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Short & Sweet


The Spices of Life

by Marion E. Raycheba

If you are a purist about herbs and spices, stop reading now. This topic—the shelf life of dried herbs and spices—will infuriate you. That goes double if you insist on fresh, just-picked everything.

Most reliable sources (Google or any cookbook) will tell you things like this: One year for ground spices and dried herbs. A year and a half or so for herb and spice mixes. Two years for whole spices and dried herbs. Three years for whole seeds and roots. Four years for whole spices…wait, haven't we been there already? It gets very confusing and, truthfully, I've always thought the time estimates were related more to the need to move stock than results in the kitchen.

That's why I have my own rule: "Sniff it." If there is any scent, it's still usable. If the scent is fading, use double or triple the measure called for. When the scent is gone, it's probably time to discard.

Of course, it helps to have a world class sniffer as do I. If you don't, you probably have a friend who does. Ask around. Your budget will thank you.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 28, No. 4, April 2017.


Soft Touch

by Marion E. Raycheba

You may think of Rice Krispie Squares as nothing special. I think of them as Treasured Treats. Mom didn't make them often—both Rice Krispies and marshmallows were expensive luxuries on the Prairies. Today I make them two or three times a year, adding dollops of corn syrup and generous sprinklings of cinnamon and nutmeg. Of course, I get rave reviews from family and friends.

And then there's Marshmallow Square made with Borden's Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk, graham cracker crumbs, unsweetened coconut, and marshmallows, another expensive treat Mom made rarely. I know the source: Magic Recipes from The Borden Company Limited of Don Mills, Ontario, published, I believe, in the 1950s.

But the Treasured Treat that exists now only in my memory is one Mom used to bring home from her extremely rare trips to "the city" (Regina). It was bakery-made, which was a treat in itself—a log roll of chocolate cake spread with melted marshmallows. My siblings and I could barely stand the suspense and excitement on the day she was due to return.

So now you know. I really am a soft touch after all.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 27, No. 11, November 2016.


The Finer Thing in Life

by Marion E. Raycheba

Like most women of her upbringing and circumstances, Mom cooked and baked everything every day. Three meals a day, plus packed lunches, for everyone in the family (and a hired hand during harvest season). Soups, stews, roasts, casseroles, jellied salads, pickles, puddings, breads, buns, cookies, tarts, pies, and squares. We took all these delicious things for granted.

So, what counted as special? Dainties for teas and bake sales. Yeast doughnuts sprinkled with sugar. Chocolate Chiffon Cake with Fluffy Seven Minute Peppermint Icing. These were made rarely. Why? Usually, they took a lot of preparation and then a full day's work. Often, they required separating eggs.

Usually, they required pastry flour and icing sugar and, thus, sifting. Always, they required more careful measuring and attention to temperature and time. No slapdash, by guess and by gosh, it will be done when it's done here.

And so today, I still define "fine baking" by the Rule of 3: Pastry Flour + Icing Sugar + Sifting = Fine Baking.

This Rule of 3 is closely related to another Rule of 3, namely, A Cup of Tea + A Tasty Treat + A Friend = Comfort & Joy.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 27, No. 7/8, Summer 2016.


The Awkward Angel

by Marion E. Raycheba

There seemed to be no baking beyond Mom's scope and skill. Every day featured something made from scratch. Strangely, however, she was stumped by the Angel Cake. Which explains why, at age 15, I faced humiliation and despair.

It was my first (and only) year in Home Economics. At year-end, students had to select a recipe, bring all the ingredients, make the dish, and be marked on the result. Mom urged me to tackle an Angel Cake. She believed, naively, with an expert on hand, I would learn "the secret."

I did everything right, but the result was, like Mom's, half as high and twice as dense as desired. Still, it smelled lovely and so I resented it greatly when my teacher wrinkled her nose as she prodded it with a disdainful finger.

At that moment, I proved to be truly my mother's daughter. I set humiliation aside, put on a happy face, burbled about how wonderfully it had turned out, and insisted Mrs. S. taste it. And I stood there until she did. Honour was satisfied.

From then on I did as Mom did. Avoid Angel Cake if possible; if not, choose Duncan Hines….

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 27, No. 5, May 2016.


A Rum Go

by Marion E. Raycheba

Many people claim to bake that Canadian Classic, the Butter Tart. What they produce are pale imitations. You shall never find better than my Mom's.

Of course, one must start with superior pastry made by someone with magic fingers (like my Mom or me). And one must use salted butter, melted to just the right temperature, and deep, dark Demerara sugar. And no nuts.

But the two secrets that set our tarts on the Pedestal of Worship are steaming the raisins and using real rum. You scoff? Read and learn.

Use light-coloured, seedless raisins. Boil enough water to cover. Stir occasionally. Make the filling. Drain the raisins. Mix. Spoon into the shells. Pop into the oven. The result is a hold-together, not-quite-runny consistency because, as Mom explained, the heat from the just-steamed raisins starts cooking the filling before the tarts even reach the oven.

As for the rum, use it. Real rum, preferably a really dark rum. Screech, if possible. And be generous. At least half a cup plus a splash if you're making two dozen tarts. The result will be a Rum-and-Butter Tart with a rich, deep flavour that reaches right into your soul.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 27, No. 3, March 2016.


Rhapsody in Banana

by Marion E. Raycheba

The banana has never been my favourite fruit. The aroma is unappealing. The texture verges on the slimy. It ripens so quickly and is a magnet for fruit flies. The name is so easy to misspell, especially with all those "ans" in English (banana) and French (banane).

I keep it on my shopping list, however, because it does offer good nutritional value. Experts agree the banana is a fine source of Vitamin B6, manganese, Vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fibre. Also, a banana a day, sliced into his breakfast bowl, keeps my husband happy. It seems a small price to pay for marital harmony.

More critically, mashed ripe banana makes a marvellous Banana-Walnut Muffin, especially when baked with butter, Demerera sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. It is also the key ingredient in my Mom's famous, feather-light Fiesta Banana Cake (also delicious as cupcakes).

So, over the years, I have warmed gradually to the banana. What really tipped the balance, however, was the day I found the perfect fabric in the perfect dreamy, creamy colour for the perfect drapes in my new apartment. "Yes!" I exclaimed, as soon as I saw it in the sample book. And the name? "Rhapsody Banana."

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 2016.



by Marion E. Raycheba

An early memory is planting potatoes on our family farm in Saskatchewan. I was probably five or six. Holes were dug in long rows and wrinkly potatoes chopped into chunks. We children were told to walk a row, dropping chunks into each hole. There had to be at least one eye in one of the chunks. I remember taking my task very seriously.

I also remember sacks of potatoes arriving eventually to carry us through the winter. I have no idea of the variety, but I remember vividly what Mom did with those potatoes—boiled with and without their skins, baked, mashed, pan-fried, scalloped, in soups and stews, even deep-fried. Leftovers (rare) were a secret ingredient in her featherlight "Spudnuts" (raised doughnuts) and richly moist Mashed Potato Chocolate Cake.

Years later, I hit the mother lode: Yukon Golds grown by Willis Shank in Stouffville and brought to the St. Lawrence Farmers' Market every Saturday. Sadly, Willis retired recently, but his gift to my palate and plate remains an enduring legacy.

Say potayto or say potahto, I'll never call the Yukon Gold off.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 26, No. 11, November 2015.


Turnip Trash Talk

by Marion E. Raycheba

How I hated the turnip, bitter in taste and smell, disgusting no matter how much sugar Mom added. But the rule was eat something of everything or no dessert—not an idle threat.

When I was way grown up, I met Frank. He has many marvellous qualities, but his love of turnip is not one of them.

Love makes us do the impossible. In my case, I buy at least one large turnip each year, cook it, mash it, and freeze it. I bring a portion out for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. He eats with gusto. I eat a teaspoon. All is calm on the household front.

And then, a few years ago, I discovered the white turnip! To me, turnip always meant rutabaga, large, orange-yellow, hard, ugly, smelly, unforgiving. The white turnip is small, trimmed in violet, sweet in look, fresh in taste, crunchy and yet yielding. I buy willingly, peel, eat as sticks, chop into salads, sauté for garnishes, and enjoy.

So, now, when I face the annual penance of cooking and mashing rutabaga for my loving spouse, I feel much less put-upon and positively triumphant. Turnips (sort of) rule!

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 26, No. 9, September 2015.


My Love Affair with Mushrooms

by Marion E. Raycheba

It became official in France, in the mid-1970s. The mushroom had captured my heart. In particular, the cep, more particularly, the cep sliced, sautéed in butter and garlic, and served in the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Dordogne region of France. This is where one goes for something altogether more intellectual—prehistoric cave paintings and other important archeological artifacts (think Neanderthals).

But for me, Les Eyzies de Tayac will always be spelled "cep." I had absolutely no idea this variety was known by other names, such as porcini, California king bolete, and penny bun. Nor did I know it belonged to the same family, broadly speaking, as truffles. I was ignorant of the long history of using various mushrooms for medicinal and hallucinogenic purposes. What I realized instantly, however, was that the cep, found wild in the Dordogne, was absolutely worth the trip.

Many years later, I made a sentimental return to Les Eyzies de Tayac intent upon re-living this golden moment. I am relieved to report that although my companions were not nearly as impressed, I was instantly transported back to a beautiful moment, a moment of pure, uncomplicated pleasure.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 26, No. 7/8, Summer 2015.


The Aw(e)ful Onion

by Marion E. Raycheba

Slippery, slimy, and totally disgusting. I was not a fan of onions, especially when chopped, browned, and slipped into meat loaf, for example. I would sit, nose wrinkled, picking out these gross bits. When I accused Mom of an unspeakable crime, she would turn from what she was doing and, invariably and all innocently, say, "Now how did they get in there?"

The only thing worse was long, slithery tangles of onions fried with slabs of beef liver. At least Mom didn't make me eat that.

I did make a couple of exceptions, however. Spring onions, straight from the garden, trimmed, and dipped into salt, were a wonderful treat. Ditto the moist crunch of sweet Spanish onion covering a hamburger slathered with mustard (and sharp dill pickles on the side).

When my palate changed, I don't recall, but for more years than I can count, I have rarely prepared any main course dish without the benefit of onions—yellow cooking all year round and, when in season, white, Spanish, red, Spring, Vidalia, shallots…. To her credit, Mom never said, "Wait until you grow up," but looking back, I am quite sure she was thinking it!

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 26, No. 5, May 2015.


Party for One

by Marion E. Raycheba

Ribbon sandwiches! To me, they still signal sophistication and glamour. Mom made them only when it was her turn to entertain her lady friends to tea. Now, I understand why: Easy, yes, but labour-intensive.

Use perfectly sliced, commercially baked white bread. (This was a treat in itself since Mom baked all our bread.) Slice off the crusts. Butter. Apply a thin layer of some special filling—a thin slice of ham, perhaps, or a delicate layer of cream cheese. Cover with another slice. Repeat. Cut in quarters on the diagonal to make triangles or in thin lengths to make "ribbons." Place carefully on one's best serving platter and decorate with sprigs of parsley. Serve with tea and, later, some walnut slice or sugar cookies.

Sometimes, Mom made extra-fancy rolls. My absolute favourite was a stalk of asparagus rolled carefully in bread spread with Cheese Whiz. The resulting tube would be cut into pieces an inch or so long and then set upright on the sandwich platter in order to show the colourful effect.

These days, I am much too lazy to make them myself. So, if you are having a party where ribbon sandwiches will be served….

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 26, No. 3, March 2015.


The Long and the Short of It

by Marion E. Raycheba

The fanciest my Mom ever got when baking Shortbread was putting a bright green or red maraschino cherry on top. Today, I follow her tradition, although my "fancy" comes in the form of colourful candy sprinkles. In everything else, I remain faithful. After all, it took some considerable effort to master this deceptively simple and delectable treat.

The recipe calls for just four ingredients: soft butter, icing sugar, regular white flour, and cornstarch. Some sifting is required.

The challenge is in the making and the baking. Mom made it look so easy, I paid little attention. I didn't realize all the measuring in the world won't make up for misjudging the feel of the dough. Nor did I grasp what she meant when she said, "Bake until slightly brown around the edges." It took a batch of noisy rockettes rattling their way down the garbage chute for me to learn that "slightly brown" meant such a very faint hint of colour at the base of the cookie as to be virtually invisible.

But once mastered, the result is a totally satisfying, delectable, melt-in-the-mouth, beautiful memories kind of cookie. Shortbread truly warms the heart and satisfies the soul. Make in November. Enjoy through March. Winter won't seem nearly so dreary or long.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 25, No. 12, December 2014.


What's Old is Ever New (and Still Delicious)

by Marion E. Raycheba

When my Mom made Devilled Eggs, I'm certain she didn't know the recipe can be traced back to Roman times. Or that in France they are called oeuf mimosa. Or that the Dutch and Swedes call them "stuffed eggs."

Call them what you like, Devilled Eggs are delicious in any language. And my Mom's were the most delicious of all.

She opted for a classic approach. Start with eggs that are fresh but not too fresh (too fresh equals too difficult to shell). Chop white cooking onion as finely as possible. Use just the right amount of mayonnaise. Add secret herbs and spices, but certainly do not cross the gaping cultural divide to additives such as mustard or anchovy. The very thought is, well, unthinkable.

Never mind that piping business: This job is labour-intensive enough without adding a further troublesome task. Just spoon in carefully and shape into a slightly rounded, pretty-looking mound. Finally, dust liberally with bright red paprika for a touch of colour—surely the pièce de résistance—and arrange carefully on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Results: Heavenly.

To this day I make Devilled Eggs my Mom's way, although I daringly add finely chopped green olives stuffed with pimento. And to this day, they remain a special treat.

First published in Food for Thought, East York Meals on Wheels, Vol. 25, No. 11, November 2014.

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