"Dinner is ready when the smoke alarm goes off."
That apt adage adorned a magnet on my parents' refrigerator for many years. The magnet is gone, but its message is ever more meaningful.
Somewhere along the way my mom, Barbara Kjos - who moved to Tucson with my dad last spring - lost interest in cooking. Dinner, schminner. She fed a family of five for many years; at about the age of 55 she was done.
She still cooks, but it's usually a fairly simple dish such as rice bowls topped with steamed veggies like broccoli, green pepper and onion.
Sometimes she'll put something in the oven or on the stove and forget about it. No, she doesn't have memory issues. She's just bored with the whole "cooking" thing.
Certain items she prepares really, really well. One of those is potato salad. How many potato salads have you eaten that had underdone or overdone potatoes, not enough or too much mayo, and absolutely nothing green? I've suffered through, and made, plenty of mediocre potato salad.
Mom makes hers with a trio of crunchies - celery, onion and pickles - along with chopped olives, boiled eggs and perfectly cooked potatoes.
Along with her potato salad, I am grateful for my mom's philosophy that if you don't like it, you don't have to eat it. Hallelujah! When I hear people say they make their kid take at least one bite of everything on the plate, I think, why torture them? Give that bite to Dad, or keep it for yourself, and let little Timothy eat his salad or his chicken cordon bleu or whatever he actually likes.
She taught us to enjoy nutritious snacks such as celery with peanut butter, apple slices, oranges. Hungry? "Get yourself a piece of fruit" was her mantra.
When it was time for a sweet treat, we helped her bake things. We didn't just bake on special occasions - we baked on holidays and on weekends and after school.
My mom, my two older sisters and I shelled walnuts and measured flour and stamped cookie dough into Santa shapes. We turned out cakes and cookies and pies. We burned our fingers, threw things at each other when Mom wasn't looking, and then cleaned up the kitchen.
And we pretty much ruined the Betty Crocker cookbook that she got when she was pregnant with me. The pages are frayed and splotched with vanilla, egg and cookie dough. The binding gave out years ago so now its pages are loose.
One of the many handwritten recipes that was tucked into that book is for carrot cake, with luscious cream cheese frosting. My mom's copy of her recipe has disappeared (let this be a warning to you! Keep your recipes close!) so I found a super-easy recipe online at bettycrocker.com and tried it out with my mom last week at her house.
Her mixer apparently got lost in the move, so we did everything by hand, from grating the carrots to creaming the butter and cream cheese for the frosting. She reminded me how to flour a baking pan so the pan is coated evenly. The result was a pretty, delicious cake - perhaps a nice treat to make on Mother's Day, Sunday.
And it turns out my mom is just as good of a cook as she ever was, certain evidence to the contrary.
"Mom just told me she screwed up dinner so they had muffins, ha ha," my sister texted me recently.
And so it goes.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes: 12 servings
• 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
• 1 cup vegetable oil
• 3 eggs
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3 cups shredded carrots (7 medium)
• 1 cup coarsely chopped nuts (such as walnuts or pecans)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom and sides of a 13- by 9-inch pan with shortening or cooking spray; lightly flour.
In large bowl, beat granulated sugar, oil and eggs with electric mixer on low speed about 30 seconds or until blended. Add flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, 1 teaspoon vanilla and the salt; beat on low speed 1 minute. Stir in carrots and nuts. Pour into pan.
Bake 40 to 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely, about 1 hour, then spread with frosting.
• 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
• 1/4 cup butter, softened
• 2 to 3 teaspoons milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 4 cups powdered sugar
• 1-2 tablespoons lemon zest (finely grated lemon peel), for decoration (optional)
In medium bowl, beat cream cheese, butter, milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla with electric mixer on low speed until smooth. Gradually beat in powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, on low speed until smooth and spreadable. Store covered in refrigerator until ready to use.
Contact Food Editor Tiffany Kjos at email@example.com or 807-7776.