Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Interview with Norma Ritter

Norma-grandson-newbornPlease welcome Norma Ritter for today’s reader interview.

  1. Norma, can you tell Cooking Manager readers about yourself? My name is Norma Ritter and I live in Glenville, New York, which is just outside of Albany, the state capital. I am an ex-pat Brit who moved to the USA to marry her American sweetheart, Glenn, 36 years ago. We have three grown children, and five and two-thirds grandchildren – #6 is due in July. I am an IBCLC in private practice: Breastfeeding Matters in the Capital Region, www.NormaRitter.com.
  2. What do you remember about family meals when you were growing up? My mother grew up as the youngest of eleven children, most of whom had left home and started their own families before she was even born. She was very close to her next oldest sister, and together they cared for their mother (my grandmother, Chana) in her old age. My aunt cooked and my mother cleaned, and so she did not learn to cook until she married, learning to “cook from a book,” as she put it. The book in this case was Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery. She would also clip recipes from the Jewish Chronicle’s women’s page. I still have some of those clippings, complete with my mother’s handwritten variations.
    When it came to everyday menus, my mother stuck to a few trusty recipes. She fried fish for our Friday night dinner, but practically every other dinner included meat. Shabbat was always chicken, served with both potatoes and rice, and one or two green vegetables. Her crispy potato croquettes were a special treat. In the winter she made thick, hearty soups, often using bones from the butcher to make a stock. She loved to experiment with new cake recipes, and was very proud of winning a prize for her frosted mocha cake at a Hadassah event.
  3. How is your cooking style different from your mother’s? I am much more adventurous when it comes to trying new recipes, and we eat far less meat. The first time I made my mother pizza she was suspicious of the “foreign food. When she realized that is was really only bread, tomatoes and cheese, she tasted it tentatively and pronounced it “all right if you like that kind of thing.” Our own children grew up eating foods from many cultures, very different from my own experiences.
  4. How did you learn to cook? My mother was reluctant to let me loose in the kitchen until I was a teenager. She let me watch her cook, but not help, in case I made a mistake. Eventually she allowed me to ice her cakes, and that became “my” job. In time, I graduated to being allowed to cook Sunday night suppers, which were always omelets or eggs of some kind.
    When I had my own home I started off by making recipes exactly as printed, but as I became more confident I made my own variations. My greatest challenge was making bread. It took me a while to realise that bread baking is an art, as well as a science. Eventually I found a book that explained the function of each ingredient, and this helped me formulate my own recipes.
  5. Do you entertain, and in what circumstances? What is the biggest party or meal you have ever hosted? We do not do a great deal of entertaining, mostly just family and close friends. We are very informal and many of our meals are either pot-luck or a planned menu to which each family contributes a dish.
    The biggest meals I hosted were when my children had their bar or bat mitzvahs, for groups of about 150 people. Everything was made ahead of time and I was cooking and baking for weeks beforehand. I made everything myself, including a selection of cakes and cookies for the desert table. The first time was a learning experience, but it became easier with each child.
  6. Can you share a typical daily menu? Weekly menu? During the course of a week we eat meals based on fish, pasta or pizza, beans or soy-based proteins, eggs, chicken, turkey and occasionally, beef. We like Italian and Indian cuisines and cook everything from scratch. Both my husband and I enjoy cooking and, whenever possible, cook and freeze several meals at one time.
  7. How has your cooking style evolved over the years? Over time we have become more aware of healthier food choices. We do not eat a lot of meat, although we do eat more cheese than maybe we should. For a few years two daughters and I were vegetarians, but now only our older daughter avoids meat completely. My husband was recently put on a low-salt diet, and this has been a challenge. I know that I should also cut down on salt, so we are trying to find ways to make food more interesting using a variety of spices.
    I like to bake my own bread,a family tradition started by my mothers’ mother, who used to bake challah for her neighbors. Being extremely poor, she could not afford a timer, so she would hold a marked candle between her fingers to measure the baking times. She baked late at night and would fall asleep in front of the fire, being woken when the candle burned down to the pre-measured mark. She carried the burn marks on her fingers all her life. My own mother never learned to bake bread, but I did, and in turn, sold bread to neighbors to supplement our income when my husband went back to grad school. Now my own children, both my daughters and my son, also bake their own bread.
  8. Can you recommend any cookbooks, TV shows or websites that have inspired you?
  9. Bake Your Own Bread by Floss and Stan Dworkin. Whole Foods for the Whole Family, La Leche League International Alton Brown’s tv shows.
  10. What posts on CM have you enjoyed? Do you have suggestions for future posts? I particularly like learning about ways in which foods are prepared in various cultures. I also enjoy the cooking and household tips – more of those too, please!
  11. What is the most unusual dish you’ve ever made? I think that honor goes to my husband, who sometimes eats unusual combinations of foods. He will even comment on it, wondering what the odds are that anyone else in the entire world is eating THAT particular meal.
  12. What is the oldest item in your kitchen? The newest? Until quite recently, I would have answered, “My Kenwood food mixer.” I bought it in 1972 from John Lewis in London, GB and it worked faithfully for over 30 years. I decided to replace it because I was sure it must be wearing out – it was sounding a bit tired after all that time! I discovered that Kenwood appliances are available in the USA under a different name, DeLonghi. So I now have their 7-Quart Stand Mixer and expect it to be the last mixer I will ever buy. The quality is outstanding.
  13. What would you like to change about your cooking style in the coming year? I am always looking to simplify and streamline and adapt favorite recipes to make them healthier.
  14. Please share a favorite recipe and cooking tip.

I often have to bring snacks to meetings, so I like to have a variety of wholegrain quickbreads stocked in my freezer. I typically make three batches at once – One to take, one for the family to eat and one to freeze.

Here is a favourite recipe passed down from my mother-in-law.

Apple or Blueberry Cake – Grandma Rose’s recipe

Set oven to 350F (180C)

Spray a 10” tube pan


  • 4-5 large cooking apples (slightly tart), sliced thinly OR 2 cups frozen blueberries. If using blueberries, do NOT defrost.

In a large bowl (or mixer), whip together:

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup oil (or applesauce for low-cal version)
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 ½ teaspoons vanilla

Change mixer attachment to a beater and gradually add:

  • 2 cups flour (I use1 cup whole wheat + 1 cup unbleached)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon

Beat well.

Pour away any liquid from fruit.

In pan, layer the batter and fruit.

If using apples, make them the top (final) layer, but NOT if using blueberries or they will burn.

Sprinkle with a heavy layer of sugar.

Make sure oven is set to *bake*. (Ask my why I mention this!)

Bake about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Cake is done when it separates from the sides of the pan.

Test with a toothpick – it should come out clean.

Cool in pan about 15 minutess.

Run a thin knife blade around the edges of the cake to loosen, then invert pan over a rack. You may need to tap the pan gently to help cake come loose.

Invert the cake over another rack so that it is now the right way up, and let cool completely. This cake freezes well!

You can also make this cake in muffin pans – they take about 25 minutes.

Cool, then place on baking sheet to freeze. Store in double ziplock bags in freezer.

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  1. Norm’s Grandma Rose cake reminds me so much of the fruit cakes my mother used to bake every summer when we went up to the bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains. She would buy some wonderful fruit from a roadside stand and make a cake just like this. Thank you so much for bringing back a cherished memory.

  2. Coincidence or not… Grandma Rose owned a summer home in Greenwood Lake, near the bottom of the Catskills. Its possible it was a regional recipe.

    Hands down, this is one of my favorite cakes. Its also pareve (dairy-free) making it particularly versatile. 🙂