Mabel’s Recipe File:: Molasses Cake

So this recipe for Molasses Cake was next in my historic cooking adventure. I like spice cakes, gingersnaps, and molasses and so I thought this cake would be tasty. I also wanted to make it because it was Mabel’s mother’s recipe.

I ran into a snag with this recipe because the amount of flour was not specified. I tried to put in enough flour to give the batter a cake like consistency. I ended up, however, with a flat, sunken cake that was kind of mushy, not exactly a successful cake.

I just think it interesting that in writing the recipe both Mabel and her mother were able to know visually how to make a cake like this. Cooking from scratch everyday, three times a day, led to a familiarity with cooking and baking. Mabel made enough bread and cake or pickles and jam to KNOW when things were the right ratio or the right taste. I think in our world of convenience food and fast food we lose that connection to food.

Here is the recipe if you would like to experiment with it and hopefully, you will have a great cake.



Old Time Transportation

I try to walk to do many of my errands. I walk to the library (a lot), I walk to pick my son up from school, and I walk to church. I wish I could walk to the store, and I might in the future, but that trek usually requires at least a bike or usually our van.

In the summer I see other people out strolling, exercising, or walking their dog, and a few people picking up their kids from school, but in the winter all I see are the die-hard exercisers and dog walkers. Year in and year out I don’t see many people walking to do their errands or walking to someplace they need to go.

How different it would have been in Mabel’s youth before cars. You hitched up the horses or you walked and so most people in town would have walked. Every event and the layout of each town were predicated on the fact that you walked. The school was not on the edge of town on the highway (like it is now), but in the center of town. The grocery story was not on the other side of the highway on the edge of town (like it is now), but in the center of the town and there were several grocery stores.

We all struggle to fit in time to exercise. Everyone is lamenting the growing rise in obesity in youth. Taking care of our errands on foot instead of car would help all those problems, but the best things about walking are: the taking the time to talk about the things you see, stopping to observe something your children observe in nature or the neighborhood, the fresh air, the sunshine, or just trailing a stick in the snow as you walk.

So enjoy some historic transportation this week and park the car and use your feet.

Mabel’s recipe file :: Oatmeal Cake

One of the projects I want to work on this year is cooking through Mabel’s recipe file. I think it will be fun to discover new recipes, whether they are excellent or total flops. I also believe that actually doing history is the best way to learn about the past and each of these recipes has a wealth of historical information hidden within.

Last winter I took each recipe card and placed it in a sleeves, in a binder, a big binder. A few weeks ago I pulled down the binder and stared at it for a few minutes and then began to leaf through it. Where to start? Well, I started with desserts. What can I say? As I narrowed it down to that I skipped the pies as most of them seemed to focus on fresh fruit, which are not in season right now. Cookies I passed too. I just don’t have the time to scoop and bake hundreds of little cookies. That left me with cake. I can do cake.

The first recipe I picked was passed on to Mabel by someone I remember fondly, her daughter Jeanette. I chose this recipe for several reasons. First, the ingredients looked familiar and accessible. Second, it was made with oatmeal which sounded intriguing. Lastly, my mother said, “Everything Aunt Jeanette made was good.” I didn’t particularly want to start off with a flop.

It was good. It kind of reminded me of the flavor and moistness of zucchini bread. The only thing I wondered about in history terms was the frosting (which I did not make as the cake already had 2, yes 2 cups of sugar in it). The frosting called for “1 can cocoanut.” It did not say coconut milk, but cocoanut. Did cocoanut used to be canned? If so how much would be in a can? Would it be wet or dry? I know it wouldn’t have come in plastic bags historically. Or maybe she did just mean coconut milk. I asked my grandma and she couldn’t remember how she bought cocoanut and the internet was not much help. So I am left with a historical question, maybe you know the answer. If you know anything about canned cocoanut, let me know.

What do I know- this cake is good, and I’m going to share the recipe with you and with my favorite cousin Bethie. This is typed verbatim.

Oatmeal Cake                    (Jeanette)

1 ½ cups water 1 cup quick oats ½ cup butter or marjorine 1 cup light brown sugar 1 cup white sugar 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 ½ cups flour ½ teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon soda Bring water to boil and add oats. Let stand 20 minutes. Cream sugar and butter. Beat eggs into creamed mixture. Sift dry ingredients together. Add to creamed mixture than add oats. Beat well. Bake in greased 8 x 11 inch pan at 350or 35 min. When baked spread with topping and return to oven for a few minutes. Topping for cake- Mix 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, 1 tablespoon cream or evaporated milk add ¾ cup brown sugar and heat to boiling. Add 1 can cocoanut and 1 cup chopped nuts. Spread over baked cake, brown lightly.

This cake was very moist with a chewy, oatmeal texture that I liked. It would be terrific with chopped apples, I think. I would like to decrease the sugar so this is healthier and perhaps something I could enjoy on a morning with tea. I also think I could just throw in leftover oatmeal if I have that around.

This cake is definitely going from Mabel’s recipe file to my recipe file. What’s up next: chocolate chip date cake, salad dressing cake (yep), raw apple cake, and more. This is going to be fun.

The great thing about turnips

I love when my interests collide. Oftentimes, history or something I am reading inspire my knitting, gardening, or just general making. This intersection occurred with turnips this fall. Yes, turnips.

I planted turnips this fall for two reasons. One, they are a historic crop that you don’t really see in the grocery store, but one that Mabel and farm girls of the early twentieth century would have grown and consumed in abundance. Turnips grow easily, store terrific and they are cheap. You can also eat the greens on these fast maturing plants. But today, of course, you don’t really see turnips that often in the grocery store or your cookbook (though perhaps they are making a trendy food comeback-could they be the next kale?) I wanted to know what I was missing. What can turnips add to my plate and garden? In this same vein, gooseberry plants are on my birthday list.

Second, turnips grow quickly and can tolerate, even prefer, cooler temperatures; meaning I could plant them in my fall garden, which was great for me since I have limited space. I planted them in August with my then almost three year old son. We didn’t get a huge row because my helper spilled part of the packet, but up they sprouted quickly, to our delight.

They grew and grew and pretty soon I had a bunch of turnips. I did some recipe research and we roasted them, but mostly have been throwing a few of them in with our mashed potatoes. I think they add just a touch of flavor and make the potatoes go just a bit farther. I like their tangy flavor roasted too. Did I also mention they are  great keepers? I haven’t really had any go bad on me yet. Turnips are getting planted again in my garden and I’m so glad to keep a bit of history alive in  my garden and to introduce more foods to my kids’ plates.

But the best thing about turnips are the lanterns. Some of my favorite books are The Story Girl and its sequel The Golden Road by L.M.  Montgomery. These are beautiful tales of childhood with so much depth historically because Montgomery was writing from her own childhood. So many times I have read the books and filed away a bit of historic day to day life that I want to know more about or to try. When one of these facts collided with my gardening interest I knew I had to try it.

It was just a sentence about one of the boys making a turnip lantern to  light up their evening revels in the barn. A turnip lantern? It led to questions and imaginings and this.

turnip lantern

It was so cute and friendly and fun. Next year we are going to try to grow some HUGE turnips for a few lanterns. At that point I  will give directions on how to make one of your own. but just in case you are like me and are planning your garden now, save some room for turnips, a historic favorite, and now mine, too.

Music from the Big Woods Playing in the Kitchen

I am not  really a music person. I’m not a big fan or rock n’ roll or more recent popular music. I don’t have digital music files and few cds.  I don’t put on music to listen to that often, reaching instead for an audio book or radio drama instead.

But sometimes the kids want some music or we need something to get us moving. What do we listen to then? It is pretty simple: some classical, a little swing, bluegrass, folk, old hymns, well pretty much traditional stuff that has stood the test of time.

One CD that is a favorite of all of my family from the little ones to metal head is Pa’s Fiddle These feature a great band playing songs mentioned in the Little House books.  I don’t know how representative Pa’s music was  of 1880s popular music, but they all are historic songs from the 1860s or much earlier. They also always will get your toes tapping and perhaps you might even break into a jig, just like Grandma and Uncle George in the Big Woods… or me in my kitchen.

Pa Ingalls now, he rocks!

Finding the Missing Mitten

Well, it has been awhile, but a new baby always changes how your day to day flows and somehow writing got squeezed out in favor of clean laundry and washed dishes. The summer flew by with our precious little newborn and then fall seemed to come early with my first born starting kindergarten. Now the winter solstice has passed and winter is upon us and with the new year came the resolution to get back to writing.

I floundered for awhile trying to figure out where to start after so long, but then I thought to just start at where I am now. I try to write about what makes me think about the past- what makes me wonder or what makes me pause and reevaluate my present

During the quiet days after Christmas and New Year our family went for a couple of winter hikes. I am really starting to come around to my husband’s pont of view and enjoy winter more. Sure it is cold, but your hikes are crisp, there no bugs, you hear the snow under your feet, it is usually just your family enjoying the area, etc.

As we hiked what I like to think of as “our” prairie the boys investigated the icy patches, looked for the beaver lodges, picked up sticks and in general just explored nature with a curiosity that only young kids can have.We hiked a far ways and by the time we turned around  the baby was sleeping in her carrier that my husband toted and I was carrying the middle child back.

We were all ready to head home and make some eggnog and sandwiches. As we got to the van my oldest son carried his younger brother’s mitten and boot that had fallen off as I carried little brother back up the hill. Unfortunately, he was missing one of his own mittens.

One of the mittens I knit…

I am a little sentimental about what I knit my kids: so, we were going to go back and find that mitten. I went back first and hiked a considerable way back with no success. Next my husband and son trudged off to look for that mitten. If it had been another store bought one I probably would have just said, let’s just go- we have extra mittens at home, but that mitten had value to me.

It made me stop and think. What if we only had mittens I had knit? What if I had to go home and knit a new pair, not for fun,  or because I wanted to, but because he had to keep his hands warm.

We live in a throw away culture, especially in regards to our clothes. If it doesn’t’ fit, or if we lose it, or if it gets a hole or tear, off it goes to the trash or donation box because we always know we can get another cheap one at the big box store near by.

I want to keep my old farmwife “mitten perspective” and stop and think before I buy something new or get rid of something old- what if I had to make a new one or couldn’t afford to buy a new one. I think that would rapidly change many of my purchases.

Plus, I might just have to make some mitten strings.

When I’m Glad I’m Not Mabel

Every time I start to wax poetical about the past and how I should have been born a hundred years earlier the thermostat reaches 80 and I get cranky. AC is a beautiful thing and I really don’t know how people lived on those hot, humid summer nights before its invention.
I know they built their houses with porches, sleeping porches, utilized shade trees, and acclimated as the summer went one, but, people, when Mabel was a girl she didn’t even have access to an electric fan. No matter how you look at it before ac people just had to deal with it and as much as I like to think I could live without technology I have my ac cranking.
How about you?

growing garden. growing family


Radishes can be beautiful!


One of my helpers.


Blackberries, strawberries, and a bean tepees



My peonies are starting to bloom and I love them, but this simple green and white captured my attention.


Strawberries, blackberries and Siberian iris shadowed or sheltered by a pine



Any ideas on how to trellis these sweet potatoes in the back by the raspberries?


Baby came about two weeks ago and she is the sweetest little thing. We are all enjoying her, trying to take the time to just hold her because this third time around I know how fleeting this all is.
Of course, she arrived in the middle of garden time here in my neck of the woods. So, I tried to keep my garden plans realistic and practical. But as many of you know it is sooo hard to keep garden plans realistic and practical.
I always want to have a big Mabel farm-sized garden with plenty to save and preserve. Of course, that really isn’t practical on a town lot so I have tried to plant things on various family members’ country plots. I gave that up this year. With a husband who has a crazy work schedule, two young boys and a baby arriving in May I knew it just wasn’t going to happen.
So I am embracing a small garden mishmashed with my flowers in town. I am embracing delegating some planting to my husband when I was just too pregnant to kneel over the dirt. I am embracing enjoying fresh produce, but saving my Laura Ingalls Wilder garden and root cellar for when, well who knows when. Did I still plant too much, add a little too much to my garden plate when we all are still adjusting to the changes a new baby brings, yes, I probably still did all that, too, but my goal this year is to just enjoy my garden. I plan on enjoying watching things pop up each day, tasting fresh tomatoes and basil, and seeing my boys digging in the dirt or discovering things on their own. These things aren’t limited to the dream garden out in the country or historic gardens and orchards of plenty, but can come in a small plot or just one little plant.
So, what did I do in my garden this week.
We added some nice old manure to the garden courtsey of sheep that used to be in Mabel’s barn.
We transplanted some sweet potatoes. These weren’t in my garden plans, but you know how plants pop into your garden when you stroll through the green house.
We planted short rows of beets, carrots, swiss chard (never planted that before!), soup beans, more lettuce and spinach, green beans for teepees, and some (more) heirloom tomatoes and peppers.
We watched our peas, winter luxury pumpkins and sunflowers sprout (the best pie pumpkins ever. I save seed from these every year- if you want some contact me and I’d be happy to mail some to you).
We are anxiously watching signs for our strawberries to ripen, and watching the raspberry and blackberry canes grow, grow, grow.
We enjoyed fresh salad several times from our garden with those sweet baby leaves, picked lots of radishes (which just happened to be beautiful) and enjoyed rhubarb crisp and shortcake (made by others and from others garden because I do have a newborn 🙂
I can’t wait to see it all next week as things continue to grow. There is always excitement in the garden.

waiting for baby still

When you are forty weeks pregnant and past your due date baby tends to occupy your mind. So, I haven’t had much to post lately, but this morning I was thinking about what new mothers did years ago.
I think I could go the route Mabel did in the early twentieth century. She hired a girl to help for a few weeks after the birth of her older children. Hiring a teenage neighbor to stay at your house and help for a few weeks was a typical thing. The girl would have helped with household or seasonal tasks or perhaps with minding the baby and older children. I think having an extra set of hands would have been imminently practical. The young girl would have earned some money to set aside. Too bad we don’t do things like that anymore!

Happy May Day!

May Day is one of my favorite holidays or traditions, even though it is mostly forgotten about today. There are no hallmark cards, no pre-packaged May baskets, no slew of holiday celebrations, but maybe that is why I like it!

My love for May Day begins with my Gramps. Every May Day he would fill red plastic cups with cheesy popcorn, brachs candy, and m&ms, or some variation of that combination. They always arrived later than May 1st, but we always looked forward to our May baskets. It was just a simple treat for us kids and something to look forward to.

As I entered adulthood and especially after having children I decided to keep the tradition alive. Every year we make or buy treats to stuff into homemade baskets. This year being 39 weeks pregnant I decided to buy some discounted Easter treats, but still bake chocolate chip cookies, while other years the treats might be more elaborate homemade creations.

I don’t try to make prize-winning baskets, but some type of container the kids can make with me. Then we fill them with treats, sampling of course some of the goodies, and then deliver them to our neighbor, grandparents, cousins, etc. My four-year old is quite excited about delivery this year and plans to ring door bells, leave the baskets, and hide, like some people did historically.

I really enjoyed the description of May baskets in Little Heathens and also Ralph Moody’s in, I believe, Mary Emma and Company.  Check out these books and read about the different May basket traditions earlier in the twentieth century. They will inspire you to create your own May Day traditions. I just wish I would have asked my Gramps how they made and delivered May baskets when he was a boy in his farming community. It would have been wonderful to have his memories. Of course, I always have my own and now my kids are making their own May Day memories, too, carrying the tradition on one more generation.