Making Magic

                                                                                                 Clarence Parrish   

Clarence Parrish, my grandfather, was a wizard. Except that he didn’t wear long robes or a pointed hat, he certainly had a wizardly look about him. Paw, that’s what my brothers and I called him, was just over five feet tall, wore thick glasses, sported a pipe, a potbelly, and an endless repertoire of funny stories. Like any good wizard, he loved fireworks and all sorts of magical gadgets and tools. Our house on the Fourth of July became a small arsenal of flares and firecrackers and sparklers. He never told us what he was up to each year, but we knew when the streets grew dark that it was his show, and we wouldn’t be disappointed. 

Growing up in his house in an elm-canopied parkway in South Buffalo, NewYork, I watched and helped and generally “pestered” him in his basement workshop. I knew for a fact that he could fix or make anything: cages for hamsters, small wading pools, a sewing chest, and a weather vane. Sometimes, though he never seemed to leave our sight, he could also make pennies appear magically under the chunky quartz rock lining our garden. They seemed to be  just the thing to coax my skinny little brother, Jon to find when he finished his lunch. He liked nothing better than to surprise us with his creations.

Paw found a way to coax nightcrawlers from the earth to fish with using soapy water. He finally set up his own private box where he fed his prized worms with grass cuttings.  He grew tomatoes and peaches and especially peonies. As you can see from the photo above, the bushes of every hue were almost as big as he was. I have some much smaller bushes grown from cuttings from those same plants in my garden in Martha's Vineyard. 

From my years as his "helper", I think I learned a lot about cooking from Paw. The lessons were not just so much about food but rather the magical part, the process that ends up with a surprise on the table. Sometimes the most fun I have in the kitchen is to make something from nothing, to conjure up an entree from a snippet of this, a handful of that, and a cupful of leftovers. Foraging through the refrigerator and pantry, each ingredient becomes another catalyst to create. 

It is easy in our world of mega grocery stores to find any exotic ingredient we could possibly think of to produce a special dish or even to buy it already prepared. But this spontaneous and practical kind of cooking has a different set of rewards than those beckoned when the ingredients and recipes are all lined up in front of you with a certain level of expectation and pressure about the outcome. There is a certain giddiness and freedom in not having any boundaries and really nothing at all to lose. A great satisfaction and gratitude comes when you manage to feed a small crowd a perfectly tasty dinner with just what you have on hand. That is what I learned from Paw.

My pantry and refrigerator are full of little treasures like he would hoard in his garage or basement workshop. His were pieces of pipe or a scrap of wood, a roll of wire or an odd-shaped piece of metal. He would begin a repair or a project and stop to rub his chin, saying,“Now let me see. I think I’ve got just the right thing,” before going off to search for the perfect missing piece he knew was stashed somewhere in a drawer. My treasures are a few leftover spears of asparagus, a piece of aged Parmesan, or the thick smoky juice of roasted peppers, perfect for an impromptu salad or pasta sauce.

My kitchen, too, bears a closer resemblance to his basement and workbench than most family kitchens. His tools each had a designated spot on a pegboard in easy reach. He even constructed a rotating cylinder to hold jars of neatly sorted nails, bolts, and screws. My kitchen prep area is surrounded by stainless steel grids that hold dozens of gadgets and utensils all in view and handily reached.

My grandfather taught me how to sharpen a knife and carve a bird and any kind of roast. He always remembered to drop a few scraps for his dog Boots, waiting patiently at his feet. In some ways, his magic flowed from his familiar comfort with the everyday pieces of the physical world around him, knowing the ordinary so well that he could do something extraordinary in a seemingly effortless way. 

After he retired from his work as a maintenance man at a large chemical refinery, he did a lot more cooking. The first time I smelled a fresh mushroom sautéing in butter and onions was the time he had found a “puffball” in the woods and promptly made a feast of it at home. I had never imagined something that could smell so wonderful.

His first attempts at Jell-O became the stuff of family legends. He proudly presented the deep strawberry-colored mass that lay curiously motionless in its bowl. Not even a small jiggle was forthcoming. It couldn’t be cut with a knife. As the rest of us stifled giggles as we sat around the table, then broke into hysterical laughter, an ever resourceful Paw made a quick trip find his hammer and chisel. 

Not put off by his early defeats, he tried his hand at baking, too. Whipping up a store-bought mix and baking a cake while we were off at school, he’d hide it in his bedroom and surprise us after dinner. My grandfather’s favorite kind of cake was covered with chunks of walnuts over a creamy maple-flavored frosting and cake. It soon became our family special occasion dessert, always expected to make an appearance at birthdays.

Paw was the only person I knew who could turn dandelions or elderberries into wine. He would scout locations in the countryside and we would all pile into his car with baskets for a day of foraging elderberries. His barrels and winepress were kept stored in the old coal bin in the rear of our basement. The aroma itself was so intoxicating that my brothers and I would brave the scary shadows and clanging furnace just to inhale the barrel stopper. 

My grandfather died just before my younger brother was to leave for college. He was fishing at our North Carolina home on the lake when his heart finally gave out. I figured he had finished his job. There seemed to be nothing left to fix and hardly anyone around to eat those cakes. But it was some of Paw’s sweet elderberry wine that my husband and I shared from our wedding cup. Years later, a surprise flask of it, hoarded for decades by an elderly cousin, appeared to toast my mother’s seventieth birthday. We treasured the small glasses of the rich wine then, growing silent in our remembrance. We savor still the wizardly ways and kind heart of the man who made it for us.

My Grandfather's Maple Walnut Cake

                                                                                                                                                            Maple Walnut Cake


My mother always insisted that, in keeping with my grandfather’s tradition of using a mix, this cake should not be made from scratch.  You can do that by selecting a white or yellow cake mix (I find mine at Whole Foods) and adding the maple flavoring and finely chopped walnuts to the mix before baking.  However, when Mom isn't looking, I often bake the made-from-scratch recipe below adapted from the classic 1-2-3-4 cake.

1 cup butter 

2  cups sugar

3 cups cake flour, sifted

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 ½ teaspoons maple extract

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

 In a large bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. Using an electric mixer in a separate large mixing bowl, beat the butter until creamy.  Continue beating and gradually add the sugar until the batter is light and fluffy.  Beat one egg at a time into creamed mixture.  Add the flour mixture alternately with milk (to which the flavorings have been added), beating after each addition until smooth.  Pour the batter into two 9-inch round greased and floured layer pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.  Cool 10 minutes on cake racks then remove from the pans to finish cooling. Make the frosting.

Maple Butter Cream Frosting

1/3 cup butter, softened 

3 cups confectioner’s sugar

¼ cup maple syrup

1/2 -3/4 teaspoon maple flavoring (or to taste)

1-2 tablespoons milk or cream, as needed

1 cup chopped walnuts

½ cup walnut halves for decoration

Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer or use a sturdy hand mixer. Add the syrup and maple flavoring and mix until thoroughly blended. Add enough milk or cream to make a thick, but easily spreadable frosting. Take care to not get it too runny. Place the first cake layer on a serving plate. (If it has a a very rounded top, I turn it upside down so the flat side is  a good surface for the next layer.) Spread about ¼ of the frosting evenly on the top of the cake.  Sprinkle with 1/3 of the chopped walnuts.  Place second layer on top of the first. Spread about half of the frosting around the sides of the cakes. (Hint: Dipping your spatula in hot water makes the frosting go on more smoothly.) Press the remaining chopped walnuts into the frosting on the side of the cake.  Finally, spread the top layer with frosting and decorate with the walnut halves.  This cake is best stored in the refrigerator and should be brought to room temperature before serving.

Makes a 9-inch layer cake or 8-12 servings.


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