My Mother's Cookbook:
Comfort Foods —
Chicken Pie, Baking Powder Biscuits, Dumplings and Boiled Dinner
To me, true comfort food means basic ingredients lovingly prepared and savored on a cold winter evening. We had plenty of those evenings in Iowa where the long freezing nights started in November and lasted through February.
The task of preparing a hot and hearty meal every night for a family of six was more difficult for small town housewives in the 1940s. Fast food didn’t exist, and there weren’t many restaurants to go out to and even fewer good ones. We’d push on home to eat when returning from family vacations instead of stopping at a restaurant along the way for “warmed over mashed potatoes”, as my dad described them. On rare occasions he brought home Chinese food from Des Moines or Omaha, but Mom didn’t have many breaks from her cooking duty.
Some of the most dependable meals of my childhood were the dishes that my mother learned from her mother-in-law who lived with us. It’s no wonder then that she often turned to these recipes to answer the persistent question of what to have for dinner.
My grandmother Buddy had cooked in the traditional way, more closely derived from the pre-industrial era of her youth than the recipes Mom knew. These dishes aren’t time consuming or difficult to prepare for those interested in feeding their families quality, made-from-scratch meals.
In the first months of my marriage, I asked Mom for Buddy’s chicken pie recipe. When learning that the first step was to stew a chicken, I told her that I didn’t have a pot big enough to hold a whole chicken. Closer to the truth may have been that I didn’t know how to do it.
Mom tried to relieve my hesitancy in the type-written recipe card she sent me. Her instructions include this parenthetical encouragement: “Dad says use two pots if you don’t have one large enough.” My parents weren’t about to let me get away with being a timid cook.
I made Buddy’s excellent chicken pie recently, and tasting it again after so many years made me realize the value of preserving family recipes. I’ve eaten many versions of meat or chicken pie through the years in restaurants, other peoples’ homes and even the frozen variety for a quick but mediocre meal after work. I never found anything close to the rich flavors of this recipe.
It’s included in my mother’s cookbook, but this is the version for two she sent her fledgling cook. She wrote it perched on a high stool at the old typewriter she kept in a corner of her kitchen for writing carbon-copied letters to my brothers and me to keep us informed of family news after we’d left home.
Buddy’s Chicken Pie
Stew one hen in a large pot with lid, adding a few slices of onion and celery leaves or one sliced celery stalk; partially cover with salted water.
Cool and take meat from bones, reserving broth. Save breast meat for sandwiches, if you care to.
For two people, melt 1 rounding tablespoon chicken fat (or butter) with 1 rounding tablespoon flour. Blend in equal parts of milk and broth, making medium-thick gravy. Add about one cup of chicken, cut in small pieces, and season highly with salt and pepper.
Now line a small casserole or pie plate with your excellent pie crust. Add chicken and gravy. Cover top with crust, marked with our trademark and crimp the edges.
Bake pie at 350 degrees for at least 20 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned.
For biscuits, make thinner gravy and bake about 20 minutes at 425 degrees, with some of the biscuits floating on the filling.
My Notes: Mom loved chicken skin and, in the cookbook version, she adds: “Eat the skin!”
Our trademark was slits shaped like a leaf cut into the top pie crust to vent the steam.
See the first chapter of this cooking series for Mom’s pie crust recipe or use your own favorite.
Virtually every cookbook of the 19th Century contained a recipe for biscuits. Women made them regularly, often two or three times a day, especially in the South. My mother served biscuits frequently on cold winter evenings, and they are an easy-to-prepare accompaniment to soup, seafood or chicken salad and almost any kind of creamed dish or casserole. The old recipes called for lard as shortening, but I prefer the flavor of butter.
Baking Powder Biscuits
3 cups flour
¾ teaspoon salt
5 teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons lard or butter
1 and ½ cups milk
Sift dry ingredients, cut in shortening, add milk and mix quickly. Knead dough for just a minute and roll out on a floured surface to ½ inch thickness. Use a biscuit cutter to form, then place on greased baking sheet.
Make drop biscuits by adding a little more milk and dropping tablespoonfuls directly on the greased baking sheet.
Bake biscuits at 450 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until browned. Makes about 12.
For Cream Biscuits use: 2 cups flour, 1 cup cream, 3 rounding teaspoons baking powder. Unless cream is very thick, cut 1 to 2 tablespoons lard or butter into the flour before adding cream.
For Sour Cream Biscuits use: 2 cups flour, 1 cup sour cream or buttermilk, 1/3 teaspoon soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 2 tablespoons lard or butter.
Dumplings are another recipe from Buddy’s collection to complement chicken that’s been cut into pieces before stewing. Dumplings evolved from the necessity of adding extra substance to stews and soups when meat was scarce. Created from regional grains, dumplings are thought to have emerged independently in most European cultures. More widely seen in colder climates, it’s no wonder dumplings mean winter in my mind.
This dish, known for its humble origins and ease of preparation, challenged my mother. Her cookbook note says, “Very difficult — I use Bisquick.” She easily made rolls and breads, pies, popovers and macaroons of exquisite lightness, but she had trouble with dumplings.
A few failures can do that to the best of cooks. Many women embraced the easier way with Bisquick after General Mills introduced its packaged mix in 1930. Real dumplings taste better though!
A pinch of salt
1 cup rich milk or half and half cream
2 rounding teaspoons baking powder
2 cups flour
Beat eggs until light, add salt and milk. Stir well.
Sift baking powder with flour. Add milk and egg mixture and mix to make a thick batter. Drop batter by spoonfuls into simmering broth and chicken. The batter should touch the top of chicken pieces but not be submerged in broth. Cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until dumplings are done.
One summer evening when daylight lingered until 9 p.m., Buddy and my brothers went out to pick wild gooseberries. Dad obliged his mother’s after-dinner whim and drove us to a hill on what was then the edge of town. Later in my childhood that hill developed into a new residential neighborhood. We got out of the car beside a mass of gooseberry bushes, and we all helped with the picking so Buddy could make us a pie. For what other reason would a grandmother take us in search of berries?
Another comforting recipe from Buddy was boiled dinner, which is an older term for New England boiled dinner. When homemakers still cooked over open fireplaces, this one-dish meal freed them for other chores while the meat simmered for hours in a covered iron kettle. Women who emigrated from the eastern United States brought their particular version of boiled dinner to the Midwest. Buddy’s parents had come in a covered wagon from New York State in the 1850s and must have brought this recipe with them. Traditionally served as the noon meal to farm workers, it was also noontime fare at our family table.
Buddy’s Boiled Dinner
3 to 4 pounds beef roast (or pork)
5 small onions
1 head of cabbage
Salt and pepper
Salt and pepper the roast. Place in pot large enough to hold the vegetables to be added later. Cook in several cups of water. You will want very little liquid left when the vegetables are added. Cook until the meat is tender. Salt vegetables lightly; add onions, carrots and potatoes, all whole. Cook small wedges of cabbage last. Serves six.
Mom’s Note: I often remove vegetables as they are done and keep them warm in the oven (she didn’t like mushy vegetables.)
By the time I reached my early teens, Buddy had grown old and needed more personal care from us. Well-padded from years of good eating, Buddy’s arthritic bones slowed her down and her mind had slipped into senility. Mom gave me the job of washing her hair once a week, a task that centuries of women have done for each other.
A docile soul, Buddy never objected when I asked her to lean over the kitchen sink so I could wash and rinse her yellow white hair. With head wrapped in a towel, I’d lead her to the chair where my dad usually sat. The skin of her pinkish scalp seemed so delicate. I had to be careful as I combed the snarls out of her hair, so thin and fine that it dried in minutes.
When my oldest granddaughter, Abby, was two she liked to pretend to comb other people’s hair the way her mother did hers. Once when I visited her, she started combing my hair with a wooden spoon from her play kitchen set. She stood behind me as I sat on a low stool, compliant as Buddy had been as I felt the gentle pull of Abby’s hands in my hair.