Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

He Won’t Have a Pancake this Year

Connor pancake (1)

He Won’t Have a Pancake This Year by Robynn

Yesterday my sixteen-year-old daughter was trying to teach me how to upload the pictures on my phone to the cloud. It’s a frightening prospect, one I’ve resisted, for several months now. I don’t want anything happening to those pictures. What if they never make it to the cloud? What if there’s a sudden downpour and they’re lost, washed away, forever?

As she was showing me the new cataloging potential Google has kindly (and freakily!) put in place to organize all my pictures, I happened to see pictures of last year’s pancakes. And before I could reason with myself, before I could dispel the rising grief with an attempt at humour, before I could distract myself with a sip of tea, before I knew it, I was in tears.

Every year, since the kids were tiny, on the first day of school, I make pancakes.

These aren’t any ordinary pancakes. The recipe is my dad’s old recipe that he perfected at Utopia House on the backside of Murree Hills in far away Pakistan. Dad would measure and mix cautiously the ingredients into a coloured Tupperware bowl. He’d raise the wick slightly in the kerosene stove, wait the appropriate time and then gently light it while holding his breath and praying for success. Once the flame was burning blue and clear, the ancient cast iron griddle inherited from Auntie Sadie Philbrick (or was it Auntie Helen Gamble?) would be wiped off and placed on top of the enamel stove. When the griddle was hot the batter was portioned out…sizzling pancake batter would slowly rise up and bubble before dad would turn the hotcakes. There was always homemade syrup and Nurpur butter. Usually there were fresh peaches or apricots cut up. Often there would be freshly made black raspberry jam. Occasionally dad would make a shape with the batter. He’d cover the design with more pancake and our round cakes would be embossed with faces, or animals or figurines.

Those were the pancakes I wanted my children to grow up on. Those pancakes became a part of their childhood, as they’d been a part of mine.

On the first day of school I always wake up a little earlier. Using dad’s recipe I carefully blend the dry ingredients before adding the milk and the eggs, the oil and the vanilla. I pour out the pancake batter on the modern electric griddle, shaping for them the number representing the grade they are about to start. When Connor was starting grade six his pancake was a “6”; Adelaide had a “4” that year; and Bronzi a “1”. It’s what we’ve always done.

I saw last year’s pancake photos and I started to cry. Connor won’t have a pancake this year. He just graduated from high school and he starts at University in the Fall. He won’t be here on the morning I make Adelaide an “11” and Bronzi an “8”. I walked into the kitchen and there he was. “You okay mom?” he asked. “You won’t have a pancake this year,” the tears started up again. With a crooked and caring smile he came over and hugged me. He let me cry a little.

Grief bubbles up in odd places—I didn’t quite expect it to rise up to the cloud in a picture of a pancake. I really had no idea letting Connor go would be so hard. I’m afraid no amount of syrup is going to sweeten his departure.

Dad’s Original Pakistan Pancake Recipe

(He’s since changed it to include whole wheat flour and flax seed and more baking powder and who knows what all! ….but this is the original…this is the one I’m keeping near the griddle!)

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

pinch of salt

2 cups milk

2 eggs beaten

1/3 cup oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix dry ingredients together. Mix wet ingredients separately. Gently add wet to the dry and stir carefully. Avoid over mixing. Ladle batter onto a hot griddle. Make shapes! When pancakes begin to bubble flip them. Serve hot with ice cream and sliced fruit, or maple syrup, or fruit syrup, or peanut butter or cheez whiz or nutella!

An Uncommon Birthday Cake

As I have read about blogging I have found out two (oops, three!) things:

  1. Successful bloggers seem to all be cooks
  2. Successful bloggers seem to all be photographers
  3. Successful bloggers call their husbands names like Marlboro Man or other clever titles

This is depressing information. I cook but I will never be on the food network. I make what I like to think of as wholesome and friendly meals. We never have boiled vegetables and I believe that, except for rare occasions, it should not take you longer to fix the meal then it takes your family to eat the meal. To that end I have become adept at chopping and sautéing onions and garlic quickly and using things like rice cookers and Trader Joe’s.

As for photography –  if I am the only one in my entire family around to take a picture of any of them, they will turn to a total stranger rather than have me ruin the photo. There’s something about framing the shot, keeping my hands still….I don’t know what it is. I can’t do it.

There is something I do extremely well. I make an uncommonly good carrot cake at least once a year for my husband’s birthday. When he was little, and his mom had her hands full with 4 little boys by the time she was 21, she told all of them to “Pick your cake and stick with it”. From then on, each of them knew that every year that favorite cake would be made on their birthday. My husband picked carrot cake. There is no other cake that even comes close.

My husband’s birthday was on Tuesday and after rushing home from work, sure that I had all the ingredients that would go into this 9″ by 11″ pan of goodness, I began the process. By 5pm the house smelled like a mixture of cinnamon and sweetness as it baked in the oven.

So here goes – all you’ll ever get from me are just a few recipes from Pakistan, the Middle East and Carrot Cake. But I promise, this one is worth every minute and muscle you spend in making it!

Coconut, Pineapple, Carrot Cake 

  • 1/2 bag of those little carrots
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 cup coconut
  • 1 cup crushed pineapple
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Right at the beginning slice the little carrots into pieces. Put in saucepan and add a bit of water. Cook until semi soft. Put in food processor or equivalent and add some of the pineapple juice. Blend and set aside. Beat up those eggs! When they are whipped to a frenzy add in the light brown sugar. Beat that up until it is smooth and perfect looking. Then add the white sugar and do the same thing. Add the oil and beat until blended. Add in cinnamon, vanilla, baking powder and soda. Add 2 cups of flour and blend till smooth. Then add mashed carrots, coconut, pineapple and walnuts. Mixture will be dense. Put into greased 9″ by 11″ pan and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and then frost with your favorite cream cheese icing (not store-bought) I mix cream cheese, butter, icing sugar and vanilla and it’s great.

So this is my uncommon birthday cake and my consciously, subconscious attempt at competing with the big guys in the blogosphere!

A Recipe to Keep – Masoor Dal

masoor dal

Pakistani food – mouth-watering & delicious! Here is the first of what I hope will be many recipes! If you make these, let me know how they turn out through the comments!

This recipe came to me by way of Carol Brown, Polly Brown & Sheila Williams (now adapted by me). For those unfamiliar – dal is the Pakistani word for lentils. Lentils come in all colors but my bias is the reddish-orange kind.

2 Cups dal (red/orange)

1 medium size onion (chopped)

3 cloves garlic (minced)

4 red peppers (whole) or 1 1/2 tsp ground red pepper or to taste

1 tsp fresh minced ginger root

½ tsp white cumin seed (zeera)

4 tomatoes (chopped)

2-3 tbsp olive oil

Heat oil until it sizzles. Add zeera & red pepper. Saute a bit then add garlic and onions. When they look glazed add minced ginger,  chopped tomatoes and a pinch of haldi (turmeric). Add washed dal. Put in twice the amount of water and cook 20 to 40  minutes with fire on low(I know that’s vague but I’m a sun-dial!) – check and see if you need to cook a bit longer. Texture should be soft. Add fresh washed coriander to taste. You can add vegetables and cook a few more minutes. Garnish with chopped tomatoes and fresh coriander and serve with raita & basmati rice or chapatis.  It’s a simple, economical and delicious dish.

Meanderings Through My Cookbook  – a great site for some good recipes had this picture to share of Masoor Dal – It is a perfect picture and does the dish justice. Take a look at her site for some inspiration!