GETTING A RISE OUT OF DAD

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In previous posts, I’ve described in great detail my dad’s prowess as the Combes Family Inn‘s breakfast chef, and, on a few occasions, wrote about my mom’s role as its main dinner chef. Dad also contributes to the inn’s kitchen as a specialty chef in different and oftentimes unique ways. These other specialties of his can best be described as culinary hobbies.

Dad in Baking Class (cropped)

(Above: Innkeeper Bill at a recent baking course at King Arthur Flour.)

For example, about 20 years ago, Dad really got into making his own pasta. Inn guests got to sample several delicious variations of fettuccini, stuffed ravioli, and the like. As popular as this phase was, unfortunately, according to my mother, it only lasted for about six months.

There is recent evidence of a pasta-making revival, however. Mom said just yesterday, “I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I found your father’s pasta machine. I told him he really should start making his own pasta again.” And, checking in with Dad on the matter, he said he probably would crank up the old machine again.

One of many food phases Dad went through included sausage making, which he said he only tried a couple of times. Evidently it was fun, but a lot of work. “There’s really an art to it and I can’t say that I developed it,” he admitted.

Then there was beer making, wine making, and mead making, each in a separate phase.  Dad moved quickly on from these hobbies. “They were not immediately gratifying, because you have to wait so long to enjoy them,” he explained. “In fact, I still have a whole refrigerator full of mead, which I suspect is getting better and better tasting the longer I let it sit.”

Despite the short-lived nature of the aforementioned, there are two culinary hobbies Dad comes back to time and time again: making soups and baking bread.

Finished Loaves (cropped)

(Above: Finished loaves from Dad’s last baking class.)

He says, “What I like about soups is you can just use up stuff that we have left over from the inn. I usually look through a soup cookbook and one recipe will catch my eye, when I know I have some of the ingredients left over in the fridge, then I’ll pick up whatever else I need and . . . voila!” (His favorite soup cookbook is 12 Months of Monastery Soups.)

And, what does he like about bread baking? A lot of things, evidently:

“You get to get all messy with flour which is fun. It takes you off of the street. You get to try different varieties of yeasts and flours. It’s fun to experiment. And, of course, it’s nice eating it afterwards.”

Since he loves baking bread so much, and because the inn’s guests love eating it, my husband and I gave Dad a class at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center as a Christmas gift one year. He’s now been to King Arthur for a different class three years in a row.

One of Dad’s all-time favorite breads from these classes is Portuguese bread, which uses what’s called unbleached “wholesome” flour. Dad’s secret is that you can put other things in it—such as seeds, nuts or berries—simply by replacing one cup of the flour in the recipe with a cup of one type or a mixture of these other goodies.

Baking Instruction (cropped)

(Above: My dad loves the instruction at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center so much he’s attended three different classes.)

He’s also a big fan of baking scones, and he attended one class that was exclusively dedicated to the art of making them. “I like making scones, because I like eating them,” he opined. “It’s more like a dessert. They’re also easier to make than other kinds of bread.” Several of these recipes can be found on the King Arthur Flour website here.

When I asked if he wants to get another class as a gift this coming Christmas, the answer was a resounding YES. “The classes are interesting because each has 30 people in it and everybody is different. Some are professional bread bakers and others are home-makers or whatever. I guess you could say that I’m a professional home-maker,” he says.

The Baking Education Center class calendar can be found here and King Arthur Flour bread recipes are here.

INN KITCHEN COMFORTS

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More than 40 followers of my blog took a readers’ poll that I recently issued.  Although the responses indicate a diversity of interests, the message was clear: you want to read more tales about the Combes Family Inn, and you want me to throw in a bit about my travels, past and present. And, you want me to move past my “dry year” and associated diet and exercise journaling. Accordingly, I’ve put the innkeepers on notice that they need to dust off more of their apocryphal stories.

Blog Reader Poll Results

(The top vote-getters from the reader’s poll were Vermont Inn-Trigue, Travels, and My Memoir.)

While we await a few more “Vermont Inn-trigue” inn-keeping stories, I’ll share several of Mom’s famous comfort food recipes that she recently made for a dining room full of skiers. The menu included three of her most beloved winter recipes: broccoli soup, pork schnitzel, and homemade apple sauce.

Perched on the precipice of spring, we’re alternating between days of snow melt, mud, and rain, and nights (and some days) of freezing temperatures, ice, and snow flurries. This is a great time of year to enjoy comfort foods, in winter’s last hurrah before spring fully arrives, bearing both warm weather and fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the first course, what else but Ruth’s famous broccoli soup, a dish that has been on the menu since the inn opened in 1978? This treat, coveted by both family members and long-time guests alike, has transformed through the years.  The original recipe featured cream, butter, and chicken stock, and had relatively little actual broccoli.  The new one, as you’ll see below, is decidedly different, but it still tastes absolutely delicious.

Mom Dad soup

(Vermont inn keepers Bill and Ruth Combes are still dishing it out in the inn’s kitchen after 37 years.)

CFI’s Original Cream of Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
8 cups of broccoli florets

3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon of flour
2 cups of heavy cream
pinch of ground pepper

Method:
Melt 2 tablespoon of butter. Sauté celery and onions until tender. Add broccoli and broth. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Puree, using an immersion blender or a regular blender. In a small sauce pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter, and stir in flour and cream.  Stir until thick and add to the soup. Season with pepper and serve.

My mom explains the transformation of her broccoli soup this way: “About 10 years ago, I switched to my current recipe, because our guests were looking for healthier food and, frankly, so was I. My current recipe is all broccoli, basil and garlic, with a little olive oil. I actually got this recipe from Joe, the inn’s refrigerator repairman, who happens to have a large garden. Many of his recipes feature garlic, because he grows a lot of it; this recipe is no exception. My only modification from Joe’s original recipe is that I typically use only olive oil, whereas Joe preferred butter.”

Broccoli soup has always been Mom’s signature soup. Now, it’s just healthier and more flavorful. This is Joe’s recipe, which, as Mom notes, freezes very well.

Joe’s Basil and Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
5 cups coarsely chopped broccoli
2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons of olive oil (Joe suggests a combination of butter and olive oil)
¼ cup fresh chopped basil (when fresh basil is unavailable, tubed basil paste works just fine)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt & pepper
Lemon juice

Method:
In a saucepan, bring broccoli and stock to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until broccoli is tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Purée broccoli and stock with an immersion blender, food processor or blender, until smooth. Heat oil and/or melted butter in small saucepan and sauté garlic and basil briefly, until garlic turns brownish. Blend with about 2 cups of purée and process until smooth. Stir into soup. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. To serve, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese or a dollop of sour cream.

Broccoli soup

(The leaner, meaner version of Ruth’s broccoli soup, served with a dollop of Cabot sour cream.)

The entrée course featured pork schnitzel, simple noodles, and homemade apple sauce. Unlike the broccoli soup, Mom never made schnitzel when I was growing up in the inn, so I asked her to tell the story behind this recipe.

“We went to Germany in the early ‘90’s to visit [our son] Wayne, who was stationed there in the Air Force,” Mom said. “When we got back home, your father said we could write off the whole trip on our taxes, because we had brought back this schnitzel recipe, which we’ve been making ever since.”

She also explained that, in addition to being absolutely delicious, this is a very cost-effective, high-protein main dish. My father buys the pork in very large loins when it’s on sale and then slices it into several thin cutlets, which can be used immediately or frozen. The recipe below has its roots in the dinners my parents enjoyed in Germany while on vacation and is a modification of the pork schnitzel in a German cookbook purchased on that trip, combined with the method Mom uses to make her famous “Frenchie’s Chicken.”

Dinner is served

(The main course of pork schnitzel with homemade apple sauce, simple pasta, and green beans about to be served.)

Pork Schnitzel

Ingredients:
4 pork loin cutlets – either boneless pork chops or slices from whole pork loin, about 1/4 in. thick
¼ cup flour
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 egg beaten with a couple tablespoons of milk
¼ cup butter
¼ cup vegetable oil

Method:
Pound pork loin between sheets of plastic wrap until 1/8 inch thick. Melt butter and shortening in frying pan. Put the above flour, panko and beaten egg each on individual plates. Dip both sides of pork cutlets in the flour, the egg, and the crumbs, in that order. Fry in pan until golden brown on each side about 2-3 minutes per side.  Keep in slightly warm oven until ready to serve. Or keep cold and put in 400 degree oven for 5 minutes or so before serving. Serve with apple sauce.

When asked about the secret to the recipe, Mom dished out three: “Cut and pound the pork as thin as you can. You have to use panko and not regular bread crumbs. And, it’s the homemade apple sauce that absolutely makes the recipe.  Also, the secrets to my apple sauce are: apple cider, extra cinnamon, and using a food mill, to crank through the apples. Oh, and there’s another secret to the apple sauce:  I use the whole apple with the stems and everything.”

Mom for apple sauce

(Inn keeper Ruth Combers shares some or her cooking secrets, including a German cookbook purchased on a trip to Germany and her trusty hand-operated food mill.)

Ruth’s Home Made Apple Sauce

Ingredients:
5 lbs. of regular McIntosh apples
1/4 cup water, apple cider, or apple juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Method:
Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hr. or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through a food mill. (“This is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables,” says Innkeeper Ruth.) Add lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon. Apple sauce can be frozen.

Needless to say, dinner was absolutely delicious. That’s all…for now. Tune in next week to find out how Innkeeper Bill fared after two, individual, day-long bread-baking classes at the famous King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center, up in Norwich, Vermont.

Breakfast with the Vermudgeon (cont.)

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Above: If you see this man in the Combes Family Inn’s kitchen, enter at your own risk!

Last month, I caught my father in such a rare moment of weakness that I not only managed to get a number of great photos of him cooking breakfast, but I also learned several of his breakfast tips and secret recipes. I weaved all of that great material into a blog post that closed with a promise to later explain why I call him “the Vermudgeon.” Now, a month later, let me fulfill that promise.

Facebook guest comment

Above: A classic response from “a guest” to the original “Breakfast with the Vermudgeon” blog post.

In response to the original blog post, one loyal guest commented on the inn’s Facebook page with these simple words: “We all know why he’s called the Vermudgeon – a guest.”

For those of you not familiar with the inn, here’s the deal.

I coined the phrase “Vermudgeon” shortly after I moved back to Vermont in 2007, after more than a 20 year absence. At the time, my husband Bruce and I were staying at the inn for four months, while our house nearby was in the final stages of construction. During that time, we both got a close-up view of my parents’ lives as Vermont innkeepers. I can’t say whether my dad’s humor has gotten more dry and his general demeanor more cantankerous over the years or whether I just didn’t pay that much attention when I was growing up at the inn.  But I can say that some of his comments to guests, especially when they venture into “his kitchen” during breakfast service, are bona fide sit-com material.

As you probably guessed by now, “Vermudgeon” is merely a mash-up of the two words “Vermont” and “curmudgeon.” Vermont has more than its fair share of curmudgeons – I’ll bet they have the most per capita – and, I have referred to several of them as “Vermudgeons” these last several years. My dad earned his stripes with comments like, “You’re in my kitchen,” to a guest who wandered in looking for more half and half for her coffee, not to mention the countless times he’s declared the grill retired for the day on the dot at 9 a.m. in the winter and at 9:30 a.m. in other seasons.

Mom insists that not much has changed since I left home at 18, as far as my dad is concerned. “He’s always had a dry – even acerbic – sense of humor,” she explained. Rather than providing me her own examples to illustrate her point, she encouraged me to call one of her employees to get a few classics. When I say “encouraged” what I really mean is that she dialed the woman’s number and handed me the phone when she answered.

Here are the three short stories she told me.

There was a large ski group staying at the inn that included several teenagers. My mother had set all of the tables in the dining room with a large table in the middle and a bunch of smaller tables for the teens along the periphery. When it came time for dinner, all the kids came in first and immediately sat at the big table, leaving the adults to scurry around to sit in small groups at the other tables. Evidently one of the adults wanted to sit with a specific group but there weren’t enough chairs at that table. He popped his head into the kitchen and asked my dad where he could find a chair. Deadpan, Dad replied, “There’s plenty of room on the front porch.”

In addition to not liking to be disturbed when he’s busy in the kitchen, Dad is also infamous for not wanting to answer the phone. When I call and he answers, I don’t even ask for my mother, because it’s obvious she’s not home. As you might imagine, his phone manner is also Vermudgeonly.

One guy called to book the walking tour from inn to inn of which my parents are founding members. The gentleman was confused about whether or not he could bring his car to the inn, if he and his wife were to be walking.  My dad’s response, “Oh, you can certainly feel free to bring your car and we’ll just sell it on eBay.”

Strangely, that guy didn’t make a reservation. Then there’s this other guy who called for a room and took a bit too much time to debate whether he would book it B&B or the Modern American Plan, which includes dinner. He seemed concerned about the quality of the food and asked my father, “Do you eat there?”

Dad’s reply: “Not if I can help it.”

Breakfast with the Vermudgeon

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Thus far, the “Vermont Inn-trigue” thread of my blog has mainly contained stories that revolve around my mother, Ruth Combes. She is precisely one half of the dynamic duo of innkeepers that have kept this business going for more than 36 years. I am overdue in writing specifically about the other half, my father, Bill Combes.

Since the beginning of this long adventure, Dad has been the inn’s handy man, head purchaser, waste manager, and, most famously, breakfast chef. It’s for this last role that he is beloved by guests, and it’s the sole subject of this post. Also of note is the fact that my mother is not a morning person, so my father’s contribution as the breakfast chef is fundamental to inn guests getting the second B in B&B. Given the amount of rich material on the topic, it will certainly lead to at least two additional blog posts.

Before observing and interviewing the breakfast chef this morning, I did a quick check in with my mom, asking her to describe my dad’s charm as a breakfast chef. Her response? “I haven’t seen his charm at breakfast,” she replied matter-of-factly. “His style is to be grouchy.”

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You wouldn’t know it this morning. First of all, today is Sunday, signaling that, as tradition dictates, pancakes are on the menu. On other days of the week, various breakfast meats in combination with eggs, and sometimes French toast, appear on the breakfast menu. But every single Sunday morning it’s pancakes and sausage. And Dad’s pancakes are as legendary as they are delicious.

Many times through the years, guests have asked my mother for Dad’s pancake recipe. And she has consistently handed out a recipe that is not my father’s. She doesn’t do this to be deceptive. She does it because she doesn’t know the recipe. This morning, Dad was happy to walk me through the bona fide recipe, as well as some of his other breakfast secrets, eliciting this response from Mom: “I did not know that.”

Well, now you do.

Bill’s Famous Pancakes

Ingredients:

One box of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix.
8 cups of your favorite Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix (Dad prefers
Krusteaz, although any brand will do).
2 teaspoons of cinnamon.
Approximately 7 cups of water (see “method” below for more information).
Yield: 20 or more servings of 3 medium-sized pancakes.

Method:

Use an electric mixer to beat together all ingredients. When adding the water, make sure to pay attention to the texture of your pancake batter to get the right amount of water. “You want the batter to run off the spoon, with a little imprint left on it. The batter should not be resistant to come off the spoon, nor should it be runny,” Dad explains. Your griddle has to be hot, but not too hot so that you avoid burning the pancakes.  To grease the surface of the griddle, use a good quality margarine, not fluffy tub of margarine or butter. Regardless what others say about using real butter, Dad’s experience is that margarine is not only less expensive than real butter, it also melts more easily and doesn’t burn as readily. Do not try to flip the pancakes, until after the air bubbles that form on the surface of the pancake has burst. “You will be tempted to flip them before the bubbles burst. But do not do it,” Dad warns.

Dad’s advice about prepping and greasing the grill is universal, whatever’s on the breakfast menu. I personally don’t often eat pancakes anymore. Seeing dad was in a good mood today and I didn’t want to push it with an outlandish breakfast order (something I usually do), I requested scrambled eggs. His scrambled eggs are among the fluffiest I’ve ever had and I have to admit I have not been able to replicate his method myself. I asked him to walk me through his method for achieving fluffy and perfect scrambled eggs, so I could explain it to all of you.

Bill’s Fluffy & Perfect Scrambled Eggs

Method:

Add tablespoon of water and beat the eggs very quickly to capture air. Since you are working with a hot grill, the other secret is to spread the eggs with a fork all over the griddle and cook them for less than one minute. Scrambled eggs cook much more quickly than any other style, so keep that in mind if you have a mixed order from the same table, the eggs aren’t on the griddle for more than a minute.

It was a real treat to find Dad in such a cooperative and chatty mood this morning so that I could quiz him about so many of breakfast secrets. He even revealed that he has been experimenting with his scrambled egg methodology and looked up Martha Stewart’s techniques on his iPad.

If you have the luxury of only having scrambled eggs on the menu so that you don’t have to keep your griddle very hot, he suggests that you try Martha’s low-temperature method. Two videos of this method are available here and here.

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(Above: Although Dad doesn’t encourage adults to place special orders at breakfast, he’s known to produce some really special breakfast treats for the many children that stay at the inn.)

Special breakfast orders aren’t encouraged at the Combes Family Inn, and, frankly, guests issue them at their own risk (refer back to “grumpy” above). Despite this, Dad also revealed some excellent tips on how to make poached eggs. (Disclaimer: If you read this post and then stay at the Inn, please do not mention my name if you dare to order poached eggs.)

Poached eggs

Ingredients:

A pinch of salt.
A tablespoon of vinegar.
2 eggs.

Method:

Use a frying pan with water. Add a little salt and vinegar to the water. Dad says, “The salt is not important, but it helps the water get to a higher temperature. The vinegar, however, is important. It keeps the egg together.” And, he continued, “in terms of timing, I don’t have the time to screw around with a kitchen timer. When I drop the eggs in the softly boiling water, I put the toast down on the toaster. When the toast pops, the poached eggs are done.”

Speaking of the appropriate timing of the different components that go into an egg dish at breakfast, my dad’s number one advice about cooking breakfast is something that I learned in high school and have lived by ever since. With the one exception of poached eggs (as you just learned above), “you always put the toast down first, before putting the eggs on the grill – always,” my father advises, even warns.

Bottom line:  my mom suggests that you listen to the master, because, she proudly claims, “In the winter he can serve breakfast to more than 30 people and get them all on the ski slopes by 8 o’clock.”

We’ve come to the end of this blog post and I haven’t had a chance to explain why we call him the “Vermudgeon.” For that, you’ll have to tune in next week.

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LET THEM EAT CAKE (AGAIN)

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A few weeks ago, we were visiting some of my husband’s family in Maine. For brunch, my sister-in-law made an amazing lobster eggs Benedict. She had made way too much hollandaise sauce than we needed and mused out loud about what could be done with it. I immediately suggested that we call my mother and reached for the phone.

Why call her? You might ask. Because, after serving to dinner guests for over 35 years, my mom knows her way around the kitchen and has many useful tips for saving and re-purposing leftovers. If there’s anyone who knows if hollandaise sauce can be frozen and re-served or repurposed in some other way, it’s my mom. And, the answer? “Hollandaise freezes very well. When you heat it on the stove, stir constantly and add a bit of lemon juice and warm water to help re-constitute it,” Mom advised my sister-in-law.

Lobster Eggs Bennedict

In last week’s blog post, I alluded to two of mom’s other secrets:  which cheeses freeze well and what to do with leftover cake.  As promised, here are all the details, as well as my mom’s recipes to make the most of them.

Just like you might not expect that hollandaise sauce can be successfully frozen and reused, many people shy away from freezing cheese. It is true that the texture changes when you bring it back up to room temperature. For that reason, my mom exclusively uses leftover and frozen cheeses to make her legendary macaroni and cheese recipe. A favorite of kids and adult guests alike, mom is continually asked for this recipe. However, it is truly never the same dish twice! The only type of cheese that my mother won’t freeze is fresh goat cheese. As for the others, she reckons that she’s frozen them all: American, Swiss, Cheddar, and even Brie.

Macaroni & Cheese

Ingredients:
7 ounces elbow macaroni (about 2 cups uncooked)
3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheddar, American or both (or whatever other types of cheese you froze!)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter

Method:
Cook macaroni, following directions on package. Rinse in cold water and drain. Melt butter in saucepan, blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Add milk, cook on stovetop, stirring frequently until mixture is thick. Combine 1/2 of cheese mixture and macaroni. Then fold in remaining shredded cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with crumbs and melted butter. Bake 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned on top.

Saving leftover cake to make the dessert called “trifle” is another one of my mom’s guilty secrets.  You can save pretty much any cake and freeze it. Once, she even drove over to another inn to take home the leftovers of an entire wedding cake, when she heard the bride wasn’t keeping it.

According to my mom, “The key is to remove all of the frosting. I think vanilla cake makes the best trifle, but I’ve also done it with chocolate and other flavors.” After removing the frosting, just freeze the chunks or slices or whole pieces of cake in gallon sized freezer bags. You can keep it this way for up to one year.

The recipe for my mom’s cake trifle has never been written down before. That makes this the world premiere of the written record for this most excellent dessert.

Ruth’s Leftover Cake Trifle

Ingredients:
1 pound leftover cake
1 cup fruit-based liquor (mom suggests this cassis from the Putney Mountain Winery)
1 cup jam (mom uses her homemade peach or strawberry jam)
1 package vanilla pudding mix
2 cups fresh berries
Fresh whipped cream

Method:
The day you plan to make the trifle, take the bags of frozen cake pieces out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. Be sure to wash your hands well and use them to break the cake into approximately one inch cubes and set aside in a large bowl.

Use a large square or rectangular cake pan to assemble two layers of the dessert. Cover the bottom of the pan with cake pieces (only using half of the cake). Add half of the liquor. A fruit-based liquor like cassis, which is made from blackberries, is what mother usually uses. Then layer in the jam. Mix up a package of instant vanilla pudding with one cup of milk or half-and-half, making a custard. Put half over the layer of jam. Repeat all steps so that you have two layers, substituting the fresh fruit on the top, instead of jam. Use whatever fresh berries are in season. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just before serving, top each serving with freshly made whip cream (1 cup of heavy cream whipped with a table spoon of powdered confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla). If you don’t use up all of the whipped cream, remember that it also freezes very well!

Although it doesn’t involve previously frozen ingredients, another of Mom’s extremely popular time-saving dessert recipes is her “paper bag apple pie.” She’s been making this for over 25 years. During my interview with Mom this morning, I was so captivated by this recipe, that I goaded her into making it with me today during half-time of the Patriot’s game. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the prep time for this delicious rendition of apple pie is less than 10 minutes.

Paper Bag Apple Pie

Ingredients:
4-5 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
1 pie shell
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoon water, apple cider, or apple juice

Topping:
½ cup brown sugar
½ quick oats
1 stick of margarine or butter
¼ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Method:
Place apples in pie shell. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients. Combine topping ingredients to make a crumbly mixture. Spread on top of apples in pie. Place shell with all ingredients in large brown paper bag. Use either paper clips or stapler to bind airtight. Bake 1 hour at 375°. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 8-10.

Mom making bag apple pie

  Into the bagSeal the bagFinished pie

You can find several of the inn’s other recipes on their website here. If you have any questions about these recipes or the inn’s other kitchen secrets or cooking tips, please post them as comments and we promise to get back to you.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

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My mother is a very good cook. It’s hard to replicate her cooking, because she’s one part Alice Waters, with her emphasis on fresh, local ingredients; one part Rachael Ray, with her mantra that “easy-to-do” is almost always best; one part Martha Stewart, thanks to her kitchen cleverness; and one part MacGyver, no explanation necessary. Another time, I’ll post some of her time-honored cooking and meal planning tips, such as her advice on which types of cheeses can be successfully frozen and re-served and what to do with leftover cake. This post, however, isn’t directly about Mom’s cooking. It’s about a recipe and, as it turns out, human nature.

Tante Evelyn

“Tante Evelyn”

The most requested recipe in my mother’s large repertoire, bar none, is a cookie recipe that we call “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” which was named after my mother’s French-Canadian aunt. Like many immigrant women of her generation, it seemed that the only way Tante Evelyn knew how to show love was through her cooking. Visiting her was always popular when we were children, because she never failed to have multiple homemade sweets freshly baked in her kitchen, that she insisted we eat to our little hearts’ content.

After we opened the inn, it was likewise a treat for all of us when Tante Evelyn visited from New Hampshire to stay with us, share in the cooking chores and generally amuse us with her no-nonsense personality. When she visited near the holidays, she would make batches and batches of her graham cracker treats. A mixture of melted butter and brown sugar is poured over a sheet of graham cracker pieces and, after a mere 10 minutes in the oven, they turn into delicious, praline-type candied crackers. Tante Evelyn would make enough in one afternoon so that my mom could freeze them and have them on hand for an entire year. The days she baked these cookies were, for us kids, always the highlights of her trip to the inn.

Evelyn died many years ago, so we’ll never know exactly how she came about creating her recipe. Nowadays, you can find variations of it all over the Internet, like this one that adds vanilla and pecans and earns a five-star rating from Betty Crocker.  A look through my mom’s ancient Betty Crocker bible that’s now held together by duct tape does not, however, contain this recipe.

Betty Crocker Cookbook

(We don’t know the origin of Tante Evelyn’s recipe. We looked everywhere, including in here.)

Meanwhile, like every other industry, inn-keeping has affiliations and organizations. In the ski region in south-central Vermont where our inn is located, there was once a group called “Snowtown Inns” that was later renamed the ”Okemo Valley Hospitality Association.” In the 1980s, there were 16 inns and motels in the area that were members of this group, which, by the way, is now absorbed into the regional chamber of commerce. My mother was an executive officer of the group and still has a large drawer full of envelopes bearing the group’s logo.

The group met a few times per year and members took turns hosting the meetings. One day, in the late 1980s, it was with much “to-do” that my mother and father hosted the group. After the business was done, they served coffee with an impressive array of nut breads and desserts. I have no doubt that everything was delicious. However, everyone in the group raved about one particular cookie and wondered how my mother made them. Of course, these were the famous Tante Evelyn’s Treats.

When one of the other innkeepers asked for the recipe, my mom was so pleased that her peers loved her beloved aunt’s cookies that she immediately went into her office, printed out the recipe, and made a copy for everyone.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

Ingredients:
1 package of graham crackers
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of finely chopped nuts

Method:
Break graham crackers in half (along perforation) and place flat on a greased cookie sheet. Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan for five to six minutes, stirring constantly. Pour over crackers and sprinkle with nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for nine minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. If desired, sprinkle with mini chocolate chips when cookies are removed from oven and still hot.

Okemo Valley Hospitality

(There used to be an active industry association in the area just for innkeepers and other motel and lodge owners.)

I was away at college and had no idea that this meeting had taken place, until about a year later when I received a phone call from my mother. She was crying and so terribly upset that it was difficult to understand her. After she calmed down, my mother explained that she had just received her latest issue of Yankee Magazine in the mail. In it, one of the competing inns in her hospitality group had won a recipe contest for……guess what? A delicious graham cracker cookie recipe that was remarkably like “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” but under a different name with slightly more butter.  Otherwise, it was exactly the same!

I insisted that mom defend her honor and write to the editors. But she’s simply not that kind of person. She bore her disappointment and fury in silence and never even mentioned it to the other innkeeper, who is no longer in Vermont and has been long out of the inn business.

The story reminds me of something my mother once told me when I was a young girl. After observing my mom busy in the inn’s kitchen one afternoon, I had complained bitterly, “I don’t know how to cook!” She stopped what she was doing and put her arms around me and said, “Sharon, if you can read, you can cook.”

I appreciated the gesture, but I know today, just as I did back then, that my mother was wrong. There’s a lot more to good cooking than being able to read or following what might in fact be a great recipe. My mom will always be a better cook and innkeeper than her ruthless competitor and, no matter the variations of it that might be out in the larger world, this particular cookie recipe is best when called “Tante Evelyn’s Treats.”

New York State of Mind

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In my bid to tell as many inn-keeping stories as possible in the run-up to my parents’ retirement as innkeepers of the Combes Family Inn, I’ve selected several anecdotes about winter guests from New York City. More specifically, they all hail from Manhattan.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The Combes Family Inn loves (nearly) all of its guests, including those from New York. After all, New York, by far, is home to the largest chunk of inn guests through the years, right down to this very day. It’s also worth noting that my father is originally from Long Island. Sometimes, however, when people travel away from their urban lives and end up this far out in the country, strange things can happen. This is particularly true during winter storms.

119winter CFI

 

(Above: The Combes Family Inn is within sight of Okemo Mountain Resort and is typically surrounded by bountiful snow all winter long.)

Back in the old days, my mother always stayed up for the last guests to arrive. During the ski seasons of the late 70s and early 80s, she spent many Friday nights (that stretched into Saturday mornings, if necessary) reading alone in the sitting room, waiting for guests to check-in for the weekend. One particularly snowy night, just before he retired for the evening, my father snow-blowed an extra wide path from the end of the inn’s long, curving driveway and down the 30-foot walk-way to the front door.

Several hours later, my mother was interrupted from her reading by the sound of an approaching car. Then, she was startled to see headlights pass right by the sitting room windows, where there is no driveway, just a sidewalk for guests to get to the front door by foot. By the time my mom got to the front door, the car was gone. But there stood two people with their luggage!  As it turned out, it was a couple from Manhattan who had booked a reservation for the weekend.

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(Above: The posts in the foreground of this photo now prevent cars from driving through the driveway and parking lot up to the front door. You wouldn’t think they’d be necessary. Evidently, they are!)

After exchanging pleasantries with the couple, my mother glanced into the parking lot, thinking about the headlights she had seen just moments earlier. “What happened to your car?” she asked.

The woman replied, “Oh. We were just a mile or so from here, when we came upon a guy by the side of the road whose car was stuck in a snow bank. We stopped to help him out, but it was too dark and too difficult to do anything. He explained that he really needed to get to his condo five miles up the road. We told him to jump in, and then we let him borrow our car after he dropped us off here.”

“Did you know him?” my mother asked, a bit incredulously. “No. But we’re sure he’ll bring our car back,” the man replied. My mother was shocked that they were so trusting of a stranger and feared that they would never see their car again.

Very early the next morning, when my father got up to prep for breakfast, he walked out to the parking lot and saw a gorgeous new BMW parked right out front.  After the couple came down for breakfast and went out to check on the car, they told my parents that the stranger had not only returned their vehicle as he’d promised, but he also left a nice note and a 50-dollar bill in the cup holder!

Another time, when my mom was up late waiting for guests, she watched a huge black limo glide into the inn’s driveway. Curious, she went outside to meet the vehicle. The driver stepped out and explained that he had a couple from Manhattan in the back who wanted a room for the evening. Evidently they had hired the limo after clubbing in New York, and one of them had gotten the brilliant idea to visit a friend with a ski chalet at one of the southern Vermont ski areas. Mind you, this was before the era of everyone owning a cell phone. As the limo got deeper into Vermont, the passengers realized that they had no idea where their friend’s condo was. The limo driver saw the inn’s sign on Route 100 and was probably thinking he would drop the couple off there, presumably to just get them off his hands.

My mom took one look at the “post-party” couple sleeping it off in the back of the car and said, “Well, you can’t drop them off here.”

“What am I supposed to do?” asked the driver. People who know my mother will not be surprised that she replied: “You’re going to have to drive them back to New York City.” And, that’s exactly what he did.

After several years of successful inn-keeping, my mother stopped staying up after midnight, waiting for guests, opting instead to leave little notes with pleasantries and room assignments on the front door, which is inside a covered entryway.

One stormy winter night, a couple was driving to the inn from Manhattan, with their baby in tow.  My father had gone to great lengths to set up a crib for them before he went to bed, at around 10 o’clock. My mom waited up another hour or so and then resorted to leaving a note on the front door. Later, in her slumber, Mom heard people come in at around two a.m. The next morning, mom saw the couple sitting at breakfast, but with no baby in sight.

“Wow. What a storm last night! It must have been frightful driving through that with the baby,” Mom said to them. They just nodded and smiled. My mother continued, “The baby must be sleeping really soundly.” Again, they just smiled. A few minutes later, they finished breakfast and asked for their bill; they had to be on their way.

About a minute later, the phone rang. It was the couple with the baby from Manhattan! They explained that the driving had been so bad during the storm the previous night that they had to stop halfway and spend the night en route. They would be arriving at my parents’ inn in just a few hours!

Mom didn’t tell the other couple what she had learned. Instead, she processed their payment and dashed to the room to clean it and make it ready for the family that had actually reserved it.  She figured out that the first couple must have been desperate when they happened upon the inn during the storm. Seeing the note, they likely assumed that the people with the reservation wouldn’t make it, in such bad weather.

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(Above: The inn’s long drive way curves around the side of the inn and around the motel units. The entrance is on the opposite side of the building, at the end of the long driveway and walkway. Also pictured, the “back side” of the inn, with a view of the back door and fire stairs; you pass by this side of the inn as you travel through the driveway and into the parking lot.)

During another snowstorm, a woman from Manhattan got confused about how to enter the inn. Instead of following the driveway all the way around the inn to the actual entrance, she stopped her car on the side by the back door. She then proceeded to hike through the snow and ice and found the back door either stuck or locked. So, she hiked through more snow and ice and climbed up the fire stairs, which lead to a door on the second floor. A moment later, my parents were startled to hear a knock on their upstairs bedroom door. When my mother opened it, the woman said, “Gee. Your inn is really hard to get into.”

Mom looked her up and down and noticed she was in high heels and that her nylons were completely shredded on both legs. Without missing a beat, Mom said, “I guess so.”