Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guest Post: A Mystery Ingredient is Often the Key . . . Or Why I Should Never Bake by Violetta Armour

My Munds Park writing group is the best of the very many writing groups I have been part of over the years. And how lucky I am to count Vy Armour among one of its members. Last summer we worked on Vy's remarkable debut novel, I'll Always Be With You. This summer we are having fun with her new romantic suspense. Two very different novels, but each rich and engaging. You will find her post today laugh-out-loud funny!

Case in point:  my recent attempt at zucchini bread.  I mean WHO  could mess that up? Moi! 

Those of you who have followed by baking disasters are probably laughing already. Recalling twice-baked, once-dropped potatoes, Mexican wedding cookies that looked like a fire took place at that wedding…flat instead of round and edges burned to a crisp. (But I discovered that butter is good even when burned. I’m sure Paula Deen would agree.)

Here’s my sad saga.  It started quite innocently with a beautiful large zucchini from my friend’s garden here at Munds Park, AZ. (altitude 7000 feet-which plays into the story) I prepared all the wet ingredients as the recipe called for….except I didn’t have lemon juice so I used a little buttermilk. Besides, at high altitude you’re supposed to add a little more liquid and a little more flour. Not sure about the liquid but I remembered reading that somewhere. And I needed to get the quart of buttermilk out of my frig with company coming and lots of other goodies in there.

Now the dry ingredients:  3 ½ cups flour—well, I only had about 3 cups and you’re supposed to have a little more at high altitude rather than less, but I found half a yellow cake mix in the pantry (don’t even ask why I have ½ a cake mix). And I thought that was a good substitute for the flour because I was also 2 cups short on sugar (wow-who would have thought 3 cups sugar in a healthy veggie bread?) Now at Munds Park, we borrow from each other like crazy cause Safeway is 15 miles away unless you want to get a mortgage for a staple at the corner convenience store. But it was too early to start knocking on doors. I was baking early cause had a 9:30 tee time and wanted the bread to be done before I left the house.   (I digress).

One other variation:  The recipe called for one cup oil.  I only had garlic flavored olive oil (I know you’re surprised that I didn’t use this), so I melted one cup of coconut oil paste to a liquid and used that. A healthy touch.

Pans:  Called for 2 loaf pans. Of course, I didn’t have them so used a bundt pan. I baked for the hour. Outside was done nicely. Inside raw as cake batter. I put back in-(after I had flipped it,)  so put it back with the serving dish. No, it did not melt…oven proof.
After 10 minutes the middle was still kinda gooey but didn’t want the outside to bake any more…so voila. Done.

Not the prettiest creation but very tasty. A little butter or cream cheese.  Perfect.
Well, not exactly.

Perhaps I can blame my cooking disasters on my Mother. Isn’t everything we struggle with in life ultimately our mother’s fault?  Fortunately I can also give her credit for my any success I have had in the kitchen.  When it comes to savory, she was the best –without recipes of course. She came from Bulgaria to America in 1927 and married my father in 1934 with a brief honeymoon at the Chicago World’s Fair.

That’s not the only thing that was brief. They knew each other one week before they exchanged vows.  First recorded speed dating? Their marriage was arranged by two aunts in Pennsylvania who knew they were both looking for a life partner.  It only lasted 47 years till he passed). She told me she had no cooking experience when first married,  but by the time I was enjoying her culinary masterpieces some ten years later she had evidently mastered the art of fine Eastern European cuisine.  I never once saw a recipe card in her kitchen, but I saw her stirring, chopping, frying and throwing ingredients together like a seasoned pro. A little of this, a pinch of that.

My mouth waters as I write this to recall the taste of her stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage, stuffed cucumbers (yes, with a lovely lemon sauce), banitsa (phyllo dough with feta cheese), lamb kabobs, and chomlek, a delicious beef, onion and garlic stew.
So it was no wonder that my mother and her recipes surfaced in my debut novel, I’ll Always Be With You, through the character of Baba, a grandmother who consoles her family with food as they struggle through a tragedy.

Grandson, Teddy, age 16, was getting a driving lesson with Dad when a drunk driver slams into them. Dad is killed. Teddy lives but with tremendous survival guilt although he was not to blame. When the family moves from the home of that fatal intersection to Dad’s hometown across the country, Teddy faces the challenge of starting over in a new school. Living in Grandma’s house, she not only provides comfort food but old-age wisdom that guides Teddy through this difficult time.  Meanwhile Teddy’s mother, Mary, discovers a few secrets about the Dad that cause her to question the “perfect” life they had together.  As she puts the clues together about Dad’s past, she must make a choice—does she choose happiness or regret?
As Teddy and Mary struggle with life choices, Baba, her kitchen and her laden table remain a constant source of nourishment in many ways.  Some of her recipes are included at the end of the book.

I’ve decided—whether writing or cooking—often throwing in the unsuspecting and mystery ingredient can add a unique flavor.   Just don’t try it in baking.

Violetta Armour is a first-generation American who cherishes her Bulgarian heritage. In her debut fiction novel, I’ll Always Be with You, she captures the spirit of her ancestors and their love for America. She is currently writing a romantic suspense.

She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where she owned an Ahwatukee neighborhood bookstore in the early 90’s, Pages. She has written for Highlights for Children and Chicken Soup for the Soul.  You can find many more recipes as well as her monthly book reviews on her blog at http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com/

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