The Cookbook Comes Out

I grew up in the era of television commercials. One of my favorites was for Almond Joy and Mounds: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t! I don’t eat nuts at all, and even if you took the almond off the top of the Almond Joy I would not eat it, though I am fairly sure it is exactly the same dark chocolate covered coconut underneath as Mounds is. I would eat Mounds endlessly if only there were not a price to pay for such a delicious indulgence.

I find it’s the same with living in the country. Sometimes you feel like going outside and getting yourself busy with something that is likely to involve wheelbarrows, garden gloves and sweating. Some days I wake up and can hardly wait to get out there. Yesterday I was so anxious to get going (on weeding of all things! It had rained, okay? and I knew the ground was soft, and I had guests coming, and it would get hot later…) that I got dressed in my grubbies before even taking the dog out, then just stayed out there weeding after she did her thing. She stood next to me for that hour with a look on her face that clearly said: This is not the way this works. We get up, we go out, I do my thing, we go back in, you feed me breakfast, then you do whatever else you want. What’s up with messing with the routine? Hungry here! Starving! Wasting away!

Needless to say, she survived the wait. When we went out after breakfast, she came again, this time standing there with the look that said: Yes, great, my belly is full, but do you really expect me to lay down on these stones? I went and got the old pink towel that doubles as a soft outside blanket for her (which of us is well trained!?), put it in the middle of the driveway where she would be near but not underfoot, and watched her lay down and look up at me with her That’s more like it face.

Coco on towel

But sometimes you don’t feel like going outside. Today I had no such drive. It was a pleasant morning just the same as yesterday, cool enough, calm, lovely. I wasn’t put off by the coyotes howling somewhere in the distance. I didn’t feel overly tired or sore. There is plenty to do out there (and there will be for the rest of my days!). But my inner voice said No, today is a good day to bake!

My 10-year-old great niece Kaileena is coming for a visit with her 4-year-old sister Brea, her mom (my niece Erika) and her grandma (my sister Lynn). I was thinking yesterday about what Kaileena and I will do together next week when the others have gone to North Carolina. I was thinking about baking. We will make pizza together for sure, and maybe crackers (some of you might remember my cracker post from a few years ago – I have a hankering for those again!).

But before they come, some baking would be good. Think about how you feel when you go visit a family member or a friend and they have baked for you or prepared yummy food of any kind for you. That’s how I want my friends and family to feel. Besides, good neighbors of mine brought me some scrumptious lemon bars this past Saturday and I want to give the container back, but with something in it. Many years ago, my friend Kim told me that she and her mom had a plate that went back and forth between them a number of times because neither one wanted to give an empty plate back to the other. I always liked this idea, so I will put something yummy in Jen’s container.

Like anyone who is comfortable in the kitchen, I have some old stand-by, tried-and-true recipes for sweet things that time and again I find myself falling back on. Why? Because they are good! Chocolate chip bars, for instance. Strawberry tea cake. Oatmeal cookies. Sour cream coffee cake – oh, with blueberries in it at this time of year! That won’t fit in Jen’s container very well though. And two children are coming…

I settled on chocolate chip bars, which I made countless times over the years, so many times that the recipe was clearly in my head. I said was because I was a little disappointed in myself this morning in that I was slightly unsure of the amount of butter (Rule Number One: Always use real butter). Being unsure meant that I had to take the cookbook out.

THE cookbook.

Back in the day everyone had a cookbook, everyone I knew anyway. Well, some people had a little file box with 5×7 recipe cards in it, but that system never worked for me. You write recipes on a scrap of paper sometimes, or the back of an envelope, and scraps don’t fit well in a file box. Here is one example from my book. Believe it or not, this is a recipe:

scalloped potatoes

Mario Da Silva was the Villa lunch chef at Keswick Hall for years. He verbalized this recipe to me and I scrawled it out (clearly in a hurry!). It says

Scalloped Potatoes (Mario Da Silva)

3 onions

chop fine

4-5 cloves garlic

fine chop

olive oil    saute    S&P

(What is the difference between “chop fine” and “fine chop”? You tell me!)

heavy cream

mozz cheese

when sticky    stop

parsley

set aside

slice potatoes

boil

 

in pan

spoon of sauce

layer

mozz on top

parsley on top

bake

That makes sense, right? I’ve made these potatoes several times. They are my mother’s favorite.  Mario now works as the Executive Chef at the Holiday Inn in Sarasota, Florida. If you are in Sarasota, go eat there. Trust me. I never saw a chef get more accolades! And he’s cute besides! (Hello, Mario and Mary!)

My cookbook is in a three-ring binder using plastic sleeves. That way, whatever slip of paper or card a recipe is on, I can find a way for it to fit. For the most part, the recipes written in the standard way, with a list of ingredients followed by instructions. The style of Mario’s potato recipe is the exception (you knew that).

I love so many things about my cookbook. Back in the day I had two smaller notebooks instead of one bigger one. I had one for BREADS CAKES / PIES COOKIES and one for EVERYTHING ELSE. Guess you know where my priorities were! I covered the notebooks the way we used to cover our schoolbooks with brown paper bags cut to fit, except I had book cover paper that had been a giveaway at a Ben & Jerry’s stand at the fair one summer in the mid 90s.

The paper was so colorful and fun. We lived in Vermont then and Ben & Jerry’s was still a local business. I loved my cookbooks covered in this paper:

ben and jerry 2

When I made cookbooks for each of my children about ten years ago, I didn’t have any more Ben & Jerry’s paper, so I scanned the last image in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, retold and illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley. It is one of my favorite images from when my children were small and I used to read to them (a lot).  I think it made a great cover for a cookbook.

towncountrymouse

The text just prior to this image says: “Then off he went to his snug little home in the fields, whistling a tune and looking forward to a good book by the fire and a mug of hot barley-corn soup.” The cozy chair, the tea kettle on the stove, the cinnamon swirl bread in the oven (just like I made many times!), the soft lighting … I can almost smell that bread!

Inside my cookbook is a collection from many years of trading and finding good recipes. Many are handwritten, which is precious in its own way. One look at the recipe and I know who gave it to me, even if their name is not on it. I see Lyn Boyce’s handwriting, my daughter Marie’s from when she was a teenager, my son Samuel’s, my mom’s, my grandmother’s, my sister Lynn’s, Kim’s, Claudia’s, Anett’s, Crissie’s, Marisa’s, Judy’s, Margaret’s, Eileen’s, and Mario’s (not quite as challenging to follow as my scrawl, but close!).

This is really good soup, by the way. Don’t you love it: “…PLUS 1 GALLON WATER… SALT PEPPER AS YOU WISH. AFTER EVERYTHING IS COOKED, JUST BLEND IT.” You know what that means, right? That means a blender, a few scoopfuls at a time. Did I mention that this is really good soup? And see, not everything in my cookbook has sugar in it!

Mario's yam soup

Handwriting is a reflection of personality and individuality, as unique to every person as their voice or their laugh. How blessed am I to have such a collection! I also see recipes cut from the side of packages or from magazines, printed from emails, hand-copied from other cookbooks, typed on an old typewriter. I see smudges, stains on the paper (from pre-plastic-sleeve days), translations (from some of the German recipes), even notes to me, like these:

Claudia's fettuccini (2)

Marisa's handwriting (2)

There is nothing in the world like the combination of good food together with friends and family. You can make all the amazing dishes you want, but if you don’t share with people you care about, something is missing. Sharing good recipes is not as fun as being with people you love and eating the food that good recipes make, but it’s right up there.

Back to the chocolate chip bars. The recipe (below) says Chocolate Chip Cookies. I haven’t made it as cookies in years. Bars are easier. You put all the dough (no need to grease the pan) in a 9×13 pan. I don’t know why it says 15×10 at the bottom of the recipe – ignore that! Spread it out and bake until golden brown on top, maybe 25-30 minutes, I’m not sure. You tell it’s done by the color, not too dark, not too light. When it has cooled, you cut them up however big you want them.

With bars, you also achieve a more reliable goo-factor — you know, when they are still fresh and the chocolate (which melts together more in bars) is so soft it’s gooey, even kind of a mess. Almost heaven. Almost because, like Mounds, there is a price to pay. Then again, life is short. Every now and then, by all means, pay up.

This recipe is so old, it’s from my pre-must-use-butter days. You see it calls for shortening, which I don’t even have in my cabinet any more. That’s part of the charm of it for me though. I look at the recipe and remember when I kept a cardboard can of white fatty stuff, and I used it! The flavor with butter is so superior, to say nothing of shortening being a mystery food for me, and I like to know what I’m eating: What is that white fatty stuff and what do they have to do to make it? We need to see our own progress sometimes to be reminded of how far we’ve come. It’s like finding some hideous shirt in my closet and thinking I used to wear that?! Then again, sometimes the shirt is hidden for a long time and years later I find it and say, Hey, look at that nice shirt! Maybe I’ll come around to shortening again too.

I always wondered about the half teaspoon of water – could it really make a difference?  What if the eggs are bigger than usual? Might that not be at least half a teaspoon of water difference in the overall amount of liquid going in? But I always put the water in anyway. Some things you just do.

This is the only recipe in my entire book with sections circled and numbered, which I clearly did after the fact. I think I did this in an attempt to tell someone (one of my children maybe?) what order to do it in. Sorry for any confusion. 1. Combine butter, sugars, vanilla and water and beat till smooth. 2. Beat in eggs. 3. Add dry ingredients (I never combine them first any more) and stir them in. 4. Stir in package of chips.

You can add a handful of old fashioned oats if you want. This adds texture and makes them a little easier to justify. A couple shakes of cinnamon is wonderful too. Or add some chopped nuts, let’s say half a cup, if you like nuts. Walnuts might be good, I’m not entirely sure. Nut-eaters could tell you better.

I could type out this recipe, but it wouldn’t be the same.

choc chip bars

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