When it comes to dessert, there's no place like home. Oh, it's true that a glorious dessert cart is a grand sight in a restaurant, but for most people, the most memorable desserts in their lives are the ones that Mother used to make -- the butterscotch pudding, the apple pie, the German chocolate cake, the bread pudding and the simple fruit and cream fools.
There's a comfort in returning to tradition, and this seems to be the year when people are returning to their pasts when it comes to sharing holiday meals.
"I think there's no question that there is a definite return to tradition," said Ami Taubenfeld, owner of Overlea Caterers. "People are going back to their mother's and grandmother's recipes for pecan pie or corn bread stuffing."
It's not just home cooks, she said: Four separate Thanksgiving Day deliveries last week included, by request, apple, pecan and pumpkin pies. "They're all traditional recipes that have been in our family for ages."
That's a change, Ms. Taubenfeld said, because until just recently "usually the first request is for chocolate, and the second is for something mousse-y."
For author and TV cook Marcia Adams, returning to the old recipes is a crusade to keep food traditions from disappearing. In her latest cookbook, "Marcia Adams' Heirloom Recipes" (Clarkson Potter, $22.50), she pursues her search for "attic receipts," recipes handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.
What makes a recipe an heirloom? "For me they come out of an oral tradition, in all probability they have not been written down or published in a mainline cookbook. . . . They're those recipes of your mother's or your grandmother's or your great-aunt's that you remember being prepared, but nobody wrote them down because they showed you how to do it in the kitchen as you worked with them.
"And now we have a whole generation I call 'cooking impaired,' who've never worked with another cook in the kitchen. All of a sudden, it's very important that they have these connections and attachments to their past and to their family and to their family history. And the recipes are all part of that."
The recipes truly are heirlooms, Ms. Adams says. "They're just as important as our dishes or our jewelry or our antique rose bushes. . . . It's all part of this ribbon of memory that connects people."
Pumpkin cookies, biscuit pudding with warm bourbon sauce, and Kentucky stack cake are among the homey dessert recipes Ms. Adams collected in her "heirloom" travels.
The renewed interest in capturing the past, she says, "has a direct bearing on our world being a sort of puzzling place. We can't help acid rain, we can't do a thing about refugees that are starving, we certainly can't do anything about our computer breakdowns, or random violence -- but for a little while, in your house, in the sanctity of sanctuary and safety of your kitchen and your dining room, you're able to reinvoke better times through food.
"But . . . Hamburger Helper won't do it."
For Beth Dooley, co-author with Lucia Watson of "Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland" (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), packaged ground-beef enhancers are exactly what today's cooks want to avoid.
"As Americans, we've always been in love with convenience and technology," she said in a recent telephone interview. "Our mothers' generation saw a lot of convenience products and high-tech cooking methods.
"Today we're wanting things a little bit different -- people are trying to get closer to the sources of their food, to by-pass technology and packaging. Everybody's wanting to do something different than your mother did."
And Ms. Dooley agreed that comfort is playing a big role in the kind of food people want to see on their tables: "There's a lot to just the nurturing part of cooking, and some of the cozier foods play into that."
For cookbook author Richard Sax, who researched his lavish "Classic Home Desserts" (Chapters, $29.95) by spending hours in the New York Public Library's Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, copying old recipes from notebooks in the cooks' own hands, the connection such dishes provide to the past is almost magical. He writes of testing a seed cake recipe from a Scottish cookbook of 1830 and having it come out perfectly.
"There was something miraculous to me about this, that I could take written instructions from someone long-gone [and] bake the same cake in my oven today. In doing so, I was continuing a process . . . set in motion two centuries ago."
Mr. Sax's book contains more than 350 recipes from around the world, from slumps and fools, to cakes and cookies, to blini and honey cakes, most connected to cook's names from the past or the present.