Perhaps you’ve never thought of this, but during World War II model trains were not available, and my dad desperately wanted one for his then two boys. I was the eldest by two years and don’t remember asking for a petite choo-choo. I have a feeling the compulsion to own a train set was Cornelius Senior’s.
Charging ahead to 1946 when the war was over: metal toys reappeared along with—another son. Three sons! That put the proud papa’s yearning for a Lionel or American Flyer rig (“every boy should have one”) front and center. His request was added to a waiting list. But at last the set arrived.
For many years the intricate tracks (a figure-eight shape, I recall) encircled the Christmas Fir, and we opened gifts surrounded by the lights and sounds of the mini-train. I remember the creak of the tiny crossing gates opening and closing and other bits like a whistle and perhaps a mail bag loading.
One year, brother number three, the inheritor of the rail empire, was rooting around in his attic and discovered the train set, carefully boxed in original cartons. I was enlisted to help resurrect the set to surprise his two little ones.
In one of the boxes I came across a cache of those capsules that were inserted into the little engine and puffed smoke quite realistically. I remembered the pleasing smell. After twenty years of abandonment in a hot/cold attic, surely they wouldn’t work. Surprise! And I, lying prone next to the tracks and gazing up into the tree, was transported back to my eleventh Christmas by the combination of the smoke and fresh-cut tree aromas. Those memories got me thinking about the effect certain smells can have—on me and maybe on you.
From the Kitchen
I looked up the word “olfaction” or the sense of smell. And I found a quote that neatly summed up my feelings: “Our sense of smell is closely associated with emotions and memories. Although people may have a difficult time naming an odor, we tend to have strong memories for smell.”
I’ll bet that your olfaction really goes into overdrive when you enter a kitchen in which a multi-course holiday meal is being wrested from raw ingredients. In my case, lying under the Christmas tree like a big and bulky bathrobe-packaged present, I recall that other aromas found their way into my nostrils. It was the aroma of waffles and bacon wafting from the kitchen and then through the dining room and on into the living room. They’re mighty powerful smells.
With the exertion of straightening up and stuffing the crumpled wrapping paper into bags (“save the bows” came a voice from the kitchen) and making lists of who got what and from whom, a person could develop a real appetite.
I’d call it a “present tense” if I had the nerve. But the coffee also smelled great and drew us on to the kitchen and the source of the intoxicating possibilities.
My mom probably was presented with a waffle iron one Christmas—such a romantic gift—and thus our family began the habit of devouring these delectable carriers of the even more delectable butter and real maple syrup on subsequent Christmas mornings.
Mom’s waffles were probably made from one of her “bibles:” an early edition of Fanny Farmer (one from the ’20s I inherited). I wondered how to update the recipe—“gild the waffle” so to speak—and make them even better. So I went to a cookbook from my old friend, the late Marion Cunningham, who became the “new” Fannie with the publication of the greatly revised book in 1983. I remember having these waffles at the Bridge Creek restaurant in Berkeley, a memorable place which only served breakfast. Marion was the restaurant’s consultant.
Sure enough, I found the recipe in The Breakfast Book published by Knopf in 1987. If you love breakfasts the way I do, I hope you’ll search out this gem.
Marion prefaces her recipe by explaining that it came from an early edition of Farmer’s cookbook, and, “is still the best waffle I know.”
I quote: “The mixing is done the night before and all you have to do in the morning is add a couple of eggs and some baking soda. These waffles are very crisp on the outside and delicate on the inside.” That makes the cooking of a Christmas breakfast a snap and, since both my parents cooked, dad was in charge of the oven-baked bacon and mom handled “her” waffle iron.
This makes about eight waffles, so you’ll want to adjust the ingredients if you need more for your gang.
1⁄2 c. warm water
1 package dry yeast
2 c. milk, warmed (I use the microwave)
1⁄2 c. (1 stick) butter, melted (again, nuke it) 1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 c. all-purpose flour
1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
Real maple syrup and room temperature butter for topping
Use a rather large mixing bowl, as the batter will rise to double its original volume. Put the water in the mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand to dissolve for 5 minutes.
Add the milk, butter, salt, sugar, and flour to the yeast mixture and beat until smooth and blended. (Marion notes that she often uses a hand-rotary beater to get rid of the lumps, but a quick stir with a wire whisk is fine.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature. (Now you’re free to hang the mistletoe!)
Just before cooking the waffles, beat in the eggs, add the baking soda, and stir until well mixed. The batter will be very thin. Pour about 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup into a very hot waffle iron. Bake the waffles until they are golden and crisp.
I’d suggest giving the recipe a dry run and note the timing. Christmas is hectic enough. Warm the syrup, uncapped but still in its container, in a large bowl of very hot water until serving. Then pour it into a jug that’s been rinsed out with very hot water. Cooked waffles may be kept warm, loosely covered with foil, in a very low oven until all are made.
The batter will keep well (covered) for several days in the refrigerator—or, as my mom and the original Fannie would say, “ice box.”
Calling All Chilly Cooks
No, that isn’t a typo, I just wanted to alert you that the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society is again assembling a hearth cooking group at the Patterson Inn in Corning Friday evenings in January, February, and March. You’ll learn how to cook on the hearth and prepare heritage recipes. Call (607) 937-5281 for more information.