Twelve years ago, a most wonderful gift arrived in time for Christmas from my mother in Ohio.
It wasn’t large, and it was wrapped simply. There had been no hints about this Christmas gift or that it would be one of the best presents I’d ever received.
When I opened it, I saw a beautiful red book that immediately caused my eyes to well up. “From the Grandmothers’ Kitchens,” the cover read, with the names of my two grandmothers and one great-grandmother printed below. And then my own mother’s name, Diane Prettyman DeWall.
I was deeply touched that my mom would take the time and effort to collect special recipes from all three of these terrific cooks and have them bound in a hardcover book for my sisters and me.
As I sifted through its 130 pages, I saw copies of my grandmothers’ actual recipes in their own handwriting, some faded, yellowed and torn at the edges, a pretty red frame around each recipe. A few were splashed with the remnants of baking and cooking – tomato sauce, strawberry juice, chocolate, I imagined.
Paging through the book, memories rushed back to me of Christmases, Thanksgivings and summer visits to their homes in Minnesota and Missouri. I felt incredible gratitude that my mom had culled these deteriorating pages of casseroles and confections from old recipe boxes and preserved them in a book to be used in my own kitchen and passed on to my children.
Thoughtfully laid out and edited by my mom, a painter and writer, the chapters were titled “From Sarah’s Kitchen” (my Missouri great-grandmother), “From Elizabeth’s Kitchen” (my mother’s mother from Missouri), and “Grace’s Kitchen” (my father’s mother, who lived most of her 99 years in a little western Minnesota town, Morris).
A bit of history, their early years as brides and my mother’s memories of their kitchens prefaced some of their best recipes.
My Irish great-grandmother, Sarah, started married life in 1900 in Kansas City with her new husband, living with his mother and several sisters. My grandmother Elizabeth (Betty) painted all her kitchens blue and aqua ... seven kitchens that she settled during life with my traveling salesman grandfather.
My mom wrote in the book that my Grandma Grace always had “Minnesota summer’s bounty – green beans, tomatoes, applesauce, chili sauce, jellies, corn and watermelon pickles – filling glass Mason jars on the shelves of her pantry.”
Not every recipe brings back memories (fortunately, my Nanna, Betty, never presented her “Tongue a la Russe” to us as kids, or her “Tomato Aspic with Asparagus Tips”), but most of them make my mouth water as I read the ingredients and remember the smells in her little Kansas City kitchen.
And my Minnesota grandmother’s Ice Box Cake reminds me not just of the delectable sponginess and melt-in-your-mouth chocolate icing, but of memories of sneaking down to the cool basement to steal an extra piece from her basement fridge when no one was looking.
Her recipe has very few instructions, mostly just ingredients, and it is the trickiest thing I’ve ever tried to bake – unsuccessfully, of course. I wish I could watch how she actually made that cake so incredibly spongy and her icing flawless.
Then there are The Rolls. Ah, The Rolls. I hope to never have a Thanksgiving or Christmas without them.
“Nanna’s Rolls” take on an almost mystical reverence whenever they are brought up in conversation with our kids and their cousins. Sadly, Betty didn’t live long enough to meet her great-grandchildren, but she lives on in the lightest, fluffiest rolls, which my mother, sisters and I steadfastly continue to bake.
The day after Thanksgiving, we always use the leftover rolls for turkey sandwiches ... just a bit of mayo or mustard and a thin slice of cheese – the kids love these. “Who ate the last roll!?” is a running joke in our family when we all are together, testimony to how much we savor them.
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup milk
½ cup freshly made mashed potatoes
2 packets dry yeast, proofed in ¼ cup warm milk and a little sugar
3 cups flour (about) (divided)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) melted butter or shortening
In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add sugar, milk and mashed potatoes and beat lightly together. Stir in the proofed yeast mixture. Add enough flour (about 1 cup, added gradually) until a sponge (batter) drops off a spoon. Cover and let rise in a warm area of the kitchen about 2½ hours, until doubled in size.
Add remaining 2 cups flour, the salt and butter or shortening and mix in by hand. Cover and let stand about an hour in a warm place, until doubled or nearly doubled again.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
On floured surface, using a light touch, roll out dough not too thinly, to about ½-inch thickness.
Using a round cookie cutter or small drinking glass about 2½ to 3 inches in diameter, cut out dough and place circles into two greased 8- or 9-inch square baking pans – about 18 rolls. Bake in preheated oven 15 to 20 minutes. The rolls will brown to slightly golden on top. Delicious with just butter or homemade preserves.