Need a holiday handknit? Time for a Schmatta!

Never Fail

Dear Ann,
Out in the country (north of Omaha, south of Fort Calhoun), weakened by WiFi deprivation, I have been digging around in Most Moisturized Mom’s treasures.
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The Ancestral Recipe Box. The box itself is not so ancient. It dates to the 1960s, when MMM was beginning her career as a master mixer of canned goods. She was training under her mother-in-law, Grandma Mabel (who in life was called Grandma Gardiner, which sounds less affectionate than it should). Grandma Mabel did not approve of combining (or doing anything else with) canned goods. She made an exception for Jello. In those pre-Julia Child days, everyone made an exception for Jello. Jello had it going ON. But apart from the Jello, Grandma was a scratch cook. She had worked as a restaurant cook in the Depression, so she knew what she was doing. (She worked at the Dundee Dell in Omaha, which I believe still exists, but probably no longer employs a tall taciturn lady to cook all the meals AND bake the pies.)
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It’s the contents of the box that are the real treasure.
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There are recipes in Grandma’s handwriting, like the one on the other side of this notepaper. This notepad sat for years on Grandma’s telephone table. Telephones used to have their own table. Grandma’s was a classic black-painted wire and stamped metal contraption with an uncomfortable Early Vinyl seat and a surface just big enough to hold the phone and a notepad. (Grandma could make a notepad last a long time. She had a bottle of Jergens hand lotion that lasted a decade.) Understandably, I was really happy to find this notepaper. I do not know what up-to-the-minute banking was, but it sounds like something a person would have wanted.
Since I am really coming out of seclusion for the sole purpose of getting the cinnamon briquets off the top of the blog, I will share a recipe. This is the recipe that will cure you of cake mixes forever (if you suffer from cake mixes). Grandma told me that this cake is just as easy as a cake mix and twice as good, and I heard her loud and clear: You Will Let Us Down If You Ever Use a Cake Mix. Once when I was 9 or 10 I got up at dawn to make a surprise Never Fail Cake for Mother’s Day. I was a bit puzzled by the “sour milk” ingredient, so I put some juice from a pickle jar into the milk. It worked just great. (I think I earned a Camp Fire Girl bead for this project.)
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(I retyped this recipe in the 1970s when I got a portable Smith-Corona typewriter for typing term papers. It was a terrible typewriter. I can only imagine what kind of shape the Never Fail Cake recipe was in before I retyped it.)
This is the best recipe ever for cupcakes. So quick! Get the boys baking. Be sure to tell them about the pickle juice trick.
Love,
Kay
P.S. I have also been knitting. I made 3 more pairs of Fetching mitts, 2 in Malabrigo and one in the remains of the cashmere (sob). I also made a hat for a boy to whom I owe a hat. I didn’t have a pattern, so I made the Never Fail Hat that’s in my head:
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The ribbing is in 2-round stripes of 2 shades of Noro Silk Garden. The crown is in one of the 2 shades. I started with 104 stitches, joined to knit in the round, striped until I had a generous fold-over cuff (for warmth and size flexibility), then switched to stockinette. The first round of stockinette was *K11, K2tog, repeat from * all the way around. Then I worked even for a couple of inches (judging the size from the 9 year old and 11 year old heads I had on hand). Then I worked 8 evenly spaced K2togs on every other row until I was down to 8 stitches, gathered those stitches, and fastened off.

68 Comments

68 Comments

  1. What a lucky little boy! Noro Silk Garden, nice yarn treat for he whom was owed such a lovely hat! I love baking stories, the recipe photos are priceless. It does a gal good reading your story on a wintery afternoon to dust off the after Christmas blues!

  2. oh my kay -i have made the cake
    yes it is good- we had jello
    in all kinds of shapes and sizes
    the molds and all the goodies that
    were put inside–aspic etc
    thank you for the memories
    mine are of a leaf of lettuce
    canned pears with cream cheese
    and a date on each pear half

  3. Well! You should’ve labelled this: “Merry Christmas”…TWO presents for us, just like that! I love those old typed recipes; I got a ring-binder cookbook full of those at a garage sale for next to nothing, and it’s worth countless millions! Now I’m going to copy down my New Favorite Cake Recipe (and I haven’t even tried it yet) and that cap, which is too cool. 1) I’m going to *copy* that recipe — it does NOT want to be “printed out”; 2) my grandson begged for a new hat today (I did no Christmas knitting) and I think I have just the thing in my stash. Not Noro but nice……THANKS FOR THE PRESENTS!!

  4. Kay – my mom has the same recipe box! What a treasure. When my dear grandmother (her mom) passed away, Mom asked me if I wanted anything from her house, and I said “her recipe box”. It has all the family classics, some even in my great-great-grandmother’s handwriting.
    Thanks for the post – love the part about the pickle juice. Do you remember if it was sweet pickles or dill? (LOL)

  5. Wow! My mom had the same recipe box! It was a bit startling to see it’s twin at the top of your blog today! Can’t stop the exclamation points!!

  6. That’s a fabulous story–how lucky you are to have your Grandmother’s old recipes! In fact, I’m jealous (grin). I’ll have to try that recipe, too, it looks so tasty. I’m always happy to find a new cake recipe. Mmmmm . . . although, maybe I should wait a few weeks. All those Christmas goodies, you know…

  7. And, oh, I’ve always done “sour milk” with lemon juice. Some books say to use vinegar, but I always thought a hint of lemon would taste better in the cake–I must say, I never thought about pickle flavor!
    And . . . Jello. Somehow, my grandmother made the best Jello. Whether it was the cast-iron pan she boiled the water in, or something about her tap water . . . I mean, it was God-awful stuff to drink with all sorts of icky minerals, but it made fabulous Jello. Don’t ask me how.

  8. I have my grandmother’s recipes as well. Some of them are just plain impossible to understand, such as the one for lye soap where the only things listed are “fat”, “lye”, twice- once with the fat first, the second time with the lye first, and then two different temperatures. That’s it…the whole recipe. Needless to say, I haven’t tried it.

  9. What IS sour milk? Buttermilk? I’m guessing, but I hope they don’t want the old milk in the back of my fridge.

  10. Wow! I know that recipe box too! Everyone in the 60s must have bought that same box.
    A few years ago I gathered family recipes from everyone and created a family recipe book to save Grandma’s sugar cookies and other recipes from getting lost. It was my Christmas present to everyone that year.

  11. Wow! I know that recipe box too! Everyone in the 60s must have bought that same box.
    A few years ago I gathered family recipes from everyone and created a family recipe book to save Grandma’s sugar cookies and other recipes from getting lost. It was my Christmas present to everyone that year.

  12. Ah, Kay, what can I say. This is one of the funniest posts you have contributed to your half of the blog. It was so funny that it made me come out of Lurkerville and comment!! OF COURSE you typed up your grandma’s recipe on your new Smith Corona typewriter…what else would a gal with your organizational skills do with such a new and prized item? What else did you type up that year I wonder?
    Enough about the sour milk surprise cake…pickle juice in a cake mix is more than my stomach can handle…what about Lil’s Brownie Cookies recipe. Or fried chicken? Come on. Give us the good stuff.

  13. Kay – the Dundee Dell DEFINITELY still exists. Bono was just there a week or so ago.

  14. I will definitely make the cake. Grandma’s never-fail goodies are the best – all those shortening smudges tell me so!
    That is one super terrific hat. What size needles?

  15. I’ve gotta try that cake! I’m not a “mix girl” anyway, but my favorite thing is to collect recipes. I have some great recipes passed down in the family. Like my great grandmother’s soft sugar cookie recipe, oh YUM! I do regret not having my Great Aunt Nellie’s Cinnamon Roll recipe (She was the best baker in the family, bar none), or my Grandpa’s English Boiled Pudding recipe. That one was only passed down to the men in the family and there were no boys in my mom’s family, and none of the boy cousins asked Granpa to teach them. So when he passed, the recipe was lost.

  16. Kay, the Dundee Dell is, indeed, still in Omaha, but no longer on the corner of 50th & Dodge Streets. It has moved to 50th & Underwood (in the place where Trovato’s used to be, if I remember correctly) and has changed from that lovely, seedy bar (where the writers congregated after evening classes) to a kind of upscale place with wine tastings and scotch tastings, and all sorts of stuff. You can find it on the web at http://www.dundeedell.com. I vote we organize a knit-in at the Dell next time you’re in Omaha.

  17. ” 9 and 11 year old heads…..” how did that happen? weren’t they just toddlers a minute ago? please bottle up that sweetness for a rainy day!

  18. First you turn me into a Fetchies production machine (have made 6 pairs in the last 5 days, and just got commissioned for another pair at lunch today when my friend threatened to steal mine…) And now, I have to bake??

  19. I’ve got the exact same recipe box sitting in my kitchen cabinet! It was my grandmother’s, and I asked for it when we divided up her belongings after she died. Granny, my mother, and my sister were/are great “make-it-from scratch” cooks. Unfortunately, that particular gene passed me by. I have to keep up the family tradition, though, but it is pure work for me, not the joy and love of cooking.
    My mother also had a talent for tasting an entree, dessert, or whatever and being able to discern what ingredients the dish contained. A couple of months ago I tasted a broccoli salad (from an upscale grocery store deli) that I loved and wanted to duplicate. I could readily discern most of the ingredients, but wasn’t sure of the dressing. I thought (out loud) if Mom were here, she could tell me the missing ingredients. A few days later I was sorting out some of my mother’s belongings that had been in storage for years. In one of the boxes was a notepad sheet with a recipe, handwritten by Mom, for a broccoli salad, including the dressing ingredients! Was it a coincidence, or was Mom speaking to me from the grave (which, coincidentally, is in a cemetery right across the street from the upscale grocery store)?!
    Thanks for the never-fail hat pattern also. I’ll have to whip up a few of those for my grandkids.
    Mary G. in TX

  20. Wow… your grandma’s recipes have both measurements and instructions! My grandma’s mostly don’t, and are mostly in German. (Luckily I know a reasonable amount of German, and am trained in deciphering her handwriting. But not her intentions.)

  21. Kay – what a great trip down memory lane with you. I’m so glad you found that wonderful treasure. Nothing brings back happy memories like family recipes.
    I wonder if Ann will try to burn the never fail cake???

  22. Thank god you posted!!
    The black cinnamon buns were painful to look at…
    I’m thinking of my mom’s recipe box, itching to look through it and save stuff. Don’t think it’s going anywhere soon, tho.

  23. I think you made a great guess with the pickle juice! I use vinegar to “sour” milk for soda bread all the time. Now I’ll know what to try if I’m ever up to my elbows in flour before realizing I’m out of vinegar :)
    And I wonder if the creator of that recipe box had/had any idea of how widespread its presence would be? I did a double-take when I saw it.
    I had cards to match, too!

  24. I sometimes use plain yogurt when it calls for sour milk. I love recipes that say, cook until done! What a concept.

  25. I have to say, what with the cap “recipe” and the cake recipe, and the sweet trip to Grandma’s kitchen, and in no way wanting to minimize those gifts to us, your humble readers, I am most grateful for your thoughtfulness in moving the cinnamon disasters off the top of the blog ;^)

  26. I’ve also been going through the recipe box I inherited from my mother, featuring recipes in many long-forgotten handwritings. I made my grandmother’s gingerbread, happily sailing along, and even finding out what “syrup” was (it’s still in the grocery store, next to molasses, and is NOT Mrs. Butterworth stuff). But, when I went to bake it, I realized she had not put what temperature to cook it at, or for how long. So far I have made two rather dry gingerbreads.
    Also, I didn’t say so earlier, but my fiance and I found the cinnamon brick-ettes to be the most hilarious blog post of the season, so don’t be ashamed. I also made those same ones, but managed to take them out in time to actually eat.

  27. I’m going to miss laughing at the cinnamon rolls……

  28. Dundee Dell Oh my goodness, I ate there many years ago probably about the time your Mom was there. I was raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. All the Omaha references remind me of my childhood in that area. Have not been back in many years. Enjoy it for me. Many Thanks for the memories.
    Joan

  29. Dundee Dell Oh my goodness, I ate there many years ago probably about the time your Mom was there. I was raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. All the Omaha references remind me of my childhood in that area. Have not been back in many years. Enjoy it for me. Many Thanks for the memories.
    Joan

  30. Oh…I have one of those recipe boxes too. I was baking Christmas cookies and photographing them for another blog with all our family recipies. After I found that you can print a blog into a book, I was so excited to make our family cookbook.

  31. Now I just want to make a cake with pickle juice! It sounds tasty and wrong (like a friend who makes bacon brittle).

  32. I have my mom’s recipe box, too – doesn’t look exactly like your’s, but the HANDWRITING does!!!
    My mom didn’t have a telephone table, she just had a corner of the kitchen counter (we was po’) but I swear she had a version of that same notepad (different bank). I treasure the scraps with her handwriting on it.
    I must try the cake.
    And I’ve been making a bunch of those hats, too! Very similar, tho’ not with quite so rich materials as yours…my grandsons get acrylic, ’cause their mom can’t wash anything by hand! lolol!
    THIS was a terrific post!
    (((hugs)))

  33. We have a very similar cake recipe in our family box… Mrs. Carmen’s Devils Food cake. It came from my great aunt Dot’s friend Mrs. Carmen. I agree… totally fast and makes awesome cupcakes. Mmm… I might have to get this one out again soon.

  34. My mom has a recipe box of very similar styling, and contents. Must be the mid-west.

  35. How lucky you are that your Gram cooked! Mine recently gave me one of her favorite recipes when she discovered I enjoyed a bit of kitchen creation time… “Poor Man’s Spaghetti”… needless to say it is just noodles and a can of tomato soup. I told her I loved it… when in reality I tried to forget where I stowed it away :)

  36. Wow, whoever the manufacturer of this recipe box was must have raked in the bucks – I also have the same one. I went through it recently to see what I wanted to add to a cookbook I’m making for my kids and found lots of recipes for jello molds and cake-mix desserts (definitely from the 60’s). Guess times have really changed!

  37. I think it’s the comfort from those who came before that makes us cherish the recipes. I see my grandmothers and aunts everytime I flip through my box. I’ve already put in my request for my mom’s collection when she passes (no, we’re not morbid. It’s just our practical Yankee funeral humor.).
    And how did you find a boy whose eyes match your yarn?

  38. Add me to the list of people who have come out of Lurkdom to say that they have that recipe box, too! My mom does! I have to tell her to check this blog! And I got a Smith-Corona typewriter for HS graduation in 1980. I took it to college. We have Aunt Helen’s Choc Cake in our family, the fail-safe beginner’s recipe. You can leave out any ingredient or do anything “wrong” to the recipe you want, but the cake always turns out. It calls for “buttermilk” but the recipe says if you don’t have it, use 1 tsp. vinegar for 1 c. milk. Lemon juice does sound better. Or real buttermilk, but “we was po’ too” and never had special buttermilk. This blog always makes me Laugh Out Loud. My sympathies to the charcoal cinnamon briquettes Carry on!

  39. Is it weird thay I miss the cinnabricks being on top? Thanks for the recipes…btw I am on my last square of buncha squares…

  40. Here we go again- I too have that exact box. It must have been hugely popular, even in Canada where we are from.It belonged to my wonderful mother and when she passed away, it was given to me. I cherish the smudged pages of meals she made, the magazine-torn pages of things she ment to make and the hand-written notes she scribbled like “we like this, add chocolate chips instead of fronsting.

  41. Sounds good to me! Love the hat!

  42. Now you have me crying in sheer frustration… my treasured heirloom recipe box was lost 20 years ago in a house fire, and no way to replace it. I’ve been trying to re-create things, but my grandmother’s sweet salad dressing is gone forever. All I can remember is that it was based on Eagle brand. Sigh! It made the World’s Absolute BEST Coleslaw!
    Recipe and pattern both duly saved – with thanks!

  43. My brother had a portable Smith-Corona. I was so jealous, because he was so grown-up, what with his own typewriter and all. Do you remember how they smelled? Not bad, but something I identified as wielder-of-words (One of the lesser superpowers at the time).

  44. My mother had the exact same recipe box. I got so excited to see your picture and overwhelmed with memories, I could hardly read your blog entry. It sounds like a lot of people had that same recipe box, it must have been free with a fill-up or three boxtops or something.

  45. Oh, how cool! I have the SAME box from my grandmother. Isn’t it wonderful?!!

  46. Me, too! I have the same recipe box. Given to me new by my grandmother about the time I was taking home ec in junior high. But the really spooky thing is I have that recipe, written in my grandmother’s hand, on my kitchen counter as we speak. It has become somewhat of a joke between my mother and myself because it has never worked for us yet we know Nana made it all the time. The ‘never fail’ taunts us. I wonder if you use Crisco or butter?

  47. That is so wonderful! Thanks for sharing the cake recipe. Mmmm! My mom got so into suspending fruits in the Jello (canned and fresh were both employed, though the kids finally drew the line at fruit cocktail, which just seemed wrong suspended in Jello) that my brothers and I finally had to beg her to stop. These days, the mere sight of Jello makes me terribly nostalgic for my childhood. Go figure.

  48. I was looking through my Mom’s recipe boxes this week and found cards with my Grandmother’s writing which was very fun to see again. Also alot of Jello salads. I can’t believe we use to eat those all the time! I will email a photo later.

  49. Here is a photo of my recipe box:
    http://www.analecta.ca/lisarr/archives/00000389.html
    I posted the recipe for a lentil soup, which I still make frequently.
    I am looking forward to seeing photos of other people’s recipe boxes!
    Lisa

  50. What size needles did you use to knit the Silk Garden hat? Love the hat!!

  51. OMG! MMM’s recipe box is just like the one my mom has!!!! Do the scraps of paper, 3×5 cards and sundry “cut-off-the-back-of-a-box” recipes smell like the inside of a paper sack from the bakery? My mom’s does! Although I love my sister-in-law, I have made it patently clear that mother must put my name on post-its and put them on all items recipe-ey and I am to be sole heir to them in her will…that is if they don’t mysteriously disappear one by one so as to not be noticed over time. My Gramma Annette also had a binder that has now delicate pages of clippings on how to keep the home that are held in place by the celophane that remains of 1955-1965 era scotch tape.
    Sigh, I wish I was born 30 years earlier.
    Thanks for a great post!

  52. Kay, Your posting made me think back to the challenges of the days of WW11 and the years following the war which were a recovery period.No exotic flying in daily of freshly caught Alaskan fishes as today, no superchefs on the TV. The ladies canned seasonal produce in jars and were proud of their labor–LABORS–of love keeping good foods available during the winter months. Well, it was hard work and the relief they felt to have the burden lifted by canned food was immense…as many still hung clothes out to dry in the air, and had cloth diapers that would freeze as they dried. The JELLO variations were things of fancy…also if jello appeared at holiday meals it meant that if a child was recovering, and there was always someone suffering, they could join the family at the table and eat something that would soothe.

  53. Is it scary that my mom (and I) have the same recipe box, and that both of our contain a “Never Fail” cake recipe? LOL

  54. I am thinking what a world it must have been, that so many recipes were labelled “never fail” in our family box we have never fail ; gravy, fudge, cake and frosting. Previous to this did women set out to make cake and create bricks? Try for fudge and get cocoa? gravy and get hats?

  55. I am thinking what a world it must have been, that so many recipes were labelled “never fail” in our family box we have never fail ; gravy, fudge, cake and frosting. Previous to this did women set out to make cake and create bricks? Try for fudge and get cocoa? gravy and get hats?

  56. happy new year

  57. My Mom had the same box. She tossed it after the divorce from my father and my siblings lament the fact regularly as we don’t have the recipes that we grew up on to share with our kids. Thanks for the memories.

  58. My Mom had the same box. She tossed it after the divorce from my father and my siblings lament the fact regularly as we don’t have the recipes that we grew up on to share with our kids. Thanks for the memories.

  59. Great hat! What size needles?

  60. I don’t have such a cool recipe box as my mom keeps all her recipes in her head, still.
    What prompted me to come out of lurking to comment was the type-face of the cake recipe. I knew it was a portable smith-corona manual typewriter before I read the text…I used my second-hand s-c to type out: all my term papers in HS, all of my college apps, as well as my grad school apps. (I upgraded to a laptop in college but the grad schools still wanted forms typed out!) It is still in storage at my mom’s house.

  61. It is so much fun to see the other recipe boxes. Mine is on my blog at http://pjbknit.typepad.com/pjbknit/2008/01/recipes.html

  62. My recipe box is very similar to erica’s you posted, only plain and wooden. I found it way back when i was little (seriously, like grade 6) in a thrift shop. It has been dragged around the U.S. with me and holds such an eclectic collection of recipes! I will post a pic and recipe for gram’s french meat pie tonight…we make it every new years day and serve it with whatever chutney is near, this year was plum, from our drummers plum tree last summer.
    http://turtleslakeknitting.blogspot.com/

  63. OMGosh, I have the same recipe box from my mother! She has since kept grandmother’s recipes, and I use it for coupons. It is a most cherished little box, and I wondered if anyone out there shared the same!

  64. OMGosh, I have the same recipe box from my mother! She has since kept grandmother’s recipes, and I use it for coupons. It is a most cherished little box, and I wondered if anyone out there shared the same!

  65. OMGosh, I have the same recipe box from my mother! She has since kept grandmother’s recipes, and I use it for coupons. It is a most cherished little box, and I wondered if anyone out there shared the same!

  66. I want to make this cake! What size pan should I use?

  67. Oddly enough, I got the original 1953 version of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook for Christmas and there is a Never-Fail cake recipe. Makes me wonder if it’s the same recipe? Alas, I’m at work and my cookbook isn’t.

  68. My mother had that same box, I have it now too!!
    Owhat happened to those cinnamon rolls!!! yeeeeeeee!
    thanks for sharing, I’m trying to learn the lace ribbing pattern and the freebee brought me here…