Cookbook Review: America's Best Lost Recipes
Nostalgia and 121 Welcoming Recipes From America's Home Cooks
We cook for many reasons. For sustenance, for pleasure, for sport, and for art. But we also cook for nostalgia, recalling flavors from our childhood and experiences in the kitchen or at the table. These memories become among the most potent in our lives. So it's no surprise that with a gentle prompt, thousands of Americans submitted favorite recipes -- ones they believed were personal but essential to endure -- that became America's Best Lost Recipes (America's Test Kitchen, hardcover, $29.95)
This lovely, welcoming volume is by the folks who also bring us Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines. The recipes were gathered from a campaign that solicited about 2,800 recipes in four months. Of these, 300 were selected to be put through the paces at America's Test Kitchens, a real place located in Brookline, Massachusetts where Editor Christopher Kimball and about 85 other passionate and curious food professionals test and re-test recipes and cookware.
For each of the 121 recipes finally chosen to be included in this pretty, spiral-bound book there is the name and hometown of its contributor and a story about where the recipe came from. We learn how "Brooklyn Cheese Puffs" came to the kitchen of a cook in Waxham, North Carolina, and how a favorite aunt slipped vodka into a tomato and shrimp aspic called "Bloody Mary Terrine." Adding to the appeal are appetizing color photographs for about half of the recipes, showing the finished dish. And because the book is produced by America's Test Kitchens, we can be confident that the recipes have been practiced and edited to be reliable.
Every recipe is made with quotidian ingredients; nothing fancy or exotic is needed to make any one of the 121 dishes. In addition to the background story for each recipe, America's Test Kitchen stays true to its mission by adding notes to explain how they made the recipe work better or how to serve the dish. For recipes with tricky technique, like "Pagache" (Polish Pizza), there are sequenced black and white photos to demo how to put the dish together.
The book is organized into six sections:
Starters, Salads, Sides, and Sauces
This collection is tasty and eclectic. For example, "Cheese-Crusted Olive Balls" bakes a cracker-type wrapping around a briny olive, a perfect match to a cocktail. "Josephine Draper's Chili Sauce" is more work than most recipes in the whole volume but it offers a heated and tasty way to capture end-of-summer tomatoes into a sauce that can be frozen instead of canned. "Celery Seed Dressing" is simple to make but creates a complex, sweet and sour topping for fruit or salad.
Soups, Stews, and Main Courses
While there is an immigrant influence throughout the book, this section in particular reveals the contributions of Eastern Europe to American food including "German Potato Soup" with the flavors of a German potato salad, "Kolotny Borscht" -- with no beets! -- and "Gedempte Stuffed Cabbage."
I'm intrigued by "Lamb Shanks with Barley Broth" as a cozy winter dish made with this strong-flavored but inexpensive cut of meat. I also loved the combination of tastes and textures in "Glazed Pork with Caramelized Pears and Sweet Potatoes."
Breakfast and Breads
This chapter celebrates our appetite for carb-friendly, warm and sweet morning tastes: "Bops," "Kolaches," "Monkey Bread," "Corn Dodgers," and the best titled recipe in the book, "Naked Ladies with Their Legs Crossed," which are spiced crullers from a cook in Mishawaka, Indiana. They are all so appealing any one of them could put you off 0% yogurt and Kashi Go-Lean forever.
In a tribute to America's love of sweets, this is the largest section in the book with 31 recipes: "Nana's Gingerbread," "Real Carrot Cake," Wacky Cake" (a World War II recipe made with no eggs, butter or milk), from Brooklyn's beloved Ebinger's Bakery that closed in 1972, the recipe for its famed "Chocolate Blackout Cake," and an unusual "Cold Oven Pound Cake" that indeed is started in a cold oven, giving the plain cake a nice crust and delicate crumb.
Characteristic of most of the recipes throughout the book, the cakes are not difficult to make and don't require costly ingredients, appealing in a day when cookbooks can seem to be intentionally intimidating and expensive.
Pies, Puddings, and Fruit Desserts
Many of these recipes are old fashioned but appealingly so. They include a lightly spiced "Sweet Potato Pie," "Nesselrode Pie" made with rum and dried fruit, a very 1950's Mad Men "Grasshopper Pie" with an Oreo crust and pale green crème de menthe-flavored cream filling, and "Waukau" which is a berry pancake that resembles the classic French clafoutis.
Cookies and Candies
For those of you who love sweets -- and there are many of you (many of us) -- you can go nuts over this selection of recipes which includes "Whoopie Pies," "Mashed Potato Fudge," "Cherry Cheddar Bar Cookies," "Peanut Blossom Cookies" topped with Hershey's Chocolate Kisses, and an unbelievably delicious and pretty sable-type cookie called "Grandma Sylvia's Salt Butter Cookie" made with salted butter and whiskey that could alone be worth the price of the book.
From starters to candies, this collection is a revelation of both cooking and nostalgia. In a day when so much in our food culture is competitive, theatrical and unsatisfying, it is a pleasure to find a selection of recipes that are just the opposite.
I am conservative in my cookbook buying and keeping. I just don't have the bookshelf space or the cooking time to save books that I won't read, use or value. But I am so glad to now have this volume in my collection. None of the recipes were lost from my family, but some of them just might become new treasured favorites we would never want to forget.