SWEET AND TART
My mother was, and still is, an unusual amalgamation of homemaker and workingwoman - like the strange lovechild of June Cleaver and Maude, but without the propensity to butt in. She did get married, rather late for her time, I imagine, being a working girl (and party animal) and all, but homemaker and mother she soon became. But I really don’t think that she ever embraced her new role fully. As soon as she could possibly manage, she went back to work, and more. Once we had moved to Florida, she threw herself into what she loved the best - running the Hebrew school at the synagogue, Sisterhood, the temple bowling team, Association for the Blind, eventually going into real estate. And then there was my parents’ oh-so-cool 1960’s social life - weekend Bahamian cruises, block parties (when she wore satiny, shiny party pajamas and huge mod earrings, hair piled high in a chic frosted do).
As a mother, she was cool, more like a best friend than a mom. She must have had complete faith in us little people, because I really don’t remember ever having rules set, lessons in how to behave or lectures about schoolwork. It was just something implied that we knew to follow the rules, get good grades and be polite. She was the true Matriarch, taking after her mother I assume, her presence and expectations felt beyond the necessity for loud words.
When it came to her homemaking skills, she had it down to the bare minimum: laundry every Friday, beds to be stripped and sheets and towels in the hallway ready for washing every Monday, and dinner on the table every night at six. Maybe I’m doing her an injustice, but she has always admitted to hating to cook, and I think that (rightly so?) it must have carried over to all housework. I mean, who really loves it? But, as in everything she did and still does, she was efficiency itself. As a mom, she was expected to have a wholesome meal on the table every evening, and a meal every night there was. But what could be expected from the woman who loves cold creamed corn, jarred borscht and cabbage soup? There was a lot of Hamburger Helper and Tuna Casserole interspersed among the dried liver, oven-(over-)baked fish and meatloaf (with lots of ketchup, please) meals. I must admit that we had our more than fair share of steak and home fries, waffles-for-dinner, homemade chicken soup and hotdog and hamburger meals. Baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, fresh corn-on-the-cob, the charcoal grill fired up every weekend and watermelon all summer, at times it was an All-American home.
And in the end, about the time that the youngest one of us was able to reach the countertop, my mother turned the kitchen over to us. “I am not cooking any more. You are all old enough to fend for yourselves,” she explained. Well, we had had enough free reign in the kitchen and control over our own breakfasts, lunches and snacks since we were about six years old that it just really came naturally to us. We weren’t really inventive and the small collection of cookbooks in the cabinet over the stove were mostly left untouched, but we learned to love our time in the kitchen together and we all grew up with a love of cooking and eating.
Where desserts come in, I definitely got my peek into the joys of baking. Mom did her share - vanilla pudding (boxed) with ‘Nilla Wafers, chocolate cupcakes (boxed) with chocolate frosting (canned), but at least she cared enough to have treats for us. Dad did the rest. Yes, there were a lot of boxed-mix cakes and puddings, this was the 60’s after all, but, quite often, there was the homemade and the exotic - dried fruit compote, light and delicate albeit enormous cream puffs, waffles and bundt cakes. I was never far when the baking started, hovering around, mesmerized by the magic. I was a great eater, and it wasn’t only simply eating, but savoring every mouthful, living a near-religious experience with each dessert. When I made my first fruit muffins in 7th grade Home Economics, or that first Apple Brown Betty, I was amazed that I could actually make the magic myself.
The discovery of how to make s’mores at Girl Scout Camp and Cranberry Muffins in Home Ec opened the door to a new world for me. While other kids were probably eating Ding Dongs for an after-school snack, my brother, sister and I tried our hand at pulling taffy or making caramel-sesame candy or hand-rolled chocolate truffles and recreating recipes brought home from the Scouts or Home Ec. I spent Saturday afternoons putting together every combination imaginable of lunchtime sandwich ingredients from peanut butter, baloney and potato chips to salami/banana, savoring the contrasting saltiness and sweetness, creating delightful textural confrontations. Melting peanut butter on hot, crispy toast, tasting warm, salty butter against the sweetness of cherry Pop Tarts, this was my first foray into the sensual pleasures of food.
Over the years, the challenges grew larger as the time spent and the passion for baking increased, but I always returned to the simple and the homey, warm-out-of-the-oven quick breads and muffins, crumbles and cobblers, batches of cookies, tried and true All-American comfort foods. Whether from the Scouts or school, Temple cookbooks or one of many promotional pamphlets sent to all good homemakers in the 1960’s from Crisco, Hershey’s or the Florida Department of Agricultural & Consumer Services, these are the foods that warm my kitchen and my home.
It was like an eerie episode from the Twilight Zone : after I began this blog last April, I returned home to visit my family. At some point, I glanced up at the bookshelves still on my old bedroom wall and saw a battered old school notebook. Hmmm. I reached up and grabbed it and, to my astonishment and delight, I opened it to discover of all things, my 7th grade Home Economics notebook in all its glory. There were the recipes for Cream Cheese Dainties, Apple Crumble, Club Chicken Casserole, and, yes, Cranberry Muffins.
Cranberry Muffins, warm and delicate, laden with ruby red tangy fruit and memories, my first love, my initiation into the Joys of Baking. I have taken to making Cranberry Muffins these days for my family and here I offer you my current recipe, adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. Sweet and Tart, a bit like me as my husband would say, eaten warm from the oven with a cup of coffee and a walk down memory lane.
8 Tbs (1 stick, 115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (7 oz, 200 g) sugar
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
2 tsps baking powder
2 cups (8.5 oz, 250 g) flour
½ cup (125 ml) milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups fresh cranberries, thawed if frozen *
1 Tbs sugar + 1 tsp ground cinnamon mixture for topping, optional
* To answer a question put to me by the lovely Hilda of Saffron & Blueberry, I can find real Oceanspray Cranberries at my local “primeurs”, fruit & veg sellers, every December for the amazing sum of 5.50 € a package! Crazy, I know, but when the need is there, sometimes one has no choice!
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 12-muffin tin with cupcake papers or grease them well.
In a mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter with the sugar and the salt until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the baking powder, beating it into the batter.
Now add the flour, alternating in 3 additions with the milk added in 2 : dry-wet-dry-wet-dry, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla.
Using a large spatula (I use a silicone spatula), fold the cranberries into the batter until evenly distributed.
Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 muffin cups. Don’t worry if they are mounded above the edge of the cups, this batter is firm enough that they will rise up and not spill over. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with the cinnamon-sugar mixture if desired.
(I prefer the flavor added to the muffins by this cinnamon-sugar topping, though I have noticed that the surface of the muffins gets sticky sooner with this addition than without, so if you are making them to wrap up and take on a picnic, or to place in a school or work lunch box, it may be better to do without.)
Bake the muffins for 30 minutes until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and carefully lift the muffins out of the pan and transfer to a cooling rack to cool. (I use a small knife or kabob spike to lift them up out of the tin so as to avoid burning my fingers) If they cool in the tins too long, I find that they tend to get a little cakier.