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What’s the Best Strawberry Shortcake?

“How about strawberry shortcake?” my friend Diane asked. Strawberry shortcake, a perfect springtime dessert. My mouth watered remembering how Mom made it. A square serving of a one layer yellow cake, cut in half. The bottom half covered with fresh sliced strawberries that had been mixed with sugar and refrigerated to make syrup. The other cake half placed on top, then more strawberries and extra juice drizzled to saturate the cake. And topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream.

I reminded myself that everyone didn’t make this dessert like Mom did when Diane served her mother’s version. A sweet biscuit sliced in half, served side by side. Topped with slice sweetened strawberries and Cool Whip and garnished with a big berry. It was good. Diane and I discussed and laughed about how we cook like our mothers.

One time I took shortcuts and served sweetened strawberries piled onto dessert shells, those round yellow store-bought cakes packaged in cellophane. I squirted whipped topping and put a berry on top. It wasn’t what my taste buds were trained to expect when my ears hear the words strawberry shortcake.

I’ve seen and eaten many variations of this dessert. Trifle bowls layered with cubes of angel food cake, dry sliced strawberries, and whipped topping. Meringue shells filled with berries. A two layer white or yellow cake with crushed sweet berries and whipped cream between layers and on top. Even pound cake, vanilla ice cream, and sweeten sliced berries.

With so many variables no wonder there are many recipes. Cake or biscuit or shortcake or meringue? Sliced or whole berries? Sweeten or not? Juicy berries or not? Whipped cream or whipped topping or ice cream?

I googled strawberry shortcake recipes and about 9,900,000 results are available. The very first one was a combination of Diane and my mothers’ recipes. Mom’s sliced sweetened berries with juice and real whipped cream, and Diane’s mother’s sweet biscuit. And I learned the definition of shortcake is a sweetened biscuit.

The first known recipe for strawberry cakes was published in an 1845 Columbus, Ohio newspaper. It was a British version with an unleavened biscuit, layered with strawberries, covered with a hard icing, and topped with more strawberries.  The addition of whipped cream came much later. And the recipe for strawberry shortcake with a sweet biscuit or cake, berries, and whipped cream is an American creation, first published in1862 in Rochester, New York.

Classic strawberry shortcake is made with sliced and sweetened strawberries. According to Betty Crocker, macerated berries. Macerating infuses flavor into food, usually fruit, by soaking it in a liquid. So when berries are tossed with sugar, the juices are drawn out and their flavor enhanced. Toss the berries with sugar an hour or two before serving for juicy firm berries.

While strawberries are in season, maybe I’ll try the recipe with traditional sweet biscuits, sliced juicy berries, and real whipped cream. But it won’t be like Mom’s strawberry shortcake, the world’s best strawberry shortcake.

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A Day with Mom

My memories of time with Mom are jumbled. Playing cards. Waxing floors. Working in vegetable and flower gardens. Learning to sew and cook with Mom at my shoulder. There are a few clear pictures, and one is a day fifty years ago when Mom and I shopped for my wedding dress.

The time and place for our wedding were set. He’d wear a white jacket, with a black bow tie and black pants. I’d wear a long white dress and short veil. His attire would be rented, but Mom would make my dress because the cost of a ready made one was exorbitant. She’d save money and make my dress fit perfectly.

Mom and I planned a shopping trip to Nashville. I’d try on dresses and we’d pick our favorite part of each. Mom carried a drawing pad to sketch details: necklines, sleeves, waistlines, skirts, even hemlines. We’d shop at Cain-Sloan, Harvey’s, and a Church Street bridal store. We’d eat a late lunch at the B&W cafeteria, and agree on the dress style and fabric. Our goal was to come home with a drawing, a pattern, and fabric.

First stop was Cain-Sloan. After choosing a few dresses, we were led to the dressing room. The only problem was getting the sales clerk out of the room so Mom could draw and make notes. We probably hurt her feelings, but she left us alone.

I put on a dress that we’d chosen for its silk organza sleeves and overlay skirt, both with wide tucks. While standing on a circle platform surrounded by mirrors, I felt like a princess. The dress fit well and the sleeves and skirt and lace bodice were beautiful, but I wished it didn’t have a high neckline. Mom said she could make a jewel neckline, and we’d need to find the lace for the front bodice.

I tried on other dresses; none compared to the one with tucks. I put the dress on again and loved it – even the neckline was okay. Mom handed rejected dresses to the sales clerk who then came into the dressing room and, of course, oohed and aahed that this was my perfect dress. Mom asked the price. $160. The dress was discounted because it had make-up smudges on the neckline. But $160 was a lot of money in 1969.

Left alone again, Mom and I discussed that she could make fewer tucks and change the neckline. I didn’t want to take the dress off. Then Mom shocked me. “Maybe we could buy this dress, “ she said. If she’d turned somersaults in the middle of the store, I wouldn’t have been as surprised.

Mom paid for my dress with two $100 bills, and she had more in her billfold. Only then did I realize that she had hoped to buy a dress, and not fabric. We did buy tulle and lace for a veil, and our shopping was finished.

This day is my one of my fondest memories of time with Mom. I hold it close to celebrate Mother’s Day.

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Aren’t Sock a Fun Gift?

“More dumb socks!” Molly shouted and threw the pink ruffled socks and cute tennis shoe socks across her living room. Then she ran to her bedroom. Her mother, feeding Molly’s newborn brother, shook her head and apologized.

I laughed and accepted the apology. As I had shopped for a baby gift, I chose socks for Molly and put them in a brightly colored, girly gift bag. Molly was four, adjusting to life as a big sister, and more dumb socks were not going to make her life easier. Better that she threw the socks than her baby brother.

Molly’s mother found her hiding in the back corner of her bedroom closet. No doubt, Molly knew throwing socks and screaming weren’t acceptable behavior. She flung herself into her mother’s arms and wiped her tears and nose on her mother’s shoulder. After a few minutes, Molly muttered, “I’m sorry,” and eventually held her head high and smiled.

I watched Molly grow up in church. She lit candles as an acolyte and sang with children’s and youth choirs. She led the congregation in worship as liturgist. Molly was a leader – confident and friendly to everyone: children, her peers, and adults. Her smile was exactly the same as when I handed her a gift bag years ago.

Last May when Molly graduated from high school, my traditional gift of a beach towel wouldn’t be in her gift bag. I found a pair of bright colored argyle winter socks, perfect dumb socks, on the sale rack, and I hoped the gift card, hidden inside one sock, wouldn’t be overlooked or thrown into the trash.

Husband delivered the gift bag to Molly’s father at his workplace, and I looked forward to hearing that Molly’s family’s sense of humor kicked in when she opened her gift. But I never heard from them. Not a word. Husband assured me he’d put the gift in Molly’s father’s hand and he’d expressed appreciation. Did he forget to give it to Molly? Was she angry that I’d given more socks? Did she find the gift card? I couldn’t bring myself to call her mother to ask.

Months later, Molly’s mother and I visited during a church gathering. “Did you get Molly’s thank you note for her graduation gift?” she asked. Silently, I breathed relief that she’d received the gift, and I hated to shake my head. “Oh, no. I was afraid of that. She loved the gift. We all laughed! Dumb socks is a family joke at our house.” Again, I was relieved.

“Molly wrote a note and I offered to mail it,” Molly’s mom said. “I had guessed you didn’t get it. I probably never mailed it. I’m so sorry.”

A week later, I received Molly’s note. Written beautifully and a P. S. stating, “I do LOVE the socks! J”  And her mother had written on the outside of the envelope, “I finally found it!”

Molly is now a college student and when she receives another diploma, she’ll get another pair of dumb socks. Maybe polka dot ones.

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Most Delightful Meal

“Gran, let’s play tea,” Ann said. My 4-year-old Grand invited me for tea at her play kitchen table. Carefully, I balanced on the toddler-size chair. “What color would you like?” Ann asked pointing to plastic plates. “Pink? Yellow? Blue? And that’s supposed to be green, but it’s not.” I chose yellow – not the aqua-green plate that Ann put back in the play kitchen cabinet. “Now, what will we eat? We’re drinking tea.”

Ann rummaged through a basket of plastic food and laid a banana and a donut on my plate. She chose a cookie and an orange for herself. She poured invisible tea into our cups and after one sip declared that it wasn’t hot enough so she put both cups in her play microwave, counted to twenty (skipping 14) and announced, “That should be just right.”

We sipped tea and talked about the buzzing bees outside the window. Ann’s older brother Neil left his Hot Wheels cars scattered on the floor and joined us. “Can I play restaurant, too?” With great drama, Ann explained that we weren’t in a restaurant; we were home having tea. “But if you want to play restaurant, bring Mickey and Minnie and I’ll wash the dishes.”

Ann stacked the plates and cups into her play sink. She wiggled all ten fingers over the dishes, hummed, and then sang, “Voila! Done!” Meanwhile, my 5 ½ year old Grand sat stuffed Mickey on a chair beside me and put Minnie in a toy shopping cart and pushed it to the table. “We don’t have a high chair so this works for Baby,” Neil said.

Ann set the table with all four plates and cups and silverware. She held her left palm up and pointed her right index finger toward it and asked, “What’ll you have?”

“Minnie would like strawberry baby food. Mickey and me want rice,” Neil said.

“Oh, good,” said Ann, “I got strawberry baby food yesterday.” She put a strawberry on Minnie’s pink plate. “Baby needs a cup with a lid and I’m pouring her milk because she needs it.”

Neil nodded and we both watched as Ann served a strawberry and poured pretend milk from a carton. Neil surveyed the choices in the food box. “I’ll also have an orange and French fries and everyone want donuts and chocolate for dessert.”

Ann served and added a hamburger to Neil’s order. “Be careful. It’s hot. Do you want ketchup? Would Baby like some chips?”

“Okay. Crunch them so she won’t choke,” Neil said. “Where’s my rice?”

“We don’t have any. The big kids ate all of it,” Ann explained. She put food on Mickey’s plate and mine. “I’m going to make a phone call to Mom real quick,” and my Grand turned her back to us and held a toy phone.

Neil pretended to bite the food and then slid it under his shirt. He whispered, “Gran, don’t tell Ann. I’ll put everything back in the food box, and she’ll think we ate it.”

When all the plates were emptied, Ann pointed to the kitchen sink and said, “This is where the dirty dishes go. Now, where’s my money?” I placed make-believe money in her hand, and Ann announced, “We’re done!”

This was my most delightful meal of the day.

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All Deviled Eggs Aren’t the Same

What a spread! Tell the members of a southern Sunday school class to come to a party and bring a finger food and the dining room table will be full. Pork slider sandwiches. Ham on rolls, Meatballs. Veggies and dip. Cheese and crackers. Cupcakes. Brownies. Pimento cheese sandwiches – some on deli wheat bread, some on thin white bread cut in triangles. Four platters of deviled eggs – some garnished with pimento, some with paprika dusting, and some square shaped.

Yes, square deviled eggs. The conversations about those eggs were lively. I’ve never seen a square egg. How was that done? I never knew a hen could lay a square egg. Who brought these? Are these real eggs? Does a square egg taste like other eggs?

There were many guesses of how an oval egg (actually an ovoid shape since that’s the word to describe a three-dimensional egg shape) could become a cube. Eggs could be broken and the insides placed in a cube shape and then boiled. Rare chickens laid cube eggs. Peel a boiled egg and trim the white to make a cube.

Finally, when someone asked, “Who brought these?” in MaryDell’s hearing, she took credit, but she didn’t immediately explain how she turned an egg into a cube. Several of us guessed and she just smiled and shook her head. “There’s a little plastic cube to put boiled eggs in. I’ll bring it to Sunday school and show you,” she said.

MaryDell held her Egg Cuber, aka Square Egg Maker, in hand and explained. Boil an egg and peel it immediately. While it’s warm, place it in the cube, put the top on and gently turn the top which forces a square insert to press the egg into a cube. Then put the cuber in the refrigerator for about an hour, remove the egg from the plastic cuber, and refrigerate the square egg. “Since boiled eggs are good in the refrigerator for a week, you can make them ahead and then devil them all at the same time,” MaryDell said.

“Wait.” I said, “Did you say boil an egg? Can you only do one at a time?” MaryDell nodded. “You brought two platters of eggs. I can’t imagine how long that took,” I said.

Turns out MaryDell owns two Egg Cubers so she did two eggs at a time over several days. I admitted that I had hurriedly slapped store-bought pimento cheese between slices of sandwich bread, trimmed the crusts, and cut sandwiches in triangles. “Just hearing everyone talk about square eggs made it worthwhile. Your Grands would love them,” MaryDell said. Her deviled eggs were unique and delicious. None were left on her platter; I can’t say the same for my sandwiches.

Egg Cubers are available online and probably in kitchen stores, but I’m not buying one yet. MaryDell loaned me one of hers. I appreciate my friend’s time and effort to make two platters of square deviled eggs, but at my house we’ll make a square egg and eat it as soon as it chills. The Grands will love it.

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Even More Heart Tugs

            I promised myself to be mindful of Heart Tugs, the times when heartstrings tighten. To appreciate the moments and imprint them in my head and heart.   To make notes because by writing about these experiences, however brief and jumbled in the busyness of life, they are relived and cherished.

I’ve shared Heart Tugs previously and my files are filled with more. My twelve-year-old Grand’s birthday request was to spend the night in Nashville with her mother and me and shop at bookstores. My heart sang. Time with Daughter and Elsie and book shopping. This overnight trip got better when my college roommate invited us to spend the night with her. When Roomie, Daughter, and Grand posed for a picture, I could hardly focus to snap it because my eyes were filled with happy tears. I never imagined that my dear friend of fifty years would also be loved by Daughter and my Grand.

Mindi sent a text message. A picture of a Valentine paper bookmark with the words, “Look what Mason found and uses in his books!” Mason is Mindi’s son who is about the same age she was when she was my fourth grade student. On the bookmark I’d written, “Keep reading, Mindi!” Mason declared it his favorite bookmark.

A friend texted six words, “Doctor said all clear! No cancer!” Those few words were the happiest of the day.

When I visited a friend’s home, she said, “Come downstairs, I wanta’ show you what I’ve done.” The concrete basement floor and wall blocks had been painted a warm gray and a colorful area rug covered a small area of the floor. A bunk bed set along one wall and a queen size bed and a twin bed on the adjacent wall. A kid-size table and toys and children’s books were the only other things in the huge room. “Look at my new room! All 5 of my grandchildren can sleep here!” I smiled and laughed. I understood my friend’s jubilance.

On a windy 39° morning, four-year-old Jesse said, “I need to play outside!” We bundled up in coats and hats and he happily created roads in our mulch around shrubs. A cup of hot chocolate and cookies warmed us when we went inside.

A bed of bright pink and lavender-pink phlox tugs my heart. It’s just a small flowerbed around my mailbox. Nothing spectacular except these are exactly the same plants that bloomed every spring beside our driveway when I was a kid. Mom shared a few plants with me more than thirty years ago and although an over-zealous yard boy sheared them to the ground (because he thought the late summer green plants were weeds), I salvaged a few plants and this spring they are beautiful.

“This is a momma hug,” Daughter said. As she and I hugged each other, my ten-year-old Grand wrapped her arms around Daughter’s back. A three-person hug. A three-generation hug.

Heart Tugs. I’m catching all I can.

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Saving Food

My freezer is full of this and that. Two small baked sweet potatoes. Half an onion – I was leaving town for ten days and didn’t want it to ruin in the refrigerator. One slice of meatloaf. A half-cup of spaghetti sauce. A plastic container labeled ‘For Soup’ stores a spoonful of corn, a few servings of green beans and lima beans, celery leaves, and who knows what else – all leftovers to go into a pot of vegetable soup.

I don’t like to throw away food. When I peel apples and pears for my Grands, I usually eat the peeling. I’ve even boiled citrus peelings with cinnamon to make good use of the peelings and make the house smell good. I dice the thick stems of broccoli for salads. I chew on the tough core of pineapples. And I know about composting, but don’t do it. I should because then I’d never waste food. Potato peelings, apple cores, pineapple leaves, eggshells – all could go into compost.

A Reader’s Digest article about fresh produce entitled “Food Parts You Should Never Throw Out” caught my eye. According to the article, most of us throw away nutrients when we dispose of what we consider waste. Pineapple cores were listed first and I patted myself on the back. But I didn’t think of adding chunks of core to a cup of hot tea or chopping it finely to add to chutneys or a stir-fry.

I was reminded of the many possibilities of citrus zest: blend in smoothies, vinaigrettes and marinades or stir into yogurt, cottage cheese, and oatmeal. Citrus peel provides fiber and three times as much vitamin C as the flesh. I’ve never tried eating kiwi skin; even thinking of its fuzzy texture makes my mouth dry. But I’ll try biting into the whole fruit because kiwi’s vitamin C level decreases when the fruit is peeled and exposed to oxygen.

Watermelon rind provides an amino acid that is good for heart health. I know about pickled rind, and this summer I’ll add chopped rind to fruit salads and slaw. Who knew watermelon seeds can be roasted? I roast pumpkin seeds, but have never roasted watermelon seeds.

I was nodding in agreement until I read the words ‘Banana Peel.’ You might remember my column about bananas. I can’t eat a banana. Its mushy, slimy texture gags me. I almost skipped this section, but I read on out of curiosity.

Banana peels provide amino acids, which boosts serotonin, known as the happiness hormone. The best peels are ripe ones because they are softer, thinner, and tastier, according the article author, Isadora Baum. To soften the peels, boil them for at least ten minutes (imagine that stench) and then add them to soups or smoothies. Or puree the peels and add to muffin or cake batter. And the kicker: for a real treat, slice and bake a banana with the skin on.

I won’t eat a banana peel in soup or a muffin or baked. Not even for its happiness hormone. Some things should be thrown out.

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