- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

If it is the holiday season, then it is time to make baklava, Eva Poulos says. Mrs. Poulos, who lives in Potomac, is carrying on a tradition she learned more than half-century ago from her mother, Sousannah Fanorakis. Mrs. Fanorakis, who died 10 years ago at age 92, used to make the sweet, nutty dessert for the family at the holidays — as well as some 80 dozen for her annual church festival.

Mrs. Poulos learned her mother’s technique by watching and listening. She would bring in trays of baklava for office parties during the 35 years she worked as an administrative assistant at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. She later became a cooking teacher (specializing in Greek food, of course) and taught others to work the phyllo dough.

“I feel connected to my Greek culture by cooking the food,” Mrs. Poulos says. “I was always interested in cooking, and my mom, who was born in Greece, was a really good cook. Making this food really takes me back. My mom was specific about certain things.”

Family recipes are as distinctive as families themselves. There may be 50 ways to make a Christmas cookie, for instance, but the way your family made it is the taste-and-smell memory that takes you back.

Recipes represent a time, place and culture, says Anne L. Bower, associate professor of English at Ohio State University’s Marion campus.

Ms. Bower studies community cookbooks, which essentially are volumes full of family recipes. Those collections communicate what was going on in the lives of our predecessors, she says.

“You begin to see patterns of how people used language,” she says. “You can read between the lines and you get a partial autobiography of what the person valued.”

In fact, many genealogy enthusiasts use family and community cookbooks to better understand their ancestors’ lives. Cyndi’s List, a popular nonprofit genealogy Web site, includes a large section (at www.cyndislist.com/recipes.htm) on recipes and family traditions. Visitors can find links to recipes as varied as a Union soldier’s coffee substitute made with acorns and a mother’s 1950s beef stroganoff.

Laura Schenone, author of the book “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances,” says family recipes give us a window “into something larger than ourselves.”

“Food and recipes give us a picture of our ancestors,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in New Jersey. “Food is largely about memory. Food and storytelling go together. We put food into our bodies, but there is a more profound connection.”

Ms. Schenone’s next book is about her search for her Italian grandmother’s ravioli recipe.

“Ravioli was an important food at Christmas and an important food in general,” she says. “The recipe was lost. I’ve been calling up distant relatives and asking them to teach me.”

Plum cake to cookbooks

Before Joan Nathan was a well-known cookbook author, she was a child in her mother’s kitchen.

She says one of her earliest memories was having plum cake on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“We would put the plums in one by one,” says Ms. Nathan, of the District. “We kids all were able to put plums in the cake and make it look pretty.”

The plum cake, along with myriad other dishes, eventually found a place in Ms. Nathan’s kitchen.

“The only way to make traditions is to recreate old recipes,” she says. “I’m 61 now, but I still want my mom’s old recipes. I think on holidays it is important to bring out the recipes that are tried and true. As many different latkes (potato pancakes) as I’ll make on Hanukkah, my children want plain latkes.”

Making the old favorites often means throwing out today’s health-conscious ideas. Grandma most likely cooked with whole milk, cream, lard and butter. To remember them in the right way, one might as well eat like them — once in a while.

Ms. Nathan says she doesn’t go for altering recipes from sinful Old World dishes into South Beach-approved plates.

“The real problem is that Americans don’t know how to eat,” she says. “If we didn’t snack, then we would know how to savor our food at a meal. My editor has a great rule — when I have a meal with her, no one can discuss diets. Why spoil wonderful food by talking about dieting?”

Putting it together

Having a cookbook with a collection of family recipes can be a treasured part of a family history collection, Claudia Myers says.

Mrs. Myers, of Mattawana, Pa., gathered her own Pennsylvania Dutch family specialties into a volume as her extended family prepared for a reunion in 2000. When she was laid off from her job the following year, she started a business, Cookbooks by Claudia, which organizes and publishes volumes of family recipes.

Mrs. Myers weaves old photos and information about long-ago relatives into the books. Her own extended family was touched to see portraits from the 1930s mixed in with other family groups around the kitchen table.

“It was really emotional when everyone first opened them,” Mrs. Myers says. “When reading the recipes, you could practically see the food and taste it. This keeps everything preserved for the next generation.”

Memories are special, but they are not always appetizing or understandable. When going through her grandmother’s recipe box, Mrs. Myers found one for calves’-head soup (“cut up the brains …”) and bride’s chicken pie (with the vague starting instructions to “get one fat hen”).

However, there were a few recipes that many family members requested, including sand-tart cookies and ham pot pies, Mrs. Myers says.

“Sand tarts are so simple to make,” she says. “It is just eggs, flour, sugar rolled and then cut into a diamond shape. My grandmother always had them at Christmas.”

Several of Mrs. Myers’ aunts had died young, so the family cookbook was a ready way to connect with the past, she says.

“It really filled an empty spot,” she says. “Another cousin whose mom had died young found her mother’s cookbook. It was so emotional for her. In the front of it, her mom had written: ‘Food is the best way to educate our children about our past.’ ”

Making traditions your own

Monica Bhide lives near Tysons Corner, but her family recipes stretch back to India. Mrs. Bhide learned to cook from her mother and father, both of whom she calls “incredible cooks.”

“The recipes I learned will always be special for nostalgic reasons and for the lovely touches my mother would add to the dishes as she taught me,” Mrs. Bhide said from India, where she was recently visiting. “My father and I could never replicate any recipe we would cook together because we chatted so much when we cooked. We would often forget ingredients.”

Some of the recipes Mrs. Bhide holds special: her father’s murgh mikhani (butter chicken), which the family had as a special Friday-night dinner, and her great-grandmother’s recipe for palak ka shorba (spinach soup), a cold-weather dish that “really warms the bones on a winter day,” Mrs. Bhide says.

“I guess the soup reminds me most of the love and warmth of my family,” she says.

Mrs. Bhide shares her family recipes as a local cooking teacher and as the author of two cookbooks, “The Spice is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today” and “The Everything Indian Cookbook.”

She also keeps the flavor and culture of India alive when she cooks with her 5-year-old son.

“Like my family did with me, we spend time in the kitchen cooking and talking,” she says. “I don’t think we should overlook the importance of creating new memories, and essentially a new heritage, for the next generation by developing recipes that better suit the environment and times we live in.”

Monica Bhide’s Spinach Soup (palak ka shorba)

A Diwali tradition, this soup recipe comes from Mrs. Bhide’s great-grandmother’s kitchen.

1 tablespoon butter, clarified

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoons grated ginger root

1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder

Table salt to taste

2 cups vegetable stock

1 pound frozen chopped spinach, thawed

In a deep stock pot, heat the clarified butter.

Add the cumin seeds, and stir-fry until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the onion, ginger and turnip; saute for about 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the turmeric, red chili and salt; saute for about another minute.

Add the vegetable stock, then cook covered on medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the turnips are soft. Add the spinach and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes.

Then remove the soup from heat and let cool.

Puree the spinach soup in a blender, then reheat it. Transfer to a large bowls and serve immediately.

Serves four. Can be prepared up to two days in advance.

Claudia Myers’ family sand-tart recipe

This family recipe comes from Blanche Gro Sheerer (1884-1979).

1 pound brown sugar

1 pound flour

3/4 pound butter

3 egg yolks

Mix all ingredients together. Roll thin and cut into shapes. Brush with egg whites and top with chopped nuts. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.

Laura Schenone’s mother’s coffee-toffee pie

This pie was traditionally served at Christmas.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 10-inch pie dish.

PIE SHELL:

package pie-crust mix

1/4 cup light brown sugar

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

1 square unsweetened chocolate, grated (Or square unsweetened and square sweetened)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix ingredients well. Add 1 tablespoon water. Press mixture into bottom and halfway up sides of pie dish. Bake for 15 minutes. When shell is cool, add filling.

FILLING:

cup butter

3/4 cup sugar

1 square melted chocolate

2 teaspoons instant coffee (freeze-dried)

2 eggs

Cream the butter and sugar together. Add cooled chocolate and coffee. Add the first egg and beat 5 minutes. Add the second egg and beat 5 minutes. Put in pie shell and cool overnight.

TOPPING:

1 tablespoon instant coffee

2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Chocolate shavings

Combine instant coffee, cream and confectioners sugar. Put on top of pie shell and filling; refrigerate for 2 more hours. Shave chocolate on top.

Eva Poulos’ mother’s baklava

Mrs. Poulos’ mother taught her how to make this Greek treat

2 pounds butter

1 pound whole pecans, coarsely chopped

pound (1 cup) confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground clove

2 pounds prepared phyllo, unfrozen

SYRUP:

6 cups sugar

3 cups water

Juice of lemon

In a medium sauce pot, clarify butter by bringing it to a boil; continue on a gentle boil for about 20 minutes. Do not burn butter by overcooking. After about 10 minutes, melted butter will rise to top of pot. Gently stir to prevent overflow but do not scrape bottom of pot.

After about 20 minutes, butter will rise a second time. Remove butter from heat and set aside for 10 minutes to allow all salt and milk to settle to bottom of pot. Pour clarified butter slowly into another sauce pot, being careful to leave all salt in bottom of first pot.

In a large mixing bowl, combine chopped pecans, sugar, cinnamon and clove; mix well.

Remove all the phyllo from the box and place on a clean, flat surface. Remove one phyllo pastry at a time and place it in a large, open baking pan measuring 17 by 11 by 21/4 inches.

Using a pastry brush, lightly brush each phyllo pastry sheet with butter. Fold the overlap of phyllo on each side of pan alternately, from side to side, on each row until 8 to 10 rows have been placed in bottom of pan. Sprinkle evenly one small handful of nut mixture (about 1/4 cup) over each buttered phyllo sheet, working quickly to prevent phyllo from drying.

Repeat this procedure until the box of dough has been used.

Remove the second pound of phyllo from the refrigerator, and repeat the process until all but the last 10 to 12 phyllo sheets have been used. The last 10 to 12 top phyllo sheets will be buttered only; nut mixture will not be included.

With a serrated knife, gently cut lengthwise through the layers of pastry, forming 8 even rows. Bake on middle shelf in a preheated 325-degree oven for 60 minutes or until light golden.

Remove baklava from oven and cool for at least three hours. In a three-quart sauce pot, combine sugar, water and lemon juice. Boil syrup rapidly over high heat for 10 minutes.

With a soup ladle, gently pour hot syrup over cold baklava. Allow baklava to set overnight or longer to absorb all of syrup.

To serve, cut each piece diagonally, forming diamond-shaped pieces. Yield is 70 pieces. Baklava may be frozen and defrosted to be served at room temperature later.

Aunt Lisl’s butter cookies

Washington cookbook author Joan Nathan always made these cookies around Hanukkah with her Aunt Lisl. This and other family recipes can be found in Ms. Nathan’s new cookbook, “Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook.”

pound (two sticks) unsalted butter or margarine

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon brandy or water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface

1 egg white, slightly beaten

Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs, brandy or water, vanilla, and salt. Beat well.

Gradually add the flour, mixing well. Cover and chill at least one hour, or overnight.

On a lightly floured surface, roll half the dough 1/8 inch thick. Leave the remaining dough chilled while working. Cut with desired cookie cutters, dipping the cutter into flour between cuts to prevent sticking.

Transfer cookie cutouts to ungreased cookie sheets. Brush the cutouts with egg white and lightly sprinkle with sugar. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the cookies are golden. Remove and cool on wire racks. Makes 48 cookies.

More info:

Books —

• “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances,” by Laura Schenone, W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. This book tells the story of how preparing food has always been at the center of women’s history.

• “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals,” by Barbara Haber, Penguin Books, 2003. This book examines America’s diverse culinary history.

Online —

• Ancient Faces Inc., a commercial genealogy Web site (www.ancientfaces.com), has a section devoted to family recipes and the stories surrounding them.

• An article offering advice on creating a family cookbook can be found on the site of Seeds of Knowledge, a commercial site devoted to old-fashioned crafts and cooking (www.seedsofknowledge.com/cookbook.html).

• Monica Bhide, a Washington cookbook author and Indian cooking instructor, has a site (www.monicabhide.com).

• More information about Cookbooks by Claudia, the family-cookbook company run by Claudia Myers, can be found at https://pages.ivillage.com/cookbooksbyclaudia/id2.html.

• Cyndi’s List, a nonprofit genealogy directory, has a section devoted to family recipes as part of its section on family history and tradition (www.cyndislist.com/recipes.htm).

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