Her name was Catherine, although her friends called her Cac.
Being married to the town physician meant that — by matrimonial proximity, anyway — she enjoyed semifamous status in their small Mississippi River community. That’s because pretty much everyone in town knew Doc David. After all, he delivered at least half the people residing within the 53806 ZIP code.
But his less-gregarious wife? Most folks probably recognized her face, but because the good doctor playfully assigned nicknames to everyone around him — including his spouse of nearly 50 years — it’s a safe bet that a hefty percentage of the local populace might have been unclear about Mrs. David’s real name.
They heard him refer to her — lovingly, of course — as the Boss. Old Woman. The Battle Ax. Manhattan Kate (a nod to her cocktail of choice). And my personal favorite, the Allied Supreme Commander.
To me, she was my mother-in-law, even though I never met her. I married her son Robert more than a decade after her death.
But I feel as if I know her. Well, a little. Not just through the family lore and the photographs that her children and grandchildren have shared over the years, but because of her recipes, which have become an integral part of our lives.
When Robert and I throw a dinner party, he inevitably prepares his mother’s spectacular rice pilaf. Her lemon bread is a holiday standard. And should you find yourself brunching on our screen porch, chances are you’ll be served her crowd-pleasing, easy-to-make sour-cream coffee cake.
That’s not what Robert calls it. The first time he prepared it for me, I will admit that I was somewhat taken aback by the recipe’s name: “Jewish Coffee Cake.” I was immediately unclear about exactly which attributes made this particular baked good, well, Jewish.
None, as it turns out. Catherine received the recipe from her sister, Joan Owens, who in turn had gleaned it from a favorite next-door neighbor. Yes, Mrs. Langer happened to be Jewish. Mystery solved. I’ve always wondered if Mrs. Langer made space in her baking rotation for any of Mrs. Owens’ recipes, and then named them accordingly. Catholic Sugar Cookies, perhaps?
Despite knowing the story’s background, I still can’t quite bring myself to call this keeper by its name. “Sour Cream Coffee Cake” suits me just fine. It’s not the only alteration that I’ve made over the years.
Robert rolls his eyes — and tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his opinions to himself — when I prepare this recipe. Or, more accurately, my version of this recipe.
He’s firmly convinced that I make the process far more complicated than his mother ever did. Or than he does. Of course, I believe that I’ve improved upon an already good thing.
As far as he’s concerned, adding blueberries is a non-starter. Still, I always do, in part because we usually have some in the freezer, lingering from our annual sojourn to a Wisconsin U-pick farm that’s coincidentally not too far from his mother’s hometown. But I also like blueberries, and I appreciate the happy pop of color that they contribute to this dense, golden cake.
He’s also anti-lemon zest, although his mother’s version of the recipe calls for it (well, sort of; she hedges her bets with a copy editor-like “optional” that’s scrawled next to the typed instructions). He frequently and inexplicably leaves out the pecans, too, but without them the cake feels too bland, at least to me.
Because he can very nearly prepare it from memory, Robert’s handwritten version of the recipe doesn’t really include any instructions (the typed rendition barely does), which means he scoffs at the details I’ve added into mine.
His is a salt-free formula, but I’ve added it. Forget about whisking together the dry ingredients (“why bother dirtying another bowl?” is his default response), and he dispenses with taking separate steps when creaming the butter into the sugar and adding the eggs. In his version, they all go in at once.
“It’s a coffee cake, not a potential James Beard Award winner,” he once said as he watched, exasperated, as I went through my more regimented paces.
But this is my cake-making method, and I’m sticking with it. I like the results. I’ve convinced myself that Catherine would, too.
I’m forever grateful to Robert’s sister Pat for setting out, more than 20 years ago, to collect and archive their mother’s recipes, taking the time to record them for posterity on their parents’ electric typewriter (remember those?) and then sharing the results with her siblings.
Robert carefully files his edition in a manila folder in our kitchen library, and it’s one of those handmade gifts that genuinely keep on giving, a precious connection to the past and a tactile treasure that social media, for all of its worthy attributes, just can’t touch.
I love paging through it and figuring out which glimpse into Catherine’s kitchen I’m going to tackle next. Will it be “Cinnamon Bebops” — a much more delightful name for what appears to be monkey bread — or “Lime Delight” (citrus bars on a chocolate-cookie crust), or maybe seven layer-style Hello, Dolly! bars?
Who am I kidding? It’s that foolproof coffee cake, all the way. Happy Mother’s Day, Catherine. Or may I call you Cac? I’m baking today, in your honor.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib.