By Marcia Pilgeram
My mother had three well-worn cookbooks: a double volume set of Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking and Household Magazine’s Searchlight Recipe Book. All hold spaces of honor in my kitchen and my heart. As a young kid, I would feign illness to skip school and pour over these books, filled with myriad photos of delectable foods; find a perfect recipe or two; and then start cooking my heart out.
I never seemed to fit in with my classmates. Occasionally, when invited to a slumber party, I was up at the crack of dawn, quietly crawling over dead-to-the-world bodies and finding my way to the kitchen to help the hostess-mother prepare breakfast. Secretly, I lived for the praise heaped on me for my culinary efforts.
As I grew older, I depended on those volumes — my guide to cooking my way into more than one man’s heart, including my husband. For the next 20 or so years, those three cherished volumes remained with my mother, as I built my own family and cookbook library. Some were obligatory, like Betty Crocker and The Joy of Cooking, and some esoteric for the time, like The Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can and Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.
Over the years, I collected close to a thousand cookbooks. A few years ago, I did some downsizing; but, now, after four months of COVID-19 purging, I have culled my collection even more. I’m down to about 400 volumes.
It’s not hard to spot my favorites — the pages are worn and sometimes grease-stained with calculations scribbled in the margins to double or triple a yield.
Soon I’ll be heading over to the mountains in Montana, gathered with my offspring for our annual retreat. I’m bringing a handful of my favorite cookbooks to pass along to my culinary apprentice, granddaughter, Miley. Even though she’s only 12, her happy place is in the kitchen, and I can well relate, so we’ll spend our time catching up while mixing up big batches of peanut butter cookies and discussing our piecrust techniques.
Miley is already a lot like me, using cookbooks more for reference and technique than actual recipes. I was mad to replicate Paul Prudhomme’s recipe for blackened fish (and made it whenever my meat-loving Montana rancher husband was far away for the evening).
I remember my first batch of brown butter (a culinary epiphany!), learned from Julia Child. From famous baker Maida Heatter, I learned to grate frozen butter into flour to yield a perfect light, yet crispy biscuit. Yet another tip I learned with my favorite ingredient, butter, was to whip it (softened) into room temperature chocolate ganache for the lightest and fluffiest buttercream ever.
In the past week, I was fortunate to utilize some of my favorite recipes, with a couple of private chef and cooking class gigs. I can’t think of anything I’d prefer to do.
I love working with a client to learn about their family and plan suitable menus. I love making shopping lists and prep lists and finding the perfect ingredients, which can be challenging enough in a small town, let alone the COVID-19 shortage element.
Over the years of cooking for “well-heeled” folks, I have seen and heard just about everything, and I wish I’d had time to keep a journal of these experiences — though the ones that are “book-worthy” will never be forgotten.
For one family, the first dinner was to be a drop-off only and, while there, I planned to scope out the place for the next event: a social-distanced cooking class, followed by a family-style dinner. If you’ve ever cooked with me, you know that we touch and toss and taste as we go, so planning a safe, yet fun and educational experience was going to be a challenge.
Now and then, you meet an exceptional family, and from the moment I dropped off the first dinner, I knew this family of seven — parents and young adults — were my kind of people. Everyone was either masked or kept their distance and offered to help unload their dinner. They were thoughtful, helpful and generous, even following up with a text to let me know that dinner was “absolutely scrumptious.”
I couldn’t wait to get back to this house filled with humans. After their cooking class, they headed to the oversized dining room while I put the finishing touches on dinner. As I sliced grilled lamb and sautéed squash blossoms, their howls of loving laughter filled the space. I’ve been lonesome for family, and these lovely people sure gave me a reason to cook my heart out.
My Moscow family arrives this week and we’ll be celebrating grandson Alden’s rite of passage to teenagerhood with all things chocolate, starting with homemade ice cream sandwiches.
Do yourself a favor and tackle these as a hands-on family project — a lot of fun, a little messy and absolutely scrumptious.
Ice Cream Sandwiches
Messy to make but well worth the effort. Don’t skimp on the ice cream. Makes 8-10 sandwiches.
• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup Dutch cocoa
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1/4 cup light brown sugar
• 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
• 2/3 cup half and half
• 1 quart high quality ice cream
Preheat oven to 325.
Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt together and set aside.
In a standup mixing bowl, beat together the butter, egg, sugars and vanilla at high speed until well combined and creamy. On low speed, add half the dry ingredients, then the half and half and finally the remaining dry ingredients, scraping the bowl between each addition. Batter will be thick.
Spread onto a parchment paper-lined large 14-inch by 18-inch cookie sheet and, using a spatula, spread as thin as possible. Tap firmly on the counter before placing in the oven.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, until it just loses its shine. Remove the pan from the oven and cool in the pan for about 5 minutes. Cut it in half crosswise to make two even rectangles.
Use a fork to prick the top of the cookie slabs in neat rows. When completely cool, wrap each piece and place on the cookie sheet in the freezer.
To assemble the ice cream sandwiches: Carefully peel the parchment off the backs of the rectangles. Place one piece bottom up, on the cold sheet pan. Working quickly, spread with ice cream.* Top with the second cookie slab, top side up. Press down firmly to distribute the ice cream evenly between the cookie slabs. Return to the freezer for an hour.
Use a sharp knife to trim the edges of the sandwiches, if necessary or desired. If the ice cream has started to melt, place the pan back in the freezer to firm it up. Once it’s firm, cut the slab into desired size of equal pieces. Return to the freezer to firm up. At this point you can roll the edges in sprinkles, if desired.
Serve immediately or place in paper liners and wrap individually in plastic wrap. Store in the freezer (up to a month).
*Square cartons of ice cream work best. You can make slices, about 1-inch thick and place them side by side on the cookie.
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