Monday, November 20, 2006

Behold macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and fried chicken, shameless biscuits made with Crisco. Glorification of comfort food has been a staple of culinary wisdom ever since mankind became aware that familiar goodies make for good therapy, sometime in the mid-1980s.

Depressed? Well, try banana pudding, Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge or perhaps french fries with gravy. Warm and homey comfort food gave the tender-crisp world of nouvelle cuisine some competition, what with its tales of Saturday-night meatloaf or the glories of church suppers.

Now along comes a new incarnation of comfort food from Bonny Wolf, a longtime District resident, not to mention National Public Radio food commentator, wife, mommy, gal pal and cook.

Her new book, “Talking With My Mouth Full” (St. Martin’s Press) has its own revealing subtitle: “Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories.”

From an ode to the perfectly executed slice of toast — consumed while wearing fuzzy slippers, of course — to Texas sheet cake, shepherd’s pie, county-fair food, chicken a la king and cheese strata, the book offers a fine fix for comfort food seekers, and then some.

Mrs. Wolf sees her cozy fare as family legacy and inspiration for kitchen epiphany, as well. Poring over her personal cache of recipes clipped from magazines or jotted in an old blue notebook over 30 years, the inevitable happened.

“I found the story of my life,” Mrs. Wolf writes. “I ran into great aunts, a few cousins, old family friends, childhood friends, adult friends, and friends from whom I’ve been separated by decades.”

Her travels from Texas to Baltimore, from Minnesota to New Jersey and Washington are reflected in chili, crabs, Blue Bell ice cream and neighborhood banana bread. Her rich and endearing Jewish heritage surfaces time and again via Aunt Esther’s antipasto, Ruth’s chopped liver or the Garfinckle family noodle pudding.

“The world may change,” the author muses, “but you never outgrow your need for latkes.”

Mrs. Wolf, a longtime resident of Capitol Hill, offers special treats for Washingtonians, chronicling her adventures in the Eastern Market with her friend and accomplice Stephanie, dragging a wheeled shopping cart and not afraid to “ogle politicians.”

Friends, family and shared experience are at the heart of this book, presented banquet-style, with all the trimmings.

“We cook and eat for comfort, nurture and companionship. We cook and eat to mark the seasons and celebrate important events. We cook and eat to connect with family and friends and with ancestors we never knew,” Mrs. Wolf writes. “And through this baking and breaking bread together, we come to know who we are and where we came from.”

Here’s a recipe her mother made “in the spring with the first rhubarb”:

Fern’s rhubarb cake


½ cup butter

1½ cups brown sugar

1 large egg

1 cup cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

2 scant cups of flour

1½ cups rhubarb, finely diced


½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-inch baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg, cream and vanilla and mix. Add the baking soda, salt and flour and blend. Stir in the rhubarb.

Pour the batter into the pan. Mix the topping ingredients and sprinkle over the cake. Bake for 45 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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