Babci Doesn’t Own Measuring Cups

by Sandy L on November 15, 2011

Babci doesn’t own measuring cups or spoons for that matter.  One of the things that I often hear from my friends is this.  Babci is such a great cook.  You should write down all her old world recipes so they don’t get lost.  To which I respond: “Recipe?  What is this strange word you speak.” The closest thing I’ve seen to a measuring cup is a flour scoop and when she’s measuring out things like baking powder and baking soda, she uses any old spoon from the drawer.

I think many of our grandparents are like this. If you grew up on a farm 100 years ago, chances are you were illiterate. (Babci herself can barely read, she sounds out the words as she reads them).   The other thing that I think was a big factor besides the lack of funds to actually buy something like a cookbook was the food quality.  Unlike the homogenized nature of today’s raw materials, I think there was a lot more seasonal variety to the quality of the food.  Therefore, you may have to add more leavener if your grain is old, or more water if you’re baking with shriveled up apples at the tail end of spring.  Even today with the whole and local food movement, if you truly buy local, you can taste the difference of milk in pasture fed cows as the seasons change.   If you’ve picked up any artisan baking cookbooks, they too try to reproduce recipes by feel instead of solely by portion sizes.

Like many things, Babci was for the most part a self taught cook.  She’s still bitter that my aunt didn’t ever share tips on how to cook when she arrived in this country.  You see, Babci’s diet in Poland was very meager.  She could make oatmeal or barley all day long and made a mean milk soup (milk with drop noodles and a little bit of sugar), but she never had the luxury of learning how to make meals out of meat or  make fancy desserts, so she had to teach herself.   She is a horrible baker by the way.  With baking, you need recipes.   She still keeps on trying  to make stuff and for some reason refuses to follow her polish recipe books that she bought during her last trip to Poland.  I’m often the sorry sucker she tries to push her burnt and dry baked good creations on.  Her meal cooking is fabulous though.

Here are a few babci’s cooking tips that she’s shared with me over the years:

  • When making dough, it can’t be too sticky or too dry. It must be just so.  Her egg noodles have 2 ingredients, eggs and flour.  Her recipe is this..add just enough flour so that the eggs soak it up, then make a dough ball.  Continue kneading it until it’s not sticky  anymore.
  • Add Spices slowly.  Add, taste, add taste, until it tastes right.
  • How to Select Spices (actually this is a tip from my friend Greg who is a fab cook) – open a spice bottle or two, hold it above the pot you are cooking in and then waft the aroma of the spices and food towards you. If it smells good, then add. If it smells strange, then omit.
  • You must use fat in all cooking – okay, this is not a healthy option and I keep telling my mom that I won’t eat things covered in pork rinds anymore. I think this is leftover from the days when meat was scarce and lard was an important source of calories on the farm.  These days when food and calories are plentiful and her workload is much lower, it’s sadly a recipe for obesity.
  • Don’t use Fake Ingredients – I don’t think I’ve ever seen babci buy anything besides condiments from the middle isle.  It’s all staples like flour, sugar, butter, bread, meat, grains, fruits, veggies, oil.   The one exception I’ve seen is buying a jar of Prego or Ragu once in a while to use as a soup base for her tomato soup.
  • Processed Food is Poison – Babci is afraid of preservatives and of any pre-made meals where she hasn’t seen the ingredients that have gone into them.  She is convinced that the food industry adds things that are cheap vs nutritious to make higher profits.
  • Use Lots of Garlic and Onions–  They are good for you.

How about you?  Do you have relatives that are great cooks and don’t use recipes?  I have to admit, I don’t use them often either, except when I bake.  Do you think the secret to being a great cook is in fact, not using recipes and allowing yourself to be creative and adjust flavors as needed?

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Niki November 15, 2011 at 5:44 AM

When I first started reading I wondered how she baked without measuring because that is some feat but there is no getting around that rule.

I am with Babci on processed foods. I really don’t care for the middle aisles either. That definitely helps with grocery bills too.

I don’t use recipes to a T, I use them more for a guideline as well. Except for baking of course. Although sometimes I think I should write it down because some meals don’t always turn out the same, even if I thought I did exactly the same thing.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:18 AM

Niki – yes, I started writing down recipes that I made up because people would complain about consistency from batch to batch, or ask for a recipe which I could not produce.


Nicoleandmaggie November 15, 2011 at 6:35 AM

My husband’s aunt followed his grandma around with a video camera and a scale. Then she went back home and reworked and reworked until she got the main recipes exactly right.


Molly November 16, 2011 at 8:31 AM

I was going to suggest you video Babci cooking. It would be an interesting way to get the recipes.


Nicoleandmaggie November 17, 2011 at 8:02 PM

She tried it with the video first, but that didn’t work so well. But weighing the ingredients helped a lot.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:19 AM

I hardly have any photos of babci, let alone video. She hates being photographed in any way. Measuring would work though.


Darla November 15, 2011 at 8:37 AM

I started cooking very young and while still learning – I measured with the proper tools. As years passed and I became more experienced, eyeballing a teaspoon or a half cup is just second nature. I’ve lost my set of measuring spoons in my last move and have no plans to replace them.

To me, cooking is an art not a science. The best art isn’t paint by numbers, rather an expression of the person creating it. Practice often, use quality ingredients and don’t be afraid to color outside of the lines!


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:21 AM

Darla – great analogy. I do believe truly gifted cooks create. Following a recipe doesn’t make you a great cook. Although with baking, following directions is an important part of the process when it comes to ratios and such.


shanendoah@the dog ate my wallet November 15, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Baking is science, cooking is an art. I bake. My husband cooks. He starts with a recipe, but he changes things around as they seem more appropriate to him.
My Nana was an amazing cook and baker. But she was southern through and through. We asked her for recipes, and they came with instructions like: a pinch of this, a dash of that, add this until it looks right
Someday, I will figure out how to make her friend peach pies, and it will be wonderful for my tastebuds and terrible for my waistline.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:23 AM

Shanendoah – yum peach pie. We are the opposite in my household. I am not that great at baking, but I still try. Pies are easier for me because you can mess around with the filling without doing too much damage to the end product. The crust though, I follow a precise recipe.


retirebyforty November 15, 2011 at 2:24 PM

That’s great. I’m with Babci too and don’t really measure out much of anything. I start with a recipe, but most recipe are too salty so I usually cut down on the salt, soy sauce, and such.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:25 AM

Rb40 – I love salt..but generally put it on after.


Linda November 15, 2011 at 11:06 PM

Too bad this book isn’t in Polish, as it sounds like it would be just right for Babci’s methods:

I’ve fudged a few baking recipes, but not the truly important parts relating to basic ratios for leavening agents. But when I cook meals I usually mess with recipes quite a bit. This means that they are hard to reproduce, but I’m OK with that. Seasonal and regional cooking will never produce exactly the same result every time.

I do use measuring implements like measuring spoons and cups, though. They help me eyeball the ratios.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:26 AM

Linda – babci loves trial and error cooking. She still tries baking things and sometimes I wish she’d just give up and stick with the meals. She’s much better at that.


Jacq November 17, 2011 at 9:36 AM

My grandmother baked all the time and never used a recipe book that I can remember. She also had the coffee cup measurements down. I remember her telling me that you had to use a tea cup and put an egg in it and then fill it with milk (to about 1 cm down from the top) to bake a cake. So I suppose that was about 3/4 of a cup? I guess teacups were more standard sizes back then??

I’m about a 50/50 cook – half the time I use recipes and half the time not. But that’s usually because I’m always trying out new recipes. Back in those days, they just made the same things over and over because they didn’t have a vast number of choices for ingredients like we do now.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:27 AM

Jacq – ah, the coffee cup. Yes, my aunt used a specific one for her measuring as well. I start pulling out recipes when I lack inspiration for cooking.


Kris @ Everyday Tips November 18, 2011 at 8:57 AM

Babci would be disappointed in me, I have to use measuring cups and spoons. I am just a freaky perfectionist and I am afraid I will ruin the meal if I don’t do everything just right.

I love Babci stories…


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:28 AM

Kris – I’m sure she’d still like your cooking, just hide those measuring cups.


101 Centavos November 19, 2011 at 7:36 PM

I cook a lot like my Mom and Grandmother, and don’t use measuring utensils much. As long as you have the basic skills down, then recipes generally turn out OK. Like adding fat and garlic and onions.. can’t go wrong with that. By the way, my Grandmother didn’t have a can opener until late in life. Someone gave it to her as a gag gift.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:29 AM

101 – great story about the can opener. I gave my mom a microwave and she almost never used it (unless I was over and wanted to heat something). She finally just decided she wanted the counter space and ditched it.


Squirrelers November 19, 2011 at 11:52 PM

My mother doesn’t cook as much anymore, but she used to make some great dishes – and I know that she just estimated ingredients for a lot of her best stuff. It’s just what she did, and it worked well. Things never tasted exactly the same each time, and I could tell some variation, but it was good nonetheless.

As for the fat part, my grandmother (who doesn’t cook at all and is in her 90’s) used to make me cookies when I was younger….with sticks of butter in each batch! I’m sure those cookies were nutritionally deadly. I recall that we threw some away when she wasn’t paying attention, and only ate a couple of the batch. Seemed like the best approach to not hurt her feelings while saving our own health!


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:31 AM

Squirreler – mmm..sticks of butter. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to make chocolate chip cookies? I’d be curious to know what your mom’s signature dishes were.


growingmygirls November 26, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Right there with Babci on so many things! Love onions and garlic, agree that the food industry doesn’t really care about our health, and am believe that many fats, up to a point, can be good for you, especially if you round them off with lots of vegetables. The issue is time — the time it takes to cook this way. Full of admiration for her cooking by eye and by feel. I knew a lot of people who cooked like that when I was a child. It’s a lost art.


Sandy L December 1, 2011 at 2:33 AM

growing – I guess growing up on a farm, my mom is too picky and too frugal to ever go the way of convenience foods. She still prefers even making pasta from scratch. Nowadays she has the time, but I don’t know how she did it all when she was working 40-60 hours/week, and raising me, and keeping a garden, and dealing with tenants. I certainly have a new found admiration for her now that I have children of my own.


Justyna December 18, 2011 at 2:06 AM

uhm..can you not at least properly use the term Babcia in your post?? using Babci is grammatically incorrect and makes you sound like an imbecil….e lol


Sandy L December 18, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Justyna – sorry if the inappropriate use of Babci grates on you. Most of my readers are not Polish speakers. All of my friends call my mother Babci and it has become her nickname. They never use the term Babcia, as it’s not part of normal English language rules to add feminine suffixes to nouns. Since this is an English language blog, I try to use English grammar rules as best as I can and not mix multiple language structures together. I actually welcome grammatical feedback as I’m not trained in writing, so thank you. In this case though, I think mixing rules from two languages would be more confusing for the people reading…even if it does make me sound like an imbecile to the bilingual people in the crowd.


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