Strawberry Pie Recipe Filled With Memories

I made my great-grandmother’s strawberry pie for Father’s Day, so I thought I’d share this, which appeared in my “Across the Table” column in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 8, 2009.

During my last couple of trips to the farmers market, I’ve been confronted with an undeniable fact: It is time to make strawberry pie.

My foodie tendencies have long been tempered by health-nut tendencies, so I don’t make a lot of desserts. But if you ever have an occasion where you need to make eight people happy real fast, pie is the way to go. And since it’s usually made with seasonal fruit, the health nut is happy, the pie eaters are happy; it’s win-win.

I have a short rotation of go-to pies that change with the seasons – apple for fall into winter and any occasion involving my father-in-law; strawberry for spring; key lime whenever key limes happen and/or somebody visits from the north.

strawberry pie

A buttery crust lined with cream cheese holds a filling made with fresh strawberries. Top with whipped cream and "be happy," as my mother said.

My strawberry pie recipe was passed down from my great-grandmother, “Mush,” to my mother, so it is called “Mush’s Strawberry Pie.” Mush was a master baker of all sorts of things, but I remember her as a sweet, spunky little lady who usually wore red, with a big red bow in her hair at Christmas, so of all of her recipes, strawberry pie seems to represent her best. My version of the pie has changed over the years. Mush didn’t have to go to an office all day; if she had and there had been the option at the time, I like to think she would have said, “Bring on the Cool Whip!”

If there’s an original copy of her recipe, I don’t have it. My copy came in a series of e-mails from my mother.

There are two problems with this. First of all, there are two kinds of cooks in the world, and my mother was mostly the other kind. You know who you are: “Oh, I never measure anything. I just throw in a little of this, a little of that.”

I own a set of measuring spoons for “dash,” “smidgen” and “pinch” – and I use them.

I have a confusing collection of handwritten recipes from my mom with directions like “Put in oven and bake.” Um, at what temperature? For how long?

The second problem is my mom and e-mail. She was not yet on friendly terms with the computer when the strawberry pie conversation took place. She sent the recipe in a series of brief dispatches because, she said, the computer kept “good-bye-ing for no good reason.”

So now, in a photo album I use for collecting recipes, there is a page with four strips of white paper, lined up one beneath the other, that together form my strawberry pie recipe.

“Spread cream cheese, softened with some cream (the ingredient list was unclear … I forgot, it’s real whipping cream) over cooled pie shell…”

It was during the year we were planning my wedding, so between the filling and the crust there is talk of our plan for a honeymoon cruise.

“Sounds great, the cruise. I don’t think you can mess up a cruise too much, unless it sinks! Just takes two happy people!”

I suspect Mom learned to make the pie from Mush without using a written recipe. If has had a recipe for the crust – Mush probably would have used shortening – she had found one she liked better.

“I did a butter-mostly crust. It was heavenly.” This was followed by instructions for “Easy Pie Crust.”

We lost my mom to cancer in February of 2008, so there was no strawberry pie last spring. But this year, it seemed that there were strawberries everywhere and it was time to make pie. So I bought some berries and pulled out the recipe, rolling out the dough with a lot of memories, and made the pie, just as the e-mails directed.

“Serve with whipped cream. And be happy!”

Mush’s Strawberry Pie

1 cooled 9-inch pie shell

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened with a little cream or half and half

1 quart fresh strawberries

Splash of lemon juice

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

Spread the cream cheese in a thin layer on the bottom and sides of the cooled pie shell.

Hull berries. Place some, point side up, around cheese-coated pie shell.  Mash remaining berries with potato masher in medium saucepan. Mix together sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Bring strawberries to a boil and slowly add the sugar and cornstarch. Cook 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture is translucent and thickened. Cool and spread over uncooked berries in the pie shell. Chill in refrigerator until cold. Top with whipped cream and serve.

Easy Pie Crust

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cake flour

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chilled shortening

3 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Blend first four ingredients in a food processor. Add butter and shortening and pulse until mixture resembles course meal. And ice water and process until moist clumps form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if needed. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disk and refrigerate for 1 hour. Soften dough slightly at room temperature before rolling out. Roll out dough on floured surface to a 12-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch glass pie dish. Fold edges under and crimp.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick the bottom of the pie shell all over with a fork. Line the shell with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes, and then remove foil and beans. Prick shell again with fork. Continue baking until golden brown, 5-10 minutes more. Cool completely before filling.

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Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It's also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line — the checkout lane — with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be one of those people who holds up grocery lines.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to admit I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe is the Cranberry Orange Compote is adapted from “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I generally split the difference and use half sugar, half Splenda.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes

Cranberries simmer with orange zest and a bit of cinnamon.

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup water

1/2 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

Homemade Sweet Potato Chips: Baked vs. Fried

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

If this Woody Allen quote is true, then God has been having a jolly old time for the last six years watching me trying to raise a child whose diet in any way resembles the healthy way his father and I eat.

Things have not gone according to plan. The plan was that I would eat lots of fruits and vegetables while I was pregnant, introduce him to as many healthy foods as possible while he was an infant and by the time he was a toddler we’d happily gather around the table each night to feast on vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.

The reality was that by the time he was four I resorted to bribery. I hung a big yellow posterboard in the kitchen, upon which I’d drawn little pictures of all kinds of produce. I bought stickers that had stars or “Good Job!” on them. I’d read that it could take 10 exposures for a child to accept a vegetable, so the deal was that each time he tried an item he’d get a sticker, and when he had 10 stickers next to one fruit or vegetable, he’d get a prize. I kept that poster on the wall for nearly two years, and in that time we awarded two prizes, for apples (with caramel dip) and bananas (with chocolate syrup and marshmallows).

Sweet potato chips cool after being baked at 200 degrees for 50 minutes, turned over and then baked another 30-40 minutes.

I haven’t given up. I’m still constantly asking him to try new things, though I have also resorted to “Deceptively Delicious”-style tactics of hiding fruit and vegetable purees in kid-friendly foods such as mac and cheese. This is very high-maintenance, so I’ll be glad when he’ll just eat steamed broccoli like everyone else.

Lately I’ve been on a snack food attack, looking for ways to minimize the number of chemical ingredients in the lunchbox and even sneak in some vegetables if possible. I got lucky in the health food aisle one day when Trevor said he’d try Terra Spiced Sweet Potato Chips and Sweets & Beets. The ingredient lists on each were simple: Sweet potatoes, oil and some seasonings for the spiced chips; sweet potatoes, beets and oil for the Sweets & Beets. The oils listed were canola and/or sunflower and safflower oil. Turns out, it is apparently possible to manufacture food without corn syrup or hydrogenated fats! Amazing!

The chips barely made it through the night at our house, though partly because my husband is a big fan of sweet potatoes, at least in chip and french-fry form. We love Alexia Spicy Sweet Potato fries.

When I have time I’ll make spicy sweet potato fries myself because it’s cheaper. The sweet potato chips weren’t the cheapest thing in the store either, so if my family liked them that much, I thought I would try to make them myself.

I decided to try baked chips first, since that’s obviously healthier than frying. I settled on Martha Stewart’s recipe. It involved slicing the potatoes thinly using a mandoline, spreading them on parchment-covered baking sheets and baking them in a 200-degree oven, then allowing them to cool.

Since I don't own a deep fryer, I fried my sweet potato chips in a saucepan using a digital thermometer to keep the oil at 350 degrees.

I followed the instructions, and until the cooling part they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips. But after cooling they were still soft in the middle. I’m not going to blame the recipe here; I live in Florida, which for baking purposes would be ranked just under rain forest in humidity levels. I popped the chips back into the oven for another 10 minutes or so (I confess, at 400 degrees, because that was the temperature the oven was on when I was cooking dinner), then left them to dry again.

Throughout the process, my son kept asking if he could try one, so when they were finally cooled a second time I gave him one to try. He put it in his mouth and gave me the wide-eyed, open-mouthed, squishy-faced “yuck!” expression. “It’s hard!” he told me before asking if he could spit the chip into the trash.

He was right, to some extent. It wasn’t a potato chip texture; it was more the texture of those dried banana chips that you get in trail mix. Not inedible, but not what we were looking for.

So I decided to try another batch, this time frying them. My Internet search for recipes was not a difficult one. When frying, all paths lead to Paula Deen or the Neelys. When searching for recipes on the Internet, I usually look at a few recipes and try to arrive at a consensus, then put my spin on it. Paula’s recipe called for slightly thicker slices, fried in vegetable oil and seasoned with her recipe for House Seasoning. The Neelys’ recipe called for peanut oil and was seasoned with ancho chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Both recipes called for frying the chips in 350-degree oil for about three minutes.

I don’t own a deep fryer, so I used a medium-sized saucepan and heated the oil using a digital thermometer. I used a mix of Smart Balance oil and canola because that’s what I had. It took three batches for one potato, but when they were done they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips, and they were crisp. I tested a few seasoning mixes I had on hand and the clear winner was Cajun seasoning.

Fried sweet potato chips, left, were more crisp and colorful than the baked version, right.

The verdict: Since the whole point was to get my son to eat sweet potatoes and he spit out his first taste of the baked version, I probably won’t make those again, though I’ll eat the chips myself. My husband and I loved the fried chips. My son, so far, has not been persuaded to try them. He has been enthusiastically devouring shelled peanuts, however. Woohoo! A legume!

Cooking Up a Major Mess of Collard Greens

Over the weekend I took advantage of a sunny and unscheduled Saturday afternoon and did what I should do every week, which is go to a nearby farmers market to stock up on fresh vegetables. I went without a list, hoping I would find something there to inspire meals for the next few days. This is the ideal, cheffy way to do it, but recent weeks have been so busy that I’ve been making grocery lists based on a few favorite quick-and-easy meals, grabbing the ingredients from the grocery store and bypassing the farmers market altogether.

Strolling through the familiar, busy aisles in the farmers market section of the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market, I was reminded why it’s worth going a bit out of my way to shop there for produce. While vendors at this market do ship in some foreign items, in case you just have to have asparagus in November, there is also a nice variety of ever-changing local, seasonal produce. Though I’ll often check the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “What’s in Season Now” shopping list before I go, there are usually some surprises. This week, it was a handwritten sign touting locally grown collard greens.

The collard greens were piled high, still on their stalks, tied together in bundles the size of shrubs. I pointed out to the vendor that I live with a Northerner and a 6-year-old, so it was likely that only one out of three family members would eat collards, but she was apparently not going to take pity on me and break up a bunch. They cook way down, she pointed out. I knew that, but cooking down three truckloads of greens into one truckload is still a truckload of greens. I have storage issues.

But I really wanted those collard greens. I’d just read in a story by Elizabeth Brown, M.S., R.D., in the November issue of Oxygen magazine that they are the top leafy green when it comes to lowering cholesterol, a particular concern in our family. They’re also known cancer fighters and are rich in the B vitamin folate, which supports heart health. It has also been a while since I’d challenged my husband to try a new vegetable. It would be a challenge for me, too, since I’d never tried to cook collards before. The vendor put them in a large plastic bag (they were too big to fit in my reusable bag) and I was on my way to cookin’ up a mess of greens.

Collard greens are a nutritional powerhouse. Find them at farmers markets to enjoy now, and freeze some for later.

Oxygen had offered a recipe for Collard Greens with Root Veggies and Salmon, a “clean eating” way to include some of the greens in a healthy diet by steaming them in parchment with the fish and vegetables. But their recipe called for only 6 leaves and I had at least 10 times that. Besides, having grown up eating greens in Arkansas, my natural instincts were telling me there should be pork involved, and my preference was bacon.

A quick search online led me to a recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon at SimplyRecipes.com. Scanning the ingredient list, I knew I had a winner: bacon, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar and, for my husband, a little hot sauce. Another plus was that the recipe called for simmering the greens in a skillet with the other ingredients just until wilted rather than stewing them for hours. We’re used to eating a lot of steamed and sauteed vegetables and appreciate a little more crunch. In the case of collards, this turned out to be more of a nice chewiness.

If you’d like a vegetarian option, this recipe for Collards Braised in Red Wine, adapted from chef Michael Lomonako, appeared in the Mark Bittman‘s Diner’s Journal in the New York Times. Using a similar technique, it contains olive oil rather than bacon fat, and red wine instead of apple cider vinegar. I plan to try this one next.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be dealing with, so I decided to tackle the collards as soon as I got home rather than wait until dinnertime. This turned out to be a good plan. After removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, I had enough leaves piled on my kitchen counter to fill a large trash bag. This was an interesting situation. I decided to go ahead and cook the recipe, which would probably cook down a third of the greens. I didn’t, however, have enough ingredients on hand to cook three batches.

I noticed when I sliced the greens into strips for the recipe they took up much less space, so I decided to slice them all into strips. Could I freeze them? Yes, it turns out, you can freeze fresh collards after blanching them first. Here’s how:

The recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon turned out to be delicious. One bite and I was suddenly transported back to my mother’s kitchen, watching her stir a big pot of greens on the stove. To go with them, I decided to make whole-wheat-panko-crusted catfish and sweet potato fries. Now, I am a Southern girl, so I know the catfish should have been coated in seasoned cornmeal and fried, and there should have been cornbread or at least  hush puppies with those greens, but I’m a health-conscious Southern girl and am married to a guy who really loves sweet potato fries. Life is full of compromises. However, though we may have compromised on tradition, we didn’t miss a thing when it came to taste or nutrition.

Halloween 2010: Where Have You Gone, Norman Rockwell?

There was a time when Halloween was a holiday that occurred somewhere in a vast span of time that ticked slowly away between summer and Christmas (the two official seasons of the year). It was time to watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” yet again, devise a homemade costume or don a store-bought princess costume with a mask that completely, unsafely covered my face, and go with friends, unescorted by parents, door to door for as long as we could physically endure the weight of our candy-filled orange plastic jack-o-lanterns.

Sure, he's cute now. But in a few days he'll be a stinking, moldy fruit fly factory. This year we learned that in Florida, it's best to carve at the last minute.

In those days, it was perfectly normal and acceptable for people to send their children out to wander around in the dark, blinded by masks, with no adult supervision, until every last neighbor’s porch light went out. My generation was already past Norman Rockwell times, when we might have expected homemade cookies, popcorn balls and apples. We had to go through all of our candy at the end of the night to make sure everything was professionally packaged and wrapped up tight. This was, of course, not the primary mission of sorting, as far as I was concerned. The real purpose was to weed out all those sticky, cheap orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy candies and to find things that might tempt my brother to trade for chocolate bars or caramels.

These days, as a mom, Halloween comes immediately after a 10-minute summer and signals the official beginning of a high-speed downhill roller-coaster ride through the holidays.  One day you get an e-mail wanting snacks for the class Halloween party and the next thing you know you’re trying to find the aspirin on New Year’s Day. Time goes by a lot quicker when you’re in charge of creating the holiday experiences instead of having them just happen for you.

My son’s Halloween memories won’t resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, either, but we’re doing what we can. Instead of cutting holes in a sheet, we went to Target and bought a Wolverine costume. These costumes are actually not a bad investment because he keeps them for years and wears them on random occasions, mixing and matching according to his bad-guy-battling needs that day. His cost-per-wear ratio is much better in the superhero section of his wardrobe than others, especially formal wear.

Wolverine is the latest addition to my son's superhero wardrobe. We should all have a suit that gives us instant six-pack abs.

This year, for the first time, somebody in our family decided we would have a real jack-o-lantern on the porch in addition to the electric ones. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Pumpkins are messy and stinky, and you have to pull all the seeds out and roast them. But pumpkin-carving is a Norman Rockwell Halloween kind of thing to do. Fortunately, the pumpkin surgery was conducted by Trevor’s dad and grandparents while I was out of town. I participated via text message, which is much less messy. They left the seeds for me to roast when I got home.

Pumpkin seeds are a healthy snack, high in LDL cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, so I was on board with roasting them and hoped my son would like them, though this would have been totally out of character. True to form, he made a face when he tried one, but my husband and I enjoyed them.

Meanwhile, note to self: In Florida, wait until just before Halloween to carve a pumpkin. Trevor’s little jack-o-lantern may have been authentic and cute, but it quickly turned into a rotting, moldy fruit fly factory on our front porch.

Devil's food mini-cupcakes were topped with white buttercream before being decorated with piped-on buttercream spiders and jack-o-lanterns, then being devoured or destroyed by first-graders.

We’ll probably continue my childhood tradition of watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” at least once, though as an adult it is much more obvious to me that they were desperately trying to fill airtime with that whole Snoopy-in-World-War-II part.

A tradition in its early stages is Trevor’s mom getting a little obsessive and overboard in creating Halloween mini-cupcakes for his class party. When baking for Trevor’s kindergarten party I ran out of time and ended up sticking black spider rings on half of the orange-frosted cupcakes. I was worried that they’d be too scary for the kids, but the spiders were a hit. This year, after taking cake decorating classes, I decided on devil’s food (of course) mini cupcakes with piped buttercream spiders and jack-o-lanterns. I spent a good part of two afternoons baking and decorating two dozen cupcakes, piping tiny black webs for the black widow spiders, which had yellow sprinkle eyes and tiny piped-on red hourglass shapes on their abdomens. (I think those were supposed to be on the bottom side of the spider, but I thought they needed a little color.) Then I piped a dozen little jack-o-lanterns sitting on green grass, with black fondant eyes, tiny piped grins and little green stems and leaves.

The thing about cake decorating is that, even with adults, there comes the moment when the knife hits the cake and your precious creation is destroyed. That’s what cake is for, and I have learned to let go. However, first-graders will bring any cake decorator down to a new level of humility. I saw one of my adorable spider cupcakes tossed heartlessly into the trash without having been tasted. Another ended up on the floor, smashed to oblivion by tiny sneakers. A smarter woman would smear canned frosting and dump sprinkles on the cupcakes and call it a day. But you’ll probably find me bent over dozens of cupcakes again this time next year, creating even more elaborate Halloween themes that are designed to wow the second grade but will probably be apathetically devoured, destroyed or tossed into the trash. I console myself with the thought that sugar in the trash is sugar that’s not in the children.

There’s certainly no shortage of sugar this time of year. My son has been to a trunk-or-treat, a city-sponsored event, his school party and a church party, all of which supplied candy — and that’s before he’s even been trick-or-treating. I would love it if he came home from trick-or-treating with his plastic Spider-Man head filled with nuts, seeds and fruit, but that’s not realistic. I would even be happy if he’d come home with popcorn balls, caramel apples and homemade cookies, but those days are long gone. Instead, we choose corporately packaged sugar and chemicals we know instead of possibly poisoned homemade treats. Where have you gone, Norman Rockwell?

Oh, well. Norman Rockwell or not, Halloween happens. Hopefully, years from now, my son will remember running around our church parish hall, sword-fighting with his costumed friends and plotting and planning a costume that will win the contest next year. Hopefully he’ll remember running from house to house with his friends (forgetting the grown-up security escort), greedily seeking treats from the neighbors. Hopefully he’ll remember helping his dad string orange lights and spider webs in the front yard and carving a jack-o-lantern with his grandma and grandpa. Hopefully I can keep a lid on my nutrition and safety worries long enough to let that happen. We can get back to that on Monday.

Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

Judging by this image from "The Homemaker's Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating," less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your obsessively competitive mommy!”

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and scary doll up to armpits with buttercream.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds — they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

Dolls, frankly, creep me out a little bit, so I'm hoping the doll cake trend stays safely stuck in the 1950s.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections — a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

Attack of the Car-Eating Squirrel

It’s one of the most dreaded phrases in the English language: “Check engine.”  However, I didn’t know I’d been struck by “Check engine” as I pulled out of my driveway on my way to pick up my son from school recently. When the car stalled in front of my house, a little red light I’d never seen before appeared in the dashboard display. I pondered the possibilities of what the image represented. It looked a little like a helicopter. Or a turkey, maybe.   

Clearly I was in no position to diagnose the problem, so the only option was to restart the car and try to get across town to pick up my son, whose school is a few blocks from my preferred auto repair shop. During the 20-minute drive my car stalled at two stop signs and what felt like 840 stoplights. By the time I reached my son’s school I was so stressed out I drove past it, straight to the repair shop. My little boy was finally going to get his wish to go to aftercare with his friends.   

The mechanics opened the hood to find the first clue: an armload of pine needles arranged together on top of the engine in front of the driver’s side. Eventually they determined the engine problem: Something was eating wires. Did we live in the country? No. Did the car sit for long periods? No. Well, they said, there was a mouse nesting in my car.   

Hmm. I’d never seen evidence of mice around our home, I thought. But, in a panic about the possibilities of further damage, I immediately purchased enough anti-mouse ammunition to wage World War III under my car. Then I bought a bottle of rum. I went home, made a pina colada and then set up a battlefield on the driveway.   

Having never been in command of a residential mouse counterattack, I was surprised to see the modern options. Someone did build a better mousetrap. Instead of a little block of wood with mouse-smashing metal attached, the new versions trapped the mouse inside, much like the insect traps where “roaches get in, but they don’t get out.” A little button indicates when you’ve caught a mouse. Still killing, but at least you don’t have to see the gore.   

By the end of the week I was ready for gore. Three times a day I pulled bunches of pine needles out of my engine while the mousetraps went untouched. I began to suspect it wasn’t a mouse after all. My suspicion was confirmed when my husband spotted a small gray squirrel in the front yard gathering pine needles. With a mouthful of nesting material, it hopped across the yard to the driveway, headed straight for my car. No wonder the mousetraps sat empty.   

Sure they're cute. But despite its fluffy tail, the gray squirrel is a rodent, which means "gnawing animal." And that gnawing can include wires under your car hood or in your home. Photo by Tim Seed.

This was a bigger problem. They didn’t sell squirrel traps at Publix.   

My first instinct was to sprinkle cayenne pepper around the car. I learned from my attempt at organic gardening that squirrels are supposed to hate cayenne pepper. I never saw actual evidence of this since I’ve never been able to grow enough of anything to attract squirrels, but at this point it was all I had. I then checked around online, where I learned that this was apparently common in areas where squirrels were overpopulated, and that there was apparently not much I could do about it. I read post after discouraging post about how much damage the animals can do to a car. A few people suggested putting cayenne all over the engine, so I did that. The squirrel built right on top of it. I parked the car in a different spot. He found it. Three times a day I opened my hood and pulled out a new nest.   

I lost any affection I had for squirrels years ago when one of them tried to eat our patio table. This one was pushing me toward a full-on, squirrel-hating, “Caddyshack“-style Varmint Cong mission of destruction. I went to the home improvement store to see what they had in the way of squirrel poison. All I could find were rat baits that didn’t look like something a squirrel would eat. Ironically, they were on the shelf right next to a bag of corn and seeds with a picture of squirrels on it. People are actually feeding these animals? On purpose? The only thing I could find that addressed squirrels was a Havahart — Get it? “Have a heart?” — trap that would supposedly allow me to trap the animal and take it away. I was thinking maybe I would ship it to Australia. I took the trap home, followed the instructions, and then tested it. Despite many attempts and repeated reviewing of the instructions, I couldn’t get it to work. So I headed back to the store. This time, I tried the trap in the store. Same story. No one seemed willing to help me test the product, but they all insisted they’d never had a complaint about it. I decided this trap just wasn’t going to work. My only other option was to try the “Easy Set” version, which was a size up, meant for raccoons and possums. It was easy to set up and it worked. Unfortunately, this small squirrel was too light and even with the trigger mechanism weighted, he came in and out as he pleased, leaving behind only a scattering of empty sunflower seed shells.     

By this time, still pulling three nests a day out of my engine, laying awake at night wondering what he was chewing on, I began to get a little crazy. Spotting the squirrel from a bedroom window one day as I was getting dressed, I ran out into the front yard wearing only one of those robes that’s basically a towel and velcro and chased the squirrel to a tree, where I yelled obscenities and threw rocks at him until he hopped over the roof toward the backyard. I didn’t care what the neighbors thought. I wanted that tree rat dead, or at least very far away.     

So back to the home improvement store I went. I was going to see if they had any more of the small Havahart traps. They didn’t. I went to two more stores, but no traps. People kept suggesting getting a pellet gun. This was starting to appeal to me. I began to feel my Arkansas roots and could imagine myself sitting in the backyard on a rocking chair, smoking a corncob pipe as I picked off the varmints from the back fence with my pellet gun. However, in a last-ditch effort to save the world from the possibilities of an armed me, I picked up a couple of  rat traps — a big version of the old-school wooden mousetraps with the metal wire on top. The squirrel was small enough that a rat trap might work, I thought. If not, I was going to shoot him.     

Sure enough, a $1.95 rat trap was what finally did the trick. The squirrel set off the traps twice as he went for the peanut butter and sunflower seeds I’d used for bait. I reloaded and set the traps back under the car. The next morning, we found one of the traps on the other side of the driveway. No squirrel, but he’d apparently been snagged enough to drag the trap for 15 feet or so. I don’t know what happened to him after that. I’m sorry to say that I don’t care. The animal was destroying property and costing me money, and possibly soon my sanity.     

 I continued to check the engine every day for the next week to make sure he was gone. One day as my son and I were in his room, he suddenly ran to the window. (I’d managed to pass on my squirrel paranoia to my 6-year-old.) We watched together silently as a gray squirrel, slightly larger than the outlaw rodent, made its way down the same tree and into the yard. Then we sighed with relief as he hopped out into the street and over to a tree in the neighbor’s yard.     

“Well, Mom,” Trevor said, looking up at me, “I guess you don’t have to buy a gun.”     

“No, I guess I don’t.” At least for now.