The Times West Virginian

August 17, 2011

Play with your food

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — 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.

And Connie?

“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 dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.