My grandmother, Maxine Hines, passed away in July.
It wasn’t unexpected. She was 90 years old and her body was shutting down, as she explained to me during my last visit to her resident care facility. Unable to do more than think, she had a lot of time to look back on her life.
She said she had no regrets.
She meant that. My grandmother was not like other grandmothers. She didn’t stay home and bake cookies. She owned her own beauty salon at a time when that wasn’t the norm. During her funeral, I learned she graduated from beauty school only because women weren’t allowed to train as barbers. The moment that changed, she attended and graduated from Waterloo Barber College. She retired when I was in college. That lasted a year before she went back to school to study reflexology and massage therapy. She continued her practice until her body told her it was time to stop.
So, what does my awesome grandmother have to do with cooking?
Not a whole lot.
When I was little, it was my grandfather in the kitchen. He had a small TV on the table to watch the Chicago Cubs or Dallas Cowboys, making it his space. Fried chicken was his specialty. When my dad, sister and I arrived for a holiday weekend, we’d have fried chicken on Friday night, turkey with all the trimmings on Saturday, and strata on Sunday morning.
My grandpa died when I was 9. I haven’t had his fried chicken since. My grandmother never tried to recreate his recipe, saying it went with him. If he wrote it down somewhere, I never found it. Then again, writing down recipes wasn’t my grandma’s thing. In the 40-plus years I had with her, there are three foods I associate with her: beef and noodles, strata and miniature cinnamon rolls. Sure, we’ve enjoyed other foods together — going out for Chinese was our thing — but those are the foods I remember her making.
In 2013, I wrote a column about learning how to make Grandma’s beef and noodles. Next to Grandpa’s fried chicken, they are a Hines family staple. If someone can’t make it to Christmas, the first thing people say is, “More beef and noodles for me!” However, the sweet afternoon of bonding I expected for this assignment never happened. Instead, she criticized the thickness of my noodles. “Thin! Thin,” she said again and again.
I felt better when my cousin later confessed that Grandma said the same thing during her cooking lesson.
As for the beef and noodle recipe itself, she made it up years ago, when my dad still was a child. She couldn’t remember ever writing it down and seemed amused when I asked her why.
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“I’m not a cook,” she said at the time. “I like the showoff stuff — setting the table, making a theme; all the fancy things you don’t eat.”
I should have known that. This is the woman who taught me how to wrap presents, saying a gift wasn’t worth opening if it didn’t look pretty. She often had fresh flowers in her house and even had her Christmas tree professionally decorated. It rotated so all sides could be seen.
She loved entertaining. The Hines Family Christmas took place the first Saturday of December for as long as I can remember. Her Fourth of July bash occurred every other year. This celebration was a barbecue, but paper plates did not mesh with Grandma’s entertainment philosophy. She used her good dishes. She always used her good dishes. She hated paper plates. As much as I loved her, I hated that she hated paper plates because that meant my sister and I were stuck doing the dishes.
I don’t remember baking cookies with my grandma, but like I said, she wasn’t your typical grandma. We visited a psychic together when I was 12 because, as she put it, why not? We met up in the Quad Cities for a day of hooky, shopping for things we didn’t need and enjoying a night away from reality. We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast because she knew the value in treating yourself before it become a thing. When it became apparent she no longer wanted things as Christmas gifts, we’d go on adventures, seeing plays or attending the ballet.
As I got older, our holiday celebrations got shorter. They went from all weekend long to Saturday only. For years, my children and I were the only ones still in town on Sunday because we lived in Missouri at the time and had a longer drive home. That’s when I’d enjoy the breakfast foods I always associate with Grandma: strata and miniature cinnamon rolls.
Strata is a breakfast casserole my grandmother made with eggs, bread, cheese and sausage. The recipe included with this column isn’t hers — she didn’t write down recipes, remember — but it is the closest I’ve found that tastes like hers. Another positive about strata, or a breakfast casserole, is that it can be adapted so many ways. Watching your weight? Use turkey sausage, wheat bread and egg substitute. In the mood for something spicy? Add taco seasoning to the mix, then serve with sour cream and chopped tomatoes.
Finding a substitute recipe for my grandmother’s miniature cinnamon rolls is a bit tougher. I can’t picture her making these from scratch, especially after a big family celebration the day before, but I could be wrong. I’ll ask around. In the meantime, this recipe from Iowa Girl Eats has the sweetness I remember of Sunday mornings at Grandma’s dining room table without the effort and cleanup.
I did the dishes, remember?
THE BEST CLASSIC BREAKFAST CASSEROLE
2 cups milk
7 slices white bread torn into small pieces, crusts removed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mustard
1 pound crumbled breakfast beef or turkey sausage, cooked
1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar
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Beat eggs. Add milk, sausage, bread and seasonings. Stir until combined. Pour into 9 x 13 baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until done.
8-MINUTE MINI CINNAMON ROLLS
1 8-ounce tube crescent roll dough
2 tablespoons butter
For the maple icing
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon skim milk
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven according to crescent roll dough package directions. Lay out half the dough (4 triangles) and pinch all the seams together. Flip over and pinch the seams on the back side together, too.
Using a rolling pin, smooth the seams and roll the dough into a square about 1/4-inch thick. Brush with half the butter, and sprinkle with as much cinnamon and brown sugar as you want.
Roll into log and cut into 8 pieces.
Place mini cinnamon rolls into a non-stick sprayed mini muffin tin. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with the other half of the crescent roll dough. Bake according to package directions.
Meanwhile, whisk together maple syrup and milk in a bowl. Add in powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached. Drizzle over warm cinnamon rolls.