My father was a strange, quiet man, his life a secret, his heart an open book. He never talked about his childhood, losing his dear, loving mama when he was only 8, raised by his older sisters and a grandma who spoke no English. His father watched lovingly over his brood of 7, then 6 as they also lost the new baby sister left in the arms of this mourning father, left alone to be both father and mother. My grandfather concentrated on protecting his kids from the pain of the loss of their mother and the Great Depression, both falling on this wonderful family at once. Evenings sitting huddled up in an armchair or around the kitchen table with mama, listening to her stories of a play or concert she and papa had gone to the evening before or helping her tend her few grape vines winding tenderly up a backyard trellis, were replaced by violin lessons, dancing school and Enrico Caruso blasting on the Victrola.
My father never talked about those days, those years of his youth, barely alluding to his family except on the rare occasion when he would let loose a phrase, a bit of a memory, as if thinking aloud to himself, lost in nostalgia, or as if we knew his life by heart.
Years in the Navy Air Force, flying in the Pacific, years in College and years working at NASA, he was the stereotypical engineer, coming home from work exactly at 6 every evening like clockwork, expecting dinner to be on the table at 6:30, the kids eating silently so he could listen to Walter Cronkite blaring from the other room. Our antics in the back room, ever so creative, would regularly receive a shaking down, a “shut the hell up, I can’t hear the damn tv!” from the living room, and we would respond with gales of laughter. Weekends were spent under the hood of a car or mowing the lawn, except for those years that he attempted to grow tomatoes in the side yard, in the Florida sand, carting in truckloads of manure from the nearest stables, hacking at the dirt and trying to outsmart the moles. He did end up with a fair harvest every year of splotchy tomatoes and strings of red chili peppers that he would hang in the kitchen to dry although he never attempted to cook with them. And he allowed me one row, the row that ran up against the wall, to grow marigolds, which bloomed bright, golden and healthy.
He took us to the public swimming pool behind the high school every weekend in the spring and summer where he taught us how to swim the old-school way (“throw ‘em into the deep end and make sure they make it back to the edge!”) though there were a lot of hugs and a lot of praise. Februaries he would take us to the Pick-Ur-Own strawberry farms and December out to the Orange groves that lined the Indian River and we would lug back brown paper grocery bags filled with navels, tangerines and grapefruit. Evenings would find him back in front of the tv or reading Life magazine in his dark rimmed eyeglasses, weekends listening to Herb Alpert on the stereo.
And every summer we would pack into the old station wagon, the four of us fighting for space on the back seat, never to visit his family but to spend his only 2 free weeks with his in-laws, happy as a bug in a rug knowing he would be spending 2 weeks fixing, repairing and helping. He would throw a few pairs of boxer shorts, a few t-shirts and a change of shorts into a brown paper bag, which he would toss into the trunk of the car and wait for us to climb in. At 5 a.m. While it was still dark and cool. We would then sit patiently in the back seat, once again living through the War of Wills that took place every summer up in the front seat: he wouldn’t start the engine until mom buckled up and she refused adamantly to snap on the seat belt. Then, about 25 minutes later, she buckled up and grumbling under her breath, off we would go, 24 hours with the radio tuned in to the All News All The Time station and the endless, ever-repeating loop of news. Straight through to New York. Dad, the true engineer, could do it all and do it with help from no one. He was the first to believe in safety belts and solar panels, the first to really talk about garden-grown vegetables and healthy eating, the evils of sugar and smoking. And he baked, baked sheet cakes and marble cakes, Bundt cakes and pudding cakes. Bowls and bowls of pudding topped with Cool Whip. Homemade waffles or huge, light-as-air choux puffs filled with pudding or whipped cream. And amazing prune and apricot compote, the fruit glistening like jewels in the syrupy, just perfectly sweet liquid, plump and tender, bursting in your mouth as you wrapped your tongue around each delicate bite. My passion for baking grew each time I watched him mix and pour and pop a special treat into the oven, fascinated by the joy and tenderness he exuded with each delicacy he made for us or for friends or for the synagogue’s Bingo Night. A quiet, tender, loving man, the same man who, every single night of his life as a father, would take us into his arms, one by one, for a kiss and a hug before we were scooted off to bed. A ritual he never ever missed.
And on this 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, the first Man on the Moon, I send out this note of love to my dad, one of the original 12 research and design engineers of the Space Task Group of the Manned Space Flight Program. He developed the Life Support and Environmental Control Systems for the Manned Flights from the earliest chimpanzee shot through to the beginnings of the Space Shuttle design. He also acted as Environmental Control Director during the Gemini and Mercury Missions. He worked closely with the original astronauts, not only while the system was perfected but training them to control their environment while in orbit. My dad loved his country and was proud to be a part of the Space Program, which he so believed in. He rarely spoke about his work, barely letting comments slip out absent-mindedly, yet we never thought to ask. It was just our normalcy, our everyday life. We knew that as the space ship, each rocket, Mercury, Apollo or other, was standing proudly on the launch pad, rumbling and seething and raring to go, he would take those few seconds away from Mission Control to call us at home – the phone would ring, someone would pick it up and hear his voice “Get out in the backyard. Now.” – and we’d grab the binoculars and out we would run to watch the take off in the distance, the rocket shooting skyward, its smooth, sleek body roaring heavenwards, the stages dropping off, one-two-three, and then we would sigh, the excitement over, and run back into the house to sit in front of the tv and watch the rest until it was out of sight. Then we would return to play or to our books and wait for 6 o’clock when he would come back from work for another evening at home.
My dad is now up there in the skies, watching us, and I like to think that I see him smiling down on me each time I stare at the moon and I shiver and my head spins and then I turn away and get on with my life.
SPONGE CAKE AND CHOCOLATE PUDDING FOR MY DAD
And the 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing
Just like he would make them.
A wonderful and simple recipe that I have been making for a gazillion years. This is the perfect all-purpose cake. I served this at my wedding lunch with a mixed berry coulis. It is also perfect with a warm chocolate sauce, ice cream or a tumble of fresh fruit. JP loves it for breakfast slathered with jelly.
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
6 eggs, separated
¾ tsp cream of tartar –or- a drop or two of lemon juice and a few grains of salt
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup cold water
2 tsps vanilla
1 Tbs Amaretto or 1 tsp almond extract (optional)
You will need a 10-inch ungreased tube pan.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C).
Blend the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
Put the 6 egg yolks in a very large mixing bowl and beat until they turn a pale lemony color. Beat in the sugar and continue beating until very thick.
Beat in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the water, vanilla and Amaretto if using. Scrape down the sides as necessary.
With perfectly clean beaters, beat the egg whites with either the cream of tartar or a drop or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a few grains of salt (to stabilize the whites) until stiff peaks form (you should be able to turn the bowl over and they won’t budge.
Using a spatula, gently fold in about a quarter or a third of the whites into the cake batter to lighten it. Then gently fold in the rest of the whites in an additional two or three additions until all the whites are folded in and it is well blended (no huge chunks of whites remaining).
Carefully pour the batter into the ungreased tube pan, gently shake the pan back and forth once or twice to make sure the batter is even in the pan, then bake for 55 – 60 minutes until done. (My old oven took 60 minutes, my new oven took 55).
To tell when it is done, open the oven and gently press the top of the cake with a finger or two. If it feels or sounds airy or foamy – trying to figure out how to describe a feeling or sound – like pssssffttt rather than firm like a marshmallow, let it go for another couple of minutes. Got it?
Cool inverted for maybe 15 minutes before turning upright and easing out of the tube pan. Very carefully (it is a delicate cake) slide a thin metal spatula in up and down movements all around to loosen the sides then push the center tube with the cake up and out of the outside ring. Allow to cool completely. Then carefully, using the spatula, loosen the bottom and around the tube and have someone else help you flip the cake over onto your two hands, the other person must quickly loosen and lift the center tube up and out, place the serving plate onto the bottom of the cake and flip it back upright.
CHOCOLATE MOCHA PUDDING
It is so quick and easy to make this thick, rich, dark, very adult chocolate pudding with its hint of coffee flavor. Serve with freshly whipped cream and this sponge cake. As my dad would.
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs cornstarch
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk
2 ½ cups milk (I actually used low-fat!)
1 ½ Tbs instant coffee, instant espresso or coarsely ground coffee beans
A few grains of salt
6 oz bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (I used Lindt Dessert 70%), finely chopped
2 tsps vanilla
In a large, heavy saucepan, stir together the whole egg, the egg yolk, the sugar and the cornstarch until thick, smooth and creamy. Set aside on an unused burner near where you will be heating the milk.
In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk with the coffee and the salt. Bring to a gentle boil.
Remove the pan from the heat. If you used ground coffee beans, then quickly strain the hot milk through a fine sieve. Whisking the egg mixture without stopping, add a ladleful or two of the hot coffee-milk to the larger saucepan to heat the egg mixture without cooking the eggs. Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture and whisk.
Stir in the finely chopped chocolate until melted and blended.
Place this saucepan over medium-high heat and cook, whisking constantly, for 4 to 6 minutes until the pudding is thickens and just starts to boil. Remove the pan from the heat immediately and quickly strain the pudding into a large bowl. Stir in the vanilla.
Divide the pudding into 4 to 6 pudding bowls (I got 5 but should’ve made each portion smaller and really divided the pudding into 6 bowls as it is very dark and rich). Chill for at least 1 hour before serving. If not serving after this initial chilling, then cover with plastic wrap.
Serve with the sponge cake and freshly whipped, just sweetened cream.
My dad also made pudding to fill his choux puffs with which he would make the size of small coffee cup saucers. Wow!