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Traditional Baking in the Braker Household

by Flo Braker

Gathering around the table has been one of my greatest pleasures through all the thirty-plus years of my marriage. Even as a new bride, when my cooking skills were primitive, I always took pride in what I cooked. When our two children were young, the dinner table was the place where we all talked about our day, an opportunity for everyone to express thoughts and feelings and to ask questions. I wouldn't embarrass the children, who are now adults, by divulging the questions they asked, but I will say that today when we reminisce, their childhood curiosity provides us with some of our best laughs.

I also regarded suppertime as a chance for informal education about cultures of the world, and what better way to learn than to sample international cuisine? Salt and peppered with the usual American dishes of that time -- meatloaf, beef stew, hamburgers, T-Bone steak, roast beef, fried chicken -- I served French, Chinese, German, Italian, Mexican, and Indian meals. We would often talk about what we were eating, the country where the dish originated, its customs and even its agriculture.

Cooking many types of cuisines was easy in California, where we have always been lucky enough to have access to so many products and a bounty of produce. Even though everyone in the sixties relied on canned and prepared foods more than they do today, I tried to use fresh ingredients as much as possible. This determination was strengthened during a visit from my parents when my mother prepared vegetable soup from scratch. When our six-year-old son commented that the soup was almost as good as the kind from the can, I renewed my efforts to introduce quality food and cooking to the family.

Hopefully, all of this kind of cooking that went on in our house provided stimulating food for thought, but what the family really liked best came to the table last: dessert. Along with developing family favorite main dishes, like macaroni and cheese from scratch, Hungarian goulash and osso bucco, we came to have some simple, homey standby desserts.

These recipes became second nature to prepare over the years. Even for our children, who spent a lot of time with me in the kitchen when they were young, the All Occasion Cake and Spicy Cookie Crisps are still a snap to whip up. These desserts were welcome on the table anytime of day, and we have shared them for many years with our close friends, who became our extended family in California, where we have no other relatives.

As time has gone by, it's a joy to see that Braker cooking and eating has come full circle. Our children and their spouses, even with today's hectic work schedules, juggled meals, and zany routines, are still sitting down at the table together, using some of the same recipes, and carrying on the dessert tradition.

All-Occasion Cake
serves 12
This cake has brought a lot of eating pleasure to so many people. Though I came upon this recipe years ago in a Sunset cookbook as a coffee cake, I've renamed it because of its versatile nature.

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk

Adjust rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 350ÉF. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking pan. Sift the flour, granulated sugar, salt and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon into a large bowl. Using a rubber spatula or whisk briefly mix in the brown sugar to blend ingredients together. Stir in the oil, mixing well.

For the topping, remove 3/4 cup, loosely packed, from the mixture. Add the nuts and the remaining cinnamon and with fingertips, blend well; set aside.

To the remaining mixture, stir in the baking powder and baking soda. Blend in thoroughly the egg and buttermilk until mixture is smooth. Pour into prepared baking pan. Sprinkle topping mixture evenly over batter. Bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of cake.

Spicy Cookie Crisps
makes 6 dozen
I fondly remember this molasses-cinnamon cookie from my childhood. These round, cinnamon-brown cookies, are just spicy enough and not humdrum with coffee, tea or milk.

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup light molasses

Adjust rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 350ÉF. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift flour, baking soda, and spices on a sheet of waxed paper; set aside.

Using an electric mixer at medium-low speed, cream the butter until smooth, about one minute. Beat in the sugar at medium speed until creamy. Add egg just until fluffy, then gradually add molasses until incorporated, scraping down the sides. Lower speed, gradually blend in the dry ingredients and mix just until thoroughly combined.

Shape teaspoons of soft dough, one teaspoon at a time, into balls, and space one-inch apart on cool baking sheets. Sprinkle granulated sugar over cookies. With another baking sheet, press down on cookies to flatten them, all at once. Bake, one sheet at a time, for eight minutes or until cookies are flat, feel slightly firm to the touch, and are cinnamon brown.

Place baking sheet on a wire rack, lift off cookies from parchment when cool. Stack in an airtight metal container at room temperature for up to one week.

Flo Braker has been teaching baking techniques and her sweet miniatures across the country for twenty years and is the author of several cookbooks.

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