If you were to open the drawers and cabinets of my 88- year-old mother’s kitchen, you would assume this is a woman who loves to cook. It’s stocked with every imaginable cooking gadget. For some unknown reason, she doesn’t just have one can opener; she has a collection of electric/battery operated openers.
There’s also multiple sets of knives- a few that suspiciously look like they were purchased from a TV infomercial, or more likely, from a TV infomercial store at the Mall of America.
She has lots of measuring tools. Who needs three sets of tablespoon and teaspoon measuring sets? Tucked away in the bottom cabinet is her set of Paul Revere pots and pans, bought in the 1950’s. She meticulously rubbed the copper bottoms with Twinkle after every use so that sixty years later they still sparkle as if you were just using them for the very first time.
They haven’t seen a stovetop since 2010. That’s the year my dad died and the year she declared her cooking days were over. It was Lean Cuisine and take-out for her.
My mother fashioned herself an excellent cook. Some of us would take issue with that assessment. When I was growing up, she served “mashed potatoes” almost every night. She was an early adopter of the instant kind. Her motto: Why fix real, when you can just add water?
Invariably, she modified every recipe she used. If a recipe called for butter, you can be sure she substituted margarine and always half the amount the recipe recommended. If a recipe called for fresh spinach, she was likely to add some frozen peas.
It gave her great joy to share how she exchanged or eliminated ingredients, particularly when the recipe called for anything she believed was fattening. This from a woman who despite her recipe edits was never less than 75 pounds overweight.
After sharing the details of how the food was prepped, she looked at you expectantly as you took the first bite. Every night we did this bizarre dance. And every night whether you liked the food or not, you said you did, because it would be incredibly cruel to say otherwise.
She needed to believe she was a great cook.
The truth is, I didn’t much care for her cooking. Except for one item- her Honey Cake.
Every year during the Jewish High Holy Days my mother baked her coveted Honey Cake. The recipe was a secret. Her aunt, who had been a professional baker in Russia, begrudgingly gave it to her, only after my mother swore she would not share the recipe with anyone. Ever.
It was a promise my mother kept for decades after the aunt died and would have taken to her own grave, except my dad said that he thought the idea of keeping her secret was silly.
I have the recipe, but right now my copy is stored away in a POD that I thought I would be unloading a couple of months ago. Another story for another day.
When it became obvious that my aging mother was not going to bake her secret honey cake recipe this year, or ever again, I decided that I would surprise her and bake a honey cake.
I went to her three recipe boxes and began my search. She was ( I say was because she no longer cooks, see paragraph above) a recipe collector.
These boxes are jammed with newspaper clippings and handwritten recipe cards – the kind of thing women used to share in the days before the internet. I found a recipe for African chicken peanut soup that sounds incredible. I can guarantee she never made it. She’s a Campbell soup kind of gal. She’s also a fan of Lipton dehydrated soups. Can you say MSG and water retention?
She clipped a lasagna recipe. My dad would never eat lasagna. He was not a fan of noodles and although he stopped observing Jewish dietary rules as a teenager, his taste buds never adjusted to eating meat and cheese together. So unless it was a dairy-noodle- free lasagna, that was a recipe that was never going to be used in her house. And yet, she clipped and saved it.
Same for the Curried Pineapple Chicken recipe. My mother doesn’t like curry. Never eats it. Why she clipped a recipe for anything curried will remain a mystery. I’m guessing that she was planning on substituting the curry for another seasoning. Paprika?
Oh, and my favorite clippings are the ones for the potato recipes ( see early adopter of instant mashed potatoes). She clipped a recipe for quick baked potato strips – the quick was probably the enticer there.
For some reason, she clipped a recipe for mashed potatoes. She’d probably substitute Lipton’s Onion Soup for the cream (see fan of dehydrated soup mixes) and add a pat- just a pat of margarine.
After going through hundreds of clippings, I came up empty-handed. No Honey Cake recipe. Maybe, I thought, she kept it in a hidden place to maintain the secret nature of the recipe. If that were true, it meant I would have to ask her and spoil the surprise.
She seemed genuinely excited that I was going to bake a cake for her. Unfortunately ,she couldn’t find the recipe. It seems like the secret recipe has mysteriously disappeared. Or, she really did put it in a spot that is so secret she can no longer remember where it is.
While I know that her aunt prided herself on this secret recipe, I suspected if I searched long enough on the internet, I would find it. The Smitten Kitchen’s Majestic and Moist Honey Cake recipe* is almost a replica of my mother’s secret recipe. There are several different ingredients. The Smitten Kitchen includes orange juice and whisky – something my mother’s recipe does not.
However, the secret ingredient in my mother’s recipe is missing from the Smitten Kitchen’s recipe. A secret that I am going to share. Add a grated apple. It takes moist to an entirely different level.
My mother was antsy as the cake cooled on the rack. She was eager to taste the Honey Cake. I was eager for her to taste it as well. I was feeling all sorts of nice thoughts that I had done a good deed by baking this special treat or her.
Now, if you were thinking that we were headed to a sweet and emotional conclusion to this circle of life story, please readjust your expectations. My mother is not warm. She is not touchy-feely. She’s not mean. She’s not cruel. She’s just self-absorbed. A lot of elderly people seem to share this characteristic. It is not attractive.
While my mother loves getting compliments on her own cooking (see self-absorbed), my mother sparingly sprinkles compliments of any kind. Once, when I made her a birthday dinner, her way of saying she liked the meal was to say, “this tastes better than the food you usually fix.”
So here is how the tasting of the substitute secret honey cake recipe played out .I cut a slice of cake for her. She took a bite. One bite. She put the rest of the slice down and walked away, without saying a word.
Did she like the cake? Did she think she said thank you when not a word passed through her lips? Did she think my honey cake didn’t live up to the original secret recipe?
Whatever she’s thinking, she’s keeping it a secret.
*Note: If you decide to try this recipe be sure to read the instructions closely. The Smitten Kitchen updated the instructions after sharing the ingredient list. The update says you should substitute the 1 TBP of baking powder for 1 TSP but that change doesn’t appear in the ingredient list, just in the narrative of how to make the cake.
Every so often I would look at my women friends who were happily married and didn’t cook, and I would always find myself wondering how they did it. Would anyone love me if I couldn’t cook? I always thought cooking was part of the package: Step right up, it’s Rachel Samstat, she’s bright, she’s funny and she can cook!
Nora Ephron, Heartburn