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Three steps to success with a recipe

As I was baking Grandma’s prune cake, reading the recipe in her handwriting, I got to thinking. I know how to cook and bake but still had questions.

It is fun to find new recipes in addition to old favorites. That’s how we do it for birthdays in my family – something special for the birthday girl (or boy) and something surprising that we think they may like. For Mom’s birthday this year, I dug out Gram’s prune cake recipe, which has been a favorite of my mom’s since she was a little girl. She loves lemon too. For you curious types, this describes what I made for the meal before the cake – a pasta/shrimp dish (new), salad with walnuts and oranges (a favorite I’ve made many times), and cheddar broccoli soup (new). For dessert, it was either poppy seed cake (what I usually make for her) or prune cake.

warm cake from the ovenI know what you are thinking. Prune cake? For birthday? YES. It’s quite perfect for this time of year, actually – cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg…you know how you love the aroma of your pumpkin spice latte? Sniff that whiff and you get similar aromas in our prune cake, and thus, the appeal of this lovely cake. Plus, it’s the year I am Percheron Queen, so in honor of Grandma and Grandpa Bast, of course we’re having this cake. 😊…and yes, it’s good – not dry, quite flavorful. #NOMNOM

Anyhoo, as I was baking it this morning for her birthday, reading the recipe in Grandma’s handwriting, I got to thinking. I know how to cook and bake but still had questions. If you have family recipes, you know what I am talking about.

Sour milk            Cooked prunes                 No indication of pan size

Ruh roh.

Fortunately, I knew what to do.  The sour milk meant mostly milk with a splash of vinegar (or lemon juice). I learned that years ago from my mom.  It’s a cake, so no worries on the pan situation, you get out the 9” pans and because there is a basic guideline for frosting, I assumed it was a 2-pan deal.  Yep.  Just pulled it out of the oven and will be sure to make enough frosting for middle and top/sides.

The thing that threw me a little was “cooked prunes”. They’re dried fruit. Isn’t that already cooked? So last evening, I called my mom (I had spilled the beans that I was cracking out Gram’s recipe) and asked what Grandma did for this. Neither of us could quite remember out of the variations in what people do for this step. So, of course, we both googled it, compared notes, and picked the one that sounded most like what Gram would do.

Which brings me to the point. It’s not that I want you to make prune cake. It is delicious,grandma's cake recipeso do your thing if you do want to make it. The point is that many people haven’t been taught how to cook or bake, and the intuitive ability to read cryptic notes from a past generation is leaving many kitchens.

All of a sudden, I more fully understood the appeal of really lengthy blogs with a lot of words/talking and pictures between all the steps, and why I always just scroll to the recipe. I don’t need that extra help with most recipes because I was taught the basics of cooking both by my parents and in school.

I think the reason people like that wordiness is because it feels more like someone who knows what they are doing is with you while you are doing it yourself.  That’s nice. So, here’s my short version of what to do if you don’t have the play by play going on with an old family recipe.  It works regardless of the type of recipe. And you’ll get better at it over time.

my mom and aunts as kids baking cookies

  1. Read the entire recipe, ingredients and directions, before you actually want to make it. Not only will it help you know if you actually know what the steps are telling you to do, you can inventory the gadgets and ingredients at the same time. It also helps you organize yourself with what to do first, how many bowls you need, and so on.
  2. Assemble the shelf stable (anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated) ingredients you already have on hand. Review the refrigerator/freezer items to see what you need, too. Make a list of the missing items. I like to do it by store category for you fellow over achievers. If it’s a completely new recipe, it helps to take a picture of it to have with you in the store in case you need to swap something out. You can ask for help in the store bakery, from a store employee, or google it in the aisle if you need to.
  3. Assemble the pots, pans, measuring cups and spoons, bowls, and whatever other equipment that is needed. Do you have everything? Do you have a cooling rack if it’s a baked good?

…and there you have it.  Read. Assemble. Ask for help when needed. Try it. I hope you have building kitchen confidence on your to do list for 2019. If you’ll excuse me, I have a cake to finish… oxo


By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.