Monday, July 16, 2012

Boston Cooking School

We spent today in Detroit, a trip necessitated by Ellen's need for a visa for her return trip to Japan next week.  After her successful visit to the Japanese Consulate, we had a great lunch at Slow's Barbeque in Corktown and then checked out John K. King's Used and Rare Books, a four story used bookstore seemingly filled with every word ever written.  This is the sort of place that we could normally browse for a day or even a week.  However, today was another unusually hot day in Michigan, easily reaching 95 degrees.  King's is in an old warehouse with no air-conditioning so we only lasted a couple of hours before we sought icy drinks elsewhere.

My parents at their wedding reception, 1947.
In any case, when I  checked out the cookbook section, I stumbled upon several editions of the Fannie Farmer cookbook.   Fannie Farmer was my mom's primary general purpose cookbook when I was growing up.  I am not sure I remember the details, but I think she got her copy, officially titled The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook as a bridal shower gift from one of her aunts, either Hazel or Harriet.

Over the years she acquired additional cookbooks but Fannie Farmer remained the go-to book for all things culinary in our house.  When she died, it was still on her cookbook shelf, binding broken, pages held together with a rubber band.  Even though it was completely falling apart, it seemed very special to me, so I added it to my own collection in the kitchen.

I took it out tonight and started flipping through it.  My mom's version was the eighth edition, published in 1946,  one year before my parents got married. She inscribed her name inside the front cover as "Mrs. Richard S. Robsky," which must have still been a novelty when she wrote it.

One of the first pages in the book lists the fifty basic recipes considered essential for beginner cooks to master before going on to things more complicated.   The "basic" recipes include yeast bread, doughnuts, canapes, hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, timbales, souffles, croquettes,  chicken (broiled, roasted, stewed and fried), fruit jelly and jams, puff pastry, plain pastry, cakes (butter, chocolate, fruit, sponge and chiffon) boiled frosting, and vegetables (canning and freezing.)

Basic?  Essential?  I guess times have changed.   I like to cook and I like to eat and I had to look up the recipe to find out what a timbale is. Probably not too many beginner cooks make their own mayonnaise or attempt croquettes.  Even advanced cooks probably buy frozen puff pastry these days.  And, while making bread and jams is not difficult, I suspect most people buy Pepperidge Farm and Smuckers, at least most of the time.

A couple of years ago for Christmas, we bought a copy of Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything"  for each of the kids because they were living off campus and needed to feed themselves.  Bittman also includes a list of essential recipes and between his list of 100 and Fannie's list of 50, the only overlaps are broiled chicken and steak, chocolate cake and muffins.  Apparently in 2008, essential recipes include rosemary focaccia, clayuda, pad thai, and baked goat cheese.

I bet that 65 years from now, when my (by then) adult grandchildren leaf through the disintegrating copies of Bittman, they have to turn to page164 to find out that clayuda is corn tortillas with black bean puree. (Shoot.  I had to look it up.  And I was alive in 2008!)


As I flipped through the pages of Fannie Farmer, I noticed that the recipes my Mom used most frequently, at least as judged by the spatters and tattered pages, were the desserts.  That makes sense.  Like me, my mom didn't use recipes for most main dishes, relying instead on her experience and intuition.  But, baked goods are less forgiving and she probably followed recipes more closely.

The messiest page I found was for pumpkin pie. Al and I always make pumpkin pies, but we have always used a different recipe. But now that I think about it, I do remember some pretty awesome pumpkin pies coming out of my mom's kitchen. Maybe this year I'll try out my mom's version.

But not on Thanksgiving.  You don't mess with recipes on Thanksgiving.

I also found the seven-minute boiled icing that Mom always used on my brother's birthday cake.  He loves devils food cake with boiled mint icing.   She made his cake in four layers with lots of fluffy mint icing and  melted bittersweet chocolate drizzled around the perimeter.  I think my sister-in-law still makes it for him every year.  

Carefully turning the fragile pages, I came across a recipe that I hadn't thought about in years:

I remembered this recipe from when I was a kid.  I thought it odd then that almost all the ingredients are in halves (1/2 cup or 1/2 tsp).  I remember helping Mom squish the cookies with a fork- first in one direction, like in the picture,  and then in the other.  I can't be sure but I think this may have been my earliest cooking experience.

You know,  I think it is time to make some peanut butter cookies, just like Fannie Farmer.

Today I am grateful that Ellen got her visa situation resolved in time for her return trip to Osaka next week.   She'll have another great experience.  The downside is that we'll all miss her!

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