Norwegian Dakotan Lefse

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It’s the beginning of November, so I assume we can dive straight into preparing for the holidays. When it starts to get cold and dark outside, I can’t help but remember the family recipes of my childhood that used to light up these winter months. My grandma’s lemon meringue pie, my mom’s mashed potatoes… Maybe it’s my Hoosier roots, or my Midwestern roots in general, but I’m a big fan of mashed potatoes. By some magic, my mom would make them perfectly smooth and fluffy, without a hint of gumminess, the best in the world. I’ve tried using a hand mixer like she does, but it just never works out for me. But with winter almost upon us, I know I’ll have another five months of practice.

While I myself am a fervent lover of the foods I had growing up, for most of my life I thought of Midwestern cooking as one bland white-bread-white-flour-white-cake category that was historically insignificant compared to other, more seemingly exotic regions. And while it’s true that our foods tend to be on the carbier side, historically insignificant they are not. If you’ve read even a few posts on this blog, you know that I’m a sucker for dishes that tell a story about where they came from. Regional dishes are by far the most interesting posts for me to do, and I’m particularly interested in foods that are considered “Midwestern” but that I’ve never tasted, or even heard of. For example, the fabulous Molly Yeh, who lives in North Dakota, has recently been gracing the Internet with photos of her hotdish. I had certainly never heard of hotdish, even though it’s technically a “Midwestern” dish. (Answer: It’s basically a casserole that you would traditionally bring to a social gathering. In more recent times, tater tots have become a common topping. Who’s the Upper Midwestern genius who decided to load tots on a casserole? Get that person a medal.)

And, speaking of Midwesterners, their love of potatoes, and winter: For those in North and South Dakota, the first snow and the beginning of the holiday season traditionally meant that it was time for another dish I had never heard of: Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread consisting mostly of mashed potatoes.

Last Thursday was the 126th anniversary of both North and South Dakota becoming the 39th and 40th states (though no one knows which is which, because President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the papers and signed them blindly). The Upper Midwestern States, the Dakotas and Minnesota, have very large Scandinavian populations. Norwegians began settling in the Dakotas before they were even states, and between 1860 and 1880 the population of Norwegians in the Dakotas increased from 129 people to one-tenth of the population. Now, one in three North Dakotans claim Norwegian descent, which is the highest for any state, although Minnesota and South Dakota are close.

Lefse is a Norwegian dish, which, like other old world traditions, found new life in America. There are lefse recipes dating back to the 1600s in Norway, though those traditional recipes would have used only flour, as potatoes did not make their way to Norway until about 250 years ago. To find an authentic, Norwegian-Dakotan lefse recipe, I reached out to Erin Zieske, who I featured in a post a few months back. She lives in South Dakota and had mentioned lefse when we were discussing her post. She immediately directed me to her mother, Tonna. Tonna told me that she often uses a recipe featured on NPR, in place of her grandmother’s recipe. However, it appears that there is little variation to the few ingredients that make up lefse: Potatoes, butter, salt, sugar, cream, and flour—ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, which is likely what makes this is an enduring recipe.

Now a list of things I didn’t have when starting this process: A lefse stick, a lefse griddle, or a lefse pin. The stick helps to flip the rather large flatbreads, the griddle is extra-large and flat, and the pin has deep grooves in it, which give the lefse a waffled appearance when you roll it out. Have no fear. If you also don’t have these things, you can still make yourself some delicious lefse, though slightly less authentic. But after you taste your inauthentic lefse, and decide you love them more than anything else in the world, you can make the decision to invest in specialized lefse equipment.

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Norwegian Dakotan Lefse
Slightly adapted using this recipe, as well as the recipe from Miss Anna Berg, of Bismarck, North Dakota, in the December 22, 1948, issue of The Bismarck Tribune. Makes about 40 sheets of lefse.

Ingredients:
9 cups of potatoes, mix of red and russet, mashed
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp white sugar
3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus 1-1 1/2 cups more for rolling out the dough

Instructions: 

Peel and cube potatoes, add to a large pan, cover with water, and boil for about 20 minutes, until soft enough to mash.

Mash potatoes in the pan and then measure out 9 cups into a very large bowl. Add the butter, cream, salt, and sugar and mix thoroughly.

Allow the potatoes to cool.

Press a paper towel onto the top of the mashed potatoes and then cover the bowl with a towel. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.

Using your hands, in the bowl, mix the flour into the potato mixture, beginning with a full cup, and then about 1/4 cup at a time, until everything is thoroughly mixed.

Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll into a ball, slightly larger than a golf ball. Place on a cookie sheet or plate. You can stack them on top of each other if you run out of space.

Refrigerate for about half an hour.

Place a towel folded in half near your work space. Place two pieces of wax paper between the folds of the towel.

Heat an ungreased large griddle or skillet up to about 500 degrees.

Liberally flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Begin rolling out the dough, adding more flour as needed to your work surface, the dough, and the rolling pin (you may need a lot, and that’s OK). Roll until very thin, into a circle about 10 inches in diameter.

Using a spatula, transfer the dough circle to the preheated griddle. Cook for about 1 minute, until light brown spots begin to form on the bottom. Then flip and cook the other side for about one minute.

Remove the lefse from the griddle, fold in half, and place between the two pieces of wax paper in the towel.

Continue until the dough is gone, laying the complete lefse on top of each other.

Allow to cool completely, fold into a quarter, and eat immediately or freeze for later use.

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Often, families will make dozens of lefse at a time, eating them throughout the holidays. (I now understand why, since making them is time-consuming and rolling them out is tedious). As with most flatbreads, they are amazingly versatile. Some families stick to adding only butter, or butter and sugar. Others go savory by filling them with lutefisk (!!). I’ve generally gone the butter-sugar route. Long story short, butter, potatoes and sugar together are tasty.

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Mandy Ross’ Sweet and Salty Chex Mix

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I’m very excited to be joined by Mandy Ross, the woman behind the very popular Instagram account, Paper of the Past, where she shares her collection of vintage scrapbooks dating from the 1850s to the 1940s. Each post beautifully displays a few pages from the collection, alongside the name of the owner, and often some details about them and even some of their own words. When I asked how she got interested in collecting scrapbooks, Mandy told me, “To me, old scrapbooks are time capsules in book form. They combine stories and mystery with a bit of an underdog vibe. For one reason or another, they have been discarded or lost, and need a good home. Each book tells a story, but I have to dig around to piece that story together.” I have my friend Sarah to thank for introducing me to Mandy’s Instagram, but many more discovered her before I did. She started her account in the summer of 2016 and now has over 16,000 followers, who enjoy her glimpses into personal pasts. Mandy adds, “Not only do I enjoy the investigative process of unraveling the story, but also putting those memories back out in the world via Instagram.”

Obviously, whenever I have a guest on the blog, I ask them to share a family recipe. When I first reached out to Mandy, she wasn’t sure which recipe she would provide, but she knew immediately it would be something that her grandmother made. I told her that the emphasis of my blog is always the significance of the recipe, meaning it’s often something so ingrained in a family’s life that it’s hardly noticed. After some thought, Mandy told me the story of her grandmother’s Chex Mix recipe. “I visit my grandparents in Phoenix before Christmas each year. We make Chex Mix, listen to oldies, and play cards for three or four hours a day. Actually, we play cards while we wait for the Chex Mix to bake. I keep my phone in another room (most of the time) and they don’t have internet. In winter, it’s sunny but cold in Phoenix. We watch birds and rabbits running around in their backyard. There’s a grapefruit tree, cacti, and hummingbirds. It’s very peaceful. Their house is full of antiques and old family photos. Throughout the years, it’s been the same relaxing visit. No matter how much my own life changes, the Chex Mix process and card-playing stays the same.”

“It’s very simple, but the process holds a lot of great memories for me,” Mandy says. She and her grandmother still make the mix every year. “We make a few batches for me to pack in my suitcase and share with the rest of my family in San Diego. So, even though it’s a recipe that my grandma and I share, my family enjoys the tradition as well.”

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Mandy Ross’ Sweet and Salty Chex Mix

Ingredients:
3 cups Corn Chex cereal
3 cups Rice Chex cereal
3 cups Honey Nut Chex cereal
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup pretzels
1 cup Cheez-It crackers
6 tbsp butter
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tsp seasoned salt
3/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In an un-greased large roasting pan, melt butter in the oven.

Stir in Worcestershire sauce, seasoned salt, garlic powder, and onion powder.

Stir in cereals, mixed nuts, pretzels, and Cheez-Its until coated.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Spread on paper towels or wax paper until cooled.

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Mandy’s grandmother “grew up in a big happy family in Southern California.” She owned and managed a beauty salon, and still does her friends’ hair. She also exercised her creativity through her hobbies of making porcelain dolls, sewing, and painting ceramics. Mandy says, “If she were in her twenties now, I think she would have a successful Etsy shop. My house is full of blankets, coasters, dishes, hanging towels, and bags that she made for me.”

Mandy says that her grandmother is partially responsible for her path. “She taught me the importance of having a lifelong hobby. Both her and my grandpa have creative hobbies that bring a lot of joy into their life. She also taught me it’s OK to have an entire room, or area, of your house dedicated to your passion. I live in a one-bedroom townhouse, with minimal space, but have converted my dining area into a scrapbook library. My grandma has a sewing room and a guestroom full of fabric.”

As interest in her work grows, Mandy is seeing more opportunities arise. “In the future, I expect to do more collaborations and tell the stories in more detail. I’d love to create a YouTube channel and share flip-through videos or un-boxing videos. My goal for the second year is to use Instagram to branch out into non-Instagram projects. I’d love to visit more library collections and also organize a small exhibit in San Francisco.” One particular scrapbook has already blossomed into its own research project—Mandy will visit Luxembourg soon to research the owner of the scrapbook, which contains love letters from a Luxembourger woman named Suzie to an American man. (You can even follow along with Mandy on her journey by searching #findingsuziekonz on Instagram.)

Mandy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and share you and your grandmother’s recipe! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for you next!

The Quakers and the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie

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Happy, happy #piday, everyone!  For the first time since December, it’s snowing here in Chicago. Like, really snowing. In March. Less than a week before Spring. To remind us all where we live and that we didn’t beat the system this winter. It’s bogus. But, what an excellent day to make (and eat) pie! For this, the most special of days, I made the official pie of my home state, Indiana: The Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.

I have mentioned that I’m from Indiana before. I haven’t lived there for over a decade now but it is, for all technical purposes, home. My family, both sides, have lived in Indiana for well over a century. My dad’s side, mostly Scottish and German, came from Pennsylvania, down through Ohio, finally settling in Indiana in the mid-1800’s. My mom’s parents were both originally from Central Indiana. My maternal grandfather’s family were Clevengers and were part of a very large group of Quakers in the area.

Originally hailing from Guilford and Randolph Counties in North Carolina, Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, were fierce abolitionists in a southern state where slavery was a way of life for many landowners. Unable to change the laws in North Carolina, throngs of Quakers began migrating to the free states of Ohio and Indiana in the north. My particular family line settled in Randolph County, which was named after the county they left in North Carolina. And it is generally agreed that with them came a version of the sugar cream pie recipe.

The sugar cream pie falls into the category of “desperation pie.” Desperation pies could be made by cash-strapped families with low-cost ingredients that they often already had on hand. They could also be made during the winter months when fruits were less available. The sugar cream pie was traditionally favored for its simplicity (another hallmark of the Quakers), which allowed for farm wives to toss everything into the crust, stir it with a finger, and pop it into the oven to bake as they went back out to help with the farm chores. Several variations of this recipe exist, including those from the Amish and the Shakers communities. It’s likely that all three of these groups have some responsibility for the continued popularity of this old pie in Indiana. One of its more well-known purveyors, Wick’s Pies, in Randolph County, has been in business for over 60 years and makes their sugar cream pie with a recipe dating back to the 19th century. It’s not uncommon for families, especially those near Randolph County, Indiana, to have their own family version. And in 2009, the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie became the “official pie of Indiana.”

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Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Recipe

Crust Ingredients:
For the crust, I halved this recipe from Epicurious.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp granulated sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick of unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp, chilled
1/4 cup (or more) ice water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar

Cream Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slight variation of the Hoosier Mama Pie Company’s Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie recipe.

3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Ground nutmeg, for sprinkling
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Instructions:

Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes and spread out on a plate. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to set in the freezer for about 10 minutes.

In the bowl of a food processor, add the flour, sugar, and salt. Set in the freezer as you get the remaining ingredients ready.

In a measuring cup, fill to just over a 1/4 cup, then add 3 ice cubes.

Remove the food processor bowl from the freezer and pulse a few times to combine the flour, sugar, and salt.

Add the butter all at once and quickly pulse until the mixture produces smaller than pea-sized pieces. Add the water and vinegar and pulse again about 5 times to combine. Grab a bit of the dough and squeeze together. If it holds its form, it’s done. If it is still dry, add 1 tbsp of ice water at a time, pulsing about 3 times in between, until the dough begins to form large clumps.

Pour the dough out onto a work surface, gathering into a ball any little pieces of dough that escape.

Form the dough into a ball and flatten into disk. Wrap the disk in plastic; refrigerate at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight. Before rolling out the dough for your pie, allow it to soften for about 5-10 minutes at room temperature.

Roll out the dough into a circle that’s large enough to allow the edges to fall over the edge of the pan. Crimp the edges of the dough, or decorate with a fork. Place the pie crust in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Blind bake your pie crust by first heating your oven to 400 degrees. Place the frozen shell on a baking sheet. Line the inside of the inside of the pie crust with parchment paper and fill to the top with uncooked beans or pie weights. Be sure they fill to the edges, to help the pie crust keep its shape. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate 180 degrees, and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove the pie shell from the oven, and remove the parchment paper and weights from the crust.

Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Bake for 2-3 more minutes until the crust’s interior is golden. Allow to cool to room temperature before filling.

Combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to break up any clumps and to combine ingredients. Gently stir in the heavy cream and vanilla with a wooden spoon or spatula. Do not whip the cream or the pie will not set.

Pour the filling into the baked, cooled pie shell, sprinkle with nutmeg, and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pie 180° and bake for about 20 more minutes, or until the edges look as though they are beginning to set and large bubbles cover the surface. (The pie will still be jiggly in the center when you remove it from the oven.)

Allow the pie to cool to room temperature, then put it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours and up to overnight, before serving. When ready, dust with confectioners’ sugar before slicing and serving.

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And that’s it, you’ll have a rich pie to satisfy the masses. Traditionally, only white sugar would have been used, so if that is all you have, you can certainly use it in place of brown sugar. Your pie will be a bit sweeter than it would if you use a mix. Brown sugar adds caramel color and flavor to the custard filling, which is really nice. Cinnamon and vanilla may have also been a little over-budget for Indiana farm wives a century ago, but both add some nice depth. And I really think the sprinkle of nutmeg on top is important. To me, that’s what makes it a real Hoosier Cream Pie. The sweetness of this pie makes it a perfect pair to a strong cup of coffee. And if you can resist eating it all, do yourself a favor and freeze a piece to eat (while frozen) the next day. You’ll thank me for that later. Sweet eating!

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Sarah (Ferguson) Potter’s Grandma’s Olde Time Bread Pudding

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Alta, as a teenager

As a genealogist, it’s not every day that you meet someone in the same profession as you, at least not in person. That’s why I’m so lucky to know Sarah (Ferguson) Potter. Sarah is a genealogist, who has been researching her own genealogy since she was in 8th grade. Five years ago she started Modern Ancestry, a genealogy company that focuses on combining research with creative products, such as family history books, custom photo albums, documentary-style films and recipe books.

When I reached out to Sarah about this post, I was so excited that she agreed to participate. Sometimes when I interview ladies for this blog, there is some back and forth on the recipe they would like to share. However, Sarah had recently gifted her sister with a collection of their favorite family dishes while growing up for Christmas, so she had several recipes to choose from. On top of that, she had already done so much of her own research on her family that it was fascinating to read everything she had to share about her grandmother.  And what better way to kick off Women’s History Month than by remembering an entrepreneurial American woman?

Sarah’s grandmother, Alta, was born in 1915 in Minooka, Illinois and raised in Morris, Illinois. She was the oldest of 8 children, and helped raise her 7 siblings with her single mother during the Depression. She quit high school at age 15 and began working at the Cameron Inn, where she lived with the owners and worked every job she could.

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Later, after she married her husband, Chet Ferguson, Alta worked with her mother, Carrie, at the Carson House cooking homemade meals for weary travelers and guests. Twelve years after she married her husband, she and her husband went on to have three children. During that time, she devoted her time to raising her children, but in the 1960s she decided to go back to work. She began working at a restaurant in Morris called Sis’ Drive-In. Later, she and a business partner would buy the restaurant and run it themselves before selling in the early 1980s.

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Sarah and her grandmother, Alta.

While Sarah was lucky enough to have several of her grandmother’s recipes to choose from, she found it difficult to pick one that held the best memories of her grandmother. She settled on her grandmother’s bread pudding. While unsure exactly where the recipe came from, it was a favorite at her grandmother’s restaurant, and years later customers would approach her father and aunts and tell them how much they loved the dish.

It was a dish that Sarah found so delicious that she remembered it through the years. It was not a dish that her grandmother made for every meal, but certainly for special occasions, and she was kind enough to share the recipe here on the Hungry Genealogist. After trying the recipe, let me tell you, you will not be disappointed. The recipe is simple to make and is made with simple ingredients, but the dish comes out of the oven looking quite luxurious and tasting even better than it looks.

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Grandma’s Olde Time Bread Pudding

Olde Time Bread Pudding Ingredients:
6 slices day-old bread
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, beaten
3 cups milk, scalded
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Olde Time Bread Pudding Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast the bread and butter while still hot. Arrange the bread in a buttered baking dish that is at least one quart in size. Sprinkle the raisins over the top of the toast.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, and all but 2 tbsp of the sugar. Add the milk and whisk to blend.

Pour the egg and milk mixture over the toast and raisins and allow to sit for about 10 minutes, occasionally pressing the bread down into the milk mixture to absorb.

Mix the cinnamon with the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar and sprinkle over the top of the mixture.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the top is slightly browned and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Serve warm or cold.

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Sarah told me that, even though her grandmother is no longer living, her cousin David still makes her grandmother’s bread pudding recipe, with a rum or bourbon sauce. She said that she has not made the recipe since her grandmother passed away, but that she hopes to try to make it for herself and her family soon. If you would like to learn more about the work that Sarah does, please visit her website and check it out for yourself! Sarah, thank you so much for telling us about your impressive grandmother, and sharing her delicious recipe!

Persimmon Upside-Down Cake

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It was painfully cold here in Chicago this past weekend. The kind of cold that, when I get into the house after putting a load of clothes in the wash in our basement, I find myself irrationally angry. Angry cold. That’s where we are. And, as a perfect Chicago response, it was almost 50 degrees yesterday. Just warm enough to keep people from losing their damn minds.

Freezing temps gives me the perfect excuse to stay inside and bake. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. In my last post, I told you how my mom had been sending me my grandma’s old recipes. The recipe parade continues. Usually mom will send recipes for dishes that I’ve had 100 times and sometimes she sends me giant questions marks. One of the more recent question marks piqued my interest: cottage pudding.

Grandma had a habit of writing down all the ingredients in a recipe, along with oven temperatures and cooking time. What she fails to include, though, are basically any description or assembly instructions whatsoever. From the name, I thought it might be some kind of pudding made from cottage cheese, but the recipe did not call for cottage cheese and this “pudding” actually turned out to be a sheet cake, made in a 9″ x 9″ pan, with sweet sauce, made separately, and meant to be poured over the top. Instead of combining the two together at the end, I realized that I could use grandma’s  recipe to create a version of an upside-down cake made in my cast iron skillet. And, I figured I’d go ahead and make it with persimmons, because I haven’t made anything with persimmons this year and usually they are the fruit that makes my winter go ’round. I’m so glad I did! I’ve never made an upside-down cake before, but it was really quite easy (minus the flipping part) and actually, really delicious. I imagined that I was going to pull some dense cake out of the oven, all gummed up with caramel. Instead, the cake was super soft, not too sweet, and accented with pretty drizzles of persimmon-infused caramel sauce.

I think you could use almost any soft fruit for this recipe, like apples or plums. Or, I suppose you could forgo fruit all together and just make a caramel cake. That’s your prerogative.

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Persimmon Upside-Down Cake
Very slightly adapted from Grandma Dini’s Cottage Pudding recipe.

Cake Ingredients:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp, flour
2-3 persimmons, sliced 1/8-1/4-inch thick

Persimmon Caramel Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup water
1 cup brown sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Persimmon Upside-Down Cake Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice 2-3 persimmons, horizontally, very thin. Just enough slices to cover the bottom of a 10″ cast iron skillet. Hold on to any extra pieces of persimmon that do not fit in the pan. You should have about 1/2 a persimmon left. Chop into small pieces.

In a small sauce pan, combine the leftover persimmon pieces and 1/2 of the water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Some of the water will evaporate, which is fine.

Turn the heat down to low. Add brown sugar, butter, flour, vanilla, salt, and additional water to the sauce pan. Heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring often, though not constantly, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. At this time, you can remove any larger pieces of the persimmon, leaving the smaller bits in the caramel. Set aside to cool slightly. You should have between 3/4 of a cup and 1 cup of caramel sauce.

For the cake, in a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, whisking to combine.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together for about 2 minutes. Add the milk, egg, and vanilla extract, and beat until just mixed. Add in the flour mixture in about 4 batches. Mix until just combined with each addition of the dry ingredients. (This batter will be quite thick, which is perfect.)

Grease the sides of your cast iron skillet with butter to ensure a smooth removal of the cake. (You only need to butter the sides of your skillet; the buttery caramel will take care of the bottom of the skillet.)

Add half of the caramel mixture to the bottom of the skillet. Next, add the thinly sliced persimmon to the bottom of the pan until it is mostly covered. Add the remaining caramel over the top of the sliced persimmon.

Next, add the cake batter over the top of the persimmons and caramel. Do your best to get the batter to the edges of the skillet, as evenly as possible. If you have a spots where caramel is poking through on the edges, that’s fine.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes, by inserting a toothpick all the way through to the caramel. When it comes out clean, it’s done.

Quickly cover the skillet with heat-safe dish, invert the dishes together allowing the cake to slide out of the skillet and on to the serving dish.

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Grandma Dini’s Cream Puffs

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Happy New Year! Gosh, it’s 2017, for real. I’m so ready. Aside from that catastrophe that happened in early November, 2016 was not as cataclysmic for me as it was for everyone else. In fact, for us 2016 was basically uneventful, and even a little monotonous. Uneventful and monotonous are not really that fulfilling, so we’re hoping to make big moves in 2017. We’ll see. Also, we will see if my theory that years ending in even numbers are generally lame and odd numbered years are when magic happens. Bring it, 2017!

Aside from being the second day of a new year, today is National Cream Puff Day! In honor of a day that can’t possibly mean much of anything, I’m making a recipe that is actually quite meaningful to me. My mom has recently been sending me handwritten recipes from my grandma Edna’s recipe notebook. Mom refuses to scan the recipes, and instead texts me photos of the notebook she took with her phone, which is somehow equally annoying and very, very cute. It’s been great seeing these old notebook pages again, covered in stains from use and written in my grandma’s beautiful, cursive handwriting.

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This is grandma Edna–or to me, forever and always, Grandma Dini. For the longest time, I called her Grandma Dini and didn’t give it two thoughts. She responded to it. I was sure it was her name, until I learned otherwise. But neither my brother nor any of my cousins called her that and I never knew why. Later in life I asked my mom where that name had come from. She told me that when she and my dad used to tell me that we’re “going to grandma’s house,” I would always ask, “Which grandma?” Grandma Edna had a tiny, yappy dog, a miniature pinscher, named Houdini. So their answer to me was, “Grandma with Houdini.” Grandma Dini was born.

She passed away when I was twelve, so I didn’t know her as long as I would have liked, but Grandma Dini was a real cool lady. She played the clarinet, she introduced me to one of my favorite movies, Coalminer’s Daughter (when I was entirely too young to be watching such a film), and when she was younger, she and her sister, Florence, competed in local singing/yodeling contests, and were offered a chance to compete at a larger competition. Unfortunately, their dad said, “Absolutely no way,” and instead of becoming a star, grandma was married and having babies by the time she was 17. Not that she was necessarily unhappy with that path, and it certainly wasn’t an uncommon one where she grew up in rural, Central Indiana, but I can’t help but wonder what might have become of her if she had become a famous, touring yodeler.

Perhaps most important to me, Grandma Dini was our family’s genealogist. When she passed away, I unofficially inherited the green notebook in which she kept track of our family history, and I have been researching family histories, my own and others’, ever since. And now my job is to help people learn about their family history! Profound effect, indeed.

A month or two back, my mom asked me what my favorite dessert was that she used to make me. Without a doubt, cream puffs. Light and fluffy, filled with pudding, dusted with powdered sugar, what’s not to love? The cream puffs that my mom used to make were from my grandma’s recipe notebook, and now I’m sharing them with you today.

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Grandma Dini’s Cream Puffs
Makes approximately 12 3-inch cream puffs

1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
1/8 tsp salt
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degree and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a saucepan, combine water and butter and bring to a boil.

Add the flour and salt and stir until the mixture begins to combine and form a ball.

Add one egg at a time, stirring to combine. The mixture will slowly come together and, when ready, should be stiff enough to hold the spoon vertical.

Drop 1/4 cup spoonfuls onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet. (I used a pastry bag to pipe them onto the cookie sheet. This step is completely unnecessary, but it makes the puffs slightly more uniform, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until they’re just light brown.

Once the puffs have cooled, cut the tops off, fill with pudding/cream, and dust with powdered sugar.

Tip for cream filling: I used this pastry cream recipe from The Kitchn. After making the cream and removing it from heat, I mixed in 1 tsp of espresso powder and 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips until melted and smooth.

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Cream puffs are a super simple treat and a definite crowd-pleaser, particularly if that crowd is me. Make a batch to kick off the new year! I’ll be right over.

A Runaway Wedding Cake

I hope everyone had a nice Father’s Day. I hope that there isn’t one tie or golf club left in any store. That’s what you get dads for Father’s Day, right?

Speaking of fathers, whether or not you readers know, I am a genealogist. I do this work professionally, but that doesn’t mean I ever stop researching my own family. One of my favorite things about researching family history, no matter whose it is, is the little surprises you find along the way. I used to mostly be interested in making my tree as big as possible. However, that meant skipping over a lot of details of my ancestors’ lives.

A few summers ago, I got real heavy into researching newspaper records for stories about my family. I was in it deep. As luck would have it, I turned up an article about a family secret that, as far as I can tell, no living member of my family knew. Ninety-five years ago today, my 16 year-old great grandmother, Edna May, married her 20 year-old boyfriend, Walter. She had not told her family that she was marrying and, before it was announced to her family, she had been reported missing. She had told her adoptive family that she was going to see a friend and, as the papers reported, she left wearing a black dress with a pink sash. The couple ran away to Michigan from Northern Indiana and married in Hillsdale, Michigan. Here is a newspaper headline from the day after they returned.

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Edna had a rough life before she ran away to marry. Her parents had divorced when she was very young and she and some of her other siblings had been sent to live in an orphanage. She was taken in by a family in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but, according to her daughter (my grandmother), the family treated her more like a maid than a daughter. I can only imagine that she was running away from her life as much as she was running to marry the boy she loved.

I thought that these two deserved their own wedding cake, one that they probably didn’t have when they showed back up at their parents’ doors, announcing that they had eloped.

The keys to this cake are 1) egg whites for ultimate cake fluffiness and 2) almond extract. Almond flavoring truly makes this a wedding cake. Have you ever had a white wedding cake, where there is something a little extra? A flavor that you can’t pinpoint, but you are increasingly addicted to? It’s probably almond flavoring. I think people may love or hate it.

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White Wedding Cake

Cake ingredients:
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup whole milk (room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp almond extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
5 large egg whites (room temperature)
12 tbsp unsalted butter (room temperature, cubed)
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Cake instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare two 9-inch cake pans by lining with parchment paper, spraying with cooking spray, and dusting with flour.

In a large measuring cup, combine the milk, egg whites, and both extracts. Beat together until well combined.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and beat on slow-to-medium speed until the mixture resembles very small pebbles.

Add half of the milk mixture to the bowl and continue to beat for about 1 minute to 1 1/2 minutes. Add in the remaining milk mixture on medium speed and beat until fully combined, less than a minute. Do not overmix.

Split the mixture between the two greased, floured, cake pans. Smooth the top of the batter flat.

Cook for 20-25 minutes. Halfway through cooking, switch the places of the pans in the oven. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for a few minutes before removing them from the pan and allowing them to cool completely on a cooling rack. Don’t forget to remove the parchment paper!

Allow the cakes to cool completely, at least 2 hours, before frosting.

Frosting ingredients:
1 pint whipping cream
4 tbsp unsalted butter (very soft)
4 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Frosting instructions:
Beat the unsalted butter, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla extract together in a large, deep bowl until thoroughly mixed.

Add half of the whipping cream and beat on high until the cream begins to firm. Add the remaining cream and beat on high until the mixture is firm enough to produce folds.

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I was going for a three layer cake, so if you make the recipe above, your cake will be a little shorter.

It’s a little “rustic,” sure. But I’ve had some beautiful cakes that didn’t taste all that great and, let me tell you, this cake tastes heavenly. And this frosting is much lighter and less sweet than regular buttercream, which I find to be a little overwhelming.

So happy 95th anniversary to my great-grandparents! I think their story is such an excellent example of why it’s fun to dig into your family’s history. Researching your family doesn’t mean just finding names and dates of your ancestors. Sometimes you find stories like these that turn those names and dates into real people. With just a little research, you too might be able to unlock some family secrets. And I hope you do!