The way you are so grounded, it seems to me your cooking style is living proof that you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of a girl’s cooking. I grew up on 10 acres outside of Longmont, Colorado, northeast of Boulder, where my family of 12, including my mom and dad, Gloria and Angelo Vendegna, all worked together to run our dairy farm.
More than being attached to the land, I was attached to the animals: Our herd of 50 to 70 dairy cows needed to be milked every morning and night, and I was a tomboy — out with the animals, including pigs and goats. My parents still live on the farm and raise sheep. Although I spent much of my time outside, the only thing that would get me to work in the house was baking in the kitchen with my mom.
With a strong Italian heritage, why did you choose to share this recipe of your mother’s? There are so many good memories around this cake. With such a large family, we would have to make two 9- by 13-inch pans to feed everyone. Growing up on a dairy farm, we kids would “hide” the cream that we skimmed off the top of the gallons of milk so that it would sour, and then my mom would have to make this cake.
Nothing went to waste in my mother's kitchen, and that is how I learned to use everything to make wonderful, delicious, and nutritious meals. She didn’t use recipes, she cooked by feel, so it was hard to come up with a recipe that was actually written down. In fact, as it was originally written, this recipe did not call for sour cream at all, just shortening. She used sour cream in place of it.
Do you find you creatively cook in the same way? From my mother I learned that recipes can be a suggestion, based on what you have available to you, especially when it comes to fresh ingredients and cooking. In baking, it is trickier to substitute ingredients, because there’s true chemistry that happens when you put it in the oven, but I still am fearless when it comes to the kitchen.
I never stop learning, either. We have a peach and plum tree in our front yard, and Joseph’s aunt taught me how to make jam from the fruit and can it in jars. I also love to bake bread — and no longer buy it from the grocery store. There’s something so fulfilling about the entire bread-making process: from kneading it with your hands to cutting slices off the loaf. There is little that is more gratifying to me than in the dead of winter to be able to smear some homemade jam from the fruit we picked onto freshly baked bread.
Your hands always seem busy, as you are also the president of the Sunflower Knitters Guild of Kansas City. Do you think it’s important to pass along this hands-on approach to life to the next generation? I think this generation of millennials is starting to return back to some of the traditions of our grandmothers. In the Knitters Guild, we have a membership of 100 strong, that includes people in their 20s all the way up to our oldest member, who is 88. I think this generation sees the value in keeping things simple, and with so much time in front of computers there’s something to be said for the simple act of making something with your hands.
The same is true of cooking. I love to go to the farmers market and buy what is fresh, then start by making quinoa or pasta, and adding in vegetables. It really is an act of love when you use your hands and make something for another. Whether you’re working with fiber or food, people can feel the love and care you put into nourishing and caring for them.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Residence: Overland Park
Occupation: Cardiology health care consultant
Special cooking interest: Serving homespun dishes
Family: Husband, Joseph Otto, and a blended family of five children and two grandchildren
For more information on handcrafting, see SunflowerKnittersGuild.org, as the organization celebrates its silver anniversary in May.