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Cherishing what Mother left behind

For this day, set aside for honoring and remembering our mothers, I dug into my column archives to find a column I had written in fall 2010. Of all the columns I have written during the years, it was among the ones that received the most comments. I reprint it today in memory of my beautiful, wonderful mother, Minnie Jo Allen Ballard, who passed away in 1994. I was very blessed to have had her for a mother and truly cherish each and every minute, day and year we had together. For those of you who have special celebrations planned with your mother today, enjoy each second. I may just have to bake one of Mother’s chocolate cakes in her memory. Her recipe follows my column in case you’d like to do the same. Happy Mother’s Day.

I stared at the thick and shiny dark brown mixture waiting patiently for it to boil. As I watched it, I was tempted to turn my head away because my mother always told me “a watched pot never boils.” There is a lot of truth to that saying. When we are anticipating something to happen, most of the time, we have to wait. I have learned a lot about patience this year.

I patiently continued to stir the chocolate icing until I saw a bubble slowly make its way from the very bottom of the pot only to explode upon reaching the surface. First one, then a couple and, before I knew it, the bubbles were popping like corn kernels do over an open flame. “It won’t be long now,” I said to myself, eyeing the candy thermometer to ensure the molten chocolate had reached the “soft ball” stage.

I am never closer to my mother than when I bake her signature chocolate cake. For years and years, she baked cake after cake and, in the process, became somewhat famous among her friends. For their birthdays, friends waited with anticipation for one of her cakes. Mother was always more than happy to oblige.

When my mother died, I was able to keep some of the actual pans, measuring cups and utensils she used when baking. I still use them today. In fact, I just finished baking a cake for a birthday present of a dear and beloved friend. I think that is why this cake baking process makes me feel close to my mother. Not only am I using the things she used when she baked, but also I am continuing her legacy of giving “homemade” gifts. She would be so happy.

When I greased each cake pan with some shortening on a paper towel, I noticed the patina that all the years had left on them.

Etched into the metal, I could see the evidence that constant use always leaves behind. When I held the edge of each pan in my hand, I felt as though Mother was standing behind me. I even glanced over my shoulder to ask her a question. But, to my disappointment, she was not there.

Why is it that objects have the power to survive when loved ones don’t? I contemplate this concept quite often. In my mind, I can see my mother greasing the exact same pans, but now I stand here with those pans while she has been gone for so many years.

The Tupperware bowl I inherited that Mother used almost daily would have been tossed away years ago by most people. It has so many indentions on the bottom where the beaters have left their mark. In fact, you can actually feel the roughness when you touch them. The top rim of the bowl has a large gap missing where Mother accidentally put the bowl on the bottom level of the dishwasher.

There, in the extreme heat while drying, it melted against the rack. I can even remember when it happened. Mother was annoyed at herself, but unwilling to discard the bowl. Every time I use it, I run my finger across the plastic blemish. Just doing so makes me smile.

I even have the cooling racks she placed her cake layers on. A couple of them have sprung a rung here and there, but they do exactly what they were designed to do when she bought them years ago. They still allow the cake layers to cool. Why should I purchase new ones when the ones she left me still do their job? Brand new ones may perform a little better, but, sadly, they don’t come with any memories.

Every time I reach for her bright orange Tupperware measuring cups that stack neatly within each other, I can still see where she stored them in her kitchen. They live with me now and I use them whenever I need to measure something. A cup is still a cup, but “vintage” orange Tupperware is pretty rare these days.

Like a tray that is prepared for a surgeon, I gather all of mother’s utensils when I start to bake. It is a process I enjoy as though I am preparing to go for a visit with a loved one. I suppose if we can’t keep our family and friends forever, then we really are fortunate to possess the actual things they once loved and used. My mother’s belongings serve as reminders to me of her life and the things she enjoyed.

“Mark, the timer just went off. You might want to check the temperature of your icing.” Mother used to say to me. “You certainly don’t want to overcook it or it will become too hard and you won’t be able to spread it.”

Her voice is still so clear to me that I look around to tell her I have it under control.

Speaking of spreading, I still have the spreader she used to ice each and every one of her cakes. I’m holding it in my hand. The same wooden handle she held. It feels good to me -- a perfect fit. I start to ice my cake. Again I smile. She is still here with me in spirit. I’m continuing to spread the love the way she did and am lucky enough to be using her things to do it. What a gift.

MY MOTHER’S CHOCOLATE CAKE

3/4 cups Crisco (butter flavored)

2 cups sugar

5 large eggs

1 cup plain flour

1 cup self-rising flour

Pinch of salt

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream the Crisco and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Blend flours and salt into this mixture, alternating with the milk. Mix well. Stir in vanilla extract. Bake in three to five greased and floured 9-inch layer pans (depending on your desired thickness) at 350 degrees until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean in the middle.

CHOCOLATE ICING

3 cups sugar

3 heaping tablespoon of cocoa

1 cup canned evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 stick real butter

Combine first three ingredients in a heavy duty saucepan. Bring to boil and cook until mixture reaches soft-ball stage (235 to 245 degrees) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and add vanilla extract and butter. Beat to combine until icing has somewhat thickened and is cool enough to spread. Working quickly, spread between each layer and on top and sides of cake.

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; fax them to (478) 474-4930; call (478) 757-6877; e-mail to markballard@cox.net; or subscribe to Mark’s page on Facebook.

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