Pros: Truly inspiring food and memories
Cons: It definitely helps to know your way around a kitchen
Rating: 5 out of 5
Like so many people, I have fond memories of family cooking. My grandmother did try to write down her recipes, even though she never worked with measurements of any kind, but nothing ever came out quite the way she made it, and I do so miss her cinnamon rolls. Every time I visited she’d have a tray of them warm and waiting for me.
Elizabeth Rose von Hohen and granddaughter Carrie J. Gamble have attempted to put together a collection of something so many of us wish for–a recreation of grandmother’s recipes, in all their original splendor and with the full flavor that usually only seems to exist in our nostalgia-laden memories. Amazingly, they’ve succeeded well beyond my imaginings.
An aside on the books I take for review
Normally I only take cookbooks and books for review from larger, more well-established publishing houses. I do not say this to in any way denigrate this book or make it seem less professional–just the opposite, in fact. I’m very blunt and honest in my assessment of a book, and frankly the average level of work in these “labors of love” is such that reviewing them can be very depressing. I may be determined to be honest, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy telling people their baby isn’t as beautiful to me as it is to them. When I visited the website for this cookbook I decided that it looked like a very professional-quality endeavor, so I broke my own rule and eagerly accepted a review copy. I’m very, very glad that I did.
Technique and Experience
These days, cookbooks tend to be designed with the idea that, with their help, even an inexperienced klutz of a cook should be able to turn out perfectly good meals. It’s worth noting that this book hearkens back to days when we didn’t have such hand-holding available to us, and the recipes do reflect this. They’re written in an old-fashioned style, in paragraph-form, with a slightly archaic language and some old-fashioned terminology and techniques.
I would in no way want the authors to change this–this book is meant as a treasury of old recipes and techniques, and to try to adapt those to a modern cookbook’s style standards would rob them of their beautiful charm. However, it does mean that if you don’t consider yourself handy in a kitchen, with something of a knack or intuition for cooking (or at least some decent experience under your belt), you might find some of the recipes a little daunting or confusing. Again, this is in no way meant as a negative comment on this book–it’s simply to help the reader decide if this is a cookbook meant for her.
Only once did we run into a recipe that confused us for any length of time, and that was because an ingredient was referred to as both “strained tomatoes” and “tomato juice” in the same recipe, and it’s been so long since we’ve used strained tomatoes as an ingredient (not so common these days!) that it took us a little while to realize these would both refer to the same item. Again, this is one of those cases where it helps to have a passing familiarity with older techniques and ingredients. If you used to cook with a parent or grandparent, you’ll probably have everything you need to make these recipes come out wonderfully.
The book includes beautiful wildflower paintings and similar old-style decorations instead of modern food photography. It’s spiral-bound, with a good-quality binding and cover; it lays conveniently flat without sacrificing sturdiness. This is a truly unusual beast: it successfully combines the style of a treasured heirloom project with the usability and quality of a highly marketable product. This is a difficult task to accomplish! The little stories intertwined throughout the recipes are delightful to read and truly transport you back in time.
I’ve deliberately saved the best for last, maybe because I’m hoping to keep myself from going back to the fridge for leftovers for just a little longer. In the lovely introduction by Carrie Gamble she mentions testing the recipes with her grandmother before including each one in the book, and I have to say that this is the crucial step most labor-of-love cookbook authors fail to comprehend and execute properly. It’s also key to an outstanding cookbook.
This cookbook produced some of the best food I’ve had in a while, and I say that fully remembering the cookbooks I was reviewing over Thanksgiving. I’ll just share the details of a few recipes with you here.
The Rouladen were wonderful–thin steak surrounding a blend of ground beef, seasonings, crushed saltines, egg, and so on, topped with pan gravy. Absolutely delicious and quite filling. This was the first thing we made from this cookbook, and we were quite happy with it. Still, even it paled next to some of the other things we made. The cookbook includes a nice range of meat & vegetable recipes, including such items as a Hungarian Goulash, Fried Chicken, Crab Cakes, Hungarian Peasant Meal, Creamed Spinach, and Candied Sweet Potatoes.
The Tomato Soup with Egg Drop quite surprised us. I’m used to thinking of a Chinese soup when I hear “egg drop,” so I found myself looking at the thick batter we were to drizzle into the soup with some confusion. However, I soon understood when I realized that it produced, essentially, tiny little dumpling-bits of an almost rice-like consistency throughout the tomato soup. This soup reheats very well, and is incredibly delicious. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be having some for lunch today. Other soups include a German Meatball Potato Soup, Sausage Bean Chowder, Bean Soup, and Corn Chowder.
The Cream Cheese Braid bread sounded so good we just had to make it–a sour cream dough filled with a thin cheesecake-like batter. It was quite easy to make and came out rather like a cheese Danish, except in bread form, with the filling almost melted into the dough. The bread is the softest, most tender bread I’ve ever had, and eating this is a blissful experience. It’s hardly a healthy breakfast I’m sure, but how could we resist this morning? The dough itself reminds me of the dough for my own grandmother’s cinnamon rolls–that same soft, tender texture–which I’ve never been able to reproduce before now. My husband, who has wistfully spoken of his own grandmother’s cooking, also said the food from this cookbook brings back those memories delightfully.
Other recipes include an entire section of dumplings and noodles (Bread Dumplings, Chicken Liver Dumplings, Hungarian Plum Dumplings, Macaroni and Cheese with Crispies), appetizers and salads (Cheese Squares, Tea Sandwiches of various types, Cucumber Salad, Frosted Grapes), desserts (Brandied Peaches, Spanish Cream, Butterscotch Pie, Oatmeal Cookies, Doughnuts), Christmas specialties (Cinnamon Stars, Christmas Kiffle), and many more delights of every kind.
Even if you don’t have the knack or experience to use all of the recipes, you might enjoy this book just for its beauty as a treasury of memories. If you love to cook, however, and particularly if you wish you could re-create those delights your grandmother used to make, this may be the perfect cookbook for you.
(A special note with Valentine’s Day upcoming–if you have a spouse who loves to cook and occasionally sighs with a wish that he or she could re-create grandma’s recipes, this might make the perfect gift!)