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Our kitchens were stacked.
Mine was on the second floor with more dishes than I could ever handle. I would clop clop clop around in my cooking clogs, practicing the art of keeping young children alive.
Hers was on the first floor with enough jars and tupperware and folded paper bags and cocoa squirreled away for any kind of apocalypse that might happen to come along. When it came to cooking, she knew everything about everything. She had just stopped doing it, her culinary world reduced to tapioca pudding, toast, and tea.
My grandmother heard my children grow up. Every tumble, every tantrum. She heard me grow up. Ten years of marriage. Four years of trying to conceive a second baby. She heard every thrown plate, every slammed door, every episode of “Battlestar Galactica.”
I worried she was hearing too much life through her ceiling. So I apologized for it all. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted the noise. She wanted us up there.
I had moved into the upstairs apartment when I was 33, when I had a 9-month old baby girl, when I had heaps of unspoken post-partum sadness. My grandmother would listen to me talk and talk and talk. I would tell my stories about parenting and marriage just to see if she would smile or laugh. She was blind in one eye, so sometimes I would think she wasn’t listening. But months later she would repeat my world back to me. Moment by moment, the details locked into her brain like the words she gobbled up from her never-ending pile of New Yorkers, New York Review of Books, mystery novels.
We respected each other’s privacy. No knocking. Just carefully penciled in dates. She liked having her dinner alone, or so she said. I think she didn’t want me to feel put out. So it was just tea or drinks. Her lipstick on. My hair brushed. All of the kids’ detritus shoved away in closets. At the carefully chosen time, she would walk out her front door and cross the lawn—pausing for a few deep breaths with her hand on the jacaranda tree—and then around to the other side of the house to my front door.
I would call her when things went awry.
I could hear the phone ringing downstairs and then I could feel her warmth slowly shifting out of bed and towards the phone.
The soup is too thin, grandma. What do I do? (Add a cooked and mashed potato). The braised meat isn’t softening up (More time? Some acid?).
I would call her to be my recipe guinea pig.
Grandma, can I bring you a little something I’ve been working on?
As long as it’s not caramel.
It’s not caramel. I promise.
Just leave it outside. Thank you.
I would cover it in plastic wrap, walk it down the stairs, and leave it on the bench outside her front door.
I would call her just to make sure she was still alive.
She would get the first cookie, the warmest piece of pie, a corner of the croquembouche debacle, a smear of the ridiculous cheeseball, the first and last attempt at homemade bread, a slice of every single gingerbread I ever made.
All I wanted to do was feed her. And in return I would get the blunt-ass truth via a phone call. Too sweet. A bit ugly. Absolutely delicious. Fine, fine, fine. Maybe don’t cook it quite so long next time?
After she died, I went through her kitchen and found dozens of ramekins, plates, silverware from my own kitchen. I can see her, eating the treats in bed. She glides through her apartment, scraping the remains, rinsing the dishes. Then she tucks them away as her own.
Gingerbread with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 2/3 cups blackstrap molasses (or lighter molasses, like Grandma's)
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 2 cups beer, medium-bodied (I like using Racer 5 IPA)
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 6 eggs
- 2 cups canola oil
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 tablespoons vanilla bean extract
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 16 ounces whipped cream cheese (preferably room temperature)
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla bean extract
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt