Trying on old recipes for nostalgia and posterity

Burnt Sugar Cake earned my Aunt Gene several blue ribbons at local fairs. This was in the 1950s when cooking and gardening skills could give you bragging rights and a covey of green-eyed-jealous enemies. Some of her recipes were family secrets for years. Until they weren’t. Until they appeared in a church cookbook.

The courage to try new-old skillsets

My dearest departed cousin-sister Linda collected cookbooks. When I came into her house as the beneficiary of her husband and a mountain of knick-knacks and what-nots, it became my job to sort through that collection and disperse them to her daughters and step-daughters. I kept a few for myself, especially a spattered old blue thing called Community Favorites II: Compiled by Wakarusa Presbyterian Church, Wakarusa, Kansas.

If you’ve ever served on a church fundraising committee, you will recognize the old staple Church Cookbook.

The best way to come into these church cookbooks is through inheritance. I have my mother’s cookbook from one of the Lutheran churches she attended. Also have one from the Hamilton, Mo Federated Church.

If you are not a veteran church-goer, you might not recognize the value of these tomes, or the wonderful hidden culture they represent. These little spiral-bound books are THE CHURCH. Open their pages and you’ll smell the wonderful aromas of a church supper. You’ll see a bunch of crazy women in aprons rushing around to serve up their very best to their own and the community at large. You’ll hear the gossip and the expressions of concern for a sick or dying member. You’ll feel the expressions of love and creativity in the beauty of the bounty spread out in those pages.

But I did not fully appreciate that plastic spiral-bound treasure that stood on my cookbook stand. Not until I looked all the way through it last week. Sure, I knew it would feature recipes by many of my relatives and new friends that I’ve come to know since joining Wakarusa Presbyterian. I just had no idea that my cousin had written some recipes into some of the blank margins at the ends of sections.

Even more surprising? The emotion that one of those hand-written recipes could invoke. Sure, I appreciated seeing her much-loved donut recipe and her prolific search for the ultimate sugar cookie and cinnamon rolls. But what brought me to tears was seeing the label: Anne’s Corn Chowder.

It wasn’t even my corn chowder. It came from an old issue of Midwest Living Magazine. But that was the dish I served one cold March day when she and her husband (now my hand-me-down husband) came to our house in Cameron, MO for a visit. I served a big pot of sausage-corn chowder seasoned with marjoram and rosemary and carbed-up with diced potatoes and a serving of blueberry muffins that day. Poor Wayne! He didn’t eat any of it because, as I later learned, he is just a meat and potatoes guy who stoutly refuses to veer from the tried-and-true.

It’s not the food, it’s the company

Memories gushed out when I saw that recipe. Memories of all the good times, the laughs, the common interests we shared as cousins and sister-friends. And that’s probably the chief benefit of cookbooks and their individual recipes. It’s not about the delicious food, but the people who cook them and share them.

In addition to seeing Linda’s handwritten recipes, I can open this little blue cookbook and immediately spot Helen Ramshaw’s Strawberry Parfait Pie, or Beverly Nicholson’s Strawberry-Pretzel Dessert (can you tell I’m hungry for homegrown berries?) I know these women, so feel I can trust these recipes to be tried and true, as well as delicious. I’ve seen photos on Facebook of Evelyn Davis’s molasses wheat bread and my mouth waters just reading Linda Combes’ recipe for banana split cake. My late Aunt Neva’s cornbread dressing is in this book, as well as Aunt DeLora’s barbecue sauce (actually her late mother-in-law’s concoction…it contains a pound of candy red hots!).

My real reason for starting this blog today was to share one of those recipes. When I gathered the courage to burn sugar to make my Aunt Gene’s Best Burnt Sugar Cake in the World, I posted a photo of the resulting three-layer miracle. That led to a few Facebook friends asking for the recipe. Never one to let a good chance for a blog post go by, here you go. But read the warning label.

Burning sugar is not for the faint-hearted

In the weeks approaching my Aunt Gene’s 95th birthday anniversary, we always aimed to have a cooking lesson on burning sugar. But her health and constant hospice personnel visits seemed to conspire against us. The Friday before her birthday, I mustered enough courage to attempt the recipe that had earned her so many accolades. By myself.

This burning sugar process is one big chemistry lesson, believe me! Here’s how it goes:

In a 4 quart, un-coated Dutch Oven (enamel coated cast iron seems to work best, but don’t use one of those cancer-causing silicone things) sprinkle one cup of sugar evenly over the bottom. Begin to melt the sugar slowly, over medium heat, stirring constantly. But before you even begin to burn the sugar, put a small pan of one cup water on the stove to boil.

As the sugar melts, stir faster, all the while looking for a distinctive caramel or light-brown color. The lighter the color, the lighter-tasting the sugar. Light brown will give you a caramel taste, while a darker brown will provide an almost molasses flavor, which is what Aunt Gene always aimed for. But don’t go too far into the dark side or you will have bitter syrup. (Does that sound like a moral lesson?) Once you reach the preferred color, put on a pair of oven mitts or gloves, pull the boiling mess off the burner, wait a little while, and pour in the cup of boiling water, taking care to stand back and not be burned by the resulting steam. Aunt Gene says to be ready with the lid to cover it immediately. Somewhere in there, plan to stir it again. Once the syrup is cooled, you will be using it for the cake batter and the icing.

A nitty-gritty dirt band of burnt sugar cake

13-1/2 T. Crisco or Butter (the thought of that much Crisco made me gag so butter it was.)

3 egg yolks (save the whites)

2-1/2 cups sugar

Cream the above until fluffy. (This is when I love my KitchenAid stand mixer) Beat the three egg whites and fold into the mixture. (I tried to call Aunt Gene to see if that should be to stiff peak state but she was taking a nap)

Add 3 cups flour and 2 cups water and cream together until dissolved. (Next time I plan to experiment and add cake flour instead of regular flour. This is one heavy puppy of a cake.)

Mix the following ingredients in a small bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

9 T. burnt sugar

3/4 cup Flour

1-1/2 tsp. vanilla

3 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Add to the ingredients already in the mixing bowl. Note: the baking powder will possibly foam in true chemistry experiment mode, depending on what order you add everything, but just shrug your shoulders like I did and keep on keeping on.

(And again, I tried to call Aunt Gene, because her recipe did not have salt. I think salt belongs in every recipe, so there you have it. Use your own judgment here.)

Bake that voluminous, heavy batter in three 9″ cake pans lined with parchment or waxed paper and sprayed with Pam, then floured (Sheesh! More flour?).


1 stick butter

6 T burnt sugar

1 box (1 lb.) powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Aunt Gene always cooked the butter and burnt sugar to a boil, then added the powdered sugar, stirred like crazy, then poured it and spread it on a cooled cake immediately. I did the lazy woman version: put the softened butter and other ingredients in the stand mixer bowl, covered it with a splatter shield and mixed the heck out of it, seemingly forever, stopping periodically to use a spatula to scrape the sides.

Better than winning a bake-off

The ultimate reward of gathering enough of my foolhardy wits to make the above recipe was seeing Aunt Gene’s face light up as we placed that cake on her walker seat. And the frosting on the scene? Hearing her say it tasted just like hers.

Aunt Gene’s burnt sugar birthday cake…the first one she didn’t have to make herself.

Hand-me-downs: The creative woman’s answer to ‘what’s for dinner’



Advancing age is supposed to bring wisdom.

If I were a wise woman, every night I’d know the answer to “What’s for dinner?”

For the past week, health and weight concerns have made the answer lots of salads-in-a-bag and no bread. That’s about all the longer those routines last at our house. Then the weekend hits.

If it’s rainy or overcast or otherwise depressing and we happen to go to the store, lo and behold, a chocolate cake mix ends up in the basket. We don’t know what little gremlin might have put it there. And, as cake mixes are no good in their original packaging, the cake gets made. Once a cake is made, the new adage becomes, “I am, therefore I eat . . . especially chocolate.”

When Monday comes again, the salad trick doesn’t work anymore, especially when the male of the house pokes at it and says, “I’ve seen this stuff in the yard. You’re gonna make me eat this again?! Give it to Mikey the rabbit. He’ll like it.”

I really can’t complain much about my partner’s eating demands. He’s a mean grill cook and he’d eat a few bowls of Campbell’s¬† whatever two times a day and be satisfied. Me, I can’t handle the sodium and the boredom (my version of the salad aversion).

Last night, the what’s for dinner question was posed at the pantry door. We had “inherited” some hand-me-down canned goods from his step-mom, including some canned collard greens. After nixing the soup again, I got to work in the kitchen, secretly whipping up what I was sure would be a surprise and delight to my spouse.

I called him to the table after sweating over a hot stove, proud of my efforts. I’d pulled out some authentic homemade tamales out of the freezer (made somewhere in Kansas City, KS by the Real McCoy hispanic cooks) and nuked them soft. I opened a can of pinto beans and boiled the liquid away from them, adding a generous dash of Tony Cachere’s Cajun Seasoning. I fried some bacon and sprinkled that in the beans and the collards for some extra zest.

The piece de resistance was the pico de gallo, bringing a spot of welcome color and freshness to the plate–chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro, green onions, lime juice, garlic, olive oil and salt. I tried not to worry about the fact that I was mixing cuisines (Mexican, Cajun and Southern) on one plate. I added a dollop of queso con salsa to the beans, just for looks and Voila! I was so proud of my creativity and the fact that I’d just made a meal out of hand-me-downs.

The reception was less than gratified. Failing to admire the artistry of the plate, my spouse took two bites and reached for one of my acid reflux pills.

Guess what we’re having for dinner tonight? I think a bag of popcorn or a frozen pizza will just have to do. No wonder he can’t wait until gardening season. It’s hard to get creative with corn and tomatoes.

Note: This column originally appeared in my newspaper humor column, Letters from Home, and will be published in a collection with the working title “The New Other Mail: A newspaper column and a memoir.”