Posts Tagged ‘Jan Weisblat’

Funeral Baked Meats

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

No comfort food in the world can compete with macaroni and cheese!

My friend Alice from Dallas and I talk from time to time about writing a book called “Food to Die For.” Like most Americans, Alice and I grew up in communities in which cooking was the natural thing to do when a friend, relative, or neighbor died.

Sometimes there isn’t much one can do for the bereaved other than feed them. Food represents all the love we feel, all the caring remarks we’d like to make, and all the memories we cherish.

And let’s face it: cooking is a heck of a lot more constructive than crying.

Alice grew up in Louisiana so her family brought gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines to the bereaved. I grew up in the northeast so my family tended toward more standard New England-y comfort food—ham, macaroni and cheese, and brownies.

I know people who bring bagels and lox to houses of mourning, as well as stews, soups, cookies, and lasagna. The trick is to identify comfort foods that can be prepared in advance and don’t take much effort to reheat.

My mother Jan often billed herself as a “specialist in funeral baked meats.” When a neighbor died she quickly and efficiently helped relatives, friends, and neighbors organize the feast after the funeral or memorial service. Sometimes this included the favorite dishes of the deceased. Sometimes the menu consisted of any foods that could be prepared in a hurry.

My mother’s funereal feasts were always well received. People liked (and still like) to munch while sharing memories and condolences.

It seems appropriate then, that my mother’s own memorial service on January 7 was followed by copious and delectable food.

Right after the speeches and hymns at the Federated Church in Charlemont, Massachusetts, the church’s pastoral care committee put on a lavish spread of both savory and sweet finger food. It lived up to my memories of the events catered by the now defunct Charlemont Ladies Aid Society.

Later in the day relatives (some by blood, some in spirit) gathered at our house to chat about Jan and life … and of course to eat and drink some more.

Not being my mother, who liked to be thorough and was highly organized, I didn’t make both a turkey and a ham. I made only a ham. (Actually, I didn’t even make it myself since when my neighbors Will and Lisa offered to do something I handed the ham to them for baking!) There was plenty of food, however.

My friend Peter, who considered himself Jan’s third child, brought a huge dish of herbed chicken meatballs. Our neighbors Stu and Cathy prepared the world’s largest bowl of salad. My mother’s honorary goddaughter, Anna, brought fabulous artisan bread. My cousin’s daughter Kyra made yummy cupcakes decorated with snowflakes. And Jan’s aide Pam contributed her dense, delicious applesauce cake.

I had very little to make: a quick appetizer, the salad dressing, my grandmother’s key-lime angel pudding, and a large portion of macaroni and cheese. If I have to be honest, I must say that I didn’t make all of those either since Pam helped A LOT! But I organized them.

Macaroni and cheese was among my mother’s funereal standbys. It is easy to prepare in advance, and it pretty much defines comfort food. So I decided to make it for her.

My standard mac and cheese recipe isn’t elegant and it isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty darn tasty, however. And it comforted me not only to eat it but to prepare it in memory of my mother. She would have enjoyed her party.

The recipe below may be expanded pretty much as much as you like. I hope it graces the table at your next memorial service—or even your next cozy supper party.

Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons flour
1-1/4 cups milk, plus more milk as needed
paprika to taste
salt to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
1 cup grated cheese (sharp Cheddar or Swiss or a combination; a little Parmesan is nice in here, too), divided
1/2 pound cooked and drained macaroni (I like seashells or wagon wheels, but elbows are fine, too)

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter, and stir in the mustard. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for a minute or two. You want the mixture (the roux) to cook and merge but not to get brown.

Add the milk a little at a time, whisking constantly. Bring the sauce to a boil. Add paprika to give it a pink tint plus salt and pepper to taste. I love salt, but remember that the cheese you are about to stir in is salty; I’d start with 1/2 teaspoon and add more later as needed.

Reduce the heat and cook, whisking, for 2 more minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and use a spoon to stir in at least half of the cheese. (If you continue to whisk with the cheese, your whisk will get gummy!)

In a 1-1/2 to 2-quart casserole dish combine the macaroni and the sauce. Your casserole should be nice and moist. If for some reason it looks a little dry (this can happen if your cheese is very absorbent), stir in a little more milk. It will evaporate in the oven. Take a tiny taste of your sauce and add more salt if you need to.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the macaroni mixture, and top with a little more paprika. Cover the dish and place it in the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes; then uncover your macaroni and cheese and continue to cook until it is nice and bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes more. Serves 4 to 6.

Jan with the faithful Truffle

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Two Grandmothers’ Cake

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

 
My mother celebrated a big birthday a few days ago. I won’t say exactly how old she is, mostly because it makes me feel incredibly old myself. Suffice it to say that she is at an age at which every birthday is a big birthday.
 
We were visiting my brother and his family and faced a couple of requirements for the birthday cake.
 
It had to be relatively small since all of us (except my mother) need to lose a little weight. And it had to be simple. My brother was in the hospital at the time. He is happily and healthily home now, but we didn’t want to make a complicated family time more complicated.
 
I had recently rediscovered my grandmother’s recipe for chocolate cake and decided it might fit the bill.
 
I recalled this cake well from my youth, when it was one of my mother’s standbys for a quick cake. She called it “Mother’s Chocolate Cake” (on my grandmother’s recipe card it is called “My Favorite Chocolate Cake”) and iced it with cream-cheese frosting. 

My mother’s own version of the recipe had long since disappeared so I was happy to find my grandmother’s. It’s a great cake—and she was a lovely person. Here is she as she looked when I was little. (I do so admire a woman who can wear hats.)

 

The recipe turned out to be a teensy bit more challenging that I had imagined. 

First, it was just old fashioned enough to be very confusing. My grandmother provided a range of oven temperatures and a range of flour quantities.
 
Second, she was unclear as to which ingredients were added when.
 
I standardized it as best I could and proceeded.
 
In hindsight, it seems to me that one could easily bake this in two layers for a bit less time, but the 8-by-8 inch pan made a nice thick cake that was easy to eat and frost.
 
According to my grandmother’s recipe card, she used a cooked icing on the cake. I stuck with my mother’s standby cream-cheese version, which is ever popular in our house.
 
My nephew Michael took charge of decorating the cake. He began with the word “Nana” written in orange lettering. He then went to town with candy corn and sprinkles. At ten, Michael takes the “more is more” school of decorating very seriously. 

The birthday girl was pleased as punch with the results.

 
Tinky’s Grandmother’s Chocolate Cake
 
Ingredients:
 
2 ounces bitter chocolate
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.
 
Place the chocolate in a small saucepan, and pour the boiling water over it. Stir to dissolve, turning the heat below on very low if necessary.
 
In a mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in the baking soda.
 
Add the flour and milk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Stir in the chocolate mixture, followed by the vanilla.
 
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes.
 
If you want to be informal and serve the cake out of the pan, that’s just fine. To be a bit more festive, let it cool for 10 minutes and then invert it onto a cooling rack.
 
Ice with cream-cheese frosting. 

Serves 8 to 10.


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Greek Eggplant Pudding

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

 
We are not holding our traditional Pudding Hollow Pudding Contest this year. My schedule and my mother’s health make it uncertain that I’ll have the time it takes to put it together in October.
 
Nevertheless, as fall approaches I think fondly of this fun event. (You may see photos of last year’s festivities here.)
 
Contestants almost always enter more sweet puddings than savory, but I have a soft spot in my heart and palate for the savory ones.
 
The recipe below is for what may be my all-time favorite pudding entered in the contest, the Greek Eggplant Pudding from Nancy Argeris of Hawley, Massachusetts.
 
I ran across a small eggplant at a farm stand the other day and was inspired to throw together a miniature version of the recipe with my mother. We loved its slightly salty, eggplanty warmth. 

We used the tiny eggplant plus 2 eggs and about a third of everything else. We probably could have made the whole recipe since the pudding is delicious the next day. As it was, we finished it off handily with a little help from Truffle, who like me is a sucker for feta cheese.

Her pudding supper filled her up nicely and sent her right to sleep.

 

 
The pudding takes a bit of time to put together as it has three stages—soaking, baking, and baking again. None of the stages is difficult, however.
 
The Pudding
 
Ingredients:
 
2 medium to large eggplants
Kosher salt for sprinkling
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (more or less), divided
1 large white onion, finely chopped (I used a sweet onion as that’s what I had in the house)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 large eggs
1-1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 teaspoon fresh (I tend to use a bit more)
 
Instructions:
 
Peel the eggplants and cut them into 1/2-inch rounds. (For my smaller version I made the rounds a bit narrower.)
 
Place the eggplant slices in a colander, sprinkling salt on each layer as they go in. Let them sit with the salt for 45 minutes. Half an hour into this process, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
 
When the eggplant slices are through sitting rinse and dry them thoroughly. Lightly oil a baking sheet and place the slices on it, turning so that both sides have been oiled. Bake until the pieces soften, about 30 minutes.
 
In a small sauté pan sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until the onion becomes translucent. In a medium bowl whisk together the eggs. Stir in the crumbled feta, the oregano, and the onion mixture.
 
Oil a 3-quart baking dish and put a layer of eggplant at the bottom. Pour about 1/3 of the egg mixture on top. Repeat the layers, ending with the egg mixture.
 
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the mixture sets. (Avoid overcooking the pudding. It doesn’t have to be brown.) 

Serves 6 to 8.


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A Sauce for Stress

Friday, August 13th, 2010

We hope Mother Jan will soon be back to her normal form.

 
I don’t usually reprint old recipes of mine OR spend much of a blog post linking to another blog. But some weeks are a little crazy—and this has been a crazy week for me!
 
As we were getting ready to move my mother out of Daffodil Cottage a few days ago she fell and hurt her back. Add to that injury the stress of selling a house and a minor infection, and we have ended up with one sick mother.
 
Yesterday the doctor suggested it might be time to move her into a wheelchair. (Mother Jan was understandably NOT very excited about this idea. Her gait improved almost immediately!)
 
A couple of things are getting us through this stressful time. First, we never lose our sense of humor. Even when Jan is a little out of things (as she has been a lot in the past few days) she finds time to laugh.
 
Second, we have family around. My young nephew Michael in particular is a joy. He has just started his own blog, My World by Michael. It is officially hosted by me since apparently 10 year olds aren’t allowed to have blogs.
 
Michael’s current post, “Swimming in the Dam at Singing Brook Farm,” is charming. It reminds me of my own recent post comparing our country surroundings to The Trip to Bountiful.
 
He dwells on the experience of plunging into our cold dam water, on the sights and sounds of nature, and on the cuteness and doggyness of our cockapoo, Truffle.
 
Check out his post. It’s short and very sweet!
 
Meanwhile, here is a short and sweet recipe from my Pudding Hollow Cookbook.
 
When we called the doctor to ask for advice about my mother, one of the first things he suggested was that she eat plenty of ice cream to help her bones heal. Michael immediately volunteered to help.
 
We tried to keep things healthy by consuming frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. And then we ruined the whole healthy idea by covering the yogurt with this sauce. It made everyone smile, however, even our invalid.
 
Merry Lion Hot Fudge Sauce
 
Ingredients:
 
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tablespoon sweet butter
5 ounces evaporated milk (a small can)
1 teaspoon vanilla
 
Instructions:
 
Combine the sugar and cocoa in a saucepan and heat them until they are warm to the touch. (This is the only tricky part of the recipe; make sure you stir them, or they’ll burn!)
 
When they’re hot but not melting, add the butter and the evaporated milk. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil for 1 minute. 

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. You’re ready to have a sundae party! Serves 8. 

Michael can make a toy out of just about anything.

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Adventures in Real Estate

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Daffodil Cottage

 
Regular readers may have wondered at my recent uncharacteristic silence. (In fact, a few of you wrote to ask whether I was all right, which was very sweet.)
 
I have indeed taken a break from writing lately. My whole family has been busy helping my mother get ready to sell her house in Millburn, New Jersey.
 
For several years now, she and I have been traveling from Massachusetts (my home) to New Jersey (her home) to Virginia (my brother’s home) and then back to New Jersey and so on.
 
Frankly, living in three places has been exhausting and confusing for me, let alone the almost 92-year-old Jan!
 
So this spring she decided to put the New Jersey house on the market. She and I spent a couple of weeks at the house (known as Daffodil Cottage) in June de-cluttering and making sure that all the little repair jobs we had been saving up got done. 
 
We then turned the place over to our realtor, the amazing Wendy Drucker.

 
Recently, my friend Peter asked me for advice about choosing a realtor. I sent him a long letter, and OF COURSE I can’t find it now. The gist of it was that the ideal realtor understands the unique features of one’s home and looks not just for the most money but also for the best fit for the house and its owner.
 
I also suggested that the best realtors were rooted in the communities in which they sold property.
 
Peter told me I was brilliant. Well, of course, I am—but my description of the ideal realtor had nothing to do with my brilliance and everything to do with Wendy’s.
 
She is cheerful, knowledgeable, and competent—and she cares about my mother, me, and the past and future of Daffodil Cottage. She has found a buyer who wants to bring up his children in Daffodil Cottage. The closing will take place next week!
 
Whenever we have been in a jam—locating a repairman while out of state, trying to figure out how to get rid of decades’ worth of garbage, looking for a real-estate lawyer who would reassure my mother that selling the house was indeed the right thing to do—Wendy has come through. 

She and her terrific husband Chris have spent more time in Daffodil Cottage lately than we have. Chris and my nephew Michael bonded when Chris stopped by to help my brother David install a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

 
We call Chris Our Hero. We call Wendy a Goddess. (She is actually Goddess Number One. Number Two is my sister-in-law Leigh, who has been acting as the family organizer and archivist.)
 
What with all the sorting and packing, we haven’t had much time for cooking. We have eaten some yummy takeout, about which I’ll write soon. But we did invite Wendy and Chris over last week for a quick pasta supper.
 
We served the simple sauce below over whole-wheat rigatoni purchased at one of Millburn’s best places to shop, Mia Famiglia.
 
This little Italian deli sells tasty sandwiches and soups, aged Italian cheeses, and crusty breads.
 
Naturally, we prepared the sauce with Mia Famiglia’s own sausage, which is flavored with tons of fennel. If you can’t shop there (we won’t be able to soon!), you may make it with any Italian sausage you like (I’d mix hot and sweet if you don’t have the natural spiciness we enjoyed)—even vegetarian faux sausage.
 
Jan and I will be embarking on more adventures in real-estate soon: another experienced realtor, Carol Cooke, is looking for an apartment for us in Virginia. In the meantime, here is the sauce we served to Wendy and Chris. 

You don’t actually have to sell real estate to enjoy it.

 
Daffodil Cottage Pasta Sauce
 
Ingredients:
 
12 ounces real (or veggie) Italian sausage, cut into small chunks
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (use only if using faux sausage or if your real sausage is quite lean)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
another 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large can (28 ounces) Italian tomatoes, crushed by hand or with a gentle knife
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 pinches red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
fresh, chopped basil to taste
 
Instructions:
 
In a frying pan brown the sausage chunks, using oil if they are made of soy or are very lean. Drain and set aside.
 
In another large frying pan or a Dutch oven sauté the garlic in the olive oil just until it turns golden brown.
 
Add the tomatoes, salt, peppers, oregano, and sausage. Cook this mixture down for at least 20 minutes, uncovered. Stir occasionally. The sausage gets richer and denser if you simmer it for up to an hour; if you want to extend the cooking, make sure you cover the sauce almost all the way after it begins to thicken. 
Toss in the basil just before serving over pasta. Top with grated, aged Romano cheese from Mia Famiglia. Serves 4.
 
 

Goodbye, arts-and-crafts living room of Daffodil Cottage!