What was the deal with the fascination of jellies and aspic?No, really, this is not a rhetorical question, I sincerely want to know.  Why?  What on earth drove our forebears to dump things like sauerkraut, or hard boiled eggs, or animal organs into meat-based jello?

Was it a practical joke?  A suicide attempt?  Was it merely the fact that since they could do something, they did something, like a mad scientist creating a human/Twinkie chimera?

As bizarre as the trends in the 50s and 60s were, those folks only had to open a box of gelatin, make a big bowl of crime against nature, and chunk it in the fridge. But jellies (sweet) and aspics (savory) have been eaten since 1682.  And commercial boxed gelatin has only been around since 1842.  So for the first 160 years, hours of cooking down animal bones and hooves was the only way to get it.  You had to be profoundly motivated to do that; but people did it—a lot.

Why would they do that?  Have you ever looked at some of those jiggling mounds of horror?  It’s enough to give you nightmares.

My father is the least picky eater in the history of eating.  Not only was he raised in the “shut up and clean your plate” era, he was in the military.  If he was running late for work, he’d drink two or three raw eggs.  As children we joked that he was a human garbage disposal.This man, when asked about aspic dishes, said, “No, they’re not my thing.”


Please don’t misunderstand.  There is very definitely a place for gelatin in the kitchen.

Collagen is connective tissue in long-cooking cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef shank.  It’s basically gelatin.  When cooked down slowly, it melts and imparts to the food that unctuous, lip-smacking property which makes eating ribs and barbecues such a joyous experience.

I’ve seen recipes where unflavored gelatin is added to quick soups and stews, to mimic that mouth-feel.  It’s actually a brilliant tip.And fruit-flavored jello is great.  Whether it’s strawberry/pretzel pizza, a bowl of black cherry, or a baggy full of Knox blocks tucked inside a lunch box, sweet, crayon-colored jello is awesome.

Every year, my mom makes a special dessert for Christmas dinner.  And jello has a starring role.

Mom’s Christmas Cake

jello-cake1 box white cake mix, made according to directions in two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans

1 small box strawberry jello

1 small box lime jello

1 large tub Cool Whip, thawed

Red and green sugar

After cakes are baked, let them completely cool in the pans.

When cool, mix jello with boiling water according to directions.  Poke each cake with large fork at ½-inch intervals.  Slowly pour hot jello over cakes, one red, and one green.

Refrigerate cakes for three hours to completely set.

To unmold cakes, dip pan bottoms in hot water for 10-15 seconds, being careful to not get cakes wet.

Put one cake on serving platter and frost its top with generous dollop of Cool Whip.  Top with other cake, then frost the entire cake.  Sprinkle on colored sugar and refrigerate until service.  Keep cold so slicing and serving are easier.Serves 6-8.  

Mom likes this cake so much that some years she uses blueberry and strawberry jello, and makes it for Independence Day.

I appreciate, gentle Reader, your patience with my aspic rantings.

But as cathartic as it was to vent, I still don’t know why would people eat that stuff?  Really, why?Thanks for your time.

Bread’s Greatest Hits

My grandmother was a straight-up, bona fide, character.Her name was Geraldine.  She looked (and acted) like an Old Testament prophetess.  She was very tall, thin, and wore her iron-gray, waist length hair in a very tight bun during the day and in a long, ropey braid when she went to bed.

Granny was tough and blunt.  She had plenty of rules and expected everyone to fall in line.  My dad always said his mother was a “test pilot at the broom factory”.

You know, she actually did bear a resemblance to Margeret Hamilton…

She married my grandfather in October of 1929.  Somehow, she fed and clothed her growing family during the greatest economic crisis this country has ever known.

She was enormously frugal and wasted nothing.  She made her own intense, delicious grape juice.  She canned, pickled and repurposed.  She still managed to produce dessert almost every night.One of my favorites was a jello-based dish.  She used the black walnuts that grew in her yard.  Dad loves them, but I find them as bitter and dark as a Dickens spinster.  In this recipe, I subbed in pecans.

Granny’s black cherry dessertjello-dessert

1-6 ounce box black cherry jello

3 cups boiling water

1 cup ice

14 ounces cream cheese

1 ½ cups large pecan pieces, toasted

Prepare your cream cheese: cut into ½-inch cubes using unflavored dental floss.  Place in refrigerator to get very cold. 

In a large bowl, mix jello, water, and ice.  Stir in pecans.  When the jello’s room temp, fold in cream cheese, keeping individual cubes intact.  Pour into 9X13 dish, refrigerate, and allow to set completely (around 4 hours).

Serves 8-10.

I think Granny went to Sunday school with General Washington.  My father’s middle name is George.

Granny also made her own potato bread.  When we visited, she would cut thick slices, toast them, and slather on butter and/or jelly.  It made the best gosh-darn toast you ever tasted.

A couple weeks ago I tried a new bread from La Farm, in Cary.  It’s Carolina Gold rice sourdough. rice-bread-1It’s very moist and tasty.  But the best part is, it makes the best toast since I sat at Granny’s table and ate my weight in hers.  I discovered it October 10th, and am on my second loaf, with plans to get more next week.  That doesn’t sound remarkable until you know that the loaves are huge, and I’ve been the only one eating it.

And this brings me to my main point.

Life is too short to eat dreadful, sub-par bread.  I’m talking about you, Wonder and Sunbeam. We live in an area rich with great bakeries, so there’s no excuse.

Here are a few of my favorites and where to get them, plus a tip to make frozen and day-old bread bakery fresh all over again.

Lots of places sell baguettes, but Earth Fare sells crusty-on-the-outside with pillow-y soft interiors for 98 cents—every day.

Costco bakes square rolls that are kind of like ciabatta.  Sandwiches on them are delicious, but they’re awesome just eaten with cold salted butter.

The Co-op has a seven-grain that is really delicious.  It makes a grilled cheese that even my white-bread-loving Petey enjoys.bakeriesNinth St bakery has quite a few lovely loaves.  A couple of my favorites are Sourdough French and sunflower.  They also have a whole grain that’s quite good.

Whole Foods, Scratch and Loaf all have diverse and delicious bread.

I leave you with a couple carb hints.

When you freeze bread, it stops the clock on staleness and mold.  If it’s toast you’re after, just toss slices, still frozen, into the toaster.  You may have to turn it up to get enough color for your taste.

If it’s rolls or loaves, leave frozen until oven heats to 350.  When it’s at temp, run each piece under water and place directly on the rack.  Then throw about ¼ cup water into the oven as well (the steam keeps the crust crispy and the insides cloud-like soft).  Bake for 13 minutes then take it out and place on cooling rack so it doesn’t get a soggy bottom (soggy bottoms are the worst).

Good as new—I promise.  There are so many things in life that you’ll probably regret.  For the love of guacamole, don’t let bread be one of them.

Thanks for your time.

My mom, the awful cook

*Last week the Henderson Dispatch had some serious production issues and my column did not run in the paper.  Since they are running it this week, there will be no new Henderson piece.

Please enjoy this classic column from 2011:

This is the Tree Frog cabin in Linville, NC.  One of my favorite spots on earth.

A dream vacation for me would be weeks in a quiet mountain cabin, or an isolated beach cottage. I’d do tons of cooking with local produce and ingredients.

For my mother, that would be a punishment. She belongs in a bed and breakfast near shopping, and in the center of mild happenings, dining out every meal.

Sooo much more my mom’s speed.

With the same deliberate, reverse pride I have in my lack of algebraic aptitude, Mom will declare her lack of skill and interest in the culinary. “I’m not a good cook, and only do it to eat!”

This is no passive-aggressive bid for flattery. She honestly thinks she can’t cook.

She’s wrong.

You could fill an elementary school auditorium with the people who have eaten her spaghetti sauce once, and forever after jockeyed for repeat invitations to her table with the naked shamelessness of a reality star at 14 3/4 minutes.

Her macaroni and cheese is terrific. Best eaten cold, late at night, and in semi-private. My faithful companion: my eight-year-old self, in a flannel nightgown and bare feet, armed with a Superman fork in one hand, a salt shaker in the other, and a defiant grin. It is comfort food of mythic proportions.

Ask The Kid about Gramma’s chicken-fried steak. Last visit Gramma was implored to not only make it, but to give a chicken fried class.

She’ll occasionally cop to minor skill in baking and deserts. She’s a trained cake decorator (in the 1970s-no-fondant-lots-of-star-tip style). Despite buying the crust, her pies do just what pies should, taste yummy and make you feel loved (a la mode or not).

Each year at a holiday soiree, she feeds everyone lunch, and we ice hundreds of sugar cookies. Not only do we feast, we aren’t allowed to leave without dozens of her deceptively simple but crazy delicious Christmas cookies.

She’s a self-taught wizard of producing sweet treats with very little on-hand, while dodging three loud, hungry kids and all their friends.


She can make eclairs without fear or recipe. Who does that?

Here are two of my mother’s classics:

The first, wacky cake, is from her mother. I think it was originally a recipe to cope with shortages during the depression and rationing during WWII.
I don’t think there was frosting on the original (Heresy!). But Mom covers hers in a thick warm layer of milk chocolate, fudgy goodness.

Wacky Cake

wacky cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
3/8 cup?! (I know, weird; sorry.) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. In a lightly greased 9 inch cake pan put in dry ingredients. Make a small well in the center of the dry and pour in wet ingredients. Mix together and bake for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick comes out moist with just a couple of crumbs clinging to it. Cool, then cover with warm fudge topping.

Fudgy Milk Chocolate Icing

fudge icing
Melt three tablespoons of butter in saucepan. Whisk in 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. When dissolved, add 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons whole milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. It will look like you’ve made a mistake, but keep whisking and it will turn to a glossy yummy glaze. Also good on marble brownies.

The other is a recipe picked up at a horse show potluck in Puerto Rico, and named for a trendy playdoh-type toy we all had then.


slimePrepare large box lime Jello according to package directions. When cooled, but not set, pour into blender along with one 15 oz can of pears, drained, and one 8 oz block of cream cheese, softened. Blend until completely smooth. Pour into mixing bowl and fold in one packet of Dream Whip (Whipped topping mix found in the baking aisle. Can substitute thawed, 8 oz tub of Cool Whip) made according to directions. Let set for at least four hours before eating.

Don’t ask me why, but we all had to have this stuff.

Thanks for your time, my father’s sweet tooth, and Mom’s bake sale fantasies.


Eat like a hummingbird

I’ll bet you think this is going to be about dieting, don’t you?

Nope, this is pretty much the opposite.  I’m going to talk about Thanksgiving desserts.  We’ll return to the hummingbird presently.

Last month the Sylvan seniors at Mt Sylvan Methodist Church (5731 N. Roxboro Road) asked me to speak to the group.  I said yes, but was terrified.I’m a talker, not a speaker.  The last time I gave a speech was in junior high, when I ran for 7th grade class president.

I lost.

My talk went well.  I didn’t freeze, or faint, or puke.  And afterward they gave me dessert.  There were many homemade treats, so I enjoyed a sampler plate.  My favorite was a pumpkin bar.  Which is crazy, because I don’t normally like pumpkin. It had great flavor, a delicious gingerbread crust, and a very thin, very crispy top, kind of like a brownie.It was made by Bess Hunnings Smith, the pastor emeritus at Sylvan.  When I requested the recipe, Bess started laughing.  She told me it came from a box.  It was Krusteaz Pumpkin Pie Bar Mix.  It’s available in local stores.

So if you or any of your Thanksgiving guests usually dislike pumpkin, or you desire at least one easy dish for the day, give it a try.When I was a kid, there was a neon-green goo that came in a mini-trash can.  This ‘toy’ really didn’t do anything except gross out adults.  It was called ”Slime”.

When we lived in Puerto Rico, my mom got a fruity gelatin recipe that also was a rather unfortunate shade of green.  My brother christened it Slime.   Even though it isn’t the most appetizing looking dish, it’s really yummy, and everybody in the family loves it.

Ross Family Slimeslime 21 large package lime jello, prepared according to directions, but not set

1-14.5 ounce can of pears, drained

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 envelope Dream Whip (not Cool Whip), prepared according to directions

Put warm-ish prepared jello, cream cheese, and pears into blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  Gently fold in Dream Whip.  Pour into 9×13 dish or ring mold and refrigerate until completely set.  Serves 12-16.And now we’ve circled back around to the hummingbird (cake).

You’ve got two simple desserts so far.  This next one is a show stopper that is also simple, but deceptively so.

*Note-no hummingbirds are harmed in the making of this cake.  Rather, it’s full of things that might attract a hummingbird.

Double-glazed hummingbird cakehummingbird cakeCake:

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple with juice

1 cup canola oil

3 large eggs, beaten

 2 bananas roughly chopped, not mashed

½ cup toasted pecan pieces

2 teaspoons vanilla


hummingbird glaze

2 tablespoon melted butter

1 tablespoon rum

1 can cream of coconut (make sure you get coconut cream, and not piña colada mix)

2 ½ cups sifted powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 325.  Generously grease 10 cup Bundt or tube pan.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt.Remove 2 tablespoons juice from pineapple.  Set aside for glazes.

Add pineapple, oil, eggs, banana, nuts, and vanilla.  Stir by hand until just blended—don’t beat.

Pour batter into Bundt.  Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean, but moist.  Place cake, still in pan, onto cooling rack set on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes.Mix glaze #1: Whisk 1 cup of powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon pineapple juice, rum, and enough butter to make glaze that can be drizzled.

Invert still hot cake onto rack, and remove cake from pan.  Drizzle with glaze #1.Let cake finish cooling completely.

Glaze #2: Into powdered sugar whisk 1 tablespoon pineapple juice and enough coconut cream to make glaze.  Spoon over cooled cake.  Allow glaze to set before serving.Serves 16.

Any (or all) of these desserts would be great for turkey day.   They’re quick, and can be prepared well in advance.

And to retain some sanity during the holidays, it’s wise take any opportunity to cut yourself some slack.Thanks for your time.