Merle Love might seem an old-fashioned name but back in her day, my granny was a known rebel. In fact, she was the first woman in her small town of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, to cut her hair into a flapper's bob and raise her hemline to just below the knees. When her husband turned out to be a gambling, drinking man, she up and left him — at a time when that sort of thing just wasn't done.
A petite woman with a penchant for pantsuits, Granny had tightly permed silver curls and drove a flashy blue 1967 Corvair. She would show up at every family gathering with a casserole: sometimes savory, sometimes sweet. The rectangular Pyrex dish would be wrapped in towels and held in front of her like an offering, fresh and warm from the oven. It didn't matter if it was a birth, a death or a holiday; Granny had a casserole for every occasion. In my family, she was known as the indisputable Queen of the Nine by Thirteen.
After she passed away and I moved out on my own, I found that life often called for one of Granny's casseroles. At my request, my mother would search through the tin box where she kept her recipes. As she copied the recipe from Granny's tidy script, she would tell me stories of her mother — how the casseroles were designed to stretch the food through the long years of the Great Depression and how Granny always managed to feed the family, no matter how hard the times.
Through the years of births and deaths, holidays and potlucks, I have returned to that recipe box many times. My children never met Granny, but they knew her from her casseroles. Whenever I make one of her recipes, I pull it from the oven and pause, holding the dish in front of me. And as I serve a piece, I always add a story of Merle Love. She taught me that although a casserole is nothing fancy, it brings the table together — feeding the family from one hearty dish.
Granny's Apple Cake
This dense cake has the texture of a brownie with the taste of an apple pie. It will fill your kitchen with the holiday scent of apples and cinnamon. For best results, serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
4 cups apples, sliced into 1 inch pieces
2 cups sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Heat the oven to 350 F. Core and cut up apples (no need to peel) and set them aside. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt well.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and oil. Add the apples and then fold in the dry ingredients. Once both mixtures are combined, scoop and press the batter into a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.
Bake 45 minutes. Remove from oven and serve warm or let it cool and store in an airtight container.
Granny's Christmas Eve Casserole
Make this 24-hour casserole on the night before Christmas, then — in the midst of the present-opening frenzy — pop it in the oven for your Christmas breakfast. It was the perfect thing to stave off my children's traditional Christmas morning melt-down.
1 pound pork breakfast sausage links, each link cut into thirds
6 slices French bread, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dry mustard
2 cups milk
butter or shortening for greasing the casserole dish
In an oiled skillet, fry pork links over medium heat, then set aside.
Mix the eggs, milk, salt and dry mustard in a bowl.
Grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish and spread the French bread cubes evenly in it. Distribute the pieces of pork sausage on top.
Pour the egg and milk mixture over the bread and pork links. Sprinkle the grated cheddar cheese over everything. Cover the dish with foil and refrigerate it overnight.
Heat the oven to 350 F and bake for 45 minutes, then remove foil and bake for another five minutes. Let the casserole stand for 10 minutes before serving.