I don’t really remember much of my mother’s cooking, which is odd because it’s what I grew up eating. We could not afford to eat out much; even McDonald’s was a treat. She had a few things I liked, like toad-in-the-hole, and a chicken in hoisin recipe that she found in the paper and was her staple for guests. Then there were the other things, like eggplant parmesan, that she declared healthy and left me with a lifelong aversion to eggplant.
When you hear the word eggplant, you might think, Delicious, but the word that comes to my mind is Slimy.
My father had a similar experience with my mother’s food; the story he likes to tell is about the first cheeseburger she cooked for him, which involved pouring a can of undiluted cheese soup over a patty. I’ve not seen anyone make a cheeseburger that way, before or since, he’ll say.
Holiday cooking was a source of alarm. At my grandmother’s house, it involved popcorn balls – the recipe for which I still wish I had – and cookies, and one magical year, she produced three kinds of pie when I could not decide which kind I wanted most – apple, pumpkin, or mince. My mother did not have a standard repertoire, and would attempt things she found in the paper, with mixed success. When I was in second or third grade, she decided we would make a gingerbread house, which was very exciting until the sugar mortar refused to hold the walls together, and the resulting frustration led to a screaming match, followed by tears, with no pretty candy-clad house at the end.
Still, my mother would occasionally stumble onto a recipe that worked and when she did, she stuck with it, doggedly, for years. For the holidays, it was Old Witch’s Magic Nut Cake, which came from the back of one of my books, Old Witch and the Polka Dot Ribbon. The first time she made it, she knew it was a winner, and every year that followed, she made loaves all through the fall, giving them as gifts to teachers and crossing guards and offerings to holiday potlucks.
I didn’t have many holiday recipes, so when I reached my teens and started babysitting, I made loaves of it too, and gave it to the families I babysat for, who all pronounced it delicious. One recipient told me she had discovered it was incredibly good spread with soft cream cheese, and I was surprised to realize the original recipe calls for a cream cheese frosting. My mother never made it and neither have I: the cake is perfectly moist, spicy, and nutty, and doesn’t need anything else. Still, if you wanted to make it into a cake, you could just pour the batter into the right size pan and top it with your favorite cream cheese frosting – nothing too sweet!
Or do like I do and have a piping hot piece with a bit of salted butter – pure winter decadence.
I usually make the bread in two loaf pans, but you can of course make smaller gift loaves if you like. Be very careful to check with a toothpick, rather than use the stated times – the cake is finished when a toothpick comes out clean, which may correspond to the expected baking time, but more often than not, doesn’t.
- 3 eggs
- 1 15-ounce can pumpkin
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup water
- 2½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2¼ cups sugar
- 1½ tsp baking soda
- 1¼ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp nutmeg
- ¾ tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil two loaf pans and set aside.
- Beat together wet ingredients in a bowl. In a second bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Combine the two mixtures, then mix in raisins and nuts.
- Pour batter into loaf pans, and bake for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Let loaves cool for 15-20 minutes in the pans, then remove and finish cooling on a rack.
- If desired, top with your favorite cream cheese frosting and additional chopped walnuts.