There are numerous cookbooks with the word “family” in the title. Most of these, I believe, are so titled in order to be bought by people who imagine beginning a new regime in their families: a regime that involves everyone sitting down to eat a meal together every night. Good luck! However, the family cookbooks that are the subject of this post are another matter. These cookbooks are compilations of recipes from the authors’ extended families, accompanied by photos and family stories, some stories universal in their heart-warming appeal, others of no possible interest to anyone outside the particular family. The three cookbooks we consider here each draw from a different food tradition: African-American, Jewish, and Italian. At our house, we enjoyed the food from these cookbooks very much, but since none of the fourteen recipes I tried were that amazing (with one exception), this is more a tribute to the good company with whom we were eating rather than to the skill of the cookbook authors.
Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family by Norma Jean and Carole Darden, published in 1976, is a truly beautiful book. Inspired by an offhand remark of a guest at party, these two sisters began researching their family history, collecting recipes along the way. The family stories they learned, the recipes they collected, along with many photographs, both old and more recent, are gathered together in this book. Not only is this a very photogenic family, but a family to admire. Norma Jean and Carole do not ignore, yet do not dwell on the adversity faced by their family, such as slavery, run-ins with the KKK, “separate but equal” status. Instead they focus on the accomplishments of family members, the joy of family ties, and the strong religious foundation on which the family could rely. I wish I could have liked the recipes in this book more. Although I believe that over the years there has been very good food on the Darden family tables, much of this goodness probably relied on the freshness and excellence of the basic ingredients. Such could be said of my grandmother’s table, and in fact more than one recipe from this cookbook reminded me of my grandmother. There are also a lot of meat recipes, and a lot of sugar-heavy recipes. There are no recipe introductions to entice the reader, and the instructions are written for someone who knows how to cook, not for novices in the kitchen. This book has gone in and out of print over the last 38 years, but is definitely worth seeking out, if not for the recipes then for all the rest.
“Winner Tossed Green Salad” (page 227) is the sort of green salad that I used to prepare under my grandmother’s tutelage. The salad consists of lettuce and other garden vegetables: celery, cucumber, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, and green peppers. Note the absence of any of the ingredients I like to toss into my generic green salad these days such as olives, cheese, or dried cherries. Norma Jean and Carole suggest serving this recipe with their following recipe, “Mattie’s Mayonnaise”, I used Garlic Expressions, my new favorite bottled dressing. Somehow, a homemade olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing did not seem appropriate for this salad. I admit, though, that I needed more taste in this salad, and so topped my serving with feta cheese.
If I liked sweet potatoes, I expect that I would have liked “Sweet Potato Croquettes” (page 114) a lot more. Mashed sweet potatoes are combined with black walnuts and raisins, and flavored with vanilla and a small amount of sugar. Norma Jean and Carole use only two tablespoons of sugar for four sweet potatoes; I have never understood supposedly savory sweet potato recipes that use way more sugar than this with an already overly sweet vegetable. They then form patties, dip the patties in egg, coat in crushed corn flakes, and fry. My patties were very delicate and barely held together. I think that almost any yummy condiment or sauce would go well with these patties; I used an onion cranberry relish from the previous week.
John Thorne, in Simple Cooking, goes on a real rant about macaroni and cheese. He decries macaroni and cheese made with white sauce (“a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk”) as “awful stuff” and declares that “every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window.” Strong words. I occasionally enjoy white sauced macaroni and cheese, but whenever I do so, feel like looking over my shoulder to make sure that John Thorne does not see me. Norma Jen and Carole, however, have John Thorne’s approval, for their macaroni and cheese (page 227) is the type he likes: 8 ounces of macaroni, a can of evaporated milk,12 ounces sharp cheddar (although some think that sharp cheddar has no place in macaroni in cheese, I like it), and 2 eggs. I used quinoa pasta and added a little mustard. The macaroni and cheese was fine, but had the problem that all such custard sauced macaroni and cheeses have: texture-wise, the leftovers were a failure. The sauce lost its creaminess and solidified; almost curdled. Leftovers still tasted fine, though. The best approach to macaroni and cheese, I believe, is Julia Moskin’s way: macaroni, milk, and lots of cheese, with the starch from the macaroni providing any thickening that the sauce might need.
Pound cake is the best cake for those who like to play with their food. Because of the dense and uniform structure of this cake, you can cut your slice into little cubes, use the little cubes to build a house, and then eat the house, cube by cube. I went through a phase searching for the perfect pound cake recipe, hoping to duplicate my grandmother’s pound cake, the basis for many architectural creations of my childhood, but my search was in vain. Every cake either had the taste or the texture wrong, often both. I realize now that this search was totally misguided: there is one and only one proper recipe for pound cake: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and a pound of eggs, with suitable flavorings. The Darden sisters deliver: their pound cake (“Angel Box Poundcake”, page 245) is a true pound cake. They use powdered sugar for the sugar, and then use the one pound sugar box to measure the flour, a useful trick if one does not have scales handy. They use one tablespoon each vanilla and lemon extracts for flavoring. The cake was just like my grandmother’s cake, and one of my guests observed that the cake was just like her grandmother’s cake too. [Go to the recipe.]
“Pineapple Ice Cream” (page 48) was not a huge success, and I am not sure whether to blame myself or the recipe. This is a custard based ice cream, but when I was preparing the custard, it went straight to curdled, skipping the softly thickened stage. I strained the custard (not starting over again because I was short on eggs), but the final ice cream was still too grainy. So I was at fault for not being more careful when preparing the custard, but I think the recipe itself is flawed. This ice cream is low in both fat and sugar (although would be higher in sugar using crushed pineapple in heavy syrup, not available at the health conscious grocery stores that I frequent), which I think contributed both to the ease with which the custard curdled, and the overall graininess, even had the custard not curdled. The ice cream, though, was good enough, and when first churned, even a little better than good enough.
Judy Bart Kancigor’s cookbook, Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family, began life as a self-published food memoir, Melting Pot Memories : The Rabinowitz Family Cookbook and Nostalgic History. The first book had more recipes, but fewer photographs, fewer pages, and so presumably less in the way of family stories. A few recipes will not be missed, because this book is stuffed. Judy has searched for recipes and stories from everyone to whom she is remotedly connected; given that Judy’s family has a Detroit connection, I am surprised that I myself am not within the three degrees of separation that seems to be the only requirement for becoming a recipe source. The stories in this cookbook are forgettable (unless you are a Rabinowitz-Bart-Kancigor), and the photographs are family snapshots, often amusing and unflattering. The recipes cover all the standard Ashkenazic fare with a sprinkling of Sephardic-type recipes. Not only do we get cholent, latkes, and brisket, but also the recipe for one of those atrocious salads made with uncooked ramen noodles and cole slaw mix. It is clear that Judy has had a lot of fun compiling and promoting this cookbook. It is easy for the reader to get caught up in this fun.
“Moroccan Carrot Salad” (page 112), I am beginning to understand, is one of those standard Jewish recipes, versions of which appear in many recent Jewish cookbooks (see, for example, Saffron Shores by Joyce Goldstein or Balaboosta by Einat Admony). Joyce Goldstein’s recipe is the best that I have made by far; Judy’s carrot salad, while quite satisfactory, is a pale shadow of Joyce’s salad. This salad consists of partially cooked carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, paprika, and mint (or parsley). More of everything (except carrots) would help, starting with more garlic.
“Anna Goldstein’s Egg Salad and Mushrooms” (page 116) is quite similar to (but much better than) a recipe from Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir, a book popular in certain circles, and a book that I rather detest. Miriam’s recipe calls for hard boiled eggs, canned mushrooms, onions, salt, mayonnaise, and dill. Judy’s salad (or rather, the salad of Anna Goldstein, Judy’s sister-in-law Debbie’s friend’s mother) is simpler, with just eggs, white mushrooms, and onion. For both salads, you cook the onions for a long time in oil, the “secret” to success, and then add the other ingredients, it being necessary to cook further the non-canned mushrooms. Miriam’s mayonnaise and dill are entirely gratuitous; Judy’s (or Anna’s) salad just needed a little bit of salt (there being no canned taste to disguise). This was a dish to which I kept helping myself to smaller and smaller servings during our salad course, until there was almost none left. [Go to the recipe.]
Judy’s gimmick in the recipe “Salmon Gefilte Fish” (page 54) is to cook the fish in muffin pans. I am not sure that this approach is entirely successful. The muffins that resulted were more like fishy custard puddings, with a sweet gefilte-like taste (too sweet, to my taste). Mindy S thought that there was too much in the way of extra ingredients such as carrots, onion, and celery. I thought that these made a much better hot dish. I served them with a wasabi sauce instead of the more traditional horseradish.
“Lilly Gutman’s Tomato Soup” (page 83) relies on fresh tomatoes; I was stuck with canned tomatoes, this being the middle of winter in Michigan. There’s not a whole lot else in this soup, just onions cooked in oil with added broth, as well as a small amount of sugar and salt for taste. This tasted just like canned tomatoes with onions and broth, and wasn’t bad; a soup that tasted like fresh tomatoes with onions and broth would no doubt be better.
“Irene’s Molded Spinach” (page 256) was fairly tasteless, but as such made a great accompaniment to overly tasty dishes (such as Neopolitan-style stuffed peppers, below). This dish consists of onions and green pepper cooked in oil, then mixed, along with a couple of packages of frozen spinach, with eggs and mayonnaise; all is then cooked into a custardy pudding. I did not thaw and squeeze my frozen spinach, as directed in the recipe, and there were no deleterious effects of this neglect. I do not see the point of squeezing moisture from spinach, when more moisture in some other form will be added.
While I was Cooking Jewish, I decided that I might as well try the challah recipe. Judy sticks with the minhag of attributing her challah to a woman with a Yiddish name. This time it is Mama Hinda, her maternal grandmother. Mama Hinda’s recipe (if in fact that is what we get) is completely unremarkable: 3½ cups of flour, 2 eggs, ¼ cup of oil, etc. Judy provides detailed instructions as well as “Challah Tips”. This all might be useful for someone who has never made bread. I skimmed over these directions, and seeing nothing of interest proceeded with my usual food processor method. The final loaves certainly looked nice, and tasted exactly as most challahs taste.
Make no mistake: The Sopranos Family Cookbook: As Compiled by Artie Bucco is a silly book. I have three excuses for possessing this cook book: Border’s had offered it at 30% off, I like other books from its recipe author, Michele Scicolone, and I admit to being a Sopranos fan. This book really should not be part of this post at all, since although the recipes are supposedly drawn from lots of different “family” members, in reality they are just one person’s take on Italian, mainly Neopolitan, food. However, everyone likes Italian food, and my initial survey of the two other books of this post did not really impress me, recipe-wise, so I stretched my definition of “family” to include imaginary families. Sopranos fans can look at the pictures in this book and read the story lines (by Allen Richter); food people will content themselves with basic recipes. Michele has picked simple home-style recipes; I can easily imagine that this food is close to what real-life prototypes of the fictional mob family might eat.
I think you have to to have had an Italian grandmother to adore pasta fazool (i.e., “Pasta Fagioli”, page 29), although the rest of us can still enjoy this hot and filling dish. There is nothing special about Michele’s version (unless, perhaps, you have that Italian grandmother); in fact, I think it was a little on the anemic side and could have used more tomatoes, more garlic, and more hot pepper. However, when puréed it made acceptable fare for Alan while recovering from gum surgery.
When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool
When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet
You’re in love
When you walk in a dream but you know you’re not
Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli
In today’s anti-carb world, pasta, pasta, and more pasta is not that desirable, so a pasta dish with home-made crepes instead of store-bought pasta is welcome. Somehow, that cup of flour used in making the crepes does not seem as carby as pasta sheets. And so we turn to “Manicotti” (page 48). The filling for the crepes is a cheesy filling with ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan; the recipe makes a generous amount of filling, some of which I did not use. The crepes are stuffed and rolled, then topped with a simple marinara sauce (page 13) and a little more cheese. This was a very good hot and filling dish, which was much easier to make than one might suspect.
One of my favorite pasta sauces is puttanesca; I love its briny oily taste. At least twice so far for this blog project I have tried pasta puttanesca recipes, so for a third pass I decided to see what the Sopranos did with this dish (“Spaghetti Puttanesca”, page 126). The recipe had all the requisite ingredients in the usual proportions, and was excellent, as all pasta puttanesca recipes are. I would have preferred a saucier pasta, although less saucy may be more authentic.
The recipe winner of this post is “Neopolitan-Style Stuffed Peppers” (page 146). This is a meatless dish (but with anchovies; easily omitted, but with an inevitable decrease in taste), in which bell peppers are stuffed with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, anchovies, and capers. The filling is given some body and bulk with bread crumbs; I used cubes from a loaf of freshly made bread, as there was no old bread sitting around from which to make bread crumbs. I think this would make a very successful Pesach dish, with matzoh (obviously) for the bread crumbs. The filling was a little salty, but I enjoyed eating this with the under-seasoned spinach pudding from Cooking Jewish. [Go to the recipe.]
True Pound Cake
Adapted from Norma Jean and Carole Darden, Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine
1 pound butter
1 pound powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon extract
1 pound flour
Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter and lightly flour a tube pan.
Cream the butter and sugar together; a heavy duty electric mixer is preferable. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Mix in the vanilla and lemon extracts. Add the flour slowly, beating to just incorporate.
Pour the batter into the tube pan and bake until done; perhaps an hour, but the time will depend on your oven.
Egg and Mushroom Salad
Adapted from Judy Bart Kancigor, Cooking Jewish
1 large onion, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
6 hard boiled eggs, chopped
Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden and fragrant This might take about 30 minutes. Add the mushrooms and a little bit of salt, and continue to cook until the mushrooms are soft and their liquid has mostly evaporated. Add the eggs, more salt if needed, and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
Peppers Stuffed with Eggplant
Adapted from Michele Scicolone, The Sopranos Family Cookbook
2 eggplants (1½ to 2 pounds total)
6 bell peppers (different colors are nice)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, liquid saved
¾ cup black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
6-10 anchovy fillets, chopped
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
2 cloves garlic
½ cup bread crumbs, or a slightly greater volume of bread cubes
Peel and cube the eggplant. Toss with one or two tablespoons of salt, and put in a strainer to strain for at least 30 minutes; an hour or more is preferable. Rinse the eggplant well, and put the eggplant back in the sieve. Squeeze the eggplant to extract more moisture, and let the eggplant continue to drain for another 15 minutes or so. This is all best done while you are busy with something else.
Preheat the oven to 450º.
Pour about ½ cup of olive oil into a large frying pan and heat. When hot, add the eggplant, and cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is almost done. Add the drained tomatoes, olives, anchovies, capers, and garlic, and continue to cook until the eggplant is cooked through.
While the eggplant is cooking, remove the tops of the bell peppers, and arrange the peppers upright in a dish that will just hold them. When the eggplant mixture is cooked, remove from the heat and add the parsley, pepper to taste, and the bread. You should not need any more salt. Stuff the peppers with the eggplant mixture. Add enough water to the tomato liquid to get a total of 1 cup; pour this over the peppers. Cover the peppers and cook until the peppers are soft; this could take up to 1 hour. Serve hot or at room temperature.