March 5, 2013
Table Talk: Family recipes found
Lawrence Pierce
An earlier recipe for Nut Cream Loaf Cake was difficult to read, but Grandmother's copy it in her nearly perfect penmanship was easy to follow.
The earliest recipe in the box was for Sponge Cake with Hot Water, dated April 3, 1910.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An unusual impulse to organize my kitchen cabinets recently yielded an unexpected find.

I was perched tippy-toed on a stepstool reaching blindly into the back recesses of the high top shelf, when my fingers touched a metal surface. I pulled out the battered tin box and remembered the day years ago when my parents bequeathed me my grandmother's recipe box.

After poring through the recipes written on yellowing note cards in her impeccable Palmer-method handwriting, I had planned to tackle some of the recipes, but didn't. The tin box, colorfully painted in the image of the Hygieia dustless chalk it originally contained, went on the top shelf, where it was eventually pushed to the back and forgotten.

My grandmother Alta Sidell Watkins was a longtime elementary school teacher in Wood County. She spent many more hours in the classroom than in the kitchen, but she did sometimes host family dinners at her house, usually a pot roast or ham, always with mashed potatoes and home-canned and long-simmered, like for hours, green beans.

She was diabetic, but made special desserts like chocolate cake with butterscotch icing (still the favored birthday cake at my house), cream cheese chess bars, Toll House cookies and Oatmeal Scotchies. The latter two can't be called family recipes as they were cut out off bags of baking chips.

Those recipes are all in the tin box. Toward the bottom of the box, the cards appear to have been written by a different hand, perhaps that of my great-grandmother Emma Sidell, who with her husband Alonzo, settled their large family in Wetzel County, where their descendents still gather for annual reunions.

She probably wrote out recipe note for Sponge Cake with Hot Water that is dated April 3, 1910 and finishes with the admonition, "If these directions are followed, the cake will be very nice." 

Many of the entrée recipes for economy-minded dishes were clipped from 1940s Wheeling and Charleston newspapers. There was meatloaf with an even meat-to-breadcrumbs ratio, macaroni Swiss steak that called for lots of macaroni and not so much round steak, and ham loaf.

I remember her ham loaf and included the recipe below. It was actually pretty good, although it elicited giggles from the ungrateful grandchildren for some reason. We were lucky we weren't served the recipe on the other side of that card: Liver Loaf.

As I sorted the recipes by type, I was surprised to find that the stack of cakes, pies, cookies, custards and candy towered over the relatively insignificant number of salad and entrée recipes. They must have represented wishful thinking for someone like my grandmother who couldn't indulge in many sweets.

I made the Nut Cream Loaf Cake first. It isn't very sweet, but it's delicious sliced, toasted and spread with a bit of butter and jam or apple butter.

The chocolate cake and butterscotch icing really brought back wonderful memories of meals at her house and family reunions. We usually cleaned our plates in anticipation of that much-loved treat.

I'm grateful to have her actual recipe for the cake because I've never succeeded in capturing its essence in the cakes I baked. The cake turned out to be moist and very much like I remembered.

 I've made a version of the icing, essentially a spreadable penuche fudge, for years, but again, never with her directions. It's crucial to work quickly with this frosting because it hardens very quickly and won't spread smoothly, resulting in splotchy coverage, often dotted with chocolate crumbs.

For years, birthday cakes have always been tasty, but often not pretty. Perhaps they'll look as good as the taste in the future.

Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.

Nut Cream Loaf Cake

2      cups cake flour

21/2 teaspoons  baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup nuts, chopped

3    egg whites

SIFT together flour, baking powder and salt.

CREAM shortening, then add sugar and mix well. Add sifted dry ingredients, alternating with milk. Beat well.

ADD nuts.

BEAT egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Fold egg whites carefully into the batter. Turn into greased loaf pan lined with waxed paper.

BAKE at 350 degrees for about an hour until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Chocolate Cake

1 cup butter or shortening

2 cups sugar

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