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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Way Back When Wednesday: Baking For My Father

Saturdays were a very special day at our house when we were growing up on East 38th Street. My mother always baked something on Saturday afternoons so that we had it for dessert on Saturday night after our baths, and sometimes we had it for breakfast on Sunday mornings before twelve o'clock mass. My father adored fresh pastry, pie, cake, and every once in a while, a homemade pudding like tapioca or a meringue-topped bliss entirely misnamed Graham Cracker Pudding when it should have been called Fantastically Wonderful But Horribly Worky Sweet Delight.

My father often requested terribly complicated and labour-intensive baked goods, and my mother, for some reason, complied. I can vividly remember sitting under our kitchen table while she made strudel dough, stretching and stretching it thinner and thinner, its transparent edges hanging long over the sides. Every so often, I'd reach out from under the table and tear a bit of dough off to taste it. She would sometimes see me and reprimand me, but she never made me get out from under the table.

When my mother made pies, she often had leftover pie crust and allowed me to use it to make my own creations which she would then bake along with her pies. I would roll the bits of pie crust into pinwheels or shape them into flowers or animals. Then I'd sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar, or if I was given enough crust to form a small tart or two, fill them with jam. When they came out of the oven, I'd be so proud of them! Carefully, I'd look them over and choose the nicest of them to present to my father on a pretty saucer.

My dad was always so complimentary and loving about whatever I had made and given to him, but he never ate a single thing when I presented it. "That looks great!" he'd say. "I don't want to eat it right now. Have your mother save it for me and pack it in my lunch, and I'll have it at work with my hot tea." Always disappointed, I'd say okay, and take it back to the kitchen and relay the message to my mother, who would put the plate away. I would snack on the remainder of my little treats that I had made myself and think no more about it.

I can't tell you exactly when it finally occurred to me that my father never, ever ate any of the little treats I baked for him. Embarrassingly, it was probably not too long ago, relatively speaking. As I've said before, when it came to my Childhood, I was Blissfully Unaware a good ninety percent of the time, trusting always in The Grownups and spending most of my life with my nose buried deep within books. Like cookies put out for Santa, my little pie crust treats were never consumed by the person for whom they were intended.

My father was, in his own way, a bit of a germophobe, and had deep misgivings about the Unknown Ingredients in my cookies. Had I licked my fingers as I sprinkled on the cinnamon sugar? What if I had not thoroughly washed my hands before I prodded that dough? Perhaps my mother had not made sure my pigtails were pulled back and not able to brush across the cookies' surface. Worse, what if I had coughed on them? There was no way to be sure, so there was no way he could possibly eat them. Instead, he spared both of our feelings with his kind fiction, and I remained happy for the most part, if a bit puzzled.

I buy my pies, except for two pumpkin pies every Thanksgiving, at a local pie shop. I buy premade pie crusts, and there are never any leftovers; you just unroll a circle of dough and push it into the pie pan. It's very easy to do, and when you're done, you're done.

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16 comments:

  1. what a sweet story, and how sad that your dad wasn't able to overcome his phobia enough to taste the treats you made him

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    1. J@jj--Thank goodness I was such a compliant and clueless child that the arrangement worked as long as it did. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

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  2. The oven kills any germs lovingly put in baked goods by children. This is such a sweet and loving story. Your dad was very kind to invent a story for why he didn't eat something on the spot. And your mom was an angel for baking difficult and time consuming stuff for him.

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    1. Jean--Think how long that story worked for him! Yes, my mother made so many ridiculously bossy desserts. And so many were Croatian or Eastern European recipes that my father grew up with and my mother had zero idea about early in their life together, but she conquered them all. And he was very, very exacting in his taste. Now she sticks mainly to pies, and they are the pies of her childhood, mostly.

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  3. I loved to make little tarts out of the leftover pie crusts. Mine always featured lots of sugar... with a dash of cinnamon. I'm sorry that your father rejected your baked gifts. It seems like such a small way to indulge a child and make them feel good about their efforts. But you've overcome and put the experience into perspective, so I applaud you on that. I often think that we become who we are in spite of what our parents did to us.

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    1. Ally Bean--Thank you. Yes, it was a small way, but a much too big effort for him, considering what was in his way at the time. He found a sort of compromise that I willingly (and cluelessly) accepted.

      As parents ourselves, we make conscious choices to parent our children based upon the way we were parented, sometimes because we wholeheartedly endorse that pattern, and sometimes in direct opposition to it. Sometimes, too, I think we make many more choices subconsciously, never realizing it until much, much later, after some reflection.

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  4. This is a lovely story. I remember how surprised I was when I learned - IN MY 30s - that all of the fancy earrings I'd bought for my mom were not worn all evening when she went out!! She'd wear them out of the house, so I could be pleased, and then change earrings in the car. It's funny how things make sense to us because it just never occurs to us think otherwise. :-)

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    1. Bridget--Ah, see! You know exactly what I mean.

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  5. My Mom was also a huge baker (bread every week - sometimes several times, pies, cakes, cookies, rolls, puddings, etc., etc.). There was always extra dough for little tarts and it was a scramble in my house to get a taste of one - everyone wanted them! I think it's sad that your Dad never tasted them, but sweet that he hid it well enough that it took you some time to figure it out.

    I bake (though not as often as my Mom...because, you know, I have a job outside the house), and I keep trying to match my Mom's pie crusts. So far it's a losing battle.....

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    1. Vera--It's true--baking is an effort, and an Outside Job certainly cuts down on a lot of Traditional Home Baking. That, and everyone's health concerns about cholesterol, fat, and sugar intake.

      When my mother got an outside job much later--I was 15--that cut down on our homemade desserts considerably. She worked a half day every Saturday as a head teller, and was too tired to bake.

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  6. Your father must have been a real germophobe not to have ever tried even a teensy bite of one of your offerings crafted with so much love. But his gesture to convince you that he would indeed eat it with his 'hot tea' was certainly charming and caring. I would probably have had the same reaction as you, except I *might* just have asked him, at least once, about how he liked it when he got home, lol.

    I wish my mother had at least taught me how to bake the few things she bothered to do because she made some really nice pies for holidays. I think it has to be an "every Saturday" thing, though, in order to cultivate the habit. Outside of the holidays, desserts were rare in my household, and my mother was totally into cake mixes from a box when it was birthday time. I always considered that cheating, and once apologized for taking a 'cake-mix' cake to a celebration some years ago, saying 'Sorry I didn't have time for a homemade cake.' Everyone assured me that if you don't buy it from a store, it *is* homemade. When I lived in Spain, there were no box cake mixes, so I got out my Betty Crocker cookbook with step-by-step pictures and learned to make cakes from scratch. I was the one who made all my friends' birthday cakes. One of my best friends still comments to me on how she misses getting her "Williamsburg Orange Cake" on her birthday. Nowadays... I can totally use a cake mix from a box. Especially if it is the base for something like a "tres leches" cake, which Mr. O. loves. Don't know if those are known in your part of the country, but they are very popular here because of the huge hispanic population, and are soaked in a mixture of whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk. With a topping of whipped cream. (So... almost 4 leches!).

    And as for pies, I absolutely love to buy the ready-made pie dough if I get the urge for a pie, although I also buy pumpkin pie if it is Thanksgiving because there are places that make really good ones, and I have less and less patience for that with all the other cooking that needs to be done on that date.

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    1. Ortizzle--I may have, indeed, asked him how he liked my baked goods. If so, I'm sure he gave me a compliment. As I said, however, I was always confident in the knowledge that everything happened the way the Grownups said and meant it to, and if anything were different, they'd tell me.

      My mother never really actively taught me how to make anything, and I don't remember asking. I was in the kitchen with her often because I liked it, liked food in general, and it was a way to be with her and sometimes with my father, too, who used to sit at the kitchen table and talk to her or read the newspaper there, occasionally reading a few items aloud.

      My mother's cakes were a balance of homemade and box cakes, the latter being for our birthdays, but never for my father's. No, his had to be a full-on Hungarian nut torte, and she had to haul out the heavy hand grinder for the walnuts, clamping it onto the counter so that she could control the coarseness of the walnuts herself. It's a terrible, worky cake with an enormous amount of beaten egg whites and...well, idiotic effort. And he insisted upon homemade custard frosting, which is also time-consuming. And I was always sad because I disliked all of it and considered it a wonderful Cake Opportunity wasted.

      I have never had a tres leches cake, despite having a large Mexican contingent as a part of our extended family (now divorced, but there are still kids, so...). If it is caramelly, then I'd likely pass--not a fan. Now that Williamsburg Orange Cake sounds very promising. I love orange flavoured things, so I am off to the Google. I hope it is lovely and relatively easy to make. And small.

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    2. The Hungarian nut torte sounds like a real PITA. lol!

      Check your email: I sent you the recipe for the Williamsburg Orange Cake that I scanned from my ancient cook book. + a few baker's notes, haha.

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    3. Ortizzle--Rec'd, and appreciated with love.

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  7. Even if he did not eat them I bet he was touched you made them for him. I used to style my Dad's hair as he read the paper. He never minded even if I put pink plastic curlers in it, or tried to as he=is hair was short and they never quite fit.

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    1. Meredith--I like to think so. Fathers, for the most part, do the best they can, I think.

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