I don’t remember the exact moment my mom began teaching me how to cook. Maybe it was when I perched on a kitchen stool at the sink, kid-elbows deep in cool water washing freshly picked grapes from the arbor in our backyard. Proud of my accomplishments, I was oblivious to the water pooling on the floor.
Or maybe it’s when I was allowed to stir a big Revere Ware pot of bubbling grape jelly, or the time Grandma Bessie coached me through the transformation of a gooey lump of yeast dough into a lovely braided bread called houska.
Along the way, I learned to master those skills and so many recipes that my mother taught me, my sisters and brother.
Those kitchen encounters with mom weren’t only about recipes, though, or learning to knead dough. They nourished a child’s curiosity and creativity while helping a youngster master a few skills. Seasoned with laughter, or tears over culinary mishaps, they inevitably resulted in something delicious to share with others.
Perhaps that’s why, on this Mother’s Day, you might pull a recipe from a file (or sweet memory) to celebrate the women who taught you to cook. Yes, the ingredients and techniques your mother or grandmother or aunt taught you may have been different than mine, but the kitchen encounters were not, judging by the anecdotes TV culinary pros Gale Gand, Ming Tsai and Pat and Gina Neely offered when we chatted with them recently.
Gand remembers spending a lot of time in the kitchen with her late mother, Myrna. “It was one of the few places where her creativity was manifested,” says the pastry whiz. “She was Hungarian and Jewish, so food equals love. And what she could do for us was feed us and be very concerned about what we ate.”
So there was strudel, sweets stuffed with poppy seeds and pies. “My mother used to do these elaborate lattice top crusts. She was the only one in the neighborhood that could do them. She could weave pie dough, and it wouldn’t soften up on her,” she says, explaining how her mother’s bad circulation meant she had cold hands. “She could handle pie dough and strudel dough without it getting too hot.”
Tsai recalls his mother, Iris, was on high alert when the family rolled egg rolls or spring rolls. “You can’t have any flared edges. You can’t have any holes,” says Tsai, of his mom’s advice.
And never overstuff one. “I overfilled as a kid,” Tsai admits. “And bigger is not better. You’ll have a busted spring roll. A busted spring roll is like a piece of crunchy rice in sushi — it’s sacrilege. Not only will that spring roll blow open and ruin that spring roll, but it also ruins the oil it’s cooking in. It’s a real no-no to overstuff.”
Gina Neely learned early on that cakes can be delicate creatures, ready to collapse when subjected to a lot of shaking. Her mom, Jean, famous for her sour cream pound cake, would announce when she put one in the oven: “‘My cake is going to fall. Stop jumping around,’” remembers Neely. “We’d say, ‘What do you mean the cake is gonna fall? Where’s it going to fall to?’”
When Gand cooks with her three children, she still uses the rolling pin her great-grandmother brought with her from Hungary. “When my kids use it, it’s fifth generation,” she says. “It’s touching. You can almost feel like a buzz coming from it.”
And while her children never met their Grandma Myrna, Gand tries to “make her real to them without her really being here. So we make Grandma Myrna’s pancakes. We make Grandma Myrna’s chicken paprikash. So my mother turned into her recipes,” Gand says. “She wanted to be known for inventing something important, and she’s known for great chicken paprikash. It makes her real to my kids. ... So when we’re rolling out this pie dough, we talk about my mother and reminisce. It gives me a chance to visit with her emotionally.”
Ask TV chefs and cookbook authors what culinary skills they learned from their mother and, well, you get everything from Ming Tsai’s technique for shaping egg rolls involving a baseball diamond to Pat Neely’s rule for keeping a sink of hot soapy water ready to wash a few things as you cook.
“Things that my grandmother taught my mother, I watched my grandmother do over and over. Then I saw my mother do them,” Pat Neely says. “So consequently, I ended up doing them. And it was always clean as you go, keep a clean kitchen, never put your knives in the sink. I do them to this day.”
Tsai learned early on from mom Iris that while a “fully flavored, not overseasoned filling” is important, “what makes or breaks a good egg roll or spring roll is how you roll it.” With an egg wash, the filling and the image of a baseball diamond, you place a wrapper, an 8-inch or 10-inch square, with home plate nearest you.
“Put a couple tablespoons on, then bring the wrapper up and over. You really have to bring it back really tight, then roll it until third and first base are straight across in a line and the filling is fully encapsulated. Then you egg wash third (base) to second to first. That all gets egg wash. Then bring third base and first base together ... so basically third and first just touch. That’s a good indication you have just the right amount of filling. ... Then using your fingers, you need to tightly roll over the top to second base.”
Gina Neely’s mom, Jean, would add a bit of cornmeal to biscuits and “when she made her sweet potato pie, she would always boil the sweet potatoes a little bit with the skin on them and then she let them cool a little bit, then peel them. Because sweet potatoes are so tough and so hard to peel that people take off too much. But by boiling them first, you can just almost take your hands and peel them.”
Beyond keeping the kitchen clean, Pat’s mother Lorine taught him all her techniques for frying chicken, from seasoning the dredging flour to creating a crisp finish. “You would have your seasoned flour and you take your chicken and you go into the flour, and into the eggs, and now it’s all gummy and its back into the flour. So it’s a three-step process and by the time you fry that chicken, it’s so crispy and flaky and the outer crust is so delicious because you have such crust on it because of double dipping.”
And my grandmother, Bessie Hevrdejs? While she’d have us use our muscles to knead a yeast dough, the dough for kolacky was handled much less, producing a buttery crisp unsweetened base for topping of sweet cheese or poppy seed filling or chopped dried apricots cooked down to a thick paste or, for my dad, prunes. No family gathering was complete without several platters of them.
GRANDMA BESSIE’S KOLACKY
My family never made the puffy yeast kolacky often found in restaurants. It was always this recipe, not folded, just topped with filling. If you use a jam or preserve, make sure it’s thick enough so it won’t run off the pastry during baking.
Cream 8 ounces cream cheese with 1 cup butter. Work in 2 1/2 cups flour. The dough should have the consistency of a pie dough. Shape into a ball, flatten slightly, wrap and refrigerate. When chilled, roll 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 2- to 2 1/4-inch wide rounds with a cookie cutter; place on ungreased cookie sheets. Gently indent centers of each with your thumb. Fill with a teaspoon or so of thick fruit filling. Bake at 400 degrees until cookies are nicely browned, 10 to 20 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet; cool completely on a wire rack. To serve, dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Makes: about 4 dozen.
Sunday Fried Chicken with Red Hot Maple Glaze
Prep: 40 minutes / Chill: 3 hours / Cook: 10 to 12 minutes / Makes: 4 servings
1 chicken (3 1/2 pounds), cut into 10 pieces, backbone and wing tips removed
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon each: black pepper, paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Peanut oil for frying
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
2 large eggs, whisked
Dash of hot sauce
1 3/4 cups self-rising flour
Red hot maple glaze, see recipe
1. Put chicken pieces in a casserole dish. Mix salt, black pepper, paprika and garlic powder in a small bowl; reserve 1/2 teaspoon of the mix. Sprinkle remaining spice mix on both sides of chicken. Cover casserole dish; refrigerate seasoned chicken for at least 3 hours or up to 1 day ahead.
2. Remove chicken from refrigerator about 1 hour before cooking. Heat oil in a fryer or large straight-sided cast-iron skillet to 350 degrees. (If using a skillet, do not fill more than halfway with oil.) Whisk together buttermilk, eggs and hot sauce in a pie plate. Place flour in another shallow dish; season with reserved spice mix.
3. Working in batches, dredge chicken pieces lightly in the flour mixture, then in the buttermilk mixture, shaking off excess, and finally, dredge a few pieces at a time in flour mixture to coat again. Place coated chicken pieces in hot oil, in batches. (Don’t overcrowd the pan.) Fry until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes for white meat and 13 to 15 minutes for dark meat. Remove from oil to a wire rack set over paper toweling or a baking sheet to keep it crispy. Cool 10 minutes before serving with red hot maple glaze.
— Red hot maple glaze: Heat 6 tablespoons maple syrup, 4 tablespoons hot sauce (such as Frank’s RedHot), 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts and the glaze is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Makes: 1/2 cup
Nutrition information per serving (with the glaze): 924 calories, 42 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 280 mg cholesterol, 68 g carbohydrates, 64 g protein, 1,865 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Adapted from “Back Home with The Neelys: Comfort Food from our Southern Kitchen to Yours,” by Pat and Gina Neely (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95).
©2014 Chicago Tribune
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