Like Mom Used to Make

While rooting around in a kitchen cabinet this morning, I found my mother’s flour sifter. Way in the back. A little dusty. A bit forlorn.

My mom was a terrific cook. She never trained at Ecole du Cordon Bleu, the oldest international cooking school in Paris, or the Ecole Ritz Escoffier although she did make a mean Peach Melba. She learned to cook and bake from her mother on a coal stove in the big kitchen of our Pennsylvania farmhouse. She later trained in the School of Irma.

Irma, of course, was Irma S. Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking, one of the world’s most-published cookbooks. That book has been in print continuously since 1936, the year my mom was graduated from high school. A staple of so many kitchens, I have hoarded three of them — one the 1946 edition my mom received as a wedding present, one a duplicate I bought, and one a “modern” 1962 edition I gave to Anne when we married.

I don’t remember not having an electric stove when I was tagging-toddling along in that kitchen but I do remember the last day the coal stove operated in earnest. Back in the olden days before the advent of automatic ignition in pellet stoves, all solid fuel appliances had to simmer all the time. If you let the fire go out, it simply took too long to bring the stove back up to temperature to cook. We kept that fire going winter and summer not only to cook but also to heat the household water; the stove had a modern coil and a hot water tank attached. I filled the coal scuttle twice a day in the cellar and carried it up the stairs to the kitchen.

You can imagine the sheer joy of keeping a fire going through a humid Pennsylvania summer.

A wood or coal fired oven does bake the best breads and cakes, though, because the temperature remains constant. Our coal stove had a warming oven that meant we never, ever ate from a cold dinner plate.

My mom baked cakes from scratch, first in that coal stove and later in an electric oven. By hand when I was a kid, but she very quickly discovered the joy of an electric hand mixer.

She refused to use a cake mix. “A cake should be just dry enough and just sweet enough to complement its frosting and the ice cream you serve with it,” she said.

Cake mixes, particularly the boxes with “pudding in the mix,” are sweet. Although they have no high fructose corn syrup, sugar shows up as the number one ingredient by weight or volume. I think Americans crave way too much sugar.

We don’t bake cakes from scratch any more. I guess we deplore all that sifting. Even my mom had started using Mr. Hines’ (the author of Adventures in Good Eating, not the Confederate spy) varieties although she always complained that they were too sweet and too moist.

I fibbed. We do still bake one cake from scratch — the pineapple upside down cake. Every yellow cake on the market overpowers its sweet pineapple topping. Or is it bottoming? It requires a good, heavy, cast iron fry pan of which we have several. They were my mom’s too.

2 Cups Flour, sifted
1 Cup Sugar
1 Egg
1/2 Cup Butter, beaten until soft
3/4 Cup Milk
2 Tsp. Baking Powder

Resift all dry ingredients, then mix together with the blended butter and liquids. Pour over the goopy, caramelized pineapple. Bake for 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

I wonder if there is any market for a cake like mom used to make instead of a cake mix like Hostess used to make?