Friday, January 27, 2012

My Mother's Cookbook: Memories from Another Era

The three things that I knew how to make when I got married were French fries, fudge and date-filled oatmeal cookies, none of which made a meal!  And none of which were in my mother's black cookbook.  I remember all of them from watching her make them when I was a child.  I loved those cookies and often helped Mom make them, rolling out the dough, cutting them into circles and then spreading the date filling between two cookies before they went into the oven.

As I browsed through her handwritten black book, stopping here and there as I remembered those recipes she baked, roasted or cooked, other memories were triggered as well:  of people, of times at the table and of other recipes not in her book, but ones I loved--and some that I did not like at all.  I also remembered our kitchen, which is usually where she would be.  My mother's life was a busy one, although at the time I did not realize it.   

She did not have all the luxury items we have today to make cleaning, cooking, washing and ironing easier.  In the 1940s her iron was heavy and one which she placed on the hot wood stove to heat up.  I remember that iron as I used it as a young girl before we moved to Nova Scotia.  In those days, nearly everything was ironed!  In N.S. we finally had an electric iron, an electric stove and an electric fridge.  Up until then we had had an ice box, with ice delivered to the house.  The ice man would come down our gangway to the backyard, carrying that dripping cold block with large tongs.  I remember it sitting in the sun on the back steps leading up to our back door, awaiting my father to take it--still dripping--to the top, two flights up.

All Mom's recipes, except for some of the later ones, are short and to the point, with very little method given.  One has to guess how to make them.  Obviously she knew how and perhaps learned next to her mother or grandmother in those long-ago kitchens of the early 1900s when she was growing up. 

On the left is Grandma Tillie, Mom's mother, in the late 1950s.

I used to sit beside my mother and watch her bake and prepare food for our dinner when I was very young.  I loved that time with her, but I never learned to cook at home.  I really wasn't interested and she didn't push any of us.  I learned the hard way by trial and error--some flops and some successes--after I was married.  I sometimes wrote to her asking for a particular recipe and via return mail it would arrive in our mail box, with full directions.

The photo on the right is the house where I grew up as a young girl in Charlottetown.  It is still there.  Things have changed a lot since then as the houses on each side were torn down and a Best Western is now to the right, where once chestnut trees and a large house once stood.  Our gangway was to the right of the house.

I'm not sure how Mom managed to find the time to bake and cook such wonderful meals as she not only went without a lot of the appliances that made life easier later, but she also had four children to contend with in the third-floor apartment of my grandfather's apartment house.  But bake and cook she did:  cookies, cakes, pies, bread, preserves in the fall and all manner of home-cooked food for the table.

Those were the days of sugar and butter rationing, which meant baked things were usually not as sweet as they are today; less butter was also used (shortening and often lard were used instead).  Our stoves have also changed, so the timing for baking can be somewhat different.  In the 1940s in Charlottetown my mother was baking in a coal and wood stove oven; today I am baking in a convection oven.
Below left, the filled cookies

I decided that I would make those long-ago remembered oatmeal cookies once again.  I made them for old-times-sake and to see if they were as good as I had thought back in the 1940s when I was a young child.  One day last week I made them.  They turned out well, but they are time-consuming to make and a fair amount of work.  Although the recipe said it was my mother's, they are not as I remembered them.  They definitely were not sweet enough and they were chewier than they should have been--or so I think now.

Mom had two recipes for them and both were almost identical except for the amount of oatmeal and water called for (all other ingredients and amounts were the same).  I made the one calling for two cups of oatmeal, not the one calling for a cup and a half.  That second one also called for three tablespoons of water; the one I used didn't call for any.  I used oatmeal flakes and not the finer oatmeal.  Perhaps those things made the difference.  (I did add water to the version I baked as otherwise it would have been difficult to gather it into a ball and to roll it out.  Here is the recipe.

Mom's Date-Filled Oatmeal Cookies
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter and shortening, mixed (I used all butter)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
2 cups oatmeal
4 tablespoons water (my addition)

Date Filling
1/2 lb dates, stoned and cup up (I would use more dates next time, about 3/4 lb; mine came already stoned)
1/2 tablespoon white sugar (with more dates, use a bit more sugar and other ingredients)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

The only directions my mother gave:  "Just let the dough rise overnight and roll out thin.  Cut, place filling between two cookies and bake in a 375F oven."

The cookies at right are shown with the filling on them and ready to be topped with another rolled out one. 

My method:  In a large bowl, cream sugar and butter mixture until light and fluffy.  Mix the dry ingredients together and add to the butter mixture.  Work in well with your hands as it is too difficult to do otherwise.  Add the water, enough so the dough is damp.  Mix well.  Leave in bowl and let rise overnight, covered with a towel.  (I did this, but I don't really think this step is necessary.  It does mean you don't have to do it all the same day however.)  Next morning, form into a ball.  Preheat oven to 375F (190C).

Filling:  Place cut-up dates into a small saucepan.  Add enough water (about 1/2 cup) to keep them from burning and cook until soft, stirring constantly.  Add the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla.  Mix well.

Dough:  Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into 1/8-inch thickness (1/4 inch is too thick).  Cut into circles with a cookie cutter or a glass with a thin edge.  Place them on a cookie sheet.  Spread them with about a teaspoon or two of filling, almost to the edges, but not quite. Then cover each cookie with another rolled out one.  (I placed only so many at a time on the cookie sheet before adding the filling; otherwise, I might have run out of enough filling.)  Place the cookies in the oven, baking for about 12 to15 minutes or until lightly browned.  I had two pans of 12 double cookies on each pan. (Note:  I would use more dates another time.)

My thoughts after I had finished baking them and tasting them?  I might try making present-day oatmeal cookies next time, placing cooked date filling between two of them after they come out of the oven.  That's only if I decide to make them again!

That second thing I liked--French fries--I make every so often.  When I have the time, I make them from scratch.  We didn't have French fries often when I was young but occasionally Mom made them with fish.  I discussed the Belgian way to cook them in an earlier blog post (June 11, 2010; Green Soup, Waffles and French Fries).  I do soak my cut-up potatoes in cold water as the Belgians do for a good 20 minutes but not always do I cook them twice.

On the left, the thinly sliced potatoes in cold water; on the right, the almost ready potatoes frying in hot oil.

One of the ways I love them is slicing them very thinly, no more than 1/8 inch thick.  All you need for that is a sharp knife.  I soak them well in ice cold water and then dry them thoroughly with a clean tea towel and/or paper towels.  I separate them as I put them into the hot oil (making sure they are dry), stir them often, and when they are crisp looking and golden brown, I remove them from the pot and drain them well.  I did fry the first batch quickly the second time after I removed the second batch from the oil.  I then re-fried those quickly again as well.  That ensures the fries are crisp.

On the left, the fries just out of the pot, crisp and golden.  On the right, ready to have with some chicken wings (another of my favourite foods).

They are almost like potato chips and with some salt, they are so good!  In Belgium and here in Germany as well, many use mayonnaise instead of Ketchup with pommes frites (as they are called here), although young children use the latter more often these days.

Mom and Dad on Cook Avenue, Halifax, in the mid 1950s

The fudge I loved I make once or twice a year and it always brings back memories.  Dad loved fudge, too, and he would sometimes make it, although it was Mom who usually did.  In those days, he would put it on a plate when it was ready and pass it around.  We would each take a piece and then he would pass it around again.  So a second one.  But that would be about it (there were six of us altogether).  Naturally I always wanted more!

 One day, when I was a young teen and my parents were out and my sisters were as well, I decided to make some myself.  I had watched often enough so I knew how.  I made the fudge.  It turned out perfectly.  I cleaned everything, leaving no trace behind.  Then I took the whole plate to my bedroom where I hid it and ate every single piece myself!  That satisfied my craving for it then and there.  I never did that again, but I have never forgotten the thrill of having it all to myself!

Here is the recipe I made that long-ago day and again this past week.

Chocolate Fudge
3 cups sugar (half white, half brown)
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup milk
Chopped walnuts

Note:  I often make two-thirds the recipe (as this time):  2 cups sugar, 2 Tbsp cocoa, 2/3 cup milk plus butter, vanilla and walnuts.  I also used dark brown sugar this time as I didn't have any light brown and it was just as good, perhaps even better.

Method:  Place the sugar, cocoa and milk in a saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly (do not stop stirring).  When it comes to a boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer, without stirring, until it reaches the soft ball stage.  Now, my way to test for the soft ball stage is the way I do it still, although you can use a candy thermometer.  I put a small saucer or dish in the fridge freezer so that it becomes very cold.  When I think the fudge is nearly ready (the mixture will be low in the pot), I test a small bit on the cold fridge plate.  If I can form it into a soft ball, it is ready.

As soon as the soft ball stage has been reached, I remove it from the stove.  I immediately add a large piece of butter (about two tablespoons or so), without stirring it in, and then set the pot aside until the candy cools a bit.  I then stir in the butter, add a good teaspoon of vanilla and beat it until it begins to thicken.
The picture at right shows the butter melting in the fudge mixture.

These walnuts we gathered last fall.  They are best left a while before using; they were perfect now.

The picture at right shows the walnuts in the pot mixture and almost ready to pour into the dish.

Before the shine starts to disappear and just before it becomes too thick (the trickiest part), add chopped walnuts and immediately pour the fudge onto a buttered pie plate.  Don't leave it too late to do that or the candy will harden before you can pour it in.  If that happens, put it back on the heat just long enough to soften it, stir quickly and pour it quickly again on the plate. 

On the left, the newly poured fudge.  On the right, ready to eat!

This is a delicious and creamy chocolate fudge.

As I looked through my mother's small black cookbook, with names and recipes from the past rising from its tattered pages, my young life rose to the surface along with them:  great Aunt Emma's gingersnaps, great Aunt Willie's ginger cookies, Georgie's Scotch cake, Aunt Grace's cupcakes, her mother's sultana cake and my father's mother's plum pudding along with many others.

On the left, Aunt Emma's gingersnap recipe.  No method other than soften butter and lard.  Add molasses.

On the right, Georgie's recipe for Scotch cake, the ones I make and gave the recipe for in my blog post of 14 December 2009.

The most interesting to me in Mom's cookbook was my grandmother's dandelion wine recipe, mainly because I had never seen her take a drink of alcohol of any kind.  Not to say that she never did.  I don't remember my mother ever making this and I doubt that I ever shall, not with all the wonderful wines we can buy today and considering the work this wine would take to make!  But this is a very old recipe so interesting for that alone.  Here is the recipe (I clarified it somewhat from the written page):


Grandma Tillie's Dandelion Wine
To each quart of dandelion blooms add one quart boiling water.  Stir well and cover.  Let stand three days, stirring occasionally.  Strain off the flowers.
To each gallon of liquid, add 3-1/2 pounds white sugar, rind of one lemon, a little root ginger and boil for a short time.  Cut one orange and one lemon into the hot liquid.  Cool.  When sufficiently cold, ferment with yeast cake.  (J:  In those days yeast was in a solid piece, in squares that I remember still.)  Add small piece of toast and 5 c. of isinglass (according to the Oxford dictionary, that is a kind of gelatin obtained from sturgeon, etc.).  Let the mixture stand two days; strain and put away for two months.  Then bottle.

So many of these recipes in her cookbook she made over the years and so many of them made for special occasions.  Not all of them though; many she made for regular meals for dinner or supper throughout the year.  Another era, now long gone, but an era that shaped my life and the lives of millions of others.

Note:  Keep in mind that you can enlarge any of the pictures in order to see them more clearly.  Just click on the picture.


  1. I remember making dandelion wine as a teenager with my mother's help. You have aroused quite a memory. I also enjoyed reading the whole posting. Such great memories and you wrote about them well.

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