I was assigned the task of writing her obituary for the local newspapers. As I scanned the fondest memories of my mom, it seemed so many of them involved food. Gardening in spring. Berry (and weed) picking in summertime. Shucking corn and shelling peas. Gathering eggs and plucking chickens. Special birthday cakes and shelves upon shelves of pickles and preserves. And picnics.
Like so many moms she could pull off bountiful family dinners with the precision of a drill sergeant. Yet when we sat down to eat her chair was always empty. We'd refuse to start without her, but as soon as grace was said she'd find her way back to the kitchen for a missing spoon or another basket of her famous buns.
My mom collected salt and pepper shakers. She had hundreds of them. So it was common, at special occasion dinners, to find a "theme" salt and pepper shaker at every place setting. There were gingerbread men (and women) for Christmas and baby chicks for Easter and prairie icons such as grain elevators for special dinners in between.
For birthdays, she would bake a cake of our choice. I always asked for chocolate angel food cake with toasted coconut frosting. She was a master at angel food cake. She always put coins in the cake, the largest denomination earmarked for the birthday girl or boy by a strategically placed toothpick.
One year (when I was too smart for my own good) I surreptitiously moved the toothpick. Mom got me back by ensuring I had the piece with the penny. Whoever got the penny had to do the dishes.
About ten years ago, I decided to learn to make mom's dill pickles. I'm not a big fan of dill pickles but my husband loves them. He claims my mom's dills are the best he's ever had. The funny thing is, she didn't eat pickles either! (Here's me and the pickles.)
"Mom," I said, "these saskatoons are older than your grandchildren!"
She just laughed and shrugged. No matter how many saskatoon pies she made (and she made many) there were always more berries in waiting, like pennies in a bank.
For a special treat mom made cream puffs. They were large like tennis balls and filled with whipped cream. Biting into one side sent the whipped cream squooshing out the other. To a kid, this was food heaven. I thought my mom was magic.
Then I grew up and discovered that cream puffs aren't magic at all. They're really quite easy to make, given a little patience and practice. This recipe comes from her copy of Cooking the Co-op Way. Instead of a dessert, I turn them into a savoury appetizer by making mini puffs and filling them with chicken or salmon salad. In France these savoury puffs are called gougère.
But every now and then, to feed my nostalgia, I will fill them with whipped cream and think of mom in heaven.
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
In a saucepan, heat the water and butter to a light boil.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. When the butter is melted, add the flour mixture all at once. Stir vigorously and continuously until it forms a ball of dough that leaves the sides of the saucepan clean. Remove from heat and cool five minutes.
Add one egg and beat well, until fully incorporated. Repeat with the other two eggs.
Drop mounds of batter onto a greased cookie sheet. The size may vary from that of a walnut for appetizer puffs to an egg for larger cream puffs. Space them well apart as the puffs will double in size.
Bake at 425F for 15 minutes, then lower the oven heat to 375F and continue baking until the puffs are lightly browned, 20-25 minutes for large puffs and 10-15 minutes for small puffs. Turn off the oven, open the door and allow the puffs to cool for a few minutes. To serve, cut a slit in the side of each puff and spoon in the filling of your choice.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)