Now that her five children are grown with families of their own, Donna Witek doesn’t have to spend as much time preparing meals. But the Aurora resident still recalls making many meals for her brood.
“Stews were everyone’s favorite. I liked to make them because I could put the meat and vegetables in one pot and be done,” she said.
One of her go-to stew recipes involved using cola instead of beef stock. She started with either a pot roast or cubed beef stew meat. She then added peeled potatoes, carrots and “something green like peas or green beans.” For the cooking liquid, Witek poured in enough cola to surround the meat and vegetables. The pot was then covered and baked in the oven at 325 degrees for three to four hours until the vegetables and meat were tender.
Using garden vegetables was another way Witek managed to feed her large family. The vegetables were not only delicious but they also were a great way to stretch the budget.
“I canned tomatoes and it was great to be able to go grab a jar to use in recipes all winter long,” she said. Years ago, there weren’t as many tomato varieties. “It was pretty much a choice of big tomatoes or little tomatoes … no hybrids and all that. We also used to store carrots in the cool part of the basement during the winter. We covered them with sand or dirt and used them for several months.”
When Witek was learning to cook in the 1950s, she says margarine became more available. It was a cheaper option than butter, but the government wanted to protect butter producers and passed laws making it illegal to color margarine yellow so it looked like butter.
“The margarine was white but it came with a packet of powder that you mixed into it. It was a mess to mix, it but it did save some money,” she said.
Today, Witek lets her children do most of the cooking for family gatherings. She has 12 grandchildren and three great grandchildren, who occasionally make requests for their favorites. She happily makes special treats for them with one of the favorites being cream puffs. Her mother, Jane Bromstead, used to make them and handed the recipe down to Witek.
“I fill them with instant pudding because it is so easy. Now, there are so many flavors to choose from at the grocery store. I like French vanilla, lemon and chocolate ones the best.”
When her grandson got married a few years ago, he requested 125 cream puffs for the wedding reception. Witek teamed up with her daughters to fill the order.
“We had almost as much fun making the cream puffs together as we did at the wedding,” she said.
One of the tricks from her mother was drying the pastries in the oven. After baking, the cream puffs are taken out of the oven and split in half and laid on the cookie sheet. The oven is turned off and the cream puff shells go back into the oven for 20 minutes.
“The insides look like spider webs when they first come out but then they dry in the oven and stay crisper,” she said.
Whenever her mother went to a party, her friends requested her cottage cheese cake.
“The name doesn’t sound so tasty, but it is really a delicious cake,” Witek said. The dessert is similar to a cheesecake, but it is made in a 9-inch by 12-inch pan from which it’s easier to serve than a round pan. Using cottage cheese instead of cream cheese also saves on calories. To make the cottage cheese as smooth as cream cheese, Witek either pushes the cottage cheese through a sieve or whips it in a food processor or blender until smooth.
Witek shares the cream puff and cottage cheese recipes for others to try when it is time for a special treat.
Donna’s Culinary Cue
Instead of spending hours looking for a recipe, come up with a way to organize your recipes to save time and frustration. A recipe box or a notebook with dividers is a great way to get started.
1 cup water
½ cup butter
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3.4-ounce box instant pudding
2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. While oven is heating, place water and butter in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil until butter is melted. Add flour and salt all at once, stirring vigorously. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture forms a ball that does not separate. Remove pan from heat. Cool slightly. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each until smooth. Drop heaping tablespoons onto a slightly greased cookie sheet. Space each cream puff about three inches apart because they expand a lot during cooking. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cut puffs in half. Return cream puffs to oven that is turned off. Allow cream puffs to dry for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool completely. Make pudding according to package directions. Fill cooled cream puffs. Place a small dab of frosting on top of each cream puff if desired. Makes 20 to 30 puffs depending upon size.
Cottage Cheese Cake
½ of a 14.4-ounce box of graham crackers
½ cup melted butter
2 16-ounce containers cottage cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
16 ounces sour cream
Crush graham crackers with a rolling pin or in a food processor. Add melted butter and stir to combine. Reserve 1 cup of crumbs and set aside. Pat remaining crumbs onto the bottom and up the sides a little of a 9-inch by 12-inch pan. Set aside. Sieve cottage cheese or whip until smooth in a food processor. Beat eggs slightly and add to cottage cheese. Add vanilla, sugar and sour cream. Mix until smooth. Pour onto graham cracker crust. Sprinkle reserved crumbs over the top. Bake for one hour and 15 minutes at 325 degrees. Cool. Cut into squares to serve. Can be topped with fruit if desired. Makes 12 servings.
Judy Buchenot is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.