I don't know what I thought family recipes were, but I've always assumed I didn't have any. My mother's mother was not known for her cooking. "She didn't know how to boil water when she got married," says my mom.
My father's mother was a cook, but her recipes haven't traveled easily through the generations. Her three sons, while enjoying the food, didn't learn how to make it. Later, when my grandmother died, my father brought home her recipes. But he discovered that they often listed only ingredients – no quantities, no directions. Now and then, he plays with them; he re-creates her suet pudding and molasses cookies each Christmas. But these aren't flavors from my childhood.
My mother used to tell me that her biggest worry about marriage was seeing all the dinners she would have to make stretching out into the future. She succeeded in putting homemade meals on the table each evening, ranging from Shake 'n Bake chicken to Crock-Pot explorations. My favorite meal was spaghetti and meat sauce that got its flavor from a packet – hardly the beginning of a family recipe tradition.
These days, my husband and I enjoy trying recipes from our growing collection of cookbooks and magazines that feature articles on "the best way to roast chicken" and "quick homemade beef soup." We've also branched into Thai and Peruvian food, a far cry from our Anglo-Saxon heritage. My 16-year-old daughter has picked up a baking habit as well. She searches for new chocolate confections on the Internet.
None of these are the kind of recipes passed down through generations. I've always imagined that a family recipe would have some ancestor's name attached – like Aunt Ruth's Famous Fudge or Grandma Sue's Corn Bread.
Then, one day as I pulled out the recipe for Lemon Loaf, our standby dessert, it hit me. I've had a family recipe tucked inside our card file for years.
It's not a fancy dessert – a moist lemon cake baked in a loaf pan, iced with sugar and lemon juice that pools in the pan's corners to form a sweet-sour crust. My mother started making it when I was a teenager. She often serves it as a finish to extended-family get-togethers, and she and I both make it for birthdays. I have a snapshot of my daughter as a toddler, blowing out three candles on a lemon loaf in my parents' dining room.
It's an easy, quick dessert that I've made many times, following the directions my mother wrote on an index card in her neat printing. The card is no longer a clean white; it's spotted here and there. The blue lines that guided her handwriting have faded.
No one is sure where the recipe came from. When I asked, my mother looked at my father and they pondered together – the newspaper, a magazine? "I can picture it being cut out from something," my mother said.
Can it be a family recipe if it came from outside the family? I guess all have to come from somewhere. My mother-in-law freely confesses that the recipe for her famous rum cake – the one she distributes each Christmas – came out of a magazine decades ago.
Over the years, we've made this humble cake our own. We seldom bother to sift the flour, and we sometimes raise the oven temperature to hurry the baking. My children compete for the sugary end pieces, and we like to make extra icing, to be sure there's plenty of lemony crust to go around. Now, my daughter has added this cake to her dessert repertoire. Last week, she made it for my mother's birthday. If that doesn't make it a family recipe, I don't know what does.
Moist Lemon Loaf
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1-1/2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup milk
Grated rind of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Cream together the sugar and butter or margarine. Add the eggs and blend well. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, and stir into egg mixture alternately with milk. Stir in grated lemon rind. Beat well. Pour into greased loaf pan (8-by-4-by-2-1/2 inches or 9-by-5-by-2-3/4-inches).
Bake 45 minutes, or until a tester inserted near center comes out clean.
Mix together juice of lemon and 1/2 cup sugar. Pour over loaf while it is still hot. Cool in pan.