I had stopped in early one morning to say hello to my mother on the way to the cabin. As we drank coffee and ate warm chocolate chip cookies, I asked her how it happened that she always had something fresh for me when I stopped in. I was expecting her to tell me that she had a motherly instinct that told her when her firstborn was going to show up on the doorstep. Instead she said, “When I get up, I just hate to think that I won’t have something fresh baked if someone stops in.” She treated everyone like me? And I thought that I was special!
So she got up nearly every morning, considered whether the bread or cake she had baked the day before would do for guests that day. If the answer was no, she stirred up a batch of cookies or made a pan of brownies to serve visitors. She baked more in the winter, and hardly a day went by when you could not get a fresh cinnamon roll, sticky bun or a big piece of warm coffee cake when you stopped at her home.
And people did stop. I knew a few of the ones who had been family friends when I was growing up, but many were ones she met through her work as an election clerk or at one of her part time jobs or ladies she got to know through a mutual interest in knitting and crocheting. I heard their names, though. “Sometimes I wish I had a little more time to myself,” she would say, “Yesterday, Lucille stopped in, then Gladys, and just when I was going to watch my TV program, here comes Avis. I was about worn out, and I don’t know if Gloria (or whatever the character’s name was) got caught by Leo or not.”
But she kept inviting people over, kept baking and and cooking and loving her busy life in the country, her days filled with friends until those last few months in the nursing home.
Here is one of her recipes for a simple yeast coffee cake. When my sister Patsy sent me the recipe, it was simply a list of ingredients. Like many housewives of her generation, Mom knew how to put recipes together. She just needed to know what went into them. Having watched her make a lot of coffee cakes, I had a fair idea of how to proceed, but Jerri advised me from the beginning, and she was the expert who showed me how to test the cake for doneness.
The most difficult step in this recipe is waiting for the milk and shortening to cool enough so you can add the other ingredients without killing the yeast. You have to let the dough rise for an hour or so, but you can use that time to relax or straighten up the house. Once you have made this coffee cake a couple of times, you’ll be wondering who to invite over next.
For the cake:
2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup soft shortening
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup raisins
For the topping:
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup flour
2 tsp cinnamon
6 T. butter
1 cup chopped walnuts
Dissolve the yeast in a quarter cup of warm water and allow it to proof.
Heat the milk to steaming and pour it into a large mixing bowl. Melt the shortening in the milk and allow the mixture to cool to lukewarm. Beat the egg until lemon yellow in a small bowl. Stir the sugar, salt, egg and one cup of flour into the milk and shortening. Then stir in the yeast and beat in another two cups of flour. You should have a very soft dough, almost a batter, when you stir in the raisins. If necessary, add more flour to make a soft dough that you can just barely stir with a spoon.
Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and allow the dough to rise. Make the topping while the dough is rising. Mix together the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a fork or pastry blender until you have a texture like coarse meal. Then stir in the chopped walnuts.
Grease a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with shortening or butter.
When the dough has doubled in bulk, stir it down and spread it evenly in the pan. Cover the dough with the topping and allow it to rise until doubled in bulk.
Preheat the oven to 375º and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Test for doneness by gently pushing down on the top of the cake near the center. If it springs back, the cake is done.
NOTES: This coffee cake is best when eaten warm a few minutes after you take it out of the oven. You can also warm it for a few seconds at medium power in your microwave. By “soft shortening” I am pretty sure Mom meant vegetable shortening which she stored in a kitchen cabinet as opposed to lard, which would be hard coming out of the refrigerator.