Lost recipes: recovering old favorites

May 04, 2005|By Beverly Levitt | Beverly Levitt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mother's Day is approaching and Lois Tindall is getting sentimental.

About schmierkees.

The retired Trenton, N.J., bookkeeper fondly remembers her mom making the Dutch dish on the day before Easter, painstakingly piling eggs, milk and ...

She sighs. She can't remember the other ingredients. But they were wrapped in a piece of cheesecloth, hung from the kitchen spigot and drained over a bowl overnight.

"The next morning it was all stuck together like scrambled eggs," Tindall says. "Mother shaped it into an oval, put it in the fridge. It made the most delicious sandwiches. It tasted like eggs but it was creamy like cheese. I'm afraid to try making it without a recipe."

Lari Robling had a similar experience with baked beans and dinner rolls. Robling's grandmother died when she was a teenager. She remembers looking around the room that first Thanksgiving without her grandmother and feeling like there was a giant hole at the table. As if to punctuate her loss, the rolls and baked beans Grandma brought every year were missing.

"We looked at each other," says Robling, now a contributor to the nationally syndicated public radio show, A Chef's Table. " `Do you know how to make Grandma's rolls? Did you ever watch her?' Of course the answer was no. We assumed she'd always be there."

The realization sent Robling on a search of her beloved Grandma's dishes. But she was moved to rescue other period recipes as well and to write Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003, $30) as a tribute to her grandmother.

Why do certain dishes evoke such strong memories? Because they're all tangled up with a mother's love, a grandma's concern and the family culinary tradition from whence it all came. That's why famous chefs, cookbook authors, celebrities and home cooks alike have strong desires to find lost recipes.

For James Beard award winner Laura Schenone, the search to re-create old family recipes took her halfway across the world to Liguria, Italy. "I had old recipes but they felt more Italian-American than Italian," said Schenone, author of A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003, $35). "I wanted to fill in the gaps and learn more about my Genoese great-grandmother, Adeljese. My family still calls her a `legendary cook' three generations later."

What Schenone came to realize, however, is that a recipe's authenticity is often lost in immigration. She found an elderly cousin who recalled her great-grandmother's cooking and offered to make stuffed vegetables for Schenone the way her great-grandmother made them.

The dish turned out to be the same Schenone had found in a 19th-century Italian cookbook, only that recipe called for a filling made from prescinseau, an ingredient that resembles a cross between yogurt and ricotta.

Her American cousin substituted cream cheese in the filling, and Schenone believes her great-grandmother probably did as well.

"When Adeljese couldn't find prescinseau in Hoboken she substituted cream cheese and liked it so much she used it in ravioli, tortas and the stuffed vegetables. It actually tastes good," says Schenone, whose book, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, is to be published by W.W. Norton next year.

But moms don't need to be good cooks to stir fond culinary memories.

"My mother's crab cakes was one of the few items she made that my brothers and I would actually eat," says Marilyn Schlossbach, chef/owner of Labrador Lounge in Normandy Beach, N.J. "But we all turned out to be chefs, opened our own restaurants and we all feature Marion's Crab Cakes on the menu."

Actually, her brother, Richard Bach, chef/owner of Marion's Continental in New York, tweaked the recipe a little and taught it to Marilyn and their brother, Arthur Gregory, chef/owner of A & M Roadhouse, also in New York.

"My brothers and I love feeding people and, because Mom couldn't cook very well, we learned how," Schlossbach says.

Poet and author Maya Angelou, who last year published Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, says she cooks recipes from her mother and grandmother, whom she called "Momma," not to re-create their exact dishes but to bring back the love she felt when she ate at their tables.

Angelou says her grandmother was her role model of independence. Momma was an amazing Southern cook who began selling hot meat pies to factory workers for five cents and ended up running a thriving general store.

"I never cooked with Momma; I learned by watching her," Angelou said in an interview from her office in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"I can never do anything exactly like Momma, but I can do it like I do," she said. "Even if I don't exactly get it - I might want less yeast or more wheat in the rolls or I might like my chicken fried harder than she did. I just do her recipes the best I can."

How to fill in the gaps

Here are tips from writer Lari Robling on how to keep and recover favorite family recipes:

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