Sunday, February 27, 2011

Apple Fritters

Grandma Minnie's room was at the top of the winding staircase in the front of the house on the hill. The room looked out on the side yard, where a huge magnolia tree with pink marzipan petals bloomed furiously each spring. The front window overlooked the street, giving a view down the hill over the rooftops toward the river.

You could not see the river itself, but in summer you could see the rich green hills on the other side of the river. And you might see tiny black and white dots on the hills, which were cows grazing on the rich green grass. "Side-hill cows," my father called them, with one pair of legs shorter than the other, so they could graze easily and gracefully on the hillside. (At least that's what Dad called them, and I believed that myth well into middle childhood, when I realized it was not genetically feasible.)

 The room contained the usual heavy Victorian furniture of the era in which the house was built  --  bedstead, dresser, chest of drawers  --  and had a built-in closet.

This was also the room in which my father was born, in the summer of 1920. Perhaps downstairs, Great-Grandma Nan was making apple fritters to distract the three sisters who were anxiously awaiting word of the arrival of their latest sibling.

First she brought some apples up from the cellar, where the family stored their fruits and vegetables. She peeled and chopped two apples.

Then she sifted together some flour, baking powder, and salt.

She separated two eggs and beat the egg whites until they formed fluffy white peaks like snow.

She beat the egg yolks, added some sugar, milk, and the dry ingredients. Then she folded in the puffy egg whites. . .

. . . and the chopped apples.

She heated a heavy iron frying pan on the wood stove and poured some of the mixture into the pan.

When they were done, she served up the lightly browned fritters.


At some point, Minnie must have added the family recipe to her own notebook. When I tried it myself, I had a bit of trouble with the steps: which to do first, chop the apples or beat the egg whites? Or heat the milk?

Basically, I followed the steps as outlined above. I could have chopped the apples a bit finer than I did, but the fritters turned out pretty well anyway. At least, they disappeared from the serving plate pretty fast. My husband and son enjoyed them with maple syrup; I preferred them sprinkled with brown sugar.

What is a "fritter," anyway, you may ask? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the word comes from French, by way of Middle English: friture means "fried food" in French. So a fritter is "a small cake made of batter, often containing fruit, vegetables, or fish, sauteed or deep-fried."

Interestingly, Grandma Vandenbergh's Dutch cookbook contains a similar recipe for appelpannekoeken, or apple pancakes. This one calls for whole wheat flour, cold milk, hot water, yeast, vegetable oil, salt, and "four large sour apples." I remember eating such apple pancakes when I visited relatives in the Netherlands many years ago. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to visit again sometime soon.

Until then, I'll be content with Grandma Minnie's sweet and crunchy apple fritters.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Worteltjes or Winterwortelen?

What is a "wortel," you may well ask. It means carrot or root in Dutch, from the same root word (no pun intended) as our English word orchard or ort-yard, which means literally, plant- or root-yard. Think also of St. John's Wort, meaning St. John's plant.

"Tje" is a diminutive in Dutch, such that "brood" (bread) becomes "broodje" (little bread, i.e., roll) and "koek" (gingerbread) becomes "koekje," the origin of our American English word cookie.

So you may have guessed that "worteltjes" means baby carrots, like those pre-washed and pre-peeled small carrots in plastic pouches so commonly found in American supermarkets. "Winterwortelen" or winter carrots are their grown-up relatives  --  larger and longer. I imagine them dozing through the long winters in root cellars in North Holland or Upstate New York a century ago. Now we keep them crisp in the vegetable drawer of our refrigerator.

 It has been said that orange carrots were first cultivated in the Netherlands in the 17th century, when they became popular as a symbol of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence from Spain. In any case, you may remember from your high school biology class that carrots contain a substantial amount of beta-carotene, which the body metabolizes into Vitamin A, essential for good eyesight. Carrots are also rich in anti-oxidants and fiber, which are both important in fighting cancer.

Grandma Vandenbergh's cookbook contains recipes for both baby carrots and the larger variety shown above. The preparation is basically the same, except that the baby carrots are cooked whole, and the winter carrots are cut into strips or slices and cooked longer that their younger counterparts, presumably because they are older and tougher. Here is my translation of Martine Wittop Koning's recipe for "Winter Wortelen":

Winter Carrots:

- 2 lbs. carrots
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon salt

Scrape (or peel) the carrots, cut them into strips or slices; wash them and set them in enough water that would boil away in one hour. Then toss them with butter; let them stew in the butter until they turn golden brown.

When they have thus cooked, pour them into a serving dish and sprinkle with the finely chopped parsley. (The recipe does not specify, but I imagine you salt the water before cooking the carrots.)

The recipe for baby carrots is much the same, but suggests that it may be easier and preserve more of the vegetable's flavor if you steam the carrots instead of boiling them. And indeed that is my usual method of cooking carrots; it not only preserves more of the flavor, but also more of the nutritional value. The Dutch have a reputation for overcooking their vegetables, so I only cooked mine half as long as the recipe indicated, and they were certainly well enough done. Depending on how large or small you cut yours, twenty minutes may be plenty long.

I don't know if it was because I bought "real" carrots instead of the artificially cut and pre-washed baby ones, or because I browned them in the butter as Wittop Koning suggested, but these were the sweetest I'd ever tasted:

Eet smakelijk!  Enjoy your meal!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Mail Must Go Through

The white horse Maud pulled the sleigh up hill and down, around the dangerous curves on the country roads above the Mohawk River. In the sleigh, Minnie's father and little brother Frederic pulled the rugs and down-filled coverlets more tightly around their knees as the wind's icy fingers poked at their ears and necks. The coals in the foot warmer had turned from glowing red to ashes, and no longer warmed their tingling toes. The little boy held on tightly as the cutter rounded the steep curves near Davy Corners.

It was thus that Minnie's father Fred Fineour delivered the mail to the farms and villages around Fort Plain a hundred years ago. As in our day, the Mohawk Valley winters were long and snowy, but unlike today, the roads were rarely plowed in the winter, and the only way to travel around the countryside was by horse-drawn sleigh, also known as a cutter.

In a reminiscence recorded in 1976, Minnie's brother describes how he accompanied their father on the mail runs in the early 20th century. Here is an excerpt from this memoir:

"About 1900 the first rural free delivery of mail was instituted in the Fort Plain area. My father applied for the job of carrier on this route and became the first rural mailman, RFD #1, out of Fort Plain. The system was rapidly expanded, until there were four or five rural routes fanning out from the local post office into the surrounding farm country. My father's route was up around what was then known as the Dutchtown Road, and is now Route 5S. In those days like most roads, it was a dirt road, and the horse and wagon kicked up a fine cloud of dust as they proceeded along.

"The route ran up Route 5S to a little ways beyond Frey's Bush Road on which my father turned off to the south and proceeded along Dillinger Road and back to the Dutchtown Road, down a very steep hill toward Davy Corners. This road is now closed and any traces of it are hardly visible at this time. But it was very steep, and it really scared me to ride down it with him in his carriage in the summertime. Then the route came to the River Road and thence back to Fort Plain. I would say that this was a distance of approximately ten to twelve miles. In the wintertime the route was scarcely plowed if at all, and Father used a cutter to make these rounds. And it was no idle motto in those days; the mail did go through in spite of any kind of weather."

Great-grandfather Fred kept his horse, buggy, and cutter in a barn down the street from the family home. The horse Maud was as white as the snow through which she pulled the cutter. Here's Great-grandfather Fred with his faithful horse:

While Fred and Frederic went on the mail run, perhaps Minnie and her mother were busy preparing steaming mugs of hot coffee or chocolate for the chilled mail carrier and his son. And maybe even a snack of tip-top cake or raisin cake from Minnie's cookbook:


As with many of the recipes in Minnie's notebook, both of these simply list the ingredients without giving an indication of the process involved. I suppose that an experienced baker would know enough to sift together the dry ingredients, cream the butter, and so on. Here is my interpretation of the process for making the first recipe on the page, with a slight update to the ingredients as well:

Tip-Top Cake:

- 1/4 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. (325 F if glass or dark non-stick pan)
Grease and flour an 8" cake pan. (Double the recipe for a two-layer 8" cake.)
Pre-sift flour. In a medium bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.
In a larger bowl, cream together the butter or margarine and sugar. 
Beat in egg; stir in vanilla. 
Add milk and flour gradually while stirring. Beat with wire whisk until smooth.
Bake for 25 - 30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.
Let cake cool before removing from pan.

This is how mine looked when it came out of the oven:

What is "tip-top" or first rate about this cake? Well, first of all, it can be made easily from simple ingredients that most people already have on hand. 

Secondly, it is simple enough for even a novice baker like myself to attempt without making a mess of it. 

And thirdly, when I took it out of the oven, the aroma wafting up the stairs actually lured my son away from his computer. He came down to ask me what I was making that smelled so good. As soon as it cooled enough, we cut into the cake.

I cut a piece for you too:

Oops! Looks like somebody already took a bite!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Soup's On!

The snowbanks are chest-high outside my house, and winter is only half over. It's time for some serious comfort food. There's nothing that says "the comforts of home" like a chicken sizzling in the oven  --  except maybe a steaming bowl of chicken soup. Here's Grandma Vandenbergh's recipe for kippensoep (chicken soup):

- 1 chicken carcass for soup
- 8 cups cold water
- 2 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. mace
- 2 tsp. parsley
- 1/4 cup butter or margarine
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup rice
- 1 egg

This seemed a bit bland to me. but right above this recipe was one for kerrysoep - curry soup. So -- ta-dah!  -- I decided to combine the two recipes, substituting chicken for beef in the original curry soup recipe.

Kippenkerrysoep:  Chicken curry soup

- One quart of chicken bouillon, either canned or made from your own chicken carcass
- 1 cup chicken bits (add more than that if you like)
- 1 tsp. salt (omit this if bouillon contains salt)
- 1 small onion
- 1 tsp. curry
- 2 tbsp. butter or margarine
- 2 tbsp. flour
- 1 cup cooked rice
- 2 tsp. parsley

Chop onion and saute in butter with curry, taking care that the mixture remains light yellow in color.
Slowly pour in the chicken bouillon.

Add chicken, bring to a boil and let simmer for 10 minutes. This is what mine looked like on the stove at this point:

Combine flour with a small amount of cold water; add to the soup pot while stirring, to thicken the soup.

Add the cooked rice and simmer for a few more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve in your favorite soup bowl, garnished with parsley and croutons. And there you have it, the restorative power of chicken soup with the tang of curry! Inhale deeply and enjoy:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Simple Hearty Fare

It must have been comforting to Grandma Vandenbergh to have a cookbook in her native language. The title of the book, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten, means something like "Simple Hearty Fare"  --  with calculations of the cost of each recipe. An epigraph on the title page announces boldly, "Met nieuwen tijd komt nieuw weten, "With new times comes new knowledge."

The cookbook's author was Martine Wittop Koning, a Dutch cooking and nutrition teacher who lived from 1870 to 1963. Fashions in food come and go just like fashions in clothing and anything else. But long before the Food Pyramid was developed, our grandmothers, guided by nutritionists like Martine Koning, knew what we are rediscovering today: simple hearty fare made from fresh natural ingredients is the best.

The meals prepared by my grandmother, and my mother after her, were invariably based on three elements: meat, vegetables, and potatoes. It was like the three bases in baseball (was dessert home base?), or like a three-legged stool. In fact, I remember from my community development work in West Africa, that the nutritionists there followed a similar simple model for nutrition education, developed by the World Health Organization. We talked about "grow foods," which contained a lot of protein; "glow foods," such as fruits and vegetables that contained a lot of vitamins; and "go foods," which had carbohydrate for energy. And there you have your meat, vegetables, and potatoes.

I tried out a one-pot meal from Grandma Vandenbergh's cookbook that followed this pattern: Snijbonen met aardappelen en rookworst, or string beans with potatoes and smoked sausage. Here's a translation of the original recipe:

- 2 lbs. preserved (home-canned?) string beans
- 3 lbs. potatoes
- 1 lb. smoked sausage
- 2 tsp. salt

The quantities in all the recipes are intended for four adults, or "husband, wife, servant, and two children." I thought that was a bit much for my three-person household, so I reduced the recipe by half. I used fresh green beans, which were probably not available in Holland in January in the first decade of the 20th century. And I couldn't find smoked sausage in my local supermarket, so I substituted breakfast links.

Here are the steps I followed:

Peel and rinse potatoes. Place in a 2-quart saucepan with enough water to cover them halfway.
Add salt.
Prick the sausages with a fork, and place them in the pan over the potatoes.
Rinse and cut the beans and place them over the sausages. (At least that's what the recipe said. As you can see in the picture, I ended up with the sausages on top!)
Bring to a boil, cover and cook over moderate heat for about half an hour. 

I suppose if you put the beans on top, they would absorb some of the flavor of the smoked sausage as they steamed.

When the potatoes are tender, remove the sausages from the pan; mash the potatoes and beans together, and serve alongside the sausages.

And there you have the simple three-legged stool of meat, vegetables, and potatoes. It would never have occurred to me before to mash potatoes and beans together, but actually it wasn't bad; it wasn't bad at all. And I guess my husband and son agreed, because by the time we finished our meal, we didn't have any leftovers at all.

Eet smakelijk!  Enjoy your meal!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How It All Began

Their pages are yellowed  --  no, brown, the paper stiff with age. In handling either book, I have to take care not to let the paper crumble beneath my fingertips. One is a handwritten notebook of recipes collected from friends and relatives in the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York. 

It conjures up images of snow-covered hills, farm country where cows graze in fields where plows may turn up an arrowhead here and there.

The second, written in a foreign language that makes you think of tulips, windmills, and wooden shoes, bears the name of a publishing company in Rotterdam, Holland. The recipes include such food items as aardappelen, wortelen, uien, words which I decipher as meaning "potatoes, carrots, onions."

Both cookbooks are a hundred years old.

The Tale of Two Cookbooks is also the tale of my two grandmothers. The first book  --  the handwritten one  --  belonged to my Grandma Minnie, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1890. She spent her early childhood along the Erie Canal. Here's a picture of her as a young child on the balcony of the Lock Grocery in Fort Plain:

Minnie couldn't have been more than three years old then. She married my grandfather in 1912. They raised five children: four girls and one boy, who was my father, born at home in Fort Plain in 1920. 

The Dutch cookbook belonged to my mother's mother, Grandma Vandenbergh, who was born in the small village of Loosdrecht in North Holland in 1886. As a young adult, Elizabeth worked as a domestic servant for the local pastor, in hopes of saving enough money to pay her passage to America. Here's a photo of Elizabeth and her sister in their maids uniforms, about 1900. Elizabeth is on the right, her sister Hendrina at left. Note the starched caps and neatly pressed aprons:

Elizabeth married my grandfather Barend VandenBergh in 1911, and shortly afterward, they boarded a ship bound for New York, bringing with them a huge and heavy two-volume Dutch Bible  --  and of course, Elizabeth's cookbook.