My mother once said that when she retired she’d call her house “YBOTHACUKIN”. (After some discussion she agreed that this spelling was a bit common and accepted my suggested alternative, the fake-Welsh “Y-BODD-Y-CWCYN”. Too clever by half, we were.) She never quite reached the point of “why bother”, and never intended to; it was a daring, scandalous suggestion. Still, in her last few years she didn’t do much cooking – quiches from M&S and Waitrose were a favourite.
When we were young, though, she cooked a phenomenal amount. There was, among other things:
Bara brith. Served sliced and buttered. The trick was soaking the fruit in tea beforehand.
Cheesecake – and one recipe in particular, set rather than baked and using cottage cheese as well as curd cheese. Sounds a bit odd but was wonderful.
Cheese scones. Particularly good split and buttered while still warm from the oven.
Devil’s food (never “Devil’s food cake”). Very dark, very dense, very rich. Served in small slices.
Eggy bread – my breakfast every day for several years, school days included. (I don’t know what time my mother got up.) A slice of bread soaked in beaten egg and fried, served in quarters. Not to be confused with
French Toast, a simple but beautiful recipe consisting of two thin slices of bread, sandwiched together and toasted on the outside, then buttered on the untoasted side while still hot.
Hamburgers. When I was about ten I went to an air show with a friend’s family, and was surprised to hear his father talk about going to get some hamburgers – I couldn’t imagine anyone going to all the trouble of making hamburgers in the middle of a field. My mother’s hamburgers were labour-intensive; as well as mince (which she minced herself, sometimes from cold leftovers) they contained onion, flour and egg – and then there was all the bother of frying them, two or three at a time. They were good, though.
Hot cake. As this list grows I’m becoming aware of the key role played by butter in our family recipes. Hot cake was so called because it was best eaten hot from the oven. It was a lemon-flavoured sponge, baked in a square tin; you ate it in small slices, buttered.
Kartoffelpueffer (potato pancakes). You grate raw potatoes coarsely (squeezing the water out), then combine with chopped onion and bacon, bound with egg. And fry. One of the most satisfying meals I can imagine. (My wife’s Ukrainian mother had a similar recipe, but with the potatoes grated finely – more like latkes. Latkes are very nice, but my Mum’s kartoffelpueffer went up to eleven.)
Lemon meringue (never “Lemon meringue pie”). (Another Americanism – perhaps borrowed from Americans they’d met in Germany?) Every Sunday, we would all go to church. Every Sunday after church, my mother would make a roast dinner. And every Sunday, she would also make a lemon meringue, from scratch. This is, essentially, three desserts in one: make pastry, line a dish and bake it blind; separate some eggs and make a thick, sharp, translucent lemon custard with the yolks; combine the whites with sugar and beat them into meringue. Then combine and bake. By our current standards it’s insanely labour-intensive, especially for following a big meal; you wouldn’t dream of putting yourself through that on a weekly basis. But she did.
Marmalade. The first time I worried that my mother’s health might be failing was the winter when she said she wasn’t going to make marmalade. There are some good shop marmalades out there – I’m quite partial to Duerr’s 1881 – but nothing has ever come close to the marmalade my mother used to make.
Rolled oats. We were highly European. One of our favourite breakfast cereals consisted of rolled oats with sugar and milk. It was only years later that I realised I’d been eating a makeshift muesli.
Rum cake. A Christmas speciality, served from the fridge; as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of sponge fingers, buttercream icing and rum.
Spaghetti Milanese. We had spaghetti bolognaise [sic] and macaroni cheese, but we also had this recipe, which combined spaghetti with onion, bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, grated cheese and tomato puree. (I’ve no idea if this is what anyone else would call ‘Milanese’.) It’s dry without being bland; if you make it right the tomato puree, the cheese and the boiled egg yolk effectively coat the pasta. Like the kartoffelpueffer, I still make this from time to time. Like the kartoffelpueffer, it’s superb.
Some of these are already lost to me – I doubt I’ll ever make marmalade (or lemon meringue for that matter), and ‘hot cake’ will probably always be a mystery. Still, some remain. I’ll take them from here. And I will mention
Tea. My mother was a great believer in cups of tea. She would always put the kettle on when I arrived, and always top up the pot so that I could have a second cup. She introduced me to tea when I was eleven or twelve years old. My son, who is ten, has recently started drinking tea. I’m glad about that.