My grandma Stella was a great home-cook. In fact, she was a professional one, working as a caterer for dinner parties at a time when the dinner party, for some folks, was a catered affair.
She learned all she knew from her mother Rose, who had immigrated to New York from the Ukraine and who made everything–including moonshine(!)–the traditional way; from scratch.
Stella was a woman of the 50s, and after a childhood spent soaking beans, canning tomatoes and fermenting fruit into alcohol with her mama, it’s not surprising that she sometimes got on board with the convenience foods of her era. Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, lime Jell-O, canned kidney-beans and the odd cube of bouillon all come to mind when I think of her kitchen.
For the most part, though, my grandma, like her mother, cooked from scratch, simmering bones for broth, stewing tomatoes for sauce, stuffing cabbages and onions with meat and rice, mostly without recipes or measurements. From scratch meant, for her, to cook by feeling, intuition, taste and smell.
This is how we should all be able to cook, free from the restrictions of a recipe, guided by our senses and able to just enjoy the rhythms of the task at hand. Cooking was, I believe, a meditative process for my grandma–so completely focused she was when onion-chopping, potato-roasting, cabbage-braising. S0 completely connected to her mother, her mother’s mother, her roots on the other-side of the world in the Ukraine.
So simply was she able to make meals that were nourishing, in so many senses of the word.
Cooking like this, it takes practice. My grandma started when she was young because she had to–her mother needed her help. These days, families spend less time in the kitchen and when a meal is prepared at home, the lil’ ones are often left out of the fun.
Bringing kids back into the kitchen means more-fun for everyone. They’ll grow up knowing how to make themselves a nourishing meal from scratch and will eventually pass that knowledge on to their children–keeping us all linked together in this onion-chopping, potato-roasting nourishing-ourselves-and-each-other chain.
My grandma’s intuitive approach to cooking led her to believe that she was a terrible baker. Maybe she was, but, to be honest, I can’t remember her attempting to bake, ever, not even once, just for the hell of it. I think there were just too many other more-enticing ways to get a hold of something sweet or doughy in her developed neighborhood.
We’d visit her there in her robin’s-egg-blue house every summer and while week-day breakfasts were simple–cereal or scrambled eggs–, on week-ends us grand-kids would walk to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts (yep, we were truly children of the 90s) for a half-a-dozen box and a tray of iced-coffees for the grown-ups.
My grandma loved sweets and especially jelly doughnuts. Sometimes we’d split one (not to not have a whole doughnut, but to have a second half of a lemon custard [her], or a chocolate glazed with rainbow sprinkles[me]) and those moments–cutting into a shimmering doughnut on a summer morning–are some of my sweetest memories.
This is why instead of recreating one of my grandma’s recipes, I’m cooking something for her–the breakfast I would make her if she were still here.
I chose pancakes because they fall somewhere in-between cooking and baking (they are cakes, after all) while still being something you can truly cook from scratch.
I learned the golden ratio for pancake-making years ago and haven’t looked back since. I mean, who wants to follow a recipe on the kind of morning that calls for pancakes, anyway?
The Golden Ratio for Pancakes:
Mix x cup flour with x tbsp baking powder and a dash of salt.
Mix x egg with x cup liquid (raw milk, nut milk, water if you’re in a pinch) and 2x tbsp something sweet (maple syrup, honey)
Mix wet ingredients with dry ingredients. If you’re adding something else (chocolate chips, blueberries, poppy seeds) mix that.
Let rest (so the baking powder can work its wonders) for at least 30 minutes.
Voila! You’ve just been pancaked.
- 1 cup whole-grain flour (we used a light spelt)
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- dash of salt
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk (we used raw almond-milk)
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 tbsp poppy seeds
- knob ghee
- Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg, then add the milk and honey and mix.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry bowl, mixing thoroughly. Add the poppy seeds and give a good stir. Let sit for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat oven on low.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet on medium, greasing with a good knob of ghee. Wait until the skillet is good and hot, then pour batter into center of skillet. Let cook for a few minutes--tiny holes will start to appear in your batter around the edges. Flip and let cook for a few more minutes. Place on oven-proof plate while cooking the rest of the pancakes.
Serve savory with an egg, pickles and sour-cream or sweet with berry jam or applesauce.
2 soft, sweet apples (we used golden russets), diced
tbsp freshly grated cinnamon
1/4 cup water
Dice apples and place in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add 1/4 cup water and cinnamon. Heat on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Once apples have started to soften, turn heat down and cover simmering for 8-or-so minutes or until soft.