What’s Cooking?

My Father, good man that he is, is not what I would call, kitchen savvy, and he’ll admit to that freely. For the most part, to him the kitchen is a place containing cupboards, various utensils, pots, pans, and boxes of stuff that magically transform into delicious things to eat. As he sees it, if the right person enters this place and does steamy things over the stove, wonderful dinners and desserts appear which he most enthusiastically enjoys. It’s not that he doesn’t’ appreciate good cooking. He most definitely does! But quote him, “When I look in the kitchen, it just looks like boxes of stuff to me.” And he’s in awe when others take these things and create lovely food. It’s just not how his brain reacts to canisters of flour, sugar and baking powder… with a single exception that I can recall…

Pancakes. Dad and I made a lot of pancakes together when I was a kid. He’s good at those. It was in the Betty Crocker book.

I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in the little galley kitchen at my home in New Hampshire. Most of those memories are of me standing on a chair at the edge of our tiny stretch of counter, asking my Mom if I could have a turn with the rolling pin or the cookie cutters or kneading the dough. She was always happy to have me there hogging up what little extra room the tiny kitchen provided. Now that I have inquisitive young children of my own, I utterly and completely understand how paining it often is to answer, “Sure. You have a try.” when all you really want to do is get whatever you’re making into the oven and sit the heck down for a couple of minutes after you race through clean up. She frequently let me have a go at what ever she was doing and I’ll always be thankful to her for that.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the counters covered with dustings of flour, measuring cups spread across the back like little Russian nesting dolls awaiting their chance to be filled, scraped flat at the rim and upended into the big crockery mixing bowl. It was a lot of fun for a kid who was always up for messing about with ingredients and hot surfaces and my Mother has told me on more than one occasion that I informed her from an early age that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.

Though that never happened professionally, (at least not yet, anyhow) the kitchen has remained one of my favorite places to spend my day, exhausting as it often is. I like cooking and very much love baking and do both often.

In a little, low cabinet in my Mother’s kitchen live the recipe books, and there are many to choose from. Some bound, most assembled with hand written cards and others from torn out magazines articles or snipped from newspapers, but growing up, her master reference tome was always the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. It had been a gift from her own mother when she and my father set up house together.

Betty Crocker

I can clearly picture it laying open on the counter, scraps of paper protruding from the top to mark various pages dusted with the puffs of errant ingredients. To me, the best part was looking in the margins, many filled with notes in her beautiful cursive script noting substitutions, thoughts on cooking times or more often, when to double the laughably small quantities of frosting allotted for various desserts. On more than one occasion upon revisiting this tome as an adult, I have taken a moment to poke through and see what can be found as far as Mom’s kitchen thoughts. It always makes me smile and there is one recipe in particular I tend to look for. It’s located on the left hand page and it’s for a cookie called “Jubilee Jumbles.”

Jubilee Jumbles are a wonderful little puff of dessert with a delicious butter icing to cap it all off. They have the consistency of something between soft bread and cake but the sweetness of a glazed doughnut… but better. They are special to me for more than just their deliciousness, however.

This is where my Dad comes in. With the approach of some mom specific celebration day, (Mother’s Day or possibly her birthday. I forget now), my kitchen novice Father had the great idea that we should make Mom chocolate chip cookies. Who doesn’t love those, right? Both of us had seen her make them dozens of time and we were sure we could pull this off before she came home from where ever she had gone for the afternoon. After all, we had Betty to guide us! Mrs. Crocker would never let us down! We’d follow her recipe to the letter and it would be great!

With the confidence that only comes from naivety, my dear Father and I launched into the project with gusto. The book was found and “chocolate chip cookies” was looked up and the book propped open to the page. Within minutes, ingredients were pulled from their hiding places, the oven was preheated, mixing happened and flour flew. My Dad, who is not known for his studious direction following ability, bent hard to the task and, against his nature, forced himself to focus with laser like determination on not getting his eye off the ball and winding up with a bowl full of batter only good for setting fence posts or spackling the ceiling. He was going to follow this thing to the letter if it killed him and I did my best scurrying about to fetching him whatever the book said to add next.

We first became suspicious when, as he slid the tray into the oven, one of us pointed out that there had been no chocolate chips added to the chocolate chip cookies. Neither of us were experts in the culinary arts, me being a kid and Dad being… Dad, but we were both pretty sure that chocolate chips were a fairly fundamental part of chocolate chip cookies. It’s right there in the name, after all. This required some reflection. Did we forget a step? Dad looked over the cookbook. He examined the chocolate chip cookie recipe and noted that, yes, it did indeed call for chocolate chips, but… that the recipe for those particular cookies was located on the right hand page, while the recipe we had been following so studiously was indeed, on the left. We were off the map! What had we made?!? This was uncharted territory. Dad’s laser like focus seemed to have been focused on the wrong page.

So, we did what we had to. We kept on rolling and soldiered on and out of the oven came Jubilee Jumbles, just as Betty Crocker had intended. We followed her every instruction and the result was a beautiful and delicious, if albeit, unintentional cookie. When Mom heard the story, she loved it so much that she noted it right there in the margin of her cookbook and it has provided our family an entertaining chuckle for all these years.

In my own kitchen a few days ago, I found my self rummaging around in the cookbooks for something new to make. I was feeling in a rut with my dessert selections and thought it was time to find something else. When this happens, rather than turning to the internet, I tend to look backwards in the browning pages of forgotten recipes. I find that very comforting somehow. I reached for my own copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook to see what I could find. My addition, a gift from my Mother some time ago, is a copy from 1950 and she inscribed to me in the front cover in her fluid, perfect handwriting and I love reading that whenever I open its cover. Thumbing through its delicate pages, I stumbled across a cookie called “Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing” and paused to read the ingredients list. I read it again and then skimmed the directions. Ironically, this particular recipe in the Betty Crocker’s “Picture” Cookbook had no picture but since I love to bake and do so often, in my mind I could see what this would make. These were the family famous cookies! These were Jubilee Jumbles! I hadn’t thought of them in years and having long moved from my Parent’s home, hadn’t had those little delightful cookies in decades. Gleefully, I set out to make them and was eventually rewarded with the puffy, sweet cakes that I remember from that day Dad and I followed the wrong recipe. The burnt butter icing, as I quickly found out, was far too little to cover all the cookies and after making a second batch, I pulled out my pencil to scribble just that in the margins.

My handwriting is nothing compared to my Mother’s.

I’d have to call her to ask for the exact wording of what she has written in her own copy of Betty’s book, but I can tell you this, I bet that in addition to the short note about how Dad and I made these for her by accident, it says to double the icing. As I looked at the page in my own book, I decided to add an additional editorial of my own.

“I know these as Jubilee Jumbles. A favorite in our family for decades. -2013”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think its time for some cookies and milk.

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Well Used Hand Tools

As I sit here and type this, I can look down at my hands and see a least three cuts or abrasions in various states of self-repair. If I turn them over… I can’t type any more.

I could also find three or four more.

This is not an uncommon state to find my hands in. Bandages are a common accessory and the scars that criss-cross my fingers, palms and forearms are plentiful and, to me, read as some of my life’s stories. I can’t say that remember where all of them came from, but I can tell you about some of the major ones. The long curve between two knuckles on my left hand made by a slipped screwdriver, the three parallel lines on the outside of my right thumb from the hand saw that I didn’t see until it was too late or the blobby one on the back of my left hand made by the hot lead dripping off the soldering iron. They make me think of the projects that I’ve tackled and that tackled me back just a bit.

I work with my hands a lot and to any one who takes a moment to notice, it shows. I’ve always been somewhat proud of that. When I was a child, I remembering looking down at my soft, doughty hands and then at my father’s and marveling that someday, they might look like his. Mine seemed impossibly soft and round. The backs stood up like little hills and the mole that sat like a small bug on the back of my left hand was the only mark of distinction that I could find. Other than that, they could have been anyone’s. Any kids, at any rate.

Dad’s hands however had veins that stood out boldly as they twisted over knuckles and the scars dotted here and there, made them unique. On one hand, the size of a shelled peanut is a little mound of smooth flesh, devoid of any hairs and a slightly different hue than the rest of his skin, browned in the summer sun. Being the sort of kid who asked questions unabashedly, I inquired as to what happened here. Being the sort of Dad who indulges, he told me:

Many years ago, while he sat in high school chemistry class, the teacher was doing a demonstration. This particular experiment involved a Bunsen burner, a beaker and a small amount of sulphur. What ever the experiment was meant to show, the lesson that my father took away with him was that, A: melting sulphur can and will at times jump out of the beaker and, B: if it lands on your skin, it will immediately burn a hole through it until it cools off enough to stop. Then it will crystallize.

To this day, a small yellow-green patch sits at the bottom of my Dad’s scar, a memento of his school career. I was always taken by both the story and the mark it left and recall many instances of sitting in my Dad’s lap or near enough to touch him and quietly poking the scar and looking for the yellow-green at the bottom.

Since those days, my own hands have taken a lot of use and abuse. Though my love of collecting and using tools has taken its toll, the hardest work they ever put in was when I had my own manufacturing business. It was very hands-on type of work and the thing that my hands were on was clay. Lots and lots of clay. ;

Clay is insidious stuff. It’s smooth to the touch, cool and mushes easily in your hand. Other than being heavy to move around, it’s pretty simple stuff to work with in a lot of ways. What it also does is suck the moisture right out of every pore you have. Add to this that hand lotion and clay do not play well together, and you have a recipe for some seriously dry hands, especially come winter. The other thing about clay is that it’s like semi-liquid sand paper. It might be a very fine grit, but it still scours away at your skin. Do this for about ten years, and the result looks like this…

hand

That’s my hand just a few days before I sold the company and decided to do something else to earn my cookies and milk. I tell you honestly, there is not enough moisturizer in the world to heal those cracks. Ten months later, they look much happier, and so, by the by, am I.

Over the months I’ve been home, I’ve bent my will and tools to making our house look more like we want it to and less like a pile of lumber and shingles that have been dumped into the approximate shape of a house. My hands have been working hard, and Short Stack has noticed.

Like most children, he is obsessed with Band-Aids and will cry for one to cover the most minor of abrasions. To a kid, putting a Band-Aid on something is almost a magical experience and is viewed as a near panacea for all woes. When he spots some cut or blister on my own hands, his first inclination is to take me to the bathroom to get a Band-Aid for it. Some times I agree and we head off to cover the damaged digit with a dancing Snoopy or other cartoon emblazoned sterile strip. Other times, I tell him that I’m fine and that it will heal on its own. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much but I can see him think about it and wonder.

I look down at his hands and then at my own. Devoid of any obvious and permanent marks, they are pretty much as they were meant to be. My daughter, Lulu Belle’s are the only ones in the house that are cleaner and softer. Not even two years old yet, they are delicate, smooth and puffy, the knuckles existing only as dimples. Both of them will see many changes in their hands as time goes by. The thought of scars marring their tiny hands turns my stomach, even as I look at my own scars with pride. How funny.

I’ll happily show them someday how to use their hands to build and make things, though I know it will inevitably result in skun knuckles, scrapes or worse. That’s a given. It’s part of using something whether it be a machine that gets dinged and scratched with use or our own bodies. I still feel that it’s important to use them, though.

I’ll just try to keep them away from the clay. That and teachers with shaky hands and Bunsen burners.

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