For years, Connie Ahrens was surrounded by science-types.
Her late husband, Steve, was a scientist, astronomer and inventor of the patented “Quakecaster,” which predicts when and where earthquakes may strike.
Her daughter, Caitlyn, is following in her dad’s footsteps in studying astronomy and geology at WVU.
“My goal in life is to feed people,” she said with a laugh.
She’s good at it, and that’s good for anyone with a grumbly tummy. She makes traditional German-style pickles using the “skinniest cucumbers you can find,” she said. Pack with onions in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, turmeric, salt, celery seed and mustard seed, and five days later “you’ll have the best bread-and-butter pickles you’ve ever had,” she said.
Her broccoli salad is just as easy to make.
“Just get one big bowl and don’t be afraid to get your hands in it,” she said. “You can have all kinds of fancy utensils, but it’s the fingers that make this.”
It’s her signature dish, and when she took a carrot cake to her astronomy club meeting instead of this salad, she spent the evening explaining why she’d not make the salad for them again.
“You’re known for what you make, and you better make it,” she said with a grin.
She got the recipe for the salad from a friend at a picnic.
“Any time I get a new recipe, I make it by the recipe,” she said. “And then I play with it. If I’m not crazy about something, I’ll take it out. I make it my own.”
For example, the original recipe called for almonds, onions and peppers.
“Steve didn’t like the onions. Caitlyn didn’t like the almonds, and peppers make me burp,” she said.
It also called for broccoli slaw, or cole slaw and chopped broccoli. Renegade that she is, she threw all three in “to give it more crunch. I thought the original recipe had way too many noodles in it.”
She left home in Wheeling at 17 to work for the FBI.
“Before I left, Mom had handwritten out all the favorite family recipes in a little loose-leaf notebook that I still have. The covers have fallen off, but I still have all those wonderful recipes in my mother’s handwriting.
“It’s funny. Some of those recipes are like ‘pick up 69 cents worth of beef.’ That would be, what, a tablespoon now? This was back in the late 1960s, early ’70s, and money was so dear that Grandma and Mom couldn’t afford to be inventive cooks. They followed the recipes because they couldn’t afford to screw something up.
“Now, thanks to a good job and a little more in the family coffers, I can play in the kitchen,” she said. “If something doesn’t look or sound quite right, I can just cut it out. It doesn’t need to be in there. So I just relax and play with things.”
Every budding cook knows where the best audience for new recipes is: at work.
“The good thing about working at (FBI) headquarters all those years was if you were baking something, they would eat it, whatever it was, and they’d be ‘yay’ or ‘eh’ on whether they wanted to eat this again.”
Like the co-worker with the new boyfriend.
“She was pursuing her law degree and was very into studying, but she wanted to bake her boyfriend some chocolate chip cookies. And she didn’t see any reason why she couldn’t bake cookies if she didn’t have any eggs. Those cookies were like hockey pucks! But everybody just dunked them in their coffee and still ate them.
“So, yeah, if you had a new recipe and wanted to try it out, you took it to work first because they ate everything.”
She bakes three kinds of cake, she said.
“One is carrot cake with cream cheese icing. I got proposed over it. I was married, my boss was married and he knew I was married. But he said if I wasn’t already married, he’d marry me ... for my carrot cake! He was allergic to chocolate and was always looking for recipes.
“Second, I make a strawberry yogurt. This is a hit with the cancer support group because it’s pink. (She is a breast cancer survivor.)
“And my third cake is a fudge cake. Oh, oh,” she said, her voice trailing off. “You start with a yellow cake mix. Add your oil, eggs, a container of sour cream and an entire can of Hershey’s syrup. It comes out almost black; it’s that rich and moist. You can either brush powdered sugar on top, or if you want to be decadent, ice with dark fudge icing and pour cherry pie filling in. It’s got that sweet and tart together.”
She made this cake once when both her and Steve’s mothers were visiting.
“Both moms have a sweet tooth. I heard this noise in the middle of the night. It was 2 in the morning and they were down in the kitchen with their little old lady sleep hats on and their little slippers and their little robes.
“And they were eatin’ on this cake. I figured out what was going on before I got to the kitchen door, so I grabbed the camera, flung the door open and flash! Their eyes were as big as dinner plates. It was so funny. It was great,” she said, wiping away tears as she laughed at the memory.
Want to be hailed as the next Martha Stewart? Dress up the ordinary brownie mix by adding some seedless raspberry jam or preserves.
“Glop a couple spoonsful and drag it through with a knife. You’ve got that sweet and tart, and a ribbon of raspberry through the chocolate. It’s so easy but people will be saying, ‘Gasp! How did you do this?’
“You can always find ways to make things seem a lot more important than they are.”
The contest for August is picnic salads. To be featured on the “My Favorite Recipe” page, contact Debbie Wilson at 304-367-2549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.
For years, Connie Ahrens was surrounded by science-types.
- My Favorite Recipe
If you like something sweet, Jessi Polis has the cake for you.
Her orange cream cheese pound cake is light, refreshing and just sweet enough to satisfy those cravings.
This cake is her husband Sam’s favorite, she said.
Paula Ansberry makes some pretty powerful pepper poppers.
She got the recipe from a friend a couple of years ago. She was a little hesitant to try one. She’s not a spicy food kind of person.
People say they go to cookouts and picnics to get together with friends and family.
They say they like the burgers and dogs, and pasta, fruit and potato salads, and all those other side dishes you can’t have a picnic without.
Art of cooking
Kim Holbert isn’t one of those “Try it; you’ll like it” kind of cooks.
She’s more like, “You like it; I’ll make it.”
“If I know that you have a preference toward something, I aim it that way,” she said.
Just home cooking
Food doesn’t have to be fancy to be tasty.
Judy Starn learned this growing up on Sugar Lane in Catawba. She was the only girl in nine children of Woodrow and Anna Starn. One brother passed away, so she grew up among seven brothers.
“I like to cook, but I wouldn’t say I’m a good cook,” she said.
Just plain cooking
You know those pretty layered salads people put in clear glass bowls, and you have to lift all the layers out at the same time and then spread them out on a plate so everybody can see how pretty it is, and then they go “ooh” and “ahh”?
‘Just plain good’
When it’s just too darned hot to cook, or you need something cool and light in a jiffy, Josephine Vespoint has a quick-as-a-wink salad for you.
Take two cans of pears, and drain and place each pear right side up on a bed of lettuce.
All about family
All her life, Alma Hoy Parrish has been about one thing: family.
She’s put the knowledge she learned at her mother’s knee to good use during her 46-year marriage to Tom Parrish while raising their two children, Mike Parrish and Lori Hill.
Easy and versatile
There are salads that you ever-so-politely nibble on.
Not Cathy Davis’ California Tossed Salad.
It fills a large bowl to the brim. You have to grab it with tongs, lift it to your plate and, as she says it, “dive on in.”
It’s filling. It’s healthy. It’s easy to make.
Light and fluffy
Grandmas are probably the world’s best cooks.
Just ask anybody who’s been lucky enough to have eaten their scrumptious cookies, luscious pies, fluffy cakes and wholesome breads.
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