Friday, January 7, 2011

Chocolate Cake and Loquat Jelly: My Year of Eating Brethren-Style

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I've been sucked into the over-saturated market of the "Year-Long Food Project".  I don't know how long it will last and I'm not trying to figure out who will play me in the movie.  I'm just trying to find some new recipes that bring me a little closer to my culinary roots.  I'm not even sure if these roots are worth getting closer to or that I'll even like the food.  But I've been looking for two particular recipes for a while now and I found both of them in a long-neglected cookbook that once belonged to my Great-Grandmother Alice Turner.  I think this must be a sign.
The backside of my great-grandmother Alice Turner with her husband H. O. Turner, known to all as "Mom and Pop".
The first recipe I've been searching for is one for loquat jelly.  A year and a half ago, I moved into a house that had two large loquat trees in the backyard.  Since our bountiful crop last year I've been contemplating what we could do with the hundreds of loquats that will cover our backyard in a blanket of squishy golden-yellow golf balls.  Last year we made exactly one loquat cobbler and a quarter-cup of unremarkable loquat jam.  This year I hope to do better.  When my mother showed me my great-grandmother's cookbook I looked in the preserves section almost as a joke.  I'd never heard of loquats until I moved to California and I didn't think the hundred year old Brethren cookbook would be any help in this department.  (Brethrens are Anabaptists-- conservative Protestants-- and my Great-Grandmother Alice was raised in a Brethren community in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a place not known for it's loquats.)  When I discovered a recipe for loquat jelly by Sister Barbara Kindig of Inglewood, California on page 326, I knew I had to try it.

The second recipe on my "must-find" list is for a chocolate cake that doesn't involve the use of coffee, shortening, or margarine.  And I don't want to take all day making it.  None of the fifteen chocolate cake recipes in my great-grandmother's cookbook are more than a paragraph long and none of them require more than eleven ingredients.  Most of the recipes call for a maximum of seven or eight ingredients.  This seemed like a good thing until I remembered a lecture by Anne Willan in which she discussed the fact that cookbooks used to be made for professionals, or at the very least for people who knew how to cook.  The authors of early cookbooks made a lot of assumptions about the basic knowledge of the reader to understand how to make bread or pastry or whatever food was being discussed.  I fear that my culinary skills may not be up to the task.  But I hope that will be part of the fun.  I will learn what I don't know, even if I have to eat my way through a lot of bad cakes.

To be honest, I'm not a very good baker.  I don't have much patience for reading recipes and I don't like being exact in my measurements.  Neither of these are desirable qualities in a baker.  That's not to say I can't follow a recipe when I need to.  Over the years, I've learned that one NEEDS to follow the recipe when baking.  It's just that I don't like doing it.  So here goes... I'll start with a book that has very few instructions and see how far I get.  If nothing else, it will surely give me a new respect for the culinary skills of my ancestors.

I'm especially excited to be working with the cookbook that belonged to my Great-Grandmother Alice Turner.  I never knew "Mom", as everyone called her, but my Grandma Willie told me a great story about her that I think of whenever I am asked to do something I don't want to do.  Grandma Willie told me that when "Mom" was in the nursing home at the end of her life, the nurses would come around with craft supplies to try to get all the old ladies involved in some kind of project.  "Mom" always politely told them that she was not interested.  Eventually, "Mom" had had enough of their attempts to engage her in busywork.  One fateful day, a well-meaning, but overbearing nurse tried to give "Mom" a ball of yarn and asked her if she could knit or crochet, while offering her the choice between a set of knitting needles and a crochet hook.  "Mom" sweetly replied, "I CAN knit and I CAN crochet, but I CHOOSE to do neither."  Exit nurse.

I hope this project will help me follow in the footsteps of my great-grandmother, both in terms of learning valuable cooking techniques, but also in reminding me to be a person who chooses carefully what she WILL do at any given moment.  And to make that moment count.