Column: The 31 Days of Cooking

A few recipes to inspire a month of meals

When I moved from Illinois to Michigan as a newlywed 30 years ago, I had no job, no friends, and no real reason to get out of bed except to finish the thank-you notes.


Jo Mathis, proving that she did, indeed, bake a successful pineapple upside down cake.

I would lie there, waiting for a reason to start the day.

And then I’d think: Dinner!

It might have been 8 in the morning, but by gosh my nice new husband would have a spectacular meal waiting for him by the time he got home from work.

Cooking was a new challenge for a girl who’d gone through college eating catsup-drenched spaghetti and buttered rice straight from the pot.

I’d happily plan the menu from my new Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (now tattered and splattered and too precious to pitch). I’d go to the grocery store a mile away and carefully select the ingredients for that night’s feast. With plenty of time to indulge my inner Suzy Homemaker, I created color-coordinated, well balanced dinners – complete with salad, bread, dessert, and garnishes (!) – which I served cheerfully in that tiny candlelit kitchen.

Oh, how I loved to cook.

Then I got a job. And then I got pregnant and had a baby –  every three years. And somewhere along the way, I lost the joy of cooking. Special events, sure. Thanksgiving dinner, lasagna for company, spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread on a cold Sunday night? Fine. But the daily dinner became something I did because it had to be done.

Luckily, as I lost interest in cooking, my husband discovered he loves it and is far better at it. So we’ve been eating well all these years, even as I’ve harbored a tinge of envy at his passion and talent for cooking, as well as some guilt for being a slacker at the stove.

But for Baking

I never did, however, lose my love of baking – cookies, cakes, bread, or anything that can be concocted at my leisure and preferably leaves a bowl to lick. But baking leads to baked goods – which are full of fat, flour, sugar, and calories, and often get stale before they’re consumed. So except for bread – which after all is legitimate food – I actually must try not to bake.

Except on Thanksgiving, when I go nuts with the desserts. It’s not only OK, it’s expected. Demanded. Un-American not to. This year, just for kicks, I decided to add pineapple upside down cake to the obligatory selection of pies. When it was time to flip the iron skillet upside down and plop that pineapple cake onto a serving platter, I had low expectations. Surely half of it would stick to the pan. Surely everyone would laugh (“Typical Mom!”) as I quickly pieced it back together and hid the cracks with squirts of Reddi-wip.

But when I flipped that baby over, oh my gosh. It looked just like the picture.

Remembering Leads to Decembering

And that’s when I experienced a Remembrance of Things Past moment. Just as Proust was filled with unexpected familiar pleasure while taking a sip of tea with madeleine crumbs, I recalled the long-ago popovers that had turned out golden and sculpted and weirdly hollow inside because that’s apparently what perfect popovers do.

And that’s when I decided that December would be the month I Try Harder in the Kitchen. I will rekindle my love of preparing good food. In December, I will be – by any normal person’s account – a really good cook every day.

I decided to make it a full month because it supposedly takes about three weeks to form a good habit. And because I tend to leave good intentions in the dust as I flit to the next thing. And because come mid-December, my empty nest will be replenished with the college kids home for the holidays and ready to be spoiled.

I have a few goals: Homemade mayonnaise, because it is supposedly worth the trouble. A better presentation. (No jars on the table.) Candles every night. Fondue one night, sushi another, and by the end of the month: an entire meal of German dishes I can neither spell nor pronounce.

Blogger Julie Powell spent a year tackling every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and made a gabillion dollars when it became a book and then a movie.

Why didn’t I think of that? I ask, eight years too late. Ah, well. Taking her lead, I decided to concentrate on one of my many neglected cookbooks this month.

I considered Marta Sgubin’s “Cooking for Madam: Recipes and Reminiscences from the Home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” But I realized that just like Madam Onassis herself, the contents – Mousseline Sauce, Truffle Soup, Coeur A La Crème – are too high class for my humble table. And budget.

Because I need to see what I’m getting into, I rejected every cookbook sans pictures.

I ended up choosing two books – one because the photos made me drool, and the other because I had successfully used it back in the day.

Mac & Cheese, Naomi Judd’s Way

In “Naomi’s Home Companion,” Naomi Judd shares little secrets such as the fact that her mom’s potato salad is unsurpassed because she marinates the warm potatoes in French dressing before adding the other ingredients.

When she writes that if she were alone on a desert island, the one dish she’d want is her Macaroni and Cheese Casserole, how could I resist? Especially when I have yet to meet a mac and cheese recipe I don’t love.

Here’s how Naomi’s favorite version goes:

Boil 8 ounces of macaroni.

Meanwhile, melt ½ cup butter. Whisk in ¼ cup flour to make a paste. Then add 2 cups of milk and simmer over low heat, stirring until thickened, or about a minute. Add 6 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese (or Velveeta, she says, but this is Ann Arbor!) and salt and pepper to taste. Stir the cooked, drained macaroni into the cheese sauce. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, adding some more shredded cheddar on top for the last 5 minutes.

Cosmo Cookery

The second cookbook I am studying this month is “Cosmo Cookery,” which I found on a basement shelf and greeted like a long lost friend. Most things Cosmo are ticky-tacky. But this romantic little book – subtitled “Gourmet Meals from the First Drink to the Last Kiss” – includes some excellent, simple (oh, how I love that adjective) recipes for 2 to 4 people.

It may also get me to start drinking more, because all menu suggestions include booze. Brunch Number 1, for instance, calls for a gin-based Silver Fizz with that Quiche Lorraine. I don’t even like gin, and I’m thinking there’s a Silver Fizz in my future.

Thirty years ago, I picked up some great recipes in this old book, including Fillet of Sole Florentine, which I know by heart and tastes great every time.

Dip 4 medium sole fillets in seasoned flour and sauté until golden. Meanwhile, prepare a box of frozen spinach, drain well, spread in a baking dish and season lightly with nutmeg, salt and pepper. (The book calls for adding 2 T dry white wine, which I only do if I’m going to drink the rest of the wine with the meal.) Place fillets on top of spinach. Spread mayonnaise evenly over the fish. Sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese and place under the broiler until glazed.

Inspiration Close to Home

One of the best cooks I know is Susan Cooley, who has created the most luscious food in her tiny Ann Arbor kitchen. Inspired by memories of cooking with her grandmother, she says she really started to enjoy cooking when she got her kids to jump in and help.

“Beside the fact that they learn so much, measuring, being creative, trying new things are all part of what makes cooking so interesting,” she says. “Not to mention the very satisfied customers.”

She became a master of quick meals when she went back to work, and decided each child would be responsible for one meal a week. Hannah perfected a hamburger-with-tomato sauce meal, in which she fries up some hamburger in a pan, pours a small can of tomato sauce over it, adds Italian seasoning to taste, and serves with boiled noodles and a salad.

Susan loves nothing more in the winter than gathering leftovers for a big pot of soup. Here’s one of her favorites, which she adapted from a Food Network recipe:

Curried Butternut Squash Soup (Serves 6)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil

1 cup chopped onions

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon curry powder (Susan uses Patak’s Hot Curry Paste instead)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Red (cayenne) pepper to taste

2 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, halved lengthwise, and sliced thin

3 cups vegetable or chicken broth

3 cups water

1 pound tart apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot over medium heat, heat olive or vegetable oil. Add onion and sauté until golden brown. Add garlic, curry powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper; cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Add squash, vegetable or chicken broth, water, and apples. Bring liquid just to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 25 minutes or until squash is tender. Remove from heat and let cool 15 to 20 minutes.

Puree mixture in a blender or food processor, in batches, and transfer back into soup pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste. NOTE: At this point, soup may be refrigerated until ready to serve.

Getting Upside Down With Pineapples

Finally, here’s my recipe for that pineapple upside down cake. It’s no better than any other pineapple upside down cake (which means it is pretty great), but it’s quick and easy. And it flips out of the frying pan pretty perfectly.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

1. Whip up a box of pineapple cake mix.

2. Melt half stick of butter in a 10-inch frying pan; remove from heat.

3. Arrange pineapple slices in the pan, and stick a cherry in the center of each ring. Sprinkle some pecans here and there. (My family sadly requested no nuts. Your choice.)

4. Dump the cake batter on top.

5. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

6. Turn the skillet upside down and serve warm if possible, with whipped cream.


  1. By Joanne
    December 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm | permalink

    Columns like this remind me that I miss your columns appearing frequently as they did in the paper.

    I like finding recipes from online sources and from magazines and I file them in a binder using tabs to mark off types.

    Have you read Gezine Bullock Prado’s book (sister to Sandra B. the actress) “Confections of a Closet Master Baker”? Drawings, no pictures, but really good baking recipes especially “Golden Egg”. Funny autobiography about her former Vermont shop and growing up with her mom, grandma, a bit about older sis, and cooking.

    I too have tried Julia Childs’ books with some success (not every recipe.) Soufles, browing meats, etc. But the most interesting cookbook with lovely photos is the Silver Spoon, the translated Italian cookbook with all sorts of categories of recipes. Easy to follow, simple ingriediants for many recipes.

    I add to my home made or even box mix of mac ‘n cheese sourcream which brings out the cheddar flavor even more and extra cheddar to the box mix as well. Perfection.

  2. December 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    You sound like a good candidate for the I Hate to Cook Book, now reissued. Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m hanging on to my old stained copy though I don’t make as many of the recipes calling for canned soups as I did when I was a young married student. For example, “Old Faithful”, calling for pork chops, sliced tomatoes, peppers, and onions plus rice, is still a simple fresh easily prepared meal that I like to make when my garden is producing.

  3. By Jo Mathis
    December 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, that’s so funny you mentioned the I Hate to Cook Book, and Old Faithful in particular. I grew up with both! And Chicken-Rice Roger and the Cockeyed Cake and so many more. My mother actually loved to cook, but swore by that little book. Now that I’ve located my ragged copy, I’m thinking of whipping up a round of Dr. Martin’s Mix.(Once upon a time I wrote YES! above the recipe.)Thanks for the reminder.
    Joanne: Thanks for that tip. Now I’m off to find “Confections of a Closet Master Baker.” Sounds like a good read.