Sophie’s Secrets

I’m a sucker for a good love story.  I can’t help it, there must be a hopeless romantic somewhere in me.  Here’s one from long ago; the details are a little blurry because I haven’t heard it since childhood.  It’s the story my grandmother would tell when I couldn’t sleep.  “Please, Grandma,” I would beg late at night, “tell me the story of Sophie!”

“Again?!” She’d exclaim.  She’d probably be standing at the stove, heating a small pot of milk to help me sleep.  But there was always a twinkle in her eye and I knew she love to tell it just as much as I loved to hear it.  “Let me see if I can remember…”

“There once was a tiny baby,” she began, “who left Ireland with her parents and sailed on a grand ship across the ocean to America.  Her father bought a lovely little house on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.  Her name was Mildred, but she hated it, so everyone called her Milly.

“When Milly was only nine years old, her mother became ill.  At first the Doctors thought it was just a bad cold.  It was, after all, winter… and in wintertime, Chicago is the coldest place on earth!  But after a few weeks the cold turned into pneumonia, and in the late hours of an icy December night, she succumbed, leaving Milly to care for her younger brother and sister.  Milly gracefully stepped into her mother’s shoes, helping the nanny cook, clean and feed the baby.   But this was the dawn of the Great Depression, and her father soon lost his job in the financial district.  The nanny had to go and her father took on odd jobs to make ends meet.  Milly watched him tirelessly struggle through his grief to provide just a sack of vegetables for their Sunday meal.

“On the night of her tenth birthday, Milly waited outside for the last rays of sun to disappear and the first stars to blink into the sky.  By this time they were far too poor to afford a fancy birthday cake with candles and everyone knows that a star is the next best thing on which to make a birthday wish.  That night she wished for some type of magic to help ease her father’s stress.  Not long afterward, Milly discovered that she was quite the magician herself in the kitchen.

“Did you know that you can make a wonderful pot of soup with just a chicken neck, two carrots and half a teacup of rice?” She paused to make sure I was still listening.  “Or fill a meatloaf with hard-cooked eggs until it’s big enough to feed an army?”

“No,” I shook my head, even though I did know, because she always told the story the same way.

She went on as she led me back to bed, placing the cup of warm milk on the table beside me…

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“The years passed, and the little family thrived despite the chaos that was tearing the world apart.  Milly began dancing with the Ballet Theatre of Chicago,” she raised her arms in fifth position for emphasis, “and became engaged to be married the following summer.  Her father found steady work at the only bank open in the entire city, and was soon promoted to manager.

“Then, one fateful morning in early spring Milly’s father left the house to walk to work.  It was still very cold and the mist that blew in off the lake had settled in a thin, black sheet of ice on the city streets.   Just as he was rounding a corner there was an awful sound behind him, like the crunching of a thousand tin cans at once, and then the tinkling of broken glass falling like rain onto the frozen pavement.   As he turned quickly around to see what had happened, he crashed, headfirst into a woman with large, chocolate eyes, knocking the hat off of her chestnut hair and the leather portfolio right out of her gloved hands, causing all the papers inside to flutter to the ground around them.

“It was as if the world froze just then, motionless, leaving the two of them to stare into each other’s eyes just inches apart.

“Quickly, the noise of the traffic accident on the street and the whir of people rushing to help shattered the stillness of the moment, but it was too late.  The instant the man and the woman collided, they became inseparable.  Like the shards of glass on the street behind them, you couldn’t tell which fragments belonged to which cars, so it was with the pieces of their hearts.  They were smitten.  With an awkward apology he rushed to the ground to collect the papers strewn about.  But the woman just smiled, placing her hand on his, and said most alluringly, “Merci, Monsieur. It’s alright.”

“She was Sophie, a 29-year-old Parisienne, who recently moved with her family from Paris to Chicago to escape the financial crash and the threat of war.   She worked as a translator for the Chicago Board of Trade and was only a few years older than Milly.  Sophie and Milly became fast friends, but it was different with Milly’s father.  It was un coup de foudre, Sophie would later say, c’est tout très romantique!  And by August that summer there was not one, but two weddings to celebrate…”  my grandmother’s voice trailed off, as she must have seen I was on the edge of sleep.

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Milly, of course, was my grandmother and Sophie was her step-mother, though she never considered her as such.  They were just very dear friends.  I never met Sophie.  She and my great-grandfather passed away before I was born.  But I feel as if I’ve known her my entire life, my grandmother kept her memory alive.

“Oh, Sophie had her secrets,” I remember her saying, years later as she rummaged through her recipe box looking for Sophie’s pound cake recipe.  Like all good cooks Sophie had secret ingredients, secret recipes, secrets methods and secret tricks.  But she didn’t just have kitchen secrets; she had secrets for everything –

“Sophie never let anything but water touch her face.” My grandmother scolded me once when I broke out with acne as a teenager.  “It was her secret for flawless skin.”

“Chalk in your shoes at night will keep them smelling fresh.”

“Vinegar for a flakey pastry crust.”

“Lemon juice to keep your handkerchiefs white.  Perfume, will make them alluring, bien sûr!”

“Peach blush for business, pink for pleasure. Sophie was wearing pink the day she met my father.”

“A potato in a vase of flowers will keep them healthy.”

“And Sophie always had a glass of warm milk in the evenings, to help her sleep.”

Yes, Sophie had secrets, and she shared them all with my grandmother, who luckily passed them on to me.  Because, if there’s anything I love more than a beautiful love story, it’s a juicy secret!

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Sophie’s Secret Pound Cake Recipe

I remember my grandmother serving this dessert time and time again.  She called it something quirky like “Eggs in a Nest,” because the yellow peaches look like egg yolks on the white pound cake.  The plate of course is the nest.  If fresh peaches weren’t available she would use canned peaches.  The “secret” ingredient in this pound cake is rum.  Sophie loved rum and would find a way to add it to almost everything she cooked.

8 oz (226g) butter
1.5 cups (300g) sugar
3 eggs
2 cups (300g) flour
2/3 cup milk
2 TBSP Rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 salt

Preheat the oven to 325 F (165 C).  Butter and flour a 1.5 quart (1.4 L) bread pan and line with a wide strip of parchment paper, slightly overhanging the edges.

In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the sugar and beat for another 2 – 3 minutes.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Stir together the milk, rum and vanilla.  Add the flour to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk, mixing will after each addition.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake in the centre of the oven for 1 hour and 40 – 50 minutes.  Test doneness by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake.  It should come out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.

Rum Poached Peaches

6 yellow-flesh, cling-free peaches
4 cups water
1.5 cups (300g) sugar
1/2 cup gold rum
2 TBSP honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, sliced in half lengthwise

To peel the peaches bring a pot of water to a boil and prepare an ice bath.  Cut a shallow, small X on the bottom of each peach.  Place in the boiling water and blanch for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice bath until cool.  Peel the peaches, cut in half and remove the pits.

In a sauce pan that is large enough to fit all the peaches, mix 4 cups water, the sugar, rum, honey, vanilla and cinnamon.  Bring to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Carefully place the peaches in the poaching liquid and simmer gently for 3 – 4 minutes.  Remove the peaches to a bowl and raise the heat.  Boil until the liquid has reduced by half and is syrupy.  Cool, pour over the peaches and refrigerate until cold.

When ready to serve, place a slice of cake on a plate and top with a poached peach.  Drizzle the poaching liquid over the top.

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