Betty & The Banana Cake

I was going to be writing about Easter this week, but my 94-year-old mother, Betty, ended up in the hospital. She had caught an infection, and at 94, it doesn’t take much for her to go downhill quickly. Doctors, tests, more doctors, MRI, CAT scan, more doctors. She also has dementia, which made all of this that much more difficult for her.

So I came home yesterday, after a long week of  going to the hospital.  I needed a little break so I made the one thing that my Mom made really well.

Banana cake.

My Mom’s banana cake (NOT banana bread) is the best. When someones asks me, what food do you recall the most from childhood, it is this banana cake.

Now, my Mom was not the best cook. Full disclosure.  She overcooked just about everything.  She grew up in the Midwest during the Great Depression. They were poor (who wasn’t) and they HAD to cook, had to can, had to have a garden. It wasn’t optional, that was how you survived.  Her grandfather was the local blacksmith and would often take  vegetables or a live chicken in exchange for his services. Meat was a luxury.

Fast forward to 1942.  My Mom met my Dad, Bill, who was in the Coast Guard. After a super short courtship, they were married in April. Dad was stationed in Cape May NJ. They had a little apartment, and Mom would cook in  a tiny kitchen.  My Dad had a great story of Mom cooking a sirloin steak.  (Remember the no-meat childhood here). He splurged and bought a steak from the butcher, then had to go to the Coast Guard station. When he came home, Mom was beating the everlovin’ daylights out of that steak.  Pounding away at it.  Dad shouted “Betty,stop! What are you doing?”  And she said “Tenderizing it”. You see, my Mom had never, ever  eaten or cooked a sirloin steak before. They only ever had  the tough cheap cuts of beef, and that was how you cooked it.

Mom & Dad Cape May
Betty & Bill, Cape May NJ 1942

My Dad was sent overseas, was in the Normandy Invasion and fortunately, made it home.  He got a job, and Mom was your typical 50’s house wife.  But now, there were convenience foods.  And my Mom loved them. Canned soup, frozen vegetables, TV dinners. We used to joke that there was a shrine to Clarence Birdseye in the basement by the gigantic chest freezer. When Mom was making dinner, she would tell me “go down to the freezer and pick out a vegetable for dinner”. Yup. Not kidding.

And she never baked. Ever. I never had a homemade birthday cake. She would order them at the bakery.  Pies for the holidays came from there as well. Need cupcakes for school? Bakery again.

Except for the banana cake.It was a recipe that she had from her childhood.  The story was that a little old Polish lady made it, and gave her the recipe. And it was the one thing, the only thing, that she would make from scratch.  Whenever we had over-ripe bananas, she would make it.  My Dad and I both loved it. And my family  loves it just as much.

banana cake

So after a rough week, wondering if I was going to lose her, I made it. It is more than just  banana cake, it is a symbol of my Mom, who kept one little food legacy going.

She is getting released today from the hospital to go back to the nursing home. So we made it through. And I’m going to bring her a piece of banana cake.

Betty 94 years old
Betty on her 94th birthday

 

I am sharing the banana cake recipe here. Which is a big deal, since I would only give it out to those I deemed worthy. But  recipes tell a story, and I hope that you will make this and love it, and think of Betty. Enjoy.

Betty’s Banana Cake

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 TBS sour cream

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup banana pulp (two bananas)

IMPORTANT! For the bananas, let them get ripe to the point of a totally black skin. Really squishy. Put them in a container and mash with a fork. Let them sit in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight. You will see the banana oil  come out, which is key to keeping the cake moist. You can also  freeze the banana pulp and use later.

  1. Cream shortening into sugar, then add slightly beaten eggs.
  2. In a separate bowl,take the sour cream and add the baking soda, stir. It will get bubbly and fluffy.
  3. Combine the sour cream, bananas, salt and vanilla and mix well. Add the flour, and beat until combined. The batter will be wet and thick, but should not be stiff.
  4. Pour into two greased  9 x 5 loaf pans. Fill each one about halfway.
  5. Bake in a 350 oven for 30-35 minutes, or until a tooth pick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool on a rack in the pans. Remove when cool and eat!

 

Feed Your Roots

I am a big fan of genealogy, because I love peoples’ stories. I was recently watching an episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. Lidia Bastianich, Emmy award winning TV show host, author of numerous cookbooks and accomplished restaurateur ,was one of the people featured on the show. This episode “The Long Way Home” was focused on how families kept their traditions despite challenges and adversities.

Lidia Bastianich
Lidia Bastianich (photo courtesy of Diana DeLucia)

Lidia’s story stood out to me because of her early life experiences. Lidia lived in a region of Italy called “Istria,” in the town of Pula .It is a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, and is now shared by three countries: Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. During WWII,  the Istrian Peninsula  was taken from Italy by Communist Yugoslavia.  Lidia’s family went from being Italian, to being forbidden to speak Italian.  They were not permitted to go to church and were forced to change their name from Matticchio to Motika. So in terms of identity, I was especially intrigued with which culture she would identify with, and how  did food and ritual shape her through such a tumultuous time.

So I sent her an email. Her very helpful PR team set up a phone interview for the two of us.

We first talked about her identity, about how she defines herself.  She said that there was such a murkiness with the country’s borders. There were so many influences. Her grandparents were considered Austrian/Hungarian, her parents Italian, and Lidia considered Yugoslavian. But she defines her identity as to how she speaks with her family, which is in Italian. She says that you define yourself by “what you feel in your heart.”

During the Yugoslavian occupation (Lidia was 4 or 5 years old) she spent much of her time at her grandmother’s home. Food was very hard to come by at that time, and her grandmother was very self-sufficient.  They had extensive vegetable gardens, pressed their own olive oil, had fig trees and raised their own meat and eggs. Lidia recalled digging potatoes with her grandmother. Her grandmother would pull up the large potatoes, and Lidia would dig through the earth and find the smaller potatoes.

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Grandmother Rosa (photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich)

What she  distinctly remembers is that all of the food was warm. The potatoes were warm from the sun warmed earth, fresh eggs were warm from just being laid by the hens, the olive oil was warm and you dipped fresh warm bread into it.  At an early age, Lidia experienced the crucial connection of the earth to our food. These memories were pivotal  in her experience of food and connections.

As the war progressed, Lidia’s family made the decision to leave their town of Pula. Her mother, brother and she made their way to the town of Trieste, in Italy. Ten days later, her father managed to escape and joined the family. But the family then had to migrate to a political refugee camp, the Risera di San Sabba. They were in that camp for two years before being permitted to leave. During those two years, food was scarce, and there certainly was nothing available to them that was anything like the food they had at her grandmother’s home.  How difficult it must have been, to go from a place of  love and family and warm, sun-kissed food, to scraps in a refugee camp.

In 1958 Lidia’s family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Queens, NY and Lidia began working in a pizzeria. She met her husband at her sweet sixteen party. The couple’s  food empire began in 1971,when they opened their first restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. Lidia felt that coming to the United States had given her a huge opportunity. She states “And I am the perfect example that if you give somebody a chance, especially here in the United States, one can find the way.”

For Lidia, her roots are through food. She says that cooking with her grandmother was  a connection to her.  She calls it “food nostalgia.” She believes that “food becomes a messenger, it connects you to the dirt, and this is something we all need to cherish and protect.”

I asked her  why  she thought people are so interested in shows like “Finding Your Roots,” and did she think that people are more isolated today and have lost  much of their own food rituals?

She believes that people understand that their OWN foods are an imprint of themselves; the aromas, textures, the flavors.  She feels that people are longing for this connection. “We need to connect to and have our own roots. Food gives you strength, and is a magnet.  We are social animals, and food is what brings us together.”

Lidia values the importance of sharing meals at the table.”Because we all need to eat to survive, we give ourselves up to food-food takes precedence, and at the table, we become vulnerable. True connections are made face to face. Look at the business lunch, the family dinner, the anniversary celebration, the date with your sweetheart.  All of the connections are based around food. This is the way we nourish both our bodies and our spirits.”

I asked her what her favorite ritual with her family is.  That was easy for her.  She makes the foods that her relatives who have passed away loved to eat.  She says by having those dishes at her Christmas Dinner, it honors her family members who are no longer there. When she makes her father’s favorite bacala dish, it is like he is right there with her.  She can feel her grandmother’s presence when she makes Capon Soup. She shared a hilarious memory of seeing her grandmother running all over chasing the cockerel around the courtyard, trying to catch him for the soup pot.

My question that I ask everyone is:  at the end of a busy day, what ritual do you have that brings your day to a close?  Lidia loves a good prosciutto (her Dad used to make it, and would hold it like a violin and used a small sickle-like knife to cut it), a good crusty bread and some Grana Padano cheese, some figs and  a good glass of wine.  She likes all of her food at room temperature, a hearkening back to those beautiful warm foods at her grandmother’s table.

What I took from my time with Lidia is how  very precious our connections are. Through adversity, maybe all we have left are our connections. In these times, it is so, so important to remember that we are not just individuals, but part of a network of connections, reaching to our past, and guiding us to our future. Lidia lost the home she loved at a young age, but  she never lost her foundation. She kept it alive, and shares all she knows and loves today through her business. Her kindness of spirit and her generosity is a testimony  of how we all need to live.  We all need and want, I believe, to be kind, welcoming and to break bread with each other.

I worry, in this current  environment of divisiveness and  bigotry, that we are losing our connections to each other as human beings. We have forgotten our roots. So, work hard at keeping your connections. Have dinner with your family. Throw a party for your friends, for no other reason than to celebrate each other. Honor your deceased loved ones with a dish that they loved at your next holiday. Give to a food bank.

It’s not enough to find your roots. You have to feed your roots as well.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chocolatier’s Tale

Chocolate is probably the one  food that is consistently in almost every holiday ritual, from Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving,  Halloween to Christmas. Plus we give it as gifts, use it as wedding favors, the list goes on.

So I decided to talk to a local chocolatier and get her story and her rituals. I met  Laurie Douglass, owner  of Laurie’s Chocolates in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, when I was co-hosting  the radio program “These Days” on WDVR FM. We tasted her chocolates on the show, and I was blown away by the  intense flavors and wonderful varieties that she creates.

lauriedouglass 3-2-16
Laurie Douglass, owner and creator of all thing chocolate.

I met Laurie in her chocolate kitchen/studio ( after all, it is an art, so I think it is just as much a studio as a kitchen)  to talk to her about  her life as a chocolatier. She got started over 14 years ago by taking a chocolate making course at The Chocolate Tree  while on vacation in South Carolina. At this time, she was working in advertising, and decided that this would be fun to try. She then returned home to Ohio and bought a few molds and took some more classes.  A local book store told Laurie that she could sell her chocolates there. Then the owner had her make chocolate frogs for a Harry Potter book release party.

She sold out in 45 minutes.

They then moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and her business has grown. She wholesales her products to local stores, and does custom orders direct.

 

 

But what I wanted to know is what are her personal rituals?  At the end of the day of making her confections, how does she relax?  She said “That’s easy. Two words-wine and a truffle.” After she is done cleaning up, she will have one of whatever truffle she has made, and a glass of wine.  She loves to pair wine with her chocolates. Her favorite whites are New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs in the warmer months.  In the cooler months, she prefers a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.  One favorite of hers is  a red blend called 19 Crimes, from Australia. Wine and chocolate together are a match made in  heaven; if you have the opportunity to go to a wine and chocolate pairing event, don’t miss it.

Laurie’s mid morning ritual is a cup of  one of her hot cocoas, the Buckingham Blend. The burst of sugar helps her get through to lunch. After lunch, she may have some almond bark, or  a piece of solid chocolate.

For Laurie, chocolate is what “seals the deal” at the end of a meal. She maintains that if you have  a piece of chocolate at the end of a meal, that stops the eating. ( I am going to test that theory!)  Chocolate is the final note to any  meal, simple or fancy.

I asked her if she had any childhood memories that were a ritual for her.  Most definitely.  Laurie grew up in Bay Village, Ohio. Every year her family would go to Sell’s, the locally owned family candy store for Easter chocolate bunnies.  Her favorite then, and still is today, is the white chocolate Easter Bunny. She still loves a plain, creamy white chocolate. She said that  the ritual of going to Sell’s was her earliest inspiration for her  chocolate experience.

bunnies laurioeschocolaes 3-2-16
Laurie is in full on Easter Bunny-making mode.

Her children love the fact that she is a chocolatier.  Her daughter had a  chocolate fountain at her 16th birthday party! She has also been generous with her chocolates, doing benefits at her daughter’s school and sending  care packages to the dorm staff at her son’s college.

What a gift she is giving her children. They will be able to tell their children how  their Mom  made events in their lives so special  and meaningful.

But what really means to most to Laurie is that her chocolates are becoming part of  rituals for other people and families. She says that being part of someone else’s ritual is very rewarding and fulfilling. She has many repeat customers, and she  is very adept at remembering what  each person prefers.  Making other people happy  is one of her  strongest motivations for her creations. How lovely for your day’s work to be  a part of someone’s happy moments in their life. Imagine spending your day being creative and knowing that your creation will result in joy for the person receiving it.

While Laurie’s business is growing, she is happy to  follow the journey.  Without the burden of her own retail store, she can maintain a flexible schedule, and create when and how she likes. Creativity does not always happen from 9 to 5, and Laurie can follow her muse, and loves every minute of it.

We should all be so lucky.

What do you do or make that is part of  another person’s ritual?  Do you make a favorite meal for your child when they come home from college? Do you  have a family recipe that has been handed down?

Creating traditions creates a legacy.  Make yours.

For more information on on how and where to purchase  Laurie’s Chocolates,  follow her on Facebook or go to her website: http://www.laurieschocolates.com/