So, this weekend is Mother’s Day and as always, I will not be celebrating my mother nor will I be celebrated. As I’ve mentioned before, my family of origin does not celebrate “Hallmark Holidays” but even if we did I would still be brunch-free this Sunday because my parents just boarded a plane bound for Asia. I know, lucky them. Since I don’t have my own kids I will not be awakened by the pitter patter of little feet presenting me with Bisquick pancakes at 6am, and for that I am quite grateful. I actually hate the idea of breakfast in bed. I’ve never understood why it is considered a fabulous luxury to literally wake up to food. I need some time in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I love breakfast but can I please wash my face, brush my teeth and have a cup of coffee first? Plus, I get the hiccups if I eat semi-prone.
The whole Mother’s Day thing is another example of wanting what you don’t have. For some I think it feels like a burden to honor Mom on the second Sunday in May. What if there are tensions with spouses? Or you are unfortunate enough to have a mother who is historically hard to please? I’m sorry for you if you do because I don’t and I know that I’m lucky; I’d be happy to pat my mother on the back with a special treat if she wasn’t headed to the airport. I’ve already told the story of the awkward moment during my last Mother’s Day, 30 years ago, when my younger, maternal grandmother deferred to my older, paternal grandmother as we were passing them their gifts, by saying, “Age before beauty.” However, they are both on my mind this week.
Speaking of age, among the too many cookbooks on my shelves is my paternal grandmother’s tattered 1949 copy of “The Settlement Cookbook” which I nabbed from her before she died. (Don’t be sad, she was 95.) To look at it one would think I had a loving, warm Grandma who spent her days toiling in the kitchen. It’s held together with packing tape and crammed with makeshift bookmarks: shopping lists on bits of paper, a coupon for Dial deodorant that expired on 6/71, the 1967-68 schedule of Arts & Crafts classes at Riverside Church. Actually, I can only think of one dish (two, if you count the “toasted cheese” sandwiches she made in her toaster oven) my grandmother ever cooked and it was disgusting—she called it Maryland Chicken but it bore no resemblance to what Maryland Chicken is supposed to be. Her version was a baked, breaded, boneless chicken breast that had an unintended surprise when you cut into it: it was only halfway cooked! The sight of that beige, rubbery cutlet sitting on a plate next to a pile of grey, boiled string beans is burned on my brain. Have you lost your appetite yet? No wonder my father weighed 135 pounds when he left for college. Oh, and he’s six feet tall.
Regardless, I will never give the cookbook away because of its ironic meaning and also, I like old cookbooks. The thing about Grandma, my father’s mother, was that she always looked like a grandmother. She was 4’11”, had naturally white hair, and needed to lose 10 pounds or so. And she once picked me up at the airport in a peach and brown plaid rain coat and striped polyester slacks. So, she really should have been turning out comforting, Jewish grandmother-y food.
Nana, my mother’s mother, didn’t really look like a grandma. She had some pizazz. She was 5’7”, manicured nails, pack of Viceroys in a Vuitton case, and designer (wholesale, of course) duds. I’d like to think I inherited my “blond” hair from her. So, the fact that she didn’t have a signature dish would come as no surprise to anyone who met her. She literally never cooked a single meal for me ever. That drudgery was left to the housekeeper or the restaurant.
So, imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago my mother called excitedly to tell me that in an article on condensed milk the New York Times had printed a recipe for what seemed like Nana’s fudge, a treat I’ve heard about (but never really believed) over the years and which I think Mom attempted with us when we were kids. I thought it was so nice that she had memories of making fudge with my grandmother since Nana never cooked for her either. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her olde timey family recipe was essentially the one that Eagle Brand and Carnation used to print on their can's label. We all have family myths we need to hang onto for whatever reason.
In fact, authentic, old-fashioned fudge is pretty hard to make well. I won’t go into the chemistry behind it but if you care, click here and learn some more. “Nana’s” recipe uses sweetened condensed milk rather than fresh milk (or cream) and sugar. It is a way to avoid the graininess that old school fudge can fall prey to, again, boring chemistry involving crystallization but just know this easy fudge is supremely good.
This Sunday I will help my nieces pay homage to their own mother since my brother-in-law is out of town and no one will be around to "cue the pancakes." And despite my devotion, I have no intention of getting to their house at the crack of dawn. But I will make “Nana’s” fudge and let the girls present it to one of the best mothers I know, my sister. And if I can resist temptation, I’ll set a few pieces aside to wait patiently for my own cute mother’s return. Happy Mother’s Day!
Happy Mother's Day Just Like Nana’s Fudge
Adapted from the New York Times, adapted from Michael Chu's Cooking for Engineers
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4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 pound (3 cups) good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (I used Guittard Extra Semisweet Chocolate for a change. Ghiradelli 60% Cacao would be good too.)1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/8 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup chopped, toasted nuts or dried fruit of your choice. (optional)
Grease an 8x8-inch square baking pan and line with two overlapping pieces of parchment or waxed paper. Paper should at least come up to the top of pan to later serve as handles.Combine butter, chocolate, milk and salt in double boiler or pan set over simmering water OR place all ingredients in microwave safe bowl and nuke on medium for 20 second intervals, stirring between nukes. Either technique, heat just until completely melted. You don’t want the mixture to get too hot.
Scrape mixture into prepared pan and smooth with spatula. Refrigerate until set. At least 4 hours or overnight.Using wax paper, lift fudge on paper out of pan and use a large knife (a ruler is helpful too) to cut into one inch squares. If fudge is too stiff to cut, let it sit on the counter for a bit to soften.Yield: 49 one inch squares
NOTE 1: Fudge tastes even better when left to ripen a day or so in an airtight container.
NOTE 2: If you are someone who likes to shake-up your fudge with nuts or dried fruit, stir in ½ cup of your favorite to the mixture after melting but before scraping into prepared pan. My sister is a purist so there were no add-ins to my fudge.