Not many people take their own food on an eating tour of Italy, but then not many people have tasted my mother's coconut cake.
So I arrived in Venice without luggage -- it was waylaid in Rome -- but with the clothes on my back and a foil package of Mother's coconut cake, squares of barely sweet buttery hot-milk sponge cake which, good as it is, still acts only as an excuse for the crackly, glossy, lacy brown-sugar coconut topping laminated to the cake under the broiler.
I really don't think Mother was worried about me starving on an assignment to investigate the restaurants of Italy. So I suppose she wanted me to have something familiar in case I got lonely. Or maybe she wanted to know that I had something of her around me . . . in case she got lonely.
Her coconut cake was just the thing to serve that purpose. In our family it has been around for important occasions for decades. If you had something to celebrate, you got a coconut cake. If you came home from a trip, you got a coconut cake. If you were dealing with a crisis or needed a little cheering up or wanted to show off to your friends, Mother's coconut cake was what would do it.
She got the recipe from an old Good Housekeeping cookbook, which called it California Coconut Cake, and has been making it for maybe 45 years. Since World War II, Uncle Herb has called it his promotion cake. When he was stationed overseas Mother used to send it to him (my carrying it to Italy was not its introduction to Europe after all), and he always kept some on his desk. Day after day his captain would pass by and help himself to a piece of coconut cake. That's how Uncle Herb got his bars, he still insists. Anyway, that cake has not only been to war, it has been to camp and to college. And there never, ever could there have been a family reunion without Mother's coconut cake.
It wasn't always made by Mother. For reunions in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, there might be coconut cake made from the same recipe by an aunt or cousin. But you could always tell when it was made by my mother. Hers was the best -- just as Aunt Irma's was the best babka, though everyone else had learned it from her.
One of the secrets of the coconut cake is to beat the eggs and sugar "quite a long time," says Mother, until they are thick and foamy. Also, the oven has to be hot enough; some people have had problems with the bottom being raw.
"The funny thing is," says Mother, "you don't put any flavoring in the spongecake." All the vanilla is in the topping. But you'd never guess when you taste it.
Mother's coconut cake has always been a source of minor family skirmishes. This cake absolutely demands picking at. There is always a little corner of coconut crunch to break off from the edge, and like unraveling a sweater, one clump of coconut leads to another, so the cake is always on the verge of being denuded.
And like other classics -- Oreo cookies, peanut butter-cheese crackers -- there is always the dilemma of whether to eat it whole or to eat it in parts, the cake first and then the topping, in one sugary concentration. I usually take a piece for each method. I have never eaten fewer than two pieces of coconut cake. The Nuturers
Food and mothers. Inextricably intertwined, magically intertwined.
My memories of my mother's mother revolve around the delicatessen. Nobody could order from a delicatessen like my grandma. But my mother remembers much more. Grandma's brisket, for instance.
"She had a special way of doing it; you almost burned the onions," says my mother. Is that where my mother learned to risk burning her coconut cake to get the topping browner and crunchier than anyone else dared to?
But my mother long ago stopped making brisket Grandma's way. "Now the easy way is to take onion soup and add it and wrap it in foil and bake it in the oven," admits my mother, who has never been accused of being a purist. Grandma also made lima bean soup, and the secret of that was to use top rib, that soft, fatty, stringy and utterly delicious cut of beef.
Only recently did I discover that Grandma was the real source of another family specialty I had attributed to Mother. I have always considered my mother's vegetable soup unique, not just because every kid loves her own mother's cooking, but because she added something nobody else added: sweet potatoes. They gave the vegetable soup a particular sweetness and mellowness, even though I didn't particularly like sweet potatoes otherwise. That they were Grandma's addition came as a great suprise because Grandma always seemed the least surprising cook; she hardly ever used any seasoning besides salt and pepper, for instance.
I didn't know the cooking of my father's mother, but my mother experimented until she figured out how to duplicate her mother-in-law's squash pancakes. As far as I can tell, they are the only form of green vegetable my father has ever eaten except for dill pickles. "Daddy loves those," Mother says of Grandma Chasanow's vegetable pancakes. Nevertheless, he has managed to keep that love a secret from me all these years.
What will my kids remember of my cooking? That's a tough question for children of a restaurant critic, whose mother/food memories are most likely to be of foie gras at Jean-Louis.
Libby is diplomatic in her answer: "A lot of things. You make different things every time." She is her grandmother's granddaughter, for my mother says of my cooking, "I know anything you made was great."
Mother recalls my experimentation, my penchant for the exotic -- Korean bul gogi in 1960, quiche before anybody here had heard of it. Dad remembers my baking, back when I was just learning to read. And one recipe he associates with me actually was one I purloined from another mother; my college roommate Karen got regular shipments of chocolate cake made with Hershey's syrup from her mother. It shipped well, it was rich and moist enough to not need icing, and it was a cinch to make. When next I had a kitchen, I started regular mailings of them, mostly to my brother.
I haven't made one in years now. And my son Matthew, who himself has probably tried every brownie -- from scratch and mix -- known to man, doesn't seem to identify me with any particular dish. Or maybe one just doesn't expect to elicit such specific information from a teenage son. Joe, who has at last moved out of teen-age, answers instantly and enthusiastically: "Fried matzo!" He associates me with breakfast things (another diplomat: I haven't been home a lot for dinner in recent years).
Then there is the dish we all associate with each other. It is called Boy Scout Eggs. The name, as I recall, came from my brother having learned them at Boy Scout camp, and it has been a breakfast regular for two generations. I will always associate it with Mother's Day, for though it was made many days each year, it was pretty certain to be served to me in bed on Mother's Day. Libby, who developed a real flair for bed-tray menus, took Boy Scout Eggs to their height. She set them on large white plates and decorated them with tiny mounds of fruit, each drizzled with yogurt and the empty spaces studded with flowers. It was akin to eating breakfast in bed and in the garden at the same time.
And that is what I have come to expect on Mother's Day, although not today but two weeks from now. These days we celebrate not Mother's Day as everyone else does, but Swedish Mother's Day. It is a unique celebration, unknown even in Sweden, and it came about because of Margarete, a sunny young Swedish girl who lived with us one year while she was studying here.
Mother's Day came and went that year unnoticed by anyone but me, and you can be sure I felt pretty bad about that. Actually, by the end of the day everyone noticed -- at least that Mother's Day had gone unnoticed. So two weeks later at dinner there were candles, a mysterious air of celebration and at the meal's end a cake carried in by the children and Margarete, who were singing "Happy Swedish Mother's Day to you . . . " We have since had Swedish birthdays, as well. And every year when my children forget Mother's Day we all know there is a second chance. MAMIE'S BRISKET (4 servings)
Oil to cover bottom of pan
3 large onions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, halved
Kasha cooked with bowtie noodles according to package directions
In a large heavy pot film bottom with oil and brown the brisket on all sides. Remove brisket, add onions to pot and brown until onions are very dark, almost burned. Return brisket, add salt and pepper to taste and cover the meat with water. Cover the pot and simmer about 1 1/2 hours.
Peel potatoes and add to the pot. Let cook 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Cook kasha according to package directions with bowtie noodles.
When brisket is tender, slice and serve with potatoes and kasha, spooning the gravy over both. BESSIE'S SQUASH PANCAKES (6 servings)
1 pattypan squash or 2 large zucchini
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
About 2 tablespoons flour
Oil for frying
Grate squash or zucchini and lightly squeeze out excess liquid. Combine squash with salt and pepper to taste, beaten egg, baking powder and just enough flour to make a light batter.
In a large skillet heat about 1/4 inch oil. Drop squash mixture by tablespoons into oil to form small pancakes. Fry until browned, turn and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately. HELEN'S COCONUT CAKE (Makes 1 sheet cake)
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter plus extra for pan
2 cups sugar
2 cups sifted flour plus extra for pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
FOR THE TOPPING:
6 tablespoons butter
10 tablespoons brown sugar
4-ounce can shredded Southern-style (not flaked) coconut
1 tablespoon vanilla
In a small saucepan heat 1 cup milk with 2 tablespoons butter to scalding. In the meantime, start beating 4 eggs in an electric mixer. Add sugar and beat well until thick and foamy. With beater going slow, gradually add hot milk.
Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Beat into egg mixture with mixer on slow speed. Pour into greased and floured 13-by-9-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, testing with a toothpick after 25 minutes to see if it is done. Note: If your oven temperature tends to be low, bake at 375 degrees. Let cool slightly in pan.
To make the topping, melt 6 tablespoons butter and add 10 tablespoons brown sugar. Stir in coconut and vanilla. Note: Use canned coconut, since it tends to be more moist than coconut packaged in bags. And Southern-style shredded coconut makes a crunchier topping than flaked coconut.
Spread topping over cake as evenly as possible. Put under broiler about 4 to 6 inches below the heat and broil until topping is bubbing and brown. Turn cake if necessary to brown it evenly, and broil until topping is as brown as you can get it without burning it. Watch very carefully, as it turns from done to burned in an instant.
Let cake cool, cut into squares and serve. Put squares in cupcake papers for serving if you wish. CHARLOTTE AUSTER'S CHOCOLATE SYRUP CAKE (Makes 1 9-by-9-inch cake)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter plus extra for pan
1 scant cup sugar
16-ounce can chocolate syrup
1 cup flour plus extra for pan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cream butter with sugar. Add eggs, chocolate syrup, flour, baking powder and salt, and beat. Pour into greased and floured 9-inch square cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Let cool and cut into squares to serve; leave uncut for mailing. PHYLLIS' MOTHERLY FRIED MATZO (2 teenagers' servings; 3 or 4 normal servings)
Unlike most fried matzo, this is made by soaking the matzo in milk instead of water, thus adding a little maternal nudge to its nutritive value.
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons butter
Crumble matzos into a large bowl and pour milk and salt over them. Let soak about a half hour or until the matzos are soft, occasionally stirring to keep all moist. In a small bowl beat eggs. Stir excess milk squeezed from matzos into the eggs. Pour that mixture over matzos and stir it all together gently. Heat butter in a large skillet, and when it foams pour in the matzo mixture. Fry until matzos brown, turning the mixture bit by bit, as you would scrambled eggs, to brown as many surfaces as possible. Serve hot, with applesauce, cinnamon or jelly -- though we prefer it plain. LIBBY'S BOY SCOUT EGG WITH FRUIT (1 serving)
1 slice bread, preferably whole wheat
Butter for pan
Strawberries, raspberries, cherries or other fruit, cut up
2 tablespoons yogurt
Flowers for decoration
Tear 1 1/2-inch hole from center of bread. In a small skillet melt butter. Add the bread and, beside it, the hole torn from it. Break egg into the center of the bread. Fry over medium heat until underside of bread is browned and bottom of egg is cooked. Turn carefully the bread and the hole. Brown other side. Remove to plate and arrange fruit in tiny mounds around edge of plate. Drizzle fruit with yogurt. Decorate with flowers between the mounds of fruit. Serve immediately, preferably to Mom in bed.