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The Sweetest Mother

I had the best mom in the whole wide world! I know almost everyone says that, but in my case it was definitely true. I was indeed blessed to have had Jo Ballard as my mother. Some of you who grew up with her may have known her as Minnie Jo. Mother never liked the “Minnie” and shortened her name to just plain Jo. However, there was nothing ordinary or plain about her. She had a bubbly personality peppered with a slightly wicked sense of humor - a combination that, in my opinion, works well together. I may be a little biased when I say this because I have been told on many occasions I am a lot like her. What a compliment for me!

Mother was always the life of any party and had a magical twinkle in her eyes that captivated your complete attention. She could tell a story like no other and had a laugh that brightened your day just by hearing it. She was full of life and certainly enjoyed the years she lived on this earth.

My mother didn’t have a college degree and, in fact, almost didn’t receive her high school diploma. I remember hearing something about summer school and bad grades. She didn’t have a lot of money and never got to travel the world, but her instinctual knowledge of everyday wisdom was something worth much more than silver or gold. You see what made her so special was her ability to make a difference in other people’s lives. It is such a tribute to her life when people still come up to me today, almost 12 years after her death, to personally tell me how much she influenced them. I just politely thank them and smile. They’re not telling me anything I didn’t already know because I am who I am today because of her.

When I was just 8 years old, she sacrificed to pay for private art lessons for me. She had spotted my ability to draw and paint and encouraged me to “SOAR” and be the best I could be. When it came time for me to go off to college, only the best would do even though money was always an issue. I worked hard so I would never let her down. She didn’t live to see me on television or writing for The Telegraph, but I know she would be proud!

Many of you have heard me speak about “being raised right.” This is a direct result of my mother’s wonderful care and love. She taught me right from wrong, how to take care of myself and to do for others. She required me to say “Yes Sir” and No Maam” and “please” and “thank-you!” She made me walk a very straight and narrow line, but at the same time also encouraged me to make life fun. And boy, oh boy, did she ever make life FUN!

She was the mother who never cared if her house was spotless. After all, she had more important things to do than clean house. She would rather be in the floor playing make-believe with my sister and me to encourage us to use our imagination. She also took us on road trips. She would drive her little powder-blue Volkswagen at the speed of sound with us hanging out of the windows to the lake or on some other adventure that offered us exposure to something new and exciting.

When we weren’t traveling about the city or playing pretend, we would always be in her kitchen. She loved to cook and bake and I most definitely obtained my sweet tooth from my mother! I have very fond memories of us in our kitchen with flour, sugar and eggs flying about the room like a group of birds startled by a loud noise. If our sweet confection didn’t turn out quite right, she taught us not to worry. We would simply go directly to plan B and adapt that particular recipe so it could be consumed in another form. After all, we were not about to waste any sugar! If our fudge never hardened, Mother quickly dipped up ice cream into bowls and passed out spoons. Voila! We had ice cream sundaes and everyone was still happy.

Many of the recipes published in my first cookbook are Mother’s. She had box upon box of recipes written on everything she could possibly find from index cards, bank deposit slips to the backs of already used envelopes. I am very fortunate to still have her original recipes written in her own handwriting. What a keepsake!

This month as we turn our thoughts to honoring our mothers, I can think of no better way to honor mine than by sharing some of her favorite cake recipes. She would be absolutely thrilled that I am sharing them with you. Remember, she taught me well! I just have one request to ask of you in return. If your mother is still alive, go up to her, thank her for what she has done and give her a big old kiss. Oh, what I would give to be able to do that one more time!


My Mother’s Cake Layers

These are the lightest, fluffiest cake layers ever and are suitable for just about any kind of cake.

3/4 c. Crisco (butter flavored)
5 eggs (She always put in 6 though)
2 cups sugar
1 c. plain flour
1 c. self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Cream the Crisco and sugar together until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time. Blend flours into this mixture, alternating with milk. Stir in vanilla. Bake in 3 to 5 layers at 350 degrees until golden brown and toothpick comes out clean in the middle.

My Mother’s Chocolate Icing

3 c. sugar
3 heaping T. cocoa
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 stick butter

Combine first four ingredients in a heavy duty saucepan. Cook until mixture reaches soft ball stage. Remove from heat and add vanilla and butter. Beat to combine until cool enough to spread.

Caramel Icing

My grandmother passed this to Mother who passed it along to me.

3 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1 c. canned milk
1/2 c. butter
1 T. white Karo syrup
1 tsp. vanilla

In an iron or Teflon skillet, brown ½ cup sugar over low to medium heat. When sugar liquefies and turns dark brown, pour boiling water into the pan and allow to boil until mixture is bubbly and is the consistency of a thin syrup (about 3 to 5 minutes). While this is taking place, combine the remaining 3 cups of sugar with other ingredients (except vanilla). Bring this mixture to a boil. Continue boiling while adding the sugar syrup mixture. Cook until mixture reaches the soft boil stage. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Beat mixture while it cools slightly to spreading consistency. Do not allow it to begin to harden in the pot before icing the cake.

Coconut Cake

Use the layer recipe as above.

Simple Coconut Icing or Filling
3 (6-oz.) pkgs. frozen coconut
2 c. sugar
1 (8-oz) carton sour cream

Mix well to dissolve sugar. Refrigerate until ready to ice cake.

7-Minute Frosting

For an added bonus, Mother would make a simple 7-Minute frosting and ice the top and sides of the cake that was already iced with the filling, giving the cake a fluffier appearance. She would then press flaked coconut onto the top and sides of the cake.

1 1/2 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar or 1 T. white corn syrup
1/8 tsp. salt
1/3 cup water
2 egg whites
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Flaked, sweetened coconut for sprinkling

Place sugar, cream of tartar or corn syrup, salt, water, and egg whites in the top of a double boiler. Beat with a handheld electric mixer for 1 minute. Place pan over boiling water, being sure that boiling water does not touch the bottom of the top pan. (If this happens, it could cause your frosting to become grainy.) Beat constantly on high speed with electric mixer for 7 minutes as the boiling water below cooks the icing. Remove from heat and beat in vanilla. Frost top and sides of cake. Sprinkle top and sides of the cake with the flaked coconut.