I flew my mom out to see me last month with the lure of cherry blossoms and cherished friends, but the real reason for her trip from Minnesota to Washington was for the two of us to cook together.
Dorothy Sietsema moves like someone half her age, entertains as if she’s competing with Martha Stewart and likes to tell the story about the safari she took to Kenya last year. (When one of her Maasai escorts told her that his father had six wives and that he himself was considering a second, she told him “one is enough.”)
My mom is also 87 years old and tells me, “I don’t taste as well as I used to.” Both of us know she won’t be around forever. More than almost any heirloom from my family home — my late father’s fabulous photograph s, the toys of my childhood — it’s my mom’s recipe for her World’s Fair Cake that I most desired.
No other dessert in our Worthington, Minn., household could compete with the colorful high-rise constructed with four rounds of buttermilk chocolate cake sandwiched with four flavors of fresh whipped cream. The fantasy starts with pale green whipped cream flavored with vanilla and crushed pistachios and is followed by soft yellow whipped cream touched with almond. The third whipped-cream layer, tinted pink, crackles with bits of peppermint candy in the filling. Finishing the top of the cake is whipped cream spiced with cocoa and cinnamon.
The centerpiece of countless birthdays and company dinners from the mid-1960s on never failed to impress anyone lucky enough to be served a slice. The cake’s uncertain origins made it mysterious; Mom couldn’t recall where she picked up the idea or which fair the cake referenced.
When I was a kid, my “job” consisted of licking the beaters once the batter went into the oven, so it wasn’t until last month that I fully appreciated the effort my mom put into assembling the confection. The cake, almost always made from scratch. The four separate bowls of whipped cream. The care it took to turn two round cakes into four delicate layers, sometimes using dental floss.
“It’s really simple,” my mom says as she creams shortening and sugar and I melt chocolate for what will eventually become an edible circus. “But it takes time. That’s why you only make it for people you like.”
Mom was always good about sending guests home with leftovers. The only exception to her generosity was the World’s Fair Cake. It stayed in our refrigerator, where its charms intensified over the few days it lingered under Saran Wrap held up with toothpicks. The cake seemed to get more moist, the fillings more intense, the longer it chilled out.
That cake wasn’t the sole family treasure I hoped to glean during Mom’s visit. Before she left home, I had her mail me instructions for her Rice Krispie Potatoes (you read that right) and wild rice casserole. The potatoes took their name from the crushed cereal, in which my mom rolled buttered boiled spuds before baking them; snap, crackle and pop wasn’t just for breakfast on South Shore Drive. The wild rice used a native staple that my mom liked to show off to company, especially if they were visiting from outside the country. The instructions, typed on a 3-by-5 note card, have “Minnesota” written in before “Wild Rice Casserole With Pecans.”
Hey, Mom, can you send the recipe for goulash, too? Not to be confused with the classic paprika-rich Hungarian stew, my mom’s version relied on cooked macaroni mixed with sauteed hamburger and canned tomatoes and spiked with chili powder. “Gosh, Tom, I don’t have a recipe for that. I just . . . make it!” Which is precisely why I wanted the two of us to re-create the comfort together. I needed to know how much pasta to boil, how long to brown the meat, what brand of tomatoes she preferred and whether or not to bake the dish with a cover.
If I wanted to hang on to the flavors of my youth, I had to document every ingredient and record every step.
When we later sat down to eat the goulash, I was struck by the satisfying hominess of what might be labeled a “hot dish” in Minnesota-ese. “Your dad used to put Tabasco on it,” my mom said. Like father, like son, except I upped the flavor with a few splashes of Sriracha.
The “Fargo” plainness of the casserole, the potatoes and the wild rice was striking. My mom defended their appearance. “We aren’t a restaurant, you know, where everything looks so perfect.”
A funny thing happened on the way to finishing these recipes. The mixing and measuring, the slicing and dicing — the release of a cork from a bottle of rosé — got us talking about the past, mostly hers. My mom didn’t come from money, far from it, but she ate well, thanks to a single dad who tended a big garden and canned “everything!” including strawberries that were made into a sauce that was spread on toast whenever little Dorothy fell sick. Turns out, the straightforward goulash she made for my siblings and me was also her own childhood request every birthday back in tiny Stewartville, Minn.
She seems to have inherited her father’s sense of humor. Every April Fool’s Day, Dorothy Struve and her brothers and sisters sat down to a breakfast of pancakes their dad made for them. Hiding in each pancake: a piece of string. “He thought we wouldn’t remember” from year to year, she says.
Our afternoon together had a few glitches. After some wine on the front porch, Mom and I returned to the kitchen, where one of us accidentally turned on the mixer with its beaters up, splattering the floor, the counter and us with whipped cream. We vowed not to tell my significant other, the neatnik. Dorothy being Heloise, she asked for an old toothbrush and soapy water to scrub the rug free of evidence of our misadventure.
Always teaching, aren’t you, Mom?
There will come a day, hopefully far off, when my favorite cook won’t be around to throw together goulash or fuss with a chocolate cake. I’d like to think that in her absence, I’ll be able to feel her presence.