The Kitchen Shrink: Motherly love in the kitchen

Catharine Kaufman

With Mother’s Day quickly approaching at the speed of ice cream melting in a microwave oven, I would like to pay tribute to Mildred, my mom, (and all the moms across the land) by sharing the many treasured shopping, prepping, cooking, baking, and other culinary tips I gleaned from her over the years since my childhood.

The Mother of Invention

My mom was the queen of resourcefulness in the kitchen, mistress of culinary improvisations. If she were lacking an ingredient for a recipe, she would magically create a suitable substitution by combining items on-hand rather than waste time and money running to the store to retrieve it. As a replacement for buttermilk Mildred would simply blend whole milk or yogurt with lemon juice or vinegar, and joyfully watch it curdle. To concoct baking powder she would blend baking soda with cream of tartar. A splash of bourbon in any batter or sauce was a divine sub for vanilla extract, while a spoonful of molasses mixed with white cane sugar gave her a rich and malty brown sugar doppelganger. And as for sugar substitutes she’d swap out cloying sweeteners for equal amounts of homemade or jarred applesauce, that also added moistness to cakes, muffins, even meatballs and hamburger patties. Or a sprinkle of cinnamon to give an exotic sweetness, and immune-boosting oomph to recipes. As for savory subs, my mom discovered that a squirt of lemon juice was brighter and fresher than a pinch of salt, golden turmeric equally as vibrant as pricey saffron, and cayenne pepper much less irritating than black pepper. Achou!

The Mother of Re-invention

As an artist who worked with several mediums, including sculpting clay, water colors, and oils, Mildred had a creative eye, sense of balance, and flair, which transferred to her whimsical food presentations. Her carved creations included radish roses, carrot chrysanthemums, and English cucumber foliage. She made edible vessels like gourd ramekins for soup bowls, watermelon baskets for fruit salad displays, and a rainbow of raw peppers carved with fluted edges and stuffed with crunchy coleslaw. There’s more. She placed whole hard-boiled eggs in the center of meatloaves creating eye-popping slices, and baked life-size birthday cake dolls bedazzled with candied pearl necklaces, licorice braids, and jellybean boots.

The Mother of the Depression

My grandmother, who had to feed a family of eight on a buck a day, taught my mom how to count pennies, and stretch dollars. As a Depression-era baby, Mildred had become ingrained with this frugal mentality that was especially apparent in her supermarket outings. Before heading out, she studied competitors’ weekly ads, diligently clipped coupons, and ate a substantial snack so that appetite wouldn’t drive her shopping choices. Armed and ready, she focused like a laser beam barreling down designated aisles, avoiding tempting end-caps. With ads in hand, she asked store managers to price match sales at other markets, stocked up on killer deals for non-perishable pantry items, and staples like meat and poultry, which could be frozen for months. She called this ample supply, “money in the bank.” Upon checkout, she frequently used a cash-back rewards card to earn credits for future shopping trips, and with eagle-eyes examined her receipt before leaving the store to catch any price discrepancies.

The Mother of Conservation

As a natural extension of her upbringing, my mom also became a trailblazer in the conservation of foods of all manners. A pioneer of the nose-to-tail and leaf-to-root principle, she would utilize every edible part of a fish, fowl, meat, vegetable, and fruit, and even use some of the inedible parts like pits, seeds, and pods for tablescapes, trinkets, and art projects. Bones and skin of fish, and shells of assorted crustaceans were used to make a briny, calcium-rich stock; chicken and turkey carcasses for hearty noodle soups; liver was roasted and blended into a savory puree, while turkey necks and gizzards sautéed as a special treat for our kitty. As for vegetables, Mildred combined chopped green carrot tops with pistachios or hazelnuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil for a perfect pesto, and she also tossed assorted leaves (beet, celery, broccoli) in soups, stews, and sauces for an earthy zing.

Finally, nothing imperfect or past its prime went to waste in our home. She softened rock-hard brown sugar by adding a slice of apple or fresh bread to the bag, whipped up compotes, jams, and cobblers from soft, mushy stone fruits and berries, quick breads from overripe bananas, dips and smoothies from soft avocadoes. My mom shaved moldy spots from hard cheeses, and salvaged stale bread by making croutons, breadcrumbs, and this melt-in-your-mouth crème brule French toast that’s a wonderful brunch dish, especially when drizzled with berries soaked in a sassy liqueur. Cheers!

Crème Brule French Toast
Crème Brule French Toast

Crème Brule French Toast

(Serves 4 to 6)

1 large egg bread, challah or brioche, cut in 1/2-inch slices

1/2-cup butter, unsalted, (1 stick)

1-cup brown sugar (tightly packed)

5 extra large eggs

3/4-cup heavy cream

3/4-cup whole, almond, or oat milk

1-teaspoon almond extract

1/4-teaspoon sea salt

2-teaspoons Grand Marnier, Frangelico, or Amaretto

Butter a 9x13 inch baking dish.

METHOD: In a saucepan melt butter with brown sugar, stirring until dissolved. Pour into baking dish.

Place bread slices in pan on top of butter mixture in one even layer, squeezing edges slightly to make bread fit.

In a bowl whisk cream, milk, eggs, salt, extract, and liqueur. Pour over bread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours, or overnight. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before placing in a preheated oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden and puffed. Drizzle with tipsy berries.

Tipsy Berries

16-ounces strawberries, hulled, sliced lengthwise

6-ounces blackberries

6-ounces raspberries

1/4-cup Grand Marnier

1/4-cup brown sugar

Juice and zest from one orange

METHOD: In a glass bowl, combine liqueur, sugar, juice and zest. Stir well. Toss with berries. Refrigerate one hour.

Happy Mother’s Day! For comments, email