Sweet memories from my Pittsburgh pantry’s past
Old family recipes recalled
I want less stuff. Not that I don’t try. I gift on demand. I donate books to the library. Towels, sheets, blankets to animal shelters and clothes, shoes and canned goods to collection drives. I recycle paper and plastic, and compost table and yard waste in a big green bin in my backyard. But it’s been tough to lower the clutter quotient. Like an ocean, at low tide, stuff goes out. At high tide, the space fills up. And the sea keeps rising.
Then there’s another problem.
I have letters, pictures, travel pamphlets, trip itineraries, maps, plus long-ago anniversary, graduation and birthday cards, not only mine, but from my parents and brother that I didn’t have the heart to toss after they died. In sorting through these Pandora’s boxes, I’ve given papers with historic value to museums in Israel and England, and to Jewish collections in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Now, should I revisit these memorabilia or let them go?
As my 97-year-old Aunt Charlotte Bluestone wisely advises, “You can bring back the past, but you can’t live there.”
On this day, with a will to rid, what rises to the top of my co-mingled family lore are 3-by-5 recipe cards (no box) all yellowed and stained by the ebb and flow of time. My mother, Paula Atlas, had stacks of these cards from her work, where she was a mastermind of mailing lists, first as the owner of a steel products company and later on an executive team that ran The Three Rivers Arts Festival. Each card had a neatly typed name and address. She’d arrange and rearrange the cards, sifting them to her purpose, and when no business purpose remained, she’d scratch out the address, turn the card over and write (or paste) a recipe.
Funny thing. I don’t remember my mother cooking at all. I shamefully admit I ate Oreo cookies for lunch in high school. Dinners were largely meat and potatoes, until my mother married Ralph Atlas, an Israeli, and Middle Eastern food with lots of grains and vegetables began to make its way into our lives. Her in-law-inspired tabbouleh was printed in The Carnegie Treasures Cookbook, a collection with a forward by James Beard, put together by the Carnegie Museum of Art. You can get a peek at it on the shelves in the museum gift store.
As I culled through the cards a few sweet memories surfaced: Aunt Jule’s (York) Shraft’s Icing, Aunt Nettie’s (Lieblich) Ginger Cookies and Aunt Charlotte’s Brownies. I decided to bring them back with an expert panel — two friends, w ho agreed to eat cookies, brownies, icing and tabbouleh for lunch. I added an asparagus wrapped in a prosciutto puffed pastry tart, a recipe I had clipped in the doctor’s office the week before.
Enough said. Here are the (sweet) recipes, and savory tabbouleh and their stories:
(Great) Aunt Jule’s
Aunt Jule was my grandmother’s sister. She lived in the Morrowfield Apartments on lower Murray Avenue. The Morrowfield was built as a luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top floor, but I never saw it. I have no memory of Aunt Jule’s Shraft’s icing, only the lingering smell in the hallways of everybody’s chicken dinner. Aunt Jule’s icing is sweet like Aunt Jule, who babysat me on the telephone, giving my widowed mother some time to herself. I’d recommend putting the frosting on ice cream, cookies, in between the layers of a favorite cake or solo on a spoon. Schrafft’s (spelled similarly) began as a candy company in 1861 and later became a restaurant chain, which in its heyday after World War II had more than 50 locations in New York, but other places too. Hot fudge sundaes were popular with customers. Perhaps Aunt Jule tasted one. This is her recipe in my mother’s handwriting.
Aunt Nettie’s Ginger Cookies
Aunt Nettie wasn’t really an aunt, but she was Aunt Jule’s friend who lived down the hall in an apartment with furniture fitted with plastic. I stuck to the couch and didn’t like to sit there. I ate Aunt Nettie’s ginger cookies with a glass of milk at the table in the kitchen that didn’t have sticky seats. The recipe on the card is in Aunt Nettie’s beautiful script. It took me three times to get it right. I suggest using butter, not smashing down the ginger balls before baking, lining the pan with parchment paper and cooking at 350° for 10-12 minutes, and no longer unless you like cookies burned on the bottom.
Aunt Charlotte’s Brownies
Aunt Charlotte was among my mother’s circle of friends who stepped up and helped take care of my brother and me when our father died. She made brownies for birthdays, camp days and sick days. She didn’t need an excuse. I wanted to check the recipe, so I gave her a call. While her brownie fans have seriously multiplied over the years, she insisted that “she made good brownies,” is not to be written on her gravestone. With that promise, she walked me through the recipe.
2 sticks of softened butter
2 cups of sugar
¾ cup flour
4 (1 ounce) squares of unsweetened melted chocolate
8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon of vanilla
Briefly, she says, “Mix all ingredients by hand in one bowl. Pour batter evenly into one large, or two small pans. Bake at 350° for 27 minutes or until a toothpick tester comes out clean.” She says the secret to moist brownies is to “take them directly from the oven and put them in the refrigerator.” I’m not sure what effect that has on lowering the refrigerator’s temperature, but the brownies were moist.
Aunt Charlotte’s confection is worth a step back in time.
My friends eagerly consumed the revived recipes.
“I feel seriously full in such a lovely way — transported through my palette into childhood family stories,” says Wendy Miller from Kensington, Maryland, who brought along a cookbook that her sister had compiled, filled with family recipes, photos and quotes. The book is dedicated to her sister’s adult children with the hope that they will be able to share stories with their children to keep the family heritage alive.
I’m hoping to do the same with Aunt Jule’s Shraft’s icing, Aunt Nettie’s ginger cookies and Aunt Charlotte’s brownies, lone (and worthy) survivors of the paper purge. pjc
Rosanne Skirble is a native Pittsburgher who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she is a contributing writer for Montgomery Magazine and other local publications.