Searching for comfort food in the pages of a book

Searching for comfort food in the pages of a book
By Evin O’Keeffe

We covet and admire some cookbooks, then there are those we actually use.

While browsing for a new cookbook recently, I kept in mind what I most wanted: A cookbook with mouth-watering recipes and photographs that drew me in, one that would be useful every day, as well as for special occasions.

I found that the number of cookbooks on the market is daunting, most with countless pages of recipes I knew I would never use. Soon I was no longer looking at their spines for titles, instead just pulling one cookbook off the shelf after another, scanning the contents, then rejecting and replacing them.

On the cusp of abandoning my quest, I spotted a recipe for one of my favorite dishes, bread pudding, then another and another, page after beautiful page of my favorites, my husband’s favorites, even my parents’ favorites! Flipping further, I found basic recipes for scones and hamburgers, but I was also introduced to more complex dishes that used familiar ingredients, like Wild Mushroom & Sherry Soup and Winter Vegetable Cobbler.

I had found the cookbook I intended to buy! I peeked at the cover. What fabulous title welcomed readers to this delightful collection of comforting yet not banal cuisine? Grandma’s Best Recipes: Traditional Comfort Food Just Like Grandma Used to Make, from Parragon Books Ltd (2007). Of course!

Each two-page spread has the complete recipe with a “Grandma’s Tip” on one side opposite a large, full-color photograph of the final dish on the facing page. The dishes look desirable AND achievable. The ingredients are also approachable. Few recipes have more than a handful of ingredients; the recipe with the most is the Lasagne Al Forno with 23.

Grandma’s Tip suggests if you want to cut down on preparation, you can buy ready-made cheese sauce instead of making it from scratch. I can almost imagine my own grandma whispering conspiratorially in my ear—before looking over her shoulder to make sure no one overheard—to give me the same advice, though, in her case, it would be more likely she’d just slip a jar of the sauce into my hand.

The cookbook has five recipe sections, organized by personality not food group. Chapter One is Grandma’s Comfort Food (22 recipes) for the dishes you want when you’re sick in bed, homesick, or hosting dinner for guests who are tired of restaurant cooking. Chapter Two is Grandma’s Travels (19 recipes). Sharing exotic recipes she undoubtedly gathered during travels with Grandpa, she recollects favorites from Europe, Mexico, Russia, India, and China.

Chapter Three is Grandma’s Festive Fare (22 recipes) for all those occasions when her Roast Chicken simply won’t suffice, and for holiday feasts, you can turn to Grandma once more. Chapter Four is Grandma’s Just Desserts (17 recipes). Classic dessert recipes from America and Europe are easy to understand, and substitution tips for variations are, as always, shared with readers.

Chapter Five is Grandma’s Baking Day (21 recipes). Pretend she is right there beside you in the kitchen for a very special day of baking some sweetness and sharing giggles for these baking basics such as Lemon Drizzle Cake or Shortbread.

The cookbook has an all-knowing index organized by recipe name, as well as by ingredients. I was particularly thrilled by this section. Let’s say you are hosting friends for dinner who gave you honey from their farm last week, and you want to include it somehow in your dinner preparation. Well, look up honey in the index to see the six recipes that use that ingredient!

The same goes for most ingredients. I will often look for a recipe that caters to a specific component I have in abundance or found particularly inviting from that day’s trip to the grocery, so this feature of the book is a favorite of mine.

Grandma’s Best Recipes has a few quirks, however, that I’ll mention with the caveat that they do not detract from the value of the contents. First, there is no author. No silver-haired, bifocal-wearing grandma actually penned this collection. It is a collection of recipes compiled by the publisher’s home economists, Sandra Baddeley and Valerie Barrett, and the forward was written by Pamela Gwyther.

Still, I like to pretend that the editor’s desk was covered in old recipe boxes and cards spattered with batter and food-laden fingerprints as the cookbook was created.

Secondly, there are by all intents and purposes TWO dessert sections. Considering the sweetest chapters of this cookbook, Just Desserts is for dishes to be served after the evening meal, and Baking Day is for dishes that would do well to be served at high tea, or in America, at a slumber party or baby shower.

The remaining quirk is that some of the dishes are rather British, such as Toad in the Hole and Beef Wellington. This is not a bad thing, since most traditional American dishes have their roots in British kitchens, such as Macaroni & Cheese, a popular Scottish dish known simply as Macaroni Cheese.

The most daunting quirk, though, was not discovered until I returned to the store to buy some as gifts, only to find that the cookbook is now out of print! A disappointment to say the least, but I feel fortunate to have bought a copy when I did. With second-hand bookshops and online book retailers, though, it is fairly easy to track down and purchase an out-of-print book, particularly one so recently shelved.

As a final celebration of this book’s usefulness, I am including a recipe I’ve adapted from Grandma’s Best Recipes. The Bread & Butter Pudding is comforting, and each time I’ve prepared it I’ve been asked what magic went into it. I recently whipped it together at the last minute to present to a friend who has a dairy allergy. Taking a chance, I substituted a few ingredients for what I had on hand that would limit the dairy, and it turned out wonderfully.

This is not dairy-free or vegan, just without any dairy other than what was baked into the bread. Here is the adapted recipe, which I named after my favorite Mexican drink consisting of rice milk, vanilla, and cinnamon:

Horchata Bread & Butter Pudding (adapted from Grandma’s Best Recipes from Parragon Books Ltd, 2007)

6 slices of honey spelt or brioche bread, quartered diagonally

1/4 cup seedless golden raisins

10 dried apricots, sliced thin

3 large eggs

10 ounces rice or almond milk

1/8 teaspoon natural vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Arrange one layer of bread triangles on the bottom of a pie dish then sprinkle half the dried fruits.

3. Whisk the eggs, rice milk, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and sugar together well.

4. Pour half the liquid mixture over the first layer of bread triangles, then tile the remaining bread triangles over that and distribute the rest of the dried fruits. Cover completely with the liquid mixture, being sure not to overflow the pie dish. Use a fork to move the bread in order to coax the liquid between all the layers.

5. Sprinkle the top with a little bit of raw vanilla, or brown sugar, then cover with foil and let rest for 15 minutes or up to two hours.

6. Bake covered for 25 to 30 minutes, then carefully remove the foil (beware escaping steam) and let bake uncovered for an additional 5 to 10 minutes for the top to brown gently.

7. Serve. If you want an accompaniment, partner with tofu (or real) ice cream or your favorite whipped topping.