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Sweet Things: Desserts & Good Memories

by John Raven, Ph.B.

Here we are starting a whole new year. I've hung out here at Texas Cooking so long it's become a second home to me. I know it's traditional for any food column to have folks beat up on themselves for eating too much over the holidays, but I feel that everyone deserves a treat once in a while. And treat rhymes with sweet. I've got a couple of my favorite sweet recipes to share with you this month. You can eat lettuce and cottage cheese next month.

Let's start off with my favorite cake. It's one I found in Mama's cookbook. The cookbook was published in 1908 and was in pretty sad condition when I finally gave it a decent burial after copying a few of the recipes. This recipe started life as a prune cake. I like prunes as well as anyone, but I don't think they belong in cakes - kolaches yes -- cakes no. So I converted the recipe into

Spice Cake

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 cups raisins Cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift together the dry ingredients and add alternately with the water. When everything is combined, add the raisins and nuts that have been dredged in a little flour. Mix well. Place in a greased loaf pan. Bake in a 320°F oven about two hours. (Do the straw/toothpick-in-the-center thing.) Remove from pan and cool on rack.

    Be sure to use real butter. It's just so much better. You can substitute dried cranberries or other dried fruits for half the raisins.

    It took me a long time to get to like cranberries. I had only been exposed to that slick mess that comes in the can and gets dispensed only at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Then I bought a sack of fresh cranberries and found what I'd been missing. This recipe calls for dried cranberries, which are just great.

    Raven's Cranberry Biscuits

    • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    • 1 heaping tablespoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 3/4 cup dried cranberries (more or less as you prefer)
    • 1/3 cup shortening (butter-flavored Crisco is best)
    • warm water
    Preheat oven to 425°F. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender or two knives. Mix in the cranberries. Add enough water to make a soft dough -- a little softer than for regular biscuits -- this is for drop biscuits. Drop by big tablespoons full onto greased cookie sheet. Should make 9 to 12 biscuits, depending on your drop. Bake about 15 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Serve warm, but they are pretty good cold, too.

    I grew up on a farm at Taylor, Texas during and just after WWII. These were not the best of times. Everyone put something into the war effort. It wasn't a TV war; it touched everyone. I remember there was a year or so where there were no chocolate bars to be had anywhere. Soda pop was in short supply. The lady who ran our neighborhood store bottled her own "pop" for a while. It was either red or yellow and only tasted sweet. There was also a little bottle of something you could buy and make "Coke Cola" by just mixing it with water. Nah, I don't think so.

    Related Grandma's Cookbook
    We never did run out of sugar. Mama could whip up something sweet as a treat for us kids when she felt we deserved a treat (which was not all that often). I remember her Milk Shake. This was a tall glass of milk with a raw egg, some sugar and vanilla extract whipped in it. (We didn't know raw eggs were deadly back then. Ours were fresh from the chicken anyway, and didn't have time to pick up any diseases.) I'm sure this treat was good for us kids. We usually ran ourselves skinny and didn't especially like the idea of the raw egg, but we had to go through that to get to the sugar.

    Mama also had a recipe for making a treat from snow, sugar and vanilla extract. Seems like when we had snow, we had no vanilla extract, and when we had vanilla extract, we had no snow, so I can't vouch for this treat.

    I can, however, vouch for Mama's Pineapple Ice Cream. Shortly after WWII, we could get pineapple in a little can. It was good, but the little can didn't go very far, so Mama stretched it by making pineapple ice cream. This was before you had pudding in a box. Mama made her pudding base with milk, eggs and cornstarch and, of course, the ever-popular vanilla extract. When the pudding had cooled, the pineapple was added and the whole thing went in the "freezing compartment" of the refrigerator. If Mama could keep us kids whipped off the ice cream long enough, it would become hard as marble but delicious tasting. The drill was to chip out a serving into a bowl and let the kids work on it until they got it into pieces small enough to get in their mouths. If you want to try this at home, start with a box of vanilla pudding. Cook it and cool it to room temperature, add a small can of crushed pineapple and freeze it. If you have one of the gadgets to make popsicles so much the better or you could freeze it in an ice cube tray.

    To my way of thinking, candy is the king of the sweets, and fudge is the king of candies. I'm talking real fudge here -- not that sweet brown mess with the crayon texture that is made with canned milk.

    When the kids got to an age where they could be trusted in the kitchen with minimum supervision, the holiday project was making fudge. I think over the years we had one batch that came out right. The main failing was not having a candy thermometer and not understanding "soft ball stage". The fudge usually never set up. But no matter -- we ate it with spoons.

    It really pains me that all the food propaganda and political correctness says that sweet is bad unless it's high-priced artificial sugar. A little sugar once in a while is good for everyone. Ain't no one gonna get out of this life alive. So get a box of Hershey's Cocoa and make a batch of fudge for the family. Remember, each square has to have a Texas pecan half on it.

    [Editor's Note: Here's a link to one of those real fudge recipes John Raven is talking about -- Grandma's Best Chocolate Fudge.]

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