Tag: family

Pan Fried

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My parents had a cast iron skillet. It wasn’t very big, but many of the meals we had came out of it—eggs, burgers, chicken, steaks, fish, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

The color of pitch, every surface of that pan was so slickly well-seasoned that nothing stuck to it. I have no idea how long they had it, or how long it took to season it, but it was perfection.

A few years after my mother died, my father moved into assisted living. Since he wasn’t going to be cooking there, everything in the kitchen, along with the rest of the apartment, had to be cleaned out. It was difficult to make the choices—what to keep, what to give away, or toss. My brother and I pulled the pan out of a cabinet and stared at it, then looked at each other. It was as though the mere sight of it brought our childhoods back in floods.

We had a lot to go through that day, and left the pan on the stove to finish sorting. It seemed right at the time.

~ ~ ~

You can throw a lot into a pan when you’re cooking. Sometimes you plan, and other times it’s whatever you have in the house. The pan, of course, especially if it’s cast iron, has to be seasoned.

Having grown up with a perfect pan, one of the first things I wanted after getting married, was a set of cast iron frying pans. I found a pair the hue of matte pewter, and bought them. When I got them home, I oiled and heated and wiped them down. Then I oiled and heated them again, but nothing I cooked in them tasted right. I didn’t get it. How could my parents’ pan be so magical, and these pans be so completely not….

Then one morning, I decided to fry some bacon and split it between the two pans.

So much depends on what goes in.

~ ~ ~

When my brother was in his teens, he’d use our parents’ pan to cook breakfasts for himself. He’d start with eggs, whatever else sounded good—onions, peppers, ham, ketchup, cheese, and throw it all into the blender for a few good whirs before pouring it into the pan. He claimed the results were delicious. I wasn’t convinced.

~ ~ ~

My head feels like a blender these days. The spinning jumbles everything in a way that separates and connects without reason, or time to find reason. And, from the whirring, come stray thoughts—about personal space, how our definition of it has changed over the decades, how those changes shape our social interactions, and thoughts about personal and business interactions, those I’ve written off as jerkiness, or, as a former boss used to call it, “Terminal Assholery,” and those I’ve recognized as threats to my safety and well-being. In the mix are thoughts about unwarranted self-righteousness, greed, abuse of power, cruelty, hypocrisy, bigotry, warmongering, unfettered mania, and a dwindling awareness of what is real and what is not. Worst of all, emerging from the slop, is a fear that our collective sense of humor is waning, our ability to laugh, find reasons to laugh.

You can throw too much into a blender.

~ ~ ~

There was a day, not so long ago, when my brother and I had begun to gray, that he plied his alchemy with the bounty we bought at a local farmer’s market. This time, he chopped and sautéed, giving each ingredient a chance to express itself, complement others, develop and transform, and used his own favorite pan to create a meal of many flavors which had both of us swooning.

~ ~ ~

My own frying pans are the color of pitch now, just as my parents’ was, and their surfaces are perfectly sealed and seasoned.

But I can’t stop thinking about the pan forgotten on the stove—what went into it, what came out.

And I wish I’d taken it with me.

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There was more than a touch of mystery in my grandmother’s rugelach.

When I was very young, I never sought to unravel it.

My brother and I would await her arrival, plant our feet as firmly as we could to be ready for her hugs—such was the force of her love, then beg her to make rugelach for us.  The process, which always took a couple of days, culminated with rich crescent-shaped miracles emerging from the oven, glazed and golden, filling the house with the scents of sugar and cinnamon. We could barely wait for them to cool, and would snatch them off of the plate as soon as we were allowed, each bite a revelation of sweet and spice, fruit and nut.

As I got old enough to wonder how she managed it, I would go into the kitchen to observe, learn.

At her task, she was all business. After turning on the oven, she would take the dough— cream cheese, butter, and flour, which she had mixed, shaped into a ball and wrapped in paper the day before, out of the refrigerator. Then, while it was relaxing, softening, she would spread parchment paper on the table and sprinkle it with flour. Next, she would mix the cinnamon and sugar, place some in a bowl, and some on a plate, crush pecans between two sheets of parchment with a rolling pin, and empty a box of golden raisins into another bowl.

Why golden raisins?

Because they taste better.

Can I help?

Did you wash your hands?

Yes, Grandma.

A sharp stare. Wash them again.

I’d watch her divide the dough into four pieces, and roll them into circles. Then we would spread the cinnamon-sugar over it, sprinkle on the nuts in just the right amount so that they covered the dough, and top it with raisins. Carefully, so carefully, she would take her knife and cut each circle into wedges. These we would roll into crescents, making certain that all the ingredients were secure…protected…before dredging them in cinnamon-sugar.

I make these moon-phase delicacies still, as a woman very near the age my grandmother was when she made them for me.

My little ones, now well into mid-life, have learned to make them, too.

It’s good to pass these things on.

But for me, rugelach are more than a pastry, a tradition. They are slips of my childhood, of savoring mysteries, being in that kitchen, planting my feet on the floor. They are tantalizing aromas,  complex flavors, the strength of my Grandmother’s arms…

They are hugs.

(Since publishing this post I’ve had numerous requests for my grandmother’s Rugelach recipe.  So, I’m adding it below.)

Grandma Betty’s Rugelach

For the dough you’ll need:

8 ozs. light (or neufchatel) cream cheese (my grandmother used full fat cream cheese, but I’ve substituted light for it with no loss of flavor or texture)
2 sticks butter or margarine
2 cups of flour

For the filling:

ground pecans
golden raisins
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Soften the cream cheese and butter in a mixing bowl. When soft, mix in flour until the dough forms a ball. Shape the dough into a 10” log that is approximately 3” in diameter. Cover with plastic or wax paper and refrigerate for 24 hours.

To prepare:

Preheat oven to 375º.

Cut the refrigerated dough into four sections. Let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

Mix cinnamon and sugar until thoroughly combined. Put half of the mix into a shallow bowl or on a plate.

On a well floured mat or board, roll a section of dough into a 9-10” circle. Generously sprinkle entire surface with cinnamon-sugar mix. Then sprinkle with ground pecans. Cut the dough into 12 wedges (like you would cut a pie). On each wedge, at the widest point, place 3-4 raisins. Roll toward the narrow point as you would a crescent. Dredge the rolled up cookie in cinnamon sugar and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat process until all the dough has been used up. (You may need to make more cinnamon sugar!)

Bake from 13-16 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.

Cool on rack.