Recipes for a Prairie Christmas:
DeLila Schneider’s Christmas Memories
The little sod house where DeLila (Stiegelmeier) Schneider was born is still standing on a little patch of prairie in Walworth County, South Dakota, just over one hundred years after her father purchased the land. This is her ninetieth Christmas, and while Covid has kept her from seeing much of her family since March she is still baking cookies for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
DeLila was the youngest of Jacob and Katie Stiegelmeier’s four children, following brothers Wilmer and Milton and sister Ellen. Her earliest memories of Christmas don’t involve much fanfare.
“We didn’t have much for presents, but we always had plenty of good food,” she recalled. “We didn’t have a tree when I was young, though we did a few times when I was older. It was the Dirty Thirties, and times were hard.”
In spite of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the family never lacked.
“Mother grew a big garden and we carried water from the well,” DeLila said. “She grew potatoes, head lettuce, spinach, lettuce, beans, beets and carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes. She made the best dill pickles.”
DeLila learned to cook at an early age.
“I was always underfoot in the kitchen,” she laughed. “I wasn’t very old the first time I made kuchen all by myself, perhaps ten or maybe a little younger. Mom and the rest of the family went out to dig potatoes. I looked around the house and thought to myself, ‘I should just make Kuchen.’ But not with mom’s recipe, oh no, that wasn’t good enough. I made up my own. When dad came in for supper and tried it, he said it was the best Kuchen we’d ever had, and oh, I felt so happy.”
Many of DeLila’s favorite recipes call for cream, and no wonder; she helped milk cows morning and night as a child, and through a good part of her married life as well.
“Everybody milked cows at our house,” she said. “We didn’t milk as many as some; we had neighbors who milked twenty or thirty head. We had ten or twelve at the most.”
It was work, but oh, the fresh milk and cream, homemade butter, ice cream and cottage cheese!
DeLila was raised in a Christian home, but the family did not often attend church. Her mother was a Baptist; her father, a Seventh Day Adventist, so they held differing views on theology. But when friends invited her to participate in the Java Lutheran church’s Christmas program, her parents were always willing to allow her to take part. She also remembers working hard on her part for the Christmas program at the country school she attended a few miles from home.
“It was just a joy to participate and tell the story of the Nativity,” she said. “Going to country school we also had a Christmas program along with an ice cream and pie social. Mom always made apple pie and chocolate ice cream to take. Ordinarily I don’t associate chocolate ice cream with apple pie, but mom’s chocolate ice cream always disappeared!
“One memory I have of the school program was a year that I was asked to give an address. Dad helped me prepare it. We thought so highly of President Roosevelt, and when I wrote my address, Dad suggested I begin it the way the President always began his speeches: ‘My Friends...’”
For DeLila’s seventh grade year, she attended school in Java because there was a shortage of teachers due to World War II and the little country school could not get a teacher. Boarding in Java was hard, as a little seventh grader, with all those high school girls to contend with. The soup was usually pretty thin by the time it got passed to her end of the table. She graduated from the eighth grade in the country school, and again boarded at the dormitory in Java as a freshman. By then it was a pretty big school, as other schools in the area such as Lowry, Akaska and Mound City had closed.
It was at Christmastime of her freshman year that the dormitory was suddenly closed and the girls had to hustle to find places to board around town. DeLila and three friends found a spot with an older lady, but the house was heated only by an old wood stove in the basement, and the upstairs rooms where the girls stayed were bitter cold through the winter. Adjusting to life in town was a challenge!
“We may not have had much for Christmas presents, but we always had plenty to eat at home,” DeLila said. “In our house it was traditional at the holidays that my mother would cook a goose and dressing with all the trimmings. We always had celery and cooked fresh cranberries, mashed potatoes, kuchen and pies. We had a neighbor who raised geese and my parents would buy one from him for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. My mother always cooked a wonderful meal for the holidays.”
DeLila taught country school after she graduated from high school. She had to walk a mile and a half from the place where she boarded to the school, and if it was twenty below zero outside, it was also twenty below in the schoolhouse. The following June she married Rinel Schneider. That fall she took a job teaching the country school he had attended as a child for a hundred thirty-five dollars per month. Reiny drove her to the school with the horses and sled and helped her start the fire.
Money from that teaching job helped to buy a fine combination coal and gas Monarch stove for the kitchen. DeLila learned from her new husband and his brothers how to butcher hogs.
“I had never butchered before, but Reiny and his oldest brother Albert were so helpful about telling me things and soon I was an old pro!” she recalled. “We kept some meat frozen in the garage for eating over the winter and I canned over a hundred quarts of meat for the next summer.”
Now the task for cooking for a crew fell on DeLila’s shoulders. She was a capable cook, but her kettles were too small to prepare a meal for twelve men!
“My potato pot was not big enough,” she laughed. “I needed a new kettle so badly, but we waited to get one until Christmas.”
DeLila also learned to grow and prepare rhubarb as a new bride.
“Mother didn’t raise rhubarb,” she said, “But the Schneiders did. When we moved into our house I planted red rhubarb there. I found a recipe for a rhubarb cream pie after we got married and Reiny loved it.”
Two years later, DeLila was asked to teach again, this time at a school about six miles from their place, without decent roads to travel on.
“‘What do you think?’ I asked Reiny. ‘They really want me to come.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘We could really use the money. Tell them you’ll start the school but that you’ll have to quit when it snows.’ I taught until Christmas and then it snowed, so I called to tell them I wouldn’t be teaching any more. Reiny wired the house with the money I earned from that job, and that was such a joy to have electricity.”
From her childhood in the Dirty Thirties, to a young farm wife working alongside her husband, to a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, DeLila’s cooking has been shared with her family, friends and community. Here are a few holiday related favorite recipes and tips that she shared.
Tips for Roast Goose:
“Mother always added some extra eggs to the bread stuffing to make it a little bit firmer consistency since a goose is so much more fatty than a turkey. By the time it was about half done cooking there would be several cups of fat in the roaster, so I would lift it out and pour the fat off before returning it to the oven.”
Apple Pie by Guess and by Gosh
“Every fall, dad would go to town and get several boxes of apples off the train. Our favorites were the Rome Beauty apples. They made the best pies. Mother made apple pies galore.
“I’ve made so many I don’t even measure. I sift a little salt and sugar with the flour and cut in shortening until it is crumbly. I always use lard for pie crust. Then I add just enough ice water to form the dough.
“I can’t get Rome Beauty apples anymore, but I have experimented with different kinds of apples and Braeburn is a good choice for pies. I peel the apples and cut them into chunks, then dust the bottom crust with flour, put the apples in and sprinkle about ¾ cup of sugar and some cinnamon over them. Cover with a top crust and bake at 350. Apple pies can easily be frozen before baking, and when I am ready to use them I put the frozen pie into the oven at 350 and they turn out wonderfully. If I freeze them I don’t cut the slits in the top crust until I bake them.”
DeLila’s Honey Cookies
Cream: 1 c honey
1 c sugar
1 c butter
Add: 1 c sour cream
1 rounded tsp soda
1 tsp vanilla
Add enough flour for a soft dough, approximately 6-6 ½ cups. Roll and cut into your favorite shapes. Bake at 350 about 12 minutes until light brown.
Rhubarb Cream Pie
2 ½ cups rhubarb cut into ¼” pieces
In early spring when the rhubarb is tender, there is no need to blanch it, but after it is more mature, blanching is a good idea.
Beat: 3 eggs
1 Tbsp flour
1 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 c cream
1/8 tsp salt
Line a pie pan with crust, dust it lightly with flour and put the rhubarb in the crust. Beat sugar, flour and salt with the eggs, then add the cream and vanilla and pour over the rhubarb. Sprinkle with a little cinnamon and sugar. Bake at 350 for an hour or until set.
DeLila’s tip: “Pies can be placed on a cookie sheet or into larger pie pans to prevent a mess in the oven if they spill or boil over!”
There are many different spellings of this German food, but they are all tasty! It can also be made with an apple filling.
8 cups pumpkin or squash
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 ½ c sugar
½ cup oil or shortening
1 c sugar
2 c sweet cream
2 tsp vanilla
Beat well. Add:
5 c flour sifted with ½ tsp salt & 3 tsp baking powder.
Spoon large egg sized pieces of dough onto a floured counter. Roll lengthwise. Make vent cuts in what will be the top half of the crust. Spread filling on the crust, fold over and seal the edges. Bake at 350 for twenty minutes or until the edges are brown.
DeLila’s tip: “This recipe makes a bunch! I like to freeze some. To thaw, put a frozen bladgenda on a cookie sheet in the oven at 300 for twenty minutes. It works marvelously and tastes just like it is freshly baked.”
Grandma ‘S’ Sour Cream Cookies-Katie Stiegelmeier
3 c sugar
2 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 ½ heaping tsp soda
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 quart sour cream
Beat eggs, sugar and vanilla. Stir soda into the sour cream to dissolve it. Combine and add 2 c. flour sifted with salt and baking powder. Add sufficient flour to make dough stiff enough to roll. Roll on a floured board and cut with a cookie cutter. Keep the scraps separate, as they will make the dough too stiff because of the extra flour. Bake at 350 until light brown.
Sour Cream Cookies II
DeLila started using this recipe because Reiny preferred a softer cookie.
Cream: 1 c shortening
3 c sugar
Add: 4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla OR almond extract OR Lemmon juice concentrate
Mix well and add: 2 c cultured sour cream
Sift together and add: 7 c flour
1 scant tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
4 tsp baking powder
Drop by spoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 10-14 minutes. Watch them carefully; don’t overbake or they will not be soft. Frost with a powdered sugar icing.
Kitchen wisdom from DeLila: “Cream and butter make everything better---except cholesterol!”
Homemade Ice Cream
This recipe for a cooked custard is very similar to the method used by Katie Stiegelmeier. My dad, Jim, taught me how to make it.
Scald 1 quart milk. Beat six eggs. Pour a little of the steaming milk into the beaten eggs to warm them and then pour that mixture into the kettle with the remaining milk. Stir CONSTANTLY until the mixture coats the spoon. Remove from heat, dissolve 1 cup honey or 1 ½ c sugar into the custard. Place the kettle in a sink of cold water to cool it down. When cool, add 1-2 Tbsp vanilla. Refrigerate until you are ready to churn it.
Katie added the sugar to the beaten eggs prior to cooking the custard. She used a paste of cocoa powder, a little salt and water to flavor her chocolate ice cream. Other variations include adding blueberries, strawberries, peaches or toasted almonds to the churn.
Wait for a summer hailstorm, as DeLila and her siblings did, or crush ice and have extra coarse salt on hand. Pour custard into the churn, add 1 quart of heavy cream and fill ONLY to the line with additional milk if needed. Ice cream expands when it freezes! Pack ice around the churn, sprinkle liberally with salt (start with about 1 cup), and crank away. Add ice and salt as needed, being careful to keep the salt away from the little hole where the dasher fits in. Crank until it gets too stiff to turn. Enjoy!
DeLila’s tip: The day before, boil potatoes and reserve the water for kuchen dough. DeLila adds salt and about a teaspoon of oil to the kettle to keep the potatoes from boiling over. The added starch in the potato water helps the yeast in the kuchen dough. Preparing the fruit and filling the day before also makes the project go smoothly. It is best to have the filling at room temperature before putting it on the rising dough. This recipe makes 18 kuchen, and DeLila could easily get them done by noon.
Filling: 2 quarts cream
2 c milk
2 c sugar
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
2 Tbsp cornstarch OR 4 Tbsp flour
Use a little milk to moisten the corn starch. Heat remaining milk and cream. Beat eggs and sugar, then add cornstarch mixture and vanilla. When milk is hot, add egg mixture and cook just until it thickens.
Dough: Proof 3 packages of dry yeast in ½ c warm water plus 1 tsp sugar.
Warm 2 c milk with 2 c potato water. Add 1 c sugar, 1 c oil, ¾ tsp salt and beat well. Stir in 2 c flour to make a sponge. Sprinkle a handful of flour over the sponge. Beat 3 eggs, pour onto the floured sponge and beat well with a spoon. Sprinkle another handful of flour over the sponge and pour the yeast mixture onto it. Adding the eggs and yeast in this manner helps to prevent the oil from hindering their rising action. DeLila learned this method from her mother. Beat well and then add enough flour to make a soft dough, kneading well by hand. Allow to rise twice before rolling crusts.
Roll all the crusts, place your favorite fruit---prunes, peaches, rhubarb, strawberries, apples---on the crust and pour filling over the fruit. Sprinkle with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and bake at 350 for approximately 20 minutes. Make sure the bottoms are browned a little.