Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mama Clara's Toffee

I didn't get to know my dad's mom very well. I heard frequently growing up that I was just like her - and not in a good way. I grew up and she grew older, slowing down enough to stay in the country long enough for me to visit with her. The more I got to know Mama Clara, the more I realized that everyone was right. I was just like her. But it wasn't until after she passed away at the grand age of 93 that I really got to know her.

As her last surviving child, my dad was the executor of her estate. We kids helped him go through her personal effects. I discovered that like me, she enjoyed needlework. Who knew that my hyperactive, never-sit-still grandmother enjoyed knitting and embroidery? Also, she had a passion for collecting recipes and cookbooks, and like me, she preferred collecting recipes for sweets. My dad pointed out that the recipe that had netted me my very first blue ribbon from the Florida State Fair had come from Mama Clara. So when it came time to find a home for her cookbooks, my dad made sure that I got them. He had a vested interest in making sure his little girl could cook like his Mama!

The recipes that I inherited from her run the gamut of types, but one thing they have in common is that there are more winners than losers among them. Many of her recipes, with her notes scrawled in pencil beside them, have become staples for my family to enjoy. In the ten years since she passed away, I have explored her passions for sweet treats and breads. One of her recipes has become so popular in my house that my husband says it's as "addictive as crack" and acts more like a kid than our children when he sees me pull out the recipe for Mama Clara's Toffee. He'll shoo the children from the kitchen until the alchemy changing mere butter and sugar into the golden treat is complete. Then he takes his box of toffee and hides it on the top shelf in our bedroom.

In the spirit of the Holidays, I'd like to share this recipe with the friends and family who won't be here to wrestle my husband for a piece. Enjoy!

Mama Clara's Toffee
1 cup butter
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 Tblsp light corn syrup
1 Tblsp water
1/2 cup milk chocolate
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Melt butter in large saucepan over med heat. Add sugar, syrup and water. Stir well. Heat to 300 on candy thermometer (hard crack stage) stirring occasionally.

Pour into buttered 13 x 9 pan.

Cool slightly, then sprinkle 1/2 cup milk chocolate over top. Cover with pan to melt chocolate. Spread evenly over top and sprinkle with 1/2 cup chopped pecans.

Cool completely and break apart.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reviving a Lost Art

School starts back early here in Georgia. My two year-old daughter started her Pre-K class this past month. To commemorate, I stopped into the JoAnn’s Supercenter near my mother’s house and picked up several new patterns and yards of fabrics for school clothes for my children. As I pored over the jerseys and the corduroys and the filing cabinets loaded with paper envelopes that crackle when you flip through them, I was transported back to my childhood spent with my great aunt Gladys who taught me to sew.

Gladys came from a whole different era. Born a few years before the Great Depression, Gladys was raised in an environment of thrift and self-reliance. She prided herself on her collection of buttons, patterns, fabrics, and notions – and she took great joy in her skill with a needle and thread. I remember flipping through old family photos with her proudly pointing out having made this suit herself, or that dress just for the occasion. Gladys was not above carefully removing a label from a store bought designer dress and stitching it into one of her own creations. Truthfully, it was often difficult to tell which was hers and which had been commercially made. She even tailored her store-bought clothes to fit her exactly.

When I was a child, she dragged me along into the poorly air-conditioned fabric stores with shelves piled high with bolts of gaily patterned fabrics. To this day, my heart skips a beat and my pulse quickens whenever I set foot into a fabric store, and not even a brief stint as an employee of the well-known chain, JoAnn’s Fabrics could dim my excitement. No matter how bright and modern or how well air-conditioned, for just a moment when I step through the door, in my mind’s eye, I still see the bare concrete floor, racks of notions, and shabby shelves that all but groaned under the heavy weight of all the bolts of fabric that made up the Fabric King of my childhood.

It had been years since I’d sewn clothes. I’d noticed with growing distress that commercial patterns and garment fabrics are growing increasingly more difficult to find, especially here in rural southwest Georgia. We have several fabric stores specializing in home decorator fabrics and just as many specializing in quilting fabrics. But garments… well, they’re getting scarce.

While dropping my daughter off at her class, one of the other mothers noted her slim build and asked if I had trouble finding clothes to fit her. I looked at her in surprise and said, “No, because I sew.”

That got me thinking about the decline in garment sewing materials in the area. I started asking questions and learned that while most women my age and older knew their way around a sewing machine and pattern, younger women often did not. In one of our daily online chats, my best friend, Tanya Goffman, a sewing instructor (among other things) in California, suggested that I offer sewing lessons from my home. I hadn’t given sewing lessons in more than ten years. I tried to dismiss the idea, but it wouldn’t go away. That day after school, my children fell asleep in the car, so on a whim to lengthen their naps, I drove the extra fifteen miles to the nearest quilt shop in a neighboring town to pick up some interfacing for one of the jumper patterns I’d selected to work on for my daughter’s school clothes.

Boston Bobbin had just moved from their home in downtown Boston to downtown Quitman and I hadn’t been in the store in a long time, so I browsed among the bolts of fabrics. The owner’s husband, Jack McCullers struck up a conversation with me. We chatted for a while and the subject turned to sewing lessons offered in the store. I mentioned my discovery that sewing garments was fast becoming a lost art, and Jack confided that they were hoping to add some general sewing classes to their schedule, but couldn’t find a teacher. With Tanya’s suggestion ringing in my ears, before I realized it, I offered my services.

My daughter Beth modeling
The Pillowcase Dress
from one of my classes
I went home, dug out my old syllabus and class descriptions and reworked them a bit. Then I got busy making samples of the class projects to show, and returned to the store to talk with Jack’s wife, Cecilia. She took one look at my portfolio and booked me on the spot. I left the store with at least four classes on the schedule for October and November.

Now, I look around at my old Singers and my stacks of fabrics and I can’t help but feel that old familiar excitement. I can’t wait for the opportunity to pass on the passion for sewing that was my great-aunt Gladys’s gift to me, so many years ago.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Prolific Gardens Make Good Neighbors

Reverend Baker can always be counted on to bring the best goodies to my children. The sweet elderly couple across the street has taken a shine to my three younguns. Reverend Baker and his wife, Betty seem to look for excuses to stop by and visit. Mrs. Betty has trouble getting around, so we don’t see her as frequently as her outgoing hubby. My husband frequently stops by with at least one of the children so the Bakers can fuss over them a bit. Lately, Reverend Baker has come bearing the overspill of his son’s garden.

I don’t see how anyone could go hungry in the country in the South. Friends and neighbors are always quick to share their extras. It’s not uncommon to come home and find that one friendly neighbor has stopped by with a bundle of greens, or a box of beans fresh from the garden. With our own prolific squash plants, and extras from my sister’s garden, I’m kept busy putting up veggies. Soon the pears, figs and jelly palm fruit will be ripe and I’ll be very busy putting up jams and jellies.

But today, I have to figure out what to do with a grocery bag full of the tastiest, reddest, sweetest tomatoes you’ve ever seen!

A Quartet of Singers

I like old things.

I have four Singer sewing machines. They range in age from over a hundred years old to just over twenty-five years old. They all work great. Not only that, each machine has sentimental value. Each one belonged to someone else before it came to me. There’s something comforting in knowing that loving hands lifted the presser foot, or adjusted the stitch length decades before me.

Twenty years ago, when I struck out on my own, I realized that one of the appliances I couldn’t keep house without was a sewing machine. I didn’t like the new plastic ones. I wanted an old, heavy metal Singer machine like the ones I’d learned on. So I combed the paper looking for old machines for sale. I found what I was looking for in an estate ad. When I went to take a look at the 1970’s made Singer Creative Touch 1030, the seller confided in me that she wasn’t a seamstress. The machine and table had belonged to her mother. After her death, she’d had little use for the machine, but wanted it to go to a good home. It was love at first sight for me. Any plastic on it had yellowed with age, but Grandma had bought all of the accessories for the old machine, and she had everything I needed to do any sewing I might want. It was the best twenty-five dollars I’d ever spent. I got the machine, the decrepit old table, and all of her accessories. Best of all, I got a well cared-for machine that has served me for twenty years.

When my oldest son was born, I would take my little stitchery projects to my mother’s to show off to my mom and great-aunt Gladys. You see, Gladys is the one who taught me to sew. She’s the one who put me on the old treadle machine with scraps of fabric and turned me loose. Hers was the 1950’s-era Singer 403A that I’d learned on. Hers was the model I’d been looking for when I went searching for my own machine. In her eighties by that time, Gladys offered me her old Singer. I eagerly accepted. Though what I’d do with another machine, I didn’t know. In the end, I made my daughter’s bassinet skirt on it. Gladys couldn’t have been prouder of my skill.

The oldest of my quartet is a Singer 127 treadle machine with Sphinx decals circa 1922-24 that once belonged to my great-grandmother, Mama Boley. It once held a place of honor in her kitchen, beside a window. Though the house had electricity and indoor plumbing, Mama Boley never saw any need to upgrade to a modern machine. It doesn’t do fancy stitches, but what it does, it does well. When I was a child, I learned to sew on it. The gentle sound and motion of the old treadle machine is a soothing contrast to the whir, thump and hum of a modern electric sewing machine. I enjoyed spending hours in that old kitchen, finding the rhythm with my feet and watching the needle rise and fall leaving neat stitches in the fabric. My mother likes to tell of Mama Boley singing hymns while she sewed, keeping time by rocking the treadle with her feet. When Mama Boley passed away, her belongings were divvied out among the family. As one of the youngest, and a lesser grandchild, I had little say on where her things went. But when my grandmother passed the old Singer along to my sister, I was happy to be able to visit it frequently. Years later, when I moved into my century-old house, my sister offered it to me. I accepted without hesitation. You see, one of the reasons I fell in love with this house is that it reminded me very much of Mama and Granddad Boley’s house. Her machine seems very much at home in my long center hallway, and a few other pieces of Mama Boley’s furniture have found their way into my home to keep it company.

 Says a lot for the durability of Singer sewing machines, doesn’t it?

Gladys passed away less than a year after my daughter was born. My mother made sure I inherited her vast collection of vintage sewing patterns, as well as all of her accessories and the fourth machine. In the early 1980’s, Gladys, her husband Brooks, and I went shopping. Though she did little sewing anymore, Gladys couldn’t pass up a display of modern sewing machines. Sears had a new Singer 1425N that she fell in love with. Inside of a tall armoire, the sewing machine rose into sewing position at the flick of a switch. This camless machine would do just about everything she could ask. I remember it was an expensive piece, as much furniture as appliance.
I still haven’t brought myself to clean out the armoire and fill it with my own sewing implements, many inherited from that unknown grandmother, many purchased over the years, and still more passed down from family members and friends who didn’t sew, but wanted their mothers’ and grandmothers’ tools to find a loving home. But as my children get a little older and I find more time to knit, sew, and do needlework, my thoughts turn more to Gladys’ armoire. In the mean time, I have spent the last few days refurbishing her old sewing table, a folding card table with a cut out in the top that’s just the right size to hold her old Singer. There is a pile of mending in a basket in the corner, and an old Singer sewing machine, ready to go to work once more.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Blackberry Cobbler

Since I posted "The Blackberry Traditions of Summer" I've had a lot of requests for my blackberry cobbler recipe. So I thought I'd post it here for everyone to enjoy.

Blackberry Cobbler

3 cups fresh blackberries, washed and hulled
1 cup plus 2 Tblsp sugar
½ cup water
1 Tblsp cornstarch
¼ cup butter, cold
½ cup butter, melted
1 cup Bisquick
1 plus ½ cup milk

Preheat oven to 375. In medium saucepan, heat blackberries, 1 cup sugar, ½ cup water 1 Tblsp cornstarch. Boil, stirring constantly until sauce thickens slightly. Reduce heat to simmer.

In mixing bowl, add Bisquick and ½ cup melted butter. Stir until well mixed. Slowly add milk a little at a time until the batter reaches the desired consistency, not too thick, not too thin, but easily poured or spooned out. You may not need to add all the milk.

Remove berries from heat and pour into 8x8 baking dish. Dot with ¼ cup cold butter, then top with batter. Put the baking dish into the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until top is golden brown and syrup is thick and bubbling. Remove from oven, cool slightly. Serve warm with ice cream, milk, whipped cream, or alone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Passing Along Summer's Treasures

There is something magical about summer when you’re a child. Now that I’m a parent, I get to experience it all over again through my own children. There’s a lot to be said for having a second childhood. With my children clamoring for popsicles and other icy treats out of the freezer we keep in our garage, I’m reminded of all the familiar sights, smells, flavors and sensations that heralded the lazy summer months of my youth and I wonder how to pass those treasures along to them.

It’s not really wanting to relive my childhood through my children. I know their experiences and memories will be vastly different from my own. The decades of my youth are long gone, as are many of the familiar trappings. But there are some experiences that I can be sure to pass along to them – some things are timeless. To this day, I find the smell of sun warmed skin, saturated with chlorine and mixed with sunscreen to be more attractive than any man-made cologne.

Growing up in Florida, we had to have a backyard swimming pool. Everyone did. I think it was some kind of law. My brothers, sister and I made great use of it. Large and deep, our pool was situated a fair distance from the back of the house. It dominated a brick patio that my father had lined with concrete classical columns topped with torches that flickered in the sultry Florida night. During the day the turquoise water glittered with reflected sunlight, beckoning one and all to find relief from the heat in its cool depths.

We younger children made the most of it all morning, turning the calm surface into a wave pool by rocking ferociously on big black inner tubes until the brick steamed with the overflow. Afternoons the older siblings took over. My eldest brother pulled on his scuba tank and weight belt and found blessed quiet at the bottom of the pool while the rest of us splashed and played on the surface. With an army of us, quiet was a valuable commodity. The nighttime belonged to my parents. With flickering firelight from the torches and the mellow glow from the light of the pool, our back yard became an enchanted garden of brick-lined tropical walkways, complete with statuary and exotic and fragrant flowers.

When my friend Lynn called for an impromptu party at the local YMCA pool yesterday, a jumble of memories flooded me and I loaded my three children into the car. Now, a public pool is a bit different from having one in your own back yard, but the principle is still the same. After dousing the children with sunscreen, my friends and I turned them loose in the mini water park and settled back for a chat. For a few hours, the older children played with the younger ones, good naturedly retrieving pool toys that had drifted too deep, offering encouragement and swimming lessons and in general splashing about and savoring the warm sunshine.

My son Liam became the talk of the town when he, in a good faith effort to not relieve himself in the pool, pulled down his swimsuit on the deck to relieve himself a few feet from the water. Fortunately, I got him to the bathroom in time, but not before my friends resolved to tease me mercilessly about it.

When my children showed signs of fatigue, I bundled them off for home, Winnie-the-Pooh video playing in the back seat. At the end of the day, when my husband and I were bidding them goodnight, the weary trio trooped past for their kisses and as I kissed each of them, I breathed deeply of the scent of their warm skin saturated with chlorine and sunscreen, and I smiled.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Blackberry Traditions of Summer

Last Summer, my husband announced that he was off to a friend’s farm to pick up some wild blackberry vines to plant along the white picket fence in front of our house. I smiled to myself, picturing my three children in future years with purplish stains around their mouths and on their fingers. I kissed him goodbye and watched him load our oldest son into the truck as they set off on their adventure. Watching my husband’s ancient truck bounce down our driveway, I couldn’t help but think of another farm and other blackberry vines.

When I was a child, every Summer we would visit my grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. After retiring from his job as a magistrate, my granddad built a two-storey log house on the property that had been in his family for generations. The third of twelve children, he wasn’t at a loss for help as he and his brothers assembled the home like giant Lincoln Logs, his brothers carrying on for him even after he broke his leg falling off the roof. I can’t remember how long it took from ground breaking to moving day, but I do remember how old I was when they left the red brick house across from my great-grandparents’ home in town for the large rambling country home. I was eight years-old.

For an eight year-old, the hundred plus acre farm was Heaven on Earth. I was never sure how far the land stretched. The rolling hills of neatly planted rows of soybeans and Country Gentleman corn seemed to go on forever.

When Spring Break rolled around, we’d pile into my mother’s huge brown station wagon and make the trek north from Florida, leaving before dawn in order to arrive in time for supper. We’d arrive hungry because my grandmother was an amazing cook. There wasn’t much she didn’t know how to cook.

The morning always meant a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits, toast, and grits, with strong, black coffee for the adults and older kids and chocolate milk or orange juice for the younger kids. Afterwards, my brothers would eagerly follow my granddad out into the muddy red fields for their chance to climb aboard the tractor and make neat furrows for spring planting. My job was to follow along behind my granddad as he poked holes in the tops of the furrows for me to drop a few seeds in and cover with a little bit of the red earth.

When we returned in the Summer, I’d marvel over the tall crops that had sprung from the earth where I’d dropped a few tiny seeds just a couple of months earlier – a huge contrast from the bare muddy ground that had greeted us on our last visit. In the Summer, the trees hung thick with green leaves and ripening fruit. The split-rail fence along the driveway groaned under the heavy scuppernong vines promising the large, round, green grapes that we loved.

My granddad would leave in the morning, taking my brothers with him to check the fields, make repairs, visit his brothers’ farms. In the Summer, I didn't get to come along. They left me behind with my mother and grandmother to clean up the morning dishes, tidy the house, make beds, prepare the next meal, or start on the ever-present canning.

My grandmother would watch carefully for the first sign of my fidgeting. When it appeared, she would send me out the door with a light, woven basket and instructions to head down to the shoals and fill my basket with blackberries.

I’d race out the back door like I’d been set free from prison – the screen door banging shut behind me. I thundered across the wooden porch and down the steps, swinging my basket as I raced across the wide lawn, dominated by my grandmother’s prized weeping willow, and across the gently rolling land past the huge, dark and mysterious barn.

It felt like I’d trekked a hundred miles before I reached the cool shade of my granddad’s private woods. A shallow creek traced the hills, the trickling water providing its own form of music as the bubbles played and danced from one rock to another, making their way to Granddad’s huge fishing pond at the bottom of the hill on the other side of the road. It was here in the woods along the stream that the sweetest, juiciest blackberries grew.

There in the shadows of the woods, along the creek, the air was cooler. It was possible to stay out all day in the Summer heat without suffering from it. Those woods provided everything a child needed for a day of fun and adventure. I’d pick my way across the smooth rocks, dipping my hands in water so cold my fingers ached from it. I’d pick handfuls of plump blackberries and rinse them in the icy water before stuffing them into my mouth.

I’ll never forget those Summer blackberries. Still warm from the dappled sunshine, I’d bite into them, the tart and sweet juices exploding in my mouth, running down my chin. I’d crunch down on the abundant seeds, some getting stuck in my teeth. I’d dip a handful of water from the creek to wash away the evidence of my pilfering then I’d wander along the creek looking for a new blackberry vine to pick clean of fruit.

The tiny barbs poked and scratched my tender skin, but in time, I grew quite adept at picking blackberries without injury. I’d pass over the sour red, unripe berries for the dark purplish blackberries, so large and plump they looked too perfect to be real. They grew so abundantly there along the creek that I could eat my fill and still find enough blackberries to fill my basket – but not before I’d followed the creek down to the pond.

Where the stream passed under the road, the creek bed stretched out into a huge expanse of granite bedrock. The merry little fast-moving stream of water spilled across the gray stone, filling little pockets in the granite. Thousands of smooth rocks, perfect for skipping lay scattered about. One favorite past time was to find several and perfect my skipping technique. I’d often followed my father and uncles down to the pond for fishing, and there had always been someone happy to teach me the manly art of stone skipping across the pond’s smooth surface.

Setting my empty basket on a rock, I’d kick off my sandals and wade into the pond, on the hottest days, I’d dive in, savoring the cool, clear water on my overheated skin. Once I’d cooled off, I’d pull myself out of the pond and lie back on the wide, sun-warmed granite and let the sun dry my bathing suit and hair. By summer’s end my pale skin would have darkened to a deep brown and my brown hair would lighten to a honey blonde.

I’d stay down by the pond until my stomach would growl for something more substantial than blackberries, or until the sun would shift far to the west, casting deep purple shadows across my favorite sunning rock. Sometimes, if we had plans to go visiting, one or two of my brothers would come looking for me. An hour later, my father would follow them, because none of us children could resist the siren call of the pond on the hottest days – not even when charged with a mission.

If time permitted, I’d remember what I’d been charged with and on the way back up the hill to the big log house, I’d stop at the blackberry vines along the road and fill my grandmother’s basket before heading back. She’d smile, seeing the basket filled with berries and my granddad would comment that the vines by the shoals must not be producing well this year since it had taken me all day to fill one basket. My mother would smile, knowing I’d spent the day wandering in the woods, skipping stones and swimming in the pond. My grandmother would use the blackberries for pie or cobbler, or she’d make a syrup out of them and treat us to blackberry pancakes. At least once during our visit, she’d make blackberry jam which she would send us home with at Summer’s end.

When my husband returned with the scrawny little vines, I followed him out to the fence as he planted them.

“They need shade to really take off,” I said.
“They’ll do great in full-sun,” he assured me.
“The berries are sweeter in the shade,” I said.
“They’ll be fine,” he said.

So I held my tongue and decided to wait. A year has passed and the pitiful little plants have exploded. Tiny green berries hide among the thorns, and we’re waiting for them to swell with juice and darken to a deep rich purple. In the mean time, we’ve discovered a vast blackberry patch in our pasture with already ripe, sweet and tart blackberries.

This week, after working in the yard, taming my neglected flower garden, Dale took the cuttings down to the community burn pile and came back excited as a nine year-old with reports of bushy blackberry plants heavy with more of the ripe, luscious berries than he could pick in one day. He hooked a wagon up to our small tractor and loaded the boys inside, handed an empty plastic ice cream bucket to each and waved goodbye.

They returned a little more than an hour later with a full bucket and a wealth of stories. I smiled and took the bucket from them. Liam had been more interested in eating than picking. Patrick had been eager to do both. I have no doubt that Dale had sampled his fair share as well. As my husband handed over the bounty, he eyed the gallon bucket.

“I hope that’s enough for a cobbler,” he said.
I smiled and washed a handful of the berries, handing them to my two year-old daughter, Beth.
“Mama, do you even know how to make blackberry cobbler?” Patrick asked.
Thinking of my grandmother and blackberries I’d handed over to her, I assured him that I did indeed know how to make blackberry cobbler.
“Well, I didn’t know,” Dale said. “I’ve never seen you make cobbler before.”
“I’ve made cobbler,” I said. “Remember when Bubba brought us all the peaches?”
“Oh yeah,” Dale said, then he turned to Patrick. “Your mama knows how to make cobbler. There’s not much she doesn’t know how to cook.”

Smiling to myself, I stared out of my kitchen window at our vegetable garden and the rows of scuppernong and muscadine vines that ran along our fence, and I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother who could cook anything and the blackberries that grew along the shoals.