This remembrance is a valentine to my mother. To all mothers, really. Because it is about the many gifts they give, and those that I was fortunate enough to receive.
When my two sisters and I were little, my mother told us she loved us with words, hugs and strawberry frosted cupcakes. They weren't the only food that said I love you, but they were the first I remember, and the prettiest.
The cupcakes looked like ballerinas twirling around in frothy pink tutus. The frosting wasn't like the icky thick stuff that comes on bakery cupcakes: it was light and fluffy, with little bits of fresh berries that gave it that beautiful fairy princess pink color.
As soon as I was old enough to drag the stool over to the counter, I started helping mom in the kitchen. When other little girls wanted to play with their friends, I would hurry home after school to bake with her.
In cooking, as with everything she did, my mother was exacting and mindful: She showed me how chopping nuts to the perfect size makes the cookies much better. Take the time to bring the butter to room temperature and cream it long enough or, she warned, using one of her favorite expressions: "Haste makes waste." In baking, as in life, she said, do something right -- or don't do it at all. What good is a thumbprint cookie if the cherry is burned?
Over the whirring of the electric mixer, my mother gave me a safe haven to talk, and even through my teens, made me feel that everything I said was valid and everything I felt was important.
It is a gift to grow up knowing that you are loved completely and unconditionally, and that what you say and do is truly interesting. But Mom did not allow that to spoil us. In fact, we had more chores than any of our friends -- and we had to live up to her extremely high standards when we did them. If I slacked just a little -- if she found even one teeny tiny spot I missed when washing a skillet -- I had to rewash all the pots and pans from dinner that night until they were perfect -- even if my friends were sitting in the den, waiting for me to go out. I resented her for that when I was a teenager, but now I can't thank her enough for being such a taskmaster.
This past Thanksgiving, Mom was on overdrive. She and my Dad were going on a 3 1/2-month cruise around the world, and they had much shopping and packing to do. But every year on Thanksgiving, my Mom made her gravèd salmon, a dish my sisters and I just love. The salmon takes at least three days to cure, and each day the heavy piece of slate that weighs it down must be lifted and the juices poured off. When I suggested that, given all her preparation for the trip, we could forgo the gravèd salmon this year, she ignored me. She wanted to make it for her girls.
The salmon was especially good this year, and our Thanksgiving was filled with love, abundant laughter and great food. On Jan. 9, my parents left on their trip of a lifetime. Three days later, while in their first port of call, a tour bus hit my mother. She was taken by medevac jet back to the United States and, 12 days later, the indomitable Jane N. Perry died at age 80.
I hope by next Thanksgiving I will able to make her gravèd salmon. Right now, in all my grief, all I can do is bake strawberry frosted cupcakes. The hum of the mixer is the only music I can bear, and every cupcake I frost is my way of telling her how much I love her.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 18 cupcake tins with paper liners.
2. Cream butter; add sugar and mix well; add eggs one at a time; beat mixture well. Add sifted flour and baking powder and milk alternately to batter; add vanilla.
3. Fill paper liners about halfway with batter; bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in center of cupcake comes out clean. Cool before icing. Makes 18 cupcakes.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
13/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5 to 6 strawberries, coarsely chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1. Cream the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy; add sugar and cream again. Add the lemon juice and vanilla; cream until thoroughly combined.
2. Add the strawberries and mix on low speed until they are mashed into 1/4-inch pieces and the until they are mashed into 1/4-inch pieces and the frosting is a beautiful shade of pink.
Gravèd Salmon (aka gravlax)
This dish can be made with a smaller piece of fish. When you buy the fish, be sure the pin bones are removed and the skin is on.
For each pound of fish:
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups fresh dill leaves, chopped
1 skin-on side of salmon (3 to 4 pounds), bones removed
1. Combine the salt, sugar and black pepper.
2. Place about half the dill on the bottom of a platter large enough to hold the salmon in a single layer. Place the fish, skin side down, on top of the dill. Pat the rest of the dill onto the top of the salmon and top with an even layer of the sugar-salt mixture.
3. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and top with a heavy, flat weight, such as a piece of slate.
4. Refrigerate 3 to 7 days, draining off liquid daily. To serve, cut fish across into very thin slices and fan on plate.
Gravèd Salmon Sauce
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons drained prepared white horseradish
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate, covered, until serving.