Last week, I hunkered down in my home in Tennessee, trying to stay dry because Mother Nature decided to give us another blast of her “southern” winter might. For those who don’t understand what I mean by our little weather problem here in the mid-south, our winters consist of frigid rain showers while the temperature stays above thirty-two degrees. It’s not cold enough for fluffy snow, which would lead to hot chocolate, marshmallows, and children gleefully sledding down hills. No, it’s a drenching, gray day. There aren’t enough layers of clothing, blankets, or quilts to warm you. My fingers and toes are perpetually shriveled because of the humid air that clings to my body. But that’s the deal you make when you choose to live here. If you don’t like the weather today, just wait. One day, you’re digging out flip-flops because the thermometer reaches eighty, and the next morning, an ice storm is approaching and you’re scrambling around for milk, bread, and winter boots.
Since the weather forced my hand by staying indoors, I pulled out my laptop to write. Luckily, my house was somewhat in order; all the laundry was folded, and the dishwasher was thankfully empty. However, the dark skies and raindrops pelting against my windows were not providing me with great inspiration. Looking out into my puddled yard and the small river forming next to my fence, I realized I was stuck in an atmospheric, melancholy haze. Before I knew it, my laptop was closed and the remote control was resting comfortably in my hand. After several minutes searching for entertainment to accompany my state of procrastination, I stumbled across a delightful movie, Julie & Julia. It was written and directed by the great Nora Ephron, based on Julie Powell’s blog. For those not familiar with this particular film, it’s the story of a woman trying to jumpstart her life by writing. She decides to dig into the great Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, pledging to make a dish from it every day for a year while documenting her experiences. Watching Julie’s triumphs and defeats in Julia’s culinary world, my mind kept drifting towards the memory of my own cooking idol, who inspires me every day when I step foot into my own kitchen. The woman who passed down the joy of cooking to me. My grandmother, Ovaleta Gibbs.
Granny, as we called her, instilled in me at an early age that there’s no better way to show love to your family, neighbors, and church community than through food. It brings us together. It bonds us. She could whip up the most amazing meals without breaking a sweat. Rarely did she need a cookbook for reference. As a child, I loved being her little shadow in her kitchen, soaking up everything she did. Her recipes are so drilled into my brain that I can make her peppery cornbread dressing (stuffing for my northern friends) in my sleep, and I’ve passed this recipe down to my own daughter, who can make it in her sleep as well. My family couldn’t imagine a holiday dinner without it.
Then it hit me. I had to make one of Granny’s beloved dishes. Like Julie did with Julia! That would certainly change my mood on such a dreary day by filling it with the aromas of my childhood. Just thinking of the possibilities brought a little mental sunshine to my day.
But where to start?
Rushing to my kitchen pantry, my mind was racing. So many wonderful recipes to choose from. Immediately, I thought of bunny cakes. Granny taught me this little culinary jewel when I was in elementary school. It isn’t written down on an index card or found in a cookbook, but is all by memory. Over the years, I’ve made hundreds of them. But I didn’t have any jellybeans, which are a must for the eyes and noses. Then I thought, perhaps I could make her coconut pie. However, I wasn’t prepared to make a crust from scratch. That’s no small feat. A jam cake would be nice, but I didn’t have all of those ingredients either, and I wasn’t about to venture out of my warm house and brave a flooded grocery store parking lot. Besides, jam cake is an acquired taste. Not everyone’s palate enjoys this unique treat. Then fried pies came to mind. Of all the culinary triumphs of my grandmother, nothing compares to her famous fried pies, both in apple and peach variations. In south central Kentucky, when my grandmother was still blessing this earth with her presence, everyone jumped at the chance to get one of these flaky creations. She would wrap them in wax paper, still warm from the fryer. My mouth watered at the thought. But you don’t just whip up a batch of those without careful planning since it’s an undertaking of biblical proportions. Like Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, which was her most famous and hardest recipe to conquer, Ovaleta Gibbs’ fried pies are that to me. Why tackle Everest on my first attempt?
As I was about to give up on my spontaneous adventure before it even started, something caught my eye on a shelf. Instantly, my heart fluttered with excitement. The glass cake stand my grandmother bequeathed me when I set up my own home in Tennessee. It’s a replica of the one that sat in the center of her Formica table for years, filled each week with a delectable dessert. At that moment, I knew exactly what to do.
In my hometown, the county fair in July was the highlight of summer. Though I loved walking the carnival grounds with my friends looking for funnel cakes and fun rides, my favorite part of the annual celebration was the floral hall. This was the place where you could compete with your neighbors in multiple categories, like gardening, floral arranging, quilting, canning, and baking. It was a big event for my family. From choosing the perfect jar of canned tomatoes in my grandparent’s basement to picking the quintessential specimen of glorious gladiolus produced in their garden, it was a busy week of preparations.
One day, my grandmother decided it was time for me to dip my tiny toes into the floral hall world. Handing me a golden tea cup, the one from her dining room, she pointed me towards her beloved flowers. At that moment, I knew I was part of the tradition. Nervously, I entered my first floral arrangement, competing in the “miniature” category. It could be no taller than six inches in height. To my surprise and my grandmother’s delight, I was awarded a ribbon at the tender age of eight for my efforts. After that day, I was hooked.
Two years later, I decided I wanted more. I needed to dig deeper into the floral hall world by throwing my hat into the baking arena. A big step up from arranging daisies and sweet Williams. My grandmother carefully explained that if I took on this challenge, I would have to make my cake from scratch. No help from Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, knowing exactly what I wanted to tackle. The dessert that elicited my fondest memories and tickled my taste buds the most…Granny’s German Chocolate Cake.
Under my grandmother’s watchful eyes, I began sifting, measuring, and stirring. Though it took hours, because baking doesn’t favor speed, I savored every minute in that sweltering kitchen. Deep down, I knew the time spent with my grandmother that day would change my life. And it did. It taught me discipline, patience, a little math (which sadly never stuck), and best of all, it gave me a new passion.
After the judges reviewed the baking entries, I was presented with a blue ribbon. It was a glorious triumph for not only me, but my grandmother as well. And what pushed me towards victory? It wasn’t the cake batter that was special, but rather a gem my grandmother had up her sleeve. Her coconut icing recipe. A buttery concoction full of sugar and nuts that she believed was the key to making this the sweetest cake of all. And it was all due to its secret ingredient…crushed pineapple.
THE Blue Ribbon Icing
1 can (14 ounce) of sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
½ cup margarine
½ cup shredded coconut (make sure it’s sweetened)
1 1/4. cup of chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 small can crushed pineapple
In a saucepan, cook the condensed milk, egg yolks and margarine over medium to medium low heat, stirring constantly for ten minutes. Be careful with the temperature. You don’t want the eggs and milk to overcook and curdle. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Let it cool.
1 ¾ cup of all-purpose flour (sift and level with a spoon)
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¾ cup of sugar
2 teaspoons of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking powder
½ cup of vegetable oil
¾ cup sour cream
½ cup milk (buttermilk can be used)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup of water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare three round cake pans.
In one bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and baking powder.
In a separate bowl, mix the vegetable oil, eggs, sour cream, buttermilk, vanilla extract, and water (or coffee if you are substituting the water) until combined. Then pour the dry ingredients into the wet and blend them together.
Pour batter evenly into three pans and bake for 25 minutes.
Remove cakes and let them cool completely on a wire rack.
To assemble, place one cake layer onto a plate or glass stand and pour 1/3 of the icing, cover evenly. Next, place a second layer and do the same. Top the third layer with the remainder of the icing.
If you decide to make this delightful treat for yourself, remember Ovaleta Gibbs. A wonderful woman. I’d like to think she could give Julia Child a run for her money.
Until next time…