the shelves.

The back room also held an enamel-topped table piled with boxes of canning jars and bins of apples or baskets of potatoes.

Annie used this room as a second pantry, a sort of keeping room. She dried herbs in that room, something that intrigued me when I was a child, and because it was unheated in winter and cool in summer, she also set baked goods there when they needed to cool.

The room was connected to the kitchen by a hallway, and the hallway ran along the side of the house. It was part of the house, and yet not part of the house.

The keeping room led directly to Annie’s vast backyard. In summer, she’d open the back door and the hall door and the cross-ventilation kept her old house cool on the hottest July days.

Usually by August, the old treadle sewing machine Annie kept in the room would be pressed into service, as she altered our clothing for the school year or sewed aprons and tablecloths from brightly-colored cotton.

My own back room serves a similar purpose. Here is a collection of mismatched cupboards and bins and shelves that hold gardening supplies, bird feed, canned goods and cookbooks.

It was once part of the kitchen, but the people who “remodeled” our 1896-home in the 1970s, split the room into two.

I spend more time in my back room than Annie did in hers. It’s a cozy place, with a patterned rug and a comfortable chair. In summer, when the crickets sing, it is my favorite room in the house.

21 December 2006

Kitchen Tools: Annie's Pie Crimper

December darkness came quickly and stealthily to Old Frenchtown, sneaking around the corners of the ancient weather-beaten barns and sheds.

Only the shops on Dunlap Avenue were bright with red and green lights — the shops and the little IGA store located just north of Grandma Annie’s back yard.

Often we went home with Annie in the evenings for a comforting supper in her bright kitchen. The house was cold and dark when we entered, but soon the furnace would roar on and Annie would walk toward the back of the house, shedding her dark coat and hat as she went and neatly stashing them in her closet before turning on the kitchen light.

She’d ignite the gas oven with a tiny poof! and light the burner under the kettle. Always, there was tea to be made and bread to be sliced and pickles to be placed on a cut-glass, leaf-shaped plate.

There would be ham or chicken or turkey and vegetable soup, for Annie’s suppers were simple but homey affairs. Always there was dessert, served with a twinkle in her eye, because of course, it was her favorite.

Annie’s sweet tooth was legendary in family lore.

In the years before she married my handsome Irish grandfather, Annie worked as a seamstress for one of the many French Canadian dressmakers who had shops downtown. On her first payday, she walked past a candy shop on the way home — and promptly spent all her earnings on sweets.

As an adult, Annie loved to bake cakes and cupcakes and pies. The latter is something she shared with my father, her son-in-law. Pies were his specialty, when he wasn’t cooking dinner.

Especially at Christmas, my father made pies for people: Librarians, elderly ladies living alone, old family friends. He rose early on Christmas Eve and made a variety, from fruit pies to cream pies. By 9 a.m., he’d have the car loaded with pies for delivery.

This year, there will be no exchanges of lavish gifts. Instead, I asked my mother for Annie’s pie crimper.

Really, that is all I need.

25 September 2006

My Grandmother's Goblets

I am constantly amazed at the beautiful glassware on the market. The colors, the design and the sparkle are delectable — pure eye candy!

Of course I always want to own them. The idea of serving a deep Malbec in a cranberry-hued goblet or ice water in heavy Swedish crystal is alluring. Because of course, presentation is essential to the enjoyment of good food and drink.

In my spendthrift past I often bought glassware I did not need because I liked the way I thought it would look on my table. Once I paid $20 per goblet in a French-style wine shop, only to find the same glassware at TJ Maxx for $4.99 each. So I vowed “Never again!”

When Grandma Annie’s house was sold, I inherited her pressed glass goblets. For as long as I can remember, these attractive but inexpensive goblets were used at Sunday dinner and any other time Annie wanted to set an elaborate table. I know nothing about the glasses’ provenance. I do know she had them as a young married woman.

The exteriors of two or three of the glasses are speckled with the deep red paint used on the inside of a cabinet in her kitchen in the 1930s or 40s. I have no wish to remove those tiny red dots — on the outside, I am sure they are harmless.

My husband and I have a small collection of wine glasses and champagne flutes. But especially as the holidays approach, we start thinking about libations for Grandma Annie’s glasses. Right now, I am thinking about cider or some plum-y, jam-y wine from Lower Michigan. . .nothing too fancy as befits these simple but treasured glasses.

31 July 2006

Grandma Annie's Blueberry Pudding

It happens without fail.

A while back I said we’d been having a moderate summer in Wisconsin. That, of course, precipitated a heat wave.

We had a break yesterday. It was gray and much cooler than the swelter predicted for today.

It was a blueberry pudding day.

August is prime time for blueberries here in Wisconsin. Most years there is a three-to-five-day stretch of cooler weather in the first part of the month — a great time to satisfy the need to bake without overheating.

The August cool spell always sent Grandma Annie into the kitchen. Scrumptious blueberry pudding replaced the Lady Baltimore cake that was her specialty.

Annie’s kitchen was always redolent of vanilla. When she worked with blueberries that calming aroma was accented with a faintly tart scent.

Her kitchen was, as many kitchens are, a haven from the world. Here was a loving grandmother and good food. Comfort food.

Annie’s cake-y blueberry pudding is best eaten chilled when its subtle flavors have married. It was always hard for me to wait for it to cool.

Blueberry pudding has an old-fashioned, country kitchen flavor. Enjoy!

Annie’s Blueberry Pudding

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 ½ to 2 cups blueberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. In smaller bowl, mix egg, butter or margarine, milk, and vanilla. Add to dry mixture; blend. Batter will be thin. Pour batter into greased casserole or large soufflé dish. Add blueberries; do not stir. Berries should remain in the center of the casserole dish. Sprinkle with sugar. Drizzle remaining batter along inner sides of casserole, leaving some fruit exposed in center of dish. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the top is a golden brown and the middle is somewhat firm. Sold warm or cold. Great with ice cream, whipped cream, or by itself.