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Remembering the Queen of Scranton and Her Bean Soup

Remembering the Queen of Scranton and Her Bean Soup

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Recipe Roots: Scranton > New York City, Cape Cod, and Bedford, New York
Shared by Ellen Abrams + Judy Steinhardt

Talking and cooking with sisters Ellen Abrams and Judy Steinhardt, along with their daughters, nieces, and granddaughters, is like being let into a private, familial world. Conversations ping pong quickly across the table and over the telephone wires. As one sister recalls something, she often stops to confirm with the other. When did the green leather chairs arrive in the living room in their childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania? And the floral wallpaper? Dust has gathered on some of the memories, but others are vivid and clear, particularly those of their late mother Ruth Abrams — and two of her most cherished recipes, a hearty soup (known as Mom’s soup in the family) and a classic chocolate cake, which the family shared with us.

Ruth during her college years, 1936.

Ruth during her college years, 1936.

Ruth was a tall, magnetic, and an exacting woman, the sisters explain. She was the queen of her community, the type of woman everyone knew. “She had an opinion about everything and she was never afraid to express this...but she was also a really fun loving party girl,” Judy explains. Her shoes always matched her outfit, her makeup was impeccable, and she layered an apron over her skirt when she was in the kitchen cooking, which was in the mornings, so she could spend the afternoon playing cards.

In their hometown, Ruth held a reputation as a talented cook, hosting friends, cooking for local charitable organizations, and winning a Pillsbury cake competition. (She was nudged to write a cookbook, though never did.) Even during the week, family dinners were approached with care and precision. Every night, a three-course meal graced their dining room, carried to the table on individual plates that Ruth assembled in the kitchen. If she deemed the dish too white, she would add a sprig of something green or a lemon slice. Ketchup never made it to the table in the jar; it was always placed in a bowl on a saucer and accompanied by a small spoon. “That was one of the rules,” Ellen says.

Ruth’s cooking was mid-century American — the sisters remember potato chips topped with cream cheese and a tiny glass of tomato juice as dinner appetizers — tinged by her mother Helen’s Hungarian roots. Her repertoire included brisket, halibut in tomato sauce, her homey soup made with marrow bones, root vegetables, and packets of Manischewitz soup mix, and a chocolate cake with white icing and a bitter chocolate drizzle, among many others.

“She would make the effort to make the things we loved,” Ellen adds. But she made them alone. Being in the kitchen with their mother was a rare event for the sisters. “When we were doing things in the kitchen, there was a little bit of tension that it be done correctly,” Ellen adds.

Ruth in the 90’s at her kitchen table in Palm Beach, Florida.

Ruth in the 90’s at her kitchen table in Palm Beach, Florida.

As adults, the sisters refused to let the recipes fade away. Judy learned to make some of them, including pickled cucumbers when Ruth visited her in Bedford, New York. Meanwhile, Ellen mastered them over the phone, calling every step of the way to ensure Ruth’s recipes remained intact, including the soup which she now makes for Rosh Hashanah and the cake, which is a family favorite for Thanksgiving.

But there were more recipes to gather than phone calls and cooking sessions could allow. So, when Ruth was in her 70s or 80s, Judy and Ellen asked her to gather all of the recipes they had growing up. The project yielded two spiral notebooks filled with newspaper clippings and scraps of paper taped to the pages. “This was her answer to a cookbook,” Ellen explains. “Stained with the drippings of chocolate and butter and vinegar.”

Today, Judy’s daughter Sara has the notebooks, which she’s working on copying for the family — making sure Ruth’s recipes are passed l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

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Ruth’s Soup

Makes: 10 cups of soup
Time: 3-4 hours

3 quarts water
1 lb. kosher marrow bones
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium stalks of celery (1 cup), sliced
2 medium carrots (1 cup), peeled and sliced
1-2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 parsley root, trimmed
3 teaspoons salt
2 packages Manischewitz soup mix (split pea or vegetable)*
1 container (½ oz.) kirsch dried black mushrooms, optional**
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped

*Ruth often used Four Bean, but Ellen likes to use Split Pea and Vegetable so that the resulting color is more pleasant. There are several different soup mixes to choose from, so this is the opportunity to make the soup your own.

**This particular brand of dried black mushrooms is becoming harder and harder to find. Ellen has tried many different kinds of dried mushrooms over the years but claims that nothing is quite like the taste the the kirsch mushrooms impart to the soup. The entire family agreed that if you can’t find the kirsch black mushrooms, the next best thing would be to omit them from the recipe entirely (and some agreed that they would have preferred for the mushrooms to be left out regardless)!

1. In a large stock pot, bring the water to a boil.

2. Wash the bones well in cold water and add them to the boiling water. Simmer at a gentle boil, skimming off any fat and impurities that rise to surface, about 30 minutes.

3. Add the onion, celery, carrot, tomato, and parsley root. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer until all of the vegetables are soft, about 45 minutes.

4. Remove the bones and set aside. Discard the parsley root.

5. Run the soup through a food mill fit with the medium sized disc and return to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add the contents of the soup packages, along with one of the seasoning packets (hold off on the additional seasoning packet until after tasting when the soup is close to being done).

7. If using, rinse the mushrooms in cold water, and add to the pot.

8. Place 2-3 of the bones back into the pot.

9. Simmer over low heat, uncovered according to the instructions on the soup mix package, 1-2 hours depending on which types of beans and grains your soup packet contains.

10. When all of the vegetables are cooked, taste and adjust for seasoning slowly adding some of the additional seasoning packets and/or more salt and pepper to taste.

11. Serve immediately garnished with fresh dill and parsley.

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Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Icing and Bitter Chocolate Drizzle

Serves: 15-20
Time: 45 minutes + 25 minutes baking time

For the cake:
1 ¾ cups flour, plus extra for dusting the pans
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 oz. (12 squares) of unsweetened bittersweet Baker’s Chocolate, melted and cooled
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk

For the frosting:
½ cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
4 cups confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons heavy cream

For the drizzle:
1 oz. (4 squares) unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate, melted in double boiler

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two round 9” baking pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

2. In a medium bowl, sift or whisk the flour, baking soda and salt together.

3. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the melted chocolate and mix on low until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla and mix until just incorporated.

4. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in thirds - alternating with the milk and ending with the flour. Mix until just combined.

5. Divide evenly between the two 9” rounds and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then invert onto a flat surface to cool completely.

6. While the cake cools, make the frosting: cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Turn the mixer to low, add the vanilla and cream and beat until light and fluffy.

7. Melt the remaining Baker’s Chocolate in a double boiler.

8. Place one of the cake rounds flat side up on a flat plate or cake stand. With a knife or offset spatula spread an even layer of frosting over the top of the cake (about ¼” thick). Place the second layer on top round side up. Spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake.

19. Use a spoon or spatula to artfully drizzle the warmed chocolate over the top of the cake.

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

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