The question I get asked most frequently is “How did you get interested in food?”
It has been a lifelong love affair to be sure. My mother would tell you I was a good eater from the day I was born.
I can’t think of any memory from my childhood that didn’t involve food. Most days, I can’t remember what I wore to work the day before. But when it comes to food, even the small details are still there on recall.
Once, when I was 4 years old, my parents had to take my older sister to the doctor for a checkup. My dad dropped off my mom and sister, and decided to take me to a local doughnut shop to wait for them.
I didn’t get out much at 4, and this was my first trip to an actual doughnut shop. My dad, on the other hand, was an expert at coffee and doughnuts.
We sat on leather stools at the counter, and the waitress made me a cup of hot chocolate with a swirl of whipped cream on top, not the usual marshmallows like we had at home. It was fancy and unusual and so special.
The cases were behind the counter, and there seemed to be trays and trays of doughnut varieties I had never seen before. (Like I said, I didn’t get out much at 4.)
That’s when I saw it sitting there, like Mount Vesuvius rising high above the doughnut case.
It was called The Honeymoon.
It was a round, raised doughnut, covered in chocolate frosting. On top was piped a swirl of cream so tall it looked like a snow-covered mountain. On top of this mountain of cream sat a maraschino cherry.
It was breathtaking.
It was the Miss America of doughnuts.
If my mother were there, I knew there would have been no Honeymoon for me. I would have been lucky to get a plain cake or glazed doughnut.
But this was my dad’s watch, and my heart’s desire was about to be fulfilled.
I pointed to the Honeymoon, the waitress smiled at my selection, put it on a plate and placed it on the counter next to my hot chocolate.
I was in heaven.
The fact that I can recall the details of this foray into sugar, circa 1967, should tell you how much food has been a primary focus in my life.
Once, when I friend suggested she might write a book called Men I Have Loved, I countered with my own title, Sandwiches I Have Eaten. There were more of them, I explained, and many were far more interesting than men I had dated.
My transition from eater to cook was only natural. I was about 8 when I wanted to learn how to scramble eggs, because they were my favorite and I felt it would be good to be able to make them anytime I wanted them.
Cookbooks followed. First, the junior variety, then I started reading my mother’s.
By the time I was a teenager, I began baking cookies in earnest. We always had plenty of Christmas cookies at home, but they were always about the same three or four varieties — chocolate chip, date and nut bars, pizzelles, molasses cookies. It was nothing too exotic.
I still remember my mom teaching me how to cream butter and sugar until it was “light and fluffy.” How could butter and sugar be fluffy? Eventually I learned. In fact, I still maintain the reason so many cookies don’t turn out as good as they could is because folks don’t take the time to reach that “fluffy” stage with the creaming.
When I was in college, my Christmas break began at Thanksgiving and lasted until New Year’s. I baked continuously for six weeks, trying out lots of recipes.
I would start in the evening after dinner and bake until the wee hours of the morning, turning out tray after tray while watching the late shows. We would have dozens of different kinds of cookies, most of which were gratefully consumed by my brother and his friends who filled the house at holidays.
I still like baking in the evening, after the supper dishes are put away and my kitchen is quiet and calm. This will be my baking week. I no longer bake dozens of different kinds. The list has been pared down to just a few favorites: Seven-layer bars for my husband, pecan tarts for my father-in-law, pizzelles for my dad, and if I’m feeling especially generous, almond strips for my older brother. For me, I’ll make butter balls.
No matter what you call them — snowballs, wedding cakes, tea cakes — these simple balls of butter, flour, sugar, nuts and vanilla will always be my favorite for their simplicity and buttery goodness.
I roll them in confectioners’ sugar while they’re still warm to give them a base coat, then roll them again once they’ve cooled. Before serving, I’ll sprinkle even more sugar on top to give them the appearance of a snow-covered mountain.
Which reminds me of a doughnut I had once, when I was 4 years old …
Until next week, have fun in the kitchen, baking and creating your own lasting food memories.
And have a very merry Christmas.