The world lost a great goulash-maker two weeks ago.
My dear grandmother died after a long summer of falls and failing health. She lived to be 87 years old, and for 60 of those years, she was the comfort-food-maker-in-chief of Aurora, Mo. She made lemon cakes for people who needed a little sunshine in their day and goulash — a casserole of ground beef, canned tomatoes and dried macaroni — if they were in mourning.
My family and so many people in her tight-knit community back home have been in mourning, but we’ve also been celebrating a woman who isn’t a stranger to this food section a few states away.
In these pages and in real life, I called her Gaga, and I first told you about her in 2008 in my second column as a food writer. I wrote about how she always used to make peach pie when I traveled to Missouri for a visit to my hometown and the resiliency she showed when the pie she made for our photo shoot didn’t turn out exactly right.
I would always ask her for her favorite recipes, ostensibly for research on a column, but really I just knew that it was a gateway into getting her to tell stories about when she used to make a certain dish, where she got the recipe or the lives of the people she was feeding.
I complained once that I couldn’t find a lemon bar recipe that I liked online. She went straight to her pile of clipped recipes and pulled out one she’d cut from Guideposts. “This is Gaga’s internet,” she said as she handed me the recipe. It was exactly the one I’d been hoping to find.
For another column, I told the story of our family’s immigration to America through a 130-plus-year-old bread knife and rolling pin that came with our ancestors from Sweden in the 1890s. I wrote about her moosebread (our family’s funny term for lemon poppy seed bread), the orange glaze rolls she used to make by the dozen at Christmas and a coffeecake that came from her mother, a first-generation Swedish American.
Until just a few months ago, Gaga was still showing up every Saturday morning to make sack lunches at church. Her weekly effort to feed the community inspired me to pick up a Meals on Wheels route five years ago.
As her health declined over the past few years, I wrote about the changing roles in their home, where my parents were her caregivers and I was the one who would show up to surprise her with an upside-down peach cake.
Last year, my sister and I traveled to Sweden because we wanted her to get to see us go back to the ancestral homeland. We ate cinnamon buns and texted her selfies from the small island village where her grandmother was born. Last Christmas, I surprised Gaga with a Skype call with Swedish cousins she never knew existed.
All of my uncles, aunts and cousins gathered a few weeks ago to remember stories like this for her memorial service. We ate barbecue and potato salad, quiche and, at the funeral luncheon, not one but two kinds of cheesy potatoes, plus more chocolate cake and cookies than we could have eaten all week.
I’m grateful for the many years we had together, especially when food became an opportunity for us to deepen our conversations and our relationship. Ever since she and I made that imperfect pie together, I often channel her when I’m cooking something that feels like it’s gone awry. That moment when she just pieced together the cracked pie crust and didn’t throw her hands up in despair when things fell apart stuck with me. She fixed what she could, without apology, and moved on.
Gaga’s warmth, humor and good nature stuck with her until the end. For decades, she would quietly send newspaper clippings and birthday cards (and St. Patrick’s Day cards and Valentine’s Day cards) to a long list of relatives and friends.
She was the only person I knew who used the word “larapin” to describe delicious food, and she had this quirk of collecting hundreds of dachshund figurines, which she wanted given away at her funeral. (Her wish was fulfilled, including the one wearing the cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.)
Once, I stopped by the dentist office she’d worked at for years as a dental assistant to get fitted for a guard so I wouldn’t grind my teeth at night. The dentist, one of the countless friends in town who might as well have been family, wouldn’t let me pay him. “Tell your grandma she can just send one of her lemon cakes.”
Lemon Poppy Seed Bread (Moosebread)
This poppy seed loaf, which half of our family calls moosebread and the other half calls moose food, is easily one of the most treasured treats in my grandmother’s recipe box. Her recipe calls for butter extract and oil instead of butter, which gives you an idea of when the recipe was likely developed in some unknown Midwestern kitchen. To honor that legacy, I’ve kept them in this modified version. The only real change in my version is swapping out orange juice in the glaze for lemon juice. You’ll need two loaf pans for the batter.
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons butter flavor extract
2 teaspoons lemon zest
For the glaze:
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter flavor extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch-by-5-inch loaf pans with cooking spray and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine baking powder, flour, salt and poppy seeds. In another bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, milk, oil, extracts and zest. Slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine. Divide the batter between the two loaf pans. Bake for about 1 hour until middle of the bread has set.
During the last 10 minutes of baking, make the glaze by heating the glaze ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for a few minutes, and then turn off heat.
Right after you remove the loaves from the oven, slowly pour the glaze on top of each loaf. Once the loaves have cooled, remove from pan and wrap in plastic wrap. Serve slices of bread at room temperature or warmed slightly. Makes two loaves.
— Addie Broyles
Gaga’s Lemon Cake
Like so many cakes from this era, Gaga’s famous lemon cake starts with a boxed mix. She added a box of Jell-O and a lemon glaze that makes the dessert a favorite for so many of her friends in Aurora.
1 box lemon cake mix
1 small package lemon Jell-O
¾ cup water
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons oil
2 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
Mix together the cake mix and Jell-O. Add eggs, water and ¾ cup oil to dry ingredients. Grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour batter in pan and bake for 35 minutes. While the cake bakes, mix together the powdered sugar, lemon juice and last two tablespoons of oil. Poke holes into still-warm cake and drizzle glaze on top.
— Carolyn Cook