I recently submitted a few recipes to a local fund-raising cookbook. Submitting a real recipe is challenging because I rarely cook anything the same way twice. I only stand by my recipes, which have not been tested, for that one moment when they actually succeed.
My pumpkin soup recipe is a prime example of my culinary inconsistency. A close friend asked me to submit it to her fund-raising cookbook several years ago. This soup turned out so well the first time I made it 25 years ago that I wrote something down. I know that I used saffron, but I don’t always have saffron on hand. I deglazed the pan with sherry, but you can use vegetable or chicken stock. I usually use cream to finish it, but have also used coconut milk with some degree of satisfaction. In the end, I think I submitted the original recipe as I had “finally decided on it,” but I know that it’s evolved since then.
If anyone attempts it, I really want them to succeed because it’s good; unlike my maternal grandmother who premeditatedly submitted recipes destined for failure. If someone dared to attempt anything she was known to make, there was no way you could succeed.
Granny proudly displayed her blue ribbons from the fair as though she were the greatest cook, baker and canner in the county, but when we cleaned out her things we found a box hidden in the closet with a pound of shameful white ribbons, proving that she didn’t even make runner-up most of the time. Of course, one taste of her pickles would prove that a panel of judges knew what they were doing.
The first time I learned that Granny was a saboteur, my mother handed me our go-to recipe book so that I could make a peach pie. We had several fruit trees and needed to do something with the harvest, and she said that my grandmother’s recipe would be good. It had been published in a national cookbook of homemakers, so you had to trust it.
I was about ten and still a novice at rolling pastry, but I knew how to patch my mistakes and poke enough holes in it to prevent puffing up when blind baking. I’d never heard of pie weights, and I was mostly unsupervised in the kitchen after finally figuring out fractions.
I reviewed the ingredients for the filling and laid everything out. Those old recipes rarely included directions. You had to jump in with a basic knowledge, but this recipe instructed me to peel, pit, and slice the peaches into halves. Beat the eggs with the sugar and add the milk. Pour this over the peaches and bake for 35 minutes in a “hot oven.” One would assume that following the directions would result in a custard pie dotted with delicious summer peaches.
Obviously, this cookbook committee didn’t run a test kitchen, and I’m guessing there wasn’t even an editor. Otherwise, someone would have realized that Granny had left out the directions for making custard along with either flour or cornstarch to thicken it on top of the stove. Slicing the fruit as indicated would mean that enormous raw chunks would remain as islands floating in a sweet milky pond. My pastry acted as a sieve and a lot of it stuck to the pie pan. My mother looked over the recipe and said, “Well, it was always good when she made it.”
This disaster could’ve been chalked up to an innocent oversight, but about that same time my mother put me onto baking bread. She happened to have Granny’s famous dinner roll recipe in the woman’s own handwriting from around 1954 before she started setting people up for failure. By the time I started baking bread, Granny’s dinner rolls had evolved into her famous whole-wheat rolls, which actually earned blue ribbons. The whole-wheat rolls were what I really wanted to learn how to bake, but the recipe was not forthcoming. Granny would put me off each time I brought up the subject.
My grandparents dropped in for dinner unexpectedly one evening two years later. It happened to be a bread-baking day for me, and I had reached a level of proficiency by then. I hadn’t been confined to the county fair lady’s standards for uniformity in shaping the rolls. I would end up with a variety of sizes, but usually large and fluffy enough to woo even the most hardcore anti-gluten fanatic.
My grandfather raved about my bread as he reached for bun after bun. Granny smiled, or was it a smirk? When dinner was finished and he left the table with my dad, Granny leaned over and murmured, “Well, since you think you’re so good, you should try sourdough and see how you do.” There was nothing in her tone to indicate that she was encouraging me to move to the next level. Her smile had been a smirk.
For the next few summers, I’d occasionally hang out in her kitchen on bread day, but she was wise to me and would tell me that she did everything “off the cuff.” Sensing my usurpation, she used her body to block the flour drawer so that I couldn’t see how she mixed in the whole-wheat flour, but she wasn’t always successful. I wanted that recipe, and after my grandfather died, I realized my grandmother’s mortality. How would I eventually get those wheat rolls if I didn’t learn how to make them myself?
It took about six years of trial and error, but I eventually figured out how to replicate her whole-wheat bread. In the process, I also improved upon the white bread version and figured out that her cryptic directions for mixing this enriched dough were actually similar to those used for making brioche and a number of other breads.
When her belongings were dispersed, her latest church lady’s cookbook was among the boxes of books. I love these types of cookbooks because among the treasures, there’s great entertainment to be had by reading aloud recipes like Beef Brownies and things done with Ritz Crackers that should be illegal. I was initially surprised to see that Granny’s wheat roll recipe had been included. Had she a change of heart, looking to the future with the decision to leave something to posterity?
No. Having made her whole-wheat rolls for over a decade at that point, it took two seconds to realize that she had submitted a recipe for wheat-based roofing tiles. The committee must’ve been elated to think that they had finally gotten Rebecca’s secret recipe. Like Cold War spies stealing a formula, what glee they must’ve felt as they sprinted to their kitchens and began to mix. I can only imagine Granny’s secret pleasure when some rival showed up to the next church social with a basket full of stones.
© 2021 by Patrick Brown