Family recipes are as real as any other kind of inheritance. Perhaps even more so. Our sense of smell is part of the most primitive area in our brain where emotion and memory reside. A food aroma from the past can can take us back to that experience with an immediacy that is breathtaking and indelible. In a time when our path to the future is uncertain, these memories of shared experience and family are always there to reassure us.
One look at a recipe from previous generations reminds us how little we cook today by comparison. Recipes used to be written in a telegraphic style as if they were in code. Directions would often end with a phrase like, ‘cook it until it’s done’, as if there were a common understanding of what ‘done’ was. Brevity may have also exemplified a laissez-faire attitude. Go ahead and cook a pork chop until it is as tough as shoe leather if that suits you. Recipes today are written in a narrative manner or presented as a highly edited one minute video on TicTok.
Julia Child gets my vote for having revolutionized recipe writing 60 years ago with her ambitious two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With dogged thoroughness she held the hands of Amercan cooks and took us step-by-step through the cuisine of the upper-middle-class in France in the 1950’s. French cooking on both sides of the Atlantic has evolved past Julia’s traditional Cordon Bleu style, but her systematic treatment of French techniques, one that illuminates its inherent logic, remains her enduring legacy.
A cook can take some liberty when adapting the ingredients and preparation of a family recipe to modern circumstances as long as it smells and tastes as they remember. Standard practices for preparing pastry, cookie dough and cake batter make baking from old or vague recipes easier than might be expected. The exception to these generalizations is baking bread with yeast because this leavener is a living, single-cell fungus whose comfort has to be taken into consideration. It's difficult to master a heirloom bread recipe without some knowledge of baking chemistry. Fortunately, this information came into the public domain as recently as the 1980’s with the publication of books by professional bakers and obsessed amateur bakers.
My own success preparing family recipes has been mixed. In an 2012 post I detailed my discovery and preparation of a 115 year-old coffee cake recipe my husband’s great grandmother contributed to her church's cookbook. The recipe consists of a four line list of ingredients. There are no directions. I succeeded in preparing it by summoning my ‘inner Julia’ and following the basic procedures for baking with chemical leaveners (baking powder).
I have had less success creating recipes to secure a treasured memory. I told cooking students over the years that I had created a lemon dessert to conjure up the thrill of my first lobster dinner at the home of a distant cousin in Maine. Finally, a student asked, “Why didn’t you just call her up and ask for the recipe?” In truth, this obvious solution had never crossed my mind. My cousin's lemon dessert was the perfect way to end the meal, but not tasty enough to capture the totality of the experience. My own recipe is souvenir of that amazing day. Could it become a family recipe? That's for the next generation to decide.
Blog reader Elise Glickman sent in a recipe for her Russian grandmother's (bobie) ‘famous’ walnut cookies.. She fondly remembers watching her preparing them. The recipe is easy to assemble by hand or food processor. It produces cookies that are dense, cake-like cushions, with just a little sugar, lots of chopped walnuts and a hint of cinnamon. The only assembly note I would add is that you firmly insert the decorative piece of walnut into the cookie dough before bakIng, otherwise it may become detached after baking.
BOBIE’S FAMOUS RUSSIAN-STYLE COOKIES
Ingredients for 2 1/2 dozen cookies
2 cups walnut halves
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
1 cup corn oil
1 cup golden raisins (preferred)
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups unbleached flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut 16 large walnut halves in half, and reserve for decoration. Finely chop the remaining nuts by hand or with pulsing action in the work bowl of a food processor. Mix or pulse in ground cinnamon, and reserve.
Beat the eggs thoroughly in a mixing bowl. Stir in the oil, raisins, sugar and 3/4 cup of the chopped nuts and cinnamon mixture. Sift the flour and baking powder over the wet ingredients and stir into a dough that is cohesive but not sticky.
Form pieces of dough into 1” rounds. Roll the balls in the remaining ground nuts and cinnamon. Firmly insert a halved walnut piece into the center of each ball, gently flattening it into a cushion, and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Store in tightly covered container or freeze.