She watched me grow up. Fed me. Talked about my day at school. Came in and told me to stop giggling and get to sleep. Fed me some more. When I got older, we would go to the beach together and talk about stupid things, or girl things. And we laughed –a lot.
Shirley is my second mother. She’s actually the mother of my best friend, Linda, who I have known since the first grade. And because Linda and I were friends, Shirley and my mother became friends. It was definitely a friendship of opposites in every way. My mom was earthy, a homebody who loved Grey’s Anatomy and country singers, from Willie Nelson to Kris Kristoferson. Shirly is graceful, but a fearless boater and driver, who prefers the Richmond Symphony and sings in the church choir.
But the biggest difference between them was their cooking styles, and it was a lifelong joke between them.
My mother threw things into pans and pots with abandon , rarely using recipes or making a dish the same way twice. Shirley is a recipe follower of precision and technique. When they shared a beach house on vacations, they would watch each other cook with fascination that never seemed to diminish.
As you can imagine, my mother’s style made her baked goods a little, um, dicey. My family learned to approach her baked goods with a wary optimism. But when Shirley baked and brought over her pecan pie or quick breads, we practically elbowed each other out of the way to get the first bite. Flakiness, chewyness, and crustiness always appeared in the right places with Shirley’s desserts.
But her signature dish was her apple coffee cake. It doesn’t sound earthshattering. But, wow. Take one bite and you have perfectly chopped apples, soft, yeasty, just slightly sweet dough precisely scored into perfect portions, and just the right amount of thin glaze. These cakes appeared at random, or on birthdays, when someone was in the hospital and at Christmas. These cakes disappeared in one sitting — if they actually made it to a sitting. She did bring them by when they were still warm from the oven. Who could blame us?
So, for the first time, I’m going to attempt to make Shirley’s coffeecake. The entrie clan of in-laws is coming for Thanksgiving. They can be my test subjects. I’m sure they won’t mind.
Because holiday baking is about tradition. And, while Shirley is still cranking out coffee cakes, I’m not going to be in Richmond as often to receive them anymore. And what better way to keep the tradition of extended family – whether by marriage or friendship — alive than by a warm serving of something baked with love. I’m hoping that sentiment will overcome my genetic disposition against precision.
Shirley’s Apple Coffee Cake
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter
2 pkgs. dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
4 cups flour
In a saucepan over medium heat, scald the milk. Stir in sugar, salt and butter. Cool to lukewarm. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water. Stir until dissolved. Pour in milk mixture, egg and 2 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in remaining flour. Mix well. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least two hours. Divide dough in half. On a floured surfce, roll each half into a 7×14-inch rectangle.
Apple nut filling
1/4 cup melted butter
2 cups chopped apples (Shirley uses winesaps)
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
Grease two cookie sheets
Mix ingredients together. Put half of the mixture in a long line down the middle of each dough rectangle. Roll each up from the long end. Place on pan and seal edges tightly. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. Using a sharp knife, score each roll horizontally at one-inch intervals, cutting about 2/3 of the way through. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes.
1 cup confectioners sugar, sifted
2 Tbsp. milk
Stir together, using more milk, if necessary, to make a thin glaze. Pour over warm rolls