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Monday, June 13, 2011

Cookbook Nostalgia

I don't collect cookbooks, per se, but there are a few of exceptions.  The late 1950's/early 1960's Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks are one.  Their jolly, colorful covers and wacky recipes and menus can provide a lot of entertainment.  They also look good stacked up in our hopelessly outdated mid-century kitchen.  I've also managed to pick up copies of most of the books my mother cooks from.  There's the 1963 McCall's for the best cakes, a 1940's Joy of Cooking that belonged to my grandmother for pancakes, biscuits and most of the basics, and my own Baking with Julia for some of my favorite specialties (Hungarian Shortbread, bagels, Salsa Quizza).  Finally, there's Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Baking Book.  If you want to bake anything that falls into the basic American repertoire, that's the book for you.  But more on all of these another time...

As a child I spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle's house.  I considered it my second home and they were a sort of second set of parents.  Their home was my ideal.  My aunt is German and my uncle is an artist.  I don't mean a sort of weekend artist, this man can do everything and he does it well.  Painting, metalwork, woodcarving, calligraphy...  he is a true Renaissance man.  I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite spot in their house, but if I absolutely had to, it would be the kitchen.  My aunt makes wonderful things - marble cakes, Black Forest cake, apple pie, the list goes on and on.  But two of my favorite things (and this is where I start to get to the point) are potato dumplings and Linzer cookies.  I'll write all about my aunt and uncle another time - my happy memories of them and their house could make up many, many posts, but for now I will focus on the Linzer cookies...  sort of.

On a kitchen shelf (made by my uncle) stood one of the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks - The Cooking of Vienna's Empire.  The cover photograph was of a "Spanische Windtorte" (see the photo above) - a hollow meringue shell, filled with whipped cream and fruits and beautifully decorated with swirls and rosettes, highlighted with candied violets.  When I first saw it I remember thinking it was the most magnificent looking cake in the world.  Sitting on their sofa, the most comfortable and stylish piece of furniture ever - covered in creamy Indian cotton with an "eyelash" design - I read that book from cover to cover, many times, completely absorbed by the history, the descriptions of the foods, the photographs and the late-1960's Cold War style that pervaded this and all of the books in the series.

Aside from the aforementioned "Windtorte", there was a recipe for Linzer cookies - two round shortbread cookies, the top with a hole in the center, sandwiching a layer of raspberry jam and heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar.  (I am getting awfully hungry as I type this...)  I still can't imagine a lovelier cookie (well, my mom's Chocolate Waffle Cookies and my other equally fabulous aunt's Spritz cookies are actually just as lovely...  more on those in the future).  They were made even more special because my aunt made them just for me.

My affection for The Cooking of Vienna's Empire has never left me and it introduced me to the whole Time-Life series.  I well remember choosing The Cooking of India and several others in the series for the daily silent reading time in elementary and middle school (I also read The Queen Mother by Helen Cathcart - are you as surprised as I am that I didn't get beat up more frequently?)  Now, owning the whole series, I frequently take them out and look them over on a Sunday afternoon.  Although they are still relevant and contain valuable information about cuisine, they are a very particular reminder of a way of life that seems to have largely disappeared in the last forty years.  Many of the places, such as those in the Russian and German entries, are now free nations rather than satellites of the Soviet Union.  The somewhat formal style of eating and entertaining seems a little outdated, and the European "peasant" life is probably long gone.  But somehow, they are comforting and cozy, and each transports you to a place and time that, while long past, is warm and welcoming.  For me, it's not just someplace in Europe with lots of people in national dress eating and drinking merrily, but back to my aunt and uncle's couch, with a plate of Linzer cookies next to me.

You can now find this, and other, favorite cookbooks in the Dapper and Dreamy Bookshop!

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