"Wendy? What is this?" Uncle Joe asked, poking his fork at the zucchini towers on his plate. My dear uncle, the most basic meat-and-potatoes guy, was scared of what was inside.
"It's some carrot and sweet potato puree," my mother said, beaming.
"How do I eat this?" he asked sheepishly as my sister and I giggled.
"With your utensils, Joe." With that, my mother left the table.
We starred at the towers in silence, unable to see what was really on the plate.
My mother married my father when she was 19 years old: a tall, beautiful woman who lacked the confidence to model, despite the many offers that came her way as she worked as a perfume spritzer for Horne's Department Store in Pittsburgh (where Andy Warhol once held a summer job). She was raised by a single mom who worked tirelessly to provide for her three children. There wasn't time to nurture within your home when you were a nurse working day and night. While my mother kept her brothers fed and the household intact as a teen, in no way was she prepared for marriage, beyond knowing that it was just what women did.
When my parents divorced, with two girls aged eight and two, my mother threw herself into the workplace and took night classes towards a degree in English. Her priorities were: kids to raise, a mortgage to pay, a life to cultivate. For convenience, TV dinners were deployed—somewhat balanced meals that came with dessert. Win/win.
Sunday was the day to do all of the housework, which typically began with ironing while watching Julia Child. It started as a parental roadblock to keep me from watching Abbott and Costello, but soon the ironing stopped and my mother was rapt. Julia was showing her the way into her kitchen, pushing her away from the TV dinners and slowly nudging her towards her true self. Cookbooks slowly became my mother's very own atlas—every page, every recipe taking her into her own Narnia. Within each experiment, she was finding confidence, and with my sister and me as her willing guinea pigs, our family was becoming a unit.
Her notorious clean streak kept her from making me her sous-chef, so I learned by watching. Decades later, in my kitchen, any time I try a new recipe or go rogue, it's my mother that I'm calling upon—she’s in every splash and stir. In the face of any willing guinea pig, I understand the power she used to wield in every bite. While toiling in my Brooklyn kitchen, still attempting to master her flourless chocolate cake recipe that I scribbled on scrap paper when I was 15, she is in Pittsburgh, heating up a Lean Cuisine (no dessert).
Maryll Botula is a Pittsburgh-born, Brooklyn-based actor, award-winning writer, filmmaker, music nerd, and pug owner. Her short film Buttball is currently in production. She can be found at www.maryllbotula.com.
Chocolate (Almost Flourless) Cake
1 lb. dark sweet chocolate
1 1/4 sticks (10 T.) unsalted butter
1 T. sugar
1 T. sifted flour
Preheat oven to 425 F.
Line an 8-inch round pan with parchment paper (my mother used a brown paper bag) and butter the paper.
Melt chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.
Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.
Combine eggs and sugar in the top of the double boiler over low heat, whisking constantly until sugar is dissolved; mixture will darken and should be barely warm to the touch.
Remove from heat.
Beat at high speed 5 – 10 minutes until mixture triples in volume.
Fold in flour.
Stir in 1/3 of the beaten egg mixture into the chocolate mixture.
Then fold the chocolate mixture into the beaten eggs until combined.
Pour into pan.
Bake for 15 minutes until cake is soft in the center and crusty on top.
Cool in pan.
Freeze overnight.and thaw to serve.