My grandmother made a pie or a cake at least once a week. My grandfather was the major beneficiary of her dessert talents, as were those who stopped by the house. They earned a slice and a glass of milk or a cup of coffee just for sitting down at the table and chatting with Gramma a while.
When I look back, I'm always amazed at how much time she spent in the kitchen-- and that I thought of her in such a narrow context. By the time I was 7, she no longer worked because of health problems. She was probably 50 at the time. My most vivid memories of her are wearing a blue-and-white checked apron (now in my sideboard) strewn with flour dust and stains. She was always home and always there for me.
When I was a teenager I learned that during the war my grandmother worked in a munitions factory. Before that, as a young woman with a gift for accounting and bookkeeping, she was hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. She ferreted out fraud and underhanded money transactions in businesses where men wouldn't think twice that a pretty, dark-haired woman was working undercover.
Marriage and children eventually changed that career path. In another time and place, she could have been a great pastry chef and instructor, I think. She had amazing patience with me in the kitchen, where we could spend an entire weekend. And, like any human being, she liked hearing praise -- especially about her desserts.
I get a nice glow, too, when someone says something nice about a dish I've made.
So, here's a recipe for a cake I made recently for Answer Man Roger Schlueter's birthday. I can't take credit for anything other than putting it together. I've had the recipe a long time, copied out of a Family Hospice of Belleville cookbook from way back. I've made it in the past during peach season with fresh fruit and it tastes even better. If you do wait to use fresh peaches, you'll have to peel and slice them the night before and add sugar to the bowl to make enough juice to use in the recipe.
PEACHES AND CREAM CAKE
2 (16-ounce) or 1 (29-ounce) can sliced peaches*
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 tablespoons peach juice
3/4 cup sugar
1 package yellow cake mix (without pudding)
1 cup cold water**
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 (4-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Drain peaches and save juice.
Topping: Beat cream cheese, 8 tablespoons peach juice and sugar until fluffy. Refrigerate.
Batter: Combine cake mix, eggs, water, oil and pudding on medium speed 2 minutes.
Spread batter into pan. Lay peach slices in an even layer close to each other over batter.
Carefully spread cream cheese mixture over peaches; try to cover the whole surface. Bake 45 to 55 minutes.
Cool completely before covering. Keep refrigerated.
Note: The baked crust may creep up and cover some of the cream cheese mixture, so it may slump a bit, but that's OK. The crust should be a golden brown.
*I used 1 can regular peaches and 1 can spiced peaches. Light or syrup varieties work.
**If you want more peach flavor in the batter, use the rest of the peach juice and enough water to make 1 cup.
A couple of things about this recipe adapted from Sweetie Pie Bakery in Napa, Calif.: You can substitute regular butter or margarine for the spread but that will add calories and fat. Also, if you don't have a tart pan, a pie pan will work, though it might be a bit fuller if you use all the filling. Try a deep-dish pan, if you have it.
Also, the strawberries go on top, so feel free to substitute raspberries, blueberries or fresh peaches.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS TART
1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) 70 percent buttermilk-vegetable oil spread, cut into pieces and chilled
1 tablespoon cold water
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups evaporated skim milk
1 large egg
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/2 ounces good-quality white chocolate
1 pound fresh strawberries, stems removed
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Make crust: In food processor, process oats until fine crumbs form. Add flour, sugar, baking soda and salt; process to mix. Add vegetable oil spread, and pulse with on/off motion until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon cold water and lemon juice, and pulse with on/off motion to moisten. Gather dough into ball.
3. On lightly floured waxed paper, roll out dough to 11-inch round. Invert waxed paper with dough into 9-inch tart pan (with or without removable bottom. Peel off waxed paper and fit dough into bottom and up sides of tart pan. Trim edges. With fork, prick bottom of crust in several places.
4. Bake until lightly browned in center, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack to cool.
5. Make filling: In large bow, whisk together 1/4 cup evaporated milk, egg, sugar and cornstarch, until blended.
In small, heavy saucepan, heat remaining 1 cup evaporated milk over medium heat until small bubbles appear around edge of pan.
Gradually whisk hot milk into egg mixture (so as not to coddle eggs). Return egg mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking, 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
Chop 2 ounces white chocolate and whisk into hot mixture until smooth. Pour mixture into tart shell, and spread evenly with rubber spatula. Cool slightly. Place in refrigerator and chill completely.
6. Just before serving, cut strawberries in half lengthwise. Arrange strawberry halves decoratively on top of filling. With vegetable peeler, finely shave remaining 1/2 ounce of white chocolate over tart. Remove side of tart pan.
Serves 12, each slice with 197 calories, 5 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 173 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol.
Note: The usual strawberry tart with white chocolate custard has 364 calories and 17 grams fat.
Here's how to reach me: Phone, 239-2664; e-mail, email@example.com; or write, Suzanne Boyle, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.