Kitchen Classics

Some of my kitchen classics – what are yours?

Here’s a question for all you cookbook-hoarders out there: if you were forced to reduce the number of books in your possession, and you were allowed to keep either your books that are at least twenty years old or those that are less than ten, which ones would you keep — the old or the new?

I imagine for most people that’s a pretty easy choice: the new ones, of course! Old cookbooks are staid and stuffy and full of recipes featuring cocktail wieners and salad cream. New ones are pretty and glossy and full of the kind of fresh, exciting, modern food we all want to eat now. Right?

I posed that question to myself a couple weeks ago, after our last discussion on cookbooks when I told you about how I was going to try to cook more from my under-used ones. Well that got me thinking about which of my cookbooks do get used and why, and from there I started thinking about whether usefulness and value are one and the same thing (it a nutshell: no, not for me!). That, of course, set me thinking about which of my books I would keep if (horror of horrors) I was forced to choose between them, and to my surprise, I came to the conclusion that as much as I love all that gloss and glamor, if push came to shove my older books just might have the edge.

The world of cookbooks, like most things in this fast-paced modern world of ours, is a pretty quickly-evolving place. Books that were fresh and exciting five years ago now seem like old news. Books that are really old—like, more than two decades—sometimes seem like they were written on a different planet, a sad place where soy sauce is considered an exotic ingredient and people are obsessed with things like sun-dried tomatoes and dill seed. Culinary trends that made the book fresh and appealing when it was published now make it seem cringingly dated, like the ubiquity of canned condensed soups in the sixties, and low-fat everything in the nineties. And then there’s the whole issue with photos; until sometime in the mid-nineties, the vast majority of cookbooks went to print without containing a single visual representation of the dishes within (apart, maybe, from a few black-and-white line drawings)!*

There are certainly a lot of books out there that I would reject because their age. I’ve bought several over the years, in fact, which sounded great in theory, but ended up being so dated that not a single recipe appealed to me (compilation books from newspapers and magazines have been particularly prone to falling short of my expectations). But then there are other books that are twenty, thirty, even forty years old that I couldn’t imagine life without. To me, they’re simply classics.

What makes a book a classic? For me, a classic book has to be timeless in its appeal. It avoids the pitfalls of overusing trendy ingredients or techniques, although a certain amount of this is certainly forgivable (and unavoidable). Classics are also approachable, well-written and most importantly reliable, something I find sorely lacking in many of today’s ghost-written celebrity-chef-driven offerings. The majority of my own personal classics, I’ll admit, are books about other cuisines. In contrast to today, the authors of decades past often spent decades researching and writing these books, and many of them contain a truly staggering level of scholarship. Books about other cuisines, I find, are also less likely to seem dated (apart, of course, from the inevitable ingredient substitutions, which are usually pretty easy to work around), since most traditional cuisines around the world haven’t changed much in the last half-century or so. If anything, they were probably richer a few years ago, when more mothers and grandmothers were still cooking them and McDonalds and pizza hadn’t yet colonized the globe.

One of the things I love most is discovering new classics—books I’d never heard of but can’t imagine living without once I have them. One of my newest entrants in this category is the book you can see at the top of the stack above, Food that Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler. Do you know this book? If you’re Canadian, I bet you do. Edna and her series of Schmecks books are an institution north of the border, and when she passed away in 2006 at the age of 100 the country lost one of its best-loved food writers. I discovered her books quite recently, when a passing reference to them online woke the linguist in me, ‘schmecks’ being an anglicization of the German verb ‘schmecken’, to taste. I was fascinated to learn that this is (or was) a common term among Ontario’s Old-Order German-Mennonite community, whose simple, farm-fresh food Edna decided to document in her books, the first of which was published in 1968. I was even more fascinated by the number of reviews I found, once I started looking for them, that rank Edna’s books among the most valued and beloved cookbooks of all times. As soon as I had a copy myself, though, I understood; within an hour of it arriving by mail, I had ordered her second one too.

By focusing on the Mennonites and their cuisine, Edna (who was not a Mennonite herself, but lived surrounded by them in rural Waterloo County) created a collection of recipes with timeless appeal. That’s because her Mennonite friends, whose lives and kitchens she installed herself in to collect recipes, very much practiced the kind of farm-to-table cooking that we’ve lately been rediscovering. For the Mennonites, fruits and vegetables were either fresh from the garden, pickled or dried, meat was hand-reared and minimally processed, and the dairy products were rich and abundant. Butter, sour cream, bacon and brown sugar gilded everything. It’s not trendy or cosmopolitan food, but it’s deeply appealing in a rustic, elemental way.

What’s more, these are absolutely delightful books to read. Edna’s own personality is larger than life, and her chapter introductions and headnotes are full of witty, charming and hilarious anecdotes. Reading them, you can’t help but wishing you could have been one of the endless number of people she was always having over for dinner, or one of her even-luckier nieces and nephews. Before you know it, she feels like your oldest friend and you’re trusting everything she says; when you read headnotes like “sometimes I think this is my favorite of favorites” or “watch out—this one will make you a compulsive eater”, you start turning down page corners.

There are admittedly chapters in these books that I can’t really ever see myself cooking from. Her savory recipes show a lot of age; I looked in vain through her first book for a single recipe calling for garlic and came up empty. She also doesn’t shy away from ‘modern’ convenience foods in the many non-Mennonite recipes she collected from family and friends, things like ‘chicken-potato chip casserole’, ‘schnitzel stew’ (with ketchup) and ‘ham loaf’ (with pineapple!) which sound rather like they belong in the punchline of a bad culinary joke. It also struck me how often she freely admits that she’s never actually made the recipe in question, just sampled it at someone’s house and printed it as it was told to her. Some dishes she even admits to never having so much as tasted(!), but as long as they came highly recommended from a trusted source she had no qualms about including them. How cookbook writing has changed!

But everywhere else, the recipes gems are just falling off the pages, for everything from crunchy summer pickles (crabapples; fresh corn; cantaloupe), sweet fruit and vegetable preserves (tomato butter; carrot marmalade; gooseberry relish), homemade breads (oatmeal-molasses; apple-cheese-walnut; buttermilk-scone loaf), fried things (potato doughnuts; peach fritters), cookies (ginger crinkles; butterscotch macaroons; cheery cherry bars), luscious pies (green tomato; fresh raspberry; sour cream-raisin-walnut) simple cakes (chocolate chip-date; maple syrup; rhubarb upside-down) to even beverages (at least a dozen varieties of homemade fruit and flower wines).

These oatcakes called to me the minute I laid eyes on them. Not because of any fondness for the original Scottish ones—which always brought to mind compressed sawdust—but because these looked exactly like what I always wanted the Scottish ones to be. Turns out the Scottish immigrants to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia shared my view; their transplanted oatcakes became richer, sweeter, a thousand times better than the original. Somewhere between a cookie and a cracker, they’re sweet enough to satisfy a sugar craving, but also savory and oaty and not out of place under a piece of cheese, say, or a smear of jam. In fact, if I were the kind of person to keep a cookie jar, these oatcakes are exactly what I would stock it with. They’re perfect everyday cookies: crumbly and rich, with a toffee-like note from the brown sugar and an addictive salty edge, but—and this is a big but—also restrained and modest enough to not play Russian roulette with your willpower (which is the main reason I don’t have a cookie jar). If the word ‘compromise’ didn’t have such negative connotations I’d say these oatcakes are the perfect embodiment of the concept: a delicious middle ground between austere wholesomeness and unbridled decadence.

And I daresay they’re proof, if any were needed, that good taste never goes out of date.

What makes a classic cookbook for you? What are some of your favorites?

*On this topic, I have to ask: am I the only one who wants to throttle cookbook reviewers on amazon who give a book bad marks for not having photos? For me nice photos are certainly a plus but they’re by no means essential, and I would never not buy a book because it lacks a few pretty pictures. Dishes never come out looking like them anyway!

Cape Breton Oatcakes

Edna’s original recipe calls for lard or shortening, but since vegetable shortening is something I don’t much believe in, I decided to make half a batch with lard and half with butter. The results were strikingly similar. However, both of us decided we liked the ones with lard slightly better. They had a kind of savoriness that the others lacked, and seemed to keep their crunch better after a couple of days. They also seemed a little saltier, probably because the lard’s lower water content didn’t dissolve all the crystals. You could probably amplify that effect with either kind of fat by simply using a coarser salt, or sprinkling a little flaky salt on top before baking. Or, thinking about it now, you could clarify the butter to get rid of its water (chilling it again, of course), which should give you all the lard’s textural benefits. Ooh, and while you’re at it, why not go one step further and brown it? Oh, yum.
Source: minimally adapted from Edna Staebler’s More Food that Really Schmecks
Yield: about 60 2-inch squares (you can easily cut this in half, or even thirds, but I promise you’ll regret not making the full batch!)

3 cups (240g) quick oats, plus more for rolling
3 cups (420g) all-purpose flour
1 cup, packed (220g) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups (360g) lard or unsalted butter, cold
1/4-1/2 cup (60-120ml) cold water, or as needed

a few pinches flaky salt (such as Maldon) for sprinkling on top, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Work the lard or butter in with your fingers until everything is homogenous. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, kneading with your hands everything comes together into a stiff dough (you’ll need a little more with lard than with butter). Divide the dough in half and roll each half out on your work surface to about 1/8-inch thick (3-4mm), using plenty of oats on top and bottom to prevent sticking. Sprinkle the surface with a couple pinches of flaky salt, if you like. Using a large knife, cut into 2-inch (5cm) squares. Gently transfer the squares (as well as the inevitable ragged edge scraps, which are the cook’s treat) to parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until fragrant and deep golden, about 12-15 minutes. Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container to preserve their crunch.