Just last night, I cleared off a space on my sage green corian countertop for a new-to-me Cuisinart CBK-100 bread maker. I found it on Facebook Marketplace after watching a video on which Zooey Deschanel described the making of store bought bread, and a friend who lives very wholistically posted about the bread she had just baked. After a short FB convo in which I described how I used to bake bread but can’t anymore due to a shoulder injury and arthritis in my hands, she sought out some whole grain bread maker recipes and sent me the links. Well, of course that necessitated a bread machine.
So there she is. I think I will name her Wilma. As in Flintstone.
This weekend I baked my first loaf, using organic flours and local honey, and I have decided to keep unsalted butter softening on the counter always, just in case I want to nosh on a slice of bread.
Reading bread recipes started me thinking about comfort foods, all those delicious tasty treats that I turn to when my soul is feeling in need of a little TLC. Macaroni and cheese, Brach’s orange slices, a big pot of pinto beans simmered for twelve hours with a slab of salted pork and a little pickle brine…yum. Yum, yum, yum.
I had two really amazing grandmothers. One’s homemaking gift was sewing. The other’s was cooking. Whenever my brothers and I went for a visit, we’d wake up on the first morning to the scent of boiling chicken. Once the chicken cooled, Grandma June de-boned it and put all the little pieces back in her big, heavy stock pot, all the while pretending she didn’t see us snatching little bites of chicken off the cutting board. Then she rolled out the dough for dumplings, letting us sprinkle flour atop the dough to prevent it sticking to the rolling pin. She cut the dumplings into strips with a knife and dropped their floury goodness into the pot of simmering broth and chicken. If memory serves, there were little bits of celery and a good amount of salt and pepper. She served it with an iceberg tossed salad, which I skipped so that I could have seconds of her wonderful chicken and dumplings. I have never, ever found their equal.
And her snickerdoodles? They had just the right amount of density, and she rolled the dough balls in cinnamon sugar to coat them all the way around, every bit of the cookie had sweet coating. I have not had one since 1982. I thought I would never, ever find one as good, until last fall, when a friend from the Renaissance festival where I work brought a batch in. They were just like my grandma’s. I actually teared up when I tasted them. So perfect.
My own mom wasn’t much for cooking, so we tended to eat a lot of Hamburger Helper. I could even make this for the family on my own, once I got to be about ten years old. Potato Stroganoff went over well, I was always fascinated by the texture of the dehydrated spud slices. I tried to eat one once, thinking it might be similar to a potato chip. It wasn’t. Sometimes we used Tuna Helper instead. It was okay. But the best? The very best variety? Hands down: Cheeseburger Macaroni. Oh, the heaven of that bright orange powdered cheese! I loved to watch it dissolve in grease and water as I stirred, becoming a cheesy gravy over broken up bits of ground beef and softening noodles. I confess that I fed this to my own children when I became a mom. The bulk of my motherhood years, especially the years when they were little, predate my awareness of preservatives and starches in prepackaged food. My kids loved it, and a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef were within my tight budget. No regrets. Not one.
When it came to eating out in my childhood, there were really just three places: Whataburger, Furr’s Cafeteria, and my favorite, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Texans, especially Dallasites, will recognize those spots. At Pancho’s, you walked the line like a cafeteria, and once you ordered your size of plate, the server used tongs to slide an exceedingly hot metal dish into a color coded plastic trivet (the colors told the servers how many items you could have and the cashier how much money to charge). I watched, salivating, as servers filled my tray with cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and fried tortilla chips. Later, as an adult, I added sauteed calabacita (squash), but when I was a kid? Carbs and cheeses all the way. My dad loved the chile rellenos.
Each table had a little Mexican flag (sans coat-of-arms) on a tiny flagpole, and when you needed a refill on your drink, you raised the flag and an attendant came to pour tea or fetch soda.
But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the sopapillas. If you are not familiar with sopapillas, they are pockets of friend dough that you pour honey into. Some other Tex-Mex places serve them with cinnamon sugar on top, and that’s okay, but the best thing was to bite into the corner of the sopapilla and then use your hand to squeeze until the hole you’d made was just the right size to pour honey in. I remember when my dad showed me, then my little brother, then my baby brother how to do it. The sopapillas came in a basket, with free refills. Again, free refills. It was not unheard of to finish a meal with three of them. And a little tummy ache.
When I was about ten, the middle child, Lance, and I decided to play with our baby brother, Chad, and we convinced him that a tiny little man in a sombrero was running under all the tables, magically filling honey bottles and sopapilla baskets unseen. I remember watching Chad climbing over and under the booth seats and table, trying to catch the little man. Lance and I kept straight faces, somehow, until Chad shed frustrated tears and Daddy set everything right.
As an adult, I took my own kids there. Our last visit was on Halloween of 2003, and we took the younger two (aged twelve and nine) who had just finished trick or treating in our neighborhood. The youngest was still dressed in the kimono I’d sewn for her, and they took photos with the mascot, Pancho, on what ended up being the last night we took our kids trick or treating together. After that, they were just grown out of it.
When I was newly married and about to host my in-laws, daddy, and grandmother for Thanksgiving in our student housing apartment, I panicked. I didn’t have any idea how to make a Thanksgiving dinner! I ran to my Aunt Molly’s house, and she spent a day teaching me about green bean casseroles and mashed potatoes, turkey basting and yeast rolls. But the best gift she gave me that day was her recipe for cornbread dressing, which has become the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Her recipe came from her mother-in-law, Reba, and I have never tasted its equal: mushrooms and almond slivers sauteed in butter, sage sausage, and savory spices make this recipe unique, and our hands-down favorite. That, and the tortilla soup we make on Christmas Eve, are my own family’s two collective comfort foods, the dishes that serve as the accompaniment to our holiday gatherings.
I have spent my entire adult life in a love/hate relationship with food. Trying to be skinny, skipping meals, depriving, then rebelling by eating too much of the things that my body didn’t gain nourishment from.
I am on a new journey now, though, one that is allowing a feeling of joy and peace to return to my spirit: learning that food is actually powerful, and can work magic in a beautiful way. The closer I can get to the foods that nature Herself created, the better for my body and spirit. But sometimes, just sometimes, a generous helping of gooey cheese sauce or sugary candy just hit the spot. Bon Appetit!
What are your favorite comfort foods?
Here’s the recipe I used for my honey whole wheat bread:
And I use honey from https://www.facebook.com/queenbeehoneyremedies/