Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Pioneer Recipe

Grandma, 1965
An on-going project I am currently in the middle of is converting a bunch of family history stuff to digital format, which makes it easier to preserve and share.  So here recently I have been converting some cassette tape recordings my grandmother, my Mom's Mom, made of her life's history.  She was older when she did this.  She just sat with a tape recorder and reminisced about her childhood, growing up, going to school, how she got started on the violin, getting married, having kids, and so on.  She did five tapes, somewhere around five and a half hours of her soft, sweet voice relating all these memories from her life.  She even sang little bits of a few songs she remembered from her younger years. The wonderful things is that she did it.  The sad part is that she was not too careful to let the recorder get started before she began dictating, or other little details that would have made the quality of the recordings just a little bit better.  So there are gaps here and there, the sounds get a bit muffled from time to time, and here and there are background noises, although that's not always a bad thing.  Its just the sounds of life happening around her. I have only done three of the five tapes so far but its been real interesting.  My converter is such that I have to play the tapes as it captures the sound.  Then, when I'm done, I save it as a "wav" file.  Some really interesting stuff here.

My grandma was raised in a small, rural town.  She was born only about 40 years after the first settlers came to the area.  Her family home was one of the first to be built as families began moving out of the fort that originally was built to protect the new settlers. Later, as things began to be more settled, people began moving farther out from the fort and other small communities began to be established.  Grandma's family had some property about 40 miles from the family home where they often spent much of the summers.  They ran sheep and kept them at the summer place for the most part.  Free range sheep, I guess they'd be called now-days.  She spoke of going up to the cabin each spring and what they had to do to reclaim it from the vermin that had taken over during the winter.

Grandma, 1907
But I digress.  Anyway, as I was listening to tape two, Grandma began talking about a treat her mother used to make, one she remembered from when she was a small child, one that I'd guess she grew up with and made many times herself because she knew the recipe well enough that she included it in her history.  She said, after all, that she really liked it. Unfortunately, she didn't give it as a detailed recipe, she only mentioned the ingredients in passing, only giving the quantities of some of the ingredients, but not all.  As I listened to her talk about it for the few minutes she spent on it, it suddenly dawned on me that she was giving enough detail that I might actually be able to make the stuff.

So here's what she said:
"And there were gooseberries. And the gooseberries, of course, were the first fruit that came on that could be used in the spring and when mother baked gooseberry cake that was a real treat for us.  We'd go out and pick the gooseberries before they were ripe, when they were still quite green just barely getting ready to look like gooseberries because we couldn't wait for some kind of fruit.  And we'd pick them, at least a couple of cups she would want.  We'd bring them down and she'd make an old fashion cream cake and put the gooseberries in it.  The cake was made with - it didn't matter what measurement you used.  One measurement of sugar, one measurement of cream, and then enough flour with baking powder and so forth in it to make a good cake dough, just a regular kind of cake dough.  And the gooseberries were stirred into it just as it was put in the oven. And some vanilla was usually added.  And that was the best cake mother could ever make for us.  After it was cooked it was cut in squares and the squares set out in bowls for us and what was called "dip" was poured over it.  Dip was made from milk and vanilla and lemons and sugar to make it sweet.  And that was poured over the cake and you ate it like a pudding.  It was delicious, all of us enjoyed those cakes very much."

Now I'm not a stellar chef, but I can find my way around our kitchen so I began to figure out how I would make the stuff, how to fill in the gaps.  I have to admit that at one point it made me think of the movie Jurassic Park, how they used frog DNA to fill in the gaps missing from the dinosaur DNA they extracted from the mosquitoes embedded in the amber.  Fortunately, I knew that if I messed up the worst that would happen would be a poor tasting cake.  Nobody's life would be at stake.  Anyway, the other problem was gooseberries.  Not really the season for gooseberries right now.  I'm not 100% sure I'd be able to find any around here in the summer, much less late winter.  I ended up ordering some.  A little pricey and I ended up having to buy more than I needed for one cake.  But I really wanted to try this so I got them.

While I was waiting for my gooseberries to arrive I also spent time looking online for similar recipes, recipes that sounded similar to what Grandma had described, to see if I could fill in some of the gaps.  So by the time the gooseberries arrived I knew what else I was going to use and had it all ready to go.  The last step was to write it all out, like a regular recipe, because I'm that kind of cook - I like to have a recipe.
When I was ready to bake the cake I gathered all the ingredients together.  Gooseberries are smaller than I imagined.  Yes, I must confess that I don't remember ever having seen gooseberries before.  From the pictures I'd seen of them I thought they would be grape sized.
So anyway, I got the pan all greased and floured, and got the oven set to warm up.  Then I started tossing stuff in the bowl.  Grandma had said to add flour until you had enough to "to make a good cake dough, just a regular kind of cake dough." So I was trying to remember what normal cake batter looked like.  The last cake I made was for my son about five months ago. I did the cake but everything after that was a community effort.  Well, I had a very good helper and I was pretty much the supervisor.  Turned out pretty good.  That was a from scratch cake so I was trying to remember what the batter had looked like, since that isn't normally something you pay a lot of attention to, as long as it doesn't look terribly out of the ordinary.  So I added the flour and until it looked good to me, which ended up being just short of a cup.
Then it was ready to go in the oven.  Since Grandma said "the gooseberries were stirred into it just as it was put in the oven" I gently folded them into the batter at that point.
Then I turned the batter into the pan and slid it into the oven.  Of course I had to lick the spatula.  That wasn't too bad, though it was a little sweeter than the last cake I made.  But as an early indicator of how it was going to turn out, it was promising.
The recipe I had found that seemed most similar to what Grandma described said to cook it for 35 minutes so that's what I set the timer for.
While the cake was baking I made the Dip so it would be ready when the cake was done.  Grandma hadn't really said whether or not to zest the lemon but the recipe I was sorta patterning all this after said to so I did.  Grandma also hadn't said anything about portions for the sauce so I was using something along the lines of the pattern recipe for that, too.
I also squeezed all the lemon juice out of the lemon and put all of that in, too.  I was a little worried it might turn out to be too lemony but in the end it was okay.
When the timer went off I checked the cake.  I poked a knife into it and it came out clean but the cake still looked a little under done to me so I gave it an additional five minutes before pulling it out of the oven.  It sure smelled good.  And it looked pretty yummy, too.
I gave it a few minutes to cool and then was going to take the cake out of the pan but decided that might not work too well.  It looked done enough but it just didn't look like a normal, solid cake.  Grandma had described eating it in a bowl with the sauce, like a pudding.  I decided that might be the better choice so I cut a piece, put it in a bowl, and poured the dip on it.  It turned to to be pretty good!  I would call it a success!

So here's the recipe for the cake and sauce as I made it.

1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4/5 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
15 oz gooseberries

grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350, grease and flour a 9.5" inch pan
Combine ingredients in the order listed, except the gooseberries.  Stir until smooth.
Gently fold in the gooseberries, then pour the mixture into the pan and place in the oven.
Bake for 40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Mix all the sauce ingredients and stir until smooth.
To serve, place a piece of cake in a bowl and pour the sauce over the cake.

Not too complicated, if I do say so myself,  Now here's what I'll change when I bake this in the future.

  • I'd increase all the ingredients so that there it makes more cake. That may require additional cooking time.  It seemed to me that the final cake was pretty thin.  While that's not entirely bad, I just thought it ought to have been thicker.  No good reason, it just seems that way to me.
  • I'd leave out the lemon zest and cut back a little on the lemon juice.  I like my flavors a little on the strong side but the lemon flavor was a little stronger than it needed to be.
  • Grandma hadn't really said anything at all about the portions for the sauce so I was guessing on whether we'd end up with too little, too much, or just right.  We ended up with sauce left over when the cake was gone.  So maybe the whole sauce recipe could be cut by a third.
  • If you'll remember, Grandma had said vanilla, whereas I would try it with almond extract.  That's just personal preference.  I like the flavor of almond better than vanilla.
It is also my plan to check with the local berry farm once summer rolls around to see if they have gooseberries.  If they do I am for sure trying this again with fresh gooseberries.  It'd be interesting to see how that affects the flavor.  My pattern recipe said the gooseberries needed to be "topped and tailed" but coming from a can, I didn't have to worry about that this time.

Grandma, 1933
From a family history perspective, I think it's cool that Grandma gave enough detail in her description of this favorite treat that I was able to "reconstruct" it.  I'm not sure I ever had it growing up.  And I certainly don't remember it ever being a tradition or even talked about.  There was another traditional favorite that Grandma did make.  She called them Easter Lillies and made them for Easter all the time.  We knew that if we ever had an Easter dinner or any kind of get-together at Easter time at Grandma's house there would be Easter Lillies.  And they were really good.  She was a remarkable woman, but that's a whole 'nother story.


misskate said...

Awesome! I'll have to see if I can find some gooseberries in the summer too.. I've never had them. This sounds tasty!

camurphy said...

That is so cool! Thanks for posting this

AE said...

Thanks for posting this Theron you are more patient with those tapes than I was.