Growing up, I nicknamed my mother’s oven “Noah’s Ark.” Everything she cooked there went in in pairs: two hams, two pies, two casseroles. Our family would go through three loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, and a jar of peanut butter — a day.
That’s because she and my father were wild enough to have nine children, nine crazy kids, and did most of their child-rearing around the dinner table.
The dining room was clearly the most important room in our house. Not the family room and its come-hither TV. Not our own rooms and their cozies of privacy. The dining room.
In the heydays, service for 11, year in, year out, 12 if you counted the Great Dane under the table.
My mother and father were a strange culinary combination. He was raised in a small town north of Denver of a teetotaling Methodist father and a stern Catholic mother. My mother came from Belgium, wine in her veins, and able to mix a mayonnaise every morning, just as her mother did, day in, day out.
My father loved pies, but my mother didn’t know how to make them in the American way. Her clafoutis were always excellent, but my father wanted Betty Crocker’s flaky, latticed crust. So, he taught her, and she made wonderful pies.
What I remember most about my mother, foodwise, is how she graduated as a cook. In the beginning, it was frozen slabs of halibut thrown like horseshoes onto the baking sheet and topped with a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup. She based her spaghetti sauce in Heinz tomato soup.
She just had so many maws to fill.
Later, when most of us had grown into our late ‘teens and twenties, she blossomed, like the roses she adored: into running a cooking school for several years; clipping drawers-full of recipes from food mags; going to culinary schools in Europe; and authoring a cookbook that brought $150,000 to the coffers of Meals on Wheels for People with AIDS.
My father said, some years ago, that he loved leaving work to come home. “I don’t know what’s going to be for dinner,” he said, “but whatever it is, it’s going to be great.”
Such compliments few of us cooks receive.
For this column in honor of my mother on Mother’s Day 2020, I polled my brothers and sisters to ask them what were the top three favorite recipes from her that they remember most fondly (and deliciously). Here is the consensus. Not surprisingly, because she was a Belgian who loved sweets, two of them are desserts.
The other is a crimson-colored salad dressing, a jar of which I remember always, always on the top shelf of the refrigerator, like an eternal flame. (It reminds me of what Kraft calls its “Catalina” dressing.) A St. John has eaten this—I do not exaggerate here—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times.
Favorite Mother’s Day recipes:
Madeleine St. John’s Tarte aux Fraises (Strawberry Cream Pie)
1 10- or 12-inch pie shell, of your own making or store-bought, baked-off to a light brown
1/3 cup red currant jelly diluted with 1 tablespoon water, warmed in small saucepan
Strawberries, fresh, stemmed, with flattened tops, in sufficient quantity to fill the bottom of the shell standing up
1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped into stiff peaks with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, refrigerated and set aside
Paint the inside of the pie shell with the red currant jelly and let the glaze set for 5 minutes at room temperature. Arrange the strawberries in the glaze, flat sides down, pointed ends up, close together, touching. Spoon or brush what remains of the glaze over the strawberries. Refrigerate until serving time.
When ready to serve, smooth the whipping cream over the strawberries, down into the open spaces between them, and reaching up to their tips. Slice into portions and serve on chilled dessert plates. (Alternatively, you may slice some of the strawberries, especially if you have a large amount, and mix them with some whipped cream and make of that a first flat layer atop the initial red currant jelly glaze. Finish with whole strawberries, as indicated, using the remaining whipped cream.)
Madeleine St John’s “French” Salad Dressing
1 cup neutral salad oil
1/3 cup vinegar (white wine or cider) or lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons ketchup
1 and 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
5-6 drops Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon grated onion (or dash of onion powder)
1/2 clove garlic grated (or dash of garlic powder)
Mix all ingredients together in a jar and shake well. Toward the bottom of the jar, and if only a small amount remains, add a small amount of mayonnaise to taste and shake again for a creamy version.
Madeleine St. John’s Mousse au Chocolat
I believe that my French-speaking mother called this preparation a “mousse” because that is what Americans would call it in the 1960s when she began to make it. But a mousse has air whipped into it; this is what French cooking calls a “pot” (pronounced like Edgar Allen’s last name, “Poe”), a dense, egg- and cream-enriched dessert. My siblings and I tend to eliminate her call for “1-2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur or dark rum,” feeling, as my brother Marc puts it, that it “just gets in the way of the intense chocolate flavor.” We are half-Belgian; we like our chocolate straight.
6-ounce package of chocolate drops, bits, or chips
3/4 cup milk, scalded
3 tablespoons hot espresso or strong coffee (OK to use decaffeinated)
2/3 cup chopped walnuts, optional
In a blender, combine the ingredients at high speed for 1 and 1/2 minutes. Add the optional walnuts. Blend the mixture for 30 seconds more. Pour the mixture into 6 ramekins and chill for 3 hours, or until it is set. May be served with a dollop of whipped cream. (Bill St. John note: Do not make this dessert if you eschew raw eggs.)
You may reach Bill St John at firstname.lastname@example.org