Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Taste of Home by Margaret Maron

Margaret Maron is the author of twenty-six novels and two collections of short stories. Winner of several major American awards for mysteries (Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity), her works are on the reading lists of various courses in contemporary Southern literature and have been translated into 16 languages. She has served as president of Sisters in Crime, the American Crime Writers League, and Mystery Writers of America. 

A native Tar Heel, she still lives on her family's century farm a few miles southeast of Raleigh, the setting for Bootlegger's Daughter, which is numbered among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. In 2004, she received the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for best North Carolina novel of the year. In 2008, she was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature. (The North Carolina Award is the state's highest civilian honor.) 

Margaret's latest, CHRISTMAS MOURNING (Book 16 in the Judge Deborah Knott Series), launches November 1st at Quail Ridge Books & Music.  

by Margaret Maron

My mother was not a gourmet cook in the usual sense.  She cooked “country” —Southern country—which meant crispy fried chicken, smothered pork chops, butter beans and field peas, cornbread lace, and chicken pastry.  Her idea of Italian cuisine was to duplicate the taste of Chef Boyardee’s canned spaghetti and meatballs.  This meant cooking spaghetti in the sauce till it was well past “al dente,” a term she had never heard.  French fries were her only Gallic dish. Nor did she grok cooking with wine.  Indeed, the closest she ever came to spirituous cooking was to drench her fruitcakes in bootleg pear brandy or some scuppernong wine.

She did not clip recipes for boeuf bourguignon or fajitas, but she was a whiz at pastries and hot breads and she never saw a cake recipe she didn’t want to try.

When she died and my siblings and I cleared out her house and divided what was worth keeping, I was the one who spoke up for her old Household Searchlight cookbook. Copyright 1931, it was frayed and tattered and held together with Scotch tape.  You could tell which recipes she liked for those pages are spattered with food and smudged with greasy fingerprints.  Whole sections are pristine in their cleanliness because those recipes didn’t interest her or were for things she already knew how to cook from childhood.

Endearingly, the book’s pages are stuffed with cake recipes clipped from a dozen different magazines.  Those that made it into her permanent repertoire were copied by hand onto one of the end pages or taped to a page she scorned..  No cake mixes for Mother.  Her fruitcake recipe lists 23 ingredients, not counting the booze.

Her favorite, though, was a Spice Chiffon Cake.  It, too, called for many ingredients, and required 7 separated eggs.  The whites were beaten until really, really stiff and then the batter poured over the egg whites and gently folded in.  Folded.  Not stirred.  Mother was very clear about that.

She copied it out for me and I may have made it once.  It’s a delicious cake, light and airy, but way too much trouble for someone trying to cook with one hand and type with the other.  The frosting, hoever, was to die for. And I do make it around the holidays. 

In my Deborah Knott books, I heap lavish praise on her daddy’s housekeeper’s cooking.  My mother is the model for Madie Holt’s way of doing things in the kitchen and my readers are always asking me to spell out her recipes.

So here’s the frosting for Mother’s favorite cake:
Melt ½ cup of butter in a saucepan.  Remove from heat and blend in 2½ tblsp. Flour, ¼ tsp. salt.  Slowly stir in ½ cup milk.  Bring to boil, stirring constantly.  Boil for one minute and do not be alarmed if the mixture curdles.  Stir in ½ cup brown sugar (firmly packed in cup.)  Remove from heat.  Stir in 2 cups sifted powdered sugar.  Set saucepan in cold water.  Beat until of consistency to spread.  Stir in ½ tsp. vanilla.  Spread on cold cake.  Press coarsely chopped pecans into the top.

As I said, the chiffon cake was wonderful, but hey!  Duncan Hines makes a spice cake mix that tastes just as good to me. When I spread Mother’s frosting on one of Mr. Hines’s cakes, I could be ten years old again, sitting at my mother’s table.

Excuse me while I go put “spice cake mix” on my Thanksgiving shopping list.

So what’s the taste of home for you?


Sarah Shaber said...

My mother made an incredible fruit cake with a secret ingredient--chocolate! I have the recipe and have tried to make it, but it comes out too crumbly. And the ingredients cost a fortune! So I make do with mince meat pie, which I love. I always have a piece for breakfast the day after Christmas!

Sarah Shaber said...

My mother made an incredible fruit cake with a secret ingredient--chocolate! I have the recipe and have tried to make it, but it comes out too crumbly. And the ingredients cost a fortune! So I make do with mince meat pie, which I love. I always have a piece for breakfast the day after Christmas!

Anonymous said...

First of all, Kaye, thank you so very much for sharing this guest post by one of my very, very favorite authors, Margaret Maron. Oh my goodness, how I love, love, love this series! I am so excited to read each book! Truly! I got misty listening to the video and am thrilled to hear about Christmas in Colleton County. Ms. Maron, you can't know how many hours of pleasure you have brought me reading about the Knott family.

My Mom (who I lost in May) was not much of a cook. However, she made really good gingerbread cookies at Christmas and I do the same. Tons and tons of them. Everyone wants them and I can't keep them in the house. The recipe is not unusual or different. The key is to not cook them too long. Really to undercook them. They are fun and I have lots and lots of cookie cutters to play with.

Mason Canyon said...

Kaye, thanks for this wonderful post. I've been a fan of Margaret Maron for a number of years now. I've listened to several of the Deborah Knott stories in the car going back and forth to work and loved each and every one of them.

I'm so looking forward to reading Christmas Mourning. I signed up this week to do a review of it and have the pleasure of being able to give a copy away as well.

As for my taste of home, my Mom's chocolate pies are what I miss most. She never wrote a recipe down that I recall and at the time I didn't care anything about cooking myself.

It funny how food makes up think of home and the holidays.

Thoughts in Progress

Vicki Lane said...

Yum! Sounds like the caramel frosting my neighbor used to make.

I have several of those well used cookbooks -- my own plus my mother's and grandmother's which I truly treasure.

Phyllis said...

My mother made terrible desserts, but terrific turkey with corn bread dressing for the holidays. My mother-in-law made heavenly desserts, especially fruit cobblers, but cooked all meat to cinders. Holidays meals at each of their homes were memorable!

I love both of Margaret Maron's series and have read them all. I can hardly wait to get my hands on Christmas Mourning. I have included several of the Deborah Knott books in my detective fiction and other literature classes over the years. When I met Ms. Maron at the Chicago Bouchercon, I came off as a blithering idiot as I tried to explain how much I loved including her books in my lit classes. What I said was, "I have really enjoyed teaching you." She said, "You must be older than you look, if you have taught me!"

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

My dear Gramma Minnie made a fantastic coffee cake--with coffee and chocolate.

We craved it.

She'd NEVER give us the recipe.

After she died,we attacked her recipe box.
We found it!

It said something like:
Coffee cake
chocolate (melted)
coffee (liquid)


And no one could ever make it again.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Margaret has been in a car accident but is fine, just a little bruised. That's why she hasn't been by to respond - but sends her best and thanks you for stopping by. More later!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Fruit cake with chocolate! Sarah, now that's a fruitcake I'd probably love!

Kay - I haven't made gingerbread in years and years. I may have to get out the gingerbread man mold and do that this year!

Food and the holidays really do just go hand in hand, don't they? Mason, my Aunt Eve usually makes a pie for Donald for Christmas. Either chocolate or pecan. I'm so glad he's nice enough to share with me (especially the chocolate!).

Vicki - those old cookbooks are treasures, aren't they? You have some real treasures which I covet.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Phyllis - this was too fun! We've all had those tongue-tied, fan girl moments, haven't we?! Thank Goodness for gracious authors who understand!

Hank - this cracked me UP! Do you try every recipe you come across that looks like it just "might" be it in an attempt to duplicate it?

jenny milchman said...

I'd love some of that spice cake, too, Margaret. I remember tasting a wonderful rum cake made with yellow cake mix and pudding mix among other more "homemade" ingredients. And isn't Paula Deen--a Southern gal like both of you--a genius at mixing convenience foods in with other ones to...yummmmm...great effect?

I love the cover of your latest, and thank Kaye as always for showcasing another new-to-me writer.

PS: My mom's mashed potatoes made with pounds of butter and scalded milk will always taste like home and Thanksgiving to me...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting blog.

Chicken and dumplings is one of my childhood favorites. I never was able to get my grandmother's tea cake recipe.

I hope this finds Margaret Maron's recuperation going well.