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May 24, 2022

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Year of cooking family recipes teaches lessons, stirs lovely memories

By , Columbian staff writer
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Warm milk with honey and spices is a soothing way to end the day.
Warm milk with honey and spices is a soothing way to end the day. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Way back in January, I gave myself a challenge: Every week for a year, I’d re-create recipes I’d loved as a girl and memorable meals I’d shared with friends. The idea behind The Year of Nostalgic Cooking was to eat comforting foods associated with positive or powerful memories, connecting me to loved ones while exploring my family history. My father helped me in this mission by unearthing my mother’s and grandmother’s recipe boxes, providing a bounty of recipes to jangle my memory and pique my interest.

As the year winds down and we scramble for comfort and hope in 2022, I’ll leave you with a recipe for warm milk, a treat that my mother sometimes gave me before bedtime to help me fall asleep. She may have done this on days when I’d been especially unruly and she wanted to make sure that once I went to bed, I stayed there. Or maybe she just knew, with a mother’s tender intuition, that some days are awful and need extra sweetness.

Before we get to the warm milk, I thought I’d share with you what I learned during the past year in case you decide to embark upon your own nostalgic cooking adventure. Perhaps you can avoid my mistakes, or at least repeat them with more style.

Fire is hot

I learned that when I’m making a recipe that involves setting a match to alcohol, I should be prepared for it to catch on fire in more than a theoretical sense and remember that my eyebrows stick out farther than I think they do.

Butter tastes good

The recipes I made this past year contained a lot of butter, but that’s because it makes food taste delicious. In my family, butter was for important things, like mashed potatoes and cornbread and London broil, with an entire stick of butter rubbed into it during grilling. Oatmeal and cream of wheat were served with butter and brown sugar, no exceptions. Butter and Mom and love form a sort of golden circle. (Nutritionists and fitness coaches: We’ll talk later, I promise.)


4 cups milk

⅓ cup honey

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon cardamom (optional)

Recipe, schmecipe

I often failed to achieve the precise flavor that I recalled, probably because I hate to follow directions. I replaced ingredients with what I had on hand or skipped steps that I deemed too onerous. I discovered that I’m happier when I’m improvising or not using a recipe at all. My homemade ice cream was therefore good, but it wasn’t Mom’s ice cream. My chicken cacciatore was delicious, but it didn’t hold a candle to the cacciatore in my memory. However, even when a dish wasn’t great, it was usually pretty tasty (except for the brandied chicken with apricots, which was more like chicken jerky with orange blobs).

Success was sweet

The best-tasting nostalgic recipes tended to be on the dessert-y side of things, like pineapple sour cream pie, no-bake cherry cheesecake, snickerdoodles and baked pineapple. They all had basic ingredients and straightforward instructions that didn’t require any special technique, so there were fewer opportunities for me to mess things up.

Don’t forget the love

Just attempting a beloved family recipe gave me a secret thrill. It was like my mother and grandmothers came to life again in my kitchen, speaking to me through their handwritten instructions. I felt a kinship with them as I followed the same motions with the same ingredients, stirring pots with the same contents, mixing bowls with the same flour and spices.

I spent a lot of time thinking about my mother, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2012. As I made the same dishes that she made time and time again, I wondered how she felt about her life, which had its fair share of sorrow. I tried walking a few miles in her shoes — or at least mixing a few pounds of dough with her hand mixer — and I came away with a greater appreciation for her effort, sacrifices and encouragement. I developed greater compassion for the times when I thought, in my youth and inexperience, that she fell short.

Now that I’m the mother of my own young adult, I hang on to the most important lesson Mom ever taught me: Love wins. Even if voices are raised and regrettable things are said, the strongest relationships have an elastic capacity to snap back into their original shape, to return to affection, humor and optimism. My mother’s legacy to me is more than a box of old recipes; it’s an ability to practice this kind of “rubber band love” with my daughter.

Warm Milk With Honey and Spices

Now for the warm milk. Pour a quart of milk (any kind) into a medium saucepan and add ¹/3 cup honey, 1 tablespoon butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg and, if you like cardamom as much as I do, ¼ teaspoon cardamom. Heat until quite warm and the honey is dissolved but don’t bring it to a boil or you could scald the milk. Pour into mugs and garnish with an extra (tiny) dollop of butter. Makes three to four servings.


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