There are a million kinds of recipes in this world: the one for a famously good dessert; ethnic ones with exotic ingredients; or simple ones you find online for a fast weeknight dinner. Then there are recipes that matter. They matter because they’re old and cherished. They matter because there’s a long and involved process that makes them special. Or maybe they matter because they’re part of a family tradition. Each type has its own place and purpose.
One such example is the layer cake, a Southern holiday tradition that’s been going on for many generations. The New York Times just profiled several ladies in southeast Alabama who have been making these delicate cakes, sometimes having upwards of 15 thin layers, since the 1930s. These recipes matter for all of the reasons above: they’re old, they’re quite a process and an art — one that risks getting lost in today’s time-crunched society — and because they’re a family tradition. It’s a fascinating article, one that I really enjoyed reading. Maybe one day you’ll see layer cakes showcased in this blog. But today it’s all about noodles — my great-grandmother Pauline’s noodles.
These noodles have been at most all our family reunions and holiday gatherings since I can remember. They are wonderfully thick egg noodles cooked in a rick chicken stock, and they are to die for. The king of comfort foods, the soup of all soups. These noodles are truly the stuff of my dreams. They taste like home to me, like family.
I’ve just moved to Nashville, and in the process of moving, I’ve been thinking a lot about life, my interests in food, and my family. So naturally, over Thanksgiving, when someone mentioned the noodles, I decided it’s time I learned to make them so that I can continue the tradition with my generation.
A few weeks ago, my wonderful great uncle and aunt, Jim and Jean Williams, had me over to make noodles. I sort of invited myself over, and they were kind enough to have me. When I walked in on that cold Monday morning, Jimmy had all the ingredients displayed on a beautiful antique marble counter top, like the set of a television cooking show. A funny sight, I thought, considering my best memories of Uncle Jim are of him in his gas man shirt, his dress code for decades when he worked for the gas company in Columbus, Ohio. He has more of those embroidered work shirts than he knows what to do with, so he still wears them when he’s working around the house. He’ll pop up out of my Dad’s basement workshop wearing his standard uniform, complete with the embroidered “Jim” over his heart, over to borrow a tool of some sort, or he’ll trot out of his barn, where he and Jean pour candles for their craft show business, with wax in his hair and a smile on his face. He’s got a big voice and a strong laugh and he’s the orneriest son of a gun you’ve ever met. His standard greeting to me is him bellowing “Annakate Tefft!,” always first and last name, followed by a big bear hug. You can imagine my grin when I walked in to his house to find him all set up in the kitchen like Martha Stewart, ready to teach me to make noodles. He and Jean giggled and laughed and picked on each other lovingly the whole time. I was in heaven.
My great-grandmother Pauline Williams was Jimmy’s mother, and a helluva lady. She died when she was 99, in 1999, coincidentally enough. I often imagine the party we’d have had had she lived to be 100. She lived in a quaint red house on a hill in New Lexington, Ohio — a perfect little home for a sweet little great-grandmother, I always thought. Her trademark gift, to all of her many grand- and great-grand kids, was a crisp dollar bill every time she saw us. At family gatherings, I always remember lining up with my brothers and cousins to get our dollar, receiving it with a hug and a “Hello little girl/boy,” from Pauline. I think I saved one of her dollars in my belongings somewhere, to remind me of her.
Anyway, Pauline was one of seven girls from the Brown family. While I attribute this recipe to her, this recipe is actually a “Brown sisters’” recipe, one that they all made probably quite often to feed such a large family. The recipe is cheap and simple, and so wonderfully tasty. The noodles are technically egg noodles and only contain eggs, flour and salt, then some broth or stock to cook them in. Jimmy taught me to add a little yellow food coloring, “because people like their noodles nice and yellow,” he told me, but I decided to try making them without it, just to see how they turned out. As you can see, they turned a nice golden color, all on their own. Following is the step by step process. If you try them, please let me know how it goes!
Yield: 16 people, give or take; enough to fill 2 gallon size bags with noodles. If you’re not using all the noodles at once, freeze the uncooked ones in the bag. For a quick weeknight dinner, drop a handful of those frozen noodles into simmering stock and cook until done.
In a mixing bowl, combine 12 eggs with 2 cups flour and a healthy pinch of salt, and mix with a fork (use 13 if eggs are small). Once eggs and flour are sufficiently combined, add 2 more cups of flour until sticky dough forms. Continue adding 1/2 cup flour at a time, kneading/mixing dough with your hands, until 6 cups have been added and dough is soft and pliable and doesn’t stick much to the side of the bowl.
Form dough into 10 to 12 small disks, about the amount you’d use to roll out a pie crust, and set aside. On a heavily floured surface, roll out the first disk, flipping the dough over a few times after the first few passes with the rolling pin and sprinkling more flour on the work surface and dough each time (you’ll use the other 2 cups of flour in this way as you roll out the remaining disks). Roll the dough to about the thickness you would for pie crust.
Slice the dough into four quadrants, and stack on top of each other. It’s necessary to use so much flour as you’re rolling the dough out so the layers don’t stick to each other once stacked.
Carefully sprinkle the ribbons onto a plate, untangling them from the roll, so the noodles are mostly separated. Then fluff them up with a fork/fingers so they’re gently mounded on top of each other. Don’t worry about seperating them all perfectly — they’ll natrually seperate as they dry, and even further once they start cooking in the broth. At this point, the noodles are almost ready, but need to be dried out before they’re cooked. This can be done by punching in 1,2,3 to the microwave (1:23, a humorous modernization, I thought!), or, you can also dry them out by baking them in 2 batches for about 6 minutes at 350 degrees on a baking sheet.
After the noodles are dried, spread them out to cool. The noodles should look “rustic” (my favorite way to describe imperfect food). They don’t have to be perfectly formed, just as close to the same size as possible, so they cook evenly.
Step 7: Bring a pot of stock or broth to a boil, and cook the noodles about 10 minutes, or until done. Enjoy with crusty bread on a cold day.