A Can Full of Memories

hershey barMy father told me once that his favorite treat as a child was a sandwich made of white bread, sweetened condensed milk, and a Hershey bar, left to warm outside in the hot Louisiana sun. I can just picture my dad, the little boy known by all as “T-Roy”, (Cajun for “petite Roy” or perhaps, as his mother and older sister would have felt, “little king”), biting into it, with the softened chocolate oozing into the warm and creamy condensed milk, and the gooey mixture squirting out of the sides of this dessert sandwich. This, no doubt, would have been washed down with a glass of milk, fresh from the cow.

Open can of condensed milkI grew up seeing a can of sweetened condensed milk sitting, opened with its metal lid hinged upward, on the counter next to my Aunt Helen’s coffee pot. She liked a spoon of it in her coffee, instead of sugar and regular milk, to create the perfect café au lait. I also have strong memories of seeing my cousin Penny eating the condensed milk out of the can with a spoon. We didn’t use it at home; my parents drank their coffee black with sugar, until much later in life when my dad started adding a bit of milk from the fridge to his coffee. And, since my mother was not much of a baker, we didn’t regularly have it around for making desserts.

mil cartonFresh milk, however, was a staple of my childhood home and of mine today. My brothers consumed vast quantities of milk along with entire boxes of cereal as an afterschool snack. My mom kept us well-stocked with milk, even though she didn’t drink it at all herself. My dad preferred a glass of milk with his lunchtime “half a sandwich”, only occasionally having “half a Coke” instead. For supper, the evening meal, I don’t remember him having anything to drink, until much later in life, when he started drinking red wine. He often had a glass of milk before bed, something I continue to do to this day.

canned milk and canned sweetened milkI am often asked by friends, who all know I love to cook and bake, what is the difference between sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. The answer is simple: sugar. Evaporated milk is just milk that has had half of its water content removed. Evaporated milk can be substituted in recipes for regular milk by adding water or straight out of the can for a richer, creamier result. For the most delicious mashed potatoes, try using evaporated milk. Just peel, cube, and boil the potatoes until fork tender. Drain them and allow them to “dry” a bit before adding them back to the still hot pan they were cooked in. Mash and season with salt and pepper, adding evaporated milk straight from the can until the glorious off-white mountain is the consistency you prefer. Then, add softened or melted butter, taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve to the sounds of oohs and aahs from your loved ones.

Bisquick_Heart_SmartMy family loves pancakes, waffles, and biscuits made from Bisquick, and years ago, when one of my daughters asked for Bisquick biscuits, I used evaporated milk because we were running low on fresh milk. The biscuits were even more tasty than usual, and since then I’ve always used evaporated milk for the Bisquick recipes. Nowadays I use the Heart Smart Bisquick and fat-free evaporated milk to prepare the recipes straight from the side of the Bisquick box. Of course, fat-free does not matter much on a low-carb health plan, so Bisquick doesn’t feature regularly in our meal planning much anymore.

peanut butter fudge recipeSweetened condensed milk is also fresh milk that has also been evaporated by half, with the missing liquid being replaced by sugar. These two products, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, cannot be used interchangeably, but they both have their place in my pantry of staples. This is something I had to sort out myself years ago when I found a long-lost family recipe for fudge. The recipe, handwritten on a piece of paper torn from a stenographer’s pad, calls for “one large can cream”. When I first found the recipe in 2002, buried in a box of newspaper clippings, junk mail, and ephemera from my daughters’ elementary school, I knew right away I had found the missing treasure, the secret to my Aunt Lillian and my cousin Joy’s famous peanut butter fudge, but I was stymied by the term “can of cream”. I remember calling home, from Belgium to Louisiana, to ask my mom and dad what was a can of cream. My dad’s first answer was, pet milk“A can of Pet milk.” Next question: “What is Pet milk?” Finally, we established it was simply a can of evaporated milk, and off to the kitchen I went to recreate the dense, creamy perfection known as Aunt Lillian’s Peanut Butter Fudge. All of my daughters’ teachers that Christmas received a box of the fudge, and even those spoiled by growing up with Belgian chocolate and French pastries, swooned at the first taste.

Dr West fudge recipeI have another recipe, in my own handwriting, which calls for “3 cups cream” and in parentheses I have written “evap. milk” to clarify. This recipe I believe came from my friend Donna West, whose father was the local dentist. He made the best chocolate fudge and I think this is his recipe. I can remember eating it out of a glass Pyrex dish standing at the counter in her kitchen.

refrigerator lemon pieI also have been the recipient of handwritten recipes calling for evaporated milk’s first cousin, sweetened condensed milk. My mom sent me a recipe for “ice-box lemon pie”, advising me that she used to make it “years ago” but stopped because the raw eggs scared her after her kidney disease and subsequent kidney transplant. This recipe doesn’t scare me, especially with the availability of pasteurized eggs, and it is very simple to make, but the filling has somewhat of a “tinny” taste to me, no doubt caused by the sweetened condensed milk not having any actual cooking time to mellow out the canned taste.

hello dolly #1Another one of my cousin Penny’s sweet concoctions is the Hello Dolly cookie bar. This is no ordinary cookie, and could be used to test the levels of blood sugar after fasting, instead of the nasty glucose drink forced upon me when I was pregnant. It’s a simple layered cookie bar recipe: graham crackehello dolly #2r crust, layer of chocolate chips, layer of chopped pecans, layer of coconut, and then topped off with a can of sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top. After baking, it is necessary to let it cool before tasting, or risk burning the roof of your mouth from the caramelized sugary liquid glue holding the layers together.

When you have tired of drizzling it over cookie bars or into your coffee, there are many other uses for sweetened condensed milk. Perhaps the most popular use for it outside of the United States is dulce de leche. This is sweetened condensed milk that has been slowly cooked until it caramelizes and browns, turning it into a thick, toffee-flavored spreadable substance that finds itself in between layers of butter cookies, known as alfajores, or used as the filling in a jelly roll sponge cake known as pionono. My husband LOVES dulce de leche, and while living in Belgium, I became friends, via French classes, with a woman from Argentina and a woman from Nicaragua. One day I innocently asked how to make dulce de leche and started something of a cultural war as they both excitedly tried to tell me how it was made in their family homes. It is a bit scary, placing unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in a large stock pot filled with water, bringing it to a boil, and then reducing the heat to a simmer for three hours. The water must always be kept well above the tops of the cans or you will have sweetened condensed milk dripping from the ceiling of your kitchen after the cans explode. This can now be purchased ready-made, in a can that looks a lot like the sweetened condensed milk cans on your grocer’s shelves, but there is something satisfying about opening that can, after it has completely cooled, and unearthing that sweet, sticky goodness of dulce de leche that you created yourself.

In the rear of the Argentinian restaurant near our house tubs of dulce de leche can be purchased, as well as the jelly roll sponge cake, ready to be slathered with the toffee filling and rolled up. All it needs at that point is a dusting of powdered sugar and you have a delicious and exotic treat, albeit “assembled” rather than “homemade”.

Another shortcut dessert that takes just a bit more effort is a home cook’s version of the alfajores. The butter cookies are made using a box of yellow cake mix, and then spread with the dulce de leche, whether store-bought or simmered to perfection on your own stove. Cake box sandwich cookies are very easy to make: one box of cake mix (any flavor), two eggs, and one-half cup of vegetable oil. Mix together well, and then portion out onto parchment-lined baking sheets using a mini-ice cream scoop. Bake for 6-8 minutes or until lightly cracked on top and lightly browned on bottom. Allow to cool and then make a sandwich cookie with two of them and a filling of your choice: dulce de leche or a tub of frosting. My friends and family members adore these, and I’ve tried many variations: German chocolate cake mix with coconut pecan frosting, red velvet cake mix with cream cheese frosting, or lemon cake mix with dark chocolate fudge frosting.

A few years ago I became friends with a middle-grade children’s book author, Cindy Callaghan. At the time she had one published book, Just Add Magic, which was a fun read about a magic cookbook. I started a book club at my school, and after we read the book, we made some of the recipes in the back of the book and had a Skype visit with Callahan. We exchanged emails where I gave her feedback on the recipes and volunteered my cooking skills in the event she was in need of future themed-recipes. She gave me the wonderful opportunity to develop some easy to prepare treats for her next book, Lost in London, and featured my article on the British tradition of afternoon tea on her blog, along with my recipes. One of those recipes was for Banoffee Pie, a layered dessert consisting of a graham cracker crust, a layer of dulce de leche, sliced bananas, and whipped cream.

I absolutely love food, whether it is eating it, cooking it, shopping for it, or reading about it. During this journey of “an essay a week for one year”, I’ve discovered that I love writing about it as well. I love exploring the history of various foods and ingredients, finding their origin and connecting it back to my childhood memories. Many of our earliest memories revolve around food, and digging around a bit to find out the background on some of those memories is very rewarding. Whether it is a handwritten recipe thought to be long-lost, or a favorite cookbook, grease-stained and dog-eared, these things are all a part of me, even as I say goodbye to those I love who created these food memories for me.

A Narrow Sliver of Land

Map of Louisiana showing Plaquemines Parish in red

We all have our Proust moments: the singular bite of something that we loved and cherished in our childhood, re-tasted later as an adult, transporting us back in time to a particularly fond memory. Truman Capote, in his semi-autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”, describes in great detail the food of his childhood in the Deep South during the Great Depression: fried squirrel, biscuits and ham, flapjacks, Christmas fruitcakes. Capote could not hardly write a paragraph without offering a food memory from his past and neither can I.

Just as with Proust and Capote, my childhood memories are also centered on the foods of my youth, and even today, small tastes of certain foods evoke large memories of my life lived on a narrow sliver of land called Plaquemines Parish. I grew up in the small town of Port Sulphur, located 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally founded as a sulphur mining town, it became the crown jewel of the “fisherman’s paradise” and home to groves of citrus fruit. Unfortunately, Port Sulphur is now known for something else: the exact spot of landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. And, on that fateful day, I lost my hometown.

turkey and sausage gumo

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

My mother’s parents emigrated from Scotland in the early 1920’s when my grandfather was hired by the Freeport Sulphur Company. Unfortunately they both died before my mother finished high school so I never had the opportunity to experience “boiled mince”, which is the first dish she cooked for my father as a newlywed. It did not go over well. So, she learned her Louisiana-style dishes from my father’s mother, known affectionately by all as “Mama the Cook”.

red beans and rice

Louisiana Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Great cooks abound in my family.  I grew up on several different variations of gumbo, my mom’s versus my Aunt Helen’s and later, my brother Tommy’s.  My dad’s stewed chicken melts in your mouth and my brother John Roy fries a mean turkey. We each make our own version of the Louisiana staple, red beans and rice with smoked sausage (mine is pretty good). My cousin Kim’s crawfish maque choux won a local cooking competition. And then there’s the best jambalaya in the world, made by my Uncle Guy’s brother, Joe.

Uncle Guy, whose first language was Cajun French, married my dad’s sister and went into the grocery business with my grandmother.  He cooked every day in the back of his grocery store. When shopping in the store with my mom, I made a beeline dash to the back of the store to see Uncle Guy. He was my godfather, and I was his “Michelangelo”, his nickname for me. He always offered me a taste of what he was cooking. I would ask “what is it?” and he would invariably respond “chicken”. I lapped it up, only discovering much, much later in life that I had been eating goat, snapping turtle, wild duck, goose, alligator, and more. These foods all seem exotic and distant now, but were perfectly ordinary and normal at the time.

I have many fond memories of Friday nights, when we would all meet at my Aunt Helen’s for dinner.  Being Catholic during pre-Vatican II times, we abstained from meat on Fridays all year-long.  Luckily, given the abundance and quality of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, this was not a problem. My Uncle Guy and my dad would go out to the “pit”, a separate building next door to their house that had a great indoor barbeque and a small kitchen, to fry whatever fish he had caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, usually catfish or redfish, sometimes flounder.  He would also boil shrimp and crabs (as opposed to steaming as is done in the Chesapeake Bay region where I now live), and when the season was right, we had boiled crawfish.  My Aunt Helen had a huge pot of seafood gumbo simmering on the stove in the kitchen, and next to it would be a big pot of white rice.  My mom made potato salad and for my cousin Keith “macaroni salad”, a cold pasta salad of small elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, celery, and pickles, and oddly enough, eaten on saltine crackers.  There would be snacks out, too, normal things like potato chips and French onion dip, but also another Louisiana specialty, shrimp mold, which is a cold shrimp salad made with condensed tomato soup, unflavored gelatin, chopped celery and other seasonings, poured into a ring mold, and then after it has set, eaten as a spread on Ritz crackers.

There were always multiple desserts, the domain of my cousin Penny.  Some of her specialties were red velvet cake, carrot cake, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and usually some crazy cold concoction like “banana split surprise” or some other instant pudding/whipped topping/multiple layered gooey thing.  We often made ice cream: banana, peach, or strawberry, in an old hand-crank machine filled with crushed ice and rock salt, later upgraded to an electric one. My dad’s younger sister, Hilda (affectionately known as Susie), also a stellar cook, would come in from out-of-town laden with goodies such as her specialty, pecan pie. And, if my Aunt Lillian was there, we would have her famous peanut butter fudge, a recipe we all thought went with her to her grave until I found a handwritten copy in an unmarked box of miscellaneous papers after moving 4,000 miles to Waterloo, Belgium.

There were lots of family members but also present were neighbors and outsiders too, people who had been in my Uncle Guy’s grocery store at closing time, or his fishing buddies like my mother’s cousin Duffy or someone I remember calling Uncle David (pronounced the French way to rhyme with “speed”).  We would all sit around the den and eat in stages, eat whatever was ready next and then move on to the next item, never sitting down to a table set with silverware and such.  The boiled seafood was eaten either in the pit or in the garage, on big tables spread with newspaper.  When the steaming pots were dumped on the tables, out would tumble perfectly cooked shrimp, crabs, or crawfish, seasoned to perfection with Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and the “side dishes”, corn on the cob, whole heads of garlic, and new potatoes, all cooked together, truly a one-pot meal.

Extra fridges in the garage or in the “sewing room” held sodas and beers, and everyone just helped themselves.  Of course, most women did not drink beer then, so my Uncle Guy was called upon to make his famous “Old Fashioned” cocktails for Aunt Helen and any of the other ladies who wanted one.  After dinner, there would be homemade orange wine, made from the citrus grown on Uncle Guy’s land, “Songy’s Evergreen”, and cherry bounce, a deadly potent liqueur made by fermenting fresh cherries with bourbon and sugar for several months, usually served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake. Aunt Helen had a large glass jug that sat in a wooden stand which would be rotated daily during the fermenting process. If the top wasn’t removed periodically to release the pressure created by the fermentation process, you were likely to find the walls covered in sweet, sticky, dripping cherry bits, sort of like stumbling upon a homicide scene right out of CSI New Orleans!

After the men were finished cooking in the pit, they would play “pedro”, a card game distinctive for the manner in which the cards were played, by thumping them down hard on the table. I can almost still hear the sound of Uncle Guy’s knuckles hitting the table when he played his card, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a beer in a frosted mug at his elbow, complete with his customary pinch of salt added to the foam.  The men didn’t seem to eat much, other than pieces of fried fish as it came out of the cast iron skillet in the pit while it was cooking.

When the card game was over, and almost everyone was loosened up from the beers and Old Fashioneds, the coffee table was pushed aside, the lights in the den were dimmed, and records were played on the stereo for the grown ups to dance.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, all were regulars at the Friday night parties.  While this was going on, my mom would give me the “signal” and I would reluctantly go to the kitchen and put the food away, unloading and loading the dishwasher, washing the huge gumbo pot, wiping down the countertops.

shrimp and crab stew

Shrimp and Crab Stew

Life first separated me from my hometown after college, and then more permanently when I moved to Maryland in 1988 for work and for love. But I returned home once a year, husband and babies in tow, for Christmas or Easter or during the summer, to visit family and get a refill of good food and the slow, laid-back lifestyle found only in Louisiana. During those years I made sure to learn the recipes for dishes that instantly transported me back home: the smell of a roux slowly cooking to the color of a copper penny, the smooth creaminess contrasted against the crunch of the celery in shrimp mold, the sweetness of crabmet juxtaposed against the cayenne pepper in crab stew, the irresistible velvety uniqueness of Aunt Lillian’s peanut butter fudge. Unfortunately, I never mastered Uncle Guy’s Old Fashioneds or Aunt Helen’s Cherry Bounce, but my daughters are both well versed in roux-making and beignet-frying, as well as how to determine if fudge has reached the critical soft-ball stage.

I’ve only returned to my hometown twice since Katrina, once in 2006 to see for myself the massive destruction, and then again, for my Aunt Helen’s funeral in 2012. It’s difficult to go back, and there is no one there to go back to. Except for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where I received my sacraments and was married, which miraculously survived Katrina’s violent flooding and high winds, there is no physical sign of my past in Port Sulphur:  my parents’ home, every school I attended, the homes of my childhood friends, my extensive collection of original Barbie dolls and their miniature exotic wardrobes, my yearbooks and mementos from high school, all gone.
As time marches on, and those I love age and leave me, all I have left of my hometown are my cherished Blanchard family recipes and memories like those Friday nights, sweet and poignant now, but taken for granted and viewed as an obligation by a sometimes sullen teenager. Home now means the place where my husband and daughters are . . . but deep down, home will always be that narrow sliver of land sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and the bayous of southeast Louisiana.