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Cooking for a crowd at Salem
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Caramel Cake


For cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 stick of margarine
8 tablespoons Crisco
1 cup of water
2 cups of sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking powder

For icing:
3 cups sugar
2 sticks margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk


For the cake:
Mix sugar, shortening, margarine until it turns into a cream

Add eggs one at a time, and mix them in one by one

Mix in the sifted flour by pouring in a cup at time with a 1/3 cup of water and mixing that in

Add vanilla and mix in

Grease and flour two round 8-inch cake pans and split the batter between them

Bake at 325 degrees for about 35 minutes, or until the cake starts to come away from the pan; or use the toothpick test

Let the cakes cool for about 45 minutes

For the icing:
Once cakes are cool, get out one big pan and one small pan

In the big pan put 2.5 cups of sugar with margarine and milk and turn it on medium hot and constantly stir to bring it to a boil

At the same time, put a half cup of sugar in the small pan, and melt the sugar until it turns into a brown liquid with no lumps, then pour the brown liquid slowly into the big pan, stirring all the time and for 10 minutes afterward

A test to know when the icing is ready is to pour a small amount of icing into a coffee mug with cold water. If you can shape the icing into a ball, then it's ready

Stir in the vanilla

Remove the icing from the stove while beating it by hand the whole time (if you don't beat it by hand, the flavor will change); be careful, because it will be very hot

The mixture will look greasy, but if you keep beating it eventually becomes creamy. At that point spread it onto one of the cakes, and then form a second layer and ice it.

*This recipe was recited by memory by Agnes and Drew Elliot, so small modifications may be needed.

It's 10:45 a.m. in the Elliott cabin at Salem Campground. Agnes Elliott has been cooking since 6 a.m. and she has yet to make several dishes.

She considered waking up closer to 4:30 a.m. to make a caramel cake. There's never been a big Sunday lunch at camp without that tasty Elliott tradition, and the family that was going to bring the cake is ill and won't make it.
She decided to catch an extra hour of sleep because the absence of that family and a few other relatives and friends leaves only 28 to feed, instead of the usual 40. Leftovers are good, but no need to overdo it.

Plus, there will still be peach cake and hello dollies, a baked concoction of graham crackers, flakes of coconut, butterscotch, chocolate chips and condensed milk.

The family cabins at Salem Campground are deceptively long; the Elliott's stretches four bedrooms deep with a long common room, though only a half-kitchen.

When you have an extended family as large as the Elliott's, a new person shows up every few minutes.
While Agnes prepares a dish, Tom walks into the cabin.

"Oh Tom! It's so good to see you," Agnes says with delight, and gives him a big hug.

He's an unofficially adopted family member. The largest families always seem to be the ones most willing to embrace strangers into the pack. After all, what's the difference between four more grandchildren among friends?

"People just come in all the time to get food," said 13-year-old granddaughter Alyssa.

"If people pass by, we just say ‘Y'all come in and eat too," Agnes added.

Tom and Agnes catch up on the family news. How are he and his girlfriend doing at college in Valdosta? Figured out why that rough patch happened? Yes, Gran remembers that. Gran knows nearly everything.

Yes, the guys are talking again after a tiff. Yes, her pair of beautiful, intelligent Georgia Tech granddaughters, Anna and Lucy, are dating the same young men as last year. Yes, that's a good thing.

Agnes may have married into the Elliott clan, but she's the matron of the family now. Though the annual Salem Campmeeting generally produces the largest crowds, her home in central Atlanta has always been grand central station. Birthdays, holidays, impromptu parties. Gran's got her family covered.

She's so used to cooking for large gatherings that she really doesn't think about it much. What's in your famous candied sweet potatoes? What makes them so syrupy?

"There's no recipe, I just know how much for how many people. How much sugar, how much water. Add potatoes, margarine," she replies. "I've tried to do a cookbook for the grandchildren. I have to go back and measure and take notes."

"You don't find those potatoes at other places," said her son Drew, who's tabbed them as his favorite dish.
One recipe the family has written down is the delicious, but difficult-to-perfect, caramel cake. (Check out the box for the recipe.)

"I've only figured out the caramel cake so far," Drew said.

Agnes only had sons, Drew and Tom Jr, so the daughters-in-law, Kathy and Kelly, help out when they can.

"My wife does well with the (Thanksgiving) dressing," Drew said, noting another of the family's famous dishes.
Cooking for such a large crowd does require planning. The sweet potatoes and desserts are started Saturday afternoon for Sunday, while the black eyed peas, green beans and creamed corn are morning projects. Ditto, the macaroni and cheese.

Agnes used to fry her own chicken, but that's one of those Southern traditions that's been largely phased out. Besides, she would need a kitchen three times this size and Publix seems to really know its stuff. Buy five boxes, heap them up on a large platter. No one complains.
The rolls and fruit salad are the finishing touches, and by the time the Sunday service lets out, the food is nearly ready.

"I'm really not that good of a cook," Agnes says in front of her family. They're having none of it.

"Oh honey, please," said Alyssa, voice acting in her best Southern accent.

"Yes, she is," Drew assures everyone.

The proof, as they say, is the pudding, or hello dollies, as it were. Those are the favorite of 11-year-old granddaughter Grace.

A cousin who couldn't make it to Sunday's feast was sure to send word that he was looking for a make up meal at Thanksgiving.

As for Agnes, she's worn out from cooking and not really that hungry by the time she sits down to eat, but she doesn't care.

"It gives me pleasure that everyone enjoys it. The children are always saying they can't wait to come and eat," Agnes said. "That's what I love."

If you have hankering for some homemade vegetable soup, come out to the camp Wednesday. It's the light blue cabin with the porch swing and hammock. Or just ask around; the Elliotts have been there for six generations.