(This story was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on Sept. 30, 2009.)
Holidays will never be the same for me, not since my mom died two years ago.
We’ll still make the nine-hour drive from Charlotte to southern Indiana, to visit relatives and friends. But I’ll forever miss Mom’s special meals and crowding around her warm country kitchen to say a prayer and fill our plates.
Last year, I hosted the first Wessel family Thanksgiving since Mom’s death, and I tried to make the day meaningful.
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That meant reproducing her menu - turkey, dressing, corn, mashed potatoes, gravy and, most of all, noodles.
These soft ribbons of homemade dough, swimming in thick chicken-flavored gravy, taste just like home - warm, soothing and full of love.
The dish might remind you of chicken and dumplings. But we just call it “noodles,” a simple name for a simple food.
I know it may sound strange to serve noodles on a plate with so many other starches.
And to tell you the truth, there were years when I wondered about that myself.
As a young woman, I left the farm for the city and discovered more sophisticated cuisines.
But as my parents got older (and I got wiser), I began to appreciate my family's farm traditions and our German heritage.
All I know is that in rural Jackson County, Ind., where my husband Larry and I grew up, a holiday meal without noodles would be unthinkable.
Even at family reunions in the hottest summer months, someone always brings a huge Crock-Pot of noodles, and there are never any left.
A LOST ART
Until last Thanksgiving, I hadn’t actually made noodles in about 20 years.
Mom had stopped, too. Out of convenience, she did the next best thing - bought bags of noodles made by the Amish. They always tasted great, but I wanted to make my own from scratch.
I have most of Mom’s recipes in a small cookbook we published called “Home Cooking by Millie Wessel.” But she never bothered to write down the instructions for noodles. It seemed too obvious, I guess.
The recipe I used in the past was from a Betty Crocker cookbook I got as a wedding present in 1973. So I went back to that well-worn page and remembered the cool, sticky feel of mixing flour, eggs and water with my fingers, the way I’d watched Mom do it.
It was easy enough. Once I got the dough prepared, I rolled it out (with Mom’s smooth old rolling pin) and cut it into thin strips. I spread the noodles on cloth-covered cookie sheets and let them dry for a day or two, until they were brittle enough to snap into pieces - my favorite part.
To cook noodles, Betty Crocker advised bringing them to a boil in water and then draining, as you would spaghetti.
But I was pretty sure that wasn't right for “noodles.”
BROTH IS THE KEY
Without Mom to consult, I called my next best sources - my husband’s Aunt Margaret Carmichael and his stepmother, Claire Mae Garloch, both excellent cooks who serve homemade noodles practically every time we visit.
Aunt Margaret is a regular noodle machine.
In 63 years of married life, she has never bought a single package of noodles.
She makes her own and keeps them in the freezer to have on hand when she needs them. And she needs them a lot. For most of her life, she has cooked a pot of noodles at least once a week. Now, at 82, she has scaled back, to every other week.
When I asked Margaret whether I should pour the water off the cooked noodles, she thought I’d lost my mind. “Who told you to do that?”
She reminded me to cook the noodles in broth, enough to keep them from sticking to the pot but not too much to make them soupy.
For heaven’s sake, don’t pour it off, she said. That’s what gives the noodles their flavor.
The best broth is made from scratch, not from a can, she said. “There’s a big difference in taste.”
Claire Mae agreed rich broth is best, but she wasn’t as opposed to using canned, if necessary. She made sure I understood to cook the noodles slowly, 45 minutes to an hour. “You want them to be done.”
I smiled: None of this “al dente” stuff for country noodles.
I asked if I should add bits of chicken for flavor. But Claire Mae discouraged that: “None of my family wants chicken in their noodles.”
Two final tips:
Don’t use broth from the turkey. “It will change the taste.”
And use fresh farm eggs, with those bright yellow yolks.
HOW IT TURNED OUT
Thanksgiving dinner turned out great.
My city-girl contribution was to bake the turkey according to a dry-brine recipe from Bon Appetit.
But the rest was all Mom’s.
I made her no-fail gravy using the Tupperware shaker she gave me years ago. And I baked two of her typical holiday desserts - pecan pie and persimmon pudding. My older brother Gene brought his own favorite, pumpkin pie, also baked according to Mom’s recipe.
For the noodles, I used homemade broth and cooked them in the largest pot I own. I made such a big batch, we even had some left over.
One of the best parts of the experience was talking with Margaret and Claire Mae about how our mothers had taught us to make noodles.
It was as if, by just repeating the name of that favorite family food, we could bring those beloved women right back into our kitchens.
Homemade Egg Noodles
Adapted from a Betty Crocker cookbook from 1973, with advice from Karen Garloch and her relatives.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 to 1/2 cup water
6 or 7 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade (see note)
Measure flour into bowl; make a well in the center and add egg yolks, whole egg and salt.
Mix egg into flour thoroughly with hands or a fork. Add water 1 teaspoon at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Add only enough water to form dough into a ball.
Turn dough onto well-floured cloth-covered board or clean surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Cover. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Divide dough into four equal parts. Roll dough, one part at a time, into paper-thin rectangle, keeping remaining dough covered. Add flour as needed and shake off excess. Roll the rectangle around rolling pin, and slip the rolling pin out. Spread out a clean dish towel for drying the noodles.
Cut dough crosswise into 1/8-inch strips for narrow noodles and 1/4-inch strips for wide noodles. Shake out strips and place on towel to dry. (This can take a day or two.) When dry, break strips into smaller pieces. Makes about 6 cups of noodles.
To cook, bring about 5 or 6 cups of chicken broth to a boil. Add noodles and stir for about 10 minutes. They will stick, so keep stirring. Turn down the heat and cook until they're tender to taste. (Time depends on thickness of noodles.) Add broth as needed to keep them thick but somewhat soupy. Add bits of chicken or giblets if you like.
Note: Find recipes for homemade chicken stock in The Observer’s recipe database at www.charlotteobserver.com/living/food-drink/.
Yield: About 8 servings.