Growing up in a solidly Polish family in Buffalo, N.Y., was to be part of a giant, lifelong bake-off where all the contestants were related to each other and only too delighted to criticize the other entries.
Food, especially the dessert end of the meal, was a competitive event on my father's side of the family. Five aunts, one uncle and my father made great sport out of outdoing each other in creating the richest, most outrageous concoctions that now would make any health-conscious soul cringe.
They traded recipes, pirated each other's recipes or doctored up other people's recipes. Whatever it was, it had to be sweet. Anything with gobs of butter, at least a dozen eggs and a half-pint of heavy cream qualified. None of the participants looked underfed.
Uncle Ed's event was the cheesecake; he probably had 50 different varieties that kept him busy baking around the clock after his retirement from the U.S. Postal Service. Aunt Sophie's event was the lemon pineapple pie, apple pie and peanut butter cookies medley.
Aunt Jo was our entry in the decathlon; she was simply an all-around marvelous baker who could make killer rum balls or creamy cream pies for five or 500. She did the cooking and baking at a boys' summer camp. To top things off, her husband was a pastry baker.
In this environment of Olympic baking and tasting my father was no amateur.
By day, he worked as a machinist, getting his hands dirty and greasy. In his free time, he baked, plunging his hands into the whiteness of flour and sugar.
When he retired a dozen years ago, baking became something to fill the days and the stomachs of those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his efforts.
Neighbors and friends (mostly my friends) knew when to hang around to get crumbs from the table.
He never boards an airplane to visit us without a large box of baked goods in the overhead bin. He always seems to be around, baking a cake, when any of the four grandchildren have a birthday.
He keeps a stash of pound cakes and coffeecakes in the freezer and uses them as a form of barter with people who do things for him.
To some it may seem like a lot of bother, but for him it's what my mother calls "Daddy's therapy."
So on Father's Day, when most kids are buying golf club covers or yet another awful necktie for Dad, I always feel that a pair of nice spatulas or an attachment to his KitchenAid mixer would make him very happy.
At 77, he still has Betty Crocker beat in many ways. Though he is not a Kitchen Bazaar kind of guy and has little regard for gourmet fare, he has the basics down cold.
Hearty breads, filled coffeecakes, crunchy cookies. Big portions. He carries on in the tradition of his own mother, who baked from her head and her heart.
"My mother never had a recipe. Never that I know of," said Daddy. "She made the best cakes."
His style is to clip or copy recipes and then make them his own. To this day, there is no "Joy of Cooking" or "Silver Palate Cookbook" in his kitchen. Just the contents of old two-pound candy boxes that offer some guidance on how to make a German chocolate cake or banana cream pie.
This dedication to doing things "from scratch" had its good and bad points.
On the positive side, there were always good things to eat in the house. On the negative side, there was no white bread, no Wonder Bread, the staple of other kids' existence.
Dad simply dismissed it as "junk." If any store-bought bread was brought into the house at all, it had to be nice firm Jewish rye, with seeds. Otherwise, he blended his own flours and baked bread whenever we needed it.
There was one innocent victim of this, however. One of my boyfriends, thinking he was Mister Smooth, arrived at our house the first time he was invited for dinner with a box containing a chocolate cake from the Iroquois Bakery. He was met with a whithering look from my father. We had fruited custard that night for dessert. He married me.
Where Dad really excelled, and still does, was in effortlessly whipping up Polish delicacies like placeks, which are raised dough rings filled with poppy seed, almond paste or apricot filling.
Because demand for these is high, especially around Christmas and Easter, he stocks up on seven-pound cans of fillings, which he buys at a wholesale bakers' supply store.
In fact, when he really gets going, he can make a day of it, heating up the house with the oven going full blast and filling it with the moist sour smell of dough rising or a "frying pan cake" baking.
None of this, however, would be possible without my mother acting as his sous chef, preparing ingredients, searching for the perfect pan, greasing hundreds of cookie sheets and finally, cleaning up the mess.
But one thing she never has to do is bake because she married a man who is a baking machine, even though he did not make it his life's work.
He did try.
After finishing a year of book learning and baking courses at Peckham Vocational on the east side of Buffalo when he was 17, he tried his hand at it in a couple of local bakeries.
But a future of 12-hour days slaving in front of a hot oven and $15-a-week pay was enough to make him take his father's advice.
"He said to quit or they'll kill me," Daddy remembered.
What he did learn from the experience was that he, too, had the Skrzycki touch in his hands, providing memorable meals and even more memorable desserts for his family through a half century of searching for ways to make it bigger, better, moister, flakier and more delicious.
GOOD POLISH BABKA (10 servings)
2 tablespoons yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 to 3 cups flour
3/4 cup raisins
8 tablespoons butter, softened
Butter for greasing pan
Bread crumbs or flour for dusting pan
FOR THE CRUMB TOPPING:
1/4 pound butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/8 cups flour
Dissolve the yeast in the water, then mix together all the ingredients. Heavily grease a tube pan and line with bread crumbs or flour. Pour in the dough mixture and let rise until it doubles in size. Melt butter and stir in sugar and flour. Top dough with this mixture and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Per serving: 500 calories, 6 gm protein, 75 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 12 gm saturated fat, 133 mg cholesterol, 359 mg sodium.
WHOLE-WHEAT BREAD (Makes 3 loaves)
2 packages yeast
2 cups warm water
1 cup milk
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
3 teaspoons salt
6 cups whole-wheat flour
2 to 3 cups bread flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water, then add and mix together with milk, sugar, honey, shortening and salt. Pour into the bowl of a bread mixer, and with a dough hook, mix in whole-wheat flour. Add bread flour, and mix until dough is stiff enough not to stick to fingers.
Grease a roasting pan or other large pan (at least 10-by-15 inches), and place dough inside. Let dough rise until doubled in size, then punch down.
Remove to a floured surface and weigh out 1 1/2 pound loaves, or just divide dough in thirds, knead each into a ball shape, and let rest for 5 minutes. Form into loaves (using leftover dough, if any, for rolls), and place into well-greased loaf pans. Let rise to double in size again. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes at 375 degrees.
Per 1/4-loaf serving: 380 calories, 10 gm protein, 74 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 547 mg sodium.
GOLDEN BUTTER SPONGE (16 servings)
1/2 pound butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Cream butter with 1 cup sugar and add egg yolks, one at a time, and vanilla. Beat for 5 minutes. Sift together flour, salt and baking powder and add to butter mixture. Beat egg whites with remaining 1/2 cup sugar until stiff peaks formand fold into batter.
Grease and flour a bundt pan or loaf pans and pour in batter. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center come out clean.
Per serving: 251 calories, 4 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 8 gm saturated fat, 134 mg cholesterol, 221 mg sodium.
STICKY BUNS (Makes 18 buns)
This basic dough, which was adapted from a newspaper recipe, can also be used for coffeecakes, and filled with almond paste, apricot paste and poppy seeds.
1 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 packages dry yeast
5 cups flour
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
FOR THE FILLING:
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2/3 cup raisins
FOR THE SYRUP:
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup pecans, chopped
1/2 cup light corn syrup
Combine water, sugar and salt in a bowl. Sprinkle in yeast and stir until dissolved. Add eggs and half the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in remaining flour bit by bit until a soft dough is formed. Blend the shortening in last.
Place dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease all sides. Cover bowl and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes. Punch dough down. Turn out on a lightly floured board and divide dough in half.
To make filling, mix together the brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins.
Roll out each half of dough into an oblong shape, about 14-by-9 inches each. Brush top of each with melted butter. Sprinkle each oblong with half the filling mixture. Roll each oblong up as for a jelly roll. Seal edges firmly. Cut each roll into 9 equal pieces. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 30 minutes.
To make the syrup, melt butter and brown sugar over low heat, being careful not to let mixture burn. Add water and chopped pecans. Pour into an 8-inch square greased pan. Place buns on top and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove pan from oven and pour corn syrup over the buns; bake for another 5 minutes. Serve warm.
Per bun: 431 calories, 5 gm protein, 68 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 48 mg cholesterol, 265 mg sodium.
PACZKI* (Makes 20 pastries)
Adapted from a newspaper.
6 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 stick butter, plus 3 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup milk
2 cakes yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt
Lemon rind or vanilla, to taste
3 to 4 cups flour
Fruit jam, to taste
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Beat egg yolks well, then add sugar. Melt together stick of butter and milk until warm. Dissolve yeast in warm water, and add this mixture to yolks and sugar. Add salt and lemon rind or vanilla. Gradually add some of the flour, then add the 3 tablespoons melted butter, and the rest of the flour. Beat well until dough no longer clings to the spoon. Set aside and let rise for about two hours.
Take a small piece of the dough and flatten it out in the palm of your hand. Put about a teaspoonful of jam in the center and fold in the edges of the dough until a ball is formed with the jam in the center.
Fry the balls in deep fat, heated to 350 degrees, for about 5 minutes. When done, sprinkle them with confectioners' sugar or ice with an icing of confectioners' sugar and butter.
Per serving: 157 calories, 3 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 176 mg sodium.